Subscribe to Blog via Email
Those Who Have Bowed Down
This started out as a meditation on Acajack’s take on assimilated Acadians. I will still do that meditation, because it’s a rich vein to tap, but it’s not where this post has ended up, because I’d also been discussing with a friend about community politics among Australian Aborigines, and there was some cross-fertilisation of concepts.
There is contentious debate, wherever in the world there are assimilating minorities, about who is allowed to call themselves one of the minority group. Those debates are particularly destructive with First Peoples, as in Australia and North America; but they play out wherever there’s a contrast possible between degrees of assimilation. I have a Greek-American friend who migrated to Australia, and was crestfallen to find that “Greek” in Australia means something very different to “Greek” in America, and any claim to Greekness she had would be laughed off. (I would have laughed too, and that *does* tie in to Acajack’s post, because it is all about degrees of assimilation. But this post is sidetracked enough already.)
The debates are destructive in small disempowered communities: they introduce dissension and hostility in a group that can least afford it, and that can gain most from a united front. Those debates are politically suicidal, but where identity actually comes from, they’re rational: asserting your identity forcefully is the natural response when your distinct identity is under threat, and the target of your forcefulness will not primarily be the encroaching majority (who aren’t listening anyway), but your fellows who have made a different accommodation than you have. They need to be combatted, because if everyone emulates them, your distinct identity is gone.
Hence the French-Canadian term vendus “those who have sold out”, about Anglicised Canadiens, or the Greek term προσκυνημένοι “those who have bowed down [worshipped]”, about Greek converts to Islam. The traitor is more of a threat than the enemy.
That’s one discourse, and in some ways it’s a quite rational discourse. And artificially grouping together sundered tribes, that have little in common any more, blows potholes in the common ground they are supposed to rally around. Their group identity becomes a transparent fiction. *All* group identity is a kind of fiction of course, but some fictions are too flimsy to rally around. Especially when they’re divorced from the rallying points people do gravitate to.
It’s politically and demographically expedient to have a Standard Gaelic, for instance. But out on the Hebrides, where their dialect is nothing like it, promoting a foreign and artificial-sounding Standard Gaelic is going to make people stop speaking any Gaelic even faster. (Yes, yes, I’ve read THAT book on language death.) That’s a counterproductive attitude; but it means that if you’re going to defend an identity, politics dictate that you do nation-building—and get people to believe that Standard Gaelic is their language after all.
But the discourse of asserting purity and dismissing perceived traitors is completely inaccessible to a majority group, because their identity is not under threat—so they can’t grok the responses of those who feel it is. Well, I shouldn’t say that: sometimes they can—because identities are multiple enough that you can belong to both a majority and a minority group. Anglo-Canadians still feel threatened by the US, for instance, so they should be able to do some analogy between themselves and Quebec. But any analogies between US::Canada and Canada::Quebec are going to be halting, and people aren’t good at shifting perspective at the best of times.
The other problem with a purist identity discourse is, it’s no way to run a country. A political entity of any size has to rein in the will of its constituents to go their own way, and stay true to their own separate identities. Which is why nation-building explicitly sets out to counter it with its own discourse. It proclaims that you are not Virginians or Rhode Islanders, but Americans; not Arvanites or Graikoi, but Hellenes. And prioritising a national identity over regional identities is a move to do away with regional identities and their purisms, and substitute them with some sort of melting pot—whether those regional identities are just geographical, or cultural, or ethnic.
Often enough, of course, that nation building does not end up suppressing the majority regional culture in the stock of the melting pot, but reasserts it. I used obscure terms to differentiate between ethnic Greeks and Greek nationals just then, and there’s a reason they’re obscure: the discourse of Greek nationalism has been ethnic, and tied to the lineage of the Glorious Ancestors. The Albanian and Aromanian speaking Greek nationalists accepted that discourse as much as the ethnic Greeks did, if not more.
Which is why I only know of one person—an ethnic Aromanian and decidedly pro-Greek intellectual—who did use that distinction to argue that Aromanians could be just as Hellene as Graikoi could. In mainstream Greek discourse, Graikoi aren’t the majority of Hellenes: there are just Hellenes. That discourse has succeeded, and there are justifications for it; but it doesn’t allow you a language of civic nationalism, it doesn’t highlight that national identity is a construct and not a gene sequence.
So there are constraints and expediencies, and there is submerging and repression, and there are melting pots and arguments. And where am I going with all this?
As a matter of naive and majoritarian faith, I still think that all other things being equal, it is better to wed than to divorce, to join together rather than to stand apart, to build rather than dismantle. As a matter of reaction, I also think that it is better to respect difference than to whitewash it, to integrate than to assimilate (though some degree of assimilation will and must happen), to build a nation on norms and quirks rather than bloodlines and cults.
There are problems aplenty with that faith. For starters, the marriages are not the outcome of teenage infatuation (not that that guarantees much of anything); they’re typically arranged marriages. So you don’t fall into them “naturally”, and one arrangement is not inherently more defensible than another. There is a selection of groups you may align with; but that choice is never voluntary at a mass level. It is driven by habit and precedent and convenience, and it is open to persuasion and counterpersuasion. So “Today, I and my neighbour choose to be Panamanian” is nonsense. But “Today we as party leaders choose to be Panamanian, and will convince our neighbours that’s a good idea” is commonplace.
(Cf. “Today, we as the local landlords choose to be Bulgarian or Greek, and will convince our serfs that’s a good idea.” I *think* Karakasidou’s is the book that was claimed in.)
All other things being equal, it is better to wed than to divorce; but all other things never are equal. If the marriage is abusive, you do not perpetuate it. All identity of a group larger than one person are marriages, and soft-focus the differences, and if any marriage is to work, some suspension of disbelief is needed. But soft-focussing the differences without whitewashing them (and embarking on an abusive relationship) is hard, and it needs leadership and compassion and its own mythology. I don’t know how you promote a Standard Gaelic or Irish, which are artificial creations (as any standardised language is), without killing off East Sutherland Gaelic or Munster Irish, which are real inherited languages—and get in the way of the standardised language.
In the same way, I don’t know how you promote a Canada which encompasses both French and English identity, and not end up with a Canadianness as vacuous as “citizen of the Universe”—as Angry French Guy got an anglo musician to say. (I’ll note that the musician was only slightly more enthusiastic about being Quebecois: his identity assertion was primarily as a Montrealer.) I sympathise with the effort, I think it a noble thing to try; but it is somewhat deracinated, and that makes it harder to arouse passion around.
How does this uxorious metaphor apply where people are thrown together? It is better, at least politically, for traditional people X to build coalitions and to be liberal about who they accept as their in-group, than to expend energy splitting and recriminating. For utilitarian reasons if nothing else. I recognise it’s very easy for me to say that, when identity is about pride and fear and struggle; and it’s not like I was enthused at the prospect of calling someone Greek who didn’t speak a word of it. But expediency has its place.
It is better to have an Australia than a New South Wales and a Victoria warring over protectionism. It would be nice to have an Australian federation including New Zealand, which was a prospect a century ago; but the nation-building has gone ahead now, and putting that back together is pointless. There are, after all, limits in how wide a group marriage you can have, and couples do drift apart.
I think it is better to have a Trudeauist Canada than an Anglo-Canada and a Quebec. In some vague, idealistic, shared-history, “we’re all in it together” kind of way. Or failing that, as a respectful marriage of convenience (see Risque, Beau.)
But enough nation-building has happened in Quebec already that it is not compelled to invest in Canadian identity; and Anglo-Canada isn’t willing to get that its identity has to be diluted to accommodate Quebec. It’s like East Sutherland Gaelic vs. an artificial Standard Gaelic, in a sense: why should I give up my real, rooted identity as an Anglo-Canadian, to become a vague Trudeauist citizen of the world? I think the vague Trudeauist thing is noble, I think it, in its multicultural manifestation, the ideal still for my own country. (The one I’m typing in, not the one I did my dissertation about.)
In fact, when I was talking to my friend about the usefulness of national myths of damper, she justly refuted me—the pioneer mythology was a narrative of dispossession; and she advocated the song I Am Australian (“We are one, yet we are many”) as the proper rallying point for a multicultural Australia.
But that kind of vision is a hard sell, and it takes real work to build, and it must remain vigilant against the tyranny of the majority as much as the splintering of the minority.
And that’s as coherent as I can get about why I don’t think Quebec should secede. It’s not very coherent or compelling, and it’s incoherent after a couple of months of trying to listen. But like I said elsewhere, even if the secession happens, Quebec will not expel Anglophones (though many will leave town), and there will not be a purge of Franco federalist collaboratist traitors (nope, not a fan of Jean Naimard). Difference will still have to be engaged with and can’t be effaced, because purist discourses are no way to run a country, whether that country is the Dominion of Canada or the Republic of Quebec.
At least, no way to run a North American country. Or mine.
(The one I’m typing in, not the one where I got a taste for lakhanodolmadhes from. Identity is a complicated thing.)