Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Who's Canadian enough?

When the new Governor-General was sworn in yesterday, I found myself breathing a sigh of relief. I don't have a particular stake in seeing Michaëlle Jean occupy Rideau Hall, but the controversy surrounding her had left an incredibly bad taste in my mouth. I've already blogged about the inherent sexism in the questions that came up about her husband's ties to separatist groups, but even more unnerving than that was the ordeal about her dual citizenship. Jean is married to a French citizen, and in 2004 she naturalized as French through marriage, becoming one of the 600,000-plus Canadians with multiple citizenships. But on Sunday, she bowed to some combination of public, political, and internal pressure (precisely how that combination of pressures played out is something I don't think the public will ever know) and renounced that citizenship again.

I was travelling in August and missed out on a lot, and so it was an American journalist friend who first pointed this controversy out to me. "So this is your tolerant, immigrant-friendly Canada?" she said, taunting. She had a point. The published comments on that Globe and Mail story I linked to above include people arguing that "for this matter to even reach this stage is ridiculous" and that "the leader of Canada must have Canada as their first priority." In the 'citizen journalist' realm, similar sentiments are also not hard to find. And now that Jean has given in and renounced her newly-acquired French citizenship, those sentiments seem to have prevailed. The same country that boasts many of the most multicultural cities in the world, the same country that teaches its youth about how we're not a "melting pot" like that big bad ogre to the south, but a "cultural mosaic"--that country is sending the message that having more than one citizenship is inherently problematic, and if you want to be considered pure enough to take on a position like Governor-General, you'd better make sure you have only one passport.

Canadian law doesn't forbid multiple citizenships; in fact, it doesn't even prevent the Governor-General from having multiple citizenships. This means that the pressures that caused Jean to renounce her French citizenship aren't pressures of legality, but of ideology. I'd like some clarity, though, on exactly what that ideology consists of. What is it that makes someone Canadian enough for a position like Governor-General? Who decides what those criteria are? And if we as a society are saying--whether legally or merely through ideological disapproval--that a certain class of Canadian citizens qualifies, while another class doesn't, are we not also saying that latter class of Canadian is inherently second-tier? I find it difficult to interpret this in any other way, but if that is what we're saying, then we'd better be sure we're ready for all the things it implies, because some of those things aren't at all consistent with what Canada claims to be.

At the end of August, blogger James Bow wrote the following:

I understand the need for a distinction between landed immigrants and citizens in this country. Citizenship should take some time and effort to receive. But once achieved, that should be it: a Canadian citizen should be the equal of any other Canadian citizen regardless of whether or not that citizen was born in Canada, or in the United States, or elsewhere.
Unsurprisingly, I agree with him. But more than that, I'm disturbed that so many others don't seem to. As an immigrant, I'm offended by the precedent this sets. As a Canadian, though, I'm just disappointed.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Dear Macleans

Dear Macleans,

Your weekly post-Katrina features by Joseph Boyden have been just great--fresh, compelling, heartfelt. (It's actually almost been enough to make up for the drivel that Maich fellow writes, and the return of that Amiel woman.) It's also quite understandable, given that Boyden has been living in New Orleans for a number of years, that he would have fallen out of touch with the everyday political lingo of his fellow Canadians. That's perfectly normal, and to be expected.

On the other hand, your magazine is still aimed at a Canadian audience, and a politically savvy one at that. The first mental images your average reader will inevitably get in response to phrases like "we're turned back by another MP," or worse, "an MP with an M-16 strapped to his chest," might therefore be just a little bit different from the ones Boyden intended. It might behoove you to realize this, and edit accordingly.


Saturday, September 24, 2005

Make your own German chancellor

The latest insanity from Germany: Since neither Christian Democrat leader Angela Merkel nor Social Democrat leader Gerhard Schröder can agree on who would be chancellor in their potential grand coalition, it has been suggested that they share the job. The plan has been dubbed "Kanzler-Sharing" (chancellor sharing) by the German blogosphere, in analogy with the lovely "German" words 'Car-Sharing' and 'Job-Sharing'.

Enter the latest -- and arguably the most disturbing -- in a now ubiquitous series of political flash animations: Der Kanzlergenerator. (It's in German, but believe me, the message is clear.)

Northern Voice 2006

Is anyone else out there considering going to Northern Voice, the Canadian Blogging Conference?

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Proportional representation addendum

Addendum to my last post:

In the 2004 federal election, the Bloc Québecois received 54 seats in Parliament. Under a Mixed-Member Proportional electoral system, they would have received 39.

Remind me again which one is the system that disproportionately exaggerates the influence of regional and ethnic parties?

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

In defense of proportional representation

It was inevitable, I suppose, that someone was going to come out and blame the crazy results of recent elections in Germany and New Zealand on that gosh-darned proportional representation. And if it was inevitable that someone was going to do that, then I suppose it was equally inevitable that that someone was going to be Jeffrey Simpson of the Globe and Mail:

Nobody knows who'll form the government in either country. The wheeling and dealing, haggling and bargaining has begun to form minority/coalition governments. When the bargaining's done, and new governments emerge, they'll likely be weak, unstable and incapable of making difficult, unpopular decisions. That's just what many PR advocates want. They don't like strong governments. For them, strict representation trumps effectiveness. They want strictly representative governments in which votes match seats. They want negotiations, haggling and coalitions. This is democracy. They like minority governments, thinking them more "responsive" to the people than majority ones based on the first-past-the-post system. So they're going to love what will unfold in Germany and New Zealand.
Unfortunately for the soundness of Simpson's argument, there is no such thing as "minority/coalition governments," and the equation of minority and coalition governments is lumping together apples and oranges. It is certainly the case that minority governments (in which the governing party or parties do not have a majority of the voices in parliament) have been historically unstable. In the entire post-war history of Germany, for example, there have been only three minority governments on the national level (Ludwig Erhard's 1963 government, Willy Brandt's 1972 government, and Helmut Schmidt's 1982 government), and due in large part to that sort of instability, each was very short-lived. Coalition governments, on the other hand, are formed precisely to do away with that sort of instability, and in practice, they have been extremely effective at doing just that. The recently defeated coalition between the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Greens was stable enough to be reelected in 2002. Extremely stable coalition governments of the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) and the Free Democrats (FDP) have also existed under chancellors Adenauer, Erhard, and the seemingly undefeatable Helmut Kohl, who was reelected a total of five times. And as for the supposed ineffectiveness of such governments, it seems not only disingenuous, but also ludicrous to claim that the vast majority of the governments in a country that has gone from near-total destruction to the primary European power in a mere sixty years (while integrating an entirely separate country only fifteen years ago) have been "weak, unstable and incapable of making difficult, unpopular decisions."

Simpson throws out another strawman argument as his column continues, this time in the form of the bogeyman of ideological or regional parties:

In Germany, the conservative forces won 35.6 per cent of the vote, the Social Democratic party 34.2 per cent. Smaller parties did well -- something that often happens in PR, because parties spring up around ideology, region or ethnicity. The small parties are now the political kingmakers. In New Zealand, the Labour Party won 50 seats, the National (conservative) Party 49. Six minor parties held the remaining 23 seats. As in Germany, these small parties will determine who governs.
Although Simpson would clearly like to blame the good result for small parties on proportional representation, the facts about these particular elections don't bear that out. Both Germany and New Zealand have high (5%) thresholds specifically to discourage the proliferation of tiny parties in parliament, and this threshhold in fact did keep out most of the tiny parties that had sprung up "around ideology, region, or ethnicity." Only those with a significant percentage of the voters behind them were able to make it over this hurdle. And in the case of New Zealand, there are in fact several more parties than have been elected in the past, but this is because they won constituencies, not because of proportional representation.

Finally, Simpson attempts to make one point that is just plain incorrect, no matter how you slice it:

Germans cast two ballots: one vote for the constituency, one for the party list. The result always produces a minority winner. That party then negotiates with others to form a coalition. Or, the coalition partners are known in advance. If you vote for Party A, and that party wins the largest number of votes, you know you'll also get a coalition government of Party A and Party B. New Zealand uses a complicated version of this dual system. It's called Mixed Member Proportional (MMP).
Germans do not cast two ballots; instead there is a single ballot with two separate votes. As I explained back here, in the first vote, or "district vote," Germans vote for the person whom they think can best represent their district in parliament. In the second vote, or "party vote," they vote for the party whose policies are most closely aligned with their own preferences. Those candidates who are directly elected then serve in parliament, and candidates from party lists are added to this group by means of this second vote. It is also not the case that this ballot "always produces a minority winner"; there have been single-party majority governments in several different German federal states. And finally, it is not the case that New Zealand uses "a complicated version of this dual system called Mixed Member Proportional" -- New Zealand uses essentially the same system as Germany, and they are both called Mixed-Member Proportional. As to whether it is overly "complicated," keep in mind that Germany managed to successfully explain it to seventeen million new citizens after East and West Germany reunified in 1990.

Are the election results in Germany and New Zealand a problem? You bet. Are they the norm? Hardly. Are they an inevitable result of a Mixed-Member Proportional electoral system? Absolutely not--and anyone who thinks that hasn't done their homework. The problem this time around wasn't the way the Germans and New Zealanders elect MPs, but the positively miserable performance of both of the major parties in both countries. Under MMP, it is normal for the major parties to have one or more potential coalition partners in the works going into an election, so that once the result is known, the winning party is able to establish a working government right away. This time, the major parties did badly enough that this wasn't possible, but the blame for that muddle needs to rest with the current unpopularity of those parties, not with an electoral system that has worked perfectly well for decades.

Ironically, if the current negotiations fail to produce a stable coalition in Germany, a chancellor will be chosen by a relative (rather than an absolute) majority of the newly elected Bundestag. The result of this failure would then be a minority government, which, given past evidence, Simpson would almost certainly be justified in calling unstable and ineffective. But we Canadians know all about that sort of thing. After all, it would be the exact same situation that Simpson's beloved first-past-the-post system produced right here.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Schwampels and Jamaica coalitions

Yet another consequence of the German post-election horsetrading insanity: the creation of new words.

In common parlance, each of the big German political parties is assigned a colour. The conservative CDU/CSU is black, the SPD is red (though the primarily eastern German Left Party is annoyingly also red--I always thought they should be, like, scarlet or crimson), the Greens are, well, green, and the FDP is yellow. These descriptors are used judiciously; it's not at all unusual for Germans to have entire political discussions using only colour terms (a la "Too bad that it didn't work out with red-green." "Yeah, too bad. What do you think of red-red-green?" "Too radical. I'd rather see black-yellow-green."). I have long since thought this practice should be adopted by Canada as well--it makes for great shorthand, not to mention some hilarious puns.

This practice is carried so far that a potential coalition between the SPD, the FDP, and the Greens is pretty much universally known by the punditry as an 'Ampelkoalition,' or 'traffic light coalition' (no, really! I'm not making this up!). Well, when recently there started to be talks about a potential coalition between CDU/CSU (black), FDP (yellow), and the Greens, they needed a word for this as well. Enter 'Schwampel,' which comes from the German word for 'black' ('schwarz'), combined with the word for 'traffic light' ('Ampel'). The beautiful thing, though, is that this word got created more or less overnight, and yet everybody automatically knew what it meant. German Green Party supporters were shown on television tonight waving signs with a picture of a traffic light with black, yellow, and green lights, a line through it, and a caption reading "KEINE SCHWAMPEL" (no, um, 'Schwampel'). Even better: a google search on the word 'Schwampel' produces around 12,500 pages. And the best of all: if you think the word 'Schwampel' sounds too ridiculous, your alternative term is Jamaika-Koalition.

I love this language.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

A story problem

A friend of mine was speculating this afternoon that the world may well be in the midst of some sort of cosmic electoral weirdness oneupsmanship. It goes something like this:

USA: We have an undecidable election going before the Supreme Court!

Ukraine: Oh, yeah, well, one of our candidates poisoned the other with Dioxin!

Canada: Oh, YEAH? Well...we're all switching sides! It's musical parties! And--GO!

Germany: Amateurs.
And now, for you mathematical whizzes out there, a story problem, brought to you by the letters 'o', 'my', and 'god':

Five kids want to play a game of marbles. They need at least fifty marbles to play, and the game allows for an unlimited number of participants. Nobody's allowed to loan their marbles to anyone else.

Angie Black has 35 marbles.
George Red has 34 marbles.
Guido Yellow has 10 marbles.
The twins, Oscar and Greg Crimson, have 9 marbles between them.
Josh Green has 8 marbles.

Angie would most like to play with Guido, and utterly refuses to play with the twins. She would prefer not to play with Josh or with George, but she'd rather do that than not play at all.

George would most like to play with Josh, and has said he would never play with the twins. He doesn't want to play with Guido or Angie, either, but again, would rather do that than not play at all.

Guido used to play very nicely with both Angie and with George, but at different times. Recently he's been hoping to play with Angie and promising never again to play with George, but he's a fickle sort and would probably break that promise if he absolutely had to. He's also willing not to play at all, if it comes to that. He would never dream of playing with the twins.

The twins don't really want to play with anyone (they're happy just to stand on the sidelines taunting Angie, Guido, and George), but they would probably entertain a quick little game with Josh or maybe even George (especially if nobody was looking).

Josh would most like to play alone with George, but he knows that's hopeless. He hasn't promised not to play with anybody else, but he doesn't really get along very well with anyone but George and would prefer to sit this one out if he can't play with him. But in a pinch, he could probably be talked into a game with at least some of the others.

What combination of children (and marbles) would make the largest number of them happy?

German election irony

It wasn't supposed to happen until 2006. But in a sharp contrast to the Canadian Liberals' "let's hold onto power by tooth and claw" behaviour this past spring, when the citizens of North Rhine Westphalia (previously always a stronghold of the social democrats) voted for the conservative CDU, the current social democratic chancellor Schröder took it as a sign of the way the wind was blowing and decided to give up the ghost. A no-confidence vote was held, and lost, parliament was dissolved, and new elections were called for this fall. For today.

As ever in Germany, though, irony abounds. While just a few months ago the polls were declaring reelection of Schröder's coalition government between the social democrats (SPD) and the Green party to be worse than hopeless, conservative leader Angela Merkel's call for a flat tax has met with significant criticism, and the long-ruling social democrats have nearly caught up with with her CDU. In even tastier irony, a reelection of the beleaguered SPD-Green coalition would give the Germans another government led by two old, straight white men, a win for the CDU would likely mean an alliance between a formerly East German woman and a youngish gay man. And perhaps most deliciously of all, there's a pretty decent chance that the CDU's partner of choice, the fiscally conservative FDP, won't receive a high enough percentage of the vote to be able to form a coalition (Germany has a mixed-member proportional electoral system, which produces coalition governments if one party can't reach an absolute majority), in which case a winning CDU would have to choose as its coalition partner ... Schröder's social democrats.

It's not quite the insane twists and turns of April 2005 in Canada (will anything ever be again?), but there's plenty there for election buffs. Go watch.

[Update: And in the end, the winner was ... irony. The CDU got the most votes, but did badly enough that they can't form a government together with the FDP. The SPD and the Greens can't form one, either. Of the remaining possibilities, the most likely one is a "grand coalition" between the CDU and the SPD. Imagine the Canadian Liberals and the Conservatives forming a coalition, and you'll have some idea how amusing that idea is. It's a great night for the German cabaret tradition, let me tell you.]

Friday, September 09, 2005

I am

I'm not a lumberjack or a fur trader. I don't live in an igloo, and I couldn't get my cats to pull a sled if I promised them all the turkey they could eat for the rest of their lives. (I do probably know Jimmy, Sally, and Susie from Canada, though, because when you're the sort of person who goes places and meets people, this country is nothing but a small town run amok.)

I have both a prime minister and a president (though I'd gladly trade either of them in on spiffier models). I speak English, French, and American (though I'm woefully out of practice on the latter two). And while I don't consistently Canadian-raise, I'm happy to explain to anyone who will listen that 'aboot' is merely an American mishearing of the raised variant of the diphthong in 'about', and not what anyone up here actually says.

I won't be sewing any country's flag on my backpack, but I'll always choose peacekeeping over policing and diversity over assimilation. I don't know a beaver from a badger, but I've memorized all the words to that Arrogant Worms song and can sing it on command. And while I haven't yet managed to incorporate the words 'toque' or 'chesterfield' into my vocabulary, I do say 'zed' instead of 'zee' (even when I'm in the U.S., and even when they laugh at me).

I think 'second-largest landmass' posturing is annoying, I've never seen a hockey game and don't see much reason to bother, but while I may roll my eyes when people up here wax arrogant about "cultural mosaics, not melting pots" and U.N. lists of the "best places in the world to live," I actually do think Canada is the best part of North America, and that's why I live here.

My name isn't Joe (and I won't be changing it).

And yet.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Communications breakdown

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina's aftermath, we've certainly heard plenty of voices--both in the blogosphere and in the mainstream media--calling Bush incompetent. Generally, people have been referring to his administration's handling of evacuation and rescue efforts. But apparently, this is a regime that isn't even competent enough to handle its own communications.

First there was the President himself, who on a visit to the Alabama coast, named wealthy senator Trent Lott as the one tragic victim he could come up with on the spur of the moment:

"Out of the rubbles of Trent Lott's house -- he's lost his entire house -- there's going to be a fantastic house," Bush said in Mobile. "And I'm looking forward to sitting on the porch."
Worse still was the President's mother, who toured the Astrodome complex in Houston, where many of the evacuees are being housed, and claimed that they've benefited from the hurricane:
"What I'm hearing, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas," she said. "Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this, this is working very well for them."
We're all aware that many upper-level American politicians and their families come from the upper classes. We know that they can often be out of touch with the less privileged of the people they're supposed to be representing. Generally, though, they've got communications specialists to advise them on what to say, and to make sure they don't stick their feet in their mouths. Perhaps those folks are all on vacation?

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Lost in translation

(This post is a collaboration between Idealistic Pragmatist and Respectful of Otters.)

Rivka over at Respectful of Otters was in the middle of putting together a post about Bush's visit to the U.S. Gulf Coast, and wanted to lead with the horrifying report Laura Rozen received from a reader:

"Dutch viewer Frank Tiggelaar writes: There was a striking dicrepancy between the CNN International report on the Bush visit to the New Orleans disaster zone, yesterday, and reports of the same event by German TV.

ZDF News reported that the president's visit was a completely staged event. Their crew witnessed how the open air food distribution point Bush visited in front of the cameras was torn down immediately after the president and the herd of 'news people' had left and that others which were allegedly being set up were abandoned at the same time.

The people in the area were once again left to fend for themselves, said ZDF."
Rivka looked around for more information, and found that the story had spread to more than a hundred other blogs by Monday night, all of them quoting Laura Rozen's commenter, none of them providing a link. That began to seem strange. ZDF News is the German equivalent of the NBC Nightly News in the United States--a respectable mainstream institution with a broad nationwide presence. It seemed probable that if they'd reported something as shocking as food distribution points being set up only during Bush's visit, it would be easy to find out more.

So Rivka turned to Idealistic Pragmatist, who is an English/German bilingual, and asked her to look through the ZDF News site for the story. A second post at War and Piece provided a video link and a link to a summary, to get her started. IP discovered that the blogosphere--beginning with Laura Rozen's Dutch commenter--had gotten several crucial facts about the story wrong. Although the images do show Bush visiting a New Orleans food distribution point, there is nothing in the New Orleans segment that suggests the distribution point had been specifically set up for Bush, and in fact nothing that even represents his visit as staged:
[This comes about a third of the way through the broadcast, all of which has thus far been about New Orleans.]

Voiceover (over pictures of Bush visiting New Orleans): And U.S. President Bush actually did come to the region of the catastrophe today. He spoke with flood victims and toured a site where they were passing out supplies; one of the few in existence, mind.

Bush (in voiceover translation; partly the English is audible, and partly it's been reconstructed from the German): We're gonna stabilize the situation; we're gonna bring water and food. I was traveling with the Red Cross and the Salvation Army today. People are gonna see compassion pour in here.
It isn't until a later part of the story--a part that details Bush's visit to Biloxi, Mississippi--that the charges of Potemkinism are mentioned:
Anchor: President Bush also paid the almost completely devastated small town of Biloxi a quick little visit as a part of his tour. Claudia Rüggeberg in Biloxi, how did the citizens react to the visit from the President?

Claudia Rüggeberg: There was a lot of variation. We talked to people here after the visit: one woman said a symbolic visit like that was better than none at all, and it was good that the President was showing his face there and looking at the situation up-close. Others tended to react with desperation. One woman burst into tears and said, full of rage, that the President shouldn't come here, he should finally see to it that help comes. All of the people, his whole entourage, these cars, they should be loaded up with supplies and not with bodyguards, and he shouldn't play the good samaritan here, and a staged visit like this doesn't help. And it actually was the case that all of a sudden this morning helper personnel showed up here, people who cleared away the rubble, who went through the houses in search of bodies, but exclusively along the route where the President traveled. Two hours ago the President left Biloxi again, and all of the helper personnel along with him.

Anchor: We know that President Bush promised quick help. Can that be felt where you are? For example, is there clean water and food?

CR: There's nothing here at all. Aside from what was cleared aside by the helper personnel this morning, the rubble is lying all over the street exactly as it was several days ago after the storm. There are no reasonable provisions; there's an emergency medical station and otherwise nothing. There is a stench of decomposition across the entire city. There are bodies that haven't been covered up in the buildings. Everything has been reduced to rubble, and help--from what we can see here and what others from other cities have also said--isn't coming.

Anchor: Thank you in Biloxi, Claudia Rüggeberg.

(Translation by Idealistic Pragmatist, based on her transcript of the ZDF video.)
Looking at the transcripts, it seems easy enough to figure out what happened. Laura Rozen's commenter, who appears to have been reconstructing from memory a news story he'd seen on TV, elided the New Orleans segment (which had Bush speaking at "one of the few" supply distribution points) and the Biloxi segment (which had cleaning crews working only along Bush's route, and disappearing afterward). Combined, these two segments became a story about supply distribution points disappearing after Bush's visit.

That story fit in well with Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu's report that construction equipment had been brought in to the levee for Bush's visit, and then removed again. And it also fit in well with the lefty blogosphere's traditional distrust of the American media ("There was a striking discrepancy between the CNN International report on the Bush visit to the New Orleans disaster zone, yesterday, and reports of the same event by German TV"), and their perceptions that foreign reporters are more likely to get it right.

The fact that the story fits so well with our current frames for interpreting Katrina news may explain why, when War and Piece posted a translation the day after the original report, no one (including Laura Rozen) seemed to notice that the translation was substantially different from the original story. It's natural that rumours are flying everywhere right now. But we should be careful about what we do with unsourced news, especially when it confirms our biases. We here at Respectful of Otters and Idealistic Pragmatist are hardly Bush supporters, but we do think it's important to set the record straight. It's easy to lose the subtleties--or even the main point--of a news story that isn't in your native language. But we need to be careful not to undercut the points we're trying to make with even unintentional amplification. The news coming out of the U.S. Gulf Coast, including the biting commentary by ZDF news, is damning enough as it stands.

Monday, September 05, 2005

The best little country in the whole world

There are a lot of things that infuriate me about American patriotism, but right at the top of that list is the infamous "best country in the world" rhetoric. Inevitably, it comes from people who have never lived in (and often never even visited) another country, and who are merely parrotting ideologies instilled in them by their parents and teachers and friends. Those ideologies aren't sinister or malicious, though, and I absolutely understand where they come from. I vividly remember watching the Olympics as a very young child and being utterly certain that the Americans were going to win every race they deigned to participate in ... because after all, who could legitimately beat an American at anything? When you're born American, that sentiment is in everything you read, in the air you breathe, injected into your bloodstream.

I was one of the lucky ones. I was privileged enough to see enough of the world at a young enough age that I was forced to realize some hard truths: that in every area from educational policy to attitudes toward sex, a lot of other countries did a lot of things better than we did. Once I became aware of that, questioning the "best country in the world" rhetoric wasn't far behind, and once I started questioning it, it came apart in my hands. It was a difficult but necessary awakening. After that point, people who wouldn't or couldn't question it began to annoy me. They had their heads stuck in the sand so far that they couldn't recognize that a bunch of non-Americans had come up with good ideas that might apply to them, and their country was worse off for it. Yet at the same time, I understood them. After all, I'd been one of them. That sand can feel pretty comfortable around your ears if it's all you've ever known.

In the last few years, though, the people who steadfastly refuse to question that rhetoric have grown more and more alien to me. I've spent a good portion of the past month in the U.S., and although I've had some really wonderful times during those trips, one of the major points that's been driven home for me is that this version of the United States is not the same country I left. The quaintly arrogant ignorance behind the "best country in the world" rhetoric has become pathology. Where there was once spirited debate, now there are only accusations of un-American sentiment. Where there was once a righteous commitment to civil liberties, there are now prisoners being held without a trial in Guantanamo Bay. Where there were once policies that at least attempted to bridge the gap between rich and poor and between black and white, there are now poor black New Orleans residents dying on rooftops days after the hurricane that flooded their homes. In the face of this, the people who honestly still think the United States is the best country in the whole world are more than ignorant; they're delusional. Many people have said that September 11th, 2001 was the day that American culture lost its innocence, but sometimes I fear it was the day it lost its humanity ... and its capacity for reasoned thought ... as well.

Like I said, I'm one of the lucky ones. On Friday I will take the oath of Canadian citizenship, and believe me, it won't be a moment too soon. And yet I still find myself incredibly saddened by what my country of birth has become. Even though I no longer wanted to live there, I was still rather fond of the country I left, and I wanted to be able to visit it. I spent the past few weeks in the country nominally corresponding to the words on the front of my passport, but I don't feel like I went anywhere near the place I grew up.


This article in the Washington Post is about people who actually think that Hurricane Katrina was God's retribution for doing anything and everything they don't approve of, from abortion to homosexuality. What I want to know: Why do these people never think these things are divine retribution for things they're doing, like voting George W. Bush into office or protesting at abortion clinics? I mean, have we ever heard of anyone saying: "I used to vote Republican, but then the hurricane came and I heard the call of Our Lord and mended my wicked, wicked ways." Honestly.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Sexism in the Jean debacle

I've been in and out of the country for about a month now and haven't had much chance to keep up with my favourite blogs, so forgive me if this is just taking another few whacks at a long-deceased horse. But before the topic disappears entirely into the ether, there was one thing I wanted to throw out there about the whole Michaëlle Jean loyalty debacle.

As I understand it, nobody was really questioning Jean's federalist credentials; the real issue was her husband, Jean-Daniel Lafond. So let's presume, for a moment, that Lafond really is a raging sovereigntist. Whenever he approaches the ballot box, he votes BQ and PQ, and in the 1995 referendum, he checked the box next to 'oui.' What, exactly, does this supposedly say about his wife's suitability to be Governor-General of Canada?

I mean, really, this is Canada, a country that has allowed women to make their own voting decisions since 1917, asks married partners to each file their own separate income tax forms, and even allows women to appear topless in public on the grounds of equality among the sexes. And yet by vilifying Jean because of her husband's potential views, aren't we saying that any Québecoise woman who would marry a sovereigntist must herself be suspect? Is there any way in which this isn't an incredibly sexist perspective?