I was wrong

I thought it would work to just re-initiate blogging here, and that because it wouldn’t require the effort of trying to build a new virtual house, and refine my virtual voice, that it would be easier. That, it turns out, was incorrect, and I find myself casting about madly for ways of writing and settling on absolutely nothing.

So finally, I am willing to consider this blog officially defunct, and I will be setting up a new home just around the corner. Stumblers-upon can now find me at Fray Adjacent.

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This article from a few days ago previews the upcoming (Oct 24) release of census data describing Canadian’s linguistic abilities. It deals in particular with the relationship between the data that is reported and our national identity:

“It’s a portrait of who we are, linguistically, as a nation,” says Jack Jedwab, executive director of the Association for Canadian Studies. “There’s a lot of symbolic dimension to this. It’s not just about the numbers.”

Which is true, with a caveat. The symbolic dimension doesn’t just emerge from the numbers – it emerges from what we make of them, in our everyday conversations and in the media. And one thing that I continue to find striking about the discourse about language and bilingualism in Canada is the tendency to conflate the concept of a “bilingual country” with rates of individual bilingualism. Here in Canada, they are being constructed as the same thing – the relatively low rates of English-French bilinguals in the country, especially among English speakers, is referenced as a sign of the declining importance of English-French bilingualism for our national identity.

Although most Canadians perceive the country as bilingual – the result of government policies mandating services and labels in both official languages – the legitimacy of that image is under growing scrutiny.

My shallow analytical counterpoint would be that regardless of how many English-French bilinguals exist in this country, the country remains bilingual by virtue of those very government policies. But this scrutiny exists no matter what I think, and these contributions are, I think, going to change the conversation about our official language policy, and may bring it up for questioning in ways it hasn’t been for quite some time. Maybe they’re one off points, but with a separatist government in Quebec and an unsympathetic Conservative administration in Ottawa, the linguistic gloves might come off.

One thing I would like to see is how our political vs personal bilingualism discourse compares to what happens in other countries with multiple official languages. I’m fairly confident, for example, that South Africans don’t spend a great deal of time worrying about the fact that very few individuals speak all of the 11 official languages of that country. I’m also curious about how Canadians conceptualize the role of English overseas and things like the high rates of fluent L2 English speakers in countries like Sweden or the Netherlands, in contexts where it is not a part of national identity. I wonder whether thinking and talking about that makes a difference to the assumption that our identity as a bilingual nation must or should map on to a greater number of individuals manifesting that particular form of bilingualism.

Bilingualism and Canadian Identity

I feel a little guilty saying so, but nothing makes me so glad to be something other than USian than election season. I’m certainly not saying that Canadian elections are spectacular displays of democracy in action, but as with most things we do, the volume on the bullshit is not turned up quite so high.

From a sociolinguistic perspective, however, those debate things cannot be anything but interesting. The chance that somehow, a discussion, a dialogue, a debate might accidentally emerge underneath all of the performing, and the inevitable ways that what one politician hopes is a throwaway comment will generate thousands of words of analysis and hundreds of barbed pictures (in this case “women in binders”). Before the second debate, Charles Pierce said:

It is the last stand for spontaneity, the last possibility of a human moment before both candidates climb back into their bubbles and bounce across the landscape the way that white blob on The Prisoner used to do it. It will be the last chance for flesh and blood before the election roars to its inevitable conclusion as a bloodbath of decimal points.

What is even more interesting to me is the dynamic of interaction, which Deborah Tannen discussed this week in the NYT. Because no matter what, that is almost inevitably revealing. Who is allowed to interrupt whom, when, and how? What is seen as a transgression when it is performed by the female moderator vs. by Mr. Romney vs. by Mr. Obama? How do their reactions become themselves part of the performance? Obama saying “I’m used to being interrupted” reads, to me, like a scathing commentary on disrespect from his political opponents. And I’d be gasping right along with the audience when Romney said “You’ll get your chance in a minute. I’m still speaking”, and making a whole pile of links to broader processes of Romney’s infantalization of Obama.
 
Which is really just the tip of the iceberg of what there is to talk about in the debates. There is always flesh and blood in these conversations if you’re looking for it.
 

Debates and Political Performance

Sports Nationalism

The commentary portion of the World Cup broadcast just brought up a somewhat intriguing point in reference to the spectacular failure of the French. Apparently, the French government has requested an “inquiry” into what happened to cause this meltdown. FIFA and the French Football Federation are against this course of action, because, as the commentator put it, they believe it’s important to keep the football-governance structure separate from the running of the country.

And yeah, okay, in some ways it’s actually really easy to mock something like this as far too trivial and trite, and to be sure, an inquiry would be a pretty unjustifiable use of funds. But at the same time, FIFA’s suggestion that it’s absolutely ridiculous to consider this anything but a pure football issue seems a little bit disingenuous. World-stage sports – especially such massively popular events like this one or the Olympics or whatever – obviously have a nationalistic component to them, but it’s always been somehow sanctioned as separate from the problematic kind, the actual work of nation-building and identity formation…even though it’s not, not really. This is a non-governmental channel for unification, a positive source of group pride and energy and whatnot.

It’s a brief point, and a minor one, to be sure, but it just seems to point further towards this sense that “well yes, we’re representing France as a nation, and whatever we do on the field is pretty strongly suggested to be connected to our identity and to our national cultural features, but this isn’t an issue that should concern France as a state government”. International sports fascinate me as a site of discourse-construction, and this little moment of contestation raising the question of whether the jersey-nation can or should really fall into the governance structure of the flag-nation brings some of the reasons why to the surface.

Protest, cynicism, and fake lakes

With the G8/G20 Summits happening nearby in Toronto/Muskoka, I know a few people who have gone to the protests, and I’m obviously seeing quite a bit of coverage in the news. And I feel, in some ways, like the 30-year-old I never thought I would be as I look at the whole thing with deep cynicism. It’s not that I was ever under the illusion that any of these protests represented a chance for revolutionary change or widespread rethinking of our ways of life. But I thought there was something to be said for the act of being there, of standing present to say that the way things are is unacceptable. It’s primarily been watching media coverage over the past few years that has pushed me further and further towards skepticism.

First of all, summit meetings of global leaders have stood in as standard opportunity protest fare for the past decade or so. The premise is that the leaders are there, the media is there, the counterpoint has to be there as well. But it’s become so much a part of the assumed backdrop of such events that they’re barely worth reporting on. I’ve actually seen very little coverage of protesters, and far more of the police presence that has been brought in to deal with the increased traffic volume in Toronto this week. Casual morning shows express gratitude for the police, who the hosts say are there to keep them safe. Shots of protesters themselves may be used almost as stock footage before cutting to commercial.

What people are saying has absolutely no presence here. There is no actual voice to this counterpoint. There is only one specific thing I’ve heard about that is upsetting people – the “fake lake” set up and paid for by the Canadian government to provide foreign media representatives with a taste of Northern Ontario natural beauty. The objection, of course, is to the taxpayer expense, originally rumoured to be a couple of million and now reported at $57,000. That change in price tag has not changed the attention paid to the story – “person on the street” interviews on more than one station this morning asked about reactions to and perceptions of the ‘fake lake’. The voices we hear say it’s cheesy or artificial-feeling, or that they wonder how that money could have been spent better, some taking the opportunity to object to the upcoming implementation of the harmonized sales tax, others making social justice points about poverty relief or government services.

Frankly, I couldn’t care less about the fake lake. Maybe I have some other thoughts somewhere about the general discourses on wasteful government spending and the ways in which somehow highly conservative attitudes about taxation and individualism can become so ubiquitous as to erase any actual discussion of what things do and what they cost, but the fake lake is not a particularly spectacular counterpoint, so I’ll  leave them steep a bit longer. But what I do care about is that this is the point of objection that we hear. This is the G8/G20 issue that I could mention to anyone on the street, and people would have something (probably negative) to say about it. The fake lake is casual, facile, overwhelmingly banal piece of small talk that is standing in as a distraction for actual politics, actual decision-making, actual protest, actual discussion. Increased securitization is expected, both by those who appreciate it and those who are terrified of it. Protests are expected, even though no protesting voices and positions are actually heard, as protesters essentially get labeled as little more than protester-brand 21st century consumers of ideas, opinions, concepts. The summits themselves will happen, leaders will discuss things, decisions – none of them particularly shocking or unexpected, all of them probably horrifying if you really think about the whole system of it – will be made (or rather, formalized through the spectacle, since most of the discussion has taken place behind the scenes among aides, assistants, and advisors). But the fake lake, that’s something we can talk about.

It’s really hard not to be cynical when you’re talking about a $57,000 fake fucking lake.

Being Changed

By this point in my life, I should be used to changes. I’m used to things happening in my life and around me, making decisions and having others make their own, and I’m used to figuring out how to adapt to those new circumstances. I’m used to looking at a given situation and realizing that this move, this choice, this transition, is going to change things for me.

I remember a point when I found that exciting, or at least distracting – if things could change, I thought, I would feel better. Then there was a shorter period during which I found it scary. I liked the way things were. I liked my life. I didn’t want it to change. I’ve now gotten a little more neutral and accepting on the natural process of change and shift and growth and movement, in that way that clichés have of becoming sources of profound truth.

I’ve been talking to a few friends undergoing major changes in their lives – having babies, for instance, or making fairly radical career shifts – and thinking a lot about what these life changes do to the self. When life-change excited me, I wasn’t really willing to let myself go with it. When it scared me, I was clinging desperately to the self to try to maintain some comforting sense of continuity, some ability to trust that as much as things could change, I would remain as I was.

I remember a little while ago, looking back over blog and journal entries I had written throughout the year or so before that and realizing that without any dramatics, without too much emotional upheaval and without too much stress, there had been some definite shifts in the way I was thinking, expressing myself, and more importantly, feeling. I sometimes think about the way I felt and behaved a few years ago and can’t quite imagine myself in those actions anymore. I’ve often said it’s like I was a different person before my divorce. Not just that I wouldn’t do now the things I did back then, but also that when I try my hardest to envision what I felt when my life was like that, I’m barely able to scratch the surface. I can describe the behaviour, the patterns, the types of thoughts, but I can’t really feel them or remember what it was like to think them.

The clichéd truth of the inevitability of change only hit me at the surface for a long time. Things would continue to change, yes. By definition, they had to. But despite all the ways that I had been changed and was continuing to be changed, it’s still a lot more difficult to accept the inevitability of those continuous changes. In fact, it’s more difficult – now that I see the depth of them, the strength of them, the unexpectedness of them, letting go into the future of them feels like a much larger unknown.

I’m in the middle of an attempt at a new acceptance. I have become okay with recognizing that in the ongoing flux of life, with its major and minor shifts and changes and phases, I will adapt and learn the new ways of functioning that come with those changes. I haven’t quite gotten used to seeing change up ahead, when there are major planned or prepared for life events or immediately following an abrupt and unexpected shove, and entering into it accepting that I don’t know how I’ll come out. Maybe it seems a subtle difference, but it feels like a bigger challenge that I might have expected.