Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Québec election: more questions than answers!

                Crossroads are places of choosing. Either route one chooses, one will never be the same again. This is how the Québec provincial election, April 7, 2014, left me feeling. Without being sure why exactly, I just felt something had changed somehow, without being able to say what exactly. Some loss of innocence perhaps..

Juan Ramón Jiménez: Mares

!Siento que el barco mío
ha tropezado, allá en el fondo,
con algo grande!
!Y nada
sucede! Nada.. Quietud.. Olas..
-?Nada sucede; o es que ha sucedido todo,
y estamos ya, tanquilos, en lo nuevo?-

I feel that my little boat 
has stranded, run aground
on something enormous, deep down..
And yet nothing
happened! Nothing.. silence.. the waves..

Nothing happened? Or is it that everything happened
and now we are already there, in the new? 

            Yes, that's the sensation, exactly, that the election left me with. Or to change metaphors, we engaged upon on a slippery slope, that of ethnocentric populism. And we avoided a crisis; for the moment, Reason triumphed. (That's one plausible interpretation, anyway..)

            Some crises are obvious. Think: war. Some crises are subtle. Perhaps only in retrospect do we realize how close to catastrophe we came if we had chosen or acted badly. Perhaps Québécois society has entered an active phase of choosing it's future path of social evolution.

Background: The beginnings of this crisis are vague, almost imperceptible. For some time the media have carried stories of "reasonable accommodations" made to religious groups. Sikhs wished permission to carry the kirpan (dagger) and turban as signs of their faith in public schools. Orthodox Jews asked that a YMCA replace clear windows with clouded ones so that males students in a nearby religious school would not be exposed to scantily clad women working out. In some cases these requests met with compliance on the part of local authorities and organizations. In others, they did not.

           One tends not to see the forest for the trees in these situations of intercommunity friction. Because of the recent prominence given by the media, most people believe "reasonable accommodations" apply mostly to newly arrived communities like Muslims and Sikhs. Historically, though, most reasonable accommodations have been made with Orthodox Jewish sects. In recent years, such accommodations have assumed a controversial dimension. Growing negative public reactions to such accommodations eventually led to the convening of the Taylor Bouchard Committee which toured the province of Québec seeking public input before delivering its suggestions for improving inter-faith community relations in the province: 

For the full report (it's a biggie!) 

          As usual, one has the impression that this report got shelved as soon as it was published and is collecting dust on government library shelves. However, the commission and all its regional public hearings reinforced the image, the perception, that something was being done or had to be done about a smoldering social problem.

Existential angst and scapegoats Down deep, I believe all of us recognize, to some degree, that our planet is in trouble. We are threatened with overpopulation, climate change, terrorism, resource depletion, environmental degradation, mass starvation, geopolitical instability and God/dess knows what else.

          Failing societies seek scapegoats. Scapegoating allows a temporary relief ("symptomatic relief") from some chronic fear, deprivation or frustration. In pre-modern Europe pogroms and witch hunts followed in the wake of famines. Our current "Age of Anxiety" is rife with genocides from the Shoah to the Rwandan genocide of 1994 which killed 800,000. Studies in animal psychology suggest that there is a neuronal - hormonal link between stress (suffering) and scapegoating behavior. A physical attack either on a conspecific or merely upon a symbolic representation (photo, sketch) of another living being can reduce dangerous stress hormone levels. "Blowing off steam" in some form of aggressive behavior provides temporary stress symptom reduction. Unfortunately, since the underlying problems are not addressed, scapegoating must be periodically repeated. Symptom reduction doesn't cure the disease, so the symptoms (stress) returns, requiring yet another round of scapegoating..

           Just as perceived stress levels vary, scapegoating comes in several intensity levels: from verbal slurs and racial jokes at the low end to collective homicide as the most extreme expression, with a broad spectrum of behaviors in between: verbal or physical violence of escalating intensity, discriminatory legislation or social codes, banning, confining..

          The Taylor Bouchard Report, discussed earlier, did little to halt the increasing (but low level) friction between Québécois and francophone Muslim immigrants. Then came The Charter..

The Charter of Québécois Values - a quantum leap in bad intercommunity relations The Parti Québécois (PQ) which has been in power for about 18 months with a minority parliament, felt it was rising in the polls and decided to go for a majority government (footnote 1). Figuring that it's spring budget would not be accepted by the opposing Liberals, they tried to outflank the Liberals and the rising Coalition Avenir Québec by calling an election for Monday, April 7, 2014. In the run up to the election, a Charter of Québécois Values (CQV) was proposed. The Charter was obviously an attempt to address - or exploit - the rising friction between the francophone population and the Muslim immigrant community. In either case it is an appeal to nationalistic or ethnocentric populism, a dangerous slippery slope to be on if their ever was one!

            The CQV begins, innocently enough, by affirming the secular nature of the state and the equality of the sexes. Then, more controversially, it proposes that "ostentatious religious symbols" be banned from public workplaces: schools, hospitals, government offices.. One has the impression that the PQ, in a desperate bid for votes, was appealing to the more conservative hinterland - where fewer immigrants actually live - rather than more "cosmopolitan" cities like (and particularly) Montréal.

            Reality check I find it hard to contemplate kippah wearing Jewish doctors in Montréal taking such a measure lying down!

           Given the fact that the Liberals won the April 7 election, we won't have the chance to see what would have happened. However, kippah wearing Jews promised to take the government to court if it dared pass such a bill. Several cities, including Montréal, announced that they would simply ignore such provisions, if passed! However, immigrant Muslim women wearing hijabs and working in daycare centers would not have the resources of native born Jewish professionals. The asymmetry in resources of the two groups is glaring. The only similarity is that both wear religious headgear for religious reasons..

           Ostensibly, the CQV was designed to affirm Québécois identity in the face of a perceived threat: the "other" who wishes to force unreasonable accommodations - "their ways" - on us. The reality, of course, is perhaps a bit more nuanced than this. For example how many Muslims in Québec are practicing? According to scientific data - what little there is! - only about 10% of muslims in the US and Canada go to mosque regularly. In Québécois terms, that means they are about as religious - or irreligious - as the rest of us! So why the big stink over Muslim practices like the hijab - female head scarf?

            One thing is evident from the evening news. Islamic fanatics exist and at this point in time seem as dangerous as Christian or Jewish fanatics. 

            Obviously, dangerous, violent bigots need containment - unless one decides to nullify their human rights and kill them outright.. Otherwise "containment" means surveillance (hence the argument for legitimate state surveillance both within and without national boundaries).

             Containment of dangerous fanatics by professionals - hired by the State and payed by taxpayers' money - does not, and should not, involve the average citizen, though! No more than I am competent to carry out brain surgery. Think about it.. (would you want a brain job from me or your uncle Joe?)
            The paranoia stirred up by CQV thinking is easy to confound with more legitimate and rational fears of dangerous fanatics. Thus, CQV paranoia takes "legitimate" fear of Muslim (or other) fanatics and turns it against scapegoats who, symbolically, are made to "stand in for" feared (Muslim) terrorists. Now, hijab wearing women - easily identifiable as Muslim - make convenient scapegoats. Since the CVQ debate began, hijab wearers have been verbally abused in the street and occasionally spat upon.

            The CQV debate turned out to be incredibly divisive. I have never seen an issue so divisive and in so many ways:

1- everyone had an opinion (rare in these times of cynical disengagement)

2- the opinions were intense and polarizing

3- Left, Right, Center - doesn't make any difference where you stand on the political spectrum: you can be either for or against the CVQ. Same thing for feminists. Some see the hijab as The Primordial Symbol of Patriarchal Oppression and want it banned (some would ban it on the street, not just in public offices and institutions serving the public). Other feminists see the CVQ as populist grandstanding - playing to the ethnocentric vote - and see hijab wearing women as convenient scapegoats.

          I personally cannot recall any issue which has fractured - pulverized! - the traditional political spectrum as this one has.

But what does it all mean? Hard to say. I have the impression we dodged a bullet April 7. We turned back from the slippery slop of populist nationalism (chauvinism) we had engaged upon. But did we avoid disaster for the right reasons? Or did we simply get distracted by  the confused, bungled PQ campaign and the flurry of side-issues it engendered? I suspect the latter (alas). We stepped back from the abyss, not because of our collective virtue or wisdom but because we have short attention spans and the PQ campaign managers were duffers. The latter observation, at least, is incontestable: the PQ started with a minority government, they felt they were strong enough to go for a majority and ended up with a wipeout and their chief, Madame Pauline Marois, even lost her seat. It also ended her political career (she resigned immediately). Can't do much worse than that!

            As for the CVQ: it was not unpopular. At one time polls showed that at least 50% of the francophone population supported it. What defeated the PQ then?

            A whole slew of missteps on the part of Mde Marois' campaign team. First, Pierre Karl Péladeau (?) - PKP - neoconservative, union bustin' media mogul, announced his candidature for the PQ. He ended his announcement with that (now) infamous fist pumped phrase "I want to make Québec a country!"

             Now, many people in Québec who are not separatists vote for the PQ. Reasons vary: one may  desire a clean government that keeps (some of) its campaign promises. Back in the 1970s when the PQ was young, it had the innocence and idealism of youth. It stood for Scandinavian styled Social Democracy. It elected members who were moved more by an ideal - a free Republic of Québec, than they were by personal gain or fame. Some people vote for the PQ to "send Canada a message: don't mess with Québec!" - that is, treat us with some respect and recognize our valid differences from the rest of anglophone North America. These folk want more autonomy in certain areas like immigration, language legislation, natural resources, social programs.. Such "nationalistes" are often strong Canadian federalists. For them, a PQ vote is like bluff in poker, more a bargaining point than an ultimatum. One might also vote PQ simply to change the air: throw the old bums out and put some new bums in! (The idea, which I subscribe to, is that power corrupts and so power holders must be changed periodically to keep corruption down to manageable levels.)

              After two Sovereignty Referenda in which the Québecois people rejected national independence from Canada, many people no longer took the PQ's sovereignty plank seriously. But PKP's fist pump changed all that.. potential voters got cold feet and changed allegiance. If truth be told, even PKP's candidacy was itself a bit bizarre. PKP's wealth, centralized media control, neoconservatism and union busting certainly do not appeal to the PQ's labor and intellectual Left wing! To add ideological insult to injury, PKP owns the Right leaning - occasionally Québec bashing - Sun Media.

             Throw in a few more gaffes and opponents who make less mistakes and you have a lost election..

             Oddly, it was a landslide rejection of the PQ. Why the landslide is something that will have to be explored by all sides in the coming months. Mde Marois had to acknowledge the magnitude of her party's defeat and her role in it (she called the election!). She immediately stepped down as party leader. An Interim party leader has since been chosen: 

            I'm not sure what lesson is to be gained from the 2014 provincial election. For me, it confirmed the irrational, emotional / instinctive roots of racism: the internecine warfare of chimpanzee troops. It made - once again - evident how thin, how fragile is that thin veneer of civility we call "civilization".

internal blog link

 francophone? Article de blogue par Michel C Auger (il est un peu plus optimiste que moi, on dirait..)    
footnote 1: minority versus majority government in Westminster Parliamentary system 

No comments:

Post a Comment