Crises of nationalism

Publicado en En voz alta



By Monica Heller
Professor, OISE and Department of Anthropology, University of Toronto


I am writing this in an airplane somewhere over the Canadian Prairies. I just spent three days in a wood-and-stone conference centre in the Canadian Rockies, surrounded by yellowing aspens and dark firs, with the obligatory elk encounter thrown in (no grizzlies, except maybe for academic ones). I was there with a dozen or so colleagues to exchange with Gérard Bouchard, a well-known historian, sociologist and public intellectual, the latter part of whose career has been spent trying to get Quebec to figure out cultural diversity in a way which preserves the idea of a francophone «Québec» without going down the road to ethnonational discrimination. Personally, I think this is an impossible act of contortionism which even the Cirque du Soleil could not manage, so this is where Bouchard and I diverge, despite my deep admiration for his intellectual rigour and commitment to social justice and public engagement.

Bouchard has written extensively on «interculturalism», and a few years ago was co-chair (with the political philosopher Charles Taylor) of the Quebec Commission sur les accommodements raisonnables. This Commission was struck after some doubtful incidents, notably a vote in the municipal council of a small town called Hérouxville (immigrant population: 0) regarding the admissibility of female lapidation and other imagined social ills thought to be the inevitable result of accepting immigrants, especially Muslim ones. (He and Taylor were, of course, rewarded for their commitment and service, including hours spent listening to nice old ladies beg them to save their granddaughters from having to wear burqas, with distorted media coverage and hate mail.) «Accommodements raisonnables» is short-hand for asking what is expected of the majority, white, francophone, once-upon-a-time Catholic population of Quebec when they interact with people coming to live in Quebec from elsewhere. It is never put in quite those terms: the question is what the «société d’accueil» should be prepared to do in the name of social cohesion in a liberal democratic society. But this raises two issues which were the subject of much debate these past few days and to which I will return later: what, and who, the société d’accueil is; and whether we should be asking the question in those terms at all.

Bouchard’s services are much in demand these days: a few weeks ago, the Parti Québécois, the governing party in Quebec, announced a projet de loi called La Charte des valeurs québécoises. This Charter proposes to ensure the state is understood to be secular by prohibiting its employees from wearing highly visible religious symbols (it’s more complicated than that, of course, but that is the core issue at hand.) Not surprisingly, the proposed charter has been terribly divisive, including, importantly, among white, francophone, once-upon-a-time Catholic Quebec nationalists and supporters of political independence. Exactly a week ago, Bouchard was invited to the popular television interview show, Tout le monde en parle, to debate the Charter's principal government sponsor, Bernard Drainville. Bouchard (as well as his Commission colleague, Taylor) argues that this vision of «valeurs québécoises» contradicts what he sees as the universal values of liberty and equality, if only because it makes it impossible for some citizens to apply for (or keep) their civil service jobs while acting according to their most profound beliefs. (Not to mention the hypocrisy whereby the crucifix in the National Assembly would be allowed to stay on the grounds that it is cultural heritage, not religious symbolism.)

Nonetheless, Bouchard argued this weekend, a «société d’accueil» should be allowed to set rules of the game for newcomers — as long as those rules remain within universal values and respect universal definitions of human rights. Part of his reasoning is that societies need common codes, or risk descending into chaos. A great deal of our conversation was devoted to pondering whether there was any difference between those of «Québec» and those of «English Canada», beyond the obvious one that Quebec’s discourse is framed within the notion that Quebec as a nation has to protect itself not just against English Canada, but English North America, and English globalization, while «English Canada» remains comfortably dominant. As that conversation evolved, I found myself increasingly uncomfortable. Claude Couture, a co-organizer (with Srilata Ravi) of the event, suggested that perhaps it might be necessary to place the whole conversation within an entirely different frame, one in which all that stuff needed to be understood as part of long-standing and on-going processes of what he calls colonialism, but which we can also think of as imperialism. Paulin Mulatris pointed out that the Congolese in Edmonton with whom he works think of themselves as located in an African diaspora which would not exist without colonialism at all, a colonialism which certainly helps account for how it comes to pass that those people now live where they do (at least some of the time). Which led me to ask two questions.

The first was who gets to say what a «société d’accueil» is? Who counts as part of that? Who gets to define its rules of the game? It seems to me that it is not enough to say that adherence to universal values and concern for social cohesion justifies a lack of attention to the inevitable internal struggles for voice (and hence at least a crack at discursive dominance). Bouchard asked «do you mean who holds the pen?». Yes, but more than that: who gets to sit at the table, to get in the door, to even find out there is a discussion going on? I am also concerned with the ways in which that dominant voice sets the frame for everyone. Do such «societies» have nothing to learn from challenges to what they believe? Can there be no space for such challenges? But more importantly, in my view, it seems to me we have to move away from a model in which such a thing as a «société d’accueil» — or even a société — is understood self-evidently to exist. In many ways thanks to Europe — and its imperial projects — we still are bound by political structures and regulations which adhere to that form. But if anthropology and linguistics have taught us nothing else in recent years, they have shown us that for many people, that frame is only one of many that are available to them (sometimes in ways that benefit them, sometimes not), and that often that frame is not the most salient way in which their lives are organized. Most importantly, lives are often experienced as passages, mobilities with points of mooring, in which the making and deployment of social difference is more complicated than a consideration of modernist ideas of citizenship.

Bouchard understands that such neo-nationalist backlashes as the Charter are dangerous, recalling elements of coercion that fail to square with liberal democracy. He also understands that the nation-State (or the nation?; or the State?) needs to reinvent itself. And I think he also understands that acting as though diversity and mobility were new or somehow different from how they used to be in the past is not helpful, not even for Europe. There is too much evidence of continuity for that.

I suggested yesterday, and now here again, that what is different is the phase of capitalism we are in, and hence the relative status of cultural and linguistic diversity as problem to be regulated versus resource to be exploited. But I think what is also new is that the many other principles of social organization which are available to us are regaining their salience, as the nation increasingly fails to erase or police them. How we deal with that goes way beyond the reinvention of national myths, or the study of «superdiversity», or universal values. It requires us to grasp what differences remain or are becoming salient and why, and how to invent modes of organizing and conducting social relations which allow for difference in ways which help manage conflict and permit creativity. I know I live neither in «Québec» nor in «English Canada», though I pay my taxes to the Canadian Ministry of Revenue, and can complain about beavers with the best of them. In both official languages. The challenge is to articulate my life not as a «non-place», or as «diaspora» or «lack of rootedness», or even a «margin», but as something else altogether.