Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Plus ca change watch

John McCain:
I was in a town in Iowa, and twenty years ago there were no Hispanics in the town. Then a meatpacking facility was opened up. Now twenty per cent of their population is Hispanic. There were senior citizens there who were—‘concerned’ is not the word. They see this as an assault on their culture, what they view as an impact on what have been their traditions in Iowa, in the small towns in Iowa. So you get questions like ‘Why do I have to punch 1 for English?’ ‘Why can’t they speak English?’ It’s become larger than just the fact that we need to enforce our borders.

The language politics of Quebec last month:
MONTREAL–The English option on automated government telephone menus has become a hot-button issue for some French-language groups in Quebec.

Language activists are decrying the fact that callers to many Quebec government offices are told to "press nine" for English before instructions are delivered in French.

Two hardline language groups are teaming up to launch a campaign calling on the government to put the English selection at the end of the message.

"Asking for the English option to come at the end of a message is not something extremist," Mario Beaulieu, president of Mouvement Montréal français, said yesterday.

The Quebec government's language watchdog – the Office québécois de la langue française – recently issued a pamphlet reminding agencies it is official policy to include the English option only after the French message has been delivered in its entirety.

For what it's worth: of all the discourtesies and worse involved in automated telephone menus, I can't see getting agitated about any arrangement here. Allowing a language decision moment early on-- whether that's an opt-out-of-the-following as in the Quebec case, or a choose-which-branch-to-follow as in the Iowa case-- seems efficient to me, even though it means that local majoritarian sensibilities may be offended by the reminder that there are other languages in the system. One sign of a less-badly-designed automated menu is that callers spend a bit less time listening to irrelevant-to-them possibilities, and it's only inefficient to insist on a long spiel in one language before allowing opting out into the caller's language.

But if listening to 45 seconds of French at the beginning of the call is the worst thing that happens to me on one of these phone calls, I'll count myself lucky. (I do try to interact in French in person, but feel no urge to select French options on automated menus or websites.)

While I'm here, might as well note that the Taylor-Bouchard commission hearings are nearing their rousing conclusion.

Limits should be put on religious clothing and symbols in Quebec, but not if they're part of Quebec's heritage, Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe said yesterday.

"We should have restrictions for reasons of hygiene - in operating rooms, for example," Duceppe told reporters after presenting a brief at the Bouchard-Taylor commission on reasonable accommodations of religious minorities.

"Also for reasons of safety - on construction sites" where hard hats must be worn, he added.

"And in functions that represent the neutrality of the state - the police, for example, or judges."

But Catholic symbols that are part of Quebec history and heritage - the cross on Mount Royal, for example, or roadside crosses - should be exempt from such restrictions, the Bloc leader added.

"We shouldn't turn ourselves into the Taliban and demolish all the Buddhas of Quebec," he said.

"We're not going to stop listening to Mozart's Requiem because it was written for a mass. All that is part of the heritage of humanity of Quebec."

In other words, yet again: any visible sign of any non-Catholic religion is too much; no visible sign of Catholicism can be too much.

(I can convince myself not to mind the cross on Mont Royal. It's was built on church property, and only entered the city's ownership on a trust agreement to keep it intact. I wish the city hadn't taken ownership, but I don't think the city should break its agreement to keep it. But it's tacky, lit up year-round. It's no Requiem or Buddha of Bamiyan. Not every bit of local kitsch becomes "heritage" through sheer venerability.)