Wednesday, June 01, 2011

On the Quebec question: (3) Nationhood

Is Quebec a nation? Is Canada a nation? Can there be a nation within another nation? These are difficult points, but some committment on these issues seems to underlie both proponents' and opponents' attitudes towards Quebec separation and nationalism. (See? It's even in that word: nationalism.)

What is a nation, generally? This is a notoriously tricky question. One can't simply define "nation" in frankly legal terms -- so, "nation" equals "state" -- without just begging the question against Quebec nationalism (and Scottish nationalism and Basque nationalism and so on). While folks opposed to the idea might like that result, it's a pretty cheap move -- victory by fiat.

A better way to go for those opposed to Quebec separation or nationalism would be to work with a better definition, and show that Canada satisfies it, while Quebec does not.

Now, the most common ways of defining a nation appeal to things like a shared history, common language and defined borders. And that works well enough, if you want to consider whether England or Japan are nations. However, it doesn't work so well when you're trying to figure out if Quebec and Canada are nations. Quebec and Canada can both be held to have a shared history, a common language and defined borders, so both, on this definition, work out as nations. There's no way to delineate between the two, if this is what a nation is.

One could try to improve the definition, by arguing that length or depth of history is an important feature in defining a nation, and thus Canada is not one, at least in comparison to Quebec. But this is perfectly arbitrary, equivalent to stating that there is no such thing as America in addition to New York.

Alternately, one could argue instead that there is a Canadian identity, which makes Canada a nation, but there is no similar Quebec identity, which makes Quebec not a nation.

The trick here, though, is that nailing down identity is hugely problematic. Suppose, moving away from social concepts to physical ones, I have a boat. And then one of the sails tears. So, I replace the sail. It's still the same boat. But then suppose the mast breaks. So I replace that. Then the boards of the deck, one by one. The wheel. The rudder. (And so on.) At what point is this object no longer the same boat that I started out with? This is a question about what a particular boat's identity actually is. And it should be a simple question to answer, but, on a little reflection, it's not. (This is the well-worn Ship of Theseus example.)

Given that it's so hard to figure out what makes a physical object that object -- what its identity is -- why would it be any easier to figure out what the identity of a socially created thing, such as a nation or national group, is? Canadian, Québécois, or what have you -- their identities are going to be much more nebulous than those of things like boats. So, really, one would expect it to be much, much harder to determine what the identity of such a thing is.

To be fair, a common response to Ship of Theseus-style examples is to appeal to a notion of resemblance over time. My boat is my boat, even with all the changes it undergoes, because it resembles (to an appropriate extent) the thing that was originally my boat, and historically descendent from the original boat. That's all there is to something being that boat.

This works well enough for identities of physical objects. But it doesn't work for national identity, because it simply winds us in a circle.

We already have a pretty clear idea of what a boat is; the problem we run into is determining how much an object can change before its identity as that boat changes, too. Since we have a clear idea of what a boat is, though, we can start with that notion, and compare historical descendents of a given boat to the original boat, and check how much they resemble each other.

Unfortunately, we don't have a clear idea of what a nation is. The notion of national identity is one way of trying to solve that problem. But if we can't figure out what it is for there to be a certain national identity without using resemblance, then there has to be something for the identity to resemble, namely, an original nation. But we're not sure if we have one or not -- that's the problem that the concept of national identity is supposed to be helping us resolve!

So, overall, I don't think that trying to argue Canada is a nation, and Quebec is not, is really going to go anywhere. I see the intuitive appeal of the claim, but I can't see a way to motivate it that isn't arbitrary. If Canada is a nation, then its various constituent parts -- Quebec, Alberta, Ontario, and so on -- seem to be as well; if one of the parts is not, then Canada is not, either.

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