Thursday, April 03, 2003

Who am I to say...

Many government questionnaires here in the U.S. ask questions about race and ethnicity. Such data is collected for various reasons having to do with trying to measure how these different groups are or are not distinguishable from each other using a different variable. Correlations. Whenever I have to answer such things, I am truly puzzled. Exactly which boxes do I fill/fall in?

If you saw me on the street, you might think "corn-fed American." And then, if you heard me speak, you might shift to one of several modes: somewhat of a Canadian accent / somewhat of a British phrasing and cadence / Eastern U.S.. However, if you had never seen me, and you heard me speak Spanish over the telephone, you would say "Nacido en Colombia, sin duda." (Born in Colombia, without a doubt.) I'm told my French is pretty outrageously Quebecois, and this from an authoritatively snotty person from Marseilles. I've lived in each of these places and have family links to all of them. I have defended each of these countries in arguments both friendly and vehement. I've even served in a unit attached to the Canadian militia (17th UCCR/2nd QOR), without them knowing I wasn't a Canadian citizen (shhh, don't let the U.S. know either...).

The U.S. has only conducted two consecutive censuses with the same criteria for race and ethnicity. Many studies have shown that self-identification is a changeable thing -- children answer these questions differently from their parents, even in same-race same-ethnicity families. Much has been made of the recent growth in the Latino population compared to the Black population, but I have to wonder how comparable the data is when these differences between methodologies, instruments, and self-identification are taken into account.

So what am I? American? Canadian? British? Colombian? Anglo? Latino? Hispanic? The point is, I'm all of them.

Unfortunately, that's what a lot of people around me can't grok - I remember being at a party where we were watching a Soviet-U.S. hockey game, and one of the people there was a recently defected Russian. One of the Americans, on the scoring of a Soviet goal, punched the Russian and asked, "why are you cheering for those fv<+!ng Soviets?" The Russian just looked at this idiot in disbelief. One can still be loyal to one's country and its symbols, even if one does not agree with the government. History, origin, tradition -- these are potent things.

I grimaced, and realized then that Harvard law students, even if they are part of Lincoln's Inn and on the Review, can be pretty stupid. Of course, this person's exposure to foreign countries might have been typical of college students: a Spring Break trip to Cancun, where the contact with locals was through the bellboys, maids, curio salesmen, cab drivers, and fat sweaty policemen. Even my grad school thesis advisor, frustrated with my time spent with extracurricular activities in Spanish-language theater, once said: "It's time to stop this Hispanic nonsense."

I see this mind-set in Iraq, where coalition planners expected an open-armed welcome. Wrong. Iraqis are going to be loyal to Iraq the country, even if they are disloyal to Saddam the President -- what we have failed to do is to convince them that there will be a better Iraq after 'regime change.' Even if the 101st Airborne landed in Toronto, I'm sure there would be opposition from Canadian loyalists. There was resistance the last time we invaded Canada, during the Fenian Raids. And why not?

What will be interesting is watching the inter-Arab relations play out after the end of the war. There are plenty of powerful Iraqis who are really angry at the other Arab states for resisting the invasion. There will be an interesting interplay 'on the street' between the Anti-american sentiment and the supporters, both within and without Iraq. The sad thing is that this country has a really strange image abroad, and there are powerful interests involved in the status quo -- Hollywood, CNN and Fox ensure that. What did we fret about just before launching the initial raid? How the Academy Awards were to be handled. "Yup. We're really serious, high minded folk, and we're here to tell you how to run your country." Sheesh. The folks who put in the time, the effort, the blood, their lives, as soldiers, logisticians and relief workers are getting their efforts completely short-circuited by pompous asses in the entertainment and media worlds, our mouthpieces and cultural ambassadors to the world.

And now, back to your regular science blog channel programming...