Paris attacks: Italy, Canada and me


I must admit that the first feeling I had on reading about the ISIS attacks in Paris on November 13 was relief that there were no Canadians killed. Relief gave way, however, to the news that two Italians had died in the incident (Italy is my father’s homeland, and I’ve spent a great deal of time there too). The victims in question were Valeria Solesin, a student at Sorbonne University, and Sven Perugini, a computer programmer then working in Mallorca, Spain. While both were at the Bataclan theatre in Paris at the time, they did not appear to have known one another; they apparently had no connection other than their nationality and manner of their deaths.

When news of the attacks first broke, Sven Perugini’s mother went on a desperate search to find her son. It was painful to read her pleas on social media entreating anyone who knew of his fate to contact her. She then booked a flight to Paris, but when she arrived, she learned he was dead. Also moving was the reaction of Valeria Solesin’s family. At her funeral at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice – in which a Catholic priest, Jewish rabbi, and Muslim imam participated – her father thanked the three religious figures ‘who are here together in this square as a symbol of our common humanity.’

Other responses to the tragedy were not so noble. For example, Pastor Steven Anderson of the Faithful Word Baptist Church in Tempe, Arizona, basically said the victims at the Bataclan deserved what they got because they were listening to ‘Satanic’ music: the Eagles of Death Metal band. I found his implied portrayal of the theatre-goers as would-be Satanists particularly ironic in that one picture of Sven Perugini his mother posted on Facebook shows him wearing a crucifix around his neck – although, as a Catholic, perhaps Perugini might not qualify as a ‘real Christian’ in Anderson’s eyes.

It’s easy to dismiss the rantings of a man like Anderson, whose other public statements have included advocating capital punishment for homosexuals and praying for US President Barack Obama’s death, as an attention-seeking ploy reminiscent of the late Pastor Fred ‘God hates fags’ Phelps. On the other hand, the reaction of some members of the (largely secular) Left to the events in Paris was hardly more heartening. For instance, one site by a self-described atheist calling herself ‘Chicana on the Edge’ (real name: Regina Rodríguez-Martin) said she had a ‘hard time whipping up a lot of sympathy for Paris.’ She chided the media for focusing on the recent events in France but ignoring the ‘suffering of people in Mexico, Kenya, Iraq, etc.’

Regina Rodríguez-Martin apparently leaves out the fact that not all the victims of the ISIS attacks in Paris were White. They would include, in some people’s eyes, Sven Perugini, whose mother is Italian but his father of African descent, which would make Perugini ‘Black’ as well according to the so-called One Drop Rule. ‘Chicana on the Edge’ has admitted to suffering from mental illness, so in a way, I’m tempted to dismiss her screeds as I would Steven Anderson’s. Nonetheless, as someone who, like her, opposed the war in Iraq and has qualms about the US’ involvement in military efforts in other nations, I cannot help but think there might be some truth in the description of pacifists and other allegedly ‘progressive’ individuals as ‘some of the most miserable people around’ – like certain members of the Democratic Underground forum who lamented the attention that murder victim Laci Peterson received when ‘thousands have died and are dying in Iraq.’

Now from France and Italy to North America, what do the events in Paris mean for Canada? There is some speculation that the attacks spurred the new Justin Trudeau government to postpone its plan to admit 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada from the end of 2015 to February 2016 in order to better screen them. Like most Canadians (according to a recent poll), I support bringing those fleeing the conflict in Syria to Canada. Nonetheless, I understand the trepidation of many Canadians about receiving large numbers of people from a region beset by terrorism and agree on the need for thorough screening. Some have compared the acceptance of Syrian refugees to Canada’s decision to provide asylum to the Vietnamese boat people in the 1970s. The comparison, though, is not entirely fitting: welcoming the Vietnamese carried almost no risk of admitting any potential terrorists, whereas at least one Islamic terrorist posed as a refugee when going from the Middle East to Europe. Therefore, in light of the tragedy in France, I believe a mixture of compassion and caution on Canada’s part is warranted.


Who’s Hispanic? Who’s Filipino?

A few years ago, I wrote an essay called ‘Who’s White?’ I asked this question about several individuals, both famous (controversial shooter George Zimmerman) and not-so-famous (two boyfriends of mine). I ended the piece by discussing whether my daughter, who is part American Indian on her father’s side (he’s from Nicaragua), would be considered White or not. Conclusion: maybe, maybe not.
Since then, a few new developments have occurred. Members of a Scandinavian club whose events I occasionally attend seem to think that my daughter looks Italian – which doesn’t surprise me because both her father and I have some ancestry from Italy. I wasn’t so prepared, though, when at least two people asked me if my daughter was part-Filipino (both were Filipino themselves, incidentally). In one case, the question came after I mentioned that my daughter had a Spanish last name from her father: having been under Spain’s rule for more than 300 years, most surnames in the Philippines are Spanish. One of my daughter’s surnames is Ramos, the name of the Philippines’ 12th president. In the other instance, a man working at my daughter’s school thought she might be Filipino because of her eyes.

I’ll concede that my daughter could probably ‘pass’ as a Filipino mestiza (Spanish word used in Latin America and the Philippines for a woman of mixed racial origins). These exchanges also got me asking my own questions: How Spanish are Filipinos? Are they an Asian people who just happen to have Spanish names? Or are they, like most of the inhabitants of Spanish America, all mestizo?

Several schools of thought exist on the subject. The first is that the majority of Filipinos do have a Spanish ancestor somewhere down the line, evidenced, they say, by the fact they have a Spanish last name. For example, my father’s housekeeper informed him that she was indeed part-Spanish because her family name was Narvaez (my father was sceptical, by the way). One Spanish-language book on the history of the Philippines says that millions of Spaniards fathered mestizo children in their East Asian colony.

In contrast, others deny that Spaniards or Europeans in general had much genetic impact on the Philippines and its people. A website run by a Filipino Canadian humorously states, ‘Dear Filipinos, Stop Claiming that You’re Spanish! You (probably) aren’t.’ He goes on to say, ‘Mating was not a prerequisite to adopt the Spanish name – merely converting to Christianity and swearing allegiance to Spain was enough.’ Some sources explain that Filipino natives were assigned Spanish names for census purposes (of interest, some native surnames, such as ‘Bondoc,’ remain; as well, Chinese family names are found among individuals descended from immigrants from China to the Philippines).

Without taking either school of thought as gospel, I decided to investigate their claims myself. My semi-educated guess was that Filipinos would have more European ancestry than other Asians but less than Latin Americans, for example. My research bore my predictions out. One study in the American Journal of Human Genetics from the early 2000s found that 3.6% of Filipino males possessed a Y chromosome (a chromosome passed from father to son) of European origin. (This figure would not cover people like my Filipino mestizo ex-boyfriend, who could ‘pass’ for Hispanic or even Italian but probably didn’t have a European Y chromosome because his Spanish ancestry came from his mother’s rather than father’s side.) According to a more recent study from the journal Genetics, Filipinos demonstrated a ‘modest amount of European genetic ancestry,’ while another report by one of the authors estimated that at least 5% of Filipinos’ genetic background came from Europe. Both those studies showed that Filipinos were more European than were other East Asians.

In contrast, Latin Americans’ genetic ancestry is believed to be about 50% European1, with the rest being mainly Native American and African. A study from Colombia similarly found that about 94% of Y chromosomes in men there came from Europe, even if most of these men’s mtDNA (which is passed from women to children of both sexes) was Native. Hence, it appears that Hispanics have approximately 10 times more European ancestry than do Filipinos, despite their homelands both being under Spanish control at one point or another.

The reason for this discrepancy lies in the fact that far fewer Spaniards ventured to the Philippines than to the Americas; thus a large mestizo population did not have the chance to emerge in the former. The result of this discrepancy is that Latin America (other than Brazil, which was conquered by Portugal) basically became a cultural outpost of Spain whereas the Philippines did not. To provide one example, although indigenous Filipino languages contain a considerable number of Spanish words, Castilian Spanish as a whole did not take hold in the Philippines as a mother tongue other than in the small mestizo community – and not even among all of them; my ex-boyfriend, for instance, only learned (some) Spanish in school. Nor was Spanish particularly used as a lingua franca, a role filled to some extent by the English brought by the Americans who took over the Philippines from Spain in the late 1800s.

What has the outcome been of Spain’s general lack of influence in the Philippines? On the positive side, had the Spanish language become widespread there, Filipinos might not have learned English so well – well enough that many of them are able to find work as nurses, nannies and other positions in much of the Anglo-Saxon world, including Canada. Of interest, Puerto Rico, another former Spanish colony that was eventually ceded to the United States, never adopted English widely even as a second language, as surveys on bilingualism among Puerto Ricans have shown. On the negative side, some Filipinos feel somewhat disconnected from the –albeit limited – role Spain and its heritage have played in their country. There is a demand, for instance, to reinstate the Spanish language as a compulsory subject in Philippine schools and universities. In my opinion, this might not be a bad idea: while perhaps of lesser utility than English, Spanish is still a useful language to know.

So in the end, I’ll hand it to the ‘Stop claiming that you’re Spanish’ website author that most Filipinos do not have Spanish or other European ancestry. But to say that Spain had no influence, either genetic or cultural, on the Philippines does not give the full picture either.


Same-sex marriage in Ireland

I’m of (part) Irish descent, so I like to keep up-to-date with what is happening in the so-called old country. Last May, however, a piece of news out of Ireland grasped the attention of many people with no connection to that country whatsoever: the Irish public voted in a referendum to legalize same-sex marriage. ‘Gay Couples Awake to New Ireland,’ shouted The New York Times.

Part of the headline grabbing stemmed from the fact that Ireland was long considered one of the most socially conservative countries in Western Europe. It was one of the last nations in the world to legally permit divorce (in 1995) – interestingly, also after a referendum. Abortion still remains highly restricted. With regard specifically to same-sex relations, male homosexuality was a criminal offence in Ireland until 1993 (lesbianism in contrast was never illegal).

On the other hand, it is clear that Ireland has changed. For instance, in 2007 33% of babies in that country were born outside marriage – although a couple of studies suggest that these children are not born to mothers truly on their own but to women living in what are marriages in everything but name. Public support for same-sex marriage seems less surprising in light of these figures.

One perceived hindrance to the legalization of same-sex marriage in Ireland was the Roman Catholic Church, the religion to which most Irish adhere and which officially opposes gay marriage and homosexuality in general. However, many individual Catholics do not necessarily share the church hierarchy’s views on same-sex marriage. Polls in the United States have shown that Catholics are actually more likely than the general population to approve of marriage between two people of the same sex, at about the same level as mainline Protestants and at far higher levels than Christian fundamentalists. Even some Catholic priests in Ireland have voiced support for same-sex marriage. One priest in County Donegal explained why he would be voting ‘yes’ in the referendum in defiance of ecclesiastical doctrine. Finally, not all homophobia is religiously motivated: for example, male same-sex relations were punishable by jail time in the militantly atheistic Soviet Union.

Ireland’s ‘yes’ vote appears to be part of a trend toward the recognition of same-sex relationships throughout the Western world, whether in the form of actual marriage or civil unions, which even some people who feel marriage should be between a man and a woman can accept. Canada legalized marriages between members of the same sex in 2003. An effort to re-open the issue by the federal Conservative government in 2006 failed. Ireland now simply seems to be coming in line with the rest of the West.

As a person of Irish descent (and, for the record, a heterosexual), I lack strong feelings about same-sex marriage in Ireland or elsewhere, for that matter. I tend to be fairly skeptical of marriage as a whole, regardless of the gender of the people involved. Part of this may be due to my own parents’ highly dysfunctional marriage. My skepticism is further boosted by news reports, for instance, of a woman forced to pay alimony to her ex-husband ‘disabled’ by his alcoholism. On the other hand, if heterosexuals have the option of legally marrying, homosexual couples should be able to do so too, with all the rights and responsibilities that come with legal wedlock – such as having to pick up an alcoholic ex-spouse’s bar tabs. Speaking more seriously, I can understand why a gay or lesbian couple might want to have an official seal of approval on their relationship, especially if they have children. I wouldn’t begrudge any gays or lesbians the right to marry – not in spite but perhaps because of my own disinterest in the institution of matrimony.

To Irish gays and lesbians hoping to take advantage of their new right, choose wisely!


Vivien Leigh, Anglo-Indian?

Last December marked the 75th anniversary of the movie Gone with the Wind. The film, like the historical novel by Margaret Mitchell on which it was based, has generated a wide range of reactions over the years. A (White) teacher of mine in high school called Gone with the Wind the best movie ever made. On the other hand, my mother (also White) happened to chance upon the film as she was flicking through the channels on her TV and remarked to me, ‘It really was a racist movie,’ echoing a criticism often voiced against Gone with the Wind.

To be fair, Gone with the Wind was not The Birth of a Nation. Rather, ‘Negroes,’ the polite word by which Blacks were known then, were portrayed in the former film as good people as long as they knew their place, which happened to be slavery before the Civil War and serving in the O’Hara household afterwards. Even the bumbling slave girl Prissy (‘I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout birthin’ babies’) comes across as more or less benign; she, after all, isn’t clamouring for freedom or joining the Yankees.

It might come as a surprise, therefore, that Vivien Leigh, the actress who played the main character Scarlett O’Hara, may not have been purely ‘White’ as we understand the term. Although Leigh is generally described as British, she may actually have been part-Indian, from India.

Vivien Leigh was born Vivian Mary Hartley in Darjeeling, India, at a time when that country was under British rule. Her father was from Britain itself (Yorkshire), but her mother’s origins are more mysterious. Leigh’s maternal grandmother is believed to have been Irish; her Catholic religion seems to suggest this (statements that Vivien Leigh was half-French were in all probability fictitious, part of a ruse to make her further resemble the character she played in Gone with the Wind). Her maternal grandfather’s surname is given as Yackjee, which is thought to be an Indian name. Vivien Leigh may therefore have been an Anglo-Indian.

Who are the Anglo-Indians? Anglo-Indians are people of mixed Indian and European background who, as a group, arose during India’s days as a European colony. Anglo-Indians’ European ancestry generally hailed from England itself, but some Anglo-Indians had forbears from other European countries that ruled (parts of) India, such as Portugal and the Netherlands, while others descended from Europeans who came to India along with the English, like the Irish. Most first-generation Anglo-Indians were born to White fathers and South Asian mothers rather than the opposite combination. In time, however, Anglo-Indians became a community in their own right, marrying within their group and distinguishing themselves from the Indian majority around them in areas like language (usually English) and religion (Christianity, mainly Catholicism or Anglicanism).

In many ways, the Anglo-Indians resembled other mixed communities in Asia, such as mestizos in the Philippines, Indos in Indonesia, and Anglo-Burmese in what is now Myanmar. Like the Anglo-Indians, these groups were born mostly from unions of European men and Asian women. They too tended to adopt the language and culture of their paternal as opposed to maternal ancestors. However, because Europeans were never a large numerical presence in Asia, mixed White-Asian communities were always a small percentage of the population in the countries in which they lived. Hence they did not have much influence on these nations as a whole. This was quite a different situation from that of the mestizos of Latin America, who eventually became the majority of that region’s population and brought it into the Western fold (I discuss this in my previous essay ‘Race Mixing and Westernization in Latin America and the Philippines.’)
Anglo-Indians largely ceased to be a distinct community in India when that nation gained independence from Britain in the 1940s. Some historians theorize that being so much more European than South Asian in culture, Anglo-Indians felt they no longer had a place in a country that had broken off from the so-called motherland. Therefore, many Anglo-Indians left India, going to the United Kingdom itself or to Commonwealth countries like Australia and Canada. Some famous Anglo-Indians include comedian Russell Peters and singer Engelbert Humperdinck (not to be confused with the German composer of the opera Hansel and Gretel; the singer’s name was a pseudonym of George Dorsey).

Going back to Vivien Leigh, the idea that the woman who played Scarlett O’Hara may not have been 100% White puts her role in Gone with the Wind in a different perspective. I know that, contrary to the beliefs of left- and right-wing ideologues alike, different minority groups do not necessarily love each other. I also know that relations between Blacks and South Asians have not always been easy, whether in Uganda under Idi Amin, in places with large numbers of both groups like Guyana or Trinidad and Tobago, and even in industrialized countries such as Britain or Canada. It is not even that Vivien Leigh’s performance as the slave mistress who beats Prissy with a tree branch is less convincing. However, I do think it places my mother’s description of Gone with the Wind as racist (i.e., in this case White Supremacist) in another light.

Another question: if Vivien Leigh was actually of mixed race, did that help her career in terms of the roles she received? She portrayed characters of various ethnicities, from (French or part-French) Southern belles like Scarlett O’Hara and Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire to the title character in Anna Karenina (Russian) to Cleopatra (Egyptian of Greek origin) in Caesar and Cleopatra. Was Vivien Leigh perhaps a bit like Anthony Quinn (of Mexican and Irish descent), who managed to play a culturally diverse repertoire of characters? These are the many questions raised by Vivien Leigh, Anglo-Indian (?).



In November of 2014, Canada’s Immigration Minister Chris Alexander introduced the ‘Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act.’ The bill – the title of which appears to be a jab at Liberal leader Justin Trudeau’s condemnation of the ruling Conservatives’ description of the honour killing of women and girls in certain cultural communities as ‘barbaric’ in Canada’s citizenship guide – seeks to bar immigrants involved in polygamous and forced marriages from Canada. Temporary and permanent residents already in Canada found to engage in polygamy could be removed from the country. On announcing the legislation, Alexander said, ‘Canada will not tolerate any type of violence against women or girls in Canada.’

Like many observers, Chris Alexander evidently views polygamy as a wrong against women. This view is shared by Russian-American journalist Cathy Young. In an article explaining why Western women are better-off than those in less affluent countries (her definition of ‘West’ is a bit ambiguous; for example, she does not consider Latin America to be Western despite its language, religion and legal systems stemming from Europe), she takes aim at ‘Afrocentrists’ for ignoring anti-feminist practices like polygamy and female genital mutilation in Africa. The Muslim-majority country of Tunisia in North Africa has been hailed as ‘progressive’ for having outlawed plural marriages in the 1950s. Polygamy is seen as a mark of male supremacy and gender inequality. But does polygamy really benefit men at the expense of women or harm women to the advantage of men? Perhaps more importantly, if polygamy is found to be detrimental to women, should it be made (or, in nations that have never permitted it, kept) illegal?

It should first be noted that even in places where polygamy1 is legal, only a minority of men actually have more than one wife at a time. The cost of supporting more than one spouse in addition to any resulting offspring is generally beyond the reach of most men. It is also doubtful whether, even if polygamy were legalized in, say, the United States, many people would practise it other than some Mormons or immigrants from countries where it is allowed by law.
Some research does show that women in polygamous marriages suffer psychologically compared to their monogamously married peers. According to one study from Syria, for example, women who shared a husband with another woman were more likely to experience ‘depression, hostility, phobic anxiety, paranoid ideation and psychoticism,’ among other things. Nonetheless, one could argue that while marriage at the age of 19 is hardly a great idea – spouses in their teens have a dramatically higher divorce rate than those who marry in their 20s and beyond – for either men or women, it still is legal and will in all probability remain so.

Now to the crux of the matter: does polygamy really benefit men, as a whole, to the detriment of women? There are not, as far as I am aware, studies on the psychological well-being of men in plural marriages compared to their counterparts with one spouse. Even if, however, males in polygamous unions were found to be better-off, this would be primarily to the disadvantage not of women but of the men left without any wife at all. One exception would be in a time and/or place with a highly uneven sex ratio, with far more females than males. Interestingly, the few times polygamy was legalized – in both cases temporarily – in the West occurred once in Germany and another time in Paraguay following wars in which large numbers of men died in battle. One pro-polygamy Christian website claims that plural marriages would guarantee every woman a husband in the face of many men shunning marriage altogether. The ‘marriage-phobic male,’ though, seems to be a bit of a cliché: most actual surveys show men as likely as women to want to get married. Therefore, polygamy is unlikely to benefit men as a group beyond a select few.

The final question: should polygamy, or the admittance of polygamous immigrants, be allowed? I can’t say I have any absolutist opinions on the matter. Although I recognize the potential harms of polygamy to both women and men, I doubt permitting plural marriage would result in a rush of men clamouring to wed more than one wife. On the other hand, as the above-mentioned Cathy Young says in another essay, legalizing polygamy would change the nature of matrimony much more than, for instance, same-sex marriage. I’m inclined to answer ‘no’ to my final question. Yet I really can’t argue that on the grounds that polygamy would present a danger exclusively to women.

1. For the purpose of this essay, ‘polygamy’ will refer to ‘polygyny,’ the marriage of one man to more than one woman, not ‘polyandry,’ the (much rarer practice of) marriage of one woman to more than one man.


John Tory: Why he Won

If the saying ‘The only real poll is on Election Day’ was true of the re-election of Barack Obama in 2012 and the 2014 Ontario provincial elections, John Tory’s victory in the recent Toronto mayoral race could sport the motto, ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try again.’ John Howard Tory had earlier run for mayor of Toronto in 2003 but was defeated by David Miller. Four years later, as leader of Ontario’s Progressive Conservative Party, Tory attempted to become premier of that province but lost to incumbent Dalton McGuinty. Finally Tory’s ship came in: he was elected mayor of Canada’s most powerful city on October 27, 2014.
Now perhaps the question is why Tory triumphed. First, we might do well to examine why his two main rivals Olivia Chow and Doug Ford lost. Ironically, in the beginning Chow, widow of federal NDP leader Jack Layton and a former Member of federal Parliament herself, was ahead in the polls. Her popularity gradually dropped, though, to the point where in the actual elections, she received a mere 23% of the vote. From the start, many people claimed Chow would ‘tax [them] to death.’ It was her idea of collecting an extra 1% on the land transfer tax from home sales of over $2 million to fund school nutrition programs, however, that struck fear in the hearts of even those who could not possibly afford a house of that price. With regard to Doug Ford, even though until the end there was always a slight possibility – judging by the polls – that he might emerge victorious, he was unable to shake off the tarnish of the ‘Ford era’ left by his brother Mayor Rob Ford, who resigned from the mayoral race on being diagnosed with cancer after a four-year term marked by scandals and international ridicule.

What was most remarkable about John Tory’s campaign was that despite his past as a leader of the Conservative Party, he received endorsements from a number of capital-l Liberals. They included Ontario Member of Provincial Parliament Mitzie Hunter, federal MP Arnold Chan, and others. Tory also enjoyed support from many so-called ‘ethnics’ in Toronto, such as Hunter, who is Black, and her colleague in provincial cabinet Michael Chan (relationship to Arnold Chan uncertain – the last name ‘Chan’ among Chinese is like ‘Smith’ among Anglo-Saxons). The local Toronto paper the Caribbean Camera, which speaks for people from the Caribbean of all races (Blacks but Chinese and East Indians as well), went a step further and recommended in an editorial that readers vote for John Tory. Tory got a more cautious but definitive endorsement from the Italian-Canadian daily Corriere Canadese. The Corriere described him as the best person for the job on hand. Although some said it was in ethnic minorities’ self-interest to vote for Olivia Chow, her low percentage at the polls suggested members of the city’s cultural communities felt differently. (Perhaps in addition the ‘ethnics’ did not like being told they didn’t ‘know what’s good for them.’)

I also believe that John Tory’s moderate conservatism appealed to a considerable number of Torontonians. He has been called ‘socially liberal, fiscally conservative.’ It’s a label sometimes scoffed at by self-described progressives. For example, in an article about Tory in the Toronto Star, feminist leader Judy Rebick questioned whether one could be liberal solely from a social angle when ‘most inequality is due to the conservative restructuring of the economy.’ Toronto voters, like the ‘ethnics,’ seemed to think otherwise, however. In other words, they might appreciate a mayor who will march in the Gay Pride Parade, which Mayor Rob Ford always found an excuse not to do, but who won’t raise taxes arbitrarily. Interestingly, one of the people who expressed happiness at Tory’s victory was Ontario (Liberal) Premier Kathleen Wynne, an open lesbian.

Personally, I did not vote in these elections. There was no one candidate I could say I really ‘believed in’ enough to support. If I had been forced to vote, though, I most likely would have chosen John Tory. His low-key conservatism would have appealed to me. That is why, as I’ve mentioned in some of my other articles, I’ve generally veered between the Liberals and Conservatives at the ballot box. Like the writer in the Italian-Canadian paper, I believe Tory is the right person for the job. Let us hope he does well in his new role.


What’s in a name: The case of Bill de Blasio

My father is Italian, and from time to time, I read papers from Italy. In July, one of the main dailies featured a picture of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio with his wife and two children Chiara and Dante on a visit to his ancestral home in Southern Italy, the town of Grassano a few hours from Naples.

Seeing him looking so at home in his surroundings, it was hard to believe that Bill de Blasio once bore the name of Warren Wilhelm. Born to a German-American father and mother of Italian descent, in 1983 he had his named changed to Warren de Blasio-Wilhelm. He eventually dropped both the ‘Warren’ and the ‘Wilhelm’ in 2002 and just became known as Bill de Blasio.

Personally, I find the metamorphosis of Bill de Blasio from Warren Wilhelm to a man who names his son Dante far more fascinating than his wife Chirlane McCray’s transformation from an ‘out’ lesbian to a heterosexually married woman (I’d be much more intrigued by a gay man who ‘straightened up’ and wed a member of the opposite sex). One reason for Bill de Blasio’s rejection of the Wilhelm surname may lie in his uneasy relationship with his father. Warren Wilhelm Sr., a World War II veteran, was apparently traumatized by his experiences on the battlefield and became an alcoholic (later committing suicide). His heavy drinking led to the break-up of his marriage when young Warren was only seven. After his parents’ divorce, Warren Junior lived with his mother and spent much more time with her side of the family than with his father’s.

Given the devastation that alcoholism can wreak on a family, Warren/Bill’s desire to distance himself from his father is not difficult to understand. The fact that he had more to do with his Italian than German relatives might also have led him to identify with his mother’s rather than father’s ethnicity. Political expediency can’t be ruled out either as an explanation for choosing the name de Blasio over Wilhelm. Although there are many people of German origin in the United States, Italian Americans are a far greater political force than German Americans are, especially in New York City. For example, on winning the elections, he tweeted ‘Grazie [“thank you” in Italian] New York,’ not ‘Danke New York.’

A third possible reason for the New York City Mayor’s name change may be the reality that in the Anglo-Saxon world, Italian names have always had a more glamorous aura than other ‘ethnic’ appellations. A look at Hollywood confirms this. For example, legendary Latin lover Rudolph Valentino was ‘allowed’ to keep his last name (with a minor change in the final syllable: his original surname was ‘Valentina’). On the other hand, the Jewish Bernard Schwartz – whose last name derived from a German word meaning ‘black’ – became Tony Curtis. While the New York City political landscape may be a far cry from the pomp and circumstance of Hollywood, a touch of glamour would probably not have hurt Bill de Blasio’s career either.

A final word on de Blasio’s ‘other’ transformation: from Warren to Bill. In the end, he may not have completely disavowed his Teutonic heritage. Bill, or William, his childhood nickname, is of course the English equivalent of the German ‘Wilhelm,’ which may be either a first or a last name in Germany. But I think Bill de Blasio would prefer to be remembered as the fourth mayor of Italian descent in New York City.


Ontario Liberal Victory

The old saying that the only real poll is on Election Day was never more true than in the Ontario provincial elections of June 12, 2014. The Liberal Party emerged victorious with a majority government. The results were not a complete surprise, as polls taken before the elections suggested that either the Liberals or Conservatives would win, albeit with a minority government. However, in the end the Liberals got 58 seats, the Conservatives 28, and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP) 21.

I personally voted Liberal in this election, as I did in the two previous ones at the provincial level. My general voting pattern is Liberal for the province, Conservative for the country as a whole, although there have been some exceptions and although I did not vote at all in the last two federal elections. As well, I chose the Liberals partly because I liked the representative in my area, Member of Provincial Parliament Dr. Eric Hoskins. He is a physician and, together with his wife (also a doctor), founded an organization to help children in war zones.

This is not to say I had no reservations about the Liberals. The gas plant cancellations in the cities of Oakville and Mississauga, for example, which cost Ontario taxpayers millions of dollars, remain a thorn in the Liberals’ side, in my view, and it would be a relief to see the problem addressed once and for all.

Nonetheless, most Ontarians, like me, appeared to have concluded that the Liberals were the best choice in the existing circumstances or, at worst, the least of three or more evils (the three being the Liberals, Conservatives and NDP and the others being minor parties like the Greens and Libertarians). For one, neither NDP leader Andrea Horwath nor Conservative head Tim Hudak managed to convince voters to back them in great numbers. Even traditional Conservative supporters seemed puzzled by the mathematical logistics of Hudak’s plan to create a million jobs while at the same time cutting 100,000 civil service positions. In a similar vein, Andrea Horwath baffled many when she failed to endorse the Liberals’ latest budget, which had been described as the Liberals’ most ‘socialist,’ and thus NDP-friendly, budget in a long time. She was also accused of alienating some NDP stalwarts by embracing what many saw as a right-wing agenda.

One thing that did not become a matter of great concern during the election was Premier Kathleen Wynne’s sexuality. Wynne is a lesbian, in a relationship with another woman. The fact that Wynne’s lesbianism never emerged as a hot issue may be a testament to Canadians’ – and Ontarians’ in particular – openness; it might also be due to the reality that, in an apparent reversal of the usual sexual double standard, lesbians have been subject to less persecution than gay men. For instance, in some countries, male homosexuality is a criminal offence while sexual relations between women are not. (This of course does not mean that lesbians have not or do not experience discrimination.)

One Toronto Spanish-language newspaper said that Wynne’s election will bring ‘four years of stable government.’ Let us hope so and hope that Ontario’s most pressing issues will be resolved.


Jim Flaherty

On April 10, 2014, Canada’s former finance minister Jim Flaherty died. His death was in some ways not particularly surprising. He was 64, which is perhaps not old but not young either, and he was suffering from a chronic skin condition, even though he had said that the disease was not life-threatening and that it did not play any role in his resignation as minister a month earlier. My suspicion is that Flaherty had more serious health problems that he was willing to let on and that he preferred to keep his private life private.

Jim Flaherty’s legacy as federal finance minister both in the Stephen Harper government and previously at the Ontario provincial level under Premiers Mike Harris and, later, Ernie Eves was controversial. As Ontario Finance Minister, Flaherty raised hackles when he said that it should be illegal for people to sleep on the streets and that those who did should be directed either to a shelter, hospital, crisis intervention centre, or, if the individual were deemed to have engaged in illegal conduct, prison. Advocates for the homeless and even socially conservative (but in some respects politically liberal) columnist Michael Coren pounced on Flaherty, accusing him of ‘wanting to jail the homeless.’ My own take is that homelessness is a complex problem with no ‘one size fits all’ solution and that any solution to the issue has to take into account the high rate of mental illness among people living on the streets. I am not sure that sending constables to force the homeless off the streets, as Flaherty suggested, is a realistic solution – but perhaps nor is the idea among some liberals of building a ‘tent city’ for them.

Flaherty’s approach to other social issues similarly gave rise to many debates. For example, in the early 2000s when he was in the Conservative provincial government, Flaherty declared himself to be pro-life, or anti-abortion. He ran afoul of the pro-life movement later as federal finance minister, though, when he was perceived as being too ‘gay-friendly’ after hiring an openly gay chief of staff, Derek Vanstone, and praising Conservative strategist Jaime Watt, who had won an award from a gay rights organization. (I have to admit to a certain perplexity at much of the pro-life movement’s obsession with homosexuality: being non-procreative, homosexual intercourse obviously doesn’t contribute to any abortions.) It is not that Flaherty was particularly pro-gay: in 2006, for instance, he voted in support of a motion to reopen the national debate on same-sex marriage, a bill that, if it had passed, would have put the future of gay marriage in danger. Yet his supposed ‘gay-friendliness’ and, in 2012, vote against a bill by Tory backbencher Stephen Woodworth to re-examine the question of when life began (under Canadian law now, at birth) basically alienated him from the organized anti-abortion movement.

Jim Flaherty’s most memorable performance had to do not with abortion or homelessness but with the Canadian economy. Flaherty was credited in large part for getting Canada through the recession relatively unscathed – or at least less unscathed than many other countries. Nonetheless, many of his financial moves came under criticism. Journalist Thomas Walkom in the left-wing Toronto Star said that by condoning funding cuts to the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation), Jim Flaherty was ‘part of a government determined to smash or cripple much of what makes Canada a liveable country.’ On the other hand, disability rights advocates, who are generally seen as part of a ‘progressive’ cause, lauded Flaherty – one of whose children is disabled – for his financial measures in favour of people with disabilities and efforts to include them in mainstream society.

Jim Flaherty was perhaps a Conservative at the crossroads – a Conservative who must decide whether to be fiscally but not necessarily socially conservative or whether to embrace social conservatism as well. This appears to have been a dilemma not only for Flaherty but for the entire Conservative Party and even Prime Minister Stephen Harper as well. I think Flaherty ultimately chose the former course (to be fiscally but not socially conservative) and, for the most part, succeeded at it.


What is a Creole?

“Creole” is one of those words that like “humanist,” “secular” and “liberal” can mean anything and everything depending on where, when and by whom they are spoken.  For those with culinary inclinations, it brings up images of catfish, gumbo and jambalaya.  Students of history might recognize the word’s roots in the Spanish “criollo,” the name used to designate persons of unmixed European descent born in the New World.  But “creole” has another definition, according to Webster’s dictionary: “a language based on two or more languages that serves as the native language of its speakers.”

Americans may have heard the term “Creole” to describe the language spoken by Haitian immigrants.  (For the purpose of this essay, “Creole” in reference to a specific language will be capitalized; for a creole in general it will not.)  Those who have studied French may discern some French words, or derivatives of French words, in Creole.  This is hardly surprising; after all, Haiti was a colony of France and French is still its official language.  Creole also has an African component, as most Haitians descend from slaves brought there from Africa to work on plantations.  Haiti is not the only part of the world, though, whose inhabitants speak a creole as their mother tongue.

We might first address the question of how creoles originate.  Creoles tend to emerge in areas where people of different linguistic backgrounds interact without having a language in common.  Such places include slave or other agricultural plantations, military garrisons, and trading posts.  These people use their mother tongue to communicate with their family and countrymen, but with others they employ what is called a pidgin.  According to author Jared Diamond in the book The Third Chimpanzee, pidgins are primitive languages that consist largely of nouns, verbs and adjectives with few or no articles, auxiliary verbs, conjunctions or prepositions and no consistent grammar.  However, the next generation, that is the children of pidgin speakers, goes a step further and develops a creole.  Like a pidgin, a creole is made up of two or more linguistic components: a “superstrate,” which is usually based on the language of the colonizers (such as French in Haiti and English in most former British colonies of the Caribbean), and a substrate, in general a native or slave language or languages.  A creole is more advanced than a pidgin, having a more extensive vocabulary, a consistent grammar as well as the ability to express anything a regular language can, which a pidgin cannot.  Creoles are nonetheless somewhat deficient in comparison to regular languages in that they lack things like verbal conjugations and plural forms of nouns (then again, those who have struggled with the Herculean task of conjugating Latin verbs might jump at the chance to study a less complex system).

As mentioned before, creoles have sprung up in many parts of the globe.  The Caribbean and several islands off Africa whose populations descend from slaves are prime examples.  In such cases, Africans of many different nationalities, plus their European masters, were thrown together and forced to come up with a language in which to communicate.  The people of São Tomé e Principe and Cape Verde in the Atlantic speak a Portuguese-based creole, while those of Réunion and the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean use one derived from French.  A Spanish creole called Chabacano developed in Zamboanga, the Philippines, around a military installation manned by Filipinos of various ethnicities,* Spaniards, and Native Americans and mestizos from the New World.  A language called Cristão or Kristang (both corruptions of the word “Christian”) is spoken by a small community in the Malaysian city of Malacca.  A legacy of Portugal’s rule in Malaysia, Kristang boasts a mainly Portuguese vocabulary but a grammar based on Malay.

Beyond the Caribbean, the New World has been relatively creole-deficient despite the coming together of different peoples there.  A creole by the name of Palenquero did emerge in San Basilio in Northern Colombia, where it is still used by descendants of African slaves.  Some scholars believe that San Basilio’s isolation from mainstream Colombian society led to the development of Palenquero.  In most other parts of Latin America, however, the process of Westernization was so thorough that other than small minorities of unmixed Indians nearly everyone speaks standard Spanish or, in Brazil, Portuguese.

The United States also witnessed the emergence of a few creoles.  One example is Gullah on the South Sea Islands off the Atlantic coast.  An English-based language with African elements, Gullah is spoken by descendants of Black slaves on the Islands and was featured in the film Daughters of the Dust.  Louisiana and some of the neighbouring Southern states are home to a French creole developed by African slaves there.  Across the Pacific Ocean in Hawaii, children of plantation workers from places as diverse as Puerto Rico, Japan, China, the Philippines and Portugal as well as Native Hawaiians formed an English-based creole that is still used by some people born in the early 1900s.

Despite the wide range of areas in which creoles sprung up, they have many features in common. Most lack verbal conjugations, put the auxiliary verb before the main one (“have worked” rather than “worked have”), and use the subject-verb-object order.  As the first generation of creole speakers essentially invented the grammar from scratch yet managed to come up with similar grammars across time and place, some linguists, like Noam Chomsky and Derek Bickerton, speculate that the human brain may be “hardwired” for a certain grammar. Jared Diamond theorizes in addition that perhaps the difficulty young children face in learning the proper word order for asking questions (“Do you like John?” as opposed to “You like John?”) stems from the fact that the former sentence goes against a pre-programmed creole-like subject-verb-object order.

Finally, what is the future of creoles?  That of creoles used by the majority of a population (such as in Haiti or Cape Verde) seems secure.  Others’ future is more uncertain, especially when surrounded by speakers of other languages.  For example, a Portuguese creole in Portugal’s former colony of Damão and Diu in India is near extinction.  Likewise, Palenquero is now mainly spoken by older people and is losing ground to Spanish.  However, whether dead or alive, creoles have much to teach us about language, history and the relationships between different peoples.

* Remember that many native languages are spoken in the Philippines; Tagalog is the official one but not the mother tongue of all Filipinos.

Further Research