Does anyone care if the culture of Quebec dies?

This from the New York Times….

As cultural coordinator for a resource center for new Quebecers, Gabriel Garcia is leading an effort to bridge the gap between the growing number of immigrants here and the mostly French-speaking society into which they have moved.

But one issue is proving to be a bridge too far for the province’s first-generation immigrant population: the long struggle for independence. “I realize it is important for many,” said Mr. Garcia, who mainly works with people from Central and South America, voicing a sentiment shared by almost all the recent immigrants. “But for me, sovereignty is not my primary passion.”

The number of immigrants entering Quebec each year has nearly doubled since the last referendum on independence in 1995 failed by a razor-thin margin, and immigrants now represent more than 10 percent of the electorate.

That rapidly expanding demographic consists of people who have no historical stake in the traditional French-English divide. The evolving society is one of many challenges facing the political vehicle of the separatist movement, the Parti Québécois, after the resignation on May 8 of the party’s leader, André Boisclair.

Mr. Boisclair, 41, became increasingly unpopular during his 18 months at the party’s helm, especially after elections in March when the Parti Québécois finished in third place, its worst showing in more than 30 years.

Although French-speaking Quebecers continue to form a clear majority of the population, the growing number of immigrants, along with a greatly reduced birthrate, point to a shift that is forcing political parties, separatist and federalist, to rethink their political foundations.

I bring this up for two reasons. One is simply to point out that demographic change is very real and it is happening before our eyes. One would think that I would not have to make this point but a surprising number of otherwise sensible people seem to be in denial about this.

For example, yesterday I was involved in a discussion about the fertility trap over at the Alpha.Source. During that discussion one commentator said (speaking about demographic effects)…

I think this is hocus pocus, given the uncertainty. It’s like studying macroeconomics during the next ice age: meaningless.

This is common reaction when anyone starts talking about the economic effects of changing demographics. Most people deny that demographic data has any relevance. After all, it is all about the future and nobody knows what the future will bring.

But as the New York Times article on Québec shows, that is just not true. Demographics are changing the way we live right now. More to the point, even those demographic concerns about what will happen in the future are based on demographic changes that have already happened. As CV of Alpha.Source said in response to comment above….

I think this is hocus pocus, given the uncertainty.’

I am not sure what kind of uncertainty you are talking about here. One thing which we know will happen during the next 10-20 years is rapid ageing in key societies on earth. Basically, Germany, Italy and Japan are at the forefront of this but even France will age rapidly since she too has been through a transition from about replacement levels in the 1970s to about 1.4 in the mid 1990s.

The reason we can talk so confidently of the rapid ageing of certain societies is that the demographic change has already occurred. It just has not worked itself out yet. True, massive immigration might prevent a change the age structure. But as Québec shows, immigration still changes the demographics and that change has consequences. Massive change is coming to Europe and most Asian countries no matter what.

But a lot of people just don’t want to face that. The skeptical commentator on the Alpha.Source blog was not calling into question some overly precise forecast of the future. Rather he was challenging the very idea that change was coming. As he said later in his comment….

But before your dire scenarios come to pass, methinks some folks would be willing to support the hard work of (working) motherhood with some effective policies.

Let us assume that he (at least I assume that the anonymous commentator is a he) is right and all you need to do to raise birth rates is to support working mothers with governmental help. Let us say that Japan implements all the right polices to bring that about tomorrow at 12 noon. How will this affect Japan’s coming aging?

In the short term, it won’t. Children born tomorrow will be going to college when Japan starts to rapidly age. If anything, that will make the problem worse. You will have an increase in the non-working elderly and you will have a bunch more kids to support. All this will strain society even more in the short term than if it only had to deal with the increase in elderly.

The unavoidable truth is that if you let your replacement rate fall too far below 2.1 for more then a couple of years, then you are going to have to pay a serious cultural price at some point to dig yourself out of the hole. As a society, you are either going to have support a massive burden of non-working young kids and health-failing older people until you can straighten out your demographic profile, or you are going to have to let in large amounts of immigrants. But immigrants impose their own cost, especially on a nation like Japan that defines itself on an ethnic basis.

No matter what, a birth rate below 2.1 will result in a dramatic change a nation’s culture. The only uncertainty is will this happen from a massive inflow of outsiders or just from the societal breakdown caused by unsustainable demographics.

Should we care?

Who is going to miss Québec? In 60 years from now, the French speaking culture of Québec will just be a curiosity. It will fail to have any real influence on the way that the province is run. Yet I can’t say that I really care.

You would think that the people of Quebec would care. After all, the separatist cause was all about culture. The separatists proudly proclaimed that their cause was all about preserving the special culture of Quebec. And they almost convinced a majority of the people of Quebec to vote to leave Canada in 1995 even though the rest of Canada was subsidizing Quebec. But the people of Quebec could not be bothered to have kids so the separatist.

This is what separates me from most conservatives today. I don’t really care about immigration. Every developed society today needs immigration just to keep its population from falling. Even America would be below replacement rate without immigration.

Speaking as someone who lives in America, I find it difficult to get all worked up over the fear that immigrants are going to destroy this nation’s culture when current birth rates would destroy our culture even in the absence of immigrants.

To be blunt, immigrants don’t destroy a culture, birth/death rates do. And birth/death rates are just a reflection of the flaws inherent in a culture.
And what are the flaws in this culture that keep the birth rates low? I think it is summed up quite nicely in this post of the Economist’s Free Exchange blog….

Perhaps the most interesting point was made by Will Wilkinson of Cato, who guest-blogged here a few weeks ago. He gave the response to Mr Barber’s talk, and theorised that on the veldt, we developed strong collective preferences in order to enforce the solidary necessary for survival. Those preferences were “thick” — binding, and enforceable by those around you. The farther we get from those small communities, both demographically and economically, the more we are free to develop our own preferences. Those preferences are “thin”–less strongly reinforced–but they are in some sense authentically ours in the way that “thick” preferences never can be.

Mr Wilkinson gave a strong brief in favour of thin preferences. I think this is the right approach to answering Mr Barber, in that it concedes that something has been lost in moving away from tight communities with binding norms. There was something unique and joyful about that kind of community. My grandfather died surrounded by friends and family, bathed in a network of social relations impossible to replicate in this day of economic, social, and geographic mobility.

The correct response is not to deny this, but to note that much has also been gained. Those small communities were brutal to many of their members. The outliers in taste, intelligence, or almost any other metric except beauty and charm, could be brutally punished for their deviance. People worked harder at their friendships, because ties gone wrong in a small town are hard to bear; but they had to work harder at their friendships, because they were less likely to be compatible. And of course, cultures that prize compliance also have great difficulty with change.

What the Free Exchange is trying to put a nice spin on the fact that to be a modern person is to be selfish. A modern person feels no obligation towards others and imagines that this is a virtue. If your neighbor is sick, it is the government’s problem, not yours. Becoming authentically ourselves is considered the only valid goal worth pursuing. There is nothing that transcends ourselves to which we must owe allegiance. We are our own demigods.

But though we imagine ourselves to be demigods, we nonetheless need a solid base of support to face life’s travails. In past history, this base of support was supplied by a closely knit network of family and friends. But where does a modern person get this base of support?

The answer is obviously the government. It is the government that we rely on to take care of us when we get sick. It is the government that we rely on to take care of us when we get old. It is the government that we rely on to educate us and provide us with work.

It is true that the government’s care for us provides us with freedom from the demands of a tightly woven social community, but I question whether we truly wind up with any more true freedom. Is it really better to have bureaucrats regulating our behavior through the force of law as opposed to a social community regulating our behavior through peer pressure? In any case, shucking off the social ties that used to bind has a real economic cost even if you think that price was worth paying.

I would also question Free Exchange’s claim that replacing a communal life with the government enables us to better deal with change. It has yet to be proven that bureaucracies can respond to change better than a traditional society. Most traditional societies manage to last for generations yet the welfare state is scarcely a generation old and already demographics call into question its survival. Besides, America was built by people who had to face great change in order to come here. Yet for the first 150+ years they managed quite fine with a traditional cultural.

What kind of culture is there to preserve in a welfare state? If all social benefits come from the government, why should one expect immigrants to integrate into the surrounding culture? If all social benefits come from the government, why should immigrants value the culture in the country that they come to? If there are no obligations that transcend our own selfish desires, why should immigrants adopt our values?

What about modern culture is worth saving?

6 Responses to “Does anyone care if the culture of Quebec dies?”

  1. Hi,

    thanks for reference and the comments over at Alpha.Sources. Like I said, you raise some interesting points. Of course demography matters, the trick is to gauge how much and essentially how much in comparison to culture, institutions, etc.

    Incidentally, I spent five months in Montréal last summer/autumn and it strikes me as odd that native fertility rates are so low given the fact that they are very conscious about their cultural heritage. There does not of course need to be any correlation and perhaps one should even expect the cultural values to be even more under focus as the realities become clear in Québec.

    I loved my stay in Québec and also got to travel around in the province. It would be sad if this distinct culture withered away.

  2. Great post…I think you have hit the nail on the head in pointing out that in a society the elimination of the social norm to have children puts a society on a slippery slope towards extinction. I hadn’t thought about Quebec in a long time, but the data you present seem to indicate that Quebec will provide a textbook example for future demographers and sociologists.

    I think that the low fertility rate in Quebec reflects that province’s closer ties to continental Europe than the rest of Canada as a whole, which translates into different attitudes about child-bearing among native Quebecois than among Anglo Canadians.

    I have a hunch as well that in spite of the separatists’ efforts, the easy availability of English-language media, particularly from the USA (and the dominance of US popular culture as far as music, movies and television go) has made significant inroads into the loyalty of young Quebecois raised in French-speaking homes to the French language and culture.

    So I suspect that young citizens of Quebec just don’t care about maintaining their Frenchness. If so, why should anyone else care?

    Also, any society that defines itself in terms of ethnicity rather than a political system is likely to fail sooner than societies that do the reverse. One prime reason for the success and longevity of the Roman Republic/Empire was that its social systems allowed for the easy assimilation of conquered territories and allowed new residents to become full citizens.

  3. Ape Man says:

    Thanks for your comments.

    I think that Mr. Peterson is on the right track when he says any society that defines itself in terms of ethnicity rather than a political system is likely to fail sooner than societies that do the reverse.

    But I don’t know that I would emphasize the political as opposed to the ethnic. I would say rather that a cultural needs a reason for being other then skin color and the spoken langue. One thinks of the Amish, who have survived as a culture with their own language in spite of the fact that they faced persecution and they are a minority in an alien (to say the least) culture.

    If you have a reason for being, you can survive a lot.

  4. […] _uacct = “UA-1202685-1”; urchinTracker(); Map of the Ethereal Land The Ethereal Voice Front Page – Politics – Money – Knowledge – Art – Food – Fun Masthead About Songs of Community By Ape Man | June 22, 2007 – 8:49 pm Posted in Category: Front Page, Art I know, I know, I owe a post on one of the three subjects that I said I wanted to blog about. And I will have a post on The Economist article on demographics up today or tomorrow (per Mr. Vistesen’s request I decided to do that one first). But Andrew Cusack linked to three u-tube clips that I want to link to on my own site with my own commentary. Normally I post videos over at The Ethereal Voice. But one of the u-tube clips that Cussack posted has direct relevance to a post I recently wrote on Quebec’s demographics and they are all loosely tied together so I thought I would share them here as well as at the Voice. This is a clip of the song ‘Dégénération’, by Mes Aïeux (in Québécois French, with English subtitles). According to Cusack this song is wildly popular in Quebec right now. Its relevance to my recent post on Quebec should be obvious and hopefully I don’t need to elaborate on the song for those that have read my post. But one thing I would like to note is the continued references to government jobs in the song. This is no accident. The Government commands an extremely large percentage of GDP in Quebec and it is about the only place to get “good jobs” in Quebec these days. This next clip is ‘Roots’, by Show of Hands (an English Folk group). It is an angry lament over Britain’s lost culture. The song obviously has something in common with ‘Dégénération’ and musically I actually enjoyed it more. But the primary reason that I am posting this is that I found it interesting how similar the complaint was in these two songs written by people in two different cultures. There seems to be a common despair in the face of modern culture. It is common for people to dismiss the sentiments expressed in these songs as misguided longing for a golden age that never was. I disagree. There never was such a thing as a golden age. That I will admit. But modern culture has lost something in the transition to the modern era. We have more material things, but we are losing our social fabric. I don’t see how anyone can deny that people are not as rooted in their communities as they once were. In fact, the very concept of a community is disappearing. To be a modern person is to be a rootless person. You are not tied to your brothers, cousins, or neighbors. You are free, but you are also rootless. For some, like the blogger over at Free Exchange, this is a price worth paying. But for others, like Mes Aieux and Show of Hands, this is something to be lamented. Needless to say, I have more sympathy for the likes of Mes Aieux and Show of Hands then I do for Free Exchange’s view point. But like all things human, a longing for community and the struggle to maintain it can be an ugly thing. That is what Cusack’s clip of the ‘De La Rey’, by Bok van Blerk (in Afrikaans, with English subtitles) reminds me of. Now this song skillfully plays on the sadness of what happened to the Boer woman and children and the braveness of the Boer fighters. Yet I can’t help but remember all the peoples that that the Boers destroyed and all the African villages that the Boers burnt to the ground. It is fitting that the song makes references to the Africans waiting for them to be destroyed. And I think that it is fitting that such great devotees of the Old Testament as the Boers should receive an Old Testament punishment for their crimes (and eye for an eye…). For me, the Boers are a prime example of how a people can deify their sense of community. The Boers had this conception of themselves as a holy people chosen by God which meant that they saw no difference between their desires as a community and the desires of God. For them, the two were one and the same. Like the deification of anything else human, this lead to horrible things. There is no restraint on a society that considers its desires the desires of God. The Boers are not alone in that failing, and I don’t mean to single them out. It is just that the song ‘De La Rey’ calls to my mind the dangers of venerating your own community and the messianic desires that often accompany that veneration. But in remembering this danger, we should not forget that man cannot live by bread alone. A society based solely on economic transactions will soon cease to exist. The question is: what is the proper way to fill this human need for community without creating some kind of pagan nationalistic god? […]

  5. […] This is a clip of the song ‘Dégénération’, by Mes Aïeux (in Québécois French, with English subtitles). According to Cusack this song is wildly popular in Quebec right now. Its relevance to my recent post on Quebec should be obvious and hopefully I don’t need to elaborate on the song for those that have read my post. But one thing I would like to note is the continued references to government jobs in the song. This is no accident. The Government commands an extremely large percentage of GDP in Quebec and it is about the only place to get “good jobs” in Quebec these days. […]

  6. […] For previous posts on this topic read Songs of Community and Does anyone care if the culture of Quebec dies? […]

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