Taking the ‘-stan’ out of ‘Albertastan’

“It was like a morgue,” MacKay said of the atmosphere at caucus. “Someone said it was like, ‘It’s Albertastan now.”

Above is the quote that Canada’s Justice Minister, Peter MacKay, said, earlier this week. He was commenting on the success of the NDP (New Democratic Party) in Alberta’s provincial election.

Alberta is Canada’s Texas: oil and steers, and throw in a good measure of wheat to boot. Alberta is hot in the summer, and frigid in the winter. The provincial breed are a hardy bunch, as such, and very friendly and hospitable. The only bull crap that Albertan take is the kind used to grow vegetables. And, for the past forty-four years, the province has been decidedly conservative.

The Progressive Conservatives have, however, stepped in a deep pile of manure, and the NDP’s success is a measure of just how deep that pile of PC dung was. Between misspending, arrogance, and the proverbial flipping of the bird to Albertans, the very people who loyally voted in the Conservatives, year after year, the Conservatives were served a healthy slab of humble pie and sent packing with their tails between their legs: they aren’t even the official opposition.

This defeat is akin to that of the federal Liberals in 2011, and equally surprising.

My brother called this morning, ranting about the indignity of MacKay’s comment, in which MacKay insulted Alberta by calling the province “Albertastan.” My brother was virtually livid that the federal Justice Minister had the nerve to insult the people of Alberta in this way, that the comment was an affront to the democratic process, and how could MacKay have called the people of Alberta, ‘terrorists’.

Albertastan, Peter MacKay

Being an occasional fact-checker, I looked up the quote to see the extent of MacKay’s insult.

Firstly,  just as it is my brother’s democratic right to feel insulted (albeit incorrectly) about MacKay’s comment, it still is MacKay’s democratic right to make the comment. You might not agree with someone’s perspective and, unless they are actively propagating hate, that person has the right to free speech (see my two bits on free speech here).

Secondly, MacKay did not call Alberta, “Albertastan.” As the quote at the top notes, MacKay had said that someone in the federal Conservative caucus had referred to Alberta as “Albertastan.” Certainly making a comment of this nature to a journalist is on the ignorant side, as such comments should be kept in the privacy of the caucus and amongst friends (unless you are former Toronto mayor, Rob Ford, in which case, even your friends will tape your conversations, apparently). This comment, made by some anonymous member of the caucus, was second-sourced by MacKay.

The reason why should not make these kinds of comments in public is for the very reason that these kinds of comments are so easily misconstrued and taken out of context. The social media crowd latched on to this comments, whipped it up through the Twitter feeds, and came out with the conclusion that MacKay was calling all Albertans ‘terrorists.” This misconception is where context comes in.

Stans at a glanceAdding ‘-stan’ to a proper noun, typically means that the proper noun (place, typically) is a poor, Communist backwater. This context obviously stems from the Cold War, during which many of the countries ending in ‘-stan’ were (pseudo-) countries under Soviet rule and were (and still are) incredibly poor: think Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan (have most people even heard of these places?) etc…And, of course, amongst others, Afghanistan.

How is Afghanistan currently perceived? Most people today associate Afghanistan with terrorism. Many people even conflate the conflict in Afghanistan, the Taliban, and ISIS/ISIL in Syria/Iraq. It’s all kind of the same place and angry people, after all.

As such, the context of what a ‘-stan’ is, has changed. For a particular demographic, the socially media-savvy demographic, and I am referring to the under-40’s, the Generation X and younger, a ‘-stan’ has a terrorism context, because of Afghanistan, not a Cold War context any longer. Many people wise in the ways of social media weren’t even born to know what the Cold War was, except perhaps as a war between GE and LG for a corner of the refrigerator market, or Bud versus Coors spat for which brew was better on a hot summer’s day (for an interesting slice of demographics, scroll down to the Twitter stats on the Pew Research Center’s website).

MacKay’s context, I would hazard a guess, was of the Cold War variety, not of the terrorist variety.

The NDP are a left-leaning, socialist political party, which many (older) people equate to communism, perhaps as a leftover from the McCarthy era in the 1950’s when all things socialist were viewed with deep suspicion. I will also reiterate here that MacKay did not call Alberta ‘Albertastan’ but was echoing something that someone else had said.

However, the Twitter crowd has now jumped on the bandwagon of distributing misinformation (in the form of the misquote) and have taken that poorly chosen word, “Albertastan,” out of context, or, rather, shown that ‘-stan’ now has a new context. Also, given that the under-40 demographic has a hate-on for the federal Conservatives, and that the under-40’s are the dominant users of social media, it’s no wonder that this gaffe has people (the under-40’s, like my brother) frothing at the moment, misinformation and all.

Ultimately, the error is MacKay’s in that he should be more careful of what he publicly says, and definitely more social media savvy. I don’t believe for a minute that he was accusing Albertans of being terrorists.

Equating the quote to terrorism smacks of a new variation of Godwin’s Law (the moment someone brings up Hitler and/or the Nazis, then an argument is made moot). I think we’re headed in the same direction with terrorism: the moment someone starts to grotesquely hyperbolize and make unfounded parallels to terrorism, their argument is moot, which is exactly the point at where this social media maelstrom about Albertastan is.

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