What is happening in Catalonia?

The Spanish novelist Eduardo Mendoza has won many literary prices, including the Franz Kafka Prize, in 2015, and the Premio Cervantes, in 2016. Recently, he published a short essay entitled Que está pasando en Catalunya (What is happening in Catalonia).

Like many others, he wants to understand what is happening in the Spanish region of Catalonia, especially, as he notes, because of the “ignorance” and “prejudices” that affect many people’s images of Catalonia and Spain.

It is a mistake to reduce the Catalan nationalist and separatist movement solely to origins in the Spanish Civil War, Mendoza says. Franco’s dictatorial regime is gone. Since the late 1970s, Spain has undergone a difficult, but also impressive, democratic transition. Many of those today who refer to “Franco’s ghost” never lived under his regime; if they had, they would probably be more cautious when using terms such as “Francoism,” “fascism,” and “dictatorships” so carelessly. At the very least, they would be cautious out of respect for all those who suffered and died during that time.

It is true, however, that Catalonia, like the rest of Spain, suffered during the Franco years. Furthermore, the Catalans suffered with respect to their language, and many Catalans wanted to separate themselves from Franco (as did many other Spaniards). “No one doubts the antipathy of the Franco regime towards the Catalan language,” Mendoza writes. And yet, not all Catalans were against Franco. He continues, “we should forget that a good part of the young (and not so young) Catalans volunteered for the Falangist movement.”

The idea of Catalonia revolting against Spain is wrong, because this assumption is based on the naïve generalization of claiming that all Spanish or Catalan people are identical. Spain, as a country, suffered under Franco, just as some Catalans followed Franco freely.

Luckily – and I say this ironically – for the contemporary Catalan separatist, “the habit of adapting history to fit contemporary conviction is a distinctive Catalan identity,” Mendoza says.

Anyone with a little knowledge of what has happened in Catalonia will know that facts are treated with creative elegance that places the separatist within the post-truth, alternative facts, or fake news era. Illustratively, Mendoza draws a comparison between France and Catalonia. While France had a glorious past, one to which we can look for compassion, the Catalans never had one. Thus, “to hide what they considered shameful, the imagination and artistic talent of Catalans has been dedicated to inventing a past that the society would have loved to have.”

Perhaps the best way to illustrate the complexity of the separatist lie is by referring to Sartre’s concept of “bad faith,” a way of using freedom to deny ourselves the freedom we actually have. This is a strategic way in which some Catalans take away their own responsibility to choose by saying that they have no choice. As a consequence, the independence movement has created a culture of victimization where it is easier to blame Spain than to take responsibility for themselves. For example, blaming the centralization of power in Madrid. Interestingly, Mendoza writes, “if there is place where you can speak about savagely centralism it’s in Catalonia. Barcelona has always scorned the second ranked cities …”

Mendoza describes the Catalans as shy and a group whose thinking is not used to getting very far. “They are practical thinkers, but theory and abstraction bores them.” Perhaps, for this reason, some seem to speak of democracy and freedom that, at most, resembles Orwell’s Newspeak. As Mendoza has written elsewhere, if you can freely demonstrate in the street and participate in the Spanish government, then there is, indeed, democracy. However, if you do not wish to accept that democracy is a long and tiring process, then you simply need to organize an illegal election insisting that it is legal.

To begin with, “the participation of Catalans in the Spanish government was encouraged … during the years after the transition.” Unfortunately, with Jordi Pujol, who served as President of the Catalan Generalitat (i.e. the Catalan government) from 1980 to 2003, a systematic plan towards independence was in place: it was found in schools, the media (Mendoza mentions how the Catalan media outlets TV3 and Catalunya Radio moved from being neutral to “separatist organs”), the local government, and via less involvement in the Spanish government. All activities were aimed at creating a Spanish enemy by altering facts. Then came the financial crisis in 2008, which – as is many other places such as in Madrid, Athens, Lisbon – hit the younger generations, and created a healthy and global anticapitalistic movement that, unfortunately, quickly turned into a nationalistic protectionism.

Using his trademark easy-going style, Mendoza writes that, regardless of the mythical stories that Spain and Madrid is stealing, ”you live better in Barcelona than in Madrid.” The morale is: Life is hard, for all, not just the Catalans.

Towards the end of Mendoza’s pedagogical essay, he concludes that there is “no practice which can justify the desire for independence from Spain,” before adding, “Spain is not a bad country. It could be better.” This is true, but so can Denmark, where I am from, and all other countries. Democracy is, after all, a dynamic process.

Mendoza succeeds in killing a few myths, but whether these efforts are enough to make people less ignorant, only time will tell. Nevertheless, it is good to see that more and more Spanish and Catalan intellectuals are participating in uncovering the political theater, where politicians (most notably Puigdemont & co) play with the Catalan people’s emotions by selling certain beliefs, irrespectively whether these beliefs are true or false.

So, when Mendoza writes that there is “no practice which can justify the desire for independence from Spain,” then he emphasizes that the emotions and beliefs behind the separatist are unreasonable and unjustified, despite how some Catalans feel. Therefore, it is healthy, as Mendoza says, to question our ideas, to explain things to each other, and to eliminate prejudice, ignorance, and incomprehension.

Mendoza shows that sometimes thinking is painful. For example, Puigdemont & co use “freedom” and “democracy” as tranquilizing slogans, yet if we pay attention, it’s obvious that their use refer to a superficial understanding (if not simply a nationalistic misunderstanding). At most these slogans are sleeping pills that hinders an open and honest examination of a challenging conflict, an examination that requires empathy and compassion. Elsewhere, I ‘ve argued that compassion is needed in Catalonia, not as something artificial, but as something that arises naturally in complex and tense situations.

A difficult road lies ahead – for all parties.

 

Catalonia: For the love of thinking

“And don’t say anything. Think of your children,” a woman close to me said.

The woman was not the first and probably will not be the last to tell me not to participate in the debate about what takes place in Spain and Catalonia.

I have lived in Catalonia for almost a decade, my children go to school here, and I love the Catalan and Spanish people here and the mixture and humor they create due to the small differences between them. Yet, I miss critical thinking. I miss that you don’t have to defend yourself constantly, I miss a world where things are not always either black or white, I miss breathing and thinking without all these limitations caused by rigid identity markers.

Let me be very clear: I am against all kinds of police violence, I think that the Spanish president Rajoy is incompetent to the level where I am tempted to call him stupid. But I am not in favor of a Catalan nation, I am not an independentista. And this is where the problem begins. Because if I am not for it, then I must be a fascist, or in favor of state brutality, etc. But I am not.

This very simple exercise is difficult for many to grasp.

The Catalan schools and especially the media have played a very unfortunate role in the creation of a Catalan narrowmindedness. The output of the Catalan state-owned television channel TV3 resembles state propaganda. In order words, what is unfortunately very difficult to find in this region is reflection, self-critique, or even self-irony.

Let me recap once again, I don’t want to be labeled a fascist.

I am for a legitimate referendum. I think that Rajoy should resign and I hope he will. I have always been against monarchy (also in Denmark), so seeing the king speak to the Catalans almost turned me into an independentista: the king was embarrassing for all thinking human beings. And, just to stress once again, I hate violence. Instead I am for compassion, understanding, and love. These are the remedies for thinking, for democracy. I see that there is a lot of unity in Catalonia and Spain, but unfortunately there are also militant and hateful forces – on both sides. Some people in Catalonia were happy that the police showed a violent side, whereas for many it was humanity that was losing; some people in Madrid hope that the Catalan president will remain stubborn so they can put him in prison.

Still, I ask myself, is it my responsibility to participate? I am just a tourist from Denmark, who happens to live here. I think it is. I think it is almost all people’s obligation to participate. I have no hidden agenda. On the contrary, I have listened to the independentistas’ arguments for nine years. The arguments are emotive and touching in their historical references, but they also rely on stereotypes and are often unjust (e.g. the civil war was not “Barcelona versus Madrid” but was in fact Spain being at war with itself; Madrid was the last city to fall for Franco’s regime. Or the claim that Catalonia today is oppressed or even colonized, I believe the living standard in Barcelona is quite high and liberal). At worst, however, the arguments are nationalistic, protectionist, and capitalistic, three things I can’t see anything positive in. And yet, it’s the hate that affects me most. I do not doubt that there are Spanish people who hate Catalans, just as I have witnessed many Catalans who hate everything related to Spain. Luckily, these are two extremes, because every day I also see and meet caring people who see themselves as both Catalan and Spanish. Unfortunately, many of these are silent because of a mental or even moral pressure that implies everything independent is good. I am, like many here, a feminist, an ecologist, and a cosmopolitan, yet I am still not an independentista.

The debate culture, if it exists at all, is claustrophobic. I have spoken with school teachers who are against independence but who say to me “don’t tell anyone, I might lose my job.” I have spoken with people who feel like putting the Spanish flag up on their balcony, but are afraid of being thrown out of their apartments. I have spoken with several people who just tell me to shut up.

I don’t believe that I know the truth; rather, in a very pragmatic way, I think that we gradually become wiser by sharing and debating openly and honestly. The crucial element is that all should be free to speak, and should not be afraid, should not feel “forced” to vote, as some people have told me they felt.

So, yes, there is something rotten in Spain, but there is also something rotten in Catalonia. It’s a utopian island located in an ocean that doesn’t exist, a seductive dream. But as the philosopher Gilles Deleuze once emphasized, the real utopia is “now-here”. Start acting, living, thinking with love, por favor.

I write this love-letter because I love more than a handful of pure-blooded Catalans and a few Spanish people, and I see that there is much more bringing them together than separating them. I am tired of the propaganda, tired that neither the arguments nor the premises or logic behind them are debated, tired of being wrong simply for not being in favor of independence. George Orwell could not write his Homage to Catalonia today, but would find much inspiration for a new edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

So, let me now step down in the hope that Rajoy and Puigdemont will do so as well. No more rigidity, no more violence. There is so much love in Spain. People don’t come here for the sun, but for the alegria, the pure joy of life.

Should the majority of people – not just 40% – wish to develop a new state, then I will follow, gladly, and my gift to the new state would be free courses in critical thinking. Something that has apparently never been taught in Catalan schools before.

One World Now

In One World Now: The Ethics of Globalization, Peter Singer, an Australian moral philosopher, discusses humanity’s shared ethical responsibility and sovereignty. We live in a global world that—unlike the older term “internationalization” conveys—emphasizes that we are moving; that is, “moving beyond the era of growing ties between states,” he says.

Within his text, Singer addresses a central question: is the nation state loosing sovereignty? Perhaps. Should it? Yes, according to Singer. And he makes a strong case for overcoming it. Whether or not the nation state is losing its sovereignty is a difficult question to answer.

On the one side, there is a growing nationalism, not only in the United States where president Trump claims that “America is for Americans only” (regardless of who the term “Americans” refers to), but in other countries as well. In Europe, for example, the Catalan fight for independence in Spain is fueled by nationalism combined with a strong desire to have an influence on the monetary resources of the region. Countries such as France, Austria, and the Netherlands are also flirting with nationalistic principles—perhaps it’s a universal trend, other countries could be added to the list.

On the other side, in spite of this expanding sentiment, there is also a growing countermovement, perhaps the most imminent in the U.S. This countermovement would probably have a lot of sympathy for Singer’s project.

In One World, Singer looks closely at the relationship between states and the world through different lenses, including atmospheric, economic, legal, and communal perspectives. For instance, he observes that an organization such as the World Trade Organization could minimize a state’s power and sovereign control. In other words, state sovereignty can be reduced (and accepted by most) through reasonable global organs. In addition, Singer advocates for a universal law when it comes to crime and terror. Most importantly, however, Singer speaks about how people and nations will have to abdicate their sovereignty when it comes to environmental concerns.

Singer’s thesis is based on the fact that we live in one world. The phrase “one world” stands “as a description of the increasing interconnectedness of life on this planet and as a prescription of what the basic unit for our ethical thinking should be.” His logic, therefore, is that one world needs one world government that can overcome each nation’s self-interest and that “we need a sound global system of criminal justice.”

I agree completely with the fact that everything is interconnected, whereas I am not completely convinced that a world government is the solution to overcome our current problems.

For those who are familiar with Singer’s philosophy, it becomes clear that his ethical advice is based on the principles of utilitarianism. This theory requires that we all act in a way that maximizes the happiness of all human beings (who are all sentient creatures). He stresses the importance of this by referring to an UN report that says, “In the global village, someone else’s poverty very soon becomes one’s own problem: of lack of markets for one’s products, illegal immigration, pollution, contagious disease, insecurity, fanaticism, terrorism.” This quote illustrates the strength of Singer. He refers to many different—I am tempted to say “universal”—sources in order to make his argument stronger.

Singer’s utilitarian approach in One World is founded on both political and economic theories (though perhaps more so on the former). He aims for democratic solutions, emphasizing that, once we realize we are in this together, the more we will willingly share and uphold common values. This assumption is true. Still, it seems like the author of One World believes that many people do not understand our fundamental interconnectedness. I agree with him again. This lack of understanding our interconnectedness is one of the hurdles that Singer tries to overcome, for example, with the aforementioned UN report quote. However, if the UN report quote is read critical, it may teeters on the delicate balance between altruism and egoism. Utilizing the motivation of the latter may seem cruel, but the bottom-line of utilitarianism is that “I” should care for the happiness of all, because their unhappiness affects “me.” Hereby a classical dilemma is touched upon—one that also exists in corporate social responsibility; for example, if a company acts morally due to monetary self-interest, is it then truly good?

A utilitarian would regard such a situation based on the consequences, not the motive of the decision-makers.

Thus, despite my appreciation of the good intentions of Singer’s humanistic philosophy, I long for a deeper, existential understanding of the human being who, not only is morally responsible for the well-being of others, but is also responsible to pursue personal freedom and happiness. For example, Simone de Beauvoir argued that ethical freedom comes from resisting what represses one’s freedom. In theory it could be global institutions. Similar to Beauvoir, Simone Weil addressed the problems with universal right and laws that are—at times—contrary to one’s personal obligations. For example, when universal norms and ideals carry the inherent risk that each one of us may lose contact with one another. Or, we might forget or ignore that what is happening is also our own responsibility, not just the decision-makers.

Let me reframe my concern in another way. Twenty years ago, Michael Jackson wrote a beautiful song to benefit the starving people of Africa, titled We Are the World. Today we can still sing along. Not much has changed. This paradox is perfectly illustrated in the life of Bill Gates, who generously donates many of his millions, yet, at the same time, grows wealthier and wealthier. Living morally by donating money becomes another kind of investment; the show goes on and on and on. We need to change the way we think. Singer is probably right to spend so much time in One World convincing his readers that everything is interconnected. However, even after reading Singer’s book, we are left with ethical dilemmas.

Let me be even clearer. According to Gilles Deleuze, our style of thinking is related to our ethic—how we affirm certain things as we encounter them. But since no ethical issue can have privilege over another (for example, human starvation in Africa versus human suffering caused by an earthquake in Afghanistan), we have to cultivate our awareness of what takes place, how and why it takes places. What we affirm—according to Deleuze—are the differences between ethical issues, we explore and test; rather than counting “heads” to see which intervention will make the most people happy. Relying on a principle minimizes our capacity to think and to be affected by an ethical issue. For example, does our intervention depend on whether the problem is humanly manufactured, a natural disaster, or caused by political or financial factors, etc.? Utilitarianism may help us make decisions, but predicting an outcome is often difficult. For example, who would had known that the car today is not just a mean of transportation, but also a place where individuals can be alone and listen to music or an audio book? In other words, the car is for many a stress free zone, and, as most of us know, stress cost the society a lot of money. Furthermore, car users may pollute the environment (bad for all of us), but they may also be able to get home faster to their children (good for the family, but also good for the caring investment in future citizens, that is, the society).

In continuation, a person who donates 2 euros out of every 10 he or she earns is not morally better than another individual who donates only 1 euro or none at all. The issue is not related to redistribution, but to the idea of ownership, the economy, and economical freedom, which actually touch on Singer’s foundational belief that everything is interconnected, but from a different angle. The reason why some people have much give financially is because there is an imbalance to begin with. In other words, the ethical problem sticks deeper. This principle can also be viewed through the lens of Aristotle’s distinction between moral excellence and strength of will. I believe that monetary donation may display strength of will, but moral excellence can be seen in the one who never asks for more than what is necessary.

I am skeptical, yet positive towards Singer. I do recommend his book for decision-makers, but also for students of philosophy, political science, and business administration. One World is a wonderful resource to instigate constructive debates, and it is full of ideas of how to enact social change. Despite my reservations, the book’s mantra, that we—all of us—are in this together, is a message that I believe is worth sharing.

First published in Metapsychology, Volume 21, Issue 8

See also the review of Peter Singer’s The Most Good You Can Do.

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