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December 8, 2017

The Catalan Chronicles: Something doesn’t seem quite right

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It is tempting to say that the central government had fallen for a trap when it ordered members of the law enforcement to get involved.  It’s tempting, oh, so very tempting.  By doing so it would have at least taken some of the sting out of the blunder on that fateful Sunday,  October 1, but the truth of the matter was that this was a totally avoidable situation and it probably had more to do with the fact the government thought it could pull it off than anything else.   A bit of arrogance, if I dare say.  Why did they think that?  I really have no idea.

 

First, let’s get a few facts straight.  Let it be known that, as a rule, security forces in Spain are very restrained, honorable and dutiful professionals who are respectful of citizens’ rights, helpful and perform their jobs very well.   They had been calm and collected throughout the weeks leading up to the referendum and kept their poise in a land where they know they aren’t loved.

 

On that day, though, things got out of hand.  Quite a bit so.  Maybe they were following orders; maybe the nerves got the best of them in some cases; but there were casualties.  Just how many is hard to say, but it wasn’t a handful.  The Catalan government registered initially somewhere in the neigborhood of 900 individuals requiring medical attention as a result of police charges.  These were hardly flattering numbers for a force that was supposed to keep law and order in a highly tense situation.  But were they all caused by the police charges?  The next day, the Catalan government was forced to clarify that the number they had given the day before referred to all the patients and not necessarily those hurt in the riots.

 

But the damage was done and the separatists had a field day.  The ANC tweeted that not since World War II had the streets of a European city seen so many wounded.  The ANC is an association that promotes Catalan culture, but it doubles as a propaganda machine for the independence movement.  It is known to do so without the slightest scruples regarding accuracy.  It has also proven itself in the past to have a rather liberal interpretation of history.  For example, according to its seminars on Catalan history, it turns out that Christopher Columbus, Amerigo Vespucci, and Cervantes were actually born in Catalonia.  Why? Because they say so.  By the way, they also discovered America fifteen years before the rest of Spain. Why? Because they say so.

 

It doesn’t stop there.  In the 16th Century it was the world’s supreme super power, with strength so great it can only be compared to the United States in the second half of the 20th Century.  And, let’s see, the entire apparatus of the Roman Empire owes its success almost exclusively to the Catalan cities of the time.  We would all get a good laugh out of this if it weren’t for the fact that so many people who attended these courses believe it.  It’s also called indoctrination.  Or just plain lying.

 

None of my bitching, of course, should take away from the fact that there were instances where the police adopted an attitude that many would consider abusive.  Including me.  This is not anything I read about.  I watched it with my own eyes as officers bushwhacked their way through crowds with uncommon zeal, dragged elderly women away and fired rubber balls into crowds.  What was wrong with that? Don’t law enforcement officials have to take drastic measures from time to time? Well, maybe. In fact, one of the most graphic images sent around the planet that day, one of a man with a bloody face, actually came from a demostration five years earlier, and the culprits then were the regional police, the mossos d’esquadra.  So desperate were some to depict the Spanish police and its alleged brutality that they resorted to fake news.

 

So, yes, there were times when these things happened.  But this was not one of those times.  The majority of the protesters were serious about their cause but they were generally everyday citizens practicing passive resistance.  That day the police should have been there to ease tensions, not rile them.

 

The use of the police was not just short-sighted, it was just plain dumb. After all, what had they hoped to achieve? Stop the referendum.  Despite the effort, 2.5 million Catalans still deposited their vote in the ballot box. So we could chalk that up as an utter failure.  And I don’t know where to start about Spain’s public relations image.  Someone up top had forgotten that in today’s society anyone who has a smart phone, in other words everyone, is a potential graphic reporter, each with a twitter account cocked and loaded and ready for action.  The international community looked on with dismay.  Even the United Nations considered investigating to see if their were human rights violations.  How embarrassing is that?

 

There was so little to gain, and so much to be lost.  And for a while there, it seemed as if Spain had lost everything.

 

While it appeared as if the independence backers were basking in the attention they were getting, they made some mistakes too.  The errors wouldn’t become immediately evident to many, but they would be costly down the road. What were they?

 

1) To begin with, 45 minutes before the polling stations were opened, the government of Catalonia announced that, given the situation, voters no longer had to go to their own assigned location but could now vote anywhere.  This may have seemed like a cunning trick to undermine Spain’s efforts, but it was a poorly thought out decision. By doing so, they effectively began to delegitimize their own referendum, as no foreign observer in their right mind was going to vouch for such a chaotic situation.  There were videos of the same person voting at different stations on the same day.  Cameras filmed people stuffing unattended ballot boxes in the streets.  There were towns with 200 residents registering over a 1,000 votes in favor.  These all but confirmed suspicions.

 

2) They also decided to use translucent but not transparent ballot boxes, as was customary, once again raising concerns about the validity and transparency of the vote and posterior count.

 

3) That evening, with just 43% participation (and 39% in favor of indepedence), Carles Puigdemont announced he had enough support to recommend that the Catalan parliament initiate the process of independence, in accordance to the law they had passed weeks before.  This statement made the international community consider two points: first of all, Puigdemont needed a refresher course in what constitutes a majority; and more seriously, it became clear to some that all the talk about democracy was just a pile of manure.  The feeling was the separatists had intended to go ahead with the declaring independence no matter what the results were.  The referendum wasn’t proof, it was an excuse.

 

And finally, one nagging point started to surface.  One that I believe even Puigdemont and company had become too blind to see.  These were democratically elected officials, sworn to uphold the institutions of not just their region but those of the country as a whole, who had sidestepped the law, ignored supreme court rulings, walked all over the rights of the majority of its constituents, and were now overtly encouraging civil disobedience, while at the same time constantly changing the rules of the game so that they work in their favor.  And all in the name of liberty and justice for all.  You get the feeling they thought they had it in the bag.  That the rest of the world was going overlook all that and leap to their defence to save them from the bad old Spanish Inquisition.  But not everyone was taking the bait.

 

As a friend of mine put it.  “I want to believe these guys, but something just doesn’t seem right.”

 

 

 

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The Catalan Chronicles: Who had that brilliant idea?

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Back in February, 1981, as I was whiling away my youth watching reruns of the Odd Couple, during a special session of the Spanish parliament in which Leopoldo Calvo Sotelo was expected to be sworn in as interim prime minister, a colonel from Spain’s paramilitary force, the once feared Guardia Civil, literally marched into the chamber and ordered everyone to hit the deck.  When the members of parliament, in their stupor, were slow to react, he fired several shots into the ceiling to speed things up.  It worked.

 

Amidst the growing concern that Spain’s young democracy was spiraling out of control (a belief brought about, in part, by the increasing demands for independence by nationalist groups in Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia), the Spanish political right, spearheaded by old Francoists and some of the armed forces, reverted to doing what it liked to do when it felt its country’s values and traditions were at risk: it tried to overthrow a legitimate government by means of force.  I figure they thought it had worked for them in 1936, so why not give it another go.

 

It boggles the mind to think that, at a time when virginy Lady Di was preparing for her future wedding with Prince Charles, there was actually a Western European country that found itself embroiled in something you’d think only happened in certain developing nations.  But, as they say here, Spain is different.  This event was the Kennedy-assassination moment for Spaniards.  The 9/11 for more recent generations.  Everyone who was aware back then can recall just exactly where they were when it happened.  Since the voting was being broadcast live on TV, much of that “everyone” was sitting in their living rooms watching in horror.  Tanks were rolling through the streets of Valencia.  Gunshots had been fired. There was real fear that Spain would be thrown into another civil war.

 

The coup attempt did not last long, thank God, since it was a failure. King Juan Carlos I, in his finest hour for sure as head of state, ordered the insurgents to obey him as their commander-in-chief and give themselves up. The constitution was the only way to go. Democracy was saved. Morevover, much of the expected support for the uprising had failed to materialize anyway, so after twenty-four very tense hours, the crisis had come to end.

 

Now, none of these scenarios were really being shuffled on October 1, but their effects on the memories of the Spanish, in addition to the years of Franco oppression, were long-lasting.  And let’s not forget that Rajoy’s own party, the PP, had been founded by former member of the Generalisimo’s regime.  Let’s also get something straight.  The PP is not a far right, fascist party, as some would have the world think.  It would generally be considered center-right by today’s standards.  But its image is another matter.  And that made it very obvious that it had to tread very carefully when dealing with the Catalan situation.  Any show of force would be magnified manifold.

 

The Rajoy administration had guaranteed there would be no referendum.  It just wasn’t going to happen.  That may be fine and dandy, but just how it planned on preventing people from heading out to the polls was the million euro question.  Especially in today’s high tech world, where just about nothing is preventable.  But that doesn’t mean they didn’t try.

 

The authorities chased down all attempts to set up a vote, some more effective than others, but overall, the end result was that the world was witnessing a government try to keep its own people from holding a democratic process.  Oops. That didn’t look good.  And no matter how hard the government tried to get the message out that it was merely defending the constitution, that’s not how it looked.  Lincoln was doing the same in 1861, but with a noticeable difference.  The South was trying to defend its right to self-determination based on its belief it could continue with legalized human bondage…and that was a hard sell for the international community, even back then.

 

On top of that, the national government simply did not possess the means or manpower to see its plan through.  Anything short of a military occupation was going to be insufficient, and that was not an option.  Part of this problem of understaffing was due to the fact that the Catalan regional police force, the mossos d’esquadra, could not be relied on as their allegiance was under serious question.  Ensuing events would prove these suspicions right.

 

And there was one more downside to the government’s verve to shut down the vote: rather predictably, it only produced an even greater desire to challenge authority.  It’s pretty basic psychology.

 

Anyway, October 1 came, and I whipped up some pancakes, made myself some good coffee and sat down in front of the TV to watch Spain fall apart before my very eyes.  It was a dark and rainy morning, but by eight o’clock, there were mile-long queues lining up outside of schools around the region, formed by thousands of Catalans willing to defy the government.

 

The law enforcement personnel went into action by trying to break through human barriers, many formed by families of the schools where the polls were, as well as other committed pro-independence supporters.  The results were predictable.  The police, all decked out in their imposing riot gear, took to trying to ram through the walls or just peel people away.  There was plenty of shoving, tugging and shouting.  On occasion, they employed their truncheons far too vigorously.

 

“So,” I thought to myself as I watch the story unfold before me, “who the hell came up with that brilliant idea?”

 

The phantoms of the past were running rampant through the streets of Barcelona.

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December 7, 2017

The Catalan Chronicles: The Guns of September

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The Catalan government gave everyone just about three weeks to ready themselves for the referendum, so within hours of the passing of the independence law, everyone dropped their plates of paella and raced to position themselves for the great clash.  I had just gotten back from Portugal and was trying to get a handle on just what the hell was going on.  I mean, this was Spain, for Christ’s sake…the independence movements were supposed to be talked about…not really acted upon.

 

Deep down, however, I knew this was a run-in which had been a long time in the coming.  I had students from the 1990s swearing on the Bible that Spain would not collapse into another Yugoslavia Reboot, but they didn’t know what I did.  They hadn’t seen the James Joyce ads in the Herald Tribune.  They hadn’t detected the tunnel being dug beneath the castle walls.  The Spanish also failed, it seems, to understand that all those years of pacting with nationalist parties just to have control over parliament was going to land them with a hefty bill.  After decades of wrestling over issues, compromising, conceding and rescinding, bickering back and forth, it seemed, though, that this time there would be no negotiating.

 

Prime Minister Rajoy chose a route that was fairly clever, even for Rajoy, and on paper it made sense. He let the judicial branch dictate his policy for him.  All he had to do was execute the court orders. This meant that it wouldn’t be his conservative Popular Party depriving the Catalonians of their desire to vote.  He would be obeying a higher law known as the constitution.  No one could accuse him of acting unilaterally.

 

He also managed to get his party’s historic rivals, the Socialist Party, PSOE, and a young and good-looking center-right party, Ciudadanos, to join in alliance.  It was almost unprecendeted.  But then again, so was the situation in Spain’s young democracy.  The other major national party, the rehashed left wingers called Podemos, shied from the union. You see, its leader Pablo Iglesias hates Rajoy so much, that he just couldn’t bring himself to supporting the country’s head of state for the betterment of nation.  Iglesias was also within a whisker of overtaking the Socialist Party as the country’s main left wing force.  The implosion of his country seemed, puzzlingly, like the ideal moment to go for the winning touchdown.  Instead, he shot himself in the foot.

 

Iglesias was a proponent of the referendum, which is legitimate enough.    He just forgot that he was backing a group of politicians which had basically just flushed democracy and the law down the toilet, and wiped their butts with the constitution.  Iglesias also failed to recall that his own party represented much of the rest of Spain and not just Catalan interests.  So, when at a political rally, he stood over the podium in his characteristic haunch, raised his right fist and shouted “Visca Catalunya!”, or “Long live Catalonia!” in Catalan, it goes down as one of the most boneheaded acts in recent Spanish history. It’s not just me.  His own constituents made him aware of this screw-up, as support for his party fled like rats on a sinking ship.

 

Puigdemont and company were playing the “poor little us” routine, seeking international sympathy for their cause.  And they were adept at it.  Afterall, if you know nothing about the issue, as was the case for most people, you think to yourself, “Of course, they have that right to decide for themselves. Those bad old Spaniards!”  And for much of the 20th Century, they weren’t the nicest guys in town.  Forty years of ultra-conservative dictatorship under the Franco regime had made their mark.  That may seem like a long time to many, but consider this: one of the most heated debates in the United States this year had to do with what to do with the old Confederate Civil War statues that stood in many cities.  It’s a conflict that came to an end, at least on a military level, over 150 years ago.

 

Defending democracy and the right to hold a referendum was the separatists’ strongest argument, and the Spanish government’s weakest.  Ironically, defending democracy and the duty to uphold the constitution was one of the national government’s best points.  All the same, the separatists went for the jugular with their rhetoric.  They threw in “Franco” here and there, “fascism” when they could, and “oppression” quite often.  All the familiar ghosts from the past.

 

In the final couple of days leading up to the referendum, you got the feeling the Rajoy administration was doing everything in its power to ensure that the world had that very negative image of Spain.  It was persecuting councilmen, jailing leaders for sedition, threatening with taking legal action against mayors who disobeyed court orders, tracking down and confiscating ballots from warehouses, roping off professional printing centers, shutting down websites, demanding Google remove sites which provided information on polling districts.  At the same time, it was trying to pursuade the international community that the referendum meant nothing.  It sure didn’t look that way.

 

Then October 1 came.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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December 6, 2017

The Catalan Chronicles: If first you don’t succeed…

One of the bigger concerns of the many the Spanish government has about allowing a refrendum is that the people who are really passionate about holding one, i.e. those who want change, are inclined to never be satisfied with the results.  After all, status quoers are often relieved to see such radical proposals shot down and prefer to put everything behind them once the whole ordeal is over with.  And they usually get their way because, what the heck, most people don’t want to leave their comfort zones, so independence referendums tend to fail.

 

Consider the Scottish situation.  After an exemplary process and vote in 2014, the Scottish movement in favor of independence took a greater blow than expected, with little over 44% supporting an exit.  That’s a sizable margin by most standards, especially considering that 85% participated.   Essentially, the Scottish Nationalist Party was taken to the cleaners.  The events took place peacefully, and the both sides accepted the decision.  Yes, the losers accepted the decision, but they didn’t give up the fight.  Why? Because if your final goal is to live to see your land become a sovereign nation, anything short of that is going to be, well, unacceptable in the end.

 

Full victory, nothing else, as Ike would have said.

 

Ironically, pro-independence sky-rocketed in Scotland in the ensuing months, and ever since the Brexit vote to leave the EU, an outcome hardly anyone expected and one which the Scots strongly opposed, there has been a resurgance of talk about holding another referendum because the UK’s departure was not in the plans for Scotland when they voted to stay.  There may a shred of logic to their reasoning, but let’s face it, just about any excuse is good enough to call for another plebiscite.

 

Spain’s main government is caught in this dilemma.  Till this day, its biggest strategy is to basically ignore the notion altogether.  You can’t do it, and that’s that.  The constitution backs them up, and so do Spaniards who like Real Madrid and stabbing heavily wounded bulls, but it’s shakey ground for many.  In the 2014 consultation, their line of argument was that the election was totally illegal and, therefore, not valid.  If you give it no consideration, you avoid granting it any legitimacy.  Then it proceeded to press charges against Artur Mas for disobeying court orders.  This was an understandable stance because, afterall, he was.  The man was holding public office and was in theory bound to uphold the law.  You’d think, at least.   Still, the Rajoy administration’s disdain for Catalonia’s desire “just to have that one chance to vote” began to work against it.

 

New regional elections in 2015 scrambled the political scenario once again.  I dare not venture into trying to give you a rundown on the alphabet soup of parties that vied for control, mainly because they have changed over and over again in the past fifteen years.  Plus, many are alliances of smaller parties which, after the elections, join other alliances to run the show.  This system often makes it possible for coalitions to be formed through political pacts, but it can also get messy when differemces over policy arise and mistrust simmers.  All the same, the pro-independence parties loss the popular vote by two points but carried the majority in parliamentary seats.  They named Carles Puidgemont, a shaggy haired official who looked like he came straight out of a British boarding school, who announced that before his tenure was up, Catalonia would be an independent nation. That’s a pretty tall order.

 

Madrid and Barcelona wrestled over the issue well into 2017. In June, Puigdemont announced that a referendum would be held on Oct. 1st, and the political stage was ablaze that summer.  Even so, most people I knew thought nothing would come of it.  They thought because that is what many Spaniards have believed for decades.  It just won’t happen.  Well, sorry.  On September 6th, the Catalan parliament voted in a new law that said they could.  The opposition walked out in protest before the vote took place.  In their opinion, 52% of the voters were been pushed aside.  The secessionists didn’t care.  They were going to steamroll their agenda over protocol to the very end, no matter what the rest said.

 

Full victory, nothing less.

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December 5, 2017

The Catalan Chronicles: The R Word

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One of the emotionally charged issues regarding the Catalonian independence movement is the famous referendum, or R word, as I call it, because it’s probably the debate that irritates both ends more than any.  It’s the event that has contributed to both sides ramming head on into each other.  It’s also where you have to deal with the most absurd argument of this argument and probably the most childish behavior.

 

First of all, let me make it clear that I have always been in favor of a referendum for a couple of reasons, not the least being that people should and do have a right to decide what they want to be.  A chance to determine their own future, so to speak.  Especially if enough of them want it to happen.  It’s as universal a right as you can get.  I also feel that not allowing a referendum has been one of the Spanish government’s weakest links in its defence of unity. It makes it look inflexible and authoritarian (not a good thing as we still live in the wave of the Franco era), foolishly democratically unfriendly, especially when comparisons are made with Scotland and Quebec (though I’d like to see Vermont try to hold a referendum and see what the federal government would say), and finally, it was just a plain marketing blunder on their part.  You can say what you want about the Catalans, but they always have to referendum on their side.

 

In my humble opinion, Spain had a golden opportunity a few years ago.  They could have allowed a referendum, assisted in its process and handling, ensured it was done correctly and, barring some catastrophe, won by a sizable margin, because, let’s face it, the numbers weren’t there for the secessionists. Not by a long shot.  And then the Spanish government could have always shown the world, “hey, they had their chance.”  But that’s neither here nor there.  They didn’t.  Why?

 

1. First of all, because the constitution does not contemplate this eventuality.  Once you’re in, you’re in for good. Honest Abe Lincoln certainly would have seconded that, and the Spanish government certainly does too.

 

2. There is nagging worry that if the central government allowed the separatist Catalans to have a stab at self-determination, they would in some ways being granting legitimacy to their cause, which in many ways would undermine the previously mentioned belief that independence is not an option.  So why let them vote on it?  There is some logic to this argument, which is a rarity in this story.

 

3.  Even if they did allow a plebiscite to take place and a predictable NO vote against independence was to take the day, chances are the separatists would fight on.  In other words, the referendum would only be valid when the desired result was finally obtained.  That sort of makes sense because independence supporters have a record of behaving in such a way.

 

4. They argue that over the past forty years, Catalonia has held plenty of regional elections which in their own way give the Catalans a right to express their feelings.

 

5. They didn’t feel like it.

 

Some hardcore Spaniards advocate a referendum but insist that all of Spain have a say in the matter, which is utter balderdash, as the results would be a foregone conclusion and the real subjects involved would be totally overlooked.  A mental masturbation by ultra-conservative unionists envisions the rest of the country voting to actually oust the region from Spain.  Now wouldn’t that be funny.  Catalonia would probably stay in if only to defy the will of Spain!!!

 

Regardless, whether the central government liked it or not, time finally came for a referendum.  The year was 2014, and the president of the region, Artur Mas, had decided that Catalonia needed to decide its own future, for a whole bunch of reasons.  These included growing frustration with the way the goverment was handling the economic recession, and another had to do with the Constitutional Court, at the behest of the PP, repealed or retouched 13 articles from the newly signed agreement from 2006. This supposedly infuriated the Catalans, though the remaining 215 articles were apparently left alone.

 

As usual, the national government opposed the idea, the national parliament rejected it by a landslide and the courts outright banned it? But the Catalans went ahead with it anyway, passing laws that made their aims possible and thus sidestepping protocol.  There has been a consistency with this.  If playing by the rules doesn’t get you what you want…just change the rules.  The vote was no longer a referendum but rather a legally vague term known as a Consulta.  This sort of semantic fooling around has run rampant on both ends.

 

Mas also made a few astute adjustments regarding just who could vote.  Three new groups were added: legal residents from foreign countries, minors who were 16 and 17, and just about any voter from abroad who ever spent a day in Catalonia.  There were unquestionable benefits to their inclusion.  The foreigners living in Catalonia would be less likely to feel allegiance to Spain as a whole and prone to identifying with the interests of the region; the teenagers were from a generation of Catalan youth heavily influenced by years of schooling where anti-Spain sentiment was widespread; and clearly anyone who wanted to send a message from abroad, it was apt to be the kind of individual who adopted a kind of nostalgia for the motherland or fatherland or homeland, what have you. Few examiners have picked up on these details, but I can assure you, they were important.

 

The vote took place in many schools and was financed in part with public money, even though it had been declared illegal.  It was held on November 9, and this time the police didn’t decide to bash heads, thank God.  The day transpired without an incident.  To date, it was as close to a true plebiscite on self-determination as they have ever come.

 

The next day, the Generalitat (Catalonia’s government) announced that a whopping 81% had voted in favor of independence.  It was an overwhelming majority.  A landslide.   Mas jumped all over the results and claimed it was a rousing success, which of course, it wasn’t.  Here’s why.  The finagling of participation eligibility meant no one really knew just how many people could potentially vote.  But one was for sure, it was a lot more than usual.  The number of final voters hovered around the 2.3 million mark, and that, while no small figure, constitutes about 37% of the voting population (according to the most serious estimates).  81% of that percentage means that in reality, only about 30% voted in favor of breaking away.  That’s right, 30%.

 

Some may argue that participation was low because the consultation was rendered illegal, but let’s face it, when people want to be defiant, those matters are of little importance.  If larger numbers had wanted to flock to the polls, they could have.  But they chose not to.  All the same, the separatists were sharp about getting that 81% number out there, and it’s still referred to in international stories on the subject. Mas had managed to turn what I considered to be semi-flop into a great achievement.  It would not be the first time or the last.

 

The central government completely misread the situation and wasted a golden opportunity. They dismissed the vote as illegal and inconsequential.  It had no validity, so who cared?  Well, a lot of people did. Afterall, 2.3 million voters is nothing to turn your nose up at.  Mas didn’t have a lot to work with, but he had enough to make noise.  Plus, it seemed pretty much clear as day that, were a formal referendum to be held, the no vote was a shoe in.  The unionists had it in the bag.  And once they had held one, no one, absolutely no one could say Catalonia was never given its chance.

 

So instead of capitalizing on the situation, the national government did what irresponsible people do when they are in debt and get a bill in the mail.  They turned on the TV really loud, watched Pawn Stars, and pretended it didn’t exist.  It just never happened.  This total lack of regard for the Catalan independence movement, this hope that it would just go away by itself, was a whole lot of wishful thinking.  Because it wasn’t.  Plus, it was a little late for that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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December 2, 2017

The Catalan Chronicles: A long, long time ago

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There is an excellent book on socio-economics written by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner called Freakonomics which was actually a collection of articles discussing a whole slew of totally unrelated issues with no apparent purpose at all…not wholly unlike my teaching style.    In their case, however, they actually had one thing in common: they were willing to look at issues in unconventional ways.  They were also effective.

 

Not so surprisingly, the authors’ conclusions were often no less eyebrow-raising and, on occasion, shocking, when not altogether controversial.  Good books should be like that.  For example, they explored the notion that the crime rate in the 1990s in America did not decline dramatically due to increased sizes in the nation’s police force, as was commonly believed at the time, but rather as a result of an entirely different event which had taken place twenty years earlier: the introduction of legalized abortion. The assertion was startling to many and even dismissed by some experts.  But one thing was unquestionably valid: the writers reminded us of just how important it was to think out of the box when trying to study the cause of certain phenomenon.

 

This book invariably came to mind when I started reading numerous articles in foreign newspapers and noticed that time and time again they would suggest that the Catalan independence movement really was a product of things going awry in the past ten years: major causes ran from the economic crisis to the corruption scandals involving members of the ruling party, the conservative Partido Popular (PP), the repealing of the Catalan Estatut, which is a kind of agreement the region had with the Spanish government.  When you are talking about a conflict which predates any living Spaniard today, no matter how many years he has added to his life expectancy thanks to the fabulous Mediterranean diet, is there really any truth to it?

 

Granted, it is true there was a rough spell of economic inactivity, which the PP had inherited for the most part from the previous administration.  The problem was so ginormous that it wasn’t like they could turn things around overnight.  Everyone had to tighten their belt and suck it up.  And it sucked.  We teachers in Madrid had our Christmas bonus payment withheld.  It really wasn’t actually a bonus at all, but rather a 7% cut in our salary that year, let’s stop kidding ourselves.  We didn’t take to kindly to it at the time, but it sure beat lining up at the unemployment office.  Eventually we were all paid back, but it goes to show lots of people all over the country were feeling the squeeze, not just the Catalans.  And you don’t see us wanting to separate from Toledo. Please.

 

And it’s also true that the PP as a ruling party had also done just about everything a party can do to undermine its own credibility, with over 800 cases nationwide of unethical and outright illegal behavior and practices under investigation, making it one of the most criminally-investigated political formations in recent memory.  I tell you, if you want to learn how to have your reputation as a trustworthy individual go down the toilet while in public office, these are the guys to talk to.

 

The party has finally tried to take a tough stance on these abuses of power, but the damage was done.  In the 2016 elections, they lost 56 seats in parliament and 3.5 million votes.   A blistering knuckle-rap if there ever was one.  Another consequence was the founding of two new parties which have, for the time being at least, done away with the two-party system and are playing a crucial part in the most recent developments.    One party is a kind of conservative-leaning, but not really right wing party, known as Ciudadanos.  It’s hard at times to really know what these people represent, but one thing is for sure, all the leaders are really good-looking, which must be a prerequisite to becoming a candidate.   The left wing, which had been in tatters for years after totally misreading the winds of change in Spain’s rise to prominence, abandoned the old traditional parties and regrouped under the guidance of a pony-tailed former college professor named Pablo Iglesias.  I’ll tell you more about him at another time because he’s done a fine job of tanking his own cause.

 

No, those aren’t the reasons. They are merely the most recent episodes in a very, very long series of events which have stymied unity and union in this country.  And, as you can expect, just where you want to begin depends heavily on what your perspective is.  Let’s take a look:

 

  • Pro-union Spain likes to go back to the very dawn of time to dig up proof that Catalonia has never, ever, ever been its own country.  And even if they wanted to play fair and pick up at the beginning of the Christian Reconquest, their position is essentially the same.  Their argument is flawed if only for the reason that the fact they haven’t been their own country, doesn’t mean they don’t have the right to become one. Duh.
  • Hardcore Spaniards also point to the fact Catalonia was only a county and then a principality, and for centuries belonged to the Kingdom of Aragon, as in “Catherine of” fame, and they have a point…but only to a point.  Catalonia did have its own institutions back then too.  Its courts were among the earliest in Europe.
  • Independence supporters sometimes cite the War of Spanish Succession (1701-1704), as Catalonia’s first true attempt to break away. They claim they backed Archduke Charles to be king and not Philip V, and the Philip imposed his will on the Catalans.  That’s B.S.  They actually welcomed defended Philip at first, and only switched sides when they felt threatened by the influx of French commerce.
  • The Catalans often hark back to the 19th Century, and the cultural and nationalist renaissance that soared in many parts of Spain, not just Catalonia, not to mention Europe, where Germany and Italy were forming.
  • Skipping over to the 20th Century, Spain was a monarchless republic, as most are, in the 1930s, and it was at this time that Catalonia claims to have declared independence under Lluis Campanys. The Spanish government, as well as many conservative Catalans, did not look upon that with favor, and suppressed the movement.  He would later be freed and ran Catalonia during the Civil War before having to go into exile. Poor man, he was later detained in France, extradited, jailed and finally executed.  Naturally, he is a major hero of the Catalan cause.
  • The Franco regime is often a referred to as a blemish in the pro-Spain movement. Forty years of bliss for conservative and traditional Spaniards whose consequences, forty years later, the country would in part be paying a price for.  At least say some.  If by 1978, those with power, those with first-hand knowledge were letting bygones be bygones, it is sort of hard to understand why those who had nothing to do with try to use it as an excuse.
  • Pro-Spain advocates love to allude to the 1978 Constitution as their starting point.  It flat out says the country is based on the “indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation, the common and indivisible homeland of all Spaniards.” Yeap, and 90% of the Catalan voters supported that statement.
  • Yeah, but then the opposition will say that they were let down by the system and to longer believes in the constitution.  This might be valid if it weren’t for the fact that, if anything, Catalonia has increased its autonomy since then. It enjoys more freedoms than forty years ago and lives a perfectly healthy and happy existence…unless you want to be independent, that is.

Conclusion.  What would the freakonomists have to say?  I couldn’t begin to guess. I’m not as smart as those guys.  But if I had to go out on a limb, I’d say that just around the time constitution was passed at signed, a number of people smiled silently and said to themselves, we’re not done yet.

 

We still aren’t.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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November 16, 2017

The Catalan Chronicles: What would James Joyce Say?

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A whole helluvah long time ago when I was in my first year here and still had a vision of Spain with the innocence of a virgin, I was in my host family’s home and lounging on my bed, which was one of those low-rise thingies that were still the standard back then.  They were known as camas individuales and I have always been curious to know just who that individual was on whom they based the dimensions.  What I can say is that safety concerns due to inordinate height from the top of the mattress was not an issue.  If ever you were to roll over the edge and let gravity take over, your knee and elbow would break the fall before you actually initiated your descent.

 

Anyway, as I was saying.  I was flipping through the International Herald Tribune, which was the only main source of news from abroad back then, when I stopped and stared at a startling full-page ad that read in big letters, “Today, even James Joyce would feel Catalan.”

 

I grimaced as I shifted my position in the bed and read on.  “What the heck is this all about?”

 

It turned out that the whole deal was seemingly about San Jordi (the feast of St. George), which is on April 23, in case anyone is interested, which I’m sure they’re not.  San Jordi is the patron saint of Catalonia, which is why so many males from that region go by that name.  April 23 is also International Book Day, the anniversary to the day and year of both William Shakespeare and Miguel Cervantes. Yes, they both kicked the ink well on the very same day.  Talk about your loss to literature.  The Catalans have a very nice tradition of giving a book and a rose as a present on that day.  No doubt it is a custom which counts on the fullest support of the florist and publishing guilds.  It’s also so veeeery European chic. I happen to think it’s a very cool idea.

 

Anyway, that provides a little context.  But that only solves part of the mystery.  Why in an English-speaking language newspaper? And why all that money thrown into sharing a local but obscure custom?  I’ll tell you why.  Because it really wasn’t about San Jordi at all.  You see, once the reader got past the eye-catching headline and the quaint story behind the day, the announcement got down to the meat of the matter.  The pretext, the excuse, the real reason.  The whole fuckin’ kit a caboodle.   The rest of the information provided went something to the effect: Catalonia is a nation with its own language, its own history, its own traditions, etc…and so on, and so on.  We’ve heard this all before.  Does this all sound familiar?

 

This wasn’t an opportunity to share cultural diversity for the benefit of those who wish to know more about world; this was a piece of independence propaganda shrouded in a clever bit of publicity, which included the name of several well-known writers who, if we were to go by the claim, would also possess a special affinity for Catalonia that day.  It was also posted and, presumably, paid for by the Generalitat, Catalonia’s regional government.  The year was 1991.  Way before the economic crisis, or the rampant political scandals or any other recent development the ill-informed reporter mentions.   What was happening back then in that neck of the woods? Well, Barcelona was readying itself to host the summer games of 1992, an event so costly it obviously needed to look to numerous sources for financing.  The central goverment was by far the biggest public investor, footing 37.7% of the bill, compared to 18% that the regional government chipped in.  Then the Catalans showed their appreciation in one of the baffling ways possible…by trumpeting to the international community they have really nothing to do with Spain.  What a bunch of sweethearts.

 

What does this show? Simple. It shows that back in the early 1990s, the campaign to sell the independence story to the world was on its way. The world wasn’t listening very much, but that didn’t matter.  Maybe one day it would, and that was OK by the nationalists.

 

And what about Joyce?  What would he have to say after all? Would he feel Catalan?  Your guess is as good as mine.  He probably would have wanted to have as little to do with the issue as possible.  But there was little he could do about it because he was dead.  For a long time.  As were the rest of the referenced authors. The nationalists had cunningly chosen to tag opinions to people who could no longer give their own opinions.

 

 

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November 11, 2017

The Catalan Chronicles: Honest Abe

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The pro-unity Spaniards may not be able find the answer they are looking for in the American Revolution, but they can come upon something more to their liking down the road of our relatively brief but intense history.  You must understand that the average Spaniard naturally sees the United States as one (not necessarily always happy) nation in which regional independence movements are unheard of.  People are first citizens of the United States and then of their respective states, if they so choose to feel that way.  That’s a fairly accurate depiction of the U.S. today, so you can’t blame them, but it wasn’t always like that…at all.

 

When I have a some extra time, I say, “Have a seat, and let me tell you a little story.”

 

Twelve score and 1 year ago, our Fathers initiated the control of a territory with a growth potential like nothing mankind has ever seen before or since, and created a nation under the notion that all men were equal.  Their interpretation of equality would naturally be questioned by today’s standards, as they didn’t have women or black slaves in mind, but you could argue that they did get the ball rolling.  It was, in fact, the issue of institutionalized bondage that would lead the country into its most important and lasting internal crisis in its history.”  That much most people can grasp.  What has escaped many is that behind it was a constitutional standoff – a power struggle.

 

You see, even though the thirteen colonies had what you could call a common ancestor, that is England, they had managed to acquire a feeling of individualism that led them to believe and behave as if they were practically little nations joined in a federation.  Its residents felt a greater allegiance to their state than to the country as a whole.  Never was this more clearly illustrated when, at the outbreak of the Civil War, Robert E. Lee, then an officer for the United States Army, and one with a distinguished military career at that, was faced with the dilemma of which side to join.  Nowadays, that seems unthinkable, but back then it was a fairly common debate.  He was in fact opposed to the secessionist movement of the South for constitutional reasons, and so expressed it in writing.  But loyalty to his state was the question.  In short, he felt no state had a right to leave the union, but if his state of Virginia did choose to do so and was attacked, he would be left with no choice but to defend it.  Even if that meant abandoning his sworn duties to the federal government.  His decision is one of great controversy to this day, but let’s not go there.

 

What was at stake was the very future of the United States.  And regardless of the outcome, things would never be the same.  Abraham Lincoln was fully aware of this and summed up the trascendence of the moment brilliantly in his now famous Gettysburg Address.   It is unquestionably one of the finest speeches ever delivered in history, partly because it was so short.  The quintessential example of “less is more”.  Edward Everett, the Massachusetts politician and the main speaker of the day (can you imagine a time when the president’s oration took second billing?), devoted no fewer than a staggering two hours to his intervention before uttering to a, no doubt, relieved crowd, “Thank you for listening.”   And he still apparently didn’t get his point across. He was later said to have praised Lincoln for doing in two minutes what he couldn’t convey in 120.

 

“Damn straight!  Honest Abe wouldn’t put up with no bullshit like that.”  Maybe they didn’t word it that way in the heart of Madrid, but something to that effect.  While Lincoln’s stance was true, the flip side was that the South was just as determined to have things seen their way…and sent up half a million armed men to help pursuade the federal government.   Four years and 600,000 deaths later, the matter was settled and everyone was friends again…sort of.

 

So why should Spain care?  You see, nearly two score years after democracy was finally reestablished in this western European nation in 1978, the situation has an eerily familiar ring to it – with the exception, thank God, that we have not been plunged into a civil war.  Behind the age-old debate on how these regions fit into modern Spain is the issue of what the constitution has to say about it.  That is, just as Lincoln argued that the South didn’t have the right to leave, so says the Constitutional Court here, as it tries to contain the movement through judicial means.  And, of course, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and company subscribe to this wholeheartedly.  Spain is indivisible.  That’s what most traditional Spaniards purport.  They are dumbfounded by all this extremist separatism and struggle to comprehend while anyone would ever want to leave it.  They adopt an almost Eastern philosophy approach: that’s just the way things are.

 

The way things are is that Spain is still a very young democracy, which is ironic for one of the oldest countries in the world, and this current situation has come as a surprise to pretty much everyone but me.  Especially from a country with the delicate situation that it has had for such a long time.  This was almost bound to occur.

 

Forty years ago, while Americans were lining up to watch Animal House and Grease, in Catalonia people were queuing to participate in the last official referendum.   Ironically, Catalonia was the region with the fourth highest percentage in favor of ratifying the constitution, with 90.46% voting yes, with 70% participation.  Many pro-separatists will argue that things have changed, and undoubtedly they have…in every scenario and in many ways.   But can the same really be said of Catalonia and the rest of Spain?  Are things really that different, or, have they changed in a way that they appear to be?

 

 

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November 3, 2017

The Catalan Chronicles: Independence Day

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Every once in a while when some kind of humilliating debacle grabs the headlines, people here reach for the sky and clamor, “Spain is different!”  They look at me all bummed out and whimper, “I bet these kinds of things would never happen in the U.S.”   What they want to hear me say is that they are right and explain that in America Puigdemont would be doing time in Texas long ago.  Not that Lone Star State is known for coming down hard on political outlaws, but the name does somehow satisfy the Spanish’s basic understanding of places in the United States where no criminal would ever like to be incarcerated. And, as you can imagine, saying “he’s doing time in Rhode Island” just doesn’t have the same effect.  So, I give them what they want.  I provide comfort.   “Oh, he’d be picking up soap every day in Waco, trust me.”

 

They nod firmly, pleased by what they have heard.  “Fucking-A.  That’s the way to do it.”

 

Then I get to the sad truth.  Unfortunately, when people Madrid here look to American history for solace, they don’t always get what they bargained for.  This is why. The War of Independence came about by:

  • A people with no prior history as a nation.
  • Separatists who claimed they were being robbed by the state.
  • National leaders who created their own parliament to legislate their next moves, and…
  • Ignored British laws, overlooked judicial decisions and flat out defied royal decrees, and…
  • Declared independence unilaterally, the way it’s usually done, folks, and…
  • Renounced an institutionalized monarchy and proclaimed a republic, and…
  • Propagated their message through a fairly well-oiled propaganda machine which often highly distorted the facts, and…
  • Counted on less than half the population for support, at least at first before the British came in and started breaking heads.

 

What do you know.  Essentially this is an outline of many of the ingredients that go into the Catalan independence movement.  Many of the acts and actions that many of us find unacceptable, all the illegal measures, the sedition, the inciting of passive and not so passive resistance, were also perpetrated by the Founding Fathers of my homeland.   Ironically, the Catalans could make a case for their secession by using the birth of the United States as a model.  Shit.  Does Puigdemont know about this?  I’m not sure if anyone (much less his own supporters) cares what he thinks at this point after he bolted to Belgium, but you never know.

 

Plus, the American movement wasn’t exactly the same, was it?  To begin with, times were quite different back then.  The colonists had already left England a century and a half before looking for the freedom to do as they wished.  They were already predisposed to no longer putting up with the kind of crap you had to deal with in Great Britain, and that sense of freedom would only augment with time.  The people did not get the proper representation they deserved and had little say in how their land should be governed.  The monarchy back then was a lot more powerful than the figurehead is today.  And even though George III was not the evil authoritarian that my elementary school textbooks made him out to be, it was clear he was not keen to make things easy for the colonists.  So he used force.  A lot of it.  Not only did that damage the British cause, it also triggered an unexpected complication.  As Howard Zinn put it, “victory was made possible by the existence of an already-armed people.  Just about every white man had a gun, and could shoot.”

 

And they did.  The active participation of the French and Spanish, who were always game for screwing over their arch-rivals, proved key too.

 

The American Revolution was also very much of a transfer of power from the wealthy in the United Kingdom to the wealthy in the colonies.  The driving forces behind America’s inception was none other than the ruling class of the New World, which meant there were no members badly in need of a proper haircut and wearing bizarre T-shirts two sizes too small marching down the aisle with a smirk as they voted for to break away from the motherland.  There were scores of grown men who also could have done with a visit to the barber, but who owned so much money, land and slaves, they couldn’t give a damn what others thought.

 

Catalonia’s ruling class (economic power), on the other hand, made it very clear in the early days of October that it had no intention of joining in the seccionists’ games.  Logically, they saw nothing but trouble from being kicked out of the European Union, and told the leaders of the movement (in probably less cordial words) that they could basically go perform lewd acts on each other and enjoy their freedom on their own.  The threat of leaving the euro can do that to individuals and entities of substantial wealth.  I wouldn’t know personally, but I figure that’s the case.

 

What’s more, the region does have its own parliament, its own governing laws, its own fiscal administration (that means they can tax).  It has been granted the right to have its own police force and schooling system.   As for democracy, no fewer than 11 regional elections have been held (in addition to the national ones), with pro-Catalan parties dominating.  One can hardly say they have been victims of mistreatment over the past 40 years since the Franco regime disappeared  (that is, from a time when they really had a good reason to want to separate); they have enjoyed plenty of autonomy, as well as plenty of chances for the independentists to want to garner enough support for their cause.  But that doesn’t seem to have happened as of yet.

 

Does any of that really matter when your final goal is to become your own country?  When you’ve got it in your head that you will not rest until to you pull down every last Spanish flag, do you care about those details?  Not really.  You just ignore the facts and plow ahead.  Your mission is not over.  And that’s where things get messy.

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October 29, 2017

Tha Catalan Chronicles: John Hancock

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So, one of my brothers texted me Friday saying, “Catalonia declares independence.  Wow!”

 

I wrote back almost instantaneously, “It’s about time.  Took ’em long enough.”

 

I could sense his puzzlement.  “Aren’t you shocked?”

 

“Actually, I’m relieved.”

 

Not that I was embracing the announcement as something good for Spain, or Catalonia for that matter, because it isn’t; it was just that it was like the tenth time in two weeks the president of the region, Carles Pudgemont, was supposed to make this proclamation and his political stuttering was beginning to get on my nerves.  It stirred the New Yorker within me.  “Get on with it, already.  Don’t be a pussy.”

 

For weeks we have had to listen to “we are going to declare independence, we declared independence, we suspended our declaration of independence, maybe we declared or maybe we didn’t declare, if we did declare it we aren’t going to tell you, next time we are really going to declare it, we mean it, we really mean it, and on and on,”  The climax came when Puigdemont announced Catalan independence on October 10th and 40% of the population was brought to the brink of a communal orgasm, only to backtrack 8 seconds later and say, “but let’s wait for another day.”  It was a baffling and unprecedented show of political coitus interruptus.  I honestly don’t think anything like it has ever happened in history…so at least they have that to say for themselves.

 

Anyway, on Friday he finally mustered up the courage to do it; through a silent vote, mind you, so that the Spanish authorities couldn’t point the finger at anyone.  I guess it’s an astute move from their point of view, but it isn’t quite what you’d call the ballsiest gesture in the world.  Not the kind of intrepid defiance you’d expect from these things.  No valiant individual standing in front of an approaching tank and what not.  Certainly not in the spirit of the American declaration 241 years before when each and every rebel present personally signed on the dotted line for King George III to view.   John Hancock, the famous statesman and merchant, wrote his name so large you could read it from across the room.  It was essentially an autographed version of him flipping the bird at the British monarch.

 

In fact, the only one to show their vote was a member who voted “no” in the parliament session, and possibly because he didn’t want to be mixed in with the secessionist crowd.  Most of the opposition parties had already left the room anyway, so the decision was a foregone conclusion.

 

Oh well, different country, different century, different circumstances; best not to compare the two too much…but I will one day, trust me.

 

Anyway, the point is, though I had no plan to write about this subject, a number of people in my circles of friendship have suggested the idea, and so far I have eschewed the idea fearing I would be getting stuck in a quagmire on a very sensitive issue…and I would be.  In other words, I was being a pussy.  But the hispanologist within me, the historian inside, has gotten the better of me.  That and my better half is tired of me standing in front of her with a coffee mug in my hand grousing to the backdrop of morning radio, “Can you believe what they said?!  That’s outrageous!”

 

“Honey, it’s eight o’clock on a Sunday morning.  Go tell the rest of the world and let me sleep.  Thank you.”

 

OK, so I will tell the rest of the world.  I’ll be a John Hancock.  That’s the queerest thing I think I’ve ever written, but I’ll leave it in.  You don’t get to “be there” for a country on the verge of falling apart every day, so I might as well make the most of it.  Plus, while there is a growing percentage of balanced reporting on the issue, still too much of what is published and posted out there is superficial and doesn’t even come close to understanding the complexity of the conflict; nor do many of the fly-in reporters have the knowledge of Spain as a whole to approach the subject with the know-how that one needs.  I once saw a link to an article titled “The Catalan Crisis in 300 Words”.   Sorry.  Can’t do it.  It’s almost insulting the writer should try.   The first section went like this:

 

What is Catalonia?
Catalonia is an autonomous region in north-east Spain with a distinct history dating back almost 1,000 years.
The wealthy region has its own language, parliament, flag and anthem. It also has its own police force and controls some of its public services.

 

Let’s ignore the fact they had to even pose the question (though that should give you an idea of how unfamiliar people are with the subject).   Everything about that text is essentially true.  There isn’t a single lie there.  It’s also one of the most misleading statements in writing, because what the writer has basically done is describe half a dozen regions in Spain, and if you remove the “its own language” factor, he is depicting all of the regions of Spain.  To suggest Catalonia is unique in this sense grossly misrepresents the truth about Spain overall (and much of Europe for that matter).  Based on the information, I’d say some of the other regions have a much stronger case for independence (many were their own kingdoms for God’s sake), and they ain’t bitching day and night about how bad life is them.  But maybe the author didn’t know this.  Maybe they did.  Or maybe the fact they had only 300 words to emit a fact fart out online hindered getting the full story out there.  And this is where things get messy.  Maybe they should stop trying to sum complex issues up in 300 words.

 

I hope this will be a fascinating sociological and historical anaylisis that goes beyond the Ramblas of Barcelona, or even the frontiers of Spain.  Nationalism is a perplexing easily misunderstood topic.  I don’t even know what it means half the time.  So, I’ll do my best; but if anyone out there is familiar with the way I do things, you can expect some surprising but relevant angles.

 

So, just what the heck is going on?  We’ll take a look.  But first, I’ll have to tell you how I feel about it in general.