Yeah, right! - Writings by Brian Murdock

Archive for November, 2017


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.  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.




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?




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.