I went to the Metropolitan Magazine debate about Catalan nationalism yesterday. There were four speakers, two in favour of Catalan nationalism and two against. Each had 10 minutes to present their ideas. Afterwards there was a discussion. The whole debate was in English. That´s probably why most of the audience (about 50 persons) were “guirris”, i.e., people from outside Spain.
The four speakers were: Charles Ablett (half Welsh, half Catalan, Catalan speaking, against Catalan nationalism), Erik Jeffery (British, Catalan speaking, in favour), Nito Foncuberta (of the political party Ciutadans, against Catalan nationalism) and a guy I think he was named “Bosc”, but it was hard to hear because the chairman who presented him talked with his hand in front of his mouth (representing the political party ERC, a Catalan nationalist party).
Unfortunately, numerous times last night, Godwin´s law was put into practice: “As a discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1”. I´ll summarise what the speakers had to say below, as objectively as I can.
1. Charles Ablett
He mainly talked about the Catalan Statute (a sort of constitution for Catalans only, in parallel with the Spanish general constitution). I think this was a bit besides the point because both Catalan nationalists as their opponents are not in favour of it. The first group thinks it´s too weak (it still recognizes Spanish authority), the second group thinks it´s unnecessary and full of mistakes. (A summary of these mistakes can be found here, among the comments.)
A few other points he mentioned:
- Catalonia was never really independent. It belonged once to the kingdom of Aragon, but later, 500 years ago, became part of Spain.
- The statute does not represent every citizen of Catalonia, only the Catalan nationalists.
- Catalan nationalism is against his idea of an open, multicultural society, with free press, free education, etc…
- (Godwin alert) Nationalism equals fascism, racism, Nazism.
2. Erik Jeffery
He had a rather rambling story about Catalan history and culture, which, even in his own words, would not directly lead one to the conclusion that Catalonia should be independent. So what were his reasons to think that Catalonia should be independent? He mentioned these:
- Emotional reasons. Spanish people are very nasty against Catalans (illustrated by some personal experiences of friends of friends who had been in Madrid and had had problems with local taxi drivers).
- Economic reasons. Catalans pay more tax but receive less (i.e. in road maintenance, public transport, and other public services).
- The fact that other countries in Europe that got independent (east European countries mainly) are much happier now.
3. Nito Foncuberta (Ciutadans)
His most important points:
- Catalan nationalist politics use emotionalism and sentimentalism to create a problem that isn´t there.
- Someone´s identity should not depend on administrative borders (Catalonia, Spain, Europe) and his type of passport, but on one´s own personal, individual choices. Do two neighbours have a common identity for just living next to each other?
- After Franco died, the Spanish people got a constitution that already acknowledged the various different nationalities living in Spain, together. This constitution is what most people voted in favour of, also here in Catalonia.
- The only thing that a government should do is give services to all its citizens. What matters is whether these services (jobs, public transport) work and not whether it´s Spanish or Catalan.
- Catalan nationalism doesn´t really represent all Catalan people (i.e., all people living in Catalonia) but only those who actually want to separate the people within Catalonia in between “real Catalans” and “not Catalans”. Them against us. The problem of Catalan independence or not is not a problem of the streets, where people speak Spanish, Catalan and English anyway, but artificially created by certain politicians.
4. “The representative of the ERC”
I have to state, as the man himself clearly stated, that he was not an official ERC politician. Originally, a real ERC politician was invited but in the end couldn´t come. So this man, a member of the ERC and a voluntary worker within that party, came instead.
Also, he voted actually against the Statute as well, because he favours a real Catalan independence and not a fake one.
The main things he said:
- Not the Catalans, but the Spanish have a problem with their identity. They insist on everything being Spanish.
- (Godwin alert) Imagine England had been invaded by Germany 300 years ago. That they would have been tortured, killed, denied their language, and finally had to live under Adolf Hitler for 40 years. And finally now, the English have some kind of democracy and are allowed to speak their language but are still controlled by Berlin. Imagine that… (At this point, a woman in the audience shouted that this was a ridiculous comparison and why didn´t he choose Wales versus England instead).
- (Corollary-to-Godwin alert) Imagine a woman had been sexually, physically and psychologically abused by a man for years and years. Would she want to live with that man later on, even when the man later turned out nice?
I admit that after this last comparison I stopped taking the man seriously and I am not sure he might or might not have said anything interesting afterwards.
After this, there was time for questions from the audience. Some questions of the more interesting ones:
- A girl (from outside Spain) said she travelled a lot and always tried to speak the local language and learn about local customs in the country where she is. She asked the (meant to be rhetorical) question: would someone who works in London only speak Chinese?
-> Foncuberta answered: of course it was good to learn about Catalan language and culture. But it shouldn´t be imposed. And, of course, in a country it might be more practical to speak the local language, but if one doesn´t, then that´s up to that person and not up to the government. Someone can open a Chinese-speaking restaurant in London (and maybe not get any clients) without getting fined by the government. (He could have mentioned Chinatown in New York where all texts are in Chinese and nobody obliges them to put it in another language.)
- A British girl wondered whether things – in actual practice – were really so bad as the Statute seems to make it. For instance, in actual practice, would an Irish person really be forbidden to work in an Irish pub here in Barcelona?
–> Both Foncuberta as Ablett were quick to point out that indeed, these sort of things are already happening: people are actually fined for starting a business here in Barcelona and putting the name only in English or Spanish, without translating it in Catalan. A English second-hand bookshop couldn´t be just called “Ye Olde Bookshop”, but instead, should have the text in Catalan as well.
Now, I have to admit to having two weak points: one, I hate speaking in public and two, I cannot listen, speak and think at the same time. That´s why only on the metro-ride back home, little by little, I came up with my own conclusion. Of course, having an opinion afterwards is quiet useless, so the wisest thing would be to just shut up. However, since I am not known for my wisdom, I say a few things:
- The comparison the ERC guy made, first with evil Germans and later with a rapist was rather gratuitous. But one part of that argument one hears quite often in Catalonia. In the past 300 years, there might have been a lot of dictators, and I´m sure my argument applies just as well to all of them, but let´s take the last one: Franco. Catalan nationalists suggest that the Franco dictatorship was a matter of the Spanish against the Catalans. And that´s, of course, completely not true. Franco was a dictator, who suppressed all of Spain, not just Catalonia. Blaming Spain – and even more to the point: current Spain – for the evils of Franco, does not make sense. Franco violently suppressed the Catalan language, but he also suppressed freedom of speech, homosexuality, socialism, and a lot of other people in other parts of Spain. Should all homosexuals in Spain have an independent country now too? Madrid was actually the last city in Spain that kept on fighting against Franco. On the other hand there were a lot of Catalans in favour of Franco. Being in favour of democracy or in favour of a dictator is not an issue of nationality, language or culture (Spanish against Catalan) but a matter of political preference.
I was quite pissed off at myself in the metro when I thought of this because I would have loved making this point at the debate.
- Most Catalans are not aware of this, but almost all other countries in Europe contain groups that speak different languages: the UK has Wales and Scotland, the Netherlands has Friesland and France has a number of regions that speak languages like Occidental, Provencal, Breton, and so on. Instead of the farfetched example of “England been invaded by Germany 300 years ago”, it would have been much easier to take Wales/England as an example (as someone in the audience also pointed out) of a situation where more than one language exists in one single country. (And yes, Welsh people had their sufferings too…).
- Personally, I think Spain (and that includes Catalonia) has severe problems. It has 15% unemployment. It hardly has any industry except for tourism (which is not really an industry). Prices are equal to those in North-European countries (or higher) but salaries are much lower. There is a severe housing problem. The education is on a very low level. Severe problems. Why waste time on who is who, and who belongs to what? Speak whatever you want, but before separating yourself from the guy next door, please make sure people cannot be thrown out of their houses by the house-owner, people can actually live comfortably, people can actually pay the rent, have a job, live safely in the streets, etc…
As a conclusion, I applaud the initiative of Metropolitan Magazine to organize this debate. The fact that this debate was in English made that the audience was mainly from outside Spain (for that matter: maybe people in Spain should concentrate a bit more on learning English instead of worrying about Catalan versus Spanish), but then again, most readers of the Magazine probably are not Spanish and maybe the debate was meant especially for guirris anyway.
The idea of giving each speaker only 10 minutes was a good idea. The speaker – supposedly – is forced to state his ideas in a concise way. Unfortunately, none of the speakers really did that very well. None of them had a story that was logically constructed on the base of a few clear principles. This probably was the reason that later the discussion didn´t go much beyond the usual emotional and personal experiences, like the civil war (“Don´t mention the war!”) and how awful people can be to other people for speaking in Catalan or Spanish (or in English not well enough). I don´t think all speakers where equally good in presenting their ideas but I certainly thought that the opponents to Catalan nationalism made a much stronger point than its defenders, and I don´t think that´s only because I agree more with them.
Still, the initiative was a good idea, and maybe should be repeated, but in a more organized way. A chairman who would actively take control of the debate might have helped. For my part, I´ll try to be better prepared next time and come up with something brilliant to say before it´s all over.