Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Spain: the BS Factor

I am in between concerts at the moment, next up is the Reina Sofía chamber orchestra playing Mozart, but I just wanted to express some general thoughts about Madrid and Spain. Please take note that these are entirely personal views, from a particular and possibly narrow perspective and don't make more of them than that.

Spain was the first country other than Canada that I came to know when I spent nearly a year here in my early 20s studying guitar with Maestro José Tomás in Alicante on the Mediterranean coast. I also spent some time in Madrid during that year. I finally got back to Spain and Madrid last summer and really felt comfortable here. As I talk to people and attend events, I get a certain sense of the place. That's what I want to share. This is mostly anecdotal, but not entirely as I have done some reading on Spain. Years ago I read Hugh Thomas' large work on the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) and I am currently re-reading A Concise History of Spain by Phillips and Phillips published by Cambridge University Press.

My perspective is shaped both by my experiences in Spain, my Canadian background and my living in Mexico in recent years.

One of the things that stands out for me is that Spain scores pretty low on the BS meter. That is, when it comes to what I see as bullshit, they do pretty well in avoiding it. What do I mean by BS? The kind of thinking that seems to dominate so much public discussion in Canada (and the US) for example. Most issues of the Globe and Mail will provide numerous examples, though Canadians rarely see them as such. The window of acceptable thoughts and ideas in Canada is a narrow one and it is tightly framed by constant reinforcement by the Globe and Mail (and the CBC). For example, about thirty years ago they began a constant disparagement of Israel alongside an endorsement of the Palestinian position in the mass media in Canada. Then they did a survey and lo and behold, public opinion has shifted away from Israel and toward the Palestinians. Today's paper provides another example. For months and months the Globe and Mail has been on an anti-Trump crusade. Leading up to the election there were several articles every day about how horrific he was, personally, and how awful his policies were. By the way, I'm not expressing a personal opinion here, just drawing your attention to what their coverage was. Now, in the paper today, are the results of another survey: Canadians still pro-immigration, but souring on United States: survey:
As debates rage through much of the developed world over whether to close doors to newcomers, Canadian attitudes toward immigration remain positive.
Canadians’ sentiment towards immigration hasn’t wavered in the past six months, with eight in 10 people still agreeing that immigrants benefit the economy, a national survey released exclusively to The Globe and Mail shows.
“Public opinion about immigration among Canadians generally has either remained stable or become even more positive” in the past half year, said Keith Neuman, executive director of the Environics Institute for Survey Research, which released the results publicly on Monday.
The survey was conducted last month as a follow up to a similar set of questions in October. It sought to gauge whether public sentiments have shifted since the election of Donald Trump in the United States, and amid intensifying public debate in the United States and Europe over whether to tighten immigration rules. It comes as France’s defeated presidential candidate, Marine Le Pen, campaigned on an anti-immigrant, anti-EU platform, and as Britain preps for Brexit while Mr. Trump remains intent on deportations and building a U.S.-Mexico border wall.
Some views in Canada have shifted, markedly. Attitudes towards the United States have soured, with fewer than half of Canadians now holding a favourable view of the United States – the lowest level since the survey started tracking this in 1982.
You could say that this simply reflects reality: Canadians have a positive feeling about immigration and negative ones about Trump and Americans generally. But what troubles me is that there really were no sober debates and arguments about any of these things, just emotional reactions pumped out in the mass media month after month and then take a survey. Not surprising what the results were. If you tell people up is down over and over again, they will start to believe it. There are lots of similar examples in the US, of course and the one that struck me most this week was a dispute at the Duke University Divinity School in which, again, no sober and rational debate was held, but ideas outside the acceptable window were simply anathemized. It is really worth reading the whole story here. A similar situation obtains with Canadian psychology professor Jordan Peterson, who has been trying to debate important issues and again, simply condemned because these things Shall Not Be Discussed! If you have the time, here is a pretty illuminating discussion he got into at Ryerson University in Canada:

But let me get back to Spain! What I find so refreshing here is that the Spanish seem to have a no nonsense attitude towards so many things. Not to say that they are immune to the current Idols of the Theater (in the classification of Francis Bacon), the delusions of sophistry and false learning, but, perhaps due to their history, they take them very much less seriously.

The Spanish are a pretty tough people. They were a loose collection of Visigothic kingdoms in the 8th century when the Muslims invaded from North Africa. In a short time, 90% of the peninsula was lost and the Muslims had even penetrated north of the Pyrenees into southern France. They were stopped by Charles Martel (Charles "the Hammer") who got a nice cognac named after him. In Spain, the Reconquista, the process by which the Christian kingdoms of the north won back the Iberian peninsula, took rather longer. Most of the job was done by the 13th century, but the Emirate of Granada resisted until 1492, the same year that Columbus discovered the New World. The Hundred Year's War was nothing to the Spanish: it took them nearly 500 years, from the first victory in capturing Toledo to the final expulsion of the last Moor from Granada after a gruelling ten-year campaign. The personal dagger of the last ruler of Granada, Muhammad XII, known as Boabdil to the Spanish, is still on display in the Royal Armoury in Madrid. With the exuberance of their long-sought victory and new worlds opening up, the Spanish became the world's first global empire, stretching from Spain to Mexico, Peru and most of the rest of South America, all the way to the Philippines and including holdings in the Caribbean.

Another severe test of the Spanish character came in the 20th century when civil war broke out between a progressive republic allied with communists and anarchists which was resisted by an aristocratic, conservative and Catholic group of nationalists led by General Francisco Franco. The result was a bitter and brutal civil war from 1936 to 39 that is not well-known due to being overshadowed by the Second World War. Another example of the no-nonsense Spanish character is illustrated by an incident during the Siege of Madrid which lasted for two and a half years. One leading figure in the Republicans was Isidora Dolores Ibárruri Gómez known as "La Pasionaria" who famously said during the siege: No pasarán! ("They shall not pass!"). Franco himself, after the fall of Madrid in March 1939 dryly commented: Pasamos ("we passed"). Again, don't assume I am a fan of the Nationalists or of Franco, but this was an interesting exchange. For some other perspectives on the Spanish Civil War I recommend the book by George Orwell, who fought with an anarchist brigade, titled Homage to Catalonia.

I sense an echo of this tough, no-nonsense mentality in Madrileños even today. If you ask directions, they give them quickly and clearly. When I was buying tickets yesterday, the lady at the counter incisively determined which ones I wanted and printed them out in under a minute. Maybe I have been living in Mexico too long? And maybe this is a quality particular to Madrileños and less pronounced in the rest of Spain?

After the death of Franco in 1975, Spain went through of bit of an orgy of loosening of the social strictures that goes on today. Last weekend I was entering my favorite tapas bar and noticed a huge demonstration marching down the street. I asked the waiter what it was about and he dryly responded "en favor de marijuana." The next day there was another huge march for women where it seemed half the women in Madrid were wearing hot pink t-shirts saying "Hoy gana las chicas!" But the underlying bones of the country are still pretty conservative. Spain is the last country in Europe to have as sovereign a member of the Bourbon dynasty: Felipe VI. He came to power in 2014 when his father, Juan Carlos I, stepped down. He had assumed the throne two days after Franco's death in 1975. Yes, they are constitutional monarchs and the day to day governing of the country is handled by elected members, but it does make a difference. Juan Carlos' wife Sofía is a huge supporter of the arts. She is patron of the museum Reina Sofía where the most famous painting of the 20th century is on display, the Guernica by Picasso. Saturday night I am attending a concert by the Reina Sofía Chamber Orchestra and next week I am seeing a couple of concerts in Valencia in the Palau des Artes Reina Sofía of which she is also patron. As a loyal subject of Queen Elizabeth II, sovereign of Canada as well as the UK, Australia, New Zealand and a few other places, I believe it does make a difference and just want to note that our queen has been very chary with her patronage of the arts.

Spain certainly has its fair share of problems, but its conservative intellectual class does not seem to have succumbed to the utter lunacy that ours has in Canada. Your milage may vary, of course.

For our envoi, here is the Orquesta de Camera Reina Sofía playing the Symphony No. 4 of Beethoven:


Marc Puckett said...

Yet again you repeat the canard that the Spanish king is the last reigning Bourbon, ha, so I'll remind you yet again of Luxembourg. (I'm joking of course; I notice this probably because the university in the town where I grew up has its European center in Luxembourg, and the father of a high school friend was head of said center and US ambassador at the court of Grand Duke Jean in the early 80s.)

Los madrileños are reputed to be rather arrogant, yes, but in my limited experience that is down to people having enjoyed a certain position in society rather than to them having grown up in Madrid. Perhaps the children of maids and bus drivers are as proud as those of admirals, if they've been raised in Madrid. :-)

Bryan Townsend said...


When I was editing this post, I remembered your previous correction about Luxembourg and thought about adding the caveat "last major country ruled by a Bourbon" but then I decided to leave it so as to leave you something to critique! Thanks!

Apart from a certain impatience, I haven't noticed arrogance as such. A lot of people here are obviously (and not obviously) from other places. Of two people on the street I have had chance conversations with, one was from Valencia and the other from Toledo.