August 4, 2010
“If we ignore history, we are bound to repeat it.” This is a quip Dale uses frequently, but whether it is his own or a quote from someone else, I am not sure. I think that even when we study history, too often we fail to make connections between modern times and events that happened in a long ago time and a far away land. Or we focus on details and facts and ignore the universal themes from which we could take a lesson from the past.
I have just finished reading The Spanish Civil War: A Very Short Introduction by Helen Graham, in which I found a great many commonalities between the causes of that civil war and the cultural wars which appear to be escalating in the U.S. today. She ends her book thus:
Spain’s Civil War, as a war of cultures, remains a parable for our times … as we search for that still elusive ‘life both free and human’. The parable remains – even though the forms of our inhumanity to one another are each time differently configured.
I am acutely aware of these “forms of inhumanity” especially now, upon my return home from Spain as I experience the “culture shock” of being back in my own country and inundated with news and media images that are, to me, clearly a manifestation of “cultural wars” derived from fear fueled by economic hard times and social change. This is the framework for the underlying causes of the Spanish Civil War. Regarding the reforms made by the Republican government of the early 1930s (when, it should be remembered, the world was in the throes of the Great Depression), Graham writes (bolded print is my own for emphasis) as follows. (pp. 2-3)
All the republican reforms, as well as the social welfare legislation of their socialist colleagues, were designed to increase economic democracy as the essential prerequisite for establishing political democracy. Progressive republicans were above all constitutionalists, though they understood that many more of the economically and socially dispossessed had to be included before the Republic could effectively implement the rule of law. But understanding a situation is one thing, having the power required to implement the necessary measures is quite another.
The Republic’s was an immensely ambitious programme of structural reform. Indeed, it was almost certainly too ambitious to attempt so much at one time. Even worse, the attempt was being made at a time of world economic depression, when the new government was saddled with a burden of debt from the Primo dictatorship. But it is understandable that republicans and socialists felt there was no time to delay; it was half a century since progressive political forces had been in power – and then only very briefly… So the perceived backlog of reform (again viewed in comparative European perspective) was considerable. However, the inherent complexity of structural reform combined with the difficulties the government had in finding experienced personnel … only added to the problems rapidly gathering on the new political horizon.
For, inevitably, the reforms raised opposition among Spain’s traditional elites. The response of the ecclesiastical hierarchy struck an apocalyptic note even before the Republic had begun to make policy. The pastoral letter issued by the Cardinal Primate on 1 May 1931 contained an incendiary royalist homily that caused the government to require him to leave Spain. His call to the faithful to mobilize in spiritual and patriotic rearmament came close to declaring the Republic an illegitimate regime. Moreover, the public words of other bishops did so overtly when they described the Republic as the triumph of error and sin.
All it takes here is to substitute some of the specifics to Spain in the 1930s for those specific to the U.S. in the latter part of the first decade of the 21st century to see a clear parallel. In the throes of an economic recession of a severity not experienced since the Great Depression, a visionary and intellectual reformer is swept into power who relies on the use of deliberation, intellect and the desire to reach out to all political constituencies. Barack Obama was a great campaigner and he made rousing speeches during his presidential campaign in which he made some promises that the American public longed to hear. Of course, there were many detractors, but the tide of desire for reform from an economically hurting public carried him into power by a large margin of voters.
Once in office, Obama has not been able to deliver on some of his promises, although he has done much “behind the scenes”. Today it is the media that controls the polemic, and the media has polarized behind the two parties slinging invective and the GOP falling generally into lockstep with the “leaders” of their party (including media figures such as Rush Limbaugh, who have tremendous power to influence the public). The Democrats, meanwhile, have suffered a lot of infighting and have been wimps in the face of the GOP monolith. (I am referring to the Republican Party only as GOP here, so as not to confuse it with the Republicans of Spain, who were the reformists.) Democrats like to debate, they are “democratic” in that they all want to have a voice and are less inclined to follow the leader than those in the GOP. The Republicans of Spain suffered from this same infighting, which contributed to their downfall, because they could not be effective leaders in the face of the “rebel” opposition backed by the Axis powers of Europe, and still be “democratic.” It seems to be a plague of democracy. Which is more important, law and order and strong leadership, or the tolerance of “free speech” to the extreme of lies and slander?
Of course, just as in Spain, the reforms came up against the “traditional elites” – in modern times, Wall Street bankers and other moneyed interests who have tremendous power. Somehow, these interests have been able to rally a great number of “common people” – citizens dissatisfied with the lack of economic opportunities and afraid of change – who don’t appear to realize that their interests are not represented by the right wing. I am thinking of the so-called “Tea Party” but it is not only these; there are many rural-based conservatives, especially in the South, who do not want the kind of change they see every day on TV: more sexual permissiveness, gay rights, and especially, what seems to be a constant influx of illegal immigrants from Mexico crossing over the border, bringing drugs and crime and “taking” U.S. jobs.
Out of fear for their own economic futures, it is easier to blame people who are “different” in an obvious way (skin color, different language and culture) than to explore the real causes of these problems, which are exactly the powerful people they support. Many of these people are simply ignorant, and believe that what they hear on Fox is actually “news”. They are scared and don’t know where to turn. They see themselves as being under assault: their religion (by secular rules in public life, such as not allowing prayer in public schools), their values (gay rights, reproductive rights) and their jobs (either their employers are closing down and moving to China, or they are hiring “cheap” labor from over the border). The feminist movement which has evolved over the last several decades has now been epitomized in the person of Sarah Palin, who evokes the “grizzly bear mama” image, not the kinds of things that are actually in the interest of modern women – such as ending foreign wars, more funding for education, day care, and health care for all.
The greatest evil in all this is not realizing that true change takes time and that it is not going to be easy. Sacrifices must be made, Obama says, but someone who has lost his job sees this on TV and is resentful that he should be required to make more sacrifices. Yet Wall Street is NOT being called upon to make sacrifices, and this contradiction has not been lost on the American public. Obama, in trying to appease all interests, has satisfied no one.
Graham goes on to say, on page 12, in talking about Republican attempts to secularize society:
It is equally true…that the political forms of this new conservative mobilization would have been inconceivable without the well-established organizational networks of the Catholic Church in Spain. (As the GOP enjoys the backing of the right wing evangelical movement).
Republican reformers got the worst of all worlds. (Obama has too, being attacked for whatever and no matter what he does). [In attempting to debar religious orders from teaching] the republicans had mobilized a powerful coalition of conservative forces against themselves. Given budgetary constraints too, it is hard to see how the Republic could in the short term have entirely replaced the Church’s role in primary education.
Republican secularization was, then, impolitic, ill thought-out, and largely counter-productive. … Polemics about secularization are very much still alive in politically liberal and culturally diverse Western societies of the 21st society, yet few would suggest that their basic constitutional credentials are negated thereby. Not ‘liberalism’ nor ‘constitutionalism’ nor ‘democracy’ are free-floating concepts; all have to be understood and interrogated in specific historical contexts. Conservative Catholics in 1930s Spain were outraged that their beliefs and practices were being constrained, but they themselves entertained no concept of civil and cultural rights within the Spanish state for those professing other religions, still less for freethinkers or atheists.
This phenomenon can be understood in a historical context, since Spain had been the heartland of the Inquisition which persecuted anyone who was not Catholic. Having purged, exiled or converted those of other faiths, the centers of the “three cultures” became mere historical landmarks, a distant dream of interfaith tolerance. As Spain emerged into the 20th century, those who professed other faiths were certainly a small minority.
But returning to the comparison between 1930s Spain and 21st century United States, religious conservatives today are “outraged” that their beliefs and values are no longer the norm and, constitutionally, separated from official public life. Even now, in 2010, I get emails from conservative friends lamenting the lack of prayer in public schools, and reproductive rights are still a religious debate over the concept of when “life” begins. The legality of gay marriage is still being debated in California. What is this but a religious debate? Homosexuals are seen as sexual deviants, condemned as sinners by some interpretations of the Bible, as if their sexual orientation were a choice. In spite of scientific evidence to the contrary, religious conservatives insist on this position as well as that evolution is not true because it contradicts the Biblical creation story. They want evolution to only be taught in school alongside the concept of “intelligent design.”
Another thing that happened in Spain during this time of cultural upheaval and economic uncertainty was a religious revival:
It was because these local worlds [private and family devotions and communal piety] were felt to be threatened – by Republican reform, but also by larger processes of accelerating social and economic change of which the Republic was seen to be a part – that religious revival played such a significant part in popular opposition to the new regime. At Ezkioga in the Basque Country there were new Marian apparitions in 1931, when people reported seeing visions of the Virgin Mary. Large pilgrimages ensued. … Religious visions tend to occur at times of trauma-inducing upheaval. Common triggers are economic crises, epidemics, war, and political persecutions. Although it is not usually a conscious process, religion then takes on an additionally powerful meaning, as a defence against new and frightening things. … Catholic mobilization in 1930s Spain was predominantly that of lay people who, well before the Civil War itself, came to see themselves as engaged on a crusade to defend an endangered way of life. (p. 11)
It was only a few years ago when there were a spate of “sightings” such as water dripping under a bridge in Chicago, which created a stain that resembled the Virgin Mary and a few of my students’ parents made pilgrimages to the site to pray and leave flowers. There was Jesus’s face in a burned piece of toast or a potato chip. People can imagine whatever they want when their minds are full of fear. The piece of toast was even put up for sale on eBay! It became a big joke because of its absurdity. People cling to these things in times of uncertainty. Everyone criticized Obama for making the remark that people would “cling to their guns and religion” in uncertain economic times. It may have seemed like an elitist thing to say but it was true.
More evidence for economic deprivation leading to generalized discontent in the face of a government who cannot provide adequate services quickly enough, as is happening in the U.S. today, also happened in 1930s Spain during the Republican government:
The thwarting of popular aspirations for social change produced disillusion not only among the landless poor and unemployed of the rural south exasperated by the durability of the old relations of power, but also among worker constituencies in urban Spain. Here the effects of the depression were beginning to bite. Unemployment was rising, especially among the unskilled, … Many were now living below the level of subsistence. (There is disillusion that Obama has not been able to stem the tide of unemployment, by his kowtowing to the powerful and wealthy interests, and by legislation that, while it finally passed after a long battle in Congress, extends unemployment benefits but still cuts them after 99 weeks). But the Republic’s ability to mitigate the situation through social welfare was limited. … The republican-socialist government did more in relative terms to deliver social welfare than any previous administration. Ironically, it was in part the huge level of popular expectation of the Republic that saw this achievement interpreted as a policy failure. I don’t think I even need to point out the similarities between the struggles of the Republican administration in Spain and the Obama administration in the U.S. in this last statement.
Before and during the Civil War, there was also an undercurrent of racism, which is clearly evident in the United States. Racism always surfaces when people feel threatened. The controversial anti-immigration law in Arizona is an example of this. Mexicans continue to cross the border illegally into Arizona, bringing with them (or so it is perceived) the violence of the drug wars, crime, and cheap labor. Racial profiling is part of the new law, and in debate about whether this is a constitutional infringement of citizens’ or legal immigrants’ rights, people don’t seem to get that we need to protect people’s rights in a democracy. They will counter that these people are costing our economy too much money. In reality, a fraction of the U.S. budget is going to support these people, compared to the huge military budgets and the financial benefits enjoyed by the wealthy and powerful. However, it is easy to blame the Mexican worker who comes across the border to find honest work to feed his family because technically he has done something illegal. It is much harder to challenge the multinational corporate monolith that makes this possible and necessary. Given a choice to feed your family, which has become impossible in your own country, by breaking the law in crossing the border, or waiting to come through legal channels and risking starvation or assassination by drug gangs in the meantime, which would you choose??
I am not saying that we should not do anything about illegal immigration, but I am opposed to the burden always being on the immigrant. What about the employers who break the law in hiring them? What about the corruption of the Mexican government and its apparent inability to provide adequately for its citizens? These problems need to be addressed if immigration “reform” is to be effective.
Another evidence of racism is the continuous and completely unfounded epithets thrown at Obama: He is Muslim, he is not a U.S. citizen, he was born in Kenya. This debate still goes on even when he has refuted all these claims and has proven his citizenship by producing his Hawaiian birth certificate.
Many issues have lessons in the Spanish Civil War. In her conclusion, Graham states that doing history is, by definition, an unending dialogue between the present and the past. Much of what was at stake in Spain remains in present-day dilemmas at whose heart lie issues of race, religion, gender, and other forms of culture war that change us not to resort to political or other types of violence. In short…we should not mythologize our fears and turn them as weapons on those who are different. The Spanish Civil War and all the other civil wars of Europe’s mid-20th century were configured in great part by this mythologizing of fear, by a hatred of difference. The greatest challenge of the 21st century is, then, not to do this. It is an exhortation of particular relevance to Spain itself as, for the first time in its modern history, it becomes a country of inward (im)migration. (pp. 149-150).
Spain now struggles with 20% unemployment, a recessionary economy, and an influx of immigrants from many parts of the world, including China. These immigrants are beginning to be seen as “a problem” in much the same way as Mexicans are for the United States. However, I did not detect (and perhaps I simply was not exposed to it) overt racism or reactionary measures to keep people out. My concern is the acceleration of the culture wars in my own country that have invaded so much of our political discourse and have created dangerous polarizations. While I do not believe another civil war is imminent here, I do believe that the discontent in our society will intensify and lead to poor political choices in future elections which will have a negative impact on many areas of life here as well as foreign policy. This is what worries me.