Monday, October 23, 2017

Don’t tell Catalans to speak white

“Speak White!”

By that he meant to “speak English”.

My friends had told me that some English Canadians would say such a thing. I had never seen that done in person before. At that time one would have already assumed such blatant bigotry to be a thing of the past in Quebec and I am sure it continues to be a thing of the past today. 

The middle age guy in business slacks and an open collar shirt had made it clear that this kind of anti-French chauvinism was not a thing of the past for him as I was trying to find an address in English speaking west Montreal. It seems that I was more than geographically lost. I had asked for help in French, which was the language of two thirds of the city and ninety percent of the province. For an answer I got one of my early lessons on how minority ethnic groups can be treated. 

Of the various forms of entitlement that dominant groups have, one of the common ones is to make the dominated speak the boss’ language.

Catalans have been told to “speak white” too.
Let’s not join the chorus of those telling them that. 

I’ll be very clear that I do not know much about Catalonia. The only time I went there my reaction was a great big internal sigh. “Yet another Romance language?” In school one learns that there are five Romance languages and in Europe one learns that there are a few more. Catalan was not so hard to decipher when it was written and nobody ever gave me any attitude when I spoke with them in Central American Spanish. 

I know even less of the history, but I do know that under the Fascist Franco dictatorship their local language was basically outlawed and democracy has meant a return of Catalan to the schools. To “speak white” in Catalonia is to speak Spanish.

I understand that there is a regional authority based on the constitution that was written after the dictatorship back in ‘78, and that the last election gave a majority of seats in that local assembly to nationalists and separatists of at least two types. It is they who decided to hold a referendum on independence.

We all know that the Spanish police attacked voting stations, at times violently, and that the Spanish government seized funds and threatened and jailed mayors who were hosting the referendum vote because we got to watch that part in the world news. 

A big justification of all Spanish actions is that the referendum is not “legal” which is echoed as an arrogant lecture by the BBC and clever background by NPR. In our country we should not need to think very hard to remember that when Rosa Parks sat down, she too was breaking the law. Legal in this case is not the exact words in their post Franco constitution but the interpretation that a court made of it. Do we remember “separate but equal”? 

Before the Spanish authorities sent in the police to stop people from voting, the opinion polls showed that independence would have probably lost. Less than half of the people who could have voted did so and most all of those votes went towards a YES for independence. The majority did not get to vote and we can assume that most of them would have voted NO and some probably would have voted YES. It is hard to say what the vote would be today considering the obvious backlash after the Spanish police violently suppressed their referendum and the large number of voters who were seriously hurt.

One has to admire those ten percent of voters who risked police repression to go vote NO.

No doubt that there are many more complications. It would be surprising if the map of the Catalan autonomous area corresponded at all times to where ethnic Catalans live today and there must be a large number of residents from other parts of Spain as well as immigrants from inside and outside of Europe.

There were probably a good number of people who did not care that much.

There is an open border between Catalonia and France because both Spain and France are full participants in Europe. They have the European Union free flow of goods and people, they both participate in the open customs and visa union and the are both using the Euro as their currency. This is real Europe, not the half-in half-out version of Europe we hear so much about from the English language media, especially the BBC. Their lives are very integrated and that border is now an old formality where a car no longer has to even stop.

So, if Catalonia voted to succeed and they negotiated a deal with Spain so that both could stay in Europe with the same treaty obligations, then what exactly would be the big difference?

And now I hear all kinds of people saying why Catalonia should not be independent, and by that I do not mean the Spanish government.

By all kinds of people I mean that I hear all kinds of our fellow Americans saying why Catalonia should not be independent.

(We read it in the overseas press too. Let’s keep in mind that minority regional national groups exist all across Europe and the world, so that many anti Catalan voices are really anti-Tibetan voices, anti-Scottish voices, anti-Corse voices and other similar voices from across the continent not wanting to allow in Spain what they do not want to allow at home.)

We outsiders do not have standing to make a judgment on the independence of nations.

The value of the independence cause is not for Americans to decide one way or the other. Not in Catalonia and not anywhere else. The negotiations that would lead to such a separation are between the Catalan government and the central government in Madrid.

Some international law makes it totally appropriate for our government to have a word and a vote on issues that come before the security council of the United Nations. Part of that law covers civil rights. When the Spanish government rules that the Catalan independence referendum is not legal, well that is their internal affair. When the Spanish Civil Guard police are beating voters and arresting people for wanting to be independent, we have a probable violation of the international charter on human rights. If the Catalan government made a request for help based on that, the UN should hear them out. There are also international courts that do not involve the USA including one for human rights in Europe, where a case could be heard. Those courts may come into play before this is over.

What is all the stranger is to see our chattering classes take the side of the Spanish government or the Catalan separatists when we should leave them alone.

But is it not part of our US culture to give ourselves the right to judge? Isn’t our never ending problem with Cuba based on the idea that we have a right to tell them what kind of a government is right or wrong for Cuba? Our right wing says the Communists are bad and that justifies trying to force regime change and our left wing says that the Castros have done a lot of good things and should be left alone. Neither seems clear that it is up to Cubans to decide, not us.

I wonder what such people will say now to Puerto Rican’s who want independence. How does membership in the United States family look in Puerto Rico today? Will we also have a public discourse to tell them what they should think? Will US politicians have the gall to tell them not to hold a referendum on statehood or independence? Maybe instead of judging Catalan politics, we should watch and learn so that we might do better ourselves? 

One commentator on NPR went as far as to say that Catalonia (as if it were a single person) has no claim on independence because it has been part of Spain since some takeover centuries ago and that things have been fine since. I guess having their local language outlawed for a fifty year dictatorship is part of what that person calls “fine” ever since. In Quebec French was never outlawed and things were still not “fine”.

On line I have heard arguments from Americans against Catalan independence based on such things as the fact that Catalonia has a good economy. Does one have to have a bad economy to be a nation apart?

“Did I see oppression in Catalonia when I was there?” That was a “counter argument” that another on-line correspondent sent my way. No I did not, but I did see that they were a different ethnic group from the Spanish. Does one have to be oppressed to justify independence? 

That same person listed two Spanish government threats as reasons to doubt the legitimacy of the local parliament’s call for a negotiation with Madrid. The threats are to encourage businesses to leave Catalonia and to block any eventual Catalan membership in the European Union.

The same kind of threatening actions in a business contract dissolution would get you a lawsuit for coercion and in family court it would earn you a stay away order.

Other voices seem to think that Catalonia needs to be “free”. Since when did US support for separatism in Europe equal “freedom”? Do we mean human rights by that freedom? And since when is it our business to take such a position in our politics? We have standing to demand that Spain respect the human rights accords that we have all signed. We have standing to oppose a military conflict or insurgency when democratic and peaceful dialog is possible. We have no legal or ethical cause to say one group of foreigners should or shouldn’t be independent from another.

That is sort of like advising a couple on getting divorced. Unless something is seriously wrong or you are close enough that it involves you, one stays out of it.

If by “freedom” we mean a better state of self-governance and higher level of civil rights, then the US record is poor in Europe. Some understanding that minority linguistic rights are human rights would go a long way to improve our foreign relations, and for example, it could correct our misguided involvement in the Ukraine.

Our US press would be giving us better reporting about the conflict in the eastern Ukraine if our media would remember that part of the context that started this war was a Ukrainian provisional government outlawing the easterners use of Russian as their local language and also shut down their regional political parties. Those people have been Russian speakers since before any of those national governments, or our own nation, existed.

We are poorly served by this kind of partial reporting and we are seriously mislead by the charlatans that pass off one sided legalese and distorted half-truths as some kind of analysis when what they are really doing is finding justifications for an aggressive attitude towards Russia. To listen to NPR and the BBC, the Ukrainian crisis is 100% Russian involvement and they skip quickly over the part about how the people involved are not all ethnic Ukrainians as if that is unimportant. 

Reporting on a series of conflicts around Europe suffers this blindness to the needs of regional ethnic groups. Most of what we think we know about Ukraine and ex-Yugoslavia is too segmented to be of any value.

Somehow the statements of the head of the Serbian government did not make the news here. In Serbia the question asked about Catalonia was simple. I’ll paraphrase it to: 

“Why don’t the Catalans have the right to even ask Spain for negotiated independence when the Kosovo government was given the right to unilaterally declare independence without holding a vote and without negotiating with Serbia?”

“Why” is because our governments and their apologists have one set of rules for their friends and another for anyone else. Justifications are made on the fly. National rights are called paramount in one conflict, but declared outdated in another and most of our press just echoes the nonsense.

Ethically we have a chance to find some clarity about one of the most common crimes committed by majority groups all over the world, the crime of the denial of dignity and self-determination to the minority. There are lots of pros and cons about independence but I do not see any pros in the Spanish government making it effectively illegal to even ask for independence and I do not see how that is not political repression.

What Madrid has to say is all over the news. The Prime Minister and the King have told Catalans to stop wanting independence, that they should not ask for it and that they are not even allowed to hold a vote on the matter. Requesting negotiations has been met with a move to dissolve their local autonomy. 

We should not be judging the issue and our government should not be taking sides but we certainly have an opportunity to reflect on the ethics involved in Spain and here at home. And one of the things we should push for is that our government should not take sides other than the sides of respect for human rights, peace between nations and respect for other countries right to resolve their own affairs. For the USA that would be a three part policy change.

One can find a lot of press talking about why Catalonia should not hold a vote, should not want independence and should not do anything outside of the way a Madrid court interprets a constitution that Barcelona never ratified. And that talk is in Spanish, English and French.

Ask yourself how much news you have heard coming directly from the Catalan government or even from any Catalonian analysts, journalists, and union leaders or folk on the street. This is a problem with our media most of the time. Ask yourself the same question about the Russian speakers of eastern Ukraine. How often do we hear a report included their views directly?

This is the same talk I got to hear in Montreal, in English, about the Québécois, in Nicaragua, in Spanish, about the Atlantic Coast and in China, in Mandarin, about the Tibetans. All talk from the majority telling us that their minority is doing fine and should not be complaining. 

In effect, the minority groups get told that they should all shut up and speak white.

And the sub text is that “speaking white” is not to speak about their national rights.

We as a country should have some principals to guide our foreign policy. We don’t. Given the economic and military interests that dominant our government we won’t change this double standard by which we judge the rights of national minorities any time soon. In fact, minority rights is not even the main problem with our foreign policy. Our country does not respect the sovereignty of other nations, dictates terms, advocates for the interests of our affluent plutocrats and business sectors and throws around its weight with the world's largest military. Issues like regional autonomy pale in comparison with the structural problems.

So it is up to us as a people to bring some sanity, compassion, ethics and law into our public discourse when we have such an event as we have in Spain right now.

As a culture we need to rid ourselves of our feeling of entitlement that allows us to judge and lecture these national minorities or their majorities. As Americans, we need to stop thinking we are the judge of any foreign government. Not in Cuba, not in Spain and not in Barcelona.

We could start by listening to our own national minorities who are asking for redress without the arrogance of us telling them what their problems are and what rights they do and don’t have to protest injustice. That would be a big change for a country that can hardly tolerate a black football player kneeling because our police are trigger happy shooting young black men. 

Internationally we need to learn that the way to counter the right wing discourse that dictates to other nations is not a left wing judgment of other peoples. That too would be a big change for a people who have dominated Latin America for generations and do things like invade Iraq.

But maybe, just maybe, we could look into the better part of our history and pull out a principal that we could use to guide ourselves in respect for other people's national rights:

Government with the consent of the governed.


  1. If Catalunya declares itself an independent nation, it would cease to be covered by Spain’s UE membership, laws and banking system. The new nation would have to negotiate accession to the European Union under the Rome treaties to enjoy the equality of trade and movement it now has. Borders with France and Spain would have to be set up. All those “details” would take years of negotiations. That is why corporations now resident in Barcelona are leaving for Madrid and other Spanish towns.

  2. That's the threat.
    Same one the Tory government successfully made against Scotland before the English ironically voted for Brexit.