The pain in Spain: fighting against progress

So far I've been focusing here on the Spanish left. But the real problem is the Spanish right. According to all opinion polls, the left draws the sympathies of a sizeable majority, and the Partido socialista obrero español (PSOE) has been the governing party for 20 of the past 25 years, achieving much in economic development, the growth of per capita income, and human rights legislation. But it has had to fight every step of the way, and its hold on power is precarious. The problem, of course, is the peculiar character of the Spanish right.

Spanish conservatives are not merely pro-business "liberals," as that word is used in Spain. "Liberal" here means defender of the free-market before other more social interests, and thus implies merciless capitalist exploitation -- which in the 19th century was equated with "Progress" (see last week's blog). The core of the Spanish right is far more conservative than that: not 19th century, which was far too dangerously enlightened (Darwin et al.), but reaching back to 1492. That was the year that Spanish intolerance reached unprecedented levels, with the expulsion of Muslims and Jews from the newly united kingdom. It was also the year that Queen Isabel sent Columbus on his adventure to find the Indies, the year that Antonio de Nebrija presented the Catholic Monarchs with the first grammar of the Castilian (now called "Spanish") language (“Language has always been the companion of empire,” he explained in his introduction), and the year the price of gold reached its all-time historical high. A very good time for empire and a moment the Spanish right would like to freeze.

Spain did not invent intolerance (remember Samson's attempted genocide of the Philistines), but its monarch and clergy did invent institutions and even a special vocabulary for it. Our words "race" (in the sense of a subspecies of humans) and "caste" both have Spanish origins. The main institution was the Inquisition, an instrument for squashing innovation so effective that Spain -- once the greatest power in Europe -- stagnated as Holland, France and especially England advanced technically and comercially and soon had taken all Spain's possessions in the Old World (the Low Countries, Naples, etc.) and most of its wealth from the New. Popular resistence to such repression never ceased, causing the Inquisition to be abolished repeatedly, but repeatedly it returned along with the reactionaries who resumed power after every crisis. Abolished in 1808, it was reintroduced in 1814 after the defeat of Napoleon, then abolished again in 1820, restored again in 1823, and not abolished definitively until 1834. The progressive 19th century of the rest of Europe never had a chance in Spain. And though it did not carry that name, something very like the Inquisition was reinstituted by Francisco Franco (1939-75), as the Catholic Church became in effect (again) an arm of the state.

And for many Spaniards today, that is still their ideal of eternal Spain: all Catholic, all heterosexual, all speaking Castilian (and not Basque or Catalán or Gallego or Valenciano or anything else), all obedient to one temporal authority acting in the name of the supreme authority of God (the Roman Catholic God, that is -- not others are allowed). The party most rightists vote for, the misnamed Popular Party (PP), claims to be defending democracy, but its values do not derive from the people but from their constituents' vision of eternal Spain. As a recent example, the PP has blocked renewing the membership of the highest court and as many other measures as it could because it doesn't regard the party that won the elections as legitimate. In short, the PP does not regard the popular will as expressed by voting to be a source of legitimacy. The proof of its illegitimacy is that the PSOE-led government has approved same-sex marriages, recognizes the aspirations of non-Castilian-speaking regions, promotes integration of immigrants and, most damning of all, has sought to laicize education, at least partly.

The Spanish right is a minority but an extremely determined and potentially violent one. Its components include outright fascists waving Falangist banners and assaulting immigrants, an indignant clergy that denounces a course on citizenship as an attack on the Church's exclusive authority over moral values, the Church's outrageously reactionary radio network COPE (which, among other absurdities, has repeatedly called for the king's abdication on the grounds that he is too friendly to the Socialists), and an extremely vociferous organization of "victims of terrorism." The AVT represents only relatives of victims of ETA but not of 11 March 2004 (which happened on the PP government's watch) and has persuaded itself that the Socialists, just because they are Socialists, must be allies of the terrorists. And of course PP supporters also include the usual shady business interests anxious to avoid restrictions on their expoliation of the landscape, perforation of illegal wells in a thirsty country, and other abuses.

Together, they can stage very noisy, colorful demonstrations where they insult the government enthusiastically. More seriously, they have enough deputies in Congress to block any initiative requiring more than a simple majority (such as renewing the membership of the high court). And this is why the Socialist government proceeds cautiously, too cautiously for many of its potential supporters on the left. The state still subsidizes the Catholic Church out of taxes, and in addition still pays salaries for religious instruction in the public schools (students can opt out of that class, but it must be offered) while permitting Church authorities to select and fire the instructors on grounds of creed or anything else.

The Socialists are in a bind. If they try to move too fast, they will be blocked on everything. If they don't move fast enough, voters who oppose the right will stay home or will vote for one of the smaller leftist parties.

Well, I never got to it, but what I had intended to write about today was a symptom of this unending stalemate, the publication of the latest report (2006 data) of Programme for International Student Assessment, PISA. This is an international, triennial measure of 15-year old students' academic abilities in the 30 member nations of the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) plus 5 non-member states. In a terrible embarrassment, Spain came out near the bottom of all the European nations in the three categories: number 32 in mathematics (of western European countries, only Portugal scored lower), 35 in reading (above Greece but below everybody else in W. Europe), and a little better in science where it was no. 31 (ahead of Lithuania, Norway and Italy). Worse, Spain's rankings in math and reading had dropped since the last report (2003 measurements). There are many reasons, of course -- there always are, and may excuses, for a failure. But a big part is due to the failure to institute any comprehensive reform of an antiquated and underfunded school system partly dominated by the clergy, and this is due to the right-left stalemate in Congress.

However, the PISA report wasn't all bad news. Some of Spain's regions, tested separately, did better than the European average, La Rioja best of all. The worst was my home region, Andalucía. Truly woeful results, explained by the Socialist regional president, Manuel Chaves, as a result of Andalucía's historical backwardness -- that is, it had been the least-developed region since Franco times. But we recall that some countries that were at least as backward back then have made far greater strides; Cuba comes to mind. And Chaves' argument doesn't explain why the results were worse in 2006 than in 2003!

But at least Spain can congratulate itself that its students score far better in math than those from countries with more wretched school systems, such as Kirgizstan (no. 57) and the United States of America (no. 35). Canada, in contrast, did very well: no. 7 in math, 4 in reading and 3 in science. Maybe those Canadian kids are brighter. Or maybe there's something wrong with public education in countries like Kirgizstan, the United States and Spain.

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