The Birth of a Nation
Is this what the birth of a nation looks like? A rushed ballot in a half-filled parliament? A unilateral declaration of independence without any assurances about the future with Spain, in Europe or the world? The occupation of city streets with impressionable youths drip-fed nativist fantasies by opportunistic oligarchs? The transferring of power from one corrupt government to another?
I’ve never been a part of a nation’s birth before, so I’m wondering, is this what it’s always like? Because it’s so far removed from any romantic notion of new nationhood that I previously had, of the oppressed masses rising up against adversity and overwhelming a malevolent state. Of a fight that was just and decent, one that I could get behind and maybe spend some Orwellian time in the trenches, or perhaps ride Hemingway-straddled on the front of a tank on my way to liberate my favourite tapas bar.
I had hoped that new nations, particularly those born on the bosom of enlightenment, would be beacons of tolerance and virtue, the work of bridges, not borders, inclusive, not exclusive. I never thought that I’d live amongst people who were so intent on magnifying the few differences that they have from their fellows instead of focusing on the manifold similarities. Perhaps inclusiveness requires more toil; maybe it’s default human nature to get lost in otherness, but surely the outcome is more worthwhile when we shake that basic programming and work on what makes us the same.
I have watched in dismay as politicians draw power from division, rewriting history and inflaming nationalistic fervour by appealing to our worst propensities towards greed and superiority, magnifying jealousies and grudges. On both sides of the divide, the people in the streets are encouraged to be their worst, to look deep inside and see just how intolerant they can really be, and to use that intolerance in the legitimacy dick-measuring contest that has become street protesting: my protest was bigger than yours; my police force would beat your police force in a fight. I’ve covered more walls in paper and plastic propaganda. Is there a less environmentally friendly independence movement?
Never have I ever seen so many flags in my life, emblazoned upon shirt fronts and hanging from balconies, waved from high, bending poles and always, always always worn as capes. The red and yellow blue-triangle white star of the independent Catalan republic; the simple red and yellow of Catalunya as a region of Spain; the broader reds and yellow of Spain, sometimes with the royal seal, sometimes without; the independent Catalan flag, but with the queer rainbow instead of the red and yellow; the foreboding eagle of Franco’s dictatorship; the green, white and red overlapping crosses of the Basque country; the Spanish flag with a Carlist heart, a cruel homage to an antiquated source of Catalan discontent; the stars of the European Union, being waved by both sides; the white and red cross of Barcelona, and, most bizarrely, the Spanish national flag but with the seal of Malaga F.C. taking pride of place in the centre.
Depending on the mood of the moment, Barcelona’s ubiquitous street-hawking south Asian community have traded beer, cerveza, beer, for whichever flag is popular on the day, staving off a slow winter for a few more weeks, while profiting from this lizard-brain need to adorn oneself in their nationalist affiliation. Perhaps the only positive to have come from this exercise in political peacockery.
I’ve marched amongst people who should know better, the educated classes agitating for change for the sake of change, the elderly who are especially adept at seeing the world as long as their walk to the store and the professional indignants who will always have something to chant about. I’ve heard the power of belonging, of the repetitiously repeated chants one can yell out to receive a resounding response from their fellows, converting them from strangers to allies. Visca Catalunya! Visca! ¡Viva España! Viva! I’ve walked with children, literal children, indoctrinated in the home and schoolyard to believe the mythology of an independent Catalunya, and I’ve kept my distance from and an eye on the fascists, dyed in the wool fascists with braces and boots, the garden variety fascists from the poorest parts of town, and some ethno-nationalists whose apparent lack of genetic diversity makes a great case for interracial breeding. Seeing these mouth breeders raise their right hand at a 45-degree angle in a European city was shocking, seeing the polo-wearing upper classes do the same when they’d had their fill of one-euro beer was sad.
Btu for the most part, and what is the most concerning, is what I haven’t seen. Because for every flashy display of street solidarity, there are countless more Catalans cowering at home, afraid to make their position known to friends and family lest they be tarred with that too-used Francoist brush. The silent majority, the scared majority, the majority that are seeing their social fabric ripped into two puerile parts, the 49 per cent of Catalans who don’t want independence as opposed the 41 who do. These are the people who are unconcerned with these trifling matters of nationhood, but wondering, like everybody else with a bit of breath in them, how they can make their lot, their world, better. This silent majority doesn’t take to the streets and swill beer and scream, they sit in darkened salons and wonder who the fuck is running this country and what plans do they have beyond this game of nationalist brinkmanship.
The silent majority doesn’t care for this exercise in nation birthing, but as is the nature of their vocation, their pragmatism isn’t afforded space in the news cycle. The silent majority sits and waits to see what will happen, while fools and charlatans play games with their future.
I never thought that the birth of a nation would look like this, and I still hang tight to the hope that it doesn’t.
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Ex-editor of Australia’s Surfing Life, current producer and host of 50 Fiestas, Barcelona resident and drinker of all the wine, every last drop of it.