As you may know, Catalonia, a region in eastern Spain that has a distinct language and culture, has in recent years been making loud noises about possibly declaring independence. This despite the fact that the Spanish Constitution explicitly forbids any region of Spain from declaring independence.
There is no denying that Catalonia has suffered its share of injustices at the hands of the central government in Madrid over the centuries. Most infamously, in 1714, Madrid abolished Catalonia’s traditional regional laws and governmental institutions, and also repressed the Catalan language.
Yet this long-ago event is no excuse for the Catalan regional government’s brazen defiance of the rule of law. After all, Catalonia today is part of a free and democratic Spain. Their historical governmental institutions were restored decades ago, and the Catalan language is stronger and more vibrant than it has ever been before. Far from being an oppressed dominion of the Spanish Crown, Catalonia today is the richest part of Spain.
My question for Catalan separatists is, “Why now?” As far as I’m concerned, Catalan separatists have not provided any satisfactory answers to that question. Their most common argument is that Madrid is “stealing our tax money.” Essentially, this argument boils down to resentment of the fact that they — the wealthiest region of Spain — have to pay for social services for Spain’s poorer regions. This in spite of the fact that Catalonia owes much of its prosperity to policies made in Madrid — policies that hurt the rest of Spain.
During the nineteenth century, Catalan industrialists were the biggest beneficiaries of Spain’s trade with its colony Cuba. Protective tariffs placed high-quality British and American goods beyond Cubans’ reach, forcing them to settle for comparatively shoddy Catalan products. Thus did excessive protectionism contribute to resentment of Spanish rule in Cuba. During the twentieth century, misguided protection of Catalan industry continued with the Arancel Cambó, or Cambó tariff. From the 1920s until its repeal in the 1960s, the Arancel Cambó privileged Catalan industrialization at the expense of the economic development of the rest of the country.
Clearly, then, Spain has contributed a great deal to the economic prosperity of Catalonia, of which all Catalans are justifiably proud. Catalan nationalists should be proud of their history as a part of Spain, notwithstanding its blemishes. They should be working alongside their fellow Spaniards to make Spain an even freer and more prosperous nation than it has ever been before. Their pathetic excuse for a rationale for separation is nothing more than thinly veiled classism and ungratefulness.
The problems currently threatening the survival of the Spanish nation may seem distant and irrelevant to us here in the United States. Yet American society, too, is slowly but surely becoming as fractured as Spanish society. Part of Spain’s current troubles with Catalonia stem from the Catalan regional government’s decades of poisoning Catalan children’s minds with a biased, distorted, and inaccurate history curriculum that vilifies Spain at every turn while teaching Catalans that they are — once, now, and forever — victims of Spain. As former Spanish foreign minister Ana Palacio recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “You cannot have a shared sense of belonging without shared experience. [...] Having many ways of teaching history, as we do today, does not create that commonality.”
In the United States, we too are beginning to witness our shared national story — and, by extension, our shared sense of national solidarity — coming apart at the seams. In Dallas, Texas, for example, the school board is seriously considering renaming schools currently named after Founding Fathers Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, as well as schools currently named after traditional heroes of Texas such as Sam Houston and William Travis.
In Chicago, Illinois, a local pastor is demanding that a statue of George Washington be removed from a park. The pastor argues that Washington, who owned slaves, is no hero to African-Americans. “When I see that statue,” the pastor explains, “I see a person who fought for the liberties of white America. [...] Some people say to me, ‘Well, you know, he taught his slaves to read.’ That’s almost sad. That’s the equivalent of someone who kidnaps you and gives you something to eat.” The pastor says that while he has no objections to statues of Washington in majority-white neighborhoods, such statues have no place in majority-black neighborhoods. “I think,” he says, “we should be able to identify and decide who we declare heroes in our communities, because we have to tell stories to our children of who these persons were.”
By arguing that black and white Americans do not have and should not have heroes in common, this pastor and his growing legions of fellow travelers are endangering the cohesion and social peace of the United States.
The pastor’s arguments also happen to be bunk. Just as Catalans have every reason to be proud to be Spanish, African-Americans have many reasons to hold George Washington in high esteem. Although Washington was a slave owner who sometimes resorted to corporal punishment when disciplining disobedient slaves, he realized that the institution of slavery was immoral and hoped that it would be “abolished by slow, sure, and imperceptible degrees.”
Moreover, Washington refused to allow his slaves to be sold without their consent, refused to split up enslaved families when he did sell slaves, and allowed slaves to serve in the Continental Army in exchange for their freedom. In addition, Washington was one of the few southern planters of his day who not only expressed opposition to slavery in principle but actually freed his slaves.
While Washington stipulated in his will that his slaves were only to be freed upon the death of his wife, the only reason Washington did not free his slaves while he and his wife were still alive was because so many of his slaves had intermarried with those belonging to his wife (who owned slaves that she had inherited from a previous marriage) that it would have been too complicated to determine which slaves were legally his and which were legally his wife’s. Washington also stipulated that his slaves were to be taught a “useful occupation,” as well as how to read and write, prior to being freed. In addition, he created a fund for his longest-serving slaves, so that they would not starve after his death.
Perhaps most impressively, Washington, who was a Southerner, once wrote that if the South ever attempted to secede from the Union because of the issue of slavery, he would move to the North and fight the South.
While African-Americans today are understandably reluctant to regard a slaveholder as a friend to their community, the fact is that Washington did a considerable amount of good for his slaves — far more than most slave owners did for their slaves. Black and white Americans alike have every reason to hold the father of their country in high esteem.
If, on the other hand, Americans of all races cannot even agree that Washington is a national hero, then it is hard to see how American society can maintain the “shared sense of belonging” that is so crucial to national identity, stability, and strength. America will suffer the same kind of division that is plaguing Spain.
As tragic as Spain’s current plight is, that dark cloud has had one silver lining: the frighteningly real possibility that Spain could go the way of Yugoslavia or the USSR has generated a renewed sense of patriotism among Spaniards. Today, discotheques throughout Spain are playing the Marcha Real, the Spanish national anthem. Such a thing would have been unimaginable just a few months ago.
Let us hope that Spaniards continue to develop a renewed appreciation for their country, its anthem, its flag, its illustrious heroes, and its glorious history, so that they may yet save their country from falling apart. And let us hope that we Americans do likewise, so that we may heal our divisions before they become intolerably sharp.