Many European leaders have criticized President Donald Trump on a number of issues, from the refugee travel Executive Order to the Mexican wall. But the government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy in Madrid has gone a step further: expressing disappointment that the White House took down the Spanish-language page from its website.
It is always odd when a foreign government comments on such an internal matter. But the Spanish government’s action does offer a golden opportunity to analyze whether being a multi-lingual society is such a good idea after all.
For Spain it hasn’t been, at least if constantly living on the brink of national breakup is a measure of whether a policy “works.”
Madrid’s decision after the death of Francisco Franco in 1975 to allow regions such as Catalonia, the Basque Country, Galicia and others to teach students in their regional language rather than Spanish has predictably led to fractionalism and, in time, separatism.
Catalan pro-independence supporters hold Catalan pro-independence flags during a demonstration in Saint Jaume square in Barcelona, on December 27, 2016. (JOSEP LAGO/AFP/Getty Images)
Which makes it odd that Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis would wish that fate on an allied government. “It doesn’t seem to us to be a good idea,” said Dastis of the Spanish website’s disappearance. “We think that being a country where 52 million people speak Castilian or Spanish, it is not a great idea to give up on this instrument of communication.” (Never mind that the White House has said that it is simply editing the page and will restore it soon after.)
To be sure, Dastis was measured and composed when compared to the opposition Socialists, who asked that Spain lead a joint diplomatic demarche with Latin America and Spanish-speaking “communities” in the U.S. to oppose the White House’s actions.
Spain has a top-notch ambassador in Washington who does much to highlight mutual interests, Ramon Gil-Casares, but Dastis’s approach little serves Spain’s national goals. Rafael Bardaji, national security advisor to former Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, sagely pointed this out this week, writing:
“The reality is that Spain has gained little from the fact that more than 50 million Hispanics live in the United States. Among other things, that is because these Hispanics put little or no value on our country or what we can do for them. At any rate, as we know since the Tower of Babel, language is a weapon for union but also for fragmentation.”
Spain’s example is illustrative. Spain is an admirable nation that displayed much courage and imagination in discovering the New World and settling much of it, extending its language and Christianity to many corners of it. But its linguistic approach today is an example of what not to do.
As of this writing, the Catalan regional government in Barcelona was still on a collision course with the central government in Madrid over holding a referendum on independence in September. Barcelona says it can do so and will go ahead; Madrid affirms the constitution bars Catalonia from doing so. The Spanish Supreme Court has sided with Madrid.
No matter. The president of the Catalonian Parliament took to the New York Times this week, writing an op-ed that accuses Madrid of “repression.” She added: “What is happening in Catalonia is a judicial assault by Spain on Catalonian democracy and freedom of speech.”
As for the Basques, the separatist terrorist group ETA assassinated 829 people by the government’s reckoning in a reign of terror that lasted until 2010. Among the dead were a 22-month-old baby and a prime minister.
And Basque separatism hasn’t gone away. As the historian Stanley Payne told the newspaper El Mundo last week, “the Basques are just waiting to see how much the Catalans get … Separatism is Spain’s Number One civic problem."
And one reason is it is that children in school in some of Spain’s 17 regions have been taught not only in the local language, but also very little about Spain’s history, its identity or its symbols.
In Catalonia, Spanish, has so been displaced that hundreds of families have asked that the government pay for their children’s private schooling, so they can be taught in a language spoken by 400 million people.
A study found that students know precious little about Spain’s Golden Age in the arts, that Spain discovered America, or the role that the pilgrimage to Santiago played in the construction of Spain’s identity in the Middle Ages. Meanwhile, Christopher Columbus, Leonardo da Vinci and Miguel de Cervantes are sometimes taught as being Catalan (alternative facts: the first two were Italian and the third famously Castilian).
“Nationalism has sought in the schools masses that it can mold,” concluded the study. The writer and philosopher Fernando Sanchez Drago tells me Spanish national identity itself is on the wane.
Even Dastis seems to have forgotten Spain’s history. When Antonio de Nebrija wrote the first Castilian grammar and introduced Queen Isabella to it in 1492, she remarked, “What use can this be? I already speak Castilian.” To which Nebrija responded that the new people being colonized would need to be taught Spain’s laws, so a unified language with rules was needed.
Translation for a modern constitutional republic: a single language is needed to debate ideas.
Which brings us back to copying Spain’s model here. As Rafael Bardaji (who appears to understand the U.S. better than the present team headed by Rajoy and Dastis) pointed out in his essay, we should heed the words of the late American academic Samuel Huntington. He warned us that the progressive penchant for dividing American society into linguistic, racial and ethnic groups was destroying America’s identity.
Spanish cuisine, literature, incredible architecture and other aspects of its culture we may want to study and even emulate, but not its linguistic model.
This piece originally appeared in Forbes