Pragmatic National Identity

If tomorrow I were said that Germany has bought Barcelona and my children will carry German passport, the first thing I would do is to attend German lessons and hope to know the customs of my new country. The change wouldn’t mean that what I am disappears. — Jordi Pérez Colomé

Spaniards often say that we Catalans are nationalists, that we put too much pride in our identity, language, and a large etcetera. I understand their accusations, althought I’m sure that those accusations are more fit to Spaniards than to Catalans. The words nationalism and patriotism are extremely dangerous because of their confusing meaning: everyone uses them as they please, sometimes even with opposite meanings. The very word nation is, in my opinion, one of the most difficult ones to define.

The quotation that begins this post is from a fellow Catalan, who happens to be the director of a magazine called El Ciervo, aimed at educated people with cultural interests — such as literature, religion, philosophy, history, politics, etc. When I read it, I thought: here it speaks a true Catalan. I bet that no Spaniard would even dare to talk in such a «liberal» way of his identity. When it comes to identity, Spaniards do not compromise.

Closely related to that quotation are the questions a Catalan journalist asked to the Catalan president. The journalist asked whether, in an independent Catalonia, retiring age would not increase, whether tolls in motorways would disappear. To both questions the president asked «no». And the journalist said that then perhaps he was less interested in independence.

We Catalans have a — well deserved, I think — reputation for being pragmatic people. La pela és la pela, we used to (and still) say, an idiom very difficult to translate, but its meaning is pretty clear: money is of the utmost importance, and takes precedence over nearly everything. Afarta’m i digue’m moro: I don’t care if you insult me, as long as you give me what I ask for. Dignity? Honor? What the hell is that? Are we going to eat from those?

Let’s go back to the quotation. The context of the article which contained that quotation was the Catalan movement for secession from Spain. Over this matter, that magazine has always kept silent, but on December 2012 they thought it was time to say something, so they published some contributions over the topic.

What can be the most surprising fact of the quotation is how accomodating the writer is: a foreign country buys the city, from day to night his children will carry a passport from another country, and all the writer says he would do is to agree. To accomodate! To attend lessons of a new language and know the customs of his new country. You see how easy it is, for him, to acquire a new country. Identity on sale? Perhaps. Curious approach to national identity, of course. Unbelievable? It depends.

In my opinion, the most striking sentence of the quotation is the last one: «the change wouldn’t mean that what I am disappears». So even with the purchasing of Barcelona, the new passport, language and country, the writer says that what he is would not disappear by those changes. At first sight, it seems utterly contradictory, and this is why it deserves closer attention and deeper analysis.

A first hypothesis is that the author thinks that nationality is an external circumstancy, subject to changes without previous notice. Yesterday I was Catalan, today I’m German, and tomorrow God knows. However strange it may seem, I believe this is a legitimate position. Perhaps he thinks that nationality is just a piece of paper issued by a government more or less recognized by what is called the international community, be either a passport, an ID card or something equivalent. According to this theory, the author doesn’t consider that nationality — however we choose to describe it — is something that belongs to his identity.

But there is a second way to interpret what the author means, which is just the opposite of the first one. He does consider national identity as part of his own’s, but as an interior feeling, beyond what a piece of paper might say. This is why he says that, even if his city were bought by a foreing country, his children carried passports of that other country, and thus he learnt its language and customs, he would still be what he is — including his nationality. This is also a reaction to the fact that most Spaniards use ID cards and passports to justify that Catalans are Spaniards — meaning that their have Spanish nationality, nor merely Spanish citizenship.

Probably I could mail the author and ask for some clarification, but I think this is not the point. The point, as I see it, is the flexible concept of country and nationality and how these concepts interact with one’s own identity.

This brings me the questions made to Catalan president and the reaction of the journalist who asked them to the president’s answers. We ought to keep in mind the character of Catalans. Of course there are Catalans who are in favor of independence per se, that is, because they believe that Catalan national identity deserves and needs a State of its own to flourish and be preserved. But if a referendum is to be won, the votes of those Catalans are not enough. I think that most Catalans take this issue with a purely pragmatic point of view. Are we going to benefit from independence? Yes? No? Are we going to be richer? If so, then let’s go for independence. If not, then we better stay in Spain.

Please don’t misunderstand me: I’m not saying that those pragmatic questions are improper or unimportant. Of course we must take them into account! But identity should not be based on them. And we should not bear whatever offences or insults just because this does not affect — at least apparently — our wellbeing. If we believe we are Catalans and that this is something not to be ashamed of, then we should be more willing to defend it. And if we think that independence could be dangerous in some sense, then it is our duty to work to reverse it.

The journalist that asked those questions to Catalan president is right to be worried about whether in an independent Catalonia people would be able to retire at 65 or 67, or whether tolls would be removed. Questions of this kind are important, of course. But there are several things that he ought to understand. First of all, the point is to take the power to decide on those matters by ourselves. Second, if he is so concerned about the wellfare State in an independent Catalonia, then perhaps he should consider whether it would be better for Spain to relinquish its independence and be absorbed by a more solvent State. After all, if all that matters are things like the retiring age, why not sacrifice independence and sovereignity to be able to retire earlier?

I have absolutely no doubt over how a Spaniard would answer such a question. No doubt at all. To Spaniards — with very few exceptions — the unity of Spain is sacred, nearly like a dogma of faith. Retiring age, wealth of the country or similar questions don’t matter. What it matters is Spain, its independence, its sovereignity. Whatever the cost. Look at how different most Catalans approach this topic. Interesting, isn’t it? And now my question is: who are the nationalists?