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Monday, April 6, 2015

Observations about Spain, part 2 (politics)

(This post is cross-posted at HitCoffee.)

In my last post, I promised to write about Spanish persons' thoughts on politics.  But what I have to say is probably more about the process of observing others' views and my wish to avoid at least some of the pitfalls when doing so.  In short, this post will be more about me than about Spain or the Spanish.

First a preface.  I'm aware of (many of) my limitations.  I know little of Spanish history beyond what anyone would know after having taken two semesters of Western Civ.  I probably know even less about Spanish politics, and I haven't gone out of my way to educate myself.  I also spoke with only a few people in Spain.  And those people had their own motivations, their own biases, and their own reasons for saying what they did.  The language barrier probably also prevented me from discerning much of the nuance of what they said--and probably prevented me from even understanding much, although my wife was there to translate.  I write this because I don't want to be that guy who goes to Europe or who has European friends and says, "they believe x," and then uses that generalization as evidence in favor of their own preferred policies in the US.

One of my wife's set of friends is a family that is probably "middle class" in the sense of "people who do non-manual and professional-like labor and are relatively better off than most people" (and not in the American sense of "everybody who is alive and not super poor or a billionaire").  They had a lot of complaints about the government's restrictive laws for businesses.  One person wanted to start up an internet business and sell things online, but the licensing and other regulations made it way too costly.  That family also seemed to be concerned that those regulations created a too large black market economy.

That critique meshes pretty well with my own neoliberal views.  But my wife and I met others who probably would have disagreed with her friends.  For instance, one taxi driver we met was upset, if I understood him correctly, over the Spanish government's proposals to endorse austerity programs and taxes on workers and over its complicity with German monetary policy.  That taxi driver, I assume from his comments but I'm also putting words into his mouth, wanted to keep many of the regulations which he believed protected workers like him but which my wife's other friends wanted to lessen or liberalize.

The Spanish people I talked to seemed much better informed about US politics than I was/am about Spanish or European politics.  While it's probably a bad thing for Americans not to know as much about politics outside the US as they do about politics within the US, I decline to chide my compatriots too much for their ignorance, which as it happens is my ignorance, too.  Spain is a smaller, less powerful country than the US and and daily life in Spain seems to be enmeshed in international affairs in more obvious, or at least more obviously direct, ways than daily life in the US is.  It's not because Spanish people are more virtuous or American people are more "anti-intellectual."  It's largely because circumstances demand greater attention to international matters.

Also, and with due respect to the people I met, their knowledge of US politics seemed on some level superficial.  The people I talked to, not surprisingly (to me), disliked George W. Bush and "the Republicans."  One person said, if I understood right, that the Republicans were the party of the past or the old guard (I believe his word was "ancianos"....although I might be misremembering or I might have misheard). However, I suspect, that the persons I spoke with don't quite understand how our system of single member district representation, along with our presidential (non-parliamentary) system, works.  In other words, I don't think they fully realize that someone can vote for the Democrats or the Republicans without necessarily supporting even most of that party's platform.

I don't say this as an indictment against them.  I have an even less firm grasp on Spanish politics and how the Spanish government works.  When I saw mention on Spanish TV about "el presidente del gobierno," I thought they were referring to something like a prime minister--and wikipedia says I'm right--but I the word "presidente" tripped me up and for a second I thought Spain had a presidential system like the US or a presidential/parliament system like France.   I'll repeat what I said above.  The Spanish people I met know more about the US government than most Americans, including me, know about the Spanish government.

My lesson from all this is the unsurprising one that people resemble each other in their propensity to frame things in ways they can understand and that supports their own biases.  The Spanish are human, just like me.  That lesson seems corny or even "awe shucks-y," but the fact that I "learned" that lesson means that I had a caricature of what it meant to be European or Spanish or non-American.  And now that caricature is less strong.  (I'll concede that, as commenter David Alexander suggested in my last thread, I'd have a chance to learn even more lessons if I had gone to India or Saudi Arabia.  I don't claim that my 9 days as a tourist in a western country necessarily exposes me to difference.)

In other words, and still not surprisingly, travel might help expose people to other worldviews in a way that my own provincialism does not.  I don't mean provincialism as a self-deprecating epithet, either.  I have a lot of reservations about cosmopolitanism and about "travel culture" and I believe those reservations still have merit.  When one cuts oneself off from the local, one loses something and the loss is real.  But going to Spain has demonstrated that those reservations have their limits and that if the loss is real, so is the gain.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Observations about Spain, part 1 (random stuff)

(Cross-posted at Hit Coffee.)

My wife and I just returned from our honeymoon in Spain.  (We had actually gotten married about two years ago, but for a variety of reasons we’ve had to wait until now.)  Here are some of my observations/thoughts.

1.  I had never been to Europe or to any country other than the US or Canada before our trip. It was weird to be crossing the Atlantic, knowing that what once had been a great barrier could be crossed in hours.

2.  My Spanish is very poor.  I can understand my wife (who speaks it well), but my ability to speak the language is, err, “challenged.”  Still, I was surprised at how much I was able to understand when others spoke it.  It was also interesting to hear the use of “vosotros”/”vosotras” and what is known as the “Castillian lisp.”  I knew both features marked Iberian Spanish from the American Spanish I’m more used to.  But it was interesting to hear it in person.

3.  I was oddly surprised at how much American influence was evident in the culture.  I say “oddly” because I knew/know that American culture has a pretty wide reach and that Europe is in that “western” mold.  But still, it was striking to me how much Spain seemed like the US.  The fact we were in only two locales may have affected my impression. We stayed in what is probably downtown Madrid, although we visited some friends of my wife in a more residential area of that city.  We also stayed in Santiago de Compostela, in what is probably the touristy part (where the big Cathedral is).  We visited some friends there, too, but they lived nearby that area.

4.  The disaster with the Lufthansa airplane happened the day before we left for Spain.  My wife and I had both read about it, but declined to mention it to the other for fear that it would make the other nervous about the flight.  We thought we were keeping it a secret.  However, Spanish media covered the disaster quite extensively. (The plane had taken off from Barcelona).  I’m not sure how the coverage there compares to coverage in the US, or how it compares with coverage of other air disasters, like the TWA 800 flight in 1996.  (I mention that flight because my niece knew two of the people who died.)
In my next post, I’ll make a couple of observations about what little I grokked of Spanish persons’ thoughts on politics.