Thursday, February 26, 2004

This ought to get a couple of arguments started. If you read Anglo-American historians writing about Spain, up until about the 1920s or 30s Hapsburg and Bourbon Spain was sharply criticized, even condemned, for its backwardness, cruelty, greed, and intolerance. Spaniards hit back, not unreasonably saying that it's pretty hard for Spain to get a fair hearing from a bunch of English Protestants. Spanish historians called the Inquisition / conquistador / mass expulsions of Jews and Muslims / Dutch War part of Spanish history the "Black Legend", pointing out that the Spanish of the time weren't too much worse than anybody else and that Spanish culture of the time made enormously valuable contributions to Western culture as a whole.

The pendulum began to swing the other way and more recently most Anglo-American historians of Spain have been very careful to debunk or minimize tales of Spanish brutality back then in the old days. But has the pendulum reached the end of its trajectory and started to go back in the direction of the Black Legend? Here's a section from a 1998 book by David S. Landes.

The tale of Spanish misdeeds and crimes in the conquest of the Americas is so appalling that it has been a source of retrospective embarrassment and mortification. What kind of people were these, who could perpetrate so much cruelty and treachery? The answer, as outlined above, lay in social selection and history. On the one hand, the kind of adventures that lay ahead in the New World attracted the most daring, hungry, knavish members of Spanish society, many of them blackguards who thought little of their own lives and even less of those of others. On the other, the Spanish historical experience, the protracted war against enemies without and within (the persecution of religious difference), could not but promote ends over means and extinguish sentiments of decency and humanity. To which Tzvetan Todorov would add the factor of distance: the Spanish were operating far from home and exercising their power and wrath on strangers, on an Other defined as subhuman and hence outside or beneath the rules that governed comportment even against an enemy. So they competed in imagining and doing evil, which thus fairly exploded in collective frenzies. Todorov adds, "The 'barbarity' of the Spanish has nothing atavistic or animal about it; it is perfectly human and announces the arrival of modern times."

Unhappy the day that brought together this monumental amorality and the opportunity of conquest, that placed much weaker peoples in the merciless hands of greedy, angry, unpredictably cruel men.

In the effort to mitigate, if not excuse, this record of evil, apologists, many of them descendants of these conquistadors, have followed two lines of argument. One is to discredit the charges by labeling them as myth or exaggeration. Hence recourse to the term leyenda negra (black legend): black, thus by implication excessive (is anything ever completely black?); and legend rather than history. The aim is to dismiss rather than disprove, because disproof is impossible. (The same tactic and the same terminology have been used to discredit the argument that Spanish intolerance and religious fanaticism at home, culminating in the obsession with racial purity [limpieza de sangre], and the pursuit of heresy even into the solitude of dreams, crippled the nation's capacity for inquiry and learning. Here, too, it is easier to dismiss bad news than to rebut.)

The second approach is to point out the misdeeds of other colonizers, in particular the Anglo-Saxon Protestant Norteamericanos, whose strategy of conquest was different and whose victims were fewer, but whose capacity for cruelty and hypocrisy was supposedly similar. As though the misdeeds of others excused one's own crimes. This line of argument is not unrelated to subsequent issues of power and the politics of imperialism. For many Latin American historians and ideologues, it has been vital to emphasize the wickedness of the gringos who came to dominate the Americas. Better, then, to lay the misfortunes of the Amerindian populations at their door, if only by implication.

From The Wealth and Poverty of Nations.

OK, folks, let fly. Have at it. Keep it clean. I'll point out that I have found these two strategies of argument that Landes mentions, the flat statement ("Catalan nationalism is defensive", "Wars are fought for economic reasons", "Ferdinand and Isabella were basically good people") for which no evidence is supplied, and the "So what, you're worse" argument, what they call tu quoque, to be dismayingly common around here. Now, I'm sure I use both those fallacious styles of argument all the time, and you guys can undoubtedly go through the archives and find examples of me doing exactly what I'm criticizing in others. But that doesn't excuse other people from doing it.

I'm going to add one more generalization. I find the level of creativity in Spain to be very high, and it's one reason I like the place. Barcelona is full of authors and musicians and artists and actors and architects and designers. The place is packed with them. You could claim that Spain, with Picasso, Miro, Dali, Bunuel, Garcia Lorca, Gaudi and Domenech-i-Montaner, the Machados, Pio Baroja and Unamuno, Casals and Caballe and Domingo, has been the most creative European country in the twentieth century. I find the level of scholarship and research generally very low, though. People who are considered reputable historians and social scientists around here just would not pass muster in the United States or Britain. Sure, some would, but a lot wouldn't. (Exhibit A: Chemical Lali Sole, tenured university prof of sociology and occasional Vanguardia contributor.) I could make a huge generalization here and say that Spaniards tend to be excellent in fields that require the spark of individual inspiration and lousy in fields that require discipline and calm judgment. But I won't.

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