Wednesday, December 22, 2004

I was watching TV1 news this afternoon, and they of course reported on the rocketing of the American military base in Mosul which left about 25 dead. No complaints there. The problem was that the focus of the story was on alleged US censorship of the coverage from Mosul.

Now, that is just ridiculous, since reports from Mosul started coming out minutes after the attack happened, and they included disturbing images and verbal descriptions of American wounded and dead. TV1 itself showed them, and they appeared on the front pages of all the Spanish newspapers this morning. I do not know whether there is actual US military censorship going on, but I wouldn't be surprised if there is. That's what happens in wars, and I see nothing wrong with it. A journalist's right to free speech is abridged by the military's necessity to stop information from getting to the enemy. But the US military certainly did not prevent anybody from printing full-color photos on their front pages of wounded and dead American soldiers.

Let me point out that I have nothing against the media's showing us graphic and disturbing images of war. War is a terrible, ugly thing, and we need to see these images to remind us of what the people involved are really going through as we sit safely in our nice, warm houses. War should only be used as the very last resort, and these photos help make that very clear.

Changing the subject, I wonder if it is possible to say that Catholics and Protestants in Europe are different ethnic groups as well as being different religions. Here in Spain, I continually see reminders of how Catholicism affects Spanish culture; even Spanish atheists are affected by Catholic cultural attitudes. My favorite example is Spaniards' collective misunderstanding of the various Protestant factions. Now, in Spain there are very few Protestants, and Spanish Protestants tend to be charismatic evangelists who are most successful among the very lowest social classes, especially Gypsies and Latin Americans. Spaniards tend to identify Northern European Protestants with their local equivalents, who really are often poorly educated fanatics and often converts from Catholicism--and there's no one more radical than a convert. That, and of course they've seen all those Hollywood movies about inbred southern preachers handling snakes and damning Darwin while being hypocritical drunken lechers in private.

La Vanguardia has been running, get this, a series in the features section on how Americans and Europeans see religion differently. It's hilarious.

...The aspiration of the fundamentalist Chrisitan groups is that religion and politics should be as closely joined as possible. Bush's policies have created, in this direction, the so-called Faith-Based Initiatives. These are social programs carried out by religious organizations that receive million-dollar subsidies and which are the American answer to the European welfare state...

No, no, no. The two largest pieces of the American federal budget are Social Security (pensions) and Medicare/Medicaid (health care), at around 29% each. Defense, by the way, is 17-18%. I would be amazed if the "faith-based initiatives" cost even one percent of what we spend on these massive, long-established government programs. Most Spaniards don't even know these things exist. I will also point out that a lot of social spending is done at the state rather than the federal level, so it doesn't show up on the federal budget. Another comment I will make is that one nice thing about Americans is that they give lots of money to charity, more than double what Europeans give. The last comment I have is that if I found myself homeless in Kansas City, the first place I'd go is Crosslines, the interdenominational organization that helps out the homeless and the poor, and if I needed a place to stay I'd go to the Salvation Army.

The American moral has Calvinist roots. Each individual must answer alone to God for his actions and for the efficiency of his work as a sacred obligation to change the world. In Genesis, God gives Eden to Adam and Eve so that they can cultivate it, but after they eat the forbidden fruit he condemned them to work hard in order to get food. The Calvinists add that this punishment should be accepted with dedication because it is the true reason for the presence of man in this world far away from God. Max Weber's classic theory explains capitalism as coming from this accent on work and individual responsibility. For many Americans society does not improve through ideal state structures, but through the virtue, responsibility, and work of each member. Individual sin exists, but there are doubts about the existence of the collective. The Third World countries, for example, suffer because of the low virtue of their citizens.

I think you can actually learn more about the culture and society of the guy who is trying to interpret a foreign society than you can about said foreign society. Note that the anonymous author of this piece places a high value on the collective as against the individual, that he believes that the state should be entirely responsible for people's welfare, that he believes that individuals are not responsible for the circumstances they find themselves in, that he believes Americans are dour eighteenth-century Scottish Presbyterian beings who work entirely too much and never have any fun, that he considers that Americans judge others mostly on their material wealth, and that he considers Americans as quick to jump to an unfair negative judgement of people from other societies.

In the United States there exists the general belief that religion is important in order to be rich. Prosperity is a symptom of good relations with God. Poor people, on the other hand, are suspected of not obeying Him. It is the theology of success, and it is based on several passages of the Old Testament in which material success is equated with divine protection..."God bless you" (original English), used like our "adiós", has its roots in this spirit. Like the sentence "In God We Trust" written on every dollar or the invocation of God made on Wall Street after closing a million-dollar deal. TV preachers brodcast solidarious telethons in which blessings are given out according to how much money is put on the table, like the indulgences that the Reformation criticized in Europe.

American readers, I think, need to accept that this way of thinking about America and Americans is an integral part of Spanish culture and that it comes straight from the Catholic Church. We're not going to be able to change Spaniards' attitudes toward America because so many of them are so deeply held as an integral part of Spanish culture itself. America is held up in Spanish culture as the living example of the opposite of what Spain should want to be as it develops. Sure, the Americans are rich, but they're not happy, and they believe crazy things, and their morals and values are hypocritical, materialistic, and false, and they don't understand the way life should really be lived, which is of course the way it is done here in Spain.

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