Kurlansky / Basques / Wikipedia

The Guardian got a “panel of experts” to take a look at the Wikipedia. Here’s what Mark Kurlansky, author of The Basque History of the World, said about the Basque people entry:

  1. It says: “Aquitanians spoke a language which is proven beyond doubt to be akin to Basque.” I am not familiar with the Aquitaine language but would be very surprised if it bore any relation to Euskera, the Basque language.
  2. It is not exactly right to claim, as Wikipedia does, that after 1975 Eta continued despite the end of Basque persecution. After the death of Franco the Spanish passed a constitution that Basque nationalists (a narrow majority of Basques) boycotted. The constitution has a number of problems. For the first time in Spanish history it made Castillian the official language of Spain. It also forbade any discussion of the break up of the Spanish state, so there cannot even be a referendum on the Basque future. More important, the Guardia Civil has remained as an occupying army. The Spanish arrest thousands of Basques every year. Most of them are beaten or tortured and then released. Newspapers and political parties are shut down. In one recent case a Basque-language paper was closed down because it was able to quote an Eta source in its reporting. Over the years, Eta has grown ever smaller. But there has been no comparable lessening of repression by the Spanish.
  3. The entry talks of Navarra as though it is a non-Basque region where a lot of Basques happen to live. There are actually seven Basque provinces, each with its own dialect of Euskera and slightly varying traditions. Four of them are in Spain and Navarra is one of them. Northern Navarra is in fact one of the most traditional Basque places in terms of language, architecture, and culture.

I’m not going to mess with Aquitanian either for the moment, so let’s dive into his sea of persecution:

  1. The 1978 constitution was not the first in Spanish history to designate Castilian the official language. I’m pretty sure–you read them all if you want–that the first to do so was the 1931 republican constitution, often cited by the left and by regional nationalists as a paragon of permissiveness. It says:
    Castilian is the official language of the Republic. Every Spaniard is obliged to know it and has the right to use it, without prejudice to the rights that State laws may bestow on the languages of provinces or regions.

    Except where provided for in special laws, it will not be possible to demand of anyone the knowledge or use of a regional language.

    The 1931 constitution was one of the models discussed by the committee which drafted the 1978 document, and I’m pretty sure–please correct me if I’m wrong–that the second para was dropped as part of the deal between centralists and nationalists.

  2. The constitution doesn’t forbid discussion of territorial unity. What is does say is this:
    The Constitution is based on the indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation, the common and indivisible country of all Spaniards; it recognizes and guarantees the right to autonomy of the nationalities and regions of which it is composed, and solidarity amongst them all.

    And, contrary to what Kurlansky wants us to believe, territorial unity is not writ in stone. Articles 87 and 167 of the constitution provide for change, the not-unreasonable threshold being 60% of both houses of parliament. Kurlansky would make the point that 60% means getting the consent of both major parties, which is inconceivable in this case, but that’s how constitutions tend to work, particularly when the state which they serve has already been there in various shapes and forms for centuries.

    (The case of new, voluntary unions is different: for example, the American constitution didn’t mention secession because the experimental nature of the undertaking was recognised at the time, and only conquest and the dubious Texas v White Supreme Court decision in 1869 confirmed that secession was not an option. God knows what will happen when Belgium decides it’s had enough of the EU: presumably it will be invaded by Belgium.)

  3. The Guardia Civil is not an occupying army, and Kurlansky will not find a single human rights organisation unlinked to Basque terrorism to agree with him or his claims. The notion that the police torture most of the Basques they arrest (I hope he is aware that Basques are sometimes arrested for offences unconnected with terrorism) is patently ridiculous. Nevertheless, there are serious and justifiable concerns nationwide about police treatment of detainees are not being respected and, in the Basque country, that terrorism suspects are able to use the lack of safeguards to falsely allege torture. Amnesty said in 2003:
    “Amnesty International does not believe that torture is systematic in Spain, but the Government must resist the temptation of regarding all torture allegations as part of some ETA-inspired strategy”.

    The organization added that it was irresponsible to categorically deny the existence of torture or ill-treatment when the Government has so far failed to provide any substantive response to the “profound concern” expressed last November by the (UN) Committee against Torture about the incommunicado regime. The Committee made recommendations which, were they to be adopted by the Government, would make it more difficult to bring false accusations.

    I’m sure Kurlanksy will be pleased to hear that the Basque police have decided to follow international recommendations and start videoing interrogations.

  4. Newspapers and political parties are indeed shut down–when they’re believed to be fronts for terrorism. Egunkaria–the newspaper I think is Kurlanksy citing–was closed and its organisers arrested because the judge believed they were linked with ETA, not because they was able to quote an ETA source. I don’t think that’s necessarily the smartest approach, and I’m generally formidably against the civil code system of banging people up without trial, but the judge got it right this time.
  5. Northern Navarra may indeed be “one of the most traditional Basque places in terms of language, architecture, and culture”, but Basque is a minority language in Navarre. (BTW, I believe it was that noted regionalist, Louis Bonaparte, who first classified the Basques into seven groups. He’s probably at least wriggling in his grave.)

The great thing about the Wikipedia is that it provides a reasonably sensible procedure for the checking and correction of fantasists like Kurlansky, which is why he presumably won’t be contributing any time soon.

(PS: Wikipedia in French seems to be saying there’s no such language as Aquitanian, while the English version insists there was. Sounds like work for someone…)

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