Last night I had a quick beer with someone who wonks policy for the Catalan governing coalition. He was very upset about a piece published a couple of days ago in the Tages-Anzeiger, a left-leaning, Zurich-based, mass-circulation daily, by a respected German foreign correspondent called Martin Dahms. Entitled “In Barcelona Hollywood has to speak Catalan,” the article is a well-researched and objective look at Catalan government plans to force cinemas to show half of films in Catalan. These plans have caused the cinema industry association, which controls some 80% of seats in the region, to call a strike next Monday. They fear that frustrating the overwhelming market preference for Spanish showings (to which, given that everyone speaks Spanish, you can take all your friends) will inevitably accentuate the already rapid drift, particularly among the young, away from public cinema (and video clubs) to internet downloads. And even the Chinese haven’t completely figured out how to regulate or impose quotas on those.
Mr Wonk’s main beef was about Mr Dahms’ comparison of the Catalan government’s gradualist strategy to banish Spanish from public life with the Franco government’s summarily implemented, anti-Catalan version of this policy in 1939. “How dare he! There is a world of difference between us and them!” he cried, echoing Christian objections to analysis linking human beings with other primates. Apart from all the usual “didn’t never have no
niggers/faggots/Spanish here before” paleocrap essential to any progressive discourse in Barcelona, Mr Wonk also made the interesting claim that Catalan linguistic aggression is essentially Marxist, designed to create a common language and thus achieve equality of opportunity for all.
Neglecting the fact that we already have a common language–Spanish–you’ve got to be pretty stupid or ignorant to believe that The Beard’s works sanction cultural interventionism, whether we’re talking about ironing out dialectal variation and linguistic diversity or any other field. As any Eastern European child over the age of 50 can tell you, Marx actually says that culture is superstructural to the economy. So the only strategy open to a conventional Marxist who wants to make Catalan the common language in Catalonia is to leap into a time machine, rip back to the 14th century, close the borders, thwack down the populace, and try to make anti-revolutionary autarky work … for ever. Which, for all I know, may indeed what President Montilla has in store for us.
However, at this point the barman suggested that a far better left-wing model for the restriction of individual language rights is provided by Stalin. Stalin knew Marx rather better than my friend and realised that if Marx had got it right then
- the language of the Tsars should have disappeared automatically as a superstructural consequence of the economic changes wrought by the October Revolution;
- there was no theoretical basis to justify the (violent) Russification of the Soviet Union.
He got round this by saying–obviously not in so many words—that Marx was wrong and the Nazis were right: that language is not superstructure but is by some ingenious and unspecified means generated by the entire course of a society’s history, reflecting not needs based in time or class but the Volksgeist.
Like Stalin’s massive programme of cultural expansionism, the Catalan government’s willingness to pay for Catalan education, exhibitions, street signs etc in areas of France and Italy to which it has cultural and thence territorial claims, as well as hegemonist pressures on Valencia and the Balearics, show that its ambitions are imperialist. In that sense it may be closer to Stalinism than to the Francoist programme of Hispanicisation in the 1940s, which reasserted (by totalitarian means) public dominance of the national language in territories which had been formally Spanish for some 500 years and where Spanish had been the language of the educated class and the administration for respectively some 400 and 200 years.
In another sense, however, Catalan nationalists would say Catalanisation is merely reasserting (by totalitarian means, of course) the public use of Catalan in territories which in the late Middle Ages were Aragonese and where Catalan and other southern French dialects were at the time the language of the educated class and, subordinated to Latin, of the administration. Which is rather complicated, but at least indicates that they accept the Catalanism/Francoism parallel.
And that’s all so Ulster isn’t it! For novices, here’s a helpful summary of provincial life by Manuel Estimulo:
As I am understand it, the place is divided up into two part, one ruled over by a militaristic authoritarian misogynistic reactionary Protestant fascism, which want to take everyone back to the 17th century, and the other part is rule over by a militaristic authoritarian misogynistic progressive Catholic fascism, which want to take everyone back to the 1920s. And even though they seem to have everything in common with one another, the main sticking plaster is they cannot agree over which football team to support. It all very much seem like a stork in a teacup!
I find neither Francoism nor Stalinism to be an entirely satisfactory parallel, because neither is afflicted by the all-devouring inferiority complex which drives mandatory Catalanisation: the notion that if people are not forced to use the language, it will die, and that this is for some reason of transcendent importance.
A few years ago following a rather wild bet I denounced myself to the language police for using English preferentially in (public) business communications, and when they failed to respond an Italian friend commented that the narrow focus of their paranoia–a rival Romance dialect–was reminiscent of the persecution of French in Italy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, reaching its peak under Mussolini.
French was a more vigorous language, with far greater intellectual, artistic and industrial reach, and so strenuous efforts were made to deny French-speaking families education in French and other public opportunities to use it, and to cleanse Italian of all trace of French loanwords. (There’s a fascinating piece here on the Aosta Valley, the persecution of French by Italian nationalists, and the French-language anti-fascist resistance.)
Mussolini was inverted in 1945 but his world was not, and full Italianisation of French-speaking areas was achieved in the post-war period by the pervasive influence of Italian mass media. Yet while Catalonia has succeeded in denying access to Spanish-language education, and while heavy fines are used to ensure that businesses promote themselves according to the ethnic fantasies of civil servants rather than according to their perception of customer need and their desire to maximise profits, it’s difficult to see in the internet age how putting cinemas out of business will contribute either to getting people to speak Catalan or to rescuing the region’s struggling economy.
Whether or not you agree with me that this is closer to (Mediterranean) littoral than to continental totalitarianism, it’s clear that the direct inspiration for Catalan ethnic bulldozering comes mainly from Quebec. Stuff that should concern serious people: despite considerable natural potential, Quebec has succeeded in driving away much of its original business class, it has struggled to maintain foreign investment, it has a poor record on wealth creation compared with other provinces, and, although it effectively runs its own immigration policy, immigrants there are spectacularly less successful than in neighbouring Ontario, which has no such powers or ethnic paranoias. And so on.
Stuff that may amuse less serious people: an old favourite, Inspector Clouseau of the Quebec language police at work [old video disappeared, replaced here by comedy clip]:
The people want bread? Let them eat government decrees!
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Mr Clarke blogging at It’s Probably The Pox, My Son links to a typical bit of mendacity, or gross ignorance if
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Being a naive progressive, my opposition to the illegal policy of compulsory Catalan language immersion has always been based on appeals