As every new day dawns we learn of a fresh scandal, a fact which can’t be put down to pure coincidence. Some days ago a Spanish journalist from [online news outlet] El Confidencial phoned my colleague Clayborne Carson, director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University, to obtain his disapproval of Quim Torra for having called on the Catalans to march for their rights in a manner inspired by Martin Luther King’s historic march on Washington in 1963. I have turned down interviews with the Spanish media for some time now, and I am frankly amazed that there are Catalan politicians who still grant them any, knowing full well they are setting themselves up as the victim of a reckless, crude lynch mob. They must think that by exposing themselves to the condescension of Spanish opinion to the limits of humiliation and hostility bolsters their image in Catalonia. It is their choice to follow such logic.
But Carson is another matter altogether. He is an expert in a field which is far removed from the subject currently obsessing Spain’s media circus. Unintentionally caught up in the media war led by Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell, Carson was dragged into it as a result of an essentially off-the-cuff reference to Dr King by President Torra, who could equally have alluded to Gandhi or Nelson Mandela, in which case Carson would never have become involved. If Mandela had been mentioned instead, the storm in a teacup caused by the Spanish paper would have ended before it started thanks to the fact that Desmond Tutu had voiced his support for the right of the Catalans to decide their own future in 2014. And it’s also not unreasonable to think that the brouhaha could have been avoided during the interview itself, when one recalls that last year Angela Davis, who represents the left’s heritage of Martin Luther King’s struggle for civil rights, together with Joan Baez and other human rights advocates, backed the right of Catalans to democratically vote on their future.
It must be said, to Carson’s credit, that as soon as he learned of El Confidencial’s maneuver, he had the good grace to object to what they had done on his blog, expressing his position in an impeccable manner. At one point Carson states: “I’m pleased when any movement chooses to use the kind of nonviolent tactics and strategies that King advocated. King did not own or invent the idea of nonviolent resistance to injustice, and it is admirable whenever a movement adopts the nonviolent principles perfected by King and other previous leaders and movements.” This perfectly settles the matter. The Catalan independence movement is, by will and conviction, a strategy of nonviolent confrontation in a situation of injustice which Carson freely admits that he is unqualified to comment on.
Torra’s call for a non-violent march is also nothing new, since those who favor independence have been peacefully holding mass demonstrations every 11 September for years. Nevertheless, it makes no claim to appropriate retrospectively the glory of the black struggle nor the specificity of racial segregation in the United States in the mid-sixties, in the same manner as Dr King’s use of Old Testament references did not seek to liken the situation of African Americans to that of the Israelites in Egypt, and much less to that of the European Jews under the Nazi regime. Incidentally, even though those same Jews constituted an affluent class in the major capitals, their economic power did not protect their civil rights —quite the opposite.
The affluence and education of the Central European Jews not only sparked the hatred against them, but served to justify their exploitation and eventual extermination. I say this because, despite rapidly objecting to the abuse committed by El Confidencial, and in turn by the majority of Spanish newspapers, Carson unfortunately provided ammunition in the form of clichéd views probably borrowed from mainstream publications such as the New York Times, a newspaper which has been systematically hostile to the pro-independence cause, and which is in the habit of adding the epithet ‘wealthy region’ to any mention of Catalonia, without mentioning the percentage of the population below the poverty line or the fact that said poverty is in part due to the extent of the extraction of wealth by the Spanish state, a rate that under the euphemism of solidarity conceals a colonial relationship that goes back many years.
During audio clips of the interview which El Confidencial has made public in an attempt to defend itself from accusations of word twisting, Carson employs the adjective ‘affluent’ to deny the fact that Catalonia suffers any restrictions on its civil rights. By such rights I mean the right of Catalans to use their own language, the rights stipulated in Catalonia’s statute of autonomy in the form of specific powers, the right to a fair fiscal deal and to economic development without artificial limitations, the right to vote and to a fair trial, individual and institutional protection against violence, non-discrimination in public administration and the structures of the state, or in the labor market and the academic world. This latter point, it is worth recalling, was central to King’s march on Washington.
Carson reinforces this opinion with his personal testimony, saying he has visited Barcelona and has seen for himself that it is a wealthy city. As was, by the way, Vienna in the early years of the twentieth century, with a large Jewish bourgeoisie, while anti-Semitism became official doctrine in the city council. Or modern-day Atlanta. In view of the wealth and modernity of one of the cities with the largest African-American presence, any visitor might proclaim that there is no discrimination against African Americans. But I am sure that Carson would agree with me that personal testimony can never be so superficial.
Does discrimination have to wear rags to be real? After 1 October, who can still deny the fact that the Catalans are refused the right to vote? Yes, obviously they are allowed to vote within the limits of a constitution which was drafted and —above all— is systematically interpreted to their detriment. And it is also true that King only defended the right of blacks to vote in elections defined by whites. But if the possibility of creating an Afro-American state within the United States has never been seriously raised, the reason may well be that blacks are not a minority with a territorial base. Nevertheless, I agree with Carson that no-one can know what King would have thought of present-day movements, nor can anyone know what the Founding Fathers would think of the current government of the United States. One can only speculate based on indications and interpretations of documented thought and perhaps venture certain opinions based on the spirit of the respective revolts. Indeed, the spirit is contagious and this explains how Martin Luther King’s legacy lives on.
In spite of his legitimate preference for the status quo, Carson may not be sufficiently aware of having denied the Catalans one of their fundamental rights. Self-determination is an international right recognized by the UN and subscribed to by many states, though some of them deny it in practice. Responding in good faith and with audible caution to the Spanish journalist’s crafty questions, Carson was unaware of the malice with which he was asked whether it was legitimate to exercise that right in Europe, and in Spain in particular. Spain, a country which —in defiance of the United Nations resolution— still refuses to recognize the independence of Kosovo, since it occurred in a European state. The interviewer was obviously trying to push Carson to back the position of the Spanish Foreign Minister, who last week, in a BBC interview, restricted the right of self-determination to a few territories which are far from Europe, as if it were possible or legitimate to restrict universal rights to areas which are removed from ‘civilization’.
To be fair, it must also be said that, although Carson considers it hypocritical for a government to claim that it supports non-violence (when states are defined precisely by their possessing a monopoly on violence), at no time does he refer to the Catalan government, an unarmed government, which currently has the chief officers of its police force standing trial on charges of rebellion for refusing to exercise said violence. In fact, Carson uses the United States as an example of hypocrisy, for calling on other countries not to resort to violence while not hesitating to use it to advance its own interests. In this close-to-home example, it is easy to recognize a tactful attempt to remind the journalist that the one who holds the monopoly on violence and is using it against a peaceful movement is the Spanish state.
Nevertheless, it is surprising that someone who refuses to accept that there is any similarity between the Catalan cause and that of black civil rights should compare the secession of Catalonia with the separation of Pakistan and India. And that he should dare to speculate that the Catalan Republic would act in a discriminatory manner against those who do not feel Catalan, basing it on the argument that, however much we reduce the size of states, taking the Wilson Doctrine to its natural conclusion, there would always remain an unredeemed and oppressed underclass. The argument is like one of Zeno’s paradoxes, untrue in the real world, of an endless series of steps that never actually reaches its objective. Carson is not alone in supporting the argument that increasing the number of states is a source of instability and violence. On the contrary, it is the prevailing idea in the current political conservatism. Philippe Delmas, for example, in Le bel avenir de la guerre [The Rosy Future of War], attributes wars to small nations, whose weaknesses are the major cause of armed conflicts. The chilling consequence of this false premise is to sustain strong states at any price, even if this means defending dictatorships like Pinochet’s or Franco’s.
Carson says nothing of the kind, though he does express a preference for large states while overlooking the reality of imperialism with a pinch of naivety. The interviewer uses this blind spot to make Carson implicitly justify in consolidated states the very thing he speculatively condemns in secessionism: the oppression of national minorities trapped in hostile states. Carson has acted honorably in objecting to the way his words were misrepresented. Carson’s denial had no effect in Spain, however, since the interview was nothing more than an excuse to further the Spanish media’s attacks on Quim Torra, which began as soon as he became president of the Catalan government. Such attacks were carried out on Carles Puigdemont, Artur Mas and Jordi Pujol before him, and doubtless will continue in the future against anyone who from the office of president defends the Catalans’ rights. Seen from the outside, it is difficult to understand El Confidencial’s ploy, since such attacks do not have any impact beyond the stuffy media enclosure within Spain. Nor does it appear as if they help to overcome the conflict or provide any satisfaction to those who sincerely support a democratic Spain. Ultimately, it reminds one of the third of Carlo Maria Cipolla’s five basic laws of stupidity: ‘A stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses’.