Thursday, February 21, 2008

In the mythology that later came to be created, first by the Liberal opponents of the French and then by Castilian writers, the anti-French risings [in Spain] of May 1808 signaled the emergence of a Spanish national identity. Certainly the Liberals tried to rally support along those lines. The French forces withdrew to areas of Spain they could more easily control, while the Spanish "patriots" summoned to Cadiz in 1810 a Cortes aimed at unifying the national effort. Among its memorable acts were the agreement of a new national charter, the Constitution of 1812, and a decree of 1813 abolishing the Inquisition. When the deputy Augustín Argüelles presented the text of the Constitution, he exclaimed: "Spaniards, you now have a patria!" In reality, there was no patria nor any feeling of national solidarity...

When, after years of virtual civil war, the French eventually withdrew from Spain and Ferdinand VIII was restored to his throne in the spring of 1814, the new king annulled the Constitution, proscribed the Cortes deputies who had voted for it, and restored the Inquisition. He became identified with an older vision of Spain, a traditional way of exercising political power (known as 'absolutism'), and a preference for time-honoured customs, culture and belief. It was a tendency that coincided with dislike for the French, and earned Ferdinand massive popular support.
This is from Henry Kamen's The Disinherited: Exile and the Making of Spanish Culture 1492-1975, which I'm presently working through. Like most history, it reminds me that progress is hard. Spain, in Kamen's reading, was long and obstinately resistant to the Enlightenment trends that went more easily through the rest of Western Europe; its idea of liberalization was to throw out the Jesuits and retain the Inquisition. Spain got farther, eventually, but it was a hell of a slog.

Here in a younger, happier country, we have instruments that give freedom an advantage, but even in this season of hope let us not forget that the struggle in which we are engaged is best measured not in electoral cycles but in generations. There's a lot to like about 2008, but things may yet go badly, and even if they go well there will certainly be trouble down the road.

Naturally we laugh at throwbacks who pray for our failure -- what sensible person wouldn't? -- but let's not forget that they're motivated to work for our failure, too, even when a neutral observer would consider them licked. Their preferred way of governance is justly unpopular, but they have worked their way back from unpopularity before, and still have the machinery in place that got them, and us, to this sorry pass in the first place. Even their stated goal of standing "athwart history, yelling 'Stop!'" is deceptively modest; their real purpose is to drive the whole shebang as far back as possible -- yea, even unto the Middle Ages.

The thing that's called change is at best a pickaxe working at a mountain of ignorance. It's a strange thing for me to be saying, but whatever goes down, try not to be too discouraged.

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