Paint It Blacker

from The National Ledger,  October 10, 2005

A country as arrogant as only a superpower can be, throwing its weight around at the whim of a God-obsessed dimwit leader. Its military gets bogged down in a futile attempt to impose incompatible values on a country it had no business occupying in the first place, while back home, brave Not-in-Our-Namers echo correct-thinking world punditry in denouncing their own country's criminal conceit. Come on, you knew all along it was Spain we were talking about, didn’t you? 

Spain, the original modern superpower. Around the year 1580, before the world was even completely mapped, that country’s King Philip II had become sole owner and operator of what some considered far too many of its important bits. Following Spain's annexation of Portugal and its colonial assets, all of Central and South America came under direct control of Madrid, along with chunks of Italy, the Netherlands, North America, Asia and Africa. 

That concentration of power spawned a backlash of resentment, wholesale libel, invective and vituperation that historians have dubbed “The Black Legend” and you know, it was a lot like what the United States gets these days from the left-leaning media that crack the dominatrix’s whip over public opinion in almost every Western European country – not least of all in Spain. 

Well, they ought to know. For centuries vilifying Spaniards as lustful, bloodthirsty and intolerant was all the rage. Basically, it was a vast Protestant conspiracy spearheaded by Holland, Britain, Germany and of course, France, where conventional wisdom preached that “Tyranny is as normal to the Spaniards as laughter is to a man.”

Spain had its Vietnam, a long and unsuccessful military entanglement in the Low Countries under  the Duke of Alba, who was blamed for a kind of Abu Ghraib avant la lettre, the torching of Antwerp in 1576. Long before the word genocide had been coined, booksellers in London and Geneva churned out best-selling exposés of Spanish iniquity such as the one promising ”a faithful narrative of the horrid and unexampled massacres, butcheries, and all manner of cruelties that hell and malice could invent” to liven up the extermination of millions of Indians.

The cheesy stereotype of the Latin lover is the after-image of the insatiable, moustache-twirling lecher of legend and if you think American perceptions of Spain weren’t affected by all this, give a thought to how the bad guys are depicted in Steven Spielberg’s Amistad. But why should Spaniards be hostile to the United States? Recall that America is the last foreign country Spaniards fought a war with, in 1898. Not only did Spain lose big-time; it had to watch helplessly as Washington stripped away its remaining colonies. No wonder it raises hackles to hear that American forces are in Iraq so the Middle East can be primed for democracy. Spaniards were told the same thing about Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Philippines.

So the Black Legend is making a comeback and this time Spaniards are helping it along I’d rather skip over the gratuitous offensiveness (to human intelligence as well as to Washington) that informs Socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s foreign policy, which is small potatoes compared to the sticking power of a libel enshrined in a work of fiction. Thanks to the talents of Schiller and Verdi, Philip II stands forever and falsely accused of having ordered the execution of his own son, while Peter the Great of Russia, who actually did have his son killed and made no bones about it, is considered one of history’s good guys.

But I don’t think anyone is going to make an opera out of Pilar Urbano’s best-selling Jefe Atta. Concocted from a skein of urban legends and conspiracy theories, plus an expensively-researched “insider’s view” of the White House, Al Qaeda training camps and other places she has never been to and imaginary conversations (“Dick, I can’t allow a bunch of terrorists to scare the President of the United States away from Washington,” etc.) It may convince  her readers they are getting the inside dope about the Sept 11 attacks: namely, that the Pentagon fire was faked, scrambled F-16s shot down American Airlines Flight 77, and a cabal of Texan plutocrats made a killing selling short their holdings in airline, insurance and oil stocks as prelude and pretext for the invasion of Iraq and take-over of the world’s petroleum supply.  

Anti-war Americans are lavished with attention by the Spanish media. Not just Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky and the usual suspects. Try Gwyneth Paltrow. She’s guaranteed a good press because in her palmier days, she spent a year studying in Spain, living with a Spanish family and loving every minute of it. Spaniards love her back when she goes on about how she “simply can’t understand how 55 million people could vote for [George W Bush]. It used to be friends would say, how can you have a president like that, who’s done all this and that, who doesn’t want to abide by the Kyoto Treaty and sends soldiers to die in Iraq. At least then I could answer ‘Right, but he didn’t win legally [in 2000]’. Now, though, I just have to clench my teeth.” 

Clench away, Gwynnie. The funny thing is that the Spanish empire also had plenty of detractors from within whose dissenting views got avid play abroad. The liberal establishment of Hapsburg Spain was represented by Bartolomé de las Casas, the Dominican friar who dedicated his life to campaigning for better treatment of the Indians – please note I did not say “rights” as neither he nor his contemporaries would have understood what is meant by the modern sense of the word. A one-man NGO, Las Casas wrote an inflammatory book denouncing Spanish atrocities against the Indians that was reprinted over 140 times between 1552 and 1800, all but a handful of editions for circulation outside Spain. 

Like modern-day spinmeisters, Fray Bartolomé knew that a lie told in a good cause acquires enhanced credibility when cast in numbers. So he insisted 30 to 50 million Indians were wiped on the island of Hispaniola, as if somebody had actually counted them, but for there to have been room for that many they would have had to be stacked in layers. The combined present-day population of Haiti and the Dominican Republic is 16 million and even at that  it’s getting pretty crowded.  

Another area where role-reversal has taken place is religion. Despite the Inquisition, however, Spaniards are neither more or less intense in their religious beliefs and practices than other peoples of the Mediterranean Catholic world and their knee-jerk anti-clericalism has become a tributary trickling into the mainstream of European secularism. Like their counterparts in France or Italy, Spaniards look on with perplexed dismay at a country where the vast majority of people openly proclaim their belief in God, and a fair number even go to church, and not just to get married or buried or look at the pretty pictures. 

Still and all, at least Spanish anti-Americanism is not fuelled by resentment over being eclipsed as a political and cultural powerhouse. Despite the revenge-crazed, ruffle-necked Don Whozis of the Jacobean stage, anyone who knows the first thing about Spaniards cannot possibly imagine them trying to lynch Americans because they were beaten by them at rugby, as the French did during the 1924 Olympics. With national self-esteem not endangered, it should be easier for both sides to smooth out their disagreements.          


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