Nationalism, or how to drown out what is important

What if we put First World struggles in context? Español

Laura Tedesco
29 November 2017

November 25, 2017 - Barcelona, Barcelona, Spain - Women hold banners demanding ‘freedom for the Catalan political prisoners’. Image: Jorge Sanz/Pacific Press via ZUMA Wire/PA Images. All rights reserved.

In recent months, our ability to forget has become increasingly apparent. In our blind, deaf and dumb First World – in Spain, for instance -, there have been cries against oppression and struggles for freedom. Many have taken to the streets to fight for civil and political rights and analysts have defended the right to vote and the rule of Law.

The headiness of the fight has resulted in shows of intolerance, police overreaction and injuries - all in the name of freedom, independence or the constitutional order.

But what if we contextualized First World struggles? What if we reminded ourselves of where we are and what is happening elsewhere?

Life outside the First World bubble is nasty and short. 

For example: in the worst attack in the country’s history, 315 people lost their lives in Somalia on October 15. Another: in September, more than half a million Rohingya, fleeing an army offensive, crossed from Myanmar to Bangladesh while Aung San Suu Kyi, the woman who inspired the fight against repression by the military with her non-violent stance and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, looked on in silence - like so many others.

On September 26, the deadline the European Union had given its member states to take in refugees desperately fleeing war, hunger and oppression expired. Spain, for one, had only granted asylum to 11% of the total it had committed itself to. Many other European countries also failed to comply.

Life outside the First World bubble is nasty and short. We could fill this article with figures on child malnutrition, everyday violations of human rights and victims of bloody repression and criminal gangs. But we are all familiar with them and fully aware of that reality, aren’t we? It is true that many of us are trying to help, promoting cooperation, fighting for the rights of others, supporting NGOs. But it is also true that our help is – alas - quite insufficient in this irrational, unjust and violent world. As citizens, there is, in fact, much too little we can do to change things outside our bubble.

But there is something we can actually do: avoiding being manipulated by irresponsible and irrational politicians. That is, by politicians who seek to embezzle us with nationalist tales, who try to convince us that we are being oppressed or menaced by others, who rewrite history at their convenience, and who, at the same time, deny their ingrained corruption, who impoverish their citizens in order to bail out banks and who fail to offer a safe haven to refugees. Nationalist exaltation, embracing the flag and chanting patriotic anthems are the tools of dictators and unenlightened self-proclaimed democrats. Nationalism can be the opium for both those who call for independence and those who call for unity:  two bald men fighting over a comb, as Jorge Luis Borges famously put it, referring to the Malvinas/Falklands war in 1982.

In this context, everybody gets smeared. Newspapers lose their essential purpose: they no longer inform and carry propaganda. Analysts throw abuse at each other. And democracy bears the brunt. Polarized societies move away from attempts at consensus and dialogue.

It is obscene to fight over who gets to be called “the victim” while, outside our bubble, the oppressed are tortured and killed.

Spanish writer Antonio Muñoz Molina has recently said that it is obscene to fight over who gets to be called “the victim” while, outside our bubble, the oppressed are tortured and killed, political prisoners are shot and imprisoned, and the fight for freedom of expression often ends up in exile.

Most probably, many will think that these words unfairly devalue the struggle of Catalan pro independence supporters and also of those who support Spain’s unity no matter what. It is not my intention to offend. My intention is just to plead for some sanity and ask for respect for those who, in the world at large, are oppressed and silenced and have no rights or due process. And to warn about irresponsible politicians stirring nationalism here and there, and ask readers to remember how, in our very recent past, this has always led to war and destruction. Nationalism can blind us even further. And it can unleash forces which we should never allow to get out.

Having our basic needs covered does not give us the right to navel-gaze. First of all, because actually not everyone in Europe, in Spain or Catalonia has their basic needs covered. Second, because it is immoral, as Muñoz Molina puts it, to victimize ourselves when there are millions of real victims in the world whose lives are at risk. Third, because it is not only more just but also more productive to fight against those who manipulate us, lie to us and steal from us - here, in Somalia and in Myanmar.

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