by Manuel Serrano
We live in the era of fake news and alternative facts. Fascism has been so debased as a phrase that fascists nowadays are simply those with whom we disagree. They are the others. The bad and the undemocratic. Doesn’t matter if they are actual fascists or not. What matters is that we believe they are. In Catalonia, this distinction has already been made. And Carles Puigdemont is sparing no effort to convince Europeans that he is Democracy´s champion fighting against the heirs of Francoism.There´s no mandate for independence. Not enough social support. No international recognition. There´s no plan. Just irresponsible politicians promising something they cannot deliver. But who can stop lies from making the headlines? Who will tell citizens that they have been fooled? As Bertolt Brecht said, when the truth is too weak to defend itself, it has to go on the attack. But that has become difficult in the Schrödinger-like Republic of Catalonia: a republic that exists and doesn’t exist at the same time. Where many people demand Democracy but show contempt for democratic norms. Where people demand their right of self-determination but overlook the political rights of those who don’t want to spend their days waving flags. A Republic that is not the next step towards a democratized and better European Union, but a step backwards
into nationalism and intolerance.
Beyond good and evil
The Spanish state’s actions during the October 1 illegal referendum are inexcusable. Curtailing freedom of expression and freedom of assembly cannot be justified on the grounds of restoring the constitutional order. As Donald Tusk put it, Spain should favour force of argument, not an argument of force. Madrid, however, has done very little to quell unrest in Catalonia. And the judicialization of the crisis has hardly helped. However, it´s worth noting that despite the unacceptable events that unfolded on October 1, several fake news and out of context content spread throughout social media during the day. Made available by secessionists, ultra-nationalists, anti-globalisation groups and pro-Russian communications agencies, these posts gave the false impression that Spain is “just like Turkey”, and that a lot more than three people were seriously injured.
Regardless, the situation is deteriorating. Despite the call for regional elections on December 21, the imposition of direct rule and the detention on of eight members of the Puigdemont cabinet have made a bad situation worse. Article 155 had never been applied before, while the detentions are being described by many as an attack against freedom and democracy. However, we should emphasize that we are not talking about political prisoners: a quick read will tell us that they don’t qualify as such. They have been detained because they ignored the law, took decisive steps to establish a parallel state and refused to comply with judicial rulings. We can disagree about the nature of the crime, and, certainly, about its punishment. But that doesn´t make them political prisoners: they were not arrested for believing in independence, but for violating the laws they promised to respect.
Puigdemont´s decision to leave the country can only be understood for what it is: an irresponsible choice made by an irresponsible politician. A decision that ended up affecting negatively his cabinet ministers. His claim that he wouldn’t have a fair trial in Spain is unfounded: the judicial power is independent. Despite the unfair coverage of the last weeks, is worth recalling that several politicians from all sides of the political spectrum have been detained for corruption, tax fraud and maladministration in the last decade.
Spain is by no means a perfect democracy. However, it isn’t a dictatorial state either. Comparisons with Francisco Franco´s regime are an insult to those who truly have been persecuted for what they believe in. The EU should monitor respect for fundamental freedoms and the rule of law in every member country, but their attention should also focus on Puigdemont and his government’s actions. It should pay closer attention to the rights of those who don’t need to wave flags to show they belong, those who have been singled out for rejecting the secessionist agenda and those who have been ignored by a Parliament that ought to represent all Catalans.
The EU should not condone the use of violence, but commentators and public intellectuals shouldn’t condone either the actions of individuals that bend the truth whenever it suits their agenda. Of a government that has polarized Catalans and reopened wounds that have been healing for forty years now. Forty-seven percent may be entitled to decide their future. But that doesn’t mean the other fifty-three percent are not entitled to the same fundamental and political rights.
Behaving like a democrat
Populists and demagogues’ communication styles are designed to confuse audiences and convince citizens that there are facts that matter, and facts that don’t. As Ken Wilber outlines in his book “Trump and a Post-Truth World”: in a no-truth culture, liars are the most truthful, since the truth becomes whatever you want it to become. Many politicians have realised that the battle for citizens´ hearts and minds is to be won by crafted narratives and Orwellian language.
It´s a fact that most Catalans rejected a unilateral move towards secession. And that most Catalans are not separatists. Why then, do many newspapers and commentators abroad assume that most Catalans want independence? Because the truth has become far less important than the narrative. That´s why it is more important than ever to reject clickbait journalism and easy answers. If we don’t, those speaking the loudest will get to determine which are the facts and values that matter. And those values won’t be pluralism, inclusiveness, and solidarity.
These are turbulent times to be Catalan, Spanish and European. But there´s room for positive strategies and common solutions: the point of departure should be a peaceful negotiation about Catalonia´s place in Spain. However, acknowledging that Constitutions can change doesn’t mean we should dismiss the laws that allow us to live together: mob rule and social media cannot replace democracy. The future of Spain (and Europe) lies in cooperation within federal structures, not in separation. But a negotiated solution will only be possible if Puigdemont and Rajoy understand that the first step towards being a Democrat is to behave like one.
(Manuel Serrano is a journalist, political analyst and communications consultant working as openDemocracy’s Lisbon correspondent responsible for covering a wide range of political news, focusing particularly on European affairs. LlB ESADE Law School and MA in International Relations from the Barcelona Institute for International Studies (IBEI). – Social Europe