Recent conversations with friends about the upcoming World Youth Day in Madrid have given me occasion to pause and reflect on a very important question, at least for those of us who care about the answer: ¿A dónde vas, España? For there seems to be a deepening identity crisis in the country, as anyone who reads the Spanish news with regularity is very much aware. Saved for the moment from the near-descent into anarchy demonstrated in Greece, or the humiliating collapse of Iceland and Ireland, Spain manages to march on, but with no clear exit strategy from its present malaise. Pope Benedict XVI’s brief visits to Santiago and Barcelona this past autumn notwithstanding, the youth of the country are in desperate need of guidance and direction on who they are, and what their country is supposed to be – and they are not getting that guidance on identity either from their parents or their country’s leaders, whom their parents put into office in the first place.
One cannot think about this identity crisis without looking at the top, where of course the rot usually sets in. Indeed, the Spanish Premier himself has something of an identity crisis about him, for very often he is referred to as Mr. Zapatero, rather than Mr. Rodriguez which is, in fact, properly his last name. According to Spanish custom one normally combines the last names of one’s parents, so that one has two last names, with the father’s last name given first, and used as the primary, legal patronymic; the maternal last name follows, sometimes connected with a “y”, the Spanish word for “and”. Thus the Prime Ministers of Spain since General Franco are – correctly – referred to by their paternal last name, if the name is shortened: Adolfo Suarez (y Gonzalez), Leopoldo Calvo-Sotelo (y Bustelo); Felipe Gonzalez (Marquez); Jose-Maria Aznar (Lopez).
Sometimes, if the family of the mother is more illustrious than that of the father, or the father’s last name is considered commonplace, an individual will use their mother’s last name instead of their father’s – though one of the main reasons for doing this is a claim to an inheritance, or if the individual is a bastard. In the case of the Spanish PM, while it is true that “Rodriguez” is a rather common name in Spain as compared to “Zapatero” (which means “Cobbler”), the fact that “Gonzalez” is an equally common last name never seemed to bother the previous Socialist PM. I believe it is indicative of the present Prime Minister’s nature that he would prefer to have himself referred to in this way, which smacks of a feeble attempt at social climbing – though off-hand I cannot think of any cobblers who are Grandees of Spain.
Whatever he calls himself, it should come as no surprise that an individual who transforms his identity should seek to transform the world around him. And what a transformation Spain has undergone during the present administration. Spain presently holds the dubious distinction of having the highest unemployment rate in the developed world, standing at a fetch-the-smelling-salts-Pepita level of 20.3%. Over the past decade, with the loosening of laws on contraception and abortion, use of artificial contraception in Spain increased by 30%, and the abortion rate more than doubled, while the birth rate among Spanish citizens simultaneously plummeted to 1.33, despite efforts by the Socialists to encourage people having more children by paying them cash bonuses – an effort which has now been stopped thanks to enormous government debt. Even the birth rate among immigrant groups, which until now have been the only thing keeping Spain from undergoing a total demographic implosion, are now falling precipitously.
We could easily trundle on with our Brechtian cart of horrors: the legalization of homosexual marriage and adoption; the Historical Memory Law whereby the Left is attempting to re-write the history of the Spanish Civil War; utter impotence with respect to controlling illegal immigration; near-acquiescence on the future of Gibraltar; and (my personal favorite) the new, Bloomberg-like smoking ban. It is a very, very bad time to live in Spain.
Yet as content as one might be to do so, we cannot lay all of the blame for such things on the Prime Minister’s shoulders. We must remember that he is merely the mirror which the Spanish people have held up as representing themselves. For what afflicts Spain is an illness which most of the West is suffering from as well, and that is institutionalized selfishness. The difference is simply that, as has often been the case throughout its history, Spain does not do things quietly, and by degrees: it either succeeds spectacularly, or fails utterly, depending on how you look at it. The imp of selfish materialism was not let out of Pandora’s box by either Mr. Zapatero or the Socialists, but they have certainly done their best to keep it fed during their tenure in office.
As I have written previously, one can often tell a great deal about an era from things such as the art and architecture which arose during that period. What will critics think, 50 years from now, when they look back on the paintings, structures, and so on that were created during this period? Will there be anyone left to care? What will a depopulated Spain look like, if present demographic trends continue – will there be a kind of Detroit-ification, with town centers being torn down or abandoned or, as the New York Times recently reported, ghost towns as far as the eye can see?
A very significant part of Spain has taken the decision to get divorced from the Church and to marry Mammon. This new marriage, while an unhappy one with respect to the spiritual and moral welfare of the Spanish people, is regrettably likely to endure. Let us not be found guilty of overly optimistic thinking that matters will improve any time soon: a country where an increasing number of children are no longer baptized is one which is well on the road to outright paganism. Those who are hopeful about a resurgence of faith in “Catholic Spain”, an uprising of a large, oppressed group of traditionally-minded Spanish people to reclaim their future, are very naive.
One of the great things about the upcoming World Youth Day in Madrid – aside from the lunacy of setting it in August when being outdoors in Madrid is as pleasant as lounging inside a pizza oven – is that the Pope seems to understand that it is the future that he needs to reach out to in Spain. If we are being realistic about it, the adults who have fallen away are, for the most part, a lost cause. Spain desperately needs to recover its sense of self, and what made it something more than what it has become, i.e. an international destination for sun, sangria, and sin, – and it will be the youth that make this happen, in the fullness of time, not their parents or grandparents who have, in the interest of money, forgotten what made Spain a great country.
It is probable that Benedict himself will not, sadly, live to see the long-term impact of World Youth Day on the young people of Spain, but the fact that he recognizes the danger, and is doing something about it, one hopes will have a lasting, positive impact on the young people that attend, when they come to head their country’s businesses, institutions, government, and households.
Museo del Prado, Madrid