Subjectivity on the Wane

James Shapiro, a famous scholar of Shakespeare at Columbia, honestly talks about what technology did to his reading habits:

This is extremely sad. It’s James Shapiro! A guy who reads for a living.

But it gets worse:

I’m telling you, folks, in a world where focus becomes the rarest of commodities, we’ll have a cognitive elite far beyond anything we can begin to imagine. We’ll have people who not only don’t enjoy being alone with their thoughts for 3-4 hours but who have no idea that it’s even possible. And we’ll also have a small minority that will create fake subjectivities for these invalids. And then sic them at each other for fun.

Well, at least I read 6 novels this month and spent many hours spacing out aimlessly, so there’s some relief on an individual level.

Still Traveling

The problem here in Spain is that I get into a highly productive mood and ready to work around 8 pm local time. Luckily, my conference talk was scheduled at 8:05, so that went great. Other than that, though, I manage to erupt in a torrent of work emails and article edits between 8 and 9:30 pm, and that’s about it.

It’s all worth it, though, because San Sebastián is intensely beautiful.

There are sheep grazing under my balcony. Since there’s nowhere to eat for miles around and the Spanish meal schedules are too confusing anyway, I stare at the sheep, thinking, “Food…” The sheep stare back, clearly thinking, “You wish.”

Hard-working Parrots

It’s very hard to keep holding on to the conviction that these two are homegrown morons and not Russian plants when even in this they so faithfully follow the Russian narrative.

As I pointed out before, the glee over the earthquake deaths suffered by Turkey and Syria has been intense and prolonged in Russia. And it was also pretty instant. I started seeing collective expressions of joy immediately after the news began to come in.

It’s definitely curious how the same individuals in Congress reproduce every Russian meme with the intensity of studious parrots.

What Threatens Mexico

The unannounced, unexpected snow storm that is following me around the Iberian Peninsula has arrived in San Sebastián. I woke up from the sounds of frozen mix pelleting my balcony door. We are warned to stay inside, and this gives me a chance finally to talk about Mexico.

Hispanic countries (including Spain) have historically found it next to impossible to establish lasting, stable democracies. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, they experienced an unending stream of coups, civil wars, and dictatorships.

What makes democracy work its the longevity and stability of its institutions. A young democracy is weak in comparison with the established one. In the Hispanic world, the only country that has experienced something akin to democracy for a long, uninterrupted stretch of time is Mexico.

Mexico hasn’t had a dictatorship since 1910. This is big for the Hispanic world. Everybody else has had so many that it’s hard to keep track. Mexico inspires other Hispanic countries to believe that they, too, can eventually claw their way to democracy. It’s also very large and other Latin American countries have come to rely on Mexico to moderate disputes in the region and act as an authority.

Of course, Mexican democracy, the longest uninterrupted democracy in the Hispanic world, isn’t necessarily what we’d call a democracy. For the first 70 years of this “democracy’s” existence (from 1930 to 2000), Mexico was effectively a one-party state. One single party “won” every “election” for 70 years.

“Erm,” you’ll say. “This is what you call democracy?”

I mean, yeah, it doesn’t sound like much but for a Hispanic country to have actual elections where people come and go (even if they are all in the same party) and nobody starts a military coup – that’s already an enormous achievement.

After 70 years of one-party rule, Mexicans were ready to try an actual democracy. You know the kind. Different parties with different ideas run and whoever gets most support wins and takes office. Aaaaahhh! Scary!

To bring this possibility into existence, the National Election Institute (INE) was created. It’s an organization that is supposed to make sure that elections happen without undue pressure from the ruling party. As everything in Mexico, INE soon became a swollen bureaucratic institution. But it worked. Mexico started seeing actual elections, with different parties, and even new parties arising pretty much out of nowhere and still being able to win.

What does this mean? It means that for the past 20 years Mexico has had a real democracy. This is pretty much incredible and, yes, it took 70 years of a pseudo-democratic one-party rule to even make this possible. That’s Latin America for you.

And then things started curdling. Mexico’s current president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known for his woke rhetoric and love of austerity measures, decided to destroy INE. The organization’s budget is to be decimated and 85% of its workers are to be fired. Almost a thousand polling places will remain without any INE oversight during elections. There will be absolutely nobody at those voting stations to prevent the shady shit that takes place everywhere else in Latin America.

As he works to destroy the civilian institutions shoring up Mexican democracy, López Obrador has been playing footsie with the military. In the Hispanic world, the military doesn’t have the same role as it does in Anglo countries. The military there isn’t just a political force. It’s THE political force that likes to step in and take power whenever the desire to do so comes over it. It’s been nothing short of a miracle that the Mexican military has been kept at bay for so long. The reason why it’s possible is that the country has strong civil institutions. Yes, those institutions (like INE) do get bloated and overly bureaucratic. But it’s either that or a military dictatorship. What would you choose?

INE is so far from perfect, I could write a 1,000-page treatise bemoaning its ills. Believe me, I’m the last person to idealize INE. But, folks, what Mexico badly needs is more, not fewer, civil institutions. It’s better to have a deeply imperfect INE than no INE and see the growing reliance of politicians on their friends in the military. The state is already massively weakened in Mexico by the struggle between the cartels and the government forces. Abolishing institutions responsible for bringing democracy to Mexico is going to weaken the state even more. Many Mexican citizens understand this and have been protesting:

There’s nothing for Americans to do other than to know about it and hope that Mexicans will be able to defend their democracy. If they aren’t, it won’t be pretty. Mexico is very large and very close. If, God forbid, there’s a coup, it won’t be pretty.

Before I leave everybody in peace on this subject, I want to reiterate that the danger here isn’t as much the plan to dismantle INE but that it’s now suddenly OK in Mexico to play a game that was considered completely unacceptable only a short time ago. I don’t prefer any Mexican party or politician. All I want is strong, democratic, peaceful Mexico. And today that seems less possible with every passing moment.

The Age of Cluelessness

Of course, as soon as I came down from the mountain into San Sebastian, I came across a campaign organized by spoiled, infantile leftists calling to stop supplying weapons to Ukraine as a way to “stop the war.” There’s no doubt that such an action would eventually stop the war and unleash the worst genocide since Rwanda. But you can’t explain this to these young lefties. They’ve known nothing but prosperity. They want to feel important so they curl their lips at the opulence surrounding them and join moronic causes to have something to post on social media. The evil West! Racism-sexism-somethingphobia! American proxy war in Ukraine!

In Spain, at least, such people tend to be very young, so one can hope they’ll not remain so childish forever. But in the US, there’s a whole crowd of over-fifty-year-olds who aren’t dealing well with age-related hormonal changes and who have also embraced the idea that “genocide is peace.” These are sadder cases because it’s too late for them to learn better.

In the Basque Countryside

This is the view from my room in San Sebastian:

And this is what I had instead of dinner because it turned out to be uncommonly hard to find any food here in the mountain:

The way this became dinner is as follows. I wondered for a while in the mountain until I finally found a very small local restaurant. The way such places work is that the farmer family that runs the restaurant cooks a single dish and people can buy it. Once the dish runs out – which can happen at wildly unpredictable times of day – the restaurant closes. Asking for a menu at such a place produces the reaction similar to a request for a perverted sex act. You are supposed to show up and eat whatever is there. Then you can leave or stick around but no new food will be forthcoming on that day.

Yesterday turned out to be a very good day, at the farm, so by the time I arrived, the dish had been eaten a long time ago and the restaurant owner, a Basque farmer in his seventies, was drinking cider with a group of very young men.

My arrival in search of food and especially my Spanish in this completely euskera- speaking environment made an effect of a comedy show. The owner spoke some rudimentary Spanish, making the young men almost collapse with laughter, and started showing me photos of the times when he was a well-known athlete of some very Basque sport. This was sometime during the Franco era, so I forgot all about food and started leafing through the album.

Right at the moment when the farmer was pressing a glass of cider drawn straight from the wall into my hand and explaining that back in the day he had the kind of muscles that I was bound to appreciate if only in photos, the farmer’s wife appeared. My presence did not feel her with the same kind of good cheer as it had the men. She broke into a long and angry speech in euskera, out of which I only caught the words “cider, young, blonde, and bastard.”

I slipped away and renounced my search for food for the time being. Anyway, who needs food when there are still places somewhere where one is perceived as a young blonde capable of causing marital strife?

Language and Personality

A monolingual colleague was very surprised when I said that I feel and act very differently as a Spanish speaker than when I speak English, Russian or Ukrainian.

It shouldn’t surprise us, though, that achieving complete fluency in a language has an impact on behavior and self-perception.

Take, for instance, the issue of gesticulation. People gesticulate very differently in different cultures. Some do an enormous lot of it, while others do next to none. Once you start gesticulating differently or suppressing gesticulation, you involve your entire body in the act of speaking. We are our bodies, and it makes no sense to assume that the way one moves has no effect on how one feels.

Intonation varies greatly among languages and is usually one of the hardest things for a non-native to master. Once you change your intonation, you have changed the entire musicality of your existence. We all feel differently while listening to a lullaby as opposed to a military march. Why wouldn’t we register a change once we become the source of the music of our daily lives?

A language is a lot more than a dictionary and a book of grammar rules. People who speak different languages touch each other in different contexts and with different frequency. Some barely touch at all and maintain a physical distance during a conversation that is completely unnatural to people in other linguistic milieus. Pronouncing different sounds involves groups of muscles that might not even coincide among languages. In the early stages of language learning, we bring handheld mirrors to class so that students can see themselves while pronouncing unfamiliar sounds. “I’ve never done anything like this before with my tongue!” a student once exclaimed, provoking a burst of laughter from the rest of the class.

In order to pronounce a set of sounds, you might have to lift your chin in a way you normally don’t do. Try an experiment, and hold your chin an inch higher than usual. I can guarantee you are going to feel different as you do it. And that’s just one simple adjustment. Now think of what it would mean to switch into a completely new articulation apparatus.

Humans are not machines that deliver messages in different languages at the touch of a button. We are not a collection of different parts, some of which can be swapped out without affecting the entire organism. Everything in the human body is connected to everything else. And language – the very thing that makes us human – is at the root of everything we are.

A National Bear Hug

In the small but happy group of scholars I’ve been hanging with here in Spain, one is a self-avowed Communist, another a Vox supporter (the equivalent of our MAGA) and yet another is an extremely centrist moderate. There were three others but I want to concentrate on the colleagues I describe because it was unusually pleasing to observe their interactions.

The colleagues argued, yelled, waved their hands, and expressed themselves with complete openness. As we can well imagine, they did not agree on any of the issues we discussed, including abortion, gender quotas, taxation, trans, gay marriage, Marxism, race, Catalonia, Franco, etc. Everybody was very passionate about their beliefs but nobody was afraid of being denounced for their “harmful” words.

I actually asked the Vox (~ MAGA) voter what would happen if anybody snitched on him to the university administrator. At first, nobody understood the question and then the group burst out laughing. “Oh, my Dean would really enjoy telling that snitching loser to go [a string of inventive obscenities] himself. Or should I say ‘herself’ to protect the inclusivity obsession of our lefty friends?” Then the Communist tore into him, and the debate resumed.

I heard a lot during that discussion but one thing that was completely absent is the contemptuous attitude towards their own country that is so natural in the US. Nobody suggested that “this country is a mess” or “everything is falling apart”, even though things are “falling apart” in Spain a lot more than in the US. Everybody spoke of Spain with the deepest love and admiration.

After 4 hours of screaming at each other and disagreeing about everything, the colleagues joined in a long and happy bear hug. And I really wished we could do the same in America. The oft-expressed idea that leftist and right-wing Americans have absolutely nothing in common and that they “already live in what amounts to different countries” is absolute lunacy. People who say it are either liars or have no understanding of what being in a different country actually means. Americans have an enormous lot in common. And most of it is very good.

All that’s missing is remembering all we share and giving each other a gigantic national bear hug.

Conference Impressions

I promise I will write about Mexican developments tomorrow. Today I’m at the conference all day. We had a dish called “Spanish tears.” At first, I thought it was a beverage but it turned out to be strips of meat that I didn’t particularly appreciate. We also had potatoes 5 different ways, so I’m not complaining. I also ordered something people were calling “Clarita” because I miss my kid and the word reminded me of her. I thought it was an egg. Turns out Clarita is light – or what do you call it? It means not dark – beer. And even though I detest beer, this one was delicious.

I’ve been hanging with amazing people here at the conference. I also met an academic whom I deeply admire and then it turned out that he deeply admires me and always wanted to meet me.

Also, I remembered why I started to learn Spanish in the first place all those years ago. My Spanish-speaking persona has no sociability problems. It’s so much lighter than my regular self that it gives me freedom from the inner heaviness that I normally carry everywhere. I almost never get to talk to any native speakers of Spanish anymore, so I actually forgot how it feels. Imagine, making all that effort to learn a language in adulthood and achieve complete fluency to escape from your unpleasant personality and then not being able to use it.

It’s really funny, though, because the people I’ve been hanging out with all day have no idea that I’m usually nothing like the person they saw.

I’m glad I ended up being with people all day because otherwise I’d stay in bed staring at the wall and remembering the first day of the Russian invasion a year ago.