“Castilla miserable, ayer dominadora / Envuelta en sus harapos desprecia cuanto ignora”. [Miserable Castille, yesterday a ruler / Wrapped in its rags despises what it ignores]. These immortal verses by Antonio Machado date from 1912, but are they still valid in 2016? Hasn’t Spain become modern at full speed? Don’t we boast about being the most learned generation in our history? Let’s do the test: let’s get close to a group of people in a bar, for instance, in Madrid, and start talking about culture. Probably, someone will make us stop and will ask us not te be so “intense” or to stop “posing”. And that’s because in a great part of Spain (not only Madrid), there still exists an anti-intellectual mentality that is marked by fire in the collective unconscious.
This is a phenomenon that transcends the sky high school failure index and goes beyond all the “ninis”, “tetes” and “chonis” populating our discos and TV channels. It also goes beyond Belén Esteban, Mario Vaquerizo, Ylenia and many other illustrious ignoramuses turned mass idols who are not to blame about anything and whom I personally consider quite funny and entertaining. It’s a transversal mentality, rooted in part of that supposedly learned generation: men and women with university degrees, intelligent and good professionals in their job (whatever it is), but who live with their backs turned to culture, who don’t trust the film directors, artists and intellectuals “that subsist thanks to grants” and who move in an environment prone to gossip, moaning, prejudice and, in sum, total mediocrity.
This detail didn’t go unnoticed for an impartial and acute observer such as French writer Michel Houellebecq while he had a relationship with a Spanish girlfriend. In The Possibility of a Island, a novel set in the Madrid of the real state boom and pre-crisis economic euphoria, he writes: “Spaniards in general don’t like culture, it’s a terrain they find deeply hostile. Sometimes you get the feeling, when you talk about culture, that they take it as a kind of personal offense”.
Where does this anomaly come from? To understand it, we need to go back to the 16th century. Most European capitals (London, Paris, Berlin, Rome or Vienna) were built by the sea or by navigable rivers in order to be in touch with the outside world and ease commerce (there were no motorways, trains or airports back then). Quite on the contrary, Madrid was erected in a difficult to access area and far from any navigable river. From 1561 on, the court lived isolated from commercial and economic flows and, as a consequence, of new ideas. Catholic and apostolic Spain only cared about being in touch with God. Sciences and studies were banned so as to promote single thought. And little by little, intolerance and stagnation were translated into the autarchic mentality of the average Spaniard, and it remained so until Franco’s death. Since then, rigid Catholic morals have been defeated in sexual matters: both women and us gays have become liberated and people have accepted it surprisingly quickly. In that sense, we’re more modern and happy. In other spheres, though, we remain more or less the same.
Spain, 21st century. The cultureta (a pejorative term) is an unpleasant character, a grey and annoying individual who looks down at people, thinks he’s superior than the rest, has nothing to contribute to our life and is there, basically, to boast about all that he knows. The cultureta watches Romanian or Iranian films, reads weird books and listens to records nobody knows, although he can be socially accepted if he hides his inclinations in public and proves he can be as humble, simple and “normal” as the rest of “normal” people. All this is quite sad, although is as sad noticing how in this intellectually dull environment, certain people with curiosity don’t accept that certain things require an effort: everything need to be easy and entertaining. It’s difficult to find someone who admits that there is a level of sophistication you cannot reach unless you make that effort, someone ready to deal with books, records, series or films they don’t get the first time round. Without going any further, the most important film critic in Spain, who writes for the most prestigious newspaper in Spain and did so before on the second most importance one, bases most of his reviews in the amount of times he looks at his watch during a projection and in whether what he sees bores him a lot, a little, or nothing at all. Can we imagine anything like that on The New Yorker, Le Monde, The New York Times or The Guardian? Impossible! If it can happen in this country, it must mean something.
Deep down, all this is a consequence of a society that doesn’t reward effort and merit, but social capital social, that is, the family you’re born in, the friends or godfathers you have. The Spanish job recruitment system valid in Spain for centuries despises education and gives priority to relatives, mates or party colleagues. The subordination of efficiency to personal affinity and the need to become a friend to the person hiring you provoke that many high profile jobs end up being done by workers less qualified than the people elected. And the ones employed don’t like to be reminded their lack of abilities. That’s why the figure of the listillo (another diminutive used with contempt) is seen as so suspicious, on the contrary that in countries with highly competitive working markets such as the US or Germany.
Until this country doesn’t become a real meritocratic society, in which intelligence, knowledge, talent and work capacity will be rewarded, this collective mentality will remain the same. And that transformation won’t take place in a year, or a term, or probably not even in a generation. Where are we now? Well, we’re losing positions. With the excuse of the crisis, Rajoy’s government didn’t even try to hide its contempt for sciences and culture. With their massive budget cuts, they again validated the maxim expressed by Unamuno that says, “Have them invent!” (A tag line applied to creative individuals in the cultural sphere and to scientific R+D departments). Little by little, after the eighties and nineties mirage, Spain is again becoming irrelevant in the international context. So either we start changing our attitude and accept that we know less than we should, or we go back to the dark ages and isolation, which are something that we do oh so well.