Blind man's bluff

Minister Wert must know better than to use expressions such as "Hispanicizing" Catalan schoolchildren

Certain masterpieces of Goya and Fragonard, made in the late 18th century, are pregnant with an insecurity that seems to foreshadow the cataclysm of 1789. In The Swing, as in Goya's Feast of San Isidro, play and festival are haunted by a feeling of imbalance and disorder. But it is in his Blind Man's Bluff where what seems a mere game is actually a painful allegory of events that lead to nothing at all.

The behavior of certain political figures in recent weeks, across the ideological spectrum, seems to echo this repeated failure to find the right way to a proposed objective. As if a player hoped to win without knowing the cards in his hand, or rather, though well enough aware of the difficulties in his way, had opted to win anyhow by cheating. One way or another, the inevitable result is a risk to continuance of the game itself - in this case, that of Spanish democracy.

Sometimes it verges on the grotesque. We might have expected that Minister Wert would want some real improvements made to the school system, and as for Catalonia, a reasonable balance to be struck between school classes given in Catalan and in Castilian Spanish. But, when he himself must know better than to use such an expression, he publicly speaks of "Hispanicizing" Catalan schoolchildren. Sad to see how an education minister can live in happy ignorance of the difference between denotation and connotation. Apart from the authoritarian, fascist whiff that hangs around the terms "Hispanicize" and "pride."

Wert ought to know that a speech featuring such terms is just what the Catalan nationalists were waiting to hear, so that they could speak of the oppression - and the blindness - of the Spanish government. In the same line, his failure to appear at the congressional session where a censure motion against him was on the agenda, reeks of disdain for representative institutions, and of the arrogance he has shown in his ministerial functions.

Artur Mas is more than aware of what connotation is about - he fairly swims in it

On the other side, Artur Mas is more than aware of what connotation is about - he fairly swims in it. None of what he says to his audience - the "Catalan people," who he is driving in the direction of national freedom - need be understood in the same sense by the adversaries. While never using the word "independence," what he says to his voters is to be understood as such by them, though his proposal would lead to a dead end: Catalonia, a state of its own within Europe, achieved in the face of a democratic Constitution, but to be left outside the EU. The contrivance is reminiscent of Voltaire's Jesuit explaining the Trinity, and also of the sleight of hand in a pea-and-shell game, where you can't tell where the pea is. Then comes Mas' rhetoric about the Madrid government's maneuver in Brussels, as if the 17th-century armies of Castile were marching on Barcelona. Surreal. But that is how totalitarianisms rose in the 1920s, and how tragedies can be repeated.

Of course if demagogy advances, it is because nobody stands in its way, except the traditional Spanish nationalism of the Popular Party. The Socialists and the Catalan Socialists must see that the problem is not one of whether Mas' referendum plan is at odds with some point of the law, but that the whole strategy of CiU constitutes a frontal attack on democracy, and on the Constitution, whether you favor independence or not.

The Socialists are still playing equivocal games with the Catalan nationalists. All we need now is for Joaquín Almunia, a sometime leader of the Socialists but long since retired to a top post in Brussels, to come out in favor of independence for Scotland, and to declare that the EU's recent letter dismissing the possibility of European membership for an independent Catalonia was written in "bad faith." Meanwhile Rubalcaba and other Socialists babble on vaguely about an undefined "federalism."