Why Spain despises its intellectuals

A common joke in France is that “Europe ends at the Pyrenees” (the mountain chain separating France and Spain). Unlike in Germany or France, where intellectuals can reach near-celebrity status, intellectuals in Spain are often considered suspect (at best) or may be outright despised. As Michel Houellebecq wrote in his novel The Possibility of an Island which is set in Madrid:

“Spaniards don’t like cultural programmes at all, nor culture in general, it’s an area that is fundamentally hostile to them, one occasionally has the impression when talking about culture to them that they are sort of personally insulted.” – from Michel Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island

This can also be seen in how Spanish people pronounce foreign and in particular English words. Even if they would happen to know how to pronounce the word correctly, they basically need to mispronounce it if they do not want to be ridiculed and considered a snob. Anglicisms are now fairly commonplace in many European languages but Spain is the only country where I have seen people actively strive to mispronounce them. In other words, in Spain you need to dumb down and hide your education in order to be accepted.

While other languages also have their fair share of derogatory terms for smart or educated people, nowhere are they used with as much passion and ease as in Spain (perhaps with the exception of the US). In Spain, terms like cultureta (loosely translated as “educated snob”) or listillo (a diminutive of “smart person” used with contempt) can be used at the mere display of education or talent (similar to egghead, brainiac, nerd, or poindexter in the US). In contrast, to be scalded for your education in the UK, Germany, or France, you really need to show off your education in some exaggerated and self-aggrandizing manner. It is not enough to simply be educated.

Why is this? I can offer some suggestions.

For one, Spain is a country where job recruitment is often based on personal connections rather than merit. As a result, many high profile jobs are filled by individuals that are less qualified than their subordinates. Obviously, they do not like to be reminded of their lack of ability/suitability for the job and consequently need to stifle any display of knowledge or education by scalding it.

A second factor is that Spain had the longest lasting military dictatorship of any European nation in the 20th century: 39 years. As in any military/populist regime, also Franco had declared intellectuals to be the enemy of the people and persecuted, killed, or exiled them. So with two generations of Spaniards having been told that intellectuals are the enemy, we cannot expect this attitude to change over night. In addition, Spain never really broke with Franco (to this date it is forbidden to investigate this period) and people have never really been told (officially) that Franco’s policies were wrong. This is perhaps the biggest mistake and an outright scandal for a supposedly modern democracy, which may explain why the current Catalan nationalists have no qualms about mounting their own little Catalan version of cultural discrimination and outright racism against Spanish speakers.

A third factor is that Spain has been a relatively poor country for a very long time. It remained largely agrarian under Franco and only when Spain joined the EU in the mid 1980s did things start to pick up economically for a broader middle-class. It is difficult for people, who are forced to take on all sorts of menial jobs just to stay afloat, to not distrust people who can make a living by simply using their minds. This is particularly the case in rural areas. In the 1980s, Spain chose the path of cheap mass tourism as its business model. Maybe this was without alternative since you cannot create a high-tech manufacturing industry out of nothing when Franco had been wiping out the educated class for nearly 40 years. But as a result, Spain became what is now often called “the country of waiters and construction workers”. Young people, not seeing the value of education, drop out of school to make some quick money in restaurant and construction jobs (and generally in jobs that require no or only little education). Once the economy cools down, these jobs are the first to go and people eventually end up as so-called ninis (ni estudia ni trabaja which translates as “neither studying nor working”), a term similar to NEET (Not in Education, Employment, or Training) that was coined in the late 1990s in the UK. And even to this day (see the policies of the Aznar and Rajoy presidencies), the R&E and cultural budgets are typically the first to be cut in Spain when the financial situation becomes tight. And thus, the exiling of intellectuals and artists continues even today as they are forced to leave the country if they want to keep working in their respective professions.

A fourth factor, not particular to Spain though, is the internet. Put bluntly, the internet allows stupid people to find other stupid people who then, as a fairly coherent group, loose any awareness of their own intellectual limitations. Before the internet, people were exposed to all sorts of opinions and levels of education in their daily interactions. This made the less educated people more aware of their own limitations and thus more coy and cautious about voicing their opinions. Now, due to the internet’s echo chambers, this coyness has all but disappeared and people with extreme or uneducated opinions feel increasingly justified and encouraged to (loudly) voice these opinions (the climate change debate in the US is a prime example). People who did not read any newspapers in the pre-digital age can now be reached (and manipulated) via Twitter, Facebook or some pseudo-journalistic blog irrespective of the validity or truthfulness of its content. As such, the internet is much better for targeting and catering to people’s individual predilections, something that was much more difficult to achieve with a medium like TV. Populist parties and their supporters use it to their great advantage as we can see in many election results today.

Clearly, none of the above points will change any time soon. Nevertheless, the horrors of the 20th century should provide sufficient motivation to the political classes in Spain and elsewhere not to neglect or underestimate the value of an educated and enlightened society.

The Banana Republic of Absurdistan (formerly known as Catalonia)

Even for someone like myself, who has lived for over 8 years in Barcelona, and is therefore used to all sorts of shenanigans by the local governments, these last few months have been quite remarkable. Many people in Catalonia have been sleeping rather uneasily, waking up anxious every morning, dreading to open any news website for fear of having to read about the latest political nonsense committed by their so-called leaders. And well, on Friday this week, the time had finally come, and we all woke up to find ourselves as citizens of the newly declared banana republic of Absurdistan. A new republic, outside the EU, recognized by no country, without any democratic legitimacy or valid currency, i.e., without any plan, justification, or means whatsoever to support its functioning as a separate country; but hey, it sure felt good to have declared it anyway.

Events in Catalonia had been escalating for years, and have now culminated in a unilateral declaration of independence from Spain. How did it come to this? In short: years of inept leaders, both in Barcelona and Madrid. The long version is a bit more complex. For starters, while most elected leaders in the civilized world would try to find conciliatory words after coming to power, along the lines of: “I will be a president, not only of my supporters, but a president of all Catalans” (replace with whatever country/region), the Catalan President Puigdemont made it clear from the very beginning, that he did not care very much for the over 52% of Catalans1, who did not vote for his mono-thematic pro-independence coalition.

Result from the 2015 Catalan regional elections, split into pro- and con-indepenendence parties.

This is actually the closest they have ever come to gaining a majority, because in subsequent months, the independence movement steadily lost some steam, and by July 2017, only 41% of Catalans supported independence2,3.

Unfortunately, this lack of democratic legitimacy has never been a major concern to the independence camp, and it certainly did not stop successive populist Catalan governments from misappropriating public funds to continue a highly one-sided, divisive, and inflammatory independence campaign, forcing a singular Catalanist viewpoint and single Catalan language onto a heterogeneous, multi-cultural, and thus multi-lingual population. Thanks to far reaching autonomies for the Spanish regions, many Catalan school children nowadays graduate from high school, having been brainwashed into hating their own country, purposefully rendered only borderline capable of expressing themselves fluently in Spanish.

This deep rift between Barcelona and Madrid has been created by Continue reading “The Banana Republic of Absurdistan (formerly known as Catalonia)”

Defending liberal society and the responsibility of journalism and science in times of “alternative facts”

This last week has been quite fun and enlightening as it provided a glimpse of what we can expect from the new US government over the next four years. For starters, there was the first press conference by White House press secretary Sean Spicer. This press conference was interesting for two reasons: (1) Spicer made five statements, four of which were proven to be lies, and (2) one cannot help but wonder why the Trump administration, through its press secretary, decided to start their 4-year term with such easily refuted lies over a topic so utterly banal and petty (attendance figures at the inauguration ceremony). Clearly, Trump has not yet made the transition from rating-obsessed reality TV star to head of state. As usual, the internet reacted promptly and in kind. Within minutes, twitter handles like #SpicerFacts and #SeanSpicerFacts had been created and were starting to trend.


There is quite possibly no better way to loose your credibility as a government after just 1 day on the job. If these guys are prepared to lie so blatantly about issues that are utterly irrelevant to anyone and anything other than Donald Trump’s ego, how are we ever going to believe them once they talk about issues that really matter and where the truthfulness of their statements is more difficult to verify!
Continue reading “Defending liberal society and the responsibility of journalism and science in times of “alternative facts””

The widening wealth gap and why demagogues like Donald Trump are on the rise (again)

This week Donald Trump has been sworn in as the 45th US president and it was a truly historical event. Never before has a US president been so unpopular even before taking office. Usually, the week preceding inauguration and the first days in office are the honeymoon period for any new president during which they enjoy high popularity ratings. Not so for Donald Trump. Due to his divisive and openly hostile campaign, he could feel the stiff breeze of opposition right from the very minute he took office. Not only was the popular turnout at the inaugural ceremony very low, but millions of people took to the streets to protest against the new president even before he had enacted a single policy. And like any good demagogue worth his salt, what did Trump do when this rather inconvenient truth stared him in the face, he of course denied it calling all media outlets “dishonest”.

Trump inauguration
Top: comparing public turnout at the Trump inauguration (left) with Obama (right). Bottom: protesters against Trump on inauguration day.

While many people are still rubbing their eyes in disbelief about how a simpleton egomaniac without any political agenda other than “make America great again” could rise to power, his success, if seen in context, is not really such a surprise after all.
Continue reading “The widening wealth gap and why demagogues like Donald Trump are on the rise (again)”

Generals and Billionaires

Many people who thought that US president elect Donald Trump was only bluffing and things couldn’t possibly get as bad as he appeared to be during the campaign had a sore post-election awakening because things are actually far worse than expected. Looking at his cabinet nominations, I can’t help but wonder how the white working class who helped Trump win this election feel about their new “anti-establishment” “swamp-draining” representatives. It is a cabinet of horror, let’s see:

Trump’s cabinet of horror

  • Wilbur Ross (Trade and Commerce): This guy made a fortune by buying ailing companies, running them all the way into the ground and selling off the pieces. He is also known as the “king of bankruptcy” and Continue reading “Generals and Billionaires”

Climate change and the culpability of people like Donald Trump

Being a scientist myself, it has been bugging me for quite some time how people who clearly have no clue of the scientific method, analytical thinking in general, or climate science in particular, are trying to weigh in on the debate about global warming. I do not mean to sound elitist, but this is not like choosing which curtains fit better with the bedroom carpet, a subject on which certainly everyone is entitled to an opinion. Science is different because science is not about uttering opinions and gut feelings but about finding facts and proving them. For most scientists it takes somewhere between 10-15 years of training (3 years for the BSc, another 1-2y for the MSc, 3-5y for the PhD, and how ever long it takes as a post-doc) before you finally get a permanent position and are allowed to lead major research projects. So if some guy with a 3-year undergraduate degree in economics – aka Donald Trump – feels like he needs to weigh in with statements like:

“[climate change is] an expensive hoax”, “a concept…created by and for the Chinese”, and pure “bullshit” – Donald Trump

we should

  1. identify him as the tosser that he obviously is for saying things like this about an important subject he clearly knows absolutely nothing about, and, more importantly
  2. not elect him president of a country … duh!

Continue reading “Climate change and the culpability of people like Donald Trump”

On demagogues, nationalism, populism, religion, and other weaknesses of the human condition

In a world of post-truth politics, alt-right, and death-by-selfie (seriously?!), some people may feel worried and increasingly alienated by a culture or country they no longer recognise as their own. Although less than two generations have passed since the likes of Hitler and Mussolini, it appears as though what happened in the 20th century, the bloodiest in human history, is all but some distant parallel universe where people existed in black-and-white. What many did not believe even remotely possible some 10-15 years ago, seems to be unfolding in front of our very eyes: a reversal of cultural and socio-political achievements (workers’ rights, tolerance toward people of other religions, races, or sexual orientations, etc.), a renunciation of reason and progressive politics. Instead, religion is on the rise again and we can witness the return of the age of the demagogue, with U.S. president-elect Donald Trump as their new poster boy.

A (non-exhaustive) list of present-day demagogues.

Continue reading “On demagogues, nationalism, populism, religion, and other weaknesses of the human condition”