Wednesday, May 25, 2016

To Explain Spain: Madrid - 2

To begin with, I have come to believe that simply learning why Madrid is where it is, is the key to understanding thousands of things about Spain, the key to understanding the past, present and future of one of the European Union's most important countries, with deep ties, linguistic, cultural, political and financial to all of the United States of America's southern neighbors.

There are masses of "facts" about Spain on the Internet: just reading what Wikipedia has to say about it could keep you busy for quite awhile. I'm not going regurgitate all of that here. What I'd like to do, within my limited abilities, is to give you some sort of feel for the place, a point of view to take with you before you get immersed in all the multitude of facts and cliches about Spain's culture and history. So if and when you really do begin to study, all that you learn might fall more easily into place.

What do I mean by the "feel" of the place?

When Spanish people who are going to the States ask me what they should see or do there, I tell them that the USA is more or less like it appears in the movies (except there are no subtitles), that American food is the same junk you can get on practically any street corner of the world and that the only thing they can't get from the films or McDonald's is the feeling of America's unbelievable size and distances. What I tell them to do is to spend a week or two in a Greyhound bus crossing "fly over America". The fatigue in their back muscles and the pain in their nether regions, combined with the conversations they will have with their continuously changing and almost always chatty seat mates... while crossing the Great Plains, day after day, will teach them more about America than reading dozens of books, or more correctly, help them make some sense of all that they read.

This, their own private "road movie", will make them "feel" America.

Short of that sort of direct experience of Spain, my readers will have to make do with what follows:

Getting Started

In the first chapter of this series we looked at a map of the population density of Europe, where we saw that the greater part of Spain and nearly all of its center is as sparsely populated as the outback of Sweden or Finland or the forests and western Steppes of Russia... or the Alps.  And we saw that floating in that emptiness, like an asteroid, is a city of over three million people with a population density comparable to London or Paris.

To put that emptiness into physical context, lets look at a relief map of Spain. Madrid being the tiny, red, dot in the middle of it all.
Relief map of Spain - Madrid, the Red Dot in the Middle                   

Looking at the relief map, the sparse population of the center of Spain makes sense, what is hard to understand is why there is this huge city in the middle of what looks like a moonscape. 

Also going there by land is uphill all the way. 

Examine this list of European cities by elevation over sea level.

1-Kruševo, Macedonia 1,350 m (4,430 ft)
2-Andorra la Vella 1,023 m (3,356 ft)
3-Madrid 667 m (2,188 ft)
4-Pristina 652 m (2,139 ft)
5-Sofia 580 m (1,900 ft)
6-Bern 542 m (1,778 ft)
7-Munich 519 m (1,703 ft)
Wikipedia - List of European Cities by Elevation 

Today's Spain is crisscrossed with modern superhighways and high speed trains, but this is a very, very recent development, even as late as the 1970s getting to Madrid from abroad or even from the Spanish periphery by car or even express train... any way except by air was a tedious ordeal.

Imagine during the centuries of Spain's imperial splendor, with no navigable river in sight, what it was like getting to Madrid on horseback, by stage coach or even on foot!

So then, the question arises: why is a city of over three million people and the political, cultural, communication and financial capital of a country of over forty million people and once the capital of one of history's largest empires, so high up in the middle of nowhereDS

(To be continued)

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

To explain Spain: Madrid - I

I'm so sick of writing about Donald Trump that I've decided to write about the country where I live, Spain. I usually don't do this in my English language blog, because what knowledge of Spain I may have achieved by now is very long learned and intensely personal, with plenty of "skin in the game", and I would be loathe to do a superficial, touristy travelogue for English speaking day trippers; coyly loaded with bulls and flamenco and tips on where to dine, etc. That sort of thing makes me squirm.

However, I can imagine that I might have some things to say about Spain that someone genuinely curious to learn about one of Europe's oldest and most historically rich and important countries might find useful. 

To begin with, forget about all the classic cliches about Spain, from Bizet to Mérimée to Hemingway, and take a close look at this map:

European population density
You'll notice that most of the center of the Iberian Peninsula has a population density similar to the outback of Sweden or Finland or the forests and western Steppes of Russia... or the Alps... and you see that smack dab in the middle of that vast yellow emptiness on the map, floating like an asteroid, there is a blue star-shaped blob called Madrid (where I live). This is a city with a population of 3.165 million people.

According to the map's legend, the blue color of the blob shows that Madrid has a density of population similar to Paris or London. Spain has a total population of 46.77 million, while France has 66.03 million, Britain 64.1 million and Germany 81.1 million .

More or less one out of every 15 Spaniards lives in the blue blob in the middle of nowhere.

Madrid is not only the largest city in Spain, it is also the political, financial, cultural and communication capital of the country. To put this into an American context, try to imagine if Washington, New York and Los Angeles were all in one city... located somewhere in Montana.

If you now move your attention to the right toward the Mediterranean coast you'll see a large, long and narrow area with a brick-red color similar to most of Germany and the dynamic northern region of Italy around Milan.

At the top of the red patch sits Barcelona, the capital of the Catalonian region of Spain which produces some twenty percent of the Spanish GDP.

So without any knowledge of the history, culture and languages of the blue blob and red patch, separated as they are by a great expanse of yellow, it's easy to imagine the tension that might exist between the blob and the patch.

My next post on Spain will be about why the blue blob got to be where it is. DS

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Obama and Trump... The Hillary Connection

It would be practically impossible to imagine two more different human beings than President Obama and Donald Trump, but it occurred to me that they do have one thing important in common: they both chose to make their move and go for the presidency when their prime opponent was most probably going to be Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Clinton is now viewed unfavorably by 55 percent of the electorate, according to the HuffPost Pollster average, (...) Only 40.2 percent of people view her favorably, according to that average.(...) The historic comparisons are stark. At this point in the 2008 presidential cycle, then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) was seen favorably by 62 percent of voters and unfavorably by just 33 percent. (...) In the most recent Gallup poll, released late last month, her unfavorable number was 53 percent versus only 42 percent who saw her favorably. The Hill
Most observers agree that however different they may be in every other way, one thing most successful people have in common is that eye for "the big chance", the instinct to catch an opportunity that perhaps only comes once in a lifetime, and I would argue that both Barack Obama and Donald Trump, if nothing else, share that instinct.

Obama has been a successful president and his only stumbling block to having been an even better one has been his inability to deal with the catastrophic obstructionism of the Tea Party infected, Republican legislators. That was always going to be very difficult, but I would argue that Obama could have been even a more successful president if he had spent a few more years in the Senate, learning the ins and outs of how that institution works and building personal relationships with its key members. But if he had stayed, he probably would never have become president. 

The moment to run against Hillary would have passed.

Donald Trump has been fondling the idea of being President of the United States for the longest time.
Establishment Republicans have watched the rise of Mr. Trump’s presidential bid this year with shock. And yet, Mr. Trump has been telegraphing his presidential ambitions for decades, including when the ever-confident businessman told Oprah Winfrey in 1988 that he would probably win the presidency if he ever competed for it. Wall Street Journal
Seeing an amazingly lackluster Republican field of what the British would call "odds and sods" and waiting for him and at the end of that rainbow... Hillary Rodham Clinton. 

Every fiber of his being must have shouted, "go for it".

We can only hope that he will have less luck with it than Senator Barack Obama did. DS

Friday, May 06, 2016

The Trump voters' message

The Trump voters' message to America and the world could possibly be contained in the two words: "Fuck + You", or then again their message might be described as "nihilism".
Nihilism: a doctrine or belief that conditions in the social organization are so bad as to make destruction desirable for its own sake independent of any constructive program or possibility. Merriam-Webster
I'm sure I'm not alone in not finding Trump interesting, but I have to admit that I am fascinated by the people who are fascinated by Trump.

When you come down to it, what is truly amazing is that Trump's speech is so contradictory as to be utterly meaningless... and that is the message and the key to his success. The only constant is his aggressiveness, his offensiveness. 

Nate Silver, one of America's most insightful political analysts, who admits having constantly "misunderestimated" the Donald, in analyzing his own puzzlement, sums up the heart of Trump's success.
Trump’s main differentiator was doubling down on cultural grievance: grievances against immigrants, against Muslims, against political correctness, against the media, and sometimes against black people and women. And the strategy worked. Nate Silver - FiveThirtyEight
Who is moved by this? Who is it working for? Where will it lead?

I know I shouldn't quote myself, but a couple of months ago I wrote:
We are looking at exasperated, paranoiac, xenophobic, racist nastiness, in short a fascistic mentality of crippled personalities in reaction to changing mores and a failing economy. All the unhappiness and frustration are searching for moral absolutes. Moral absolutes are what allow people to kill each other... if only in their imagination. All this hateful speech and dippy ideas are pregnant with death, they are about to give birth to a monster, but the Republicans are only the midwives... They are helpless in the face of the spirits they have invoked from the country's inner darkness. It is that darkness not any individual like Trump that should worry us, something very, very nasty is cooking in it.
In short I'm saying that if Donald Trump is not the genuine old Nick, could he be some sort of dark mirror "John the Baptist" for the very Devil himself? 

That what is really important is not Trump himself but the forces he invokes.

But returning to the present, aside from Trump's aggressiveness his only other constant is "making deals". At this he is an acknowledged master

Something that has been rolling around my mind for some time. Does he really want to be President of the United States or is he putting together the deal to end all deals?

For at this moment, for a deal maker, the Donald is in a very sweet if dangerous spot. 

Back in February I wrote:
Lets look at what's on the table. 
The Republican Party controls both houses of Congress... for the moment, and a Supreme Court that could mark the ideological slant for a generation is up for grabs. 
If Trump runs as either the Republican candidate or as an independent, all poll projections predict an Armageddon for the Republicans, with not only the loss of the presidency, but loss of majorities in both houses  of Congress, perhaps even in state houses too. 
Has the moment finally come for doing a "deal"?
It seems to me that Donald Trump is now holding the family jewels of some of the most powerful people in the world in his tiny warm hands and is squeezing them rather hard. We are talking about a political party that now controls both houses of Congress and represents the interests of the top 0.01% of the American economy. What laws could they write for him (which I'm sure Obama, as a patriot, would be quick to sign)? Or how much would, say the Koch brothers, or all the conservative super-PACs, be willing to cough up to kiss him goodbye 
The shape of a deal?
What are the Republicans still in a position to offer Donald Trump between now and the convention, something which would be more attractive for him than losing the presidential race by a historic margin and destroying the Republican Party in the process... in which case they could give him nothing?
I should have said "in which case they could give him the same medicine as was given to Jimmy Hoffa". 

Donald Trump has already made some of the most powerful people in America his blood enemies in exchange for what seems to be a slim chance of winning the White House.  

Is he insane? 

Is he not insane? 

I admit I don't know which of the two is the worse alternative. DS