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In My Words: Remember the Spanish Civil War to understand the dangers of ‘righteousness’ today

Newspapers around North Carolina recently featured a guest column by Tom Nelson, associate professor of communications, who writes about modern lessons to be learned from the Spanish Civil War.

The following column appeared recently in the Burlington Times-News, the Greensboro News & Record, the Winston-Salem Journal, the Hendersonville Times-News and the Monroe Enquirer Journal (print edition). Views are those of the author and not necessarily of Elon University.

By Tom Nelson, associate professor of communications

Americans should remember the Spanish Civil War, a three-year conflict that marks its 80th anniversary this year. The conflict was once at the very center of world events — everyone spoke of it.  Today hardly anyone remembers the Spanish Civil War and even fewer speak of it.

Tom Nelson, associate professor of communication

Many people saw the Spanish Civil War as a clear battle between good and evil. There was a righteousness to the combatants and their intellectual fellow travelers that defied compromise. Each was too sure of what was right and what was wrong. It was steely stuff. Righteousness eclipsed compromise. That eclipse darkened Spain with the shadow of death.

The Spanish past makes a point well heeded in the American present. 

It is basic high school civics and elementary school civility that in a democracy or in a conversation you listen at least as long as you speak. It is a lesson recently lost upon Americans.

Americans are more sure today of what is right and what is wrong than ever before in their history. We have even taken to calling those with whom we disagree crooked or deplorable. Righteousness pollutes the air we breathe.

Spain choked on righteousness during its civil war. It is for this reason that the Spain of that time speaks to the America of this time.

If you need to relate to the Spanish Civil War, then go back to high school literature class just as you go back to high school civics class to remember the virtue of compromise. Think back to Ernest Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” That’s the Spanish Civil War.

The attitude of Hemingway, many journalists and most intellectuals of the time was that the Spanish Civil War was an Armageddon-like battle between the forces of liberalism and conservatism. It was one side or the other. There was no room for compromise.

The facts were more complicated than this “good guy vs. bad guy” storyline. Only ideologues buy that tale these days. Passing years have brought perspective to the Spanish Civil War. Americans can benefit from that perspective.

Reasonable people now understand that the Spanish Civil War was not a contest between liberalism and conservatism, but rather was a contest marked by absolutism. Liberalism and conservatism each by their very nature believe in listening.  Absolutism believes in telling. There was a lot of telling in Spain in 1936.

“Good guy vs. bad guy” storylines make ideas simple to grasp, but at a cost. Details, nuances and subtleties are sacrificed to expediency. The result in Spain was a frenzied righteousness fueled by leftist and rightist ideology that led to the death of a half-million people. That’s just a number, unless you are one of the half-million.

Americans could learn a thing or two from this contentious period in Spain’s recent history. The Spanish Civil War is a reminder of what happens when a society fails to stem political ideologues masquerading as liberals or conservatives. The tyranny of certainty was a plague on Spain. It threatens to be a plague on America as well.

The Spanish Civil War had the plot line of a good novel with several strong characters, a beautiful backdrop and the fury of rectitude to enliven it. It was material for dynamic art as Hemingway and others in the creative community quickly took note. But the Spanish Civil War was not a novel, a screenplay or oil on canvas. It was blood spilled.

Righteousness unleashed excites, but at a cost. Spain taught that lesson to the world in 1936. We in America would do well to consider it in 2016.

Owen Covington,
Staff
11/15/2016 3:40 PM