Culture Clash! or, Scenes from a Separatist Cook-Out

by Chris Borgen

Gotta say, even though I write about issues of self-determination, secession, and statehood, I didn’t expect to read this on the front page of the Arts and Leisure section of the Sunday New York Times:

At a glance it looked like any small-town fair, with smoke wafting from the barbecue, families gathering around picnic tables, music percolating over loudspeakers and doting parents trailing after happy toddlers in front of white tents hawking brightly colored T-shirts and knickknacks.

But the Ghjurnate Internaziunale di Corti (the International Days of Corte) were hardly fun and games. It turns out that militant separatists, like baseball owners, car salesmen and trade unionists, also convene regularly to hash out strategies, exchange war stories and rally the troops. The Days, a late-summer annual affair, bring together militants from around the world. Those T-shirts and knickknacks were printed with hooded gunmen pointing rifles, and the barbecue raised money for jailed comrades. Even a few toddlers, like their parents, were decked out in military fatigues…

Sardinian separatists, Basque and Catalan nationalists, Melanesian Kanaks from New Caledonia, Occitanes from Provence and a few leaders of Sinn Fein joined locals to speechify and grumble about prisoners, debate tactics and talk cultural politics. Battles over sovereignty and independence are being waged far less often these days as violent campaigns than as hearts-and-minds political struggles over identity. And identity means culture.

State-building has long gone hand-in-hand with linguistic and cultural politics:

In the 19th century, rising modern states obliterated local cultures to fortify national identities only to pave the way for their revival at the end of that century. The same happened during the last century when the Soviets and Franco’s Spain, along with the British empire, imposed cultures on diverse peoples who, as soon as the opportunities arose, reasserted their own identities in more or less explicitly political protest.

But now cultural identities are fragmenting more than ever.

The irony is that constructing a supranational Europe, rather than homogenizing, say, Basques and Occitanes, into undifferentiated “Europeans,” has helped these movements to define themselves more clearly. For one thing, founded or unfounded fears of homogenization can be a spur to action (or at least to a sharper sense of self-definition). Moreover, (and seemingly contradicting this first point), EU practices can seem more protective of national minorities than local policies. Maite Goientxe, a Basque representative at the Days of Corte, notes:

“Like all cultural questions, language is ultimately a political matter. Basque is not permitted today in my part of France, which means Basque representatives from my region can speak Basque at the Parliament in Brussels, but not back home. From our perspective that’s discrimination. Critics say separatists promote division and exclusion, but we say independence movements are about the opposite of exclusion. We want to get rid of the exclusion we feel today.” [Emphasis added.]

Perhaps moreso than the much-anticipated ICJ Advisory Opinion on Kosovo, EU policies towards language rights and cultural diversity will likely be important factors in framing the ongoing push-and-pull between national minorities and national governments in the EU. If the Days of Corte are any indication, linguistic and cultural politics (more so than ideological or ethnic politics) will likely remain the central issues in this debate.

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