Anatomy of a distinctly different instant

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Recently I have been reading Javier Cercas’ Anatomía de un instante about the failed military coup of 23rd February 1981. His is an interesting perspective on the events of that day, coming from the fact that he is a writer and novelist before a historian. His main point for examining the subject is the gesture made by Adolfo Suárez when the guardia civil entered the chamber and attempting to understand the gesture, through the historical and personal context. Instead of dropping to the floor like the majority of the other MPs he remained calmly in his seat as the bullets ricocheted off the ceiling.

Cercas cites the work of Hans Magnus Enzensberger and his theory about the recent historical phenomenon of the statesman hero who is a hero of withdrawal, great not for what they build, rather what they dismantle, with Mikhail Gorbachev and the USSR being a clear example. Cercas’ work struck a distinct chord with me on Thursday when an José María Aznar stuck his middle finger up at some protesters after a meeting in Oviedo. Sometimes a photo speaks a thousand words.

What can we draw out of this gesture? Can it be compared to Adolfo Suárez? From the outset it’s clear that Aznar is not a hero of withdrawal, who quietly exits the stage after his moment of glory. The PP has never been able to accept that they lost the 2004 elections to the PSOE. This bitterness is still present in the party.

Is the gesture a gesture of defiance in a similar way to Suárez? No. There is an unbridgeable difference between sitting calmly as gunshots echo around the parliamentary chamber and showing the middle finger after a secretly-organised political meeting to the handful protesters who arrived to protest, with a self-satisfied smile. For me, the smile is the key element of the gesture. It’s a self-assured smirk, full of security and contempt for those who criticise. Such a cynical gesture is not the mark of a great statesman, it creates barriers between the people and the political leaders; the finger held up exemplifies and magnifies the distance between them. Aznar is cynically demonstrating how untouchable he is. Quite different to John Prescott’s famous 2001 punch.

Aznar is no anti-Establishment punk who can justify showing a defiant finger to the ‘System’; he embodies part of the establishment and has a central role in the machinery of power at the top of the political class in Spain.

Essentially, Suárez’s gesture was in defence of democracy, of the transition, of what had been achieved during his mandate (whether he did out of selfless sacrifice or to reinforce his historical legacy depends upon your point of view.) Aznar, in contrast, is sticking his finger up against democracy, against what has been achieved since the death of Franco, even against Suárez himself. It’s the gesture of a self-assured and conceited individual who thought it pertinent to remark: ‘Hay algunos que parecen empeñados en demostrar que no pueden vivir sin mí [there are a few who appear determined to demonstrate that they can’t live without me].’ It’s not the mark of a great statesman, but rather that of an embittered cynic, who still believes he is at the centre of the nation’s politics, making a gross gesture against criticism and debate, which are the lifeblood of democracy.

An additional note: To compound this move against democracy, the local mayor, Gabino de Lorenzo declared that those who had protested should be arrested. For what? For protesting peacefully?

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