Normalizing Nationalism through the Language of Human Rights.

By: Ali Yasin

Columbus Day has always courted controversy, more so than nearly any other holiday. Its celebration across the Americas, as well as in Italy and Spain, has often been a battleground for activists and scholars on both sides of the political spectrum. This year the debate seems to have reached new heights as US President Joe Biden weighed in on the subject. He’s the first American president to acknowledge the “painful history of wrongs and atrocities that many European explorers inflicted on Tribal Nations”, during his commemoration of Columbus Day. [1]

Many Americans see this recognition as overdue and somewhat timid considering the extent of Columbus’ personal cruelty, let alone the countless other crimes committed over the centuries of imperialism in the Americas. On the other side of the Atlantic however, a host of current and former Spanish politicians have harshly criticized Biden’s comments. Members of the conservative Popular Party and more hard-line populist Vox have come to the defence of the long dead Spanish Empire and its brutal conquest of the Americas. Santiago Abascal, the leader of Vox, argued that Spanish people should feel a sense of pride when remembering the actions of the Spanish Empire, what he described as “an empire of human rights”.[2] This line of thinking was echoed across the Spanish political right, with colonial conquest being portrayed as a noble quest to discover the new world, create prosperity, and spread Christian humanism.

Almost any historian of colonial Latin America would find these claims baffling as they’re in reference to the same empire which worked hundreds of thousands of Quechua people to death, operating a single sliver mine at Potosi Bolivia, the same mine which produced 80% of the worlds silver at the time, making the Spanish Empire the richest in Europe.[3] It’s difficult to see how any reasonable person could describe the colonization of the Americas as anything other than blatant and murderous exploitation. Columbus himself set this tone early as he routinely punished the native Taino people with mutilation, death, and infanticide when they failed to produce the tributes of gold and silver he demanded.

The Spanish right’s depiction of colonialism as a humanitarian undertaking is puzzling not only because of its misrepresentation of actual history, but also because it defends nationalist attitudes using the language of human rights. Although seeing Trump-style populists using terms like humanism to protect their sense of grassroots nationalism may seem strange to many in North America, scholars of right-wing populism in Europe have studied this trend for decades now. Unlike the far-right movements of the early 20th century, the “New Right” rejects the use of violence as an immediate means to seize power, while still seeing themselves as a revolutionary movement. They instead argue that their role as revolutionaries is to transform the cultural landscape and bring their views back into mainstream politics.[4] Ironically, this strategy was first proposed by Italian Socialist Antonio Gramsci while imprisoned under Italy’s fascist regime during the 1930’s, leading some to describe the New Right as the Gramscians of the right.

This may explain why the modern populist right has focused so much energy on what they call the “culture wars”. It may also explain why their use of humanitarian language to describe colonialism, so closely resembles the statements made recently by Emmanuel Macron in defence of French colonialism. Despite often being seen as a bulwark against right wing populism in Europe, president Macron took the same defiant stance when questioned on France’s colonial history in Algeria and the rest of Africa. He described the history of colonialism in Algeria as being “entirely re-written” and “based not on truths” but “on a discourse of hatred towards France”. Going even further to undermine the suffering inflicted on Algerians during their experience of French colonialism, which included having roughly one third of their entire population killed during the initial conquest, Macron stated “these are only stories of wounds… the problem is that many people are irreconcilable towards one another”.[5]

It seems that despite the supposed political gulf between them, both far-right populists and avowedly anti-populists liberals in Europe, feel compelled to defend not only the imperial pasts of their nations, but more importantly the historical narratives which have been built around them. Narratives that serve the purpose of unifying inherently diverse people around collective national agendas and justifying the exploitation which comes with those agendas, regardless of how divorced from the complex realities of actual history these narratives are. If both the most liberal and illiberal forms of our current political system are dependent on the same constructed narratives to justify their often exploitive actions, can neo-liberalism actually offer a compelling alternative to illiberal populism, or are both simply part of the same political spectrum and facilitating one another?


[1] Hedgecoe, Guy. “Spanish Right Attacks Biden over Columbus and Conquests.” BBC News, 12 Oct. 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-58882832.

[2] Casey, Nicholas. “In Debate Over Conquistadors 500 Years Ago, Spanish Right Sees an Opportunity.” The New York Times, 9 Oct. 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/09/world/europe/spain-conservatives-conquistadors.html.

[3] Forero, Juan. “Bolivia’s Cerro Rico: The Mountain That Eats Men.” NPR, 25 Sept. 2012, https://www.npr.org/2012/09/25/161752820/bolivias-cerro-rico-the-mountain-that-eats-men.

[4] Roger Griffin, “Between Metapolitics and Apoliteia: The Nouvelle Droite’s Strategy for Conserving the Fascist Vision in the ‘Interregnum.’” Modern & Contemporary France, vol. 8, no. 1 (Feb. 2000): pp. 35–53.

[5] Bensaid, Adam. “France’s Silence over Colonial Crimes Ensures Confrontation with Algeria.” TRT World, 14 Oct. 2021, https://www.trtworld.com/magazine/france-s-silence-over-colonial-crimes-ensures-confrontation-with-algeria-50756.

Photo Credit: Al-Jezeera, https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2019/4/26/spain-is-in-danger-of-falling-into-the-hands-of-the-far-right

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