This summer, I attended an immersive study abroad program in Granada, Spain. It might seem naïve or even laughable that one could learn anything from a nation on the brink of collapse, the next on the chopping block of the Euro crisis. But in living there long enough to absorb something outside of newspaper headlines, I learned a lot about how lessons of liberty can be found even in times of severe crisis.
1. Learning the language is challenging, but translators are all around you. By “language,” I mean all sorts, including the language of liberty. Words can be twisted to different causes, even more so across languages where the cultural context is often unknown or misunderstood. One way to see each individual human being is as a bundle of experiences to study and understand. The most important thing we can do is listen, admit openly our inability to speak, and hope that they reciprocate with a laugh. You can find insights everywhere, as I learned to understand Spain’s complex regionalist-nationalist tension through the Spanish national football team (who won this year, by the way!).
2. Everyone carries the “baggage” of stereotypes and culture, but most everyone has felt like an outlier at some point in life. To accomplish our goals of understanding different languages, we need to understand that history creates the context that “languages” are developed in. Some stereotypes are positive, such as that Americans are especially hard-working and honest. Others are negative, notably seen through “American fit” clothing that equated with plus sizes at the shops. But as liberty lovers we have to understand every context and our own stereotypes as racists, bigots and whatever else. This is important in a foreign nation to survive and thrive, but it’s also important for us at our universities, understanding that we need to translate “liberty-speak” into a more recognizable language.
3. People have different tastes, but we all eat food. In the United States, people are often identified by their careers, from which comes the phrase “living to work.” To the contrary, Spaniards work to live. In a labor market where tight regulations keep everyone on temporary contracts and unemployment at roughly at a quarter of the population, it’s not realistic to become attached to your job. If a quarter of our population (and 50% of the young people, by the way) was unemployed, Americans would simply be rioting in the streets. Many Americans refer to citizens of these crisis nations as “brainwashed,” but in Spain the way of life is much slower, taking every day like a warm sip of tea. Their diet is Mediterranean, and their exposure to meat processing is much greater than ours, as can be seen by their famous cured jamón ibérico. And their solution to the Euro crisis is to walk a little faster from the problem, not quite running but slightly more alert. Libertarians ought to understand these subjective preferences, especially because these concepts come secondary for many people.
4. People are looking for answers, but they haven’t settled on conventional wisdom. This summer, it seemed like many Spaniards let the days come and go, with the occasional mention of la crisis in their minds like a bad memory. Some of these past memories manifest themselves in occasional protest, most commonly seen in Madrid but also prevalent in small cities like Granada, where we saw a small and calm 15-M discussion one day (Spain’s Occupy). Germany’s position is especially unfortunate here, because for these historically seeped European nations the catastrophic wars fought on their soils seem like yesterday. Spain was non-belligerent during World War II (not quite neutral, but no military involvement) but the scars of the past can be seen by recent Spanish Euro protests against the German government, some of which even included swastikas.
But unlike the world wars, we aren’t dealing with the same kind of mentality. The prevalent theories are obviously coming to light as false, and most libertarians agree that when people find liberty, it’s difficult to switch them to something else. Convincing requites initial points of agreement, which aren’t hard to find if you listen well. For example, Spain has decriminalized personal drug use, has legalized same-sex marriage and even prostitution, and these areas of life are virtually non-issues as a result. Framing solutions to severe problems like the Euro crisis in terms of these local contexts is key to communicating the principles of liberty. Everything is political, which might seem like a bad thing, but it’s good because we have more to talk about.
5. Libertarians can learn a lot by studying abroad, but we need to leave assumptions at the door. During our intercambio session we met Spaniards five to ten years older than us who looked our age, and while they were struggling to find employment it was clear that their lives were generally more carefree and they found contentment while we Americans worried profusely about our futures. Some good advice for the nation whose number one killer is stress.
Studying abroad or living abroad for a considerable period of time is something that’s becoming more accessible every day. Most every nation has also felt the effects of globalization, especially a nation like the United States where our heritage is so diverse. The cultural differences within our own nation need to be understood, and in my opinion, that requires a challenge of sitting down with one individual after another, answering their questions about liberty.
I learned a lot more than the things I was able to describe in this short piece. They can be found on the blog I kept throughout my travels.