On Counterculture

When I was a teenager in Ireland, I made a friend from Spain whom I’ll call B. He was easy to get along with, generous and fun loving with a wide grin and a stocky figure. He was a bon vivant, drawn to alcohol and excess, and took a stereotypically Iberian delight in catcalling women. He often regaled my friends with stories about his favorite prostitutes from his old neighborhood. One day he asked me how many I had visited in my life. I shook my head, grinning, “None, I wouldn’t do that!” He looked baffled. “Why not? How will you learn?”

B was eccentric, and had strong views on the world. I remember laughing with my friends at his pronouncements on women: “French girls are the most beautiful in the world,” he would say in his thick Spanish accent, “They have perfect body, perfect clothes, perfect hair, but face just a leetle bit ugly” – he then kissed his fingers – “That is perfection!” This approach to aesthetics extended to architecture as well, and seemed to constitute a general theory for him. He once explained why Sicily was the most beautiful place in the world using a similar rubric: “Everything in south of Italy is classic, elegant, and then you look and is just a bit broken. So perfect!”

My fellow schoolmates viewed him as a harmless oddity, and paid little attention to the underlying character of his views. Since he and I both happened to be foreigners where we went to school, I spent much more time with him than the others did. On weekend nights out together, he would get riotously drunk and tell me about his life back home.

He’d grown up in an upper middle class household in Madrid with parents who’d prospered under Franco. Their apartment was not far from the city center, and was within hearing distance of the protests and disturbances taking place periodically in the main square. Once, a bomb planted by Basque separatists exploded directly outside their home. He threw his hands in the air describing the helplessness he felt on that day, trying to comfort his mother while his father kept watch on the commotion outside.

As I got to know him better, he opened up more and more, regaling me with tales of his hometown with visible enthusiasm. On the weekend, he and his friends would wear matching bomber jackets, jeans and boots. They would sit and drink in bars where the jukebox played only traditional and patriotic music. Some of his older friends would share the latest stories of fights they had in the street and protesters they had frightened. Later they would re-enter the street in a rowdy mass, looking for trouble. B spoke with pride about these friends; he believed they were performing an important social function.

I began to gather that B felt a distinct sense of disappointment, bordering on despair, when looking at the state of modern Spanish society. In his eyes, Spain had been taken over by liberals and businessmen, who cared only for their own individual comforts and new opportunities to make money. No one in power was looking out for the interests of the nation as a whole anymore. Spain was therefore becoming weak, which emboldened the nation’s enemies. It was up to the youth in the street to show that Spain would not just roll over and accept its increasing domination by immigrants, leftists and foreign bankers.

Inevitably, the internal logic of this narrative led him to tell me lurid tales of the infinite malevolence of Moroccans and other Arabs. Supposedly they saw themselves as superior to the working Spanish, because the state provided them with the means to live. They acted like conquerors, taking what they wanted, construing Spain’s generosity as a sign of weakness. Apparently, this even led them to rob Spaniards at knifepoint in the street, killing them afterward.

At this point I shook my head, saying that I didn’t believe him, and he shrugged. “That is why I like you,” he said. “You do not agree with me, but you listen to my point of view.”

When he admitted that some of his friends were neo-Nazis, I said that I didn’t think we could be friends anymore. He quickly backtracked, telling me that they were more like acquaintances, and that he personally had no problem with anyone of a different race than him. “You are Jewish, no?” he asked me. I shook my head. “I like the Jews; I think they are very clever,” he said helpfully. For two weeks I avoided him, which noticeably hurt his feelings.

As time went on, I sought his company less and less, and began interrogating his views more acutely when the conversation drifted in a certain direction. Though his idolization of Franco remained unshaken, he was ready to admit when pressed that his hero had some faults. “Yes, Franco did some bad things; he killed many people. But in the end he was fighting for his country. Don’t forget that Franco built Spain!”

Supposedly Franco had returned from Morocco and single-handedly transformed Spain from a poor country into a modern one. If it weren’t for Franco, so the story went, Spain would be communist or anarchist today – and that dreadful possibility was increasing again.

Eventually B went back to Spain, and I never saw him again. By the time he left, we’d drifted enough that we didn’t even say goodbye.

_____

When people use the word “counterculture,” they’re usually referencing musical or aesthetic movements like punk, hip-hop, or even “indie,” all of which I would sooner call sub-cultures. My yearlong acquaintance with B gave me a different sense of the word, which remains with me still. His words sketched a picture of what it might mean to belong to something that sets itself in direct opposition to the dominant culture, that is not content merely to sit introspectively on the periphery, but rather speaks openly of replacing what it doesn’t accept.

B would always tell me “Fascist means uh, how you would say, ‘conservative,’ where you come from.” I listened to his words, but I was not convinced.

As it happens, I remain a fan of bomber jackets, though I’ll leave mine at home if I ever visit Spain. TC mark

image – L’Américain

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