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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  • http://www.facebook.com/wingedthing Leigh Alexander

    awesome. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=707272007 Alex Thayer

    interesting read.

    i’d definitely have to say that there is hardly such a thing as counterculture.  culture itself is an amalgamation, by definition.  human culture is the sum of all its parts.

    also, from personal observation, spain might have the weirdest national identity right now, at least within europe, simply because of franco.  there’s still a MAJOR generational gap, and it’s ridiculously easy to spot in the family dynamic (which is oddly unified, in contrast to what you think it would be when considering the generational gap).  and they speak spanish.  weird.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1363230138 Michael Koh

      you’d know – you went to spain. prick

  • Ben

    This was excellent. A lot of the articles on this site are meaningless hipster drivel but this was touching and insightful.

  • http://twitter.com/kelkord Kelli Korducki

    Definitely the most interesting post I’ve read on here in ages, if not ever. Well done!

  • LS

    Wrapped up a bit too soon but otherwise this is  the most engaging and well written piece I’ve read on TC in a long time.

  • kaylee

    this is cool

  • http://twitter.com/Dee_Robinson Danielle Robinson

    You’re dismissing an academically accepted term for the 50s and 60s in America, the social counterculture, and to call it “sub-culture” is a bit insulting.  Yes, unfortunately many a hipster has adopted this time period and with their Urban Outfitters clothing they try to pass off as vintage, they sully the term “counterculture.”

    Counterculture to me represents all the backwards thinking in the 1950s, the treatment of women, Native Americans, Mexican Americans, McCarthyism, a crew-cut mentality, an unnecessary war, and a generation’s reaction to such.

    Your interpretation of counterculture to mean your old acquaintance B is fine– just don’t underwrite a part of history that has been widely accepted by academicians.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=42002098 Mage Baltes

      Where did he dismiss the 1950’s and 60’s as something other than counterculture?

      Also, while that era may be accepted as counterculture, that doesn’t mean the term can ONLY describe that era. “Counterculture” has many different usages.

      • http://twitter.com/Dee_Robinson Danielle Robinson

        He didn’t flat out acknowledge it, either. 
        And you do have a valid second point.  Touché.

      • http://twitter.com/Cackles Mitch

        I think the viability of the term also has a lot to do with one’s locality and the strength of the dominant culture. Sale Lake City (where I live) is one of the most liberal cities in the U.S., which is very much a response to the overwhelmingly and uniquely monolithic Mormon culture that dominates the rest of the state. Here, the simple experience of Not Being Mormon is sufficient common ground upon which to build a general sense of camaraderie among those in the minority.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=42002098 Mage Baltes

    I really enjoyed your reflection on your friendship with B and how you perceived him to be an eccentric, though I was hoping you’d provide more than one paragraph specifically devoted to addressing the concept of counterculture.

  • Gino

    This is the first article I’ve read on Thought Catalog in months that I found genuinely interesting, and the first article I’ve read at all in weeks. Good Job

  • http://staugustinian.wordpress.com/ STaugustine

    Thoughtful, well-presented and interesting piece. More of this, TC  and less adolescent, semi-literate filler, please…!

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=201002708 Alyssa Johnston

      The Saint has made a request.

      • http://staugustinian.wordpress.com/ STaugustine

        I’m praying you’ll help in the holy battle against TC’s anti-intellectual-anti-Christ

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  • http://www.facebook.com/zulazri.rahman Zul-Azri Rahman

    Very thoughtful and insightful. A refreshing piece that reminds me why I like ThoughtCatalog in the first place.

  • http://www.facebook.com/zulazri.rahman Zul-Azri Rahman

    Very thoughtful and insightful. A refreshing piece that reminds me why I like ThoughtCatalog in the first place.

  • dittricks

    Very interesting point. I studied abroad in Spain last semester and it’s ironic to note that the people who are generally considered “counterculture” actually represent the majority.

  • DARKSTAR

    Lil B

  • dip

    “Spain has a history. Because it’s not the US’s history, that makes it ‘counterculture.'”

    • http://selfstyled.net Adele

      He’s not talking about B being opposed to mainstream American culture, but political movements in Spain. Different.

    • Adam

      That is a really odd assumption to make about this piece. From past stuff he has written, I’m fairly certain the writer isn’t even American. Counterculture refers to the culture which exists as antithetical to the hegemonic culture. That would mean in this instance that B stands in opposition, within a fairly organized or counter-hegemonic position to that which is in power or that which exerts its force as a majority. 

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  • xra

    idk about anarchist, but spain could have been communist

    same thing happened in chile, and plenty of reasonable people are sincere pinochetistas

    • Charles Reinhardt

      B was a sincere fascist.

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