The other day The Economist carried a story about a topic that is often in the back of my mind: how politics —polarization, as they say now— impacts family relations. The title summed up
the contents: Britain’s mixed-race population blurs the lines of identity politics. The piece sought to account for the smaller social impact of the Black Lives Matter movement in the United Kingdom, in sharp contrast to the United States. The tentative answer is the existence of a higher percentage of mixed-race families in the British Isles: 16%. It may not seem like much but maybe it is enough to create a buffer zone between opposing tribes. Marvin Ross was cited, the mayor of Bristol who is of Jamaican origin. His wife and his mother, a hairdresser who has worked since the age of fourteen, are white. He said something that seemed very much on target to me: «I will talk about race and racism in all its fullness. But I’m not going to go home and give mum a hard time for being white or ask her to feel guilty.» In polls the mixed-race population is also less given to agree with categorical and simplified assertions such as «The United Kingdom is a racist country».
I don´t know if there is any scientific literature on the family as a shock absorber of political tensions. If there is any, I would like to read it. I remember that, many years ago, when I often did the route Madrid-Barcelona on the train, the cars full of passengers sent me a reassuring signal. «As long as there are people coming and going there is hope,» I said to myself. Because even if the trip was for a business, I imagined my fellow travellers taking advantage of it to see family or friends in the other city. Every passenger was —we all were– threads in the affective fabric opposed to the unsupportive project of separation. I am not naive: politics can break families up. The fabric gets torn, buildings fall down. It happens first with cousins. Then it moves painfully to siblings. If it reaches a certain level of toxicity, a radioactive politics can break down the nucleus a family, just like a neutron bombardment can break down the nucleus of an atom. It wouldn´t be a bad thing if some picayune empiricist were to count the number of divorces or couples splitting up because of the Procés [Catalan separatist project]. I know a few cases.
And friendship? Friendship is also a brake on ideology. Dictatorships know this, and one of the ways they strengthen their hand, according to Hannah Arendt, is by isolating individuals, making them feel alone and impotent, breaking every loyalty that isn’t to the party or to the autocrat of the moment. A statement made by Manuela Carmena has set tongues wagging. Apparently, the former mayoress of Madrid «has friends in Vox who are wonderful people». I do too. And also in Podemos. I would ask any one of them, on either side, to take care of my children one afternoon, a parameter I consider better than the way they vote as a means of judging a person’s moral fibre. Again, one must not be naive about it: there are times I do not feel like arguing with friends who I know favor a political option I cannot comprehend, as surely as they cannot comprehend mine. It’s not for a lack of friendship —they know that they can count on me if they ever need help— but as a way to protect the friendship from mutual ill-temper or extremes or tribalism of any kind. Let’s not be cowardly either: sometimes argument is necessary and proof of a friendship that hasn’t withered. One good rule for how to discern those moments in times of polarization might be as follows: «If you are going to argue about political questions with a friend, ask yourself if first there is anything more at stake than the idea that one of you is right».
Friendship, in a word, keeps cities together, said Aristotle. He would not have said that if he weren´t at the same time, acutely aware that wherever community exists there lurks the possibility, like an animal on the prowl, of the shadow of stasis, of civil war. These days I have been reading Las armas y las letras [Arms and Letters], Andrés Trapiello’s great book about the fortunes of Spanish writers during our civil war. I think of Luis Rosales, who was never able to erase from his mind the dull report of the bullets that killed his friend Federico [García Lorca]. I think of the Machado brothers, who were separated by the war: it is hard to believe that they throught very differently about life, politics, and human beings. There was no small number of cases in which somebody from one side saved the life of somebody else on the other side out of friendship, when duty would have decreed they die. Friendship saves lives, let’s leave it at that: no small thing.
Surely in Spain people with more temperate opinions about the affairs that divide us have a hybrid quality in common. Grandfathers who fought on both sides in the war, parents who speak to them in both languages in use. The Economist also cited the playwright George Bernard Shaw: the best way to achieve perfect social justice is «to keep the entire community intermarriageable». That applies to class, but it also goes for race or religion. In Spanish terms, we could say that the only plural nationality that is any good for bringing us together is the one that we welcome into our homes.