Ignacio Sánchez-Cuenca: "The self-reliance in opinion so common in Spain is a flaw of a medium-sized country”

The political scientist has written a belligerent but necessary essay which should make intellectuals such as Juaristi, Muñoz Molina, De Azúa, Savater, Vargas Llosa, Cercas, and Molinas blush.

According to Ignacio Sánchez-Cuenca (Valencia, 1966), having written for a "national" newspaper for decades and being a successful novelist, philosopher, or economist won’t stop some people from producing "thinly documented, utter rubbish". It does afford them, however, "impunity". This prolific political scientist, who lectures at Universidad Carlos III in Madrid, has penned La desfachatez intelectual (published by Catarata), an essay where he exposes the obsessions and shortcomings of the "sorcerers of the tribe". One after the other, the "frivolity" of the likes of Jon Juaristi, Antonio Muñoz Molina, Félix De Azúa, Fernando Savater, Mario Vargas Llosa, Javier Cercas, Arcadi Espada, and César Molinas are shown to be as much a source of hilarity as they are a source of concern.

They say that dogs are not supposed to bite other dogs. You have painted a harsh portrait of some of your “colleagues”, but are also a commentator yourself.

It's about exchanging views, but making enemies doesn’t worry me. The tone is respectful and I am careful to distinguish between Vargas Llosa the writer (or economists Garicano and Molinas) and the pundit. It's not offensive, like "The priest and the mandarins", in which Gregorio Morán pontificates about everything. I try to analyze Spain’s political debate.

The books starts off with a column by Jon Juaristi in Spain’s ABC in which he claims that the refugees sacrifice their own children to soften up Europe. How can such impunity be stopped?

That shamelessness is only possible if there is impunity and you think that nobody will criticize you. It's necessary to strengthen the internal checks with a plurality of voices-- thanks to digital media, this is starting to happen-- and a more intense exchange of arguments. To refute things by naming names and in a more direct way, much like they do in English speaking countries.

Nobody had forced the untouchable intellectuals to look in the mirror when they talk about the unity of Spain, terrorism, or the recession.

The book has a cumulative effect. Separately, the examples are not so shocking. They have common denominators and constantly repeat a series of ideas.

How come writers have so much influence on Spain’s public debate?

I don't have an answer for that, but Luis García Montero has a simple —and probably correct— hypothesis: Spanish writers cannot make a living from writing alone and need additional income; in this case, writing regularly in the press. Azorín already noted that this happens. It's a time-honored tradition.

Many of the pundits you mention have been doing this since the Transition, following Franco’s death. Is there a generational glass ceiling here, too?

A worthy intellectual can last many years. Here some began very young. The most normal thing would be to have new things to say. With the crisis and new media, I think the ceiling is beginning to break a little. Some of them, like Savater, have shifted their ideological position, but have not changed the manner in which they voice their opinion. They should have to meet some minimum standards, and this doesn't often happen.

The left often complains that the narrative that has prevailed in recent years is that of the right … but perhaps it is because some of the "sorcerers" have abandoned them. Is this true?

I think so, but it's difficult to say why. Jiménez Losantos claims quite the opposite. The leftist positions have more symbolic and cultural capital with regards to reputation, but less influence in the practice of politics, as paradoxical as that might sound. Those on the right make progress in a more subtle way and are very deft at imposing their agenda. The unity of Spain is a topic that has served to avoid talking about the recession much. During the Zapatero years, his agenda —somewhat different— was fought by exacerbating emotions.

Is the debate in Spain of a low standard?

Compared to English speaking countries, it is. There is very little knowledge of and familiarity with the topics being discussed. In other places there are more experts, think-tanks, specialized journalists ... The debate is broader and the classic intellectuals are less present. Here, for example, they have never got over 1898 (when Spain lost its last colonies), the feeling of sorrow over Spain. It's been like this for more than a century and I don't know what we've gained from it.

What about in Catalonia?

I can't say for sure, but if you're referring to the topic of Catalan independence, certain claims, like that of the spiral of silence, that —dominant forces aside— are unfounded. Catalan society is not isolated, and any Catalan citizen can access media that are not produced and conceived in Catalonia without coercion or retaliation.

The dominant discourse in Spain equates the right to self-determination to independence. Can this be changed?

I don't support independence, but I do support a referendum, both in Catalonia and the Basque Country. But conditions don't currently exist for an open debate. The key here is the PSOE. At one point they saw this as a possibility, but Pedro Sánchez has abandoned the idea completely. It is a position of doctrine. If they could overcome their fear, we might have a debate; but I'm skeptical because they are not looking for a balance between democratic principles and constitutional restrictions. This results in a blockage that serves the State well, because they know that a rupture is improbable in a nation with high income. The conflict is expensive for everyone, but also sustainable.

Have we debated the recession well?

There has been a debate, but whether or not it has been biased is different kettle of fish. It has been (and is) introspective, and has tended to reflect the idea that what happens in Spain is unique. We never look abroad and always hide behind the idea that "it has nothing to do with us". The same thing happens when they discuss the independence movement. This self-reliance in opinion is a flaw of a medium-sized country. It happens in Spain and also in Italy and France. Small countries like Holland, on the other hand, have to look beyond their borders, whereas the large nations, such as the USA, have an ecosystem that allows them not to have to do so.