Entry from July 31, 2002

“Why nations fight for land only a goat could love,” said the headline to an article in the New York Times promised to tell us. Yes, do tell us that, for we thirst to know. “Given that they are goats and lizards the only permanent inhabitants of the tiny island of Perejil probably did not appreciate the magnitude of the rescue mission launched by Spain” to recover it from Morocco, wrote Sarah Lyall. Those crazy Spaniards, it seems, “deployed an armada of helicopters, warships and special forces to liberate their home” — that is, the goats’ and lizards’ home — “from an occupying force of six Moroccans and a flag.” Well did you ever? “Rarely in the field of human conflict,” Miss Lyall wittily remarks, “has so little been owed by so few to so many.”

Let us begin by stipulating that all questions of national honor at the turn of the 21st century are naturally regarded in a comic light, particularly by women, and associated with a giggly, psycho-sexual conception of the meaning and origin of the concept. “Ooh, we have to prove what a big man we are, do we?” Or, in the words of Olive Oyl: “Don’t strain your brain, strong man!” Likewise, from the depths of her wisdom, Miss Lyall comments: “Like children suddenly squabbling over the old discarded toy in the corner, nations cannot resist, it seems, fighting over small islands that nobody would want if it were not for the principle of the thing.”

Actually, Hamlet said it better when, fed up with such sophisticated but impractical wisdom (or imagining that he was fed up with it), he remarked that “Rightly to be great/Is not to stir without great argument,/But greatly to find quarrel in a straw/When honor’s at the stake.” To Sarah Lyall, this translates into “a testosterone-fueled ‘my claim is bigger than your claim’ fight, more machismo than rationality.” Thus she translates the words of Federico Trillo, the Spanish defense secretary who “inadvertently” revealed to her the psycho-sexual truth by saying that Spain had been “attacked by force in a very sensitive part of its geography.”

Let us not quibble with Sarah’s confident Freudian diagnosis. Yes, dear, so much of what happens in the world for good or ill is going to turn out to be “more machismo than rationality.” So what? The Freudian mind-set seems to hold that the mere recognition of a psycho-sexual origin to this “machismo” is enough to make the men displaying it ashamed of themselves. And, indeed, it does make a great many liberal and progressive-minded American men as ashamed as their grandfathers would have been of not displaying it. But there is something more comical even than this quaint, old-world strutting contest in the implicit idea that that bright little, clever little feminine skepticism of which the New York Times has been making such a speciality lately (Maureen Dowd is its principal practitioner) ought to be enough to make the Spanish and/or the Moroccans ashamed as well.

Meanwhile, back in the old country, William Rees-Mogg, former editor of The Times’s London namesake, shows a somewhat better understanding of what is at stake for the disputants:

For international lawyers, provided they are not Spanish, the Treaty of Utrecht may be a decisive argument. But this is not only a matter of history or of treaties. It is a matter of human passions. The Spanish emotions may be contradictory but they are not the less real for that. Spaniards feel passionately that their own continued occupations of Ceuta and Melilla form a matter of national honour, although both towns are in Africa. They feel equally passionately that British occupation of Gibraltar is a national dishonour, though in every other respect Britain and Spain now have excellent relations and both are members of the European Union.

His own country, of course, went to war as recently as 20 years ago over what Miss Lyall calls “the sheep-laden Falkland Islands.” Countries, like the gentlemen of olden times, do do such things rather than submit to being insulted and treated with contempt. No doubt everyone at the New York Times wishes it were not so, but merely to mock the realities that it purports to explain is to acquiesce in its own irrelevance.

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