Universities need to turn Basque to basics

Immersion in separatist culture leads to questioning the University’s obsession with athletics.

by Ashley Dresser

I am surrounded by the sea of Euskal Herria, but I am not at one of the many popular Basque Country beaches. I am in the middle of Plaza Moyua, downtown Bilbao, only a few feet away from the heavily guarded Spanish Embassy, and once again, I am feeling nostalgic. The energized but incoherent voices that splash out from the center of the crowd remind me of the common Saturday afternoon caravan of drunken students on their way to a football game, garbed out in Gopher pride. Only these people arenâÄôt drunk; they are simply shouting in Basque, the language of their homeland, and instead of maroon and gold, they are robed in green and red. They are protesting the October arrest of five pro-independent Basque militants accused of trying to revive Batasuna, the banned political wing of the notorious Basque separatist group Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA). For the sake of mutual understanding, their loss, in some minute way, can be compared to wide receiver Eric DeckerâÄôs injury last week. His sprained arch and possible surgery come as difficult blow to Gophers football fans. Yet, it is not even close to the same thing. I am only drawing this comparison in hopes that we can better understand nationalism, what it is, when itâÄôs relevant and how it discreetly pervades our university education system. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines nationalism in two contexts: 1) the attitude that members of a nation have when they care about their national identity and 2) the actions that the members of a nation take when seeking to achieve or sustain self-determination. In the case of the Basque Country of Spain, the Basques are fiercely nationalist. They have been fighting for their autonomy for centuries âÄî nonviolently and otherwise. ETA, the paramilitary wing of their struggle, has been active since 1959, and while they are not widely popular within the Basque Country, they are the organization that is most often invoked by the international media as the face of the Basque people. ETA is responsible for what are almost monthly bombing campaigns that have caused more than 800 deaths to date. In this sense, Basque nationalism may rumble at a scale far greater than a âÄúWe Will Rock YouâÄù cheer at a Gophers football game, yet the two are strangely related. The Basque people have their own government, their own distinct language and a rich cultural history all entirely separate from the nation of Spain. Furthermore, the Basque Country is the most industrious and prosperous region in Spain, so much that the rest of the country relies heavily on its resources âÄî an obligation the Basques frequently resent having to uphold. In general, the Spanish identity has been a constant, unwelcome imposition throughout the course of Basque history. Similarly, when I arrived at the University of Minnesota in the fall of 2005, I didnâÄôt identify myself as a Gopher. I came to study and get my degree, not to frolic in the flamboyance of our college sports teams and most certainly not to fund a $288.5 million TCF Bank Stadium. Yet this was an identity that was forced upon me. It was built into my tuition. It was assumed, because I lived within the University community, that of course I was a Gophers football fan and that I would have no qualms about chipping in for the sake of sport. It is a ridiculous and insulting assumption âÄî the same one the Spanish have made about Basques. Yet, Basque nationalism makes sense. Our University sports fanaticism does not. We should be fighting for the separation of university life from collegiate sports, but it is difficult to do. Nobody knows what that looks like âÄî well, not unless youâÄôve been to Europe. The people here in Basque Country are mostly tired. They donâÄôt want to talk politics. Instead, they do what they can to escape. There are Basques living in the United States, in Argentina, Cuba, Mexico and elsewhere. And I understand it. One of the reasons behind my lifelong desire to live in Europe is to avoid putting my children through the U.S. university system. I want to escape, too, but my loans follow me, just like the Spanish identity follows the Basques. A central question within the discussion of nationalism is whether it is a voluntary characteristic. That is to say, is nationality based on a common origin, ethnicity and culture, or is it simply whatever group you personally feel the most allegiance to? For example, I was born American, but I donâÄôt feel a strong kinship to American society. I attended the University, but I prefer to skip alumni events. I was even raised Catholic, but I was never confirmed. For me, the desire to shed all subtitles was born shortly after Sept. 11. I decided my ability to adapt, embrace and empathize was more important than any form of allegiance. I have only attended one Gophers game in my life, and I was so bored that I left by halftime; it simply wasnâÄôt my thing. Yet, I respect the great love of sports we have as Americans. ItâÄôs a tradition that should continue to prosper, but one that is separate from the University. Yes, TCF Bank Stadium has already been built, but we still have time to rethink the future of university sports. The recession affords us the opportunity to look critically at the institutions we have designed, modify them and maybe even start over. Like the realization of a Basque Autonomous State, I doubt the revolution will happen in my lifetime, but it certainly doesnâÄôt hurt to hope. Ashley Dresser welcomes comments at [email protected]