The Value of Shooting at a Plane with a Rifle: A Reply to Dennis Masaka, Part II, Xabier Renteria-Uriarte

Planes and Aircraft Carriers: Laws, Language, Education or Mass Media Supporting ‘Our State is a Nation-State’

At the time of the French Revolution, only half the population of France spoke varieties of present-day French, and only 10% spoke what resembled the language now called ‘French.’ It was a Parisian and academic French, but the state would take it as a standard to be imposed throughout the territory, and hence its current extension. At all events, the replacement of regional languages by state French is still an ongoing process. … [please read below the rest of the article].

Image credit: U.S. Pacific Fleet via Flickr / Creative Commons

Article Citation:

Renteria-Uriarte, Xabier. 2023. “The Value of Shooting at a Plane with a Rifle: A Reply to Dennis Masaka.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 12 (6): 61–75.

🔹 The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers.

Editor’s Note: Xabier Renteria-Uriarte’s article “The Value of Shooting at a Plane with a Rifle: A Reply to Dennis Masaka” will be presented in two parts. Please find below Part II. Please refer to Part I.

This article replies to:

❧ Masaka, Dennis. 2023. “A Critical Response to Renteria-Uriarte’s ‘Counteracting Epistemic Oppression through Social Myths’.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 12 (5): 48–57.

Articles in this dialogue:

❦ Renteria-Uriarte, Xabier. 2023. “Counteracting Epistemic Oppression Through Social Myths: The Last Indigenous Peoples of Europe.” Social Epistemology doi: 10.1080/02691728.2022.2153350.

In Iparralde, as the Basques call the part of their country that the French call ‘the Basque Country’ and Spanish name ‘the French Basque Country’, it may be common to ask something in Basque in a house, and the person who attends there calls someone from the previous generation so that they can communicate with you (if it is the mother, she will call the grandmother, or if it is the daughter, the mother will be called). Language loss can be felt in a single generational change.

In Mauléon, the capital of one of the seven historic Basque territories, a shopkeeper in the central square told me that when he was a child he used to leave home and all his life was in Basque, but now he only came across a few speakers, from what he said that Basque is no longer a national language, since it is fragmented into islands here and there.

The use of language is the most objective aspect of this process, but how is it possible for a people to abandon their language, their customs and their identity, and come to feel the identity of the conqueror? In the case of the Basque Country the process was bloody, and this must be understood literally. About a third of its young generation died in the trenches of the First World War. They spoke Basque and did not speak French well, so they could not understand orders fully. It is not hard to imagine that they were sent to the front line by sergeants to avoid further explanations and hassle. As a versolari (popular poet) sang “those of us who managed to live came back from the war knowing French” (see below the exact quote). The same thing probably happened in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) and the wars that started after the French Revolution, when young Basques began to be recruited for the French army, although there is no data. A song from the 1980s by Gorka Knör reminds it: “Euskaraz baizik ez zekiten haiek, morts pour la patrie” (“Those who did not know French, died for the French homeland”). Let’s look at this issue from the beginning.

Those Non-French Who did not Know French, Morts Pour la Patrie

‘Sovereignty,’ or the right to decide public affairs, is a notion that has been understood since the 17th century as ‘national sovereignty’ or ‘of the people’. It is assigned to ‘the people,’ that is, to the ‘collective’ or ‘nation,’ since the times of the bourgeois revolutions. Following the tradition of authors like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau or Johann Gottfried Herder (Vichinkeski 2014, 801–819), the bourgeoisie argued that not the nobility, but the people themselves, had the right to decide public affairs. But that quickly changed as soon as they took power in several countries. And it changed both towards the ‘people’ or popular classes of the own nation, as well as towards the people of other nations that had fallen within the limits of the feudal kingdom whose springs and mechanisms were taken. Therefore, the change had two faces:

a) The bourgeois elite of a nation would be the effective decision-making power that ‘represents’ or ‘supersedes, replaces’ all the members of the nation. In this case, the justification was that not ‘the people’ or ‘all of us’, but ‘the state’ or ‘those who govern,’ became the ‘sovereign nation.’ The ‘people’ and the ‘nation’ of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, characterized more concisely by others like Herder, Johann Gottlieb Fichte or Ernest Renan, gave prominence to the ‘bourgeois state’ of the Abbé Sieyès (Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès). His Qu’est-ce que le Tiers-État? a libretto or booklet that was already circulating through the streets of Paris in 1789, stated (in its first chapter) that: “the Third Estate [or the group of bourgeois representatives that controlled such ‘estate’ or part of the advisory council of the French king] is a complete nation.”

b) The elite of that nation would decide and also exercise power over the rest of the nations within the kingdom where they had taken power. In this case, the justification, derived from the above, was that all the individuals of the other nations within the state are precisely of the nation whose elite held state power. In the case of France, Basques, Corsicans, Bretons, Occitans, etc. they were ‘French,’ even though they did not speak their language, nor did they follow French laws until that moment. Thus, the representatives of the present-days ‘French Basque Country’ appeared in Paris in 1789, at the very beginning of the French Revolution, so that its sovereignty would be respected. Étienne de Polverel (1789), in his three-hundred page speech, said, among other things, that Navarre and France were “independent powers with equal powers”. But the revolution, the new central State, would end up reaching all the remote places in the kingdom; the northern Basque Country would soon become militarily occupied.

Image Credit: Commemorative Plaque to a Basque Victim of the French Repression of 1793-1795 (Sara, Labourd).

Both aspects imply intrusions into epistemic freedom. In the first case, we are talking about class struggle, and how powerful elites convince the entire population to accept bourgeois domination or corporatocracy, as it is now called. In the second case, we are talking about national struggle, and how the powerful elites and their nation convince the rest of the nations within their political state that they are not such nations at all, that they are not different, and that they actually have the same culture and identity as the nation that has taken over the state. How does this last conviction or epistemic domination happen?

Nations that have a political state tend to dismiss and deny, through the epistemic structures of the state (mainly education, media or law), the identity of national minorities living within their borders. Going back to the metaphor, we are not talking about some social myth or ‘rifle’ in hands of a minority nation, but the definition myth or ‘war tank’ in the hands of a State itself; we are pointing to the warships, planes and the aircraft carriers of the the State: its epistemic powers.

Laying Flowers to Your Dead Relatives Under a Foreign Flag

November 11 is the armistice day of the First World War, and a national holiday in France. There are memorials in the villages, with the French flag and the motto Morts pour la patrie. Many Basque families go there on that day to lay flowers for their dead relatives. Although the northern Basque Country lost 3% of its population in a war with which they did not seem to agree (according to the comparative data of desertion to mobilization, see Garat 2023), the French state took advantage of this day and these monuments so that the Northern Basques would emotionally distance themselves from the Southern Basques and strengthen the feeling of belonging to France (Bidegain 2014).

The Frenchizing of the Northern Basques had begun after the Great Revolution, with great emphasis on the French language and laws (Grégoire 1794; Urrutikoetxea 2017), but the wars, especially the First World War, turned out to be a key event in the Frenchification (Weber 1976). In previous decades they began to feel French, first because they were constantly taught this at school and in the army, and then because they shed their blood for France during the war, and because they remember it every year.

An army song, later sung by ex-combatants in their hometowns, ran: “L’armée est la grande patronne, qui vous baptise tous français” (“[Wherever you come from,] The army is the big boss, which baptizes you all French”) (Déroulède 1896). And a Basque versolari sang like this: “Heidu girenean, denborak eginik, bazterrak ikusirik, frantsesa jakinik” (“When we returned, after the time, we had known the world and learned French”) (Garat 2023).

Hence the irony that Basques who did not know French died pour la patrie, as the song by Gorka Knör recalled. The last bomb of the world wars was when they ended, in the case of minority nations. And it fell in the form of ‘national and patriotic days’ and ‘blood for the homeland’. Flowers for grandfather would make grandsons and granddaughters more French. And stateless nations would foster a common French identity even more than a Parisian civil servant or politician. Non-French people and nations feeling French, nurturing state identity, and preparing to die again for that ‘homeland.’A round business. Although not without some challenge: in 2022, young people Basques crossed out ‘pour la patrie’ on a banner of ‘morts pour la patrie’, added ‘par la France’, and ended it with ‘Frantziak erailak’ or ‘assassinated by France’ (Erremundegi 2022).

The monuments to the fallen and the flowers are, in any case, just one more among the multitude of epistemic instruments to ensure that national identities assume a state identity, and certify a ‘nation-state’. State powers not only oppose, to the social myths of minorities, some historical social myth (that the state was born in a memorable historical event that stirs consciences, or that it is even the ‘oldest nation and state’), and a tremendous myth or lie in its own definition as a political structure (that ‘the state is a nation’). They oppose all their state structures to them, in a multidimensional structuring of different injustices and epistemic oppressions.

Education, the mass media and laws can be cited as fundamental, but other apparently more ethereal issues should not be forgotten. As citizens of a State, people have a clear referent: the nation-state itself, with its borders and population under common laws and administration. For all these reasons, the importance of the social myth is less for them: it is diluted among the other socio-political instruments with epistemic implications, and it is not so necessary to sustain the collective identity. The social myth of the ‘we are the oldest nation and state’ is not as prominent in Spain or France (perhaps more so in France) as it is in the Basque Country, but the effective myth of ‘we are a nation’ is already assumed and internalized by the entire population, thanks to epistemic educational, informative and legislative structures.

I hope the nuance can be understood given Masaka’s concern. States may oppose some social myth to those of the oppressed, of course they do, but the oppressed are much less likely to affect collective identity and action, and therefore the value of social myth becomes more relevant in their side of the epistemic war. But what kind of relevance are we talking about?

The Power of a Rifle Against Planes, or Of Social Myths Against States, as Conclusion

Before visiting the guerrillas in El Salvador, with the intention of helping a community set up a cooperative that would allow the combatants to start their civilian life after the Peace Accords, their organization sent me a documentary to get closer to their struggle. In a scene, an insurgent fired his rifle into the sky, against a plane that was leaving the area. I remember him laughing after shooting, but perhaps it’s because of my memories and he was still angry. In any case, he was not a foolish rebel, their war was long and he knew that such shots were indifferent to the plane. So why was he shooting at it?

Our brain is rational, but our bodies and lives are emotional. And this fact governs both conventional warfare and the war between social myths. I was born and educated in a social environment, conservative on social issues but Basque nationalist, where the myth of ‘the First Europeans’ was widespread and internalized. Such a myth, in fact, is widespread throughout Basque society, nationalist or not; it is hard to come across someone who has not heard of ‘this stuff that we are the oldest of Europe and all that.’

When I grew up and entered joined friend groups, more leftist than may family but also pro-independence, the myth had taken shape and reached its current form, ‘the Last Indigenous Peoples of Europe’. None of us, although believing more or less that we are in a certain sense ‘the first settlers’ of our Basque land, trust that this ‘fact’ or ‘belief’ might soften in any extent the force of the Spanish and French states over the Basque country.

For example, I remember ‘our mum’ (in Basque language the self or the ‘I’ has less presence than in Indo-European languages, and ‘we, us, our’ is more the norm) telling us: ‘children, speak in Euskara (the Basque language) and not in Spanish, do not forget that it is our language, and do not forget that it appears in the Museum of Louvre in Paris, in a list of languages, as the oldest European language.’ Nor did she trust that such details could force the oppressors to change their minds or intentions with the Basque Country. Why were we doing it then?

We were and we are rebels firing our rifles at a plane that is moving away. In our group of friends, with different national sensitivities, we all know the belief. For some of us it is not interesting or there is no opinion, for others it has no scientific supports, and for others has some support or even some evident support. But none of us believe, even if the myth is trusted to be some kind of ‘truth’, that it can change the current state of affairs to any degree. I suppose it is a position widely held within the different levels of social knowledge.

Barandiaran (1974, 435–446), the famous and esteemed anthropologist, when he wrote that: “Consequently, it can be said that the Basque myths reflect the shadows and figures of the Paleolithic hunters of the Basque Pyrenees, or, more likely, that they are inherited from them” took it as a scientific fact, unrelated to the Spanish or French states that would come 15,000 years later. The same happens with Estornés Lasa (1967, 87). He wrote that: “It seems that there are certain components or roots in our today’s lively speech [in Basque] that take us back to prehistory.” Both were and felt themselves as Basque. They did not do science in order to change anything, just as people do not do social myths with some kind of specific objective, but simply because they felt like it.

The social myth is held even if it is known to be somewhat exaggerated or idealized—even if it is known that it will not change anything. The social myth, in most cases, will not change the epistemic structures, but it will lighten the emotional weight that other people’s epistemic structures have on us.

Stateless minority nations lack the epistemic advantages that the state bestows; for example, their education and media are often dominated ideologically and financially, and the laws are alien to or contrary to the reality of the nation. In this environment, the identity of minority nations is usually denied or underestimated. It can be directly denied as such, as a nation or socio-historical identity, as in the Basque case, or it can be underestimated or placed as a subsidiary component of the statist identity, that is, the identity of the nation that dominates the state. For all these reasons, the importance of the social myth for the oppressed is greater: they can resort to many fewer instruments with epistemic extensions but, due to human psychology, the social myth seems tremendously necessary and effective to sustain the collective identity.

So why are social myths and the rifles important? Not because of their effective power in changing objective conditions. The guerrilla fighter who, powerless but shouting and activating himself, fires at the plane that has already passed, will never knock it down; yet, he feels a certain subjective power and, with it, gains energy to continue the fight. In a world in which armed wars have been losing effectiveness for the oppressed, the rifle can be replaced by the social myth, almost with the same logic of impotence, but of empowerment. If in the ‘Fanon era’ violence was important for the psychology of the oppressed, in this era in which capitalism has been winning all the wars and uses low-intensity instruments such as lawfare, the social myth recovers its Sorelian and Gramscian importance.

Consequently, when Masaka (2023, 42–51) asks for the social myth of ‘The Last Indigenous People’ or other social myths, and for the epistemic structures that a political state establishes, “can it be effective enough then to disrupt and occasion a transformative turn …?” My answer, assessing it from the current Basque case, is that social myths do not have the power to gain the epistemic independence for the conquered peoples, but they give them energy to sustain and support the rest of the struggles, epistemic or not.

Their potential is not an absolute revolution in the objective epistemic conditions, at least when they are in the hands of a powerful state, but a support for the identity and moral of the oppressed. Regardless of the power of other instruments to counteract epistemic injustices or that their lack in the case of the oppressed makes the social myth the instrument par excellence, it seems that it has not been given the attention it deserves. The Basque case can be illustrative: a social myth that lasts 200 years seems to make it clear that it lacks the power to change the state of things, but it also shows that epistemicide has not yet been consummated, and that the hope and energy to reversing it, or at least to counteract it, also endures and persists.

On the side of the conquerors and oppressors, epistemic convictions and myths continue because they provide not only emotional satisfaction for the members of the dominant nation (and those of the dominated nations that have come to assume the identity of the dominant nation), but more tangible things as well. Greatly simplified, but just to better explain the ideas. In feudal kingdoms, kings wanted to conquer more land mainly to raise more taxes (that is, to collect more money) and get more soldiers to fight (i.e. more land and more money).

In modern times those old interests remain! Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz, president of the Spanish Republic in exile, commented for example: “The Basques are the last to have been civilized in Spain … they believe they are children of God, but I told the Basque president … yes, yes! but all Basques, to pay their taxes in Spain!” (Azurmendi 1992, 129: 581). And the Northern Basques began to be recruited as early as the French Revolution, with striking data on population losses in the First World War, as has been noted (Bidegain 2014).

However, in modern states, interests are no longer reduced to taxes and soldiers. The epistemic structure (mainly said triad of education, media and laws) helps to maintain the entire structure of the nation-state in its different facets, including dominance over the territories of the subject nations that the members of the dominant nation already consider as ‘their territories from all eternity.’

On the side of the oppressed, social myths like ‘we are the last indigenous’ will not by themselves take over educational, informational or legal powers, but they support the struggles that lead to it. In the Basque country, its western and central parts (those that are under the Spanish state) have their own regional government with their own tax collection and police, and in the first third of the 20th century, their own currency was minted. The Northern part continues its struggles to obtain more sovereignty in decisions, such as in education, rural areas or real estate speculation. The social myth of the last natives does not cause all of this but, at least, reflects the national yearnings that do achieve it. And it helps them too. The epistemic side, thus, does help to transform, although not to revolutionize, the objective conditions.

❧ Please refer to Part I of “The Value of Shooting at a Plane with a Rifle: A Reply to Dennis Masaka.”

Author Information:

Xabier Renteria-Uriarte —, University of the Basque Country, Bilbao, Spain — is a Ph.D. in Economics within a Philosophy program, and a Professor of World Economy. His research areas include non-Western epistemologies, social worldviews, social movements, sharing economy, and contemplative economics. He served as the Director of the School of Business Studies in Bilbao from 2009 to 2012, after being the Deputy Director from 1998 to 2009. He has been actively involved in social activism within various Basque organizations, currently serving in Euskal Sena Taldea and Biltzarre.


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