627 - Holy Rock! Gibraltar, the Mother of All Territorial Disputes

Just our luck… the only part of the UK with tight border controls. The picture on the front page of Private Eye shows a long line of cars queueing to get into Gibraltar from Spain. Other images on the cover of the August edition of Britain's leading satirical magazine poke fun of Labour leader Ed Milliband and Prime Minister David Cameron, all under the headline: It's the silly season! Spain begs to differ. It is deadly serious about Gibraltar, and the tightened controls at the border this summer, causing traffic jams up to 7 hours long, served as proof of her determination. 


Gibraltar - just another silly-season story, or a dispute only a few incidents away from real conflict?


Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's center-right cabinet was protesting what it sees as the illegal dumping, in July, of 50 concrete blocks in disputed waters off the British possession. Gibraltar claims the artificial reef would encourage sea life; Spain says it will tear up Spanish fishing nets. Gibraltar says Spanish fishing boats should use hooks instead of nets. And Spain says the blocks are outside the area it recognises as Gibraltar's territorial waters anyway. And so on. But Rajoy's ultimate goal remains the same as that of every Spanish government since 1713, when the Treaty of Utrecht confirmed in perpetuity Britain's dominion over the Rock: its return to Spain.  

Frustrated by the failure of several sieges and blockades, that desire has come to define Spanishness itself: "There cannot be a Spaniard worthy of the name, who can write, without blushing, that Gibraltar is not part of Spain", said Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz, president in exile of the Spanish Republic (1940-'45).

So while the Gibraltarian standoff was quickly reduced to a silly-season headline in the rest of the world, on the ground it took on the air of a serious spat just one or two accidents away from full-blown conflict. Madrid's go-slow border checks - officially to combat tobacco smuggling - may soon be replaced by a €50 border levy. On top of that, Spain may close its airspace for direct flights to the British overseas territory.


Dotted lines demarcate British claims, the orange zone inside Gibraltar's port denotes the area of British sovereignty recognised by Spain.


In retaliation, Britain sent HMS Westminster on a 'scheduled visit' to Gib, and requested the European Union to examine the legitimacy of Spain's tightened border controls. The prospect of EU monitors on a fact-finding mission to a 300-year-old dispute between two member states adds to the atmosphere of Operettenkrieg [1] surrounding the conflict, as does the diminutive size of the territory in dispute [2]

To the Spanish and British governments both, the sabre-rattling over Gibraltar provided a distracting burst of patriotism, directing attention away from the Bárcenas bribery scandal and a severe case of midterm blues, respectively. But the standoff was more than a recurrent serpiente de verano [3]. Gibraltar is Spain's oldest unhealed war wound, a symbol of its dysfunctional relationship with Britain, and a disheartening lesson in the persistence of territorial grievances. 

Geology predestined Gibraltar to greatness. Half the territory is taken up by the Rock of Gibraltar, a 1,400-foot-high, cave-riddled limestone monolith that is the only landmark for miles in either direction along the coast. Those caves have yielded 28,000-year-old Neanderthal bones, the youngest known finds; perhaps this natural fortress is where humanity's other species, decimated by the onslaught of Homo sapiens, came to die. From the top of the Rock, you can see - and if the wind blows north, smell and hear - Morocco, only 14 miles across the Strait of Gibraltar. Sitting at the crossroads of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, and Africa and Europe, this tiny peninsula acts as a geopolitical safety catch.

To the Romans, who called it Mons Calpe, it was one of the Pillars of Hercules, marking the edge of the world. Its present name derives from Tariq bin Ziyad, the Muslim general who took the Rock in 711 AD as a prelude to his conquest of the Iberian peninsula. The other Pillar of Hercules, on the African side of the Strait, was renamed Jabal Musa after Tariq's commander Musa bin Nusayr. Both pillars are on the Spanish coat of arms [4],  but in a liminal torment that is Sisyphean rather than Herculean, the southern rock also eludes Spanish control: it is situated just west of the Spanish exclave of Ceuta, Madrid's own geopolitical safety pin, across from Gibraltar.

Local history, and the region's overlapping territorial claims, are riddled with such doublets. Recalling the onomastic quarrel over whether to call the body of water that separates Persia from Arabia the Persian or the Arab Gulf, the disputed waters  to the west of the Rock to Anglophones are the Bay of Gibraltar, and in Spanish the Bahía de Algeciras, after the Spanish city on the opposite side of the bay [5]. And yet the comarca [6] surrounding the peninsula is still called Campo de Gibraltar. In fact, the town of San Roque, refounded by Spanish exiles from Gibraltar after the British takeover, retains the official city records of Spanish Gibraltar, flies a flag that is identical to British Gibraltar's (save for the addition of a Spanish crown), and to this day maintains that it is 'Gibraltar-in-exile'. San Roque, the name of which coincidentally translates as 'Saint Rock', is the original refugee camp as political weapon, designed to keep the resentment over the dispossession alive even centuries after the fact.

All of which might seem a bit pointless in light of the more benign invasions and counterinvasions between the former sworn enemies. There was a time when a state of war between Spain and England seemed natural, inevitable: two naval powers vying for supremacy in America, one the guardian of Catholic orthodoxy - Spanish Inquisition, anyone? - the other the champion of the Protestant cause. The great legacy of that rivalry is the as yet surviving demarcation of the New World in Anglo and Latino halves. Both countries are former empires now, however, and the only Armada sailing up the Thames these days are the droves of of Spanish jobseekers fleeing 57% youth unemployment at home. Spain meanwhile is home to over 500,000 British ex-pats, enjoying the fabulous supplies of sun, sea and sangria that the Costas have to offer.

But as the corrosive power of the economic downturn continues to eat away at the cohesive powers of the European Union, many in Spain increasingly resent the wealthier norteños in their midst as a cause of inequality rather than a solution. Higher taxes are driving many back home, to Britain, Germany and elsewhere. It is no coincidence that one of the measures the Rajoy government announced over the Gibraltar row was the investigation by Spanish tax authorities of the properties owned by Gibraltarians in Spain, or that Foreign Minister José Garcia-Margallo hinted at the possibility of new laws that would force the Gibraltar-based online gaming industry to have its servers in Spain, making them liable to Spanish taxes. "The party is over", Garcia-Margallo said, referring to what he considers the all too conciliatory stance towards Gibraltar of the previous Spanish government.


An overview of British encroachment along the Gibraltar peninsula. Hence the Spanish refusal to consider the current demarcation as a definitive border.


From his hardline perspective, it is obvious that Britain has systematically abused periods of turmoil to extend the reach of its colony. The 1713 treaty only gave the British dominion over the town, castle, port and forts of Gibraltar. In 1938, while Spain was in the throes of civil war, they built an airport in a neutral zone on the isthmus on land they claim de facto belongs to Gibraltar, due to long-standing occupation. That neutral zone is now divided by a fence, which the Spanish refuse to acknowledge as the border. A similar conflict over the extent of Gibraltar's territorial waters in bay is the root cause of the tensions that led to Gibraltar's creation of an artificial reef - more a demarcation of territory than a gesture of fish-friendliness.

Ultimately though, and in spite of protestations to the contrary and all the red, white and blue bunting in the world, the fate of Gibraltar lies with Spain. Geographically and numerically, it is the obvious candidate for control over the peninsula. Unfortunately, there are more similarities between Gibraltar and the Falklands than between the Lincoln and Kennedy assassinations. Argentina and Spain both keep repeating how historically unjust, how geographically illogical and how politically untenable the British presence on their shores is. Neither is focusing its irredentist energies on their obvious target: the British subjects occupying their stolen lands. In both cases, their numbers are so few that the goodwill - not to mention the intermarriage - created by unrestricted access would tilt public opinion, slowly but surely, away from distant Britain, and towards integration with their next-door neighbour. 

It seems so obvious a solution that there must be ulterior motives for the continued harassment of fellow EU citizens. How's that scandal going, Mr. Prime Minister? Oh, and yes: you've made it to the end of a piece about Gibraltar that doesn't mention a single Barbary macaque [7]


The Private Eye front page taken from the magazine's cover archiveFor a good overview of the background to the current conflict, see this post  on the blog La Vida Alcalaína, also the source of the map of the disputed waters. Map of the peninsula found here at Wikimedia Commons.



[1] Literally 'operetta war'. According to Duden, Germany's authoritative dictionary, Operetten- is often used in German as a prefix to denote someone or something rather pompous and self-important, yet not taken very seriously. See also: Operettenfußball, Operettenkönig. 

[2] At 2.6 square miles, Gibraltar is about 11 times the size of the Mall in Washington DC, or just over twice the size of the City of London.

[3] Summer snake, as the Spanish would call a silly season story.

[4] Emblazoned with the motto Plus ultra - There is more beyond.

[5] Algeciras is of course the Spanish spelling of the Arabic al Jazeera.

[6] A Spanish administrative division comparable to a county.

[7] Except, of course, that one. Darn.

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Freud is renowned, but his ideas are ill-substantiated

The Oedipal complex, repressed memories, penis envy? Sigmund Freud's ideas are far-reaching, but few have withstood the onslaught of empirical evidence.

Mind & Brain
  • Sigmund Freud stands alongside Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein as one of history's best-known scientists.
  • Despite his claim of creating a new science, Freud's psychoanalysis is unfalsifiable and based on scant empirical evidence.
  • Studies continue to show that Freud's ideas are unfounded, and Freud has come under scrutiny for fabricating his most famous case studies.

Few thinkers are as celebrated as Sigmund Freud, a figure as well-known as Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. Neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud's ideas didn't simply shift the paradigms in academia and psychotherapy. They indelibly disseminated into our cultural consciousness. Ideas like transference, repression, the unconscious iceberg, and the superego are ubiquitous in today's popular discourse.

Despite this renown, Freud's ideas have proven to be ill-substantiated. Worse, it is now believed that Freud himself may have fabricated many of his results, opportunistically disregarding evidence with the conscious aim of promoting preferred beliefs.

"[Freud] really didn't test his ideas," Harold Takooshian, professor of psychology at Fordham University, told ATI. "He was just very persuasive. He said things no one said before, and said them in such a way that people actually moved from their homes to Vienna and study with him."

Unlike Darwin and Einstein, Freud's brand of psychology presents the impression of a scientific endeavor but ultimately lack two of vital scientific components: falsification and empirical evidence.


Freud's therapeutic approach may be unfounded, but at least it was more humane than other therapies of the day. In 1903, this patient is being treated in "auto-conduction cage" as a part of his electrotherapy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The discipline of psychotherapy is arguably Freud's greatest contribution to psychology. In the post-World War II era, psychoanalysis spread through Western academia, influencing not only psychotherapy but even fields such as literary criticism in profound ways.

The aim of psychoanalysis is to treat mental disorders housed in the patient's psyche. Proponents believe that such conflicts arise between conscious thoughts and unconscious drives and manifest as dreams, blunders, anxiety, depression, or neurosis. To help, therapists attempt to unearth unconscious desires that have been blocked by the mind's defense mechanisms. By raising repressed emotions and memories to the conscious fore, the therapist can liberate and help the patient heal.

That's the idea at least, but the psychoanalytic technique stands on shaky empirical ground. Data leans heavily on a therapist's arbitrary interpretations, offering no safe guards against presuppositions and implicit biases. And the free association method offers not buttress to the idea of unconscious motivation.

Don't get us wrong. Patients have improved and even claimed to be cured thanks to psychoanalytic therapy. However, the lack of methodological rigor means the division between effective treatment and placebo effect is ill-defined.

Repressed memories

Sigmund Freud, circa 1921. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Nor has Freud's concept of repressed memories held up. Many papers and articles have been written to dispel the confusion surrounding repressed (aka dissociated) memories. Their arguments center on two facts of the mind neurologists have become better acquainted with since Freud's day.

First, our memories are malleable, not perfect recordings of events stored on a biological hard drive. People forget things. Childhood memories fade or are revised to suit a preferred narrative. We recall blurry gists rather than clean, sharp images. Physical changes to the brain can result in loss of memory. These realities of our mental slipperiness can easily be misinterpreted under Freud's model as repression of trauma.

Second, people who face trauma and abuse often remember it. The release of stress hormones imprints the experience, strengthening neural connections and rendering it difficult to forget. It's one of the reasons victims continue to suffer long after. As the American Psychological Association points out, there is "little or no empirical support" for dissociated memory theory, and potential occurrences are a rarity, not the norm.

More worryingly, there is evidence that people are vulnerable to constructing false memories (aka pseudomemories). A 1996 study found it could use suggestion to make one-fifth of participants believe in a fictitious childhood memory in which they were lost in a mall. And a 2007 study found that a therapy-based recollection of childhood abuse "was less likely to be corroborated by other evidence than when the memories came without help."

This has led many to wonder if the expectations of psychoanalytic therapy may inadvertently become a self-fulfilling prophecy with some patients.

"The use of various dubious techniques by therapists and counselors aimed at recovering allegedly repressed memories of [trauma] can often produce detailed and horrific false memories," writes Chris French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. "In fact, there is a consensus among scientists studying memory that traumatic events are more likely to be remembered than forgotten, often leading to post-traumatic stress disorder."

The Oedipal complex

The Blind Oedipus Commending His Children to the Gods by Benigne Gagneraux. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

During the phallic stage, children develop fierce erotic feelings for their opposite-sex parent. This desire, in turn, leads them to hate their same-sex parent. Boys wish to replace their father and possess their mother; girls become jealous of their mothers and desire their fathers. Since they can do neither, they repress those feelings for fear of reprisal. If unresolved, the complex can result in neurosis later in life.

That's the Oedipal complex in a nutshell. You'd think such a counterintuitive theory would require strong evidence to back it up, but that isn't the case.

Studies claiming to prove the Oedipal complex look to positive sexual imprinting — that is, the phenomenon in which people choose partners with physical characteristics matching their same-sex parent. For example, a man's wife and mother have the same eye color, or woman's husband and father sport a similar nose.

But such studies don't often show strong correlation. One study reporting "a correction of 92.8 percent between the relative jaw width of a man's mother and that of [his] mates" had to be retracted for factual errors and incorrect analysis. Studies showing causation seem absent from the literature, and as we'll see, the veracity of Freud's own case studies supporting the complex is openly questioned today.

Better supported, yet still hypothetical, is the Westermarck effect. Also called reverse sexual imprinting, the effect predicts that people develop a sexual aversion to those they grow up in close proximity with, as a mean to avoid inbreeding. The effect isn't just shown in parents and siblings; even step-siblings will grow sexual averse to each other if they grow up from early childhood.

An analysis published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology evaluated the literature on human mate choice. The analysis found little evidence for positive imprinting, citing study design flaws and an unwillingness of researchers to seek alternative explanations. In contrast, it found better support for negative sexual imprinting, though it did note the need for further research.

The Freudian slip

Mark notices Deborah enter the office whistling an upbeat tune. He turns to his coworker to say, "Deborah's pretty cheery this morning," but accidentally blunders, "Deborah's pretty cherry this morning." Simple slip up? Not according to Freud, who would label this a parapraxis. Today, it's colloquially known as a "Freudian slip."

"Almost invariably I discover a disturbing influence from something outside of the intended speech," Freud wrote in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. "The disturbing element is a single unconscious thought, which comes to light through the special blunder."

In the Freudian view, Mark's mistaken word choice resulted from his unconscious desire for Deborah, as evident by the sexually-charged meanings of the word "cherry." But Rob Hartsuiker, a psycholinguist from Ghent University, says that such inferences miss the mark by ignoring how our brains process language.

According to Hartsuiker, our brains organize words by similarity and meaning. First, we must select the word in that network and then process the word's sounds. In this interplay, all sorts of conditions can prevent us from grasping the proper phonemes: inattention, sleepiness, recent activation, and even age. In a study co-authored by Hartsuiker, brain scans showed our minds can recognize and correct for taboo utterances internally.

"This is very typical, and it's also something Freud rather ignored," Hartsuiker told BBC. He added that evidence for true Freudian slips is scant.

Freud's case studies

Sergej Pankejeff, known as the "Wolf Man" in Freud's case study, claimed that Freud's analysis of his condition was "propaganda."

It's worth noting that there is much debate as to the extent that Freud falsified his own case studies. One famous example is the case of the "Wolf Man," real name Sergej Pankejeff. During their sessions, Pankejeff told Freud about a dream in which he was lying in bed and saw white wolves through an open window. Freud interpreted the dream as the manifestation of a repressed trauma. Specifically, he claimed that Pankejeff must have witnessed his parents in coitus.

For Freud this was case closed. He claimed Pankejeff successfully cured and his case as evidence for psychoanalysis's merit. Pankejeff disagreed. He found Freud's interpretation implausible and said that Freud's handling of his story was "propaganda." He remained in therapy on and off for over 60 years.

Many of Freud's other case studies, such "Dora" and "the Rat Man" cases, have come under similar scrutiny.

Sigmund Freud and his legacy

Freud's ideas may not live up to scientific inquiry, but their long shelf-life in film, literature, and criticism has created some fun readings of popular stories. Sometimes a face is just a face, but that face is a murderous phallic symbol. (Photo: Flickr)

Of course, there are many ideas we've left out. Homosexuality originating from arrested sexual development in anal phase? No way. Freudian psychosexual development theory? Unfalsifiable. Women's penis envy? Unfounded and insulting. Men's castration anxiety? Not in the way Freud meant it.

If Freud's legacy is so ill-informed, so unfounded, how did he and his cigars cast such a long shadow over the 20th century? Because there was nothing better to offer at the time.

When Freud came onto the scene, neurology was engaged in a giddy free-for-all. As New Yorker writer Louis Menand points out, the era's treatments included hypnosis, cocaine, hydrotherapy, female castration, and institutionalization. By contemporary standards, it was a horror show (as evident by these "treatments" featuring so prominently in our horror movies).

Psychoanalysis offered a comparably clement and humane alternative. "Freud's theories were like a flashlight in a candle factory," anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann told Menand.

But Freud and his advocates triumph his techniques as a science, and this is wrong. The empirical evidence for his ideas is limited and arbitrary, and his conclusions are unfalsifiable. The theory that explains every possible outcome explains none of them.

With that said, one might consider Freud's ideas to be a proto-science. As astrology heralded astronomy, and alchemy preceded chemistry, so to did Freud's psychoanalysis popularize psychology, paving the way for its more rapid development as a scientific discipline. But like astrology and alchemy, we should recognize Freud's ideas as the historic artifacts they are.

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
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