Monday, 15 April 2013

The Further Perils of Patriotism

I'm lifting my moratorium on talking politics on the blog for what I hope will be the only time, just so people can be clear about it, and why it's simultaneously very important to me, yet something I don't want to use to burden this blog.

Most people can probably guess what my opinion on the upcoming Scottish referendum might be, but many people might not guess that I count some good friends among "the other side." On Facebook, I often see my friends, people whose opinions I respect dearly, clicking "like" for a cause against which I am overwhelmingly opposed. Politics, like religion, is one of those things that's best discussed in the manner it has been for the last few millennia: face to face, without the dehumanising shield of anonymity and distance. So aside from several instances not on this blog, I haven't done so, because when I'm considering my friends, I know that their reasons for their beliefs are genuine. They aren't closeted bigots projecting their own fears onto those of their opponents: they genuinely believe that the cause they follow is the right one. Just like how someone of a different religion would look upon one of their friends from another, and not view them as heathens or infidels.

But, of course, that can't always be the case. One side or the other calls someone a xenophobe, or racist, or communist, or fascist (sometimes both), or a unicorn. Exaggeration and posturing results in unnecessary division and scaremongering, lies and misrepresentation run amok, emotions overcome logic. And so we get the usual slurs and attacks on each other getting in the way of the main issue: what's best for our country, and what can we do to improve it?

For example, our government have recently come under fire for plans to subsidise field trips to the sites of Culloden & Bannockburn. Some argue that this could be used to foster anti-English sentiment (which would be true, if you make the mistake of thinking Culloden was a Scotland vs England match), others that it speaks to a government appealing to Scotland's past when it should look to the future. I can see their point: field trips to famous battlefields is undoubtedly rather grim and morbid, and problematic considering we're currently part of a united kingdom with the other side of Bannockburn. Yet how, exactly, are Scottish youngsters to learn about their own history otherwise? Scottish history is remarkably underplayed in our current education system: Scottish weans are taught more about the Free State of Prussia than they are about their own country's history. Make no mistake, I do not object to learning about other countries (why on earth would I, other countries are awesome) but it seems disproportionate for the next generation of a nation to know less about the nation they are a part of than one which doesn't exist anymore.

It isn't a matter of parochialism, it's just logical to provide access to information about a child's immediate surroundings where they are likely to spend most of their lives, than to leave them to learn about their own back yard on their own initiative - in which case, in the absence of more accessible historical sources, they're more likely to turn to romanticised Hollywood fare like Braveheart. Likewise, for all this talk on how Scotland can't wallow in their own history and should look to the future, isn't it just as foolhardy to ignore the past? Absolutely teach children about the Scottish Wars of Independence - as well as the Covenanters, the Darien Scheme, the Jacobites, the Clearances, the Clans. David Hume, Duns Scotus, Adam Smith, Lord Kelvin, Andrew Carnegie. It seems the only Scottish subject we did get at school was Burns, and I doubt he'd appreciate the dearth of knowledge being handed down to our children for the sake of the Scottish cringe. Being united with England shouldn't mean trying to spare the English people's feelings, as if they were poor wee sowells who can't understand historical context: do American schools avoid talking about the Civil War because it might engender bad vibes about the southern states? I'd wager no more than they avoid talking about the American Revolution for fear of upsetting the British, or the English avoid discussing World War 2 in case they bother the Germans.

I didn't have an especially great time learning history at school: some of my teachers were more interested in stuffing dates and facts down our necks than actually imparting historical understanding. One even seemed vaguely annoyed when we dared to inquire on some detail that wasn't on the curriculum. But another teacher loved subverting the system by talking about Scottish history even when apparently not related to the current subject, like Kennedy's presidency or the American Revolution. Unfortunately, teachers like that were few and far between, and in the days where the Internet was a curiosity rather than a near necessity, few of my classmates were sufficiently accommodated and inspired to learn more.

This is why I'm doing Bannockburn. To date, the most public adaptation of one of the most important events in the history of Britain in the arts is a few historically-suspect films, a few documentaries, and Braveheart. I'll get to Braveheart in another post,* but it perplexes me how little media there is on the battle given its significance. Obviously Bannockburn is going to have its share of inventions, but I'm going to make the effort to delineate those inventions, as well as - hopefully - inspire readers to learn more. Not just about Bannockburn, but to the circumstances leading up to the Wars of Independence, of Scotland & England's long history together, and of the great and terrible things both countries achieved since the formation of the Kingdom of Great Britain.

Scottish history is bigger than Scottish politics. It HAS to be bigger than politics: it transcends it, outlives it, and will hopefully outlast it. The only way we'll produce a next generation worth a damn is if they're given all the facts, the proper context, and the means and will to learn. You're not going to do that by depriving them of the history of the land.


  1. A man who doesn't know his history is like a leaf who doesn't know he's part of a tree. I think Michael Crichton said that in Timeline.

  2. In the US usually you usually have alternating world/US history, with one year given over to your home state. I got Florida history in 4th grade, IIRC. While I had pretty good history teachers in high school & college, I learned the most just by reading. I think the good news is that for anyone who wants to learn about Scottish history, you can go and find it readily.

    1. Especially now in the age of the internet!

  3. Hero of the Federation16 April 2013 at 07:38

    That's the advantage of being the boss; you don't have to follow your own orders.

  4. John Muir Day is celebrated on his birthday - April 21st - - Scottish Soldier

  5. What's your take on Peter Watkins' "Culloden"? My knowledge of Anglo-Scots history's pretty poor. My family got out of England before 1620 (via the Netherlands) so I've never felt any real connection to the UK. I was captivated by the film but I know part of that was an entrancement by the artifice of Watkins' technique. How is the actual history?

    1. I'm afraid I haven't seen it! Shocking, I know, though I'll take the opportunity to do so. The Jacobite era is even now pitched as a "Scotland vs England" battle, which is like saying the American Civil War was a "US vs France" battle: it's a much more internal thing.

  6. Hail Free Scotland and a big two fingers up sign to all pompous royalist bastards.
    Don't be afraid to be proud of your country, as long as you don't fantasize in a weird fashion about your ancestors, race and so on, like some excited twits are actually doing in the middle east: they're mixing religion with politics and racial theories for the worst combination ever and catastrophic results.
    There is nothing strange about a Free Scotland. Scotland has economical power, it only lacks a certain degree of industrialization compared to England for obvious reasons, but that could be overcome easily with a certain price, a less "green" Scotland and increasing immigration. I know some are ready for this sacrifice, but it is worth considering.
    The british crown is very clever: by not including scottish history in the early school programs, the kids in Scotland will keep on fantasizing about past heroes whose history will be altered as part hollywoodian modern mythology and part pre-19th century scottish catholic tradition.
    "Keep'em dumb" and they'll never move a finger to study their own history, thus they'll remain ignorant of their true origins and culture.
    A typical technique pulled straight out of the perfect british loyalist handbook.
    Look around in the so called commonwealth and see how the education is really dumbed down to the bottom to keep people in the happy go lucky state. It is happening everywhere in what is still the british empire. Notice the absence of capital letters.

    1. Thanks, K! I think it's definitely important to keep sight of fact and fiction in the debate: that can only happen with open discussion and understanding exactly which is which.

      I subscribe to Ruth Wishart's definition: "A Scot is someone born here, and anyone who has paid us the compliment of settling here." I'm immensely proud that my aunt, who was born in Kenya, has taken to her new homeland while never losing her African heritage. Scotland's always been a nation of many tribes, from the Irish to the Picts, the Normans and Norse, the Britons and Angles, to the Italians and Lithuanians in more modern times, and more besides: that's the sort of "Better Together" I can subscribe to.