Saturday, April 12, 2014

"The Flowers of Scotland"

Some years ago I read in one of Thomas Sowell's books that almost all the judges in America after the Revolutionary War (what I call the First War of Independence) were Scottish.

That struck me, because this was a great deal of freedom then. Our judges today are overwhelmingly anti-American morons, who wouldn't know freedom if it bit them on the butt.

By the way, my last name is Scottish, although I am of Scots-Irish (Ulster Scots)/German ancestry, and I come from hill people from Tennessee/Kentucky/Missouri Ozarks.

I find it interesting that all my male relatives have always worked for themselves, being unable to tolerate working for others. I'm the same way. I work for myself. We are all contrary, and I think it is genetic.

Then there was the Scottish Enlightenment, which mostly came out of Edinburgh, which at the time had about 20,000 people. I mean, what the hell? How did that happen?

This article was written by Irvine Welsh and is from the Guardian.

"The flowers of Scotland

"What did the Cinderella nation do for the modern world? Everything, discovers Irvine Welsh after reading Scottish Enlightenment: The Scots' Invention of the Modern World by Arthur Herman

"It seems a grandiose contention that a small country like Scotland could come from the most adverse of circumstances to forge modern western democracy. Indeed, only the most patriotic Caledonians would proffer it without some reticence or qualification. Yet Arthur Herman, who is neither Scots nor of Scottish descent, provides a convincing and compelling argument as to its veracity. Professor Herman demonstrates an infectious and uplifting passion for his subject. Unlike many academics, he is a natural writer, weaving philosophical concerns seamlessly through a historical narrative that romps along at a cracking pace, producing a text that is highly accessible without compromising the rational quality of his argument.

"The Knoxian revolution of the 16th century had resulted in 100 years of almost uninterrupted violence and bloodshed. Three consecutive failed harvests at the end of the 17th century, against the backdrop of England's imperial growth, set the circumstances for Scotland's ruling classes to sell out its sovereignty - literally. The Earl of Roseberry was paid £12,000 from a slush fund operated by the London government to enable this merger to take place. But rather than suffer the expected dilution into insignificance, Scotland became proportionately the most significant player in the union's empire. And through innovations in philosophy, education, commerce, engineering, industry, architecture, town planning, soldiering, administration, medicine and even tourism, the Scots invented the modern world of capitalist democracy. The springboard for this was the most powerful legacy of the Presbyterian revolution: a universal (or near-universal) education system.

"The Presbyterians popularised the notion that political power, though ordained by God, was vested not in the monarch or even in the clergy, but in the people. Yes, Scottish Presbyterians could behave like ayatollahs and the Kirk could, as in the infamous Aikenhead case of 1696, regularly incite public executions for spurious blasphemy or witchcraft charges. Paradoxically, though, in the very same year as Aikenhead's execution, the Scottish parliament passed the Setting for Schools Act, establishing a school and salaried teacher in every parish.

"The effect of this was that by 1750, with an estimated 75% level of literacy, the Scots were probably the most well-read nation on earth. The dichotomy between authoritarian repression and liberal inquiry in Scottish society was embodied in Robert Burns. At 16, the poverty-stricken Ayrshire ploughman was versed in Shakespeare, Alexander Pope, Locke, the Scottish poets and the French Enlightenment philosophers. The knock-on effects of the education act were felt in universities and the book trade. By 1790 Edinburgh boasted 16 publishing houses.

"Living on the periphery of the UK had its advantages. Scots ended up with peace and order from a strong British state, but as England took little interest in affairs north of the border, retained the freedom to develop and innovate. The upper echelons of Scottish society refused to be intimidated by English cultural and linguistic dominance. David Hume speculated: 'Why is it when we have lost parliament and monarchy and independent government, speak uneasily in a foreign tongue but yet are the People most distinguished for literature in Europe?' Voltaire agreed, contending, 'It is to Scotland that we must look for our idea of civilisation.'

"The book traces the main players in the Scottish Enlightenment, focusing on their foibles and fanaticism as well as their virtues. Hutcheson and Kames are given their rightful roles as antecedents of those giants of modern western thought, Hume and Adam Smith. Smith is restored as a philosopher of depth. His concerns about the socially debilitating nature of the modern capitalism he describes, and his advocacy of a universal education system, free him from the right-wing shackles with which he is often unfairly encumbered.

"The nature of such a work inevitably means that the historical perspective has as its focus the prominence of charismatic individuals rather than, say, the struggle of the masses or responses to natural calamity. There are obvious flaws in this approach. The diaspora may have enriched western cultural society by enabling Scotland to export its institutions, beliefs and character. However, this came at the cost of great suffering which, in keeping with this perspective and Scottish Enlightenment philosophy, is justified in the name of progress.

"This is where I emphatically depart from Arthur Herman. The Highland clearances are a shameful element of Scotland's history, and can't be glossed over in this manner. That such atrocities took place at the same time as a sanitised tartan-kitsch modern tourist industry was being created by Walter Scott for the patronage of the bloated, foppish, alcoholic English king only renders them all the more obscene. The problem with this notion of 'a price of progress' is that it becomes self-serving by failing to take into account the non-enfranchisement and marginalisation of the people at the receiving end. By extension, it's like suggesting that the Holocaust was a necessary evil in order to teach western civilisation about the dangers inherent in racism. Also, in his enthusiasm for all things Scottish, the author ignores the more overtly malign elements of the exported culture. At times Herman almost seems to claim that the 'good' things in the empire - education, social reform and engineering - were solely the Scots' doing. The bad bits - racism, slavery, religious indoctrination - were down to others (the English).

"For example, it seems remiss to refer to Hutcheson, whose A System of Moral Philosophy inspired anti-slavery abolitionists in both Britain and America, while ignoring the compelling evidence of the Scots' darker role in the slave trade. This lies in the surnames of many West Indians and black Americans (it's now widely accepted that many slaves took their names not from their masters but from the Scottish overseers who enforced the brutal conditions under which they often lived). There is, however, no mention of the Scottish role in slavery and racism, particularly in the formation and development of the Ku Klux Klan, which was formed by defeated Scots Confederate officers in the south. The 'order of the horse' oath ceremony recited by Klan members came straight from Highland custom, as did that ancient Scottish symbol, the burning cross.

"While it's refreshing to hear such an enthusiastic account of the Scottish ideas and practices that shaped the modern world, we need to offset them with harsher realities. Given the traditional role of Highlanders as mercenaries and soldiers, some cultures' first contact with Scottishness is more likely to have been on the receiving end of a broadsword, bullet, whip, stick, knife, boot or fist. Scotsmen Matheson and Jardine are described as 'the only two men who saw the potential of the opium market in China and had the skill and enthusiasm to do anything about it'. If we substitute 'heroin', 'cocaine' or 'crack' for 'opium', and 'Afghanistan', 'Colombia' or even 'the UK' for 'China', then this vaunted duo are either nefarious drug barons or our current drug laws are still in the early 19th century.

"It would be wrong, though, to give the impression that such a compassionate book, written with great generosity of spirit, is generally soft on injustices. Ulster Scots, a tribe dealt a rough hand by history, are accorded just status in the making of modern America and are solely credited with the creation of the frontier mentality. The legendary contrariness of Scots raises its head here; in this conflict the Ulster Scots, a group embedded in our consciousness as arch-unionists, were the rebels, while British loyalists included in their ranks many Highlanders who had fought with Bonnie Prince Charlie's Jacobites against the Hanoverian crown.

"Professor Herman has written a 400-page love letter to a Cinderella nation. It's one that will ensure that the undoubtedly momentous achievements of that small country will not be passed over, and every Scot should read it with a grateful heart and a critical eye. While it's a wet dream for the positive-image merchants of old and new Scottish establishments, the sceptics in our ranks will find much in it by which to be challenged and galvanised. Moreover, those of us used to wading through texts as turgid as stale porridge will be delighted that Scotland now has the lively, provocative and positive history it deserves. I suspect that a Scotsman could never have written it, but I also think that the likes of Smith and Hume would have heartily approved."

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