Friday, July 29, 2011

Civic vs cultural nationalism

There was a curious article in Better Nation last week where Pete Wishart, the Nationalist MP for Perth and North Perthshire declares himself 'proud to be British' and will continue to be so even when (if) Scotland gains independence.

What he has in mind is the idea of Britain continuing as a notion of identity in much the same way Scandinavians see themselves as sharing aspects of a common culture, as well as a history and a geography, but have independent political institutions at the national level.

It's curious because this unequivocally is not what nationalism has been about historically, with Scottish nationalism being no exception. Simply put, nationalism is a theory of political legitimacy that maintains the boundaries of the nation and the state should be congruent - and that what makes a nation has a great deal to do with culture.

Scotland does not have the different language that most nations have had as central to their sense of identity, which has led Scottish nationalists to focus on other aspects of culture, such as art, religion, literature, music, customs and so on.

Now Pete Wishart deserves credit for not maintaining the absurd suggestion that Scots have a completely different culture from the English but without this, one is left wondering why he has chosen to undermine what is arguably the central tenet of the nationalist credo?

My guess is this is just Wishart's way of addressing the SNP's elephant in the living room, which is that in all probability the Union will continue in some form or other and at an institutional level, not merely a cultural one.

In any event, even if we did have the more distinct culture of the nationalists' fantasy, I would still be left with the frustration also felt by the late Ernst Gellner who pointed out that despite the fact that the homogenous 'nation-state' has been more theoretical abstraction than historical reality, nationalists take their political theory of legitimacy as a given and assume that the business of explaining one's position is the sole responsibility of the other side. Being British means different things to different people. For me, one of its benefits is that I don't feel the need to insist on this fiction.

I think it's about time the argument was shifted. It's about time nationalists made the case for the Scotland they want to see - and they might start with a definition of what independence actually means. Warm words about a brave and exciting future are simply not good enough. People are, one assumes, going to be asked to express an opinion on practical policies. It isn't difficult to see why the SNP might want to avoid this issue because when you break it down, you are very quickly confronted with the limits that 'independence' is likely to operate within.

For example, the issue of monetary policy raises an interesting paradox here. Arguably the present Euro difficulties highlight the limits of both internationalism and nationalism. The former because the strains on the Euro are exacerbated by the fact that the EU has a supranational monetary policy but with no equivalent budget to obviate the inflexibility this brings. And the reason it doesn't have a common treasury is because the electorates in member states would not support it.

But it leaves the Nationalists with a question to answer. Do they really still think it's a sensible idea to join the Euro? One would hope not. But given Scotland's size, a completely new currency would simply become a satellite of another. The most sensible thing would obviously be to maintain monetary union with the UK for the foreseeable future. But this was not what the Nats imagined they were fighting for during the long years of opposition.

We could do with some sensible answers to problems like this, rather than going on about identity. Someone suggested to me that the Nationalists are really enjoying themselves at the moment. I'm not so sure. Sometimes collectively they strike me as a bit like Robert Redford in the Candidate. Having won against the odds, they're now saying, "So what do we do now?" That they're wasting time proposing legislation on sectarianism and alcohol and discussing identity rather than answering the big questions is telling.


As a footnote to Wishart's notion that it's now ok to acknowledge a shared British culture, I noted with amusement that as well as minor details like the Industrial Revolution, he includes cultural achievements such as "great rock and pop bands." I hope he doesn't mean Coldplay - but it raised a smile because a friend of mine was at T in the Park recently. Coldplay were described as dreadfully pretentious and anodyne, as you might expect. The band he enjoyed most were Primal Scream playing in one of the big tents. Bobby Gillespie and the boys playing pumping rock and roll like it should be played to crazy Scots, most of whom were nearly as wasted as the lead singer. You couldn't get a more typically Scottish musical experience than that but for obvious reasons the Nats have preferred to pretend they spend their time listening to Runrig. Or maybe they really do listen to Runrig, which is almost as uncool as liking Coldplay.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Mass murder in an age of instant punditry

On the Norwegian tragedy, Chris Dillow writes that, "[C]omment about Breivik tells us more about the commenter than Breivik."

If so, these terrible events and the response to them has something very depressing to tell us about the state of the average commentator.

First up, there was the instant imputation of this to Al-Qaeda or some other Islamist terrorist group. Now obviously this shouldn't have been done and one would hope that the 'experts' that did so have the grace to be a little embarrassed by now.

But the corresponding reaction wasn't exactly the model of reason either. "Ooh, they've blamed jihadists, the Islamaphobes!" - as if Islamist terrorists wouldn't dream of doing such a thing.

I was also surprised that no-one thought to make a point about the nature of our 24/7 rolling news culture. Someone sticks a microphone in front of some academic who researches this sort of thing, says something like, "So, Professor Anorak, you're an expert on all things that explode: who do you think might have been responsible for this?"

Did people really think he was going to say, "Don't have a clue, mate - we'll just have to wait and see, won't we?"

Then when it emerged that this was Oklahoma, rather than 9/11, 7/7 or Madrid? Let's be clear about this: in the face of such carnage and grief, what moved most people to hit the keyboards was the impulse to use human suffering to score points against their internet enemies. "The Oslo terrorist cited Melanie Phillips in his manifesto", declares Liberal Conspiracy.

Yeah - but as Chris Dillow points out, even if these sorts of massacres weren't so vanishingly rare, it would still be difficult to establish cause and effect: does reading Mel make you lose your damn mind, or do you read her and find yourself nodding in agreement because you're already fucking metal? (I'm paraphrasing, naturally.)

But so far, the prize for most tenuous link to the Norwegian massacre goes to Chris Bertram below one of the Flying Rodent's characteristically objective posts. On the whole 'creating the atmosphere where homicidal rampages are more likely' theme, thus saith Mr Bertram:
"The "decent left" shouldn't be let off the hook either since they legitimized some of these lunatics by linking to them, giving interviews to FrontPageMag etc, and generally making them look more respectable than they are. Case in point: Professor Norm, who took down his blogroll link to Gates of Vienna some time shortly after the Norwegian massacres."
So check your links list, boys and girls; you never know if you might be inadvertently killing people with them.

Or alternatively, have a little decorum - and think before you speak, or rather type. To my mind, this from David Osler is one of the very few offerings on the subject that shows any evidence of someone who has done just that. You may disagree but I don't think that necessarily makes you a Nazi.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Privacy and liberty revisited

Gratifying to read so many articles for so many days referring to the 'scandal now engulfing' News International. The closure of the News of the World looks like what some called it at the time - an act of desperation. I've nothing particular to add to what has already been said but I have been struck by what has not been said, which is that invading privacy is no big deal or indeed that privacy doesn't really exist in the modern world.

Because this was the line from some on the left when it was HM Government that was doing the snooping. Here's two articles from that ilk, which I distinctly recall being linked in an approving way in various quarters.

Rafael Behr made the absurd argument that since we invade our own privacy all the time, it cannot have any real value to us.

Connor Gearty took a similar line with a couple of rather unpleasant add-ons, which included the ad hominem notion that only posh people trying to protect privilege could possibly be concerned with such bourgeois and passé notions like privacy.

I took issue with these nasty and ahistorical articles at the time but I'm wondering if they are still prepared to repeat this 'fetishizing of liberty' cant or be so dismissive of privacy when it News International rather than a 'progressive' Government that has been doing the spying?

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Sectarianism and the National Secular Society

"The National Secular Society (NSS) has submitted papers to Holyrood demanding an end to taxpayers’ money being used to fund religion-based education north of the Border.

Officials have insisted a separate schooling system for Catholic children is helping to fuel religious divisions and the kind of tensions witnessed during Old Firm matches.

And, in written submissions to two parliamentary committees, they said it was now time to stop children being segregated in school because of their faith."
Exactly the sort of thing you might expect me to support. I do in general principle but I have a couple of concerns with this particular campaign.

One is the naivety. If you suggest that there is a connection between separate Catholic schools and religious bigotry in Scottish society, you might as well stand up and shout, "I am Oliver Cromwell." As noted in the piece...
"John Lamont MSP, the Scottish Tory justice spokesman, sparked anger after accusing the west of Scotland school system of overseeing 'state-sponsored conditioning of sectarian attitudes'.
"[T]he Catholic Church rejected the remarks as 'inflammatory and insensitive'."
But my main concern is that while the NSS is trying to bend it towards its own agenda, at base it just accepts the logic of Salmond with his distinctively Scottish version of a 'Dangerous Dogs' moral panic legislative agenda. Keith Porteous Wood is quoted as accepting that, "Sectarianism is getting worse." But where is the evidence for this? A couple of bad-tempered Old Firm games, lunatics sending bullets in the post? Football is getting worse, perhaps but sectarianism is in long-term decline. The Orange Walk in Glasgow is, I'm happy to say, a shadow of its former self. Again, as the original piece reports...
"Police made 32 arrests yesterday for a 'variety of offences' at an annual Orange Order Parade. Only six were for sectarian offences as 8,000 people from Glasgow’s 182 lodges marched through the city."
I'm not sure if utilitarian arguments are the best basis on which to argue against religious schooling anyway - but if the National Secular Society are determined to used them, they should come up with better ones than the one they're using here.

Update: Bish Joe Devine then...
"Catholic education is "divisive" and contributes to the problem of "sectarianism", according to a Scottish bishop.

But Joseph Devine, Bishop of Motherwell, told the Sunday Herald newspaper it was sometimes "a price worth paying"."
And now...
""The claim that Catholic schools are the cause of sectarianism is offensive and untenable," said the bishop, also president of the Catholic Education Commission.

"There has never been any evidence produced by those hostile to Catholicism to support such a malicious misrepresentation."
Take your pick.

Via: The Flying Rodent

Saturday, July 02, 2011

An interview with Johann Hari

My goodness, the memory space on this computer is groaning under the weight of articles about the Johann Hari plagiarism debacle, I fear the thing's going to give out on me. They range from the more forensic allegations of cut and paste to the more wide ranging "J'accuse Hari of being a lazy bastard who doesn't do any research" variety.

I sought to get to the bottom of this so I tracked Hari down, now holed up in a high-security compound on the outskirts of Greenock. Johann, looking disheveled and twitchy - but much slimmer than he had been the last time I saw him on Newsnight Review - agreed to this interview.

"Awlright, big chap - how's it goin'?", I said in the Glasgow dialect. I was trying to put him at ease. I remembered his mother was from Glasgow, Or was she? Hmmm... Anyway, he directed us to the lounge, I sat and he poured drinks.

"Would you like to smoke?", he asked.

A rare courtesy in this politically-correct age, I thought.

"Don't mind if I do", I replied - and whipped out a Cuban cigar the size of Havana and started puffing away like a maniac.

"Soooo - what d'ya want to ask me?", asked Johann, tugging at his bottom lip pensively.

I said, "Well, I'm really not that interested in a whole lot of the stuff that's been written about this case, to be honest. This might be a bit of a relief to you? Or perhaps not. No, not really that interested in whether you took ecstasy or not. No point in going over old ground, know what I mean 'nat?

"There's really one question that sums it up for me. You're a big Chavez fan, yes? Can't say I share this view but each to their own and all that. No, it's really this: yer pal has cancer, apparently - and has had a wee operation.

"Now, this is a matter of no small importance, given the nature of these regimes and the problems they have with succession, as I'm sure you know. So the question is this: if you went to interview him now, how the fuck could we possibly believe a goddamn word you're saying?"

Johann caught my gaze and then looked away saying nothing, shifting uncomfortably in his seat.

Was it, as he claimed, the piles that made him squirm so - or was it the guilt? I'll let the reader decide...

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