Exorcising Herder’s Ghost

(Why statist nationalism, whether ‘blood and soil’ or ‘civic’, is destroying cultural diversity, and why self-determination and the stewardship of cultural identity should be the right of peoples at least as much as individuals or states)

Part 1:  Fighting to Wrest Nationalism from the Jaws of ‘Blood and Soil’

Some believers in the paranormal hold that unquiet spirits haunt the living because they hope that we might right the wrongs they authored before they slipped the mortal coil, or conclude on their behalf important business that they left unfinished. In the case of the eighteenth-century philosopher Wilhelm Gottfried Herder, the un-righted wrongs, the unfinished business, and the haunting itself are one and the same: the conception of nationalism as originated by Herder, grotesquely redefined by proto-Nazis, and today celebrated and promulgated by dangerous right-wingers from the Tories to the Alt-right, and reacted against in Leftist formulations of nationalism.

Herder’s brand of nationalism is today often summarized by the slogan ‘Blood and Soil’ – a phrase encapsulating the paired ideas that the people of each nation have both a distinct set of defining attributes which are to some extent biologically determined, and a territory to which they are uniquely well adapted and within which they have a natural and exclusive right to settle. Interestingly, neither the phrase nor its associated precepts were Herder’s: he never wrote or uttered the slogan ‘Blood and Soil’, and did not at all endorse the ideas it denotes, especially the notion that national character is somehow genetically pre-destined. In Herder’s formulation, the collective identity of a nation was defined not by blood, but by shared cultural traditions, including and perhaps especially language. It was only via successive waves of incremental reinterpretation and expansion by later thinkers – from agrarian romanticists to eugenicists – that Herderian nationalism metamorphosed into an ideology that would be used to justify the crimes of the Third Reich. Even so, it is that despicable latter sort of nationalism which tends to spring to mind at the mention of his name – often preceding discussions of the Nazi concentration camps, or the conquest of so much of Europe in pursuit of ‘Lebensraum’ (living space) for the self-declared ‘master race’.

Today, at least in Scotland, nationalism could hardly be further from the Herderian variety, whether in the original form envisaged by Herder or the later fascistic formulation endorsed by the Nazis. The ‘civic nationalism’ espoused by Scots – to the extent possible within the political framework of the United Kingdom – embraces all those who live in the territory controlled by the Scottish state as equally Scottish, no matter who the people in question are, where they come from, what language they speak, or what cultural traditions they practice. Obviously, Scottish nationalism is therefore vastly preferable to nationalism of the Herderian variety, at least in its corrupt Nazi iteration.

And yet, at least in one respect, nationalism of both the latter-day Herderian and Scottish types are similarly deficient: by ignoring the cultural element of nationality in which the original conception of Herderian nationalism was grounded, both right-wing and civic nationalisms fail to acknowledge and nurture the cultural distinctiveness of minoritized ethnic groups that attempt to assert themselves within the territories controlled by the state, and therefore facilitate – whether by aggressive assimilationism or mere neglect – the gradual destruction of such peoples.

At first glance, the assimilationist policies of right-wing nationalism seem far more readily apparent than those of its civic alternative.  The United Kingdom, for instance – despite the fact that it is officially, as its very name suggests, a political union rather than a straightforward nation-state – ever more shamelessly promotes linguistic, cultural, and even imagined ‘biological’ Englishness to the exclusion of all formulations of personal or group identity that might otherwise thrive within its borders. Unless you sound English (which seems to imply speaking English as a first language, ideally with a southern English accent) and look English (which seems to imply being white), then the powers that govern the United Kingdom have made it painfully clear that you do not belong either to or within their nation, and that you must therefore change yourself in order conform to their expectations of what you should be, pay them exorbitant sums of money to overlook your perceived foreignness, or else go elsewhere to live and work. Fairly transparently, this ‘hostile environment’ is bad news for most people in the UK who don’t conform to the Tory stereotype of Englishness, be they immigrant, non-white, or simply based in UK communities outwith England.

It is no surprise that the people of Scotland, whose ruling powers still seem to sincerely believe in concepts like the public good and the general wellbeing, would increasingly want to escape the creeping crypto-fascist malaise of UK nationalism – an endeavour in which I wish them all success, and as soon as possible. That having been said, Scotland’s alternative civic nationalism is not wholly unproblematic. In a nation that defines itself as consisting of all the people governed by a given state, irrespective of their cultural patrimony, there is little scope for local minoritized ethnic groups to assert their group-based rights. In Scotland, one group which has yet to benefit from civic nationalism is the Scottish Gaels, who have been continually subject to cultural genocide in Scotland for the better part of a millennium, and whose culture is now on the cusp of a precipitous and possibly terminal decline.

In the next installment in this series, I will further explain the distinction between right-wing and civic nationalism, and propose a means by which Scotland’s civic nationalism could be modified so as to better support the members of minoritized cultural groups such as the Scottish Gaels.

Part 2:  Cultural Nationalism, as Opposed to Race-Based or State-Based Nationalisms

In the last installment in the series, I explained the basic principles of right-wing nationalism, and contrasted it with the far more ethical civic nationalism that prevails in Scotland. I then presented the argument that neither right-wing nor civic nationalism leaves much scope for the recognition and defense of the cultural patrimony of minoritized ethnic groups. In this installment, I will introduce a philosophy of nationalism that embraces the possibility of multiple, culturally-distinct peoples existing under the auspices of a single state without the danger of the cultural assimilation of minority groups or the moral evils of racism and statism, and I will explain how – in the Scottish case – this left-wing ‘cultural nationalism’ might stand to benefit the highly minoritized Scottish Gaelic ethnic group to a greater extent than the civic nationalism that currently prevails in Scotland.

One of the things that could help forestall or even prevent the destruction of the Scottish Gaels as a people would be the recognition of their status as a nation – a gesture which would rely on a definition of nationhood reflected in neither the UK’s right-wing nationalism nor in Scotland’s more benign civic version. As earlier mentioned, nationalisms of the UK variety focus at least partially on notions of blood: whether or not most Tories would admit it, their ideology celebrates and seeks to realize the vision of a UK populated more or less exclusively by people of Anglo-Saxon descent – people who, as many Conservatives themselves might confess in their more unguarded moments, are of ‘good breeding’ or from ‘good, English stock’ (read ‘white people who speak RP English, the white English-speaking underclass that would exist to serve them, and their respective lines of descent). By contrast, civic nationalisms of the Scottish sort are rooted in the soil – not in any neo-Herderian sense, but insofar as providing a one-size-fits-all, culturally disconnected sense of national identity for all those who reside in the territory controlled by the state: as earlier stated, most modern Scots feel that anyone who lives in Scotland is a Scot, the sole criterion for that status being long-term residence within the geographic reach of Scottish state power.

By contrast, a nationalism that would embrace and uphold the national status of the Gaels would by necessity rest on cultural and linguistic foundations, as transmitted intergenerationally – but not necessarily genetically – within Gaelic families and communities. For the Gaels themselves, and for members of various other minoritized local ethnic groups throughout the world, this kind of nationalism already exists: it provides the logical framework within which the Scottish Gaels of Nova Scotia and the Scottish Gaels of Canada can consider themselves to belong to the same ethnic group. Neither blood nor soil, in any of their connotations, could account for a national consciousness of this sort. The maintenance of the trans-Atlantic Gaelic community’s common heritage has naught to do with blood: some of its members are heirs to the same genetic inheritance, but by no means all; many, on both sides of the Atlantic, have acquired – or have ancestors who acquired – the Scottish Gaelic identity by adoption, whether at the level of family or community. If a non-Gaelic person comes into a culturally Gaelic-dominant community; lives and works alongside Gaels; learns to speak the Gaelic language, sing Gaelic songs, and tell Gaelic stories; and then succeeds in passing those traditions on to any children that they raise in the community they’ve joined; then they themselves might come to be considered a Gael in time, and their children almost certainly will be. By contrast, a person biologically descended from Gaels who does not live in a Gaelic community, who does not interact with Gaels, and who therefore never learns the Gaelic language and its attendant traditions – or who learns them only in institutional settings – has a far lesser claim to Gaelic identity than either their Gaelic ancestors or people of other genetic lineages who have, through Gaelic community or family membership, inherited Gaelic culture. Thus, among the Scottish Gaels of Nova Scotia are various families who – genetically speaking – are of African descent, or of local Amerindian ancestry, and these members of the Nova Scotian Gaelic community are no less Gaelic than their fellow Gaels with more genetic material of Scottish extraction. Conversely, Scotland, Canada and the United States each abound with people whose ancestors were Gaels, but who neither identify as Gaels nor have familiarity with any but the most tokenistic and commercialized of Gaelic traditions (wearing an internet-bought kilt once a year to the local Highland Games, for instance). As for ‘soil’, Nova Scotia and Scotland reside on distinct landmasses separated by more than 2,600 miles of open sea, the two of which belong to different ecological biomes and operate under auspices of different nation-states, so the suggestion that the branch of Scottish Gaels from each respective region belongs to the same ‘land’ as the other is ridiculous. Instead, it is the shared cultural traditions of the two communities – in terms of social norms, modes of artistic expression, and above all the Scottish Gaelic language – that make them culturally connected to one another and distinct from other peoples.

The style of nationalism whereby the Scottish Gaels of Nova Scotia and Scotland constitute one people seems very like the original Herderian formulation, before its fascist makeover, with the important distinction that it requires no state. Indeed, the advent of nationalism of the Scottish Gaelic type far pre-dated the invention of the construct of the state. It is the nation in this fundamental sense – a group of people with a shared language, worldview, and repertoire of modes of artistic expression (synonymous with the now controversial word ‘tribe’) – that served as the fundamental unit of human social organisation in the long ages before the rise of governments as entities distinct from the governed, and which can continue to exist long after such formal institutions of government have dissolved. The Scottish Gaels, though they laid the foundations of the institution that eventually became the Scottish state, have had nothing resembling a state of their own since the destruction of the Lordship of the Isles in the fifteenth century – and arguably not even then, since the Lordship of the Isles itself was in many ways a feudal proto-state, rather than a state in the modern sense. Even so, despite successive diminutions by outside forces bent on their destruction, the Scottish Gaels have thus far endured as a nation even without a state – despite the ill-intentioned meddling of states in their affairs. As it happens, despite the Scottish Gaels’ ongoing statelessness, states and their nefarious machinations have for centuries been the bane of Scottish Gaelic culture. The Scottish state – in the hands of the Anglicised Scottish Gaels who eventually became the Lowland Scots – gradually extirpated Gaelic culture in the Lowlands during the late Middle Ages, and destroyed the Lordship of the Isles in 1493; and people acting with the support of the British State – which has existed monarchically from 1603 and parliamentarily from 1707 – almost successfully eliminated the Scottish Gaels via a ruthless combination of cultural assimilation and ethnic cleansing during the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

We can see, therefore, that states can easily make themselves the enemies of cultural nations – including those that reside within their own borders. Ultimately, it was Herderian nationalism’s stubborn insistence on the ideal of a one-to-one correspondence between state and nation – or at least a failure to foresee that other arrangements could obtain even in nation-based states – that compromised both the predictive power and the ethical value of his conception of nationalism. Herder had envisaged the rise of the nation-state as a bulwark against the suppression of cultural-national identity that had occurred in the age of feudal European empires like the Holy Roman Empire and Capetian France. Instead, the nation-states that developed along Herderian lines often did little more than form new empires at least as oppressive as those which had existed previously – conquering in the name of a given nation rather than in the name of a given royal or royal family, but conquering nonetheless. Some nation-states even came to pose a greater danger to their subaltern constituent cultural nations than had their imperial antecedents: for instance, the French Revolution – with its attendant flowering of a French national consciousness along Herderian lines that elevated the dialect of Langue d’Oil French popular among the Parisian bourgeois to the status of a country-wide national language at the expense of other speech communities elsewhere in France – greatly accelerated the oppression of the Occitans, Bretons and Basques living in French territory.

Herder, it seems, had never considered that even a state founded on the basis of cultural nationality could still contain multiple cultural nations, or that such nations might co-exist under the auspices of the state while exhibiting an uneven relative power dynamic. In hindsight, we can see that this situation has occurred all-too-often, inevitably with disastrous results for the subordinate nations in such arrangements. So long as there are multiple cultural nations within the geographical territory controlled by a nation-state, but only one of those cultural nations holds the balance of power within the state apparatus, then every subdominant nation necessarily runs the risk of terminal cultural assimilation to the dominant nation at the hands of the state. This is why every individual and community in the UK that doesn’t conform to the Tory stereotype of Englishness exists under the constant and very real threat of either expulsion or assimilation on the basis of their non-conformity; why post-revolutionary France has tried repeatedly to either Gallicize or expunge the Bretons and Basques; and why the language that English speakers call ‘Spanish’ is in actual fact Castilian – the language of just one cultural nation within the territory of Spain, but which the pro-Castilian Spanish state has promoted as the sole official country-wide Spanish language at the expense of other geographically Spanish language communities like the speakers of Basque, Gallego, and Catalan.

In nationalism of the civic variety, while there can be, by definition, no official nation (in the cultural sense of the term) on whose behalf the state oppression of minoritized communities could take place, the very denial of the existence of cultural nationality – or, at the very least, failure to engage with it – obscures both the presence of extant cultural nations and any hierarchies which might exist among them. In Scotland, for instance, the popular denial of the national status of the Gaels precludes the acknowledgement of their national rights: so long as the Gaels are considered to be merely members of the Scottish civic nation, and denied a national status of their own, then the problems that currently contribute to their decline as a people cannot be adequately addressed. For example, the displacement of native Gaelic speakers in Hebridean and coastal Highland communities by English-language-monoglot incomers from outwith the Gaelic community cannot be identified and remedied within the framework of either UK or Scottish nationalism. According to the British neo-Herderian model of nationalism, with its target ethnicity of UK-wide Englishness, one UK citizen is interchangeable with any other unless they seem insufficiently English. From this perspective, the settler colonization of the Hebrides by English-speaking monoglots to the detriment of the local Gaelic culture seems – deplorably – laudable, since it furthers the cultural and linguistic homogenization of the UK along Anglophone lines. By contrast, according to Scotland’s civic model of nationalism, any resident of Scotland is essentially interchangeable with any other, with few to no caveats. While the latter view is far more ethical from a general human rights perspective than the former, it still facilitates settler colonialism in the Hebrides to no lesser an extent, since – according to either paradigm – a non-Gael has done no wrong by settling in a Gaelic community without taking the necessary steps to mitigate the potential ill-effects of their arrival on the cultural and linguistic integrity of that community. And yet, the settler colonization of the Scottish Gaelic heartlands is most certainly wrong, and so the Scottish state (or rather, the Scottish government wielding the considerable powers devolved to it by the British state) should adopt a philosophy of nationalism that acknowledges that fact.

The logical proof by which the state recognition of the national status of the Gaels reveals itself to be necessary is as follows: 1) in order to sustain their cultural vitality, and thereby preserve their existence as a people, the Scottish Gaels must prevent the extinction of their language – one of the last unique cultural traits of which the Scottish and British states have yet to rob them; 2) in order to succeed in Gaelic language maintenance, they must be awarded the right to decide for themselves in what language they will educate their children, transact business, erect signage, write and receive correspondence, and interact with civic institutions such as the offices of government and the courts of law; 3) in order to guarantee the Gaels the right to use Gaelic in these domains, it might well be necessary for Scottish Gaels to admit as permanent residents in their communities only those people who either are themselves Gaels, or who are willing to fully habituate themselves to Gaelic linguistic practices soon after their arrival; 4) in order to exercise that discretion as a group, the Scottish Gaels must be conferred sovereignty over their cultural affairs – the conferral of which sovereignty would necessarily entail the acknowledgement of their cultural nationhood.

In the next installment in the series, I will further outline the historical cultural differences between the Scottish Gaels and the Scottish cultural mainstream, make the case for the existence of multiple cultural nations within the populace governed by the Scottish state, and argue for the ethical necessity of the payment of reparations and the institution of affirmative action by the Scottish state for the sake of the Scottish Gaels in order to serve the interests of justice.

Part 3: The Scottish Gaels and the Lowland Scots as Distinct Cultural Nations, and the Question of Reparations by the Scottish Government for the Gael’s Cultural Genocide

In the last instalment, I presented the concept of the cultural nation – a framework of nationalism in which national membership and identity are based on shared culture, rather than genetics or state of residence. Furthermore, I explained that – in Scotland – the cultural nation which could benefit most from state recognition of its national status is that of the Scottish Gaels. In this section, I explain why the Scottish Gaels would stand to benefit from the acknowledgment of their cultural nationhood, and what the process of that acknowledgment would entail.

Until such time as the Scottish state recognizes the national status of the Scottish Gaels, it can deny the necessity of making reparations for its historical ill-treatment of that cultural nation – reparations which are most certainly owed considering the role played by the Scottish state in the centuries-long oppression of Gaelic communities. The dominant cultural nation in Scotland today – aside from those which are exclusively English-speaking, and which therefore enjoy privileged status by dint of the inbuilt preeminence of English within the United Kingdom generally – is that of the Lowland Scots. From the time of their cultural divergence from the Scottish Gaels in the high-to-late Medieval era (beginning with the royal ascension of Queen Margaret in the eleventh century, and concluding with the rebranding of Scottish Middle English as Scots by the end of the fifteenth century) to well into the period of their own cultural minoritization by English-speakers (which arguably began with the Union of Crowns in 1603 and intensified with the Union of Parliaments in 1707), the Lowland Scots constituted the cultural nation at the helm of the Scottish state – a position of privilege from which they waged ethnic warfare on their nominal countrymen and cultural progenitors, the Scottish Gaels. Had the Lowland Scots either retained a Gaelic identity, or – having become a separate people – at least refrained from denying the Gaels the right to exist in Scotland, then the minoritization of the Scottish Gaels and their culture would have occurred far less rapidly than it did, if indeed it had occurred at all. As it happened, whereas, at the time of the founding of the Scottish kingdom in around 900 AD, there was one Scottish cultural nation (the Scottish Gaels, aka. ‘the Scots’); by around 1500, there were two Scottish cultural nations: the Scottish Gaels, aka. ‘the Highland Scots’ and ‘the Lowland Scots’ – both of which existed under the political authority of the Scottish state, but only the latter of which exercised control over that state.

The Lowland Scots of today do not have a uniform or fully articulated consciousness of their status as a cultural nation, although at some level many of them seem to have at least a latent awareness of their former national status: the UK-wide forces of pro-English assimilationism have seen to it that many of them think of themselves and their language – Scots – as merely subaltern varieties of English; and those that do still nurture a national consciousness tend to conflate Lowland Scottish cultural nationhood with the civic nationhood of the Scottish state. Neither of these formulations allows for assertions of Scottish Gaelic national identity within Scotland: for those Lowland Scots who think of Lowland Scottishness as an alternative sort of Englishness, Gaelicness – with an attendant language wholly incomprehensible to monoglot English speakers – seems too alien to be afforded similar treatment; whereas, for those Lowland Scots who see civic Scottishness as synonymous with Lowland Scottishness, the historical language of the Highlands and Islands seems as dangerous to Scottish unity today as it did to their Lowland Scottish predecessors of the Late Medieval and Early Modern periods. It is for these reasons that Lowland Scots of both the former and the latter ideological camps seem prone to anger when reminded of Scottish Gaelic’s existence: the former, because they have internalized the prejudices of pro-English UK nationalism according to which non-English cultural groups must be Anglicised, expelled, or destroyed; and the latter, because they feel that if general Scottishness is compatible with Scottish Gaelicness, then it must be incompatible with their own Lowland Scottishness, and that Gaelic must therefore pose an existential threat their Scottish identity.

In theory, civic nationalism’s implicit denial of cultural nationality should do away with such cultural anxieties about the nature of Scottishness, but – in practice – it merely masks them. Scottish civic nationalism is in this way equivalent to the now-antiquated racial doctrine of ‘colour-blindless’, wherein people were discouraged from acknowledging race in the avowed hope of combating racism: the intent – however sincere or insincere – was to eliminate racism by ignoring the presence of racial difference; but the ultimate effect was simply to perpetuate racism by denying its victims a vocabulary with which to discuss the racial discrimination with which they had to daily contend. In a world which is theoretically raceless, but which in practice maintains racial hierarchies, it becomes impossible to effectively discuss or combat the ongoing racism that those racial hierarchies bring about. Similarly, in a country which is theoretically devoid of cultural nations, but which still has hierarchies of cultural belonging, it becomes impossible to effectively discuss or combat the ongoing oppression of minoritized cultural groups by the other cultural groups which continue to dominate and destabilize them.

The only way to redeem Scottish civic nationalism would be for the Scottish government to not only recognize and promote the cultural nations that exist within its borders, but for it to acknowledge and address the power imbalances among these respective nations. A first step in the process would be the Scottish state’s recognition that the Scottish Gaels are a culturally distinct people who – because of their historical mistreatment by the state – are entitled to state reparations in order to rebuild their ravaged communities. The Scottish government should allocate resources so as to ensure not only that every child in every Gaelic-language-dominant community has the opportunity to be educated both in and through the medium of Gaelic at every level of state education, but that every parent in each such community receive adequate financial and educational support to use and thus transmit Gaelic in the domestic sphere. Furthermore, the Scottish government should make the fact of the Scottish Gaels’ cultural genocide at its hands (as it existed in the Early Modern period) – and, later, at the hands of the British state – a matter of public record, disseminated throughout the entire Scottish education system. Discrimination against Gaels should henceforth be treated as seriously as discrimination on the basis of race or religion, and anti-Gaelic bigotry should be legally declared a hate crime. Finally, related legislation should be passed – ideally by a government based in the Western Isles and Coastal Highlands devolved by the Scottish government or the Briitish state to the Scottish Gaels themselves – that would regulate the numbers of tourists and incomers to the Hebrides; stipulate the creation of government-funded businesses for Gaelic communities that will operate strictly through the medium of Scottish Gaelic and employ a mostly or exclusively Gaelic-speaking workforce; and demand that permanent residents of the Gaelic-dominant communities who have moved in from elsewhere (with the exception of refugees) fully acculturate within a given period (by learning the Scottish Gaelic language and socially integrating within the local community as attested by local residents) or else forfeit any landholdings in the community in question and be made to vacate to other parts of Scotland. Such measures might seem extreme by current standards, but they would constitute nothing less than the affirmative action necessary to safeguard the future wellbeing of the Gaels and their language. It is only right that the Scottish government should undertake such affirmative action on behalf of the Gaels, since it is that government itself that initially sanctioned the process of Gaelic cultural genocide, and since its more recent inaction has allowed that process to continue almost unabated to the present.

In the next installment in the series, I will examine increasing cultural homogeneity that threatens much of the Anglophone world as the result of the suppression of cultural nationhood; and outline the process by which Scotland could reverse this process by the recognition of its constituent cultural nations.

Part 4:  The Cultural Homogeneity Undermining Diversity in the Anglophone World, and How Scotland Might Resist It

In the previous instalment in this series, I explained how the Gaels stand to benefit from their recognition by the Scottish state as a distinct cultural nation. In this section, I will outline the future cultural desolation that likely awaits Scotland should it fail to acknowledge and defend the cultural patrimony of its constituent peoples, and how it might yet mitigate the ongoing processes that would bring that unfortunate future about.

A Scotland that fails to amend its civic nationalism to recognize and protect its component cultural nations runs the risk of retaining only the sort of national consciousness which today prevails among large segments of the population in Britain, and in nation-states arising from former British colonies, wherein English speech and whiteness have become culturally dominant, and which have themselves become colonial powers – such as the United States (which is both internally and externally colonial) and Australia and Canada (which have been principally internally colonial). Each of these polities consists of multiple cultural nations, but has for most of its history suppressed them – subordinating cultural-national allegiance to racial identity (here referring to categories such as ‘whiteness’ and ‘Blackness’), fealty to the state (that is, patriotism), consumerist identity (ie. brand loyalty), and membership in social networks united by individual interest in shared pastimes (that is, sporting and literary fandoms, music-oriented sub-cultures, secret societies and the like). In the former two of these categories, we see, again – in a manner of speaking – a doctrine of ‘Blood and Soil’ – since the modern conception of race has mostly to do with genetic phenotype, and because states most commonly demand allegiance only from those born within their borders. As to the latter two categories, they seem largely to have arisen as substitutes for cultural nationhood in the wake of its de facto abolition as a vector for personal identity, as will be later discussed.

This erasure of cultural nationhood has served many residents of the global Anglosphere ill, because racial membership, state fealty, brand loyalty, and mutual associations based on individual affinity for particular interests or activities do not necessarily afford the sense of belonging and security of personal identity that cultural nationhood can confer. Many white, English-speaking Americans, Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders complain of feeling or of being perceived by others as culturally vacuous: bereft of inherited tradition and any strong sense of communal belonging. For many such people, the intergenerational transmission of regional and ancestral cultural commodities has become muted, often to the point of outright fading away: for them, culture – and, by extension, cultural identity – is not a thing automatically inherited in youth from the members of one’s family or local community, but rather a shifting collage of personal hobbies, ideological stances, consumption habits, and aesthetic choices sought out from various sources, any of which may be added to the personal gestalt of self-conception only to be discarded and replaced later in life.

Asking an individual with this eclectic, ultra-personalized cultural model – which increasingly prevails in the UK and its former colonies – to what nation they belong, or who their people are, will seldom yield an answer that equates to cultural nationhood: if asked what is their nation, they will likely answer with the name of the nation-state(s) in which they have citizenship; if asked who are their ‘people’, they might offer a variety of answers – citing, perhaps, their race; the name of their preferred sub-culture; the co-enthusiasts of their most habitual leisure activity; the fans of their favourite sporting team; or even simply their best friends. Needless to say, none of these groups equates precisely to the idea of the cultural nation. Race, such as it exists today in the Anglophone world, is a wholly artificial construct created in the late 1600s to ensure the continued dominance of landowning Protestant English-speakers of English descent in North America over their servants and slaves, and which – despite the fact that its evolution over the course of the intervening centuries has involved the development of distinct race-connected cultural attributes because of processes like segregation – does not center on culture in the way that cultural nationhood does. For the most part, a person’s race – according to the modern definition of the term – has to do with their genes, and the phenotypical expression of those genes. As demonstrated by the strange case of Rachael Dolezal, no amount of immersion in Black culture or personal investment in Black communities can make a white person Black; and, conversely, neither can a Black child’s adoption by a white family – even from birth – make them white.  By contrast, cultural nationhood doesn’t work that way: a person raised by Gaels, especially in a Gaelic community, is a Gael, whatever their colour, or their degree of biological connection to their adoptive parents or community members.

Similarly, communities of practice built around voluntary organisations and hobbies (or the brands that supply their equipment), while very different than the category of race, correspond no better than race to the concept of cultural nationhood. Voluntary associations built on the foundation of shared interest may be long-lived (sporting and literary fandoms can last for generations, as can clubs and societies) and develop distinct cultural norms (such as the idiolects of particular internet subcultures; or the songs, stories and traditions associated with university fraternities and sororities), but they differ considerably from true cultural nations in that 1) their memberships, at the level of individuals, seldom last a lifetime and are often conferred on a transactional basis; 2) the transmission of their traditions does not necessarily occur within families or localized communities; and 3) they often amount to a single, expendable facet of the cultural identity of each of their members. Take, for example, the Free Masons: masons hold in common with other masons a great deal of ritual and shared knowledge that sets them apart from non-masons, and in this way, they resemble the members of a cultural nation. However, they can have become masons only by making the decision to seek out membership as masons; they remain officially active as masons only so long as they pay regular dues to their Masonic organisations; and – in addition to their Masonic affiliation – they may have membership in any number of other organisations or affinity groups that might be equally as important to them as their membership in the masonic community, and which could theoretically eclipse their masonic identity in importance and replace it in their lives altogether. By contrast, Gaels are either raised as Gaels from birth or acculturated to Gaelic communities later in life, not necessarily ever having actively sought to become Gaels; their identity as Gaels is non-transactional (that is, inherited or earned rather than bought) and cannot meaningfully be revoked; and – no matter what activities or societies may exist in a Gael’s life, and no matter how little they interact with other Gaels after having become Gaels – they cannot themselves cease to be Gaels (although, because of interference by forces from outwith their communities, they can and sometimes do fail to transmit Gaelic cultural commodities, and therefore Gaelic identity, to future generations).

Although the abovementioned lack of cultural nationhood in the global Anglophone mainstream causes many people in Britain and its former colonies no particular discomfort, it leaves a great many others feeling incomplete in their humanity. Many people in the United States, Canada, England, Australia, and New Zealand hunger for a sense of communal belonging which they feel that they lack, and which only membership in a cultural nation can confer. This cultural emptiness can sometimes influence their behavior, compelling them to attempt to acquire or imitate the cultural commodities of peoples still confident in their group identities (resulting in cultural appropriation); to invest themselves to an unreasonable or anti-social extent in their affiliations with corporate, civic, or political institutions (resulting in divisive political and social tribalism); or to fixate problematically on the racial or state-based identities that have superseded cultural nationhood in their countries (resulting in phenomena like white-nationalism and state-based xenophobia).

Meanwhile, those residents of the global Anglosphere most often described as culturally rich tend to be those whose communities – whether because of their exclusion from the mainstream, or simply by virtue of their own strict adherence to tradition – exhibit most strongly the tendencies of cultural nationhood. Amerindian groups, such as the Navajo or the Cree, straightforwardly constitute cultural nations in their own right, and have done so since long before the existence of the US or Canadian governments; and even some groups with origins outwith the American continent, such as the Amish, likewise fairly obviously constitute intact cultural nations. Such peoples have clung to their inherited folkways despite enormous economic, political, and social pressure to abandon themselves to Anglo-normative cultural hegemony, and their societies provide models by which people who have succumbed to such cultural homogenization might recover the cultural vitality that history has denied them. Other groups – such as the many African Americans and African Canadians who fled the American Deep South during the Great Migration of the early twentieth century; or the Appalachians of the Southern United States so often and cruelly maligned in English-language popular culture – although not conscious of themselves as cultural nations, have nonetheless maintained and developed unique localized linguistic and artistic traditions in the face of assimilationism to a greater extent than many other peoples in the former British Empire. In the case of many such proto-cultural-nations, the development and maintenance of their cultural vitality stems from long-standing attempts on the part of cultural elites (that is, for the most part, middle- and upper-class white people in populous cities) to prevent them from fully assimilating to the cultural mainstream, choosing instead to sequester them at the periphery of society, whether in urban ghettoes (as in the case of the Black migrants of the early 1900s and their descendants) or rural backwaters (as in the case of the Appalachians). Such marginalized districts and their residents have been kept deliberately (or at least indifferently) economically poor – but, ironically, culturally wealthy – through the denial of the infrastructural and social reforms that would have allowed locals to integrate with their nominal countrymen elsewhere. If not for such cultural nations as those mentioned above, the cultures of the English-speaking world would exhibit far less collective diversity than they do at present.  

In the United Kingdom specifically, many of the English people – and by extension many people of other cultural nations on whom Englishness, in the guise of Britishness, has imposed itself over the centuries – have already fallen victim to the same trap-of-their-own-making as many of the former subject peoples who once colonized the world on their behalf. They have existed so long at the center of a sprawling empire based on an etiolated, de-localized version of Anglo-Saxon identity – aggressively imposed at home and abroad by state and corporate institutions – that the English people themselves, and, by extension, most people anywhere who embrace a ‘British’ identity, have lost all collective sense of self. The construct of Britishness has strayed as far from the healthy norms of indigeneity as any human group identity possibly can: it has so long aspired to serve as a neutral lens through which to view other cultures, and a mechanism by which to conquer and assimilate them, that it has largely ceased to possess – outwith its artistic and political counter cultures – any cultural value or vitality of its own. Practically any sense of identity that people who identify as either ‘English’ or ‘British’ still possess is so bound up in racism, statism, corporatism and anti-collectivism that the idea of an Englishness based on a shared inheritance of domestically or communally transmitted folk-wisdom seems possible only in a half-imagined pre-industrial past or a possibly imminent post-apocalyptic future. Any unique shared traditions of the United Kingdom’s Anglophone cultural mainstream that distinguish its people from those who constitute the Anglophone cultural mainstreams of its former dominions across the globe tend to be few and undramatic, and are largely propped up my national media, imposed by legislation, or dictated by commercial norms rather than passed down through families and local communities; and – in consequence – the national consciousness of UK citizens as UK citizens is a shallow, inorganic construct largely maintained by and for politicians and military recruiters.

With the situation as it stands, the hopefully soon and inevitable collapse of the United Kingdom will leave a lonely, post-imperial English people finally forced to examine themselves, and faced with the unhappy task of resurrecting or reinventing their cultural nationhood. That process – the construction of their consciousness as a cultural nation via the cultivation and communal/familial transmission of local traditions unconnected to corporations, the state, the ‘white’ race or the oppression of other peoples – will be the work of generations, and only when it is finished will the English be able to untether their collective identity from whiteness and empire, and stop feeling culturally vacant. Fortunately for the people(s) of Scotland, the process of Anglo-normative cultural homogenization emanating from England and its colonial successors might begin to wane with the dissolution of the United Kingdom and the seeming geopolitical decline of the United States. Even so, as long as the current formulation of Scottish civic nationalism prevails, even a fully independent Scottish state runs the risk of marginalizing and ultimately destroying its constituent cultural nations.

In the next and final installment in this series, I will present models according to which Scotland might develop a philosophy of cultural nationhood whereby it could defend the rights due all its cultural nations, whether local or immigrant.

Part 5:  The Constituent Cultural Nations of Modern Scotland, the Swiss Analogy, and the Importance of Defending the Cultural Rights of Minoritized Communities

In the previous installment in the series, I lamented the corporate- and state-driven cultural homogenization that so threatens the cultural diversity of the global Anglophone world; and suggested that Scotland could mitigate the effects of that homogenization by offering state recognition and support for the cultural nations of which it consists. In this installment, I will elaborate upon that suggestion, and further discuss the cultural groups in Scotland that would potentially stand to benefit from Scotland’s transition from civic nationalism to cultural nationalism.

What Scotland needs – no less than many other nations in the so-called ‘developed’ world – is to celebrate and nurture the cultural consciousness of each of its local ethnic groups, and of the immigrant communities that seek shelter within its borders. Thus far, Scotland has largely failed to nurture or sustain such cultural diversity. The Scottish Gaelic language – at one time distributed throughout mainland Scotland – today functions as the dominant language of a mere several dozen communities, most of them in the Hebrides. The Scots language – once prevalent throughout the Scottish Lowlands and further still – is today the cultural province of fewer than one third of the people administered by the Scottish government. The speech communities to whom these languages and their attendant cultures belong – both subject since at least the eighteenth century to slow erasure in the face of the UK’s regime of Anglicization – each require recognition as Scottish cultural nations in order to survive; they should receive from the Scottish government, by which each in turn was cruelly abandoned and oppressed, whatever resources are necessary to ensure their continued existence.

There might be yet other cultural groups within Scotland that deserve recognition as cultural nations: Shetland has recently birthed an independence movement which, if successful, would see its people cleave away from the political administration of the Scottish government. Although this movement has been dismissed in some quarters as a mere effort to sabotage Scotland’s hoped-for exit from the UK, it would be unsurprising if the people of not only Shetland, but also Orkney and Caithness (the other areas of what is today Scotland which, like Shetland, once primarily spoke the only-recently-extinct Norn language, rather than Gaelic or Scots; and whose traditional stories and songs have a far greater Scandinavian influence than those of other Scottish regions) had a different national consciousness than other people(s) in Scotland. Perhaps the acknowledgement of a Norn-based cultural nationhood in the Northern Isles and Caithness – in connection with a government-sponsored revival of the Norn language and its cultural traditions in those regions, or even a campaign to preserve the Norn-inflected dialects of Scots traditionally spoken in these areas since the decline of Norn – would make any sincere Shetlandic separatists feel more comfortable under the governance of Scotland than they do at present.

As it happens, the hypothetical Neo-Norns of the Northern Isles and Caithness might not be the only cultural nation to come to light once Scotland abandons the pretense that it consists of only one people. The Lowland Scots, to whom I have referred throughout this article as one cultural unit, in actuality display a great deal of diversity between Banff and Haywick; it might be that the Borderers will, upon reflection, want to espouse a national identity separate from that of the Aberdonians; or that Fife might want to make good – culturally if not politically – on its titular status as a kingdom. That sort of fragmentation would greatly simplify the long-delayed process of standardizing the Scots language: rather than one standard for the whole of Lowland Scotland, each cultural nation among the Lowland Scots (however many ultimately arose) could have its own state-funded standard for use in books, schools and road signage in its region. That cannot happen, however, until the Scottish state elects to abide by a new philosophy of nationalism that recognizes the cultural diversity of its constituent peoples.

Scotland might do well, in shaping this new nationalism, to look – at least in some respects – to the example of Switzerland. The term ‘Swiss’ may refer to members of any of at least four cultural nations – the Swiss Germans, the Swiss Italians, the Swiss French, and the Romansch-speaking Swiss – all of whom share one state, and whose communities and cultural traditions receive equitable support from that state, but whose languages and their attendant cultures for the most part prevail in different regions of the territory controlled by the state. There is no attempt on the part of the state to assimilate the different cultural nations to a single set of cultural and linguistic norms; indeed, the state maintains conditions whereby such assimilation cannot easily take place. This situation of multiple cultural nations coexisting peacefully with the full acknowledgment and support of their shared state compares favourably to the Scottish model, wherein there is officially only one nation in the territory controlled by the state, but where in actuality both the Scottish Gaelic cultural nation and the Lowland Scots cultural nation are being slowly Anglicised into oblivion while the state looks on with near indifference, and Shetlanders calling for their own independence are cynically dismissed offhand as though they could have no legitimate cultural claim to nationhood. Scotland could easily become more like Switzerland in fostering mutual support, autonomy, and civic cooperation among its constituent cultural nations, but not without acknowledging and celebrating the historical and cultural differences between those nations – which is something that Scottish civic nationalism in its current iteration cannot allow.

As far as the acknowledgement of cultural nations goes, I would further advocate – as a matter of ethical responsibility – that the Scottish state not only extend such recognition to its local nations, but to its immigrant nations. Many immigrants in Scotland might, once the local cultural nations have been provided for, opt to assert their own rights to cultural nationhood in Scotland – an endeavor in which the Scottish state should fully support them. The current trend in Scotland, as in most places in the global Anglosphere, is for immigrant families to linguistically and culturally assimilate to the mainstream culture by no later than the third generation after their arrival – losing their ancestral languages and cultural identities in the process. Thus, what many nations in the global ‘West’ hail as cultural diversity is in fact a terrible misnomer – as disingenuous as calling a bouquet of cut flowers an example of ‘ecological diversity’ while knowing full well that in a very short time every blossom will be dead, dry and drab as the rest of the furniture in room where it abides. Rather than cutting the proverbial flowers, I propose that states should replant them. It would be most ethical to offer immigrants a choice as to whether they wish to fully integrate into existing communities upon their arrival (thereby shedding their natal cultural-national identity in order to become full members of existing cultural nations under the stewardship of the state to whose territory they have emigrated), or instead receive government assistance in building their own communities, wherein their native languages and other cultural traditions could endure across generations. A decision not to assimilate would not inhibit the newcomers’ loyalty to the state; if anything, most would doubtless be grateful to the entity that had seen fit to safeguard their cultural patrimony in their new land. Neither would it endanger the vitality of existing cultural nations, since the newcomers would create their own settlements with government assistance rather than disrupting the traditions of existing communities by moving in but failing to culturally integrate (as now unfortunately happens in the case of wealthy English incomers to the few remaining Gaelic-dominant parts of the Hebrides).

Thus, the Scottish state and the people(s) that it represents face a choice: will they continue to ignore cultural nationality in the name of cultural diversity, while the cultural diversity they claim to cherish slowly dies away; or will they acknowledge the cultural distinctness of groups like the Scottish Gaels, and act to save them from oblivion? Only time will tell. If they make the right choice – embracing cultural nationalism, and thus divorcing nationalist ideology from the fallacy of the imagined correspondence between nationality and genetics (blood), the equally mistaken belief that nationality ought to equate to mere residence in the territory controlled by a given state (soil), and, finally, Herder’s own mistaken belief that every nation must or ought to have a state, and every state only one nation – then there might be a chance for the survival of the Gaelic and Scots languages and their attendant cultural nations in Scotland. If that future comes to pass – not only in Scotland, but the world over – then perhaps Herder’s ghost can finally be laid to rest, no longer forced to behold from beyond the grave a world ravaged by the shortcomings and misapplications of his political philosophy, but instead treated to the realization of that philosophy’s core vision: a humanity unmarred by racism, statism, and corporatism, whose peoples could freely express and transmit for all time, without shame or censure, the unique folkloric and linguistic traditions of their communities.

Published by Àdhamh Dàmaireach

'S e neach-teagaisg na Gàidhlig a th' annam, a bhios a' fuireach pàirt-ùine ann am Baile nan Easan, Ceanndachaidh (far an do rugadh mi) agus Calgairidh, Ailbèarta (far an do rugadh mo bhean). Rinn mi ceum-dotaireachd anns an Ceiltis, le sònrachas ann an Gàidhlig na h-Albann, aig Oilthigh Dhùn Èideann, agus tha mi gu mòr airson Gàidhlig a' bhrosnachadh ann an Aimèireaga a Tuath. B' urrainn dhuibh faighinn ann an conaltradh rium aig atdahm01@gmail.com. I'm a Scottish Gaelic teacher based part-time in Louisville, Kentucky (where I was born) and part-time in Calgary, Alberta (where my wife was born). I earned a doctoral degree in Celtic Studies, with a specialty in Scottish Gaelic, from the University of Edinburgh, and I am dedicated to promoting Scottish Gaelic in North America. Feel free to contact me at atdahm01@gmail.com.

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