Meòmhrachadh air Pàdruig (Pondering Patrick)

Saint Patrick’s day approaches, and I’ve got my usual mixed feelings – or at least I did this morning. In the intervening hours, I’ve had some positive ruminations that have left me feeling better about the Saint and his holiday than I usually do. Read on, if you’d like to hear them.

To begin, however, let me state my objections.

As I see it, Patrick can be easily construed as representing the entrenchment of unnecessary hierarchies. He was a missionary from outwith the Gaelic world who introduced external knowledge and customs that are often narratively treated as superior to local ones, and who is now accorded a preeminent status by problematic institutions (e.g. the state, the Church) in his former mission field.

As such, he can represent, in the first place, the idea that things of high cultural value can only enter Gaeldom from without; and, in the second place – with his celebrated status a patron saint of Ireland – the ideological entanglement of Gaelic identity, Irish national consciousness, Catholicism, and the Irish state. Obviously, I fully reject the idea that the Gaels as a people have no cultural patrimony worth admiring unless it came from some other people. Everyone from everywhere should feel as though the places and people they belong to are worthy of esteem – both because they are, and because otherwise it’s hard for individuals or communities to arrive at the sense self-worth that allows them to live contentedly and interact confidently with others. I find that inter-cultural mission narratives – or at least the ones that frame the arrival of the foreign missionary as the break of day in a benighted land – make it harder for people to acknowledge the intrinsic worth of the places they live in as their own patrimony, as opposed to a legacy of whatever group of people dispatched the missionaries. Of course, Saint Patrick has been Hibernicised to the point that most people now have to be reminded he was a Romano-Briton instead of an Irishman, and in any case it’s hard to view him as an imperialist on behalf of that people when he was a Roman after the fall of Rome and a Briton on the eve of the Anglo-Saxon conquest of much of Britain. Even so, I find it awkward that the person regarded by many as the paramount saint of the Gaels likely did not – in his own lifetime – consider himself a Gael. Furthermore, the construct of Britain, as it would eventually be reconstructed after the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons, had – and arguably still has – their ethnocultural group very much at its centre. That arrangement has, historically, been disastrous for the peoples it has placed at the periphery of life in the Hiberno-Britannic archipelago, including – of course – the Gaels.

Revisiting that second point – the aforementioned entanglement of Gaelic identity, Irish national consciousness, Catholicism, and the Irish State in the Patrick mythos – Patrick’s possibly posthumous acculturation to Irish Gaelic identity, which in some ways solves the problem of his Romano-Britishness, presents its own difficulties. The emphasis on Patrick’s status as the person credited with bringing Christianity to the Irish, and as one of the three patron saints of Ireland, makes it difficult to employ him in his historical roles as a saint of the Manx and Scottish Gaels without implicitly assigning them cultural Irishness. While I approve whole-heartedly of the promotion of both Gaelic identity and Irish national consciousness, I often resent – as a Scottish Gaelic speaker – the way in which Irishness is so often seen as synonymous with Gaelicness. That formulation predisposes people to view Scottish Gaelic and Manx culture as mere derivatives of Irishness, instead of as components of equal value in the pan-Gaelic gestalt. It also ignores the fact that many – indeed most – people resident in Ireland outwith the Gaeltachtaí are not, in the linguistic sense, Gaels, and that many Irish people (whether in the sense of residing in the Island of Ireland or being citizens of the Republic of Ireland) do not subscribe to Gaelic ethnocultural identity.  To summarize the above, there is not a one-on-one correspondence between Gaelicness and Irishness, and some popular formulations of Patrick obscure this fact.

This is further complicated by Patrick’s popular association with both the Irish state and the Catholic Church. Just as not all Gaels are resident in the Island of Ireland, not all Gaels (even in that Island) are administered by the Republic of Ireland, or maintain associations – whether by personal conviction or familial inheritance – with Catholicism. On a personal note, as an anarchist, I find Patrick’s church and state connections particularly problematic. This is especially true when the Church in question is highly centralised and hierarchical in its power structures, outsized in its influence, and unwilling to acknowledge or make adequate reparations for grievous injustices it is known to have visited on the innocent; and when the state in question – although born from the struggle of the Irish people against British imperialism – has shown itself to be far less effective than hoped in the promotion of the Irish language, and shamelessly devoted in recent decades to a neoliberal economic regime that continually enriches its most privileged citizens at the expense of its most vulnerable.

Admittedly, the celebration of Saint Patrick – particularly on his holiday – has in the course of the last century or so become widely regarded as an international affair. In doing so, it has largely lost – in at least some circles – its associations with Gaelicness, Catholicism, statism, and even Irishness. And yet, just as the Hiberno-Gaelicization of Patrick problematizes certain aspects of his identity even as it mitigates his potential connotations of cultural imperialism, the de-Hiberno-Gaelicization and secularization of Patrick can be problematic in their own right. In my own experience of Saint Patrick’s day – as I’ve seen it celebrated in Louisville, Kentucky; Chicago, Illinois; and Edinburgh, Scotland – the holiday represents an opportunity for Irish diasporas largely disjunct from their Irish cultural heritage to nominally celebrate Irishness. The Anglicized diasporic idea of Irishness seems, for most Americans and Lowland Scots, to consist of listening to English-language or instrumental Irish traditional music, imbibing alcoholic drinks (especially beers, particularly porters and stouts, and, above all, Guinness), speaking English in affected Irish accents that incorporate dialectal phrases not heard in Ireland since the 1800s if ever at all (e.g. ‘top o’ the mornin’ to ye’), and putting the colour green on anyone and anything that consents wear it (and some things, like the Chicago river, that clearly don’t). The diasporic Saint Patrick’s Day obsession with green is especially interesting when one considers that – historically in all Goidelic languages, and contemporarily in Scottish Gaelic – there are three words for ‘green’, and that the one associated with the Gaels, and therefore with Patrick as an important saint of the Gaels, is gorm. As it happens, this word can mean not only ‘dark green’, but also ‘dark blue’. Therefore, as I see it, we might as well wear blue on Saint Patrick’s Day!

While I don’t necessarily object to this contemporary Irish-diaspora (and, increasingly, because of tourism, urban-Irish) style of celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day – I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade, be it literal or figurative, and green is an appealing colour – I do find that it introduces a further degree of disconnection between myself and the Saint. Just as the basic narrative of Saint Patrick as enlightened Romano-British missionary to the ‘savage’ Gaels introduces a cultural imperialist element, and the more recent but still technically ancient adoption of Patrick as the symbol of a Catholic, state-mediated, Irish-based Gaelicness potentially excludes or alienates many people to whom Patrick is, or could otherwise be, culturally important, recent decades’ reformulation of Patrick’s holiday as an attempt by the distant descendants of Irish people to be temporarily Irish – outwith Ireland, through the medium of non-Irish languages, and sometimes while perpetuating anti-Irish stereotypes – can be a disappointment to someone for whom temporary and largely superficial homage to a lapsed ethnocultural identity has only limited appeal.

So much for my objections to what I perceive as popular perceptions of Patrick and his holiday. How then, you may ask, do I think he ought to be conceptualized, if not as a potentially culturally-imperialistic Christian missionary, a symbol of state-based Catholic Irishness, and/or an excuse for English speakers with Irish ancestors to wear green, drink up, and sing ‘The Wild Rover’ at their local not-quite-Irish pub? My objections to these ideas of Patrick are that – in one way or another – they further the marginalization of the already marginalized. Patrick, the missionary Romano-Britain to the heathen Gaels, reinforces the idea that Gaelic culture has nothing worthwhile that it didn’t get from somewhere else. Patrick, the symbol of the Republic of Ireland and the Catholic Church, minimizes Patrick’s relatability to Manx and Scottish Gaels, as well as to people of areligious, paganistic, and even non-Catholic Christian spiritual orientations, and to anyone suspicious of the beneficence or utility of states in general. Patrick, the reason to wear green and drink, purports to connect people in Anglophone Irish diasporas with their Gaelic cultural roots, but – without being either geographically or linguistically connected to Gaeldom (be it past or present; Irish, Scottish, or Manx) – is the cultural equivalent of putting Splenda in a hummingbird feeder. To the hummingbird or the English-speaking would-be Gael, the drink tastes as sweet as expected, but – though the experience leaves them feeling sated – its only real value is in its flavour.

In order to address what I perceive as these deficiencies in current popular perceptions of Patrick, my own ideal conceptualization of him instead attempts to centre the marginalized. Put simply, my Patrick is a queer anarchist heretic. He fled the British mainland because he had faced persecution there on the basis of a heterodox theology and a sexual orientation which, by contrast, could not be prefixed ‘hetero’. Rather than stay among people who despised him, and whose religious practices he considered to be hypocritical, he sought solace among the Gaels, an ethnocultural group who had once enslaved him. It was among the lowest ranks of that society – the ones with whom he had been familiar as a slave – that he conducted his mission. He preached the Gospel of the exultation of meek and the downtrodden and the lost, because he knew what it was to be all of those things. Because he had never attained the rank of bishop while still in good standing with the Church, he couldn’t officially ordain priests – but, in defiance of his superiors, he did so anyway. Essentially, he founded his own church – one that the main body of Catholicism only acknowledged as its own when it became too powerful to ignore. Success – as they say – has many fathers. Although himself not a Gael, he was an ardent devotee of Gaelic culture, and he studied the language which was at that time mutually intelligible throughout the Gaelic world with such gusto that he came to speak it with unrivalled eloquence. He was a syncretist, honouring – albeit, as a Christian, not worshipping – any benevolent gods and godlike beings that he encountered. He tried, wherever possible, to convert even them, and he attempted to destroy or exorcise them only if they represented a material threat to the wellbeing of his followers. When he encountered Caìlte and Oisean, the last of the Fèinn, he ridded them of demons, but listened with rapt attention to the stories of their dealings with the old gods, and even took the time to record those stories for posterity.  If occasionally the authoritarian streak instilled in him by the more orthodox Christianity of his earlier years reared its ugly head, as attested in folkloric descriptions of his arguments with the Fenians, or his sometimes lethal duelling with druids, such foibles were less present in the work of his spiritual descendant, Colmcille – a fully Gaelic saint to whom Patrick was, in my reckoning, a forerunner in the way that John the Baptist was to the Christ of the Gospels.

This interpretation – albeit doubtless, in the minds of some, outlandish – is arguably as well supported by historical and literary evidence as any other. In one of the two scant texts that scholarly consensus attribute to Patrick, his Confessio, he alludes to a perceived sin he committed before coming to Ireland that shamed him in the eyes of the Church. Some scholars believe this sin to have been conjugal relations with another man, although that claim can’t be proven. Furthermore, there is no compelling contemporary proof that Patrick was ever ordained as a bishop, and even some evidence – in the Letter to the Soldiers of Croticus, the other surviving text believed to have been authored by Patrick – that Christians on the British mainland viewed Patrick’s credentials as a missionary, and therefore his missionary activities in Ireland, as illegitimate. As to the disposition of Patrick toward the paganism of his Gaelic peers, the available literary portrayals – even the earliest of which date from well after the period in which he lived, and none of which, by modern standards, could be considered historical writings – are mixed. Even so, by drawing on those sources, such as the Acallam na Senórach – in modern Scottish Gaelic, Agallamh nan Seanaireach, or Interview of the Elderly – that paint his relationship with paganism in a tolerant light, it is possible to arrive at an idea of Patrick as a syncretic Christian. This ideal Patrick is one who was as appreciative of the folk-beliefs of his converts as he was of their language, and who, despite occasional moralistic outbursts or moments of ideological rigidity, was generally happy to see his flock embrace a localized form of Christianity that didn’t abandon wholesale the cherished beliefs of their ancestors. Finally, concerning the idea of Patrick as being not the pre-eminent Gaelic saint, but rather a necessary forerunner of Colmcille, this is – as far as I know – my own innovation. It’s useful, I feel, in that it prevents the unjust subordination of the Manx and Scottish Gaels to the Irish Gaels. If, among Gaelic Saints, Patrick is both preeminent and strongly symbolic of Ireland, then this creates an implicit hierarchy of Gaelic nations in which Ireland dominates. If, instead, Colmcille is given pre-eminence, then the Gaels of Ireland, Scotland, and Man and their patron saints can coexist on an equal footing. Admittedly, Colmcille is often considered the patron saint of Gaelic Scotland, but is also revered in Ireland and the Isle of Man. If he were given the headship of the Gaelic saints, then another, presently more obscure Scottish Gaelic saint – like Maol Rubha of Applecross or Mo Luagh of Lismore – could take over his role as the unofficial patron of the Scottish Highlands and Islands.

Sin agaibh e! An Fhèill Phàdhruig seo, bheir mi spèis do naomh anns an robh anarcaiche, neach-neo-ghèillidh, agus eiriceach: Pàdruig fhèin! (There you have it! This Saint Patrick’s day, I’ll honour a saint who was an anarchist, a non-conformist, and a heretic: Patrick himself!)

If you prefer another version, then that one is yours to celebrate, disdain or ignore as you see fit. As for me – for the first time I can remember – I have arrived at an understanding of Patrick that I can unreservedly support.

Agus, leis a’ sin, Beannachdan Latha Fhèill Phàdruig dhuibh! (And, with that, Happy Saint Patrick’s Day, y’all!)

Ethnocide and Ethnogenesis

(A commendation of B. H. Pitner’s thesis on the cultural vacuousness of whiteness, a critique of the same author’s treatment of Southernness and whiteness as equivalent, and an open letter inviting that author to collaborate.)

I recently read a book that made me at once thoughtful, and profoundly sad: The Crime Without a Name, by Barret H. Pitner.

I love his exploration of the term ‘ethnocide’, which I would tend to call ‘cultural genocide’, and his indictment of white culture, and I’ve enjoyed his discussions of philosophers such as Satre, Camus, and Kierkegaard (although I think that many of his conclusions could be as easily arrived at without the existentialist philosophical framework around which he structures his arguments).

What saddens me is his treatment of whiteness as being inherent to Southerness, with the implication that ending the one means ending the other.

I will never accept this. Southern culture is far more than the Southern brand of racism, and has the power to transcend – even to end – the construct of race.

The day that the descendants of the Black Southerners who left the South in the Great Migration recognize and embrace their cultural commonalities with Southerners of all races who stayed behind; and that white Southerners seek ethnic solidarity with their neighbors of all races instead of with people from other regions who happen to be white, will be the day that the construct of whiteness itself truly begins to erode in the US.

Pitner’s creation of a framework that seemingly precludes that outcome is anathema to the destruction of whiteness, and I want him to realize that. As such, I thought I might reach out to him, in the hope of entering into a dialogue.

I was also galled, in the course of my reading, by what I felt was Pitner’s mischaracterization of Southern hospitality and conviviality.

His view seems to hold that the Southern tendency to greet strangers in passing, in the expectation that they’ll respond, is essentially a micro-aggression designed to remind Black Southerners of their historical social subordination to white people; that being polite to people, including and especially strangers, and trying to subtly increase their comfort is a superficial and insincere nicety that masks a lack of true kindness; and that the slow pace of Southern life is a continuation of the antebellum planter ethic, whereby white people in the upper echelons of society were lazy because they expected to be waited on by their slaves.

I disagree with him strongly. Niceness and kindness don’t need to be antithetical – in fact, oftentimes, the former is an extension of the latter, rather than evidence of its absence. While there are people whose conviviality is only skin deep, or – conversely – whose gruff exteriors conceal kindness, there are many people who enthusiastically engage with others, and who treat them with automatic gentleness, as the outward expression of the same tendency that would motivate them to give much needed help in time of trouble.

This lattermost type is the kind I’ve most often encountered in the South, whether the Upland or the Deep South, and whether from white Southerners or Southerners of color. I also believe that the gentle pace of rural Southern life is a deviation from whiteness, rather than a result of it. The frenetic pace of American life outside much of the South, especially in Northern industrial towns, is to at least some extent a product of the dehumanization wrought on the working class by industrial capitalism, with its ethic that workers must always be busy doing profitable work. By contrast, while most people from preindustrial societies are seldom idle, their activities are seldom undertaken for reasons other than necessity (raising buildings, caring for children crops and livestock, preparing food and textiles, etc.) or pleasure (singing songs, telling stories, dancing dances, etc.), with quality prioritized over time efficiency. The fact that this much healthier work ethic has prevailed in many Southern communities (both white and non white) despite capitalism is surely a social good, rather than a social evil. Something else I hope to discuss with the author, if I succeed in contacting him.

As a manifestation of that hope for contact, I wrote the following letter, and sent it by email to Mr. Pitner a few days ago:

Dear Mr. Pitner,

I recently read your book, The Crime Without a Name, and enjoyed much of it immensely. Your re-discovery and publicization of the word ‘ethnocide’, and your re-definition of the word ‘ethnogenesis’ (coined originally in the 1800s in the field anthropology, albeit with very different connotations) are timely and valuable, and I suspect that the insights arising from your writings on these subjects will greatly assist me in my own work (the cultural revitalisation of endangered folkways connected in varying degrees to the Scottish Gaelic language, especially in Kentucky and adjacent parts).

As with any philosophical text, there were, of couse, some aspects of the book that resonated less well with my own experience of life than others. One of these – and one I hope to discuss with you – was what I felt was your apparent conflation of the contructions of Southernness (at least among white southerners) and whiteness. At several juntures in the book, you seemed – at least insofar as I understood you – to look on the South as a sort of reservoir of whiteness that had somehow contaminated a United States that would have otherwise been less ethnocidally white.

However, my own experience of Southernness – and even southern whiteness – is that, at least in among the working poor, it has historically functioned as an identity subaltern to mainstream American whiteness, and that it has, in fact, often been subject to the ethnocidal tendencies of U.S. whiteness in general.

I would invite you to consider, for example, the class-based cultural dichotomy in my native Kentucky between poor white people and wealthy white people. The poor whites are almost invariably culturally ‘Southern’: they have southern accents; they cook southern food (often using recipes passed down to them from members of their own families or local communities); and they prefer to listen to and perform music from genres like country, old-time, gospel and bluegrass (music, in other words, with local roots).

The rich whites, by contrast, are culturally ‘non-regional’: they almost invariably speak ‘standard’ English (to varying degrees of actual conformity to that standard, but with the clear intent of conforming); they don’t cook for themselves, or – if they do – they tend to make use of an eclectic variety of recipes found online or in books, to the exclusion of local recipes that they consider provincial or plebian); and they listen mostly to ‘mainstream’ forms of music (nothing country, seldom anything overtly religious, and rarely anything more than fifty or sixty years old unless it is operatic or orchestral).

Effectively, in my experience, it is mostly middle- and upper-class white Southerners who embody the essence of whiteness as you define it in your book: people who inherit nothing from their ancestors but objects and material wealth; who have no particular connection to any region and its specific culture or ecology; who produce nothing themselves that they consume, be it food, art, clothing or music.

By contrast, the working-class Southerners of my acquaintance barely embody that kind of whiteness at all. They learn a great deal of oral history and useful skills from their parents, and, conversely, often inherit relatively little in the way of other sorts of generational wealth. Their connection to the areas they come from is obvious from the way they talk, from the foods they prefer (at least some of which they grow themselves), and from the kinds of recreation they engage in – much of which consists of outdoor activities rooted in place, like hunting, fishing, gardening, and farming. They produce much of what they consume – be it food, textiles, music, art, or maintenance of their homes and tools – often as a matter of necessity owing to their limited financial resources.

They do these things, however, only to the extent that either their own sense of identity or the limitations of their resources prevent them from becoming, or aspiring to become, wealthy whites.

Many are the poor white Kentuckians whom I have watched divest themselves of their cultural heritage either in order to become ‘successful’ (that is, middle- or upper-class white people) or because they have achieved such ‘success’. In my grandparents’ home county, in rural south-central Kentucky, most people sound Southern, cook Southern, and can recite any number of items of local folksong and folklore – some of it generations old. And, yet, if you visit members of the same families who have lived for even a few decades in the suburbs of Louisville (Kentucky’s largest city), you’ll find that their accents are hard to distinguish from those of white suburbanites anywhere else in the US; that they will have largely abandoned their grandparents’ recipes; and that their children will know little to nothing about the oral history of their parents’ home county, whether in song or story.

If you ask them why this is, many will tell you that their heritage was too costly – both financially and socially – to maintain: that they gave up their southern accent the third or fourth time a prospective boss laughed at it in a job interview, or a stranger on a bus called them a hick; that they stopped repairing their old clothes because they could afford to throw them out and buy new ones instead, and their neighbors had said, anyway, that doing otherwise was tacky; that they would never teach their youngest child old country ballads like Barbry Allen or Pretty Polly, because their oldest had informed them that his friends at school called songs like that hillbilly music.

Effectively, to achieve success in a world that despises them, such people discard everything about themselves that mainstream U.S. society hates. Sadly, the only thing about poor white Southerners that society approves of is the color of their skin, and so – to be acceptable in that society – many of them do away with everything but that: they decant the greatest part of themselves, and leave their bodies little more than empty vessels that they then try in vain to fill with money and power. And our society applauds them for this, and punishes them if they hesitate to do it.

You have given me a word with which to describe this process of sacrificing Southern identity on the altar of whiteness and wealth: ‘ethnocide’.

I write to you to thank you for this word, and to extend a proposition tangent on its use. I suspect, from your book – and especially from what I perceive as its characterizations of Southernness and whiteness as being essentially equivalent – that it might not have occurred to you that ethnocide should be applied to the cultural erasure of Southernness, and that, in fact, you might object to such an application.

Even so, I would like to ask your blessing to present a case for the application of ethnocide to Southernness in the form of a book – a book which would also substitute the existentialist framework underpinning your own book for one grounded in the largely metaphysical and theistic philosophical worldview of the Scottish Gaels. The book would aim to further my efforts to cultivate Southernness itself as a racially and nationally transcendent regional ethnicity (a process for which you have given me another word: ethnogenesis), incorporating elements from Scottish Gaelic culture to compensate for any aspects of Southern culture as it exists or has historically existed in Kentucky that are too thoroughly integrated with capitalism, malevolent patriarchy, racism, and/or whiteness to be healthily revived in a way that benefits humanity.

I hope to create via this process an ethnic group that I have tentatively named Tramontanes, a ethnonym historically applied to various sorts of Highlanders, including the Scottish Gaels and – later – the Appalachians, from both of which groups many modern Kentuckians claim descent.

I would like for there to be formal relations between Tramontanes and Freecanos [a hypothetical ethnic group rooted in cultural US Blackness that Mr. Pitman hoped to found, according to his writings in the aforementioned book], and I would be interested at a future time in co-creating with you a piece of ritual or performance art in which representatives of the two groups met, in regalia symbolic of their cultural histories and hopes for the future, and affirmed one another’s existence and their shared hope for the end of ethnocide in the U.S.

I hope that this proposition excites or at least amuses you, and that it is not perceived an object of offense. My hopes for both the writing of the proposed book and for the future friendship of the Freecanos and the Tramontanes are sincere, and I hope that both will serve the causes of social and economic justice.

I would be greatly pleased to hear your thoughts on what I’ve written above, and I would be willing to discuss the matter at length by either email correspondence or video call on a platform of your choosing. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch!

Whether you do or not, I thank you for having written your book, and I wish you success in your future endeavors.

Leis gach deagh dhùrachd (With every good wish),


Adam Dahmer, PhD

Professor of Gaelic Studies at East Tennessee State University

I have yet to receive a reply from Mr. Pitner, but hope that the message is received in the spirit with which it was written; that I will hear from him soon; and, that – once we’re in touch – I can persuade him of the cultural value of Southernness, and of its usefulness as an agent not of ethnocide, but of ethnogenisis.

Why Should Louisville Be Called Louisville?

(An exploration of, among other things, the notion that Falls City – founded on occupied Shawnee lands – ought to acknowledge its colonial history by adopting a Shawnee name)

As a Louisville native – even one who has spent much of my adult life abroad – I can’t help but feel a certain emotional attachment to the unique cultural attributes of my hometown, right down to the Louisvillian pronunciation of ‘Louisville’ itself. Equally, and despite that attachment, I’ve felt hard-pressed in recent years to justify to myself and others why Louisville ought to be called Louisville. In the aftermath of the shootings of Breonna Taylor, David McAtee, and Hamza Nagdy (may they rest in power) – and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement to which all of them are martyrs and which one of them helped lead – all Louisvillians, especially white Louisvillians, have had to take a long-overdue look at the racist history of our city.

Whether we look at the exclusion of Black Kentuckians from the Bourbon trade, the existence and subsequent historical erasure of Louisville’s nineteenth-century slave markets, the antebellum hemp industry staffed by forced labor and aimed at the manufacture of cotton-sacks for shipment to the Deep South, the twentieth-century zoning laws that have kept the city segregated for five generations and destroyed Black neighborhoods that once ranked among the most vibrant and prosperous in the Southern United States, or the racist and classist elitism of the thoroughbred horseracing industry so dear to the self-conception of both our city and the Commonwealth of which it forms part, the suffering wrought by whiteness and the power structures built up to maintain it are hard to ignore. And yet, for decades, most white Louisvillians, including myself, have largely done exactly that – spoon-fed from youth a heavily edited version of history calculated, in a dazzling feat of intellectual gymnastics, to focus almost exclusively on the stories of white people while somehow ignoring our many collective misdeeds.

That style of education and its limitations have hobbled many a white Kentuckian’s cognitive capacities to understand the perspectives of Kentuckians of color, even when such perspectives are clearly articulated, and at the forefront of social and political life. As a teenager and young adult, I was baffled by the periodic uprisings of socially and economically disenfranchised Black Louisvillian youth that I would hear about on television or in the press, and which I, like many white commentators at the time, dismissed as riots. In the eyes of white Louisvillians institutionally groomed from childhood to believe the centrist maxims that racism in the United States was so vestigial and fringe that it could be safely ignored, and that the entire country had been virtually classless since the revolutionary war and wholly free of gender and racial inequality since the cultural upheavals of the 1960s, the idea that people living only a few short miles away from me could feel discrimination-based frustration so powerful it could spur them to any sort of aggression – even against property, let alone people – seemed completely alien to my experience, not to mention irrational. Surely, I thought, the economic and political system was fine, and the dissenters would be, too, if only they ‘calmed down’ and ‘played by the rules’.

It took a prolonged sojourn in Scotland and years of involvement with the movement to revitalize the minoritized Scottish Gaelic language to make me realize just how wrong I had been. Within the Scottish Gaelic activist community, it was common knowledge that the political establishment of United States at all levels was founded on and steeped in racism, and that capitalism was so thoroughly bound up in white supremacy that it was fundamentally unreconcilable with anti-racism. Viewed through this lens, the young Black ‘rioters’ weren’t rioters at all, but insurrectionists striking out at the systems that had failed them – ordinary people driven to desperation, with no legally permissible outlets for their frustrations. At first, I tried to resist that way of thinking, feeling that it was too radical; but, looking at Louisville from a distance, and pouring back over my personal history with race and my hometown, I came to realize that the Scottish assessment of the US as fundamentally racist was essentially true; and that the centrist Liberalism I had clung to, and in which I had always believed as a matter of course, had been little more than state-sanctioned brainwashing.

How, I wondered, had I been so misled? One way that the social studies curriculum of my youth had ignored the complicity of white Kentuckians in processes like the genocide of indigenous peoples or the national slave trade was by simply leaving Kentucky out of history. I recall having been subjected to countless lessons on the British and then the American colonial projects, and discussions of racism ranging from the earliest days of European settlement in North America to the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s – but Kentucky never really got mentioned. At one level, this is surely indicative of the regional prejudice to which Kentuckians have been continually subjected for most of the Commonwealth’s existence; most New Yorkers, Bostonians and Angelenos couldn’t care less about what goes on in Kentucky, and because their regions have larger populations, more wealth, and more direct control of the national media than Kentuckians do, their idea of what’s important has tended to be hegemonic, even among many Kentuckians: I know many a Louisvillian who could rattle off the name of every New York City borough but who would falter half-way through reciting a mental list of Louisville neighborhoods. Perhaps, then – or perhaps not – the textbooks of my youth would have had more to say about Louisville had they been written by Louisvillians.

However, although the regional prejudice against Kentuckians – and, indeed, against Southerners in general – ought be acknowledged and combated, there was more going on in the planning of the curriculum than just regional discrimination: white Kentuckians stood to benefit a great deal, at least in terms of emotional wellbeing, from the deafening silence concerning our racist past. The less evidence the education system presented concerning the racially-motivated collective crimes of white Kentuckians – or, for that matter, the class-motivated collective crimes of rich Kentuckians – the less reason middle-class white people in Kentucky would have to question the in-built racial and economic hierarchies from which we profited, or to seek common cause with those who hoped to topple those hierarchies.

The way this essay is going, one might think it would end in a call for education reform – an appeal for a curriculum that has more to say about Kentucky, especially the historical contributions of marginalized Kentuckians, and the moral failures and mass misdeeds of Kentucky’s white urban elite. As it happens, I do advocate for such a reform, but – as the article’s title suggests – my goal here is to suggest not a change to Louisville’s educational praxis, but to its name.

In a way, changing Louisville’s name would be an educational reform of sorts in and of itself – and one far more wide-reaching than any curricular change. The name of a place is itself instructive – a symbol of the location it denotes, and a shorthand for that place’s history. As most Louisvillians could tell you, Louisville’s name is derived from that of King Louis XVI of France – a great benefactor to the fledgling United States during the American Revolution, and honored as such not only by the renaming of the city once known as Falls City and Fort Nelson, but by the placement of his statue at its civic and administrative center. For various reasons, however, renaming the city in Louis’ honor seems a problematic decision in hindsight. For one thing, he was a friend to revolutionaries only in America: on his own continent, his regime so starved, abused and misgoverned the French people that they rose up against him, ultimately ending both his reign and his life. While he lived – presiding, I might add, over a literal empire – the mere circumstances of his birth afforded him all the privileges not only of whiteness, wealth, and relative good health, but also of royalty. it’s safe to say, adjusting for advances in medicine and the technologies of comfort, that few if any Kentuckians have ever enjoyed affluence or luxury comparable to his.

To be clear, I bear no grudge against Louis: obviously, I never knew him personally, and what little I do know of his personal life paints a sympathetic picture. It is entirely possible that he behaved as ethically as he felt he could under his circumstances, and that he, as an individual, didn’t deserve his grisly end. Even so, his personal culpability – or lack thereof – wasn’t all that material to the Revolutionary tribunals. Though it was Louis himself that the French Revolutionaries tried and executed when they finally made him subject to the laws of the country he had ruled, the real target of public ire was the institution of the French monarchy that he, as its monarch, symbolized. If, at any time before the Revolution, Louis had recognized and discarded the privileges of his rank – dissolving his empire, redistributing his wealth among the common people, disentitling the nobility, and abdicating his throne – then he could have avoided the guillotine. Instead, he tried almost to the end to hold on to his power, and history bore witness to the sad result.

In many ways, the choice faced by Louis is the same one faced by the white Kentuckians – and, indeed, white Americans in general – today: after centuries of carefully orchestrated racial dominance, the white majority is losing its grip on power, and so white people have a decision to make. On the one hand, even as our numbers dwindle and our share of global and national wealth declines, we can still fight to maintain our dominion using the well-worn tools of violence, deception, and coercion. These tactics can yield one of two results: either we’ll go the way of Louis and the French aristos, modern equivalent of the guillotine and all; or we’ll succeed in turning the tables on the revolutionaries, and maintain our reign – no longer with the window dressing of Liberal Democracy, but instead within the rigid framework of a nakedly racist totalitarian regime. Either way, we will have either lost or destroyed everything we love about the world we currently rule. Alternatively, we can avoid falling afoul of the Revolution not by trying not to crush it, but by joining.

White people aren’t hated because of the color of their skin, but because they benefit from a system wherein anyone different from them has to work harder and longer to lead more difficult lives than they do. That’s the key to understanding racism. Substitute ‘rich people’ or ‘coastal elites’ for ‘white people’, and the same formula can explain classism and regionalism. The cure to any of these social ills is therefore simple, at least in principle: if the people atop the hierarchy voluntary acknowledge and abnegate their privileges, then they divest themselves not only of power, but of the targets on their backs. Louis, although he might have tried his best, chose not to take this opportunity, and suffered the dire consequences – but it might not be too late for white Louisvillians. Why, then, should Louis – whose privilege destroyed him – be the namesake of a city that hopes to come to terms with its racism and classism?

The question seems all the more pertinent when one considers the people whose legacy our city has erased by its celebration of King Louis. The story of Kentucky as it is told in popular culture – if, indeed, it is told in popular culture at all – usually begins with white settlement in the eighteenth century, ignoring the fact that in order for that settlement to have successfully taken place, the displacement of people already living in Kentucky had to occur on a massive scale. Throughout much of Kentucky, including the lands on which Louisville was built, the cultural group most affected by the ethnic cleansing of the region’s native peoples was that of the Shawnee. Once inhabiting an area that ran east along the foothills of the Appalachian mountains from Southeastern Kentucky to central Pennsylvania, and west to the further shore of the Mississippi River, the Shawnee people today belong to three federally recognized nations, all of which are based on relatively small reservations in Oklahoma as the result of their forebears’ expulsion from their ancestral lands by encroaching whites in the nineteenth century.

It is neither fair nor fitting that Louisville should reside on Shawnee lands at all – much less that the only civic monument to Shawnee presence in the area should be the name of a single city park, when the city itself in its entirety is given over to memorializing a wealthy white royal who never set foot within the city limits. That the city should donate its municipal lands to the use of one or all of the three Shawnee nations as an act of reparations is a suggestion for another time, if indeed it will be made at all, but simply renaming the city to honor the Shawnee is a far more modest proposal, and one that should be welcomed by a community trying to reconcile itself with its racist history.

It is often said, and not without reason, that Black slavery is America’s original sin, but while the wealth of the United States was undeniably built on the tortured backs of enslaved Africans, as worthy a contender for the dubious distinction of the United States’ original sin, as it tended to coincide with or even precede slavery at every stage in the nation’s development, has surely been the genocide and forced mass-exodus of hundreds of nations of American Indians – the act of depopulating the land that allowed it to play host to the slave-masters and the people whose bodies they used to enrich themselves. If Louisville is serious about its racial reckoning, it should start at the beginning, with the blood under its feet, and recreate itself from the ground up – this time, for the benefit of all its citizens, and not just the white ones. There could be few clearer signals of its intention to do that than its renaming with a Shawnee name – provided, of course, that the people of the Shawnee nations consider it worthy to bear one. In any case, I think it’s high time someone asked the Shawnees what Louisville was called in the time before the settler-colonists renamed it; and then requested their permission to call it by that name again, in the interest of restorative justice. If the Shawnees decide, as well they might, that a city whose founders expelled their ancestors doesn’t deserve a Shawnee name, then Falls City or even Fort Nelson would be just as good a name for this town as Louisville is.

I suspect that some people will dismiss this proposal offhand – some with better reasons than others. To the seasoned civil rights activists likely to roll their eyes at yet another unhelpful suggestion from the sidelines, I can only offer my apologies, and say that I mean no disrespect; if renaming Louisville is low down the list of things that would actually benefit this city and its people – as I suspect it might well be – then of course I take your word for it. Believe me when I say that this article isn’t meant to convince you of anything, but rather to convince those who oppose you of the worthiness of your cause, by inviting them to detect and remove the proverbial scales from their eyes – the veil of misinformation and pseudohistory that so warped my own perspective before I went abroad. If you disagree with anything I’ve said, I welcome your perspective, and if you haven’t found a platform for that perspective, then I’m happy to offer you the use of any means of expression to which I have access. On the other hand, to those who say that Louisville has always been Louisville and therefore ought to remain so, that King Louis is as worthy a namesake as any, or that the rebranding would simply cost too much to implement, I reply only that the renaming of Louisville – although I do sincerely advocate it – isn’t the real issue at stake here. Even if the city should choose to go by one of its current or previous monikers – be it River City, Falls City, Fort Nelson or plain old Louisville – we would do well to remember the truths and moral lessons that these names encode: let us not forget the first people to navigate River City’s River and the falls of Falls City; why and by whom Fort Nelson’s fort was erected on the lands to which those people had ancestral rights; and, last but not least, the terrible price that Louisville’s eponymous King Louis paid for too-long ignoring the suffering and anger of the down-trodden.

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.

Why the Antidote to Confederate Pride is Southern Pride

(An article explaining that as long as people conflate Confederate nostalgia and legitimate pride in Southern identity, the insidious myth of the Lost Cause will go unchecked)

I recently read ‘Why Confederate Lies Live On’, an article in the Atlantic periodical by writer Clint Smith. It recounts the story of the author’s unsettling visit to a Sons of Confederate Veterans memorial event at a predominantly Confederate cemetery, in juxtaposition with a moving sojourn to a former plantation rededicated to memorializing the lives of the slaves who suffered and died there in the antebellum era. In the article, Smith condemned the pro-Confederate narrative of the ‘Lost Cause’, highlighted slavery as the ultimate cause of the Civil War, and argued the ethical necessity of remembering the lives and sufferings of enslaved people, rather than callously omitting them from history.

I agree wholeheartedly with the author on every point outlined above.

Even so, the article – like so much journalism that touches on questions of Southern identity and racism – left me, as a Southern anarchist, feeling acutely disappointed. In the first place, Smith, like so many progressive cultural commentators, condemned the Confederacy as much on the basis of its traitorousness in seceding from the Union as for the sake of its egregious human rights abuses. To quote the author:

‘In front of the gazebo [where the Sons of Confederate Veterans were demonstrating] were two flags, one Confederate, one American, standing side by side, as if 700,000 people hadn’t been killed in the epic conflagration between them,’ and, later, ‘the myth [of the Lost Cause] was an attempt to recast the Confederacy as something predicated on family and heritage rather than what it was: a traitorous [emphasis my own]effort to extend the bondage of millions of Black people’.

On the face of it, these statements are straightforwardly true: the United States of America did, of course, battle the Confederacy for the whole of the latter country’s less-than-five year existence, during which time the better part of a million people died as a result; the conflict in question arose from an attempt by the elite beneficiaries of the Southern plantation economy to preserve and extend an economic system built on slave labor; and, by founding their new nation – a nation built on a slave-based economy and the white supremacist ideology which, in their minds, justified it – the Confederate planter-aristocrats committed treason against the US by unilaterally dividing a legally indivisible federation of states.

I nevertheless take issue with Smith’s statements, however, for the reasons that they seem, in the first place, to put the ‘crime’ of secession or treason on an equal footing with that of promoting the system of slavery; and, in the second place, because they serve to erase the complicity of the United States in maintaining chattel slavery and other forms of institutional racism and degradation of human dignity before and after the American Civil War.

Seceding from the Union, ‘traitorous’ though it may have been, was not, in itself, a moral stain on the Confederate States of America. The problem was not what Confederates did (forming an independent country on the ostensible basis of self-determination) but why they did it (so that the unjustly privileged upper-crust of an unjustly privileged ‘race’ could go on reaping un-earned wealth through the exploitation of innocent people). The Confederacy was evil because of its existential dependence on forced labor and rampant racism – not because it temporarily reduced the size of the fledging empire of the United States. Calling the Confederate leaders ‘traitors’ – a term which, historically, has all-to-often been levelled by tyrannical governments at marginalized people resisting state oppression – as though the accusation had the same moral weight as, rightfully, calling the Confederate elite ‘slave-masters’, falsely and dangerously equates self-determination with crimes against humanity. In an age when a Leftist revolution might be imminently necessary in order to prevent the universal ascendancy of fascism, no one on the Left should posthumously accord slave-masters a label with which they themselves might all-too-soon be branded by the state.

For essentially the same reason, I cannot easily condone Smith’s implicit condemnation of pairing the Confederate battle flag and the flag of the United States. When the misguided Sons of Confederate Veterans assert, by the symbolism of the co-displayed Union and Confederate flags, the ideological compatibility of the United States and the Confederacy, I hold that they are essentially correct: both countries – the USA no less than the CSA – were founded on land settled by the descendants of Europeans after the ethnic cleansing of native peoples, and consistently relied for their economic stability on exploitative labor practices up-to and including slavery in the decades preceding the Civil War. The chief preoccupation of the United States during that war was the maintenance of its own territorial integrity, rather than the protection of anyone’s civil rights, and – after the resolution of the conflict, and the subsequent and ultimately abortive attempt at anti-racism that was Reconstruction – white people throughout the re-established United States (not only in the states of the former Confederacy) chose white racial solidarity over US national solidarity, allowing Jim Crow to prevail in the South, and less overt but no less detrimental forms of pro-white racism (including the outright mass-murder of Black people) to occur largely unchecked nationwide until the time of the mid-twentieth-century Civil Rights movement. That movement, although radically disruptive in its day, ultimately proved – like Reconstruction – to have been a momentary aberration rather than a true turning point: by the mid-1980s, any ethos of anti-racism that had come to pervade the American political establishment had withered away, replaced with retrograde innovations such as the ‘tough-on-crime’ movement in prosecution and policing that helped entrench white supremacist law enforcement policies throughout the lattermost decades of the twentieth century; and the ‘Southern’ electoral strategy (‘Southern’, I remind you, only in name, as it was implemented throughout the country) that saw white politicians all across the US seek, and often gain, prolonged stints in high office by presenting non-white people as enemies of the state, and scapegoating them for the social problems caused by ever-increasing economic neo-liberalism.

In sum, the United States does not refrain, and seldom if ever has refrained, from committing flagrant acts of racism and worker exploitation in the pursuit of its economic and political interests; and, thus, the Sons of Confederate Veterans – while they err grossly in believing either state to be benevolent – make no mistake in viewing both the CSA and the USA as equally steeped in racism, despite the two powers’ erstwhile existential struggle.

It is a rough equality of immorality that far too few modern denizens of the United States acknowledge. Many are those, for instance, who would deride Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis while venerating the likes of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, when all four men were slave-owning white supremacists who traitorously rebelled against their mother countries. The only difference in their personal circumstances that accounts for their vasty different treatments in popular perception at present is that the latter duo succeeded in their rebellion, while the former failed. When popular opinion views racism and forced labor as deplorable only when perpetrated by history’s losers, any observer necessarily notes, and internalizes, the twisted moral lessons that the failure to dominate (whether in politics or society) constitutes a greater crime than the abuse of human beings; and that moral bankruptcy (whether of a person, or a nation) only matters in the case of defeat  – with any fall from grace necessarily succeeding a fall from power. 

Really, this is hardly surprising: ‘might makes right’, and ‘history is written by the winners’ arguably form the twin philosophical pillars of realpolitik. Thus, whereas the USA’s inherent racism remains, to a large extent, popularly unassailable (at least in the mainstream), owing to the political and economic power still wielded by its empire, the Confederacy – despite (or, indeed, because of) its less than five-year existence – is now popularly held to account not only for its own half decade of racist violence, but for all similar evils perpetrated by citizens of the US against people of color for both the 85 years of US history preceding the Civil War, and the almost 160 years since. 

Of course, as illustrated by Smith’s example of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the mainstream scapegoating of the Confederacy for the systemic racism inherent to the United States doesn’t prevail in all quarters: some people, especially some white people in the Southern US, rather than magnifying the sins of the Confederacy in order to preserve the fictive notion of a non-racist or even anti-racist United States, maintain that USA and CSA alike are worth celebrating. In order to do that, they must employ one or both of two cognitive strategies: rewriting both countries’ histories of genocide, white supremacism, and involuntary servitude; and/or admitting, at least to some extent, that such atrocities occurred, but dismissing them as unimportant, inevitable, or even laudable.

One may employ these strategies singly or in concert. For instance, the mainstream view of the Civil War that prevailed between the collapse of Reconstruction and the dawn of the first Civil Rights movement – which exonerated Confederates of any wrong doing during the conflict while celebrating the fact that the Union had prevailed – made ample use of both: simultaneously minimizing both the extent to which slavery had caused physical, emotional, and psychological harm to slaves, and the part which that ‘peculiar institution’ had played in Confederate secession; and promoting the idea of the United States as a white nation, in which the needs, aspirations and historical narratives of non-white citizens had little to no importance. In the mainstream, this view began to lose traction during the cultural upheavals of 1960s and 70s, and – after a partial resurgence in the late twentieth century – has largely been brought to heel by the newly resurgent Civil Rights movement of the present century. The only cultural region of the United States in which large swathes of the populace (or, at least, the white populace) still uphold it is my own – the South.

One could posit various reasons for white Southern obstinance in refusing to reject the myth of the Lost Cause. The most straightforward – and arguably the most popular among non-Southern Progressives – is simply to dismiss every Southerner with apparent Confederate sympathies as a white supremacist, and to suggest that, therefore, the Lost Cause narrative still has explanatory power in the South for the sole reason of a uniquely pervasive Southern racism.  I strongly disagree with this view.

While the South certainly has no shortage of white supremacists, I suspect that the West Coast, West, Midwest, and Northeast harbor proportionally similar quantities: the US, as I have said, is a deeply racist state, and – although its systemic racism, by nature, does not intrinsically depend on individual action – the systems supporting racism throughout the country would long ago have been dismantled if not for the pervasive presence of racist individuals operating at all levels of government and civil society on a nationwide basis. I hold that there is no great disparity of white supremacist attitudes to be found among those people living within the South, and those living outwith it.

Instead, I see the persistence of the Lost Cause narrative, and by extension, almost all Confederate apologetics in the South, as stemming from one source: the false equation of the Confederacy with the South. This false equivalency is as pervasive as US racism, and, I would argue, far less well examined: so much so that I suspect than many of those who read the preceding sentence had to re-read it, in order to register that it was not tautological. Even academics specializing in the Southern US and the Confederacy often conflate the two terms – as seen, for instance, in the recent book by Heather Cox Richardson, How the South won the Civil War, in which the author traces the post-bellum entrenchment of oligarchy, white supremacy, and patriarchy in the US sociopolitical landscape, but identifies these characteristics not as belonging to the USA, or even the CSA, but, rather, as specifically Southern in origin. And yet, the concepts denoted by the two words, ‘Confederate’ and ‘Southern’, differ immensely: the former, denoting the attributes of a short-lived polity founded by planter-aristocrats to preserve an economic system based on slave labor and the white-supremacist ideology that underpinned it; the latter, denoting those of a vibrant cultural and ecological region of the North American continent, which, although biologically and ethnically diverse, with roots extending to Africa, Europe, and various regions of the Americas, has a unique character centuries in the making and shaped in no small part by the struggles of menial laborers and small-scale agriculturists, and which could exist as it does no where else on earth.

The former of these entities (the CSA) died in its blood-soaked cradle in 1865, and, conceived as it was on the false premise that the ‘white man’ was inherently superior to people of all other colors and genders, richly deserved its untimely end. The latter (the South) has no interest in promoting either white supremacy or the institution of slavery – comprising, as it does, in many of its districts, more descendants of slaves than of slavers, and more and more people who seek actively to dismantle all unjust hierarchies, including those of race. Furthermore, the South, as a distinct cultural region, is – unlike the Confederacy – still very much alive today, and embracing it as a cornerstone of personal and communal identity would give many of its denizens who wittingly or unwittingly kneel at the altar of white supremacy an alternative to membership in the soul-destroying cult to which they now belong. In order for loyalty to the living South to eclipse loyalty to the long-gone CSA, however, the two entities must be definitionally and ideologically disentangled. As the situation stands, with the concepts of Southernness and Confederateness so thoroughly conflated, people who wish to express Southern pride often do so by means of Confederate (and, by extension, white supremacist) iconography; and perceive well-warranted Leftist attacks against the Confederacy and its symbols as attacks on the South. Conversely, many people outwith the South – and, all-too-often, even within it – who justifiably wish to condemn the Confederacy, instead, or in addition, unjustly attack the people and cultural commodities of the South on the mere basis of their Southernness. Returning to Smith’s article in the Atlantic, one may observe the second tendency in his treatment of the dialogue from his conversations with the Sons of Confederate Veterans, vis-à-vis dialogue from his conversations with other interviewees for the piece: on some occasions when Smith presents quotations from a seemingly ignorant or racist interviewee, he renders the dialogue in question with Southern dialectal features (as when, for example, one of the Sons of Confederate Veterans is reported to have said ‘I been in his ear good’ when referring to his attempts to persuade a friend of Smith’s of the justice of the Confederate cause); by contrast, when he presents quotations from seemingly enlightened or morally upstanding interviewees, he always renders the dialogue as dialectally unmarked, making use of the same high-register, largely non-regional journalistic English that prevails throughout the rest of the piece. This could, of course, simply reflect the actual character of the dialogue in question, with only the arguably racist interviewees having had Southern accents strong enough for those accents to be evident in transcription – and, as a question of good faith, I am prepared to give Smith the benefit of the doubt on this point. However, as a Kentuckian – many of whose friends and family, if not myself, come from heavily accented communities – a lifetime of experience has taught me to expect that where mockery of a Southern accent is implied, it is often intended: if Smith did not use his interviewee’s cultural Southernness to underscore their racism in the assumption that the two must necessarily correlate, than he is, by the standards of popular culture and journalistic convention, exceptionally enlightened. In any case, however, the implicit association of Southernness and backwardness, whether intended or not, does little to endear the article in question to a Southern readership, and neither does its implicit reiteration of the now-prevailing view of the Confederacy (and, because of the aforementioned popular haziness about the differences between Confederate and Southern identity, the South by extension) as culpable for not only its own brief history of white supremacy, but for those of the entire United States throughout the whole of its existence. That narrative is unacceptable to many if not most Southerners, and – indeed – unacceptable it should be, as I’ll explain.

In his article, Smith states, correctly that ‘Confederate history is family history, history as eulogy, in which loyalty takes precedence over truth.’ I would argue, however, that he errs in limiting the scope of his observation to Confederate history alone. The business of the historian is weaving past events into coherent narratives. Many are the stories that can accurately encompass a given set of data points, and the ones that historians choose to tell – and that their audiences choose to believe – are usually selected according to what interests they serve. Between Reconstruction and the first Civil Rights movement, when the US (or at least white people in the US) had embraced the consensus that American imperialism was a benevolent enterprise that existed to advance the interests of middle-to-upper-class white English-speakers, the histories they told themselves about the past (and disseminated to others via the media they monopolized) justified the status-quo they controlled, and lay the foundations of their hoped-for future. That narrative – white supremacist, capitalist, hyper-masculine and individualistic – told history of, by and for a collection of rich, white men. In it, slavery was an unfortunate mistake (but not nearly as bad as some had made it out to be) that had had little if anything to do with the Civil War (another unfortunate mistake), that had tragically but gallantly pitted (white) brother against (white) brother in a conflict the causes of which could be little understood, but which had ultimately strengthened the Union and paved the way for the glorious US expansionism of the late nineteenth and early-to-mid twentieth centuries. Such histories truncated or completely excluded the narratives of non-white people and women, since those writing the histories in question viewed the sufferings and contributions of such people and their communities as inconsequential.

When, beginning in the 1960s, a new generation of activists (many of them non-white and non-male) arose to belatedly shatter that consensus, the popular narrative eventually stretched to incorporate new perspectives and address new priorities. Suddenly, in at least some quarters (and, importantly, in some publications), the opinions of the descendants of slaves concerning slavery mattered, as did the opinions of American Indians concerning the Indian wars, and women concerning the role of women in society. When these revolutionary currents were counterbalanced by the inevitable retort of reactionaries, the muted synthesis became the new consensus of the late twentieth century – the notion, all too familiar to those of us raised in the 1990s – that ‘bad things’ had indeed happened in the US of past ages, especially to minorities, but that the indefatigable and uniquely American spirit of progress had slowly erased all distinctions of race, class, and gender, except those that were natural and right; and, furthermore, that America had always been ‘good at heart’, as evidenced by its propensity to clobber the truly evil ‘bad guys’ of history (like the CSA, Nazi Germany, the USSR, and Communist North Korea). Just as the earlier popular paradigm had left no room save at the outermost fringes to mention Black perspectives on slavery or First Nations recollections of Native American genocide, the new one carefully excluded any mention of the various states that the US had invaded and occupied with no excuse but greed (ie. most of Latin America), those that it had helped establish on conquered land for the service of its own geopolitical interests (such as Panama and Israel), and those that it had tried and failed to conquer (Vietnam, for instance); or the numerous stateless nations that this so-called ‘defender of the free world’ had declined to liberate in their hour of need (like the Tibetans, the Rohinga, or the Uyghurs); or plied with false promises, used, and then shamelessly abandoned (like the Kurds).

Now, in the face of a new Civil Rights movement – this one fully attuned to the sensibilities of the United States’ long-suppressed Leftism, at last largely unfettered from even the memory of the Red Scare – that second consensus, too, has begun to crumble. The insistence of reformers on memorializing those Black Southerners whose bodies were so cruelly used and broken by the plantation system is not the result of a bland, philosophical, objective search for historical truth, as Smith’s article seems to suggest. Rather, it is a deeply emotional quest for vindication, motivated by Black Americans’ yearning to see the stories of their ancestors told in a way that accords them the human dignity they were so callously denied in life – and, as I see it, the pathos and passion of that quest are not a liability, or a hindrance, but the guiding light and ennobling spirit that make the exercise of historical revision worthwhile. Thus, as we throughout the American empire structure a new historical consensus in the wake of the old, we should assess its worth by the number of downtrodden communities whose perspectives it valorizes, and whose stories it interweaves with its own – and I remain adamant in insisting that the people of the Southern United States should number among those communities.

If we aim to turn people like Sons of Confederate Veterans from their unfortunate adoration of the Confederacy (which, as earlier stated, is, for many, an unwitting misdirection of their wholly unobjectionable love of the South), then we must present them a viable alternative. The currently prevailing view – that the Confederacy was simply the South in nation-state’s clothing; that everyone who fought for the Southern cause plainly, willfully, consciously, and irredeemably endorsed both slavery and white supremacy; and that, in order to renounce that legacy, modern white Southerners must condemn their ancestors and all their folkways as evil, and assimilate to the cultural and linguistic norms of the white US mainstream – serves neither truth nor justice, and will lure not one Confederate apologist from the warm glow of the Lost Cause.

I propose, instead, another narrative: that the Confederacy was the brainchild of a twisted and corrupt cabal of landed Southern gentry – a tiny minority of white Southerners who sought to maintain slavery as the means of safe-guarding their tenuous position atop the capitalist hierarchy over which they presided, and which stood on the backs of poor whites, enslaved Blacks and displaced native peoples alike; and that these men, through reinforcing the then-century-and-half-old lie of white-supremacy, and the new but equally compelling untruth that the nascent Confederacy embodied the political will and national spirit of the Southern people, duped large swathes of the white Southern populace into fighting and dying in service to the interests of their societal overlords, ultimately in vain. By the light of this narrative, the evil of the Confederacy remains apparent, and slavery – in all its unvarnished hideousness – remains unassailed as the first and foremost cause of the Civil War; but the rank-and-file Confederate soldier is seen as victim of class-war rather than an aggressor in race-war, whose struggles can be considered solidaristically with other marginalized peoples in the South, and in which the South itself – with all its diversity and uniqueness (and, for that matter, its Blackness) – stands untainted by the sins of the Confederacy.

That is a narrative all proud Southerners could embrace, irrespective of (and, I hope, as an alternative to) racial identity, and one I fully intend to propagate; any non-Southerner who is serious about defeating Confederate nostalgia ought to consider doing the same.

A Case for the Southernness of Louisville, Kentucky

(An article urging urban Kentuckians, especially those in Louisville, to resist the bourgeois, neo-colonial impulse to further the cultural and linguistic divides between themselves and rural Kentuckians)

Not long ago, the news broke that a TV show – available for viewing nationwide, and slated for release in perhaps as little as one year’s time – would be set in my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. Many of my Louisvillian friends and I felt conflicted about the news. On the one hand, it marked a major step forward, as Louisville – relative to its size and historical importance – is chronically underrepresented in US creative media, and so it was about time that at least one mainstream TV program currently on air routinely featured the city. On the other hand, the news left at least some of us feeling apprehensive about how Louisvillians might be portrayed on the show. For instance, what would the characters look like: that is, would the cast be racially diverse, or would our hometown get whitewashed? What would they do on screen: that is, would the characters’ work and leisure activities be authentic to the Louisvillian experience, or would the show invent or over-emphasize businesses and pastimes that masked or distorted the city’s true image? Finally – and, for many, most importantly – how would the characters sound? Many of my friends were anxious, in particular, that Louisville not come across as ‘too Southern’. There was a time in my life that I would have shared their concern, but, for reasons I will now explain, I now fear for the opposite – that Louisville’s Southernness will be erased, not only in its portrayal on screen, but in actuality.

Growing up in the suburbs of Louisville’s East End, I had scant affinity for Southern culture, and certainly no conception of myself as Southern. I strove from a young age to ensure that my accent was my best approximation of ‘non-regional’ – a desire that stemmed partly from my thorough indoctrination by a Connecticut nanny who had so abhorred the way I sounded at four years old, after spending the summer with my grandparents in South-Central Kentucky’s Cumberland County, that she took it upon herself to give me elocution lessons; and, still more so, from acculturation to the norms of Louisville’s white middle class, whose collective self-worth in my early years seemed predicated on the notion that Louisville was the scaled-down equivalent of some US-based global cosmopolis like LA or New York – at once from everywhere and nowhere; adjacent to, but aloof from, its hinterlands; in-but-not-of the place where it happened to be. Investing that belief with sufficient verisimilitude to make it believable to others required that as many Louisvillians as possible have accents that couldn’t be easily placed, and, knowing no better, I was all too happy to play my part in advancing that goal.

Eventually, I felt as though my adopted way of speaking was natural and right: that my non-descript accent was the Louisvillian (and, by logical extension, the Kentuckian) norm – or, if not a reflection of how most Kentuckians did speak, at least a demonstration of how they should speak. By the time I could count my years in double digits, the accents of working-class people from Louisville’s South End, and of people from most any social stratum in my grandparents’ home county, had begun to seem, at best, parochial and quaint; and, at worst, poor and uneducated. My observations of my classmates reinforced this view: the children of financially affluent families with stable homelives spoke relatively non-regionally; not so, our less-fortunate peers, whose accents could be called, neutrally, ‘Southern’ or ‘country’ – or, pejoratively, ‘redneck’ or ‘hick’. Like many of my fellow students, I internalized the message that the ‘better sort’ of Louisvillians sounded like they were from nowhere in particular, and began to subconsciously assume that having a Southern accent must be an indicator of social and financial ineptitude or unworthiness – somehow never considering, despite my own formative experiences, that the accent in question wasn’t absent from the middle and upper echelons of Louisvillian society because it was inherently inferior, but, rather, because the perception that it was inferior meant that most Louisvillians raised with it had either discarded it, or suffered social and economic penalties for failing to do so.

My youthful misapprehension that Southernness, stupidity, and poverty were inextricably linked was eagerly reinforced by almost the whole of US pop-culture, at least as it seemed in the 1990s and early 2000s: one of my favorite TV shows – Nickelodeon’s ‘The Amanda Show’, featuring then child-star Amanda Bynes – devoted an entire recurring sketch in its vaudeville-style line-up to making fun of people whose accents sounded like those of my grandparents; the hit 1995 film ‘Clueless’ (ever popular with substitute teachers and parents hosting sleepovers) ended with an off-hand put-down of the assumed marital mores of rural Kentuckians that was meant to garner cheap laughs; and, on many an episode of Saturday Night Live (then as now) the subaltern status of Southerners, their culture, and their perceived mistreatment of the English language was never much in doubt, and always liable to be dredged up for an easy punchline.

Such was my certainty – bolstered by the aforementioned constant stream of anti-Southern propaganda – that smart, well-heeled people simply must have non-regional accents (and that the best and most respectable way to be Kentuckian was not to seem Kentuckian) that, once, while taking part in an acting exercise at a youth theatre camp, I couldn’t bring myself to mimic the voice of my own mother, because I couldn’t cognitively accept that she (a practicing medical doctor, and the major administrative force of our household) sounded like the former resident of Cumberland County that she was. I heard her accent every day, but had long ago stopped perceiving it as I heard it, because it didn’t conform to my internalized world view and its linguistic prejudices: Mom (never Momma, although that’s what she called her own mother), being clever, wise, and a pillar of our community, simply couldn’t have a Southern accent; and the fact that I could plainly hear – day in, and day out – that indeed she did have such an accent couldn’t sway the conviction born of my internalized views on dialectal and cultural hierarchy.

Interestingly, I never failed to properly hear my grandparents’ accents, and, as far as I can recall, I never revered them less for the sake of their Southern rurality, despite my internalized disdain for those traits in other people. Looking back, I believe I felt they should be excused from the usual stigma owing to their advanced age. This was, in fact, consistent with the bias that had been my birthright as a bourgeois Louisvillian, because the existential framework I had internalized held that, in addition (or as an alternative) to connoting backwardness, a Southern accent could also imply the quaintness of a bygone era.

Encoded in this assumption was the implication that, at one time, that accent had been more normal and acceptable in Louisville than it was at present. This implication, as I now realize, rings true: middle-class white Louisvillians’ accent – or, rather, their practiced and almost successful lack thereof – is not what it once was, that being Southern. Evidence of this discrepancy can still be detected in the accents of many working-class families with Louisvillian roots; of white Louisvillians of most any class born before the outbreak of the Second World War; and even – much to the consternation of those who would claim Louisville as culturally and geographically Midwestern – of many communities to the north of Louisville, across the Ohio River in Southern Indiana. Louisville’s dominant accent is an anomaly, making the city a faux-Midwestern linguistic enclave situated within the natural bounds of the linguistic South – and I can tell you it came to be that way.

It is not, as in the case of Northern Kentucky (the Kentuckian region comprising the urban and suburban neighborhoods of Boone, Kenton, and Campbell Counties that is, in most respects, a cultural, economic, and civic extension of Cincinnati) a natural consequence of geography, population movement, and trade. A quick glance at an infrastructural and social networking map of the South and Midwest will show that, while the people in Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati transact business mostly with each other and their immediate hinterlands (thereby forming a distinct and decidedly inward-looking zone of culture and enterprise) Louisville has a high degree of social and economic contact with most of the Commonwealth of Kentucky and Southern Indiana (regions which, as I have mentioned, are in large part linguistically Southern). The hypothesis of Louisville’s dialectal non-regionality as a result of overpowering and isolationist cultural distinctiveness therefore has no explanatory power: whereas Northern Kentucky is a Northward-looking cultural isolate, Louisville forms the hub of a wheel with many a Southern spoke; and, whereas it is possible to speak of a Northern Kentucky/Cincinnati accent, the same cannot be said of Louisville, where deviance from the linguistic norms of rural Kentucky is an affectation of the white middle classes, and the resulting accent seems calculatedly non-descript.

In fact, I would suggest that the Louisvillian non-accent not only seems calculated, but is so; that, at some point during the post-war twentieth century, middle- and upper-class white Louisvillians decided to stop being perceived as Southern, and thus linguistically seceded from the rest of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, instead modeling their speech on the quasi-Midwestern ‘standard’ American English that had come to prevail on the airwaves with the maturation of the radio broadcast, and become yet further entrenched in society with the dawning of the television age. Their likely reasons for this cultural betrayal are readily apparent even today, in the form of the stigmas of Southernness that I internalized in childhood, and which, doubtless, Louisville’s mid-century bourgeoisie desperately wanted their own children to escape: the stereotype, then as now as baseless as it is pervasive, that Southerners of any color are indolent, addle-brained, culturally-inferior louts who deserve to languish in the material scarcity and discomfort that simply must be of their own making; and that white Southerners are, in addition, racist, homophobic, transphobic, bigoted, and anti-feminist (although such traits and their cultural antecedents, would, at the time, have been denoted simply by use of the rather less specific adjective, ‘backward’).

Having jettisoned their most obvious ties to Southern culture in the interest of their emotional wellbeing and material prosperity, Falls City’s elite then set out – wittingly or unwittingly – to convert the less-well-off members of Louisvillian Society to their new linguistic norms, conveying, by their very continued existence atop the city’s social and economic hierarchy, that, while non-regional speech connoted affluence and style, a Southern accent implied their opposites.

In the twenty-first century, Louisville’s dialectal transition away from Southernness is nearly complete: Southern accents in in the city are looked on as the province of a pitiable minority of old folks, poor folks, and rural newcomers. Louisville’s pernicious influence is even beginning to mute the once robust regional speech varieties of outlying communities at or beyond the periphery of Jefferson County – forming a Kentuckian dialectal equivalent of the Dublin Pale in the long-ago marginalization of the Irish language in Ireland, or of the Lowland burghs in the diminution of Scottish Gaelic in Scotland.

Given time, the bourgeois de-culturation that has beset Louisville could eventually spread throughout the Commonwealth of Kentucky, hastened by the influx of new residents from other dialect regions that will almost certainly accompany future stages of the worsening climate crisis. Kentucky could thus cease, even in its rural heartlands, to be a culturally or linguistically Southern state.

There are those, of course, who would welcome the loss of Kentucky’s current regional identity. Central to this conceit, for many, is the aforementioned false assumption that Southern culture is necessarily little more than a vector for various kinds of ignorance, bigotry and social disadvantage. I have, on numerous occasions, encountered urban Kentuckians – especially middle-class, white, progressive Kentuckians – who see the loss of Kentucky’s Southernness as a pre-requisite to its hoped-for adoption of anti-racism, anti-ablism, LGBTQ+ acceptance, and feminism. Such people fail to appreciate the richness and multiplexity of Southern culture, or to consider the terrible irony of professed social justice activists condemning an entire region and its people based on groundless stereotypes informed by the United States’ longstanding program of internal colonization. In truth, Southernness comprises a plethora of interconnected but regionally-specific traditions of cuisine, agriculture, horticulture, textile arts, architecture, music, dance, visual art, literature, and dialect – a patrimony which could easily be shared and cultivated without regard to unjust hierarchies of race, gender, ability, sexual proclivity, or neurotypicality. To fail to uphold the rights of Southerners to maintain these traditions – indeed, to actively encourage them to abandon their cultural heritage, and to make them pariahs in mainstream society should they decline to do so – is a gross miscarriage of justice, and one for which no one should stand.

Others who would happily see Kentucky cease to be Southern are those Kentuckians who, while they do not necessarily espouse popular notions of Southern cultural and ethical inferiority, feel that they or the communities to which they belong have no place within Southern culture at large. I know, for instance, of Appalachian Kentuckians who – when they consider the ‘South’ – think only of the Deep South, or of the states of the former Confederacy, and who therefore situate the Appalachian cultural region mostly or entirely outwith the South.

I would argue, however – on the basis of various cultural commonalities, not the least of which being dialect – that much of the Appalachian cultural region (even insofar as it pervades West Virginia, and extends into southeastern Ohio, and Southwestern Pennsylvania) is essentially Southern in character.

Although some would retort that the Appalachian mountains reach far into New York, and even New England, and that they could, in these northern extremities of their range, scarcely be described as Southern, I would insist that the cultural region popularly called Appalachia either resides wholly within the South, or extends not far beyond its bounds – with the people living along the Monongahela river South of Pittsburg, for instance, having more cultural and linguistic commonalities with the typical resident of Tennessee than with that of coastal Pennsylvania; and the people of West Virginia having relatively little – culturally speaking – that distinguishes them from mountain-dwelling Virginians proper.

The solidly pro-Union dispositions of West Virginia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania in the Civil War have no bearing on the cultural Southernness of their Appalachian counties; as I have repeatedly urged in the past, the Confederacy and the cultural South should be looked on as two wholly distinct entities, and the former (a failed state artificially propped-up by slave-owning aristocratic elites for less than half a decade, all the while for nefarious purposes) should in no way be allowed to influence perceptions of the latter (a centuries-old and still vibrant source of much of the world’s most creative and influential music and art, and home to myriad interwoven social and ecological systems that sustain the lives and hopes of millions upon millions of people, many of them materially poor despite their cultural wealth).

Some Appalachians would, and have, denied the Southernness of Appalachia on the further basis that they perceive their home region as having insufficient commonalities with the rest of the South – in particular, the Deep South – to merit its inclusion in the Southern gestalt. As far as I can tell, this objection springs from a largely antiquated notion that presupposes vast cultural differences between Appalachians and other Southerners based mostly on assumed differences in their speech patterns, especially the presence or absence of rhoticity. A long-standing trope in US popular culture depicts Southern accents – especially deep Southern accents – as being mostly or completely non-rhotic (that is, disinclined to pronounce most final and some medial ‘r’s). An example that springs immediately to mind is that of the cartoon character Foghorn Leghorn, as voiced by the inimitable Mel Blanc (who also gave the world the voices of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Yosemite Sam, among others). Foghorn Leghorn – an anthropomorphic talking chicken, presumably from somewhere in the South – drops almost all of his ‘r’s. You wouldn’t be likely to encounter anyone who sounds remotely like him in Kentucky, even in the parts of the Commonwealth, outwith the urban pales, that have not yet been linguistically divested of their Southernness. Although some Kentuckian accents occasionally delete medial r’s (in words like ‘rural’ or ‘horse’, for instance), their final ‘r’s, tend – if anything – to be over-emphasized by comparison to standard American English, deploying the distinctive ‘bunched r’ that predominates in many (indeed, in most, as will later be discussed) varieties of Southern US English.

Hollywood largely has yet to make note of this distinction. The fact that Kentucky’s Southern accent is rhotic seems, for instance, to have been wholly lost on actor Owen Wilson when he portrayed a supposedly Kentuckian pilot in Wes Anderson’s ‘The Life Aquatic’ – much to the consternation of many a Kentuckian fan of the film. I suspect that it is in no small part because of portrayals like Wilson’s that some Kentuckians – Appalachian and otherwise – balk at the notion of Kentucky’s Southernness, reasoning that if Southern speech is fully non-rhotic, then even rural Kentuckians must not really be Southern.

This was certainly the assumption of a classmate of mine at the University of Louisville who hailed from still-robustly-accented rural Greenup County in Appalachian Kentucky. When preparing a piece for a monologue contest in Chicago that required a Southern accent, she went fully non-rhotic in her presentation of the character – doubtless drawing on decades of received wisdom garnered from watching the performances of actors like Blanc and Wilson – only to be sorely disappointed when the Midwestern adjudicators of the contest marked her down for the linguistic ‘inauthenticity’ of her character. In retrospect, I am almost certain that my friend’s own accent would have been much closer to the ‘authentic’ Southern sound the judges were expecting – and, ironically, their expectation would have been more in keeping with the linguistic realities of the modern South than those imagined by my unfortunate fellow student. 

Despite the non-rhoticity preferred by Hollywood voice and screen actors modelling Southernness for their nation- or worldwide audiences, non-rhotic Southern accents are far from normative, even in the rural Deep South. Even in the bygone days when they were more prevalent (in some places, more than a century ago, and counting) – non-rhotic accents only occurred in a minority of the Southern population. A popular and plausible theory – if not yet a full academic consensus – holds that Southern non-rhoticity was itself artificial, starting off as an affectation of antebellum planter-aristocrats, and spreading, by the process of elite emulation, to their overseers, fieldhands, and slaves. With the collapse of the plantation economy in the lattermost third of the nineteenth century, the prestige of the non-rhotic Southern accent waned, and it began to subside in prevalence throughout the South, leaving most of those who had adopted it to revert to the aforementioned ‘bunched r’ that had always predominated (then as now) outwith the areas dominated by the plantation system. Today, almost the only Southern accents that have uniform non-rhoticity can be found in the older generations of some communities along the coasts of the Atlantic Ocean and the Mississippi River (most famously in New Orleans, Louisiana and Charleston, South Carolina); in many of the Ebonic varieties of English – also known as African American Vernacular English (AAVE) or Black Vernacular English (BVE) – spoken in predominantly Black communities either in the South or established elsewhere in the US by Southern Black migrants during the twentieth century’s Great Migration; and – as earlier mentioned – in Californian and New York studios frequented by non-Southern actors and recording artists.

As the situation stands, rural Southernness is thus, by some measures, more linguistically uniform than it has ever been – bourgeois urban and suburban incursions of standard English such as have occurred in Louisville not withstanding – with ‘bunched’ rhoticity occurring in almost all non-BVE speaking Southern communities from the northern panhandle of West Virginia to that of Florida, and from the Appalachian Mountains of the eastern Carolinas to the Ozarks of Oklahoma and Arkansas. The lands and communities compassed by that latter east-to-west axis – which some have termed Greater Appalachia, or the Upland South – has always had a relatively coherent and largely rhotic dialect continuum, and, with the subsidence of non-rhoticity, it is the speech varieties of this more northerly Southern region that have become normative in the South at large. Arguably, then, the increasing uniformity of Southern speech represents the pan-Southern adoption of Appalachian norms, or what I term its ‘Appalachiation’: a process which should remove any sense of alienation that Appalachians feel regarding the reaffirmation of their Southern identity.

Some Southerners from Appalachia or elsewhere in the Upland South (what I deem the Trans-Appalachian or Tramontane South, to signify that it constitutes the part of the South in, and inland of, the Appalachian Mountains) might still profess a lack of Southern identity on the basis of their regions’ ecological incongruity with the Deep South – the Upland South being a land of snowy winters, pawpaws, and white oaks; and, the Deep South, one of ice-less winters, mayhaws, and live oaks – often decked with Spanish moss, no less, and under which one might encounter the occasional alligator (which would, I assure you, be a most unexpected and unwelcome visitor to Kentucky). I would argue, however, that these differences are climatic rather than climactic, presenting no great impediment to the notion of a culture that is recognizably Southern, if, in many small respects, regionally diverse. In any case – and for better or worse – whatever intra-Austral (that is, ‘within the South’) cultural differences do stem from underlying variations in flora and fauna are likely to lessen as climate change elides the natural distinctions that undergird them. For instance, Kentucky has, since the turn of the millennium, become home to thriving populations of armadillos and black vultures (animals once thought of as endemic only to the far Southwest of the Southern US); it is entirely possible that live oaks, Spanish moss, and even alligators might likewise eventually head northward.

Of course, Appalachians are not the only subsection of the Southern population of which some members feel ill-represented by the construct of Southernness. Many speakers of BVE – even if they reside within in the South – either feel cut off from Southern cultural identity because they perceive it as belonging exclusively to white Southerners; or actively shun it because they consider it irredeemably tainted by the legacies of chattel slavery, the Confederate rising, the failure of Reconstruction, and the (arguably resurgent) Jim Crow era.  The gulf between Black and White Southerners is harder to bridge than that that exists between Appalachian and non-Appalachian Southerners, because whereas the exploitation and suppression of Appalachians has largely occurred at the hands of non-Southerners, the general antipathy of white Southerners toward Black Southerners (and, indeed, to Black people in general) has arguably been the greatest historical cause of the latter group’s suffering, from the time of the establishment of the plantation system to the present day. Given that history, it is fully understandable that many Black Americans – including and perhaps especially those with Southern ancestors – would choose Black racial solidarity over regional cultural solidarity based in the South, even if they lived in Southern communities, or had accents with Southern origins. Even so, there is no reason that Southernness should exclude Black people; in fact, I see it as imperative that it be completely racially inclusive, with anyone who was either raised in a community that upholds Southern cultural traditions (including those of Black Southerners), or who has adopted Southern cultural practices through their acculturation to such a community, looked on as Southern.

It should be remembered that the construct of race, as it exists in the US, is a relatively recent notion –dating from the late seventeenth century at the earliest. Until that time, the concept of race was largely indistinguishable from those of ethnicity and nationality, all of which had more to do with what language someone spoke and what culture they grew up in than what they looked like (the modern idea of race), who their ancestors were (how some people, in my opinion erroneously, define the modern concept of ethnicity), or of what country, if any, they were considered a citizen (the modern definition of nationality). It was possible, for instance, to speak of the Gaels, the Frisians, the Yoruba, and the Chickasaws (to choose four peoples at random) as distinct ‘races’; and, even though the former two ‘races’ would now be considered as together belonging to the ‘white’ race, before the advent of whiteness, they would have been thought of as having nothing in common but Christianity. Indeed, the justification for indigenous genocide and African chattel slavery in the Americas by European settler-colonists originally rested on Christian supremacy, rather than white supremacy – but this presented slave owning European settler colonists with a serious problem when, by the mid-1600s, they had succeeded in forcing most of their slaves to convert to Christianity. By their earlier logic, Christians – being fundamentally equal to other Christians – could not be kept in perpetual bondage, and so the wealthy planters had to contrive another justification for treating human beings as their property. The initial solution in most places was to reserve human rights to people who belonged to the ‘race’ (in the pre-modern sense of the term) of the ruling classes of the colony in question. In English-speaking North America, that meant English settlers. This solution, too, proved problematic, however, because by excluding people of other European ‘races’ – like the Gaels, the Welsh, and the Lowland Scots – it allowed for people from these groups to develop more solidarity with the African slaves than with their English landlords and bosses, which endangered the landowners’ hold on power. To remedy this problem of working-class solidarity across racial lines, the English settlers began decreeing that European-descended colonists of other ‘races’ could be honorary Anglo-Saxons, even if they didn’t come from England or speak English as their first language. Eventually, this privileged category came to encompass almost any European-descendent with pale skin (so everyone with ancestors from the British Isles, and most people from Scandinavia, Germany, northern France, northern Italy, and northern Spain); and, by the mid-twentieth century, even people of European descent who had ‘tan’ or ‘olive’ skin (like people from Andalusia, southern France, southern Italy, Greece, and the Balkans). Thus, by the early 1700s, the idea of the white race (which had full human rights) as opposed to the Black race (which did not) was born. Even as the category of whiteness mutated in encompass all people who are now considered white (with the most recent entrants being pale-skinned Jewish people, as of the 1950s and later), it retained its earlier synonym of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ (as evoked even today by right-wingers like Marjorie Taylor Greene) – though it has come to include a much larger group than just the English, and the connections between whiteness and Englishness, at least in the US, are not always readily apparent outside the question of language choice (with ‘This is America, speak English!’ having become one of the most widely recognized slogans popularly understood as being emblematic of whiteness).

As can be seen from the above history, interracial solidarity among downtrodden Southern people predates whiteness, and it was against that solidarity that whiteness arose, a prejudicial smokescreen to sow dissention among the united poor and defend the ill-gotten privileges of the wealthy few against masses they exploited for their enrichment. As that contest now stands, throughout the capitalist hellscape that is the United States, whiteness has the upper hand – but we, as modern Southerners, need not let it triumph. We can still turn the tide in favor of solidarity, by creating a Southern identity unfettered by hierarchies of color or of wealth – but we will only succeed in doing so with substantial emotional and identarian investment from Black Southerners. I nurture a great hope that this investment will materialize: already, there is widespread recognition within the US Black community that Black Southerners played a founding or perfecting role in many of the cultural commodities traditionally considered Southern – from musical styles like Old-time, Bluegrass, Country, Blues, and Jazz (often most famously played by Black musicians, or on instruments such as the banjo and the dobro that hail originally from Africa), to horseracing (in which many of history’s greatest jockeys have been Black), to whisky distilling (which, although of Gaelic origins, might never have become a widespread industry in America if not for the contributions of Black distillers), not to mention the South’s many varieties of famously Black and/or Black-influenced cuisine. Although many in the Black community would sooner use the Black history of the South to assert the South’s essential Blackness than to assert the essential Southernness of Black people, I am confident that, given time, the two propositions will come to be seen as intrinsically linked and mutually validating – two sides of the same coin: one that we might one day redeem for a future in which people in the South consider themselves, foremost, to be Southerners, and in which they give little if any thought to the color of their skin.

I am firmly of the opinion, in the face of the many potentially catastrophic existential changes soon to plague the waiting world – the climate crisis and its ravages among them – that the people of the South would do well to band together, and embrace a common cultural identity that could transcend the old, white-supremacist divisions of race, and allow them to present a unified front against the constant onslaught of anti-Southern regionalism. This identity need not be – indeed, must not be – homogenous: every Southern family and community has its own story to tell, its own folkways to practice, and its own perspective on life. Even so, my travels within the South, and my interactions with Southern people living in various locales throughout the world, have convinced me that, culturally speaking, more attributes unite Southerners than divide us; and that those in the South who reject Southern identity tend to do so on the basis of either internalized anti-Southern prejudice, or misconceptions about what, where and for whom Southern culture is – both of which have been normalized and disseminated on a global scale by the US mass media. It can be easily – and convincingly – argued that this normalization and dissemination constitutes one aspect of the US empire’s ongoing project of internal and external colonialism, in which distinctive regional identities and their associated commodities both within and outwith the United States are continually subsumed to an ecologically and culturally rootless identity based in US hyper-patriotism, white supremacism, and consumerism, operating under the tacit assumption that the development of competing identities would undermine US imperial interests and must therefore be prevented.

In order to avoid succumbing to this colonial process, and to effectively adapt to the numerous crises that will existentially threaten the South in the coming decades, Southerners should stand together in asserting their cultural distinctiveness, rejecting the debilitating narrative of Southern cultural worthlessness and backwardness, and, with it, the false consciousness of white supremacy – working in solidarity with other historically disadvantaged groups within the United States to establish a common cultural framework that affirms the intrinsic value of the South and of all people who live here.

To play their part in this undertaking, Louisvillians and other urban Kentuckians should stop denying that Falls City forms part of Kentucky, and that Kentucky (with the arguable exception of its Greater Cincinnati suburbs) forms part of the South; they should stop looking down on the workers, community elders, and recent arrivals from outwith Jefferson County who either cannot or will not attempt a non-regional accent; and they should stop pretending that Louisville’s creeping linguistic levelling is the inevitable result of ‘cosmopolitanism’ or technical proximity to the Midwest, and accept that anyone in Kentucky who brags about having ‘no accent’ is either a perpetrator of our country’s ongoing program of internal colonization, or its unwitting victim. They should also stop telling themselves, in order to distance themselves from the painful legacies of white supremacy, the blatant untruth that only the South is racist, and that they are not part of the South.

Whether Louisvillians like it or not, they are Kentuckians and Southerners. To pretend otherwise is either disingenuous or delusional, and to painstakingly breathe that fallacy into the fullness of life by affecting multi-generational language shift is to sacrifice an invaluable and irreplaceable aspect of Kentucky’s cultural heritage to a self-serving lie.

In short, when this TV show airs, I hope it plays Louisville as Southern – not Southern in the way of Foghorn Leghorn, or Owen Wilson’s ill-starred Louisvillian pilot, or (God forbid!) the long-dead CSA. I want to see the Kentuckian South – the South of my parents, and my grandparents, and my great-grandparents (but without the classicism and racism that held so many of their neighbors down); the South of the pawpaw and the wild persimmon; the South that calls ‘fireflies’ lightnin’ bugs, and ‘morels’ dry-land-fish; the South of those who, for generations, have come into Louisville out of counties from Pike to Fulton, and – despite what bourgeois city people might or might not have thought of them – stayed and prospered; the South that I grew up in, pretending it wasn’t mine, but that I now want to reclaim, and bequeath to my children; the South to which Louisville once unashamedly belonged, and to which – I hope – it will one day fully belong again.

The Case for a New Southern Flag

(Or, why the status of Confederate flags as symbols of Southern-ness must be challenged)

Bratach an Deas (The Flag of the South)

The South needs a new flag. The emblems most commonly associated with the region at present are also emblems of the Confederacy – and therefore, by extension, of white supremacy – but the geographical and cultural area thought of as the Southern United States need not be associated with either of those concepts. Indeed, if its existence is to be ethical, those who believe in the validity of the South as a construct, and who espouse Southern-ness as a facet of their identity, must extinguish its association with both the Confederacy and with white supremacy, embracing instead a Southern-ness which is not only overtly and avowedly multi-ethnic and anti-racist, but fully intersectional with all facets of the cause of social justice, from minority language revitalization and anti-capitalism, to feminism and LGBTQIA+ activism.

The promotion of a Southern identity is not only compatible with, but complementary to, these ideals: Southerners, albeit it to a lesser extent than members of the oppressed groups whose causes are outlined above, are themselves no strangers to oppression. Many have been forced by prejudicial employers to disguise their accents or look elsewhere for work; mocked and derided by strangers or even friends as ignorant, inbred hicks; or assumed, based only on their place of origin, to be culturally inferior to people from elsewhere in the English-speaking world. This regional prejudice – rooted, like the Southern identity itself, in the nexus of culture and geography – ought to be answered by the affirmation of a Southern-ness with positive attributes: a Southern-ness of loving-kindness and respect toward all people, clarity and vigor of thought, and justified pride in knowing and developing the cultural traditions of the region. It is hoped that the flag proposed in this document might serve as the banner of that affirmation.

The proposed flag – loosely representing a map of the Southern United States (as oriented to the East, instead of the North, in Gaelic fashion – consists of a spring-green field, divided into three sections by three broad, curving, dark-blue lines. The horizontal line, extending inward from the center of the left edge of the flag, represents the Middle Mississippi River (that portion of the Mississippi River that lies upstream of its confluence with the Ohio). The lower blue line, ascending from the bottom-right corner of the flag, represents the lower Mississippi River (that portion of the river that lies downstream of the Ohio confluence). The remaining line, descending from the top-right corner of the flag, represents the Ohio River itself.

The resulting three fields represent the three regions which arguably constitute the geographical domain of Southern culture: to the southwest, represented by the lower field of the flag, lies the trans-Mississippian South of western Louisiana, eastern Texas, eastern Oklahoma, Arkansas, southern Missouri, and southern Illinois; to the northeast, represented by the upper field of the flag, lies the trans-Ohioan or ‘Butternut’ South of southern Indiana, southern Ohio, West Virginia, and (arguably) Appalachian Pennsylvania; and, to the southeast, represented by the semi-triangular field on the right side of the flag, lie the Deep South, the Upland South (also called the Tramontane or Trans-Appalachian South), the tidewater region of Virginia and North Carolina, and the central and southernmost segments of Appalachia.

In each spring-green field resides a golden circle representing one of the three indigenous Southern fruits that give the flag its bynames: the pawpaw, the persimmon, and the mayhaw. The stylized depictions of the fruits are golden in color in recognition of the fact that each of the three exhibits a golden hue at some stage in its ripening process, whether internally or externally.

The choice of these fruits as symbols of Southern-ness rests on the basis that two of them – the pawpaw and the persimmon – grow throughout the region generally thought of as the South, although the former’s range slightly exceeds the geographic boundaries of the South to the north and the west. This serves as a reminder that the idea of the South – despite its rootedness in geography – has not the definite geographical boundaries of a nation-state, and defies strict delineation. The third fruit, the mayhaw – though it grows only in the Deep South – represents a distinct cultural and ecological commodity of the South by the very virtue of the limitedness of its range, and therefore serves as a reminder that the South itself, although united by various cultural continuities, nonetheless exhibits tremendous internal diversity.

The pawpaw, the mayhaw and the persimmon are the only native arboreal fruits that grow north of Central America. In their uniqueness, they symbolize the regional distinctness of the South; and – importantly – in their indigeneity to North America, they serve as a reminder that the land beneath the feet of modern Southerners once belonged solely to indigenous peoples. Only by acknowledging this fact, and by doing justice to the living representatives of the people from whom the land was unjustly taken, can any modern Southerners – especially those descended from European colonists – ethically steward Southern lands today.

The triplicate pattern formed by the fruit obliquely pays homage the awen – a symbol developed by the Welsh nationalist Yolo Morganawg in the early days of the Celtic Revival. He professed a belief that the symbol was of ancient ‘druidic’ in origin, when – in fact – he probably invented it himself. It features in the flag as both a celebration of Welsh culture, which has played an important but often overlooked role in the colonial history of the South (legend has it, after all, that the medieval Welsh prince Madog was the first European to travel West of the Allegheny mountains); and as a reminder that it is both possible and legitimate for members of a given culture to creatively reinvent that culture in service to a worthy cause.

The colors of the fruit – and of the flag in general – are highly symbolic. In the Goidelic languages – that is, Manx, Irish and Scottish Gaelic – whose speakers played an important role, for good and ill, in the cultural foundation of the modern South, the word for dark blue or dark green (in Scottish Gaelic, gorm) historically meant ‘Black’ in the context of human skin color. Therefore, the fact that the blue swathes of the rivers define the shape of the flag symbolizes the fact that Black people – in terms of their presence in, their achievements on, and their connection to Southern lands, and their oppression and willful omission from Southern history by white people who have sought to control the South and its people for their own gain – have helped to define what the South is, and will continue to play an important role in shaping what it is to become. The golden color of the fruit – placed in such close proximity to the green fields and blue rivers – serves to remind us that Black Southerners, through their forced labor as slaves and convicts, have all-too-often been made against their will to bring forth the fruits of Southern prosperity; and that capitalism continues to oppress Southerners – especially Black Southerners – today. Only by acknowledging the sin of slavery, and the many decades of racism that have come after; and by doing justice to the living representatives of the people from whom freedom was unjustly taken, can the South come to terms with the many dehumanizing acts of white-supremacism which have been committed in its name.

And yet, just as the golden flesh of the fruit is negatively symbolic of capitalism, it can also be taken as positively symbolic of the true prosperity that comes from mutual aid and self-realization. In the Goidelic languages, the word for yellow is often synonymous with the word for good fortune, as seen in the Scottish Gaelic phrase ‘buidhe leat!’ (‘good luck to you!’). Thus, the gestalt of the yellow fruits, the blue rivers, and the green fields symbolize the hope that, in the future, Black Southerners may have the prosperity that capitalism and racism have hitherto all-too-often denied them.

Thus, colors of the flag are spring-green, dark blue, and golden yellow. In terms of geographic, ecological and ideological symbolism, the first color stands for the green fields and woodlands of the South – once and still so dear to the people of the South, especially indigenous Southerners – and embodies the Southern hope for an environmentally sustainable future despite the intensifying ravages of climate change. The second represents the blue, life-giving waters of the South’s rivers and lakes, so abundant in biodiversity, that form the arteries of many a Southern community’s transport infrastructure; the Black bodies callously broken to build the society that now teems on the shores of those rivers and lakes; the Black communities that have defined what the South is, and what it may yet become; and Southern people’s loyalty to one another, their principles, and those of their ancient traditions that they deem worthy to set adrift in the carrying stream of living Southern culture to be borne forth into the future. The third and final color symbolizes the ill-gotten gold of the tainted white-supremacist past – once hoarded by the greedy few, but soon to be redistributed for the benefit of all; and the bright, golden glow of a future in which all Southerners will have everything they need to ensure their wellbeing. White – the color of racial whiteness, a false consciousness which has debased all those who subscribe to it, divided workers against their corporate masters, and served as the millstone beneath which the hopes and dreams of tens of generations of innocent people have been ground to dust – will be omitted. Ours is not the flag of the white race, nor is it the flag of surrender. Red – the color of blood, rage, and fire – will likewise be omitted, in the sincere hope that, though there can be no peace without justice, we may yet live peaceably by seeing that justice is done.

In their triplicate number, the three golden fruits, the three green fields, and the three blue rivers also represent the three core Southern virtues: generosity, courtesy, and community. Southern culture is famed for its generosity, as illustrated by the celebrated quality of ‘Southern hospitality’. Southerners, at their best, give freely of their possessions even when they have little, and do as best they can to help people in need; they are generous not only with their possessions, but with their time – volunteering it for the benefit of loved ones and even strangers, and not losing patience even when their patience is tried. The need for Southern generosity is greater than ever before. The South has always been a hospitable land, and will appear yet more so as climate change makes other lands less and less hospitable. When the rivers and aquifers of the West run dry, and the coastal cities sink beneath the rising seas, their people will seek refuge among us, blessed as we are with ample water and as-yet-un-inundated highlands. Then, more than ever, will be the time for Southern generosity; for if, in that moment, we hoard our wealth, we will have made ourselves unworthy to possess it. Let us hope, that – in their gratitude – the incomers will adopt the lifeways of the South, so that those elements of our culture that we rightly cherish will go on unchanged. If we seek that outcome, then we must teach by example, and show our cultural practices to be worthy of imitation.

Southern culture is famed for its courtesy, as illustrated by the celebrated quality of ‘Southern charm’. Southerners, at their best, are kind and sociable; able to compliment freely but without insincerity, and to criticize without incivility; good humored, even in the midst of hardship; and companionable, even in the company of people whom they scarcely know, and by whom they in no way stand to profit. When Southerners have failed in the exercise of this virtue, the results have been calamitous. Truly, no courtesy was shown by European settler-colonists to the people of the First Nations; or by masters and overseers to their slaves; or by fearful and entitled white Southerners to the civil rights activists of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Now is the time to redress those wrongs, and – in doing so – to redouble the Southern commitment to courtesy, not only insofar as nicety (which, while pleasant, can be superficial) but in terms of true loving-kindness and compassion. Courtesy, in its amplest sense, entails the implicit recognition of the personhood of all people in striving to make them feel comforted and esteemed, and neither oppressed nor even oppressor will live in true comfort or sincere high self-regard until the systems of oppression that ensnare them are unmade, and equality established in their wake. Courtesy, in this sense of the word, means the good treatment of all people, even when to do so comes inconveniently, or at the expense of one’s own privilege – and it is to this sort of courtesy which Southerners must now aspire.

Southern culture is famed for is sense of community, as illustrated – for better and for worse – by the stereotype of the small Southern town: there, everyone knows everyone else, and everyone else’s business; and secrets are hard to keep, but not so traditions. Such interdependence, inter-reliance, and social inertia has its dark side: many a would-be member of the LBTQ+ community has died without having ever fully lived, for fear of condemnation by a Southern community. Their often un-told stories, and stories like them, ought never to have played out as they did, and must not be forgotten. We should also bear in mind, however, that close-knit communities have been the salvation of many a Southerner in time of want, and that so many evils of the Western world have come from the sundering of the bonds of family and friendship. Human beings are social creatures, inclined by nature to commune with and help one another; if isolation is, as mounting evidence suggests, lethal to us, then the modern United States – with its ethos of the rugged individual, the nuclear family, and the independent consumer – is little short of a killing machine, even among its own citizens. The South – often lampooned for its rurality – is one of the regions of the US where older models of community have not entirely surrendered to the neoliberal onslaught, and where, even if diminished, they stand the best chance of revival.

If we direct the course of the enterprise of our stateless nation-building in accordance with these virtues, we might yet redeem the South in the eyes of those whom she has wronged, and exalt her reputation in the eyes of those who have heretofore looked on her with contempt.

This new Southern flag – to be called the Pawpaw Flag, the Mayhaw Flag, the Persimmon Flag, or simply the Flag of the South (Bratach an Deas, in Scottish Gaelic) – will hopefully help contribute to the symbolic repertoire of the Leftist Southern cultural revival to come.

How Anarchism, Anti-Racism, and Anti-Capitalism Relate to the Kentucky Gaelic Revival

Clarification of Terms

Recently, a friend in the Scottish Society of Louisville (a local Scottish heritage organization that helped fund my doctoral studies, and which I recommend to any interested Louisvillians) requested that I clarify what I mean by the terms ‘anarchism’, ‘anti-racism’, and ‘anti-capitalism’; and that I explain how they were connected to the promotion of Scottish Gaelic in Kentucky. This blog post is an elaboration of the answers I gave that friend: I share it here in the hope that it might help other interested people with similar questions to understand more clearly some of my objectives in helping to initiate the Kentucky Gaelic revival. If, after reading this, my thoughts on the terms in question still seem unclear, I’m sure the fault is mine, and I would be happy to attempt to explain further: don’t hesitate to get in touch at For now, I invite you to read the following:

Dùthchas is Anarcachas ann an Ceanndachaidh / Folk-culture and Anarchism in Kentucky

This is the name of a podcast and Facebook page that I created with the three aims of promoting traditional knowledge associated with Kentucky (folklore about Kentucky regions, arts-and-crafts activities like quilting, etc.); anarchism (the goal of promoting a state-less, non-hierarchical society, or of promoting stateless or non-hierarchical activities within existing society); and the Gaelic language.


Although they might seem incongruous, I see these three things as being closely connected: folk-culture (that is, cultural knowledge transmitted intergenerationally within families and communities through mentor-to-apprentice teaching in homes and neighborhoods), and minority languages (which are essentially a form of folk-culture) are both endangered by hegemonic forces that replace local family and community knowledge with knowledge propagated by mass media, usually with the help or in the interests of either state-affiliated or state-protected formal institutions like schools and corporations. Take the example of Scottish Gaelic: its slow diminution over the course of around 1000 years has mostly resulted from its persecution by the Scottish state, the British state, or corporations and landed business people working in cooperation with these entities. If there had been no government in Scotland or elsewhere in the United Kingdom, then it’s very likely that Gaelic would be stronger today, and, although I advocate for the payment of reparations by the UK and Scottish governments for their ill-treatment of Gaelic over the years, I think it would be far better for the language if these governments had simply never existed.

When I speak against government, some people assume that I’m against cooperation or collective action, or that I’m anti-social – that, essentially, I’m endorsing Ayn-Rand style US libertarianism, which couldn’t be further from the truth. While I am a libertarian in the classical sense, in that I think people should feel free to make for themselves the choices that determine the courses of their lives, I also believe that human beings are fundamentally social creatures – that we are far happier in groups than in isolation, and that we tend to achieve far more by working together than by working alone. I see socialism, in the most basic sense of the word (that is, a conception of society in which people look out for one another’s interests, rather than merely their own, and in which maintaining the welfare of society itself is considered a laudable aim) as the best form of human social organization. 

However, unlike many socialists and social democrats, I believe that hierarchical organizations that exercise undue power over the actions of other individuals and groups within society by hoarding resources and deciding independently how to distribute these resources to others – whether they be corporations, or the organs of government – do not promote the wellbeing of society, but instead hinder it. I have come to the conclusion that the best way – indeed, perhaps, the only way – of creating a society wherein people have the right to exercise individual agency while belonging to maximally supportive and emotionally fulfilling communities is for people to rely on one another rather than on formal institutions: living as equals, unoppressed by governments and corporations, and keeping the production of the physical and cultural commodities on which they rely (from food to philosophy) as local and community-centric as possible.

Now, I know that some people – up to and including both the current and outgoing presidents of the United States – get upset at the idea of anarchy: that, for them, it connotes lawlessness and terror; an endless battle of all against all in which no one triumphs, especially the weak. That is one definition of anarchy, but not at all the vision of the future for which I hope. For me, anarchy means a system of social organization in which all people are equal; in which all members of every community protect and nurture the wellbeing of their fellows out of self-respect and a sense of love and duty to their neighbors, rather than a slavish devotion to the law, or the fear of punishment for breaking it; and in which people are free to follow their passions, to the extent possible without treading on others’ rights, instead of toiling away their lives as pawns of the market or virtual slaves of the state.  

That condition of maximal freedom and equality is the kind of anarchy I hope to bring about, and anarchism is the process by which that condition of anarchy might be realized – not, or at least not yet, in the form of actual societal revolution, but through conducting revolutionary acts of community-building, and attempts to dismantle the unjust hierarchies that harm society and its members.


One of the greatest unjust hierarchies at work in the US today is the racial caste system that dominates and divides our social life. White people have controlled a disproportionate amount of wealth and power in North America since the invention of the construct of whiteness in the 1600s, while non-white people – especially Black and indigenous people – have continually suffered simply for not having been born white. Whiteness itself was only invented by wealthy plantation owners to prevent worker solidarity among their servants and slaves; before the late 1600s, and in many cases far later, ‘race’ was synonymous not with the modern idea of genetic- or color-based race, but with the concept of cultural nationhood (that is, ‘tribe’). It was once possible, for instance, to speak of the Gaels as a race; and, at the outset of whiteness, the only people truly considered ‘white’ were the Anglo-Saxons – a term which meant not pale-skinned people in general, as it does today, but specifically the English. 

Over time, the franchise of whiteness has expanded to include most people who look phenotypically pale, just as the British Empire once expanded to include many lands outside of England. However – in both cases, whether whiteness or Britishness – Englishness was the dominant force in the construct. It is for this reason that all indigenous and immigrant languages in the United States, including those of non-English ‘white’ people, have eventually given way to English. The American Revolution, rather than deconstructing the British Imperial project, merely replaced England with the United States as the dominant power in the Anlgo-Saxonization of the Western Hemisphere: the American colonial elite – that is, wealthy, land-owning English people in America – did not lose power during the Revolution, and those non-English European immigrants who ultimately became white were expected to adopt English language and manners in order to don the protective mantle of whiteness, thereby ceasing to belong to the cultural nations of their ancestors. 

Part of my mission in restoring Gaelic in Kentucky is to help challenge the false consciousness of whiteness: I want white people in Kentucky to reflect on the cultural heritage(s) that their immigrant ancestors had to give up in order to become white, and to consider how poorly those sacrifices have actually served them. Not all whiteness is created equal: the white people who descend from the English upper-classes have always had an economic and cultural advantage over late converts to whiteness from other European immigrant groups. Kentucky – mostly colonized by European immigrants from the lower classes of non-English speaking areas of the British Isles, and long bedeviled by economic inequality – has seldom if ever been looked on as hosting the most prestigious sort of white people. In light of this reputation, Kentuckians of all ‘races’ have often been disparaged by people from other regions in a similar (albeit markedly less severe) way to that in which people of color have been disparaged by whites. In order to combat this regionalism, and the racism with which it is bound up, I would like all Kentuckians, including white Kentuckians, to reflect on the fact of their marginalization as Kentuckians; and for white Kentuckians to begin to feel more solidarity with other Kentuckians (including and perhaps especially Kentuckians of color) than with white people from elsewhere in the US and Europe.  Only by liberating ourselves from the false-consciousness of whiteness can white people in Kentucky, or anywhere else, cease to be dangerous to people of color, and, indeed, to ourselves. As such, my efforts to promote Gaelic and the Gaelic identity – thereby hopefully helping to undermining the hegemony of whiteness – are calculated to be anti-racist.


Just as statism and racism have often endangered the future of Gaelic – the first, by driving Gaels from their lands, or by coercing them into speaking English; and, the second, by replacing their Gaelic-language-centered identity as Gaels with an English-language-centered identity as whites, whether in Britain or North America – capitalism, too, has proved itself an enemy of the Gaelic language. Over the course of the last three hundred years, Gaelic has been constantly derided as unprofitable. For the most part, this assertion has been true – Gaelic is not, in general, a language of economic advancement – but this alone would not make it seem worthless if not for the capitalist belief that the essential worth of any given thing stems exclusively from its economic value. In contrast to this capitalist outlook, I believe that the fundamental worth of a thing rests in its ability to contribute to human wellbeing and happiness, and that people themselves are intrinsically valuable. Whereas many a capitalist has looked at Gaelic’s historically limited earning power, and concluded that the language should be either allowed to die or even hastened to its proverbial grave; I see the joy it brings its learners, and the sense of pride and cultural continuity it affords the Scottish Gaels, and have come to feel that Gaelic’s survival as a living language is a moral imperative. These two conceptions of value – one capitalist, and one humanist – are fundamentally at odds: they cannot coexist in the same mind without a high degree of cognitive dissonance, and they cannot be implemented in the same social system as a means of assessing the value of things without coming into direct conflict with one another. Therefore, declaring that Gaelic has worth despite its low profit potential – which I do, often and loudly – is fundamentally at odds with capitalism, and is, as such, an anti-capitalist act.

Above and beyond that theoretical argument for the incompatibility of Gaelic and capitalism is the concrete fact that the Highland Clearances – the forced mass-exodus of the Gaels from their traditional homelands in the Scottish Highlands – was conducted in the name of capitalist economic progress. After the defeat of the Jacobites at Culloden Moor in 1746, the Highland aristocrats ceased being clan chiefs in all but name, and began to effectively function as landlords. Their people, who had traditionally paid rent in kind, or in military service, had little recourse to the money economy of the Lowlands, and so were unable to pay the rent when it was requested in cash. When it became clear that the traditional Gaelic way of life – that of communally organized subsistence agriculture – could not be profitable in monetary terms, and that more money could be had by replacing the Highland tenants with red deer and cheviot sheep, the landlords did exactly that: they drove away the tenants by fire and sword (often wielded by hired mercenaries and complicit police), destroyed Gaelic farmsteads, and converted the then-emptied land into sprawling deer parks, grouse moors, and sheep pastures.

The Highland Clearances were not inevitable or necessary – no more than the expulsion of Native Americans from their former lands East of the Mississippi River, or the use of African slaves in the plantation economy of the Southern US and the Caribbean. People who had bought into notions of progress built on white- and English-language hegemony treated the Gaels, the American Indians, and the enslaved West Africans as callously as they did because they believed that people’s worth was based solely on their productivity, and that some people were either fundamentally unproductive, or truly productive only when used by others as tools. Treating people as objects instead of as people, and judging their worth solely according to their productivity, is the fundamental moral failing of capitalism; in order to unironically promote Gaelic, one must instead believe that people – and by extension their cultures – have an inherent worth beyond their ability to generate wealth. In that sense, all minority language promotion – including Gaelic promotion – is fundamentally anti-capitalist. 

A Case For Reviving Gaelic in Kentucky

(An explanation of the purposes and goals of the Kentucky Gaelic Revival)

A Case for Gaelic in Kentucky

Sin sibh, a chàirdean! (Greetings, friends!) After the better part of a decade abroad, I’m coming home to Kentucky. As is true of most people who undertake journeys of comparable length, my travels have changed me quite markedly in some respects, and left me unaltered in others: where I was a Centrist Liberal, I’m now a Leftist; where I was single, I’m now married; and where before I spoke only English and Spanish, I am now also a speaker of Scottish Gaelic. Unchanged is my admiration for Kentucky, and the people, places, and cultural traditions that make the Commonwealth beautiful and distinctive. It is for the sake of that admiration, and in hopes of furthering that beauty and distinctiveness, that I hope to help revive Scottish Gaelic as a living language in the Commonwealth. The people of Kentucky stand to benefit from the local revival of Scottish Gaelic in several ways, and –  by enumerating some of these potential benefits in the passages to follow, and by explaining at least in part my plan for undertaking that revival – I hope to generate interest in the project of Gaelic’s reintroduction, and to inspire readers to work with me toward the accomplishment of that goal.

What is Scottish Gaelic?

It might be helpful, before explaining my reasons for proposing a Kentucky Gaelic revival, to give a description of the language involved. Scottish Gaelic belongs to the Celtic branch of the Indo-European languages, making it a distant cousin of the Romance languages (such as French and Spanish), the Slavic languages (such as Russian and Czech), the Baltic Languages (such as Lithuanian and Latvian) and the Germanic languages (such as English and German), among others. Its fellow Celtic languages are further divided into the Brythonic or Brittonic languages (Breton, Cornish, and Welsh), and the Goidelic or Gaelic languages (Irish, Manx, and Scottish Gaelic itself). Although, in colloquial English, the word ‘Gaelic’ is often used indiscriminately to refer to any of the three Goidelic languages, and some speakers of each of the three languages find them all to be at least somewhat mutually intelligible with one another, it is important to note that each does constitute a distinct form of speech, and that, outwith the context of pan-Gaelicism – that is, the movement to politically or culturally unite the speakers of the three Goidelic languages under the banner of one pan-Gaelic nation or state – it is considered both technically and politically incorrect to treat them as through they were merely dialects of the same language. In this piece, from here on out, I will use the term ‘Goidelic languages’ to refer to Irish, Manx and Scottish Gaelic collectively; and both ‘Gaelic’ and ‘Scottish Gaelic’ to refer to the Scottish Gaelic language specifically.

How should Gaelic be pronounced?

In using the word ‘Gaelic’ to refer to the Scottish Gaelic language, it should be noted that Scottish Gaels from Scotland tend to pronounce the name of the language in such a way that its first syllable rhymes with ‘gal’, even when speaking English; whereas Scottish Gaels from Nova Scotia tend to pronounce it in such a way that the same syllable rhymes with ‘whale’. This has to do mostly with ideological differences concerning the conception of Gaelic identity and the different priorities of the two speech communities. In Scotland, the Scottish Gaels have been eager to assert their identity as Scottish, in opposition to the view among some people from outwith the Gaelic community that Scottish Gaelic is merely a highly divergent form of Irish. This outsider perspective implies that the Scottish Gaels and their language are not as Scottish as the other surviving local Scottish ethnic group, the Scots – who, since around the year 1400, have traditionally called Gaelic ‘Erse’ (Irish) in their own language, which they call ‘Scots’ (Scottish). By insisting that Gaelic be pronounced in English the same way it is in the Scottish Gaelic language itself (Gàidhlig), the Scottish Gaels in Scotland can more easily assert their Scottishness. Confusingly for learners, Scottish Gaels in Scotland still do occasionally use the English-language pronunciation of Gaelic – that is, ‘Gael-ik’ – when translating the Gaelic word Gàidhealach, an adjective used to describe things that are culturally – rather than linguistically – Gaelic; and there are some dialects of Scottish Gaelic in the southern Inner Hebrides that pronounce Gaelic as Gael-ik even in Gaelic! Even so, it’s generally safer and more respectful to pronounce Gaelic as Gal-ik in Scotland even when speaking English.

By contrast, the Scottish Gaels of Nova Scotia have had no local challenges to their ancestral Scottishness, and, in any case, are not citizens of Scotland, but of Canada. Consequently, they can assert the general Gaelicness of their cultural and linguistic identity without running the risk of being misidentified as Irish or Manx, and have chosen to pronounce the name of their language accordingly: Gàidhlig (Gal-ik) in Gaelic, and Gaelic (Gael-ik) in English.  Because I learned Gaelic in Scotland, I tend to pronounce it the Scottish way, although – since I now live in North America – I will not attempt to impose that pronunciation on others, especially on Scottish Gaelic speakers from Nova Scotia.

Indigeneity versus Autochthony, and Revival versus Revitalization

Scottish Gaelic is considered indigenous (that is, ‘native’) to Scotland, where it is the country’s oldest living language, and where it has enjoyed official recognition as a national language since the passage by the Scottish Parliament of the 2005 Gaelic Act. It was once believed that Gaelic had come to Scotland with Irish migrants sometime between the fourth and sixth centuries AD, but the preponderance of evidence now suggests that –  rather than the Irish Sea serving as the evolutionary barrier between the Goidelic and Brythonic languages, as was once thought – the dividing line in the evolution of the two branches of the Celtic languages was actually the Druim Albann (or, in a more modern Scottish Gaelic turn-of-phrase, Druim na h-Alba – that is, ‘the Spine of Scotland’), the mountain range dividing the West Coast of Scotland from the Scottish Interior. According to this theory, proto-Goidelic had begun to evolve in Western Scotland as early as it had in Ireland, centuries earlier than had previously been supposed.  In any case, Scottish Gaelic was the founding language of the Scottish state, as is attested by the country’s Latin name, Scotia: the Latin word for Gaels – the ethnic group that has historically spoken the Goidelic languages – was Scoti, meaning that both Scotia and its English-language equivalent, Scotland, translate to ‘Land of the Gaels’, and, therefore, ‘Land of the Gaelic Speakers’.

By the eleventh century AD, Gaelic had replaced the Brythonic-Celtic Pictish language and out-competed the Old English language to become the most widely spoken language in Scotland. However – because of centuries of state persecution beginning with its rejection by the Scottish monarchy during the eleventh-century reign of Malcolm III,  and escalating to outright cultural genocide against Gaelic speakers during the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, the Jacobite Wars of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and the Highland Clearances of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – it has declined so dramatically over the course of the last millennium that it is spoken by only around one percent of the Scottish population today. At present, census data and expert consensus indicates that there are likely fewer than 60,000 fluent speakers of Scottish Gaelic world-wide. Most of them (around 57,000) live in Scotland, but many dozens are scattered throughout non-Gaelic speaking communities in the global Scottish diaspora (including right here in Kentucky); and a few hundred native speakers reside in Nova Scotia, Canada.

In Nova Scotia, especially in the area known as Cape Breton, Gaelic is considered not indigenous, like the local Mi’kmaq language, but ‘autochthonous’ – a word assembled from ancient Greek roots that means literally ‘self-earthed’ or ‘self-rooted’. Designating a language autochthonous means that, although the language in question is not native to a particular area, it nonetheless has a community of native speakers who are local to that area.  It should be noted that some academics make a slightly different contrast between ‘indigenous’ and ‘autochthonous’ than the one I have just outlined, using the former term to describe languages or cultures that are not only native to the areas in which they now reside, but which have been victims of colonial processes; and the latter term to describe languages or cultures which have been both the victims and the beneficiaries of such processes; for now, however, we will use the simpler definition of the term as introduced at the start of this passage, whereby, when a language has native speakers born in, raised in, and local to to its place of origin, it is indigenous to that area; and, when a language has native speakers born in, raised in, and local to an area from which it did not originate, it is autochthonous to that area.

In the case of Gaelic in Nova Scotia, the ‘autochthony’ of the language means that some Nova Scotians speak it as their first language, even though they were born and raised in Nova Scotia and the language itself originated in Scotland. Scottish Gaelic took root in Nova Scotia as the result of large-scale emigration to the area by Gaelic-speaking refugees expelled from Scotland during the Highland Clearances. Because of similar migration, Scottish Gaelic used to be autochthonous in some parts of the United States: anyone in the US who has any Scottish heritage likely has ancestors who spoke Gaelic, and some of these ancestors might have passed down knowledge of the language for a few generations even after settling in the New World. Many Kentuckians can trace their ancestry back to Scotland, but, sadly – unlike in Nova Scotia – the Gaelic-language heritage of Kentuckians has been largely lost to cultural assimilation, and there are currently no communities in Kentucky where Scottish Gaelic is spoken as a living language. It is my goal, however, to change that situation, by reviving Gaelic in Kentucky.

In Scotland and Nova Scotia, Gaelic is being revitalized – that is, restored to health – since it has never ceased to be spoken in those areas. In Kentucky, where no locally-born native speakers of Gaelic remain alive today, Gaelic will have to undergo not revitalization, but revival – that is, a figurative resurrection. Although this may seem like a lofty aim, it is entirely achievable. Two of the six Celtic languages – Manx and Cornish – have already been successfully revived after dying out completely even in their countries of origin; it is my belief that, by learning from their examples and applying those lessons to the Kentuckian context, we can have similar success with Gaelic in the Commonwealth. If anything, it should be easier for us than for the Manx and the Cornish revivalists, since there are two regions – Scotland and Nova Scotia – in which Gaelic still survives; by enlisting the help of native speakers from these areas, and using the two region’s Gaelic communities to provide language immersion opportunities for would-be Kentucky Gaelic speakers, we can restore Gaelic to life with relative ease by comparison to those revivalists who had no living native speakers to assist them in their efforts, but who nonetheless succeeded.

Living Languages versus Dead Languages

Throughout this series of blog posts – for example, in the preceding sentence – I have been using the metaphor of life and death to describe the status of spoken languages. Many linguists dislike comparisons drawn between languages and living things, because they are necessarily inaccurate – languages, of course, are not actually alive. When people refer to a language as ‘living’, they generally mean that it is known and used on a regular basis by people who learned it in early childhood, ideally as a first language. In Kentucky, English is a living language with some autochthonous dialects. English has been transmitted from generation to generation as a first language in Kentucky for more than  twenty-five decades, and speakers of English have developed regional dialects of English distinctive to different parts of the Commonwealth. Spanish is another living language of Kentucky, and is in the early stages of its autochthonization, although it might not fully autochthonize: many Kentuckians have been raised in Spanish-speaking households by fluently Spanish-speaking parents; however, because of the process of cultural and linguistic assimilation, most of these Spanish-speaking Kentuckians will not transmit fluent Spanish to their own children, who will instead grow up speaking English, be it an autochthonous Kentuckian dialect or a form more closely approximating American Standard English – which has become increasingly hegemonic in Kentucky owing to its higher prestige and greater media presence than the local dialects.

We cannot, at present, know with certainty whether Gaelic fully autochthonized in Kentucky the way it has in Nova Scotia; or the way that Spanish may yet do throughout the Southern United States. Kentucky Gaelic speakers are not known to have produced any Gaelic-language print media, and so the only evidence of Gaelic-speakers in the Commonwealth comes from English-language anecdotal accounts – whether written contemporaneously, or passed down orally to the present – noting the presence of Gaelic speakers in Kentucky in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. However, the absence of native Gaelic speakers in Kentucky today demonstrates that, sadly, the process of autochthonization, however advanced, eventually lost out to the more pervasive process of linguistic and cultural assimilation, meaning that Gaelic in Kentucky is today a ‘dead’ language – that is, a language which is either wholly unknown and unused, or learned by specialists exclusively for institutional or ceremonial purposes.

The loss of Gaelic in Kentucky represents a diminution in the Commonwealth’s linguistic and cultural diversity, and – in some ways – a victory for racism, since many Gaelic speakers abandoned their language as part of the process of ceasing to belong to minoritized European immigrant communities and instead becoming ‘white’ Americans. It is my hope that by reviving Gaelic, those Kentuckians of all races who participate in the revival can help undo some of the damage done by the construct of whiteness, which has so negatively impacted the Commonwealth by endangering the wellbeing and social solidarity of its citizens.

The Kentucky Gaelic Revival as Anti-Racist Action

Among the foremost reasons for reviving Gaelic in Kentucky is its potential to further the cause of anti-racism. As many of you may already know, the construct of race in America is not organic, timeless and immutable; but artificial, relatively recently created, and constantly changing. The concepts of whiteness and Blackness were invented by American and Caribbean plantation owners in the late seventeenth century to keep their servants and slaves from uniting to overthrow the plantation system. Previously, the masters had divided the population according to the religious categories of Protestant, Catholic, and non-Christian – with the Protestants at the top of the hierarchy, the non-Christians on the bottom, and the Catholics in an uncomfortable liminal space in between. However – with more and more non-Christians and Catholics converting to Protestant Christianity – the possibility that worker solidarity might lead to revolution against the colonial elite seemed ever more likely. By dividing the colonial underclasses according to skin color, in addition to religion – according white workers better treatment and more rights than Black slaves, and thereby creating a sense of false solidarity between working-class whites and the wealthy plantation owners – the colonial land barons were able to destroy the solidarity that had begun to exist between white and Black victims of exploitation, and thus protect themselves and their wealth from the threats of both systemic reform and armed revolution.

At first, whiteness was the exclusive right of ‘Anglo-Saxons’, a term which today is synonymous with all white people, but which during the colonial-era referred only to the ethnic group historically associated with the English language – whether the English-descended landowners in the American colonies, the English-descended servants whom they were trying to coax into class betrayal, or their relatives back in England. Other kinds of people who are today considered white – such as people of German, Mediterranean, and Slavic descent – were only gradually granted access to the white identity over the course of the ensuing decades. Among the last ethnic groups to be admitted into the club of whiteness were the Celtic peoples – that is, the non-Anglo-Saxon Britons (the historical speakers of the Welsh, Cornish and Breton languages) and the Gaels (the historical speakers of the Irish, Manx, and Scottish Gaelic languages). It is to one branch of these peoples – the aforementioned Scottish Gaels – that the Scottish Gaelic language belongs, and that their conversion to whiteness furthered their disuse of that language is significant. Indeed, the surrender of the Gaels’ indigeneity in exchange for whiteness, as exemplified by their rejection of the Gaelic language in favor of English, provides a model for the group self-investiture of ethnic identity which I would like to emulate in reverse – using Gaelic to dismantle white identity among the descendants of the Gaels just as English was used to dismantle their ancestors’ indigeneity. Put simply, whereas the Gaels in America gave up Gaelic to become white, thereby increasing the power of whiteness and Anglo-Saxon cultural assimilationism on the national stage, I would like their descendants in Kentucky – and anyone of any other heritage interested in helping those descendants in their mission – to relearn Gaelic as a way to reject white identity and its privileges, and help make space for greater cultural and ethnic diversity in Kentucky.

The Gaels, the Scots-Irish, and Their Transformation into White Americans

Most of the of the people in Kentucky who today call themselves ‘white Americans’ are descended from various cultural groups whose languages and cultures were slowly erased over the course of centuries so that they could be replaced by the white American identity. Two of the largest of these groups, in Kentucky at least, were the Scottish Gaels and the Scots Irish (also known as the Scotch Irish) – both of whom would have been historically connected to the Scottish Gaelic language at the time of their immigration to Kentucky (albeit in different degrees), and whose Kentuckian descendants would stand to benefit from a reconnection to that language and its cultural traditions.

The Scottish Gaels are one of three branches of Gaeldom who, along with the Irish Gaels and the Manx Gaels, make up the Gaelic ethnic group, the languages of whom form the the Goidelic or Gaelic language family (which is, in turn, a sub-division of the larger Celtic and still larger Indo-European language families). The Scottish Gaels – so called because their branch of the Gaelic ethnic group historically resided in Scotland – founded the Scottish nation through a cultural and political merger with the Brythonic-language-speaking Picts in around 900 AD. In the eleventh century, Malcolm III of Scotland (a Scottish Gael) married Margaret of Wessex (an Anglo Saxon). Under her influence, the Scottish royal court and the Scottish clergy began to abandon the Gaelic language; an influx of Anglo-Saxon nobility fleeing the Norman conquest of England were invited to settle in Scotland; and trade with England and the Germanic-language-speaking Low Countries dramatically increased. As a result of these changes, Gaelic eventually ceased to be the official language of Scotland, and the Scottish Lowlands transitioned, by around the year 1350 AD, from speaking Gaelic to speaking Middle English – the language that would eventually become Scots. By the mid-1500s or so (and far earlier in some parts of Scotland), the Scots-speaking Lowlanders had come to think of themselves as belonging to a different ethnic group than the Gaels, and believed that their language and culture were more ‘Scottish’ than those of the Gaels. It was at this stage that they stopped calling Gaelic ‘Scots’ (Scottish) and began using that term for their own language, which they had previously called ‘Inglis’ (English).

By that time, there was real animosity between the Lowland Scots and the Scottish Gaels, with the former group thinking of the latter as barbarians, and the latter regarding the former as foreign usurpers of the Scottish Lowlands, despite the ongoing self-identification of both parties as Scots, and their fealty to the same monarch. To this day, the Scottish Gaelic word Gall can refer to either a foreigner or a Lowlander, and the phrase Beurla Gallda (foreigner’s English/ Lowlander’s English) can be used to refer to the Scots language. The persecution of Gaels by Lowland Scots increased dramatically after the Protestant Reformation of 1560, since the Gaels were slower than the Lowland Scots to adopt the new religion. From that time on, attacks on the Gaels and their culture could be disguised as evangelism, and the Scottish parliament passed various laws in the 1600s attempting to force the Gaels to abandon the institutions – such as support of Gaelic poets by the nobility, and education of the ruling classes in Gaelic – that made them culturally unique. When, in the 1680s, the Protestant King William of Orange became the ruler of Scotland and England, most of the Scottish Gaels sided with his rival, the exiled King James VII, hoping that they would be well-treated by the old monarch if they helped restore him to the throne. Ultimately, that struggle – called the Jacobite risings after Jacobus, the Latin name for James – would rage off and on for decades, outliving both King William and his successor Queen Anne.  However, despite great tactical skill and martial valor on the part of the Gaels, the final Jacobite rising of 1745 ended in Jacobite defeat at the 1746 battle of Culloden, after which the Scottish Highlands were invaded and occupied by the British Army, the Scottish Gaels were forcibly disarmed, and the Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge introduced, with government support, a school system designed to turn the Gaelic children into Protestant English-speakers. Meanwhile, the heirs to the Scottish Gaelic aristocrats, having been forced to conform to the customs of the English-speaking nobility and no longer able to act as the war-leaders of their people, began to think of themselves simply as landlords. As such, they became increasingly frustrated with the poverty of their Gaelic-speaking tenants, who – conquered and disarmed – were no longer able to provide military service in lieu of the rents they could not afford to pay. So, beginning in the 1750s, the Highland landlords began to evict their tenantry by the thousands, driving them off the land with hired mercenaries authorized to use deadly force, and replacing them with the sheep and red deer whose over-grazing has reduced the Scottish Highlands to the treeless condition in which one finds them today.

It was only at this stage, in the 1750s and later – when they had been forcibly disarmed, forbidden from wearing their traditional clothing, made to send their children to English-language-only schools, forced to give up their ancestral methods of social and political organization, and in many cases driven violently from their lands in the aforementioned mass-evictions (known today as the Highland Clearances) – that it became the norm for people in the English-speaking cultural mainstream to accept the Scottish Gaels as ‘white’ on an equivalent basis with the English. Even then, the moniker only fully extended as far as those Gaels who had ceased to speak Gaelic; even today, Gaelic language use in Scotland is looked on in some quarters as a marker of subaltern status within whiteness, and a threat to the cultural and political unity of the United Kingdom.

Most of the Scottish Gaels who emigrated to North America during the time of the Highland Clearances (roughly 1760 to 1860, but somewhat earlier or much later in some cases) encountered the same forces of Anglo-Saxon assimilationism that they had hoped to leave behind them in Scotland. The choice before them in the New World was simple, but stark: they could remain as Gaels, speaking Gaelic and honoring the traditions of their ancestors, but living as social outcasts in North American society; or they could assimilate to the Anglophone mainstream, be recognized as ‘white’, and have the possibility of accessing economic stability and political power in their new countries. Not surprisingly, most chose the second option – and that’s why no Gaelic is natively spoken in Kentucky today.

Interestingly, one group of people who were granted whiteness far earlier than the Scottish Gaels were in some ways their cultural descendants. The Scots-Irish (or Scotch Irish) were so called because they came from Scotland to invade and colonize Ulster (the northernmost of the traditional five provinces of Ireland) at the behest of King James VI of Scotland in the early 1600s, so that they could militarily conquer the local Irish Catholics. These colonists consisted of Lowland Scots (the aforesaid historical speakers of the Scots language, whose ancestors would, some 300 years before, have been mostly Gaelic-speaking) and Scottish Highlanders (at that time, essentially another term for Scottish Gaels) who had converted early to Protestantism. For many of the Highlanders, the motivations underlying their Protestant conversion would have doubtless resembled those undergirding the North American Gaelic-speakers’ later conversion to whiteness, although for many it might also have been a question of sincere religious conviction.

It must be said that ultimately, despite the initial danger it posed to Gaelic culture when wielded by the Lowlanders as a justification for anti-Gaelic bigotry, Protestantism took on a wholly different character in the hands of the Gaels themselves, on both sides of the Irish Sea: Protestant Goidelic-language-speakers would rank among the leaders of both the unsuccessful but inspiring 1798 attempt to liberate Ireland from the British Crown, and in various movements in Scotland throughout the 1800s to resist the Highland Clearances, including the activities of the formidable Highland Land League in the 1880s and 1890s; and Presbyterian denominations such as the Free Presbyterian Church served as institutional bastions of Scottish Gaelic during the twentieth century.

In the 1600s, however, the relationship between Protestantism and Scottish Gaelic – indeed, between Protestantism and any Goidelic language – was still a largely antagonistic one. Although most of the Lowland Scots in Ulster had Scottish Gaelic ancestors, and the Highlanders among them were Gaels themselves, all of the Scots Irish ultimately gave up the use of the Scottish Gaelic language – probably because it was closely related to Irish, the language of the Catholics they had been sent to Ireland to oppress. It remains unclear, however, how long it took this process of linguistic abandonment to unfold; I hold out hope that, among the Scots Irish settlers in eighteenth-century Kentucky, some Gaelic speakers still remained.

Today, the conquering military prowess of the Scots Irish is seen by their descendants as something to be celebrated, and – indeed – martial valor is upheld as a praiseworthy trait by members of many cultures throughout the world. However, it must be remembered that the battle-readiness of the Scots Irish had a dark side: from the beginning of their history as a people, they did not fight on their own behalf, but as cannon-fodder for imperial regimes – a role which their descendants in the United States have continued to play down to the present. This servility and blind loyalty in military service to morally bankrupt powers – reminiscent of the Russian and Ukrainian Cossacks and their anti-Jewish pogroms in service to the Czars – cannot form an ethically acceptable basis for ethnic pride, and should not be pressed into service as such. Certainly, their dogged loyalty to the cause of empire – whether British or American – has never seen the Scots Irish well rewarded by the powers they served. Although, because they had willingly become tools of English imperialism early in their history, they were accepted as white almost as soon as the English themselves, the American powers-that-be have never let them fully ascend the hierarchical ladder atop which all whites theoretically stand together. The sort of whiteness awarded the Scots-Irish – like that granted the English servants of the Virginian and Caribbean planters at the time of the inception of whiteness – has, for the most part, never granted them the same protections that whiteness guarantees the bloodline descendants and cultural heirs of the Anglo-Saxon elite. The people in the United States most strongly associated with Scots Irish decent are the Appalachians – a group largely dismissed as ‘white trash’ by the national elite, and mercilessly exploited, whether for profit or mere entertainment, whenever they aren’t simply ignored and left to languish in their poverty. As ever, ‘white solidarity’ is the just the hollow rallying cry of rich, powerful whites to poor, powerless ones – urging them to put their lives and livelihoods on the line to defend privileges they will never fully enjoy against people of color with whom they have more in common than their employers do with them.  

At the time that they were allowed to become white, both the Scots Irish and the Scottish Gaels were probably relieved, because it meant that, from then on, they could – theoretically, if not in practice – avoid being exploited by white people, and start exploiting non-white people themselves. In hindsight, we can see that this attitude is ethically reprehensible, not to mention logically fallacious; and that, had the Scots Irish and Scottish Gaels rejected whiteness, and stood in solidarity with other non-white peoples to resist Anglo-Saxon imperialism and English-language hegemony, the world would probably be a different and better place than it is today. Sadly, as it happened, the two peoples instead made the proverbial bed in which modern Americans are forced to lie. The Scots Irish people who emigrated to what would become the Southern United States in the eighteenth century did espouse whiteness, and did the same thing to Indigenous Americans in the New World that their ancestors had done to the Irish Gaels in Ulster in the previous century – violently evicting the local people and occupying their lands, some of which they converted into farmsteads worked by forced labour. Even though the Scottish Gaels had been colonized themselves, many of those evicted in the Highland Clearances also ended up pursuing careers as soldiers and settlers – doing to others in America what the British had done to them in Scotland.

Ultimately, the Scots Irish and the Scottish Gaels were largely responsible for the white settlement of the Southern United States, including what is today Kentucky, in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. By giving up their ancestral Scottish Gaelic language and allowing themselves to become culturally white, and thereby agreeing to ally themselves with English-descended colonists in advancing and benefiting from the processes of American Indian genocide and Black slavery, they helped lay the foundations of the United States as it exists today – a country defined by centuries-old unjust hierarchies of race, class, and region, in which linguistic and cultural diversity are continually suppressed in favor of assimilation to the Anglophone mainstream; and which, through its military and economic might, has exported the project of Anglo-American cultural and linguistic assimilation throughout much of the world.

Even so, It is my sincere hope that, because the Scots-Irish and Scottish Gaels of Kentucky helped bring about American racism and cultural assimilationism by abandoning Gaelic, we modern Kentuckians can promote racial harmony and cultural diversity by reviving that language; and that, because they cast off the Gaelic language to don the mantle of whiteness, we, by taking up that language, can help do away with whiteness altogether. If Kentuckians now thought of as white forsake solidarity with other white people, aided in undergoing that paradigm shift by their emotional and intellectual investment in the effort to revive a minoritized language that would stand in opposition to the cultural dominion of American standard English (the language of whiteness in the United States and its empire) then they will have succeeded in striking an at least symbolic and perhaps pragmatic blow against the global forces of white hegemony in America and beyond.  

Kentucky Gaelic Revival in Solidarity with the Promotion of Racial Diversity

Even though I envision the work of Gaelic revival in Kentucky as existing to combat the racism brought about by the assumption of white identity by Gaelic and Scots-Irish immigrants to Kentucky, the work of disrupting the white identity of white Kentuckians through the restoration of a Gaelic identity in Kentucky must not be undertaken by white Kentuckians alone.  Although the assumption of whiteness by the Gaels and Scots Irish has most benefited those of their descendants who are now considered white, the process of re-establishing Gaelic in Kentucky will require the active participation of a racially-diverse cohort of language learners. If the Kentuckian learners of Gaelic claim to challenge the construct of whiteness, but appear to be mostly or exclusively phenotypically white, then the revival of Gaelic in Kentucky will run the risk of seeming – or even becoming – an affirmation of the construct of whiteness rather than an attack on that construct, with the new Kentucky Gaelic-speakers viewed as merely a peculiar sub-type of white American; and their culture, likewise, a quaint variation on the theme of white culture rather than a new and vital force inimical to whiteness. If the project is to succeed, then that eventuality – the co-option of the Kentucky Gaelic revival by whiteness – must be avoided at all costs. Thus, I seek to enlist the aid of Kentuckians of all races – as well as all genders, sexual orientations, and religious affiliations – in undertaking the project of Kentucky’s re-Gaelicization.

In seeking this phenotypical diversity among Gaels, the project will in no way deviate from the historical construction of Gaelic identity. Both the idea that Gaels are universally phenotypically pale; and that Gaelic identity can be heritable only genetically, are nothing more than modern misconceptions. Gaelic heritage has always been less about who one’s biological relatives are or what one looks like than about what community one comes from and by whom one was raised. A person who is genetically or phenotypically Black or American Indian, but who was raised by Gaels in a Gaelic-speaking community, is no less a Gael than their adoptive siblings and cousins, as numerous examples from the Nova Scotian context demonstrate. Conversely, a person who is white, but who was not raised by Gaels in a Gaelic speaking community, could not be a Gael unless adopted into a Gaelic community and acculturated to Gaelic traditions in adulthood – and, even in that instance, Gaelic identity would be a thing bestowed upon the incomer at the discretion of the Gaelic community of which they had become part, rather than proclaimed by the incomer, who would have no cultural authority to make such a declaration.

The Question of Cultural Appropriation – Gaels versus Gall-Gaels

Establishing that last parameter of Gaelic identity – the essential non-Gaelicness of people neither raised nor adopted by Gaels – raises the question of how the Kentucky Gaelic Revival can avoid the unjust appropriation of Gaelic culture. In social-justice parlance, cultural appropriation denotes the unsanctioned use of the cultural artifacts of a minoritized culture by individuals from outwith the culture in question. Because the Scottish Gaels are a minoritized ethnic group; and because the Kentuckian descendants of the Scots Irish and the Scottish Gaels ceased to use Gaelic centuries ago, and are no longer conversant with the norms of Gaelic culture; and, finally, because the participants in the revival who come from other ancestral backgrounds might have no historical connection to Gaelic whatsoever, the revivalists of Gaelic in Kentucky would indeed be guilty of the appropriation of Gaelic culture if they declared themselves Gaels. Therefore, in order to avoid the commission of cultural appropriation, the Kentucky Gaelic revivalists must refrain from the full assumption of Gaelic identity – acknowledging that, no matter how many Gaelic cultural traits they come to embody, or how well they speak the Scottish Gaelic language – they will not be Gaels.

So, to recognize the distinction between actual Gaels and those we hope to propagate in Kentucky, I second the use of the term proposed by the non-ethnically-Gaelic Scottish Gaelic language revitalists, Fañch Bihan Gallig and Viktor MacÀrdghall: ‘Gall-Gael’ – or in its original Gaelic, Gall-Ghàidheal (Foreigner-Gael) – in lieu of the ethnonym ‘Gael’. The historical Gall-Gaels were a hybrid Norse-Gaelic ethnic group that lived in the Scottish Hebrides and Scottish West Coast during the cultural re-Gaelicization of these regions at the close of the Viking Age (which spanned, roughly, 700 AD to 900 AD). The Lordship of the Isles (in Gaelic, Rìgheachd nan Eilean) – a semi-independent kingdom centered in the Scottish Hebrides and mostly peopled by Gall-Gaels – served as the last political bastion of Gaelic culture in Scotland after the rejection of Gaelic by the Scottish monarchy in the eleventh and twelfth centuries.  Eventually, the Gall-Gaels of the Lordship of the Isles fully re-Gaelicized, and served as arguably the most important tradition bearers of Gaelic culture in Scotland until the invasion and destruction of their kingdom by the Scottish monarchy in 1493. By taking on the ethnonym of the Gall-Gaels, the Kentucky Gaelic Revivalists will be able to advertise their admiration for Gaelic culture while respecting their own cultural distance from it; and simultaneously signal their intent to fully self-re-Gaelicize (to the extent possible without neglecting or endangering their cultural heritage as Kentuckians) in the course of the generations to come.

What does the process of re-Gaelicization entail?

The process of becoming, at least partially, culturally and linguistically Gaelic in the coming decades – not only as individuals, but as a people – is the ultimate goal of the Kentucky Gaelic Revival. This process will entail not only some Kentuckians’ acquisition of the Gaelic language, and their transmission of that language from generation to generation in the domains of family and neighborhood, but, ideally, their absorption and transmission – or at least their access to resources  that would facilitate their acquisition – of other Gaelic cultural traditions not necessarily fully encoded in the language itself. These traditions will hopefully include the learning and re-sharing of Gaelic songs, stories, and dances; the exploration of historical Gaelic literature, such as the texts that compose the Finn Cycle and Ulster Cycle; and engagement with Scottish Gaelic spiritual and cosmological traditions, such as the continuation of Gaelic psalm singing, the observation of the quarter-day festivals, the orientation of maps toward the east rather than the north, and the recognition of the sanctity of Southerly or clockwise motion. It is important to note that the learning of the cultural traditions mentioned above should be undertaken to the exclusion of hegemonic white culture, but while embracing – never replacing! – the extant artistic and folkloric traditions that already make Kentucky unique.

Obviously, some traditions historically observed by Scottish Gaels won’t translate well to the Kentuckian context. The fact that Kentucky is landlocked, for instance, greatly reduces the opportunity to authentically engage in Gaelic maritime traditions. This is no great difficulty, however, as our object as Gall-Gaels is not the complete transplantation of Gaelic traditions into Kentucky and Gaelic identity onto Kentuckians, but the restoration of Kentuckian’s forgotten Gaelicness, and its synthesis with traditions that Kentuckians have originated themselves – the syncretism and mutual glorification of Kentuckians’ regional and ancestral streams of heritage at the expense of those traditions foisted upon Kentuckians to our detriment by the white Anglophone mainstream. Essentially, re-Gaelicization entails the creation of Gall-Gaels as a new ethnic group in Kentucky, one which hybridizes the arts, beliefs, and folkways of Kentuckians and Gaels in opposition to the cultural traditions of the white and English-language dominance which have tried for the last three centuries to destroy them by assimilation. Whereas the ‘Gall’ in the original Gall-Ghàidheal ethnonym signified the Norse, in its Kentuckian formulation, it will stand in for ‘Kentuckian’; thus, the Gall-Gaels of Kentucky will be Kentuckian Gaels – distinct from the Scottish Gaels, and unique to Kentucky, but nonetheless recognizable tradition bearers of both Scottish Gaelic and Kentuckian culture.  

How to become Gall-Gaels

As many in my audience will already have surmised, it will not be possible to create the Gall-Gael identity overnight. The process of identity formation will be an incremental one, forged through shared experience over the course of decades. Language shift – and, by extension, cultural shift – tends to take three generations to reach its full fruition; so it likely was with the erasure of the Gaelic language and culture from Kentuckian life, and so it will likely be with its restoration. The pre-requisite to the successful re-Gaelicization of Kentuckians – and, therefore, the benchmark for the initial success of the Kentucky Gaelic Revival – will be the creation of a community of Kentuckians and other interested people willing to study and disavow the cultural attributes of whiteness, and  equally willing to study and embody the cultural attributes of Kentuckians and Scottish Gaels. As earlier stated, it is essential that some of these participants be Kentuckians of color.

The process of re-Gaelicization will entail learning and abiding by the principles of social justice activism, including feminism, anti-racism, anti-classism, anti-homophobia, and anti-regionalism; researching the history of both Kentucky and Scotland, particularly the Scottish Highlands and Islands; and actively participating in cultural traditions unique to Kentucky and the Scottish Gàidhealtachd – that is, the traditionally Gaelic speaking-region of Scotland (often translated as the Highlands, but also often thought of as including the Scottish Hebrides).

In order to further these aims, I intend to launch a number of Gaelic cultural promotion activities in Kentucky, such as Gaelic-language classes, Gaelic-language conversation circles, cèilidh dances (that is, social Scottish dance evenings of a style originating in Gaelic culture but now popular throughout Scotland); traditional cèilidhs (that is, intimate gatherings with Gaelic singing, music, and storytelling); a Comann nam Fèilltean (that is, ‘Feast Society’) for the celebration of traditional observances of the Gaelic quarter-days of Oidhche Shamhna (Samhain/Halloween), Latha Fèille Brìghde (Imbolc/Candlemas), Latha Buidhe Bealltainne (Beltane/May Day), and Aonach Thaillteann or Lùnastal (Lughnasadh/Lamas); and Gaelic psalm-singing workshops.

Additionally, I would like to inaugurate a series of periodic lectures or conferences on the subjects of anti-racism, Kentucky heritage, and Scottish Gaelic studies, at which experts in each of these disciplines would share their knowledge with the aspiring Gall-Gael community; as well as, eventually, an annual retreat, at which members of the community would bond through the sharing and melding of the Gaelic and Kentuckian cultural traditions learned throughout the year. It is hoped that by attending these events, aspiring Gall-Gaels will become more confident in their cultural knowledge of both Kentucky and Scottish Gaeldom, and develop a distinct collective cultural identity.

Domestic Intergenerational Transition, and Kentucky’s Baile nan Gàidheal

It is my hope that, by as early as 2030 and by no later than 2060, the Kentucky Gaelic Revival will have produced fluent native speakers of Gaelic who learned the language on ghlùin – that is, from the knee – in the Commonwealth. This process of language learning from birth in the home – domestic intergenerational transmission – works best when reinforced by target-language use in the local neighborhood. To that end, I would like at some point before 2050 to have created a Gàidheal-Phoball or Baile nan Gàidheal– that is, a Gaelic village or Town of the Gaels – in Kentucky: a commune, neighborhood or even grander community of at least a dozen people, and ideally many more, populated entirely by Gaelic-speaking families, wherein Gaelic would be the main language of communication within and between all households. I recognize that this is a lofty goal, and time will tell whether it will ultimately be achievable. Even if not, it is an aim well worth espousing: as the old and somewhat astronomically dubious saying goes, ‘if you shoot for the moon, you may land among the stars’. By striving to create a Gaelic-speaking village of some description in Kentucky by 2050, the revival is sure to accomplish great things, even if it should fall short of this ultimate goal.

The Role of the Scots Language in the Gaelic Revival

Some of members of the audience, in light of my earlier mention of the Scots-Irish or Scotch-Irish as forebears of modern Kentuckians, may wonder what role their principal language – the Scots language – might play in the Kentucky Gaelic Revival. For various reasons, which I will enumerate below, while I don’t advocate the exclusion of the Scots language, I think that the main linguistic focus of the Revival should definitely be the Scottish Gaelic language.

Scots already finds a great deal of representation in the traditional English dialects of Appalachian and Trans-Appalachian Kentucky. In most regional Kentucky dialects outwith the more German-influenced Northern Kentucky (essentially a cultural province of Cincinnati, Ohio) and the assimilationist urban centers of Louisville and Lexington, words like ‘rarin’ (‘fussing’; ‘yelling’ – derived from the Scots word for ‘roaring’) and ‘wee’ (the Scots word for ‘little’) are not uncommon; and neither are Scots-derived grammatical constructions such as the use of what in English would be the singular conjugation of verbs for agreement with plural nouns, or the use of the particle ‘a-’ to precede verbal nouns in forms of the continuous tense: compare, for evidence, the Kentuckian sentence ‘them colts was a-runnin’ and the Scots sentence ‘ma een wis a-shuttin’ to the standard English sentences ‘those colts were running’ and ‘my eyes were shutting’. As far as Anglic (that is, English-related) languages go, I would sooner promote the Scots-influenced Kentuckian dialects of English (which, if not in Kentucky, would exist nowhere else on Earth) than the Scots language itself – which already has official recognition in Northern Ireland, and which will hopefully one day be similarly recognized in Scotland (where it boasts more than one-million speakers compared to Gaelic’s fewer than 60,000).

Even so, I see no reason to discourage Kentucky Gaelic revivalists from the study of Scots, and I welcome the involvement of Scots speakers in the movement.

What is meant by Kentuckian Culture?

Having linguistically delineated the Revival so as to deemphasize – but not exclude – the Scots language, it might be prudent at this stage to similarly lay out what I see as the parameters of Kentuckian culture such as it should be celebrated within the Gaelic Revival movement. In answer to this question, I feel that Kentuckian culture, as promoted by the Revival, should consist of all those cultural traditions which both 1) are practiced within communities that exist wholly within or which are centered in the geographical bounds of Kentucky; and 2) originate in communities that have been marginalized by the Anglo-American cultural mainstream and have not been instrumental in expanding its hegemony. Thus, the cultural commodities of Northern Kentucky, which region belongs to a cultural complex centered in Cincinnati, Ohio rather than in Kentucky itself, which has a heavier German influence than a Scots Irish and Gaelic one as in the rest of the Commonwealth, and which exists largely in a state of cultural disconnection from other Kentuckian regions; and the cultural commodities of Kentucky’s major urban centers (that is, Louisville and Lexington) which have often exhibited similar cultural disconnection from the rest of the Commonwealth to that of Northern Kentucky, and whose inhabitants have often minoritized the cultural traditions of other parts of Kentuckian regions, ought to have a secondary status in the Revival movement by comparison to cultural commodities from Eastern Kentucky, South-Central Kentucky, Western Kentucky, and the Bluegrass region outwith the Lexington city-limits. That having been said, any distinctly Kentuckian cultural commodities of minoritized communities, even from within Louisville, Lexington, and Northern Kentucky – such as the cultural assets of Louisville’s historically Black West End – ought to be highly valorized, in order to compensate for their historical marginalization within the Kentuckian gestalt. To summarize, the least-appreciated aspects of Kentuckian culture in the eyes of the white Anglophone mainstream are to be found – as Leftist Kentucky politician, Charles Booker, might say – ‘from the hood to the holler’. It is these cultural elements – those of Appalachia, Trans-Appalachia, and Kentucky’s urban poor, rather than those associated with Kentucky’s urban elite – which, as a matter of social justice, ought to take precedence within the Kentuckian aspect of Kentucky’s Gaelic Revival.

The relationship between the Kentucky Gaelic Revival and Indigenous Language Revitalization

At this point, some readers might wonder how an avowedly anti-racist movement can unironically promote an Indo-European language in North America, asking themselves whether the promotion  of one European language can really be more ethical than the promotion of another in the aftermath of the genocide and mass displacement of America’s first nations by European settler-colonists. Indeed, the Gall-Gaels would run the risk of a terrible hypocrisy if they claimed to be anti-racist while promoting an autochthonous language at the expense of local indigenous languages – but, fortunately, that is not the intended modus operandi of the Kentucky Gaelic Revival.

The historical indigenous languages of what is today Kentucky are Cherokee, as was once spoken on the Eastern slope of the Appalachian mountain range of Eastern Kentucky; Yuchi, as once spoken on the Western slope of that mountain range; Shawnee, as once spoken from the Appalachian foothills North beyond the Ohio River and West to the Land-Between-The-Lakes; and Chickasaw, which was spoken in the flood plain of the Mississippi River. At present, none of these languages are yet extinct, although all of them are highly endangered. As part of their investigations into Kentucky’s history, and their efforts to further social justice, Kentucky Gaelic Revivalists will be encouraged to be in contact with the modern cultural heirs to the Shawnees, Cherokees, Yuchis, and Chickasaws who once lived in what is now Kentucky; and all participants in the Revival will be expected, as part of the movement, to at least occasionally contribute to the support of these communities in whatever way their members deem acceptable and desirable.  

The Role of Scottish Gaels and Gaelic Learners from Scotland and Nova Scotia

As a final point, I wish to make it known that the Kentucky Gaelic Revival will fully embrace input from Scottish Gaels and Gaelic learners from existing Gaelic-speaking communities throughout the world. Their help will be invaluable in guiding aspiring Gaelic speakers to fluency, and helping provide the Revivalists insight into Gaelic cultural traditions. Of particular value to the movement will be those Gaels and Gaelic speakers already residing in Kentucky, and whose life experiences might mean that their identities already represent a cultural synthesis of Kentuckian and Scottish Gaelic elements, as is ultimately hoped for all Kentucky Gall-Gaels. It is hoped that Gaels already in Kentucky will become members of the revivalist community, in which they can expect – if they freely contribute their cultural knowledge and linguistic skill to the revival, while comporting themselves in accord with its ideals – to be looked up to as revered elders. By helping to educate the next generation of Kentucky Gaelic speakers, they will confer a cultural legitimacy and authenticity on the emerging movement and its linguistic practices which it would otherwise wholly lack.

How to Get in Touch

If, after having considered the contents of this document, you would like to learn Gaelic, or otherwise participate in the Kentucky Gaelic revival, please contact me at I would be happy to supply you with further information, answer any of your questions, and keep you updated concerning the progress of the Revival. I thank you for the time you devoted to reading this document, and I hope to interact with you in the near future. Mo bheannachd leibh, leis an dòchas gum faic mi a dh’aithghearr sibh! (I give you my blessing, in the hope that I’ll see you soon!)