The dust was finally settling after a busy, successful and highly sociable Orkney show season, and I was heading to the ferry. Passing the ancient Ring of Brodgar and the timeless works of architectural genius that are Maeshowe and St Magnus Cathedral, I was reminded that nothing is new under the sun. It’s a dangerous fallacy, falling to the belief that the arc of human progress is constantly upward.
“The vanity of each generation”, writes the brilliant Andrew o’ Hagan in his essay ‘Scotland Your Scotland’, “is to believe that we are living in the greatest period of history. Each generation imagines it is germinating a brand new world, that the times are glorious, that their period is the most interesting ever to occur, that earthly progress would turn around now for a thousand years and their names would be written on water. The Romans believed it, and their civilisation is now a heap of lovely ruins and a dead language”.
Turning on the radio while waiting for the boat, I heard the dreadful news from Charlottesville, Virginia, that a protester had been murdered by a white supremacist, part of a group opposing the removal of a statue of Confederate leader Robert E Lee. But, as a Charlottesville resident eloquently argued, this was never about a statue. The atrocity didn’t come out of nowhere but was part of a pattern of white supremacy terrorism that had existed for as long as the United States of America itself; a country born not just with one original sin, but two – genocide (of the Native American people) and enslavement. This is a country with some serious issues.
The founding fathers crafted a constitution designed to discriminate on racial grounds, and the infamous Jim Crow laws lasted in the southern states until 1964. A southern segregationist, George Wallace, very nearly won the presidency itself as recently as the sixties. Writing in his jail cell after the failed putsch of 1923, Adolf Hitler articulated his admiration for America, which he saw as an exemplar of successful segregation.
Sitting in the Orkney gloaming and re-reading the book “Team of Rivals”, about the rise of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, I was struck that the debate about slavery wasn’t initially about its abolition – it was about whether or not it should be extended beyond the states where the “peculiar institution”, as was the euphemism, already existed. This wasn’t so long ago, and to be black in America today is to endure the continuing disadvantages and poorer life chances that derive from years of racially engineered disenfranchisement.
Naturally, the reaction of President Donald J Trump to the latest atrocity was appalling, but, to anyone paying attention, not remotely surprising. He failed to call out the murderous goons for what they were, instead condemning violence “on many sides”.
Well, of course he did. Trump’s is the most unambiguously racist administration since Woodrow Wilson was in the Oval Office. It’s an office stuffed with supremacists like Gorka and Miller, men emboldened by the knowledge that their boss is cut from the same cloth. So of course Trump didn’t call them out. Who rats on his own people?
The moral ambivalence soon reached these shores. Interim PM Teresa May condemned violence from whatever source, but failed to specifically name Donald Trump. Perhaps it’s trickier when you’ve already held hands, and when you know that leaving the EU means you need all the friends you can get. Ruth Davidson did, at least, manage to utter his name, but he was an easy target. By allowing a sectarian bigot and a racist back into Stirling council today, she faces charges of rank hypocrisy.
Now – I am no scholar of American history, but it may now be clear that it does fascinate me. The gap between the American Dream and the American reality has informed at least a dozen Bruce Springsteen albums.
The lady was right – Charlottesville was never about a statue. But it got me thinking – should we be taking down statues and symbols of heroic if flawed people because they don’t fit the narrative? In a digital age of 140 characters or fewer, perhaps we need to be challenged more than ever, and perhaps their continuing presence helps our future generations to think more about their past – although perhaps in the more contextualised environment of a museum.
There are examples closer to home. Penny Lane, in Liverpool, was named after James Penny, a merchant, slave ship owner and ardent anti-abolitionist who defended the slave trade to parliament. Liverpool City Council gave serious thought to changing the name, but decided that James Penny was as much a part of Liverpool’s story as the John Lennon who immortalised his lane.
And yet history shows that countries who successfully overthrow their oppressors weren’t long in toppling their symbols. Good luck with finding a stone Oliver Cromwell in Dublin, or a granite Lenin in Kiev. But, as the blogger Craig Murray notes, Scotland’s capital city still has a street named after a war criminal – William, Duke of Cumberland, who was a worse racist and infinitely greater tyrant than Robert E Lee ever was. The imposed regime that outlawed Scotland’s language and tried to expunge its culture and rewrite its history (Charles Edward Stuart repealed the Act of Union in 1745 – they don’t teach you that at the school) is celebrated at the heart of the nation’s capital. George St, Hanover St, Rose St, Princes St: the Union, literally, set in stone. And yet from us? Not a whimper. We boast, then we cower. Whatever one thinks about the Lee statue, as least America is having the conversation.
I haven’t mentioned much if anything about farming this week. That’s in part deliberate. Farming provides an excellent prism through which to see the twin issues of Brexit and self-determination, and that our industry’s future interests will always be better served by an independent Scottish Parliament is by now self-evident and need not detain us here. In any case, my commitment to and belief in Scottish independence will never begin and end at the farm gate.
But how we view our history informs how we see our future, and much of what we believe about that history is based on deliberate falsehoods. I was in my late twenties, for example, before I discovered that my home area used to speak Gaelic. It helps make us a little ashamed of our historical roots and contributes to our national inferiority complex – the Scottish Cringe.
And it is devilishly difficult to negotiate out of our present difficulties into a sustainable future – for our industry as well as for our country – when, deep down, we don’t truly feel we deserve one.
But – until we understand our past, the better future we owe our children and our grandchildren will remain, agonisingly, just beyond our grasp.
Alec Ross is a regular contributor to The Orkney News
Related article: The Fiction of Historical Fact