Monday, August 14, 2017

'Don't Let the Politics Make You Crazy' / 'Without knowledge of history we are condemned to perpetual childhood, endless darkness, collective blindness'

Although Dave Rubin is American, there is much in his video above that we in politics-obsessed Northern Ireland can learn from. Politics is important, but it is not of ultimate importance. Let's consider our own position, of Unionism v Nationalism. Earlier this year there was, according to some media outlets, a near-collapse of the Unionist political psyche in the Assembly Election in March when Sinn Fein came within less than 1200 votes of being the largest party. There were then months of panic and fear until the snap General Election in June which saw a huge subsequent upsurge in DUP votes, gaining their highest vote ever, over 50,000 ahead of Sinn Fein, and unprecedented influence within the UK Government. That electoral pendulum might well continue to swing back and forth. Who knows?

The lesson is that if a community's sense of its identity is solely political the community is therefore vulnerable – at the mercy of the wrong election result, or of a back-room deal made between politicians, or who is the First Minister, the Prime Minister or the President. As discussed on a Radio Ulster panel last week on a hypothetical future ‘United Ireland’, one respected commentator said that Unionism would be forever finished – “… give them a few stickers to put on their bicycles, but everything is gone, their constitutional identity is gone, their personal identity is gone, their political identity is gone … there is no way Unionists can ever get back into the United Kingdom again … all that is gone’.

Deep breath. Let’s rethink this pessimistic worldview. As the Sunday School chorus goes, ‘The foolish man built his house upon the sand...'

A cultural identity however is a much deeper and nuanced thing, and can withstand all sorts of setbacks and challenges. In previous generations, Ulster-Scots people who chose to emigrate took with them a clear *cultural* sense of who they were. Even though their *political* nationality and the flag they lived under would change due to emigration, or to their changed circumstances meaning that they were compelled to forge a revolution, their *cultural* identity remained clear.

The 1700s USA records have multiple references of Ulster people who had a clear understanding of the Reformation, Presbyterian history and the Covenanters, the Williamite Revolution, the Siege of Derry, their own exodus across the Atlantic and the 1798 rebellion. These themes were handed down for many generations, at firesides by people like Andrew Jackson’s mother Elizabeth (pictured below in an old book I have on the shelf). I’ll not repeat them all now, but if you’re in any doubt about that claim just trawl back through years of posts here to see acres of evidence for that.

Ulster-Scots history predates the Union, has mostly supported the Union but not entirely, has been compelled to rebel against the British Government in various ways throughout the centuries, and it might potentially outlast the Union. It is cross-border, it traverses seas and oceans. And flags. Whether Brexit is ‘hard' or ‘soft', whether it works out or is a disaster, if it happens at all or is smothered in fudge. Whether Scotland leaves the United Kingdom or remains.

Politics is ‘downstream’ from culture. Culture is more powerful, more international, more enduring, more open to others, and in many ways can be much more unifying.

“… Philip Melanchthon, Luther’s right-hand man and perhaps the Reformation’s most effective spokesman, was a revolutionary educational reformer, father of one of the movement’s many lasting legacies. Without knowledge of history, he wrote, we are condemned to perpetual childhood, endless darkness, collective blindness. There are none so blind as those who will not look at history, and it is time to open our eyes to the past, in order to face the future …”

– from this recent article in The Guardian

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PS - the post was rushed out just as I was heading off for a week's holiday. The obvious omission is the political border on our own island. When that political decision was taken, were those on the 'other' side of it suddenly any less culturally Ulster-Scots than the rest? Or those who have moved southwards from Northern Ireland into the Republic of Ireland, for reasons of work, family, education, etc?. Today, is the Ulster-Scots community in, for example, Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan, any less Ulster-Scots than those in Northern Ireland. Of course not.