Dancing with ambiguities

It was a smart move of the BBC to ask this year’s Reith lecturer, philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, to give his lecture on ‘Country’ in Scotland (audio here, transcript here). It was one a series he called ‘Mistaken identities’ but if anyone expected it to offer easy answers on the question of nationalism they would have been deeply disappointed. It’s taken me two or three readings to filter the messages I believe I can take from it. You’ll have to read the lecture to see if you agree with my conclusions.

Appiah builds much of his argument around a man whose birth name I had not heard – Aron Ettore Schmitz. He was born in the city of Trieste in 1861. Better known as the writer Italo Svebo, his mother and father were Jews of Italian and German origin respectively. Trieste was the main trading port of the Austrian Empire inhabited, as Appiah says, by ‘a motley group’ of people speaking variously German, Triestino (the local Italian dialect) and, in the surrounding area, Slovenian. He describes Schmitz/Svebo as ‘Jewish by upbringing, an atheist who became a Catholic as a courtesy to his wife; someone who had claims to being German and to being Italian, and who never felt other than Triestine.’

Schmitz sounds my sort of person, Trieste my sort of place.

I say that because, as described by Appiah, Schmitz and Trieste reflect many of the complexities and ambiguities I feel about my own identity(-ies), and country(-ies).

As befits a philosopher, Appiah is careful and precise but also subtle in his use of words. I probably do him a dis-service in trying to fillet the bare bones of his argument, but here goes.

Since the nineteenth century, many peoples who had never controlled a state have been engulfed by political movements that sought an alignment between politics and peoplehood: they wanted nation-states to express their sense that they already had something important in common (Appiah defines a people as ‘a group of human beings united by a common ancestry, real or imagined, whether or not they share a state’).

No political tenet commands more audible assent than that of national sovereignty. ‘We’ aren’t to be ruled by others, captive to a foreign occupation; ‘we’ must be allowed to rule ourselves. But this ideal has an incoherence at its heart and this is what Appiah explores.

Everyone may agree that ‘we’ are entitled to rule ourselves but how do we agree who ‘we’ are?

As a starting point, posit that a nation is a group of people who think of themselves as sharing ancestry and who care about it. But how do you know when you care enough to qualify as having a ‘national consciousness’?

Appiah relates the concept of national consciousness to the development in the late eighteenth century of romanticism, which included the idea that a people had a ‘true spirit.’ In Scotland he cites Robert Burns and his lines ‘Who, for Scotland’s king and law/Freedom’s sword will strongly draw/Freeman stand, or Freeman fall/Let him follow me.’ But he also comments that with these words Burns realises that Scotland ‘was not a fate but a project.’

The reality of communities is that they usually contain significant linguistic and cultural variation and this is in tension with the romantic nationalist vision of a community united by language and culture.

This tension is the rule, rather than the exception. Appiah cites France, India, China, Indonesia and especially his own father’s birthplace, Ghana, as all being wildly diverse in their ethnicities, languages and cultures (he’s worth reading on Ghana alone to realise how diverse and complex a middling-size modern state can be).

Given these realities, the international community has dealt with the fact that self-determination is a sacrosanct ideal with both caution and inconsistency. The United Nations, for example, recognises the territorial integrity of existing states while also endorsing that ideal of self-determination.

What a ‘people’ wants always depends on where you draw the lines. Although ‘we’ have the right to self-determination, that thought can only guide us once we’ve decided who ‘we’ are. If we reject the notion that some natural unity gives countries their shape, how do we hold countries together?

Appiah finds his answer in the words of a French historian, Ernest Renan. It’s ‘the clearly expressed desire to continue a common life … if you will pardon the metaphor, a daily plebiscite.’ What makes ‘us’ a people, ultimately, is a commitment to governing a common life together.

He wisely says he has

no dog in the fight over Scottish independence … but let the argument not be made in terms of some ancient spirit of the Folk; the truth of every modern nation is that political unity is never underwritten by some pre-existing national commonality. What binds citizens together is a commitment, through Renan’s daily plebiscite, to sharing the life of a modern state, united by its institutions, procedures, and precepts.

This seems to me the crux of the division between Scottish nationalists and what, in the context of Appiah’s lecture, I’d call Scottish Britons. The 2014 referendum showed that 55% of those voting were, on balance, willing to share the life of Britain, ‘united by its institutions, procedures, and precepts,’ and 45% weren’t.

The predominant Scottish nationalist political party, the SNP of course, understands that definition of what ‘binds citizens together.’ This is why they work so hard to create and exaggerate differences with the rest of Britain, whether it is in language (see my blog post on the Scots Language Centre, an interesting example incidentally of how they colonise an organisation that may well have a worthwhile purpose), the management of news (the continuing agitation for a Scottish Six news programme), the creation of ‘national’ institutions like police and fire & rescue services where there were previously several, and even apparently small administrative adjustments like the absorption of the Scottish role of the British Transport Police into Police Scotland, easing daily life away from British institutions.

These and many more are the ways in which nationalists hope to shift the ‘daily plebiscite … the pre-existing national commonality’ for the majority of Scots from one reality to another. The tactic makes it all the more important for those who believe in the pre-existing national commonality to resist all those changes made for the purpose of separation.

Meantime, note another subtlety of Appiah’s comment on independence – ‘let the argument not be made in terms of some ancient spirit of the Folk.’ The proponents of what I regard as the somewhat phoney idea of ‘civic’ nationalism might wish to consider how nationalist politicians speak when they are at what they regard as crucial junctures in their struggle.

Seeking a particular quote for this article I came across a Guardian report I had not seen before, about a meeting in Glasgow around the time of the launch of the government’s white paper for the referendum. The author reminds readers that Alex Salmond had chosen 24 March 2016 as his independence day, the ‘same day in 1603 the Union of the Crowns occurred [and in] 1707 the Acts of Union.’ He also notes that in the meeting:

Salmond quoted Pandit Nehru, the first prime minister of an independent India, saying: ‘A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.’

As Appiah says ‘let the argument not be made in terms of some ancient spirit of the Folk.’

If we are talking ambiguity and incoherence, as Appiah also characterises much of the thinking around ‘country,’ I much prefer the British ambiguity and incoherence of what I described before the referendum (no philosopher me) as ‘jumbled up in a good way’ to the romantic but fictional ‘soul of a nation.’

To revert to Burns and Appiah’s view that he realised that Scotland ‘was not a fate but a project,’ you cannot choose a fate, you can choose not to embark on a project. Most of us, the one time the question was put to the test, chose not to do that.

I end where Appiah started, with Aron Schmitz/Italo Svebo who, Appiah says, ‘thrived on being sort-of Jewish, sort-of German, and, in the end, only sort-of Italian. For Svevo, life was a dance with ambiguities … .’

I feel much the same – life is a dance with ambiguities. In noting the fate of Svevo’s kin after his death (I do not imply the same historical circumstances in Scotland) Appiah talks of ‘forces that detested ambiguity and venerated certainty.’

I said that Appiah’s Reith lecture does not ‘offer easy answers on the question of nationalism.’ It would be an unwise nationalist in his Glasgow audience who took comfort from his words.

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