Blinders to the Left, Klans on the Right: Scottish and Celtic Studies in Trump’s America

People have an instinctive need to make sense of the experience of their forbearers and community, and to understand what that might reveal about themselves and their destiny in a larger historical and social framework. Is there an emergent pattern that explains the trials, triumphs and tendencies of our predecessors that might also provide guidance for our present and future dilemmas? Can it inspire us to realize the potentials that we contain and the means of achieving them? Our need for explanatory narratives is natural and universal, but different kinds of aspirations, ideals and explanatory mechanisms prevail at differing times and in various circumstances. It is perhaps unsurprising that in an era of the ubiquity of the internet and a reassertion of biological determinism, many people are constructing social meaning by reading it into genetic codes, genealogy, and Google search engine results.

Delivering this text at the University of Edinburgh on December 8, 2016. Picture courtesy of Alastair McIntosh.
Delivering this text at the University of Edinburgh on December 8, 2016. Picture courtesy of Alastair McIntosh.

The triumph of Donald Trump in the 2016 US presidential election sent shock waves amongst progressives of all stripes within the country and abroad. Trump resorted to forms of prejudice and scapegoating that have emboldened a resurgence of bigotry, racism, and misogyny. Some of the most vocal supporters of Trump have been white supremacists eager to see the end of Obama’s appointment and the return of a white figurehead in charge of national politics. Although masquerading under the moniker “alt-right” in public media, many of them are motivated by racial animus, even to the point of identifying with Nazi ideology and symbolism. They describes themselves as having a “psychic connection” with Trump, who entered the political arena by claiming that Obama was born in Kenya and wasn’t an American citizen.

For some self-declared white nationalists, race and identity are the paramount factors for individual and communal destiny. Richard B. Spencer, a leading ideologue of the “alt-right movement, told National Public Radio after the election:

What I would ultimately want is this ideal of a safe space effectively for Europeans. This is a big empire that would accept all Europeans. It would be a place for Germans. It would be a place for Slavs. It would be a place for Celts. It would be a place for white Americans and so on. [1]

It is troubling that the rhetoric of white supremacy and Nazism is being reiterated verbatim on the public stage. In a convention in Washington D.C. on November 19, Spenser said that America belonged to white people, the supposed “children of the sun,” a race of conquerors and creators who had been marginalized but now, in the era of President-elect Donald J. Trump, were “awakening to their own identity.” [2]

Obama’s presidency had the paradoxical effect of reasserting racist strains of American culture that many of us assumed were obsolete or would soon be. In July, a Republican congressman from Iowa, Steve King, remarked that “white people” had done more for civilization than any other “subgroup.” When given a chance to clarify his comments, he further claimed:

What I really said was ‘Western civilization’ and when you describe Western civilization, that can mean much of Western civilization happens to be Caucasians. But we should not apologize for our culture or our civilization. … The contributions that were made by Western civilization itself, and by Americans, by Americans of all races, stand far above the rest of the world. The Western civilization and the American civilization are a superior culture.

Whatever other motivations and elements have gone into the toxic cauldron that makes up white nationalism and the “alt-right,” it is strongly reactionary. Proponents rail against the strictures of political correctness, reveling in Trump’s machismo, spontaneous outbursts of self-righteous anger, and professed disdain for élitism and plurality. Like their role model, their own self-interests trump any pretense of a moral compass conditioned by consideration for the greater good.

It would be a glib exercise to find further fault with this “basket of deplorables.” Instead, I’d like to point out that in at least some respects the alt-right is a backlash against the far Left, that both are trapped in a gridlock battle over absolutist authority, and both can engage in self-deceiving forms of presentism. The concept of “safe spaces,” for example, was advocated by the Left and has been appropriated, with a vengeance, by spokespeople of the Right such as Spenser.

Much if not most of this oppositional dialectic is centred on the ideology and rhetoric of race. Concurrent with the social struggle for Civil Rights, humanities scholars in the American academy turned increasingly on the country’s history of oppression and privilege, and found the lived experience of racialized citizens of the Republic far short of its ideals of equality and freedom. From an initial emphasis on race-based slavery and the dispossession and genocide of native peoples, the critical lens of domination and marginalization has widened to encompass gender and sexual orientation. Humanities scholars in the U.S. almost by definition are expected to champion the rights and legitimacy of groups other than the straight, white patriarchy.

There is, of course, good reason for promoting peoples and cultural expressions other than those of dominant empires. Slavery is horrific and its legacy – in financial, structural and psychic terms – still persist in American society. Settler colonialism has taken a devastating toll on the lives and sovereignty of native peoples in the Americas and elsewhere. Likewise, there can be no denying that patriarchal and heteronormative practices and norms marginalize the lives and well-being of women and people whose identities do not align with institutional conventions. There is no doubt that scholars of the academy have played a crucial role in exposing historical injustices, advocating the extension of the ideal of liberty and celebrating exemplars of lives lived in such struggles. Those are, I think, praiseworthy achievements born of altruism.

But what is the purpose of higher education? What and who should it represent for whom, and how it can best function in a complex, pluralist world without creating new contradictions of its own? I find myself in the awkward position of critiquing the humanities in American academia but not wishing for it to be rendered vulnerable to the usual attacks in the process. I consider the role of the humanities in the academy as more important than the so-called STEM disciplines and I oppose the notion that higher education be subject to corporate objectives such as job training, innovation for industry, and the commodification of knowledge for the marketplace.

Far too often, however, I see an over-reaction and over-simplification of the history and multi-layered dynamics of oppression and exploitation: the guilt of educated white liberals can be easily turned into self-loathing and a repudiation of forms of identity and cultural expression that are associated in any way with “whiteness,” without rigorous attempts to understand or contextualize them. Interpreting social phenomena exclusively through the lenses of race, gender and sexual orientation can create blinders that impede forward vision and retrospective insight.

I could recount numerous anecdotes from my own experience, but lest you think that I’m exaggerating, an editorial from the UNC newspaper on November 21, 2016 offers one of many examples. Now, admittedly, this is commentary from undergraduate students, and it’s impossible to tell who is responsible for giving them such a problematic view of history, but this general sentiment seems widespread:

Let’s take history classes for example. Almost all of the important figures students learn about are men who come from Western Europe with maybe the exception of the ancient Greeks and Egyptians — who are still considered parts of the “western canon.” … White students learn about all the good, and a limited amount of the bad, that their ancestors did. Why is this not afforded to other groups?

It is all too common for both faculty and students to forget that whiteness is a social construct that took many generations to appear as stable and consistent as it does today; that “the western canon” and “Western Civilization” are recent and artificial constructs representing the élite of a select set of empires at particular times, not the cultural and intellectual background of all people of a geographical zone or skin tone; that anglophones in the early American colonies exercised the power to define “whiteness” in their own image, according to their own specific ethnic and linguistic norms, and that these differ from the heritage of many other Europeans; that study of history is not a catalogue of good and bad deeds. It is as if the far Left expects that European imperialism only started with explorers who crossed the ocean and encountered people who looked different from themselves.

The ahistorical, monolithic stereotypes of the far Left are based on contemporary racial categories that implicitly apportion blame and shame, on the one hand, and heroic struggle, on the other, according to skin color, polarizing people into extreme positions rather than facilitating their empathy with people of other racial categories or their flexibility to embrace hybrid and multiple identities. This issue is highlighted in a recent article:

Young white men, reacting to social and educational constructs that paint them as the embodiment of historical evil, are fertile ground for white supremacists. They are very aware of the dichotomy between non-white culture, which must be valued at all times (even in the midst of terror attacks), and white culture, which must be criticized and devalued. … many resent the pedagogical transformations that their history and culture are undergoing. White historical figures once held in too high esteem have swung the other way into utter disrepute. Also, the histories of no other peoples are being held to these lofty standards. … White people are being asked—or pushed—to take stock of their whiteness and identify with it more. This is a remarkably bad idea. The last thing our society needs is for white people to feel more tribal. [3]

My goal here is to explain, not excuse, these trends and while I don’t wish to underplay the dangers posed by white supremacists, I think that the “alt-right” should be read as a reactionary rejection of these extremes of the Left which pivot around racial categorization. Unfortunately, activity on both sides has tended to retrench racial blocs, not blur their boundaries or delegitimate their premises.

Some on the “alt-right” have opportunistically latched on to symbols associated with Celtic and/or Scottish heritage, especially since many Americans now categorized as “white” actually do have this in their ancestry. I must reiterate that whiteness in America is not inclusively pan-European in practice but has a specifically Anglo-Saxon-Protestant mythic core and set of norms. But I must also note that standard racialized classification overlooks the many people who have a mixture of non-European ancestry and Celtic heritage who have as much a right to claim and celebrate their Celticity as anyone else.

By any reasonable reading of history, literary, cultural and intellectual contributions, and demographic representation, Celtic Studies has been a truly neglected field in North America. I have argued that this is exactly because of the colonial biases of educational (and other) institutions that follow from the British imperial experience.[4]

There is nothing inherently wrong with taking pride in one’s ancestors or heritage, and there is no means of preventing the exploitation of symbols which are effectively in the public domain. What we can do, however, is challenge the interpretation of history and emblems, and offer counter-narratives that can serve to impede the radicalization of white supremacists. What I find distressing about the situation in the U.S. is the simultaneous currency of certain elements of Celticity in popular culture – especially modern forms of music, dance and iconography – and the dearth of trained scholars who can engage meaningfully in the interpretation of Celtic culture and history, especially as they relate to the diasporic experience. The assimilation of the many Celtic-speaking communities that once thrived on the continent, and the disenfranchisement of those in Europe, makes it all the harder to ground expectations and conjectures in reality. White supremacists are thus able to project their fantasies into this void with little opposition from the academy. Some right-wing Celtophiles even express explicit resentment that their heritage is neglected while that of people of color is given reflexive deference and respect, as though this is an intentional tactic in a liberal conspiracy.[5]

Texts and online content coming from Scottish sources are automatically perceived as carrying authenticity and weight, and people in Scotland engaging with public representation of Scottish heritage – whether as scholarship or heritage tourism – ought to feel a moral obligation to represent their work so as not to reinforce problematic assumptions about race and racial categories. In my own estimation, Scottish scholars have demonstrated widespread failure to understand the nature of identity politics in North America and how it intersects with their own topics.

I have been arguing for a long time now that Celtic languages and cultures are worthy of studying in their own right but also that they provide important insights into the ideologies and practices of the “Long History” of anglocentric British imperialism. The Anglo-British élite had already been asserting their own innate superiority over Celtic rivals for centuries before launching overseas ventures, and it is no surprise that the practice of ethnic Othering was transferred directly onto Native Americans in this refocus of activity.

Such continuities in the exercise of power highlights what makes British imperial history in North America different from that of the Spanish, French, Dutch and so on. They also indicate the glaring contradictions of modern Americans, such as congressman Steve King, quoted above, who claim that “Caucasians” made the most important contributions to so-called “Western Civilization”: not only were Celts initially excluded from the category of whiteness, but their political and cultural subjugation were justified exactly on the grounds that they were racially inferior and incapable of creating a viable civilization of their own.

Of course, it is exactly the malleability of racial categories that distinguishes the historical trajectory of Celtic peoples from those who are physically distinct. No two experiences of conquest and oppression are the same: they are bound to differ by numerous factors and circumstances, so it should never be safe to assume that terms and theoretical constructs like “imperialism,” “colonialism,” and “coloniality” represent exactly the same thing across different times, places and peoples. A better account of how Celtic communities were subjugated and co-opted into systems of domination and exploitation can provide a vital case study to supplement the predominant narrative of racialism, especially because the underlying social and political processes continue to play out in the exercise of power and privilege in contemporary America and beyond.

There is ample evidence from Celtic and Scottish Studies itself that can be used to contradict and refute many of the common assumptions and assertions made by white supremacists. I would summarize methods for its use as follows:

  • Take account of colonialism and coloniality in Celtic/Scottish history
  • Take account of whiteness in emigrant “success”
  • Discuss the consequences of co-option into empire
  • Focus on language and culture, not genes, blood or symbolic identity
  • Focus on communities, not essentialized individuals
  • Highlight non-“white” members of Celtic/Scottish communities
  • Examine the ideologies and practices of domination, not skin color
  • Highlight resistance to and critique of domination and exploitation
  • “Reality checks”: contact with traditional communities and cultural expressions

This is no small task. If Scottish scholars and writers are concerned about the revival of racism and serious about voicing disapproval of such movements, the standard narrative about Scotland, Scottish history and the diasporic experience in specific all need to be recrafted. Scottish entanglement in empire will need to be examined critically, and the lingering legacies of coloniality in Scottish life will need to be treated seriously. Celticity and Scottishness need to be distinguished and disassociated from whiteness so that racists cannot hide behind them.

At the same time, the struggle over the ownership and use of Scottish or Celtic heritage should not be a cause to trigger the self-loathing cringe, or to regurgitate the false idea that Celticity is a romantic and artificial fabrication for the gullible, or to claim that Celtic, Gaelic or Scottish cultures are throwbacks to primitive and irrational states of being that have been rendered redundant and are dangerously tainted by nationalism. These too are symptoms of a colonial hangover.

It has been asserted far too often in the past, implicitly or explicitly, that only anglophone cultures are modern and offer the sole mechanisms for progress, inclusivity and multiculturalism. These were always ethnocentric conceits and the widespread support of Trump and BREXIT by xenophobic anglophiles ought to lay them to rest. Scotland, Celtic-speaking communities, and all societies in general, have the potential within them to embolden tribalism, hatred, fear-mongering and exploitation on the one hand, or compassion, inclusivity, equality, and justice, on the other. It is a question of what vision the leaders of those communities choose, how they cultivate or neglect the many contrasting strands of their history, and the circumstances in which they find themselves. There is an urgent need across Europe and the Americas to provide people – especially young white males – with role models and heroic narratives that do not endorse or celebrate violent force or the domination and exploitation of other people, social groups, or living beings.

It has been inspiring to see a radical and progressive voice emerging in Scotland in recent years, one that has the courage to decry, in Gaelic, Scots, and English, the legacy of empire, one that embraces the pluralities of Scotland’s multiethnic past and carries them confidently into the future. This is a voice that needs to be heard in Trump’s America.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Kent Jewell, Peter Gilmore, Tad Hargrave, Alastair McIntosh and Daniel Gwydion Williams for feedback and comments on earlier drafts.

Endnotes

[1] “’We’re Not Going Away’: Alt-Right Leader On Voice In Trump Administration.” National Public Radio November 17, 2016. http://www.npr.org/2016/11/17/502476139/were-not-going-away-alt-right-leader-on-voice-in-trump-administration

[2] Joseph Goldstein.“Alt-Right Gathering Exults in Trump Election With Nazi-Era Salute.” New York Times November 20, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/21/us/alt-right-salutes-donald-trump.html

[3] David Marcus. “How Anti-White Rhetoric Is Fueling White Nationalism.” The Federalist 23 May 2016. http://thefederalist.com/2016/05/23/how-anti-white-rhetoric-is-fueling-white-nationalism/

[4] Most fully in the introduction to Celts in the Americas, Sydney: Cape Breton University Press, 2013.

[5] See my comments in the review of How Celtic Culture Invented Southern Literature. eKeltoi 1 (2006): 10-16.

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5 Comments

  1. It’s good to see this published. I attended it’s original delivery at Edinburgh University on 9 Dec to a packed out lecture theatre. It was well received by the scholars present, some weighty figures amongst them. There was manifest concern that the beauty of our culture – including principles like hospitality and fostership – had been overlooked by those who used it to support racist ideas.

    Michael’s analysis, that this is why Celtic/Gaelic/Scottish studies need to be taught and taught properly, is important in these times. It left me wondering how much of the racism associated with some of Trump’s followers comes from a lack of confident cultural grounding, yet in Scottish and Irish studies the body of knowledge does exist to offer something much more dignified and life-affirming than stirring up hate. But the message does need to be got out there. No wonder folks opt for inferior cultural markers of identity if the real thing has never been offered to them.

  2. Thought-provoking. The ‘Scottish Origins’ of the Klan have been somewhat overplayed – recently by Neil Oliver, who used them to grind a political axe. Doubtless there was a hard-core of bigotry and hate exported from the lowlands via Ulster to the states though, and that helped to shape the way Scotland was perceived in the States.

  3. I’d agree with that on the whole, but as your article notes the target of the initial ‘cross burnings’ was Catholic Churches, which suggests to me that there is a sectarian origin (at least in part.)

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