Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Flags and Lost Causes

I own a Scottish flag, as well as three kilts and related accoutrements -- all part of showing off a Scottish heritage that I didn't know I had until 15 years ago.   My great-grandfather Harry Cummins had been in the United States so long that none of HIS descendants even know their name was Scottish. 

So it's not like I grew up hearing bagpipe music in my cradle; although the Scottish heritage may be baked a bit into my DNA.   It's a fun culture with which to identify -- unique music, games, clothing; and stereotypical cultural traits like being independent, fearless, industrious, and inventive (which I like to think describes me) as well as thrifty and rebellious (which really doesn't).

I've been thinking about my Scottish flag the last couple weeks, as the controversy over the so-called Confederate flag has swelled in the aftermath of the shooting in Charleston.   Many of my friends seem to identify with the southern cross in a way that sounds similar to the way I feel about my Scottish connections -- it's a symbol of a way of life and an ideal, not of racist intent.   They think that being charged with racism for owning and displaying one is unfair to them, and the suggestion that it is a symbol that American society needs to remove from the public square and retire to a museum feels like an attack on them.

So I've been thinking about some comparisons.

Scotland and England were separate countries -- and frequently at war -- for hundreds of years before the vagaries of royal bloodlines made them one country, Great Britain, in 1603 -- with a Scotsman as king!    The British flag that we know today, the Union Jack, was a combination of the red-on-white horizontal English Cross of St. George, an the white-on-blue diagonal Scottish Cross of St. Andrew.

Of course the Scotsman, King James, moved to London, commissioned a Bible to be translated to English, and pretty much became an Englishman.   Within a few decades the Scots were bucking for independence again.   The last of the Scottish insurrections came in 1745 when "Bonnie Prince Charlie" returned from exile, raised an army in the Scottish Highlands, and not only seized Edinburgh but began to march on London.

The English had had enough.  They brought troops home from their never-ending meddling on the continent and forced the rebels all the way north to Inverness, where Charles ordered a disastrous counter-attack at Culloden that was the last battle fought on British soil

Today British as well as Scottish history treats Culloden as a tragic and epic tale of heroism and patriotism.   There remains a desire for Scottish independence -- just last year, the British government agreed to hold a referendum on the issue, and presumably would have honored the results if a majority of Scots had voted to secede!   But I also think that for 270 years, British culture has done a better job of merging English and Scottish, than American culture has done of merging Northern and Southern.

And it didn't happen right away.  In fact, in the immediate aftermath of Culloden, the British treatment of the Scots was far worse than anything that happened in America's Reconstruction period.   Scots were disarmed, of swords as well as guns.   Wearing kilts or anything in the traditional clan tartans was banned -- upon penalty of jail for a first offense, and deportation for a second.   Landowners who kept their land lost many of their traditional property rights.    And other became so impoverished that they sold their land to English speculators -- which led to "The Clearances."

It's not true that the English rounded up the Highlanders and shipped them all to North America and Australia.   But as the English turned the Scottish countryside from cattle- and cash-crop farming to sheep-grazing land for their burgeoning woollen mills, tenants were forced off their land with the crops still in the ground.   Thousands starved.  Hundreds of thousands chose to leave everything for a new start in the New World.

Now THAT'S losing a rebellion.   Talk about a Lost Cause.

But another difference between the 18th century rebellion in Britain and the 19th century rebellion in the United States was that there was no third ethnicity in Britain who remained an oppressed underclass.

It's not just that the remaining British Scots have spent three centuries making incredible contributions to the industrial might, the literature, and the military strength of the United Kingdom.  The same can be said for American Southernors over the past 150 years.   The difference is that in Britain, waving a Scottish flag is not waving a red flag at several million citizens who know that their permanent enslavement was one of the purposes of the government and army that flew that flag, and that many who fly it today openly call for their removal or death.

I would urge everyone to spend a few days looking at the world through their eyes.

And to my American friends who feel attacked by the calls to bury their Confederate flags, I would say:    give in on this one.   You're not being asked to give up your Faulkner, your motorcycle, your hunting gear, your Lynyrd Skynyrd, or your college football tickets.    I'll keep my kilt and sporran and haggis recipe.   I don't think it's fair that I should give up my Scottish flag, because it doesn't offend anyone; but I would do it if it would help retire a symbol that many millions of Americans see as hostile and painful.

Image compliments of Steve Pollock via Creative Commons:

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