The many lies of national mythology

Presently I’m reading How the Scots Invented the Modern World by Arthur Herman. Originally I bought it as a present for my dad, chosen from Barnes & Noble because our symbolic ethnicity is Scottish, and it seemed like an interesting read. He finished it, so I stole it to read on my second trip north towards Canada.

Elaborate traditional opening of the Scottish Parliament.

One interesting aspect of the book is on the dirty, depressing method by which England and Scotland became united in 1707. Scotland, which was mostly out of the colonial game and among the poorest European countries, scraped together a bunch of money for what was called the Darien Scheme. In retrospect it was a terrible idea- it was already well-established that Europeans couldn’t survive in the tropics, the land was unpopulated but claimed by the Spanish, even though it was decades after Jamestown it still had the issues with colonists and cargo not being particularly useful. Scotland tapped out and joined the English rather than attempt to create their own international commerce system.

That’s interesting, particularly in light of the (not terribly likely to pass) independence referendum in six weeks. The origins of modern states are often messy and unpleasant; it’s why the modern concept of the nation was created. Leaders could rewrite history and craft a new, artificial culture. It helps to distract from how many countries, European and former colonies alike, exist due to treaty negotiations. The glorious struggle is often more like the tedious administrative wrangling.

What fascinates me about nationalism is how the recent can become the arcane and sacred in the minds of millions. Almost everyone probably thinks that French has been the dominant language in France for a very long time. After all, it’s called France. But until the last 150 years or so, a vast majority of citizens spoke little to no French.

At the time, French, although an official language, was still little used, even in France. It was the language of the court, the aristocracy and middle class, literature, and academia, but was spoken by fewer than one million out of the 20 million inhabitants of France, or 5% of the population. Given that nobles numbered only about 4,000 at the court, it was the middle class and merchants who, in absolute numbers, spoke French the most. (source)

 

The various languages in France and their extent, 1550 CE.

European history, as taught to me in the main high school textbook, was about how Latin was a language of the church and elite, and the big shift was to vernacular languages. This did happen, but the truth of the matter is that the big modern tongues we think of were far less influential than they are today. In fact, the rise of unified, centralized education was needed to demote languages like Occitan to secondary importance.

Just like how you could say that man made god, man made the nation. Traditionally both religion and nationhood have a sort of holy feeling, and a sense of destiny. In America, there is often a blurring between the Founding Fathers and the Framers as men, or as deities.

If the independence referendum fails, the reasons will go beyond pragmatic economic and political concerns. Part of it will be how a British identity has been fashioned. The marvel of the modern world is not how violent and destructive it is, but how countries that spent most of the last millennium trying to kill each other don’t anymore. For every Yugoslavia, where one identity became many, there are others were a disunited region became one.

What I’m trying to say in the end is that there are many histories. We tend to believe the dominant explanation of the past. That doesn’t mean it’s a good picture. For all its flaws, A People’s History of the United States was an attempt to disrupt the American mythology. Such work may be a sort of inconvenient truth- what ends up in textbooks and classroom lectures usually works, for some group of people.

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