19 April 2008

Invention of Tradition

Liberty and Power links to this Grauniad piece on how Highland Scottish culture - in this case specifically bagpipes - is all a 200-year-old fake.

The trouble is, yet again, that the headline doesn't agree with the story. The familiar narrative is that the formal "Highland Culture" that assails the tourist and the expatriate today was collected and defined by the likes of the "Highland Society of London" after the real highland culture had been dead just long enough to be safe. It was now opportune for the British establishment to promote and co-opt the history.

That's not the same as saying they made it all up from scratch. The highlanders wore heavy woolen woven cloths, often with various tartan patterns, so the revivers defined tartans and garment types. They played some kind of pipe, so they made bagpipes. The old highlanders didn't themselves publish reference books of clan tartans and kilts and bagpipe designs, because that's not the sort of thing a living culture does (particularly a backward peasant culture).

So what the Guardian's big revelation of the "fake" bagpipes amounts to is that the pipes made by businesses in Edinburgh according to fixed designs for the last 200 years are not quite the same as the ones actually carried by illiterate cattle-herders and peasants two hundred miles north and a hundred years previously. Also particular specimens in various museums are not actually as old as they claim to be. The first point is obvious, the second is important for the museums but not actually of much interest to the rest of us.

Why am I sticking up for the rent-a-Jocks? Do I have romantic dreams about my Grampian ancestors sticking it to the Sassenachs? Hardly. But the arguments that annoy me most are the ones I've previously fallen for. I have gleefully debunked the tartans and the like in the past, and I'm embarrassed to have been had. There's some relevance to the other issue, because, like the WMDs and the last decade's temperatures, this is a case where the details say one thing and the headline has been spun to say something else.

Unlike the other cases, I don't think there's any particular agenda at work here. The base of it was explained best by G. K. Chesterton:
You've got to understand one of the tricks of the modern mind, a tendency that most people obey without noticing it. In the village or suburb outside there's an inn with the sign of St. George and the Dragon. Now suppose I went about telling everybody that this was only a corruption of King George and the Dragoon. Scores of people would believe it, without any inquiry, from a vague feeling that it's probable because it's prosaic. It turns something romantic and legendary into something recent and ordinary. And that somehow makes it sound rational, though it is unsupported by reason. Of course some people would have the sense to remember having seen St. George in old Italian pictures and French romances, but a good many wouldn't think about it at all. They would just swallow the skepticism because it was skepticism. Modern intelligence won't accept anything on authority. But it will accept anything without authority.

Debunking feels good. Knowing that what the what the other fellow believes is wrong feels really good. I have a particular weakness for it, which is why I've been a perpetrator of this one example before.

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