A View from a Bridge
Posted on January 4, 2013
Today, my New Year travels take me across the New Bridge. The structure is quite something, although the journey surprised me this time not for taking me over an engineering marvel, but by prompting thereover memory of an excellent article in The Scotsman by Joyce McMillan from four years ago or so (‘Political nit-picking serves no-one’, The Scotsman, 4th January 2013). The piece was at first pass about the pernicious hair-splitting habit of then Scottish politics and political debate: towards 2014 we were all too preoccupied with the constitutional issue and the technicality of whether Scotland was to be sovereign or not. McMillan said then that actual political responses to topics highly pertinent to our country – currency, economy, energy, social justice, the European Union – were likely to prove more important as measures of Scotland’s autonomy than therapeutic-theological concerns over the particular hairstyles of the country as state or substate. The article cautioned, although not in these words I’m pretty sure: to split hairs over hairstyles is to pick the nits while the corpus self-combusts.
Of course McMillan was right to predict back then that we were to endure another twenty months or so of intense debate and intense nitpickery over the independence question. We certainly did, although in doing so a broad range of people were engaged in the political parish and in the strengthening and depthening of the community in Scotland that does politics. Moreover, twenty months seemed rather less durationally than first imagined.
But as I look back at the Forth Rail Bridge and the Old Road Bridge, the second pass significance of McMillan’s article seems all-too poignant four years on. Nit-picking over the constitutional technicality was presented not-wrongly as a possibly dangerous distraction, yes, and the article seemed to embody that seeming common sense. However, in the same textbreath as that moderation was offered there was an impressive and prescient forecast about the dangers of one particular outcome of the referendum on the technicality.
McMillan’s subtext, a subtext which usefully belied the title of the article, was the anticipated effect of the failure of the Scottish people to secure independence for Scotland. Following her accurate prediction of the ‘likely No vote’, McMillan anticipated for the nation:
a period of profound depression, division, and destructive recrimination, as Scots blame one another for our appearance before the world as a nation that fears its own nature, and cannot trust itself to run its own affairs.
The referendum has come and gone, and McMillan got it right. Even the honest plebiscite members of the Better Together campaign feel a tinge of something in the face of an episode of Scottish self-deprecation which by virtue of its Historical morbidity appears now no longer a natural descendent of generations of mild-mannered McAutoputdowns. For the pessimists amongst the Yes Scotland people, gravely, the No vote marks a mutational threshold for the species, a terminal moment which signals the hollowing out of cultural memory and national ambition, an end of belief no less as we take our place in the automata labour force of economic rationalist powers-that-be but which don’t-quite-be-here.
But seeing this bridge, no, seeing these bridges, I bloggily take a view from one of them that McMillan’s implied admirable trust in vision to steer goals was not misplaced then, and even now.
Let me corral Noam Chomsky to help explain my in-transit trust in vision. From his Powers and Prospects of 1996, Chomsky describes his delineation of goals and visions.
By visions, I mean the conception of a future society that animates what we actually do, a society in which a decent human being might want to live. By goals, I mean the choices and tasks that are within reach, that we will purse one way or another guided by a vision that might be distant or hazy.
Chomsky’s concern in this work was to firstly acknowledge that visions and goals can often be in contention, and often not, and, secondly, that the choices between goals that we face now (summarised by Chomsky as being between democratic and aristocratic ends, between pursuit of social justice and capitalist accumulation) are not dissimilar to choices we faced in the past. That said, one’s vision of the world, and for politics, informs, shapes and nourishes one’s conduct towards both determining and pursuing one’s chosen goals. Chomsky makes clear, then, the generative relationship between vision and goals, notwithstanding the potential for tension between these elements and for the persistence (according to his vision) of certain goals. And, however hazy, the agency of vision in determining and achieving goals is registered throughout his discourse on powers and prospects.
McMillan, firstly rehearsing and then seeing past her own dismay at the effect of the No vote, recuperated the centrality of vision in this way:
Somewhere in the heart of our society, of course, we will eventually find the seeds of a new creative and civic movement that will bring people together again, to fight for more democracy, more social justice, more real freedom for ordinary people, more respect for ourselves and others, inside and outside the UK.
Certain goals are to be determined, although we still know now in 2017 what many of them must be in Scotland to meet the vision voiced in the above excerpt. Back in 2013, McMillan did see this vision carried in the work of a new generation of artists, but she was concerned then that something of that vision was being lost in the nitpickery and ‘ugly imperatives of the Yes-No independence debate’. Worse than that, as McMillan poignantly foretold, this generation of artists has inherited ‘decades of new work to do’ to recuperate confidence and vision for a nation that woke ‘on the bleak morning after the independence referendum of 2014’ with ‘deep wounds to heal’.
The bridge is astonishing, yes, and we are rightly proud of it, and it goes some way to remind ourselves of what can be done. But, as good as this discrete project is, a vision is a hard thing to find only amongst a portfolio of projects delivered and goals achieved. We journey on in Scotland with one contentious goal after another, but, thinking of Chomsky’s commitment to vision as a chaperone to political goals, and thinking of the self-inflicted wounds that McMillan foresaw, I am wistful on this crossing about a Scotland that might have passed us by on the other track: one where a great many more goals could have been achieved by the efficacious and culturopractico conjoining of the felt values of shared vision and the steely determination to meet shared goals.
Reflecting on McMillan’s intelligent soothsaying, I’m thinking now as I move over the New Bridge that the technicality might be less a hairdo and more an organ, therefore, of course, not a technicality at all. Who would have thought back then that we were to feel so sharply the disappearance of the possibility of the pulse in the corpus that would have allowed pursuit of goals now unanimatable, steered by the heart of a vision not transplanted.