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For Auld Lang Syne, My Dear

 

European Social Forum Plenary Address

 

 

 

Presentation by Alastair McIntosh,

Centre for Human Ecology, Ecosse,

for the FSE / ESF plenary, Paris, 14 November 2003  

on behalf of the Dundee Trades Union Council

 

 For Auld Lang Syne, my Dear

 

Bon soir mes amis [French], Feasgar math [Scottish Gaelic], Shalom [Hebrew], Assalaam-o-Alaikum [Arabic], Namaste [Hindi].

 

All those greetings, in 5 languages of the world, tell us something about being human. They suggest that to know one another requires being deeply rooted in core values.

 

They suggest sharing blessings of goodwill, happiness and peace. As “Namaste” from India implies, this can take us to the most profoundly spiritual level of that which gives life.

 

And life is what we must seek today as we reflect on “cultural and national identities in Europe”. Let’s explore the four keywords there: identity, nation, Europe and culture.

 

Our identity is the shape that life takes in forming who we are and what we stand for. Identity spreads out from our inner selves as ever-widening circles - through our family, our street or village, our town or region, and eventually to the nation and beyond.

 

Our nations should be, therefore, our communities that give life on a large scale.

 

It follows that Europe is a community of many smaller communities, and beyond that is the community of the entire world.

 

A solid sense of identity, then, is about connecting our individual lives and where we come from with nothing less than planetary consciousness.

 

Culture is the collective shape that this common life takes. And culture to a community is like water to a fish. We move and breath it so naturally that it gets taken for granted, unless, that is, the river runs dry or becomes polluted.

 

Today, many of us find that our rivers are drying up. Some perceive deliberate poisoning by forces that would diminish distinctive nuances, and turn their land and cultures into mere commodities to be bought and sold.

 

As Marcuse said, “Pollution and poisoning are mental as well as physical phenomena…. When people are no longer capable of distinguishing between beauty and ugliness, between serenity and cacophony, they no longer understand the essential quality of freedom, of happiness.”

 

This is why strong cultural and national identities are so important in standing up to globalisation. They distinguish us from the banal brutality of packaged product.

 

In Scotland, our national poet, Robert Burns, warned about the dangers of this brave new world that was then called Empire.

 

In a poem called Strathallen’s Lament, written on the eve of the French Revolution, he said: “The wide world is all before us,/ But a world without a friend.”

 

Yes - he said, we could become Imperial Scots if we wanted to. Yes - we could participate in the competitive exploitation of the world. But only at a terrible cost.

 

At a loss of friendship. At a loss of conviviality. At loss of true internationalism.

 

Today, with the benefit of hindsight, Robert Burns’s prophecy speaks even louder than it did in 1787.

 

Today too, globalisation’s engine of advanced capitalism offers the wide world, but a world without a friend.

 

It offers identity – but only branded as McDonalds or Nike.

 

It offers “democracy” – but only based on one share, one vote. 

 

It offers rewards - but it cannot confer blessing, because human blessing can only come from love in a living heart.

 

And as such, advanced capitalism it is not capable of saying with any deep integrity such benedictions as - “Bonjour”, “Shalom” or “Namaste”!

 

So that is why we must make a new politics today. A politics by which we can greet one another eye-to-eye, as human beings made of flesh and blood.

 

A politics that asks of every policy:

 

Does it give life to those around us?

 

Does it give life to the environment?

 

And does it give life to the soul?

 

In Scotland today we are trying to recover our nation’s political, economic and cultural life.

 

For too long we have had a British identity that triumphed in colonial power. A British identity that still has nuclear weapons and still believes that war can save the world.

 

We in Scotland are mounting challenges to that identity.

 

In 1999 we recovered our own Parliament after 300 years of being ruled from London. This gives us partial independence, or “Devolution”.

 

The flagship legislation of our new Parliament has been land reform.

 

This year we passed a Land Reform Act. It guarantees the freedom to walk anywhere, and makes it easier to take land out of private ownership and into the control of communities.

 

Whether we are rural or urban, relationship to the land matters. It is where we build community. It is where we have or put down roots. It is where we develop our identity, our values and the sense of responsibility by which we can take care of one another and the Earth.

 

We need land reform in Scotland because our nation has been colonised by the rich. Just 1,000 owners control nearly 2/3 of the private land. The tenure system up until now has been feudal.

 

If the land is not free, then our cultures and identities are imprisoned. That is why Scotland is in the process of decolonising both its land … and its soul.

 

But we must be very careful how we do this.

 

We are seeking freedom from domination by a powerful elite - and not ethnic purity!

 

Indeed, many of us are actively working to make ethnic minorities feel welcome in Scotland. We are emphasising the traditional sacred duty of hospitality for the short term, and fostership (or adoption) for the long term.

 

We want a Scotland where ethnic diversity is celebrated in mutual respect. Where pride in being Scottish means being proudly inclusive. Anything less would be a shameful national identity.

 

This is the opposite of the competitive ethic of globalisation and the opposite of a “world without a friend”. It is the co-operative ethic of One World internationalism.

 

Now, many of you will know the ancient Scottish song, Auld Lang Syne – “Old Long Ago”:

   

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,

            And never brought to mind?

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,

            And auld lang syne?

 

For auld lang syne, my dear,

            For auld lang syne.

We’ll tak a cup o kindness yet,

            For auld lang syne!

 

 

Robert Burns copied down this traditional song in 1788. His version is remarkable. It challenges all that would have us forget our histories and homogenise our identities. 

 

The song poses a double set of ethical questions which I’d summarise as follows: “Is it right that old friendships, and history, should be pushed forever out of the mind and forgotten?”

 

Burns' answer is in the chorus. He says, in effect, that only by remembering the roots of who we are and where we come from can we build a culture of conviviality.

 

He tells us to share what he calls … “a Cup of Kindness” … and look … here I have one of these special Scottish cups to show you (though let it not be seen as being unique to Scotland). 

 

It has 2 handles so that it can be passed from hand to hand, thereby uniting the community.

 

Friends, let us do that here! And let me fill it with the taste of Scotland!

 

But please … have some minimal respect for property rights! … and will somebody bring me back my cup when it is empty?

 

Thank you.

 

 

[At this ending I filled a large quaich with a bottle of whisky and passed it to the audience. The 700 delegates in the hall rapturously danced and sang the first verse and chorus of Auld Lang Syne, each in their own language. It was magic, and I got my cup back!]

 

 

 

Alastair McIntosh (Alaistair MacIntosch) is a Fellow of Edinburgh’s Centre for Human Ecology and the author of Soil and Soul: People versus Corporate Power (Aurum Press, London), described by George Monbiot as “a world-changing book”.

 

 

 

Notes:

 

  1. For a deeper analysis of land reform and national identity in Scotland in French, German and English, see Alastair McIntosh & Vérène Nicolas, Quand l'Ecosse Distribue les Terres: Vent de Réformes Après la Conquête de L'Autonomie, Le Monde Diplomatique, Paris, November 2001. Also, my book, Soil and Soul: People versus Corporate Power, Aurum Press, London, 2001, and papers in French and English at www.AlastairMcIntosh.com .

 

  1. The quote from Herbert Marcuse is from Ecology and Revolution, first published in Liberation, 16 (September 1972): pp. 10-12.

 

  1. Burns copied down Auld Lang Syne from an old man around 1788. He probably embellished it in so doing. There are several verses, and the later ones show the song to be profoundly ecological. In them, Burns recalls how he would go with his companion to the hills when they were young and pick wild flowers and paddle in the streams. As we see so often in Burns's work and Scottish poetry, relationship with one another is expressed in a context of relationship with the beauty of place. A copy of the full text of Burns's version with the tune can be found at http://community-2.webtv.net/dpb5/AuldLangSyne/ . I think we could truly call this song the anthem of One World Internationalism. 

 

(During delivery of this address I played the tune rather than recited the words. People joined in singing it in their own languages.  It was played on a penny whistle that I drew from the sock of my kilt, appropriately in place of the sgian dubh or "black knife"!)

 

 

 

 

17 Nov 2003

www.AlastairMcIntosh.com

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