Taking offence at a cartoon is a caricature of nationalism

Someone has drawn a cartoon and a lot of people are angry about it.

Don’t worry, it doesn’t depict the Prophet Mohammed. No one needs to go into hiding.

It’s just a standard comic strip by the Guardian’s Steve Bell and pokes fun at a couple of politicians.

The strip shows Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond in SNP-coloured kilts. The First Minister says: “I will happily support a Labour government on a case by case basis and I will not make Trident a red line issue. But I will never ever compromise on our core demand for incest and Scottish country dancing!”

Bell would no doubt have expected his educated audience to pick up on the reference to Sir Thomas Beecham’s apophthegm, “In this life try everything once, except incest and Morris dancing.”

Unfortunately, there’s this thing called Twitter and the people on there don’t do nuance. It’s six characters too many. Amongst these are a segment of Scottish nationalists, who were most displeased at Bell.

The insult police were already on high alert after a newspaper column at the weekend warned that English voters would not stand for being ruled over by Scottish politicians they didn’t vote for. In a silly attempt to overegg the pudding, Allan Massie added: “I don’t say the rivers Thames and Mersey will literally foam with blood – but they might well do so metaphorically.”

A dreadfully written Daily Mail screed by Max Hastings (how many tautologies can one sentence bear?) a few days before had thrown its toys out of the pram over the idea that having Scotland remain in the Union might involve Scotland getting some sort of say in how the Union is run.

Just as the Disgusted-of-Byres-Road crowd had done in response to Massie’s and Hastings’ throwaway articles, so too did they jump upon Bell’s innocuous sketch. Twitter was soon ablaze with accusations of racism and xenophobia and encouragements to complain to the Independent Press Standards Organisation (but remember, journalists were being hysterical when they warned against post-Leveson regulation of the press).

Mike Small of Bella Caledonia pronounced the Bell cartoon “racist” and linked it to Jeremy Clarkson calling Gordon Brown “a one-eyed Scottish idiot” and David Mitchell opposing increased public funding for Gaelic.

He wrote: “Can you imagine a Scottish newspaper publishing an equivalent cartoon about the English? You can’t and I’m so glad you can’t. It would be thought outrageous and bigoted. You can’t imagine someone coming on your television and arguing that the English language should die. You can’t imagine a vastly paid BBC presenter calling someone a ‘one eyed English idiot’.”

No, I can’t imagine it.

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Small charged that Massie “has descended from High Tory to float off to somewhere on the far-right” and illustrated “the deep pool of self-loathing that many Scottish unionists draw on”.

Bella Caledonia is hands-down the best culture site in Scotland but every now and then you come across something like this that makes you wonder if the driving force for Small isn’t independence or social democracy but indignation at the discovery of alternative points of view.

Even Iain Macwhirter, recovering as a liberal after dabbling in populism during the referendum, was at it too. He wasn’t too bothered by Bell’s cartoon, though he seemed to think the satirist was alleging a “fondness” for incest on Ms Sturgeon’s part, but he was fit to be tied over Massie’s article. It was a “Powellite diatribe” and painted Scots as the “enemy within” and an “alien force”.

“There is a casual contempt for Scottish people,” he charged, “who are routinely discussed in terms that would be inconceivable were they Afro-Caribbean or Jewish.”

This is a risible fantasy and the wearisome you-wouldn’t-say-it-about-the-blacks-or-the-Jews canard is the stuff of Daily Mail comment threads, and beneath a writer of Macwhirter’s stature and abilities.

I enjoy Massie’s book reviews and curmudgeonly wit. Hastings’ military histories make compelling reading but his opinion pieces are all the same: 800 words of tedious why-oh-whyery. Bell’s appeal lies beyond my ken. I find his satire crude; he draws in brush strokes rather than pencil swipes. Nothing is left to the imagination. He isn’t content to draw the cartoon, he wants to interpret it for us too.

But the relative merits of each as writers or artists shouldn’t matter. It is the job of a polemicist to stir things up and the duty of a newspaper cartoonist to savage politicians, people, and ideas. The more ludicrous the satirist’s subject, the more outlandish his caricature becomes in the hope of capturing the fundamental absurdity of politics. Bell, an old lefty, gleefully tormented John Major during his tenure in Number Ten with a long-running gag that saw the prime minister depicted wearing Y-fronts over his trousers.

Bell’s chronicling of the Blair era was vicious towards the New Labour leader and his take on American politics for almost a decade involved drawing George W Bush as a monkey. As might be expected for a Guardian staffer, the two countries most consistently in his firing line are the United States and Israel. He does it because his readers enjoy acerbic lampooning of the people and things they don’t like. Ask not for whom Steve Bell trolls, he trolls for you.

The idea that this standard-issue man of the left is motivated by ethnic animus against Scots is paranoid havering. Don’t take my word for it. Nicola Sturgeon insists she hasn’t seen the graphic but says in Wednesday’s Times: “Cartoonists are there to provoke and to satirise. I’m not going to comment on different cartoons — that’s their job to poke fun at people.”

There is a strain of Scottish nationalism – present in all nationalisms, if you look closely enough – that revels in outrage. It feasts on slights real and imagined and gorges itself on the psychological junk food of grievance. No offence is left untaken because to do so would disrupt the pleasures of a siege mentality.

But to frame every crass joke and snide remark as a hate crime – as one writer did of the Economist’s sneering ‘Skintland’ cover – is culturally unhealthy. It is a nationalism that, having lost at the ballot box, now seeks victory in the dark recesses of fear and suspicion. See, we told you, it says. They hate us. They’re laughing at us. Are you just going to sit back and take it? Have you no dignity?

Scotland is not a victim or an oppressed minority or a subjugated nation. It is a voluntary partner in a political enterprise, albeit a dysfunctional and asymmetric one. The electorate voted No and just as we have to learn to live with that fact, we also have to live with each other. The energy spent on confected victimhood is energy sapped from pursuing electoral advances and securing a second referendum.

This will do little to dissuade the self-appointed prosecutors of crimes against the nation. These generous souls spread their outrage around; they’ll happily be offended on all our behalves. If only we were as Scottish as they are, if only we cared as much for the country’s spiritual well-being as they do, we would be able to see their point.

In this regard, siege nationalism resembles the behavioural patterns of sections of the conservative movement in the United States. Barely a week goes by without a cable news moraliser or one of the many social arsonists of talk radio seizing upon another example of “elite” snobbery towards the heartland. If you follow American politics, you’ll be familiar with the routine: A politician, celebrity or minor academic makes a questionable remark about evangelical Christians, gun-owners, soldiers, or another favoured group. A desk-thumping hairdo with a slot in prime-time “exposes” the crime and sermonises against the coast-dwelling, Christmas-banning, values-challenged liberals.

The Emmanuel Goldstein of the week will be compelled into a mea culpa or will remain defiant, as more screamers call for their party to suspend them, their record label to drop them, or their university to turf them out for a quiet life. At no point will the guardians of the nation’s morals pause to question their fitness to decide what ought and ought not to be said. Appeals for rationality will go unheeded and don’t dare suggest an off-colour remark is just that and not an attack on the American way of life — What, so you hate America too?

It is the replication of the latter tic, the conflation of nationalism with the nation itself, that is particularly troubling here. The implicit assumption that criticism of the SNP is “talking down Scotland” is present in some responses to Bell and Massie and present to a degree that should make us uneasy. Believing you have the country’s best interests at heart is politics; believing you are the country is religion.

But what if Bell’s cartoon and Massie’s column had been broadsides against Scotland? Are we really so fragile — we an ancient people who denied conquerors and defied odds, we who dominated half the world under the banner of the British Empire and invented the other half through our science and philosophy – that we cannot withstand a few barbs from cartoonists and newspaper columnists?

It should go without saying, though I suppose I’ll have to say it for the benefit of the hard of thinking, that I don’t excuse genuine bigotry directed towards individuals or groups. Columns and cartoons can and do that and they deserve condemnation when they do. But when you cry wolf like this, you can only weaken the awesome power of actual racism to disgust decent people.

It is not true what the schoolmarms say. Political anger is not a dead end; it is a potent force for those who seek power or want to retain it. But it poisons everything around it. This is not the politics that inspired hundreds of thousands of Labour voters to fight the muscle memory of class and family and custom to vote for independence. It bears no relation to the positive and progressive visions outlined by Nicola Sturgeon, National Collective, or Women for Independence.

In the short-term, it could tip the balance of public opinion but in the longer term it risks tainting the entire independence enterprise. It is the Ukipping of Yes, an attempt to replace constructive nationalism with poor-me chauvinism. Independence supporters should resist it as fiercely as they do Unionism.

Originally published on STV NewsFeature image © zombieite by Creative Commons 2.0.

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