Albert Michelson

A River Runs Through Our Defeats But That’s No Reason To Give UP – John Davis

A River Runs Through Our Defeats

This post is inspired by recent comments by Pat Kane which sought to encourage us to break down false dichotomies.  Kane’s views reminded me of ideas to be found in the work of Norman Maclean, the author of ‘A River Runs Through It’.  Maclean posed the question, can a poet be a physicist and also analysed Custer’s death at The Little Bighorn.

This post will employ Maclean’s work to consider what we should learn from our defeat in the #indyref.   In so doing, it poses the question, what might we learn from history about analysing defeat? And, answers – we learn that we should not apologise to our opponents for seeing our recent defeat as merely a staging post in our journey, a hastily constructed unionist dam (that will one day be overcome) or bend in the river that slows our progress.  We do not need to apologise for following the constant message (and myths) in Scots history that tells us that we have national right to never give up – try, try and try again.

Pat Kane’s blog, ‘Thoughtland’ recently discussed innovation and drew from Hugh MacDiarmid’s words to promote a Scotland where young people can be enabled to make, ‘an impossibility’ come true.  He called for an ‘ImagiNation’ were the ‘makar and maker are fellow visionaries in Scotland’s future.’

In so doing, Kane broke down a false division between the creative and technical worlds.  His words reminded me of Norman Maclean who once pondered whether a poet could be a physicist. Maclean’s essay, ‘Billiards is A good Game’, discusses Albert Michelson the Nobel winning physicist – this essay explains that Maclean was greatly impressed by Michelson’s practical abilities.

This got me thinking, in the new Scotland, do we need poets to be physicists and vice versus? Has the internet age already brought about this change? And, do our economic and political systems need to catch up?

Mike Small, also, recently cut through false dichotomies in a Bella-Caledonia article promoting the Unusual Suspects Festival which sought to encourage social innovation through collaboration:

‘We live in a world characterised by false dichotomy. Two such fallacies are dominant: social justice equals state centralism and individual passivity, whilst capitalism equals dynamism and action. Scotland is often portrayed as wedded to the former in a dreary dependency culture.’

But, is the description of Scotland as centrist fair? No it isn’t – in most cases the money that goes into the public sector also creates opportunities for the private sector – the two are always connected and the main stream media’s inability to see the creative connections between public and private simply demonstrates the cosy and complacent bubble they live in.

Pat Kane used a presentation by Marianna Mazzucato to point out that most private companies rely on creative and innovative technologies developed from public sector research and that there is, therefore, a false dichotomy between public and private enterprise.

A few years ago, I was working on the CREANOVA project which investigated creativity and innovation across various EU countries. During that project, people in the creative and technology sectors argued that the public sector was a crucial partner in innovation.

They particularly argued that the public sector could provide an enabling and collaborative environment for companies to come together (even across national boundaries) to develop creative ideas.

During that project, I interviewed an expert in design (who then worked at Glasgow School of Art and has since become a friend and writing collaborator).  She pointed out that design is the glue that enables creative ideas to be put into innovative action. That’s is, she argued people often come together to develop new thinking but there needs to be a process that puts thinking into practice if we are to bring about change.

That is how Maclean came to be so impressed by Michelson.  He valued Michelson’s ability to use his hands to produce knew things that solved other people’s problems.  For example, Maclean tells us that Michelson produced new equipment to measure the speed of light – which even impressed Einstein who said

I always think of Michelson as the artist in Science. His greatest joy seemed to come from the beauty of the experiment itself, and the elegance of the method employed.

The melting pot of different people and ideas brings about creativity and innovation but UKIP and the Tories are hell bent on putting up fences and walls to keep out people who will bring us different, important and new ideas.

I was thinking of this recently when reading @GerryHassan who tweeted,

‘Anybody any idea what ‘championing social justice’ means in Scotland? Has become a vacuous, meaningless, mean what you want phrase.’

Nothing more vacuous than a vacuous tweet about a vacuous phrase then. But seriously, he’s probably got a point. A point about people who mimic a way of speaking, but, don’t practice the values of the words.

I have been raising, for years, the issue of unreflexive  fake social justice warriors for years. The point being, that politicians, teachers, political types, academics, no voters, yes voters, etc., talk about social justice without practicing it.

So we can talk, dream and sing about social justice but we need to ensure we start our social justice practice by washing our own door step, by appreciating those we interact with on a daily basis. Then, we need to do whatever we can to contribute to processes where people liberate themselves.  An self-empowerment enables change to actually happens.  We don’t just need fine words – we need a heftily glued up process of change that protects our crafts from all that the established waters can throw at us.

Currently in Scotland, we are at a unique place in our lifetime – people are very connected. Indeed, our pal Mario Diani has just argued that the important thing about civic society in Glasgow is that people in different organisations are willing to work together for change and that’s what makes Glasgow radically different to other cities (see link here).

During this unique time, we should seek to work together as if we won the referendum and support as many people to bring about change in their lives as is possible.  We can take on poverty and injustice irrespective of the Tories.  Note, I don’t use the ‘empower them’ phrase that we have been hearing a lot recently.

‘Empower them’ is a bullshit term – used by people in power. We can support people’s self-empowerment, their self-emancipation but if we think WE are ‘empowering THEM’, (like it’s a gift from us worthies to, ‘those poor wee people’) – we have not given up any power.  Semantics – this is not.

‘Self-emancipation’ entails individuals, within a collaborative context, taking charge of their worlds as part of a collective and equal US; ‘all o’ us thi gither’ (not them and us). It requires an amalgamation of notions of sameness and difference – for difference to be part of the collective, for difference not to lead to exclusion, and for difference not to be ironed out in the search of purity, assimilation or uniformity.

This idea; that we can collaboratively support processes of self-emancipation, has great meaning for those of us that continue to dream of a socially just Scotland – free from oppression, sexism, homophobia, ageism, racism, sectarianism, disablism, etc.

Indeed, my own experience of the #indyref was that, like never before, it opened us all up to working with difference – it opened us up to working with diverse people on an equal basis towards a better and more inclusive Scotland.

What we need to learn from our defeat in the #indyref is that the reason we were defeated was that we did not make the collective big enough – we got caught up in preaching to each other e.g. the under 55s.  We did not identify the key groupings that were left outside of our butterfly-love-in.

Our Butterfly-love-in missed 25% of people that could have voted Yes . That’s 25% who weren’t convinced by our grand-plan.

Mike Small’s article suggested that the #indyref might have created more of a divided Scotland and we need to find ways of avoiding this becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy.

That’s is, #indyref2 is dead in the water if we fall into the trap of creating a, ‘them and us’ way of speaking and thinking. We have to continue to think of everyone in Scotland as us or we will subconsciously create and maintain a schism that will prevent us coming together.

No voters are a part of us and we must interact with them as equal right-holders in the journey to a better Scotland.

I think it is important to lay down a few markers about myself as a potential co-collaborator on the journey – as my last post on aggression and zero tolerance pointed out, I am not putting myself up as some kind of perfect role model. I have loads of flaws.

However, I also have strengths that come from learning about those flaws.  I have strengths that enables me to give support to others who wish to make real social changes. One of my strengths involves being a university teacher who has tirelessly supported non-traditional students to achieve their dreams of getting a degree.

From years of experience, I, and my colleagues, can look into a student and draw out identities that even they have not quite been aware of.  Yet, I would not call myself necessarily a great teacher. I am skilled at supporting all sorts of learners to complete their studies whatever their difficulties.  When then they complete their studies – the graduates have their own ideas of who they are, what their pedagogy is and how they want to support other people.  They have ideas I couldn’t even have fathomed (they do not come out as clones of their lecturers).

Norman Maclean said of himself at the end of his career – when discussing what made a great university teacher:

‘I have slipped now to where I am about as good as when I started teaching at twenty. In between, there were times when I was a little better. That’s it.’

I am not sure if I have slipped back yet. But, every-time I walk into a class I treat it like it could be a disaster, then I am very pleased if it is not.  Maclean was of the view that there are lots of different types of great teachers:

 ‘So you can teach like a prize fighter and be a great teacher, or you can teach like an architect and be a great teacher, or you can be a great teacher in shirt sleeves or in back of a gold collar button.  It seems you can do about anything and be a great teacher.  But if you like to go around watching great teachers… …A great teacher is a tough guy who cares deeply about something that is hard to understand.’

Maclean was at pains to point out that he was observing from experience that, ‘toughness’ was one of the few common characteristics of great teachers – not that it should be the case that teachers should be ‘tough’. Maclean followed this up with:

‘When I say ‘tough’ I realise we are in an age when students seem to be demanding that teacher’s stroke the silk on their egos while serving sherry with the other hand, and I have one favourable thing to say about all this – the students don’t seem to care whether the sherry is good or not. And after a while they tire of the whole business.’

As if predicting the critiques from our era concerning machismo cultures, Maclean added that when using the term ‘tough’ he did not mean he was willing to be aggressive – per say:

‘I don’t mean being rude or unsympathetic, although I want to make it clear that I do not feel any compunction about being courteous to all people at all times, either in a classroom or anywhere else. You treat students the way you treat other people – the way you think they deserve to be treated.’

When I work with non-traditional students (96% of them women on the BACP) – I am at pains to ensure the process does as little harm to them as possible, at pains to remove the barriers that have previously inhibited their learning – e.g. whilst at school.

Yet, the academic birthing and re-birthing process is always painful and we cannot always protect the students from themselves or their life circumstances. When they are able to share their problems with us we do everything possible to support them but our support doesn’t always work.

For the most part, our non-traditional courses reduced the barriers to learning by using: work-based, scenario-based and case-based learning.  We employ flexible types of assessments; promote peer-supported working; enable students to co-construct the curriculum; and allowing students to self-define how they achieve the course learning outcomes.

We don’t actually didactically teach these students, we support a process of learning which involves the students sharing and developing their learning and leadership experiences.

However, when I was first collaborating with professionals in the early years, out of school, childminding and family support sectors to develop the BACP degree, my friend Stephen Farrier (who I worked with at the university of Edinburgh and Northumbria University) pointed out an important fact.

Stephen suggested that – even if it was humanly possible (which it isn’t), you could not entirely remove the pain from learning processes because this would reduce the student’s sense of achievement.

An interesting observation; pain, hurt, toughness are often highlighted in our post-Oprah Winfrey culture as things that create victims – not survivors. We need to unshackle ourselves from victimhood discourses, if we are to collectively forge a socially just future.  Pain, defeat, hurt and rejection are good for us – as long as we survive.

Norman Maclean wrote at times with a very male gaze which no doubt owed much to being born in 1902 and being a product of his time. Norman Maclean’s idea of ‘toughness’ is also evident in his book, ‘A River runs Through It’. In this book, both female and male characters exhibit lots of different types of toughness when experiencing defeat.

In ‘A River runs Through It’, Maclean’s brother Paul is an exceptional fisherman (but a complicated man) who is behind in the poker game at Hot Springs. Norman is told by a local cop:

‘It is not healthy to be behind in the big game at Hot Springs… ….You and your brother think you’re tough because your street fighters. At Hot Springs they don’t play any child games like fist fighting’.

Of particular note in ‘The River Runs Through It’ is the way that Maclean enables the reader to view characters socially dying and rising again, either from embarrassment, hurt pride, stupidity or public denouncement. Yet, having lulled the reader into a false sense of security regarding reincarnation, Maclean ambushes his readers with bad news about his brother Paul.

The deep emotion of the books comes when we learn that Paul has been murdered.  There is no Christian resurrection here.  The only resurrection, for Paul, can be in Norman’s memories, in they way Paul’s image, deeds and emotions are represented in Norman’s text and they way we construct Paul in our minds and memories. The tragedy of Maclean’s story is exhibited when we learn that Paul’s fists showed that he fought to the end – ‘toughness’ that lasted till-death-do-us-part.

Maclean is proud of his Scot’s heritage and connects it to his own and his brother’s toughness.  It is interesting to think of such representations of Scots people: the people from the stone, hard, unyielding, tough, not for turning and not defeated by their defeats.

Maclean was often concerned in his writing with how human beings hide their defeats from their-selves. His book exposes his own hidden questions. It exposes his self-doubts regarding his brother’s death – could he, Norman, have done something to stop it?

Similar questions haunt Yes supporters: could we have actually won, could we have done something different, could we have broken that very Scottish habit of clutching defeat from the jaws of victory? Could we have navigated the choppy waters of the independence referendum in a better prepared craft?

Maclean wrote in depth on defeat and death in an unfinished manuscript concerning Custer and the Battle of The Little Bighorn. This text highlighted the irony that there is no clear uncontested story of Custer’s defeat yet the defeat is represented in a very big and clear way by a national monument that tourists can visit.

Maclean concluded that often military defeats (e.g. in the UK and the USA) were commemorated not necessarily for what occurred in battle but because the establishment needed to utilise them as a call to arms (e.g. Dunkirk and Pearl Harbour)

Next year will be the centenary of the 1916 uprising in Ireland and it struck me that the people of Ireland and Scotland may have something in common that is perhaps different? It may be the case that we celebrate glorious defeats in a different way to other countries.

It may be that we celebrate our ability to clutch defeat from the jaws of victory, our ability to almost succeed but not to give up, our ability to be imperfect and our ability to be defeated but only as a pre-curser for liberation (1916 leads to the Free State, William Wallace leads to Robert the Bruce, the spider story and a ‘free’ Scotland).

A key question may be: Was the #indyref in Scotland a less bloody equivalent of 1916 in Ireland? Are we about to witness an amazing re-birth – that question, will only be answered by time.

We died a death in 2014 but we celebrated it, not as a call to arms, but as a call to keep going. As a call to try, try and try again. When media types bang on about the #indyref being once in a life time, they do a huge disservice to our mythical history – to the spider that taught Bruce to try, try and try again.  To the spider and the people that had the rugged-tough-stubbornness, not to give up.  If you don’t drown the first time you enter the water, in time, you can learn how to swim.

Update 16th Oct 2016 – After Nicola Sturgeon’s conference speech yesterday about inclusion, social justice and the xenophobia of Brexit this post seems very contemporary