Travel Report from a Woke Nation

What I saw on a trip to Scotland.

The time before this I’d visited Scotland, back in 2018 or 2019, I’d been quite shocked to see ubiquitous signs on public transport encouraging travellers to shop their fellow citizens to the police for expressing sentiments that the public authorities disapproved of. It was the sort of thing I intuitively associated with authoritarian regimes – both actively disquieting, and deeply anti-British. Or at least anti-English – the Scots, of course, have always flirted more with puritanicalism, ever since the days of the National Covenant when a form of dour Presbyterianism became cemented in outsiders’ image of their national life. Since then, of course, posters asking people to report ‘hate speech’ have become ubiquitous on the London Underground, so so much for national stereotypes.

Nevertheless, Scotland, along with Canada, has deservedly got a reputation as two of the most culturally progressive, or ‘woke'(1), nations in the world, so I was curious to see what it was like on a longer visit. These countries, from the outside, appear to have gone furthest down the rabbit hole, whether that involves putting biologically male rapists in female prisons, criminalising private conversations, assisted dying and land acknowledgements (in Canada) and much more. Notably, in both countries – and in contrast to England, the USA and France – there does not appear to be any notable political opposition to these ideas, with the right-wing parties in both countries largely accepting culturally progressive positions and competing on economic grounds.

So what would this look like on the ground? The truth, as it often is, was both better and worse than I expected.

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Before we continue, I should note that I was born in Scotland, spent the first five years of my life there and have visited it multiple times since, including spending a summer in Aberdeen during my university years. It’s a country I have a great fondness for – and we thoroughly enjoyed our recent holiday there. This post should be taken as somewhat tongue-in-cheek, albeit with some more serious points.

To my surprise, the museums and other attractions were astoundingly unwoke. With museums talking about ‘decolonisation’ and ‘restitution’ in it seems every other press release, and controversies regularly in the news, this was an area I expected to see the most signs of cultural progressivism. But it was not to be.

The Dynamic Earth centre in Edinburgh opened with an exceptionally good ‘virtual talking heads’ exhibition of Hutton, Lyell and others discussing their discoveries about the age of the earth, without feeling the need to pretend that all of the key figures involved in these 18th century discoveries were, unsurprisingly given the time, white men. I doubt one would have got away with it in London. The rest of the centre continued in this vein, with good science clearly and interestingly presented – though it was notable that the section on continental drift and plate tectonics danced carefully around, without ever mentioning it, that the reason the global network of seismometers had developed so rapidly in the ’60s was to monitor nuclear testing. The women mentioned appeared to have actually discovered something, or made significant contributions – rather than having been singled out of a host of other similar scientists purely due to their sex – and climate change(2) was mentioned sensibly, where relevant, rather than being shoe-horned into every possible sign and notice.

The optical illusions museum (Camera Obscura) also as one might expect, was entirely focused upon its subject, and culturally could have appeared at any point in the last 30 years. The (excellent) Harry Potter walking tour – unlike most reviews of Hogwarts Legacy – took place without the guide feeling any need to make snide remarks about J K Rowling, perhaps knowing which side his bread was buttered.

Perhaps more surprisingly, Edinburgh Castle, Holyrood House and Balmoral were also almost entirely devoid of wokeness. There was, naturally, much good old-fashioned Scottish patriotism, with stirring stories of how Bonnie Prince Charlie nearly beat the English(3), or the night-raid in which the nephew of Robert the Bruce retook Edinburgh Castle from the English. I love all this; Scottish and English history has the twin virtues of being both exciting and colourful, and being sufficiently long ago to make it properly history, plus as a part Scottish person I can cheer for whichever side happens to be winning at whichever moment (plus, all true Englishmen know that the real enemy is always the French)(4). There was a small Windrush exhibition in Holyrood House, but discreetly tucked to one side, where one could easily pass it while continuing with the main exhibition (which most people appeared to be doing) – but other than that, these were all straight down the line.

There was the odd progressive poster on display, but dwarfed by the number of posters for the upcoming Fringe(5). Various churches flew Pride flags, or pronounced themselves as ‘trans-inclusive’ churches, thereby providing more supporting evidence for my hypothesis that the more rapidly a church evolves its doctrines to embrace the values of the world around it, the faster it will decline (the Church of Scotland’s membership is in precipitous decline).

On what one could call ‘woke-adjacent’ issues, there was a mixed picture. On the one hand, public institutions proclaimed their friendliness towards breast-freeding, which I would generally see as positive; on the other, disabled parking spaces were astonishingly hard to find, especially for a city as small as Edinburgh, showing that culturally progressive values don’t actually always translate into practical action on the ground. On the lighter side, it was pleasant to see the choice of milk for tea always include whole milk, rather than benighted situation in parts of the south-east where you are offered a choice between soy, almond or skimmed, alongside a begrudging semi-skimmed.

The one area where wokeism was clearly in the asccendant was in the Edinburgh central children’s library. We stopped in here for a couple of hours in between attractions, and while we had a very pleasant time, I was shocked to find – while I was looking for a book to read myself – that the library had almost no books by authors written more than approximately 30 years ago. The very biggest names, Dahl and Blyton – the ones that are so well known by readers that they cannot be omitted – were there, in bowdlerised forms, but as for the rest – gone. No Sutcliffe, no Streatfeild, no Nesbit, no Ransome, no Aiken, no Hodgson-Burnett – gone, gone, gone(6).

These are all authors which are regularly available in our libraries in Hertfordshire; I did not choose them at random. One or two missing might be chance; all cannot be (this was a big library). These are authors whose works have proved their worth by surviving to be loved for multiple generations – but now no more, at least in Edinburgh, for those who depend on libraries.

I should be clear I have nothing against modern books, for myself or my children. We all read many of them – and our Hertfordshire libraries are well stocked with them, from How to Train Your Dragon to The Secret Mermaid. But a good library maintains a balance between the old and the new; it does not entirely exclude the old.

This is the cultural revolution at its ugliest and most raw: the deliberate, systematic attempt to erase or rewrite the culture of a civilisation, such that anything written before a very short period ago is expunged, removed or recrafted to be viewed through a modern lens. Like every successful institution, it focuses upon the re-education of the young – hence the emphasis upon ‘decolonisation’ in schools and universities, and the obsession with the contents of children’s books. It is explicit and open about its attempt to rewrite the canon – and, what is worse, to cancel or bowdlerise other sources of knowledge that are ‘problematic’.

One of the best rebuttals to this is, astonishingly, a piece of prose written almost twenty-five years ago in 1999, well before most of us had ever heard of the word ‘woke’ – for that matter, before the financial crisis, before 9/11 and the Dot Com crash – by author Neal Stephenson: ‘In the Beginning was the Command line.‘ A key excerpt is below:

It is obvious, to everyone outside of the United States, that our arch-buzzwords, multiculturalism and diversity, are false fronts that are being used (in many cases unwittingly) to conceal a global trend to eradicate cultural differences. The basic tenet of multiculturalism (or "honoring diversity" or whatever you want to call it) is that people need to stop judging each other-to stop asserting (and, eventually, to stop believing) that this is right and that is wrong, this true and that false, one thing ugly and another thing beautiful, that God exists and has this or that set of qualities.

The lesson most people are taking home from the Twentieth Century is that, in order for a large number of different cultures to coexist peacefully on the globe (or even in a neighborhood) it is necessary for people to suspend judgment in this way. Hence (I would argue) our suspicion of, and hostility towards, all authority figures in modern culture. As David Foster Wallace has explained in his essay "E Unibus Pluram," this is the fundamental message of television; it is the message that people take home, anyway, after they have steeped in our media long enough. It's not expressed in these highfalutin terms, of course. It comes through as the presumption that all authority figures--teachers, generals, cops, ministers, politicians--are hypocritical buffoons, and that hip jaded coolness is the only way to be.

The problem is that once you have done away with the ability to make judgments as to right and wrong, true and false, etc., there's no real culture left. All that remains is clog dancing and macrame. The ability to make judgments, to believe things, is the entire it point of having a culture. I think this is why guys with machine guns sometimes pop up in places like Luxor, and begin pumping bullets into Westerners. They perfectly understand the lesson of McCoy Air Force Base. When their sons come home wearing Chicago Bulls caps with the bills turned sideways, the dads go out of their minds.

The global anti-culture that has been conveyed into every cranny of the world by television is a culture unto itself, and by the standards of great and ancient cultures like Islam and France, it seems grossly inferior, at least at first. The only good thing you can say about it is that it makes world wars and Holocausts less likely--and that is actually a pretty good thing!

The only real problem is that anyone who has no culture, other than this global monoculture, is completely screwed. Anyone who grows up watching TV, never sees any religion or philosophy, is raised in an atmosphere of moral relativism, learns about civics from watching bimbo eruptions on network TV news, and attends a university where postmodernists vie to outdo each other in demolishing traditional notions of truth and quality, is going to come out into the world as one pretty feckless human being. And--again--perhaps the goal of all this is to make us feckless so we won't nuke each other.

On the other hand, if you are raised within some specific culture, you end up with a basic set of tools that you can use to think about and understand the world. You might use those tools to reject the culture you were raised in, but at least you've got some tools.
In the Beginning was the Command Line – Neal Stephenson

Certainly, this has a ring of truth to it. To anyone who knows any history at all, and the broad swathe of different empires and civilisations rising and falling, each full of good and evil, wealth and poverty, learning and ignorance, glory and depravity, the young adults raised on the the progressive touch-points of black and white moral certainty sound hopelessly ignorant and naive. That is not to say that there are not, of course, clever and informed academics with progressive views – but the mass-audience pap doesn’t convey this. I find the same with a lot of modern children’s media, whether books or films. While individually, many of them are good, taken together they become (with rare exceptions) remarkably monotone, with the only virtue that can be expressed or used to drive a story being diversity and tolerance, and the only villains permitted those which infringe this. Nothing wrong with that message in itself, but it is hardly the rich mix of virtues that make up a full human being. Having recently read Anne of Green Gables and watched Oliver! with my children, I was struck at the depth of emotion and meaning that goes beyond the usual Disneyfied offerings.

That, of course, is the most important message for anyone hoping to resist this incoming tide, whether for themselves or for their children – is to read, widely broadly, and in particularly back in time. It may not be that our age is unique – it may well be that taking a 20 year slice in any period of history would be equally narrowing – but by reading broadly, one can form a truer, more genuine, more informed perspective. We are fortunately not yet at the stage where one can be prosecuted for having ‘problematic’ texts, nor from purchasing them on the second hand market – the most the state is willing to do, for now, is to prevent new copies from being printed, and then only in collusion with publishing houses. That is bad enough – libraries matter, a great deal – but Abe Books is pretty cheap, and I suspect most people reading this blog can afford it for the books they cannot get elsewhere.

I care about libraries, I care about books, and I care about people continuing to be able to access the culture of the ages, which has undoubtedly caused this last section to grow out of proportion to its salience in my visit. The primary message was that, despite my expectations, Scotland was surprisingly unwoke, and that its major museums and cultural attractions appear to have largely escaped the attention of the revisionists.

For someone who spends a lot of time online, such as me, it can be helpful to remember that that the flamewars on social media can be exaggerated; that what is talked about and engaged with by partisans (on either side) may often only reflect a small part of what is actually the reality on the ground. I was refreshingly pleased and surprised to see how little progress cultural progressivism appeared to have made on the ground.

At the same time, culture can change rapidly, and ‘The future is here, it is just unevenly distributed’ applies to cultural change as much as technological change. Cases such as the library show that (cultural) winter is coming – or at least warn that it might be.

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(1) I am using ‘woke’ in the sense of a moral/political ideology that puts great weight upon identities, such as race, gender and sexual orientation; that sees power differentials between these groups as one of the primary drivers in society and the main target for political change; emphasises ‘lived experience’; and that tends to oppose Enlightenment values such as free speech, equal treatment before the law; or meritocracy as things that promote and enable injustice, rather than things which reduce injustice.

(2) Caring about climate change is not woke, and I believe that man-made climate change is real and something that we should take action on. But going overboard on it is a hallmark of cultural progressivism.

(3) Though the true Bonnie Prince Charlie afficionado should visit the dedicated Bonnie Prince Charlie museum in Prince William, where you can see such gems as a burnt branch from a shattered oak that Bonnie Prince Charlie is said to have stood under before it got struck by lightning, or a spoon which a noblewoman claimed had been used by Bonnie Prince Charlie on the occasion he may have stayed in her house.

(4) Which, as everyone knows, is why we should not abolish Trident.

(5) In which, of course, we should remember that no wrong-think or transgressive opinions that might offend the sensibilities of the authorities are allowed.

(6) I cannot guarantee, of course, that these were not simply out on loan, or that there were no older books at all – but the ones I looked for were not there.

9 thoughts on “Travel Report from a Woke Nation

  1. The second reference to footnote 4 – that we should keep Trident in case the Edinburgh Fringe ever gets out of hand – is probably trying to refer to (5). This then knocks into the next reference, although oddly both (5) and (6) work here!

    1. The Stephenson insert doesn’t word wrap on my phone, which makes for a pretty ghastly reading experience.

      1. In the Stephenson quote the clause “is the entire it point of having a culture” appears to have a bonus ‘it’ in.

        Enjoyed the post, well written, and glad that the museums remain honest!

        1. References corrected – thank you! Not sure what is happening on the Stephenson quote – I’ve checked and it’s showing up ok on mine. Have you had trouble with previous quotes?

          The erroneous ‘it’ appears to be there in the original text, so I will leave it in.

          Glad you enjoyed the post!

  2. The bit about books is really interesting and could be a post in its own right.

    I’m not sure it’s deliberate cultural erasure. I think it’s a combination of two things.

    1) There is so much more cultural output (books, films, TV, computer games, board games, etc) being produced now than in previous generations.
    I think this is partly due to lower costs of production, partly due to the internet (as a distribution and marketing vehicle, and also as a way to put collaborators in touch with each other and to expose budding writers to sources of inspiration and supportive writing groups), partly due to democratisation of education and of aspirations (you can be anything you want to be) so the pool of potential writers is larger, and partly just due to increasing population (even if the proportion of the population creating content were constant).
    So if a child in 1983 wanted to read several hundred books, they’d be pretty much forced to look to previous generations’ output, whereas if a child in 2023 wants to read several hundred books, they can easily find enough contemporary ones, so they won’t necessarily be reading older books unless they actively seek them out.

    2) It’s getting harder for modern kids to read old books, partly because education is getting dumbed down (and I think this is a bad thing, but I’m not cynical enough to think it’s a deliberate ploy to cut kids off from the literature of the past), and partly because culture and technology and language are evolving more rapidly (probably due to the internet) so the inferential distance needing to be bridged is greater. A kid picking up The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe or Anne of Green Gables today is likely to give up on it as too hard to understand and/or boring, and pick up the latest Beast Quest or Wimpy Kid instead (readily available due to (1)).
    I admire the way you’re actively encouraging your kids to read older books, but most people aren’t doing that, so there’s not going to be as much demand for them at the libraries or bookshops.

    I am not sure why there’s a noticeable difference between Hertfordshire and Edinburgh libraries, though. Maybe (and this is tentative speculation) the slight difference in dialect means the gap between a modern Scottish child and, say, CS Lewis is slightly bigger than between a modern English child and Lewis, and that’s just enough to push it outside the boundary? Or maybe there’s a separate canon of classic Scottish 19th and 20th century children’s literature that we’re not very familiar with, and they’ve filled their limited (due to universally low demand) classics allocation with that and have no room for the English, Canadian or American classics?

    1. What is it that shows you education is being dumbed down, and how long has it been going on for? (Not saying it isn’t, I’m just curious about the data.)

      1. It wasn’t a very rigorous comment, sorry. I don’t have specific data. I was basing it on two things: grade inflation, and my subjective impression of the comparisons between what I’ve seen of school books from my parents’ generation, my own, and contemporary ones.

        As for how long it’s been going on, I would conjecture longer than that, maybe a century or so, based on the little I’ve seen about early 20th or 19th-century education (mainly second-hand based on what characters in novels are learning, plus the “look at this exam paper from 1900”-type things you occasionally see on the internet).

        I guess on a 100+-year timescale maybe “homogenised” would be more accurate than “dumbed down”? I think the variance has been reduced at both ends. The more academically able[*] kids used to be given a more rigorous education than they are now, and the less able[*] used to just be taught basic literacy so they could leave school at 12 and work in factories etc. So if you’re mainly focusing on the top end then it looks like dumbing down, even if it’s not overall.

        [*]theoretically, but there would have been some errors in sorting, in which (in both directions) social class mattered more than ability

      1. Yes – I think we should assume that this will often be intentional. Altering the canon and/or removing or editing ‘problematic’ works is a pretty explicit goal of some parts of this movement and a library is a small enough institution that one or two activists could be very influential.

        On a couple of your other points:
        – There’s good evidence here exams have got easier between the ’60s and the ’90s, but stayed similar between the ’90s and now. Latest PISA scores would also suggest we’ve not recently got worse at reading (indeed, have got better). I agree with your broader ‘homogenised’ over the longer time scale point.
        – I’d draw a distinction between books 30-40 years old (Dahl, Lewis) and those 100+ years old (Montgomery). I don’t think the 30-40 year old are noticeably harder than modern children’s novels. There is a big upsurge though of ‘Wimpy Kid’ style books (i.e. sort of halfway between book and comic) which may deter some from going to the pure text type of books.
        – I’m not totally convinced about the ‘there is more stuff’ argument. I mean, there definitely is more stuff, but there were a huge amount of books churned out in the ’80s and ’60s; it’s just we only remember the good stuff.

        A very good point about there perhaps being some alternative Scottish ‘classic’ canon which I didn’t know of and so didn’t check, which sadly I now cannot test!

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