That hill race is still run every year. On Saturday I watched the runners take off in large numbers, blue-faced from the cold. Other traditional contests included Highland dancing competitions, relay races, tug of war, "putting the stone" (throwing 16- and 28-pound weights) and "throwing the hammer over a bar" (self-explanatory). The clear favorite of the crowd was "tossing the caber," an event that involves lifting, carrying and throwing a very long wooden log. Indeed, the sight of an enormous tattooed man in a kilt and sneakers, flipping what appears to be a telephone pole into the air, is not to be missed.
But though the sports might sound old-fashioned, there is nothing archaic about the atmosphere. Local companies cheerfully support many of the contests. Glenfiddich T-shirts are much in evidence. Most of the contestants come from nearby — the rules clearly state which postal codes qualify as "local" — but a few with Slavic surnames give away the presence of 21st-century immigrants.
Locally organized, sustained by local businesses, providing local entertainment and local employment, the Braemar Gathering has not been created by the British government, yet neither is it the product of a single person's will to power. In other words, the Braemar Gathering — like Texas rodeos, Iowa county fairs, Wisconsin cheese festivals and New York block parties (not to mention Quaker meetings, Catholic charities, 4-H clubs, book groups and the Girl Scouts) — is a classic example of civil society, a phenomenon that gets too little, or maybe the wrong kind of, attention during election seasons.
How then can politicians capture the energy of a kilt-wearing Scot throwing 28-pound stones, or the energy of an enthusiastic librarian or energetic neighborhood activist?
Politicians have long known this: George W. Bush was on to it when he championed faith-based organizations, as was Barack Obama when he spoke of the "spirit of service" in his inaugural address. Although politicians might well look at a county fair or a street festival as an opportunity to canvass for votes, civil society by definition isn't a political phenomenon. In fact, when a civic organization is politicized — or, sometimes, even when it is funded with public money — its character is inevitably changed.
How then can politicians capture the energy of a kilt-wearing Scot throwing 28-pound stones, or the energy of an enthusiastic librarian or energetic neighborhood activist? The answer is that they can't. They can encourage and inspire them, make sure that the legal system supports them and that regulations don't strangle them; they can use their ideas or co-opt them into government. Nevertheless, what is most interesting and creative about democratic societies almost always happens outside the political process, not within it. Remember that while watching this final phase of the American election campaign, if and when you need cheering up.
Anne Applebaum. "Scotlandís civic pride and example." The Washington Post (September 6, 2012).
This article is reprinted with permission from Anne Applebaum. All rights Reserved.
Photo by Jeff J. Mitchell.
Anne Applebaum is a columnist and member of the editorial board of the Washington Post. Her husband, Radek Sikorski, is a Polish politician and writer. They have two children, Alexander and Tadeusz. Anne Applebaum's first book, Between East and West: Across the Borderlands of Europe, described a journey through Lithuania, Ukraine and Belarus, then on the verge of independence. Her most recent book, Gulag: A History, was published in April, 2003 in America and Britain. The book narrates the history of the Soviet concentration camps system and describes daily life in the camps. It makes extensive use of recently opened Russian archives, as well as memoirs and interviews. Gulag: A History won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for non-Fiction.
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