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Edinburgh, Scotland -- If you want to know what democracy looks like, come to Scotland.
No matter how today’s independence referendum turns out -- and the polls says it is likely to be a close result -- there can be no doubt that Scotland's venerable Herald newspaper was right when it declared this week that “the atmosphere in Scotland is extraordinary.”
What makes it extraordinary is the extent to which the whole of Scotland is engaged with this referendum vote. Rallies and marches organized by “Yes” and “No” campaigners have drawn thousands, mass canvasses have gone to every doorstep and it has been virtually impossible to walk down the street in any community without encountering an earnest appeal to consider, or reconsider, how to vote.
Voter registration has soared since the referendum was announced, creating the largest electorate in Scottish history. A remarkable 97 percent of eligible Scots are registered and polls suggest that well over 80 percent of the electorate will participate in the vote on whether to break away from the United Kingdom.
Jonathon Shafi, a co-founder of Scotland’s Radical Independence Campaign, which organized mass registration drives among young people and in low-income neighborhoods, calls the 97 percent figure a "testament to a movement which has been engaging with thousands of people over the past two years.” Shafi says Scots see the referendum vote as “a huge opportunity to restore democracy.”
In fact, the campaign leading up to today's vote has already restored a good measure of democracy – by showing how to engage a mass electorate and inspire mass turnout.
Since the referendum vote was scheduled, more than 300,000 Scots have registered to vote, pushing the total electorate to 4,285,323. An equivalent increase in the United States would see a registration spike numbering in the many millions over the course of a relatively short campaign.
Take a moment to ponder what a turnout in excess of 80 percent -- perhaps as high as 90 percent -- would mean in the United States: Instead of the 130,292,355 Americans who had ballots counted in 2012 (out of a voting-eligible population of 221,925,820, according to the United States Elections Project at George Mason University), the turnout total would be closer to 180,000,000.
That level of turnout, creating a voting class that is dramatically more reflective of the overall US population, would undoubtedly transform not just elections but policy debates.
So is the lesson that the US should start scheduling high-stakes national referendums on fundamental questions regarding the nation’s future? That’s not a novel notion; indeed, it was proposed by the progressive reformers of a century ago. Many states adopted initiative and referendum structures, which remain in place to this day. In the 1924 presidential election, the Republican, Democratic and Progressive party platforms all endorsed national referendum proposals. Ultimately, however, the United States did not go the way of much of the rest of the world when it comes to national referendums.
At a time when American political campaigns are distinguished by nothing so much as their pettiness, and when governing is so frequently ineffectual, however, the idea of using initiatives and referendums to settle major questions has appeal. A 2013 Gallup Poll found that 68 percent of Americans favor national referenda on vital issues that are raised by voter petitions for a popular vote.
Yet, there is more to what Scotland has done than simply scheduling a referendum.
The process matters, as it always does when pursuing democracy.
And the Scots have done a lot of things right.
1. An Expanded Electorate. Recognizing the high level of interest in the independence vote, and the fact that its result will shape the lives of generations to come, officials lowered the voting age to 16. That increased the size of the overall electorate and it also shifted the tenor of the debate: placing a greater focus on issues of interest to young people. As a result, polls show close to 80 percent of potential voters in the 16-24 demographic intend to cast ballots – an astronomical figure compared to US elections.
2. Simple Ballot, Simple Question. Clarity in ballot design and wording matters immensely, as was illustrated by the 2000 electoral meltdown in Florida, with all its butterfly ballots, hanging chads and “under-votes” and “over-votes.” With so contested an issue an independence in play, any attempt to game the process or cut corners would have come back to haunt. The Scottish vote will not include multiple contests and questions. There is one issue on the ballot and the wording of the actual questions was reviewed, debated and reframed to remove bias and complexity. What resulted was simplicity itself, a chance to vote “yes” or “no” on the question: Should Scotland be an independent country?
3. Limited Spending, Lots of Grassroots Campaigning: Scotland strictly limits campaign spending, and there are no 30-second TV or radio spots. This reduces costs for the campaigners and keeps negative advertising from flooding the airwaves. It also changes the character of the campaign. Unlike in the US, where voters often reach Election Day with a sense of exhaustion and deep disenchantment, Scots have remained remarkably enthusiastic about a process that is far more focused on grassroots campaigning.
4. Lots of Debates: Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, the leading campaigner for a “yes” vote and former Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling, a Scottish member of the British Parliament who has represented the “no” camp, have faced off in extended debates in the six weeks leading up to the election, taking questions from journalists and citizens. But that is just the start of it: Scottish television and radio programs, as well as the opinion pages of Scottish newspapers, feature daily debates. And even the smallest communities in Scotland have seen organized events where “yes’ and “no” campaigners go at it.
5. Easy Voting: The Electoral Commission, which is charged with overseeing the election has run its own “You Can’t Miss It” campaign: to increase voter registration and participation, and to assure that voters know where and how to vote. Unlike in the US, where different states – and even different jurisdictions within states – produce different sets of rules regarding who can vote, when and where voting takes place and how votes are counted, the Electoral Commission sets universal standards. And those standards encourage high turnout by making it easy to vote. Arrangements have been made for 789,024 postal voters, who have difficulties making it to the polls. And those who vote September 18 will not have to go far. A total of 5,579 polling stations will be open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. September 18.
6. Majority Rule: Elections are often complicated by rules that make it difficult to get a definitional result; for instance, there have been efforts in a number of US states to require so-called “super majorities” to decide referendums on critical issues. The additional requirements foster frustration with the process by telling voters that winning isn’t enough. Democracy works best when voters believe the process is fair and that their ballot could be decisive. That’s the standard that Scotland has set for referendum voting where 50 percent plus one – be the balance on the “yes” side or the “no” side – will determine if independence is to be.
US officials aren't about to schedule national referendums on critical issues anytime soon. But they should take a serious look at the systematic approach Scotland has taken to boosting turnout and voter engagement. This is what democracy looks like.
This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
Over the past year and a half, Bosnia-Herzegovina has experienced social upheaval that outstrips any other political turmoil since the end of the 1992–95 war. Along with these events, recurrent flooding has taken place that is worse than any previous incident in the country’s 120 years of recorded weather history. The combination of these events, in a year of national elections, brings the dysfunctional condition of Bosnian society into high contrast.
In June 2013, thousands of protesters took to the streets in Bosnia’s capital city, Sarajevo, to protest an absurd legislative snarl that, for several months, prevented newborn babies from being registered and receiving identification numbers. This essentially rendered the newborns as non-citizens, without the rights to healthcare and passports that were, in some cases, urgently needed. At least one infant died as a result of the inability to travel to a neighboring country for treatment. Although the proximate cause of the demonstrations was the government’s apparent indifference to the rights of its youngest citizens, the unrest was meanwhile directed at the larger problems of pervasive corruption and the careerism of governmental officials.
Demonstrations spread to Mostar and several other cities in the Croat- and Muslim-controlled Federation, and there was some show of support from activists in the Serb-controlled Republika Srpska. The protests were larger than any others since the war—Bosnia’s parliament building was surrounded and blocked for a couple of days.
After several weeks the protests subsided and people went back home. But the action resonated throughout the country, where historically it has been difficult for people of different ethnicities to cooperate with each other, not only because of geographical separation in the ethnically divided postwar state, but also because of political divisions and the memory of the four-year-long war.
Then, in February of this year, far greater protests took place that more directly addressed the economic ills of a society with a clumsy government that boasts more ministers than the far more populous Japan; where those in power earn more than the average European politician; and where unemployment is pushing 40 percent. The demonstrations, growing out of protests by workers laid off from privatized companies in the Tuzla area, spread to every city in the Federation and gained support in the Republika Srpska as well.
One of the results of the February-March uprising, in which governmental buildings and party offices were torched in several cities, was the formation of grassroots citizen assemblies known as plenums. These informal bodies, intensively active for a couple of months, communicated among each other throughout the country and developed a set of demands confronting the politicians‘ corruption and cronyism.
Although grassroots activism is cyclical in Bosnia, in each new phase it grows, spreads and becomes more sophisticated. International commentators habitually ignore such activism as an element in the possible resolution of Bosnia’s systemic ills. But that is a mistake—and the events of spring 2014 have shown that ordinary Bosnians are, albeit episodically, a force that cannot be ignored.
Quickly following the spring rebellion, epic flooding struck Bosnia in May. Starting in the middle of the month, in a matter of three days the skies dumped three months’ worth of rain.
The results were cataclysmic. Nearly 100,000 residents of the northern and eastern parts of the country, from Prijedor to Bijeljina and down to Zvornik, were temporarily displaced. Thousands of houses were completely destroyed, and bridges were dislodged—as were landmines left over from the war. Farm plantings were sloughed away along with the top layer of land as, hard on the heels of the flood, several thousand landslides wreaked further damage in the mountainous sections of the country.
The human and economic toll was staggering. While the death toll did not exceed several dozen, thousands of people were displaced on a long-term basis—many of them for the second time since the 1990s. Thousands of livestock were killed in the flash floods and landslides, creating an urgent public health hazard. Schools were rendered useless, and some local administrative offices and libraries were washed away.
One local resident reported, “The material damage caused by the floods is far worse than after the war”—even though the war itself had resulted in half a million destroyed housing units.
The destruction caused by natural disaster was quite possibly greater than that caused by armies in some parts of the country, and it is probable that recovery from the economic setback affecting all of Bosnia-Herzegovina will take many years. Mines were flooded and rendered useless, and many factories severely damaged as well, putting hundreds out of work.
The Uses of Adversity
On the positive side, ordinary people mobilized in many parts of the country and volunteered to help with emergency assistance. Students and activists from Sarajevo donned boots and work gloves, and bused to afflicted areas to help dig out. A recreational rafting outfit from Bihać took its equipment to Doboj to help pluck stranded flood victims off roofs and balconies.
Ethnic boundaries often melted away. Some of the worst flooding took place in the Republika Srpska, and Muslim volunteers paid no attention to the inter-entity borderline as they traveled to help out whoever needed help. Solidarity thus developed quickly among the flood victims and volunteers from various parts of the country, with Serbs, Croats and Muslims often working together.
On the personal and community level, assistance was forthcoming immediately. Here and there, the plenums that had been formed a few months before played a significant role in coordinating assistance. Likewise, emigrant communities abroad raised funds and sent hundreds of truckloads of aid into Bosnia.
One volunteer reported, “Today I was in Prijedor. People, the closer you are to misfortune, you encounter better and better people; they speak with you as if they have known you for years. Before you say anything, they ask how things are with you, are you alright. People in trouble have that wonderful characteristic…to smile sincerely. These people have lost everything that they have, and still they have a smile that heals. In Prijedor everyone is helping each other, regardless of what their name is. While we were loading food in Doboj, two vans arrived from Sarajevo; in Šamac I saw an aid truck from Gradačac.”
Doboj and Sarajevo—as well as Šamac and Gradačac—are towns that lie on opposite sides of the inter-entity borders, but people were eager to help those in need regardless. In response to the assistance, there were public expressions of thanks to those of another ethnicity, without whom, as one flood victim expressed, “we would have died of thirst and hunger.” News articles bore headlines such as “Catastrophic floods bring down Bosnia ethnic barriers” and “Faith Restored in Humanity in the Mud of Doboj.”
In the official realm, help was not as efficient, leaving politicians the target of widespread criticism. The state and entity governments were slow to react to the disaster. When they did, officials competed for publicity—with politicians vying to be seen as “on the spot” and concerned. Too often, they were only concerned about their own ethnic constituency. Indeed, in the Republika Srpska, local officials tended only to help Serb communities, leaving communities of returned Muslims to fend for themselves or depend on help from the Federation.
Sadly, floods struck again in August for a brief period. With the rainy season around the corner, it is certain that there will be more calamity. Public officials have thus had renewed opportunities to show their concern and efficiency, but the government remains sluggish in allocating the millions of euros it has received in international donations.
Flooding has altered the course of rivers in some places, but emergency management agencies have not gotten around to repairing levees and taking other measures to prevent future damage. Hundreds of schools, which should have opened at the beginning of September, remain closed, and there are still hundreds of displaced people in collective centers without early prospects for return.
Public trust in government has for years hovered around the bottom of the scale, but it is even lower now, as ordinary people voice suspicions about embezzlement of donations. In some areas, villagers whose roads have been cut off by landslides have blocked nearby highways, demanding assistance.
All this is taking place in a period leading up to the four-year national elections that will be held in mid-October. With over 7,000 candidates and two dozen parties vying for seats in parliaments at several levels and for the three-part presidency, the challengers are alternately promising to help the flood victims and accusing their incumbent rivals of failure to help. Those incumbents have shown that they are more interested in expending resources to ensure their electoral victory than to improve public safety.
But prospective voters have less faith than ever that elections can lead to relief, as new faces in the electoral lists are all but non-existent. Political contests and natural disasters both seem to be events that ordinary people have to suffer through.
Elections come and go, and so do floods, and the survivors are left on their own to cope as well as they can. It is to be hoped that in the course of increasing protests, citizens of all ethnicities will continue to unite and build pressure for real change.
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The latest iteration of America’s favorite reality show, The NFL Has No Clothes, is taking place in Minnesota, where the Vikings have flipped and flopped and now flipped again on whether to suspend star running back Adrian Peterson, who has been indicted on child-abuse charges. Given the dynamics of this story, it seemed to make sense for me to talk to former NFL player Walter Beach. Walter is more than just the former starting defensive back for the 1964 Cleveland Browns. He also worked as a child welfare case worker in New York City after the end of his playing days.
Walter said to me, “This is not about child abuse. This is not about child endangerment. This is not about whether what Adrian Peterson did rises to the level of what we would call ‘imminent danger,’ which is the standard we would use when assessing whether or not to take the child out of the home. That is an issue for the courts. For the NFL, this is about public relations. They aren’t going to stop child abuse. They don’t care about anything but the money. It’s hollow…. What the Vikings did won’t save one child, but they think it’ll keep their angry sponsors from leaving.”
How could anyone disagree with Walter Beach, given the ways in which the Vikings have twisted and turned on Peterson’s case. The Radisson Hotel and Nike furrowed their brows and the Vikings leadership fell to their knees. The most egregious statement in this entire ordeal was by team owner Zygi Wilf.
Wilf said, “We made a mistake and we needed to get this right. It is important to always listen to our fans, the community and our sponsors.”
First of all, Mr. Wilf has been officially convicted on civil racketeering charges in the state of New Jersey. He is currently appealing a ruling where he and two family members have to pay $100 million to the people they wronged.
One wonders where he gets the chutzpah to be on any kind of a moral high horse, and one wonders why he is not currently suspended for violating the league’s “personal conduct policy.”
One also wonders where Mr. Wilf was in caring about the will of “the community” when he was threatening to move the team to Los Angeles, San Diego or some other parts unknown unless the cash-strapped state gave him $1 billion in public funds to build a new stadium.
Once all of the construction dust and piety has cleared, this is where the NFL is left. If you want to understand why the Vikings have flip-flopped so dramatically on whether or not Peterson is on the team, you can start with the $1 billion eyesore currently being developed in the middle of the great city of Minneapolis. First, the Vikings felt a tremendous pressure to suspend Peterson following the outcry over the way Ray Rice’s suspension was handled. Then, after their terrible Sunday defeat to the New England Patriots and fears about another lost season in Minnesota, they reactivated Peterson. And then the sponsors started to itch, and the next thing you know, Peterson once again is on the outside looking in. This is not a personal conduct policy. It is an amateurish, pandering and altogether odious exercise in public relations.
The real issue is not whether the NFL should have a policy where players are suspended at the mere allegation of impropriety or whether the call should be for the criminal and family courts to do their jobs and for the NFL to mind its own damn business. The problem is that there is no rhyme or reason for anything that Roger Goodell and the National Football League ownership cabal does. They always talk about protecting the shield. But all they really do is hide behind the shield, careening from one public relations disaster to the next. Roger Goodell and the National Football League need to jettison this personal-conduct-policy nonsense and sit down with the union to collectively bargain some system of dealing with off-field issues. No one should have any confidence that this is a job Roger Goodell and the owners can handle. They have no credibility with players, little credibility with fans and diminishing credibility with sponsors. It’s the restlessness of that last group which really makes those in the owners box sweat blood.
While the fashion world swoons at models displaying this season’s couture on the runway, factory girls in Phnom Penh are trying not to faint at their sewing machines. On Wednesday, these two worlds—the fast fashion of Fifth Avenue storefronts and the churning sweatshops of Southeast Asia—are colliding with an international day of solidarity with Cambodian workers.
A coalition of human rights and labor groups has planned direct actions in at least fifteen cities across the United States and Europe. Targeting the outlets of multinational fashion brands like H&M, Adidas and Zara, protesters demand justice for Cambodian garment workers. These efforts follow a string of labor uprisings across Asia, fueled by a string of industrial disasters as well as government crackdowns on protests and strikes.
At a forum in Manhattan last week sponsored by the International Labor Rights Forum and other activist organizations, Jeff Hermanson, director of Global Strategies for the SEIU’s Workers United campaign, described the protests in the US as following the lead of the factory workers and grassroots campaigners overseas: “They’re not just victims,” he said. “They are a potential power, they are a real power.… And I hope that we here in America are part of this movement.”
Their chief demand is a pay raise, to the princely sum of $177 per month. That would add pennies to the price of a T-shirt—a rounding error for a $5 billion-a-year export industry. Nonetheless, it would mark a step toward the living-wage benchmark of more than double that amount—a figure activists calculated based on the cost of living for a family of four on a standard 48-hour workweek, backed by collective bargaining and union rights.
The “living” part is literal: hunger is an acute concern for the mostly female workforce; chronic malnourishment has reportedly factored into mass fainting spells at factories affecting hundreds of workers in recent years.
One worker interviewed for an investigative report on the phenomenon by Labour Behind the Label (LBL) and local groups recalled passing out in late 2012 at a factory that supplies Costco. She had been pregnant at the time, and then faced a terrible trade-off:
[F]or now I cannot work because the long hours in harsh conditions and small amounts of food will put the health of my child at risk. I have to choose between having my child and working in the factory.
While factory work is often vaunted as a source of economic advancement for women in the global south, these humanitarian issues show that much of this work is hardly empowering for the rural young women seeking to support their families with factory jobs. For this migrant and marginal labor force, the basic cost of housing and food is crushing—the result of a dilapidated social infrastructure. Lili, a worker interviewed in another LBL report, lamented:
Even if we eat all together in a small room and I collect the money from all others, we still can only spend a very small amount each because everybody always thinks ‘How are we going to be able to send money home to our families?’
Meanwhile, factory owners also complain of poor infrastructure and price pressures, and cite overhead costs as a reason to keep wages desperately low. Ultimately, it is the multinationals dominating Cambodia’s garment sector that must change the profit structure and break the cycle of exploitation.
But workers who have dared challenge the global manufacturing system have faced ruthless brutality. Last winter, mass protests demanding a hike in the monthly floor wage to $160 (the government insisted on no more than $100) swept across Phnom Penh and led to the killing of several workers in clashes with security forces.
Following international condemnation, twenty-three labor activists were finally released from detention in late May. In a statement by a coalition of human rights groups, Moeun Tola of the Community Legal Education Center celebrated the release, but stressed that for the embattled labor movement as a whole, “there has still been no justice for the dead and injured” and “no attempts have been made to find or bring charges against those responsible.”
The unrest in Cambodia—with a record 147 strikes last year—folds into a wave of recent industrial actions, from strikes in Bangladesh after the Rana Plaza disaster, to riotous protests by workers at foreign-invested factories in Vietnam, to recent protests in Indonesia for fair contracts, and solidarity campaigns coordinated by global labor unions.
Reuters quoted Said Iqbal, of the Confederation of Indonesian Trade Unions, describing a growing sense of transnational unity, noting that he has been in dialogue with activists in Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos: “Our motto is clear—say no to cheap wages. We’re spreading that principle in Southeast Asian countries.”
Global brands have grudgingly responded with promises of higher wages—eventually. H&M, a top label in Cambodia, just launched a “partnership” with the International Labour Organization (ILO) focused on “training and skills development” to gradually improve working conditions. H&M also reiterates in a statement today, “Our vision is that factory workers should earn a fair living wage and this wage should be negotiated between the legitimate labour parties.” While the company endorses a multiyear “holistic” process it calls a “roadmap to fair living wages,” today it has offered only to “work together with other brands in dialogue with” the international labor group IndustriALL, with plans “to approach the Cambodian government and employers’ organization GMAC to clarify the brands position in the upcoming wage negotiations.” The statement does not discuss directly working with workers themselves on the main immediate demand of today’s campaign: a $177 monthly wage. (In a follow-up correspondence, the company described in further detail its relationship with international bodies and industry stakeholders, and maintained its role is “not to set the level of wages.” See below for full statement.)
But Hermanson tells The Nation via e-mail, all the company really needs to do is just heed the workers’ demands:
If they were to simply negotiate “fair living wages” with the unions that represent the workers…mandate their suppliers to pay the wages negotiated, agree to pay the costs of the increase and to keep their work in those supplier factories, the problem of low wages could be solved for literally tens of thousands of workers. And this would set a precedent that would affect the whole Cambodian apparel production industry…. H&M’s partnership with the ILO is a transparent attempt to appear to be doing something, while H&M continues to deny responsibility for the poverty of the workers that produce their clothing.
So Cambodian workers will return to the streets to set their own global precedent. At last week’s forum, Kalpona Akter, head of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, urged US workers and consumers to unite with the global movement.
“The workers from Bangladesh, the workers from Cambodia, Haiti, [wherever]… we need these jobs. But it is time for us to say that we want these jobs with dignity…. And people in the house, you need to figure out how you are going to bring the dignity for us,” she said.
There was a collective acknowledgment in the room that Americans face their own economic struggles here, with Walmart workers mired in poverty, and fast food workers campaigning for a union. Still, Akter noted this is precisely why workers need to link arms across the supply chain: “Everyone has hope, and everyone has a role to play…. Please, from the place you are, act. Just act.”
UPDATE: H&M representative Ida Ståhlnacke has responded to The Nation’s query on the company’s position on the $177 wage demand with the following statement, which elaborates on its collaboration with intergovernmental and labor bodies:
Our role as a buyer is not to set the level of wages. Our approach is that wages should be negotiated between the parties on the labour market. We contribute to this process in Cambodia with for example training in negotiation and conflict management together with ILO, the Swedish trade union IF Metall and the Swedish Government.
In Cambodia, we have introduced a unique project in collaboration with ILO, SIDA and one of Sweden’s largest unions, IF Metall. We work together to strengthen the dialogue between the parties in the Cambodian textile industry. The aim is to strengthen the structures for industrial relations in the country and increase collective bargaining, and to improve the dialogue between employers and employees which allow them to find agreements through negotiation instead of confrontation. The project will support the stakeholders in the importance of collaboration/co-operation, negotiation techniques and conflict resolution. The goal is to create opportunities for dialogue and strengthen the relation between employees and employers.
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EDITOR’S NOTE: Poverty is everywhere, but so are examples of real people making meaningful change. This resilience is a crucial ingredient to the success of every social movement and is at the heart of what inspires the Center for Community Change’s mission. This year, the CCC hosted a new youth contest, in which The Nation was delighted to partner. The CCC and The Nation jointly asked young people to submit a photo illustrating courage or resilience in confronting economic hardship in their life or community and explain in 500 words what it meant to them. We’re extremely proud to publish the winning entry below. The winner, Faron Manuel, is a senior at Clark Atlanta University in his hometown of Atlanta, Georgia.
For the past two years I have worked as a docent in the Clark Atlanta University Art Galleries. During this time I learned the true value of art (which is not monetary, by the way), and how the messages in art and culture can inspire human beings to aspire to a greater reality. As a docent I was responsible for many tasks, but the job that proved most rewarding was the guided tours and enrichment programs I was able to run for young people, many of them visiting an art gallery for the first time on field trips from schools and community centers located in areas of the city where economic hardship and racial injustice are commonplace.
As an Atlanta native coming from the same “inner-city” areas, I understood firsthand the challenges many of them experienced day-to-day. Whether it’s unemployed parents, gun violence or the slew of other side effects of poverty, confronting these societal ills using the medium of art has proven to be a great way to spark conversations about resilence, anger, rage and hope tapping into long-buried feelings. This is especially so when the work confronts, depicts, or even challenges issues that are familiar to the viewer, as much socially conscious art does.
For instance, in the photo I am assisting artist James Pate with a lecture on gun violence in impoverished African-American communities across the United States, during the exhibition of his series on the subject titled “Kin Killin’ Kin.” It is a known fact that gun violence shares a direct link with poverty, and honest dialogue about this correlation is the first step to reducing both.
Teaching the youth by using art as a tool to evoke constructive dialogue about pressing issues like racism and poverty in our society has renewed my hope for positive change. Many of the young people that visit the galleries leave with a new outlook on life. They become inspired or hopeful by a connection they have made with a piece of art or with someone who was similarly moved by the artwork. My job as docent afforded me the opportunity to play a key role in inducing these types of experiences and interactions and it is in this type of work that I find the most significance.
Glasgow, Scotland—Thursday’s Scottish referendum vote is often framed in terms of the politics of nationalism—and the desire of a people for self-determination. And of course there have always been, and there still are, impassioned Scottish nationalists.
But the reality that becomes overwhelmingly clear in the last hours before the referendum vote—which polls suggest will see an exceptionally high turnout and a close finish—is that this process is being shaped by the politics of austerity.
This is highlighted by the campaigning of supporters of a “yes” vote and, increasingly, this is being acknowledged in the last-minute promises being made by British Prime Minister David Cameron and the most fervent foes of a Scottish break with the United Kingdom.
The politics of Scotland has long been at odds with the politics of Britain, as my Nation colleague D.D. Guttenplan has ably explained. The Conservative Party has ruled the United Kingdom for the majority of the past sixty years. Yet the Tories last finished first in a Scottish election in 1955. And as Britain has moved to the right, not just under the right-wing leadership of Conservatives like Margaret Thatcher but also under the neoliberal leadership of Labour Party prime ministers such as Tony Blair, Scotland has felt increasingly isolated politically.
This isolation has a huge economic component, as Cameron has implemented an austerity agenda that threatens the National Health Service and broader social services, undermines trade unions and communities, and deepens inequality. Despite the devolution of some powers to a Scottish Parliament over the past decade, Scotland is still governed in many of the most important senses from London—even though less than 17 percent of Scots backed Cameron’s Conservatives in the last election, giving the Tories just one of Scotland’s fifty-nine seats in the British Parliament.
So it was that the posters on sound trucks rolling through the streets of Glasgow Wednesday shouted: “End Tory Rule Forever.” The energetic Radical Independence Campaign was putting up posters with an “X” over Cameron’s face and the promise that “Another Scotland Is Possible.”
This is not about nationalism in some old-fashioned sense, tweets Radical Independence Campaign activist Cat Boyd; this is about democracy is a very modern and practical sense. “It is 59 years since Scotland returned a Conservative majority and half of that time we have [had] a Conservative government,” she notes.
Author and activist Tariq Ali, who appeared with Boyd at a forum in Glasgow just before the election, agreed, explaining that the referendum is “all about giving the people the power to determine their own future—rather than to have it determined for them.” Ali traveled from London to Glasgow to support the “yes” campaign, arguing that bringing governing power closer to the people changes the dynamic of the austerity debate in Scotland—and in other places around the world. “The symbiosis of big money and politics is not just America’s problem,” he said. “It has now spread to Europe in a big way.”
The notion that Scottish rule will change the circumstance has been at the heart of the broad-based “Yes Scotland” campaign, which says a “yes” vote will mean
We can use Scotland’s wealth to build a fairer nation.
Scotland’s NHS [National Health Service] will be protected from creeping privatization.
We spend money on childcare instead of Trident missiles.
A lower pension age and higher pensions.
The end of Tory governments we don’t vote for.
Decisions about Scotland will be made by the people who care most about Scotland, the people who live here.
A radical notion?
David Cameron no longer seems to think so.
The prime minister was in Scotland on the eve of the voting to promise that if Scots vote “no,” he and other British party leaders will push for the devolution of more powers to the Scottish Parliament—which is all but certain to be led by the left-leaning Scottish National Party. This so-called “devo-max” approach would afford Scotland far greater control of its own affairs—with greater authority over taxation and spending shifted to Scottish leaders—while maintaining the basic outlines of the United Kingdom.
Critically, the “devo-max” promise, at least to the extent that it is understood at this point, would allow a Scottish Parliament to steer a different course from the British on issues of social spending and the broader austerity debate.
Cameron, his governing coalition partner Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democratic Party and Labour Party opposition leader Ed Miliband actually signed a vow—published on the front page of the Scottish Daily Record—to work together to give the Scots more of a voice in their future if the independence vote fails. “People want to see change,” Brown said. “A ‘No’ vote will deliver faster, safer, and better change than separation.”
Of course, Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, the leader of the Scottish National Party, termed the promise from Cameron and the other leaders a “desperate offer” that only came as the British leaders recognized Scotland might vote “yes” for independence.
With the polls so close, it is certainly possible that the “devo-max” gambit will tip the balance toward the “no” camp.
But even if that happens, this remarkable democratic debate over independence has forced an admission that austerity is a vital, perhaps definitive, issue in Scotland—and beyond. The only question then is how best to stop the cuts, stop the redistribution of wealth upward and begin shaping fairer and more humane policies.
Read Next: John Nichols on Hillary Clinton’s campaign against Scottish independence
If you were watching CNN or MSNBC coverage of the Senate ISIS hearing this morning, you probably caught a CodePink protester interrupting the beginning of Defense secretary Chuck Hagel’s testimony. She shouted, politely enough, “No more war,” “War is not the solution,” and so on. Armed Service Committee chair Senator Carl Levin repeatedly asked her leave—telling her, oddly, “You’re acting very warlike yourself.” She did leave, as other Coders waited to protest later and Hagel resumed his testimony. The hearing promised to cover (and did) some pretty urgent, consequential stuff, including putting US troops on the ground in Iraq and arming Syrian rebels.
Meanwhile, over at Fox, they were covering… Benghazi.
It’s as if Fox were staging a caricature of itself. But there was National Review’s Rich Lowry and nominal Democrat, pollster Doug Schoen fuming over the latest Benghazi “scandal” with Fox News’s Martha MacCallum. When her show finally cut to the ISIS hearing, it did so at first with ragin’ John Bolton on a split screen.
It’s a caricature, but not a surprise. Media Matters released a study today showing that Fox ran nearly 1,100 segments in the first twenty months following the Benghazi attack.
Those are big, obsessive numbers—and they include only five Fox News afternoon and primetime programs, none of the morning shows, like MacCallum’s—but expect them to soar still higher when the House select committee hearings on Benghazi begin tomorrow.
Since footage emerged of Ray Rice physically assaulting his then-fiancée Janay Rice in a casino elevator, we have heard the voices of the Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Yet in the wake of such attention, Janay Rice’s voice has been almost entirely unacknowledged by the media. On Saturday, Melissa Harris-Perry and her panel discussed domestic violence, sports and privacy.
As military leaders make the case for deepening military engagement in Syria and Iraq to Congress on Tuesday, more than two dozen groups are calling on lawmakers to seek answers to a number of questions about the mission that the Obama administration has so far failed to address.
“If the past decade of war in the Middle East has taught us anything, it’s that we must demand answers to hard questions before launching into war,” Anna Galland, executive director of MoveOn.org Civic Action, said in a statement. “That’s why, today, groups representing millions of Americans are calling on Congress to debate and be held accountable for America’s next steps in Syria and Iraq—so we don’t make the same mistakes we’ve made in the past.”
Congress has signaled it’s disinclined to have that debate by pushing any real consideration of military action until after the midterm elections. Though a number of lawmakers have called on the president to ask Congress for authorization, many are not looking for a chance to deliberate so much as to show off their hawk bona fides. Tuesday’s campaign, which includes phone calls to lawmakers, social media asks (using the hashtag #AmericaMustKnow) and petition signatures, is intended to point out the serious gaps and inconsistencies in the president’s strategy that Congress (and until recently, the media) have largely failed to take on.
“The public is told there’s no imminent threat to the US, so why are we rushing to war? Could weapons given to Syrian rebels eventually be used against the US?” reads an ad placed by MoveOn and Win Without War in Politico. “How could military force undermine nonmilitary strategies? How will we know when our objectives have been met? What is our clearly defined exit strategy? Under what legal authority are we intervening in Iraq and Syria?”
MoveOn collected more than 10,000 questions from its members. “How will the United States fund this new military offensive? How much will it cost?” asked a Vermont woman named Linda. According to an analysis by the National Priorities Project, one of the groups involved in Tuesday’s action, taxpayers are shelling out $312,500 every hour for military action against ISIS.
Others chimed in via Twitter:
— Angela K. Miller (@angelakkmiller) September 16, 2014
The organizations directing questions to lawmakers during Tuesday’s day of action include the Institute for Policy Studies, Iraq Veterans Against the War, Peace Action, and CREDO.
On Monday, Katrina vanden Heuvel joined The Ed Show to discuss Hillary Clinton’s likely presidential run and whether progressives are ready to embrace her candidacy. “I don’t think it’s settled,” vanden Heuvel told Ed Schultz. “In fact, her candidacy might be sharpened and might be better if there is competition. After all, primaries are about expanding debate, about bringing new ideas into the process, about allowing citizens to be participants, not just spectators.” We are living through a populist moment, vanden Heuvel says—visible around the country in city and state elections—and there is a real hunger for alternative options.