Media, politics and culture.
According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Officer Darren Wilson, who shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, testified before a grand jury this Tuesday, September 16. Wilson testified for four hours and was “cooperative,” a source told the Post-Dispatch. At the direction of St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch, the grand jury will have until January 7 to decide whether to indict Wilson on criminal charges. As of now, Wilson is still on paid administrative leave.
With each day that passes without Wilson being arrested, the citizens of Ferguson become (rightfully) more angry. Witnesses keep coming forth, the evidence continues to pile up, and yet Wilson still walks around free. More and more it looks as if no one will be held accountable for killing Michael Brown.
And we should all prepare ourselves for such an event. Police officers are rarely arrested for on-the-job killings—from 2005 to 2011, only thirty-one were—let alone convicted. Brown’s family may file a civil suit, and perhaps they could win. But even with a victory there, Michael Brown would still be dead, and black children in Ferguson, St. Louis, and all over the country would still have to live in fear that they could be next.
Brown’s individual death matters, because all lives matter, but it’s what his death represents that will be of greater significance the further Ferguson recedes from the news cycle. Brown’s death represents America’s failure. For the entirety of its existence, this country has failed to respect black people’s humanity. Our laws and customs have aggressively denied black people the full rights of American citizenship. And worse, when black people have stood up to demand equal treatment, this country has pretended that there was nothing wrong.
Michael Brown died because we failed to deal with all of this when it happened to… pick a name. We failed them all.
And we will fail more black children if we don’t find a way to confront some basic truths. We can start with this one: America routinely criminalizes black youth. Whether it’s the disparities in drug arrests despite similar rates of drug use as white people, or the rates of school suspensions and arrests, or arresting kids for dancing on the subway, one thing America does not fail at doing is making it illegal to be young and black in public spaces. And that’s why the police can get away with killing so many young black people. Everyone thinks they’re a bunch of criminals receiving their just desserts.
In the weeks and months to come, the details of the investigation into Michael Brown’s killing will likely continue to infuriate anyone who wants Darren Wilson arrested. The “justice system” will fail (or succeed, if you see, as I do, the purpose of the American justice system as the maintenance of racism, white supremacy, and black people’s second-class citizenship). But we can’t allow that to dampen the fight. America must be pushed to account for its failures. This country has to admit to itself not only its past sins, but its current ones as well. Then it has to reverse course.
Continuing to fail all the Michael Browns out there can no longer be an option.
This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
I’m going to guess you’ve heard of the People’s Climate March by now. It’s been all over Facebook, the blogosphere, buses and subway cars—it’s even shown up on network news, which has been something of a black hole for climate activism.
But in case you’re just getting back from vacation (or a cave), here’s the deal: on Sunday, September 21, tens of thousands of people are expected to flood the streets of New York City to call on global leaders to take action on climate change.
What’s been somewhat forgotten in the truly herculean effort to make this the biggest climate mobilization ever is what global leaders are doing in town in the first place.
The truth is, they’ve been called to New York by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to meet in an unofficial capacity, because formal negotiations for a global treaty to stabilize the climate aren’t going so well.
In fact, little more than a year out from the December 2015 deadline for signing a deal, countries can’t even agree on a fundamental approach to curbing heat-trapping greenhouse emissions.
One option is a binding treaty that mandates a clear target for reducing overall emissions and assigns each country a fair share of the work. The second option is a nonbinding “pledge and review” process by which each nation records what pollution cuts it thinks it can make. According to this plan, we’d add up those pledges, hope they’re enough to avoid climate chaos, and come back in a few years to see how governments have done.
The United States is the primary proponent of the latter option, for the record.
But emissions cuts are not the only hang-up.
If there’s frighteningly little political will to take common-sense action in the face of devastating ecological disruption—i.e., to stop burning fossil fuels and put clean renewable energy in place as fast as possible—there is even less appetite to pay for it.
At the Copenhagen climate talks in 2009, industrialized countries promised to create a Green Climate Fund to channel money to poorer countries to support their shift to clean energy and climate-resilient development. Since the global North made much of its wealth polluting the planet, it seemed only fair that it would pick up part of the tab to help the South grapple with the result.
But five years later, the fund lies conspicuously empty.
Rich countries say that in order to muster political support for climate finance, they need to see developing countries going out of their way to earn it. Poor countries wonder how they’re supposed to act first when many of them are on the front lines of climate chaos largely caused by pollution from rich countries.
Making Space for Polluters
These debates are nothing new. They’re repeated every year at the UN climate convention.
What’s different about the upcoming New York climate summit is its unofficial nature, which is meant to provide a “neutral” space where heads of state can have a more productive conversation. But by holding the summit outside of official negotiations, the Secretary General has set a table where corporations and banks are on equal footing with governments. Literally.
The one-day climate summit will feature a high-level private-sector luncheon where businesses will share actions they are taking “to demonstrate leadership on climate change and measures that governments can take to enable the private sector to develop long-term climate change solutions.”
The guest list includes global oil and gas company Royal Dutch Shell, international coal financier Barclays Bank and South Africa’s power utility Eskom, which is currently building one of the world’s largest coal-fired power plants with funding from the World Bank. They’ll be joined by more than 130 other companies and banks.
That means our leaders aren’t just dithering at the edges while the planet burns—they’re actively inviting the very companies that are causing this crisis to help fix it.
The Bottom Line
“So what?” you might wonder. “Don’t companies have a role to play?”
Of course they do. But there’s no solution to climate change that doesn’t threaten the bottom line of companies that currently profit from dirty energy. That doesn’t mean that their interests never line up with what’s good for the climate. But when they don’t, it’s tough luck for people and the planet.
Unfortunately, governments have been abetting this “tough luck” for years. Look no further than the Green Climate Fund.
At the behest of governments—mainly from developed countries, where most multinational corporations are headquartered—the private sector has played a central role in the institution from the beginning. There is a special facility specifically to support the private sector, a private-sector advisory group that makes policy recommendations on all aspects of the fund and two private-sector observers who comment on the proceedings of the fund’s board.
Ironically enough, one of these observer seats is filled by Bank of America, whose shareholders have pushed back against its financing of the coal industry.
Unsurprisingly, corporate influence is threatening the very purpose of the fund. The rules governing investment and what institutions can receive funding are being written with the express purpose of making the Green Climate Fund as attractive as possible to financial investors.
In a board discussion about whether to exclude oil, coal and gas projects from receiving money from the green fund, for example, one private-sector observer argued that “ruling out technologies” would tie the hands of governments trying to address climate change.
But wasn’t financing a transition away from these “technologies” the point of the fund to begin with?
At this point the small group of social movements and nonprofit organizations trying to keep corporate influence in check at the fund is severely outflanked.
So while turning out in big numbers in the Big Apple is critical, it will take more than marching to compel governments to stop supporting the fossil-fuel industry and start regulating and reducing climate pollution.
Imagine the collective power we could bring to bear if the 1,400-plus organizations endorsing the climate march—representing the labor movement, people of faith, youth, immigrant rights activists and, of course, environmentalists—pulled out all the stops and poured their resources into an uncompromising, coordinated “no more dirty energy” campaign: one that forced governments to cut taxpayer subsidies to the fossil-fuel industry, put our bodies in the way of fossil-fuel extraction and transport, and moved money quickly to community-centered renewable technologies that already exist.
In the meantime, we can and should keep flexing our political muscle. One way is to “flood Wall Street,” as activists staying on in New York are planning to do after the climate march.
Kicking corporations and big banks—and their government enablers—out of the Green Climate Fund is another.
Read Next: How did oil make a comeback?
In a couple of recent posts we discussed how single letters can be clued. Today we address two-letter strings—not including state abbreviations, which were addressed (heh) in our July 4 post. Just like single letters, letter pairs (also known as bigrams) can be clued as words, as part of words, or as abbreviations.
Two-letter words can be part of a charade, or a container clue, as in the following examples:
INDIANA Gary’s place is at home with a goddess (7)
TANGO Dance beat with energy (5)
EVOKE Call forth the First Lady, securing permission (5)
By convention, when they refer to a word fragment, expressions such as “two of” always refer to the beginning of the word…
SCENIC Pretty nice mess after pair of screwups (6)
MILES DAVIS Trumpeter deceptively misleads (takes in) a couple of virtuosos (5,5)
…unless, of course, the clue specifies otherwise:
SNEAKERS Behaves scornfully about last pair of Slovak shoes (8)
Likewise, tradition dictates that when referring to inside letters, the clue refers to the exact center of the word. Of course, the exact middle bigram only exists in the case of words with an even number of letters:
SWAHILI Regressive laws about heart of this island’s first language (7)
HOTEL Where to stay very warm? The middle of hell (5)
JOSHUA Puzzle constructor to joke over center of square (6)
One useful clueing option that distinguishes bigrams from single letters is the possibility of referring to the beginning and end of a word. For example:
ENGAGE Do battle with rioting gang, within the limits of endurance (6)
GLOSSY Shrinkage seen between the edges of grimy photo (6)
DETESTABLE Abominable drive on the shoulders, with defective seat belt (10)
Roman numerals offer some options, though we no longer use “ninety-nine” for IC, as solvers quite legitimately complained that this is not correct.
FIVE One-fourth of four, plus four, on its face, equals …! (4)
IN VITRO Outside the body’s opening, swallowing six (2,5)
Other ways to clue letter pairs include chemical symbols…
AGLITTER Sparkling with silver trash (8)
CUSHION Something soft and quiet found in copper atom (7)
…”ten” for IO…
ETIOLATED Feeble guess about a takeoff: “Around ten, behind schedule” (9)
AXIOM Basic principle: cut ten meters (5)
… and “in the morning” for AM.
DREAM Imagine rapping doctor in the morning (5)
EMMA Lazarus returned in the morning with me (4)
The following clue combined three bigrams, involving sports and days of the week:
BATHTUB A Thursday/Tuesday walk outside, naked? I could get into that (7)
BB is a baseball abbreviation for a walk. Admittedly, not everyone knows that, but we thought it made for a fun clue. Apologies to the non-fans of sports.
This week’s cluing challenge: DEUCE. To comment (and see other readers’ comments), please click on this post’s title and scroll to the bottom of the resulting screen. And now, four links:
• The current puzzle
• Our puzzle-solving guidelines | PDF
• Our e-books (solve past puzzles on your iOS device—many hints provided by the software!)
• A Nation puzzle solver’s blog where every one of our clues is explained in detail. This is also where you can post quibbles, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle, as well as ask for hints.
The battle over Alabama’s Sixth Congressional District hasn’t received much media attention as underdog Mark Lester (D), a history professor at Birmingham Southern College, takes on Gary Palmer (R), former president of the largely unknown Alabama Policy Institute (API). But questions about the sources of funding to API and Lester’s challenge to Palmer—calling on him to reveal his tax returns—might transform the contest over a predominantly red district into the frontlines in the ongoing debate over candidates’ financial transparency and sources of campaign finance.
On September 9, Lester charged that Palmer is a “man who has lived off of special interest contributions for several decades of his life,” and that API is funded largely from sources outside of Alabama. Palmer responded, “I can assure you that [API’s] donor list is primarily—I mean, almost entirely—individuals.”
An investigation into API’s donors by The Nation reveals that Palmer’s statement is demonstrably untrue.
In 2012, the last year in which complete tax data is available, the API received nearly half ($480,519) of its $970,977 in grant revenue from thirteen 501(c)(3) foundation donors, not individuals.
The majority of institutional grants came from out-of-state foundations ($282,969), the largest donor being the National Christian Charitable Foundation, a massive donor-advised fund based in Georgia. National Christian Charitable Foundation is one of the nation’s biggest donors to the anti-gay and anti-abortion movement. (Hobby Lobby’s owners and executives were NCF’s biggest donors in 2009.)
Other major 501(c)(3) donors in 2012 included: Virginia-based Donors Trust ($97,000); Alabama-based J.L. Bedsole Foundation ($100,000) and the Alabama-based Williams Charitable Foundation ($50,300).
None of this fits with Palmer’s claim that API, under his leadership, was funded “almost entirely” by individuals.
But an exploration into the funding supporting Palmer’s candidacy brings up even stranger links to out-of-state interests.
Palmer has raised $1,086,567 in campaign contributions. Over half of that, $548,176, came from the Washington, DC–based Club for Growth PAC, a conservative political action committee that “endorses and raises money for candidates who stay true to the fundamental principles of limited government and economic freedom,” according to its website.
None of that diverges from Palmer’s stated positions of opposing tax increases, reducing regulations limiting oil drilling in the United States, and repealing Obamacare. However, an examination of Club For Growth PAC’s donors reveals that only one of its biggest donors comes from Alabama.
PAC contributors can give a maximum of $5,000, and Club for Growth PAC raised nearly $200,000 from heavy-hitter donors who maxed out and gave $5,000. In 2013 and 2014, only one donor from Alabama, T. Owen Vickers (an executive at Birmingham Hide & Tallow Company), was a member of the PAC’s $5,000 club.
Palmer’s claim that the Alabama Policy Institute is funded “almost entirely” by individuals is false. But, perhaps more importantly, it looks like his campaign is receiving the majority of its funding from a Washington, DC–based PAC funded almost entirely by non-Alabaman voters.
Read Next: Who’s Paying the Pro-War Pundits?
This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the groundbreaking choreopoem for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf. The author of that acclaimed work, Ntozake Shange, joined Melissa Harris-Perry on Sunday morning to share her thoughts on the Ray Rice controversy and her groundbreaking piece, and says that since the time of her poem, “domestic violence has gotten worse.”
While The Nation is only half as old as the Scottish and English Acts of Union—we were founded in 1865, the United Kingdom in 1707—we have, in our century and a half, taken great interest in affairs north of the River Tweed. In the winter of 1871, a heated debate on Scotch linguistics broke out on our letters page, with Angus Croupar of Chicago going so far as to call Thomas Davidson of St. Louis “hypocritical.” The Nation’s editors were forced to step in: “We know too much of the tenacity of the Scotch character to let two Scots carry a discussion of this kind any further in our columns.”
In the fall of 1878, the England-residing Henry James—a frequent contributor of travel essays and art criticism to The Nation, beginning with our first issue—wrote a two-part dispatch from Scotland. In the first half, James describes a walk up Edinburgh’s Calton Hill and then back down into the city.
Concluding the essay, James writes: “There is nothing invidious in saying that an American coming into Scotland after a residence in England cannot fail to be struck with the democratic tone of the common people. They address you as from equal to equal, they are not in the least cap-in-hand, and they are frugal—almost miserly—in the use of the ‘sir’…. I have encountered in Scotland but a single sect—the sect whose religion is hospitality.”
In the second dispatch, published two weeks later, James added this memorable line: “There is one advantage which European life will long have over America—the opportunity that it affords for going to picnic in the shadow of ancient castles.”
As the movement for Scottish home rule accelerated toward the end of the nineteenth century—imitating and drawing strength from the more volatile and popular Irish version—The Nation regularly updated its readers about Scotland’s political affairs. In 1887, amid a debate about Scottish autonomy, a Nation correspondent wrote: “There is perhaps a latent element of regret and discontent which no scheme of home rule can remove. Scotland is a nation, if ever there was one, and yet her tie to England, with all that it bestows, has deprived her of some things that belong to a nation.”
* * *
The issue smoldered through most of the twentieth century, only to re-emerge with the discovery of massive oil deposits in the North Sea off Scotland in the late 1960s. In 1976, David Scheffer—then a student of law at Oxford, now a professor at Northwestern—wrote an article for The Nation titled, “Will Britain Break Up?” It mostly focused on the question of devolved powers to Scotland and Wales—finally accomplished, to an extent, in the late 1990s—but also raised several issues central to the current debate on full Scottish sovereignty. It also serves as a good primer on the twentieth-century history of the independence movement.
Then they found the oil.
Scheffer’s essay concludes with a vivid description of the forces behind the move for greater local autonomy, followed by a rousing prescription for what could fix the ailing British state. Much of it contains predictions that have indeed come true; the rest of it—every word—could have been written today.
In an e-mail yesterday, Scheffer recalled The Nation’s legendary editor Carey McWilliams arranging to call a payphone in his Oxford dorm at an appointed time to discuss the story. “It was such a privilege to work with him on it,” Scheffer recalls. He also graciously reread the 1976 essay and provided this reflection:
Surprisingly, the article holds up quite well today. At the time, I was making the point that a federal solution for the UK would make better sense than devolution; otherwise, separatism would take hold. Well, devolution finally arrived in 1998 and it has propelled the Scottish National Party to advance its independence plank and take control of the Scottish Government, leading to the independence referendum of September 18th. What I saw coming in 1976 (and earlier in 1974 and 1975 when I was researching and writing my senior thesis at Harvard) was an extraordinarily modern vision of self-determination that has been peaceful, democratic, passionate, and intellectually well-reasoned, and in the end has set the gold standard for self-determination in modern times. The 1976 article anticipates the prominence of North Sea oil in the overall debate, the lasting power of the Scottish National Party, the reality that devolution would become a slippery slope towards independence because of the unique character of the British Government, and the Scots’ strong desire not to be taxed by Westminster. I have followed the Scottish debate for 40 years now, and I approach tomorrow, September 18th, which also happens to be my birthday (!), with optimism because whatever the outcome, the Scottish people will have spoken, indeed they will have roared.
* * *
In 1991, after Margaret Thatcher had been booted from office in an intra-party coup, New Left Review editor Robin Blackburn wrote in The Nation about the possible break-up of the United Kingdom under the title, “Cracks in the Stately Façade.” As Scheffer had fifteen years earlier, Blackburn gave a broad world-historical context to the story, with a startling conclusion. Any American who thinks the Scottish referendum today is of only Scottish and English importance—or that its global implications are limited to Catalonia or Quebec—should read Blackburn’s essay. He brings the issue directly to our stoop.
Curious about how we covered something? E-mail me at email@example.com. Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.
Read Next: Scotland’s referendum on austerity
On the train north to Edinburgh, two songs kept running through my head. The first was “Big Yellow Taxi,” Joni Mitchell’s breakup ballad with its wry warning: “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” In the past two weeks the British have finally, belatedly, realized that when they wake up tomorrow morning the “Great” in the country’s name may have already gone for good.
I’ve written about how Margaret Thatcher’s toxic policies, Tony Blair’s malign neglect and the bitter legacy of decades of deindustrialization brought Scotland, the cradle of Britain’s industrial revolution, to this point. But before the votes are counted, I want to acknowledge that whatever happens tomorrow, something has already been lost. As one commentator put it, Scotland has filed for divorce, and—even if the No campaign’s late, panicked cake-and-eat-it offer of newly devolved powers on taxes and the right to keep the current Westminster subsidy for social welfare proves sufficient to swing undecided voters—it is clear that this has not been a happy marriage.
The very terms of David Cameron’s promise—which exceeds by far the “Devo Max” he refused to allow on the ballot and which English Tories have already made it clear they resent and may well prevent him from being able to deliver—reveal the extent to which not just Scotland, but all of industrial England, has been left behind by London’s property-and-banking bubble economy.
There is a respectable argument that says the end of Britain should be celebrated, that the Empire itself was a nightmare for those on the receiving end and that any talk of “British” values or civilization is just Downton Abbey–style nostalgia. But the Scottish writer Ian Jack’s lament for the country that stood alone against fascism, and then came home to build the National Health Service and the welfare state, didn’t feel like that. I was listening to the radio yesterday and heard Alan Johnson, a former Labour cabinet minister, describe how as a young English letter-carrier he was drawn into politics by Jimmy Reid, the Communist leader of Glasgow’s dockworkers. In 1972, after the students at Glasgow voted to make him rector of the university, Reid warned that “giant monopoly companies and consortia dominate almost every branch of our economy. The men who wield effective control within these giants exercise a power over their fellow men which is frightening and is a negation of democracy.”
The result, Reid said, was “alienation,” which he defined as “the feeling of despair and hopelessness that pervades people who feel with justification that they have no real say in shaping or determining their own destinies.” It is certainly possible to imagine a campaign that said even a nationalism as benign as the one offered by the Yes campaign, with its open-to-immigrants, open-for-business embrace of anyone willing to stake their clam to a Scottish future, is still another division between people who, united, have often been on the same side in the great struggles for justice and human dignity.
But that is not the campaign we’ve had. Instead Labor’s Alistair Darling has stood shoulder to shoulder with David Cameron and Nick Clegg to warn Scots they’ll lose their jobs, their pensions—even their currency—if they opt for independence. When Ed Miliband tried to tell voters in an Edinburgh shopping center that they didn’t have to leave Britain to end Tory rule, their shouts of derision forced him to abandon his tour. Only Gordon Brown—despised south of the border as a hopeless loser—commanded enough respect from his fellow Scots to gain some traction for his impassioned plea to “let no narrow nationalism split us asunder.”
Which brings me to that other tune, the Steeleye Span version of “Parcel of Rogues,” Robert Burns’s bitter denunciation of the Scots who agreed to the 1707 Union with England. Thanks to the Darien Disaster, which saw a huge proportion of Scotland’s national wealth lost in speculation on a colony on the isthmus of Panama (the fact that the land happened to be claimed by Spain was only one of the Darien Company’s problems), eighteenth-century Scotland was practically bankrupt. Would an independent twenty-first-century Scotland share the same fate? The No campaign has assiduously cultivated such fears, in the past few days mustering an impressive parade of bank and insurance CEOs warning they’ll take their companies—and jobs—south if Yes wins. They’ve even prodded the head of Marks and Spencer to warn Scots they’ll face higher prices on tea and jam in an independent country.
All of which may be true. Certainly Alex Salmond’s fairy-tale story of a seamless transition to a land of milk, honey and oil wealth, with the Queen still smiling on the currency and where no one has to pay for Scandinavian-style social welfare, has more than a dash of wishful thinking. But if Scotland wakes up on Friday still bound to England not by solidarity or a shared vision but by fear of the higher prices or higher taxes that probably would be the cost of independence, it will be even harder to banish Burns’s scathing refrain:
“We’re bought and sold for English gold
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!”
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 The Herald was right when the newspaper 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 also policy debates.
So is the lesson that the United States 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 referendums 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 on 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 Sspending, lots of grassroots campaigning. Scotland strictly limits campaign spending, and there are no thirty-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 United States, 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 United States, 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 am to 10 pm 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 Scotland has set for referendum voting, as 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.
Read Next: John Nichols on “Scotland’s Referendum on Austerity”
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.