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‘If I Were A Scotchman I Too Should Be Conceited’: Henry James and Others on Scotland

Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh Castle from Grass Market, by George Washington Wilson (cc)

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.

* * *

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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 rkreitner@thenation.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

A Very British Divorce?

"No" campaign rally

Supporters for the No campaign for the Scottish Independence Referendum at a rally in Edinburgh (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

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.”

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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!”


Read Next: What the US Could Learn From Scotland's Anti-Austerity Independence Vote

What the US Could Learn From Scotland’s Anti-Austerity Independence Vote

Glasgow independence rally

Independence rally in Glasgow (alf.melin, CC BY 2.0)

Edinburgh, ScotlandIf 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.

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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.

To wit:

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 question 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 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 distinct 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: Scots 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 in the US 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

How Hard Times Are Healing Bosnia

Protesters form a human chain outside their parliament building in Sarajevo. (AP

Protesters form a human chain outside their parliament building in Sarajevo. (AP/Amel Emric)

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.

The Floods

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.

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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.

Low Trust

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.

Read Next: Kingdom of Slaves in the Persian Gulf

The 2014 NFL: Where Racketeers Condemn Child Abusers

Adrian Peterson

Adrian Peterson (AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt, File)

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.”

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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.


Read Next: Why NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell must go and who should replace him

While the Fashion World Swoons Over This Season’s Styles, the Workers Making Them Are Fainting on the Job

International day of solidarity with Cambodian workers

Courtesy of the International Union League Solidarity Committee via The Action Network

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.”

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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.

Read Next: Michelle Chen on labor abuses at Apple factories in China

How Art Inspires Change

Faron Manuel and James Pate.

Faron Manuel (right) introduces artist James Pate (left) at the Clark Atlanta University Art Galleries, where Manuel is a docent. Pate appeared as part of the “Kin Killin’ Kin” traveling art exhibit.

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.


Read Next: An Overturned Death Penalty Conviction Sparks Debate in North Carolina

Scotland’s Referendum on Austerity

Scottish independence rally

A Scottish independence campaign rally in Glasgow. (AP Photo/David Cheskin)

Glasgow, ScotlandThursday’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.

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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

You’ll Have to Rip Benghazi From Fox’s Cold, Dead Hands


Members of the activist group CodePink gather for a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

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.

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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.

Read Next: Obama is open to ground troops in Iraq, a top general says

How the Voice of Janay Rice Has Been Silenced by the Media

Melissa Harris-Perry

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.
—N’Kosi Oates

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