On Intersections of Land, Law, and Literature, from Primitive Territories to the Post-National Future

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From Scotland to Cataluña: Specters of Continuing Ethnonational Unraveling (November 8, 2014)

National borders seem acutely uneasy these days, at least in and around Europe. Following the very intense September 18, 2014 Independence Vote that nearly ended 307-year old union of the Scottish and English states (about which I have written quite a bit here), will on November 9 be an independence vote on the status of Catalonian desires to separate from Spain (for an excellent analysis of the current situation of the Catalonian independence moment, support for which has ballooned due to a very popular Spanish government, see Nick Rider’s BBC essay; see also the BBC’s excellent profile on Catalonia [more properly, Cataluña).

Whereas the Scottish Independence vote was an actual vote with the highest stakes for any state (actual separation), the November 9 vote has essentially been reduced to an opinion poll. As Rider reports, Artur Mas, the President of the Generalitat of Catalonia (Generalidad de Cataluña), had in 2012 moved for a referendum vote on independence for Catalonia and was met with resistance from Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy, whose government argued any such referendum was unconstitutional according to Spain’s 1978 Constitution, which preserved much regional autonomy but (Rajoy’s government held) prevented any one region from voting for separation (see the constitution in official English translation here, and see also this excellent Wikipedia article). Mas, galvanized both by independent movements and by the Rajoy government’s unpopularity, moved for a non-binding “consultation” on November 9, 2014.

While the November 9 “consultation” clearly has no constitutional weight, it is striking to see an independence movement within Western Europe that, like Scotland, is predicated upon a region’s self-perception as ethnically and historically separate from a central government. As I have written of elsewhere in terms of the vote held to move Crimea (like Catalonia a semi-autonomous region) out of the Ukranian state and into the Russian state (and in the context of related separatism in Eastern Ukraine),  as well as in the context of the extraordinary political chaos unleashed by ISIS’s violent efforts to carve out a new Islamic state (indeed, a caliphate) in the Middle East, state borders seem to be acutely unstable these days. Catalonian and Scottish efforts to tie ethnonationalist separation to democratic processes is fascinating—but I wonder if notions of democracy itself will have to change radically if separatist movements start to become the norm rather than the exception.

As you can see in my earlier blog post on economic injustice and a redistribution of the meaning of democracy, I have been thinking a lot today about how currently unstable the very concept of democracy seems: I was here spurred by Rick Lymon and Alison Smale’s analysis of remarks by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban that indicate his desire to steer Hungary towards the “illiberal” democracies modeled after Russia, China, and Turkey, rather than the “liberal” democracies of the West that brought the 2008 financial crisis and thus seem ill-prepared for the economic future. The question may not be whether Scottish or Catalonian efforts are actually democratic, but rather what democracy will mean in an increasingly socially and economically divided West. In writing earlier of the odd fit within Spain of such a counter-democratic principle as inherited royal sovereignty in a modern nation-state, I mused that rule by a privileged elite is perhaps symbolically honest in a capitalist West of increasing—and increasingly entrenched, as Thomas Piketty argues in his analysis in Capital of the exponentially increasing privilege of inherited money—economic inequality. Whatever the outcome of the Catalonian “consultation,” and however the ongoing issue of Scottish independence unfolds, it seems that the ethnonationalist unraveling going on in so  much of Europe may increasingly be cited as evidence, à la Orban, that the Western neoliberal state model is self-destructing.

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Economic Injustice and the Redistribution of What Counts as Democracy: Orban’s Hungary (November 8, 2014)

Reading Rick Lyman and Alison Smale’s reporting on Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban steering Hungary away from Western, European influence, and instead towards Vladimir Putin’s Russia, I have been fascinated by how unstable the concept of democracy has become. Orban’s arguments, which cite the financial crisis of 2008 as an indictment of “liberal democracy” and which openly look to the “illiberal democracy” of a Russia or Singapore as a better model for future development, seem to me to hint at a great fissure opening up in the world.  Arguing that the 2008 financial crisis was as epochal of a moment as the end of the Cold War, Orban seems to be striking at the America and Western Europe’s long-running—and lucrative—stranglehold on the ideological concept of democracy.

Given the massive scale of income inequality in a country like the United States (on which, see these recent analyses), it is hard not to see why Orban’s calculations about the self-defeating nature of “liberal democracy”: citing the coming “race to invent a state that is most capable of making a nation successful,” Orban clearly believes that “illiberal” models such as Russia’s or Turkey’s will thrive as the contradictions of “liberal” states become unmanageable.

That the United States continues to present itself as a fount of “democracy,” even as ballooning income inequality is matched by some fairly questionable modes of managing voter representation, suggests that Barkan’s Hungary may not be the only state that begins to be disillusioned by Western confidence in free-market capitalism. The notion of direct democracy in the United States becomes questionable when one looks at a number of factors, such as the disproportionate value of representation in the US Senate: as I have written of here before in the context of the counter-democratic UK entity known as the House of Lords, a citizen of the state of Wyoming, with an estimated population of 576,626, has exactly the same Senatorial representation as a citizen of California, with an estimated population of 38,332,521. But, more nefariously, who is allowed to vote in the United States seems to defy any attempt at direct representation, and seems very much a factor in the ongoing reproduction of social inequality. A disparate array of state laws limiting the rights of individuals with criminal records to vote after having served out their sentences leads to significant disenfranchisement, particularly for African Americans and other groups disproportionately represented in the criminal system: as the Sentencing Project reports, some 5.85 million citizens are currently being prevented from voting in US elections due to prior felony convictions, with a whopping 2.2 million of these being African Americans (by the way, that’s about ten times the entire population of Wyoming). And such counter-democratic procedures show no signs of abating, as seems to be clear from the rash of Voter ID laws that have developed over the past years, which many analysts attribute to efforts to limit the number of votes cast by ethnic minorities and students (see this seemingly non-partisan list of recent law from the National Conference of State Legislatures).  Wherever one falls in the debate about whether Voter ID laws are simply reasonable precautions or nefarious efforts to manipulate election results, it is hard not to imagine that figures like Orban or Putin will be able to paint their states as no less “democratic” than a United States in which state legislatures actively work to limit the number of citizens voting in their elections.

What most intrigues me about this situation in the context of this blog is the geography of the debate, which is in some respects strikingly reminiscent of Cold War divides, and yet in some respects seems to mark a new ideological terrain. Much as in the case of conflicts in Ukraine, about which I have written much in this blog,  the status of Hungary is depicted very much in Cold-War geographical terms as an Eastern or Central European entity being pulled in opposite directions, in a struggle between a Russian East and an American-European West. However, Orban’s references not just to China, but to Turkey and to Singapore indicate a much more complex divide than the outdated binary of capitalism-communism—and all of these states can be marked as state success stories that do not base themselves in neoliberal doctrines. With increasing questions about the fairness both of the economic system in the United States (see this NPR chart on patterns of income inequality among average households, as well as this PBS comparative analysis of US income distribution on a global scale, and also Estelle Someillier and Mark Price’s EPI analysis of US income inequality) and the ways in which citizens’ votes are linked to governmental representation, it is hard not to think that there will be many more prime ministers using what appears to be both social and economic injustice in the most prominent capitalist state as an impetus to look to other areas for the future of what will count as democratic management of territories and populations.

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The Power of Place and Population: the House of Lords and the Modern State (November 2, 2014)

While Liberal Democrats in the United Kingdom see it as merely political posturing, (minority) Labour Party leader Ed Miliband’s call to disband the House of Lords and replace it with a senate whose membership would be tied to regional representation definitely raised my eyebrows this morning.  First and foremost, it amazes me that a modern democracy could currently contain a body in which the preponderance of its membership is either due to inheritance (the limit of such inherited life peers is currently set at 92) or due to the arbitrary selection by either the monarch or the House of Lords Appointment Commission; finally, there are also 26 Lords Spiritual who are there due to positions within the Church of England (see this helpful Wikipedia article on the chamber’s make-up). While the actual power of the House of Lords was severely restricted by the Parliamentary Acts of 1911 and 1949, it remains a functional part of a bicameral legislature, and thus clearly has tremendous symbolic power along with its limited legislative might. It has always been striking to me that an institution that bears within it modes of class elitism that stem back to the medieval era could continue to affect the workings of a modern state—but, then again, I as an American am continuously stupefied at the persistence of the British, or indeed any monarchy, into today’s age. If Miliband’s plans are indeed serious, then the May elections would seem to have truly massive stakes—a significant degree of modernization.

What particularly interests me in terms of this blog is the manner in which, as Danny Hakim’s analysis observes, Miliband envisions a legislative body analogous to the United States Senate as the replacement for the House of Lords. Clearly, Miliband wants to respond to the deep sense of geographic injustice throughout the United Kingdom that was a significant part of the debate about Scottish Independence: many feel that the London-centered Southeastern region of England has a massively disproportionate amount of power in the modern United Kingdom. The United Kingdom’s House of Commons, like the United States House of Representatives, links power both with region and with population (see this Wikipedia article for current constituencies, which include population figures, as well as this general article), and so it bears within it numerical biases based on concentrated areas of population. One of the key complaints about those seeking Scottish Independence (a subject about which I have written here quite a bit) was that, however much Scottish interests, conceived as a regional voice, tended towards progressive policies, the neoliberal tendencies throughout the rest of the England-dominated parliament steered all in an opposite direction—thereby creating a sense of a regional voice being rendered politically impotent.

The United States Senate is fascinating to consider in this story for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the United States Senate only became a body whose membership was directly elected in 1913, with the Seventeenth Amendment replacing the former appointment of members by state legislatures. Thus, if democracy is best measured by direct election, then the United States marks one stage of the United States becoming more democratic (6 years and two amendments before women were able to vote, by the way).

More critically for me, the United States Senate exists as a key compromise enabling United States dominance, according to which territory overrides population: no matter what the population or physical size of a state, each United States state gets two Senators. While many Americans are often frustrated by the fact that lightly populated states have a disproportionate influence in the Senate (the 2013 US Census Bureau population estimate for Wyoming, for example, is 562,658, and yet it has the same legislative representation in the Senate as California, with its population of 38,332,521; see this), this uneven arrangement is absolutely essential to United States history: territories were only brought into the United States with the understanding that their sparse populations would be compensated for by equal relationship within the Senate. To put it crudely, geography and population are balanced in the United States, with the idea that every vote is numerically equal being essentially alien to the system.

I will be very keen to follow the development of this debate about the House of Lords. I very much hope that it will attract the kind of intense attention that came with the debate about Scottish Independence. In some ways, I think it touches at a very fundamental question about modern states. Western states often bandy about rather vague notions of democratic exceptionalism to other regions of the planet, claiming that freedom and democracy are unquestionably central to Western states—even as such counter-democratic traditions as inherited peerships in the United Kingdom or such representative disparities born of historical pragmatism that constitute the United States Senate exist (and this is not even to mention the profound inequities about who is eligible for voting in the United States). The American media often pays strangely disproportionate attention to the royal family in the United Kingdom; I hope very much that some of that curiosity causes us to follow this story about the House of Lords and its rather fundamental debate about balancing population and region in a modern state.

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Of African and Arthurian Kings: Photographs and Temporal Politics October 29, 2014

I have been very intrigued, these past couple of days, by this Monique Todd article on the photographic work of Alfred Weidinger, who has assembled an extensive set of photographs of kings in Africa. This is a fascinating project, and Weidinger has clearly taken great care both to visit a wide sampling of the many areas in which such—dare I say?– royal subjects can be found, and he has also quite carefully prepared for criticisms that he is exoticizing or exploiting his subjects by insisting that they manage the conditions of their own photographic framing. Besides offering glimpses into a quite varied number of styles of presenting the sovereign self, this project offers an opportunity to reflect on how complex the cultural and political landscape can be when it comes to royalty: Weidinger’s portrait series points to an almost dizzying number of monarchies, sometimes tied to areas or to ethnicities, which are to varying degrees integrated into accepted state structures. To put it simply, this photo series highlights how varied are the ways in which political rule can be ritually figured in various parts of Africa.

Right from the moment I began reading the article and quickly moved through the slideshow, I immediately felt ambivalence about my interest in the subject—for a number of reasons. Firstly, as my qualifying points above probably already indicate, I have been conditioned by frequent reading of postcolonial criticism and cultural geography to be wary of Western efforts to transform African others into subjects either of aesthetics or of knowledge. As I said, Weidinger’s methodology of insisting that the king determine how he (and the gender appears to be exclusive in this portrait series) will be framed, insulating the photographer from any charges of staging the photographs—that is, of making the presentation of the king his, rather than the king’s story. Of course, I could easily see many critiquing this as mere window-dressing, arguing that the very project of capturing these images, of linking them in a series, is part and parcel of a larger Western project of controlling colonized others through structures of knowledge—classifying and cataloguing them, with the advanced technologies of digital archiving and photography clearly in tension with the sometimes intensely earthy, low-technology settings in which these kings are depicted.

Another source of my deep unease with my own fascination with this story has involved both temporal politics and the circumstances of my own teaching. It has been clear to me that one reason this article seemed so timely to me was because I have been doing a lot of thinking about kings, sub-kings, and petty kings—indeed, a proliferation of kings that is so extensive that it seems to empty the word of anything resembling practical rule, leaving only the ritual elements highlighted in Weidinger’s photographs. This subject has been directly in my mind due to my reading for the Arthurian Romance course I am teaching. In Malory, there is a bewildering number of kings. Sometimes these kings are associated with clearly recognizable territories (say, King Uriens of North Wales) and sometimes with either obscure or fanciful areas (say, King Leodegrance of Camelarde or King Nentres of Garlot), and sometimes they are dissociated with land entirely (as in the case of the ever-fascinating King with the Hundred Knights). It has always seemed to me that this wide array of kings most likely reflects the complicated politics of feudalism or indeed of any unstable political system based on sub-rulers beholden to their greaters: Lot may be the king in Lothian and Orkney, but he is subject—at least after those civil wars—to the greater King Arthur. Kingship is relative—though its gradations are only open to nobles who have achieved some degree of mastery over a territory.

Even as a nagging critical voice telling me that it was dangerous to compare the simultaneously ancient and fantastical world of Arthurian literature to actual African politics, I was fascinated initially by the seeming comparison to the politics behind the worlds into which Weidinger gives us a photographic glimpse: as Todd relates, there is a complicated array of relationships between various kings, many of whom are associated with ethnic groups or particular areas, and whose prestige and energy can be mobilized by savvy rulers aware of the complicated attachments to ritual notions of kingship. The critical voice haunting me here comes from work such as that of the anthropologist Johannes Fabian (see Time and the Other) or of the medievalist Kathleen Davis (see Periodization and Sovereignty) who have analyzed a temporal politics in which non-Western sites can be marked as somehow ancient or backward—as if to go to these places is to go back in time. Clearly this I one of the risks any viewer of Weidinger’s photographs must take—that being caught up in the various settings for royal portraits may appear throwback, backward—as if the premodern world is a place, rather than a time.

Of course, as I have written of here on this blog, the West is hardly insulated from kingship and its seemingly essential premodernity: as modern as many Europeans like to think of themselves, for example, a strikingly large number of EU polities still have monarchs, with all the attendant ritual that seems to this blogger fundamentally primitive. The desire, if not indeed the need for kingship seems to be a kind of shadow always haunting human culture. As I have written about here before, there is quite clearly something deeply unseemly in a Westerner seeking to carve out kingship in an African space. I wonder if our own discomfort with the cultural and historical insensitivity of the would-be North Sudanese princess-maker is deeply akin to the feelings of discomfort we might feel in dwelling on the fascinating photographs collected by Weidinger—and whether this guilt is itself not itself a sign of the seeming inescapability of imperialist history. Thinking about how I am thinking about these photographs: this series seems to force us to consider our own frame, so indeed it seems already to have done some work towards avoiding pure objectification of these royal individuals.


My Federalist Reservations about Scottish Independence (Continued) (September 14, 2014)

Much of the intense separatist activity going on in the world right now has made me feel rather cynical. I suppose that I have simply become reflexively suspicious of appeals to turn away from larger associations in the interest of smaller ones—at least when it comes to ethnic or regionalist partisanship. Whereas many are calling for more local governance, more attention to the nearby (and such calls are sometimes, of course, well worth heeding), I have come to instinctively be suspicious that behind such calls, however couched they may be in the rhetoric of freedom and a yearning for independence, lies little more than a desire for gaining economic advantages. Call me a federalist.

It is the Scottish Independence movement that is the primary inspiration for these thoughts (though the violent separatism in Eastern Ukraine and the Crimea also come to mind—though I suppose those separatists should be seen as actively trying to join an even larger federal entity). Don’t get me wrong: I know that many people want Scottish independence for purely patriotic reasons. As a medievalist who has worked on the highly militarized Anglo-Scottish borderlands of the late Middle Ages, and who has also spent a lot of time studying various strains of nationalism, I am well versed in the long-standing issues surrounding a Scottish desire for independence. (That same training does raise some questions for me, however. I am sometimes mystified that many commentators skip over the uncomfortable fact that Scotland itself was an empire, whose unity was forged through medieval regimes that were very successful at using violence to make various independent lords and whole regions (eg, Galloway, the Highlands) to submit to central rule. Not that any of that is out of the ordinary: history is written by variously successful military states.)

The more I have read of the Scottish National party and the Independence movement, however, the more I have focused on the rather petty pecuniary motives accompanying (or, if I am feeling even more cynical, I would say fueling) the independence movement. As I have commented on before here and here, I have found rather off-putting the coexistence of the Romantic rhetoric of independence and the pursuit of social justice with an independence movement that keeps highlighting its plan to maximize an independent Scotland’s oil reserves (even as it makes gestures at seeking an environmentalist regime, that insists it can thrive economically while not declaring independence from the UK pound-sterling, and which pledges to remain subject to the British monarchy for what to my mind may well be the very pragmatic reason that the oil-rich Orkney and Shetland islands are personal possessions of the said monarch (though continuing subjection to a traditional monarch also seems to be part of this “independence” push).

I understand that nation-states need to have economic revenue to survive, but certain other promises made by Independence activists in the SNP have reminded me more of United States Tea Party activists than the leftist advocates for social justice recoiling from the conservative ravages of post-Thatcher Great Britain that many Independence activists claim to be. As this Seumas Milne Guardian piece points out, and the SNP has been promising that an Independent Scotland would cut corporate taxes to 3% below the UK to attract business. Rather than an inspiring movement for social justice and freedom from a conservative Westminster, a Scottish National Party that seeks to gain independence votes by promising more tax breaks to corporations seems rather like the pro-business right0wing party currently plaguing my own United States with constant claims that corporate taxes must be lowered to be competitive with the rest of the world. When UK MP (and admittedly partisan) George Galloway describes the SNP’s call for lower corporate taxes as promising a “race to the bottom” in this BBC clip, I am very familiar with this late-capitalist logic, since US corporations have so effectively used lobbyists as to make the call for lower taxes (along with a panoply of tax-dodging strategies that use various foreign shelters to cut domestic tax costs) an ongoing one in American politics.  Salmond’s corporate-friendly Scotland seems an ill fit with Romantic notions of an ancient Scottish people yearning to again be free.

Another source of my annoyance with the rhetoric of the Independence movement has been Salmond’s propensity to refer to “Westminster elites”. Again, this rhetoric reminds me of US Tea Party activists and their description of anyone in the US federal government as Washington elites—even as they lobby to win elections and enter that same rarefied Washington space. I am not alone here. As Simon Schama observes in a memorable tweet, the rhetoric of referring to Westminster elites ignores the fact that 59 Scottish MPs are part of Westminster governance: are “they the enemy too?” Schama inquires.

Much of this reminds me of secessionist rhetoric of a civic sort that I experienced while growing up in Los Angeles. I am from the San Fernando portion of Los Angeles, where there were often grumblings about a need to secede from Los Angeles and create a civic San Fernando Valley. The reasons cited would often include gestures at self-governance and independence, but they always bore within them a purely economic logic: San Fernando Valley separatists would regularly claim that “their” tax dollars were going to fund programs going on elsewhere in the city, and that they would pay less in taxes and be better off financially if the Valley could finally break free of the power-hungry government of a greedy Los Angeles. There was indeed a secessionist referendum in 2001 which failed (see Tom Hogan-Esch and Martin Saiz’s analysis here, as well as Rick Orlov’s Daily News retrospective analysis)– primarily because, unlike in the Scottish Independence referendum, all citizens of the Los Angeles out of which the San Fernando Valley sought to carve an independent space, got to vote on the matter. Whether out of civic love or indeed a desire to keep those tax revenues flowing, more Los Angeles members voted against Valley secession than the 50.7% of Valley residents who sought it out (by the Scottish referendum model, which restricts voting to current residents of Scotland are those Scots working abroad due to military or government service, the Valley would have seceded).

As someone proud to say I grew up in Los Angeles, I was extremely glad that the San Fernando Valley secession effort failed.  I have always been proud of the Valley and all the other parts of Los Angeles—and I am glad that what I thought were the rather ignoble motives of lowering tax bills and increasing a business-friendly environment free of the meddling hands of Greater Los Angeles did not win out over the desire for a bigger, more varied place to call home. I suppose that another, not very insignificant background to my federalist reaction against this separatist drive has been my sense that the major experiment in separatism in this country was also one that traded in Romantic visions of independence and freedom but which was rooted primarily in economic motives—namely, the rise of the Confederate States of America. I don’t mean to be polemical here– and I don’t want to compare a brutal regime focused on maintaining slavery with a Scottish Independence movement seeking to carve out its own economic independence. I know this is a rather extreme example and is not really very comparable to the Scottish case (after all, the United Kingdom involved the fusing of two independent kingdom-states in 1707, and so this is not a dissolution of an originary bond as it was in the case of the Confederacy)— but I find it interesting to realize how strongly the American experience in separatism leads me to be suspicious of various attempts to break away from larger associations into smaller communities that are held to be more closely aligned to one’s self-interest. The more I have read about the Scottish Independence referendum, the more I have looked beyond all those Romantic notions of national pride and independence—and more towards the pro-corporate bottom line fueling much of this separatist fervor. Indeed, I am not surprised that, with its emphasis on exploiting oil reserves and lowering corporate tax rates, the Scottish Independence movement has attracted the attention of secessionist interests in Texas, as this Joshua Fechter San Antonio Express-News article relates.  But maybe I’ve just become an inveterate federalist.


My Increasing Ambivalence about Scottish Independence (September 10, 2014)

As the momentous September 18 vote on Scottish Independence draws nearer, I have become increasingly perplexed by how ambivalent the case for each side of this very polarized debate seems. I should note from the very beginning that I have (as far as I know) no ethnic or political stake in this event: I am an American citizen who adds neither “English” nor “Scottish” (nor indeed “British”) plus a hyphen before “American.” However, not only as a medievalist who has done quite a bit of work on both Middle English and Middle Scots literature, and who has spent quite a bit of professional time studying the fraught history of the border between the kingdoms and empires of England and Scotland (and, yes, I use “empires” in the plural advisedly), but also as a critic who has taken up intersections of nationalism and imperialism as a major subject-area of my research, I have been paying particular attention to this issue. Indeed, this issue was the subject of the very first entry for this blog.

            Firstly, I have been unsettled by the combination of both nationalist and pragmatist discourses in arguments for Independence. Surely any major political movement will involve a coalition of agendas, and it does not seem shocking that some of those seeking independence are doing so primarily out of a sense of nationalist pride—a sense that their own proud “nation,” Scotland, made a gross mistake in hitching itself to England’s (and its insular conquests’) destiny by creating Great Britain in 1707, and that Scotland should willingly choose to leave what UK Prime Minister just recently called the United Kingdom’s http://uk.reuters.com/article/2014/09/10/uk-scotland-independence-cameron-idUKKBN0H50FV20140910 “family of nations”—while others are pursuing more pragmatic agendas (namely, the argument that Scotland, which is alleged to hold some 90% of potential British oil reserves, would be doing better financially if its natural resources were restricted only to Scotland as an independent economic nation). Nationalist separatism seems never far away from aggressive capitalism, as the fervent arguments for creating Scotland seem always to be shadowed by the confidence that oil resources legally belong to Scottish people and that the advanced technologies of the modern world can fund a retreat into a more exclusive Scottish nation-state (and all this talk of oil exploitation, it should be mentioned, sits rather uncomfortably alongside the insistence, in the draft Scottish Constitution, that an independent Scotland will work towards a greener world and towards climate change—see sections 31.3b and 32b).

            I am perfectly aware that there are a multitude of reasons for those seeking Independence, and that not all can be reduced to a pragmatic marriage of nationalism and pragmatism—however, whenever I listen to debates or read articles about the desire for independence, all seems to be reducible to these twin energies. There are, of course, other key rationales for independence, such as the argument that an overwhelming majority of Scots voted against Margaret Thatcher’s neoliberal policies and so Scotland has suffered more acutely than other areas as the United Kingdom has become more and more conservative, with Labour having swung to the right in the apparently un-Scottish neoliberal world created by the Iron Lady. (For an excellent presentation of this argument, see Owen Jones’s article here). However, such an argument raises deep concerns—including a rather arbitrary take on whose suffering matters enough to bring about separation, since no one advocating Independence in Scotland seems to be suggesting inviting non-neoliberal leftists in England, Cornwall, Wales, and Northern Ireland who are presumably equally disappointed in the post-Thatcher UK are invited to become part of Scotland: the move is that of a nationalist-separatist voting bloc, which in some ways can be seen as using a kind of bullying tactic, stating that if its demographic majority does not dictate policy then it will depart the union. As Paul Krugman argues in this analysis (which is largely devoted to undermining confident assertions that Scotland would do well if it chose to yoke its destiny to the pound), the desire to imagine a nation that was more tailored to one’s own biases is tempting, with liberals on either coast of the USA often entertaining fantasies about how much more enlightened a United States without its (previously Confederate) South would be. Such logic, of course, cuts both ways, and the shrill cries to take back “our” country made by Tea Party extremists in the post-Obama United States reveal, to my ears, how ugly the logic that voting patterns must reflect one’s own region’s (or class’s or religion’s) wishes can be (and, indeed, the US Civil War mentioned by Krugman weaves a most bloody example of such an extreme into my own nation-state’s history).

            I also remain a bit mystified by how many of those seeking Scottish Independence seek nevertheless to preserve other key affiliations—namely, to remain subjects of Queen Elizabeth, to keep the British pound as the primary currency unit, and to remain a member of (or rejoin) the European Union. As I argued earlier, the desire to remain subjects of Queen Elizabeth involves more than just nostalgia and traditionalism: the evidently oil-rich territories of the Orkney and Shetland Islands became part of Scotland as personal possessions of King James III in 1475, and so, if Scotland were to remove itself from subjection to Queen Elizabeth or her heir as the head of state, then it would presumably lose its claim to these territories. Keeping the British pound also seems to bear within it both pragmatic and nostalgic impulses: while some Scots clearly want to keep the thriving pound merely to ensure that the new nation-state would have a valuable currency, others seem merely to want to continue with the status quo (On the currency issue, see Esther Webber’s overview of the debate, this UK-drafted study of the issues surrounding any currency union, these articles on Bank of England resistance to pro-Independence plans to keep the pound, this pro-independence assessment of currency issues, and another Krugman analysis here). It seems hard not to see some sense in Bank of England governor Mark Carney’s assessment that a currency union would be “incompatible” with Scotland’s assertion of sovereign independence —certainly financial dependency on UK banking undermines any claim for independence.

            The clear desire of many, if not most Scots seeking independence to remain in the European Union also leaves me perplexed. While I understand that this is in no way incompatible with national independence in the way that, it seems to me, retaining the pound-sterling definitely, and the British monarchy probably is—after all, the European Union is an association of independent nation-states—I am also a bit mystified by the simultaneous linkage of going it “alone” jostles alongside arguments for retaining the benefits of European Union membership. Again, I know this is not incompatible with national identity—after all, many nations belong to larger associations, such as the United Nations or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization—but the clear focus on profitability and relative prestige within the European Union ties the nationalist fervor of much of the independence movement with what seems a primarily calculating, capitalist decision about European Union membership. Independence, again, is merely relative—a recalibration of a financial community’s place in a lucrative multinational organization.

            With all of this having been said, Scotland has since the Middle Ages had a unique sense of community, and it would be folly to think that somehow one could ever separate the fraught emptions of patriotism with the practical interests and calculations of an advanced economy. Again, I have no ethnic or political horse in this race, and so I write this as an outside, if professionally interested, observer. The process of devolution has brought much autonomy to Scotland, ranging from administrative independence in such areas as education to, as I have written of here, independence as a competing “nation” in the World Cup (which makes me think of the possible fragmentation of the United Kingdom’s Olympics teams as another factor that many might be considering)—but evidently, devolution has not brought enough for many. I suppose what makes me feel most ambivalent about all this is that the intense desire for separation, which has been admirably done entirely through reasoned debate in the United Kingdom, is normally worked out more violently elsewhere—whether it be in the shelling going on now in eastern Ukraine, or the bombings and raids currently wracking Syria and Iraq. Does separatism, however urbane, breed more separatism? Will a Scottish breakaway intensify the fragmentation that seems to be contagious in today’s world? I know that a desire for independence can come from a dual sense of local self-respect and of a need to redress past injustices in a non-violent way—but separatist instincts seem most often to come from ethnonational zeal…and I don’t think the world needs more of that. Localism can shade as easily into parochialism as into humble pride in one’s proximate environment—and the gesture of throwing up one’s hands and erecting exclusive national walls seems to me to risk taking us further from the cosmopolitan world that I wish we were all seeking to generate.

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The Crows of Militarism Are Coming Home to Roost (August 19, 2014)

Both tragic and outrageous, the police shooting and killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown has cast a powerful light on the increasing militarization of police within the United States. Images of protests in Ferguson, MO, are unsettling, to say the least—however used we may have become to images of police in riot gear and in military formation. With images circulating online and on television of such modern war-gear as armored vehicles, semiautomatic assault weapons, and camouflage uniforms, as well as of tear-gas, rubber bullets, and stun grenades being deployed against protesters, many commentators have likened the area to a war zone, as this BBC analysis details.  Capturing the uncanniness of seeing weaponry and tactics that we associate with US militarism being deployed on US soil (Josh Levs summarizes this well in this CNN article), many commentators, such as Mike Bonifer on the Huffington Post or “Trotskyite” at Culture War Reporters, have taken to calling the area Fergustan.

            I am quite taken by the rise of the term ‘Fergustan,’ since its fusion of foreign and domestic locales captures the essence of the increasing availability of military equipment associated with distant war-zones appearing here in the United States. While racial injustice is at the heart of the Ferguson protests, the stakes clearly go well beyond this single, albeit horrific, trend. Blurring the lines separating the civilian and the military, police militarization should frighten all of us—for the war material we thought we had sent safely way out there is being used here.

            As Radley Balko, author of Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces, explains in this BBC video,  the explicit militarization of police can be traced at least as far back to the 1967 formation of the Los Angeles Police Department’s SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics Unit) through Inspector Daryl Gates’s consultation with US military experts (see the Wikipedia history here; and see the LAPD’s own self-description of the unit here). Chillingly, the creation of these SWAT units were in response to the August 1965 Watts riots. As Balko makes clear,  the incorporation of military tactics and gear in urban policing was quickly coupled with the political rhetoric of war, particularly the “war on drugs” that President Nixon chillingly declared on June 17, 1971, by naming drugs as “public enemy number one” (see this PBS timeline of this so-called “war,”). Once militarizing police departments found a constant set of targets supplied by the political rhetoric about a drug war, such disturbing trends as a consistently escalating number of “no-knock drug raids” ensued—with something like a 10-fold increase of such raids since the 1980s, according to Balko.

            Especially insofar as I have been swayed by Stuart Elden’s powerful analysis of terror as a tactic that, while popularly held to be used only by non-state actors, is a fundamental part of modern state military strategy (see Elden’s Terror and Territory: The Spatial Extent of Sovereignty, University of Minnesota Press, 2009; articles related to the book are archived here, at Elden’s fantastic blog, Progressive Geographies), I find the shocking deployment of military gear and tactics in Ferguson deeply alarming. While this case is, once again, in one respect solely about institutional racism (and on the ongoing problem of racial inequality in terms of police activities, see this response to Michael Brown’s killing by Richard Cohen of the Southern Poverty Law Center, Dara Lind’s disturbing history of racism on Vox, as well as the multiple excellent essays available here from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s Center on Race, Crime, and Justice), it is also very much another reminder of the disproportionate, quasi-military force being increasingly brought to bear upon protesters exercising their civil rights on American soil.

            Police, as Steve Herbert discusses in his excellent Policing Space: Territoriality and the Los Angeles Police Department (University of Minnesota Press, 1997), often treat urban spaces in the same manner as military do in war-zones—with any challenges to their territorial supremacy requiring aggressive actions made as if against enemy forces. It is, as many have pointed out, a profoundly unsettling move to go from conceiving of the police’s mission as protecting and serving the community to conceiving of their mission as military—for this can lead to police behaving either as if they are making incursions into hostile territory or defending territory from enemy forces. The bewilderingly disproportionate nature of law-enforcement response in Ferguson presents a stark reminder of the dangers of police militarization.

            Given such disproportionate response, the movement of military equipment from the war-zones of Iraq and Afghanistan into local police departments is deeply disturbing. The activities in Ferguson are casting a light on this problematic practice, as can be seen from Rear Admiral John Kirby’s responding today to anxieties about such movement of military equipment, as reported here by CNN’s Barbara Starr. As Starr explains, the Department of Defense’s program, the Defense Logistics Agency, created in 1999, has been involved in transferring military equipment to local police departments. Happily, Starr reports, this program appears to be coming under review, with the unrest in Ferguson having spurred President Obama to call for analysis of a program that delivers military-grade equipment to police departments who are, it seems to go without saying, neither trained for military combat nor tasked with military missions.

            While the killing of Michael Brown that initiated the civil unrest in Ferguson is irremediably saddening, it does hearten me to see both the intensity and the diversity of the protests concerning the law-enforcement response in Ferguson. Communities should always foreground shared stakes—and while not all of those present at Ferguson protests would be subject to the same institutional racism that African Americans regularly experience, all citizens should be interested in knowing that law-enforcement agencies must be held to account if they do not pursue justice impartially. Moreover, all of us have a shared stake in seeing that the trend of militarizing the police be reversed, lest we see more cities broadcast such war-zone-like scenes as to inspire names analogous to “Fergustan.”


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