Sunday, September 14, 2014

Scotland Decides

On September 18, people resident in Scotland and age 16 or older will answer the question: "Should Scotland be an independent country?"

The potential consequences are enormous. For the first time in over 300 years, the United Kingdom could be less united; Great Britain less great; and Scotland an independent state.  

Although I have lived in the United States for over 20 years, I still cling to my British identity. That hasn't changed since I have lived here. But Britain has. Born in England of a Welsh mother and an English father, I return to visit family often and remain passionate about the United Kingdom.

The referendum is for Scotland alone but the decision will have a dramatic effect on the rest of the UK. Scotland's population, at around 5.2 million, is one twelfth of the UK population, yet the decision on whether the UK survives as a state will be made without any input from voters in England, Wales or Northern Ireland.

So what has happened to transform the question of Scottish independence? A change set in when Britain turned away from the Commonwealth to embrace a new European identity, but more recently than that were the Thatcher years. And it is here that real damage was wrought.

Not that long ago the British state mined coal and forged steel. It manufactured cars and trucks and employed an industrial workforce that did these things. If you were a miner or a steel worker or a car worker you were part of a community and shared interests with others in places such as Liverpool, Sheffield, or South Wales. There was a common identity and it was British.

Perhaps it signaled the end of a long period of industrial decline, but Margaret Thatcher's brutal policies destroyed these industries and did long term harm to social cohesion in Scotland (as it did in South Wales and large tracts of northern England). Communities were broken up and with it a shared British endeavor, replaced by the global market. I have long thought that the privatization of gas, electric, water and other national assets also served to take something away from a collective sense of Britishness, as it did in later years when British Rail was privatized.

Since the Thatcher years Westminster has shifted to the right while Scotland has remained left of center. Many Scots who once felt both Scottish and British no longer do so. And yet the ties that bind us are still strong: the NHS, popular culture, the BBC and the pound.  All parts of the UK are intrinsically linked by history, trade, and family. Issues affecting people in Scotland are the same as those affecting people in other parts of the UK. Living here I see more in common between the average Scot, English, Welsh and Northern Irish person than between people in many states of the US.

What unites us is infinitely stronger than what divides us. During our 307-year union we have discovered new medicines, made great inventions, created great works of art, fought together and died together. And, when faced with perhaps our darkest hour, we stood together and hurled defiance at Hitler when the whole world thought our fate was sealed.

Whatever happens on September 18, Great Britain will have forever changed. A yes vote maybe a vote for independence but it is also a vote to render asunder the United Kingdom. There is a vacuum of power in the world and this vote will have a direct bearing upon that too. Both Scotland and the UK would be diminished. Both would have less of a voice on the world stage. But perhaps the most profound effect would be on the national psyche.

Scotland doesn't need a seat at the United Nations to be a nation. She has as strong an identity as any country on earth but with the economic benefits and added security as part of the UK. I have traveled to most parts of Great Britain and see a wonderful diversity of nations within a nation and regions within those nations. Scots are welcomed everywhere. Britain, British, Brtishness all stand for something in the world - freedom, democracy, a sense of humor. We have built the United Kingdom together. Britain deserves another chance.

My view is a view from afar seen through English and Welsh eyes and it is for my own patriotic reasons that I want Scotland to stay. Scotland balances Britain socially, politically and culturally. It is my fervent hope that if the referendum is defeated a new sense of national identity emerges. For too long it has not been British to discuss what makes you British. I look back just a couple of years to the London Olympics and recall the pride I felt at what we achieved together.

Scotland must have bold new powers but so too should the regions of England. With devolved power in Wales and Northern Ireland, perhaps the United Kingdom could function as a more cohesive, fairer state. Scotland remaining in the UK would not be any less of a country but one that has recognized the advantages of political and economic union with the rest of the people who share the same island. The Union is an opportunity, not a threat.

The President, the Pope and the Prime Minister of Australia have all spoken in favor of the union as have countless celebrities from across the UK. Scots are traditionally averse to being given advice, however well intentioned. Perhaps they are listening; perhaps not. Strong of will and independent of thought, the decision is for them alone; yet it is bitterly hard for me to accept that the rest of the people in the UK will have no say as the fate of their country hangs in the balance. I hope that come sunrise on September 19 the people of Scotland will be secure enough in their identity, nationality and culture to continue to share with the people they have been together with through thick and thin for centuries.

At a time when wars rage across the globe, it is a testament to the democracy built over the centuries by the people of this remarkable island that this vote is taking place. The stakes for Scotland and the United Kingdom could not be greater. 

Scotland: The rest of the UK is holding its breath. They have no vote but want you to stay.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

A Hidden Gem

Earlier today I visited the Museum of Russian Art in South Minneapolis. Located in a Spanish-revivalist church built to mimic the Alamo, the three floors of this beautifully converted church create a blend of art and culture greater than its parts.

The singular focus is on Russian Art. The permanent collection portrays the former Soviet Union’s tragic and unique history but there is also modern art as well as a photographic exhibition titled “Jewish Life in the Russian Empire”.

Having studied Russian, I have a place in my heart for Russia and Russian culture and I particularly enjoyed the paintings portraying the former Soviet Union from different periods, art which ranges through both time and style. What works about this museum is its enchanting use of space. I don’t tend to linger in museums but this one is small enough to read about each piece and be done in an hour; there may be bigger collections in the Twin Cities but the quality of art is amazing.

The architecture adds space for contemplation. If you are not familiar with Russian art or Russian culture do make a visit. It will educate and enlighten; engage and enthrall.

Monday, December 31, 2012

Guns and Freedom: An American Conundrum

I didn’t grow up with guns. I have never owned a gun. In fact, as a child and young adult in Great Britain, I never even saw a gun - except on television.

The United States is very different to Great Britain. It has different freedoms and a unique history that has given birth to those freedoms. Because of this, threats to take away people’s guns by force would go nowhere. Nor would it solve the issue of gun violence. Criminals will always get guns – legal or not.

In the aftermath of the murder of 20 six and seven year-olds, as well as six adults, at a Connecticut school, there has never been a more critical time for serious debate about guns. The National Rifle Association’s claim that the reason for mass school shootings is not the prevalence of military-style weapons but the lack of armed officers in schools left me cold. This misses the point entirely. It also assumes that living in an armed society is normal. It isn’t.

Even though I’m not a citizen, I have lived here as a legal resident for two decades and support the right to bear arms. But I would suggest some common sense restrictions, especially with regard to military-style assault weapons that release a round of bullets with one pull of the trigger.

The NRA has easy answers. Gun control advocates have easy answers. But the answers are not easy. The issue is far from simple, and changing the law is not going to make guns disappear from the black market. What is needed is dialogue, not unilateral dictates. Those children cannot have died in vain. After each of the recent massacres there has been excuses and inaction; now is the time for action.

Armed guards wouldn’t make classrooms safer, let alone promote a learning environment. There would have to be guards in every classroom and not just at the entrances as there are many ways to get into a school. A student simply has to put a gun in a bag, come to school as normal and start shooting, and there will be multiple deaths before an armed guard could get there. Schools should be safe sanctuaries, not armed camps.

So, what to do? For a start, severely restrict or ban the relative easy access to military style assault weapons, whose purpose is to kill human beings. Close the loopholes that allow guns to be sold without background checks, and have a mandatory training course for all guns purchased.

Consider the issue of mental illness and alienation in society. Most—if not all--of the recent perpetrators of mass shootings seemed to be mentally ill. Beef up the background checks for mental illness. And buying guns and ammo on the internet just seems like a really bad idea.

A recent no-questions-asked gun buyback program in Los Angeles was a huge success. Expand this to other towns and cities. Fewer guns on the streets can only be a good thing.

Today children are bombarded with violence throughout the gaming industry, movies, and the media. Where is the outrage about the ever increasing violence in video games?

In a free society there has to be reason and I hope there will be a shift in the conversation. America is better than this. What next? Kids going to school wearing bullet proof vests?

Friday, October 19, 2012

Why Malala Matters

Malala Yousafzai, aged 15, was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman as she returned home from school in Pakistan’s Swat Valley. Her alleged offense? A yearning for an education and her public pronouncements in pursuit of it.

Even as she recovers, after being flown to a hospital in Great Britain, the Taliban chillingly re-stated their intent to kill her - should she survive.

Fundamentalism is unbending and the Taliban’s obscurantist interpretation of Islam has nothing to do with religion. Scratch at the surface of this and many other authoritarian creeds and you’ll see a play for power and control. Imposing your will by force.

Malala, with her books and outspoken denunciation of school closings, threatened that; the alternative is to be a second class citizen.

A fundamentalist may claim that theirs is the path to true salvation, but how can faith be real and true if coerced? It is knowledge they fear. And it is knowledge that will set you free.

The enduring menace of the Taliban will have consequences for girls and women long into the future though perhaps this brave girl’s actions will a more enduring impact; after all, the Taliban targeted her because they fear the future that she embodies.

Three years ago she spoke out, in turn giving voice to thousands of girls like her – banned from attending school and hidden from public view. Her courage in facing down the Taliban is a sign they cannot win because without tolerance and education there is no future.

I hope Malala will inspire a new generation. The future lies in protecting children like her -- and there are millions of them.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Innocence of Muslims: Freedom at a Price

Innocence of Muslims, a 13 minute video on YouTube, is a grotesque and bigoted piece of propaganda which would be laughable were it not for the ugly Islamophobia it propagates. But images have the power to persuade and this nasty piece of work has had the effect its makers likely intended.

It was apparently made by an Egyptian-American Coptic Christian living in the United States though initial news reports stated it was made by an Israeli property developer using funds from “Jewish donors”. Regardless, the damage is done and the fact remains that this piece of trash is so bad it makes for effective propaganda.

It is an embarrassment to the art of film making. Poor acting, crude stage sets and lines that don’t lip-synch with what the actors are mouthing is the order of the day. So why the level of venom and violence over such an amateurish production? And how do we make sense of such unpredictable outbreaks of violence?

There is a belief in the West that if Arab countries (I differentiate between Arab countries and the wider Muslim world) would just adopt democracy then we’d all get along just fine. This reveals a delusional understanding of concurrent reality, and an acceptance that the West has little or no control over such events. Consider: We are seeing people storming the streets with anti-Western messages in the same countries where popular rebellions against authoritarian dictators were hailed as the "Arab spring" just months ago.

What is the difference between a hitherto obedient population rising to overthrow a brutal dictator and rioting mobs blinded by inflammatory rhetoric? Certainly the “trailer” has nothing to do with the government of the United States, but in our electronic age images flashed around the world can falsely shape perceptions of who we are. Like it or not, this virtual world is our reality. Doubtless poverty, exploitation, repression and bad leaders have also shaped the visceral reaction to it.

In the West we see nothing wrong with making such a movie. After all, it’s up to the individual whether or not to watch something. And it says nothing about what other Americans feel about Islam, only what the few people who made the movie believe. To us it seems ridiculous to blame the employees of the US embassy or Americans or Westerners in general for such an amateur production. Our freedom of expression is a right, albeit one that is often imperfectly realized.

Should our right to freedom of expression not overstep other individuals’ rights not to be insulted? Should we acknowledge the film is wrong and move on? Of course, it would be good if bigots didn’t produce provocative films, if Muslims saw it for what it is etc; but give me freedom of choice every time.

Sadly, the violence and the loss of life completes the work of this awful film. It is undoubtedly a provocation but people still have a choice about how to express their disgust. Is that best done by attacking the nearest Western symbols, or by peaceful demonstration and legal challenge?

There is a lot of nonsense on YouTube some of which is best ignored. What is clear is that the film makers went out of their way to offend. Here’s hoping that Muslim communities can be persuaded to treat it with the contempt it deserves…

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Flame Fever Grips Britain

The London Olympics--for so long a glimmer on the horizon--are now just weeks away.

Last month, while staying with my dad, I saw the Olympic flame pass through Cirencester. Before it arrived on British soil I had images of lone runners splashing through puddles, watched by only hardy enthusiasts. The reality could not have been more different. A torch relay that began in uncertainty quickly became a phenomenon.

In Cirencester, the local schools closed early and the town center was filled with thousands of people. Long before the flame arrived they stood in lines six deep waving union jacks and school children clutched replica cardboard torches, creating a carnival atmosphere. The sense of anticipation was palpable.

In spite of the corporate sponsors’ choreographed efforts, the relay quickly took on a life of its own and became the people’s event. The same thing has happened in towns and villages across Britain. The triumph has been to make the London Games seem both national and local.

But not everyone is excited about the Olympics. Many people argue that the two weeks spent staging the Games is a misuse of tax payers’ money, and that the cost, £9 billion ($13.8 billion),--a huge increase on the original claimed cost of £2.3 billion ($3.5 billion)--could have been better spent on education or the health service.

Olympic history is also littered with white elephants and debt. When the Games are over, it will be the Government left holding the bag and the British taxpayer who will be paying for it for years to come. The government is confident there will be a lasting legacy of regeneration, at least in east London. We’ll see.

Despite the enormous cost, hosting the Olympics is a once in a lifetime opportunity and I can‘t wait for the Opening Ceremony. In any event, Britain always rises to the grand occasion. Case in point: The Diamond Jubilee celebrations. And we certainly have the heritage. Just look at some of the Olympic venues: cycling at Hampden Court Palace; beach volleyball at Horse Guards’ Parade; road running in the Mall; and tennis at Wimbledon. Not bad for starters.

A serious failure, however, is the Games’ dog’s dinner of an official logo. In an apparent modern twist on the Olympic colors it looks like it has been dropped on the floor and the shattered pieces picked up and used anyway. Makes me dizzy just looking at it.

And let’s not forget the official mascots, Wenlock and Mandeville, who as one commentator joked, look like the offspring from a one night stand between a Dalek and a Tellytubby. They are surely the worst Olympic mascots ever. At the very least, they are certain to scare many a small child.

But if nothing else, both the logo and the mascots play to Britain’s innate quirkiness and mild eccentricity that the country seems to revel in. We seem to enjoy laughing at our own failures. Perhaps they’ll grow on me, but I’ll not hold my breath.

On a more somber note, the Olympics will militarize London. Officers with machine guns will patrol the Underground; Police special forces, their faces covered by balaclavas, will be present; and the army will man supersonic surface to air missile systems capable of shooting down an airborne target from six sites nearby. A Royal Navy battleship will also be moored in the Thames.

There are the things I love about the Olympics that live long in the memory - the medals, the anthems, the great sporting moments. I wish it didn’t need to be branded like everything else. The people’s way of engaging has little to do with Coca Cola, Samsung, or Lloyds TSB.

In Britain, the Olympic spirit has stirred something in the collective experience. And given how much it has all cost it’s appropriate that the games belong to the people. There was an alchemy at work in Cirencester that May afternoon and if a similar reaction continues everywhere else the flame appears then perhaps we can expect magic come July.

Photo by Ian Lloyd-Graham

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Village of Enchanting Beauty

Nineteenth century writer and poet William Morris once described Bibury as “the most beautiful village in England.” It’s a view I find difficult to argue with.

Bibury is famous for Arlington Row, a row of medieval stone cottages. With their honey-colored stone and steep pitched roofs, they are among the most photographed images in Britain.

My dad moved to Bibury 10 years ago and visiting is always a treat. Situated in the Cotswolds, an area of gently rolling hills in the English countryside, Bibury exudes charm from every house and tree and meadow. Footpaths cross scenic hills and fields leading to rivers, woods, and charming country pubs. Life is unhurried and the past is ever present.

The village is popular with tourists from all over the world; they arrive in their hundreds on sunny summer days but also on the coldest winter day.

Arlington Row was built in 1380 as a monastic wool store and converted to the present day cottages in the 17th century. The cottages face out to a water meadow, known as Rack Isle, once used to dry the cloth for Arlington Mill on the other side, but now a wildlife preserve for water voles, frogs, and other animals. It takes its name from the wooden racks that were used to stretch the drying cloth.  

There are some great places to eat and drink in the village, my favorite being the Catherine Wheel, which dates from the 15th century. But it‘s also fun to explore, and on many an occasion I'll drive through the countryside with my dad in search of country pubs further afield - and we have found a few.

A real treat is to get up early and walk along the River Coln, which runs through the village, and along Arlington Row as the first rays of sunlight kiss the limestone walls giving them a warm, luminous glow. Equally enjoyable is to walk the same route after dark when the stars in an ink blue sky sparkle above steeply-pitched slate roofs.

Spring is my favorite time to visit. Daffodils sway softly in fields filled with new-born lambs that skip joyfully up gentle inclines, their fresh white wool in sharp contrast to the lush green grass.

In summer I love to walk across the countryside. A favorite route is to the nearby village of Coln St. Aldwyns, a journey lasting roughly an hour. My dad and I once walked there together. We climbed over stone stiles, walked beside ancient dry stone walls, through woods and along pathways edged into the earth. We saw no people, just the occasional house in the distance, the golden-colored Cotswold stone blending into the land and the land into the sky.  

In autumn, the smell of fallen leaves mixes with the rich clay earth. Smoke rises from cottage chimneys and fills the crisp air with the smell of burning wood.

In winter the light fades early. A walk at dusk along Water Lane, the narrow path that borders Rack Isle, reveals bare trees cloaked in the frozen embrace of frost.  

A short walk from my dad’s house is the Saxon church of St. Mary. Tucked away in a tranquil setting the church dates from the 8th century, though Norman and Perpendicular styles can also be seen. The high, slender chancel arch is especially striking.

The entrance door is always unlocked so I often go inside, sit in one of the pews, and watch as rays of sunlight shine through the 13th century stained glass windows. I look at the plaques on the walls commemorating local men and the regiments they served. All left to fight for crown and country on foreign fields. None returned.

Outside in the churchyard, ancient gravestones covered in moss protrude through the earth. Next to the church is Bibury Court, a majestic Jacobean mansion, now a hotel, and set in six acres of grounds. The house itself was built in 1633 by the Sackville family, whose initials can still be seen carved over the entrance.  

Access to Bibury Court is through a large wooden door set in an even larger stone wall that borders the churchyard. On the other side is an apple orchard, neatly clipped yew hedges, trees, arbors flanked by beds of lavender, vines and shrubs; meandering past on one side is the silvery river Coln.

It is the quintessential Englishness of Bibury that it so special. Even Hollywood used Arlington Row as part of the mythical village of 'Wall' in the 2007 film Stardust. I was visiting at the time as Bibury was transformed into a film set with bright lights, cameras, actors and...fake snow.  

Other interest from this side of the Atlantic came in the form of Henry Ford who attempted to buy the cottages and ship them back to his home in Michigan. Fortunately the plan was blocked. 

On a recent visit, long after the last tourist bus had departed, I stood on Swan Bridge, the river Coln flowing underneath. I watched as a silhouette of a white swan glided elegantly through the icy water; a black cousin followed closely behind. In the distance silhouetted against the darkening sky stood Arlington Row. Soft orange lights flickered through tiny windows in a scene both timeless and of its time.