To understand the Scottish secession movement, just look at the problems in the European Union
A busker plays bagpipes for tourists near the Houses of Parliament in London / Reuters
Who knew the first secession story of 2012 was going to be Scotland, not Greece? Last year was filled with stories of the European Union on the rocks -- critics proposed everything from troubled states leaving the euro to Germany forming its own newer, better union. This year, though, has opened with split-up talk within an individual member-state: the United Kingdom.
Talk of Scottish independence has been around for centuries, but it's heated up dramatically in the past few months. Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond recently declared his intention to hold a referendum on Scottish independence in the fall of 2014. British Prime Minister David Cameron says this is unlawful without UK parliament's approval, and he'd like to force a Scottish referendum to be held earlier, as he says the uncertainty over the outcome is hurting the economy. At rock bottom, however, both he and even British opposition leader Ed Miliband are opposed to Scotland leaving the UK.
At first blush this situation seems strikingly different from the current crisis of federalism in the EU. Scotland and England have been unified, if contentiously, not since the 1990s but since the 16th century, and the union didn't emerge from potential economic benefit, but rather from dynastic and religious strategizing; out of the oft-dramatised rivalry between the Elizabeth I of England and Mary Queen of Scots came rule of both kingdoms by a single monarch, James VI -- Mary's son but, like Elizabeth, a Protestant. This paved the way for the Acts of Union in 1706 and 1707, which formally united the kingdoms.
But the UK and EU unity crises may not actually be as different as they first appear. In fact, just as the EU federalist structure was coming together in the 1990s, the Scotland-UK relationship was trending slightly towards federalism as well. In 1997, a referendum passed that led to the creation of the Scottish Parliament. The devolution of power in some ways brought the UK and EU cases closer together in terms of governmental division, and the complicating nature of the new Scottish setup wasn't lost on critics, who feared this would lead Scotland irreversibly towards independence.
The question, of course, is "why now?" It's here that the movements towards disunity really start to look similar. Sure, there are plenty of arguments in favor of Scottish independence -- aside from the whole national identity thing, Scotland still produces a decent quality of coal, and there's a lot of optimism about the country's potential in green energy, particularly marine energy. Alex Salmond mentioned this in his pro-independence piece in the Economist back in November, also noting that "the UK is saddled with a large deficit, so size clearly offers no protection or immunity from the vagaries of the global economy. Instead," he wrote, "the countries which appear best equipped to deal with such conditions are those that are nimble and fleet-footed enough to adapt quickly to change."
There are also plenty of arguments both on the English as well as the Scottish side for a continued association: Scotland's a mess in other ways, it would have more international clout as a member of the UK, it's not actually clear how the energy resources would be divided up or that Scotland would be all that financially successful on its own, and nothing seems to be going horribly wrong with the union, so if it ain't broke, why fix it? Below, to get a sense of what secession looks like, demographically, Scotland's piece of the UK population. As you can see, it's not much:
It's hard not to see the present thrust towards independence, though, as part of a general nationalist mood in Europe right now. Salmond's point about smaller countries being better-equipped to deal with the present economy echoes the current European Union debate. As Scottish journalist and commentator Alex Massie argued persuasively in The Telegraph, Scots don't favor independence because they "are now more different from the English than they used to be." Rather, "it is precisely because of the greater uniformity that so many Scots feel the need to assert that we are distinct and different." He, too, ties this to broader trends. "After all," Massie writes, "isn't it because national distinctions are everywhere being elided or blurred that many elsewhere too feel a similar need to assert their own individuality? Opposition to the European Union has grown in England even as English life becomes more like life as it is lived in Continental Europe."
It's more than just emotional, though: nationalism surges as economies stagnate. And this comes back to Harvard economist Benjamin Friedman's theory, which I've mentioned before in connection with EU fractures. Intra-group cooperation appears to be linked, historically, to economic expansion, and it breaks down when growth slows. This has previously resulted in anti-immigrant rhetoric and ethnic-based hate speech, but it doesn't have to appear this way. You can see the change economically in the form of trade barriers, or politically in the form of identity-based movements like the Tea Party or a resurgence in popular support for Scottish independence.
Whether on the Continent or in the United Kingdom, "smaller is better" appears to be the new slogan. It wouldn't hurt, if you're interested in either of the Scottish independence or the European unity debates, to keep an eye on the other. The background may be different in each case, but histories have a way of converging. And with the present political and cultural integration, who's to say how mood may translate across state lines.
The First Lady took to the stage at the Democratic National Convention, and united a divided hall.
Most convention speeches are forgotten almost before they’re finished. But tonight in Philadelphia, Michelle Obama delivered a speech that will be replayed, quoted, and anthologized for years. It was as pure a piece of political oratory as this campaign has offered, and instantly entered the pantheon of great convention speeches.
Obama stepped out onto a stage in front of a divided party, including delegates who had booed almost every mention of the presumptive nominee. And she delivered a speech that united the hall, bringing it to its feet.
She did it, moreover, her own way—forming a striking contrast with the night’s other speakers. She did it without shouting at the crowd. Without overtly slamming Republicans. Without turning explicitly negative. Her speech was laden with sharp barbs, but she delivered them calmly, sometimes wryly, biting her lower lip, hitting her cadence. It was a masterful performance.
The pressures of national academic standards have pushed character education out of the classroom.
A few months ago, I presented the following scenario to my junior English students: Your boyfriend or girlfriend has committed a felony, during which other people were badly harmed. Should you or should you not turn him or her into the police?
The class immediately erupted with commentary. It was obvious, they said, that loyalty was paramount—not a single student said they’d “snitch.” They were unequivocally unconcerned about who was harmed in this hypothetical scenario. This troubled me.
This discussion was part of an introduction to an essay assignment about whether Americans should pay more for ethically produced food. We continued discussing other dilemmas, and the kids were more engaged that they’d been in weeks, grappling with big questions about values, character, and right versus wrong as I attempted to expand their thinking about who and what is affected—and why it matters—by their caloric choices.
When something goes wrong, I start with blunder, confusion, and miscalculation as the likely explanations. Planned-out wrongdoing is harder to pull off, more likely to backfire, and thus less probable.
It is getting more difficult to dismiss the apparent Russian role in the DNC hack as blunder and confusion rather than plan.
“Real-world” authorities, from the former U.S. Ambassador to Russia to FBI sources to international security experts, say that the forensic evidence indicates the Russians. No independent authority strongly suggests otherwise. (Update the veteran reporters Shane Harris and Nancy Youssef cite evidence that the original hacker was “an agent of the Russian government.”)
The timing and precision of the leaks, on the day before the Democratic convention and on a topic intended to maximize divisions at that convention, is unlikely to be pure coincidence. If it were coincidence, why exactly now, with evidence drawn from hacks over previous months? Why mail only from the DNC, among all the organizations that have doubtless been hacked?
The foreign country most enthusiastic about Trump’s rise appears to be Russia, which would also be the foreign country most benefited by his policy changes, from his sowing doubts about NATO and the EU to his weakening of the RNC platform language about Ukraine.
The Democratic chairwoman had few supporters—but clung to her post for years, abetted by the indifference of the White House.
PHILADELPHIA—As Debbie Wasserman Schultz made her unceremonious exit as chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, what was most remarkable was what you didn’t hear: practically anybody coming to her defense.
The Florida congresswoman did not go quietly. She reportedly resisted stepping down, and blamed subordinates for the content of the leaked emails that were released Friday, which clearly showed the committee’s posture of neutrality in the Democratic primary to have been a hollow pretense, just as Bernie Sanders and his supporters long contended. She finally relinquished the convention gavel only after receiving three days of strong-arming, a ceremonial position in the Clinton campaign, and a raucous round of boos at a convention breakfast.
Stock-market crashes, terrorist attacks, and the dark side of “newsworthy” stories
Man bites dog. It is one of the oldest cliches in journalism, an acknowledgement of the idea that ordinary events are not newsworthy, whereas oddities, like a puppy-nibbling adult, deserve disproportionate coverage.
The rule is straightforward, but its implications are subtle. If journalists are encouraged to report extreme events, they guide both elite and public attitudes, leading many people, including experts, to feel like extreme events are more common than they actually are. By reporting on only the radically novel, the press can feed a popular illusion that the world is more terrible than it actually is.
Take finance, for example. Professional investors are fretting about the possibility of a massive stock-market crash, on par with 1987’s Black Monday. The statistical odds that such an event will occur within the next six months are about 1-in-60, according to historical data from 1929 to 1988. But when surveys between 1989 and 2015 asked investors to estimate the odds of such a crash in the coming months, the typical response was 1-in-10.
Psychologists have long debated how flexible someone’s “true” self is.
Almost everyone has something they want to change about their personality. In 2014, a study that traced people’s goals for personality change found that the vast majority of its subjects wanted to be more extraverted, agreeable, emotionally stable, and open to new experiences. A whopping 97 percent said they wished they were more conscientious.
These desires appeared to be rooted in dissatisfaction. People wanted to become more extraverted if they weren’t happy with their sex lives, hobbies, or friendships. They wanted to become more conscientious if they were displeased with their finances or schoolwork. The findings reflect the social psychologist Roy Baumeister’s notion of “crystallization of discontent”: Once people begin to recognize larger patterns of shortcomings in their lives, he contends, they may reshuffle their core values and priorities to justify improving things.
Physicists can’t agree on whether the flow of future to past is real or a mental construct.
Einstein once described his friend Michele Besso as “the best sounding board in Europe” for scientific ideas. They attended university together in Zurich; later they were colleagues at the patent office in Bern. When Besso died in the spring of 1955, Einstein—knowing that his own time was also running out—wrote a now-famous letter to Besso’s family. “Now he has departed this strange world a little ahead of me,” Einstein wrote of his friend’s passing. “That signifies nothing. For us believing physicists, the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”
Einstein’s statement was not merely an attempt at consolation. Many physicists argue that Einstein’s position is implied by the two pillars of modern physics: Einstein’s masterpiece, the general theory of relativity, and the Standard Model of particle physics. The laws that underlie these theories are time-symmetric—that is, the physics they describe is the same, regardless of whether the variable called “time” increases or decreases. Moreover, they say nothing at all about the point we call “now”—a special moment (or so it appears) for us, but seemingly undefined when we talk about the universe at large. The resulting timeless cosmos is sometimes called a “block universe”—a static block of space-time in which any flow of time, or passage through it, must presumably be a mental construct or other illusion.
Donald Trump’s Republicans are becoming the party of blue-collar white voters, as college-educated white voters slip away.
The reshaping of the two parties’ coalitions under the blast-force pressure of Donald Trump’s iconoclastic candidacy may reach unprecedented heights in 2016, the first polls released after the GOP convention suggest.
National surveys released on Monday by CBS and CNN/ORC show the gap between the preferences of whites with and without a college education in the 2016 presidential race soaring to a level unmatched in any recent election. In both surveys, Donald Trump has opened a commanding lead over Hillary Clinton among whites without a college degree. But even after Trump’s own convention, the two surveys show him running no better than even, or slightly behind, among whites with at least a four-year degree.
Hillary Clinton is running as the candidate of continuity—but Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and most white Democrats think America is headed in the wrong direction.
Many commentators, watching the two party’s conventions, have noted that Democrats and Republicans seemed to describing different countries. But if you listened carefully last night, you heard two groups of Democrats describing different countries too.
The night began with Michelle Obama, who said, “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves. And I watch my daughters—two beautiful intelligent black young women—play with the dog on the White House lawn. And because of Hillary Clinton, my daughters and all of our sons and daughters now take for granted that a woman can be president of the United States. Don't let anyone ever tell you that this country is not great. That somehow we need to make it great again. Because this right now is the greatest country on Earth.”