The Skinny on Latvia’s Positivus

A few days ago I was sitting on cool sand, watching the sun like an electric arcade coin drop from a sorbet sky into the waters of Riga Bay, off the Baltic Sea, black as a pint of Imperial Baltic porter, some accident of algae and tidal patterns.  This was minutes before one of the secular saints of my childhood, Robert Plant, took the main stage, just a short walk east through the pines.

IMG_8258The Skinny sent me to cover the Positivus music festival in Salacgrīva, Latvia last weekend – so go ahead, click, and skip the precis.  It was incredible: intimate, idyllic, with a great mix of marquee acts (Kasabian, Robert Plant) hot newcomers (St. Vincent, Warpaint, Jack Garratt), and delightful Eastern Euro surprises (The Big Bluff) and in size, setting, and atmosphere, a total contrast to T in the Park, which I’d covered the previous weekend. IMG_8449

Naturally, I spent my days sampling as many of the Baltic States’ distinctive beers as I could.  I’ll also have a post on the charms of Riga, where the UK and Central European press (and plenty of the bands) stayed during the festival – expect more soon.  In the meantime, you can see my pictures of Riga and the festival here, and my amateurish efforts at band photography from the press pit here, and listen to my interview with The Big Bluff (just under 20 minutes – at turns awkward and heartening, always interesting) here.



From the Griffin’s Nest: Op-Ed on Post Referendum Possibilities

I was pleased to return last Friday to the pages of the Griffin newspaper, which, under the leadership of new Editor-in-Chief Jourdon LaBarber, has only grown in stature as a new power player in Western New York media.

News Editor Kevin Daley (full disclosure: a close friend of mine and fellow member of the Schuyler Colfax Thinking Club) reached out to me earlier last week to talk about running straight coverage of the Scottish Independence referendum.  Timing precluded this – the Griffin’s print deadline was just after midnight EST, and the referendum results were announced a few hours after that, about 6:30 UTC.  But, I managed to contribute an op-ed about the waning of the cynical Scotland (typified so brilliantly in Trainspotting) and the nascence of a new, politically engaged, hopeful, and forward-thinking populace, encompassing both the independence and the unionist vote.

Scots voted to stay in the union, of course, but my thesis didn’t depend on the outcome.  Almost a week later, I still hold that, while Americans have bankrupted “Hope” and “Change,” warped the words beyond recognition, Scotland has an opportunity to deliver on both camps’ promises, and work together to align policy, in a constituent nation of the United Kingdom only growing in its powers, with the values they share.

The University has (rightly) reigned in my regular posting, but you can count on further coverage as Scotland moves past the vote, and toward policy change and new powers.

From the op-ed:

Six years ago Barack Obama campaigned on a promise of Change (“I’ll be anything but”) and a platform of Hope  (“I promise”).  Today, if you’ll permit the simplification, one side of the country sneers at him and the other looks away in bitterness; the rest of us give up and play Sudoku; Hope and Change are like worried pennies worn faceless and worthless in our pockets from anxious thumbing.  I don’t blame Obama – sometimes it feels that we’re just too big, to spread-out, like a cold universe, to care or to do anything.

And that’s why living in Scotland has been so refreshing.  There’s anxiousness, of course, buckets of it; and there’s bitterness and hyperbole and tensions are strained.  But put down the newspapers, click Alex Salmond’s face off the telly, and look around: you see that there are two things tying Yes and No together: a common hot bloodstream of Hope, and a shared belief in the possibility of Change.

Each path has its challenges; each path has its burdens, each choice its share of pain.  But no matter what happens this morning, Scotland will be a different country – tomorrow, next week, next year.  There will be 5 million hands reaching out to shape it.  The Scots believe that now – they will believe it tomorrow, next week, next year.  Perhaps that’s a truth tonic enough to wake this world from its disbelief and its stupor.

Some Thoughts from a Scottish Unionist

My friend, the Las Vegas political player and former Griffin editor-in-chief Ken Kraft, recently sent me a succinct, restrained, and fairly convincing article on “Why Scottish independence is a bad idea.”  In it, Amanda Taub (from what I gather, some kind of quasi-Scot, linked by bonds of family, education, and gastronomy) breaks uncertainties about Scottish into two categories: those that would cause trouble during the process of separation, and those that would hit Scotland after the separation.

Taub touches on one issue that hasn’t gotten much press lately, but which comes up in just about every referendum conversation I’ve had at the University of Edinburgh: research funding.

Scottish universities are worried that they wouldn’t be able to obtain research funding from their current sources and that their best scholars would leave.

I.E. all the anxious little one-year Masters students like myself and my friends from the UK, who could shortly become “international students.”

This, of course, is bundled up with a bevy of other financial challenges:

The Royal Bank of Scotland says that it would relocate its headquarters to London in the event of a “yes” vote on independence. (No word yet on whether it would change its name to the Royal Bank of We Sure Are Grateful for that Bailout.) The green energy sector says that investment in wind power could stagnate for years due to uncertainty over the future of the current subsidy scheme. … It’s unclear how much of the UK’s national debt Scotland would be saddled with, or whether independence would lead to costly litigation over the North Sea oil fields. It’s true that all of those things might work out in Scotland’s favor — but then again, they might not.

Then there are there are the challenges that would arise after independence.  As I’ve mentioned before, the issue of an independent Scotland’s currency is such a glaringly overlooked question mark that it ought to overshadow even the recent controversy surrounding the NHS.

The Scottish independence movement has made clear that it wants to keep using the pound, which would mean that Scotland would be at the mercy of the UK’s monetary policy. Even setting aside the lessons of the Eurozone’s recent history on whether it’s a good idea for small countries to rely on a currency union they don’t control (it’s not) this is an astonishing plan in the context of the broader arguments for independence. If the pro-independence crowd thinks that the UK is screwing Scotland now, why would it be a good idea for the UK to have control over Scotland’s currency, but no democratic accountability or responsibility for its economy at all whatsoever?

The second option would be for Scotland to join the euro — as Vox’s Matt Yglesias points out, that may turn out to be mandatory if Scotland joins the EU — but joining the Eurozone would risk even more severe problems, because the Eurozone has already proven itself to be an economic calamity.

And of course, let us not neglect to mention that “the UK’s major political parties have all pledged to grant Scotland greater control over its own affairs if it stays in the UK.”

These aren’t new ideas, and for the record, I’m not endorsing the Better Together campaign, the Orange Order, or Westminster’s Labour government.  The article also steers clear of the identity question – and understandably, as touching on it would have muddied the otherwise crystalline waters of a lucid piece of writing.

Taub has written one of the most concise summations of the unionist arguments currently available on the web; with the vote less than 24 hours away, you might want to read it.

Edinburgh Turns Orange (And Purple, and a Little Bit Red-White-and-Blue)

Conservative “Orangemen” marchers add one more voice to the referendum debate

Half a block north of the west entrance of the Meadows park in Edinburgh, Scotland, three neon-vested parking officers sit at a table cluttered with radios and handheld printers, staring down into their smartphones.  Students and city workers come here, a small shop called Snax, for a few minutes of hot-roll and haggis bliss before a long working day – although for the parking officers, this day will be longer than any in recent memory, because today, Saturday the 13th of September, five days before the country votes for either independence or unity, 15,000 members of the East Grand Orange Lodge of Scotland, along with friends from England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, have gathered in Edinburgh to show their pride – for the Saltire and the Union Jack.

At twenty minutes to 11 on Saturday morning, 26 buses from all over Great Britain have queued at the Meadows’ entrance, to park closer to the walk’s endpoint on Regent Road below Calton Hill.  They’ve emptied out pipers, drummers, banner-boys and accordionists from 110 lodge bands of the Loyal Orange Institution in Scotland and several thousand sympathetic spectators, all clad in military regalia, orange sashes, dress blues or dandified two-piece Union Jack suits.  Several women wander the park in Queen Elizabeth-style bonnets, carrying homemade crowns on top of shrink-wrapped Bibles.  A man on the bandstand intones patriotic and religious soundbytes, and recites Psalm 118, accidentally eschewing the Anglican King James translation for the New International Version: “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”  In less than half an hour, the 15,000-person crowd will proceed through Edinburgh’s busiest streets, past its most venerable institutions, to finish just past the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood, in the most vocal demonstration in support of the union to date.

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Pictures from the Grand Orange Lodge of Scotland’s March Through Edinburgh

At eleven this morning, 15,000 members and friends of the Grand Orange Lodges marched through Edinburgh, Scotland.  The move was out of season – July is the peak month for Orange marches, which have been controversial in recent decades for taking routes through Catholic neighborhoods, and turning violent.  In an unusual but not unanticipated move, the Orangemen organized a march in protest of the Scottish independence referendum, which will take place next Thursday, 18 Sept.  This march was peaceable, but the tension was palpable.  Mainstream activists and politicians on both sides of the debate stayed far away from this one.  No contingent from the unionist Better Together group showed up, and there wasn’t a republican in sight – unless Alex Salmond was sneaking around in disguise.

Check out these pictures for now, and expect a story later tonight.