In 2012-2014, I had the opportunity to be involved with Scotland’s referendum for independence with National Collective. Even from across the pond, Ross Colquhoun was kind enough to publish my thoughts about an independent Scotland’s unique opportunity, and I made friends with several of the other creative folk who spearheaded the Yes movement.
Let’s back up.
I lived in Inverness, Scotland on and off while I was at university. I spent summer holidays there, living in the Inverness Tourist Hostel and cleaning toilets for my roof, spending my off days wandering by the Ness River or doing wee day trips to go hillwalking. My first summer there was 2004. I met a Polish guy that summer as I made a cup of tea in the salmon-painted kitchen. He was stirring a pot of baked beans on the stovetop, and he asked in hesitant English, “You are American. What do you think of George Bush?” He asked the question with an impish grin, a sort of sideways smirk.
I’d been in the kitchen listening to him talk to his friends, wondering what language they were speaking, since to me it sounded like a mix of French and Russian. I was excited that he spoke to me. He and I became fast friends, and my little neuroatypical self decided to learn Polish from scratch.
The next year there were more Poles in Inverness, the next even more. Paweł was still around, and when I came back in 2006, it was after my first semester in Kraków, my Polish nearly fluent. Around that time, about 10% of Inverness’s population was Polish. I expected to hear anti-Polish sentiments from the Scots around me, because I was used to the way people in Denver talked about “the Mexicans”. I’m sure some people voiced them; but never to me. To the contrary, what I heard from Inverness residents was that the Poles who had come to their city were hard-working, generous, and welcome.
I still talk to Paweł sometimes. His English became fluent and touched by Scottish cadences. He now lives in Poznań with his wife and has a business with his brother. He and I emailed just recently, almost 12 years after we first met. The EU gave me that friendship.
I mentioned I lived in Kraków. I did, from February of 2006 until August of 2007.
My field of study was History, with an emphasis on the Second World War, the Holocaust, and the sociology of authoritarianism and fascism.
I had a phenomenal professor at the Jagiellonian University named Annamaria Orla-Bukowska, who regularly found opportunities for her students to be involved in Holocaust Remembrance. I also dated a German man who was doing his year of civil service as a mediator of high school visits to Auschwitz-Birkenau in the Polish town of Oświęcim. Those two life situations converged in interesting ways. Through Professor Orla-Bukowska, I had meet-ups with visiting Israeli students, participated in counter-protests of Poland’s rising far right, and got to have access to her wealth of expertise. Through my ex-boyfriend, I was invited to participate in the Day of Remembrance at the camps themselves, where I got to meet survivors, hear their stories firsthand.
At a reception following an event at the Youth Meeting House in Oświęcim, I sat down at a table next to two old men. One of them greeted me in Polish with a twinkle — earlier that day he’d thrown the centre into a tizzy when he refused to speak Polish and instead gave his address in English, to hastily assembled translators who had been prepped to translate Polish-German and Polish-French, but not English at all — and he asked where I was from.
I told him Montana, and he immediately crossed his arms and looked affronted. “Why didn’t you bring me a horse?” he asked in Polish.
I promised him that the next time I was in Brooklyn, I’d bring him one.
He then took the man’s hand across the table and said, “You know how I know him?”
I said I didn’t. He said, “We were in first grade together in Łódź. First grade. We both got sent to Auschwitz. And we never saw each other there! But we both survived. And we met, later, again, at a survivor’s event in the sixties.”
The other man smiled at me, and I remember thinking so clearly how fortunate I was to get to meet them, to hear that. To remember.
There is a group in Poland called the Obóz Narodowa Radykalna, the Radical Nationalist Camp. They are, quite evidently, a far right, fascist group.
One of the counter protests I attended was because they were marching through Kraków in 2006.
They performed the Nazi salute.
They carried signs that said “Polska dla Polaków” — Poland for the Poles.
In 1931, Poland looked like this:
After the Second World War, 3 million of Poland’s 3.1 million Jewish people were gone, along with millions of Poles and other ethnic minorities. Poland’s population was no longer 32 million, but 23 million.
Today, Poland is 97.7% ethnically Polish.
There were two black professors I met briefly at UJ, one from the Caribbean and one from South America.
Both of them had been physically assaulted in Poland. One was knifed and hospitalised.
Throughout Europe and America, there has been a resurgence of populist, nationalist movements.
Donald Trump says he’s going to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it. Farage gloated about Brexit by saying UKIP achieved their goals “without a single bullet being fired.” Guess he forgot about Jo Cox’s murder and has the apparent memory span of a goldfish, since it was only nine days ago.
In Orlando, over one hundred LGBTQ* people were murdered this month, most of them Latinx.
Greece. France. Spain. Denmark. Switzerland. Austria. Macedonia.
All have majority or significant minority representation of nationalist parties right now.
So let’s go back to Scotland.
Scotland’s SNP, the Scottish Nationalist Party, literally has “nationalist” in the name. Their aim has been Scottish independence from the United Kingdom, something I’ve heard clueless American Republicans bawl about something something Braveheart, “FREEDOOOOOM” without looking any closer.
Two years ago, you’d hear the Better Together camp talking about “nats” as if they were buzzy little flies swarming around the face of the United Kingdom.
It is sort of an ingenious political manoeuver, to reduce the SNP to that.
The SNP’s version of nationalism is so far from UKIP, Farage himself looks like a gnat in the distance.
The SNP’s desire for an independent Scotland, in the past decade I’ve observed it, has been predicated on several things:
- Labour’s failure to address the needs of Scottish workers.
- Scotland repeatedly and emphatically voting against Tory rule in Westminster only to be saddled with Tory governments and Tory Prime Ministers and Tory austerity.
- Pro-EU, outward looking progress.
- Inclusivity, equality, and social democratic values.
- Protecting the NHS.
- Empowering young people.
That is so radically different than the ethnically or racially based nationalism we’re seeing elsewhere. During the Yes campaign, the dialog invited contribution from immigrants, non-white Scots, LGBTQIA people. And over and over I saw the message they were sharing: it doesn’t matter who you love, where you came from, or what you look like. If you make your home here, you are Scottish, and you are welcome.
Hell, five of Scotland’s party leaders — including Ruth Davidson of the Conservatives and David Coburn of UKIP — are repping the G, L, or B in that acronym.
I currently live in America. Even in staunchly liberal Maryland I can’t — CANNOT — imagine a queer governor or senator existing with their sexuality being so much of a non-issue. Let alone a conservative governor. American conservative values have taken up LGBTQIA exclusion almost as part of the party platform.
Scotland has been voted the number one country for LGBTQIA people to live. It’s not hard to see why.
The Brexit vote stunned me, but it didn’t surprise me. UKIP’s rise has been marked; the Tory government of the UK as unsure to do with Nigel Farage as the GOP is when it comes to Trump. That kind of nationalism is not something I am unfamiliar with.
You see it over and over throughout history. Austerity or something like it is implemented due to a flagging economy. The policies grossly fail the working class, the working poor, the disabled, the vulnerable, the already disenfranchised. Their lives get demonstrably worse. Meanwhile, some sort of social change is occurring. This scares people. Someone in the ruling class points to the social change and says, “This is why you are suffering.”
Everyone wants someone to blame.
Immigrants. Queer folks. Religious minorities. People who look different.
The last wide scale wave of nationalism like this culminated in the greatest human-made disaster in history. 60 million or more people died.
It has only taken about 80 years to forget.
But it doesn’t have to be like that.
It’s no secret to anyone who knows me; I’ve intended to make my home in Scotland since forever. Scotland is not a perfect place; no place is. It’s not just nostalgia for the friends my time there gave me, for the opportunities, the experiences, the landscape.
It’s because for the past half decade, I’ve seen something remarkable happening there. Something I want to be part of.
I’ve watched as a small country with the population of a large US city turned its focus outward and its resources forward. Scotland has pushed hard on renewable energy, beating each goal with time to spare and searching for ways to keep this planet longer. Scotland has encouraged immigrants from within the EU and out, starting with the Fresh Talent Initiative in the last decade and now, fighting to ensure those who could be adversely affected by the Brexit vote know they are safe and welcome in Scotland. This shows that Scotland knows there is power in diversity, that new minds bring new ideas, and that people who want to be there will work hard to stay and make their homes better. I know that’s what my partner and I want to do. He wants to be an NHS pharmacist. I want to learn all the Gaelic and history and stories and keep writing my fiction there. We want to contribute. We want to help build.
Scotland’s SNP has committed to gender equality. All of Scotland’s party leaders support a gender neutral passport. Nicola Sturgeon has a gender balanced cabinet.
I’ll be over here side eyeing America’s fewer than 20% female Congress.
University in Scotland is free for residents. The SNP voraciously protects the National Health Service.
The SNP has grasped something that the rest of the right-leaning nations we’re seeing right now desperately need to: if we hope to survive, it is imperative that we embrace diversity, fight for a fairer and more inclusive society, and reach out — it is vital that we don’t slap hands away when they reach back.
That’s where I want to live. That’s the future I want to help build. I tell stories for a living; I want to be part of this one.
80 years have passed since Europe and the rest of the world was plunged into the global catastrophe of the Second World War.
At Auschwitz, when you visit, you are beseeched to never forget.
I remember. Those who were there won’t be with us much longer. We have to remember for them. We have to remember what happens when we turn inward, isolate, invalidate our fellows for the colour of their skin, their ethnicity, their religion, their identities. That way leads only to danger and death. Maybe not today or tomorrow. But in 1930, nobody saw 1939 coming either. They saw only what they perceived to be a threat, and they reacted. These things have a way of snowballing.
We cannot let that happen.
There is a better way. Scotland’s fighting for it.
I want to help.