28 November | Tess Goodman
I woke up on June 24 to dozens of texts. My friends in Britain had just seen the news about Brexit, and many of them were upset. For many of them, the referendum impacted their abilities to live and work and travel. For some, it made them unwelcome in the country that was previously their home. It was a political decision, but for them, it was local.
As an American student, I felt insulated. I’m only a temporary resident in Edinburgh. It’s difficult to relocate permanently to Britain, so I never planned to stay. My life here feels so ephemeral that I’ve stopped buying books, knowing I won’t be able to ship them all home after my time here runs out. This referendum, like most other current events in Britain, seems to have nothing to do with me: this is not my country. I might have opinions, but getting really involved in the debate seems presumptuous, somehow.
Then the US presidential election came around. I stayed up and watched election returns, so sleep-deprived that I felt I was wandering through a nightmare. The election of a racist who brags about sexual assault shocked me to my core. Over the next few days, as I tried to get some sleep and return to a productive equilibrium, I kept wondering: what do I do now?
I live halfway between two communities, and both of them are undergoing a sea change. I’ve never been politically active, but this seems like the moment where I, as a responsible community member, ought to get involved: time to stand up for the values that I believe in, support those people threatened by the hate crimes that followed each election, listen to those I disagree with, make my voice heard. But at the same time, one of the rarest things about living abroad is the chance to watch the ways life can be fundamentally and unexpectedly different. Is watching enough, for a little while? Is this international, postgrad life a time to pause, to observe, to contemplate, before returning, more fierce, to local action? Would a moment of contemplation be a moment of grace? Or a moment of personal failure?
More importantly, as an expat, what can I do? I still feel reticent about British politics, despite their urgency—especially because I live in Edinburgh, where the campaign for Scottish independence has followed on Brexit’s heels. I know at least one person who joined the SNP on June 24. But independence, it seems to me, is a question of national identity. For me, that takes it out of bounds. I’m neither Scottish, nor British. I’m an outsider.
As an American abroad, I feel powerless about my role in my own nation. I voted, and I do my best to stay informed; but that’s only the start of responsible civic engagement. Powerful engagement, I keep reading, must be corporeal: volunteering, protesting, attending town hall meetings. But I live thousands of miles away. I could perhaps speak with my wallet, except that I’m on a student budget: I can’t afford meaningful donations to charities or political campaigns. I can barely afford a few phone calls and letters to my state representatives. I can, at best, take to the internet—but screaming to my echo chamber seems particularly ineffective when it’s already full of noise.
Some of the issues at stake are global, and it seems impossible (not to mention irresponsible) to stand away. But isn’t it only possible to tackle global issues as part of a larger organization? I find myself thinking, more and more, that community is local. Civic engagement depends on presence. Your community is the one where you stand; that’s where you stand up. How can one be a responsible, engaged citizen at a distance? Surely there must be an answer. I’m hoping some of you may have ideas about it. In the meantime, I’ll be emailing my congressmen.
Tess Goodman is a PhD candidate in English at the University of Edinburgh, an alumna of the University of Virginia, and a quondam employee of Rare Book School. She is curious about everything to do with book history, bibliography, libraries, and travel. Her current research focuses on how tourists in nineteenth-century Scotland used books—as both narratives and objects—to hold on to intangible memories.
Article edited by Dylan Taylor.