Thursday, February 25, 2010

Violent Squatters Rights

Were a foreign invading force to enter an area, conquer and displace the indigenous people, and set up a new government there, few would accept this government as legitimate. Even if the invaders now outnumbered the largely exterminated natives, no democracy of, by, and for the invaders would be accepted.

Supposing that a thousand years later the invading force are still there and still hold a majority over the descendants of the indigenous people. The invaders have been living there peacefully for centuries, eventually granting equal rights to the indigenous minorities.

At this point, their democracy is generally accepted as legitimate. For example, it is not common to see people demanding that the descedants of Anglo-Saxon invaders in England be repatriated to Germany, or removed from power. Their long, long domination of England lends them legitimacy. Likewise the Japanese are not expected to vacate their islands for the Ainu, or whoever lived there before them.

I want to know at what point between year 0 (when the invasion began) and year 1,000 does the regime become legitimate?

My inspiration for this comes from the contrast between the near-universal acceptance of the legitimacy of white-dominated democracies in places like the United States and Canada, and the controversy over Protestant-dominated democracy in Northern Ireland. The plantation of Ulster officially began in 1609. The Mayflower took the English Pilgrims to Massachusetts in 1620; the English colonisation of Ulster and America happened roughly around the same time. Now it is unthinkable to expect descendants of Europe, Asia and Africa to surrender their political domination of the US to the descendants of the Native Americans. Yet this kind of thing is sometimes seriously muttered about Protestants in Northern Ireland.

So how long does it take for an invasion to become legitimate?

One generation? The invaders themselves could be seen as criminals, stealing the land and resources of another popultion. Their children, however, have committed no crime. I find it difficult to find children of invaders criminal, simply because they had the bad fortune of being born on the wrong side of a border. Thus it seems unfair to unroot or disenfranchise these children for the crimes of another generation.

There is a problem with this, of course: the children inherit the ill-gotten gains of the invaders. Their wealth and privilege comes at the expense of the victims of their parents. Also it seems perverse that a terrible crime becomes acceptable so long as the criminals manage to hold the property long enough to reproduce.

One partial solution to this injustice comes from the regular welfare state that may look at the country's population and simply see some wealthy people, some poor. The state may tax the wealthy and redistribute to the poor, without ever bothering to look at the ancient injustice that caused the inequality.

By simply refusing to look at the historical conflict, and focusing only on the present-day problems, perhaps this could render the injustice something of a non-issue. It does leave all the practical and moral issues associated with welfare states, however, and it leaves the descendants of the invaders with legitimate domination of the land.

Another solution, of sorts, is just some kind of negotiated settlement, perhaps like the Land Acts in 19th century Ireland that gradually shifted ownership from the descendants of the English colonists to the descendants of the native Irish. This, clumsy and unjust as it is, still seems better than the more recent seizure and redistribution of land from white farmers in Zimbabwe.

The whole area is messy, however. Feel free to add your own thoughts in comments below.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Lost World: Ghost estates

Ireland now has 621 ghost estates - housing estates of ten or more houses built since 2005 with at least 50% of the buildings empty.

Some of these estates were built, with terrible judgement, around tiny towns and villages around the countryside. The village of Killucan in county Westmeath has unfinished houses standing outside one estate: vertical chimney stacks sitting on a concrete base waiting for a fire that's unlikely to ever be lit.

It is an eerie phenomenon, but not unprecedented.

When I was growing up in county Mayo during the 1980s and early 90s I was surrounded by empty houses. Emigration had devastated the region; the young had fled to Dublin, London or Boston, leaving the old to gradually die out.

There was one entire village near my home which had been totally abandoned in the 1960s. By the time I came along, it was a haven of ivy and moss, with sycamores growing out of collapsed roofs and roads leading nowhere, dense with ferns. Today it still is abandoned, sheltered from the outside world by a thick conifer plantation.

It was full of small surprises. I noticed a deliberate gap running under one old road. This is what it looks like from inside.

On the same visit I found the skull of a wild animal.

One of the more recently abandoned houses had plaster on the walls and the rotting remains of a door.

On the inside it looked like this.

Tellingly, there was a rusting plough dumped on the ground outside.

A road...

The ruined architecture rose from the ground like something organic, swaddled in moss.

Stone lintels held up walls with no roof.

Last spring I went there when the bluebells were blooming. The village, lost to humans, was swamped in bluebells.

Sometimes wartorn regions with abandoned No Man's Lands become unexpected wildlife sanctuaries. What is bad for human population growth is often good for other species.

So perhaps these ghost estates will go the same way as those violent buffer zones, and of my neighbouring ghost village. Perhaps children in the future will play among the ivy-heavy ruins of Ireland's recent indulgences.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

"Selective outrage", or "Why nuking Japan was no big deal"

On March 9th 1945 American bombers flew over Tokyo, spraying incendiary bombs down onto the sleeping city. The bombing went on for hours as fires spread across the city, leaving 100,000 dead and a million homeless by the morning.

In terms of immediate destruction this was probably worse than the atom bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Today there is still anger and debate about the nuclear attacks, yet the indiscriminate slaughter of the fire bombing goes largely unmentioned. So do many other atrocities of World War II: the Allied bombing of German cities, the destruction of Yellow River levees by the Chinese Nationalists that killed 800,000 Chinese in 1938, the Three Alls ("Kill All", "Burn All" and "Loot All") policy of Imperial Japan that may have killed 2.7 million Chinese or the mass murder of Polish prisoners of war by the Soviets in 1940.

Some atrocities cause outrage, some do not.

In Ireland Oliver Cromwell’s massacres are well remembered, as are the Penal Laws, the Great Famine, the Black and Tans and various other Norman and English atrocities.

But before the Normans invaded Ireland was in a state of seething war between rival kings, Irish and Viking. Before the Vikings started raiding Ireland’s monasteries, the Irish were raiding them cheerfully too. 5th century Ireland had a booming slave trade – remember that Saint Patrick was abducted by Irish raiders in Wales – and the Irish may have invaded Scotland. These terrible acts are quietly dismissed while the demonisation of imperial Britain continues.

Grand narratives
One reason for this selective outrage is that local historical events are often interpreted in terms of grand global narratives. These narratives come and go with time, and they help to shape what events are considered important by placing them in an easily understood context.

In 19th century Britain, one powerful narrative was of the struggle between civilised man and the savage. It was politically convenient to depict colonial subjects in Africa, Asia and even Ireland as being backward and barbaric – childlike in their violence, superstition and the need of a firm guiding hand from their British superiors. In this context, violence by British colonists against natives could be underplayed, while violence by the 'savage' natives emphasised.

After World War II a new global narrative began to gain purchase: that of the Noble Savage living in harmony with nature and his neighbours, only to be brutally oppressed by decadent Europeans. This gives us another template to understand the world: whenever a Western country finds itself at war with a non-Western country, the former is an aggressive imperialist, the latter an innocent freedom-fighter.

These grand global narratives can be embraced by combatants in small, regional conflicts, in order to win popular support abroad. Hence I found myself surprised to see Communists from Pakistan and Canada cheering on Real IRA violence in Northern Ireland, because the Real IRA managed to present themselves as socialist freedom-fighters struggling against the old imperialist enemy of Britain. Without this Cold War-era narrative, Irish nationalist paramilitaries may have had difficulty in finding support abroad – the narrative allowed foreigners to slot Nationalists, Loyalists and the British government into general global roles of good and bad guys, victims and aggressors.

Symbols are more important than statistics here. The nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki attract more outrage than the more destrucive fire-bombing because the nuclear attacks are more symbolic – with the gloriously awful imagery of the mushroom cloud – and because they seemed to hint at future catastrophic violence. Yet this is a poor reason to become outraged when so many other World War II atrocities go ignored.

This also explains why the Danish Muhammad cartoons caused so much excitement and controversy: it fit a pre-existing grand narrative depicting Europeans as being engaged in a sneaky assault on Islam, another Crusade under the pretence of free speech. The cartoons were not automatically controversial, though, it needed the work of Danish imans who took them to Muslim countries and pushed a negative interpretation to stir up outrage. An Egyptian newspaper also ran the cartoons but Egypt was spared the outrage aimed at European countries where the cartoons ran – because Egypt didn't fit the narrative.

Some Muslims get enraged at Israel and NATO for violence against their Muslim brethren in Palestine, Iraq or Afghanistan. Meanwhile China and Burma oppress Muslim minorities without a whisper of discontent from abroad – China and Burma just don’t fit the pleasing narrative of Muslims being attacked by Westerners. Instead they present a much more awkward narrative, one rather difficult to manipulate: of Muslims being in conflict with everyone.

Israel is a perfect example of selective outrage. When a thousand people die violently in Israel or Palestine it becomes a much bigger story than ten thousand in sub-Saharan Africa. People all over the world are projecting grand narratives onto Israel. For some it is a hangover from the Cold War-era interpretation: the US-backed Israel versus the Soviet-backed Arabs. For others it is religious: Christian, Jewish and Muslim struggles for the Holy Land. Still others see it as the stand of natives versus invaders, civilisation versus savagery, Europe versus Asia and so on.

The interpretations are fought over – the consensus that conflict in Israel matters (and carnage in Congo doesn’t) is not.

Most people will not lose sleep over Africans killing other Africans because it isn’t easy to understand, there are no good guys. But Muslims killing Jews or Americans killing Communists – these are easy to apply simplistic templates to, and thus these are the conflicts that inspire outrage.

Nuking Japan was a big deal, the attacks were nightmarish atrocities on largely civilian targets. But they were not the only atrocities of the mid-20th century, and we should not let emotion and convenient political narratives twist our understanding of this historical fact.

Leap Year's negative stereotyping should anger nobody

Donald Clarke writes in Friday's Irish Times about an American romantic comedy based in Ireland called Leap Year that, he says, is "offensive, reactionary, patronising filth".

Clarke's concern is that Leap Year depicts the Irish as generations of Hollywood films have - as "IRA men or twinkly rural imbeciles" - a depiction he suggests descends from 19th century British imperialist propaganda. I haven't seen the film, but if the trailer is anything to go by, it is indeed an abomination.

But Clarke is still wrong about one thing.

He writes:

In decades past, a certain cultural cringe still infected Ireland’s attitude to the United States. While such a vast economic and technological gulf existed between the nations, it seemed discourteous to object strongly to the rampaging distortions in depictions of Irish society.... Now that the lifestyle of the average Irishman seems so much closer to that of the average Californian, it appears all the more indecent that the US continues to peddle this garbage. We should now speak up.

Over the last few years a number of nationalities and religions have indeed spoken up against alleged insults and slights.

Italian-Americans demanded that MTV cancel a new show supposedly depicting negative stereotypes of Italian-Americans. Israeli right-wingers protested a Swedish journalist who claimed Israeli soldiers had harvested organs from Palestinians. Indian demonstrators burned effigies of Richard Gere for insulting Indian culture by kissing Shilpa Shetty. Danish embassies were attacked by Muslims protesting the Muhammad cartoons in 2005.

So has all this noisy outrage led to greater respect among outsiders for Israelis, Italian-Americans, Indians and Muslims? Probably not. On the contrary, this outrage looks silly and insecure.

It is also often counterproductive, so that the fatwa put on Salman Rushdie for The Satanic Verses left Rushdie alive and the book an international best-seller. Google searches for Jyllands-Posten, the Danish newspaper responsible for the Muhammad cartoons controversy, were never higher than immediately after the controvery broke. And Irish readers should need no reminding of the Passion of St Tibulus incident...

I presume Donald Clarke's suggestion to "speak up" does not mean effigy-burning or embassy-bombing, but even speaking up is too much. If Leap Year peddles dull Irish stereotypes we should respond with indifference - just don't go to the cinema. Getting all worked up about it will make Ireland look ridiculous, and boost the number of people going to the cinema to see what the fuss is.

In any case, the Irish with their stereotype of quaint, childish, drunken violence are still depicted more sympathetically by Hollywood than many other groups, like the Italians (criminals), Germans (Nazis), Arabs (suicide-bombing babarians), English (posh snobs) and Australians (drunken, violent, irreverant - oh, wait, that's the Irish again). So let's not get too peeved just yet.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Niger's Youth Bulge exploding?

Some time ago I wrote about the Youth Bulge - the idea that the proportion of young males in a population can help determine how stable or violent the country is as a whole.

While I researched this I noticed that one country seemed to have an exceptionally high total fertility rate, and an exceptionally young population. By 2009 the average woman in Niger was having 7.07 children, and a staggering 21% of Niger's population was under the age of four. I knew nothing about Niger, but these figures hinted at explosive population growth that made me uneasy. I considered writing a blog predicting that Niger may face terrible violence and instability as this massive Youth Bulge ages.

Today the BBC are reporting a military coup in Niger, with the president captured after "gun battles" in the city.

So, while still very ignorant about Niger, I wonder: is it beginning to kick off?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Atheists an endangered species?

Organised religion seems to be in rapid decline in Ireland, as the Catholic Church blunders from one scandal to the next and younger generations appear increasingly disinterested. Catholicism sometimes looks like a dying belief system here.

There's a catch, though, something inherent to religion which could turn the tables and devastate the nonreligious population: atheists don't tend to reproduce much.

This 2008 study in the Demographic Research journal shows that religiosity - the strength of an individual's religious beliefs regardless of denomination - directly correlates with fertility. Very religious people have more babies than less religious people.
"I find even after controlling religious denomination and demographic and socioeconomic factors, the importance of religious beliefs still exhibits a graded association with fertility in the United States.... This substantially positive effect of religious beliefs on fertility must have something to do with the role of religion in guiding human behavior in terms of the issues of sexuality, cohabitation, marriage, and the function of family."
On the face of it, this seems rather obvious, when religions like Catholicism oppose contraception use and abortion. Its consequences, though, are dramatic.

Over the last few decades many individuals raised in Catholicism have abandoned the religion, or at least taken a sceptical view of its teachings on family and sexuality. This means there are two processes at work here. One is the tendency for children of religious people to abandon or alter their religion. The other is the tendency for strictly religious people to have large families. The first force is reducing the religious population, the second is increasing it.

In Israel the high fertility of ultra-Orthodox Jews is causing their population to grow three times faster than other Israelis. By 2009 a third of Israeli kindergartners were taught in ultra-Orthodox schools, up from 26% in 2001. The population of the ultra-Orthodox West Bank settlement of Beitar Ilit grew six times faster than Tel Aviv grew in 2007 and ultra-Orthodox Jews are expected to grow from 16% of Israel's population in 2007 to 23% in 2025.

This demographic shift in Israel is happening because most Israelis don't bother with large families, but the ultra-Orthodox still do. It will be interesting to see how this affects Israeli culture and politics in the near future.

Anyway the same is true for Ireland. The media today may complacently write off the future of religion here but the future could be quite different if highly religious people continue to out-breed the rest - we may see a gradual rejection of our new liberal consensus as the conservative religious population grows once more.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Drink Weird Chinese Drinks

One of the best things about 21st century immigration into Ireland is the new wave of foreign food the migrants have brought with them.

Most Irish people seem to have missed the opportunity this offers so far, perhaps wary of unusual flavours or ignorant of how to prepare them. I understand this, I'm a poor cook and generally stick with simple, Western dishes.

This is why snacks and soft drinks are so much fun. Whenever I get the chance to pop into a Chinese, Polish or Nigerian shop I do so, and immediately browse their fridges. My personal favourite is the International Supermarket on Dublin's Parnell Street, not far from Cineworld. Below is a sample of Chinese drinks I got there on my last visit:

From left to right is a Nescafé iced coffee, some kind of honey milk tea, olive juice, and another milk tea, this one jasmine flavoured. You might notice that the drink on the left is already half-empty: I had intended waiting until I had a camera ready but love it too much to resist knocking it back.

The Chinese lady working in the International Supermarket now recognises me, finds my presence in the shop hilarious, and complimented me on my taste in Chinese drinks on my last visit :-)

To me, though, it's just rather fun to skip the usual Coca-Cola offerings and try things loved by hundreds of millions of (noticeably slim) people. They're popular in China for a reason: they're delicious, reasonably priced and at least some are probably healthier than our sugar-heavy soft drinks.

So I strongly recommend readers to pop into an international shop and pick a few drinks at random too. You may be pleasantly surprised... even if the olive drink honestly doesn't taste remotely of olives.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Sodom of Secularism

[I wrote this article first for the Malaysian online magazine The Nut Graph. It was published there in October 2009 and is reproduced here with permission.]

PICTURE a former British colony where the majority of people practise a religion that has become closely tied up both with national identity and with bitter anti-British sentiment.

After a violent war for independence, the new state's earliest leaders align themselves with the religion by censoring anything that upsets its hierarchy. A group of religious fanatics, led by an extreme anti-Semitic cleric, try to make their religion acknowledged as being divinely ordained. They fail, but manage to win it a "special position" in the new constitution. Divorce, abortion, contraception and homosexuality are all strictly forbidden, and religious minority populations gradually dwindle away.

To judge by today's global debate on Islamic fundamentalism, the country must be some troubled land like Palestine or Iraq. But this is in fact Ireland, in the very heart of the Western world.

Catholic clout
After centuries of religious persecution from Protestant British rulers, Catholicism had become deeply connected with Irish national identity. After independence in 1922, Ireland emerged as a barely secular state, with the Catholic Church holding vast cultural and even political clout.

The new Irish state immediately started censoring foreign films on religious moral grounds, banning 2,500 and cutting 11,000 over the first few decades. The first Official Film Censor, James Montgomery, announced that the Ten Commandments were his code, and complained against kissing — an "unsanitary salute", as he called it — on screen. Divorce, birth control, dancing, bad language (including any mention of the scandalous word "virgin") and images of Christ were hastily suppressed to keep the meek and godly people of Ireland meek and godly.

As I write this, the Malaysian Film Censorship Board has just banned the Anglo-American comedy Bruno for its graphic homosexual humour, explaining that it is "contrary to our culture". Some 50 years ago the Irish Official Film Censors were banning thousands of American movies for the same reason; Hollywood seemed a terrifying Sodom of sin and sensuality.

Even poetry faced the censor. Patrick Kavanagh, one of Ireland's greatest poets, taunted this Catholic prudery in his 1942 epic The Great Hunger, about a sexually repressed Catholic farmer who ages in bachelorhood without having the courage or wit to look for a wife. Most alarming to a 1940s censor was the single reference to masturbation — "he sinned over the warm ashes again" — which today seems obscure and sad. In 1940s Ireland, it caused outrage; Kavanagh's flat was raided by police after sections of the poem were printed in a magazine, and the magazine issue was immediately banned.

Premarital sex during this period was absolutely taboo, and women who became pregnant outside marriage were sometimes forced into Magdalene laundries. There, they worked under Catholic nuns as drudges, in strictly enforced silence, to purify them of their "sins".

Ireland developed a self-image of being a godly, conservative country content with spiritual things, particularly compared with the apparent lustful energy of the US. Irish Prime Minister √Čamon de Valera claimed in a famous 1943 speech that "the Ireland which we would desire of would be the home of a people who valued material wealth only as the basis of a right living, of a people who were satisfied with frugal comfort and devoted their leisure to the things of the soul."

Decoupling religion and state
When I see countries like Malaysia struggling with issues of secularism and religion today, I'm tempted to see Ireland half a century ago. Ireland even developed a reputation for terrorism because of paramilitary groups like the Irish Republican Army (IRA); and Irish migrants working in the UK sometimes faced discrimination because of this violent fringe. Sound familiar?

The radical cleric who tried to make Catholicism Ireland's state religion was Father Denis Fahey, who saw Rome-dominated Western Europe of the 13th century as an ideal golden age of Christianity before the emergence of European secularism. "Since then, there has been steady decay, and that decay has been accelerated since the French Revolution," he wrote. How eerily reminiscent this is of Islamist calls for a rejection of modernity and a return to a Utopian pan-Islamic caliphate.

Considering all this, it feels strange to me to read discussions among Muslims about "Western" liberalism, as though secular liberalism is an inevitable part of Western civilisation. Even when I was growing up in the 1980s, I had a vague sense that we Irish were the religious, conservative ones, compared with the godless American hedonists we saw on television.

The collapse of Catholic domination in Ireland was unpredicted and it happened incredibly quickly. The constitutional reference to the "special position" of Catholicism was removed in 1973, the sale of condoms without prescription was legalised in 1985, homosexuality was legalised in 1993 and divorce in 1995. Today, Ireland is about as liberal and secular as any other in Europe. The thing is, the same could happen to a country near you.

Ireland's cultural and political revolution coincided with a rise in violent crime, drug abuse, suicide and alcoholism. Cases of syphilis increased 15-fold between 1992 and 2002. So it looks like poets won't be writing about sexually repressed Catholic farmers anymore.

Yet when sex stopped being a taboo subject, people began to finally report widespread sexual and physical abuse happening in Catholic institutions. In the past, these sex abusers were protected by the veneer of respectability given to them by their membership in the Catholic hierarchy. They managed to destroy lives in private while publicly preaching about sexual morality to a gushing audience. Today, they no longer have that opportunity.

For all its flaws, I like this modern, open society. I like that decisions about what I read and watch aren't being made for me by a stranger in the name of a particular interpretation of religious belief. I also suspect that by removing the religious clergy from power, we have removed the motivation for corrupt people to join the clergy. If you become a Catholic priest in Ireland today, you must really believe in it. Both politics and religion seem less corrupted after this divorce.

We in Ireland have seen what the Sodom of secularism the old Catholic hierarchy warned us about looks like. And to be honest, it looks quite nice.

Paramilitary violence DOES get attention

This graph shows how often people searched for "Real IRA" or "Continuity IRA" on Google, as a proportion of total Google searches, since 2004:

For the Real IRA, searches are steadily falling from 2004 to 2009. The Continuity IRA attracts fewer searches.

But both show a steep increase in searches in 2009 - just as the Real IRA killed two British soldiers and the Continuity IRA killed a police officer. Both groups then quickly return to low search levels.

So what does this mean? These groups seem to be able to maintain interest and attention through violence. Without successful violence, the public rapidly loses interest, however. If they want to raise their profiles in the long term they may need to keep killing.

(Of course many people searching for them during this period of post-killing excitement may be opposed to them, but I assume they do want publicity one way or another.)

It is a little disturbing and sad to realise that violence probably does benefit these organisations by projecting them into the media and, from there, into the curiosity of the public.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Violence Without a Cause and the Youth Bulge

Yemen is big news now, ever since it emerged that the Nigerian Christmas bomber was trained there. US President Obama, who just doubled aid to the Yemeni government for fighting Al Qaeda, called it "a country grappling with crushing poverty and deadly insurgencies".

He's right, Yemen has big problems, but not just with poverty and insurgency - Yemen is grappling with teenagers.

In 2009, Yemen had one of the largest teenage populations, proportional to its total population, in the world. 13% of Yemenis were between 10 and 14 years old (compared with only 6.3% in Ireland) and another 12% were between 15-19 years old (6.4% in Ireland). This teenage population, rapidly shrinking as a proportion in Ireland, has actually grown in Yemen since 1980, as the graph shows.

Altogether a quarter of Yemeni are between the ages of 10 and 20.

Nowadays it is politically uncomfortable to judge people by their race, nationality or religion; in any case I showed in a previous post that adherence to Islam, for example, is a poor indicator of the extent of democracy in a country. But most people are still quite comfortable making judgements about an individual's behaviour based on their age. They are right to: younger people are far more likely to commit crime than elderly people.

Discrimination between the young and old is taken for granted: if you had to trust your wallet with one of the two people below, would you choose the pleasant-looking old grandma on the left, or the obvious drug-addled thug on the right? It's not difficult... but remember your response anyway, I'll come back to this.

This is why Yemen's young population (a consequence of having the highest total fertility rate of any Middle Eastern country - 5.1 children per woman) matters. Young people tend to be more violent than old people, therefore a population made up of a disproportionately high number of young people should be less stable and peaceful than an older one.

The late Samuel Huntington mentioned the concept in a 2001 interview with The Observer. Huntington, who predicted a "clash of civilisations" in a post-Cold War world, had mentioned years earlier that Islam has "bloody borders" - i.e. that where Muslims meet non-Muslims, anywhere in the world, there is instability and violence. But Huntington told The Observer that "the people who go out and kill other people are males between the ages of 16 and 30", and that high birth rates in Muslim countries during the 1960s and 1970s had caused a massive youth bulge.

This, he claimed, helped fuel a temporary rise in Islamic violence. The countries are full of angry young men and, as fertility rates fall and fewer babies are born, will probably slowly graduate to countries fully of passive old pensioners. (Not for a while, though, in Yemen 16% of the population is still below 4 years old so a huge youth bulge will continue there for another generation.)

So how good is the youth bulge at indicating violence or peace in a country?

I put results from the 2009 Global Peace Index into a spreadsheet, and compared them with the median age of every country in the world. If Huntington was right we should see two things:

1) Correlation between low median age (i.e. a disproportionately young population) and poor score in the peace index.
2) Muslim-majority countries tending to have quite low median ages.

This is the resulting graph, pitting peace index up the vertical axis (higher scores indicating more violence) against median age along the horizontal axis, with the size of the dots representing the proportion of Muslims in each country:

Huntington appears to have been right. Most of the Muslim-majority countries have median ages below 31 years - Yemen near the lowest, at only 16.8.

In turn, while adherence to Islam is still a reasonably poor indicator for peace (78% Muslim Qatar gets the same peace score as Switzerland), age of population seems pretty useful at predicting peace. Younger populations tend to have worse peace index scores. There are exceptions - like Georgia and Russia who both have poor scores and rather elderly populations - but it certainly correlates better than Islam does.

This throws crime and international conflict into a new light. What if political and religious causes do not result in violence, but rather that young men are already violent and simply justify their violence by attaching themselves to political and religious causes? The proportion of 15-19 year olds in the UK and Ireland increased after 1950, reached their peaks in 1980 (for the UK) and 1990 (for Ireland) and began to decrease after that. One wonders if the rise and fall of paramilitary violence in Northern Ireland was influenced by this rise and fall of potential recruits.

A caveat, though. While young populations may appear to be more violent, it could be that violence, and the poverty it causes, leads to worse education, higher fertility rates, higher birth rates and thus younger populations. Their relationship, if any, is not obvious. In any case the correlation between teenage presence and crime in Ireland is pretty weak so youth is presumably just one factor among many.

Also, not all young men are bloodthirsty brutes. Let's look at the photos I posted before. Which person did you choose to lend your wallet to?

If you picked the gentle old grannie - congratulations, you've just been killed! The woman is an American serial killer responsible for robbing and murdering as many as nine victims.

As for the dazed character on the right - well that's the worst photo ever taken of... me, aged 18 with a dreadful headcold and inexplicably greasy hair. Most of you don't know me and will have to take my word for it, but even at 18, I was a pretty gentle ole soul. It used to drive me nuts that I was lumped in with my more disruptive peers by teachers and journalists determined to generalise about teenagers in a way that seemed totally irrelevant for me.

So even if they are statistically more likely to attack than old folk, try not to discriminate against rough-looking youngsters... particularly if they happen to be sneezing a lot.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

For fame: let someone else get caught

Perhaps you have heard of the Australian banker caught looking up massive pictures of a hot girl on his computer while his colleague gave a serious live TV interview. The BBC mention that Google searches for the girl in question, Australian model Miranda Kerr, have shot up since the video started spreading online.

I decided to check just how much searches have gone up using Google Insights for Search, which shows the relative popularity of a search term compared to all other terms searched over a given period of time. Kerr's search chart looks like this:

Worldwide, searches for Kerr went up over 500% since the start of January!

Interestingly, Australia is highest for searches (relative to all other searches performed in Oz), but Mexico comes next. If we look at Mexican search data only, interest in Miranda Kerr seems to have absolutely exploded from this video: searches were 20 times higher on January 21st (relative to other searches) than on January 12th.

So there it is: if you want to attract attention in Mexico, get someone to look up naughty photos of you in the background during a TV interview in Australia.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Islam predicts nothing

An email is going around claiming that Muslims conspire to force Islamic rule onto every country they migrate to. The full text can be seen here; I have copied a few highlights:

"As long as the Muslim population remains around or under 2% in any given country, they will be for the most part be regarded as a peace-loving minority, and not as a threat to other citizens. This is the case in:

United States -- Muslim 0.6%
Australia -- Muslim 1.5%
Canada -- Muslim 1.9%...

At 2% to 5%, they begin to proselytize from other ethnic minorities and disaffected groups, often with major recruiting from the jails and among street gangs. This is happening in:

Denmark -- Muslim 2%
Germany -- Muslim 3.7%
United Kingdom -- Muslim 2.7%..."
So we see the way this is going. The author believes that there are simple thresholds every few percent: as the proportion of Muslims increases, so does their aggression towards other faiths and ideologies:

"When Muslims approach 10% of the population, they tend to increase lawlessness as a means of complaint about their conditions.... At 40%, nations experience widespread massacres, chronic terror attacks, and ongoing militia warfare.... After 80%, expect daily intimidation and violent jihad, some State-run ethnic cleansing, and even some genocide, as these nations drive out the infidels."
One implication here is that one should be able to describe a country well simply by knowing what percentage of the population is Muslim. E.g. Bosnia and Herzegovina, 40%: "Let me check... ah, widespread massacres, chronic terror attacks, and ongoing militia warfare!"

Considering this, and other common anti-Muslim rhetoric, I decided to gather data on democracy, press freedom and (since the Muslims are also supposed to be a prolific lot and rapidly reproducing) total fertility rate, and then compare this with the percentage of Muslims in every country in the world.

I put the data into a Google Spreadsheet and appied it to a motion chart, which looks a bit like this:
On the vertical axis we have each country's 2008 Democracy Index score, as calculated by The Economist Intelligence Unit. On the horizontal axis we have the 2009 Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index score. Each dot represents a country, the size representing the percentage of total population which is Muslim. Colour represents geographic region. What this graph shows is very obvious:


There is no clear correlation between the proportion of Muslims in a population and democracy or press freedom.

Muslim-majority countries are scattered all over the graph, with some scoring dreadfully and some rather well. Turkmenistan (93% Muslim) has the third worst press freedom and third worst democracy in the world. Mali (also 93% Muslim) has a press freedom score of 8, which is better than Poland (9.5), South Africa (8.5), Spain (11) and France (10.7), and their democracy score is slightly better than Hong Kong.

One observation, though: there are no Muslim majority countries among the very highest countries, those most democratic and with the most press freedom. Perhaps, then, adherence to Islam does have some negative effect on democracy and press freedom, but certainly not in the mathematical way described on the rather overexcited email quoted above.

...But this negative relationship is unclear or weak. When Muslim-majority countries are compared with their neighbouring states, any correlation breaks down further. For both indicators, Muslim Indonesia is better than Christian Philippines, while Muslim Bangladesh scores far higher than Buddhist Burma, Bhutan and China, as well as Hindu Nepal (though lower than Hindu India).

So far, then, knowing the percentage of Muslims in a society tells us nothing about the extent of its democracy or press freedom - we can guess that a high-Muslim country won't be excellent for these indicators, but it might still be quite good.

What about fertility? Quite a few other internet rumours draw attention to alleged fecundity in Muslims (including this absurd propaganda video). The general argument is that Muslims have huge families, non-Muslims have small families and thus Muslims will take over the world.

Back to our data. This time I plot the percentage of Muslims in a country on the vertical axis (for clarity, size of dots still also correspond with percentage of Muslims), and total fertility rate on the horizontal axis:
Result: no correlation again.

Once more Muslim-majority countries are spread all over the graph. In Niger, the average woman has 7.75 children - but in Iran they only have 1.71, around the same as Sweden, Norway, China and Australia.

The same caveat should be made as before: among the countries with the very lowest fertility rates there are no Muslim-majority countries, and the two highest-fertility countries are Muslim-majority.

But Islam is an extremely poor predictor for fertility. Indonesia has a lower total fertility rate than neighbouring non-Muslim East Timor or Papua New Guinea. Egypt (95% Muslim) has a lower TFR than neighbouring Sudan (71% Muslim), which in turn has a much lower fertility rate than Uganda (12% Muslim).

There is a lot more data available to examine on this, but so far the result is quite conclusive: knowing the proportion of a country's population that is Muslim tells you very little about the political and social situation in that country.

In the second graph we can see sub-Saharan African countries clustering around the same high-fertility section, regardless of the proportion of Muslims in the population. Here geography is a better indicator than religion.

For all the frenzied debate over this in recent years, it could be that, compared with geography, wealth and political policy, religion really isn't all that important.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Damn Right

I started college in autumn 2001, so I was first really learning about right wing politics while George W. Bush was invading Afghanistan and Iraq.

This was a bad time to learn about right-wing politics. There was an almost absolute anti-Iraq War consensus among people I knew, along with a casual assumption that the war was a ‘right wing’ venture. ‘Right wing’ was an insult, and used to imply:

- A strong central government, supposedly working for the benefit of massive corporations at the expense of the little people.
- Prudish government intervention in sexual morality and prohibition on recreational drugs.
- War. Right-wingers were meant to be the inheritors of the old imperialism and hypernationalism of European colonial powers.
- Capital punishment.
- Liberal gun laws: they like killing people so much that they want to be free to have guns to kill anytime they want!

I’m exaggerating for effect a little here, but this is my memory of the dominant rhetoric around college. In one sense it didn’t matter - since most students were politically inactive - but it was, perhaps, a poor setting for learning about different kinds of right-wing movement.

It was only after I graduated that I gradually became introduced to right-wing alternatives. Here are a few.

Claiming to have inherited the role of classic liberalism of 18th century USA (‘That government is best which governs least’), the libertarians generally want less government intervention in everything.

- Legalise recreational drugs.
- End social welfare.
- End corporate welfare: no bailouts, no NAMA, no protectionism.
- Less war. There are differences in opinion here of course but many American libertarians want to see US military bases around the world closed, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ended and the military greatly reduced.
- No Nanny State: if people want to smoke, carry AK-47s, not wear seatbelts or shag disease-ridden prostitutes then the state has no place in preventing them.

To sum it up, the libertarians want to be left alone, to stand or starve as individuals. Some support giving private charity, but oppose state social welfare or foreign aid: they say there is nothing generous about taxing other people’s money and giving it away.

However most libertarians support the maintenance of a basic police force and army. The role of government is to protect individual citizens from oppression, hence an army is needed to keep foreign invaders out and police to stop criminals.

The logical next step to libertarianism, some say, is anarcho-capitalism: total destruction of the state apparatus in favour of privatised everything.

- No central bank.
- No government currency; private organisations can print their own currency and people may choose which ones to use.
- No police, though they expect people to hire private security firms. I’m a bit confused by how they expect these rival firms to co-operate on protecting their clients – interestingly some have used pre-Norman Ireland’s Brehon Laws as an example of a stateless legal system!
- No tax, whatsoever. This is at the heart of much right-wing argument, but it is clearest with the anarchists. They say: TAX IS THEFT. Coercing someone to surrender a percentage of their income is theft, they argue, and that the decision comes from a democratically elected government makes this theft no more legitimate.
- Some anarcho-capitalists argue that without a state coercing people into conscripting and paying tax, large-scale war would be impossible, so the anarchist world would be at peace.
- Open borders: without any social welfare they believe migrants will only move to another area if there is economic demand for them. Thus no need for immigration control.
- Some oppose any kind of patent protection or intellectual property.

When challenged to give examples of successful anarchist societies, anarcho-capitalists sometimes suggest Pennsylvania’s Quaker anarchy of 1681-1690, pre-Norman Ireland and even modern Somalia where the civil war destroyed the state and, anarcho-capitalists insist, the country promptly began developing faster than its corrupt statist African neighbours. Hmm.

One Polish monarchist told me that a monarchy automatically produces a better society than a democracy because the monarchs are planning for the long-term. They want to build an excellent society since their own children will be inheriting it. Democratic leaders, on the other hand, will rack up debts that some strangers will have to pay years later. Or so the thinking goes.

A lot of the libertarians and anarcho-capitalists I have come across quite anti-religion. The American paleoconservative movement is very different in this regard.

- Isolationist or non-interventionist foreign policy. Like the others, they want to reduce American military interventionism. Many compare the US with Ancient Rome – arguing that the US is now an over-stretched empire on the brink of collapse.
- Opposed to American support for Israel.
- No social welfare.
- In favour of some economic protectionism.
- Extremely strict immigration control. Many paleoconservatives doubt the ability of people of Asian and African descent to ever adopt ‘Western’ values. They want to seal the US border to Hispanics and Asians. Some have been criticised as racist.
- Religiously conservative. Against ecumenical interpretations of Christianity: our version is right, everyone else is wrong.
- Actually conservative, in that they want things to go back to the past. Many despise the materialistic capitalism of the libertarians, dreaming instead of a simpler Christian age.
- Anti-Lincoln. Seriously! Some paleoconservatives argue that Abraham Lincoln should not have gone to war over the secession of the Confederacy (that he brought a tyrannical extension of federal control over the states), and that the US has been going downhill ever since.

Ooh, everyone’s favourite bad guy! In college ‘neo-con’ was usually followed within two or three sentences by the word ‘fascist’!

The neoconservative movement emerged, oddly, from left wing thinkers who became disillusioned with the leftist developments in the mid-20th century. Some policies:

- Support for American military interventionism around the world, particularly against ideologies like Communism, Islamism and Nazism (which I’ve seen referred to repeatedly as a left wing ideology, more on that another day). The US should ‘export democracy’, as they had done successfully in post-war Germany, Japan, South Korea and so on.
- Belief in universal human rights; thus implying support for protecting them in foreign countries with military force.
- Strong support for allies like Israel.
- Anti-communist and broadly opposed to the welfare state, nonetheless they tolerate higher levels of social welfare than other right-wing groups. Bush’s No Child Left Behind policy in education saw state spending on education soar. (Libertarians have lambasted Bush for being ‘socialist’.)
- Strong internal police and intelligence network: willingness to remove some privacy rights of citizens to protect the state.
- Mixed attitude to immigration, but generally willing to welcome Asians, Hispanics, etc. on condition that they embrace American values.

Of all the forms of right-wing thought, this is the one I find hardest to describe, partly because it seems to encompass a huge variety of opinion. In any case, it may be out of date. Some neoconservative thinkers like Francis Fukuyama (interesting man) have already distanced themselves from the militaristic policies of Bush; Fukuyama supported Obama for the 2008 elections.

Round up
This is just the beginning, of course, there are many other views loosely considered ‘right’. It is, I think, useful to know about this stuff, to break down the shallow dismissal of all right-wing thought that was popular when I was in my university days. Right wing views include pacifism and imperialism, charity and state aid, anti-Semitism and Zionism, drug prohibitionism and legalisationism, Christian fundamentalism and secularism... every ism you fancy :)

If anyone disagrees with my descriptions or has anything to add, feel free to comment below.