Saturday, May 29, 2010

Ireland nearly at demographic magic number

From yesterday's Irish Times:

Women in Ireland had an average of 2.05 children in that year, compared to 1.98 in France and 1.92 in Britain. In Poland, which was ranked lowest in terms of fertility rates in the EU during 2007, there were just 1.31 children per woman. A value of 2.1 is generally considered to be the level at which the population would replace itself in the long run, ignoring migration.

So Ireland is almost at the total fertility rate necessary to sustain a population. No other EU country is, however. Without immigration, population decline is inevitable.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Did Iceland's volcano heat Europe?

Immediately after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, aircraft were grounded in the US and climatologists noted an immediate increase in temperature. For three days the average temperature jumped higher by one degree, as the thousands of contrails left by jets over North America disappeared. Some scientists argued that these contrails had been blocking significant amounts of sunlight from reaching the earth:

Between the 1950s and the early 1990s the level of solar energy reaching the earth's surface had dropped 9% in Antarctica, 10% in the USA, by almost 30% in Russia. And by 16% in parts of the British Isles.

From the ground contrails appear spidery and insignificant. From space, however, we can see just how much light they can block. The following images are courtesy of NASA's Visible Earth site:

English Channel

South East US

Lake Superior and Lake Michigan

When the volcanic eruption of Eyjafjallajökull grounded flights across much of Europe in April there was some speculation that temperatures would rise once more in the absence of contrails. On the other hand the volcano itself was pumping vast quantities of ash and gas into the atmosphere at the same time, which might mess with the data a little, as Meteorological Officer Brian Delaney pointed out:

Volcanic ash should, if anything, have a cooling effect due to its reflectance of solar radiation, however over such a short time period and such a small geographic area (Ireland), temperatures will be determined by general circulation patterns in the North Atlantic more than anything else.

Below are maximum and minimum temperatures for Knock Airport in the west of Ireland for every day from April 13th to May 18th. The data is confused further because different countries restricted their airspaces over different periods, but broadly speaking from the 15th-23rd April there was a major international shutdown, with shorter closures on May 4th-5th.

With the main shutdown periods over Ireland highlighted in yellow, the graph shows no clear correlation between the two at all. If anything there seems to be slightly lower temperatures during this period. In truth the graph is a disappointment. This blog post was written some months ago but that initial research yielded such a disappointingly vague result that it was left aside. Sometimes reality decides not to match the simple graphs and narratives we like to apply to it, leaving us to admit failure and bewilderment. The post will peter out here...


Sunday, May 23, 2010

Niger: ticking time bomb of babies

I have blogged before about Niger's remarkable demographics: 21% of its population is under the age of four. Niger has by far the highest total fertility rate in the world; women are having huge families there.

As a consequence Niger has the fastest growing population in the world. In the wild, a species will naturally expand in population if environmental conditions are right, i.e. there are sufficient supplies of food, space and water, and a low threat from predators or disease. For example, if foxes are introduced to an island with many rabbits, foxes rapidly reproduce and take advantage of the food supply. As foxes multiply, their total demand for rabbits rises. Meanwhile the total number of rabbits is falling from the growing predator numbers.

Finally the foxes have eaten so many rabbits that the rabbit population is in decline, and the foxes run out of food. A famine follows, the surplus fox population dies off, pressure on rabbits declines, rabbits multiply again and the cycle starts once more.

Humans are prone to these cycles too, but agriculture and technology stave off famine in modern societies. This would cause exponential human population growth, except modern contraceptives and family planning keep population growth low. Developed countries have low mortality and low fertility. Completely undeveloped tribal cultures have high mortality and high fertility. Both keep population sizes roughly constant.

Developing countries, where modern medicine and improved agriculture have begun to reduce mortality but culture still values large families, have high fertility and low mortality, causing rapid growth.

This is what Niger is experiencing. Niger is the fox, growing like crazy and eating all the rabbits. And like the fox, it is beginning to run out of food:

Reports from northern Nigeria say a growing number of people from Niger are crossing the border into Nigeria because of the food crisis at home. A BBC correspondent in the northern Nigerian state of Katsina says many women and children from Niger are seeking shelter with local families. Aid agencies say about seven million people in Niger - about half the population - are short of food.

Niger's government has started distributing food, so their response is to keep mortality low. At first this may seem dangerous, since this is simply allowing continued exponential growth. Thankfully humans tend to respond to falling infant mortality rates by reducing their family size, so as mortality declines, population growth tends to eventually stabilise.

This does not save Niger now, though. It already lacks the food to sustain half of its population, yet that population is growing at explosive speed. Niger desperately needs a dramatic drop in fertility. Jared Diamond's Collapse blamed unsustainable population growth in Rwanda for the 1990s genocide. It remains to be seen if Niger can defuse the demographic bomb by reducing fertiliy, or if it will collapse into war, famine and disease.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Free Speech and Property

I just noticed a comment on Twitter by an Irish journalist, remarking that someone is 'trolling' her blog, i.e. making disruptive comments after her posts. She said she believed in free speech and seemed uneasy about blocking him.

She needn't.

For several years I helped to moderate a huge International Relations discussion forum with 15,000 members from all over the world. Debates were vicious and impassioned as Islamists, Communists, Democrats, Feminists and even one Monarchist hammered out their arguments. It was fun and insightful to read all these diverging world views, but some members were problematic and used the anonymity of the forum to personally insult others. We moderators had to balance our commitment to free political debate with the pragmatic concern that the attention-seeking trolls could drag the discussion irreversibly into the gutter if we did not censor them.

When we did choose to censor and control the debates, we were abused for being anti-freedom.

This was, however, an absurd complaint. The website running these forums, Orkut, allowed any member to create a new forum. The creator was called the 'owner', and Orkut gave them dictatorial control over its content. Any post could be deleted, any member could be banned.

Gradually we realised that each forum could be considered the private property of the owner. This was practically true since Orkut had invested great power in the owner position. Fighting the owner was pointless because, beyond actually hacking the site, the owner was in a position of unassailable power and would not be removed, even by a democratic election of the members.

So the owner of the forum was, like the journalist who runs her blog, the owner of private property. As such, some of us began to argue that the owner is entitled to control debate on her own property. This is not against freedom of speech, since the banned or censored members can simply continue their debate on another forum.

This is a critical point. The American First Amendment reads:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The First Amendment says only that the government cannot censor its people. It does not say that every individual owning private property on which debate is held must allow any discussion there that outsiders desire. So I, as a private individual, may invite some friends around to my property and have a discussion and then freely eject anyone I don't like or disagree with.

Their freedom of speech is not curtailed simply because I deny them my particular property. They can continue arguing their world view on their own property.

This applies to literal property, and to online discussion forums and blog comment sections, but also to newspapers and other privately-owned media. Sometimes people complain about censorship in privately-owned newspapers, since the newspapers refuse to give everyone an equal platform.

This is silly. Here in Ireland no mainstream newspaper would give a tiny neo-Nazi movement a platform to express their views. There need be no concern over this; newspapers don't need to publicise every crackpot theory they come across.

Of real concern are laws created by government which apply to all debate, and not just that going on in one's own property, for these really do curtail free speech. Ireland's recently-enacted blasphemy law is an example. There is no escape from that, no safe retreat to one's own property, so that really does inhibit our freedom.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Why men aren't like Rambo

I used to wonder why some people were physically big and powerful, while others were small. It seemed to make sense that in the wild a physically powerful individual would have a competitive advantage over smaller individuals, in hunting, building shelters and fighting off rivals. So why didn't all the skinny people go extinct, and take their skinny genes with them?

Also, why were women usually smaller and lighter than men? Even if women in primitive human societies played nurturing roles rather than aggressive roles, physical strength and height could still be an advantage in defending their young from predators.

I had two clues for an answer. Firstly, men die younger than women. I wondered faintly whether the extra height and bulk that gave men competitive advantages in violence, hunting, construction and so on was weakening the body in other ways.

The second clue came from the dodo.

The waste of wings
For most birds there is a competitive advantage in having wings and being able to fly away from danger. The dodo evolved on Mauritius, a small and isolated island with few natural predators, where the competitive advantage of winged flight was lost.

Still, I guessed that there must have been a push in the opposite direction too - that having wings had become a disadvantage in the absence of predators - for dodos to actually lose the power of flight.

Both clues pointed me towards strengths and abilities which are advantageous in some circumstances, but wasteful and disadvantageous in others. After all, wings and muscle need to be fed, and the bigger they are, the more food they require. Then I discovered this research from the University of Pittsburgh:

The beefier the man – measured by total fat-free mass, or arm and leg muscle mass – the more sexual partners he had, Lassek confirmed. The study also showed that more muscled men tended to lose their virginity at a younger age, compared to skinny men.

Yet in the same men, muscles didn't come free. Muscle mass did a better job of predicting caloric intake than body mass index (BMI), age, or activity levels. A larger appetite may not seem like a cost in modern western societies, with a restaurant or grocer on every corner. But ancient humans struggled to get all the calories their bodies needed at times, Lassek says, which could have meant hunky men going hungry more often.

Compared to skinnies, muscular men also tended to produce fewer infection-fighting white blood cells and less of an important immune molecule called C-reactive protein, which helps destroy pathogens.

Beautifully simple. Muscular bodies were at an advantage for attracting female mates, but at greater risk of starvation and disease. This helps explain why humans come in so many shapes and sizes; sexual advantages have high biological costs.

It also explains birds of paradise; extravagant feather displays increase likelihood of attracting a mate by demonstrating the health of the male, but also increase health risks as energy demand rises and flight becomes hampered. The trade off between sexual advantage and health disadvantage strikes a balance between display and performance.

Wealth is health
Still, in developed countries today the risk of starvation and disease have collapsed, which must reduce the long-term health advantage of the skinnier men. Will this mean that more masculine, muscular men will out-breed the others? Will everyone look like He-Man in the future? There are two reasons to believe not.

First, women in rich countries with low risk of disease prefer less masculine features in men, compared with women in poor, disease-ridden countries.

A study of women in 30 countries found they were more likely to choose a masculine-looking partner if their country scored low on a health index based on World Health Organisation mortality figures. By contrast, in countries where people have a longer lifespan, women favoured more feminine-looking men, even though they might not have the healthiest genes available.

High levels of testosterone, associated with muscle and fertility, also weaken the body's immune system, creating the health disadvantage the previous study showed. Rather counterintuitively, this means that in a primitive society if a man is muscular and still active then he "must be healthy and in good condition". In a primitive society, or one with high risks to health, masculinity is "man's way of advertising good genes" - just as complex feather displays are for birds of paradise.

Once again there is a trade-off between these positive traits associated with high testosterone levels and some surprising negative traits. Masculine-looking men with high testosterone levels are good competitors for mates, but it turns out they tend to be bad long-term companions.

In another study of 2,100 Air Force veterans, men with testosterone levels one standard deviation above the mean were 43% more likely to get divorced than men with normal levels, 31% more likely to leave home because of marital problems, 38% more likely to cheat on their wives, and 13% more likely to admit that they hit or hurled things at them.

In a healthy, safe environment women are less drawn to aggressive, masculine men with competitive genes, and instead tend to desire more feminine-looking men - those who look like they will stick around and support the family in the long run.

There is a final reason to doubt a take-over by Rambo types in the future: contraception. Modern family planning technologies have split sexual success from reproductive success and the individual that successfully attracts a sexual partner today may not be passing his genes on to a new generation.

Contraception changes the competition completely; I'm not sure what this means for how humans will evolve into the future.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Did the War on Terror work?

After the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, commentators have argued whether or not the threat of terrorism has declined or grown. A number of recent studies cast some light on the question.

Trends in terrorism
The National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) publishes a Global Terrorism Database, creating graphs showing the extent of terrorism in every year from 1970 to 2007. The graph shows a startling trend: terrorism hit a peak in 1992 and collapsed after that. The end of the Cold War coincides with a dramatic decline in terrorism.

Here in Ireland the 1990s saw the successful peace process that ended most paramilitary terrorism. The GTD allows users to pick specific countries or regions. This is how Northern Ireland looks:

And here is South America:

Several South American countries emerged as stable democracies in this period, Cold War superpower support for rebel groups dried up and terrorism declined.

This brings us to an early observation. Today most terrorism that makes the news is by Islamist organisations. In the recent past terrorism was widely employed by nationalist organisations, left wing and right wing groups. The decline in terrorism in the 1990s was a deeply significant process that has improved security for millions of people.

But the GTD statistics so far show only the number of attacks, equating any tiny, bloodless attack on property with mass-murder. Europol have observed that European Islamists make up a tiny proportion of all terrorist attacks, but tend to aim for mass carnage, while the Basque, Corsican and Irish terrorist attacks are more common but on a much smaller scale. Unfortunately GTD does not include a graph showing numbers killed every year. They do, however, have this graph, showing how many people died in each attack around the world:

We can remove the attacks with 0 or unknown fatalities. It then looks like this:

This is still a little misleading. There are so few terrorist attacks with more than 100 victims that they barely appear on the graph, yet these rare, high-impact attacks can cause massive damage, and excite great emotion and political reaction.

Still, we see that fatalities did seem to drop in the 1990s. Far from a growing risk, by 2001 terrorism was, for most people, a much lower risk than it had been a decade earlier.

Another way to look at the risk of terrorism is by examining the prevalence of 'High Casualty Terrorist Bombings'. The Center for Systematic Peace show trends in such deaths as follows:

1999: 341 dead
2000: 392 dead
2001: 3,275 dead. Excluding the 9/11 attacks this is 293 dead.
2002: 974 dead
2003: 1,041 dead
2004: 2,338 dead
2005: 2,626 dead

This continues to worsen, with massive deaths in Iraq, until 2008 when the situation begins to stabilise and Iraq deaths begin to fall. This shows that there was a significant increase in attacks after 9/11, but the increase really took off after the invasion of Iraq.

Now we can see what regions of the world experienced continued reductions in terrorist attacks, even after the 1990s. This graph shows North America, Central America and Carribbean, South America, East Asia, Central Asia, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, USSR (and newly independent post-Soviet states) and Australasia and Oceania:

All these regions show very low numbers of attacks in the 2000s. A caveat of course - this graph shows only the number of attacks, and not their severity. Still, the rest of the world looks quite different. Here are Southeast Asia, South Asia, Middle East and North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa:

All show steep increases in terrorist attacks, after 2003. This brings us to the next observation.

After 2003, consistent declines in terrorism reverse in several regions of the world. 2003 was the year Iraq was invaded. The World Trade Center attacks and the invasion of Afghanistan were in 2001. There are fairly small increases in terrorism in their immediate aftermath.

This is an important point in understanding Islamist terrorism since a goal of Al Qaeda was to use 9/11 as a spark to detonate a wider Muslim revolution that would overthrown secular government and establish an Islamic Caliphate. However there is only a small increase in Muslim terrorist activity in the year following 9/11. As political theatre designed to ignite a wider conflict, it failed, although wider conflict did kick in after the invasion of Iraq.

Still, we need to be careful again here - the world is not so easily understood. An uptick in terrorism in Sub-Saharan Africa begins in 2004. Who knows what reasons are behind this. Terrorism was already increasing in South Asia after 1998, stabilised in the year following the invasion of Iraq and then dramatically increased. Much of the Middle Eastern increase in terrorism is explained by violence in Iraq alone:

Looking at the aims of war
Advocates of the War on Terror point out that there has not been a repeat of 9/11 on American soil. In order to judge whether the struggle has been a success or a failure, we need to know what its stated goals were. On September 20th 2001, President Bush declared his intentions in an address of Congress:

Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists and every government that supports them. Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.

So far this has not been achieved. The attempting bombing of a transatlantic flight on Christmas Day 2009 was carried out by a Nigerian man, educated in London, trained in Yemen and attempting an attack in Detroit. The Europol Terrorism Situation and Trend Report 2010 includes this map showing external regions influencing EU terrorism:

Terrorist groups of global reach are still operating, and terrorism in some regions - particularly those with large Muslim popultions - dramatically increased after the invasion of Iraq. The stated aims of the War on Terror have not been achieved yet.

Another way to judge this military approach to destroying terrorism is by examining how terrorist groups ended in the past. In 2008 the Rand Corporation did just this, looking at 648 terrorist groups active between 1968 and 2006. They found that 43% of groups move into peaceful politics - Northern Irish nationalists being a good example. 40% are destroyed by policing or intelligence. 10% achieve victory. Only 7% are destroyed by military action.

Rand concluded that Al Qaeda were almost certainly going to fail in their goals, however the military method used by the US government after 9/11 was also failing.

Despite some successes against al Qa’ida, the United States has not significantly undermined its capabilities. Al Qa’ida has been involved in more attacks in a wider geographical area since September 11, 2001, including in such European capitals as London, than it was before that date. Its organizational structure has also evolved. This means that the U.S. strategy in dealing with al Qa’ida must change. A strategy based predominantly on military force has not been effective. Considering al Qa’ida’s organizational structure and modus operandi, only a strategy based primarily on careful police and intelligence work is likely to be effective.

The Sri Lankan experience
Some supporters of a military solution to terrorism uses Sri Lanka as an example of success. It is beyond the scope of this article, but worth taking a brief look. Sri Lanka suffered a civil war which ended with the military victory of the government last year. The GTD graph goes only to 2007:

Note the collapse of terrorist attacks in 2002, during a ceasefire. In 2002, only 15 people died of terrorism in Sri Lanka, compared with 3,791 in 2000 and 15,565 in 2009.

Of those killed in 2009, the majority died during the climax of the war. The Tamil Tigers admitted defeat in May; 17 people died in the months following victory. A few others have died in 2010. If more people die after victory than during the negotiated ceasefire perhaps it is too early to use Sri Lanka as a positive example of a military solution to terrorism.

The costs in winning that war were high too, with hundreds of thousands displaced and thousands of civilians killed. This brings us to a final point.

Costs to coalition of the War on Terror
The Iraq war has killed 4,715 coalition military personell, 4,397 of them American. The Afghan war has killed 1,764 troops, 1,071 of them American. Combined the US has suffered 5,468 military fatalities since 2001, far more than died in the 9/11 attacks to start with.

The debate is muddied by the Iraqi front; some commentator support the Afghan war and not the Iraq war. This article considers them together, which may be misleading.

But so far the War on Terror has not eliminated international terrorism. It coincides instead with a widespread increase of terrorist violence, particularly in Iraq. Either the War on Terror has had no impact, has made things worse, or is thus far incomplete. Declines in Iraqi violence in recent years might render the GTD's data out of date - there might be a happy ending just around the corner. At the moment, though, it does not look good.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

'Glee' lies to girls about beauty

The latest episode of the TV show Glee includes a painful scene that would seem bizarre were it not so common in American TV and cinema.

There are two characters in the scene. Quinn, who looks like this:

And Mercedes, who looks like this:

The girls confide in one another on the adolescent pressures they feel to look physically attractive. Quinn explains how pregnancy has given her a better attitude towards eating to be healthy, rather than just to be thin. Mercedes, who had been trying to crash diet to join the cheerleading team, sees her point:

Mercedes: I’m so embarrased, this isn’t me. How did I become this person?
Quinn: You are beautiful. You know that.

Sorry? The jaw-droppingly hot girl has just told the fat, ugly girl that she's beautiful, even though she is not. Later in the show Mercedes sings the Christina Aguilera song Beautiful:

You are beautiful no matter what they say
Words can't bring you down
You are beautiful in every single way
Yes, words can't bring you down

Aguilera's music video for Beautiful features a freak parade of ugliness: dangerously skinny girl, bald tranvestite (possible reject from Silence of the Lambs), sullen goth and weedy little dude flexing his muscles. She assures them that they are, indeed, beautiful.

A quick reminder what Aguilera herself looks like:

Odd, so she works hard to look like that, yet thinks that everyone else gets beauty for free.

Beautiful celebrities often push these messages, suggesting that beauty should play no role in one's romantic attraction to another - or that everyone, however physically repulsive, is actually beautful. In the movie Shallow Hal, the lead character is hypnotised to see womens' inner beauty only, and falls in love with a grossly obese woman. The film shows the woman as Hal sees her - Gwyneth Paltrow - and how she really is - Paltrow in a fat suit. (Heaven forbid they employ an actual fat person.) To tell us that inner beauty is more important than physical beauty, they employed a woman who looks like this:

How hard they struggle to deny the animal nature of sexual desire. Remember why we evolved sexuality in the first place: most of us are hot-wired to desire traits in the opposite sex that imply healthy offspring will grow from sexual relations. That rules out pus-oozing, grossly disproportionate bodies barely capable of supporting their own weight, let alone rearing a child. If you are reading this, and you actually do look like that, here is an honest message:

Yes, you are so ugly you make adults uncomfortable and little children sob. So what? Your ugliness will decrease the likelihood that you have sexual or romantic relations, and the likelihood you end up on TV. It won't bother the rest of your life much, so carry on being ugly and do lots of great and worthwhile things. Romance and sex isn't everything.

Many of the beautiful celebrities seem to think that the inability to attract sexual partners is the worst fate imaginable. So lost in their own shallow obsession with being desired, they presume that being undesirable must be nightmarish indeed.

Their message, particularly to girls, is that beauty is absolutely crucial and a life is worthless without being able to easily attract sexual partners. If someone finds it difficult to attract partners, it must be because others are too shallow to see the inner beauty. What a horrific and baffling message for young people to decode. Yes you need to be beautiful. Yes there are clear standards for beauty, considering the celebrities who sincerely promise that everyone is gorgeous are all somehow slim and sexy themselves. But no, you can't admit that some people are better looking than others.


Still, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. There are people with all kinds of odd fetishes, like the men who choose obese women, so there may be someone for everyone - but stereotypical ugliness does worsen the odds, as a quick comparison between the number of Google searches for the Glee actors confirms. Here we see the searches for Quinn (Diana Agron) and Mercedes (Amber Reilly).

Equal? Nah, of course not. Blonde beauty Diana Agron attracts far, far more searches than Amber Reilly. "You're beautiful", Quinn should have said. "Metaphorically speaking."

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Is The Last Word doing enough?

I wrote recently on how identifying with a political perspective can shape what questions journalists think to ask about the world. My example was the question that journalists often put to politicians about some social ill: "is the government doing enough?"

The post was partly inspired by my recent experience on Twitter, where I now follow a number of Irish journalists. Today, election day in the UK, has seen a lot of excitement as the journalists post articles urging people to vote in different ways, and mock the excessive editorialising of the tabloids.

So far, I have seen none supporting the Conservative Party. None supporting UKIP, BNP or the Greens. There may be some minor support for the Liberal Democrats - the rest are gung ho for Labour.

That's perfectly fine, but perhaps does indicate a tendancy among a lot of Irish journalists towards sharing a particular political perspective.

(I, partly because I think such consensus is unhealthy, and partly out of mischief, have been pointing out that Labour invaded Iraq while everyone's favourite bad boys BNP and UKIP told them not to.)

Anyway, back to governments doing enough. The Last Word, an interesting current affairs radio show on Today FM, just tweeted this:

In negative equity? Struggling to pay mortgage? Are govt & banks doing enough to tackle this prob? Pls email us

Are government and banks doing enough? Here we go again.

There is nothing inevitable about this argument, that more government intervention is naturally the solution to economic problems. In 1999 Christina Romer wrote in The Journal of Economic Perspectives that recessions in the United States have actually grown longer after the US government began to engage more with the economy:

In fact, she found the average length of recessions from 1887 to 1929 was 10.3 months. If the current recession ended in August [2009], then the average postwar recession lasted one month longer—11.3 months. The longest recession from 1887 to 1929 lasted 16 months. But there have been three recessions since 1973 that lasted at least that long.

More government causes longer recessions? Perhaps, perhaps not, but we need this perspective too, I think. Someone to say: "is the government doing too much?"

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The past is another country. Namely, Afghanistan.

The West is about freedom, individualism and gratification, they say. The East is about family, clan: collective good over individual good.

If so, Ireland was Eastern until a few decades ago, because godless gratification and self-worship was as unknown here as it is in the repressed religious states of modern Asia. The Ireland of old was a different country to the Ireland of today.

The playwright Brian Friel often looked back at this alien Ireland, not least in his Dancing at Lughnasa, about a family of spinster sisters aging together in 1930s Donegal. This play depicts a world of tight interpersonal connections, where every individual is tied into their place in society by their relationships with others.
There was no freedom there. Individuals monitored one another for lapses of honour, as determined by the conservative Catholic consensus. Duty to family was paramount and individual freedom was depicted as something foreign - literally, in the form of the Welsh man who fathered a child to one of the sisters outside marriage and then returned carelessly to his life of freedom in the city.

Work is depicted as back-breaking and manual. The sisters' lives were governed by ritual. The radio, beloved by several of the sisters, is feared occasionally by the eldest and most conservative sister. She is a constant negative force, reassuring her family of all the things they can't do. The local dance festival is for her a threat to Christian morality and the family's good name.

So much for Western freedom. The world Friel depicts is more familiar to us today from media descriptions of conservative South Asian villages than Ireland. Friel does not pluck this setting from fantasy; in 1943, while Ireland's European neighbours were slaughtering one another over unreligious dreams of nationalism and socialism, Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Eamonn de Valera told the Irish to dream of godliness:

The Ireland that we dreamed of would be the home of a people who valued material wealth only as a basis for right living, of a people who, satisfied with frugal comfort, devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit – a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contest of athletic youths and the laughter of happy maidens, whose firesides would be forums for the wisdom of serene old age. The home, in short, of a people living the life that God desires that men should live...

The difference between the modern West and more traditonal cultures may be time, not distance. Ireland was once lagging behind the US and Europe, and once had a self-image of piety and unmaterialistic religious morality. Today Ireland stands among the secular hedonist states, and conservative cultures in the "East" view it with the same disdain, little knowing that their future is our present.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Everything is your fault

I often wondered why many politicians behave with such snivelling dishonesty. Lies and back-stabbing seem a poor way to get popular support. Also, why spend so much on controlling public relations? Surely the public know that spin doctors twist the news, and knowing this renders the whole daft charade irrelevant since they won’t be taken in by it?

I couldn’t figure it out – until this happened:

Speaking in Santiago, Chile, Cardinal Bertone, the Pope's 'prime minister', said the Pontiff would soon take more surprising initiatives regarding the sex-abuse scandal but he did not elaborate.

He told a news conference: "Many psychologists and psychiatrists have shown that there is no link between celibacy and paedophilia but many others have shown that there is a relationship between homosexuality and paedophilia."

Wow! What a spectacularly dumb statement. Apart from being medically incorrect, Bertone just killed off whatever lingering little respect many still kept for the Catholic Church. Few organisations in the world are quite as clumsy and clueless when it comes to news control as the Vatican. For an institution that has been convincing people of the unproveable for 2,000 years its grasp on PR is absolutely atrocious.

But hang on, that's a good thing.

We all should be happy; their clumsiness should make a satisfying contrast with the polished lies of the politicians. Instead the Church seems to be taking more flak than any other organisation for child abuse, even though priests are no more likely to abuse children than any other men, and even though other institutions (like schools and secular orphanages) have been concealing widespread sexual abuse for ages too.

Then I thought: so that’s why politicians use PR, it actually does work. People really are that gullible and easily fooled, and anyone who can’t manipulate information will be defeated by those who can. The Catholic Church is rubbish at it, so they pay.

Political spin doctors exist because the electorate are gullible enough to fall for it. It’s the people’s fault.

The housing bubble that led to the economic crisis was partly caused by the ordinary people foolishly accepting massive mortgages. For months people have been blaming bankers for lending them the money to waste on impossibly big properties, instead of admitting responsibility for their own greed. Everyone who built during the boom was part of the problem.

The people killed Princess Diana. The people bought all those lousy tabloids that sent miserable paparazzi to chase her to her death and then, blood all over their hands, hurled abuse at the agents their spending on tabloids employed.

The people murdered 18,000 Mexicans since 2006, by buying the drugs Mexican drug gangs produce and smuggle. The people fund the Taliban every time they buy heroin, and support Colombian militia with every snort of cocaine. It’s the people’s fault – the drug gangs are just providing a service that wouldn’t exist without the people demanding it.

The people are the reason political debate is so often vacuous, hinging on image and sound bites. The people tell media to dumb down and simplify news every time they choose to buy dumbed down news products.

Not all people, of course. Some don’t buy illegal drugs, read trashy paparazzi magazines, vote based on snappy campaign slogans or arrange mortgages they can’t afford. Top-down evil exists too. But blaming cynical elites, when they are empowered by ordinary people, is getting tiresome.

If I could meet the Common Man, I’d blame him for buying all the crap the media and banks and governments sell, because it’s his fault. Sid Vicious had it right when he was asked if the Sex Pistols thought of the man on the street while making music:

Nah! I’ve met the man on the street – he’s a cunt.