Sunday, April 29, 2012

David Rose thinks some things are just WRONG

Today, I listened to something quite remarkable. It was a podcast featuring economist Russ Roberts with economist David Rose, author of The Moral Foundation of Economic Behavior, who argued that morality and moral norms predict the extent of material prosperity in different societies.

Briefly, Rose's idea is that specialisation - the division of labour into ever more specialised jobs - is a critical part of the massive increase in productivity that caused the economic explosion of the last few centuries, dragging hundreds of millions out of poverty. This specialisation, though, relies on a degree of trust between people, because there will always be individuals with such specialised knowledge that they could cheat those of us who lack it. We can design complex contracts to avoid being tricked but no contract covers every possible fraud, so for financial transactions to take place at all, we have to trust one another.

Rose's fascinating insights, though, are twofold:

1) For a prosperous society, most people need to not only not do obviously harmful acts, they need to also not do certain acts which seem harmless but when done by huge numbers of people do harm society. Rose says that if he concealed his income to cut his tax bill by $1,000 the harmful impact would be so tiny as to be negligible:
We are talking about way less than a penny per person in the United States. People can't even perceive that. It's not even there. Noise swamps it by orders of magnitude. So, no one is harmed.
Nobody is harmed, so why not do it? If one's moral system is based on consequentialism and utilitarianism (that is, based on a concern with avoiding harming people) then minor tax fraud could be moral because no individual would bear a noticeable injury.

Russ Roberts then mentioned Immanual Kant's opinion on how to weigh the morality of an act: 'when trying to decide if it's the wrong thing to do, you should imagine if everyone did it'. Rose's tax fraud might hurt nobody, but if everyone in the US did it, the economy as a whole would be deeply damaged.

Here in Ireland I see this kind of petty fraud and dishonesty quite a bit. Littering is a classic example of something that is virtually harmless when one person does it, but irritating and ugly when masses of people do - and they do. Just days ago I overheard someone talking about pretending to be a college student to take advantage of a student discount. When I worked on a building site years ago I finished work at 6pm and clocked out then, but had to wait in my brother-in-law's car while he worked a while longer. When my workmates heard this they were amused at my innocence, and told me I should sneak back in to clock out later, squeezing pay from our employer for time I spent reading in the car with the radio on.

I didn't, because this was just wrong, it was dishonest.

Another example is adultery. I get suddenly old-school on this one! If one is in a monogamous relationship then there is to be no sex, kissing, even flirting with another person outside the relationship - all absolutely forbidden. But if one's partner was not aware of the cheating, then there would essentially be no victim. You get to enjoy fooling around and your partner is obliviously content with your fidelity. Right? NO! Absolutely no way.

In online debates about morality and law, I sometimes argued with Muslim conservatives that something is sinful only if there is a victim. Therefore things they wanted to prohibit on religious grounds, like music or a woman exposing her hair, are hardly sinful since nobody is hurt. Yet I had to rationalise this to myself with regards to things like adultery or other forms of cheating where the victim may not notice the fraud. My own thinking had just been: well, if they discovered that they were being cheated on it would be hurtful and in the real world there is always a chance of discovery.

Deep down, though, I may have have been motivated by the simple moral lessons taught to me as a child: no, you do not cheat because even if nobody else knows, you know that you've done the wrong thing. Guilt being important here.

 So far this is fairly obvious and many people can probably appreciate that certain activities can be harmful to society when lots of people do it, but not when a tiny number do. What was new for me was Rose's next insight:

 2) For a prosperous society, individuals need to trust others not only to not do those things which are harmful when done by large groups, but also to trust others not to do harmful things for the greater good.

This is sort of genius. Rose had pointed out that people needed to not cheat the system, even when there was no individual loser. But what if cheating the system could benefit someone else? What if there was a greater good with which to justify a harmless manipulation of the system? To Rose, this kind of cheating is still socially destructive because it undermines the trust individuals need to have with one another for transactions to happen and information to be shared:
...if I believe that you might feel more guilty about helping someone that you could help if you cheated me, even though you like me, I still can't trust you. I have to believe that you are the kind of person who would say: Just because you could cheat me a little and help your nephew a lot, you don't do that sort of thing. You don't even think in those terms. That's not on your radar screen. I need to believe that about you to trust you completely, in other words to genuinely trust you because I've reached a rational conclusion that you are genuinely trustworthy.
A truly trustworthy person would be one whose moral code is so inflexible that others know that they would never cheat them, no matter how beneficial it might be to themselves or others to do so. If employees or employers suspect that they will be cheated by those they work with, no matter what the reason, they will withdraw trust, and conceal the specialised knowledge they hold. Society gets poorer, because people cheat to make society richer and more morally responsible.

The bizarre implication is that flexible moral pragmatism that aims specifically to take a sophisticated approach to issues to get the best possible result for everyone could be less pragmatic than unthinking moral conviction. Roberts puts it that 'your grandmother is right':
Meaning your grandmother has a bunch of rules of thumb about right and wrong--don't do this, do this, do that--and if you ask her why or why not, she doesn't have an explanation. She just says: That's always the way it's been and that's the right thing. You are suggesting that if we live that way, or the fact that we have lived that way for a long time is part of the reason we are so successful as a culture. And as an economy.
Listening to this, big pieces of ideas began to click together. I thought first of an old blog post I hadn't gotten around to finishing about American foreign policy in the Middle East: Nikolas K. Gvosdev and Ray Takeyh had written in The National Interest that American foreign policy in the Middle East tended to be based on realism, in which the US tried to secure its access to oil even if it meant supporting illiberal regimes. They quoted Jeane Kirkpatrick's thoughts on the Iranian Revolution in 1979:

The American effort to impose liberalization and democratization on a government confronted with violent internal opposition not only failed, but actually assisted the coming to power of new regimes in which ordinary people enjoy fewer freedoms and less personal security than under the previous autocracy—regimes, moreover, hostile to American interests and policies.

They explained that the US chose to back 'a generation of hereditary monarchs and authoritarian presidents throughout the Middle East' rather than risk pushing those governments towards anti-American communism or Islamism. They argue that this unprincipled, pragmatic approach was a success, keeping the region in American - not Soviet - influence, but I was going to suggest that the Arab Uprisings last year might have proven them wrong in the long term. By backing illiberal monarchs and dictators, had the Americans played against history by alienating themselves from the eventual democratic victors?

 Perhaps unprincipled realism, I was wondering, was unrealistic, not pragmatic. The short-term pragmatic decision to defend oppressive dictators may have damaged America's influence in the area in the long run by alienating it from the future rebel democrats.

Anyway, Rose said that this type of moral code was supremely simple. You do not do those things you know are wrong, ever, for any reason. No justification. No cheating. No opportunistic trickery, even if one intends to cheat only to help others and create a greater good. The ends never justify the means. In its extreme form, this is something many people would approve of already, hence the public uproar about torture in Guantanemo Bay. It is the theme of great fiction like Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment where an idealistic young man murders an old woman as part of his grand plan for massive social improvement. No! You cannot murder individuals for the greater good.

 (Strange example I experienced in college not long ago. We were asked in a class on ethics if we thought that ethical considerations in social research were based on simple universal rules, on flexible and context-dependent principles, or on something else. Everyone in the room chose the flexible and context-dependent principles - except me! I said 'something else', arguing that some things are simply unacceptable in social research. No context would justify, for example, researching the impact of child sexual abuse by raping children! No greater good.)

All of this is quite important for me because I have long struggled to reconcile my deeply held moral aversion to killing with the pragmatic idea that armies, police and the threat of violence is necessary to protect civilisation from collapse into brutal anarchy.
And I think this brings us to a weakness in Rose's argument. The simple old grandmother moral rules of thumb were sometimes wrong, very wrong indeed. It was once common knowledge that sexual or racial discrimination was natural and good. There had to be introspection and the replacement of those harmful moral codes with more enlightened ones. I get the impression that Rose and Roberts perhaps see the welfare state too as a cheat, a kind of 'greater good' fraud in which the hard-working and diligent are cheated out of their income by well-intended government redistributions, whereas I would see this as simply a new set of rules, a new contract that people have more or less signed up to through the democratic process. So long as workers know that they will be taxed to help the poor, there is no 'greater good' fraud.

And it really doesn't answer my confusion over the role of armies, police and war. I am still confronted with a personal inhibition about killing along with a belief that states need armies and police, and societies need states to defend modern peace, wealth and order with the threat of violence. Is it ever okay to fight wars when civilians are inevitably going to be killed too? If not do we just have to accept stateless chaos and poverty and violence?

Still. There is a lot to find fascinating in this interview and I definitely recommend at least listening to that. In a world of moral compromise and infinite shades of grey, it is quite refreshing to hear Rose side with simple moral clarity. Intriguing stuff. Rose, with my emphasis added:
Don't do stuff, don't do negative moral actions. Just don't do them; and just because nobody gets hurt, that doesn't mean you can do it, either. Because it's not about the person who is getting hurt or not hurt; it's about you. If you steal, even though nobody gets hurt, you are still a thief. So don't do it. Period. Don't even consider it. Don't even run it up the flagpole. That's not that complicated. And then secondly, if somebody says to you that you should do something that you know is wrong but it's okay to do it because there's this other good thing over here that you can make happen if you do otherwise, you need to realize that that is the language of a charlatan, that that is inappropriate, that you are being sucked in. We don't do things like that.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

How the West was Won: the End of Anarchy

My grandfather used to love the old 1960s Westerns with stetson-clad men swaggering around the American deserts, six-shooters slung low, rescuing gasping maidens in masses of frilly calico. This world of circled wagons and whooping Indians, smoke signals and the last-second arrival of perfect blue-uniformed cavalry was a familiar background to my childhood. It also seemed dated and cliched, so that by my teens I had little interest in the genre and paid no attention to the occasional revived efforts in the 1990s and 2000s.

Over the last year I have been living in a house with quite limited access to TV channels, so I find myself watching things I might otherwise avoid, including several old Western films. Reading a lot lately from the Why Nations Fail blog, and thinking about the origin of states, I've begun to place these Western stories into a kind of political-historical narrative which has gradually led to an appreciation of some of the underlying meanings of apparently shallow Westerns. The Wild West, in this narrative, is a pre-state anarchy in the process of being absorbed and stabilised by the American state.

This is actually something argued by Lawrence H Keeley in War Before Civilization: the Myth of the Peaceful Savage in which he says that the expansion of the American colonists into the Old West was much more violent than the equivalent expansion of Canadian colonists westwards to the north. Keeley explains that in Canada, the Canadian military conquered territory first, defeating the Native Americans and then arranging reservations where they would be allowed to remain. After the Canadian government had subdued the Native Americans and absorbed them into a legal framework, Canadian settlers would move westwards into this new territory. When settlers sought to infringe on Native American reservations, government agencies stopped them. Law was administered fairly so that either Natives or Whites who broke the law were punished. In Canada, law and order came first, settlers followed.

In the United States the opposite was the case: settlers expanded west into Native American lands and gradually the US Army followed. Thus the white settlers encountered Native Americans in a lawless anarchy, causing justice to be arbitrary, brutal and chaotic. White police, as they emerged, were unwilling to punish settler crimes against Natives, while Indian tribes were likewise unwilling to punish their own for crimes against the whites.
Because of these legal deficiencies, a state of primitive war often arose between the Indians and the settlers, as these groups' war parties and "militias" exchanged murders, raids, and massacres in cycles of retaliation.... The frequent resort to vigilantism by American settlers indicates that their own legal systems often failed to provide them with adequate redress for crimes committed among themselves.... Even decades after the first Euro-American colonization, the American West remained in a virtually stateless (or tribal) condition.
In the US, the settlers got there first, and law and order (and government) had to follow, slowly extending US government authority into the Wild West. The sneering gunslinger of many Westerns, with his gang of drunken thugs holding isolated towns in terror, along with chaotic raids of Indians and Mexicans, indicated the lawless, anarchistic aspect of the Wild West. The upright lawman with gleaming sheriff star pinned on chest, bristling with moral confidence and a moustache you could draw lines with, and the arrival of cavalry in flawless blue, represented the slow conquest of that anarchy by the order of the American state. In the absence of a bureaucratic legal structure, individuals in the Wild West reverted to a kind of feudal chivalry. The Wikipedia article on the Western genre:
The Western depicts a society organized around codes of honor and personal, direct or private justice (such as the feud), rather than one organized around rationalistic, abstract law, in which social order is maintained predominately through relatively impersonal institutions. The popular perception of the Western is a story that centers on the life of a semi-nomadic wanderer, usually a cowboy or a gunfighter.
Freedom in a lawless anarchy that required a white knight to rescue the vulnerable from the predatory, in the absence of legal justice: the Westerns depict both a fantasy and an interesting historical reality of a time when government was barely able to assert control over its own territory. All the racial and nationalist narratives of white settlers conquering the Native Americans aside, Westerns often depicted the bloody development of government out of violent tribal anarchy.

Friday, April 20, 2012

"On hating night clubs" or "Minority Tastes"

Back during the Christmas holidays it occurred to me how irritating it must be for people who hate the season to be surrounded by this mass-celebration of it. I love Christmas but loathe enough other popular  activities that I can appreciate their alienation. One of the great things about being 29 and not 19 anymore is that I am finally free from the utter ugliness of, for example, night clubs.

In my teens and early twenties I joined friends in going to crowded pubs and night clubs but very unusually I didn't drink alcohol at this time at all. When I went, I remained cold sober and watched civilisation degrade around me with clear eyes and a grim total recall the next morning.

Horrible times! Queuing in the rain for thirty minutes, drunken jackasses jammed up against me and trying to elbow ahead. Surveyed finally by stone-faced bouncers who would glance at my ID before a curt nod indicated that I was allowed the privilege of paying to enter. Passing down a gloomy chilled corridor, lit inexplicably with dim ultraviolet blue that made tiny particles on everyone's clothes glow white, and then into a baking hot cavernous room, crammed to the door with people. The music: deafening and dismal.

For all that my friends talked about these nights as being wild and unpredictable, there seemed to be deep ritual constraints. Everyone who wasn't dancing absolutely had to be holding a glass of liquid, even if were water; friends would pester me in bewilderment if I challenged this taboo by not having a drink before me at all times. It seemed to bother them! Among those buying alcohol there was a strange machismo that saw the boys buy only masculine drinks like beer or spirits, often in rounds that forced everyone to drink at the same uncomfortable rate. I remember once in my late teens I poked at the condensation on the side of a friend's glass of Guinness. He sternly declared: 'You never touch another man's pint!' God! More rules and etiquette I didn't understand.

There was dancing. I am pretty reserved but attracted enough by good throbbing music that I would sometimes dance, and sometimes enjoy it. But the crowds, the constant jostling and claustrophobia, the battle of elbows and shoulders to squeeze from one part of the jammed building to the other, all wore me down. The music, too, was loud and fast enough to wake some dance spirit in me, but not powerful enough to satisfy it - only the rough pounding beat of metal could do that, but none of my friends wanted to go to metal clubs.

All around me in those boiling, sweat-drenched places were beautiful girls but neither I nor, I think, most of my male friends had any idea what to do about it. The music was far, far too loud to communicate verbally and, damn it, verbal was all I had! To spend the night in deafening muteness, watching attractive people but not able to engage, bumped and shouldered by red-faced drunks blundering for the toilets, tugging my shoes up from the suction of booze-soaked floors, was to have a bad time. Yet at some point a friend would inevitably sidle up, put their mouth next to my ear, and bellow: 'Arrru rarrig aa rudd raaa?'

I: 'What?'




Thumbs up! Odd that people would never ask me this when I really was having a good time: there was no need to lean over to me in the cinema or interrupt a chat with friends to check if I was alright! Just another inexplicable part of the night club etiquette and I never knew how to respond. 

Hours ticked by and whatever pleasure I'd taken from the laughter earlier in the evening would be long gone by the end. I was not alone; I often looked around and saw others, standing in exhaustion with drink in hand, gazing morose and unmoving at the swaying crowd. By 3am I was sleepy, irritated and deeply reserved, closed inwards and rendered defensive while the world around me floundered about in pawing drunken messiness. We moved out finally to the streets, hit by a wall of freezing air after the heat of the club, to a scene of unhappy chaos. Drunk young men roaring and pissing against walls and shrieking with laughter, girls in high heels tottering around, falling and shouting bitter arguments, staggering into the street in front of taxis.

My friends would be disorganised and some demanding we visit a takeaway. Here we faced another hell crammed with obnoxious drunks, screaming orders at the handful of sober Chinese or Poles working behind the counter. Outside the street would be littered with half-eaten burgers, split bags of chips squashed into the concrete, a treat for the morning birds. I can remember nights when several of us sat and ate in near-silence in these places, drained while other gangs were still hyper and screaming laughter or obscenities. On the very worst nights we struggled to find a taxi as the streets were dotted with thousands of drunks desperate for bed, and stood in sombre queues to wait and wait in the cold just to get home.

And the next day my friends would declare the night an excellent success and promise to do it all again! I couldn't believe it, sometimes I wondered if they had somehow forgotten the discomfort and the waiting in the cold and the fear of the drunken mobs sprawling across the city. Others, though, I presume really had enjoyed it in ways I never understood. Perhaps it was the effect of the alcohol I wasn't touching, though years later I would finally get drunk and find it a mild impediment to my sense of balance and nothing more.

There were good nights of course, but many bad times too and in time I would realise that it just didn't suit me. And that's fine. It can rumble on every weekend but I want nothing to do with it and, thanks to the glory of adulthood, can now largely avoid them. Thank God! Does anyone else have a much-loved popular activity which they absolutely hate having anything to do with? Feel free to share in the comments.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Non-confrontational journalism

Many times broadcast interviews of politicians by journalists are characterised by a playful antagonism, with the journalist demanding answers to awkward questions and the politician trying to avoid them and change the subject. Some people seem to view this as a kind of game or sport, with the journalist and politicians each - quite openly - trying to trick and manipulate one another so that they control the topic of conversation.

I presume this aggressive questioning really is an important part of journalism, and perhaps even by exposing a politician's unwillingness to answer a direct question journalists may be able to wring out some important truths. But I'm quite a polite person by nature, and the obnoxious squabbling that happens in some TV and radio political shows can be very, very off-putting. Little actual information gets through as all sides spend their energies trying to score points

Here is Conor Lenihan flipping out on Tonight with Vincent Browne after Browne subjects him to some aggressive questioning:

And Joan Burton behaving bizarrely on the same show:

No information coming out of this, just lots of arguing and noise and talking over one another. What a shambles! Lots of people enjoy this squabbling banter, with politics becoming another sport: political parties playing the role of favourite teams. It bothers me, though, and I have often wondered if there might be better ways to share information than broadcasted infantile bickering.

This year I have been studying qualitative interviewing techniques for social research. One method is to approach an interview with a loose structure in mind - a list of issues one wants to cover - but to let the interview flow naturally so that the interviewee can raise issues that they think important. The point here is to avoid having the researcher impose his or her expectations and values onto the interview.

For example I was involved in a project interviewing victims of crime about the impact this had on their lives. Without our prompting, several interviewees spontaneously identified likely criminals with slang terms about Dublin working class males ('skanger', 'scumbag') or drug-addicts ('junkie'). This was one unexpected result that may not have arisen had we used a tightly structured interview, with a list of preordered questions.

An important part of the interviewing process was to listen very carefully to our interviewees, so that we were ready to follow through on interesting points being raised. We also had to be very courteous and respectful, partly in the hope that such positive behaviour would help them open up on sensitive topics, but also because our lecturers had an obsession with ethics. (Coming from the journalistic background where consent to be quoted was usually presumed with a lot less care and concern, I was surprised by the focus on ethics in social research. Working for magazines or newspapers I never had to get signed consent forms or promise to stop the interview if my interviewee was feeling uneasy!) There was also a big focus on avoiding leading questions, asking respondents how they felt about events but not saying things like: 'Did that make you angry?'

This approach lets people tell their stories - and they were often fascinating stories indeed.

I've also been listening lately to some really good examples of non-confrontational interviews. Economist Russ Roberts of EconTalk has long chats - over an hour sometimes - with other economists, social scientists, journalists, political scientists and the like. Roberts has a strong libertarian perspective and this informs these chats as Roberts rambles on about what he thinks and then invites his guest to weigh in. When the guests disagree, however, Roberts is willing to back up, admit that he's not sure or hadn't thought of that point before. Most of all he is courteous, never making the disagreement into a personal argument.

Another good example is Melvyn Bragg's In Our Time series on BBC Radio 4, in which Bragg interviews historians or various other experts about some weekly topic like the collapse of the Aztecs, or the poetry of Christina Rossetti. It's not perfect - Bragg is so conscious of time that he hurries on the experts to fit everything in, which can be a little grating - but this is still a respectful way to interview, in which extracting interesting information is the point.

This kind of patient and polite interviewing may not work with much political journalism as politicians might be feared to take advantage of it to just get free propaganda. But it could compliment the present confrontational journalism. I would be quite interested to see major Irish politicians talked through their political beliefs. Why do they believe what they believe? This would focus less on the specific policies then being enacted and more on the political philosophies from which they arise. I wonder if this courteous approach might actually let politicians relax, drop their guards, and become more open and honest too. By backing us away from the vicious, defensive squabbling of much broadcast political discussion we might actually learn more.

A final example. I've been thinking recently that if a Western journalist was able to interview Vladimir Putin there would probably be an expectation that the journalist put challenging questions to Putin about Russia's human rights record. There would, that is, be a confrontational approach. Instead, I thought it might be more revealing to talk Putin through Russian history so that he might be able to ground his policies in a historical context. Instead of an aggressive questioning about Russian foreign policies and human rights failings I thought it might be very revealing to offer Putin this question: 'What do you think West European countries could learn from Russia?' This kind of polite and respectful question might just elicit a shallow response, but it might give us an insight into Putin's true beliefs and intentions by letting him project his ideas onto Europe. Sometimes, we might catch more flies with honey than vinegar.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The economic potential of teleportation in "Jumper"

Right now the American film Jumper is playing on television before me. Jumper tells the story of an unpopular teenage boy called David who discovers that he has the ability to teleport. David abandons his abusive father and lives the high life, "jumping" into bank vaults to steal piles of cash, then jumping about the world's most glamorous cities.

David's criminal jumping gets him in trouble with the police and, more importantly, a weird sect who hunt and kill jumpers.

What a waste! Yes jumpers could live as parasites breaking the law, but the possibilities for legitimate enterprise with teleportation are endless. Transportation costs for relatively small objects (the jumpers could teleport objects as big as a doubledecker bus safely) would be brought to zero. Precious metals would be jumped from African mine to Asian factory, and finished products from Asian factory to American market with no fuel costs, CO2 emissions, border issues or delay. How about space flight - can these guys jump into orbit? If so, they could simply don a spacesuit on earth, jump into space to take photographs, and be home for tea in ten minutes. (Or further - jump to Mars? To distant planets on the other side of the universe?)

Even if we stay grounded, the potential is immense. Jumpers could carry medical supplies to distant communities in mountains or islands, to the scientific communities working on Antarctica. Jumpers working with emergency services to get first aid supplies to accidents and to carry victims back to hospital. Jumpers flooding disaster zones with aid workers, food, robots, supplies.

The darker potential is great too. Imagine jumpers as spies and assassins, slipping into the secret service offices of their enemies. Technology would rush to catch up with the danger of jumpers with nuclear weapons. That would change everything.

So I have these geeky thoughts when I see science fiction or fantasy films sometimes. The superheroes who use their powers to fight crime might be far more productive in transportation, health, engineering and industry. What could we do with Spiderman's mass-produced spider silk? The Human Torch's ability to superheat himself and materials around him could be handy in industry. Storm's ability to control the weather could be used to stop the droughts and floods that kill millions. Not as exciting as crime-fighting, perhaps, but possibly more beneficial to humanity.

And also more likely to happen. If some bizarre new superpower could be used to make money, somebody would try to do so.

Mali's coup, Ireland's mutinies, France's conspiracy

I wrote a lot here about the chaos of Rome's Third Century AD when any taboos about seizing power completely broke down and military generals were repeatedly hailed as emperor by their armies, marching them into dreadful civil wars against the sitting emperors in Rome. The Praetorian Guard, meant to protect the emperors, instead bullied and manipulated them into pay hikes and gifts, murdering many of them. One of the most notorious incidents was the murder of Emperor Pertinax, who was stabbed by an irritated guard after refusing to grant their demands. The Praetorians subsequently auctioned out of the emperor position to the highest bidder among Rome's wealthy.
I marvelled that such violent disobedience by soldiers and police seems largely unknown in modern developed countries. It would be absolutely unthinkable that the Irish army would march on the parliament and demand a raise. In Mali, however:
The event began with discontent in the ranks of the Malian military over the government's handling of a rebellion by Tuaregs in the north of the country. The rebellion has surged in recent months—leading the other day to a Tuareg capture of Timbuktu—probably facilitated by an influx of arms from Libya following the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi. When the Malian defense minister visited a military camp a few miles outside the capital of Bamako and failed to respond adequately to grievances about the response to the rebellion, soldiers started firing in the air and stoning the minister's car. As things got out of hand in the enlisted ranks, most officers at the camp fled. An exception was Sanogo, who soon found himself at the head of a revolt that made its way to the state broadcasting station and the presidential palace.
Imagine a military coup that starts with undisciplined soldiers throwing stones at a government minister's car. It wouldn't happen here today.

Yet there were mutinies in the Irish army and police in the early years after independence. Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) police officers deserted in droves during the War of Independence when the legitimacy of the British rule was lower than ever. When new police were being trained after independence for the new police force, some radical nationalist recruits were bitter to see old RIC members among them, and embarked on a clumsy mutiny that provoked the government to halt their salaries. When the mutiny was ended and salaries released, the trainees celebrated by getting raging drunk and someone was shot dead by accident. The government decided then that the new police force would not carry firearms!

Ireland was rocked in the 1920s by continued nationalist unrest as the remains of the IRA murdered police officers and even a government minister in 1927. When the ruling Cumann na nGaedheal party lost the 1932 election, their rivals Fianna Fáil carried pistols in their jackets into parliament in the expectation that Cumann na nGaedheal would refuse to hand over power. Instead Cumann na nGaedheal accepted defeat and Irish democracy was strengthened in its first peaceful transfer of power.

It took Ireland many decades to develop legitimacy and stability, but today it goes without question. The same is true for Britain, where widespread riots last summer were never expected to cause the collapse of the state. Today we feel far from the Roman and Malian disorder, but that chaos is just a few decades in the past. Paul Pillar, who wrote this piece about Mali, continues:
We might also note that it was fifty-one years ago this month, in the next country to the north of Mali—i.e., Algeria—that four French generals staged a putsch that they intended would lead to a takeover of the government of France. It took Charles de Gaulle, donning his World War II uniform and appealing once again to the patriotism of his countrymen, to defeat the coup attempt.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Ireland's Rural Rebound

I grew up in the rural west of Ireland, surrounded by fields full of cattle and the crumbling houses abandoned by generations of emigrants. The area had been economically stagnant for a long time and young people fled to cities or to the US and UK. It was a place people came from, and to which only nostalgic Irish-American tourists would sometimes return for short visits.

Left behind economically, the rural areas still had a kind of cultural clout because early 20th century Irish nationalists had identified the rural peasantry as a moral ideal for the nation: simple, hard-working, Catholic, communal and decent. This contrasted with those city-dwellers who were judged to have been corrupted by the distractions of British and American cultures, who had become sophisticated and Anglicised, secular English-speaking hedonists. At least that was a very broad idea. It was typified by the astonishing speech given by Eamon de Valera, one of Ireland's leading 20th century politicians, when he was Taoiseach (prime minister) in 1943:
"... 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. . . ."
Godly, simple, pure - and utterly alien to the materialistic comfort that Irish people would actually seek and enjoy decades later.

Anyway this powerful image of the pure Irish peasantry, described again and again in Irish drama and literature, would provoke some irritation among the urban people for whom it meant little. New films and literature emerged based around gritty urban Dublin life: crime series about human trafficking and drug gangsterism, dramas about fashionable, unsmiling urbanites' careers and adulteries. All this was a new Ireland that seemed modern, sophisticated and integrated to Europe and the world. This was very far from the old, Catholic, rosy-cheeked rural innocence.

Of course the countryside was changing rapidly too. Where I lived economic decline caused mass-emigration and whole communities died off. The spread of communications technology had the same impact there as elsewhere; I grew up watching Spiderman and Bugs Bunny on Saturday morning TV shows. Free public schooling probably helped to even the educational gaps between urban and rural, so that when I moved to Dublin at 18 I had little culture shock. The city was like lots and lots of country people all living in the one place.

And yet there were differences. Catholicism seemed to linger stronger in the countryside, while class division and class identity were stronger in the city. Most of the national news media were based in Dublin and country people complained that they were not represented in Dublin-dominated news. Even I was surprised one summer when I worked in a local pub in a small town and saw the kind of country and western music my neighbours were enjoying. Their simple and predictable songs had nothing in common with the sexed-up pop and rock of the city. There was a continuing rural culture that was mostly (though not entirely) ignored by the mainstream media.

One consequence of this may be an underestimation by urban media of the strength of rural beliefs and values. I noticed this a few times recently, seeing the contemptuous amusement of journalists and others on Twitter over the emergence of an Irish country and western band called Crystal Swing. The band consists of a mother and two teenage children who sing rather unfashionable and cheesy music - the exact same kind of music that played in the small pub I worked in years earlier. In fact I knew that this kind of music was unremarkable and probably playing in small towns right across the country. Should you be interested, here is Crystal Swing's He Drinks Tequila:

Granted, to me it also seems pretty odd, but it's no surprise. This is like an unusually competent version of what I had to listen to when serving larger to contented locals at that old bar. I was surprised by the astonishment with which this track was received: did they not know that this music was popular in the countryside?

This hip urban confusion when faced with rural realities seemed to apply to more serious issues too. The survival of Catholic conservatism in rural areas, and the general failure of left wing movements to take root to the extent they had in Dublin long ago, led to the perseverance of right-conservative politics.

For example, before 1995 divorce was illegal in Ireland. That year a referendum was held to decide the future legality of divorce. Every Dublin constituency voted in favour of the change to legalise divorce. Yet the western constituencies, belonging to the poorest and most rural populations in Ireland, overwhelmingly rejected it. The following are all the western constituencies making a line down the western coast, and every one of them chose to retain the prohibition on divorce:

Mayo West
Mayo East
Galway West
Galway East
Kerry North
Kerry South
Donegal North-East
Donegal South-West

This illustrates the cultural differences between the conservative western rural Ireland and the liberal eastern urban. The referendum was passed in the end, barely. I remember it because I was in school at the time and the Vote No campaign was loud and assertive in my rural region.

All of this came back to me yesterday when I noticed this Eurostat press release looking at the urban-rural demographics of the EU. Eurostat explain:
The urban–rural typology is based on a classification of grid cells of 1 km² as either urban or rural. To be considered as urban, grid cells should fulfill two conditions: a population density of at least 300 inhabitants per km² and a minimum population of 5 000 inhabitants in contiguous cells above the density threshold. The other cells are considered as rural.
With this categorisation Ireland is, well, very rural indeed, by far the most rural country in the EU with 73% of the population living in rural areas. I have described the population decline in rural areas, but not the revival. In the late 1990s the economic boom allowed people to pour back into Ireland and many of them rushed back into the countryside, filling shrinking country schools with a new generation of children. Eurostat note:
In nearly all Member States, it was in urban regions that the population grew most rapidly. Ireland was an exception with growth in its rural population, while the urban population declined. The highest population growth in urban regions in 2010 was observed in Sweden (+17.3 per 1000 inhabitants), Denmark (+15.0‰), the Czech Republic (+10.2‰) and Finland (+10.0‰). Lithuania4 (-13.6‰), Ireland (-5.7‰) and Latvia (-5.4‰) recorded a decrease in their urban populations.

The rural population rose in ten Member states and fell in fourteen. The largest increases were registered in Belgium (+7.3‰ in 2009), Ireland (+6.1‰) and France (+5.1‰ in 2009), and the largest decreases in Lithuania4 (-31.6‰), Bulgaria (-13.2‰) and Latvia (-11.6‰).
So the balance is shifting again, with growth in the countryside and decline in the cities. Will the new generation of rural people - influenced by national education and international entertainment media - be identical to the urbanites in culture and politics? Or will the religiosity, insularity and conservatism of the countryside lead to a revival of those traits as its population rebounds? Perhaps, at least, city-based journalists need to be aware that the cultures they experience every day on 'the streets' are, in Ireland, the cultures of an urban minority.