Sunday, January 29, 2012

Sexist Sex

Pay two boxers to beat one another to a pulp for the pleasure of the paying audience audience. They risk broken ribs, blindness, brain damage - 'over 80 per cent of professional boxers have serious brain scarring on MRI scans' - sometimes death. After taking dreadful beatings before the braying crowd, the boxers are celebrated and cheered, widely admired. Here is the great Irish boxer Katie Taylor hailed as the 'Role Model of the Week' for feminist blog Feminist.ie.

In the narrative of many feminists, though, prostitutes - regardless of how great or little the risks to their health, or how much they earn - are presumed victims.

I got into a discussion about this in the comments section of the Antiroom blog last year, when I was surprised to read this statement in an article on prostitution:
Taking the stance that prostitution and the social and cultural attitudes which sustain it are deeply rooted in gender inequality and social marginalisation, Ruhama unequivocally affirms that prostitution represents violence against women and a violation of human rights.
This was confusing on two counts that I mentioned in the comments:
How do they explain prostitution by men? Are male prostitutes also suffering gender inequality?

I have doubts that prostitution must inherently violate anyone’s rights. SuperFreakonomics features a “high end” prostitute who earned over $200,000 a year. It seems bizarre to step between her and her clients and insist that actually she is a victim.
Later, less composed, I said:
But the idea that “prostitution represents violence against women” is nonsensical! If both parties agree to it then it’s, by definition, not violent. It’s just another commercial transaction.

The beatings, robberies, enslavement, rapes, etc. that accompany some kinds of prostitution are acts of violence, but consensual paid sex is certainly not, so I’d question that part of their perspective. Hopefully that doesn’t take from the good aspects of their charity work.
Well that did not go down well! Other readers made several points to me. You can read their arguments on the link above; the general gist is as follows:

- Prostitutes are all vulnerable
- They are miserable
- Prostitution 'represents' violence against those selling sex
- The consensuality of the sex act is a 'technicality' only
- How would I feel if a female family member became a prostitute, 'making a career decision to invite thousands of strange men into her vagina'?
- Most prostitutes are poorly paid, most of their income goes to male pimps
- The transfer of money creates a power imbalance in favour of the buyer

In response to the question put to me about whether I'd like a family member to become a prostitute I replied:
First, supposing a woman close to me chose to have lots of recreational sex with men, “inviting thousands of strange men into her vagina”. I might not think it particularly wise, but I would maintain that this is her decision. Neither she nor those males are comitting acts of violence with consensual sex.

Prostitution is that, plus the exchange of money. This absolutely is just another job, if usually a miserable one. That “career decision” is hers (or his) to make.
And finally, one last observation of my own:
Sexually objectifying someone is considered a terrible evil, even while other kinds of objectification are cheerfully enjoyed. We can pay boxers to beat one another close to death. We can pay strangers for a massage to stimulate every part of the body except the sexual organs. But when sexual arousal is involved, it strangely becomes outrageous, and willing participants are presumed victims.
And thinking about this, a light went on. There just seems to be something about sex that makes many people unwilling to accept it as a commercial transaction. Sure, many of us feel that sex is best in an intimate and loving relationship, but others do not. I don't see the feminists denouncing or offering to rescue the men or women who choose consensual recreational sex with strangers. A woman may have sex for free with dozens of men and have the support of the feminists. Get paid for it and she is deemed a victim of violence.

I mulled over all of this for a long time, a bit bothered and confused by it all. Some time later I was reading an article on the Freakonomics blog about the huge sex imbalance growing in some Asian countries as female foetuses are aborted by parents hoping to have sons. The imbalance means that the proportion of females to males is falling, and some observers worry that millions of unmarried men will spark political chaos, rebellion, mass-sexual trafficking, rape and so on. Freakonomics invited readers to ask questions to a researcher working on the issue, and I noticed that the very last comment (just after my own question) was from someone called Dr Laura Agustin, who linked to an article on her website, where she wrote:
In order to draw only dire conclusions about the now famous disparity in numbers between males and females in Asia, you need to view girls and women as inferior yourself. If the data showed there to be fewer males, you can be sure they would be seen to be in an advantageous position: able to pick and choose amongst prospective spouses, enjoying gender power. Instead, a surfeit of men is imagined to cause sex trafficking and bride-buying, the assumption being that when women become required, men will traffick them. Why not think women will migrate to places where they are lacking, take on traditionally female jobs and enjoy an advantage in the local marriage market or selling sex?
Here was a radically different view from that of the feminists on the Antiroom blog. Agustin saw women selling sex as empowered business people, not victims. Her Wikipedia page calls her a sociologist, though her website is called The Naked Anthropologist, and it is fascinating.

Agustin just does not see sex-workers as victims. She views those feminists who push for prohibitions like the Swedish system (where selling sex is legal but buying it is illegal) with some irritation, calling them 'State Feminists' who:
recreate women as always already unempowered victims rather than protagonists of their own lives who opt for one or another of the limited alternatives available...
Her website includes this Youtube video of Agustin discussing her views. One incredible comment:
So here's this huge zeitgeist in Europe that's about sexuality as this - we're progressing somewhere, we're going to know everything about ourselves and it's some deep knowledge, but there's one thing you can't do. You can't take money for it. Why!

This is exactly what I had been wondering above. Why, in a society of great sexual liberty, is paying for it alone still considered taboo? Far from empowering women the prohibitionist feminists seemed to be infantalising women, treating them as weak and helpless victims who are not capable of deciding the courses of their own lives.

One woman commenting on Agustin's blog calls herself Furry Girl. She is a sex-worker who runs a blog called Feminisnt, and I wrote about her here before. Furry Girl takes Agustin's renunciation of 'State Feminism' a step further by rejecting feminism completely. (Or at least 'the feminisms of Western, industrialized nations - the sort spouted by shrill, irritating people with too much time on their hands and a bizarre desire to feel oppressed by everything'.) Her explanation:
feminism is commonly embraced by people whose underlying beliefs are that women are stupid, feeble creatures who need to be controlled and saved; feminism these days focuses way too much on imaginary first-world problems like women who choose to feel badly about themselves because they think they're not pretty enough; some feminist leaders are obsessed with fanning and exploiting insecurities in women in order to indoctrinate them to their style of victim feminism, rather than being positive and helping women see that they can be strong and powerful. Last but not least: it's REALLY FUCKING DIFFICULT to spend your entire life being picked on by girls and women for various reasons, then swallow the idea that women are your true sisters and that men are the cruel enemy that oppresses you. Bitches be crazy, yo.
Finally I discovered Maggie McNeill, the pseudonym for a 'retired call girl' who writes at The Honest Courtesan blog. McNeill has a subtle perspective on prostitution that is influenced by her belief that men and women have biologically determined behavioural differences brought about by evolution. Here she explains that that prostitution does not suit everyone:
The majority of women who directly take money for sex once or a few times simply decide it’s not for them (for whatever reason) and find some other way to make a living. But there are a small number who should never have even tried it in the first place, yet are driven by necessity, desperation or actual coercion to practice it for weeks, months or even years; such women are among the worst enemies our profession ever had. Because they hate the work, they tend to see and remember only the negative aspects. And because many of them are emotionally damaged even before entering prostitution (due to whatever trauma caused them to hate men and/or sex), and virtually all of them became even more damaged by having to endure what for them was a loathsome existence, they either become fanatics on their own or are easily driven to fanaticism by the prohibitionists. These are the women who call themselves “survivors” and learn to “reframe their experiences” (i.e. lie to make their stories more lurid and to more closely conform to anti-whore rhetoric). They are the mainstays of “john schools” and provide ammunition to prohibitionists who represent their highly-embroidered claims as typical of sex work and even multiply the accounts by changing small details so as to make them sound like different-but-similar tales rather than one repeated ad nauseum. The very worst of them (as typified by Somaly Mam) are so obsessed with their own darkness that they are willing to utterly destroy the lives of any real human beings who get in the way of their quixotic crusades against private behavior that is literally impossible to eradicate as long as humans remain human.

In a world where individuals were allowed control over their own bodies and the decisions of adults (however strange those choices might seem to others) were always respected by the “authorities”, fanatics who were harmed through ill-fortune or harmed themselves through their own poor choices would have no power over other, less damaged individuals. But unfortunately we do not yet live in such a world; even in jurisdictions which have legalized prostitution to one degree or another, governments believe they have the authority to abrogate the rights of individuals for whatever excuse strikes their collective fancy (provided they can convince the masses to lie still for it).
McNeill is deeply opposed to any form of prohibitionism, and sees prostitution as not only inevitable and natural but even desirable: 'I think it’s fantastic news that more women are choosing to do sex work'.
A great deal of prohibitionism is fueled by the myth that all whores are monsters, criminals, defectives or victims rather than what we actually are: women using our natural abilities to make a living, just as men use their natural abilities to do so without anyone as much as batting an eyelash.
She places the prohibitionist feminists (who she calls 'neofeminists') in the context of wider illiberal policies and attitudes; I wish I had read her responses to common criticisms of prostitution before arguing in the Antiroom comments. I am relieved to see that at least some researchers and actual sex workers broadly share my thoughts on sex work, even if I can't vouch for everything they say.

Those who find the idea of commercial sex repugnant should not enforce their tastes on others. How odd to see feminists who denounce patriarchy, calling for the male-dominated government and justice system to force women out of prostitution. Who better to weigh up the risks and benefits of prostitution than the individual women and men who choose to do it? The idea that female prostitutes must be so ruined and vulnerable as to be treated as children seems sexist and backward.

Those people who really are enslaved should have their liberty restored and protected by the state, and the slave-traders brought to justice. But willing adult participants should surely be left alone. Trapped between conservative moralists and feminists, female prostitutes are depicted as corrupt seductresses or infantile victims. Why not just treat them as adults, business people, making rational decisions to better their own lives like anyone else?

Thursday, January 26, 2012

What if the Irish had not been able to emigrate?

I was chatting online with an Indian friend yesterday about the role of Irish people in the histories of surprising countries: Chile, Papua New Guinea, Argentina and so on. Then our conversation went like this:

R: pretty interesting that there are far more irish people outside ireland than in ireland itself

Shane: big time, yes
the two-step plan back in the 19th century
Step 1: Leave these sorrowful shores
Step 2: Mate repeatedly!

R: what would have happened to ireland though without these mass immigrations?

Shane: hmm
massive population growth
more famine
i guess
lots of fighting with british
general chaos and poverty

R: hmm

Hmm indeed. This got me immediately thinking about modern migration controls.

Emigration played a deeply significant role in Irish history, so important and traumatic that we were generally taught about it in terms of the Irish families losing their sons and daughters to the US and Britain. This was a powerful narrative here in Ireland, especially in the rural west where I grew up, and it informed even fiction, like the Brian Friel play Philadelphia, Here I Come! (1964), which I studied in school. That play depicts a young man in a small western town, weighing up his love for his home and for his uptight, silent father, with his frustration at the economic and cultural stagnation:
I’ve stuck around this hole far too long. I’m telling you, it’s a bloody quagmire, a backwater, a dead-end! And everybody in it goes crazy sooner or later! Everybody!
Millions of Irish people fled the country, mostly to the US, Britain, and Australia. The population of Ireland, which had been rising fast in the 19th century, collapsed during the Great Famine of the 1840s and continued to sink from mass-emigration for well over a century. This is how Ireland's population would look in time:
The fall, after the famine, was mainly affected by the vast scale of emigration. I told my Indian friend that when I was growing up we could expect every child in the local school would have cousins in the US. The American branch of the family was a near-total phenomenon.

The emigration drained the countryside of houses, emptying villages, leaving the land dotted with crumbling stone cottages, which I explored and played in when I was growing up in the 80s and 90s.
So, again, where on earth would all those people have gone if the US and Britain had sealed their borders to the Irish? Would there have been another catastrophic famine after a few years as the population recovered after the 1840s? My friend pointed out that Britain has far higher population density as Ireland, but Ireland was deeply underindustrialised, its Catholic population still recovering from a long period of sectarian persecution in which Catholics had been forbidden to educate their children. Could Ireland's cities have absorbed millions of desperate peasants? How would the country have developed without the millions of diaspora sending dollars and shillings to the desperate Irish family back home?

And if British and American sealed borders really would have sunk Ireland into a deeper demographic and economic disaster, what does it tell us about our responsibilities to poor migrants in developing countries today?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

I see dead people. I mean, bell curves.

Those familiar with football (soccer to my North American friends) will know that most matches end with relatively low scores: 1-0, 2-1, 0-0. Usually the stronger team wins as expected.

Sometimes, though, things just go strangely, the scores mount up and up, the weaker team squeezes in impossible goals, the stronger team screws up easy shots. Such matches are rare and commentators get excited trying to explain why events had turned out so weirdly.

So I wondered, do football results have a normal distribution?

A normal distribution means that when measured for some variable, like height, weight, income, most of what is being measured clusters around the middle and ever-decreasing numbers spread out at the fringes. It produces a curve like this below, supplied by Qwfp and Pbroks13 on Wikipedia, the bell curve. Height, for a particular age group, is a common example: most people have fairly average, ordinary height, a few are very tall or very small, and tiny numbers are giants or dwarfs.
So out of curiosity, I looked at every result Manchester United got in the 2010-11 season, in all competitive matches. I subtracted the score of the opposing team from United's score for each match, giving me a goal difference for every match of plus or minus a number of goals. I then plotted this onto a graph.
A normal distribution! More or less: the goal difference clusters around the centre, with dwindling numbers towards the fringes.

Mode = 1. That is, the most common result for a Manchester United match in the 2010-11 season was to win by one goal, be it a 1-0 win, or 2-1, 3-2, etc. United being a strong team, they tend to win.

Median = 1

Mean = 3.78

The mean is higher than the median because, while United were most likely to win by one goal, they also won quite often by two goals (5 times), three goals (5 times) and five goals (3 times), while they were much less likely to lose by more than one goal (down 3 only once, and down 5 also only once).

Those strange results I mentioned in the beginning fit at the edges in this graph. In 2011 United won a bizarre 8-2 victory against Arsenal, giving us their solitary 6-goal lead. They were also hammered by Manchester City 6-1, giving the 5-goal loss.

This is a small sample, and I would really need to look through hundreds or thousands of matches to see if the distribution remains roughly normal. I suspect it would. So while commentators try to figure out what went wrong or right in individual matches, a probabilistic approach might say that if you play enough matches sooner or later you will start supplying those freak upsets. Far from being impossible for Manchester United to lose 6-1, it is highly likely - but only if you get them to play a sufficiently high number of games.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Dirty racist Australians

A few years ago I was surprised to see uproar on discussion forums with lots of Indians complaining about Australia racism. There had been a number of high-profile criminal attacks on Indian students studying in Australia, and these were considered indicative of a wider Australian racism towards Indians.

I was surprised first because the Australians were being criticised for being racist specifically against Indians. When I lived for a few months in Sydney I was close to the Chinatown; Sydney is very cosmopolitan but the Chinese were by far the most visible non-white minority. If the Australians were attacking ethnic minorities I would expect there to be a big uproar on behalf of the Chinese as well as the Indians: it was difficult to imagine ignorant Australian racists about to attack an Asian student and then: 'No, wait! He's Chinese, let him go.'

For this reason, I was a bit unconvinced by the hype. Meanwhile the anti-Australian rhetoric was rising; I even saw a few Indians arguing that Australians were descended from convicts and thus racist aggression is in their blood. (I'm no cricket fan, but I gather there was irritation about some poor sportsmanship by Australian cricketers around the time too, and Australians were getting a reputation for boorish and aggressive behaviour.) When Victorian Police Commissioner Simon Overland claimed that Australia was safer for Indian students than India was, he was greeted (understandably: his comments came a week after an Indian student called Nitin Garg was murdered in Victoria) with astonished irritation and rage.

The narrative stirred up a lot of negative interest about Australia in India; here is a Google Insights for Search graph showing the frequency of 'racist Australia' searches in India since 2004:
So what was happening? There were certainly attacks on Indian students in Australia, but there were attacks on non-Indians too.

In 2011 the Australian Institute of Criminology produced a 191-page report called Crimes against international students in Australia: 2005–09, in an attempt to shed some light on the issue. Some results:
Overall, international students from the five source countries generally experienced incidents of physical assault at significantly lower rates than in the general population in each state/territory jurisdiction in 2009. This was true for most nationalities in most jurisdictions and was a generally consistent finding for each year since 2005. In some cases, comparisons between students from different countries showed that for some years, in some jurisdictions, Indian students had experienced higher rates of assault than students from China, Korea, Malaysia and the United States.
First: foreign students are at a lower risk of attack than others. Second: despite my scoffing earlier, Indians are at a uniquely high risk amongst international students.
The nature of assaults (day of week, time of day and location) experienced by international students was generally consistent between students of different nationalities and the reference Australian populations. The notable exception was that a greater proportion of male Indian students were assaulted in commercial (retail) locations and in, or near, public transport facilities.
Regarding robbery:
In 2009, the rate of robbery victimisation among male Indian students in some jurisdictions was higher than the corresponding state average for the reference Australian population—a finding that was consistent for most years since 2005. Chinese male students were also at higher risk of victimisation compared with state averages in some jurisdictions, as were Indian female students.
And theft:
There was little difference in the rates of other theft both among the international student groups and between the five student groups and the general Australian population (unweighted Australian comparisons) in most states since 2005. The exception was for Indian male students who had higher rates of other theft than students from China, Korea and the United States in some jurisdictions.
The authors then added that the report's available data isn't enough to understand the motivation of attacks. The slightly disproportionate victimisation of Indian males might have been because of some strangely specific anti-Indian racism, or...
The types of employment, areas of residence and evening activities (including both shift work and use of public transport) are specific areas of risk for international students that appear to explain some of the incidence of robbery for Indian students, in particular....

Indian students in particular, are known to have a greater proficiency in English and, as such, appear much more likely than students from east Asian countries to find employment in the service sector. This includes service stations, convenience stores, taxi drivers and other employment that typically involves working late night shifts alone and come with an increased risk of crime, either at the workplace or while travelling to and from work.

Further, the limited availability of on-campus accommodation for higher education students, and the lack of on-campus accommodation for vocational students, have led many to secure private rentals in inner urban areas as well as to rely on public transport in areas with higher concentrations of crime. Together with their over-representation as employees in the hospitality and services sector, students are therefore faced with multiple risk factors that increase their probability of victimisation irrespective of their racial appearance. The finding that there was a substantial over-representation of Indian students in retail/commercial robberies lends support to this view.

So victimisation may be deliberately racist, or simply opportunistic. The authors added that a mixture of the two could sometimes happen, saying that the carrying of electronic goods by Indians along with a perception of Indians as 'soft' targets were cited as motivations. (I'm reminded of the 'Barbarians' gang in France who abducted, tortured, and murdered a young Jewish man because, they said, Jews were 'loaded'.)

What we're left with is that most international students experience unusually low rates of criminal victimisation, while male Indian students experience rates similar to the wider Australian population. There are a range of possible reasons for the latter discrepancy, including complex and subtle issues to do with the locality and behaviour of the Indian student subgroup. There might have been some racist motivation, in some cases.

But the report turns the angry media narrative on its head. Life for Indian students in Australia was no more dangerous than it was for regular Australians. There was little or no issue; Indian students are just people and people get attacked. The murderer of young student Nitin Garg turned out to be a 15-year-old who remarked to a friend that 'that bloke's phone looks nice' when they saw Garg walking through a park on the way to work at 9:30pm. He stabbed Garg in an opportunistic robbery attempt.

Today the excitement has largely passed but some rumours and blanket denunciations of Australian society continue. From The Herald Sun, just days ago:
Melbourne was gripped by a wave of racist assaults on Indian students in 2009, which has been blamed for a drop in the number of students from that country enrolling here this year.
A wave of racist assaults? What wave? When did it start? Has it passed?

Saturday, January 21, 2012

How many children are in the US sex trade? Just guess.

Joel Best, in his Damned Lies and Statistics; Untangling Numbers from the Media, Politicians, and Activists, explains that activists sometimes estimate quite big numbers for the social problem they want to address. When their target social issue is poorly-understood to start with, as is often true for illicit activities like drug use or prostitution, the true numbers are unknown and the estimate may go unchallenged. The large estimate of the activists is then repeated, misinterpreted and further exaggerated.

...Like this, perhaps. Maggie McNeill is a prostitute who writes The Honest Courtesan blog. She is firmly opposed to the prohibition of prostitution. In this blog post from last year, McNeill complains that some of the figures being discussed in American media estimating the number of children in the sex trade are grossly exaggerated:
The biggest danger of such rhetoric is that it plays fast and loose with the facts and the tale grows in the telling. Girls who can’t be told from legal adults become “children”, hiring for a service becomes “buying for sex” as though they were carried home in a plain brown wrapper and stored in a drawer in the nightstand, and a rare event (only about 3.54% of all prostitutes are underage) becomes a “hidden epidemic” and normal, decent men are accused en masse. But we’ve seen all that before; what makes this article unique is that it affords us the rare opportunity to catch a lie in the actual process of growth. The author says “according to the Daily Beast, 100,000 – 300,000 children between the ages of 12 and 14 years old are victims of the child sex trade in this country” and helpfully provides us a link. But if you click on that link you’ll find that’s not what the article says at all; the actual quote is “Between 100,000 and 300,000 children—primarily girls between the ages of 12 and 14—are victims of the sex trade right here in the United States.” The new claim drops “primarily” and represents all of them as being in that age range.

The “300,000 trafficked children” fantasy grew by exactly such misquotes. Its original source was a 2001 study by Richard Estes and Neil Weiner of the University of Pennsylvania which guesstimated (by questionable methodology) that “as many as 100,000-300,000 children and youth [of both sexes] are at risk for sexual exploitation” of one kind or another. Note that even if we accept the shaky methodology, this guess is for BOTH sexes, for “children and youth” (not just children), and most importantly represents those at risk of some form of “exploitation”, not currently involved in one specific form (sex trafficking). The paper is very revealing; if you peruse it you will see that Estes and Weiner rank types of “exploitation” by frequency, and that domestic and international “sex trafficking” are second and third from the bottom.
I can't vouch for McNeill's own numbers but she does make an interesting case. This looks just like an example Best would find familiar: numbers that are estimates to start with, misunderstood, simplified, and gradually exaggerated beyond their original purpose. McNeill has further issues with the definition of 'exploitation' used by the researchers, and the full article is worth a read. Very interesting indeed.

She mentions some confusion over the description of victims as being 'children', as 'child' is sometimes used in place of 'minor', meaning anyone under 18 years. I'm reminded of Professor Philip Jenkins, who has written about child abuse by Catholic clergy and media treatment of this issue. In 2010 I contacted Prof Jenkins for an article on the biological and psychological causes of paedophilia. In an email exchange Jenkins pointed out the very same confusion:
let me distinguish between pedophilia and improper sexual conduct with minors.,The age is everything in such matters. Homosexuality is not linked to pedophilia (see below). However a man who has sex with a male of fourteen, fifteen, sixteen or seventeen years is not a pedophile. What is he? Is he a homosexual? A pederast? English is lacking in terms for such behavior.
Further, Jenkins pointed me towards an article he had just written for The American Conservative, where he discussed a fascinating study by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in 2004, looking at all allegations and convictions of child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy from 1950 to 2002:
A couple of points leap out about the allegations, particularly about the image of the “pedophile priest” pursuing his decades-long career of crime under the de facto protection of the Church. The John Jay study concluded that in this period, perhaps 4 percent of all U.S. priests had been plausibly accused of at least one act of sexual misconduct with a minor. But of the 4,392 accused priests, almost 56 percent faced only one misconduct allegation, and at least some of these would certainly vanish under detailed scrutiny.

Very few of the accused priests were pedophiles, in the sense of having abused a minor under the age of puberty, say 12 or 13 for a boy. In the U.S. at least, the great majority of cases of sexual misconduct by priests involve older boys, often aged between 15 and 17, or even older. This behavior is illegal, harmful, and sinful, but it is not pedophilia.
(My emphasis added.) I've heard social researchers refer to under-18 minors as children but this seems like risky language to use when most of us imagine tiny little pre-pubescent kids. In fact I can remember a member of the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children who gave us classes when I was 15-16 in school, also referring to us as 'children'. We were not amused! By 16 we might have lacked the vote, and a lot of sense, but we were no longer children.

Anyway Jenkins's article is also worth a read. His and McNeill's points are good warning lights for misleading statistics. Like I said, I love statistics in social research, but one needs to be very, very careful.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Democracy the dandelion: tough, resiliant, and spreading

Paul Pillar writes in The National Interest that Hungary's present government, with its allegedly undemocratic tendencies, shows how vulnerable democracy is.
This affair shows how even a country where liberal democratic principles seem to have been firmly established (and in this case a country that until now has been a member in good standing of the club of advanced democracies known as the European Union) may back away from consistent application of those principles. Democratization and liberalization are not necessarily one-way processes. To realize this goes against the tendency to think of them as a one-way process.
I see quite a bit of this concern about weakening democracy; remember Naomi Klein's 10 steps towards fascism, which she claimed George Bush's administration had well under way in 2007.

But I'm quite optimistic, because history seems to show that democratisation really has been a mostly one-way process. A century ago universal suffrage in democracies was almost unknown: only a handful of countries held elections and fewer allowed access to women. Today there are scores of such countries including billions of enfranchised people. Almost all of Europe, North America and South America have been democratised. In Asia great populous democracies like India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Japan and South Korea hold regular elections. The Economist says that between 1960 and 1991 only one African country 'witnessed any leader or ruling party being peacefully voted out of office' while, since 1991, 'no less than 30 ruling parties or leaders have been ousted by voters'.

Some of these are unstable, repressive, or rigged democracies. But perhaps the important thing here is that they are young; democracy hasn't yet had time to dominate and establish its legitimacy. When Fianna Fáil won the Irish general election in 1932, becoming the first opposition party to oust the dominant Cumann na nGaedheal, some of their members carried guns in their pockets into parliament for fear that Cumann na nGaedheal would refuse to surrender power. This was the insecurity of young Irish democracy, only a decade after the establishment of the Irish Free State.

Today such an act would seem hilarious or mad. Generations have been raised under democracy and now no alternative is discussed. Democracy in parts of Africa, Latin America, Asia (and even Eastern Europe, much of which lurched from monarchy to communism with little experience of democracy until the 1990s) is new. If it survives the first few turbulent decades then I expect it to strengthen.

There are countries like Pakistan, Turkey or Thailand that bob back and forth between democracy and dictatorship. I guess that as long as overthrowing the government with force is in people's memories it might seem a legitimate option. A few generations of continuous democracy might delegitimise other systems of government. The new democracies of North Africa are shaky and vulnerable now, but if they survive a few decades I expect them to succeed.

I can think of dozens of examples of old, long-established monarchies which changed into democracies. But old, long-established democracies which lapsed back into totalitarianism? No.

Democracy could worsen in quality, but I don't see any abandonment of elections and parliaments in established democracies. If I was a king or dictator, I would be deeply worried about the modern world with the very rapid expansion of democracy over the last century. Imagine how nervous the Chinese government must be with Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, Philippines, Malaysia, India, Bangladesh, and to some extent or other, Russia and Pakistan all adhering to forms of democracy. It is ascendent and in countries where it is long-established it is stable. World leaders whose power relies on unrepresentative forms of government should be nervous.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Reject statistics to protect prejudice

Nearing the end now of Joel Best's Damned Lies and Statistics and he divides people into four groups:

1) Awestruck: totally uncritically accepting any statistic, simply blown away by big numbers.
2) Naive: 'slightly more sophisticated' than Awestruck, but still accepting. Sincere, and generally assume the sincerity of those who create statistics.
3) Cynical: refusing to believe any statistics, think the numbers are too easily manipulated.
4) Critical: thoughtful, trying to evaluate the numbers and distinguish between good and bad statistics.

Best says that the Naive are the biggest group, but lately I've been coming across a lot of the Cynics. Discussing some social problem, I introduce statistics that challenge or support some argument, and the other person immediately dismisses them as useless, biased, even part of a conspiracy to make the government look good. I like Best's description:
Because the Cynical suspect that "you can prove anything with statistics," they can justify ignoring all the numbers - particularly those that challenge their beliefs.... They may be surprisingly sophisticated when pointing out the flaws in numbers they don't like, although they rarely examine their own side's figures with the same critical eye.
I find this too - the cynics replace statistical evidence with prejudice. Instead of rejecting statistics in favour of having no opinion, they reject it in favour of retaining their old, unsupported assumptions.

To me, statistics is exciting because it can help me to get past my own personal experiences, and therefore my own prejudices. The discovery that we are not stuck with our own personal experiences or, at most, the perspectives of scores or hundreds of authors we read, is a liberating one. With statistics we can view millions of data points, even billions, and track great global trends. Is Ireland a dangerous place? Person A visits Ireland and is immediately mugged. Person B visits and finds it safe and cordial. Only statistics, pulling back for a wider view, can say which is the more representative experience.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

"Crack babies" and Death

Continuing Joel Best's Damned Lies and Statistics; Untangling Numbers from the Media, Politicians, and Activists today. He makes an interesting observation about a moral panic that struck the US in the late 1980s over 'crack babies' - children born to mothers who were addicted to crack cocaine and who were believed to be badly disturbed, physically retarded and mentally deficient.

I immediately thought of Living Monstrosity, a 1990 track by American death metal pioneers Death. The lyrics of Living Monstrosity had always puzzled me:
The guilty one, innocent she now cries
A life of hell, better off to die
Born without eyes, hands, and a half a brain
Being born addicted to cocaine

Living monstrosity
A freak for life they'll always be
Never knowing love or hate
Only pain the drug creates

This is a typical grimy tone for death metal but I had never heard before the idea that drug-addicted mothers would give birth to severely, monstrously deformed children for whom death would be better than life. In this case Death's singer saw the act as a grave crime by the mother: 'An example we should make out of theses creators of misfortune'.

But Joel Best explains that the crack babies terror was unfounded. While 1980s advocates warned that 375,000 such children were being born each year, at a cost to the US of '$500 million or $3 billion or $20 billion annually', in reality the number was only around 30-50,000 and:
...crack babies did not exhibit the kinds of unique, permanent damage that had been predicted.... Because mothers addicted to crack tended to be impoverished, they often had poor nutrition and inadequate medical care during their pregnancies, and their babies faced considerable disadvantages. But children born addicted to crack did not have more severe problems than other, nonaddicted children born in similar circumstances.
So Death needn't have panicked and demanded justice. In our own time we have other scares based on exaggerated threats: child abduction, bird flu, ecstacy, paedophile priests and the like. It's fascinating to see these old, forgotten panics, a good reminder that the fashionable scares of today should be viewed critically. Plus I managed to squeeze a death metal reference into a post on statistics and media scares, and that pleases me.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The 35 trillion murdered children statistics

Years of debating on online discussion forums familiarised me with some of the more popular fallacies associated with various ideologies (often because others were quick to point them out when I made them myself). In online debates between diverse participants if someone makes a claim another will demand evidence, or supply counter evidence. Thus I've learned that Mein Kampf is not banned in 'the West', the world's poorer countries for the most part aren't getting poorer, and crime rates in developed countries aren't spiralling out of control. With my bullshit detector upgraded thus, I am quicker to sense nonsensical claims and hopefully less likely now to make them myself. (Feel free to point them out, when I do, however.)

At its most simple, if I hear something that sounds really shocking and disgraceful, little alarm bells ring and I quickly double-check to see if it is indeed true. If someone says the EU health and safety regulators are forcing tightrope walkers to wear hard hats, have a quick check and expose the nonsense for what it is.

I'm studying statistics for social science now so I'm getting a bit more aware of these kinds of myths in statistics, and of the mistakes I've made in interpreting statistics in the past too. My errors and the mad claims I've come across online pale, however, by comparison with this wonderful example in Joel Best's Damned Lies and Statistics; Untangling Numbers from the Media, Politicians, and Activists. Best was reading a dissertation prospectus by a student who was proposing a Ph.D. research project and read this:
'Every year since 1950, the number of American children gunned down has doubled.'
Clearly Best's bullshit detector starting jingling like mad:
I assumed the Student had made an error in copying it. I went to the library and looked up the article the Student had cited. There, in the journal's 1995 volume, was exactly the same sentence: 'Every year since 1950, the number of American children gunned down has doubled.'

This quotation is my nomination for a dubious distinction: I think it may be the worst - that is, the most inaccurate - social statistic ever.
Best explains the madness of this claim by suggesting we imagine that in 1950 only one child was shot. In 1951 there would be double: two children. 1952: four children shot.

1953: 8
1954: 16
1955: 32
1956: 64
1957: 128
1958: 256
1959: 512
1960: 1,024
1961: 2,048
1962: 4,096
1963: 8,192
1964: 16,384
1965: 32,768 (Best writes: 'in 1965 the FBI identified only 9,960 criminal homicides in the entire country, including adult as well as child victims'.
1966: 65,536
1967: 131,072
1968: 262,144
1969: 524,288
1970: 1,048,576
1971: 2,097,152
1972: 4,194,304
1973: 8,388,608
1974: 16,777,216
1975: 33,554,432
1976: 67,108,864
1977: 134,217,728
1978: 268,435,456
1979: 536,870,912
1980: 1,073,741,824
1981: 2,147,836,648
1982: 4,294,967,296
1983: 8,589,934,592 ('about twice the Earth's population at the time'.)
Another milestone would have been passed in 1987, when the number of gunned-down American children (137 billion) would have surpassed the best estimates for the total human population through history (110 billion). By 1995, when the article was published, the annual number of victims would have been over 35 trillion...
Best was intrigued that a journal was claiming that more children were shot in the United States in the 1980s than all the humans who had ever lived, so he contacted the author who pointed to the original source, from the Children's Defense Fund which wrote in 1994: 'The number of American children killed each year by guns has doubled since 1950.' Doubled since 1950, not doubled every year since 1950!

Probing a little deeper, Best realised:
This is not quite as dramatic an increase as it might seem. Remember that the U.S. population also rose throughout this period; in fact, it grew about 73 percent - or nearly double. Therefore, we might expect all sorts of things - including the number of child gunshot deaths - to increase, to nearly double just because the population grew. Before we can decide whether twice as many deaths indicates that things are getting worse, we'd have to know more.
This observation fits in Best's introduction so I'm looking forward to reading the rest. Already in class my lecturer has pointed out common errors which I'm guilty of, some of them on this blog, sorry! I'm interested in using statistics to understand how societies work and I do not accept the claim I occasionally encounter that statistics are so easily manipulated that they 'can say anything'. We simply need the skills to tell apart the nonsense from the truth, the little alarm bells that chimed in Joel Best's mind when he realised his student was claiming that the entire global population was shot dead in 1982. Readers who agree might like this 16-page guide for journalists on using statistics, written by the British Straight Statistics team.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The economic right's God and Nation thing


Why are so many of those who call for smaller governments and freer markets also religious, socially conservative, and nationalist? There are exceptions, but we often see all-encompassing political identities developing very broadly along the following lines:

Right
For free market capitalism
For aggressive foreign policies
For strict immigration control
For assertive nationalism
For drug prohibition
For prostitution/pornography prohibition
For religious education
Against gay marriage
Against abortion
Against sex education

Left
For more subtle or compromising foreign policy
For looser immigration control
For legalised abortion
For sex education
Against free markets, for government regulation and redistribution
Against aggressive nationalism
Against drug prohibition
Against prostitution/pornography prohibition
Against religious education

It always struck me that this was a rather arbitrary dichotomy. Could not one be in favour of free markets and secularism, sexual liberalism? Well one could and some people do. But the dichotomy persists, either side absorbing these apparently randomly-assigned attitudes to their identities.

Then I read this, economist Bryan Caplan discussing Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow. Kahneman was explaining that when people are faced with a difficult question which they cannot easily or immediately answer, they tend to substitute the difficult target question with a simpler 'heuristic' question. Kahneman's examples include:

Target question 1
How much would you contribute to save an endangered species?

Heuristic substitution 1
How much emotion do I feel when I think of dying dolphins?

Target question 2
How should financial advisers who prey on the elderly be punished?

Heuristic question 2
How much anger do I feel when I think of financial predators?

Do we all behave like this? I certainly think that I do. For example, see the difficult and complex question: 'Should foreign countries intervene when a government, like Syria right now, is violently oppressing its people?' There is a great maze of further questions to answer here. Is it legal under international law to intervene? Will the intervention succeed? Will there be unintended negative consequences? Will hands-off neutrality encourage oppression by tyrants elsewhere? Without the answers to all these questions I guess I simply translate it into the heuristic alternative: 'how do I feel about war?' The answer to that is immediate and easy: I don't feel good about it at all! So while I might rationalise my answer ('no, don't get involved') with a set of reasons, the core motivating reason for my reply is an emotional and deeply held value. I have discussed this inner irrational attitude towards war, and how it informs my stances on current events, on this blog before.

Anyway Caplan is excited by Kahneman's idea, and creates his own list of target questions and heuristic substitute questions. Caplan is a libertarian, favouring minimal government regulation or redistribution either in the economy or personal matters - just to warn you of the perspective he's coming from.

Target question 1
Does the minimum wage help low-skill workers?

Heuristic substitution 1
Would I be happy if employers gave low-skilled workers a raise?

Target question 2
Do anti-firing laws help workers in the long-run?

Heuristic substitution 2
Is it bad to be fired?

The target questions here are tricky. Maybe minimum wage laws do help low-skilled workers, and maybe they make them more likely to be made unemployed. Without great economics knowledge most people won't know the answer. But the heuristic replacement is simple. Do I want low-skilled workers to be protected from poverty? Of course, so to a minimum wage law: yes.

Remember that Caplan's perspective is that regulations like minimum wage or anti-firing laws are bad things which harm the economy as a whole and ultimately hurt the interests of low-skilled or vulnerable workers. He may be right or wrong, I'm not an economist so I can't argue either way. But for him, the left-leaning interventionist perspective seems easier for ordinary people to grasp, more pleasing to the heuristic substituted questions.

On another blog post Caplan argued that most Americans are actually social democrats who want government regulation and redistribution:
First, Americans only seem staunchly pro-market at the most abstract and symbolic level. On most specific policy issues, the pattern reverses. Americans favor as much or more government spending on almost everything. Only 41% of Americans are against or strongly against "control of prices by legislation." (GSS variable identifier SETPRICE) Only 21.3% are against or strongly against "supporting declining industries to protect jobs." (GSS variable identifier SAVEJOBS) Just 15.7% disagree or strongly disagree with the view that "America should limit the import of foreign products in order to protect its national economy."
Right, so this got me wondering. Suppose Caplan is correct that left-wing economic arguments are more pleasing and easier to grasp than right-wing arguments. The left, after all, can say: 'vote for us and we will give you free housing, education, healthcare and unemployment benefits if you lose your job'. The right-wingers are stuck saying: 'vote for us and we won't give you free housing, education, healthcare or unemployment benefits, but - trust us - you'll be better off without them'.

Perhaps the right-wingers are stuck with a more difficult justification of their policies, when the left-wing policies promise immediate and direct benefits. The right can argue that big wealth redistribution is harmful to the economy and will hurt the poor, but this wades into complex economics which most of us don't understand. The left have an easier time: give money and support to the poor. So long as they make it clear that the majority of voters are going to directly benefit, they seem to have a more powerful simple argument.

Then I thought, perhaps this is why so many right-wing movements are also associated with powerful, simplistic ideas in other areas. If the right cannot compete with the left in economic debates, they need some other powerful symbol to rally around. Religion, national identity, even the abstract notion of 'freedom' - these might be the simpler concepts that many voters have emotional connections with. So the right can create a new list of heuristic substituted questions for the more difficult ones. The following are my own:

Target question 1
Do you want universal healthcare?

Heuristic question 1
Do you prefer socialism or freedom?

Target question 2
Do you think the state should provide free education for all?

Heuristic question 2
Should the godless socialist government control what your child learns?

Target question 3
Should we cut spending on health and increase it on defence?

Heuristic question 3
Are you a patriot?

So my guess is that some on the right latch on to these simplistic ideas because their more complex economic views are not easy to defend. Far easier for American Republicans to denounce the Democrats as socialist Muslim hippie traitors than to actually go through Democrat economic programmes with a fine tooth comb and pick out complex concerns or apparent risks. The flag-waving and God-mentioning and name-calling might give the right the emotional edge that they lack with their economic ideas.

Friday, January 13, 2012

"Turkish rice" or "Why we should care about Nagasaki"

When I told friends that I was moving to Nagasaki back in 2007, some wondered aloud if I would be exposing myself to nuclear radiation from the atomic bombing of the city in 1945. In fact 80% of the residual radiation released after the bombing was exhausted within 24 hours; within a week the strength of radiation was one millionth that of the initial burst. Today Nagasaki and Hiroshima have radiation levels no greater than any other cities in the world, but they still carry an irritating legacy; the most famous thing about either city is that they were nuked.

It really shouldn't be so. Nagasaki played a pivotal role in Japanese history, as a Japanese friend just reminded me by remarking that she wanted トルコライス - a weird Japanese dish called toruko rice: Turkish rice.

Cooking Christians
By the 16th century Japan had collapsed into a network of warring kingdoms with no central power. The Emperor lived, but by this time his role was largely symbolic and religious, the real power lay with local samurai lords. One such lord, Oda Nobunaga, began the violent reunification of Japan through conquest, a campaign that led to a strange kind of alliance with the ascendent powers of the day, the Portuguese and Spanish Christians.
Nobunaga had been locked in a bitter struggle against Buddhist sectarians, so he was content to let Iberian Jesuits preach Christianity in a bid to undermine them. He was a pragmatist, and was eager to learn from the Iberians, especially valuing their advanced firearms technology. While Nobunaga was rising, Christianity flourished and the Iberians rose with him.

Then Nobunaga died, and the unification of Japan was completed by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who became suspicious of the foreign Christian presence. Gradually Hideyoshi and his successors clamped down on Christianity. A good many of the Christians, and a good deal of the repression, happened around Nagasaki. In 1597 Hideyoshi had 26 Christians crucified in Nagasaki city. In the town of Unzen, just a few miles from the coastal town of Obama where I lived and taught, Christians were tossed into the screaming volcanic vents to boil alive in the sulphurous water. A modern visitor centre in Unzen has an image of the horror:
And it is remembered in the stained glass windows of the Catholic church in another local town, Shimabara.
Shimabara would give its name to a violent rebellion by overtaxed farmers and Christians around Nagasaki, in 1637. Led by a charismatic teenager, thousands of Christians and locals laid siege to castles in the region before finally being attacked by a massive government army, who besieged the rebels at a dismantled castle called Hara. The rebels held back a superior army for months before being overrun and exterminated: the shogun had all 37,000 rebel men, women and children butchered, persecution of Christianity was intensified, the few remaining Christians fled and hid their belief for centuries unknown to the authorities, and Japan sealed its borders to outside trade. When the Portuguese sent 61 envoys to remonstrate with the Japanese, every one of them was beheaded and a handful of crew were spared to return the message.

Catholics out, Protestants on a leash
Japan sealed most of its borders, to most trade. Nagasaki alone was still open to the outside world: Nagasaki. Trade was limited to Korea, China and the Netherlands, the latter considered less threatening that the hated Iberians because of their anti-Catholic Protestantism. The Dutch had even sent two ships to shell the Christian rebels during the Shimabara Rebellion.

Still, the Japanese authorities thought the Dutch alien enough that they were forced to quarter on an artificial island called Dejima, carefully segregated from the Japanese lest they contaminate them with foreign ideas. Few Japanese were ever allowed to cross from Nagasaki to Dejima; an exception were the courtesans sent to service Dutch traders.

Until the opening of Japan in the mid-19th century, Nagasaki was the only open port in Japan, and as a result it alone absorbed foreign cultures.

Relics of diversity
Today elements of those historical connections with the outside world still linger. I was in Nagasaki city for the annual Lantern Festival in 2008, a Chinese New Year festival that has become a wider Japanese celebration in the city. A Japanese friend and I performed a kind of pilgrimage, a walk between four Buddhist temples in the old Chinese quarter.


Everything gleamed red and gold, intricate and ornamented. The temples held statues to Buddhist deities, wild and coloured and multi-armed, hinting of India and China, starkly different to the wooden simplicity of Japan's Shinto shrines.

Near the temples were Chinese acrobats performing for a happily gobsmacked Japanese audience.
And during the night we went out to explore the massive Chinese lantern displays and what I understand is a shrine offering a feast of pig heads to the gods.



The foreigners also left their mark in food, like the Portuguese sponge cake called 'bread from Castille' and which would become the Japanese カステラ, castella, still available in Nagasaki today. Or the beloved Japanese tempura which began as another Portuguese style of fried food. One of my favourite foods was ちゃんぽん, champon, a delicious, brothy seafood noodle soup allegedly invented by a Chinese chef in Nagasaki in 1899.

From Turkey with confusion
So this brings me back to トルコライス, toruko rice. This is another weird Nagasaki dish, a collection of curry rice, spaghetti and pork. Its origins are unclear, though it is clearly a hybrid of Eastern and Western tastes. I heard one confusing rumour that this was a combination of European spaghetti, Chinese pork, and Japanese rice. I certainly can't be sure of that and in any case, why Turkish rice? Some mix-up because the curry is Indian (remembering that the first Portuguese visitors were mistaken as Indians too)?

One theory is that toruko rice was thought to bridge European and Asian foods in the way that Turkey bridges the European and Asian continents. For whatever reason, toruko rice was founded in Nagasaki as typically weird and delicious cross between East and West. I have fond memories of cycling down into the town after work on an empty stomach, calling into a quiet restaurant run by a polite and quiet couple, and finally feasting on this steaming carb-rich dinner. And this reinterpretation of Western culture, this unity of Europe and Japan, finally, is why we should remember Nagasaki for more than being nuked once.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Ireland's strangely equal regions

Reading this summary of OECD's Regions at a Glance 2011 I noticed the graph below, comparing OECD countries by the extent of inequality between the regions of each country in terms of household income, physician density, basic education and mortality rate.
Ireland shows extremely low levels of inequality between its regions for these indicators. My first thought was that Ireland must have low regional inequality, with all regions being roughly similar. Then I remembered something that made me laugh - Ireland actually has only two subnational regions for these statistics! The entire country is split very crudely into the Border, Midlands and Western Region and the Southern and Eastern region.
There are differences between the two regions, but dividing the country so crudely down the middle cannot give very clear indications of these differences. Czech Republic, which in the first graph shows a high degree of regional inequality, is formed of eight regions. The United States is actually split into its states, so no wonder it shows higher levels of diversity between them!

So one wonders how useful the top graph really is. There could be deep regional inequalities in Ireland which our simple division is too crude to measure. If the US was split into two regions it would probably show less diverse or unequal results too.

Monday, January 9, 2012

The gap where a third American party should be

American polling company Gallup surveyed over 20,000 Americans in 2011 and discovered that, for the first time (their records go back to 1988) the proportion of Americans self-identifying as 'independent' has reached 40%. Those identifying as Democrat reached 31% and Republicans only 27%.

Their graph from 1988 to 2011 is below.
I notice a few things immediately. First, see how poorly Republicans do throughout the period, despite winning occasional elections. They only beat the Democrats in 1991 and briefly in the early 2000s. My guess is that those identifying as Democrat may tend to be less likely to actually vote, may be younger, for example. Perhaps Gallup's survey is not very valid and misses some of the sections of society who tend to vote Republican. Finally the article explains that more of those identifying as independent 'lean Republican' than 'lean Democrat', so presumably some will vote for Republicans come election day.

There is a low for 'independent' identification in 2004. Why? This was one year after the start of the American invasion of Iraq. It was the year of Bush's reelection as president. My guess is that Americans were especially polarised during this period, with fierce anti-war and pro-war tensions, perhaps divided along partisan lines.

Yet the independent identification bounced back and has only risen since President Obama took office. Since Obama's election the wars have mostly rumbled on and economic recovery has been slow, perhaps undermining the view of the Democrats as a sensible alternative to discredited Republicanism. Identification for Democrats has fallen, but Republican support has barely increased. Americans, it seems, have moved away from identification with either party.

40%! This looks to me like a great vacuum into which more political parties should step. At the moment this is especially difficult because the US has a first past the post electoral system, which grossly benefits the largest parties at the expense of smaller ones.

The classic example is Britain in 2005, when Labour 'won' the general election with only 36% of the vote (while 39% of the electorate did not even bother voting). That is, only 22% of the entire electorate voted for Labour, who walked away as the sole party in government. From The Guardian:
Perhaps the clearest illustration of the underlying logic of the current voting system is in the number of votes it takes to elect each party's MPs. On last night's results a Labour MP only needed 26,858 votes to get elected, compared with 44,241 votes for a Tory MP, and a staggering 98,484 for each Liberal Democrat MP.

In other words 353 Labour MPs were elected on 9.48m votes, 196 Conservatives on 8.67m votes and 60 Liberal Democrats with 5.9m votes.
This system squeezes out the smaller parties and makes voting for them largely pointless since voters know that only one of two parties can ever make it into power. The success of the Liberal Democrats in Britain is especially impressive considering the massive electoral disadvantage they faced as the third biggest party.

(The Irish system, by comparison, is based on proportional representation by single transferable vote. This also disproportionately benefits the bigger parties, but by not as much. In 2011 Fine Gael won 31.6% of the total vote and 46% of the parliamentary seats. They formed a coalition government with Labour, and together these made up over 55% of the votes cast, creating a government that was at least voted for by the majority of people. There are now seven parties or groupings represented in the parliament, with new parties popping up every few years. Small parties have a real chance of getting into government coalitions.)

Back to the US, where there seems to be a real place for alternative parties. A majority of surveyed Americans reported unfavourable views of both parties and a majority (52%) feel the US needs a third party. It is itching for a third party alternative but the electoral system is stacked against any such thing. This system, of course, benefits the Republicans and Democrats, which is why they will oppose it and why the Conservatives and Labour opposed electoral reform in the UK. So I doubt we will see the big powers opening up the system to challenges from below any time soon.

Jews and Muslims and Catholics: the traitors within

I noted with interest the similarities between the 19th century anti-Catholic Know Nothing movement in the United States with modern European anti-Muslim movements. Presbyterian minister Lyman Beecher warned that the mass of superstitious Catholics in the US were loyal to Rome, not Washington, and their potential treachery was 'like a train of powder between an enemy's camp and our own magazine'. I was reminded of the modern arguments that segregated Muslim populations in Europe are loyal to Mecca in rejection of the local national identity, are in fact a growing traitorous minority that itches for the overthrow of secular democracy.
Now I am reading Edmund de Waal's The Hare with Amber Eyes; A Hidden Inheritance, which describes the hatred his wealthy Jewish ancestors faced in 19th century Paris. Again I see some similarities, but also big differences in the kinds of bigotry.

The Muslims and Catholics during their various eras of mass migration ended up in the US or Europe clustered around the bottom of society. They were feared for their numbers and their fertility, for swarming into great ghettos, chattering in their own languages, worshipping their own gods. These were mass movements that felt threatening for their poverty and crime and for the potential they offered corrupt democratic politicians pandering to vote banks. They were seen as the slime at the bottom of society, criminal and backward and always threatening to engulf the natives in riot and chaos and rape.

For the 19th century French, the Jews were alarming for other reasons. These were a tiny minority, but very, very significant because of their extraordinary wealth and their dominance of the finance sector. Writing in 2012 after the collapse of a banking system that saw widespread denunciations of bankers, it is interesting to see the French of 1882 scapegoating the banking elite too. That time much of the elite were especially alien to investors who had lost their savings because they were Jews.
Like the Catholics and Muslims, the Jews were thought to have divided loyalties. With massive financial clout, de Waal's ancestors the Ephrussis were able to threaten distant governments:
Their threat to flood the markets with grain in response to Russian pogroms was taken seriously in an excited report in a newspaper during another crisis. '[The Jews] ... have learned the potency of this weapon when they made Russia hold her hand in the last Jewish persecution... by reducing Russian securities twenty-four points in thirteen days. "Touch another of our people and not another ruble you shall have, to save your empire," said Michel Ephrussi, head of the great house of Odessa, the largest grain dealers in the world.' The Ephrussis were, in short, very rich, very visible and very partisan.
The Jews here seemed to be disconnected from the French nation state, more loyal to Jewish cousins living on the Black Sea than to their French countrymen and women. Their clout, and their danger, came from wealth instead of numbers. The Muslims and Catholics were threatening because of their failures, their consistent poverty and sprawl. The Jews were threatening because of their success.
Curiously the Jews were mocked for integrating too, using their wealth to slip deftly into the highest of European society. They were the nouveau riche who leap-frogged ancient European noble families into respectability and treasure, commissioning coats of arms and living in beautiful old homes that belonged once to the European aristocracy. De Waal's ancestor Charles, who was a renowned art critic and friend of the great Impressionist artists of France, was still dismissed by the anti-Semites as being obsessed only with gold. While Catholics were derided in the US for their flamboyant religiosity in poverty, the Jews were jealously mocked for having a childish magpie instinct to collect and flaunt expensive trinkets. Try as they might to seem European and dignified and tasteful, the intermarried web of stateless Jewish financiers were seen as threatening outsiders, even 'oriental'.

I suppose in all these examples the minority group was seen to be alien, disloyal, dishonest, empowered either with wealth or numbers, and willing to use this power to harm the native majorities. Perhaps it is this power that unsettles the natives. I was astonished to see a note made by Charles Lindbergh, aviator and racist, in his diary that: 'Whenever the Jewish percentage of total population becomes too high, a reaction seems to invariably occur.' How similar to the 21st century chain email that listed the ever-increasing harm an ever-increasing Muslim population does to a country. Yet I'm still a little puzzled by the hatred of the wealthy Jews, since those groups most feared and alienated today seem to be the poorer groups, the Roma, Bangladeshi, Nigerian, and Pakistani. Wealthier minorities like Britain's Jews and Sikhs seem to attract less rage.

That's just a casual observation - am I wrong? I know there are tensions between the wealthy Chinese minority in Malaysia and the poorer Malay majority, but I generally thought that the poorer minority groups tended to be feared more than the rich. Any thoughts, or counter-examples from around the world?

Is it the power of minorities that unnerves the natives, or something else? Share your thoughts below.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Julius Caesar: multiculturalism, social welfare, fraud

Listening today to Mike Duncan's excellent History of Rome podcasts, I was pleased to hear Julius Caesar struggling to come to terms with issues that still puzzle us today.

Refugee crisis
The Helvetii Gauls in Switzerland were under pressure from raids of Germanic tribes and decided to migrate en masse into Roman territory. Julius Caesar responded by promising to consider their desire to enter, and instead built a defensive wall to block them off. The Gauls hit the wall and Caesar attacked, driving them about France until they were crushed.

Citizenship for ethnic minorities
For a long time citizenship was granted only to Romans, with other Italians finally fighting a war to secure their political rights too. Caesar, despite his brutal rejection of the Helvetii Gaul migrants, extended Roman citizenship to formerly conquered Cisalpine Gauls and other non-Roman peoples. This was Caesar's way of dealing with Rome's increasingly multiethnic and multicultural population. Today people debate the ease with which immigrants should be free to adopt the citizenship of their new countries; Caesar thought civic inclusion was sensible.

The social question
Rome had long been divided between the wealthy ruling patrician class and the poor plebian underclass. Deep conflicts had disrupted the state in early centuries and the plebians had managed to seize some political representation. The poverty of the Roman slums turned to crisis whenever war, slave revolts, or locusts interrupted the grain supply. Gaius Gracchus intervened during one crisis to buy expensive grain and sell it cheap, at a loss, to the plebs. Populist leaders expanded this proto-welfare system into a permanent grain dole for the poor.

When Caesar came to power he found widespread fraud and tried to cut the massive cost by reforming it. Social welfare, income inequality, fraud, and reform - 'Occupy' and 'austerity' might as well have been the buzz words of ancient Latin as today.

Cheap labour
Before the rise of Caesar Rome's drastic expansion into Greece, Africa, and the Middle East swamped Rome with hundreds of thousands of slaves. The poor Roman peasants who had worked the soil for the patrician landlords were rendered unnecessary by the free labour supplied by slaves. Duncan seems to see the comparable situation today, he says the Roman experience was less of "outsourcing" jobs to cheap labour abroad to "insourcing" jobs to slaves. Either way the Roman poor were forced into deeper poverty and underemployment.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Thomas Jefferson began presidency with admission of flaws


I just stumbled across this brilliant inaugural speech by Thomas Jefferson in 1801 as he became the third President of the United States. There are lots of fascinating points here, like his attitude towards foreign policy:
peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none;
And his appreciation of the stabilising effect of democracy, perhaps especially conscious of the violent rejection of monarchism in Frace in the 1780s-90s:
a jealous care of the right of election by the people—a mild and safe corrective of abuses which are lopped by the sword of revolution where peaceable remedies are unprovided; absolute acquiescence in the decisions of the majority, the vital principle of republics, from which is no appeal but to force, the vital principle and immediate parent of despotism;
He finally observes that men will rarely leave office with the reputation and regard with which they enter it, and admits:
I shall often go wrong through defect of judgment. When right, I shall often be thought wrong by those whose positions will not command a view of the whole ground. I ask your indulgence for my own errors, which will never be intentional, and your support against the errors of others, who may condemn what they would not if seen in all its parts;
I liked this, quite sensible and modest. His point about an unentangled foreign policy is a repeat of something George Washington called for in his farewell address in 1796:
Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course. If we remain one people under an efficient government. the period is not far off when we may defy material injury from external annoyance; when we may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality we may at any time resolve upon to be scrupulously respected; when belligerent nations, under the impossibility of making acquisitions upon us, will not lightly hazard the giving us provocation; when we may choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.

Why forego the advantages of so peculiar a situation? Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice?

It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world;
All very different from the highly engaged and assertive foreign policies followed by modern American governments. It interests me that the US has this heritage of non-interventionism, when its modern leaders seem divided between liberal interventionism and neo-conservatism.