London Burning

9 08 2011

I happened to visit London for the first time only a few months ago. While there, I visited friends living in Tottenham, only blocks from the recent outbreaks of rioting and looting.

Fire fighters and riot police survey the area as fire rages through a building in Tottenham, north London on Aug. 7, 2011. A demonstration against the death of a local man turned violent and cars and shops were set ablaze. (Lewis Whyld/PA/AP)

It’s alarming to think the bustling streets, filled with families going about their business and small shops serving a plethora of wares, have been replaced by broken glass, burning police cars and hooded youths hurling bricks and looting stores.

Many have sought the roots of the London riots, often citing the police shooting of Mark Duggan. But it would be naive to think the current spate of rioting and looting, taking place across London, is entirely fuelled by outrage at a perceived case of injustice.

At the root of the London riots is a deep disaffection by many youths, a disconnection from their communities and the broader society, and a lowering of social norms that would inhibit such wildly destructive behaviour.

And it’s likewise naive to think that police action alone can contain this outbreak, or that the threat of further police action can prevent it from happening again.

Read the rest of this entry »





Religion’s Retreat from Politics and Other Good News

19 04 2011

The current fancy of religion being intertwined with political conservatism in the United States (and here – we have our own Family First party) is a fleeting trend, and one that is entering its final throes. So said Robert Putnam in a wonderful lecture he gave tonight at Sydney University.

I’m inclined to agree – and not only because I want to agree.

Putnam’s argument – also espoused in his new book, American Grace – was that the close relationship between religiosity and Republican partisanship that we see today only started in the early 1990s, and began as a wedge strategy intended to galvanise a conservative base against encroaching liberalism by appealing to the pervasive religiousness of most Americans, tapping in to socially conservative issues such as abortion as the hot buttons.

And it worked. Putnam showed evidence that around the early 1970s there was no correlation between religious attendance (as a proxy for religiosity) and partisan preference. In fact, in the late 1960s, if you were more highly devout, you were more likely to vote Democrat. But that had all changed by the 1980s, and particularly into the 1990s.

Makes sense. Old school Republicanism used to be represented by the north-eastern industrialists – hardly a religious bunch. Too distracted by money and cigars. Conversely, there were the ‘southern Democrats’ who, until the quakes of the civil rights movement rocked their foundations, were deeply religious but were working class and voted for labour and community issues.

But in the 1990s that changed. And it’s already beginning to backfire.

The United States now sports a record number of what Putnam drolly calls “young nones”; the now 18% of the population – and upwards of 30% of youth – who list their religious affiliation as ‘none.’ However, it’s presumptuous to assume they’re atheists; many still profess a belief in God, but they disassociate with organised religion.

Putnam’s thesis is that they see the vitriol of the religious right directed towards progressive social issues, and they identify religion – particularly evangelical Christianity – with homophobia, militant anti-abortionism, bigotry and other socially conservative positions that are thoroughly unsavoury to minds shaped by the liberal 1990s.

So they move on. Both from organised religion and from Republicanism. As the old conservatives – the relics of the pre-1950s world – die off, these ‘young nones’ will start to have a much greater impact on politics.

The upshot: perhaps we can hope for a world where religiously-fuelled extreme social conservatism is divorced from politics. In fact, let’s not hope. Let’s expect it.

Let’s stop giving credence to the extreme religious lobby. When they pop their heads up and spout some ludicrous line, such as that art should pass through a classification board, let’s just chuckle and say “well, extremists would say that” and move on to more important matters, like deficit reduction or mitigating climate change.

Religion isn’t necessarily socially conservative. Certainly, organised religion leans that way – group membership, loyalty, in-group favouritism and out-group vilification etc are how organised religion stays organised. But religions also preach love, charity, forgiveness, peace – all bastions of progressivism.

By crikey, it’ll be nice to look back on all this. To look back on the 2000s and remark at how aberrant this religiosity was. It may not take long before we’re looking back with a wince and a sigh and saying just these things.





The Revolution is Dead (For Now)

15 03 2011

There aren’t any revolutionaries any more. The closest contemporary figure I can muster from the cloudy reaches of my imagination who might qualify as a revolutionary is Julian Assange. Certainly he’s an original thinker, far more so than most people these days.

But even Assange’s revolution is incremental, if profound. He a seeks to change the landscape of democracy without necessarily wiping the slate clean entirely. His is not a prescriptive vision of a better world, but a solution to the ills of this one, underpinned by a conviction about the particular nature of corruption – or, as he calls it, ‘conspiracy.’

So where are the true revolutionaries? Where are the visionaries with a compelling view of a better world, one for which we ought to fight to bring into reality? Who’s thinking beyond the contingencies of this world to the possibilities of the next?

There was a time, not so long ago, when revolution was in common parlance and bold visions of a new world were talked about openly, debated, fought over and striven for. Only 40 years ago there was talk of building nothing less than a new civilisation.

What happened?

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The Problem with Revolutions

3 02 2011

We’re all holding our breath watching the events in Egypt unfold. Many commentators are ebullient. Some are more cautious. In fact, I think Mark Colvin makes an important point about the dangers of revolution, and how quickly the unity in deposing a despot can turn into fractious in-fighting to fill the political vacuum.

United a group may be in their opposition of something, but that doesn’t say much about what they do stand for. Those holding hands today might be wielding clubs tomorrow.

Furthermore, it is precisely in times of instability and unrest – such as those immediately following a revolution – when people are more inclined to turn to a strong authoritarian leader to keep the peace. It’s precisely when people feel the most threatened, either bodily or in a more abstract sense by feelings of uncertainty about the future, that people lean to the right.

And it’s precisely when a nation is undergoing unrest, with multiple political ‘tribes’ vying for power, that trust in ones’ fellow citizens is eroded – “I don’t know whether that person is part of my tribe or the other.”

This kind of tribal mentality is devastatingly destructive to democracy, where trust in your state and trust in other citizens is paramount to making democracy a success. Democracy only works when I’m confident that if the ‘other tribe’ get elected and take power, they’re not going to embark on a pogrom targeted against myself and my ‘tribe.’ It’s this distrust in the system that spelt doom for democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In situations like this the trust required for bottom-up democracy is so lacking that a strong top-down authoritarian government is virtually required to keep the peace. However, top-down governments are only good for keeping the peace or defending against invaders. Oh, and they’re good at being corrupt, at entrenching power, at embezzling the nation’s wealth and taking the nation straight back to where it was prior to the revolution.

Democracy is remarkable not because it’s inevitable, but because it’s so difficult to get off the ground. It often takes a unified vision, a population with a largely similar culture and value system, and a stable environment in terms of economic prospects and absence of threat from invaders.

If a state can satisfy all those conditions, and if the people genuinely want democracy – which means they buy in to a system where they might vote for their entire lives and never see their candidate in power – then democracy can flourish. And once established, it’s hard to shake.

Egypt might yet become such a democracy. I’m not conversant enough in recent Egyptian history or ethnography to say whether it does satisfy all these conditions, but I think it stands a chance. The recent restraint shown by the military, and the apparent lack of military ambitions to take over from Mubarak, are positive indications.

But, while the protests underway in Egypt this week are exhilarating  – and cause for optimism for a brighter, more open, more inclusive, more democratic Egypt – we should be mindful of the lessons of history and of political psychology and hope that authoritarianism doesn’t block out the sunlight before democracy has a chance to grow.





Redefining the Political Spectrum (Version 2.1)

23 01 2011

A slight revision of my recent redefinition of the political spectrum along psychological lines. I’ve replaced the Beautiful-Safe World axis with the simpler Safe-Dangerous World. The safe-dangerous spectrum is already talked about quite a bit in the literature, particularly concerning Bob Altermeyer’s Right-Wing Authoritarianism scale, so I should stick with that.

So here’s the updated chart:

The x axis represents the extent to which an individual perceives the world as a safe or dangerous place (which can scale to the world-at-large, their society or even their local community – with political attitudes possibly varying for each).

The y axis represents the extent to which an individual perceives the world as being just, such that someone gets what they deserve, either good or bad. If reward/punishment are perceived to be the product of luck or randomness, that’s an unjust world. If you live and breathe (and see the world through) the Protestant work ethic, you see a just world.

The ideologies located on the diagram are those that appeal to individuals at that location. Each ideology might be defined in terms different from safe/just world, but ultimately, I’d suggest they’re responding to the concerns of people that hold that particular worldview at that location in the chart.

Note, I also added a couple of new entries:

Utopianism (high Safe world; high Unjust world): by “utopianism” I mean the view that we can become a society where everything works perfectly, and everyone will cooperate for mutual benefit without defection. This isn’t strictly a political ideology, just an example of extremist thinking, in this case optimistic about the world around us and optimistic about human nature to a fault. You see flashes of it when people say “why can’t everyone just get along” and when people sign off with “peace.”

Honour culture (high Dangerous world; mid Unjust world): those who adhere to an honour culture view, particularly when they aren’t required to, see the world as a dangerous place and other people as potentially untrustworthy. As such, reputation management is crucial. To earn a good reputation is hard when there are many who would fake a good reputation in order to exploit others. Being slapped with a bad rep effectively makes one an outsider in their own community, almost an ostracism. Yet it’s a system and mentality that emphasises community standards that ought to be followed, even to the letter at the cost of the spirit.

Also, talking about Right-Wing Authoritarianism, I’d say high RWAs reside in large bubble on the far right of the chart, centred on Authoritarianism. High Social Dominance Orientation (Sidanius, Pratto et al.) would be in a bubble in the top right-hand corner of the chart. I’ll add them to the chart – when I can figure out how to do so in an aesthetically non-disruptive way…





Redefining the Political Spectrum (Version 2.0)

20 01 2011

I was wrong. I recently wrote that the liberal-conservative political spectrum could be most parsimoniously described along a single axis representing whether the world was considered a safe or dangerous place. I no longer think that’s correct.

Instead, I’ve elaborated on that theme a little, adding a second dimension which, along with safe-dangerous world, I believe accurately characterises the political spectrum – at least psychologically.

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The Fall of the Tea Party

18 01 2011

Hit prediction: the Tea Party is not long for this world.

I’ve implied as much before on this blog. But amidst the spirited hand waving and foot stomping we’re seeing by Tea Partiers these days, and the conservative victories in Congress in recent memory, it’s easy to forget that the Tea Party is just another populist movement, big on rhetoric, short on actual solutions.

Such movements can strike a chord with the people, get swept into power, and then they run up against real world problems to which their fantasy worldview has no answers. The very fact that the lynchpin of Tea Party doctrine is ‘no compromise’ makes them heartily unsuited to being players of any significance in the game of politics. No compromise might make a nice campaign slogan and sound bite for Fox News, but it doesn’t wash well when you need over 50%  on your side (or more in the Senate) to get things done.

And their gut wrenchingly unsophisticated attitude towards politics, and the world at large, make them weak, not strong. Take this little missive from Tea Party Nation (reprinted by The Economist’s Democracy In America blog) that came out in response to John McCain’s bipartisan response to Obama’s bipartisan message following the Arizona shootings:

John McCain represents everything that is wrong with the Republican Party.  He acts more like a liberal democrat than a Republican….Barack Obama a patriot?  Yes, and I am the Pope.

Obama is intent on using his time in office to advance our country’s cause?   When?  When he assaulted the rights of Americans? When his regime tried brand patriotic Americans as extremists?  When his regime tried to take over the Internet?   When they tried to impose a “fairness doctrine” on the only media conservatives dominate?   When they tried to shove a socialist agenda down the throats of Americans, despite overwhelming proof that Americans did not want this?  How about when he went out apologizing to every third world tyrant for America?  How about when he bowed to foreign leaders?

…What we see from Obama is not an incompetent fool.  He knows exactly what he is doing.   From being raised by a mother who hated America, to associating with America hating communists in his youth, he gravitated to communist, America hating professors in College and associated with America hating political groups until it looked like he might actually go somewhere in his political career…

Obama hates America and that is obvious.

It could easily be mistaken for the babblings of immature, cognitively feeble and emotionally unstable extremists.

I’ve stated before on this blog that I appreciate the strength that comes from having opposing views work in tension in a pluralistic liberal society. But one fundamental hurdle these views must overcome before they’re taken seriously is they must correspond to reality. They must respect facts and reason. Pluralism in values is a good thing. Pluralism in methods to advance the nation’s and people’s good is a good thing. Pluralism in facts – i.e. misrepresentation, falsehood and lies – don’t get you anywhere in the long run.

The test will be when the Tea Party is faced with real policy decisions to make, where they will be required to employ their worldview to find solutions. And they’ll fail. Probably quite spectacularly. And their support will plummet.

So don’t fear the Tea Party. The rebound towards the middle, and possibly the left, when they expire dramatically will be worth then pain of listening to their inane ravings now.








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