Wednesday, February 4, 2015

After Paris

Below is the unedited text of my article in yesterday's Irish Independent:

Did the recent attacks in Paris change Irish views on immigration?  The ‘short answer’ is yes, at least for 30% of all Irish adults in a recent Amárach poll.  However, the ‘long answer’ requires us to step back and examine the experience of immigration in Ireland, and some of the differences between our experience and those of the UK.

First of all we need to distinguish between immigration from the rest of the EU, and immigration from outside the EU.  A ComRes poll towards the end of last year found that only 17% of Britons thought the current level of immigration from the rest of the EU was ‘good for Britain’, similarly only 16% thought immigration from outside the EU was good for Britain.  In marked contrast, the Amárach poll shows that the majority (53%) of Irish people think the current level of immigration from the rest of the EU is ‘good for Ireland’, falling to 32% for the current level of immigration from outside the EU (still twice the UK level).

Ireland and Britain were among the few countries to completely open their borders to workers from all EU countries upon the accession of ten central and East European countries back in May 2004. Ten years on, what has been the impact?  In the same ComRes survey, only 1 in 4 Britons felt the contribution of immigrants in the previous ten years had been positive for the British economy, 40% felt it was negative.  Here in Ireland, over a third (35%) sees a positive contribution from immigrants looking back ten years, only 30% view it as negative.

Of course, the contribution of immigrants has not simply been economic.  When asked about the impact of immigration on culture, we again find a marked contrast between Irish and British experiences.  Just 21% of Britons feel immigration has been positive for British culture and 49% feel it has been negative (the balance are neutral).  In Ireland, 32% feel the contribution to Irish culture has been positive, and only 25% feel it has been negative (half the UK level).

Curiously, Irish men tend to have a more positive view of the economic benefits of immigration than Irish women, but a more negative view than women of the cultural benefits.  There is also a significant generation gap in Ireland when it comes to immigration and its perceived impact.  Essentially those under 35 are significantly more positive about the experience, while those over 35 (and especially over 55) are much more negative.

So if we tend to be more positive than our neighbours about the impact of past immigration, what about the present and the future?  The Amárach poll, conducted just weeks after the Charlie Hebdo attack, has found a more negative turn in sentiment in Ireland.  On the issue of immigration to Ireland from outside the EU, the vast majority of Irish people (71%) want stricter controls, 20% want them to remain as they are, and only 8% want looser controls.  And while there are still big differences between age groups, even among 16-24 year olds the majority (53%) want stricter controls.

Which brings us to the recent attacks in Paris: the majority of Irish people (54%) have not changed their opinion about immigration because of the attacks.  However, a sizeable minority – 30% – have changed their opinion, and the rest are not sure.  Women are more likely to have changed than men (32% vs 27%), while those in lower socio-economic groups are more likely to have changed than those in higher groups.

What has changed?  Among the 30%, the biggest change has been concern that immigration controls are not strict enough, followed by a decline in trust in some immigrant groups – Muslims in particular.  Others are fearful of future attacks, perhaps even in Ireland, and worried about Islamist terrorists – such as those who instigated the attack in Paris – entering the country.  

The attack on Charlie Hebdo also raised important questions about blasphemy.  Nearly half (46%) of all Irish adults think that the laws against blasphemy in Ireland should be removed, 24% think they should not be removed, and the rest don’t know.  Men are more likely than women to favour removal (50% vs 42%), though there are few age differences on this one.

But removing laws on blasphemy (ignoring the merits and demerits of such a move for now) may not be enough to mitigate some of the pressures that now emerging.  Just weeks after the Paris attacks, only a third of Irish people are optimistic about future relations between different religions and faith communities in Ireland, while 30% are pessimistic.  Optimism is highest among 16-24 year olds, which is probably just as well as they are the ones who will have to navigate the complex future of change and uncertainty that lies ahead.


% who think current level of immigration from inside the EU is good:
Ireland = 53%
UK = 17%

% who think current level of immigration from outside the EU is good:
Ireland = 32%
UK = 16%

% who think immigration over past ten years has been positive for the economy:
Ireland = 35%
UK = 26%

% who think immigration over past ten years has been positive for national culture:
Ireland = 32%
UK = 21%

% agree controls on immigration to Ireland from outside the EU:
Should be stricter = 72%
Should be looser = 8%
Should be remain as they are = 20%

If opinion about immigration has changed since attacks in Paris:
Yes = 30%
No = 54%
Not sure = 16%

Should laws against blasphemy in Ireland be removed:
Yes = 46%
No = 24%
Don’t know = 30%

Optimistic or pessimistic about future relations in Ireland between different religions and faith communities:
Optimistic = 33%
Pessimistic = 30%
Neither/nor = 37%

Amárach online poll of 1,000 Irish adults, January 2015
ComRes online poll of 2,019 British adults, November 2014

Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Russians Are Coming

One of the advantages of growing older is that sometimes you've heard it all before, leaving you unfazed by the latest 'alarums and excursions'.  One of the disadvantages of growing older is that you've heard it all before...

The recent alarum about Russian military aircraft entering Irish airspace has all the hallmarks of a good old-fashioned, reds-under-the-bed panic.  Yes, I've heard it all before because there seems to be a perennial need to paint Russia and Russians as 'The Other', to be feared, suspected and contained.  Albeit with a brief lull after the fall of the Soviet Union.

We even see it in reports on the conflict in Ukraine (the separatists are always 'Russian-backed' while the Ukrainian military are apparently operating all on their own). Even the BBC is resurrecting The Russians Are Coming commentaries on the deceptive and manipulative practices of the Russian military (or Maskirovka as it's known).  I don't doubt the Russian's are practicing maskirovka in Eastern Ukraine, and I don't doubt NATO are too.

Another advantage of growing older is the ability to step back and see the bigger picture (or to at least try and see it).  Understanding history can help, so can psychology.  Take the peculiarities of the Russian National Character, delineated by Dmitry Orlov:
Russia has a long history of being invaded from every direction, but especially from the west, and Russian culture has evolved a certain mindset which is difficult for outsiders to comprehend. First of all, it is important to realize that when Russians fight off an invasion (and having the CIA and the US State Department run Ukraine with the help of Ukrainian Nazis qualifies as an invasion) they are not fighting for territory, at least not directly. Rather, they are fighting for Russia as a concept. And the concept states that Russia has been invaded numerous times, but never successfully. In the Russian mindset, invading Russia successfully involves killing just about every Russian, and, as they are fond of saying, “They can't kill us all.” (“Нас всех не убьёшь.”) Population can be restored over time (it was down 22 million at the end of World War II) but the concept, once lost, would be lost forever. It may sound nonsensical to a westerner to hear Russians call their country “a country of princes, poets and saints,” but that's what it is—it is a state of mind. Russia doesn't have a history—it is its history.
Rather than demonise Russia the West needs to work with it on the task of building a more stable world order - taking Putin's offer in his speech at Valdai seriously - rather than escalating matters further.  Moreover, Russia's improving demographics will make it more important to the West rather than less important.

Perhaps there is a role for neutral Ireland in turning the European Union away from a path that seems set on conflict (one that will involve us in more than just airspace infringements).  Given some of the similarities between the Irish and Russian national characters we might even be ideal for the job.

Such a role will recognise the alignment of long term interests between Europe and Russia and will call on both Russians and Europeans to live up to the high ideals they both espouse but increasingly ignore.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Minority Values

"Truth always rests with the minority, and the minority is always stronger than the majority, because the minority is generally formed by those who really have an opinion, while the strength of a majority is illusory, formed by the gangs who have no opinion." Søren Kierkegaard
Did the recent atrocities in Paris smash the Overton Window, or simply rattle the frame?  The Overton Window - as noted before - describes the prevailing range of political ideas that are acceptable to an electorate at any given point in time. Before the atrocities in Paris, the Overton Window was quite narrow in relation to immigration and relations with Muslims in Europe.  I suspect it has gotten wider after Charlie Hebdo; only time will tell.

Much of the analysis since has focused on freedom of speech.  It's an important issue - even if the previously narrow Overton Window would have seen Charlie Hebdo banned in the UK - but I don't think it's the main issue.  The real issue is one of values: freedom of speech is merely a derivative of higher order values. Moreover, it is about a clash of values: Islamic, Secular and Christian.  George Friedman spells out a grim dilemma facing Europe:
Something must be done. I don't know what needs to be done, but I suspect I know what is coming. First, if it is true that Islam is merely responding to crimes against it, those crimes are not new and certainly didn't originate in the creation of Israel, the invasion of Iraq or recent events. This has been going on far longer than that. ...Nor is secularism about to sweep the Islamic world. The Arab Spring was a Western fantasy that the collapse of communism in 1989 was repeating itself in the Islamic world with the same results. There are certainly Muslim liberals and secularists. However, they do not control events — no single group does — and it is the events, not the theory, that shape our lives.
Europe's sense of nation is rooted in shared history, language, ethnicity and yes, in Christianity or its heir, secularism. Europe has no concept of the nation except for these things, and Muslims share in none of them. It is difficult to imagine another outcome save for another round of ghettoization and deportation. This is repulsive to the European sensibility now, but certainly not alien to European history. Unable to distinguish radical Muslims from other Muslims, Europe will increasingly and unintentionally move in this direction.
If indeed events shape our lives, what else might happen to shift the window in Europe's debate about Islam and immigration?  The biggest one that I can see is the collapse of Saudi Arabia. After all, it is Saudi Arabia's funding for and export of Wahhabism that has done much to exacerbate Islam's problem with Islamist violence.  But if Nassim Taleb is right, Saudi Arabia ticks all the boxes when it comes to a country on the edge of fragility: including a centralised governing system, undiversified economy, excessive debt and leverage, a lack of political variability, and no history of surviving past shocks. It goes without saying, of course, that the collapse of Saudi Arabia wouldn't just cause problems for Islamist extremists...  

But beyond the geo-politics, we need to bring the debate back to one about values in order to chart a way forward for a European politics of engagement, not appeasement.  And here I think is the biggest problem for Europe.  We can spend more on security, spy on ever more suspects and police our borders more effectively,  but the fundamental question will remain unanswered: what are the values of Europe's majority and why are they superior to those of an extremist minority?

If Kierkegaard is right - that truth always rests with the minority because the majority have no opinion - then there may not be an answer because the majority no longer have any shared values of their own.  To Friedman's point, Europe's cultural DNA is built around quite distinctive values: a fusion of Greek, Roman and Christian insights into what makes a flourishing society and economy.  As Deirdre McCloskey explains it, Europe's Great Enrichment was thanks to the 'seven virtues' of Prudence, Temperance, Courage, Justice, Faith, Hope & Love - the first four from the ancient world, the last three from Christianity.

But we have lost our philosophical, ethical and moral connection with these core virtues - and unless we recover them then a flourishing society and future for the West will keep receding over the horizon. Or, as Kierkegaard warned, the majority will 'in the next instant (when it is evident that the minority is the stronger) assume its opinion, which then becomes that of the majority, i.e., becomes nonsense by having the whole [mass] on its side, while Truth again reverts to a new minority.'

Islam is not the only minority faith in Europe - so also is Christianity throughout much of the continent (ignoring 'cultural Christians'). So there are several 'minorities' contesting for Europe's future. Charles Taylor sees the future as a three-way contest between secular humanists (the dominant orthodoxy in Europe for now), neo-Nietzschean antihumanists (they haven't gone away you know), and acknowledgers of transcendence (mainly Christians but also Muslims).  As Taylor sees it, any pair can gang up on the other, so expect to see increasingly strange coalitions as the Overton Window both widens and shifts in the months and years ahead.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Overton Obstacles

The remarkably negative reaction to Lucinda Creighton's new political initiative suggests that the Irish welcome change, so long as nothing changes.  What caused such a negative reaction?  It was hardly the four platforms, carefully designed to offend no one.   Though perhaps that's the problem.  Sure, Reboot Ireland's use of 'PC language' is a bit dated (God knows most Microsoft Windows users understand 'reboot', but the average smartphone user?).

But that isn't it either.  I think it has to do with narrow, leftward drifting nature of the 'Overton Window' in Irish politics.  The Overton Window, named after Joseph Overton,  describes the prevailing range of political ideas that are acceptable to the electorate at any given point in time.  Some ideas are 'in the window' and therefore are acceptable as part of any party's platform, while other ideas are beyond the Pale.  The window looks like this:

The task of those advocating policies for change is to 'move' the Overton Window up from Unthinkable and Radical to Acceptable then Sensible and ultimately into Policy.  The concept applies both to social and cultural issues (abortion, gay marriage) and to economic issues (minimum wages, water charges).

Of course, political activists will want to move the Overton Window to make their ideas sensible and popular in the hearts and minds of the electorate.  But the political mainstream is formed around what is already popular (and policy) and so those with radical or unthinkable policy ideas have a job to do.

The problem is, the gravitational pull of the Overton Window makes it hard for new political parties to distinguish themselves from existing parties if they start advocating policies that are already mainstream.  This fate appears to be befalling Ukip, who - according to Nick Wood - are now sounding just like the rest of the LibLabCon PC-consensus (and that's not the Windows version).

So how do you 'move the Window'?  The classical, Gramscian technique is to propose radical but outlandish ideas far to the Left of the mainstream/Overton Window consensus (that their advocates know won't be acceptable, for now), which in turn makes far more reasonable, 'compromise' policies just a little to the Left of the window seem quite reasonable by comparison - then repeat the process:

It sometimes works in reverse (e.g.: Thatcherism in the UK, which threatened to dismantle the Welfare State but ended up dismembering the unions instead).  Nevertheless, most of the time the Overton Window moves Left rather than Right (clearly in the case of social policies and increasingly in the case of economics policies - ask a deposit holder in Cyprus if you don't believe me).

The problem for Reboot Ireland is that it is starting firmly within the Overton Window (even Lucinda's admission that she favours gay marriage places her firmly in the 'Acceptable/Sensible' consensus camp).   Hence some of the negativity - there isn't a big demand for 'more of the same' right now.

So without a Ukip style pitch for the 'Popular Liberalism' vote (already captured by Independents it seems), it would appear Reboot Ireland will go nowhere. Other than gradually drifting to the Left with the rest of the mainstream consensus as the Overton Window eventually moves.  Not that they'll be around long enough to 'make the drift', given where they are starting from...

Maybe what Ireland really needs is its own Russell Brand.  Someone who can appeal to that fast growing constituency - the politically ignorant - who can be easily persuaded by the next celebrity with a soundbite.  The Overton Window has become the Overton Tweet.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Retail Liturgy

Retail therapy has become retail liturgy: an exercise in public worship shared and practiced by believers in the transformative power of shopping. Dundrum Shopping Centre is the Pro-Cathedral of retail liturgy, and the Blanchardstown Centre is Christ Church Cathedral (though I might have my denominational allusions confused).

The idea that shopping has become a form of collective worship is one developed by James K A Smith.  His Theos talk - The Secular is Haunted - introduces Jamie's thoughts on Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor's ideas about secularism, including our need for liturgy - sacred or secular.  I'm also reading Jamie's introduction to Taylor - How (Not) to Be Secular - and it is a delightful read.  Anyone who can weave Radiohead, David Foster Wallace and Augustine into a narrative knows how to engage his reader.

Christmas, of course, has a special liturgy all of its own.  Indeed, just as many feel compelled to go to church at Christmas time but not other times of the year, many (albeit mostly men) feel compelled to go shopping at Christmas time but not other times of the year.  Funny enough, you get carol singers participating in both liturgies...

Maybe it's me, but this Christmas seems a bit more 'manic' than previous Christmases, though that might simply be the end of the recession (for some) and people enjoying a bit of a 'blow out' after all the lean years.  Or it might be that the continued substitution of the secular for the sacred in our post-Christian society makes us even hungrier for shared experiences of belonging and transcendence - even if it is in a shopping centre.

But don't get me wrong - I'm glad for the retailers that they are having a 'good' Christmas after all they (and we) have been through.  Still, we should beware the dangers of our new secular liturgies.  As Arthur C. Brooks suggests, we should celebrate abundance but avoid attachment.

Easier said than done, of course.  I personally don't see the need for a new range of Louise Vuitton handbags, but a new iPhone 7 would undoubtedly be an historic step forward for all mankind. Though womankind might beg to differ...

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Escaping Velocity

The year is ending with a bang rather than the usual seasonal whimper. The cold war on Russia has warmed up via the foreign exchange markets. And mass murder came to a school in Pakistan this week. Meanwhile back in Ireland the 10 year sovereign bond rate has fallen to its lowest level ever:

We're in good company: half of all the government bonds in the world yield less than 1%.  Apparently investors are spooked by what's happening to everything else (stocks, commodities, you name it). Could it change? Sure, the Russians increased their interest rate to 17% from 10.5% overnight. Though that's the kind of interest rate increase nobody wants right now.

On the other hand, Andrew Haldane thinks low interest rates could be with us for the next 40 years or so. Which is fine if you are a borrower - but not so good if you are a bank: Europe's commercial banks will be crushed if that continues.  It doesn't look like we're about to escape the gravitational pull of the zero interest black hole any time soon. 

Still, at least we'll have a few referenda to distract us from our predicament next year, though events abroad might prove even more distracting in the meantime. 

Monday, December 8, 2014

None of The Above

The rise in support for 'Independents' in recent opinion polls (now at 32% in the latest Irish Times poll), is another Irish solution to an Irish problem. So what is the problem? In short, we don't have the equivalent of UKIP. There isn't a political party/leader articulating the frustrations, fears and preferences of a large section of the Irish electorate: so instead we get a siren chorus of Trotskyists with backing vocals by a few celebrity Independents - lots of noise, but little leadership.

Of course, the key word is 'equivalent' when it comes to UKIP. Ireland doesn't have the same issues (or should that be 'obsessions') with membership of the EU and with immigration (especially from outside the EU) that vexes so many in the UK and has undoubtedly helped the rise of UKIP. So there's no future for a party in Ireland that simply lifts the UKIP agenda and tries it here. But we do have something of the same experience of alienation from the democratic process that many have felt across the water. That alienation, however, has little to do with the Left-Right political spectrum beloved of so many Irish political correspondents who hope that - finally - we might be a General Election away from a 'real' choice between left-wing and right-wing parties. I don't see it myself.

Instead I am thinking of the alienation David Goodhart describes between Metropolitan Liberalism - dominant in the media, academia and mainstream political parties - and Popular Liberalism - dominant among those who prefer 'None of the Above' when it comes to the very same mainstream political parties. Goodhart has written a fascinating paper for Demos on the subject, and his recent talk at Theos expands further on the themes in his paper. In his Theos talk, he presents a check list on what differentiates Metropolitan Liberals from Popular Liberals along seven key political dimensions, which I've captured it in the chart below (note, it's my derivation of his check list from the audio track, so any errors are mine):

Goodhart quite explicitly sees the rise of UKIP as a result of the failure of mainstream UK parties to articulate and champion the values of those who are Popular Liberals. On a wide range of broad political and economic issues, there are fundamental differences in the values that drive the elite and drive much of the electorate on issues such as welfare, mobility, freedom and belonging. It isn't all, or even mostly, about immigration and the EU.

I believe something similar is happening in Ireland. A great many people in Ireland (away from the self-reverential bubble that is the Dublin media landscape) are deeply disaffected by what is happening to the country - economically, socially and culturally. And it isn't all about 'blaming the government' or water charges. They have no voice, or so it seems, and in the absence of mainstream leaders articulating their worries and wants they grab hold of whomever else feels like they might do the job. The rise of the Independents is our UKIP moment. Whichever party (existing or new) grasps the Popular Liberal agenda will enjoy something of the same success as Nigel and the 'Ukippers'.

Next year's General Election in the UK will probably inspire some to try it...

Sunday, November 16, 2014


Excarnation - a word I'd never heard of before two weeks ago, and have heard several times since. Here's Richard Kearney explaining it, during a superb broadcast on the nature of evil in the 21st century:

It's true that our contemporary postmodern communications-digitalised age is one where we are in a sense immunised from others in this space, which is very safe. It's very vicarious, sometimes it's voyeuristic. We're living at a distance, a bit like Plato's figure of Gyges, you know, his ring. He can see everything but nobody can see him. And in a way the culture of internet and Facebook and so on in extraordinarily rich and creative in terms of putting us into contact with so many people... 
But the other side of that is that you're in your little bubble, where you are presenting a face, and seeing faces, and at a safe distance. So what seems like universal interconnectedness, or interdependency to use a Buddhist term, is in fact in many respects an extraordinary form of isolationism, where all these little autonomous sovereign egos in front of our screen. 
I think Charles Taylor makes a very good point in his book A Secular Age when he says that our contemporary society is very often guilty of what he calls "excarnation," that we have become more and more and more disembodied. We've kind of entered into an immaterialism. Materialism is denounced as the great evil of the age, and that's a certain kind of consumerist commodity materialism and I agree. But actually it's an immaterialism of living in a spectral, vicarious simulated world - which is how indeed the whole advertising commercial industry lives.
Excarnation explains a lot about the strangely dissociated world many find themselves in nowadays. On the one hand we have 'Faceboast' turning us into narcissists, defined by Simon Blackburn (in a zeitgeist-ful essay called Know They Selfie in Aeon magazine - whence the image above):
The narcissist is not so much conceited – where there is a relationship of arrogance or contempt towards other people – as solipsistic, or in a world where he is the only person. Thus in the original myth, the only voice that Narcissus hears is that of the nymph Echo: in other words, his own voice thrown back at him. Others are invisible and inaudible. And we are told that eventually the erasure of other people kills Narcissus. In his self-absorption and self-obsession, he is as good as dead.
Not everyone loves themselves, like Narcissus. Instead, we have epidemic levels of loneliness, depression and suicide. All of them, in one way or another, a result of excarnation and the loss of real community and shared purpose that goes with 'an immaterialism of living'.

What to do about it? In E F Schumacher's last book - A Guide for the Perplexed - written long before the invention of the selfie, he quotes Theophan the Recluse (1815-94) on how to deal with the distractions of 'excarnation' thus:
For so long as the mind remains in the head, where thoughts jostle one another, it has no time to concentrate on one thing. But when attention descends into the heart, it attracts all the powers of the soul and body into one point there.
Or, to paraphrase Timothy Leary: log out, turn off, join in...

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Citizens Not Subjects

The fall of the Berlin Wall twenty five years ago has been rightly celebrated these past few days. It marked the end of an experiment in centralised economic control that had clearly run its course.

The debate about how much further we can or should go with decentralising the economy - and politics - is, if anything, gathering momentum. Chris Dillow asks the question, if 'command and control' economies were such a bad idea, then why shouldn't the same process of 'decentralisation' be applied to 'command-and-control' corporations?

I think he has a point - though not necessarily from the Marxist perspective Chris brings to bear. Clifford Longley argues in Just Money: How Catholic Social Teaching can Redeem Capitalism that we need to strike a new balance between the State, the Market and Civil Society. Funny enough, I think the emerging ethos of transparency (sort of) in relations between citizens and government, consumers and businesses might nudge us in that direction.

I love the UK Government's initiative to make the tax system more transparent by sending every citizen a statement showing how their income tax and national insurance contributions have been spent. Something that would have been unheard off on either side of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago. Perhaps the Irish Government will follow suit - some time in the next 25 years.

We are citizens not subjects nor comrades, and we must remember that not all walls between the holders of power and the rest of us are made of bricks and barbwire.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Losing Control

Once again, Japan points the way (and we don't want to go there):

In short, everything the central planners have tried has failed to bring widespread prosperity and has instead concentrated it dangerously at the top. Whether by coincidence or conspiracy, every possible escape hatch for 99.5% of the people has been welded shut. We are all captives in a dysfunctional system of money, run by a few for the few, and it is headed for complete disaster. 
To understand why, in all its terrible and fascinating glory, we need look no further than Japan.
via Hang The Bankers

Do read the rest, perhaps with Joy Division's Control playing in the background:

And she showed up all the errors and mistakes,
And said I've lost control again.
But she expressed herself in many different ways,
Until she lost control again.
And walked upon the edge of no escape,
And laughed I've lost control.
She's lost control again.
She's lost control.
She's lost control again.
She's lost control.

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