Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Establishment Won

One should respect public opinion insofar as is necessary to avoid starvation and keep out of prison, but anything that goes beyond this is voluntary submission to an unnecessary tyranny. 
Bertrand Russell

Sometimes history is just 'one damned thing after another', and sometimes something historic happens. Last week's referendum result on same-sex marriage certainly falls into the latter category. While it's a little early to tell precisely just how historic the result was - from the vantage point of one week later - I think we can begin to discern some interesting consequences.

History is written by the victors, and even at this early stage the story of what happened is taking on a discernible, even predictable narrative. As with most rights-based political campaigns - from Civil Rights in the United States to ending Apartheid in South Africa, and even to divorce and abortion here in Ireland - the Narrative usually follows an arc from hostile, even violent rejection by the Establishment to ultimate triumph by a group of passionate and brave idealists in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. It's an appealing narrative because, much of the time, it's actually true.

Which brings us back to last Friday's referendum. It would appear from the re-telling that the Yes campaign began facing seemingly insurmountable odds, with little in the way of support (beyond the entire political system, the mass media, both the multinational and public sectors and a few dollars more) while taking on the combined might of the Iona Institute and, er, John Waters. It was a close run thing, but the Yes campaign finally prevailed and the Establishment lost.

Except that the Establishment won. The purpose of all politics is power - for good or ill - and if we apply the 'power test' to last week's referendum then we can safely say that the result strengthened the Establishment rather than weakened it. Yes, but 'who' is the Establishment you are asking? Let's say who it isn't first. It isn't the Catholic Church, though they were certainly once part of the Establishment. But the Narrative demands a Loser and obviously it suits many to portray the Catholic Church as the biggest loser last week. Even a lot of Catholics (both inside and outside Ireland) think that. However, anyone who thinks the Catholic Church is still part of the Establishment in Ireland must have recently arrived in a time capsule from the 1970s: things have changed a bit since then.

The Establishment in Ireland today comprises - in no particular order - the main political parties, state organisations (national and local), representative bodies, the Gardai, large corporations, various supra-national institutions such as the EU, the Social Partners etc.  In a word, all those calling for a Yes vote in the referendum. The Establishment won: congratulations.

Brendan O'Neill - once again - has a particularly interesting perspective on how the politics of same-sex marriage actually strengthens the state:
What we have here is not the politics of autonomy, but the politics of identity. Where the politics of autonomy was about ejecting the state from gay people’s lives — whether it was Stonewall rioters kicking the cops out of their bars or Peter Tatchell demanding the dismantling of all laws forbidding homosexual acts — the politics of identity calls upon the state to intervene in gay people’s lives, and offer them its recognition, its approval. For much of the past 50 years, radical gay-rights activism was in essence about saying ‘We do not need the approval of the state to live how we choose’; now, in the explicit words of The Politics of Same-Sex Marriage, it’s about seeking ‘the sanction of the state for our intimate relationships’. The rise of gay marriage over the past 10 years speaks, profoundly, to the diminution of the culture of autonomy, and its replacement by a far more nervous, insecure cultural outlook that continually requires lifestyle validation from external bodies. And the state is only too happy to play this authoritative role of approver of lifestyles, as evidenced in Enda Kenny’s patronising (yet widely celebrated) comment about Irish gays finally having their ‘fragile and deeply personal hopes realised’.
As a small aside, the Establishment also 'won' the other referendum too: no point letting inexperienced youths get hold of the Presidency (power again), better to leave these things to their elders and betters don't you think?

They say about referenda, and not just in Ireland, that often voters 'answer the wrong question'. So when the No side won the first Lisbon referendum, the explanation was they were answering the question 'Is the Government doing a good job' rather than 'should the Treaty of Lisbon be ratified?' We got the answer 'right' second time round of course. But sometimes people also say Yes to a different question than the one they're being asked. A lot of people voted Yes last week to the question 'Would Ireland be a better place if we didn't discriminate against gay people the way they were often cruelly discriminated against in the past'? Naturally most people answered Yes; so would I to such a question. But that wasn't the question.

The remarkable thing in hindsight is that the No campaign got 38% of the vote: 734,300 in total. All the opinion polls prior to the vote - and I mean ALL - were wrong about the size of the No share. Not just out by a bit, but out by more than double the error in the recent UK election polling debacle. So while there has been understandable speculation about the newly awakened political activism of the young generation, I'm not so sure. What nobody seems to be pointing out is that they went and did what the Establishment was urging them to do by voting Yes. I thought the young were supposed to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy, not do its bidding? And then there was the result of that other referendum: so much for a newly awakened generation of political activists seizing the reigns of power.

That nearly 4 in 10 voted against the Establishment is quite remarkable and in most democracies would be seen by one opposition party or another as a golden opportunity to rally a significant number of voters to an alternative platform. But not in Ireland apparently, even (or especially) if you are Fianna Fáil. There's Renua of course (strap-line: 'The Same, Only Nicer'), then again, maybe not.

But back to history and its making. What is truly historic about the times we live in is the speed with which Irish culture and social values are changing. Some of it is about virtue signalling, but the speed and nature of change goes much further. The introduction of same-sex marriage won't change much on its own. As I said about the introduction of civil partnerships nearly six years ago, the number of gay couples availing of their new-won rights will be trivially small in the scheme of things (both numerically and as a share of all marriages/civil partnerships). Though I don't doubt its importance to the happiness of those gay couples who will avail of marriage.

Rather it is the wider impact of change that matters in the long run. Ireland is progressing rapidly (perhaps more than others) from what Charles Taylor describes as a 'Secular 2' society (the modern concept of the secular as 'areligious') to a 'Secular 3' society (a post-modern age which sees an explosive 'supernova' of contested beliefs: religious, irreligious and anti-religious).  As James KA Smith describes it, the secular is haunted. Ireland is no exception.

In a way, last week's referendum result marked the moment Ireland became 'just like everywhere else': apparently no longer weighed down by a heritage of sexual, religious and cultural repression. Witnessing the celebrations of the Yes campaign, James Matthew Wilson wrote about the Irish:
But, finally, they take joy in becoming what, it seems, they were always meant to become. An unexceptional country floating somewhere in the waters off a continent that has long since entered into cultural decline, demographic winter, and the petty and perpetual discontents that come free of charge to every people that lives for nothing much in particular.
I'm not so gloomy, but I see some of what he portends. Though there is a more immediate problem: we may be losing the shared vocabulary of political discourse necessary to sustain a healthy democracy (secular or otherwise). Assuming we can find any politicians willing to join in the discourse. Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, surveying the same contested political landscape in the United States, notes that:
The biggest problem we face as a culture isn’t gay marriage or global warming. It’s not abortion funding or the federal debt. These are vital issues, clearly. But the deeper problem, the one that’s crippling us, is that we use words like justice, rights, freedom and dignity without any commonly shared meaning to their content. 
We speak the same language, but the words don’t mean the same thing. Our public discourse never gets down to what’s true and what isn’t, because it can’t. Our most important debates boil out to who can deploy the best words in the best way to get power.
Back to politics and power again. The Establishment always wins.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Virtue Signalling

Ireland's referendum to redefine marriage is nearly over. The campaign will - I suspect - be pored over for years to come in relation to social change advocacy and resistance to same.

But I think it will also be remembered for the extraordinary way in which the campaign became a platform - albeit for the Yes side - to very publicly signal one's voting intentions, secret ballot be damned. So a lot of 'Tá' badges and stickers, 'Níl' badges not so much. Kim would certainly approve.

I recently came across a name for this, it's called Virtue Signalling and has been used to describe the surprise outcome of the recent UK election and the emergence (if that's the right word) of the 'Shy Tory' voter. According to James Bartholomew, virtue signalling is all about using what you say and how you say it to indicate to others that you are 'kind, decent and virtuous', and those with whom you disagree are the very opposite.

So in the UK, attacking the Daily Mail, Nigel Farrage and the Conservatives is all about signalling that you are nice because they are nasty. Bartholomew laments:
There was a time when Britain had a form of Christianity in which pride was considered a sin. Maybe that is part of why some of us find all this virtue signalling obnoxious. It’s just showing off. For some of us it is both ridiculous and irritating that people who say that they hate Ukip actually believe they are being more virtuous than others who visit the sick, give money to charity or are kind to someone lonely. But the widespread way in which people now proudly boast suggests there is no shame, no reflection. And because of this lack of awareness, it is more common. Twitter lends itself very well to virtue signalling, since it is much easier to express anger and scorn in 140 characters than to make a reasoned argument. Russell Brand is perhaps the ultimate incarnation of modern virtue signalling. He is bursting with anger and outrage. My goodness he must be good!
Robin Hanson, who has practically made a blogging career out of writing about signaling (the American spelling), recently defined signaling/signalling thus:
More generally I call a message “signaling” if it has these features: 
It is not sent mainly via the literal meanings of words said.
It is not easily or soon verifiable.
It is mainly about the senders’ personal features, perhaps via association with groups.
It is about sender “quality” dimensions where more is better, so senders want others to believe quality is as high as possible, while others want to assess more accurately. Such qualities are not just unitary, but can include degrees of loyalty to particular allies. 
Cheap talk cannot send a message like this; one cannot just say such a thing, one must show it. And since it cannot be verified, one must show it indirectly, via how such features make one more willing or able to do something. And since willingness and ability track costs, these are “costly” signals.
This is one reason why celebrities - from Colin Farrell to Russell Brand - are now feted for their opinions on everything from same sex marriage to global warming, it signals group association and encourages others to do the same.

But there is a darker side to all this, experienced in every totalitarian country. Frank Furedi observes (also in the context of the recent UK election) that the opposite of virtue signalling - the spiral of silence - has been with us since long before twitter and Facebook:
The pressure to conform and the fear of social isolation can lead to what the German social scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann identified in 1974 as a ‘spiral of silence’. According to this theory, people’s assessment of the opinions held by the majority influences and modifies the way they express their own views. Some individuals feel anxious about expressing sentiments that differ from the consensus outlook, as expressed in the political and media realm, and it is thought that, ‘prompted by a “fear of social isolation”’, some are ‘less likely to express their own viewpoint when they believe their opinions and ideas are in the minority’. Typically, the fear of negative social sanctions influences the way people express attitudes about numerous morally charged ‘threats’, such as foreigners, crime or terrorism.
Coming back to the referendum, Brendan O'Neill thinks the 'spiral of silence' in Ireland has become something of a vortex. As he sees it:
Irish opponents of gay marriage aren’t only encouraged to feel shy — they’re encouraged to feel shame... Heaven help anyone who says No to this flinging open of marriage to same-sex couples. For the extent to which Ireland’s political and media elites have lined up behind gay marriage ahead of the referendum is nothing short of breathtaking. I’ve racked my brains, and I can’t think of any other political issue in Europe in recent times on which the consensus has been so suffocating, and so hostile to dissent. 
There’s a profound irony here: Ireland’s political class calls for a Yes vote to prove that Ireland has moved on from its intolerant religious past, and yet some of that old intolerance is being rehabilitated by the very people backing gay marriage. They shush dissent and demonise their opponents as effectively as any priest used to do, only in the name of Gays rather than God. Backing gay marriage has become, in Irish Independent columnist, Eilis O’Hanlon’s words, a way for influential people to ‘identify [themselves] as members of an enlightened elite’, ‘kindly metropolitan liberals versus nasty Catholic conservatives’. This referendum is now only ostensibly about gay marriage: more fundamentally it has become a means for a new, PC, post-traditionalist elite to distinguish itself from the allegedly hateful and gruff inhabitants of Ireland’s more rural, old-fashioned communities.
Signalling again. But with an added viciousness that lands us in an Orwellian world in which - as Edward Feser explains - those who disagree with the new orthodoxy are no longer tolerated... in the name of tolerance!

Where it goes from here is anyone's guess. It does also depend on the outcome, of course.  Fianna Fáil (the gift that keeps on giving... to Fine Gael) have missed their last opportunity to secure and expand their core constituency in Ireland which would have followed if they had taken a pragmatic, perfectly reasonable (in the eyes of many) stand against redefining marriage (for any number of reasons: 'it's too soon', 'let's wait and see' etc etc). But they didn't, and the rest - including Fianna Fáil - is history. Needless to say, that's the very expensive version of signalling, and best avoided if possible.

So back to the outcome: do exercise your dearly won democratic right to vote, whichever way you intend voting. Go vote even if the privacy of the voting booth affords no signalling value - after all, there are more important things in a democracy that hopes to remain one.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Cashing Out

Despite our improving fortunes here in Ireland (and they are improving), a lot of commentators I read on trends elsewhere seem increasingly gloomier. Dan Ariely thinks American consumers are so psychologically fragile that even a minor shock could trigger a major panic. While Tyler Cowen thinks the Great Stagnation is morphing into a Great Reset meaning things will never return to 'normal'.

Add to that a growing number of stories about controls on holding and using cash (most recently in France), surcharges on cash withdrawals in Greece, still looming debt problems (including our own), as well as negative interest rates and you begin to wonder just how real is the recovery?

Plainly there is more at play than just a very slow recovery after a very harsh recession. Whether you think that globalisation has gone into reverse, or that the EU experiment has run its course and is now exhausted (or on the brink of something much worse), it does seem that new ideas are required.

Fortunately there are plenty out there: from using bitcoin to launch a new Greek currency to Croatia cancelling the debts of its poorest citizens. Bernard Lietaer has long championed the benefits of currency diversity (mono-currency unions are dangerously vulnerable, just like mono culture agriculture). He believes that the problems we face will demand the (re)introduction of alternative and complementary currencies similar in scale and diversity to those that emerged in the 1930s during the Great Depression.

Of course, the Central Banks and the Tax Authorities weren't too keen on the idea back then; they won't be much keener in the years ahead. But they - and we - may have no choice given the challenges that lie ahead, whatever the near term prospects for Ireland.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Strange Hate

I watched Dr. Strangelove the other night. It was - and is - a remarkable movie, combining apocalyptic humour with and end-of-the-world lesson in game theory. I remember reading in a Stanley Kubrick biography (he was producer and director) that at times Kubrick had to lay on the floor behind the camera biting his hand so he couldn't be heard laughing at Peter Sellers' portrayal of Dr. Strangelove himself. I can understand why.

But perhaps the most chilling performance is that of General Jack D. Ripper by Sterling Hayden (pictured above). The audience, along with Peter Sellers (this time as Group Captain Lionel Mandrake - he also plays the President of the United States by the way) watches in horror as it dawns that General Ripper is stark, staring, barking mad. It's a singular portrayal of the Cold War doctrine of M.A.D. (Mutual Assured Destruction) if ever there was one.

I used to think the Cold War ended in 1991 with the dissolution of the USSR. Now I'm not so sure. There's a superb two part interview with historian Stephen Cohen over at Salon that got me thinking about recent events in Ukraine and whether we are witnessing the Cold War 'by other means'.  Cohen notes:
As I’ve said for more than a year, we’re in a new Cold War. We’ve been in one, indeed, for more than a decade. My view [for some time] was that the United States either had not ended the previous Cold War, though Moscow had, or had renewed it in Washington. The Russians simply hadn’t engaged it until recently because it wasn’t affecting them so directly. 
What’s happened in Ukraine clearly has plunged us not only into a new or renewed—let historians decide that—Cold War, but one that is probably going to be more dangerous than the preceding one for two or three reasons. The epicenter is not in Berlin this time but in Ukraine, on Russia’s borders, within its own civilization: That’s dangerous. Over the 40-year history of the old Cold War, rules of behavior and recognition of red lines, in addition to the red hotline, were worked out. Now there are no rules. We see this every day—no rules on either side.
Cohen also laments how the West now treats Putin, quoting Henry Kissinger on the same issue:
The demonization of Putin is not a policy. It’s an alibi for not having a policy.
In Cohen's view, Washington is deliberately or otherwise mis-reading what is happening in Russia and the crucial role Putin has played in stabilising a potentially catastrophic situation. Lucio Carraciolo describes Russia as a Democratorship - an outcome of its distinctive history, culture and circumstances, and a reason why the West doesn't 'get' Russia. It's not to say that its inevitable. As Cohen explains, things could very easily have gone in a different direction under Gorbachev and then Yeltsin. They still could under Putin or his successor.

And that's what's scary fifty one years after the release of Dr. Strangelove. The West still easily descends into a 'Strange Hate', projecting its own anxieties and prejudices onto a Russia that is always changing... and always the same. Perhaps we're the ones that haven't changed? We may not obsess about bodily fluids like General Ripper, but we still obsess about the things that make us different rather than the same.

We can't - we mustn't - go back to the Cold War, no more than we can go back to the USSR. Even Putin realises it, noting that:
Anyone who doesn’t regret the end of the Soviet Union has no heart. Anyone who thinks you can recreate the Soviet Union has no head. 
POSTSCRIPT: on the other hand, maybe it's too late?

Friday, May 8, 2015

The People Have Spoken

The UK General Election turned out more entertaining - or a least more surprising - than I had expected. One good thing about the UK's First Past The Post electoral system is that it often results in significant changes in the composition of parliament after each election. Hence the entertainment.

The bad thing is that it gives the majority of people a Government they didn't vote for. Take this analysis from the BBC:

UKIP got as many votes (3.9 million) as the SNP, Lib Dems and DUP combined: the latter got a combined 72 seats, UKIP got 1.  The Tories got 37% of the vote but will now form a 'majority' government.

My own trade - opinion pollsters - were the other big losers in the UK Election. Lots of soul-searching to follow I suspect. Maybe it is that - as Chris Dillow observes quoting Scott Sumner - there's no such thing as 'public opinion'. Just lots of private opinions that don't lend themselves to neat generalisations that are public.  Or maybe it was a commentariat too busy projecting its own world view onto the data to see what was really happening. Shy Tories and all that.

Ireland has its own Shy Tories of course - they used to vote Fianna Fáil - but they haven't gone away you know. Unlike Michelle Gildernew's vote in my dear old Fermanagh & South Tyrone...

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Kim Jong-un Calls for a Yes Vote

In yet another remarkable intervention in Ireland's referendum campaign, the leader of North Korea - Kim Jong-un - has called for a Yes vote on May 22nd. From the Korean Central News Agency announcment earlier today:
Pyongyang, May 2nd 2015: Fraternal May Day greetings to the people of Ireland from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. In his May Day speech to the Supreme People's Assembly, Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un called on the people of Ireland to vote Yes in the forthcoming referendum. "We enjoy a level of equality in our People's Democratic Republic that the people of Ireland can only dream off in their Republic, but a Yes vote on May 22nd will surely bring Ireland closer to the glorious future that awaits it" he predicted.  
Kim Jong-un expressed admiration as well as support for the strong and unrelenting campaign being waged by brave Irish comrades in Labour, Sinn Fein, the Anti Austerity Alliance, Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and Renua to secure a Yes vote. Furthermore, the Supreme Leader called on comrades in Pyongyang to learn from the Yes campaign in Ireland in order that there should be greater certainty about the outcome next time the Democratic People's Republic voted unanimously to approve the wisdom of their Supreme Leader. 
Kim Jong-un reminded the People's Assembly that a Yes vote would help Ireland to finally lose its pariah status among the nations of the world, and should therefore inspire North Korea and her people in these difficult times. A Yes vote, he added, would lead to better trade relations between our two Republics, new investment opportunities, job creation, better harvests, and even to a reduction in CO2 emissions.  
Finally the Supreme Leader finished his speech by noting that - as the World's youngest leader - he could not in fact be elected Supreme Leader in Ireland because he's only 32 years of age. He concluded: "This is yet another example of the inequality endured by the long-suffering Irish people, and yet another reason to vote Yes on May 22nd".
Wow, I have to say, that's an intellectual slam dunk if ever there was one. Good for you Kim Jong-un, and I for one look forward to your interventions in future referenda and elections in our unequal little Republic.

But let's face it, he has a point: our Constitution blatantly enshrines age-based apartheid denying young people like Kim Jong-un the chance to lead our country, something that should cause every Irish man and women to hang his or her head in shame. I mean think about it: can you imagine companies like twitter, Google, Facebook and airbnb setting up shop in a country that blatantly denies basic democratic rights to their core audience of 18-35 year olds, maintaining a level of inequality and injustice not seen since the dark days of, well, Apartheid?

Oh, wait, they're already here... shurely shome mishtake?

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