Monday, July 26, 2010

Was ancient Ireland socialist or anarchist?

A favourite of political radicals is the reinterpretation of historical events to make them fit modern political narratives. Let's look at what two rival political stances interpret from pre-Norman Ireland.

Exactly one century ago Irish socialist James Connolly's Labour in Irish History described native Irish society as pre-capitalist communalism, an egalitarian society with tribal ownership of the land:

The Irish chief, although recognised in the courts of France, Spain, and Rome, as the peer of the reigning princes of Europe, in reality held his position upon the sufferance of his people, and as an administrator of the tribal affairs of his people, while the land or territory of the clan was entirely removed from his private jurisdiction. In the parts of Ireland where for 400 years after the first conquest (so-called) the English governors could not penetrate except at the head of a powerful army, the social order which prevailed in England – feudalism – was unknown, and as this comprised the greater portion of the country, it gradually came to be understood that the war against the foreign oppressor was also a war against private property in land.


Here Connelly is uniting his own socialist beliefs with the anti-English nationalism that was popular at the time. For him, rejection of British rule was one with the rejection of capitalism and private ownership of the land. The egalitarian nature of pre-Norman Ireland was a justification for the creation of a modern socialist, nationalist Ireland.

Odd, then, than in 1973 Murray N. Rothbard's pro-capitalist, anti-state book For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto used pre-Norman Ireland for precisely the opposite reason, as a state-less anarchy of private property and a historical example to bolster support for modern capitalist anarchy:

And this was also a society where not only the courts and the law were largely libertarian, but where they operated within a purely state-less and libertarian society. This was ancient Ireland — an Ireland which persisted in this libertarian path for roughly a thousand years until its brutal conquest by England in the seventeenth century....

For a thousand years, then, ancient Celtic Ireland had no State or anything like it. As the leading authority on ancient Irish law has written: "There was no legislature, no bailiffs, no police, no public enforcement of justice . . . . There was no trace of State-administered justice...."

There were occasional "wars," to be sure, in the thousand years of Celtic Ireland, but they were minor brawls, negligible compared to the devastating wars that racked the rest of Europe. As Professor Peden points out, "without the coercive apparatus of the State which can through taxation and conscription mobilize large amounts of arms and manpower, the Irish were unable to sustain any large scale military force in the field for any length of time. Irish wars . . . were pitiful brawls and cattle raids by European standards."

So which was it: socialist paradise or anarchist Utopia? Either way pre-Norman Irish tribalism failed to defend itself from Norman and English conquest, making it a questionable example for a secure modern society. Advocates of political ideologies who back-fit modern narratives onto ancient historical societies and events might be tinkering with the truth just a bit. Be wary of that.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Why brutal rape porn probably isn't sexist

Violent pornography, where it depicts women being victimised and abused by men, is sexist. It degrades women, demoting them from individuals to slaves, existing only as objects to pleasure the observing male.

So it's sexist.

And violent homosexual pornography, depicting men being victimised by other men is... also sexist? Because it also degrades men, rendering them mere objects of desire to other men. Hang on. Somehow it becomes more difficult to call this sexist.

Perhaps this is because neither example is necessarily sexist, and the assumptions that inspire this charge of sexism are faulty. Violent heterosexual porn is not about men degrading women, it's about men degrading those they find sexually attractive. Women may have nothing to do with it, this is all about men.

Male violence and domination
Some men like dominating other individuals. Often the victims of this domineering instinct are other men, perhaps because they are seen as rivals for prestige and mates. Australia's 2009 Recorded Crime statistics show that victims of murder were overwhelmingly male: 71%. Attempted murder victims were 74% male. Robbery victims were 75% male. Women were victims of sexual assault far more often, making up 84% of all victims, as well as 55% of kidnapping victims.

In South Carolina a survey from 1977-2000 showed that men made up 73.3% of murder victims, 69% of robbery victims and 59.5% of aggravated assault victims. Men made up only 35% of simple assault (an unarmed unlawful attack not causing serious injury) and only 0.4% of rape victims.

In both cases males are far more likely to be killed than females so male violence against other males is relatively common (and presumably not sexist). Even war is mainly violence perpetrated by men on other men: in Iraq males made up the vast majority of violent deaths, Johns Hopkins University putting the violent death male-to-female ratio in Iraq at 10:1 in 2006.

A high proportion of men behave violently, relative to the proportion of women who do. The victims of sexual violence are mostly women, but considering the extent of male-on-male violence can we take for granted that male sexual violence against women is indicative of some exclusively anti-female aggression? There is another, simpler way to explain it: most men are heterosexual, most male sexual activity is with women, so naturally most male sexual violence is also against women.

A homosexual world
This turns the debate upside down. Imagine a world where all men are exclusively homosexual. Most or all sexual violence would then, presumably, be targetted at other men.

Aside from violence, the sexual objectification of women in advertising and popular culture would also be reversed in this homosexual world. Lots of men like looking at objects of their sexual desire; in the homosexualised world this would mean pictures of men. Men in skimpy clothing, men posing and pouting and objectified. Men's magazines, today full of big-boobed blondes, would instead show mindless muscular Rambos.

Because none of this is to do with women at all, but rather is about men and their desires. If all men liked beastiality, expect sheep suggestively slugging cola in Pepsi ads. If men preferred children, expect music videos with gyrating 7-year-olds. But most men prefer young adult women, and that is why women feature in sexualised advertising, women are degraded in brutal pornography and women are victims of rape.

Looking at women
This post was inspired by an incident on an international relations discussion forum where a female member chastised some males for discussing the attractiveness of female politicians, as well as Iranian president Ahmajinedad's wife:

It is about discussing the "ugliness" and "hotness" of women who are not in the business of entrainment, who aren't even public figures of their own. It is about sexism, about a totally out-of-context concern with the attractiveness of women.

The male members were more disgruntled than chastened at this, denying that any sexism was involved. I suggested that if the male forum members were all gay they would be discussing Putin and Sarkozy's attractiveness (or otherwise) instead of that of female politcians. Their amused debate on the attractiveness of these women had nothing to do with their views of women in politics, and everything to do with their inclination to discuss the attractiveness of the sex they happen to desire.

One of the moderators posted a picture of the muscle-bound Vladimir Putin fishing with his shirt off, with the comment:

Here you go. We're even now. Let's have peace.

He's right. And if the recently controversial Hunky Dory ads featuring women in bikinis had been aimed at gay men it might have looked less like this:


And more like this:



Just think, that man is somebody's brother: how sexist!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Sexual Revolution in reverse

A team of North American scientists suggest that the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s may have been kickstarted by the medical improvements of the previous generation.

Thornhill et al. (2009) noted that the predictions of the parasite-stress model are consistent with the marked increase in the liberalization of social values that began to occur in the West in the 1960s and 1970s (e.g., civil rights, women’s rights, gay and lesbian rights, anti-authoritarianism, etc.). In the West, but not outside of it, infectious-disease prevalence was reduced dramatically a generation or two earlier as a result of widespread availability of antibiotics, child vaccination programs, food- and water-safety practices, increased sanitation and vector control...

The researchers point to the role of disease prevalence in shaping culture. When the risk of infectious disease is high, cultures tend to be insular, xenophobic and sexually conservative, these traits reducing the risk of infection. When the risk collapses, as it did after the development of 20th century drugs and sanitation, cultures tend to become more liberal and permissive.

So what if the risk comes back? The AIDS disaster in Africa is an example of just that, and:

...In a report, UNAids says the incidence of HIV has decreased by up to 25% as young people between the ages of 15 and 24 change their sexual behaviour....

The Outlook report says young people in 16 of the world's 25 worst-affected countries with HIV are becoming sexually active later and having fewer sexual partners.

In countries such as Botswana, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi and Zimbabwe the reduction in new HIV infections, measured among young pregnant women presenting for antenatal check-ups, indicates that these nations will achieve UN targets for reducing HIV rates among the young this year.

It's the Sexual Revolution in reverse: as risk increases sexual promiscuity declines.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Know thyself: finding my blind spot

I was raised a Catholic, of the more liberal and friendly Catholicism that was growing after Vatican II, and as a child I took its teachings on morality quite seriously. One such teaching was the fifth Commandment, translated to us as ‘you will not kill’, rather than the ‘thou shalt not murder’ interpreted by other Christians, the latter implying a difference between legitimate and illegitimate killing. For the child Shane, though, this was a simple injunction: you can’t kill people, ever.

Other Catholic teachings on things like contraception and premarital sex I gradually drifted away from, but that one idea about not killing stuck with me and has, I suppose, clouded my judgement in looking at violent world events since.

Spotting the blind spot
A few years ago it occurred to me as a useful exercise to look within myself and see what my blind spots were, what topics was I approaching with a closed mind. This aversion to killing was the most prominent, colouring everything I believed about war and peace. I wanted war to not work, because then I could say that my aversion to killing was a rational, pragmatic one. I interpreted every new suicide bombing in Iraq or Afghanistan as evidence that those wars – as all wars – were doomed to costly failure. I read Irish history and wanted to believe that the 1916 Rising and the War of Independence gave Ireland no more freedom than had already been promised to them through the peaceful politics of the Home Rule movement.

I became interested in martial arts, telling myself that individuals could defend themselves from criminals with nonfatal violence: fists and feet instead of bullets. As absurd as this sounds, I suspect Saturday morning cartoons showing Batman and Spiderman fight but not kill criminals may have reinforced this faith in nonfatal violence. Really killing was a blind spot for me, warping my understanding of world events. (Readers here might spot this, for example in my post on the apparent increase in terrorism after the launch of the war on terror. Again, I want to think war can’t succeed – so be a little wary when you read me discussing violence!)

Reactionary alright
In university I was exposed to a lot of left-wing thought for the first time. In some ways this seemed to suit me with its apparent concern for the poor and opposition to some of the high-profile wars of the early 2000s. For a few years I was steeped in this; we were given little interpretation of world events that came from any but a centre-left consensus.

Partly as a response to that, and partly because I later encountered lots of sensible right-wing argument, I have since swung away from the left to an extent which may also cloud my judgement. Now viewpoints which five years ago would have been familiar and compelling only irritate me. I write off government interventions in the market without bothering to think them through – because they annoy me, not because they don’t make sense.

So this is another, lesser, blind spot: a kneejerk reaction that dismisses left-wing argument without really taking the time to explore it. I find myself automatically opposing striking workers in Greece just as years earlier I was automatically supporting them.

Daft idealism
Part of this comes from an odd idealistic streak: I seem to want the world to make sense so I am vulnerable to ideologies, of any kind. I swing from environmentalism to socialism to anarcho-capitalism. I just don’t like the idea that the world is so complex and contradictory that there is not a simple and self-evident moral template that I can apply to best understand it, so when I read about a new idea for the first time, excitement kicks in. To quote This is Spinal Tap:
I believe virtually everything I read, and I think that is what makes me more of a selective human than someone who doesn't believe anything.
At least I'm aware of this tendency to idealise and I do have a kind of solution, in conservatism. Rather than imagining Utopian societies that might exist, I force myself to demand real world examples of whatever ideology is exciting me at present. In that sense the clumsy and inefficient welfare-state liberal democracy which I am lucky to live in today tends to score pretty well.

Anyway these are some things I need to be aware of and careful of. I imagine everyone has blind spots, but few acknowledge them or seek to avoid them. Readers, feel free to explain your own blind spots if you like: what little biases do you have that tend to warp your world view?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Dysfunctional and violent teenge boys? Surely not!

Three times in the last month teenage boys have insulted or threatened me near my home in north Dublin City. All three times the attention-seeking lads initiated some kind of verbal aggression while I was walking past on the street. One boy flung some kind of biro-sized hollow plastic tube at my face, leaving a blood-oozing graze. Another simply lunged towards me as I passed and said, absurdly, ‘yeh bastard!’

I lived in Dublin from 2001 to 2007, without ever experiencing this kind of behaviour, and I have been wondering if something has changed about my appearance (or age) that is attracting this negative attention. Still, I am living in a different part of Dublin now, much nearer the city centre, and perhaps I am dealing with a more aggressive youth subculture than that which was prevalent in the northern suburbs.

Dark Dublin
This bad behaviour has dismayed and angered, but not surprised me. I had long sensed an underlying menace in Dublin (and other Irish cities to a lesser extent), a sense that this violent machismo was widely taken for granted as a means of gaining respect by young males. I saw boys no older than eleven flinging litter out of the top deck of a double-decker bus at pedestrians. I was in a train while it was pelted with stones by a crowd of children. Dublin firefighters told me of kids dropping concrete blocks from pedestrian bridges onto the windscreens of ambulances. Irish rivers and canals are clogged with litter.

Some Irish graffiti is better than others

In 2004 I lived for a while near the centre of Sydney and Australia - with a reputation for boisterous and macho males - seemed to lack the swaggering gangs of teenage boys I saw at home. It simply felt safer there, more civilised.

There was violence occasionally, of course. My Irish housemate told me one morning that he and a passing Chinese man had stopped to intervene in a fight between two young men, when one of the combatants shouted back in a strong Irish accent: ‘It’s all right! We’re friends!’ My brother claimed the only violence he had witnessed in a year in Australia was on Saint Patrick’s Day when the local Irish visitors disgraced themselves with some drunken destruction.

I have warned against using anecdotes without statistical evidence before so these stories tell us little about the true extent of violent crime. The 2004-5 International Crime Victims Survey asked respondents in 78 countries if they had: 'been personally attacked or threatened by someone in a way that really frightened you, either at home or elsewhere, such as in a pub, in the street, at school, on public transport, on the beach, or at your workplace?'

In Ireland 4.9% of respondents said yes - one of the worst results in the survey - compared with 3.8% in Australia (or 3.9% in Dublin versus 2.8% in Sydney). This seems like a fairly small difference. Perhaps I simply didn’t recognise the danger signs in Australia.

Turning Japanese
I taught in a high school in the south of Japan where some of my teenage male students were disruptive, attention-seeking and rude – but not violent. The same macho guys who interrupted classes and mocked their teachers and peers still carefully tidied away their litter on the streets. Littering was unknown; the streets were dotted with unsupervised vending machines, which young Japanese men failed to rob, write on or destroy. I did see the word ‘homo’ written phonetically in Japanese script on a bus seat once but graffiti was very rare.

In Japan only 0.6% of respondents to the International Crime Victims Survey reported assaults or threats over the previous five years. Japan felt like a futuristic Utopia where people had forgotten how to fight: it simply didn’t seem to occur to young men and boys that they needed to throw their weight around to get respect.

The final solution?
This just shows that there is nothing inevitable about the violent machismo I noticed over the last few weeks. It’s not youthful high spirits, it’s verging on criminality. I’m not sure if it is related to some of our other social ills – the ridiculous extent of littering and vandalism for example – but we needn’t think it has to be this way.

So I don’t know why this seems to be particularly prevalent in Ireland and largely absent in Japan, and I don’t know what is the best way to tackle it. Any suggestions? Feel free to leave them in the comments section below.