April 2012

The New York Times reports a view from Jonathan Haidt…

As a scientist, he takes a passive, empirical view of human nature. He describes us as we have been, expecting no more. Based on evolution, he argues, universal love is implausible: “Parochial love . . . amplified by similarity” and a “sense of shared fate . . . may be the most we can accomplish.”

One might object to this. After all, none of us “love” English people qua English people. In fact, we dislike a good many of them. But here’s a thought: if a hundred Englishmen were being worked to death wouldn’t you be affected? This could be explained by a desire for self-preservation if they were being killed in England so let’s say it’s abroad. You be angered, horrified and sympathetic, no? I would. Yet in North Korea tens of thousands of people face such hardships every day of every year and have been doing so for decades. Aside from, perhaps, the odd teary moment over Nothing to Envy or Escape From Camp 14 has this knowledge had the slightest impact on your emotional state? Apart from those times I’ve been directly confronted with it I have to admit it’s left mine relatively unaffected. That also applies to massacres in the Congo; disease in Kenya and oppression in Zimbabwe.

All people have limited emotional responsiveness. They act according to their membership of communities based on shared experience and ambition, and common humanity is simply not a guarantor of fellow feeling. Even the strongest, broadest concept of tribal allegiance, that of the Muslim Ummah, is nebulous in practice: speaking crudely, Pakistani Muslims tend to be stirred up over Kashmir; Egyptians over Gaza and Kurds over, well, Kurdistan. It needn’t mean we fail to recognise the injustice and suffering faced by others – though, of course, we might – but that our intellectual acknowledgement rarely transcends the cerebrum and manifests itself in empathetic feeling. This is only true, I think, when we have a tribal connection to the victims – be it familial, national or ideological – or heavy exposure to the reality of their suffering.

While this might disincline us from working as hard to ameliorate distress as we might otherwise, it can focus our attention on achievable goals. And, besides, it’s worth remembering that if we truly empathised with all people, let alone creatures, we’d be struck down with an anguish that would make existence Hell.

This does not, of course, mean you have to base your emotions round particular loyalties; only that it should be remembered that most people will.

I’m not about to claim that overeating, and the wrong kinds of eating, aren’t major problems. (They are.) And I’m not about to say that corporations that manufacture and sell industrially processed foods aren’t doing a lot to worsen this. (They are.) Yet I’m sceptical of Dr Aseem Malhotra‘s warning of the former and jeremiad against the latter. For he claims:

It is estimated that diet-related diseases are responsible for 35 million deaths worldwide, dwarfing smoking-related ones of 5 to 8 million. And while there have been tremendous advances in discouraging cigarette consumption, we haven’t really started to act on obesity.

If the crude mortality rate is any guide there are, per year, just over 60 million deaths worldwide. Are over half of them because of diets? I doubt it. See, I think Dr Malhotra took the statistic from here

The United Nations announced in September that chronic diseases like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes contribute to 35 million deaths worldwide each year…

But is diet the cause of all incidences of heart disease, cancer and diabetes? No. I doubt Lance Armstrong or Gary Hall picked up their illness through pigging out on junk food one too many times. In fact, as well as all the people who were doomed by their alcoholism, lack of exercise, increasing age or genetics that number presumably includes most of the smokers Malhotra was using a comparison. This apparent sloppiness is especially serious when he goes on to make fairly ambitious prescriptions: including banning junk food from schools (which you could make a case for but would be a grave abrogation of parental freedoms) and establishing compulsory food tech lessons in primary schools (which might be doable, though I’m not sure teachers will be thrilled to supervise thirty children with raw food, knives and cooking appliances).

CiF commentators passing off misunderstandings and received wisdom as fact is hardly new. (Here, for example, as we’re on the subject, is my look at Barbara Ellen’s stupid claim that people who eat flesh are necessarily stupid.) Yet when a practicing doctor can make – unless I’ve made a ridiculous error – such a ridiculous error it drives home how lax the standards of epistemic rigour can be in today’s society. And if we’re blind to the truth we’ll never understand the problems it illuminates.

I passed over the story of the Irish priest who accidentally broadcast gay porn to a roomful of parents he was trying to advertise his church to. It was everywhere and, besides, I had a spasm of conscience and felt sorry for him. But this development is too fascinating to resist…

An inquiry being carried out by the Archdiocese of Armagh into how gay pornographic images were “inadvertently” shown by a priest to a group of parents and one child has apparently been derailed after the laptop at the centre of the matter was stolen from the priest’s house.

The computer is believed to have been the only item stolen and the PSNI has made a public appeal to help solve the crime.

Now, I’ve gathered that people suspect Father McVeigh or his supporters could be implicated. I’m sceptical, though. I’ve read Voodoo Histories.

There’s no need to resort to gratuitous paranoia. After all, he lives among the mean streets of Pomeroy. There’s got to be more than a few hardened criminals in a population of a whopping 604. And when you realise that Cookstown, the district it’s found in, has as many as 9 robberies per year – making its annual rate as much as 90 per 100,000 – it’s hardly surprising that Father McVeigh should be the victim of a random crime. Cynics might point to the fact that the suspicious laptop was the only item that was pinched but let’s remember that the Catholic church is famous for its abstention from objects of evident value.

For the unconvinced: shame on you. How could anyone suspect that believers, still less churchmen, could be implicated in the cover-up of embarrassing sexual incidents. And, besides, who’d be so cruel as to steal a man’s computer? I mean, what’s he going to use for research now?

So, I watched an offering from the geniuses at Red Letter Media: an interview with the creator of The People vs. George Lucas. It’s a film that studies the relationship between the creator of Star Wars and the fans of the original film, whose devotion for him shifted into disgust once he released The Phantom Menace. One question that struck me, as I watched it, is why George Lucas is the object of so much dislike for ruining Star Wars but Matt Groening faces none despite ruining The Simpsons.

I answered it for myself. As much as people love The Simpsons few have invested as much of themselves in the programme as the fanboys did in Star Wars. Its fall was marked by slow decline, provoking gradual disaffection, rather than a sudden failure after great expectancy. George Lucas, the autocrat at the head of his filmic empire, was the natural focus of ill-feeling while Groening is just part of a corrupt clan. And, besides, it’s dumb to feel personal animus towards people who have given so much happiness and are, as far as we’re aware, doing their best. In truth, it was a dumb question.

Yet the artistic declines of the films and the programme do bear similarities. The creators of both debased their work by choosing to adopt the trends of genres they inhabited. Lucas smothered the bland narratives of his prequels in special effects while Scully, Jean, Maxtone-Graham and co. resorted to the gag-based formula so prevalant in TV nowadays; that which seems to assume that all viewers suffer from attention deficit disorders and will nod off if they aren’t barraged with aimless, unhinged and ephemeral wisecracks, sight gags and bodily expulsions. In an episode where Homer, Marge & co. travel to Italy they find a collection of “wanted” posters. Under “plagiarismo” is Family Guy‘s Peter Griffin. The irony, though, is that while Seth MacFarlane pinched the bases of his characters from The Simpsons the latter have been ripping off the style of his show: where characters and storylines are mere platforms for jokes. But just as lightsaber fights in grandiose settings remains tedious if we’re not so invested in the combatants as to care about their outcomes, a joke will be far less special if it bears no relation to a character or narrative.

Speaking of characters, Star Wars and The Simpsons have also been marked by the degradation of much-loved figures, as their creators misunderstood why they were liked in the first place. The thoughtless, reckless but essentially well-meaning Homer has become a malicious lunatic who kills women, frames his wife for federal crimes and otherwise exists to scream, get hurt and meet celebrities. Continuity, meanwhile, isn’t simply disrespected but outright scorned. Lucas goes back to edit the original films while The Simpsons put out contradictory storylines so frequently that it has to be an in-joke. There have been so many different re-tellings of how Marge and Homer met that I fully expect that in Series 25 we’ll learn it was at Obama’s 2012 inauguration ceremony. The makers openly deride people who think that shattering the suspension of disbelief more thoroughly than a collapsing set might blemish the experience.

I know I said I don’t blame Matt Groening but I think he bears a measure of responsibility nonetheless. He’s responsible because he didn’t end the show after, say, the 11th series like a farmer euthanizing a blind, incontinent sheepdog before it urinates on all their happy memories. I guess the question is how much responsibility artists have to their audience; whether ownership is transferred to supporters of creations that – while only figurative – should be a consideration as they’re furthered. And, frankly, the answer is yes. If people want their viewers, readers or listeners to invest themselves in the adventures of the characters they’ve formed they can’t expect them not to react emotionally if they don’t live up to expectations. This doesn’t mean storylines and characters shouldn’t progress – I’m cool with being introduced to the unfamiliar – but artists should treat the work that has preceded it with respect its audiences feel it’s due. Unless, of course, they loathe everything they’ve achieved and feel contempt towards the people who’ve appreciated it; in which case they could at least be honest enough to come out, admit it and allow them to move on.

Joanna Gearey writes on meeting someone who’d attached hostile comments to her articles and finding him to be far more pleasant than he’d seemed when posting under a pseudonym. The hopeful conclusion she draws is that people are generally nice in real life but, lacking such an evidently personal connection, aren’t so considerate online.

I dispute this. See – I’m lovely on the web and a total bastard in real life. As abusive as I could be on this blog in years gone by my online voice has become more congenial as I’ve grown and matured and yet when I’m away from the computer I’m a coarse, belligerent and downright malicious thug.

Just today I was participating in cordial, nay friendly exchanges on such topics as Israel/Palestine, the ethics of animal testing and the merits of Liverpool Football Club yet as soon as I shut down the computer I began swearing at pensioners; misdirecting people into sex shops and striding up and down in front of orphanaged singing, “We Are Family”. It’s a fun coincidence that this subject should arise because just yesterday I met someone with whom I’d had a frank but civil and respectful dialogue under our mutual monikers on the subject of genetic determinism. In real life, as I saw them for the true, rounded person that they are, I realised that I hated the prat and desired nothing more than to abuse them. I think it’s the limited exposure to humanity that – as a bitter, twisted misanthrope – leads me to behave in a more gracious manner while online than in real life. And, besides, what’s the point of being rude to people when you don’t know the state of their hairlines or their mothers’ christian names and, thus, can’t maximise your full potential for insult efficiency?

Anyway, come back tomorrow when I should be musing on East/West relations and the enduring power of legends. Though I may be posting from a jail cell after bottling a cripple.

It’s not just political correctness that inspires pompous indignation. The self-consciously dim-witted pannelist from QI made some vaguely derisive comments on a little-heard podcast about Liverpool F.C.’s tradition of not playing on the anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster. A lot of their fans have reacted with more fury than the homeless man whose ear he once bit. He was wrong, perhaps – and I’m all for people criticising his opinion – but he didn’t take mock the victims and his characterisation of Dalglish as a “tight-mouthed, furious, frowning, leaning-forward, bitter Glaswegian” was, in my view, quite charitable. Yet, as well as a storm of death threats, he’s faced with things like this

Spokeswoman Sheila Coleman said: “It was insensitive, particularly coming this week.in the run-up to the 23rd anniversary.

“I’ve spoken to people in our group who are hurt by what he has said.” He’s apologised, but it would be good if he could educate himself as to why it’s caused so much offence.”

If you’re hurt by comments that had no personal relevance to you and weren’t of any real-world consequence the biggest problem is not the supposed insensitivity of the person who voiced them but the acuteness of your sensitivities. I mean, what’s the problem with Davies’ accusers? That he said things that were wrong? The man’s career is based on saying things that are wrong. He’s not the President of the Royal Society, he’s Stephen Fry’s whipping boy. That he was rude? If, as a fan of Liverpool football club, you don’t want to hear people being rude about your side you shouldn’t listen to an Arsenal-themed podcast. It’s like a Christian wandering into a Synagogue and being surprised to hear a less than devotional account of the life of Jesus Christ.

In a lot of cases I suspect this is dislike masquerading as abhorrence and distress for the purposes of magnifying self-righteousness and that’s unpleasant whether the subject is football or foreign policy. Others, though, seem genuinely disturbed and while it’s their right to feel whatever might occur to them it’s a sign of dangerous immaturity to be an unable to manage knowing that people exist who don’t share the beliefs and ideals one holds as sacrosanct. And, besides, it’s just boring.

The AFP reports on the dogmatic doings of the sharia police of Indonesia’s province of Aceh. It’s the harshest area to live in. (That’s where dozens of punks were incarcerated, had their heads shaved and got packed off for swift “re-education” to ensure their “morals w[ould] match those of other Acehnese people”.) These thugs stomp around ordering women to don headscarves and unmarried couples to split. I have no real thoughts to offer – I just thought this photograph (by the AFP’s Adek Berry) was a clear, evocative representation of the tragedy of bullheaded censoriousness. Here this couple is – they may be friends or lovers; we don’t know – enjoying eachother’s company on what looks like a lovely day in a beautiful setting. Yet these nosey parkers have to blunder in and ruin it. Any mindset that leads people to believe that this was a dangerous and disgusting scene is, well, richly deserving of both of those adjectives and more.

Here’s an old discussion between Tyler Cowen and Peter Singer. Discussing world poverty the small-“l” liberal Cowen argues…

…what is by far the best anti-poverty program, the only one that’s really been shown to work [is] “immigration”. I don’t even see the word “immigration” in your book’s index. So why don’t we spend a lot more resources allowing immigration, supporting immigration, lobbying for immigration? This raises people’s incomes very dramatically, it’s sustainable, for the most part it’s also good for us…Why not make that the centerpiece of an anti-poverty platform?

Singer responded…

I must admit that I haven’t thought a lot about immigration as a way of dealing with world poverty. Obviously, from what you’re saying, I should be thinking more about it.

Immigration is, of course, a good solution to the poverty of immigrants but to make it “the centerpiece of an anti-poverty platform” would be a strange thing to do because a limited amount of people would be able to be migrate, however loose migrations controls. By 2050 the populations of the less developed countries of the world are liable to have grown by almost 50%, while the populations of its least developed nations are likely to swell by 100%. These are billion upon billion people. Even if countries went the full Singapore – and, thus, made life unpleasant for their people and, indeed, the migrants – you’d be left with heck of a lot of poor men and women. It’s the development of their economies that’s necessary for meaningful opposition to large-scale poverty.

As little as I know of economics I’ve often thought economists can be oddly incapable of looking at the bigger picture – eyeing the world through narrow frames that omit factors like scale, unevenness, historical context and so on. Cowen offers a tentative, plausibly “contrarian” defence of colonialism: wondering if “European rule” could maintain peace in war-torn Africa, to which Singer responds that uprisings against colonial powers would exist instead. Cowen replies…

If we compare the Mau Mau, say, to the wars in Kenya and Rwanda, it seems unlikely that rebellions against colonial governments would have reached that scope, especially if England, France, other countries, would have been willing to spend more money to create some tolerable form of order.

I’m no historian but I’ve always thought that the Rwandan genocide had a lot to do with the divide-and-rule tactics of the Belgian colonists. Homer Simpson’s line about beer being the cause of and solution to all of life’s problems seems appropriate.

The Sun reports

SOARING numbers of UK males are suffering from life-threatening eating disorders, a Sun investigation has revealed.

We found young lads are at particular risk from conditions such as anorexia and bulimia, amid increasing pressure on them to look slim.

Overall, 228 males were admitted last year — more than double the 108 in 2001. But the full extent of the problem is far greater.

The figures do not account for GP consultations or those seeking help in private clinics. And vast numbers endure the dangerous disorders in silence.

First of all, they can stop calling it “manorexia”. I’m sure it can be distinct in cause and manifestation from the illnesses of women but these cutesy terms bring me out in hives. “Broga” is the worst that I’ve seen in recent times. What’s next? “Mancer”? “SchizoHenia”? Enough already.

The Sun correctly notes that the phenomenon has received insufficient attention (the very article was classified under “woman”!)  but I’m wary of its references to “increasing pressure” on young men and the “growing scrutiny of male bodies in the media”. What we don’t need is a thousand earnest commentary pieces on the objectification of men: a very small minority of ‘em experience eating disorders and generalising so broadly would be pointless. Inasmuch as a rise in bulimia and anorexia among men is the result of cultural factors I’d guess it stems in large part from particular subcultures: those of certain sports; gay communities and so on. The important thing is to diagnose such influences – as and when they exist – within the sufferers; not extrapolate from one’s own perceptions. Which is awfully tedious for commentators, I know, but that’s the way it is.

Libya was all over the news after the triumph of the revolutionaries but it disappeared soon afterwards. The reason, one suspects, is that the news isn’t too cheerful. Militias are clashing in the nation’s streets; one-time rebels are said to be torturing their convicts and there’s no stable authority to establish governance. Meanwhile, the Tuareg nomads, who’d been paid to fight for Gaddafi and now find themselves armed and empowered, are leaving. They’ve rampaged across the border into Mali and are looking to establish statehood in a big chunk of the nation. Military officers – dissatisfied by the reaction of the democratically elected government – have staged a coup. The outlook, frankly, is dire.

Among those who publically disputed the value of the intervention I’m not sure that anyone foresaw the drastic effects the sudden toppling of Gaddafi could have on his country’s neighbour. Yet the fact an event was unforeseen isn’t a guarantee that it was unforeseeable. I mean, I don’t know a lot about the Tuareg people but in hindsight it seems terrible that no one – or, at least, few people – had really considered them. Here’s a bunch of guys who’ve wanted independence for ages; who’ve been given arms and who’ve been left in a fractured nation without a real power structure. What else were they going to do? Establish a football team?

Not only are unforeseen events often foreseeable, we know the kinds of actions that are liable to provoke the generally unexpected – the destabilising forces history has taught us bring together a mixture of elements that tend to be explosive. So, just as experience will tell you that driving cars real fast makes them hard to control and obstacles hard to perceive we know that foreign intervention is liable to shift balances of power in a way that’s hard to predict and often hideously dangerous. The bombing of Cambodia gave an incidental leg-up to Pol Pot. (Whoops.) The arming of the Mujahideen helped spawn the Taliban. (Oh dear.) Iraq descended into a nightmare of deranged violence. (Shit.) The potention for unforeseens must be a hefty factor as you weigh the merits and demerits of such actions and it’s the desire to limit them, among other things, that’s led to become more conservative. It might sound a bit wimpy and tedious but, then, it doesn’t mean I won’t risk my own life on some crazed endeavour. We have less of a right to gamble with others’.

Anyway, I dearly hope the outcomes of Gaddafi’s fall will turn out to have been more good than bad – though if you claim to be devoid of doubt, as Bernard Henri-Levy has, you forfeit your right to be called a sensible person, never mind a philosopher. Echoing his view is the Washington Post, which carries an editorial that claims that we should intervene in Mali to ameliorate the consequences of our intervention into Libya. Should that conflict spill across the border into Chad they’ll presumably suggest that we invade that bemused nation and if the fighting drifts into Sudan – well, what the hey – we might as well involve ourselves there too. It won’t end until our intervention into Jordan goes haywire. I don’t think even the most fervent of neoconservatives would demand another invasion of Iraq.

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