Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Louis Theroux and the miracle of Florida's falling crime

I recently watched some of Louis Theroux's documentary Miami Mega Jail, where the British film-maker visits a huge Florida jail. Theroux describes the institution as follows:

Up to 24 inmates are crowded into a single cell, living behind metal bars on steel bunks, sharing a single shower and two toilets.

Little of the bright Miami sun filters through the grilles on the windows. Visits to the yard happen twice a week for an hour. The rest of the time, inmates are holed up round the clock, eating, sleeping, and going slightly crazy.

But what is most shocking is the behaviour of the inmates themselves. For reasons that remain to some extent opaque - perhaps because of the bleak conditions they live in or because of insufficient supervision by officers, maybe because they lack other outlets for their energies, or because of their involvement with gangs on the outside, or maybe from a warped jailhouse tradition - the incarcerated here have created a brutal gladiatorial code of fighting.

They fight for respect, for food and snacks, or simply to pass the time.

When Theroux questioned prisoners many were inarticulate and shy. Others told depressing stories about violent childhoods, one describing a gangster father who would arrive occasionally to beat him and then disappear again, leaving him to live with his grandmother.

The whole thing seemed so futile. Damaged boys arrive at the jail to be brutalised and criminalised by years of imprisonment and humiliation. With Theroux's personal style drawing out the dark stories of individual members the viewer is confronted with the ugliness of the system, but there is little chance of a wider view: we do not get to see if this system really works or not, what impact it might have on society.

As it happens, the wider view of Florida's crime environment is surprisingly positive. Since 1993 the state of Florida has grown by 5 million people, yet the total number of violent crimes has fallen from 161,789 to 101,906.

That is, as a percentage of population, the number of violent crimes fell by about half between 1993 and 2010. Including non-violent crimes, the rate of crimes per 100,000 people peaked in 1989 at 8,755.9, down more than a half to 4,104.7 by 2010.

Florida's jail system may not be a significant factor in this dramatic improvement in crime rates. But it shows how different the message from Theroux's programme might have been if they had been included. I can imagine another documentary-maker travelling to Miami to celebrate the success of their mega jails and see how it can be repeated elsewhere.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Fall of the West?

I often read right-conservative warnings that the Western world is about to collapse. They emphasise the following:

1) Demographic decline
Western countries have low fertility rates and several are already declining in population. Poorer non-Western countries have soaring populations. This means economic disadvantages for the West, as an ever-increasing population of pensioners is supported by an ever-decreasing population of workers. It also means military disadvantage as the West simply runs out of young people for soldiering, while non-Western countries experience youth bulges. Finally it means that the Western population is becoming a shrinking proportion of the world population.

2) Cultural cringe
Westerners are accused of having lost confidence in their traditional cultures and values. This perspective argues that Westerners have become so apologetic for the abuses of colonisation and historical racism that they have become self-loathing, contemptuous of their own cultures yet obsessed with celebrating the cultures of others. This argues that Western multiculturalism is allowing assertive and aggressive cultures (especially jihadist Islamism) to conquer Europe.

3) Pacifism: The strong anti-war sentiment especially of some European countries is presumed to strengthen more aggressive enemies.

4) Immigration: The combination of low fertility rates and mass-immigration from non-Western cultures fills the cities of Europe and North America with non-Western populations, who might eventually outnumber the natives.

Perhaps there are some reasonable concerns here. The bulk of this, though, seems entirely backwards: it is the non-Western cultures that really need to fear. The non-Westerners face a global, growing, utterly dominant wave of culture that has already driven languages and traditions to extinction. The West isn't vanishing, it has already won.


The Fall of the Old West
A thousand years ago Ireland was a cluster of rival kingdoms, speaking forms of early Irish and Viking Norse. The legal system was based on Brehon Laws, with no courts, prisons, executions or juries. Almost the entire population was rural and agricultural, there was no parliament or police, the land was heavily forested.

Today almost everyone speaks English, we have a parliamentary democracy with a justice system inherited from English common law, the population is mostly urban and literate, most people work in services and industry, the land is a patchwork of grassy farms intersected by a huge road network. An Irish peasant from the 11th century would see this modern country as a foreign land.

Two major events caused these changes. First was the expansion of Anglo-Norman and later English power into Ireland, the deliberate subjugation of Irish traditions and replacement with English law, language and culture.

The second was a series of technological, cultural, and economic changes that swept both England and Ireland, destroying traditional cultures and handicrafts, largely alien to both places. This was modernity. Industrialisation, secularism, centralisation of government power, democracy, the welfare state, liberalism, urbanisation: products, and drivers of the shift to modernity experienced sooner or later by all west European states.

These changes sped up after independence: we are only a few generations in Ireland away from arranged marriages and rural rituals to avoid provoking invisible fairies.

When people talk about the West today they're usually talking about modernity, not about the agricultural, religious societies that preceded it. Enemies of Western cultures are usually enemies of these modern cultures, not of traditional cultures. Sayyid Qutb, one of the founders of modern Islamism, saw it that way in 1943, complaining that the West is 'based on science, industry, and materialism . . . is without heart and conscience'.

During the Cold War, the 'West' was used to refer to the liberal, democratic NATO countries. Yet the East then was also following the modern European ideology of industrialised Communism. If we include the authoritarian Western ideologies along with the liberal Western ideologies we see that Euro-American political ideas have swallowed the world.


Political Legitimacy
The modern nation state that exists almost everywhere now is a child of Europe. Superficial evidence comes from the official names for countries:

Republic of Zimbabwe
Republic of Angola
Socialist Republic of Vietnam
People's Republic of Bangladesh
Togolese Republic
Federative Republic of Brazil
Republic of Yemen
Republic of Cuba
Republic of Niger
Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste
Republic of Indonesia

Even (the Islamic Republic of) Iran seeks legitimacy through the language of republican democracy. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently boasted of Iran's superior democratic system:

“Human rights are being violated in Europe. The same situation is in the United States, in Asia and Africa.”

“We have an independent judiciary and we have transparent legal proceedings,” he stated. “We have mass media, we have free press. They criticize the government.”

He also said that Iran is “among the best in the world in this respect.”
Tyrants like Saddam Hussein held mock elections, trying to win support by association with democracy. That his democracy was skin deep was less significant than his attempt to appear democratic, his implied acknowledgement of the moral authority conferred by Western-style elections. Almost all the world's countries today use the language of republican democracy, a sign of the global attractiveness of West European republicanism.

In real terms democracy has boomed over the 20th century. In 1900 almost no independent states had universal suffrage. By 2000 dozens did. In the 1990s and 2000s democracy spread rapidly into eastern Europe and Latin America. A 2011 Pew Research Center survey found that democracy was widely valued in Muslim-majority countries too:

Democracy is widely seen as the best form of government, especially in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, where more than seven-in-ten hold this view. Moreover, people in the Muslim nations surveyed clearly value specific features of a democratic system, such as freedom of religion, free speech, and competitive elections. And publics in many Muslim countries increasingly believe that a democratic government, rather than a strong leader, is the best way to solve national problems.
Signs of the dominant Western political narratives and symbols are everywhere. An odd one is the measurement of time. Today the Gregorian calendar, introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, is internationally recognised. Whenever we fly across world time-zones with Greenwich Mean Time slashing a line down the earth from London, we experience the lingering effects of the British Empire's political and technological world domination.

A final signal is the appearance of world leaders. Here is the Chinese Emperor Guangxu, who reigned until 1908:
And this is the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party today, Hu Jintao:
Nice and neat in his Western suit. Lest any doubts linger, look at the 2000 United Nations Millenium Summit image, showing the world leaders of the day:
None of the Western leaders are wearing traditional Asian or African clothes, most of the Asian and African leaders are wearing European-style suits. Europe's suits have, along with its flags and anthems, become standard for most of the world's political cultures.


Soft Power
British historian David Starkey caused controversy after the London riots by saying that Britain's youth had embraced 'black' culture. No doubt Britain has been influenced by the cultures of the Carribbean and South Asia, but the flow of culture has been mostly in the opposite direction. I checked the most popular recent films in various non-Western countries earlier this year for a clue:

Nigeria, August 12–14: Bad Teacher
China, August 1-7: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part Two)
Indonesia, May 27-29: The Tourist
United Arab Emirates, August 11-14: Horrible Bosses
Bolivia, August 11-14: The Smurfs
Venezuela, August 12-14: The Smurfs.

All these countries flocking to the cinema to watch American and British films. The same is not true in reverse. When I turn on the television I see The Simpsons and the BBC News, not some Arab or Bolivian comedy.

One reason for this export of Western cultures is technological: the early domination of Hollywood, advantaged partly because World War I inhibited its European rivals, beamed pictures of American culture into theatres around the world. I grew up watching Batman and Superman, as have children in Asia, Latin America and Africa, anywhere that television has helped speed the flow of American cultural exports.

Likewise the rise of communications technologies in the industrialised West had important impacts on culture there. For example cameras that could perfectly reproduce an image made realistic artists redundant, pushing artists towards less representational art. Before the gramaphone, the only way a consumer could hear music was by paying a musician to perform, or learn to play. After the gramaphone consumers could listen to the recording of some distant musician, pushing their local performers out of business. Technology changed culture, and with time that technology would head east and south, changing the culture of non-Western countries in similar ways.

Hence the number one single in Argentina today sounds like something that would play comfortably on Irish radio. In China the number one single is Miley Cyrus's Party in the USA: so the West is in decline?


Machines
Chinese industrial output has grown, certainly. But industry itself is Western, a product of Western Europe's Industrial Revolution. Far from rejecting Western systems of production, countries like Japan and China have instead become incredibly adept at embracing them. Their old agricultural societies have vanished.

This is what Shanghai looked like around 1891-1900:

And this is Shanghai today:

If China is outpacing the West, it is by being Western.


The Universal West
There is nothing to gloat about here, since the rise and rise of Western industry, culture, politics and economics is hardly a projection of natural European culture. European cultures were the first victims of modernity; the Europeans today boasting about human rights and personal freedoms are descended from witch-burning bigots, serfs, slave-traders, imperialists and the like. From Edward MacLysaght's Irish Life in the Seventeenth Century:
At that period in the upper classes family alliances were often concluded by the marriage of quite young children. After the ceremony the bride and bridegroom were forthwith taken back to their respective nurseries or schoolrooms to await an age more fitting to matrimony.... Thus Mr. Berry, in his article on the Jephson family of Mallow, states that the grandmother of William Jephson, who himself was married at twelve yaers old in 1686, was a bride at twelve and had her first child - his father - at fifteen.
Today traditional cultures are criticised for arranging child marriages, but that was Europe's past.

With the bad has gone the good: traditional agricultural skills, folk medical knowledge, endless songs and poems and arts. Before any Australian Aboriginal languages were threatened by English there vanished the dialects of Europe.

Now the technologies that rendered rural Europe's traditions redundant are sweeping the rest of the world. The political systems that emerged from increased complexity and urbanisation are being adopted - good and bad - in other countries. The very division of countries into discrete tax-collecting states is Western, the result of political reforms which destroyed the old kingdoms and empires of Europe. The symbols of statehood - flags, coats of arms, presidents and embassies - are ubiquitious.

Pessimistic Western conservatives warn about the Islamification of Europe, yet Europe's marital customs are nowhere returning to the early marriage, high fertility patterns of traditional Asian or African societies. Instead the opposite is happening: fertility rates are plunging in the developing countries, once again following the lead of Western Europe:
In wealthy East Asia the changes are most obvious, explained here by The Economist:
Although attitudes to sex and marriage are different from those in the West, the pressures of wealth and modernisation upon family life have been just as relentless. They have simply manifested themselves in different ways. In the West the upshot has been divorce and illegitimacy. In Asia the results include later marriage, less marriage and (to some extent) more divorce....

The first change is that people are getting married later, often much later. In the richest parts—Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong—the mean age of wedlock is now 29-30 for women, 31-33 for men (see chart right). That is past the point at which women were traditionally required to marry in many Asian societies. It is also older than in the West.... The second change is that, among certain groups, people are not merely marrying later. They are not getting married at all.
The Economist goes on to explain that divorce rates in East Asia are still lower than in the West because 'divorce has been common in the West for decades', but that Asia was catching up. Actually in this sense Ireland, with a divorce rate of only 0.8 per 1,000 population, is more Eastern than the East: Japan has 2.5 per 1,000, 3.5 in South Korea and around 2 in Asia as a whole. Malta, having just legalised divorce, is starting from zero.

The most obvious alternative superpower shows little sign of out-growing the West. China's total fertility rate is 1.8 children per woman. The US has 2.1, UK has 2, France is 2. China's birth rate is 12 per 1,000 population. US is 14, UK is 13, France is 13.


Politics and war
When I make these arguments I meet two criticisms. First, people point out that industrial, modernising China is nonetheless not democratic, and could pose a real challenge to the security and domination of Western powers. If they take some aspects of the Western, modern world, they may be using them to undermine the political power of NATO.

This may be true. Non-Western powers could expand and dominate by being better at Western modernity than the Westerners, especially if they can do so without the liberal stream of Western politics.

The second criticism is that I exaggerate the influence and importance of Western technology and popular culture, and that young Muslims, for example, who wear Western clothes and listen to hip hop, are still wedded to the old, illiberal religious beliefs.

I'm not sure about this. There have been changes in fashion in some Muslim-majority countries in recent decades, with a revival of the hijab for example. I'm not sure if this is indicative of a real Islamic cultural revival of the sort that rejects the Western alternatives. Yet it still seems to be emerging via modern technologies, the same technologies that overturned the traditional cultures of Europe.

So is the West in decline? Culturally it seems ascendent, with rising economic powers quick to mimic at least its materialist, modern aspects. Religiously it is holding its own, the decline of Christianity in Europe countered by growth in Africa. Politically, democracy is probably more widespread than ever before and though the rise of China may offer an alternative, that alternative bears little resemblence to traditional Chinese imperial government, taking its cues partly from European authoritarian experiments like communism.

Demographically most of North America and Europe continue to experience population growth, though at a slower pace than developing countries and heavily affected by immigration. If the West means white-skinned racial groups then its proportion of world population will indeed fall, though few people accept that old racist idea: today an African or Asian immigrant who embraces liberalism and secularism is Western.

Economically the handful of industrialised European and North American countries that led the way in terms of wealth have been joined by Asians like Japan, South Korea and Singapore, with a great raft of middle income countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America rising after them. This means that the centre of balance is shifting east, but not because Eastern economic systems turned out to be superior. Rather Eastern countries became better at Western industry and capitalism than the West. The game is the same, but non-Western countries have learned how to play.

Militarily the rise of China could pose a challenge to American hegemony. But the rising China is industrial, not traditional, and communist, not imperial. The rise of China is the rise of another West, albeit informed by illiberal ideologies.

If I was a conservative Arab or Chinese person or Latin American, I would be despondent about a future that looks likely to be heavily influenced by Euro-American modern cultures. The rest of the world is experiencing the modernising, homogenising wave that destroyed the traditional cultures of Europe long ago. So the future looks Western, no matter whose capital it is governed from.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Broken society: 1751-2011

I traced David Cameron's phrase to describe Britain as a 'broken society' back to Tony Blair in 1995, so I am happy to see this from the Economist, tracing British hooliganism back as far as 1751:

The seventeenth century saw moral panics about violent and rowdy apprentices, as well as about organised fighting among gangs (wearing coloured ribbons to identify their troops). Professor Pearson ends with the sixteenth century and puritan fears about, if not gangsta rap, popular songs that treated criminals as heroes.

Each generation terrifies its parents with bad behaviour, forgets the lessons of its youth and is terrified in turn by its children.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The broken society, 1995-2011

British Prime Minister David Cameron has spoken of Britain's 'broken society' following the recent riots. I was sure this sounded familiar so I looked it up and found this:

Tony Blair in 1995 asked us to look at “the wreckage of our broken society” and, using the now-familiar language of rights and responsibilities, called for a new civic society where everyone played a part. The phrase then really came into its own in the Conservative leadership campaign in 2005, first from Liam Fox and then with David Cameron taking up the term in his leadership acceptance speech. It is now strongly associated with Iain Duncan Smith’s work for the Centre for Social Justice and the Conservative’s Social Justice Policy Group, and the promise to “mend Britain’s broken society” became a dominant theme of the Conservative general election campaign.

So this idea of a broken society was one of Blair's pet concepts about a society ruined by the Conservatives, before being picked up by the Conservatives to describe a society ruined by Labour.

To me an odd thing is that I don't remember this kind of negative talk about societal collapse here in Ireland, despite fairly simliar economic circumstances. Instead I'm reminded of an observation by comedian Dara O'Briain, who said that British people are convinced that their young people are scum: criminal, depraved punks. Irish people, on the other hand, think their young people are great! Haha, grand, lovely young people without a care in the world!

Hence Ireland produces films like Intermission or Man About Dog, showing young people as mischievous and sympathetic criminals: essentially decent, if willing to bend the law. Britain produces Harry Brown and Outlaw, depicting young people as vicious, immoral scum: hooded, aimless, swaggering criminals laughing at an impotent justice system.

Well this is not a serious or carefully considered post! Obviously there are true differences in the cultures and experiences of Britain and Ireland. But I do doubt that Britain really deserves this sense of pessimism. Maybe the past was never as golden as people remember, the present never as black.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Why are people surprised by the riots?

Since the start of the British riots I have been reading lots of comments about social decay in Britain. Commentators seem to think that there must be some sickness in British society to inspire such degenerate behaviour.

Yet every burst of recreational violence for years has been accompanied by this kind of hand-wringing and introspection by decent folk who can't understand the motivation of their predatory neighbours. Really the motivation seems pretty obvious: you get to run around with your mates all night, throwing rocks at police, vandalising property, robbing fancy electronics or a nice pair of runners and get away with it. What's not to like?

The upset introspection of social commentators reminded me of this dark comment in Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange, as the lead character sniggers to himself at the attempts of good people to understand his deviance:

But, brothers, this biting of their toe-nails over what is the cause of badness is what turns me into a fine laughing malchick . They don’t go into the cause of goodness, so why the other shop? If lewdies are good that’s because they like it, and I wouldn’t ever interfere with their pleasures, and so of the other shop. And I was patronising the other shop.... But what I do I do because I like to do.
Perhaps Burgess knew that there needn't be a deeper explanation for depravity: recreational violence is inspired by the pleasure it gives to its particpants. His main character here thinks it as pointless to ponder his own wickedness as it was to ponder the goodness of others.

I grew up in a fairly safe rural area, with low income inequality. The population was too low to create rich or poor sub-communities, we all ended up going to the same school and relatively poorer children from the council housing suffered no stigma in our adolescent peer group. But petty crimes like vandalism were commonplace. When the county council planted dozens of new trees on the way into the town, many were hacked down by bored teenagers, simply for the pleasure of destruction.

In school I had to sometimes help run a little tuck shop, selling sweets and soft drinks to the other students. There, some of the boys would often try to steal sweets, making a large order, dropping a few coins on the table and leaving before we had the chance to insist on the correct payment. These boys weren't hungry. They stole for profit, for fun, and for the social respect they won by cheating the system. These were the same boys who would spit on the handrails on the stairs so other students or teachers would run their hands into the saliva. Or grab the PE gear of the weakest student and throw it onto the roof of the changing rooms just to see him humiliated.

On Halloween we had more minor irritation or crime: teenagers throwing eggs or breaking windows. The children had an innocent-sounding tradition called 'kicking cabbages' in which they, well, ran about their neighbours' gardens or farms and kicked the cabbages growing in the soil.

Little things, but a sign that my adolescent peers were itching to destroy, rob and humiliate.

Would my old classmates have looted and rioted if they thought they'd get away with it? I think many of them certainly would have. I imagine the chaos if one night it was made clear to the teenagers and young men that the police were not going to intervene if they ripped apart local businesses.

So I am baffled only by the bewilderment of others. To me there is nothing surprising about the behaviour of the rioters. They get fun, excitement, and profit all at the same time, with police too overstretched to stop them: no wonder they riot! It makes me wonder what incredibly kind and gentle adolescents other people grew up with. The ones I knew were prevented from outright barbarism only by fear of repercussions.

True there must be cultural differences from place to place: Japanese did not riot or loot after the disastrous tsunami, for example, nor did my old Japanese students vandalise their classrooms when left there every morning unsupervised before the start of class.

But the real miracle is that riots do not happen every day. That complex societies with millions of strangers can survive in relative peace and security is remarkable. Occasional breakdowns are probably inevitable and need not baffle or upset us too much: police and private security will probably adjust their work to better suit future risks and life goes on. We share society with opportunistic predators, it's not surprising that sometimes they slip their leads.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

London's Burning: but Britain's alright

There have been depressing stories coming out from England's riots; I have even seen people suggest even that British society is collapsing. With this wave of negative news, though, it can be useful to take a wider picture. The British Home Office produces annual British Crime Surveys (BCS), asking respondents about their experiences of crime in the UK. On the 2009/10 BCS they noted a strong change in the prevalence of violent crime:

Longer-term trends from the BCS show that since 1995, the number of violent incidents has fallen by half (50%) and is now at a similar level to 1981. This fall represents two million fewer incidents and around 800,000 fewer victims in 2009/10 compared with 1995.

A graph of all violent crime recorded by the British Crime Survey shows a steep decline since 1995:

The Home Office also produces the Homicides, Firearm Offences and Intimate Violence report for England and Wales 2009/10, and this too points at declining levels of violence:

The 619 offences currently recorded as homicide in 2009/10 represent the lowest number since 1997/98, when 606 were recorded.

The collapse of society shouldn't look like this. Britain, like Ireland, seems to be experiencing a shift in the right direction, with falling risk from violent crime, not rising. We will have to see how these riots change the statistics for 2011, but a sincere look at the statistics shouldn't alarm us by the way Britain has been changing in recent years.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Fear not the little dudes

Gender and racial discrimination get lots of attention so I am quite interested in the lesser known kinds of discrimination, like weight, height or attractiveness. Having written before a little about height-related income inequalities - short people tend to earn less than tall people - I was browsing to see if I could find any statistics about the height of victims of crime. Do short people get disporportionately targetted by criminals?

Instead I found this odd observation from The Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology, March 1993:

Height of the assailant is also a factor; police officers are more likely to be assaulted by those of a small or medium height. Bixler (1976) for example, found over 70% of police assailants were of a small or medium build...

Not what I was expecting! So for some reason shorter men are more likely, in these studies at least, to attack police officers.

Perhaps this is related to the fact that, height correlates with health and wealth: the good nutrition and safe environment experienced by a wealthy child contributes to growth. The study also remarks that assailants of police are from 'lower socioeconomic levels' or unemployed. If poorer people are shorter, and poorer people are more likely to attack police, then perhaps there is no other association between shortness and violence towards police than their poverty.

The other possibility of course is that shorter men were suffering from Napoleon Complex, an insecurity due to short stature that pushes them towards violent behaviour. But one study by the University of Central Lancashire suggests that no such complex really exists:

Men of different heights duelled with wooden sticks but one of the subjects deliberately provoked the other by rapping them across the knuckles.

Heart monitors revealed it was the taller men who flew off the handle more quickly and hit back....

Dr Eslea said: "The results were consistent with the view that Small Man Syndrome is a myth.

"When people see a short man being aggressive, they are likely to think it is due to his size simply because that attribute is obvious and grabs their attention."

So perhaps short people are doubly unfortunate. Underpaid and poor, and if they ever react with aggression, derided for having a non-existent Napoleon Complex. Ouch.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Fear

Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Behring Breivik appears to have written a 1,518-page document explaining his motivation for launching his attack, and in it Ireland is mentioned several times. In this short post I will look at one of Breivik's points about Ireland:

70% increase in the Muslim population between 2002-2006 according to Irelands Central Statistics Office (CSO)

Breivik is correct. According to the Central Statistics Office, the Muslim population of Ireland rose 69.9% between 2002 and 2006. Alarming? Let's look at the other religions:

Apolistic or pentacostal population: up 157.5% from 2002 to 2006
Orthodox: up 99.3%
Hindu: up 96.3%
Atheist: up 85.8%
Luthern: up 72.1%

The actual change in the number of Muslims is an increase of 13,392. The number responding 'no religion' increased 48,054. The number of Catholics increased 218,840.

Breivik is a typical propagandist, cherry-picking an emotive fact out of the mess of information that gives it context to distort its significance. In the 2006 Census the total Muslim population of Ireland was 32,539, which was 0.77% of the total population. If all the Muslims, Hindus and Jews in Ireland were put into Dublin's Croke Park stadium, about half the seats would still be empty. Breivik skips all that with his selective use of the truth.

Monday, August 1, 2011

They're all out to get us :(

When I was in school our history books were heavily Euro-centric, describing the development of civilisation as a straight line:

Mesopotamia → Egypt → Greece → Rome → Dark Ages → Renaissance → Englightenment → Colonisation → Modernity

We had small nods towards acknowledging other great world cultures like China or India, but the bulk of our history was about Europe, Western Europe and Ireland. In one sense this is natural, we can't study everything and the local stuff is more relevant in creating the societies we experience today. It might, though, create an undeserved sense that the local is central and crucial to the rest of the world.

Perhaps that explains this, an observation of Pakistan's education system by journalist Maheen Usmani:

The Social Studies textbook for Class 7 says: “European nations have been working during the past three centuries, through conspiracies on naked aggression to subjugate the countries of the Muslim world.”

Usmani's focus is on the Islamification of Pakistan's education system especially during the reign of General Zia ul-Haq. But it also shows a strange Islam-centrism by the author of the Social Studies book.

Because it's absurd! What a theory: that the nations of Europe got together for three hundred years just to subjugate Muslims!

Think about Spain and Portugal, who drove the Muslim Moors out of Iberia over centuries of wars ending in the 1400s. Both then sailed westward and created gigantic empires in the New World, destroying native civilisations and seizing so much gold and silver that it caused a wave of inflation back in Europe. An interesting Wikipedia map of the Spanish Empire shows how little of it overlapped with Muslim land:

The Spanish and Portuguese expanded, traded, and conquered indiscriminately.

The other European powers were no different. England's first experiments with modern colonisation were probably in Ireland. In 1556 Queen Mary had land seized from the Irish and granted to 160 loyal families. England's colonial expansion then took them to the Americas, and brought them into conflict with Native Americans and the other European powers. Wikipedia gives us a map of all the lands ruled at some stage by Britain:

Hindus, Protestants, Catholics, animists, Muslims and Sikhs, all ruled from London. Not only did the British not deliberately pick out Muslims to subjugate, they fought alongside them, joining the Ottoman Turks against Christian Russians in the Crimea War. Britain's concerns were rational and selfish, seeking to secure trade routes and dominate the global economy. That some of their subjects were Muslim must have been incidental, not intentional.

So the Social Studies book is almost childlike in its conviction that the great global conflicts of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were somehow all focused on destroying Islam.

My own school history books tended to downplay the importance of non-Western civilisations, but they did not attack or deride them. There were occasional mentions of the wave of technologies that entered Europe via Moorish Spain or through contact with Muslims during the Crusades, as well as the slow spread of Chinese inventions like gun powder and the compass, or the Indian developments in mathematics. Our Euro-centric history placed the seat of real world change right here, though, and Muslims became peripheral or irrelevant.

Yet my books, flawed as they were, at least acknowledged that Ireland was rarely at the very fulcrum of history! They had sense enough to show that the big changes were going on in Italy or Germany or Britain. The author of Pakistan's Social Studies book couldn't manage even this, instead interpreting the great shifts of human history that caused a few European powers to conquer most of the world as bitter conpiracies against Islam.

And that is daft.