Monday, October 31, 2011

Halloween: Ireland's weird contribution to globalisation

As a child in rural Ireland, Halloween was always an exciting time of year. Autumn was drawing in around us, each day darker and colder, often wet and stormy. Far from the streetlights of the town, we country people ceded the land to darkness earlier every night; wild and indifferent Nature was in ascension.

So with Halloween we played on the natural thrilling creepiness of the growing dark, while challenging it with our noisy and bright indoor parties.

Lacking the pumpkins of North America, we carved eyes and gaping mouths into turnips. The dense, heavy root was difficult work; parents watched nervously as we hacked at them with kitchen knives. Like American children we would slip a small candle inside, and carry it, wild with excitement, out into the darkness of the front garden, to flicker and sizzle with the odd stench of burnt turnip. Older siblings might hoot and groan ghostly noises to freak us younger ones out, sending us sprinting back into the comfort of the lighted house. Invisible in the darkness, the trees sighed on their own in the night breeze.

Another game involved a large plastic tub filled with water, in which my parents would place apples, monkey nuts, and a few coins. The children held their hands behind their backs and took turns to try seizing the fruit with their teeth alone. Ambitious older kids learned to hold their breath, duck right under water and nudge the coins between their teeth; any money withdrawn from the water this way could be kept. My face feels clouded and uncomfortable just remembering the pressure of water on nose, the unintended inhalation followed by spluttering and the triumphant spitting of coin into hands.

Chop the Cherry was a less stressful game which my mother started by pouring a small mound of flour, on the tip of which she placed a sweet cherry. We were given blunt knifes to cut and remove sections of the conical flour, trying to destabilise the heap without causing the cherry to fall. Whoever knocked the cherry had to pluck it from the flour from his or her teeth: rendered vulnerable to mischievous siblings who might pat their face into the flour.

For days before Halloween we worked on masks, usually made from the cardboard packaging of breakfast cereals, with eyes cut out and horrible features and scars drawn on. Ambitious children might beg for bits of wool to thread into the top as crude hair.

We ate a kind of cake called barm brack, in which my mother would mix a ring and a coin as a form of fortune-telling: whoever found the ring would soon be married, whoever found the coin would become rich. I forget if there were others, though some traditions include rather dark alternatives.

We never went trick or treating, a tradition that was known to us only from American movies and British comic books. The house was not decorated for Halloween, either, though we often drew creepy pictures of monsters, witches and ghosts. Aware that American and British children were having a different kind of Halloween, I presumed as a child that we were somehow following them, that our turnips were the lesser imitations of American pumpkins.
Far from it. Modern Halloween is the strange descendent of an Irish pre-Christian festival of the dead, Samhain, when the spirit world was believed exceptionally close to our own. Halloween was carried by Irish and Scottish migrants in the 19th century to the US, where they substituted tough turnips for the fat pumpkins of today. The meanings of pagan religious ritual were blurred, first by Christianisation, then by export and commercialisation. The festival of the dead became a festival of fear.

So Halloween today is a weird hybrid tradition indeed. Tonight I have children trick or treating outside my door in Dublin, following the Americanised version of an ancient Irish tradition. When people scattered around the world celebrate Halloween with masks and pumpkins, they are celebrating a little part of ancient Ireland, reinterpreted and altered beyond recognition. This is globalisation and modernity: seizing the tradition of one land, transforming it utterly, and depositing it everywhere.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

No smoke on the water

Eurostat gives statistics for the percentage of people in every EU country living with 'pollution, grime or other environmental problems', in 2009. The worst affected country is Malta, followed by Latvia and Romania. Most of the worst countries are in east Europe, and most of the best are in Scandinavia.

...Except Ireland, which comes last for pollution, with only 5.5% of the population affected, compared with 9% in Sweden, 11.9% in UK, 14.8% in Netherlands, 22.8% in Germany and 38.4% in Malta. It can be easy to take the little things for granted, things like these:

Friday, October 28, 2011

Inequality in Ireland is FALLING

The idea that Ireland had become more unequal both during the economic boom years and during the subsequent recession, when wealthy banks were rescued by a government who sought to reduce the minimum wage, seems so widespread as to be a given. I was gobsmacked, then, to stumble across the following data tucked into the heart of the Central Statistics Office's Statistical Yearbook of Ireland 2011:

Gini coefficient
2006: 32.4
2007: 31.7
2008: 30.7
2009: 29.3

Income distribution (income quintile share ratio)
2006: 5.0
2007: 4.9
2008: 4.6
2009: 4.3

The Gini coefficient is a measure of income inequality where 100% is total inequality (one individual has all the income in a population) and 0% is total equality (all individuals earn equal amounts). Between 2006 and 2009, Ireland's Gini coefficient drifted downwards: Ireland's income inequality declined.

The second measure compares the income of the richest 20% with the poorest 20%. This also shows a downward trend, and a relatively steep one over just four years. Ireland became more equal in the late 2000s, both during the boom years and continuing into the austerity years. This covers a period of massive immigration and then net emigration, and happened under the leadership of Fianna Fáil, a centre-right party who were abandoned in the 2011 general election by an electorate who blamed them for the economic problems.

Fianna Fáil had also been criticised for years for failing to address inequality. Just weeks ago general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions David Begg announced that:
During the property and credit boom all the evidence suggests that Ireland became a more unequal place. And the evidence now is that the austerity drive has aggravated that inequality.
Yet the CSO data shows the opposite trend: Ireland grew less unequal towards the end of the boom and during the early austerity stage. Now let's see how Ireland compares with other countries.

Eurostat puts Ireland's Gini coefficient well below the 2009 EU average of 30.4. (Further afield, Ireland also compares very well against the US, with its Gini coefficient in 2007 of 48.3.) The most unequal EU country in 2009 year was Latvia (37.4) while the least unequal was Slovenia (22.7). An EU map looks like this:
Light yellow countries are the most equal, dark green the most unequal.

Ireland by this measure is more equal than Germany, France or Italy, despite spending considerably less on social protection as a percentage of GDP: Ireland (27.9%), Germany (31.4%), France (33.1%) and Italy (29.8%). This may be related to Ireland's unusually young population, however, compared with the aging populations of the other countries.

Also, Ireland's spending on social protection really did rise during this period. I wrote before about Fianna Fáil's populist spending increases, funded by rising revenue from the housing bubble instead of politically-unpopular tax increases. After the recession hit, GDP decline and mass-unemployment sent social protection costs into a relative spike:
It is interesting, though, to see that Irish inequality was falling even when social protection spending was well below the EU average.

If we look at the other measure of income inequality, the income quintile share ratio, we see similar results. A few highlights:

Latvia: 7.3
UK: 5.2
Italy: 5.2
EU (27): 4.9
Denmark: 4.6
Germany: 4.5
France: 4.4
Ireland: 4.2
Norway: 3.5
Slovenia: 3.2

Ireland's result here is the lowest score (meaning, most equal) for Ireland since the beginning of these records in 2001.

I think the fact that Ireland, by this measure, is more equal than the well-respected social democracies of Germany, France and Denmark is remarkable! Fianna Fáil were derided for being neo-liberal, even while steadily increasing social welfare and governing during a period of consistently declining income inequality.

There are plenty of things to take from this. First, the point that income inequality did not rise during the late 2000s bubble economy, a point remarked upon by the Economic and Social Research Institute in 2009, reflecting on the earlier boom of the 1990s:
Within the Irish labour market as a whole, the level of wage inequality fell markedly over the period but most particularly between 1997 and 2001.
This has wider significance for other countries pondering economic growth and inequality: it seems possible to have rising wealth without rising inequality.

The really grating thing for me, however, is that this refutes loud and insistent claims made over the last few years that Ireland's governments abandoned the poor and that inequality grew worse. Why did I keep hearing this, if the truth was precisely the reverse?

It reminds me of complaints in the US between left and right-wing commentators about mainstream media. Both deride the media, both believe it is biased against their side - never in favour of their side. I wondered sometimes if this was because convincing the public that a group (like a newspaper, a government, a political party) is biased, extreme and unreasonable will make their own extreme alternative appear mainstream and natural.

So maybe we hear these denunciations of modern Irish inequality from the left because they want the present situation to seem like an unacceptable extreme, and want to shift the norm leftwards.

No, Google can NOT predict Ireland's next president

I asked in an earlier post if I might be able to use Google's Insights for Search service to predict the results of Ireland's presidential election, by comparing the candidates in terms of their popularity as search terms on Google. Insights showed Sean Gallagher far in the lead, yet I remarked that recent media questions about Gallagher's alleged connections to an unpopular party might be bloating his results: Gallagher might have been attracting viewers because of enraged curiosity, not support.

There are other issues. I suggested the Google users might misspell candidate names. The graph below shows that several versions of Michael D Higgins were popular over the last few days, suggesting that Higgins-related searches were split, and perhaps artificially made seem smaller:
As I write the votes are still being counted, but Michael D Higgins is 'on course for victory' and Gallagher has phoned him in congratulations.

So my little experiment seems to have failed! I can only blame my own use of Google Insights for Search: perhaps a more thorough and scientific approach would have revealed more telling data. Simply placing candidate names into Insights cannot accurately predict the outcomes of elections.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Can Google predict Ireland's next president?

Today Ireland is holding its presidential election, so I wondered if I could use Google Insights for Search to predict the results.

Insights for Search shows what terms Google users are searching for, in a given area and over a given period of time, as a proportion of all terms searched. We can use this to compare the popularity of presidential candidates in terms of the number of people searching them on Google. The candidates are:

Mary Davis
Sean Gallagher
Michael D. Higgins
Martin McGuinness
Gay Mitchell
David Norris
Dana Rosemary Scallon

Insights allows us to compare only five terms at a time:
An immediate problem is clear by the peak in searches for Dana Rosemary Scallon in mid-October. On October 12 Scallon made some puzzling comments during a television debate, complaining about allegations of a 'malicious, vile nature' made against a family member. This weird outburst put Scallon into the news for a few days, which we see reflected in the Insights graph. But the searches here do not imply electoral popularity.

Google Insights for Search cannot distinguish between popularity and notoriety.

Nevertheless, let's carry on. The lowest two search terms of the above five in the latest date available (October 25th, two days ago) are Scallon and Gay Mitchell. Replacing them with the other two candidates not mentioned so far, we get this:
Sean Gallagher far out in the lead. Yet here is the same problem as we had with Scallon - Gallagher has been in the news lately because of allegations of corruption and of ties with the deeply unpopular Fianna Fáil party. So is he attracting searches because people like him and want to learn more, or because people are itching to find out about grimy connections in his past?

Let's break it down one more time. Here is Sean Gallagher versus Michael D Higgins:
Gallagher attracts more searches for almost the entire period. Recent opinion polls have put Gallagher in first place, with Higgins some way behind him. Meanwhile bookmakers Paddy Power have Michael D Higgins as favourite at 1/5, compared with Sean Gallagher at 3/1.

So I'm intrigued and tempted by the idea that Google is predicting a win for Gallagher! But he may be merely infamous, not popular. And Google users might be using other terms I have not checked here: 'Higgins' instead of 'Michael D Higgins', 'Dana' instead of 'Dana Rosemary Scallon', 'Martin McGuiness' instead of 'Martin McGuinness'. The two-day lag in Insights data may also be enough to undermine the results.

This is a nice little experiment, albeit a clumsy one, to test Google's predictive abilities. I will come back to this in a few days.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Japan's kamikaze: suicide bombing, fear and loyalty

The road leading in to Chiran Peace Museum for Kamikaze Pilots is flanked by hundreds of stone lantern posts, each carved with a unique figure of a pilot. They are paid for by donations from around Japan, with an ultimate plan of 1,036 of them – one for every kamikaze pilot who flew out from the base at Chiran.

I went there with a Japanese friend in 2008. Outside the museum building stood two of the planes they had used for attacking or training kamikaze pilots. We walked past them down into a restored barracks, half-buried underground with cedar trees planted around to conceal the roof from Allied bombing raids. Inside the young men had slept on hard futons in the days before flying to their deaths.
The kamikaze missions were started in October 1944, when the Japanese forces were in retreat and the Americans had begun the reconquest of the Philippines. The Japanese First Air Fleet was ordered to attack the Americans, but with only 40 aircraft they knew there was scant chance of victory.

Three years earlier the Japanese had been stuck in a brutal imperial war in China. The Americans had slapped on embargos to block the flow of oil to Japan and, with few natural resources of their own, the Japanese were terrified that their war machine would simply grind to a halt. They eyed the oil and rubber of Indonesia and Malaysia, but knew that any drive south might bring the Americans into the conflict. The attack on Pearl Harbour was an ambitious plan to destroy the short-term ability of the US to project power into the Pacific Ocean, giving Japan enough time to grab South East Asian resources, defeat China, and prepare for eventual American engagement.

Instead the Americans rebounded rapidly and their strength of numbers and vast industrial output put the Japanese at a terrible disadvantage. By 1944 Japan's leaders were dismayed, and looking towards the supposed superiority of Japan's fighting spirit for a final hope: Vice Admiral Takijiro Onishi ordered the pilots to deliberately crash into American ships.
Back in Japan, politicians christened the attacks kamikaze – divine wind. In the 13th century Japan was saved from two massive invasions of Mongols by timely typhoons that wrecked their ships at sea; Shinto clerics said that the gods, called kami, had sent this wind to save the country from foreign invasion. Among other things the storms had created the longstanding conviction that Japan could never be conquered, so the wartime politicians wanted to connect their desperate suicide attacks with that medieval confidence.

As 1944 drew on to 1945 the Japanese were becoming surrounded by death as the Americans firebombed their cities in attacks that killed tens of thousands at a go.
Death and destruction were everywhere, and some young men decided to choose a death which seemed noble and perhaps more effective than being burnt alive in Allied bomb raids. The pilots were promised that they would become Shinto gods in paradise after death.

Their bushido antipathy towards surrender (reinforced by an 1872 military code which made surrender punishable by death) meant Japanese troops had already taken hopeless charges against superior American forces in various battles – where they had been killed almost to the last man – or plunged planes into the path of American torpedoes to save their ships.

The Americans had no difficulty in portraying the new kamikaze bombers as fanatical lunatics, crazed berserkers with death wishes. In truth, many were sensitive and well-educated youngsters who wrestled with conflicting nationalist loyalties and their natural desire to live.
Near the barracks there was a stunningly beautiful temple, gleaming in the sunlight with an ornate statue of the Buddhist goddess Kannon placed in the centre. I saw a massive metal Buddhist bell nearby with a shining black marble sign reading:
LAMENTATION, MONUMENT OF PLEDGE
NO MORE TRAGEDY. WE HEREBY VOW ETERNAL PEACE
FOR ALL MANKIND THROUGHOUT THE WORLD,
IRRESPECTIVE OF NATIONS AND RACES
We took a few photos and headed for the museum building. I was the only obvious foreigner among the crowds of browsing Japanese.

Inside the museum doors I stopped in astonishment before a huge painting of a kamikaze pilot in his plane, surrounded by beautiful angelic maidens in gauzy clothes. The implication was obvious: here was a pilot striking his target, dying and being taken by these sexy spirits into the next life. For a moment I cringed as I thought of the Islamist fanatics dreaming of their virgins in paradise after murdering hundreds of civilians with a suicide vest. For a Westerner the painting immediately suggested a crude symmetry between the disciplined self-destruction of the kamikaze pilots and that of the Islamists, both surrendering pleasure in this world in exchange for reward in the next.

In reality little connects the two. The kamikaze pilots were soldiers who died attacking foreign military targets, not civilians in mosques or markets. Many of the kamikaze pilots were conscripts, not volunteers, teenagers plucked early from college by the government and trained specifically for kamikaze flights. The government wanted them to appear to be volunteers, however, so young men were summoned to lectures on patriotism and then sometimes asked to step forward if they refused to become kamikaze pilots. They were left with little choice but to ‘volunteer’. Those who declined sometimes found themselves posted to distant islands where they would almost certainly die by American hands, or even found themselves signed up to kamikaze flights against their wills.

In training they were beaten savagely in an attempt to heighten discipline; instead it filled many with apathy and even contempt towards the people who had brought them to war.

Beyond the jarring painting, the Chiran museum was full of neatly-scripted letters pilots had sent to their families before flying to their deaths. Above the letters were photos of the pilots, and I saw the faces of my teenage students in them. They had the same frowning expressions as my sullen, irreverent boys and the same adolescent features. The youngest were only 17, barely more than children, and inexperienced pilots that the Allies would have little difficulty in shooting down from the sky.

The letters, diaries and notes left behind by the pilots show a wide range of reactions by these young men, from patriotic determination to cynicism and terror. Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney’s Kamikaze Diaries quotes many examples:
I dreaded death so much. And yet, it is already decided for us.... Mother, I still want to be loved and spoiled by you.... I want to be held in your arms and sleep.
- Hayashi Ichizo, April 12 1945
Ohnuki-Tierney also quotes Kasuga Takeo, a draftee assigned to looking after meals, laundry etc of the pilots, describing the scene on the night before they had to die:
At the hall where their farewell parties were held, the young student officers drank cold sake the night before their flight. Some gulped the sake in one swallow; others kept gulping down [a large amount]. The whole place turned to mayhem. Some broke hanging light bulbs with their swords. Some lifted chairs to break the windows and tore white tablecloths. A mixture of military songs and curses filled the air. While some shouted in rage, others cried aloud. It was their last night of life.
They reacted, in other words, like humans, not brainwashed killing machines as depicted in American wartime propaganda.

We saw snapshots taken around the barracks of the boys relaxing. Like my students, sometimes they tried to look tough and macho, but when their guards were down they reverted to laughing and joking about like children. I saw one picture with the smooth-cheeked boys giggling over a puppy: Japan’s ferocious kamikaze warriors.
My friend was absorbed by the displays and tried to translate occasional letters to me. She pointed out a pilot who had broken his arm and so was exempted from flying. Instead he begged his friends to tie him into the plane so that he could fly to his death anyway. A flight instructor who did not have to fly kamikaze nonetheless volunteered, but he had a wife and two children. His wife wrote: ‘Alive I am only in your way, I will go before you and wait’, and drowned herself with their children so that her husband would have nothing keeping him attached to life and could contentedly die as a kamikaze pilot.

God. Not all went to death so willingly, though. This is from Elise K. Tipton’s Modern Japan:
Who do you think I am; a fool who has come to realise how dear this thing life is only three days before my death? A rainy day gives me another day of survival today – a bonanza. How delightful it is to scare my friend that I’d become a ghost tomorrow and will probably wake him in the midst of the night. My co-pilot is sound asleep beside me. Could this silly face of his be the face of a war-god tomorrow? How funny to listen to jazz music on the night before going out to kill the jazzy Americans! How funny, too, is the servant who just came up to me to ask how many beds he should make tomorrow!
One pilot was shot dead for returning to base nine times after claiming he could not find the enemy. It was clear their ‘volunteering’ had become mandatory. Towards the end of the war the government announced that all pilots would be kamikaze pilots, and planes were given only enough fuel to make a one-way trip out to battle. They were more effective on individual attacks against American ships than conventional attacks, but the Americans quickly learned how to neutralise the threat and most planes were shot down before they ever reached their targets. By the end of the war the Imperial Japanese Navy had lost 2,525 kamikaze pilots while the Imperial Japanese Army had lost 1,387. It was the cream of Japan’s youth.

After a while we left the museum and visited another small museum, formerly a restaurant in Chiran town where the young pilots had often eaten at. The owner during the war was a middle aged woman named Tome Torihama, who the pilots referred to as okasan – mother. She grew close to many of the boys, weeping on their deaths and secretly bypassing the military censors to send messages to their families or lovers at home. One pilot, a 20-year-old called Saburo Miyakawa, promised to return to her restaurant after his death as a firefly. Indeed a firefly did enter the restaurant the next night and Torihama exclaimed to the guests that he had returned. My Japanese friend pointed the exact spot where the firefly had landed on a wooden beam to me.
After the war, Chiran was all but forgotten by a nation trying to recreate itself. The kamikaze pilots were written off as failed fanatics. Torihama refused to let the memory die, however, and campaigned to put up some kind of memorial. One over-reaction followed another and now Chiran attracts Japan’s far-right nationalists, blaring nationalist messages from loudspeakers on the anniversary of Japan’s surrender.

***

I WASN’T sure what to make of it all. Too much is made today about the bravery of certain groups, which is meaningless since bravery is morally neutral. The firemen who ran into the World Trade Centre and died saving lives were brave, but so presumably were the hijackers who died destroying them.

Sure the kamikaze pilots were brave men. I pitied them, really, many were good, honest and idealistic boys forced by a brutal system to throw their lives away, for nothing. Had Japan won, however, had they forced the Americans into a final bloody stalemate and ceasefire, the pilots would have become heroes to be celebrated in Japan and around the world as evidence that national spirit can overcome any technological or economic disadvantage. So their deaths are only considered wasteful in the context of Japan losing the war.

For the government to have forced these men into ‘volunteering’ was terrible, though little different in result from the forced conscription of troops in other countries, which sent millions of soldiers to probable death. If I thought their lives were wasted, it was no more than the lives of millions of others who have been forced to build empires.

Months later my friend sent me a DVD called Tokko, a documentary sold in the US as Wings of Defeat, made by a Japanese-American woman who discovered to her astonishment that her late uncle had been trained as a kamikaze pilot. Risa Morimoto decided to go to Japan to interview a few other remaining survivors. It is a calm, straight-forward film, with frank interviews that reveal the very human panic, disillusionment and sadness that filled the men on being given their death sentences.
One chosen kamikaze pilot remarked that when he heard about the catastrophic nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki he felt relieved, knowing that this would hasten the end of the war and save him from doom. Another walked through the ruins of Hiroshima days after the explosion. ‘In that place, my warrior spirit simply withered,’ he said. ‘It was as though I was baptised in the deep conviction that I must never engage in warfare again.’

In the documentary they are all old men now, as polite and neat as any I passed on the streets of Japan every day. But in remembering their boyish brush with death they show some bitterness, both at the militant force that had swept them along into war and their subsequent abandonment in peace, when the kamikaze pilots were hushed up and ignored as embarrassing relics of Japan’s disastrous experiment with imperialism.
I love Japan. But that Emperor, that Emperor... because of that Emperor we pilots were tormented and all those men had to die.
Most seemed to realise as the months passed in 1945 that their country was doomed in that war. They were being rushed to the front as trainees with no fighting experience at all and faced certain death with horror, not fanatical joy.
I thought, "Oh, I’m screwed. I have to die too, I have so many things left to do. But if my death will benefit everyone, then I guess I had no choice."
In Tokko, an old American Navy veteran whose ship was destroyed by kamikaze remarked:
We had people who would have done that. We were that patriotic. If we had to protect the west coast against Japan or the east coast against Germany, we would have had suicide missions.
Months earlier I had read Bushido: The Soul of Japan by Inazo Nitobe, a Japanese Christian who sought to be a ‘bridge over the Pacific’ connecting the rising Japan to the United States. Nitobe's focus was on bushido, the medieval Japanese way of the warrior. Published in 1900, Bushido is written with a kind of excited Victorian energy, an almost boyish conviction in the beauty and nobility of the samurai code. The samurai despised selfish, foolish violence, he said, but the right, courageous use of war was always to be embraced:
A dastard or a braggart was he who brandished his weapon on undeserved occasions. A self-possessed man knows the right time to use it, and such times come but rarely.
In many of these things Nitobe describes what today could be considered mainstream conservative ideals. He eulogises honesty, politeness and honour:
Modesty and complaisance, actuated by respect for others’ feelings, are at the root of that courtesy and urbanity of manners which has been noticed by every foreign tourist as a marked Japanese trait. Politeness is a poor virtue, if it is actuated only by a fear of offending good taste, whereas it should be the outward manifestation of a sympathetic regard for the feelings of others. It also implies a due regard for the fitness of things, therefore due respect to social positions; for these latter express no plutocratic distinctions, but were originally distinctions for actual merit.
Politeness out of regard for the feelings of others, and a special respect due to certain social positions – all this could have sat just as well in the Ireland my parents grew up in. So far we were dealing with ideals that merged comfortably with those of the West. The 1908 book Scouting for Boys: A Handbook for Instruction in Good Citizenship by founder of the Boy Scout movement Robert Baden-Powell said that one aim of the Boy Scouts was to revive some of the rules of medieval knighthood because those rules did so much for the moral tone of the West, just as ‘Bushido of the ancient Samurai Knights has done, and is still doing for Japan.’

Baden-Powell, along with Theodore Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, had read Nitobe’s Bushido.

Nitobe was describing an ideal man: brave and gentle, courteous and skilful, a self-controlled warrior with no fear of death. I was attracted to a lot of what he was saying, but his veneration for the soldier – and especially the value with which they held loyalty – disturbed me. He compared the rose of England - that slowly rots on its stalk - with Japan's cherry blossom that was ‘ever ready to depart life at the call of nature’, symbols of Japan's supposed fearlessness in the face of death.

At times it seemed to reek of the excited nationalism and militarism that would be discredited in the trenches of Europe in World War I and the Nazi extermination camps of World War II. He never meant this, no doubt, but I wondered if his conviction in the role of the obedient warrior was indicative of the fanaticism that would send millions of Japanese to die, kill and enslave in World War II.

A century later, watching elderly Japanese men reminisce bitterly about the fanatical nationalist warrior spirit that nearly sent them to certain death, I found Nitobe's stuff about the Japanese spirit and the cherry blossom being ready to die unconvincing. When individuals are called up to die for the cause, even when they step forward and prepare to take their places among the dead, they are still filled with fear, bitterness and regret.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Nostalgia: lots of people miss a horrible, scary past

I argue a lot on this blog that many people are far too pessimistic about the prevalence of things like crime, terrorism or war. My usual argument is that these are either statistically improbable compared with more mundane threats (drink drivers are more likely to kill you than Al Qaeda) or that the extent of such violence is actually declining, that the past we remember with fondness was worse.

Today I see a really striking example of that, taken from the 2008 Garda Public Attitudes Survey, which asked Irish survey respondents about their attitudes on crime-related issues. There are mountains of data available in this so I will just draw your attention to a few small samples. First, when asked if they feared becoming victims of crime, or if they feared family members or friends becoming victimised, an ever-shrinking proportion of respondents since 2002 have said yes.
These are pretty significant improvements, with only 37% of respondents saying they feared for themselves in 2008, down from 52% six years earlier. Another pair of questions asking how safe respondents feel walking alone after dark or being alone at night both showed falling levels of fear between 2005 and 2008. So the level of fear of crime seems to have fallen.

Yet respondents on another question overwhelmingly claimed that crime rates were increasing.
And further, respondents - every year - are more likely to claim that they feel a greater fear of crime today than they did either one year ago or six years ago.
So even as fewer people feel fear of crime, they remain convinced that there was a safer time in the recent past; they feel nostalgia for a period when people were actually more afraid.

Maybe one clue to understanding this is from the question about falling or rising crime perceptions. Almost half of respondents thought that crime in their own area was the same as ever, while the vast majority thought crime in Ireland as a whole was worsening. Dan Gardner's Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear also makes this observation, pointing out that individuals make their judgements about their own area from personal experience and observation, but judge the wider society through exposure to crime-obsessed and sometimes sensationalist news media.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Fear and foreigners: ethnic nationalism hasn't gone away

Britain was shocked in February by a survey finding that almost half of respondents would vote for a non-violent far right party if it abandoned fascist imagery. Far right groups in other European countries have been mobilising around populist anger at Muslim immigrants’ failure to abandon illiberal traditions and to assimilate, but I wonder if the key to understanding Europe’s modern integration failures may have little to do with Islam, and more to do with disease.

In the early centuries of European colonial expansion into the Americas, Eurasian diseases like smallpox and typhus helped to decimate native populations, speeding the demographic replacement of natives with European settlers and African slaves. The collapse of the natives meant that colonists were building countries almost from scratch, able to define them any way they liked.

In North America the colonists took advantage of these possibilities for new nationhood with the strong civic language of the Declaration of Independence, which emphasised individual liberties and acknowledged their common ancestry with the British enemy:
Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren…. We have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence.
Nowhere does the Declaration make any ethnic claim to the land of the colonies and with the emergence of the Melting Pot narrative, migrants from all over Europe would eventually assimilate into an American national identity. Catholics, Protestants and Jews, bitter enemies on the old continent, were gradually absorbed into the American whole.

The United States based its independence from Britain on British governmental tyranny, not on some ethnic right to self-determination; the liberty the Americans spoke of was individual liberty from government, not ethnic liberty from foreign domination. While non-whites faced discrimination until well into the 20th century, the rhetoric of civic nationalism had created a template for the eventual integration of these groups too. Back in Europe, however, national identity was taking a rather different course.
By 1848 most Europeans were still living under oppressive monarchs, many of them in the large multiethnic empires of Russia, Habsburg Austria and Ottoman Turkey. That year a wave of popular revolutions led by idealistic liberals overthrew or marginalised many of these monarchs, briefly winning political and religious freedoms.

Many of the new liberal regimes quickly floundered, partly because their new sense of nationhood was overwhelmingly based on ethnicity and that sucked them into conflict with their neighbours. German liberals initially talked of Völkerfrühling – a Springtime of Peoples – dreaming that Europe’s ethnic groups would divide the continent into separate ethno-national states that would coexist in harmony. When ethnic Danes and Poles threatened Prussian national interests, though, the inherent contradictions of ethno-nationalist idealism exploded and the Germans quickly reverted to violence. I asked Dr Mike Rapport, author of 1848: Year of Revolution, to comment:
The split between ethnic and civil nationalism predates 1848, at least in intellectual terms, since the French revolutionaries of 1789 and, as you say, the Americans in 1776, posited ideas of the nation which were not based on ‘blood’, ‘race’ or culture, but on the rights and duties of citizenship.

Meanwhile, in Germany, [philosopher Johann Gottfried von] Herder emphasised language and history, in particular, as an essential part of a people’s identity, laying one of the ideological foundations of German völkisch nationalism – the kind which was later espoused by the Nazis. Both forms of nationalism have historically had the potential to exclude and repress. As you say, ethnic nationalism has been the cause of a lot of grief and suffering in Europe – far more so, than the civic kind, in my view.
Unlike the US, where the ‘merciless Indian Savages’ (as the Declaration of Independence calls them) were to be devastated by disease and replaced by European colonists, in Europe the indigenous people were sticking around, buying into the new intellectual talk of ethno-national destiny and applying it with demands for independence. There were aspects of civic nationalism to this, like the Hungarian offer of individual liberties to Romanian minorities within a Hungarian-dominated nation, but these were threatened by the popular identification of individuals with ethnic groups instead of governments.

In Ireland an early wave of nationalists dabbled in a civic interpretation of nationalism close to the ideals of the young United States. In 1791 the liberal United Irishmen organisation was founded to seek an extension of the Catholic and Presbyterian franchise in the Protestant-dominated politics of Ireland. Though Protestants and Presbyterians were generally descended from English and Scottish colonists, and the Catholics from indigenous Irish, the United Irishmen were multi-denominational and their demands were initially concerned mainly with individual and political liberty, as represented in the resolutions of their first meeting:
That the weight of English influence on the Government of this country is so great as to require a cordial union among all the people of Ireland, to maintain that balance which is essential to the preservation of our liberties and the extension of our commerce... That no reform is practicable, efficacious, or just, which shall not include Irishmen of every religious persuasion.
This was an idealistic civic interpretation of nationalism, with their opposition to English rule coming on economic and liberal grounds, not ethnic. One of the founders, Theobald Wolfe Tone, declared his intention to ‘to abolish the memory of all past dissensions, and to substitute the common name of Irishman in place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter.’ This would end centuries of ethnic struggle between Irish and British colonists, replacing it with a united Irish democracy respectful of all beliefs.

In 1798 the United Irishmen staged a revolution, aided by a French invasion. It was calamitous, quickly and ruthlessly defeated by the British who then ended the Irish parliament and shifted all rule of Ireland to London. Despite its civic idealism the rebellion quickly broke down into savage sectarian butchery. This terror helped cement Protestant support for British rule (and Catholic support for Irish rule), hampering later efforts at civic nationalism. The late 19th century Home Rule campaign, lobbying for the return of limited parliament to Dublin, was violently opposed by many Northern Irish Protestants, who remarked that ‘Home Rule is Rome Rule.’
When a new wave of Irish nationalists staged another failed rebellion in 1916, they prematurely declared independence using much more ethnic language than before.
We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland, and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible. The long usurpation of that right by a foreign people and government has not extinguished the right, nor can it ever be extinguished except by the destruction of the Irish people.
The document does promise religious liberty and equal rights, and implicitly blames British rule for dividing Protestant and Catholic communities in the past, but there are two hints that its authors were more concerned with collective ethno-nationalist liberty from Britain than individual liberty from tyranny. First is the reference to Ireland’s ‘exiled children in America’, suggesting that Irishness is defined by ethnicity, even after several generations living in foreign lands. The other is its strong collectivist language:
The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts…. In this supreme hour the Irish Nation must, by its valour and discipline, and by the readiness of its children to sacrifice themselves for the common good, prove itself worthy of the august destiny to which it is called.
Unlike the US, where rebels hailed the British as brethren and made no ethnic claim to the colonies, the Irish recognised in the Saxon English ‘a foreign people’.

This collectivist, ethnic Irish nationalism allowed early governments to harshly censor free speech and to intervene decisively in the economy. As Ireland moved towards total independence in the 1920s and 1930s, fascists were seizing governments on mainland Europe, and elements of that popular authoritarianism seeped through to the new democracy. Thousands of movies were cut or banned over the first few decades, often on religious grounds, along with many more books. Poet Patrick Kavanagh was raided by police after the publication of his epic poem The Great Hunger, with its lonely and obscure reference to masturbation: ‘he sinned over the warm ashes again’.

Despite their claims of religious equality the Constitution, enacted in 1937, officially recognised the ‘special position’ of the Catholic Church, a point only removed by amendment in 1973. Ireland was defined by its ethnic and religious identity, and Irish welfare defined by the strength and prosperity of the state as a whole. The early state was sometimes repressive but it had fairly high levels of support because it challenged British rule. In Ireland, talk of freedom meant collective ethnic liberty from Britain, not individual liberty from tyranny.

In the long run liberty came to Ireland through pragmatism rather than principle. Liberal economic policies were embraced after decades of protectionism led to stagnation, and gradually the culture changed and people began chafing at Catholic conservatism. Even today Irish debates about the economy rarely focus on the intrinsic morality of free trade or socialism, but rather about pragmatism and a utilitarian desire for the greatest good for the greatest number of people. The kind of right-wing American concern with economic liberty is generally missing: the people want whatever works.

(Could this difference help to explain why so many Americans and Europeans clash over economics? If Hungarians and Danes and Italians saw liberty as a collective ethnic liberty from alien occupiers rather than individual liberty from tyranny, might it make them more susceptible to collectivist ideologies like socialism? Perhaps not, since some European countries like Switzerland and Ireland developed much smaller welfare states than others. But it seems plausible that a concept of citizenship based on collective ethnic wellbeing instead of individual liberty from tyranny might make people willing to compromise that liberty for the wellbeing of the group.)

There was another, darker legacy to this ethnic nationalism, one slowly manifesting itself in the growing anti-immigrant movements of France, Netherlands, Switzerland and elsewhere. A curious piece of rhetoric from the anti-immigration British National Party sheds some light on it:
Given current demographic trends, we, the indigenous British people, will become an ethnic minority in our own country well within sixty years – and most likely sooner.
Indigenous American populations collapsed long ago so now Americanism is up for grabs, anyone can be a part of it, but in Europe the natives are still strong and a lot of them don’t like the idea of being replaced. If nationality is determined by one’s ethnic ancestry then an immigrant may find it difficult to ever be accepted as an insider.

Other Old World countries have learned to deal with varying levels of ethnic diversity, from the highly heterogeneous India or Malaysia to the highly homogenous Japan. The latter has tended to side-step European difficulties with integrating immigrants by strictly limiting their entry in the first place, and by acknowledging its ethnic nationalism with an honesty that would be uncomfortable in the West.
Tokyo’s Governor Shintaro Ishihara warned in 2001 that Japanese society would soon be altered by the spread of Chinese criminal activity, blaming particular kinds of violent crime on the ‘ethnic DNA’ of the Chinese. Two years later when the Chinese sent a man into space he mocked the ‘outdated’ spacecraft.
The Chinese are ignorant, so they are overjoyed.
Insensitivity to politically correct ideas about race and ethnicity went as high as former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, who in 1986 openly admitted that Japan’s ‘monoracial’ society had advantages over the diverse US:
So high is the level of education in our country that Japan’s is an intelligent society. Our average score is much higher than those of countries like the U.S. There are many blacks, Puerto Ricans and Mexicans in America. In consequence the average score over there is exceedingly low.
So Old World countries sometimes struggle to define their national identities without reference to ethnicity, and maybe this makes the integration of immigrants more difficult. Of course this is a generalisation and there are with exceptions. Ireland’s history of mass-emigration led to a modern trend of immigrant-friendly language in public debates. France, too, had its history of revolutionary civic nationalism, while Britain has already assimilated many millions of Europeans into its greater population.

Professor Jerry Z. Muller of the Catholic University of America wote a controversial article for Foreign Affairs magazine in 2008, arguing that ethnic nationalism was still a potent force in Europe. I contacted Prof Muller for his thoughts:
The degree of ethno-national consciousness and culture differs among European societies. It tends to be relatively weak in England (which in fact has a long tradition of successful integrating foreigners), and strongest as one moves eastward. It also varies over time. And the nature of the immigrant groups matters a good deal as well. The French, for example, had little trouble integrating immigrants from Vietnam, but a good deal of trouble with those from North Africa.
However Muller warns that ethnic nationalism lingers and that post-war European peace came partly from the division of Europe’s ethnic groups into discrete states, almost all of them dominated by a single ethnic group. The terrible nationalist wars actually succeeded in separating the ethnic groups into stable, fairly homogenous states.

Mass-immigration is reversing that ethnic homogenisation of Europe’s states, but they still carry the legacy of ethnic nationalism. The modern mass-migrations between continents also mean that migrants often bring such physical differences in appearance so that their descendants will appear foreign for generations; the modern integration of dark-skinned Jamaicans or Indians into Britain may be harder than the historical assimilation of white Irish.

Some educated Americans, long comfortable with the idea of a post-ethnic nationhood, might be baffled to see the enduring clashes in Europe. Ethnic riots in Bradford and Paris, radicalised second and third generation Muslims drifting into terrorist organisations, and continued hatred in old sore spots like Kosovo and Northern Ireland: this wasn’t how peaceful post-war Europe was supposed to be.

But what works in North America may not work in Europe or Asia. We cannot take for granted that native populations will peacefully move over and welcome large minorities. The challenge ahead is to define nationality in the Old World and use this definition to inform decisions about border control. For many European countries it is already too late to peacefully reverse the modern mass-migrations so they have no option but to develop a means to functionally absorb their minorities. This may somehow require the abandonment of historical ethnic nationalism.

I am given hope by the US, which still went through centuries of anti-Catholic and anti-Asian xenophobic movements as well as strife with blacks and Native American Indians. As Taras Kuzio writes in Ethnic and Racial Studies:
Western civic states from the 1960s are very different from the Western ethnic states that existed from the late-eighteenth until the midtwentieth centuries. Western civic states that pride themselves on their liberal present ‘had illiberal pasts’.
This shift from exclusionary ethnic nationalism to inclusionary civic nationalism might neither be obvious nor easy, however; there may be trouble ahead.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Is economic growth inevitable?

I have been coming across a lot of pessimistic talk about the future of the global economy. From BBC's Paul Mason, pondering the Occupy protests in Britain:
Basically we are in danger of a global stagnation - it was HSBC's economics team that described it as a permafrost. It poses the question "who pays for the banking crisis" very acutely. And large numbers of people are now realising it is going to be them, and more painfully, their children.
And from Eleanor Fitzsimons at The Antiroom blog:
It is becoming increasingly clear that the traditional economic models, originally developed in response to the imperative of paying for the costly Second World War, have failed the vast majority of the world’s citizens. We lurch from one financial crises to another with the most vulnerable feeling the worst effects of austerity and many millions in the developing world, having never benefitted from any so-called boom, now facing the deadly consequences of the bust.
So how does stagnation, or the lurching from one crisis to another look? From the World Bank, a graph of global GDP per capita at current US$, since 1960:
Let's break it down a little. In 1960 the global average was $445.40. In 2008 it was $9,161.10, twenty times higher. In 2009 it fell to $8,586.80 and by 2010 it was back up again, higher than it was in 2008. So the crisis, the stagnation, was one year of dip that has already been recovered from.

Remember that this is GDP per capita, over a period in which population was soaring. That means that raw GDP growth must have been phenomenal. It was, global GDP rose nearly 47-fold in fifty years. Since 1971 annual GDP actually declined only once, in 2009.

There are objections to this, of course. We can't see from this graph who was getting the benefits of the growth. Few people would be satisfied if all the growth in wealth went to a superrich elite. A crude way to get more information is to break the world into low, middle and high income countries, which the World Bank does here:
In the 1970s the high income countries grew, just about, while low income countries bounced between high growth and significant declines. Middle income countries did best. In the early 1990s the low income countries declined again. Yet since then they have only grown. For them the 2009 recession was growth of 4.7%, while the rich countries endured decline of 3.5%. The middle income countries have done well too, weathering the 2009 storm and bouncing back to 7.7% growth in 2010.

At an international level, then, we're seeing convergence. (Also, note how rare it is to see decline of GDP at all. It tends upwards.)

Let's look at two more major indicators of well being. First, life expectancy:
And infant mortality:
The macro view of the world over the last few decades is incredibly positive. High long term growth. High growth among the low and middle income countries. Drastically improving health indicators. The world economy is not lurching from one crisis to the next. Instead it seems locked into perpetual upward momentum.

All this should be obvious. I am just a few generations from squalor and poverty, living in one-roomed cottages with tiny patches of land to farm, paying rent to landlords who lived in Britain. A few generations more from famine and plague, a few more from religious repression, ethnic cleansing and catastrophic war. Now I look out my window onto a mowed suburban lawn, a few children playing noisily on a sleepy Sunday afternoon.

People who call for radical change should remember that this is what they are jeapordising. The rich get richer. The middle get richer. The poor get richer.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Occupy Wall Street: a missed opportunity

When the financial crisis first hit and the Bush administration started the first bailouts of American banks, there were two main organisations that supported the move.

1) The Republican Party
2) The Democratic Party

That is, the entire centre of US politics, the only two parties with any chance of getting into government. The first vote on the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 had the majority of Democrats in the House of Representatives voting yes, and the majority of Republicans voting no. When it came to the Senate, both parties voted yes. It returned to the House of Representatives where the Democrats voted yes and the Republicans were split nearly 50-50, barely voting no. It was supported by Republican President George Bush, who signed it into law.

Among those opposed to the bill were the Libertarian Party, the Christian Liberty Party, the Constitution Party, the Green Party and Communist Party USA. The fringe groups on left and right found the bailouts repugnant while the centrists pushed it through.

After Obama took office the Tea Party movement emerged from the American right. Among other concerns, they were enraged by state support for the banks; Republican presidential candidate and Tea Party favourite Ron Paul denounced government bailouts to private concerns.
We only recently learned that the bankers at the Fed were able to use the latest financial crisis to bail out Wall Street cronies and foreign central banks with billions of dollars that were created and wasted instead of appropriated and voted on by representatives of the people.
Wall Street cronies? This sounds familiar. From the Occupy Wall Street's 'Declaration of the Occupation of New York City':
We come to you at a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments.... They have taken bailouts from taxpayers with impunity, and continue to give Executives exorbitant bonuses.... They determine economic policy, despite the catastrophic failures their policies have produced and continue to produce. They have donated large sums of money to politicians, who are responsible for regulating them.
The Occupy Wall Street movement is a broadly left-wing protest movement against the crony capitalism of modern America, the deals between state and big business. So it looks like the Occupy Wall Street movement and the Tea Party movement are ideological allies, both determined to prevent the government from pouring tax-payer's money into rich corporations.

And that's where they both blow it.

The Occupy Wall Street declaration mentions the crony capitalist connections between state and business, but most of the document is a simple rant against corporations in general. As a result they are placing themselves in opposition to the capitalism-friendly Tea Party movement. The two protest movements who hold their opposition to crony capitalism in common, are turned against one another.

On the right, the Tea Party rhetoric is exclusionary and arrogant:
Conservatives understand the importance of planning, saving, and fiscal discipline.
And on the left the Occupy Wall Street declaration is strong on populist complaints but makes no suggestions for economic solutions. People on either side may feel a satisfied sense of political identification with their tribe of choice. But this is an opportunity missed for both left and right: I expect the centre to remain unthreatened.

Below, from the blog of economist Mark Perry:

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Alcohol doesn't make you drunk

I didn't start drinking alcohol until I was 24, extremely late for Ireland. Most of my peers were drinking by 15 or 16, social life in college was strongly focused on a binge-drinking culture where students seeking the cheapest alcohol swarmed to pretty horrible night clubs with sticky floors.

When I did finally start drinking I was working in a high school in the south of Japan. There my colleagues would gather roughly once a month for an enkai, a 'drinking party' which involved speeches, lots of raw fish and endless booze. I noticed two things about these enkai.

First, the mood tended to be boisterous, cheerful and noisy, even before teachers started to get drunk. Many teachers had to drive home after the party, so they sat among the rest sipping green tea. Yet these sober teachers were no less merry than the drunk. It made me wonder if it was not the alcohol itself that was making people behave differently, it was the very presence of alcohol - a cultural signal that we could let our guards down and make some noise.

Second, while I initially eased myself into drinking quite slowly, on one occasion I found my cup being constantly topped up by a colleague with shochu, a potent Japanese spirit. I knocked back quite a bit of shochu, even reaching a point where I started drinking beer instead in an attempt to sober up.

So I got drunk. When I walked I found it difficult to keep a straight line, when I talked my words were trying to blur at the edges. The typical physical consequences of drunkeness, then, were all there. But my mind was also there, struggling to control my less obedient body - I told people later it was like trying to control my body with chopsticks - but I lacked the decreased sense of inhibition and bloated sense of self worth that people always describe as going hand in hand with heavy alcohol use.

In fact I felt completely clear-minded, even a little self-conscious over my degraded balance. As I walked back to my hotel that evening, I was extremely cautious to cross the streets at pedestrian crossings, very aware of any threats that would be heightened because of my difficulties with balancing - fight or flight.

So what happened? Why did I not go shouting and laughing and dancing about the place like some other drunk people do? Social anthropologist Kate Fox writing on BBC may have an answer (my emphasis added):
In high doses, alcohol impairs our reaction times, muscle control, co-ordination, short-term memory, perceptual field, cognitive abilities and ability to speak clearly. But it does not cause us selectively to break specific social rules. It does not cause us to say, "Oi, what you lookin' at?" and start punching each other. Nor does it cause us to say, "Hey babe, fancy a shag?" and start groping each other.

The effects of alcohol on behaviour are determined by cultural rules and norms, not by the chemical actions of ethanol.
Fox explains that people who drink behave the way they expect alcohol to affect their behaviour. That is, in Mediterranean cultures drinkers consider alcohol 'morally neutral, normal, integral part of ordinary, everyday life', much like tea or coffee here, and as a result they do not behave wildly when drunk. When Irish or British people get raging drunk and lose all inhibitions it is their cultural expectation that is changing their behaviour, not the action of alcohol as a drug.
This basic fact has been proved time and again, not just in qualitative cross-cultural research, but also in carefully controlled scientific experiments - double-blind, placebos and all. To put it very simply, the experiments show that when people think they are drinking alcohol, they behave according to their cultural beliefs about the behavioural effects of alcohol.

The British and other ambivalent drinking cultures believe that alcohol is a disinhibitor, and specifically that it makes people amorous or aggressive, so when in these experiments we are given what we think are alcoholic drinks - but are in fact non-alcoholic "placebos" - we shed our inhibitions.

We become more outspoken, more physically demonstrative, more flirtatious, and, given enough provocation, some (young males in particular) become aggressive. Quite specifically, those who most strongly believe that alcohol causes aggression are the most likely to become aggressive when they think that they have consumed alcohol.
I grew up in a household with low alcohol consumption, I never saw my parents drunk and the occasional beer or wine consumed was treated in much the same way as tea or coffee - drunk for the pleasure of the taste and not for any behavioural changes it prompted. So perhaps I simply had not absorbed the same cultural message as many of my peers, I hadn't concluded that alcohol necessarily led to wild, uninhibited behaviour.

All interesting, though the point that astonishes me the most is that people were apparently able to get hammered drunk on placebos. Why do they bother buying expensive booze at all? Just have their friends present them with flavoured water and convince them it is vodka - free obliteration.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Empathy, gore-watching and the horror genre

IT began when a demon possessed a little girl and the Catholic Church, instead of exorcising, decided to research her to find some kind of medical cure for demonic possession. This turned out to be a bad idea because they accidentally made the demonic possession contagious instead: anyone bitten by a possessed person had seconds before being taken with a murderous animal rage themselves.

Before long an entire building was infected with blood-drenched human monsters – and here the sequel begins.

This is the premise behind REC, a Spanish horror film whose sequel REC 2 is in Irish cinemas now. REC 2 is disturbing and dark, building tension slowly and then exploding in violence as the possessed cannibalistic adults and children hurl themselves screaming at their victims. All of the footage is taken from the perspective of cameras held by the characters – a teenager’s camcorder, a journalist’s TV camera and the helmet cameras of a Spanish SWAT team – giving the cinematography a dizzy realism.

The directors of REC 2 want to terrify people. And people, in their millions, voluntarily pay to subject themselves to terror. Fear is a negative emotion, but some seek it out and insist that it gives them pleasure.

Some scientists have compared horror with rollercoasters, which mimic danger while keeping consumers safe. Both fill the users with fear but leave them safely in relief.

‘I don’t think anybody enjoys the sense of fear,’ explains Professor Glenn Sparks from Purdue University in Indiana. ‘People might be scared during the movie, but after the movie is over people are relieved that it’s over. There’s all this fear arousal in the body, and that takes time to decay. People come away from these experiences feeling a very intense sort of high.’

At the screening for REC 2 occasional ripples of laughter passed through the audience: relief after a particularly nasty scare, and amusement when the demon finally appears in humanoid form and looks more ridiculous than terrifying. Apart from representing individuals’ own feelings, this laughter was shared in a collective relief; some researchers have pointed to the importance of other audience members’ reactions to an individual’s enjoyment of the horror film.

Sparks’s research looking at immediate physiological effects on viewers watching horror, such as increased skin temperature and conductivity, suggested another explanation, one that exposed the sexual disparity in horror fans. Boys tend to have a higher preference for horror than girls do.

‘It’s not that males are not scared. For males, the scarier the better. The more scared males were during these films – and I actually measured this physiologically – the more arousal they had in their bodies, the more they end up enjoying it at the end.’

Sparks concluded that males were enjoying a sense of mastery over the fear. Young men, who in primitive cultures might demonstrate strength and bravery with hunts and tribal raids, were now using the medium of cinema to prove their masculine domination over danger. Violent horror is the new rite of passage.

Odder still was another study that examined mixed-sex couples observing horror. Where males were seen to show no fear, ‘mastery’ over the footage, the female partners found them more attractive. Where females covered their eyes and exhibited ‘the proper distress queues’, the males partners found them more attractive. Perhaps couples attend horror in the expectation of playing specific gender roles that boost their sexual attractiveness.

Still, some people who view horror are thrilled by the experience while others feel deep unease. Something distinguishes the horror-seekers and the rest.

One study in Texas State University looked at a list of physiological responses by test subjects viewing a 10-minute compilation of scenes from horror films. Each subject was first given a questionnaire that the researchers used to build up psychological profiles based on traits like coldheartness, fearlessness, egocentrism and so on. They found significant changes in systolic blood pressure (SBP) among the participants during screening, and this change correlated specifically with two kind of participants.

Those with high levels of fearlessness tended to have lower reaction: their blood pressure did not change much during the film compared with its baseline before the film. This was an unsurprising result.

‘Individuals scoring highly on this scale are more eager to engage in risky activities such as sky-diving and fast driving, less likely to feel anxiety in anticipation of physical danger,’ they explained. ‘The relationship of Fearlessness to SBP was to be expected because if a person is not scared easily by things, then they should exhibit less of a physiological reaction to films than others.’

There was another kind of subject who showed a rather more interesting result; people with high levels of coldheartness tended to experience higher increases in SBP than other subjects did.

‘The fact that the higher the level of Coldheartedness, the higher the SBP level suggests that people who are more coldhearted react more to the film, but whether this is a positive (i.e. excited) reaction or a negative (i.e. scared) one is worthy of further examination.’

So people with coldheartness – low levels of empathy – seem to be more aroused by horror than others. Possibly their indifference to others’ suffering as shown in torture horror makes their experience more pleasurable and exciting.

The relationship between empathy and horror-appreciation is complex, however. Another study found that a major motivation for students to watch horror was ‘thrill-watching’ – the deliberate desire to seek fear for a thrill. Those students who reported this motivation tended to have higher levels of sensation-seeking and also, interestingly, higher levels of empathy. This time high levels of empathy could make their emotional attachment to the victims more intense, boosting the thrill of the chase. Other students in the same study reported ‘gore-watching’ as a motivation, and these students tended to have low levels of fear and empathy. People may watch the same horror film for quite different reasons.

So the audience comes to horror with their own personal traits, but horror in turn influences the audience and changes how they think about the world. Occasionally perpetrators of terrible violent crimes are retrospectively found to be fans of horror or extremely violent music forms. In 2004 an 11-year-old Japanese girl murdered a classmate with a paper cutter; she was a fan of the Japanese novel Battle Royale, which had teenage students murder one another, and had seen the paper cutter used to kill in a television drama. Violent people may be drawn to violent media, but do the media also weaken one’s aversion to violence? In the short term, yes.

‘People desensitise pretty quickly to pictures of violence, even within the same film,’ explains Sparks. ‘We don’t react with the same emotional intensity.’

It is the same principle used to treat sufferers of a phobia. Repeated exposure to an irrational fear can desensitise people to it.

‘There is some research that says viewing sexually violent “slasher” films increases the acceptance of violence against women; and that research shows that watching violent rapes in movies makes the crime seem less severe,’ says Professor Joanne Cantor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Cantor argues that extreme horror and other violent genres have clear, negative effects on their audiences. By regularly watching scenes of extraordinary violence, consumers can become complacent about violence. Sparks says this can manifest in a reduced tendency to react to real-life situations where people are victims of violence. But could desensitisation to violence have a positive effect, by leaving people better able to defend themselves from violence?

‘That’s an interesting idea,’ says Cantor. ‘However, desensitisation doesn’t always happen, and it could be argued that horror films, which usually don’t have a positive resolution, are less likely to cause desensitisation than other types of violent media, where the “good guys” usually triumph in the end and the threat is resolved. Exposure to horror films may produced the opposite of desensitisation – that is, sensitisation, which makes subsequent exposure to frightening situations more, rather than less likely to produce emotional disturbances.

‘So if I were going to design a desensitisation program, it would include a plot about overcoming a threatening situation – the opposite of what most horror films provide.’

Instead, extreme violence in media leaves an uncomfortable legacy. A University of California study in 1995 subjected a group of subjects to repeated exposure to sexually violent films. Three days after the final film participants ‘expressed significantly less sympathy for domestic violence victims, and rated their injuries as less severe’ than a control group not exposed to the videos.

Another study, in 1998, had participants view violent or non-violent films for four consecutive days. On the fifth day they found themselves able to help or hinder a stranger in her career. The stranger treated some of the participants well and others badly, but the participants who had been exposed to violent films were all hostile to the stranger and hindered her career – regardless of how she had treated them. Researchers concluded that violent films had increased their general hostility to others.

We know that violent horror can affect how people see the world, but also that horror is changing. The old vampire and werewolf films considered terrifying decades ago seem tame compared with the ‘torture porn’ and extreme horror today. Teenagers who grow up with horror of their generation need ever more extreme shocks to keep the thrills coming, so each generation of horror becomes more brutal and graphic and terrifying than the last. REC 2 has zombie-like characters, but these are swift and vicious rather than shambling idiots wandering around muttering, ‘Brains!’

‘Hollywood has an intuitive sense of audiences and knows that it has to keep upping the ante,’ says Sparks. ‘It’s hard to see this end.

‘In general it’s not very functional for society to be entertained by these gruesome images.’

Still, he says these negative effects are most pronounced for vulnerable people who bring unhealthy psychological effects to the cinema in the first place. Once REC 2 was over the audience rose and politely filed out the door and back into society, laughing and discussing the film: no noticeable sign of hostility in sight.

As it happens, physiological measurements were being taken at that screening too, along with another press screening in London. Three journalists were tested for heart rate throughout the film and each one shows specific peaks when the heart raced way above its baseline. The Irish journalist had five peaks, including a scene where one of the SWAT men spent his ammunition and was locked in a bathroom with the demonic zombie smashing down the door outside. Another climactic scene had four characters enter a pitch black room, using only the night vision on the TV camera to find the monster who was blundering around blindly among them. Both are disturbing and scary scenes, courtesy of directors Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza. Balagueró and Plaze refuse credit for all this violence and terror, however.

‘On many occasions, during the presentation of the film to mixed audiences, spectators would approach us with questions and offering angles we’d not previously encountered,’ they said. ‘Strange and apparently salient details we weren’t aware of. Then one day we met up to discuss the secrets and mysteries we ourselves had created. We wanted to know more about them. To investigate the possibilities of what we’d only sketched out. To discover more and recount it once again.

REC 2 comes courtesy of the audiences who infused life into its predecessor. Their enthusiasm and imagination. In some way they’re the ones who created it. It’s their fault.’


This article was due for publication last year when REC 2 was in cinemas in Ireland, withdrawn after a change of editor in the publication. The image is from ClipartPal.