Sunday, 28 February 2016

Election in Ireland

Friends of mine around the world are talking about little but the US election this year, even though it’s several months away. There actually are 194 other countries in the world, though, and most of them have elections too – many of which are quite instructive, both in the way they parallel the US election and in ways they are very different.

Last Friday was Election Day here in Ireland – my first vote as a citizen -- and this election campaign, like that of the USA’s, is without precedent in recent memory. It’s a bit different here because we have a parliamentary system, vote for more than one person to represent our district, and have first and second choices that factor in when votes are tallied -- a system that allows for multiple parties that must work together in coalition. It has many advantages over the USA’s system, in which people choose between the least awful of two often-similar candidates, and one gains enormous power by some slim margin.

In our case, the two biggest parties are Fianna Fail (rhymes with fall, not fail) and Fine Gael (actually does rhyme with fail), and they each tend to get about 40 per cent of the vote, forming a majority coalition with one of the minor parties.

Still, the mood among the populace is similar – people are struggling and unhappy with the mainstream candidates. Fianna Fail governed during the crash of 2008, and most people think they did a terrible job – Ireland effectively went bankrupt and had to be bailed out by the IMF and EU. The last election voters slammed Fianna Fail hard, and a coalition of Fine Gael and the Labour party took power. But they, too, have lost credibility with voters, trying to boost the government’s income with a series of extremely unpopular taxes.

Thus, just as in my native USA, dark-horse candidates are doing very well. Over there it means Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, independents running under the nominal banner of the major parties; here it means third parties and independents.

Sinn Fein has been the biggest beneficiary of this, the left-wing nationalist party is now garnering about half as many votes as the major parties – not able to control a government yet, but getting there. They have a lot of baggage, though – they were the political arm of the IRA during the terrorism of the 1970s and 80s, and remain the only party operating in both Northern Ireland and the Republic. They went legitimate a long time ago – it’s been almost two decades since the Good Friday accords effectively ended the “Troubles,” and former terrorist like Martin McGuinness even had dinner with Queen Elizabeth recently. Younger voters see them as the legitimate political party they are, but older voters have not forgotten Sinn Fein’s past, and the mainstream parties have refused to work with them.

Independents and minor parties like the Anti-Austerity Alliance or the Social Democrats – won more candidates than any party at all, meaning that a plurality of people now elected are local candidates promising to undo the recent actions of the major parties.

As I write this – with 34 of the 40 election counts complete and 146 of the Dail’s 158 seats filled -- the two “major” parties are major no longer, not only closely matched but both severely diminished in numbers. Ordinarily garnering 35 to 50 per cent of the vote, this time they won about 25 per cent each, with Sinn Fein taking 13 per cent, and independents and minor parties making up most of the rest.

Now comes the tricky part: all these candidates have to form a coalition government, and whatever agreement they managed to hammer out, it will be the strangest government in this country’s history. There are a few possibilities:

1.) the two main parties, rivals as long as the nation has existed and descended from the two sides of Ireland’s civil war, will be forced to go into coalition with each other; if you are American, picture all the mainstream Republicans forming a government with Hillary Clinton to stop Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

2.) Sinn Fein and all the minor parties will be forced to form a sweeping left-wing coalition; it’s possible, but seems quite fragile;

3.) One of the two major parties will have to join forces with Sinn Fein, which they have vowed never to do;

4.) There will be a hung parliament, and we’ll have another election soon.

I’ll have more to say on this later, but for the moment one thing is clear: here as in many countries, voters are overthrowing the political establishment in favour of radical change. What kind of change they get remains to be seen.  

 Photo: Streetcorner in Dublin.

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Invasion of technology

Most readers of this blog know that I regularly read, and comment in, John Michael Greer's admirable blog The Archdruid Report. I almost never mention other web sites on this blog, but I thought some of the recent discussions there were worth mentioning, and I doubt he would mind if I reproduced my comments.

A few months ago JMG posted a fascinating essay, "The Shadows in the Cave," about our culture's obsession with everyone owning the latest technologies. It's almost taboo, he pointed out, for people not to have a television, mobile phone, microwave and many other gadgets, even though humans survived before these things were invented and many people get on quite well without them.

JMG also pointed out something I've often harped on here: that most people these days get all their experience of the world from screens and loudspeakers, which paints a certain picture of the outside world for them. Most people I know -- left or right, American or European, religious or not -- are different only in the brand of information provider they use, and all accept the information given to them as though it were real experience.

That led in turn to a productive debate in the comments, in which I said:


I’ve been reading the last series of posts with great interest, and find they match my own experience. Rather than simply add my experiences to the long list here, I’d like to bring up a few related points.

Firstly, it’s not just that more people are increasingly adopting technology in their private lives – it’s that technology has invaded public spaces until it’s almost impossible to escape their influence. For example, I find it increasingly difficult to ride the bus, eat at a restaurant, work in an office, or relax in a coffee shop, without loud music blaring over loudspeakers, interfering with normal reading or conversation.

In our office there is a daily battle to get the pop music turned down, and the idea offends many people – “What would we listen to?” they ask. I invested in my own headphones to listen to something else, but this also makes conversation more difficult, and it takes away my right to silence.

The same is true of television screens. Just in the time we’ve lived in Ireland, it seems, more and more pubs have abandoned the conversation or sing-a-longs for which they were traditionally known; many have purchased wide-screen televisions, and more patrons just sit there staring at it. More and more restaurants too have a television on the wall, playing television while people are trying to eat. I have even seen offices that set up televisions on every wall – showing company propaganda rather than actual programming, but programming all the same.

Secondly, I notice that many people – especially in my native USA – regard adopting the latest technology not just as a fashion, but as a patriotic or religious duty. I hear many people talk about “supporting the economy” – meaning the money economy, a coalition of international corporations, beholden to no one -- as though they are tithing in church. I can’t tell you how often I hear people stare at their glowing rectangles and make announcements about how “the economy” is doing, as though they have sworn loyalty to it rather than to their family or community, and as though they have some control over it.

Finally – while I largely agree with you and everyone here about the dangers of technology, and have argued as much in my own life – I would argue that just using technology sparingly makes a big difference.

For example, I know many people who only watch one television programme, and gather at friends’ homes to watch it 12 times a year or however often it is on, and live the rest of their lives largely media-free. They find their television gatherings a powerful experience, partly because they are seeing it with others, but partly because they are not surrounded by such things all the time. For my part, I watch old black-and-white films with my daughter, and have written about their value in envisioning a low-tech future.

When our ancestors saw plays or operas, or my grandparents saw cinema in the 1930s, I suspect they felt a power and catharsis that few of us will ever know, precisely because what they experienced was so different from their daily life. Just as loudspeakers playing the same songs over and over prevent me from ever enjoying those songs again, so does constant exposure to television or media rob us of the ability to savour them.

Thank you for your posts,

Brian Kaller

Monday, 15 February 2016

Bonds of community

I take every chance I get to chat with people at the bus stop, at the shops in my village, and on the bus to work in Dublin; people don’t socialise as much these days, and our lives are the worse for it.

We become moral animals when we care about others as we do ourselves, and in most eras that wasn’t a problem. Whether in Stone Age tribes or bucolic villages, we lived in the constant presence of people like ourselves, with whom we shared a lifetime of memories and on whom we depend. You might have had conflicts with your neighbour, but after sharing three sacraments, a football championship, the rights to the nearby pasture and two great-grandmothers, you learn to get along. Relationships like this civilise us, and thousands of such threadlike connections, layer upon layer, cushion the weight of the world.

Today, though, we spend much of our lives alone even in a crowd, often insulated by headphones and absorbed in a screen of some kind, whether a lap-top, television or phone. In this protective bubble we find it easy to treat the icons on Facebook like the icons on a video game, or the cars on the road like moving images on a screen. We can fill online comment boxes or the space between our cars with language we would never use over a cup of tea, because we can now live in a world free of identity and consequences. As individuals we default to being self-absorbed, and now we have technology that allows us to stay that way.

People had drifted apart long before the digital revolution, though; 16 years ago sociologist Robert Putnam, in his seminal book Bowling Alone, compared survey data from across the decades, exploring how often people ate together, joined clubs, talked to neighbours and so on. Putnam looked at the USA, but his conclusions apply here as well, and they were dramatic and sweeping: Most traditional forms of human interaction have declined, and some have almost vanished.

Read that again: Most traditional forms of human interaction have declined, and some have almost vanished. 

“Human interaction” covers quite a bit of ground, of course, and Putnam goes through hundreds of pages of examples – any of which might seem tiny in isolation, but fit like mosaic pieces to portray a crisis. Over two decades, for example, the number of times people entertained friends at home had fallen by half. “Time diary” studies show that people spent a third less time socializing in 1995 than in 1965. Instances of family members vacationing together, going to church together, or “just sitting and talking,” as one poll put it, have all declined. Gradually and silently, hundreds of millions of neighbours became strangers.

Putnam’s 2000 work spawned a decade of journal papers and studies looking at various kinds of “social capital” and hot academic debates over its definition. Most of us, though, know it when we see it, and when we have it we live longer, feel better, are stronger, healthier, and have more meaningful lives when we are part of a close family or a loyal group of friends.

It’s more than your best mates, however – our lives are made up of thousands of tiny gestures like this every day, and ninety-nine out of a hundred fly right by us. We don’t think much about the pedestrian who shifts to one side to let us pass, the clerk who smiles at us, or the kids who walk around our property instead of through, but we coast on a sea of such courtesies, and where such moments disappear – say, in a violent inner-city neighbourhood – we immediately feel their absence.

 “Members of a community that follows the principle of generalized reciprocity – raking your leaves before they blow onto your neighbours' yard, lending a dime to a stranger for a parking meter, buying a round of drinks the week you earn overtime, keeping an eye on a friend's house, taking turns bringing snacks to Sunday school … find that their self-interest is served,” Putnam wrote.

That’s why I like to chat with people I meet; I’m putting pennies in a bank of social trust, from which we can all withdraw someday. When we do that we help regrow an older and real social network, the one that you don’t leave when you die.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

And Into Dust

Every Ash Wednesday I use my lunch hour to attend one of the magnificent churches in Dublin, sadly with fewer congregants these days, and mostly elderly. This one is still run by the Augustinian Order, 1,500 years after St. Augustine became dust. Here, today, we were reminded that we will be dust someday ourselves.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Facts and Truths

Like many parents, I’d like to home-school my daughter -- but have to work, and she needs her peers. So by day she goes to Catholic school in the village near us, with fine teachers and the children of our neighbours. In the evenings, though, we sit down for a different set of lessons, where I try to teach things most schools don’t.

Wednesdays we do logic, and week by week we’ve covered the Straw Man, emotional appeals, ad hominem attacks, circular arguments, post hoc ergo propter hoc, the bandwagon effect, arguments from hypocrisy, Ockham’s Razor, the Anthropic Principle, the Barnum Effect, false dichotomies, slippery slopes, hasty generalisations and non sequiturs.

Then I asked her to start applying these lessons, looking at advertisements and picking them apart. Now, a television announcer asks viewers at home if they want to make more money, she rolls her eyes and says, “Barnum Effect.” Now that my native USA is in the middle of its interminable coronation rituals, we’ll go over transcripts of speeches from various political groups, and cross out everything that uses cheap rhetorical tricks or logical fallacies.

In the same vein, we study the scientific method, something I wish every child learned these days. Of course we study “science” in the sense that most people use the word – that is, amazing things about the universe that researchers discovered by using science – so we’ve covered elements and electrons, carbon cycles and circadian rhythms, Batesian mimicry and Brownian movement. Just as importantly, though, I want her to know how to do science, to perform experiments and filter out flawed results.

Years ago I helped her learn the acronym WET-P; you wonder about something, you create experiments that will find what you’re looking for, you test your hypothesis, and you run the results by your peers to make sure you did everything right. We’ve talked about the placebo effect, we’ve used control groups, and we’ve removed the labels on the experiment containers to create double-blind testing. And the other night, we talked about the difference between Facts and Truths.

I don’t claim to follow Ontological Philosophy – I find most philosophical writing painful to read -- but I wish this basic division was taught to every school-child, saving society a lot of ideological confusion later on.

Facts, I told her, are things you can verify mathematically, chemically or physically – at least that’s the way we’re using the word. If you want to see if your hammer is made of iron, you can compare its volume to its weight, see if it conducts electricity or attracts a magnet, or test how it reacts to certain chemicals. When done rightly under the same conditions, those tests should yield the same results for everyone, whether Catholic or Muslim, Irish or Japanese, male or female. If someone says the hammer is made of peanut butter, that’s not a legitimate point of view – they’re wrong no matter how desperately they believe it.

If you measure the Earth as Aristarchus did, I told her – noon sunlight at certain locations, measured from the bottom of wells -- you’ll find the Earth is a sphere about 40,000 kilometres around. The meticulous, I told her, might get slightly different results if they measure top-to-bottom or around the equator, but if someone comes up with the result that the planet is four or four hundred or four million kilometres across, you can prove them wrong. The world is 4,500 million years old, it orbits the sun, which circles the Milky Way – these are all facts. Whether Kansas borders the sea or whether World War II took place – also facts.

“So what’s truth?” she asked.

Truths, I told her, are beliefs, values and attitudes – we can’t mathematically or chemically prove them, and we don’t need to. Your faith, your love for your family, your belief that a forest or a human has value -- those are all truths. Other people see things differently, and while you can try to persuade them to see things your way, or set an example for them to follow, you can’t show them a number that says they’re wrong.

Let’s say one person believes that animals evolve purely by random chance, and another person believes that animals evolve according to God’s plan. Both have truths they believe in, and since neither can be proven, neither is more scientific than the other. If someone says that animals never evolved, though, the evidence says otherwise.

“So truths might be true, but facts are definitely true?” she asked.

Facts don’t mean much by themselves; truths – our values and perspectives -- make sense of them. The facts are the bricks, and the truth is the building. On the other hand, facts are immovable – you have to accept facts and deal with them. “Or change them,” she said. “If it’s a fact that I have a hundred books, I can get more books.” Absolutely you can change certain facts, I said, but you have to accept what things are before you can change them.

“If you get enough facts together, do they make a truth?” she asked.

They might not fit together to make anything, I said, and not usually by themselves – and it’s up to us to make sense of them. You’ve probably seen science fiction stories where a computer learns so much it becomes sentient? Computers have a lot of dangers, but I’m not worried about that one, because all computers learn is data. A library has a lot of data too, I told her, but if it goes beyond a certain number of books, it doesn’t grow legs and walk away.

The examples I gave my daughter were quite tame, but I could think of many heated issues these days that would ease off if people applied this distinction. National Geographic magazine, for example, ran a cover story last year on “anti-science” beliefs, with a list of common examples on the cover -- “Climate change does not exist,” “The Moon landing was fake,” and “Vaccinations can lead to autism.” Fair enough; while they are not identical situations – we can’t know the future effects of climate change with the same certainty that we know the moon landing – they are all reasonably well-established.

To my dismay, though, they also included the line, “Genetically Modified Food is evil” – a disingenuous addition, as “evil” is a moral judgement. Genetic experimenters can splice insect genes into a berry or grow a human ear on a mouse for amusement; only we can decide whether they should. If a group of scientists proves their product is not toxic, that’s a fact; whether it’s morally righteous is up to us.

The same goes for a lot of culture-war debates in our society; both left and right are determined to see them as sides, and enforce them with the power of government. Keeping them separate – for schools and government to deal in facts, for example, and parents and churches to teach truths – would spare a lot of pointless anguish. Of course drawing those boundary lines can get complicated, but these days fewer and fewer people – on the left and right alike --- bother to draw them at all.

I didn’t unload all this on my 11-year-old, though – rather, we did a quiz to help her tell the difference– “John is two metres tall,” “John should stop littering,” and so on, and she had to tell me whether they were fact or truth.

“What about people who aren’t religious?” she asked. “Who just believe in science?”

Great question, I said – that’s a common misconception. Nobody can just believe in science, because science isn’t a belief; it’s the way you verify facts, nothing more or less.

Some people these days claim to reject all belief, accepting only scientific facts – but that’s impossible, because facts don’t make any sense outside of a larger story. Atheists usually have a very strong faith – in progress, or rationality, or the superiority of their group. Some Christian groups these days do the converse – making up their own facts to fit what they’d like to believe. One group claims their beliefs are facts, I told her, and the other tries to twist the facts to suit their beliefs. Both are determined to see facts and truth fight each other, rather than build on each other, and the world is worse for it.

“Surely some people’s beliefs are plainly wrong,” she said.

Some are monstrous, I said, and we have a duty to oppose them, whether by persuasion or example or taking up arms. Still, people usually have reasons for feeling the way they do, and it usually helps to see the world through their eyes rather than just dismissing them. Ultimately, everyone’s entitled to their own beliefs, I said – their religion, their ideology, their political party. They’re not entitled to their own facts.

“Do I have to listen to everybody?” she said.

Everyone deserves a fair hearing, I told her, and everyone knows something you don’t – so treat them with the respect you would want for yourself. Be prepared, though, to question everything people say, and don’t let them talk you out of your principles.

“Those are two contradictory things,” she said.

Almost, I said. Balancing them is the real trick. I’ll walk you through it as long as you let me.