This week 700 asylum seekers drowned when their boat capsized somewhere in the Mediterranean sea; reports suggest that a large number of these poor souls were locked in the hold of the ship and had no chance of escape. A year ago the people on this ship might have been found rescued earlier by the European Union’s large, integrated emergency response program Mare Nostrum, but unfortunately it was defunded and replaced with a much weaker local Italian response under the explicit rhetoric of “deterrent,” pioneered so effectively by Australia. Countries with significant anti-immigrant political parties and communities, most notably the UK and Germany, refused to fund the continuation of a coordinated Mediterranean-wide rescue program on the basis that rescuing asylum seekers at sea encourages people smugglers to simply send more, and the best way to save lives is to refuse to help, so that the people smugglers’ business collapses when their customers realize the risks.

The events of the last week – 400 drowned last week, 700 this week, and it’s only Monday – show how effective that tactic has been. So does the record so far this year, with 30 times the deaths recorded in the equivalent period last year under Mare Nostrum. Record numbers are crossing the Mediterranean, fleeing persecution in Libya and chaos in Syria and Iraq. These people appear not to have got the Home Office memo, and apparently think that any risk is better than staying where they are. The ideology of “pull factors,” based on the assumption that these asylum seekers aren’t really that desperate and are just looking for the best country to settle rather than a place of safety, has been shown to be completely wrong.

Last year, before the end of Mare Nostrum, I wrote that Europe has been presenting evidence against the Australian ideology of reducing “pull” factors. Since I wrote that blog post Mare Nostrum has ended and the flow of refugees has exploded. Either there is no relationship between the border control policies in place at sea, or the defenders of this ideology – if they are being honest – will have to accept that the evidence shows that the only “pull” factor at work here is going in the opposite direction of their claims, and that rescuing asylum seekers at sea is a more effective deterrent than letting them drown. Of course they won’t accept such a conclusion, and will continue to argue that we “encourage” these desperate people by saving them, when all the evidence now shows that their plight is so desperate that they don’t care about our search and rescue plans, they just want to get out. But our political masters don’t care about these people, and indeed why should they when popular columnists refer to them as vermin and cockroaches? So instead mealy-mouthed politicians in Europe try to maintain their ideology of deterrence through callousness, and maintain that they will end the flow of refugees by targeting the people smugglers – rhetoric they have used for years to no effect, probably because they aren’t even bothering to do that. And how can they affect migration policy in North Africa? Libya is a chaotic mess that the last Italians fled from months ago, leaving the people of Libya and especially its most vulnerable stateless displaced to their bloody fate. How do you target people smuggling when you don’t even have an embassy? Europe is powerless to affect events on the ground in Syria, and refugee flows through that part of the world are now so huge that it would be impossible to identify the people smugglers, let alone stop them.

Japan is another example of the emptiness of “pull factor” rhetoric. Even though Japan has only approved a handful of asylum applications in the last decade, numbers of people claiming asylum have increased ten-fold over that time. How can it be that a country which offers zero chance of resettlement is seeing unprecedented application numbers, if asylum policy at the destination is a major determinant of asylum seekers’ choices?

Abandoning people to drown is cheap and politically easy in modern Europe, but it will not deter these people, because they are desperate. It’s time for Europe to recognize that its neighbourhood has gone to hell, and Europe won’t be able to keep ignoring this problem forever, or pretending that it can stand by and let people drown out of simple callousness. If Europe is not willing to invest the time, money and lives in stabilizing Syria and Libya, then it needs to recognize that it has at least a moral responsibility to save the lives of the desperate and stateless when they put to sea. Maybe then Australian politicians will also rethink their cruel and vicious policies towards the stateless. This problem is not going to end anytime soon, but if we keep lurching towards the moral event horizon, our humanity will …

[Warning: Australian politics] I read in the newspapers yesterday that Clive Palmer, mining magnate and funder of the Palmer United Party, is going to sue two former party members for campaign financing he provided to help them get elected. Given how mercurial and weird Palmer is, the news is probably already out of date and he has changed his mind already, and I certainly hope so, because this is a legal case that absolutely should not happen. He is going to try and get back $9 million he spent on getting the two members, Glenn Lazarus and Jackie Lambie, elected on the basis that since he paid for them to get into parliament in his party, they should have stayed in his party.

I know nothing about the law but I am going to make a prediction for this court case on the basis of my understanding of Australian culture and the history of the courts in Australia: this case is guaranteed to fail. Almost no court or jury will find in his favour given the obvious chilling implications for democracy, and the defendants will be able to appeal any loss right up to the High Court. There is absolutely zero chance, in my opinion, that the High Court will find in Palmer’s favour. Even the most conservative imaginable possible array of High Court judges will throw it out in a heartbeat – or rather, in the length of time it takes them to write a dismissive and compelling judgment that will make Clive Palmer very very embarrassed.

At least it would embarrass him if he had any shame, but in case the infamous twerking video didn’t convince you this court case should be the final proof that Palmer has no shame. That he would even conceive of such a case shows how out of touch he is with Australian civic values, how little respect he has for the political process, and how he really views his party – not as a vehicle for political change but as a personal possession (to be clear, I never doubted this – but smarter tycoons might at least try to pretend it weren’t true!) Imagine if the Liberals or Labor could sue a party member every time they jumped ship or split to recover election costs – the effect on party discipline would be very impressive, but the effect on political debate would be terrible. But worse still, imagine if donors could demand repayment of their money if a member jumped ship? And if a donor can demand repayment of election expenses when a member leaves the party, can they not also demand repayment if their legislative goals are not achieved? Currently big corporate and organizational donors give money to a political party on the assumption that it will represent their interests, but not on the assumption that they can get specific legislative goals (though they often do, of course, get these). But if Palmer were to win this case they could conceivably write more specific contracts for their donations, backed up by the implied threat of civil action if they don’t get what they want. I think legal argument is the one place where slippery slope arguments make sense, since a decision sets a precedent for subsequent decisions; in this case, Palmer’s legal efforts could open the door to at least the kind of implied threats that could seriously damage political independence. And some of those donors are big givers – the unions give the ALP millions, and some corporate donations to the Liberals are in the hundreds of thousands. Everyone knows that these donors will withdraw their money in future if the party doesn’t represent them; but the possibility that they could sue for past money would surely terrify the two major parties and make them much, much more careful about toeing the donors’ line.

Plus of course donors wouldn’t have to sue over a specific lost legislative goal – they just wait for a process event (such as a member leaving or being found guilty of a crime of some kind) and sue out of spite. The mere threat to sue in such a case could convince a party to change a policy. It would be disastrous.

These considerations are why I think the High Court would take the case and then decide in favour of the defendants. Whatever one might think of the individual politics of High Court members, none of them are stupid and they are very careful and considerate custodians of the constitution. They just won’t let this happen!

I wonder if it is time Australia considered a law preventing the kind of direct ownership of parties that Palmer has used here. The party is clearly a vehicle for his own personal interests, and given that he is a mining magnate with some big business problems the conflict of interest is obvious. Fortunately for the Australian public he is too stupid to get anything right, but if some Lex Luthor type figure were to come along with the same plan it could be very dangerous. I’m not sure how it could be done in a fair and balanced way, but perhaps consideration needs to be given to a law that prevents individuals from directly setting up a party with their own money. If Palmer wants to influence the political process he should do it the same way every other corporate body does – by networking with politicians, donating money to their party without conditions, and making their case for change through long, careful deliberation through existing social organizations. Buying your own party is crass, and destructive to the political process. I hope the Australian legislature can find a way to stop it in future.

Footnote for non-Australians: Clive Palmer is a mining magnate and “billionaire” who essentially set up his own political party at the last federal election, poured his own money[1] into it and managed to get 6 senators elected. The party is called the “Palmer United Party” but the “United” part is pretty much a footnote of history now since all members bar one have left. Unfortunately these 6 senators basically controlled the balance of power in the senate, which has descended into chaos since the party became disunited[2]. Palmer is sunk in legal problems with business partners and also may be suffering some business challenges (now is not a good time to be an iron ore exporter in Australia) and many people think this party was his attempt to protect his business interests from some bad decisions, and/or to try and force changes through that would benefit his company. For example he refused to pass laws repealing the carbon “tax” until the government agreed to refund money paid since its inception, which would have been a multi-million dollar windfall for his business. It’s hard to see what his real motives were because he is so chaotic and weird, but certainly his party has not been a good thing for Australian legislative processes.

fn1: Well, a Chinese mining company claims it was their money, but that’s currently being negotiated in the courts

fn2: Kind of. It was chaotic before the disunity because Palmer doesn’t know what he wants and changes his mind by the day.

[Warning: Australian politics] Last weekend there was a State election in Australia, with popular Liberal (for overseas readers: “conservative”) premier Mike Baird up against apparently well-liked Labour (for overseas readers: “liberal”) opposition leader Luke Foley. In the context of a deeply detested federal Liberal government, and a recent crushing defeat for the Liberals in Queensland, this election was being carefully watched for warning signs of the imminent demise of the federal Liberal leader, Tony Abbott. Unfortunately for people who like to draw simple conclusions, and by extension the federal labour party, the swing against the federal Liberal party was small (about 2%) but the swing to the Labour party huge (about 9%). It wasn’t enough for Labour to win government but enough to restore them as a political force (they had previously been wiped out in the state due to rampant corruption and general nastiness[1]).

But for those of us who care about the environment and the future of modern, peaceful, developed human society there was an interesting side story, initially ignored by the media. The Greens, Australia’s environmental party, increased their seats in the lower house by 3-4, depending on the result of late counting, and also their vote share. They increased their vote share in the seat they previously held and stole at least two new seats – at least one from the Nationals, a slowly dying party of rural socialism. But in addition to this, they became the second biggest vote winner in a range of seats – most of which are staunchly conservative voters.

What’s going on here?

There is a lot of debate about this coming out in the national media, and most of it is evidence of high panic. The Telegraph (not to be confused with the British high tory newspaper of the same name – the Aussie New South Wales version is toilet paper) has two articles complaining that inner city Greens voters are too rich to care about environmental issues, and rural Greens voters are a bunch of lazy drug users. The latter story gives a detailed run-down of the economics of the electorate that has voted for a Green candidate, suggesting that the Green has been voted in because the electorate is full of unemployed drug users, but doesn’t really pay any attention to the fact that the electorate has been under the control of the Nationals since 1988. Surely if an electorate has been under the control of one party for nearly 30 years, the unemployment and drug use problems of that electorate are the fault of the 30 year party, not the newly-elected one? Perhaps the election of a new candidate is a sign that the locals don’t want this to continue? Perhaps they want change?

Meanwhile there is new evidence that the Greens have replaced Labour as the party of protest in a range of wealthy suburban seats in the north of Sydney. So now we have a situation where National Party seats are being stolen by Greens in rural Australia, and wealthy Liberal voters are switching to the Greens in preference to Labour. This has led the Australian newspaper (owned by American espionage expert Rupert Murdoch) to refer to the Greens as a “cancer on democracy” (as, obviously, any party that wins at the ballot box must be) and is surely leading to a new round of panic in the offices of Labour and the Liberal party.

What’s going on here?

On the surface it looks like Australians are starting to wake up to the environmental problems Australia faces. The new seats appear to have been won on the back of protests against coal seam gas, which is a sign of classic anti-AGW activism with the power to change seats. However, the increase in votes in wealthy areas might possibly be attributable to NIMBYism (“not in my backyard” politics), and this is certainly the line defenders of wealthy privilege are taking – but it could also be because people in those seats are starting to realize that the Liberals as they are currently composed are a threat to humanity.

Traditionally Australian media outlets have avoided talking about Green successes and trumped apparent Green set-backs, and argued that Greens in power would fail. But the federal Green politician is going well electorally, and now the Greens have significantly increased their state representation. This is a sign that people in Australia are starting to realize that the environment is their key concern, and also that the existing “mainstream” political parties do not serve to improve the wealth of the regions. Of course the Liberals could easily combat this by fielding a candidate for prime minister who recognizes the pre-eminence of global warming and understands the genuinely liberal value of local areas controlling local environmental decisions. I don’t necessarily agree with this idea, but it is naturally liberal and it is not happening because the current Liberal party at both federal and state level is essentially a legislative vehicle for developers. If the Liberals want to fix their electoral challenges and become a genuinely liberal party they need to do two simple things: ditch Tony Abbott, and find a way to destroy the influence of developers on state political parties.

Do that, and the Liberals will hold power for a generation.

fn1: And would have been wiped out much sooner, except that the religious right wing of the federal party carefully organized a hit job on the moderately liberal state leader and replaced him with a far right christian; during this vicious hit job the party leader attempted to commit suicide, and the current federal Liberal leader joked about his suicide attempt the same day.

Something Hollywood could learn from ...?

Something Hollywood could learn from …?

This week Vox posted an article on “Japan’s blackface problem,” which aimed to give an American perspective on the practice of Japanese actors putting on black faces, and to discuss what the author calls Japan’s “bizarre, troubled relationship with race.” I wonder what Japanese people can learn about how to treat race from that sophisticated bastion of cultural critique and racial neutrality, America?

Before I look at yet another nuanced and authoritative insight into the world’s problems from a racially enlightened American, I thought I’d share an insight from this month’s print edition of The Economist magazine, which I happened to pick up in my travels. In an article on racial inequalities in access to selective public schools in New York, an American documentary maker is reported as follows:

Curtis Chin, who has been filming New York teenagers preparing for the SHSAT, adds that all some black and Hispanic families want ‘is that their kids don’t get locked up in jail. It’s hard to measure that against an aspiration of going to Harvard or working for Goldman Sachs

I can say with considerable confidence that there is no black, Hispanic or indeed non-Japanese community of any race living in Japan now who are concerned about their kids going to jail rather than university. Which makes one wonder – what does America have to say to the rest of the world about race that it shouldn’t be saying first and only to itself? Let’s see what Vox has to say.

What does blackface mean in Japan?

The article is centred on concerns about a phenomenon that has no associations with colonialism or racism in Asia. Blackface has a long history of racist associations in the USA, and probably Europe and the UK, but in Asia it has no association at all with discrimination against black people. Black people in East and south-East Asia are basically just a different colour of foreigner, and discrimination against them stems from the same well spring as discrimination against all other foreigners. In some countries (Japan, probably Korea, I don’t know about China) black skin has an ancient association with demons and evil outsiders that predates Asian knowledge about the existence of black humans, but the extent to which this figures in Japanese attitudes towards black people is hard to say. The existence of the yamanba phenomenon in Japanese youth culture suggests that deliberately darkening the skin for fashion is shocking in a similar way to dressing as a Goth in the west (with associations of death and horror), but the leap between this and discrimination against black people is pretty weak sauce – weak sauce that the Vox article applies through an “analysis” of ganguro culture. The article cites an American living in Japan as describing this and the associated “b-girl” phenomenon as “exotic othering” and suggests that it’s potentially racist even though it is specifically cited as being done in “appreciation” of black American culture. It describes hip hop being culturally appropriated by taking American hip hop and running it through a J-pop machine.

This makes me think that the author and probably the American in Japan who they quote have never been to a Japanese hip hop club, or paid attention to the music there. There is a big difference between “cultural appropriation” and performing a foreign style, and if you don’t get this difference you’re pretty clueless about the music you’re describing. It’s also funny to read concerns about cultural appropriation from an American community that has engaged in one of the most breathtaking pieces of such appropriation in history, describing people with no cultural connection to any part of Africa as “African Americans” simply because of their skin colour. Newsflash, America: Africa is not a country.

American critiques of blackface centre on the fact that your intent does not change the racism of the representative behavior that blackface performs. That is, a white person putting on blackface just so that they can do an authentic portrayal of a black character at, say, Halloween, is still being racist even if their intent is simply and honestly just to do an authentic portrayal of a black character. The Vox article wants to apply this ideal outside of America in a culture that has never had a history of lynching, segregation, slavery or colonialism in Africa. Is this going to give a useful insight into how Japanese people think about black people, or how they should behave towards them?

A “recent” history of fascism

It appears, based on the Vox article, that I left a key word out of that paragraph. I should have written about a recent history of lynching and segregation. The Vox article writes

the national government has done stunningly little to prohibit racist hate speech, particularly given Japan’s recent history of fascism

The “particulary” in this sentence is clearly intended to stress the link between Japan’s “recent” history of fascism and the government’ s intentions, but this is laughable. Japan’s fascism was precisely 70 years ago, and Japan is the only country on earth with a constitution that forbids it from going to war. America’s segregation laws ended less than 50 years ago, but this government report on Obama’s speech at Selma doesn’t refer to heroes who changed “recent” history there. The last lynching in the USA was (depending on how you look at it) in 1998 or 1951, and laws were still being passed against it in 1968. So when we discuss racial problems in the USA should we refer to their “recent history” of lynching, segregation and Jim Crow? Their “recent history” of communal violence against native Americans (Wounded Knee was in 1972)?

When was the last time you read an article on Germany and Greece that referred to Germany’s “recent” history of fascism? Even articles explicitly about the Nazi occupation of Greece and recent demands for reparations don’t refer to Germany’s “recent” history of fascism. This sentence is a really jarring reminder that Japan is held uniquely victim of its historical actions in a way that Germany and especially the USA are not.

If we are going to talk about the influence of Japanese colonial history on its attitude towards race we should make sure that a) we assess all countries by the same historical attitudes and b) we recognize that Japan has no history of aggressive colonization of black nations. This is a uniquely white, European phenomenon.

Misinterpreting Japanese legislative intent

The article notes that Japan makes no efforts to ban hate speech or control the behavior of its racial extremists. The article fails to note that Japan also took a long time to move on child pornography, that it generally has a very liberal approach towards protecting speech, and that there are many countries in the world that don’t care to pass hate speech laws. Indeed, the article manages to gloss over America’s own tortured conversation on this issue – lots of Americans see hate speech laws as an affront to their own constitution, and while disagreeing with hate speech think that it should be protected. To present the absence of a law that is contentious in your own country as proof that another country is racist is disingenuous to say the least.

The article also exaggerates the role and position of racial extremists in Japan. I once had the pleasure of standing at the Shibuya hachiko meeting point waiting for a friend while a fascist stood nearby on a black van, yelling hateful slogans about how foreigners who complain about Japan shouldn’t live here. Why was I comfortable about this? Because I know that almost every person passing that black van sees those people as crazy weirdo, and as a result they are generally excluded from public conversation, to the extent that they have to drive around towns in black vans blaring out their hate speech. The same ideas that are seen as extremist in Japan are widely disseminated in the English press by, for example, the leader of UKIP, who has a column in a Sunday newspaper. The Economist recently had to withdraw a book review of a history of slavery that complained that too many of the white characters were portrayed as immoral and too many of the black characters as victims. The kind of anti-immigrant rhetoric you hear from mainstream politicians in France, the UK, Australia and America is not usually uttered by Japanese politicians or newspapers (though it does sometimes creep in).

Any article describing Japan’s famous “racism” needs to recognize this, and give at least some time to the myriad ways in which Japan treats its foreign residents better than many white countries do. I bet, for example that my reader(s) doesn’t know that in some parts of Japan I can vote, even though I’m not even a permanent resident, and there are moves afoot to give non-citizen residents the right to vote in national elections. One-sided depictions of racial politics in Japan give a misleading impression of how strong it is here.

Misinterpreting Japanese attitudes towards multiculturalism

The article cites an associate professor from Temple University saying that

The blackface thing is emblematic of a larger problem of Japanese politics and civil society in which diversity is not recognized, or cultivated, or respected

I think this is an overly simplistic understanding of Japan’s attitude towards diversity, also based on a misunderstanding of Japan’s legislative intent. Yes, Japan doesn’t have an official policy of multiculturalism (although some towns such as Osaka do), but this is because Japan generally doesn’t have a practice of legislating cultural movements. In fact, Japanese people implement a kind of basic principle and acceptance of multiculturalism that is staggeringly simple in its open-mindedness. Japanese people naturally assume that foreigners who come to Japan will continue to live their foreign ways, speak their own language at home, and pursue their own cultural traditions, while obeying Japanese law. This is essentially multiculturalism. For example, if I am in a majority Japanese environment (e.g. kickboxing) with a single other foreigner, and we speak in Japanese, the Japanese around us will laugh and ask why we aren’t speaking our natural language, because it seems strange to them that we wouldn’t. Japanese often ask whether living in Japan is difficult, because they accept that we will be trying to continue our own traditions in a society that doesn’t necessarily accomodate them. They are remarkably forgiving of foreigners who don’t learn Japanese, and they respect that learning to read Japanese is an extremely burdensome task for adults. They assume that we will want to continue cooking our own food and accessing our own cultural goods in our own homes, and are surprised if we do Japanese things. This can sometimes appear as racism – e.g. the assumption some landlords make that foreign residents will wear shoes inside – but it also reflects a basic assumption of multiculturalism underlying the Japanese approach to foreign residents of Japan.

It’s worth noting that a lot of Japanese cultural movements are determined outside of government, through corporations and local community activities. Reporting on racial issues in Japan needs to respect this, and look beyond government legislative activities to understand how Japan is responding to major cultural issues. I would add that this is important in other areas of cultural relations too, such as Japan’s attitude towards world war 2. It is not enough to say “the Japanese government has not done enough”[1], one also needs to look at the broad groundswell of support for global engagement, maintenance of the ban on war in the constitution, and other community-level activities to draw Korea, Japan and China closer.

In general, however, foreign commentators on Japanese cultural issues don’t bother to look deep, or don’t know how, and take Japanese government actions as the sole representative of Japanese attitudes towards those issues – which is particularly ironic in this Vox article, which makes the point that Japanese people see themselves as culturally homogeneous when they’re not. Perhaps the article could start by not assuming that the actions of a few people or the absence of an American-style legislative pattern represents the homogeneous view of the whole society.

You Americans … you talk too much

In closing (and paraphrasing Monty Python), Americans need to stop lecturing the world on race until they have sorted out their own house. Combined with Vox’s generally patronizing tone, an article that misrepresents or misunderstands aspects of Japanese legislative and cultural attitudes, in discussing an issue that is of zero relevance in Japan and is not capable of reflecting a Japanese racial attitude, comes across as hectoring. Furthermore, in assuming that Japanese people should have the same view of race as Americans, and invoking a history of colonialism that is older than America’s own more recent fraught issues, and ascribing to Japanese people views that are uniquely American, the article is itself flat out racist. It might make Americans feel better in light of their own recent disturbances in places like Ferguson, the huge disparities in economic wellbeing between races in America, and the massive incarceration of a whole community on the basis of its skin colour, but it doesn’t make America look better when it lectures other countries as if their racial issues are the same as America’s. Americans should shut up about racial issues in other countries until they have sorted out their own house, and non-white Americans should recognize that they too can be racist when they present their unique cultural perspective, leveraging the unique power of America’s cultural exports, onto other countries.

I have written on this blog before about how culturally toxic I think American feminism has been for feminist movements in other countries, exporting a unique blend of conservatism and identity politics to countries that don’t need it. I think the same thing applies when people in other countries listen to America on racial issues. Yes, America has had some inspiring and powerful black figures who dragged American racial politics out of a deep, dark place. But most other countries were never in that place to start with, and in admiring those figures we should be careful not to also draw too deeply from the font of American exceptionalism and christian conservatism that they often drink from. Too often American “progressivism” is conservative by international standards and flounces about the world trying to teach others how to behave from a perspective of American exceptionalism rather than genuine intercultural respect. This Vox article is a classic entry in that ledger of American cultural exceptionalism, telling Americans nothing about race in Japan and giving Japanese nothing useful to learn about their own racial issues.

fn1: As always on this blog I would like to remind my reader(s) that Japan has repeatedly and thoroughly apologized for its wartime activities, and has paid reparations.

If only they'd had a blight-proof potato ... or an end to British occupation?

If only they’d had a blight-proof potato … or an end to British occupation?

Debate over the infiltration of the Republican party by anti-vaccination ideas has naturally led to the resurrection of that old Shibboleth, the idea that the left is also “anti-science” because left-wingers and environmentalists are opposed to GMOs, despite the available evidence that they are safe. I think the GMO issue is a good example of why the “anti-science” label is not a good way to approach debate on science communication. The growth of anti-GMO ideas in the environmental movement is a good example of how motivated reasoning arises from genuine political and economic concerns, and later takes on a (usually tattered) cloak of scientific justification in order to give it mainstream respectability. In this post I hope to show that the pro-GMO crowd can themselves be irrational and “anti-scientific”, and that motivated reasoning isn’t in and of itself “anti-science.”

Is Opposition to GMOs left-wing?

First though, let’s put to bed the idea that opposition to GMOs is a uniquely left-wing attribute. Dan Kahan has a blog post on this topic, in which he explores risk perception by political orientation for a variety of issues. In this post he identifies no difference in level of concern between those who we might broadly define as left-wing and right-wing. In his survey right-wingers were much more worried about fiscal policy and immigration, while left-wingers were more concerned about nuclear power, global warming and guns; but they were all equally unconcerned about GMOs.

If we go a little further, and step into the cess-pit below the line to this National Review Online editorial on GMOs and the left, we can find plenty of evidence that right-wingers distrust Monsanto and approach the GMO issue with very similar motivated reasoning to the left: distrust of big corporations, vulnerability to the plutocracy, and informed personal choice.

I think opposition to GMOs appears left-wing because it is primarily articulated (surprise!) by environmentalist organizations like Greenpeace, and community organizations that tend to have a stronger history in left-wing movements than right-wing movements. But this is just appearances, and in fact there is a strong response to issues of unrestricted corporate power, profit-making from the food chain, and tampering with “traditional” foods that crosses party political lines. This makes the GMO issue very similar to the vaccination issue: opposition is broad-based, but articulated through leftist voices because community organizing tends to be a leftist thing, environmental and consumer choice organizations are often vaguely left-wing, and (by coincidence) in the case of anti-vax ideology, the wealthy and photogenic voices tend to be California liberals. I guess Buddha would say that critics are focusing on the pointing finger, and missing all the glory of the heavens.

Motivated reasoning and opposition to GMOs

Reading the comments in the NRO piece it should be fairly obvious that, while people’s scientific concerns might be articulated through worries about effects on the food chain and human health, the real well-spring of their discontent is economic and political. Right-wing people are worried about consumer choice, about increased power of big corporations in a very important market (food), and about the damage that vertical monopolies and plutocratic cosy relationships do to free market ideals. Left-wing people are worried about unrestricted influence of big corporations on food markets and the environment, about an increase in pesticide use, and about whether GMOs will really achieve what their backers say they will given the distributional inequities in world food markets. Right-wingers want to see more market diversity and believe that food prices and production levels can be improved through economic (market) changes rather than technological magic bullets; left-wingers think that the primary reason for world hunger is mal-distribution and not weak production.

In my opinion the “frankenstein foods” stuff and health concerns, and ecological worries, are primarily a gloss over these deep-seated and real concerns about inequity and inefficiency in our food markets. But there is no way that the big agribusinesses are going to be interested in debating distributional justice in a world market whose inequities deliver them huge profits, so they and their media friends make sure the debate remains firmly focused on narrow health and scientific concerns that can be easily dismissed. This in turn forces opponents of GMO to resort to weak scientific arguments within this restricted domain, rather than the broader issues of food security and inequality, or systemic farming practices that are clearly damaging the environment and which GMO crops will not necessarily improve.

In my opinion, if GMOs were around at the time of the potato famine, their backers would be claiming that the potato famine could be solved by a blight-resistant crop. Opponents of such an extravagant move would point out (rightly) that the famine is caused by maldistribution and colonialism, but their complaints would be dismissed as Chartist rabble-rousing. So then, not able to debate on the real issue, they would be forced into debating the issue as framed by the GMO backers: as a conflict between food safety and famine. Of course, history tells us that the potato famine was a political issue, not a technological one. Given its political origins, it’s unlikely that a GMO solution would have worked.

What is different with malnutrition today?

The Underpants Gnome thinking of the pro-GMO lobby

In my view the pro-GMO crowd are infected with a type of Underpants Gnome style of thinking. This thinking goes like this:

  1. Invent technologically advanced food
  2. ?
  3. Solve world hunger

This is not how the international food system works. A good example of this style of thinking is in my old post about GMOs, where I explained in detail why Golden Rice is not the panacaea its backers claim it to be, but my interlocutor continued to argue that Golden Rice would somehow solve Vitamin A Deficiency against all the evidence.

Malnutrition in the modern world has several inter-related causes, and a lot of them have nothing to do with an absence of food. Diarrhoea and unimproved drinking water lead to stunting and malnutrition even where food is abundant, as does poor diet and insufficient breastfeeding. Many low- and middle-income countries are experiencing simultaneous epidemics of obesity and under-nutrition, primarily due to inequality within and between nations, and again often related to open defecation (in South Asia) and unimproved water. Where malnutrition is directly related to an absence of food the causes are often either war and conflict (e.g. South Sudan) or maldistribution of food. Much of the food produced in some low- and middle-income farming communities is shipped out to the rich world to feed meat crops, and many countries devote a large amount of their productive land to cash crops for export, not to food crops for local production.

None of these problems will be solved by GMOs. Availability of drought-resistant crops won’t save South Sudanese families in refugee camps due to war; Roundup Ready corn won’t reduce diarrhoea in countries of sub-Saharan Africa with polluted water sources; improving the production of plantains won’t reduce stunting if the cause of stunting is inadequate breastfeeding and poor nutritional choices in countries like Ghana or Zambia where food sources are readily available but stunting still common. Increased production of wheat in the USA for feedlots won’t help reduce poverty in Africa.

Yet solving world hunger and improving the lives of poor farmers is one of the most often cited benefits of GMOs. To me this is evidence that the pro-GMO lobby – especially the scientific leftists and moderate right wing commentators who most strongly attack the environmental movement on this – are using the same motivated reasoning as their opponents. Despite the abundant evidence that malnutrition is easily fixed through infrastructure changes and shifts in the international food economy, backers of GMOs want to focus on their magic bullet argument for solving an ages-old problem through modern technology. The “green revolution” of the past 30 years has failed to solve the problem of world hunger, but they think another 10 years of further green revolutions will make all the difference. This is not scientific thinking, any more than claiming flounder genes in tomatoes will kill you.

I have yet to see any evidence that the pro-GMO lobby have seriously taken on the real causes of malnutrition and poor nutrition in low- and middle-income nations, and I have never seen any supporter of GMO argue that they won’t improve food security in these countries, or that changes to the international food system are more important than work on GMOs. Instead they focus almost exclusively on the environmental and consumer choice movement’s silly and bogus claims about health risks. I think this is because they are suffering from the same motivated reasoning as their opponents: they are presenting the world hunger argument because the real, underlying reason for these GMOs – to improve corporate profits – is not something they can talk about. But their arguments about world hunger are woefully weak, and they have to cleave closely to Underpants Gnome logic in order to defend a technology they genuinely believe is safe and beneficial.

Is the anti-GMO movement different to the anti-AGW movement?

Often the anti-GMO movement is pointed to as the left’s AGW denialism. I think this is fundamentally flawed for two reasons: first, because the underlying issue the left is attacking, food security and global inequality, is real and serious; and second, because of the difference in origins of the movements. Anti-GMO ideas, like anti-vaccination ideas, arose largely organically in response to real concerns about the product itself. AGW denialism, on the other hand, was created by a small group of activists endowed with money from Big Tobacco and energy interests, and is maintained by these interests in order to slow down essential responses. I think this difference is important, because it speaks to the fundamental honesty of the intellectual underpinnnings of the movement. Anti-GMO and anti-vaccination groups have genuinely-held concerns about the product they are attacking, and though these may be real and serious or may be misguided and ignorant, they are intellectually honest in their assessment of these risks. On the other hand, the monied interests at the heart of the complex web of AGW denialist organizations are fundamentally dishonest – they know that the science is against them, but deploy deliberate techniques to poison the science well in order to support their interests. I don’t think you can say someone is anti-science if they are honestly misusing weak science to defend a position that might have developed from other, unspoken concerns; but I do think someone is anti-science if they are funding a movement with the specific intent of attacking science and scientists to protect their financial interests. The idea that these monied interests know the science is against them but fund attacks on it anyway might seem conspiratorial, but we know this is what Big Tobacco did for about 30 years, when they knew tobacco caused cancer but attacked any public scientific studies that showed this – and Big Tobacco was behind the original AGW deniers.

Although I’m not fully convinced by my own thesis yet, I think the anti-AGW movement is unique in the pantheon of modern “anti-science” movements (anti-nuclear, anti-vax, anti-GMO, anti-fluoridation, anti-AGW) for being a created movement, rather than one that grew organically out of real (though often misguided) concerns about the product in question. This isn’t to say that there aren’t people with a financial interest in these other movements (see e.g. Andrew Wakefield); but the anti-AGW movement is unique for the level of corporate funding it has received, and the order in which the money-making grifters and the concerned public figures arose. Regardless of whether its origins are important, I think it is distinct from those other movements in that there is no valid underlying concern that is being blown out of proportion in this movement. There is no nuclear waste issue, no side-effects issue, no global inequality issue underlying this movement that can get the fixation of some lonely blogger who starts a movement – just a need to protect the profits of a particularly dirty sector of the economy. While the motivated reasoning of an anti-vaxxer might be “I’m concerned about the side-effects of these drugs, so I’m going to minimize the danger of the diseases and write a children’s book about how great measles is,” the motivated reasoning of an anti-AGW funder is “I need to protect my industry from mitigation efforts so I’m going to fund multiple organizations to attack the science.”

Those are fundamentally different things, and confusing these movements doesn’t help us deal with either.

Vaccination policy through Republican eyes

Vaccination policy through Republican eyes

The recent outbreak of measles in the USA has brought on an epidemic of Republican anti-science blathering, this time focused on vaccination. First we had Chris Christie saying measles vaccination should be optional, then Rand Paul putting his libertarian principles where his mouth is and declaring all Americans should be free to give each other smallpox; now the National Review Online has stepped into the fray with the rather contradictory policy advice that vaccination obviously works but should be voluntary (and thus, in the case of measles, almost certainly be rendered useless).

Vaccination policy is one of those areas that is ripe for Republican chaos. As the National Review observes, it involves “elites” (a perjorative deployed in this case to describe doctors) making decisions about what parents should do, and pushing for strong laws to ensure that everyone does what they’re supposed to. Like public education, it is only of value if the overwhelming majority of people do what the “elites” want. In this case, we can calculate mathematically what proportion of the population need to do what they’re told in order to prevent the spread of disease and, unfortunately for libertarians everywhere, the required proportion for measles and whooping cough is so high as to require even strict religious types and conspiracy theorists to obey if we want to prevent everyone getting the disease. This article from the Bulletin of the WHO makes the case for herd immunity, which in the case of measles requires greater than 95% of the population be vaccinated. Allowing parental opt-outs is going to rapidly get the proportion of children vaccinated below this threshold, especially in a society where many people can’t afford medical care. This is particularly likely for measles, mumps and rubella, since the Andrew Wakefield scandal has put the fear of God (well, autism) into parents in the UK and the USA, leading to precipitous falls in vaccination rates for these conditions. Indeed, the UK is now experiencing endemic measles after a long period of only having imported cases, and recent epidemics can almost certainly be traced to the cohort of children who were not vaccinated in the years after the Wakefield scandal. Elimination of these diseases requires strong pressure for all parents to vaccinate their children, and in rare cases these children will experience usually minor side effects. We all literally have to take one for the team, because those black-helicopter “elites” at the WHO tell us to. It’s a Republican’s nightmare.

But Republicans never used to be so fragile about science. This rash of equivocal statements from potential presidential contenders and their lackeys in the media is a new phenomenon. I have a feeling that the Republicans are lurching slowly towards a new orthodoxy of denialism, to add to their creationism and global warming denialism: anti-vaccination ideology. I hope I’m wrong, but I have a suspicion that this next denialist lurch is going to be inevitable given three potent forces driving modern Republican political ideology: populist anti-government rhetoric, potent sexual morals, and a virulent anti-science culture.

The modern Republicans are steeped in anti-science through their long association with the tobacco lobby, anti-environmentalism in the service of corporate interests, and their deep commitment to global warming denialism. US libertarian and right-wing politics is notable for its foolish fixation on DDT built on a foundation of false attacks on Rachel Carson, its hatred of the clean air act, its increasingly fantasist opposition to the science of global warming, and its strict libertarian stance on smoking. Indeed, the link between these ideological strands is hardly surprising given that big tobacco has funded the network of climate denial and anti-environmentalist organizations for years. But as this web of denialism expands, and newer activists grow up and learn their trade in a political environment that is suffused with not just the rhetoric of anti-science activism but also with a deep disrespect for scientists and the scientific process, it is hardly surprising that the Republican political world will become vulnerable to new forms of anti-scientific crusade. Many Republicans seem to be opposed to any form of scientific research, not just that which directly threatens business. How can we forget Senator McCain’s derision for a study of the DNA of bears? It’s easy to imagine that the post-tea party Republican party is easily fooled by anti-science rhetoric posing as scientific critique.

I think this toxic atmosphere turned its sights on vaccination science proper for the first time when the HPV vaccine was introduced, and vaccination got its full attention for the first time. This happened because the HPV vaccine is aimed at a sexually transmitted disease, that is only harmful to women, and in order to prevent this disease one needs to vaccinate girls before they become sexually active. Somewhat alarmingly for those in our community who want to pretend that their daughters are all good little girls, the policy therefore requires vaccination at a surprisingly young age, the implication being that good little American girls might be getting laid rather early. This immediately drew the ire of the sexually conservative wing of the Republican party and associated organizations like the Family Research Council. Initial objections were based on sexual morality, but it entered Republican politics during the primary season for the 2012 presidential election. By this time arguments against the HPV vaccine had become more nuanced, as for example in this National Review piece where the author tries to argue that HPV is different to measles because it is intentionally transmitted and rare (wrong!) and questions why only girls get it, as if this is some evidence of a sexual conspiracy by liberals (in fact this policy is followed because the science suggests it is sufficient to prevent cancer, and more cost-effective). However, in the modern world debates on health policy inevitably require some kind of scientific rhetoric, so by the time of this primary season Michele Bachman had found the spurious scientific objection that it causes mental retardation. In four years opposition to the vaccine had gone from a purely sexual-morality-based principle to a general scientific critique of the safety of the vaccine and the validity and necessity of the policy. All these “science”-based arguments are wrong, but how is a modern Republican to know? They have a kneejerk distrust of scientists and they are so negative about science that it’s hard to believe they would understand or accept any science they read. So of course people who want to object to the vaccine on principle but feel the need to cloak their opposition in scientific rhetoric are going to be willing to believe any rubbish they’re fed.

Finally, overlaid on this mixture of christian anti-sex moralizing and distrust of science we have the libertarian arguments about agency and control over one’s individual choices. For most moderns, health continues to be seen as an individual choice, and decisions about healthcare are things that we take for ourselves when we are sick. Vaccination policy is the exact opposite of this: it concerns actions taken with our bodies when we are well to protect others. It’s all too easy for libertarians to fall prey to conspiracy theories and bad science where vaccination policy is concerned because it just doesn’t sit comfortably with their ideology. So the trifecta is complete, and the entire ideological sweep of the Republican party is vulnerable to anti-vaccination claptrap.

If my theory is correct, then we should expect to see more of this kind of rhetoric as Republican primary season heats up, and we should also expect to see the typical Republican approach to undoing long-standing laws they don’t like: administrative procedures to make them too difficult to enforce, followed by court challenges rather than direct political debate. If we start to see that happen then I think we need to throw vaccination into the large and growing dustbin of sane and rational policies that have become too tough for the Republican machine to handle – along with gun control, universal health coverage, and global warming. Once they take the step to anti-vaccination denialism, what bridge connecting them to the science community is left to burn?

Adventure stories for economists ...

Adventure stories for economists …

As expected, Syriza have won the Greek elections, taking a near majority and forming a government with a minority right wing populist party, and so far none of my fears have been realized (yay). As expected, Syriza’s “radical” economist Yanis Varoufakis has been selected as finance minister, putting him on a direct collision course with the Troika. Varoufakis seems like an interesting guy, and it will be interesting to see what the burden of his position does to him. He is young, an academic economist until he decided to run for parliament, seems to be quite a handsome chap, and is also a dual citizen of Greece and the Duchy of Edinburgh Australia. So now it appears Australia has two finance ministers, Matthias Corman the actual finance minister of Australia who was born in Belgium and Yanis Varoufakis, the Greek finance minister who was born, somewhat surprisingly, in Greece. Yanis Varoufakis has written a book and is also a private consultant for Valve, the game company responsible for Half-Life and Steam. I wonder if he’s a gamer?

That’s a pretty interesting background and, whatever one might think of his political views, pretty solid qualifications for a finance minister. In sad comparison, Matthias Cormann has been a political apparatchik since the 1990s, has an undergraduate degree in law, and has never written anything as far as I can tell. But in addition to writing a book and some academic articles, Varoufakis also maintains a blog. He’s just like me! And in his latest post he has promised to try and keep blogging while working as a minister, which I suspect makes him the first ever blogger finance minister. This potentially means we are going to get some kind of real-time coverage of how and what the finance minister of Greece is thinking as he negotiates with the EU, IMF and ECB on the tricky issue of Greek debt. He has previously written alternative solutions to the problems of public debt in the EU, which seem to have worked their way into The Economist. His blog is a pretty interesting read, and if he does manage to find time to maintain it while managing his new position I think it will make a fascinating and unique contribution to both the blogosphere and the disciplines of economics and politics.

This also gets me thinking: will there come a day when an active role-player gets into the halls of power, and chooses not to stop gaming? Imagine if they turned up at conferences, and you could role-play with the US president … (I bet there’d be no rules-lawyering at that table! “Why can’t I get +2? It’s in the rules!” “I am the president of the USA, you get whatever bonus I give you!”) Or if they were a regular commenter at an RPG forum, posting in between meetings with heads of state to complain about why Bards are the worst character class. Maybe they could run online role-playing sessions where they run adventures in all the trouble spots they’ve invaded and messed up, until it gets to the point that the electorate start thinking the President is only starting new wars so that he can have new campaign settings. That may seem crazy, but it seems like a better rationale for a war than the gloop we were actually fed before Gulf War 2…

Greece has been suffering difficult economic times, and it seems obvious that something has to be done. Austerity has failed Europe dismally, and the economic pressures it is creating are being released through politics of the worst kind, as extremist right wing parties grow in influence across the continent, perhaps most especially in Greece. The search for a solution is going to be really challenging for Syriza, and it is my hope that they will find a solution that makes Greeks better off, and averts the social catastrophe they seem to be sliding towards. Yanis Varoufakis seems like a man well-placed to take on the job, and it is my hope that he can find success despite the challenges he faces. I also hope he can find the time to blog about it, so we can get some insight into what happens both behind the scenes and behind the man. Good luck, Dr. Varoufakis, and I hope more bloggers in future (and eventually, more gamers) can get to the halls of power.

And remember, if you find Greek debt challenges too tough, you can always come to Australia and help out our government…


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