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op-ed: the intelligences of america

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I have hope: hope that Barack Obama is a liar.

By this I mean: I hope he has misrepresented himself, and his agenda, to the American people. The most obvious deception is in his platform of social reforms, reforms that garnered him the support of the working classes (which do still exist), but can not be paid for out of current funds. I don’t place much credence in the accusations of “socialism” that were tossed in his direction near the end of the campaign; despite the current financial crisis, money still talks. Banks have gone to the government for support, but the richest individuals in the USA are in no such difficulties, and will not permit explicit socialism to take hold.

A less obvious deception was the way Obama gained support from African-Americans, since a subtle distinction exists: he is not an African-American in the sense used by other African-Americans. His mother was a white lady from Hawaii, while his father was an immigrant from Kenya. Barack has no historic connection with Slavery, and no experience with the Civil Rights struggle. Was he justified in this deception? I think so; the alternative was yet another old white man as President.

The challenges facing President-Elect Obama are large, there are many of them, and they all require money. You can do most things if you are willing and able to throw money at a problem, but the money is not currently for the throwing. The baby Boom generation are aging, and the Medicare and Social Security bills are staggering. The cost of the military has to come down, both the direct costs (funding of the Iraq War and other adventures) and indirect costs (research and procurement). Obama’s stated policies do not talk about reducing these costs. There seems to be a temporary lull in the ongoing energy crisis, but it will be back. The Environment? Ouch.

During his Presidential campaign, Obama was occasionally accused of being an Elitist by the McCain camp, who portrayed their candidate as “the kind of guy you’d want to have a beer with”. The Democrat candidate was a university professor, for Heaven’s sake – one of those lily-livered Liberals who only talk to each other, and don’t really understand what “the people” go through.

If the Republican campaign was appealing to “the people”, what was the Democratic campaign appealing to? Why, “the people”, of course. They just did it in a slightly different way and, it turns out, more effectively. Here’s where I have a problem, however: when it comes to politics, “the people” are stupid. I’m not talking about a lack of the kind of intelligence measured by IQ tests; there are many kinds of intelligence, not all of which are easily measured.

In addition to the kinds of scientific intelligence that the tests measure, there’s “Emotional Intelligence”, which I’m not sure I believe in. (A lot of people do, so it hardly matters what I think!) I could say the same about “Social Intelligence”, the kinds of inter-personal and group-related skills that hold communities together and allow them to operate effectively. The kind of intelligence that concerns me most, however, is what I call “Temporal Intelligence” (TI): the ability to look backwards and forwards in time. It is a trait that is in short supply, in my opinion, and not just in the USA. A low TI rating implies, among other things, a failure to imagine the future impacts of current actions. Unprotected sex today leads to pregnancy and STDs in the future; saving money today means more money tomorrow, but if you take on debt today, you must repay it in the future. You sign a 30-year mortgage, but do you know how long 30 years is, and can you imagine where you will be by then?

What does this have to do with the Election in the USA? My theory is this: to get elected, Obama had to appeal to the short-term interests of the electorate. Today we hear “Yes We Can!”, but will we hear “Yes We Will!” tomorrow, or next year? By the end of Obama’s term(s) in office, will we hear “Yes We Did!” just as loudly and frequently?

That will be the real test of his presidency. Those problems I mentioned are long-term problems with no quick fixes. If Obama has two terms in office, the work will not be completed by the end of those eight years; they may be just barely under way. This will not sit well with an electorate with short attention spans. “The People” are the ones who thought that taking out larger and larger mortgages on their overpriced homes was a viable financial strategy – which it might have been, in the short term, but can never be, in the long term. I simply do not trust voters – in the USA or elsewhere – to find, and hold, a solid grasp on the real long-term issues.

In other words, I hope that Barack Obama is (or becomes) a real Politician, someone smart enough to know what really needs to be done, or to listen to those who do know, and then to lie to the American people while seeing that it is done. The ability to carry off such a mass deception is the mark of a politician, or a diplomat; it is not a job for a “man of the people”. It is a job for an Elite Politician, someone much smarter than “the people”, and it appears that the people of the United States of America just elected one as President. This is where the Hope comes in.

It is possible that I am not giving the American people enough credit, or failing to correctly measure the cumulative effects of their various intelligences. It would be better if people were always fully informed and aware, and always acted in their own best interests, but I do not expect to see that happen outside Science Fiction. As for John McCain; you may get the chance to enjoy a beer with him after all. He’ll have plenty of time on his hands, and moderate alcohol intake can have a beneficial effect on heart conditions.


Written by brian t

November 5, 2008 at 5:33 pm

race of tralee

with 11 comments

It’s happening again: every year, the town of Tralee (co. Kerry) holds its annual Rose Of Tralee festival. Before I say anything else about it, I first want to quote what the official website I just linked to has to say about the festival:

The Rose of Tralee International Festival celebrates modern young women in terms of their aspirations, ambitions, intellect, social responsibility and Irish heritage.

The official application form gives the following as one of the eligibility criteria:

Be born in Ireland or of Irish origin by virtue of one of her ancestors having been born in Ireland.

Am I the only person in Ireland who finds this just a little disturbing?

Reading between the lines, I see a claim of racial superiority: to be of ethnic Irish origin is something to be proud of, and celebrated. I had a hopeful suspicion that I might be wrong about this, and in previous years there may have been more ethnic diversity, but looking at this year’s International Roses was not reassuring. Each girl’s blurb details her county or counties of origin, and explains her surname when it is not obviously Irish. The hair colours were varied, but that was about all. They all just love Irish dancing, of course – at least the ones I looked at.

This is not some obscure provincial festival: for the next week or so the Rose of Tralee festival gets prime time coverage on RTÉ1, the main channel of the state broadcaster. (This is the same broadcaster who charges a license fee and shows advertising.)

In case it wasn’t obvious: I live in Ireland, but I’m not Irish. I’m Scottish, and knowing a bit of Scots history, that means there’s a fair chance that I have some “Irish blood” in me. I would not be concerned about that, however, mainly because I know there’s no such thing as “Irish blood”: Ireland was but one stop on a longer Celtic ancestral trail that goes back to Africa, possibly via ancient Egypt. “Irish origin” is, to be blunt, a transient delusion in historical terms.

More importantly, I don’t place much stock in one’s ethnic origin, not in this world of mass emigration and immigration. I’ve written before about my Scots heritage, which I identify as more of an attitude, or a way of viewing the world. It is the attitude that produced the Scottish Enlightenment, and I do not know or care whether David Hume, Adam Smith, Robert Burns or James Watt were of “Scots origin”. I know that William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), was born in Ulster, but he made his home in Glasgow.

Why is it so laudable to be Irish? Wikipedia carries lists of Irish-Americans, created by its users. Everyone knows that John F Kennedy was of Irish Catholic stock – his father Joe made sure everyone knew – and the Irish papers are quick to latch on to any hint of Irishness in a celebrity. (It’s highly selective, naturally: legendary comedian Spike Milligan, and delinquent rock “star” Pete Doherty, were known as English with Irish parents, but which do you think has the Irish label attached in news reports?)

By way of contrast, how many Americans know that the steel magnate & philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, whose generosity established Carnegie Hall and Carnegie-Mellon University, was Scottish by birth? Heck, even fans of the TV show Dallas – a Scots name, just like Houston and Austin – failed to notice the Scots ancestry of the Ewing family, despite the fact that the family patriarch was nicknamed “Jock”.

I don’t see what the Irish have to be so smug about: the shadow of Tammany Hall still darkens the mayorship of New York, and when director Martin Scorsese shifted his focus to Boston, in The Departed, he found stories of Irish organized crime to rival the worst Mafia excesses.

I can understand the need to celebrate Irish culture. It’s this celebration of Irish ethnicity, of Celtic racial purity, that offends me, by what it is, and by the way it is seen as harmless. In my view it is representative of the Irish government’s institutional racism, which reflects a superiority complex that the Irish have exported to all corners of the globe. I simply don’t see what they are doing to justify it.

Written by brian t

August 21, 2007 at 11:38 pm

location, location, location

with one comment

Since the middle of last week I’ve been feeling a lot better, and as the previous post hinted, the belated arrival of Spring in Dublin is also serving to lighten the gloom. So, let me take a little time to put down a controversial idea I’ve had for some time, but which I need to express carefully.

In my view of the world, one where religion and other beliefs are no justification for anything that harms anyone else, Israel is a major destabilizing force in the Middle East today. It is held together by the sheer will of a vigilant Israeli people, who have resisted onslaughts from all sides – military, political and economic – with the material support of the United States in particular. It is a country in which most young people – men and women alike – serve in the military, actively and in reserve.

After centuries in the wilderness of Diaspora, the state of Israel was founded in 1948, and since then has been the focal point of Islamic aggression. America’s support for Israel is an oft-given reason for the rise of Al-Qaeda terrorism. I have no patience for Islamic theocratic imperialism, the Allah-given drive to subjugate the world under the Mullahs. Though I am not keen on Nationalism in any form, I fully support the rights of the Israeli people, as any people, to self-determination, independence, and a homeland they can call their own.

But why, oh why, did they have to put the homeland there?

The answer is, of course, religion. One of the founders of Zionism in the United Kingdom, Dr. Chaim Weizmann, was a chemist whose process for mass production of acetone made a huge difference to British arms production in World War I: it was a major component of cordite, used in smokeless gunpowder. It gave Weizmann friends in high places, and direct influence over David Lloyd-George (Munitions Minister, then Prime Minister 1908-1915), and Lord Balfour (former Prime Minister, and Foreign Secretary 1916-19).

The Balfour Declaration of 1917, produced after a decade of urging by Weizmann, expressed Britain’s support for a “National Home” for Jewish people in what was then called Palestine. As reported in Lord Balfour’s biography (quoted in the Wikipedia article), Balfour had actually asked Weizmann, back in 1906, “why there”? His reply cited the historic connection of the Israeli people to the region, and he also said “anything less would be idolatry”. A curious turn of phrase: “idolatry”, as in “false worship”? As in Islam, this reverence for a mere piece of land explains much.

The wording of the Declaration is cautious, even conservative, insistent that no harm was done to existing non-Jewish people in the region. The idea of a sovereign state was played down at the time. Palestine was a British Mandate from 1920 to 1948, but Britain gradually lost control as their tacit approval of an Israeli state led to mass immigration. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the fallout from the Holocaust and further migration of Holocaust survivors in to the region, and Israeli attacks on British forces in the region, led Britain to call in the newly-formed United Nations to manage their abdication of control over Palestine.

The 1947 UN Partition Plan map is a mess, to be blunt; a compromise that tried to please everyone, and ended up pleasing no-one. The Wars of the next 30 years were the obvious instances of trouble, but there is a different kind of bomb ticking in Gaza; a demographic bomb. The Gaza Strip has a very high birth rate, and extrapolation of the 2005 UNESCO figures predicts a 44% population increase in 10 years, to over 2 million, with a population density approaching Hong Kong’s (5,700 per km²).

Today, I am concerned that the United States, having squandered most of its political capital in the Middle East, will leave Israel more exposed to attack. I thought the Hezbollah attacks on Israel in 2006 were insane, unrealistic, poorly planned and totally counter-productive; but they happened anyway. Israel will not be seriously endangered by such tactics any time soon.

No, my real concerns are long term; 10, 20, 50 years from now, when the USA may be hampered by oil shortages and domestic turmoil, and politically estranged from its allies far away. What happens when Egypt’s swing to the right puts an anti-democratic caliphate in place? When Saudi Arabia, its crude oil pipeline to the USA drying up, no longer needs to curry favour in Washington DC? When Lebanon becomes an extension of Syria, and Palestinian extremism distracts Jordan?

The fate of a small nation, isolated among enemies, without powerful allies, is a game that has been played out many times before, on paper, in computer simulation, and on the cold ground. The resolute Allies saw to Germany in World War II, but a more apt example is the Roman destruction of Israel in 66-73 CE; the impersonal, crushing response to a Jewish rebellion over religion.

I don’t know what the answer is; but if I was in charge of Israel’s long-term defence, I would be looking at every option, and a strategic withdrawal of the Jewish people from the region would be such an option. Then again, I am not one to invest a piece of ground with holy provenance; I would be left with mere history, and “I was here first” is no defence against an enemy who is equally tied to the same ground, for equally religious (i.e. irrational) reasons. An enemy who, by sheer birthrate and irrational blindness to consequences, has much to gain from Israel’s removal. I don’t like it – but that is no shield against reality, when it arrives.

Written by brian t

April 4, 2007 at 9:04 pm

mind the gaps

with one comment

If, like me, you have an interest in demographics and the state of the world, Google has just the tool for you: The Gapminder. Basically, it plots demographic data on a chart that is animated to let you plot changes over time.

For a sample of what makes this an engrossing tool, try the following:

  • select Population on the x-axis, and Life Expectancy on the y-axis;
  • hit Play to animate the chart over the period 1960-2004;
  • watch what happens during the early 1990s; a little dot plummets to the bottom of the chart, then pops back up again;
  • what country is that? Scroll the chart till the dot reaches bottom, and select it;
  • the country is Rwanda, the stats for the point you select are shown on the axes.
  • Play the chart again: Rwanda’s basic demographics are plotted as a line that bucks the expected upward trend.
  • Not only does the Life Expectancy plummet to just 24 in 1992, between 1990 and 1995 the population drops from around 7 million to under 5½ million.

The dip in Rwanda’s population is, of course, the Rwandan Genocide; that is now part of history, but Zimbabwe’s Life Expectancy has been in the news. Mugabe’s repressive regime puts the Leader and his Ideology over all other concerns, including the basic health of Zimbabwe’s people. Sure enough, selecting Zimbabwe on the map lets you follow the country down, to a Life Expectancy of just 34 in 2004.

There are more stats in there now, and surely more to follow. I ought to find up some positive stats too, just to stop me getting too fatalistic, but positive stats are going to be hard to find in there. OK, Ireland now has the highest per capita earnings of any country in the world – but do I see any of that bounty?

Written by brian t

January 30, 2007 at 9:38 pm

horn dogs

with 2 comments

Before I talk about some recent news reports, let me relate a story from my past that came to mind.

I spent my last two school years in a town different from where I had grown up, having left behind the kids I grew up with, and making a bunch of new friends. We were the nerds, the unpopular crowd; not because we had done anything particularly antisocial, more because we had other interests than working to acquire popularity. We were a motley bunch, with different attitudes, and guys coming and going.

One Monday morning, halfway through the last year, one of the “irregulars” called us together during the first break to relate some important news: he had gotten laid on the previous weekend. Details followed.

The reaction from the rest of us was hardly what he was expecting. Perhaps he had seen one or more “frat house” movies such as Porky’s, where horny students swapped war stories and made complicated plans to further their exploits, and thought that was reality. Most of the guys were indifferent, but I remember getting rather annoyed, asking “why are you telling us this” and “isn’t that supposed to be private”?

This was dismissed as jealousy on my part, but the experience he described hardly inspired envy. I considered telling the guys about my own experiences, from before I moved to that town, before I met them, but that would have been lowering myself to that level. It’s enough to say that I was cured of any romantic expectations by that time.

I did wonder about my reaction, though, and why I wasn’t happier for the other guy, regardless. I think family had something to do with it, having seen, first-hand, the damage caused by indulging in sex too young. By that time I was either an uncle already, or soon to be; I had also seen how passion led to rash decisions, and chronic problems that ruined whole families. At the time, however, I did not know what was wrong in such detail, and experienced only an acute unease. “What is wrong with me? Why don’t I get this. Why do people act so stupidly out of lust? Am I low on testosterone?”

The hormones explanation was the best I could come up with, and while I didn’t believe it fully, I could use it to laugh off questions such as “why don’t you have a girlfriend?” or “are you queer?” (No.) By the time I finished that final school year I had seen a few more unwanted pregnancies, and heard of some abuse: the “cherry on top” was doing some informal counselling for a female friend of ours who was pregnant with an additional complication: the father was a teacher at our school.

After that I just went to work, and by the time my parents got divorced, just over a year later, I had really had enough of dysfunctional families, horny teenagers, and irrational decisions, so I concentrated on my work, living in my company’s bachelor quarters. On my rare visits to bars and other social gatherings, I watched women responding to the guys who wouldn’t take no for an answer, who would chase them, cajole them, do everything short of clubbing them over the head and dragging them out by their hair. I didn’t care: I was the guy you always find “in the kitchen at parties”, cleaner-upper of the mess, the good listener, the shoulder to cry on. I was “sitting out the game”, since I had seen the prize and didn’t want it, and was happy to have avoided a “trophy”.

It wasn’t until much later, after more education, experience and observation, that I could put my concerns in to words. A throwaway remark I made, in the pub, somehow stuck with me: “guys who chase women aggressively are aggressive in general”. That was my problem: I wasn’t “aggressive” enough. Hormones again, or do I just think too much before I act? The correlation is positive, in my observations: I wish women were more discriminating, and less susceptible to aggressive approaches, because I have come away with the strong opinion that the guys who are more forceful in “hitting on you” – a worrying term on its own – are the guys more likely to use force against you.

This brings me to the news, about some disgraceful behaviour last week, see BBC News: crowds of horny men in Cairo, chasing women in the streets and ripping their clothes off. There is no suggestion that these were women were scantily-clad Westerners, so the Muslim clerics can’t use that excuse, like the Australian Imam who described women as “uncovered meat” last week.

This ties in to a wider theme I have touched on here before; in societies that value sons over daughters, the result is a a harder life for men, because of the competition for women. According to the article, many Egyptian men can not afford to marry, such is the effect of population pressures in Egypt’s limited arable land and urban area. Their demographic problems pale in comparison with those in China or India, but aggression is one result.

It’s Evolution, Baby: aggression gets you laid, you get to be a father, and pass your genes on to posterity. The most effective procreators are the most aggressive, the men not content to father a few children with a single woman, but who are pushy enough to spread their seed far and wide. The pointless violence and thrill-seeking seem to be mere side effects in the long term. In a recent article by “Fred” this tendency is bemoaned, but that is missing the point: sex is the overriding concern of young men and old Mother Nature alike.

Me? I’m not prepared to accept the side effects of sexual aggression on my part, so I expect to remain a childless bachelor. Just as well: if the likely futures of this world are overcrowding and violence, idiocracy and devolution, I wouldn’t wish them on any child of mine.

Written by brian t

November 5, 2006 at 8:48 pm

idiocracy and devolution

with 2 comments

For years I’ve been a little worried about a demographic trend that has the potential to stop “positive evolution” in its tracks. By “positive evolution” I mean the idea that evolution leads to better, smarter people. Perhaps it’s considered elitist to wish for such a thing, and I know that assuming it would be a fallacy, but one may hope, may one not? After all, we don’t have another life to look forward to, so it’s natural for me to wish for more from this one.

I’m hardly the first to wonder where the human race is heading – as any Devo fan will know – but the trend that worries me is the falling birth rate in the developed countries in general, and among the most intelligent and educated sections of society in particular.

Unfortunately, in the absence of education and intelligence, it’s back to “survival of the fittest”, in my estimation. Today that seems to mean “breed like bunnies”. In poor countries this seems to imply “have many children, because some will die, and who will look after you in your old age?”. In the lower demographic strata of Western societies, especially Europe, this is read as “have many children, because the government will pay you and do what you can’t do for them”. I won’t get in to the politics, but this is compounded by poor education and awareness of family planning, which religion sometimes plays a part in. The Catholic ban on contraception is the obvious example here.

I keep in touch with various people I’ve met over the years: many of them are not married, and those who are have families of one or two children. One friend has a third on the way, which is very much the exception. I’m not exactly “high class”, whatever that is, but my acquaintances are all professional, working people, the “salt of the earth”.

Compare and contrast that with the poorer countries of the world, and the less-educated parts of the developed countries: Africa, Central America, the US South. I was shocked to see the 2005 statistics for Afghanistan, which had a birth rate of 46.6 per 1000 per year, and a 20 per 1000 death rate, that still leaves them which a 2.67% growth rate. I have all the stats in a spreadsheet, so I can sort them by the different factors, and they make sobering reading. The poorest countries – nearly all in Africa – are growing the fastest, thwarting any attempts to improve their living standards.

In the USA, this trend has not gone unnoticed by Mike Judge, creator of Beavis and Butthead and Office Space, whose new film Idiocracy was belatedly “dumped” in US cinemas and has not made it to Europe yet, if it ever does. It imagines an ordinary man who spends 500 years in stasis, and emerges in to a world that has gone downhill, intellectually, leaving him the smartest person in it by far.

In my view, even if things don’t go all the way down that road, we are still facing a “cap” on the intelligence of the human race: with the smartest people the best at reading the signs all around them and having small families, while the lumpenproletariat* think only of their short-term needs and desires, and not about how their world will be affected by their profligacy.

I am well aware that talk of “improving the human race” carries all sort of negative connotations, from elitism to eugenics, and I’m not suggesting any kind of direct intervention in what I perceive as a negative trend. However, what strikes me as most relevant to this forum is the way organized religion prevents individual people from realizing their potential in many different ways. Wilful ignorance of leaders, obstructions to family planning initiatives, education sabotaged by religious beliefs… those are the areas where I hope Prof. Dawkins’ book can make a difference, perhaps eventually proving me wrong!

* I’m kidding! Please stop hitting me with copies of Das Kapital!

Written by brian t

October 15, 2006 at 11:29 am

global warning

with one comment

Finally: some scientists are looking beyond ways of slowing down or stopping global warming, and are starting to address the questions of how humanity will cope. I’ve asked, in these pages, why people continue to build their homes in low-lying areas that are subject to flooding, when a little geographic knowledge will let them understand just how dangerous it is.

In most cases, of course, people do not have much of a choice: they need to be somewhere, within the borders of their country, and when their country is e.g. Bangladesh – most of the country less than 10 metres above sea level – they can assume they will be affected by floods even before global warming kicks in. A sea level rise of just one metre will submerge an estimated 10% of Bangladesh – already one of the most densely-populated countries in the world.

Once again, we come back to the question of population: people producing more children than their country can support. It doesn’t make sense even at this time, far less if you are to look at the known problems facing any particular country in the future. Once again I find myself saying: if people don’t take care of themselves and their futures, by planning their families, Mother Nature will take care of them.

Written by brian t

September 4, 2006 at 4:43 pm