Friday, 27 January 2012

Is there an "American Exceptionalism" Charles Murray doubts popular theories

Charles Murray, either famous or notorious for his surveys of changing American culture over the past five decades, has offered here a fascinating and detailed study of how the divide between the working classes and the upper classes has grown over the past fifty years.

What Charles Murray shows is that there has been an increasing divide between an “elite”, whose politics he does not rigorously discuss and in fact offers quite contradictory conclusions about, and what he for want of a better name calls the “working class”.

Murray argues that since 1960, the cultural elite has made a huge divergence from the masses in such facets of life as:
  1. entertainment taste
  2. age of marriage
  3. single versus married parenthood
  4. labour force participation
  5. religious participation
  6. crime rates
Murray argues, without saying anything about the political views of these groups, that this is a disturbing trend because of the dependence of America for its supposed uniqueness on the “civic virtue” of its working classes. He shows that, contrary to popular right-wing perceptions of a religious working class and an atheistic elite, in reality the working classes have actually become less religious than the elite. What Charles Murray does not do is note that the “civic virtue” he attributes to America’s working classes was never present among the working classes of most European, East Asian or Latin American nations. These working classes were molded into militant atheists of Marxist or syndicalist bent upon formation, and their numbers made it possible for them to easily overpower the very small middle class and a conservative ruling class whose power was collapsed by the opening of more labour-efficient farmlands in Australia, southern Africa, and to a lesser extent Canada, New Zealand and South America. Although it took approximately eight generations, Europe’s working classes between the 1970s and the 1990s ultimately succeeded in making their long-held atheism effectively the official ideology of the European Union.

Another problem is that Murray, whilst he shows that atheism correlates very strongly with lack of civic virtue, seemingly neglects to consider:
  1. the exact level of welfare dependence in his “Fishtown” – a strange omission given Murray’s view that welfare is responsible for the changes he laments
  2. exactly how atheistic welfare recipients are
    • One obtains the impression that the proportion of atheists among welfare recipients could be exceedingly high from the following evidence:
      1. for instance, the very high atheism in the most generous European welfare states
      2. Arthur Brooks’ demonstration of the extremely low charitable giving of welfare families
      3. my own experience – certified by my brother – that most supporters of radical socialist groups like Resistance and Socialist Alternative (who advocate greatly increased welfare spending for Australia) are not workers but people dependent on welfare
  3. how still-working families in his “Fishtown” compare with working families from 1960 or before
  4. the comparative political views of people in the two regions
    • saying that the poorer class is more nearly Democrat contradicts the strongly Democrat voting patterns of super-rich ZIP codes like those in the Bay Area, noted so strongly by Pat Buchanan
    • though Murray does admit differences on page 295, he should go into more detail.
  5. the Republican heartland (states like Utah, Idaho, the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas) and where it fits in terms of his “Fishtown” and “Belmont”.
All in all, Murray offers a contrary analysis by suggesting the United States – as a heavily glaciated nation with young mountains by nature is likely to – does bear a resemblance to the Europe of the early to middle twentieth century regarding the political character of its classes. In the past, when it was less densely populated, there was without doubt a very different streak to America’s working classes, but zoning of large areas and consequent rising prices has changed this greatly, so that the United States now resembles what would be expected of a densely populated and geologically unstable nation where the low efficiency of intensive agriculture means extreme competition once geologically older landscapes are able to be opened.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Pictures of Singapore

Amidst a sojourn in Hong Kong, I spent almost a month with my brother in the sauna-like heat and humidity of Singapore and briefly Kuala Lumpur, where my brother was. It was very enjoyable, though, because I enjoy the companionship of my brother even though he calls me “zuiington” after the Chinese word or zuǐ, which means mouth and refers to my habit of talking about funny and silly topics from my youth such as the Famous Five Adventure Games. I absolutely hate being called “zuiington”, though I am not as nasty towards my brother as I have been in the past when my mother likened us to “Saint Bernards puppies”.

One feature of the trip is that with Chinese a prominent language in Singapore and dominant in Hong Kong, I relearned quite a number of characters from my high school Chinese studies. My brother still says I struggled with the tones, which I never tried to master and instead tried to use head movements to remember the tones because I do not have very good understanding of pitch as is needed for Chinese.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Hong Kong holiday: Third and Last Day (5 January 2012)

Thursday was our last day in Hong Kong before returning for another week in Singapore. Although Hong Kong usually has warm but not horrible winters, a strong Siberian High was driving very cold air into the East Asian outer tropics. I had prepared for weather slightly hotter or similar to the delightful winters of southern Australia, but in fact the weather in Hong Kong this Thursday was not only very cool, but also (as is typical for southern China) extremely gloomy with low-level fog. The low-level pollution problems of the region are exacerbated by the fact that the superabundant labour supply has encouraged extremely intensive industrialisation.

The chilly weather - I was really surprised to find it was only 11˚C which is about the average maximum of a Tasmanian winter - meant that my brother decided that we would not go on the long trips of the previous day. Instead, we went to the Hong Kong Museum, which was a fascinating trip through the history of this small, mountainous city-state. There were some details new to me, especially regarding the Yue people who lived in Hong Kong before the Qín Dynasty unified China for the first time, and of groups of Chinese who were almost completely based in small water craft around Hong Kong and only set foot on land to trade for essential supplies.

There was also some fascinating information on how Hong Kong came to look the way it does from the high mountain views I had seen on Tuesday and Wednesday; revealing how the terrain and rocks of Hong Kong were formed by Paleozoic orogeny and Mesozoic volcanism. It even went into details of how Hong Kong’s climate has changed over time; though with a brief exception during an arid period of the Mesozoic it has generally been remarkably stable over long geological periods, and showed the subtropical rainforest that would cover Hong Kong in the absence of the disturbances that has degraded or removed the whole territory’s natural vegetation.

The last and most interesting part of our museum trip looked at colonial Hong Kong, and it revealed how a deadly trade in opium and China’s extremely xenophobic cultural attitudes allowed the British to take over Hong Kong and use it as a trading port. Under British rule, Hong Kong developed rapidly, and one of the best aspects of our museum trip was that we were able to actually look at how life in Hong Kong changed during the 1960s and 1970s as new conveniences were developed as a result of vast private sector investment in the city-state, which has mistakenly led to Hong Kong being seen by the Politically Incorrect Guides as a model for development in very poor nations with no natural inorganic resources. There was also some very good information on how Hong Kong actually evolved politically during its period under British rule, and how it has continued to evolve since being handed back to China. It was surprising to note that modern income taxes developed so early in Hong Kong.

After leaving the museum, I had a look at an interesting travel book about major destinations for travel, and about the history of Hong Kong - which seemed interesting but which I never read more than a few pages of. Next, I had a minor accident whereby I hurt my head trying to sit down, but after that we went to look at Hong Kong’s vast, super-dense business centres and in the process I had an excellent Italian meal that did not even remind myself of what I often eat at home. After this, we had a look through Hong Kong’s shopping stalls for a USB port for myself (the one I have only allowing 500 MB of memory) and for clothes for my mother. The clothes in Hong Kong are generally much too small for Australians, so it is not surprising that we did not buy anything.

To finish our last full day in Hong Kong, we returned to the hotel and had a relatively relaxing evening in our hotel room. The stay, which we completed with a brief look around the city on Friday 6 January, was one of the best travelling memories I have had since Kyōto and Mount Fuji at the end of 2009. The highlight of Friday was viewing towards China, which I love to call following Tony Cliff the SCDC for “State Capitalist Dictatorship of China”, as shown below:

Friday, 6 January 2012

Hong Kong holiday: Day 2

For my second day in Hong Kong, my mobile phone (which I was trying to charge) woke us up at 6:00 and I had to sleep in for another hour before having a hot shower. Given that the weather in Hong Kong was even cooler than on Tuesday and much cooler than the average 18˚C January weather, my mother ordered me to wear two T-shirts to compensate for the lack of jumpers or proper shoes. I had as a result to wear my “pyjama” T-shirt over a white one which acted like the flanelette singlets I wear during winter at home, but Mummy said that I looked better and less fat because my outer T-shirt was not tucked in as I usually do to avoid my pants tickling.

Once we were all dressed, we headed down to the first floor for a breakfast that my experience in (otherwise disappointing) Kuala Lumpur twelve days ago had showed could serve as a full day’s meal. When we reached the dining room, I gorged myself on two bowls of Coco Pops, one of Sultana Bran, and later on bread and jam, with additional meals of fruit adding variety along with some sweet white coffee. After we left I was full, but my mother said I should have eaten more vegetables rather than carbohydrate to reduce my calorie intake and mass.

After going back up to plan the day’s excursions, we decided to travel up the mountains adjacent to Hong Kong’s famous cable car on the outlying island of Lantau, though at first my brother was confused and we went on the wrong train line and we saw areas that looked even more run-down than we had seen the previous day. Once we found the right train ride, however, the day became a memorable and exciting trip through very scenic mountains and endless shades of green.

Once on Lantau Island, we had no trouble reaching the number 23 bus which took us to Po Lin Monastery. Although my mother and brother hate religion, they did take a long time looking at the Big Buddha statue amidst the beautiful, often bare mountain scenery of Lantau Island. The bare patches of granite were surprising in such a hot, wet climate at elevations that do not exceed 957 metres anywhere in Hong Kong, but they made the landscape both more beautiful and more familiar for one who used to read pictures of protected areas in my Australian homeland. The Buddha statue was both familiar in form and surprising in size, but the views from Po Lin over even the village were quite amazing. There were some unusual flags to add to the view, and it was one of the most spectacular I have actually experienced, beaten only by my view of Mount Fuji in Japan.

After going back down to the village, we had a warm hot chocolate in Starbucks and then, despite an intense debate, we went on the cable car, and it was a terrific experience. Although I feared what would happen if the cord of the car broke - and imagined it as worse than falling on soft or slippery snow in a properly cold climate - we got through the whole trip remarkably smoothly and had no troubles at all. The scenery was superb and even wild; and in spite of the low-level fog from the Siberian High there were some very good sea views.

The cable car took us so far down that after a short sojourn in a souvenir shop we went up again on a different bus, this time seeing a quaint fishing village that reminded me of what Hong Kong was like before industrialisation. The specialised fish markets - though we did not buy anything - were particularly fascinating to look at with the old people drying fish for sale and salting them to keep for lean periods.

The last part of our journey, by which time I was really tired, saw me make an unfortunate mistake of not clicking on my “Octopus” card before going back to the ferry on the bus. Actually, I deceived the driver thinking the bus ticket bought before going on the number 23 bus was adequate, but the driver ignored this. We still saw some really wonderful forest scenery - even a wild bovine of a type similar to what I saw in the Night Safari in Singapore a week beforehand just by the very narrow road. By the time we reached the ferry back home, I was really, really tired and did not even feel like eating much.

Nonetheless, I rate this Wednesday as one of the best days I have had on any holiday. The contrast between the uninhabited mountain scenery and some of the densest populations in the world is nothing like anything I have ever seen, and even though the presence of plants like casuarinas obviously imported from Australia shows the land is not pristine its colours were still wonderful. Moreover, the cooler weather meant I was less tired than I have been walking around in Singapore’s horrible climate.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Hong Kong holiday: Day 1

For the past three days, as a break from the awful year-round heat of Singapore, I have been travelling with my mother and brother to Hong Kong. I have always thought southern China has wonderful weather in the Australian summer and have viewed it as a great destination for travelling long before this trip, but visa costs precluded a trip to Xiàmén, which I had suggested in October before the trip was planned.

Hong Kong is often compared with Singapore as an example of free-market success in a resource-poor small city state, for instance by the Politically Incorrect Guides to American History and Socialism. Upon seeing Hong Kong, I was startled by the amazingly dense and seemingly run-down flats that characterise almost all the residential areas of the city and even exist on top of commercial buildings. (My mother said that Hong Kong’s desnity is nothing compared to what is found in Shànghǎi).

Our first day (Tuesday) in Hong Kong was short, and dominated by a trip on the tramway to the top of the Peak. It was extremely crowded at the entrance to the tramway and there was some very interesting information about its history in the aisle between the ticket office and the boarding platform. Although it was very hard to find a seat on the tram - seats had to be restricted for safety reasons on the steep route - we were able to get a tram about twenty minutes after paying for our tickets and the trip to the Peak was very quick and efficient.

On top of the Peak, in contrast to the year-round heat and humidity of Singapore, the weather was pleasantly cool - in fact too cool for someone only having clothes designed for 30˚C weather with very high humidity! Nonetheless, we did some easy walking down from the Peak and it was very enjoyable because of the views of Hong Kong’s mountains and a small residential village on the opposite side. After returning to the top of the Peak, we had a look at the sizeable shopping centre adjacent to the tram terminus; though there was quite a bit worth buying, we did not buy anything since it was quite a bit more expensive than on the lowlands. Thus, we travelled back down in weather that with wind chill and altitude added was probably colder than a typical southern Australian winter.

After going on the return tram journey, the always-foggy weather from the northeasterly winds off the Siberian High became cooler still as it became dark, and we turned to a big meal after I had not eaten for over a day. As it turned out, I had a delightful, if not remotely Chinese, meal of steak, chips and vegetables that cost HK$49, which is much cheaper than one can obtain such good meals for in Australia. The steak was well-cooked and very tender, even though a little thin, and the vegetables were an excellent accompaniment.

Lastly for Tuesday, I had become very tired and went to bed unusually early, though unfortunately I had forgot my pyjamas and had to sleep in the same T-shirt I had been walking in. Still, I slept better than I had in Singapore where the air conditioner‘s breeze made it difficult to obtain a pleasant temperature.

A really funny joke

In an article about the hippopotamus and pygmy hippopotamus, Nick Thomas describes the fights of males of the common hippopotamus thus:
When two male hippos face off, they not only hurl dung at each other, but they may viciously attack one another. In fights between rival males, hippos can inflict serious injuries, often ripping off an opponent's ear with their long canine teeth. A similar technique was adapted to human combative rituals by Mike Tyson some years ago.
This is one of the funniest jokes I have heard on the web of late! Although my mother believes boxing should be banned because the purpose of the sport she says is to hit and injure one’s opponent, it is really impossible to compare Mike Tyson’s ear-biting antic against Evander Holyfield in 1997 to what male hippopotamuses do not only to their rivals for mates, but also to humans. Hippos kill more people than any animal except other humans, though they are easier to avoid than the African buffalo, which is so ruthless a killer it could be called the al-Qa‘ida of the animal kingdom since it kills anything threatening it. Mike Tyson’s bite was a reflection of his violent nature, but Tyson apparently only did it because of his feeling of superiority being threatened, unlike an African buffalo or hippopotamus.

Monday, 2 January 2012

Extremists may be fringe and crazy, but have genuine purpose

Ever since I became interested in politics and culture in the 1990s at the time Jeff Kennett’s obscene “Linking Melbourne” project served to remake Australia’s climate, my mother and brother have consistently said I support “fringe groups”, “special pleaders”, “lobby groups” and other tags. Nonetheless, I have always felt, and still do whenever something like:
  1. Marthe Robin’s claimed fifty-three year fast on only a weekly Eucharist
  2. the relationship between radical rainfall changes in Western Australia and Australia’s pro-freeway transport policies
  3. the fact that New Zealand ecologically can maintain a far larger population than Australia
  4. the notion that religious conservatives are much less selfish than atheistic liberals
is criticised aggressively by my relatives, I feel that they have read less than I have.

Ross Douthat, in his recent article “Pariahs and Prophets”, looks at the case of veteran libertarian politician Ron Paul and argues that, whilst Ron Paul’s ideas are extreme at at times abhorrent - especially regarding what he is supposed to have said about Martin Luther King’s supposed sexual misbehaviour and his tendency to blame intellectual or business élites for the United States’ problems, people like him are extremely valuable for the criticism they offer of fixed, long-term government policies:
But consider a third possibility. There’s often a fine line between a madman and a prophet. Perhaps Paul has emerged as a teller of some important truths precisely because in many ways he’s still as far out there as ever.
I can agree one hundred percent with the notion that very frequently it is necessary to be far-out in order to tell the truth. Ever since I joined the Public Transport Users’ Association, though my absorbing the ideas of radical Trotskyists (Socialist Alternative and the Democratic Socialist Party), Tim Flannery and Tom McMahon, and finally the Politically Incorrect Guides, I have always seen immense value in radical criticism. When a country is on an ecologically or culturally destructive path, its population (and even those outside thereof with interests therein) is very often wedded tightly to values that simply do not allow anything to be done to deviate from such a path. This is for instance, the case with the enormous greenhouse emissions in suburban Australia and with the selfish, ultra-materialistic welfare cultures of Europe, Canada and New Zealand. People who see a need for changes tend to be dismissed as extreme, when in fact there could be many long-term benefits from adopting radical changes.

The classic example I give to my mother and brother concerns what Australia’s climate might be like if it had successfully sold its last new car in 1990 and invested every cent of transport money on a high-speed national rail network. In my view, such a policy could have cut Australia’s greenhouse emissions immensely more than all the small measures taken since then, and if the rail service was good enough it would have more than compensated for the loss of mobility from private cars.

The same thing could be said for many other examples which on my present sojourn in Singapore with my brother have become irritating to me as well as to him. Although I can admit that more people would lose out from the radical changes I can easily see as essential than their advocates admit, every reform beloved of the Left - from universal suffrage to welfare states to decriminalisation of homosexuality and abortion - was won in Europe, Asia and most of the Americas by protest from below initiated by people with extremely radical ideas for their time. The same is true of reforms in America and former Stalinist nations beloved of the Right.

Fringe radicals almost always solved past social problems (whether real or not you can decide); there is no reason why the future will be different. We need to be careful before seeing people with radical ideas as madmen: they may have much more to offer than any mainstream politician.

A Stalinist-inspired surge?

Although the explosion in rhino poaching in South Africa, which has ninety percent of the world’s total rhino population, is no longer the headline new it was when I first chronicled it in June 2010, it has become catastrophic, with as much as seven percent of rhinos living as of January 2008 having been poached in the past four years.

Whilst efforts to bring poachers to trial have been mixed, and some within rhino range states have independently suggested Robert P. Murphy’s idea of privatising rhinos so that they could be sold for profit or watched by the public for a fee, the new year has seen a fascinating revelation about where the demand for rhino horn was coming from.

It has long been known the Vietnam, which lost its last rhinos in 2011, has been the main source of the upsurge in rhinoceros poaching, has been the source of demand for the horn from South African rhinos. However, this article by Elizabeth Batt has made the sinister suggestion that it is the Vietnamese government of all people who is responsible for the decimation of rhinos.
Increased demand it appeared, was fueled by the rumor from a Vietnamese politician who claimed that his cancer had been cured by ingesting powdered rhino horn.
This is a terrible scene if it is true, and would mean that Stalinism, in one of its last holdouts, has been responsible for an environmental disaster that may rival in long-term effect, if not in scope, what was done to the Aral Sea by Stalinism in Central Asia.

Unless accusations against it can be proven false, the effects of the Vietnamese government on the world’s rhino population over the past four years really do demand a reaction. Although Vietnam has moved towards a globalised market economy, it has never been as high-profile about this as China, and since the death of Hồ Chí Minh and reunification it has never been in the headlines beyond debates over “boat people”. Today’s rhino poaching epidemic ought to change that, besides seeing a dark underside to Asian culture for both Left and Right.