Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Ideology or Demographics: The Only Reason You Care Is Because You're a Kid, A Theory By Daniel Finkelstein (JM)

1968 violence: blame the bulge

Sorry, Tariq, it wasn't ideology that caused the unrest (and other conflicts) but demographics

Daniel Finkelstein

When I was a small child I thought that the Vietnam War was taking place in a car park.

I once thought Madonna was a Kitchenaid Mixer.

Every time I watched the news, I heard reporters talking sombrely of that conflict, accompanied by pictures of violent encounters. Some of the soldiers wore uniforms and charged on horses, others were clothed in denim. It wasn't clear who was winning, but I remember the smoke and the chaos, and a young man lying across a car bonnet being hit with a club. The young man was carrying a poster on a stick, which even to my infant mind seemed an odd thing to carry into a warzone.

Oh, you were watching war protests…

Ever since I grew up enough to understand this error, I have been amused by my childish naivety - confusing the Vietnam War with the protests, indeed! But at the weekend, reading Tariq Ali's account of the events of 1968 (“It turned violent. Like the Vietnamese, we wanted to occupy the embassy”) I realised that what I had displayed all those years ago was not naivety it all. It was a precocious talent for political analysis.

Oh my god, this is the most precious things of all time. Just picture little Danny Finkelstein, a bald five year old with glasses, walking around telling his parents to stop trying to have a family budget, because there’s no such thing as strategy.

The 1968 protests are not best understood as their instigators would have them understood - as the antithesis of war, as the street carnivals of the peace movement. The protesters should instead be seen as having some similarities with the warriors they were opposing. Both were trying to solve a problem with violence. The protesters sought to resolve political conflict in the street and through confrontation. Many of the leaders were not wishing for an end to war, but for victory by the North Vietnamese. In my confusion between the protests and the war I had accidentally seen things clearly.

Is this historical fiction? For the most part protestors were violent because the government attempt to violent suppress their free speech. In some cases they were clearly the antithesis of war, in some cases it was not protests for peace, but rather in favor of socialist ideology or a fight against western hegemony and colonial oppression. All of these are ideologies, not merely violence for violence’s sake.

Now I am not trying to make a point about who was right and who was wrong, who had the bigger weapons and who did the killing. Instead, I am trying to rescue the protests of 1968 from the romantic memories of the participants. I hope in this way to try to show why they are still relevant.

Not to get all Weberian on you, but how else are you going to muddle through motivations? You cannot just ascribe motivations to people willy-nilly (I think this might be a phrase our good British friend might like), you need compelling evidence. In this case just dismissing the words and propaganda of these protestors seems like an incredibly poor way to understand motivations.

Every attempt to revisit 1968 majors in ideology. Tariq Ali talks of sexual revolution, the liberal author Paul Berman writes of the democratic ideal and the struggle against fascism, the French intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy sees the common thread between the fight for liberation against Western oppression and the Prague Spring. Meanwhile, the playwright Tom Stoppard found little of any value. He thought the whole thing was merely embarrassing.

I am with Stoppard. This is not, however, just because I think the slogans of the soixante-huitards silly and their flirtation with communism disgusting. It is because I believe all attempts to explain 1968 in terms of ideas are doomed to failure. The events of 1968 were not about ideology, but demographics.

Look, I agree that ideas are situated in their social context and there are often other motivating factors that drive people to one ideology than another. But demographics?! This is going to have to be a really compelling arguments as to why the particular demography of 1968 drove a particular type of ideology oriented towards a particularly violent outcome. I don’t think it can be done (and since I always read the articles before doing this, I bet my prediction will come true).

Consider this - a favourite fact that I have rehearsed here before. Young Americans were the group most in favour of the Vietnam War, according to contemporary opinion polls. This remained the case even when the war became unpopular. Here's another fact - young people in this country are the group most in favour of the Iraq war. If you see the events of 1968 as ideological, this opinion poll data is hard to understand. Why aren't young people more idealistic and pacifistic than others? And if they aren't, why wasn't Grosvenor Square packed with rioting old age pensioners?

Young people are less risk-adverse, therefore this is why this particular opposition and conflict occurred. Seems likely… Another possibility is the young people also hold more extreme ideas on either end of the spectrum and political opinions tend to become centralized as people become old. Either way, this doesn’t denigrated or disallow particular motivations, why did some support the way and some protest? The truth is that much of ideological beliefs are socially situated and constructed, but that still doesn’t mean that motivations don’t exist or don’t matter. In fact, we would live an almost paralytic universe if we analyzed things in this manner. It basically presumes a fundamental lack of free will.

However, if you see the événements as the product of demographics, the data is easy to comprehend. Young people, particularly young men, tend to see violent solutions to problems as more acceptable than do other groups in society. In 1968 there was a bulge in the number of hot-headed young males.

Oh yes, the famous Zogby “Hot-Headed Young Male” poll…

Some of them chose protest violence on the streets of Europe, others riots in America's ghettos or dissent in Eastern Europe, while still others supported foreign wars. They were united not by ideas but simply by youth. Tariq Ali appears bewildered that the anti-Iraq war movement hasn't evolved into something similar to the soixante- huitards. This isn't because idealism has died. It is because there is no youth bulge. And it is the youth bulge, not anything they said or did, that gives a reason for the 1968 riots to be remembered.

It’s also because we live in an incredibly different time, the youth bulge is kind of silly red-herring. Why would more youths create violence. There has been almost none as of yet, one would think it would simply be proportional to the number of youths. The real difference is that there is way less oppression of protests and a different kind of engagement amongst youth (see Barack Obama). Also how do you explain the violence of things like the WTO protest, lacking a “youth bulge” (which to be perfectly honest is a phrase I would really rather avoid saying).

Violent conflict in 17th-century England, the French Revolution, German nationalism in the First World War, the 1979 Iranian revolution, the Cultural Revolution in China and most 20th-century revolutions in developing countries took place where large youth bulges were present. And academic studies suggest that the number of deaths in armed conflict is much higher in countries with a large youth bulge, even when controlling for income and inequality. Between 1989 and 1993, violence in the former Soviet republics varied with the size of their young male population, even where the initial political conditions were similar.

Way to cherry pick examples. First of all, how can you even begin to compare 1968 to the French Revolution or German Nationalism pre-WWI. Also, why are the ideological and political reasons for other violent events (such a WWII) somehow valid, while these are not. I agree that sometimes demographics makes a difference, overpopulation in particular, but it seems weird to dismiss ideological claims on a phenomenon which doesn’t seems to have strong correlative implications and certainly weak causation.

The social scientist Gunnar Heinsohn in his book Sons and World Power argues that when 15 to 29-year-olds make up more than 30 per cent of the population, there is a good chance that violence will follow. There are 67 countries in the world where there is such a bulge and there is violence in 60 of them. He cites the Palestinian territories and Afghanistan as examples and contrasts them with, say, Tunisia or even the passing of the youth peak in Lebanon.

Is it possible that high rates of childbirth are more likely in violent societies? Or how about the even more likely possibility that there is a high death rate in crazy violent societies, so there is a very high percentage of youth because people tend not to grow particularly old in societies with endemic violence…

With our blithe conviction that we can always make things better, we are convinced that political education and economic amelioration will work to bring peace where there is conflict. Heinsohn suggests that it might make things worse. Educated and well-fed young males tend to greater violent unrest.

This is literally the craziest thing I have ever heard. Let’s not educate the youth, let’s also make them hungry. Because hungry, uneducated masses never ever rise up in violent protest. I mean maybe we would cut down on systematic protesting and just raise the crime rate. Either way active engagement probably does matter, it’s just rare that protesting youth are actually engaged. If “education” means trying to convince them that they are wrong, well then of course they will get more violent. However, real and open dialogue (much like the one occurring during the current Iraq War) is way more advantageous. When youth feel like they have a viable outlet to make change, violence is way less likely.

The only hope? That young men eventually grow up. In Northern Ireland, the vast majority of victims and perpetators were young men. But one day Gerry Adams decided he was getting too old to strap on a gun. And the rest is history. Our only alternative in, say, fighting al-Qaeda may be to hold firm and wait it out.

What an excellent lesson, instead of engaging with militant Muslims and trying to understand them, let’s just wait for them to grow up. This is the kind of condescending attitude that makes people militant in the first place. Muslim leaders become more, not less, entrenched in their beliefs, whereas the youth are indoctrinated. They way to change this is to challenge the indoctrinated hatred of the West by active engagement and dealing with them on a balanced, dignified level. Not telling them, “You’ll understand when you grow up.”

The real lesson of the 1960s isn't Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out. It is Press On, Calm Down, Grow Up.

“Hey kids, get off of my lawn!”


Anonymous said...

I notice you ignored what I found to be his most telling comment: Many of the [protest] leaders were not wishing for an end to war, but for victory by the North Vietnamese.

The loudest and most obnoxious among us wanted the evil, capitalist United States to lose. The most ignorant among them wanted the kind of glorious workers' paradise that the Chinese were suffering under (to be fair, they had actually drunk the Kool-aid, and believed what the Potemkin Villages were showing of both the USSR and PRC).

I think he missed the mark - many of the loudest and most obnoxious of the current protesters want the terrorists to win, if only to bloody the nose of the evil imperialist Americans.

Dennis said...

Also, census techniques from 17th century England:

1.) Every two cows seen on the road = 5 babies born in that county.

2.) Jews, Catholics, Tavernkeepers, and Notorious Women do not count.

3.) Oxfordshire shall not be counted, but rather given its agreed upon population of 5,271, which is the number of feet in a mile minus the average number of hens seen during Great Shootingsday Footrace, which is incidentally held on Swallowmas.