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The Index of Ignorance

To cut to the chase, the five most ignorant countries in the world are Mexico (a world leader at least in this), India, Brazil, Peru and New Zealand. And the five best informed are South Korea (take a bow), followed by Ireland, Poland, China and the United States. Ignorant about what? About the realities in their own country.

Every year the London-based polling organisation Ipsos Mori does its “Perils of Perception” poll, asking people in many countries what they believe about, say, the proportion of the population who are immigrants, or overweight, or over 65, and comparing their answers with the true numbers.

Putting all the results together, Ipsos Mori then comes up with its famous Index of Ignorance. The level of ignorance is startling – and yet these mistaken beliefs can play a big role in the political choices that countries make.

Take immigration. Almost every country over-estimates the number of immigrants in their population, sometimes by huge amounts. The Chinese, for example, believe that 11 percent of the people in their country are immigrants. The real number is 0.1 percent, so their guess is 110 times too high (and maybe just a little paranoid). Brazilians are just as bad: they think 25 percent of the population are immigrants; it’s really just 0.3 percent.

Most countries do better than that, but not that much better. Americans think 32 percent of their population are immigrants, when actually only 13 percent are. The Japanese think it’s 10 percent, when it’s really only 2 percent. And the Poles recently elected a right-wing nationalist government in large part because they fear being overrun: they think 14 percent of the population are immigrants, when it’s really less than half of one percent.

Or take the number of Muslims living in countries that are historically non-Muslim. The highest proportion of the population is in France, where 8 percent are Muslims – but the average guess of the French people polled was 31 percent (and Fox News seems to believe it’s nearly half). Only one percent of Americans are Muslim, but Americans believe it is 15 percent. In Canada it’s 2 percent, but Canadians think it’s 20 percent.

These huge over-estimates are probably driven in part by the fear of Islamist terrorism, which in turn is driven by the media’s fascination with the subject. It’s quite striking, for example, that while Americans guess three times too high when asked about the proportion of immigrants in the country, they guess fifteen times too high when asked specifically about Muslims.

One could go on and on about how wrong people get things. Indians (urban, educated Indians who take part in internet polls) think that one-third of the country’s population is non-religious. In fact, less than one percent is.

Saudi Arabians think that 28 percent of the population are overweight or obese, when actually 71 percent are (the highest proportion of all 35 countries polled). But the more interesting question is: how much do these misperceptions affect politics and policy?

Not much, probably, when we’re talking about religion or obesity or the share of the population that is over 65 years old (which was over-estimated in every country polled). But it’s pretty clear that a huge popular over-estimate of the number of immigrants in Great Britain contributed to the “Leave” victory in last June’s referendum on British membership of the European Union.

But the ignorance often gets a lot of help. London’s population, for example, is more than a third foreign-born: almost 37 percent. But Londoners are quite comfortable with this, and voted strongly for “Remain”. In fact, almost all of the big English cities voted “Remain”. Whereas in suburban and rural parts of England, where immigrants are rare or entirely absent, people were so panicked by immigration that they voted equally strongly for “Leave”.

This was not just a coincidence. For many years a big chunk of the British media, including the country’s three largest-circulation morning papers, the Sun, the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph, has constantly exaggerated the scale of the immigration and the problems it causes. So in parts of England where immigrants are scarce, people don’t believe the evidence of their own eyes; they believe the media instead.

The same phenomenon has played a big part in the rise of Donald Trump in the United States. When he talks about building a wall to stop hordes of Mexican rapists pouring across the southern border of the US, or promises to ban all Muslim immigration to the country, the media-fed misconceptions of Americans about immigrant and particularly Muslim numbers make his lies easier to believe.

There is a chicken-and-egg question here, of course. Are the media just pandering to existing popular fears, or are they actually creating them? The unsatisfactory but inevitable answer is: a bit of both.

In the century and a half when there have been free mass media (and now social media as well), nobody has come up with a solution for this problem. “Free” includes free to make mistakes, and free to distort facts and tell outright lies.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“But the…instead”)

Trump in Power

Let us suppose that it is July 2017. Let us suppose that Donald Trump, nominated as the Republican candidate for the US presidency exactly a year ago, won the November election – quite narrowly, perhaps, but the polls are certainly suggesting that such a thing is possible. So he was inaugurated six months ago, and has started to put his campaign promises into effect.

We may also assume that the Republican Party retains control of both houses of Congress. If it doesn’t, then Trump’s ability to execute his plans would be seriously circumscribed, but the surge of support that gives Trump victory would probably also give the Republicans a win in some close Senate races. The Republican majority in the House of Representatives, thanks to extensive gerrymandering, is practically fireproof.

Trump’s three most disruptive campaign promises were also the three that had the most appeal to his core voters, and he is implementing them fast. They are: a 40 percent tariff on all foreign imports, an end to free trade deals, and tight curbs on immigration – especially the famous “wall” on the Mexican border.

It won’t actually be a wall, of course. It will be the kind of high-tech barrier that countries build when they are really serious about closing a frontier. There will be a ditch about three metres deep and ten metres wide extending for 3,000 km along the US-Mexican border. It will have a three-metre-high razor-wire fence along the front edge of the ditch, facing Mexico, and another along the back edge.

The front fence has a high-voltage current running through it. The back fence carries the video and infra-red cameras and motion-sensors that detect attempts to cross the ditch, and the remotely controlled machine-guns that respond to those attempts. There are also land-mines down in the ditch. Why is it so lethal? Because long experience has shown that the only way to really close a border is to kill people who try to cross it.

The “wall” is not yet finished in July 2017, of course. It will take several years to complete, at a cost of $30-50 billion. Already, however, there are daily deaths among the tens of thousands of Mexican protesters who gather at the construction sites – and a few among Mexican-American protesters on the other side of the fence as well.

The Mexican government, faced with economic disaster as the millions of manufacturing jobs created in Mexico to export back to the United States evaporate, has broken diplomatic relations with Washington, as have several other Latin American nations. State Department experts are worried that a radical nationalist regime may come to power in Mexico, but “establishment experts” are not welcome in the new White House.

Negotiations for a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership between the US and European Union have been broken off, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership will never be ratified by Congress. The legislation for a 40 percent tariff on foreign imports is still making its way through Congress, as is the bill to end the North American Free Trade Agreement (which is causing panic in Canada, 73 percent of whose exports go to the United States).

The new laws will go through in the end, and the most important casualty will be US-China trade (as Trump fully intends it to be). China is already in a thinly disguised recession, and the impact of the new trade measures will turn it into a political crisis that threatens the survival of the Communist regime.

Beijing will certainly respond by pushing forward with the proposed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which would include sixteen nations of the Asia-Pacific region but exclude the United States. However, it may also manufacture a military confrontation with the United States to distract popular discontent at home with a foreign threat. The dispute over the South China Sea would do nicely.

Japan, which is starting a major military build-up after Prime Minister Abe finally removed the anti-war Article 9 from the constitution in March 2017, will be at America’s side in this confrontation, but its European allies may not. Trump’s pro-Putin posture has not gone down well in the EU, which worries about Russia’s intentions, and his demands that Europe’s NATO members pay more of the alliance’s costs have not helped either.

The European Union, still in shock after Britain’s Brexit vote in 2016, has been further shaken by the near-win of Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far right, anti-EU National Front, in the May run-off of the French presidential elections. The spectre of EU collapse comes nearer, and Europe has no time for America’s Asian quarrels.

In the United States, the economy is still chugging along despite the stock-market crash of November 2016. Trump’s big increase in the military budget, his huge expansion of infrastructure spending (with borrowed money) and the rise in the minimum wage have kept the machine turning over for the time being. The effect of declaring a trade war on the rest of the world is not yet being felt at home – but it will be.

And it’s only July 2017. Trump still has another three-and-a-half years in the White House.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 12. (“We may…fireproof”; and “The European…quarrels”)

Iraq: Endless War

“Suppose that…the Iraqis feel ambivalent about being invaded and real Iraqis, not (just) Saddam’s special guard, decide to offer resistance,” wrote British prime minister Tony Blair to US president George W. Bush in December 2001, two years before the US and the UK invaded Iraq. At least Blair had some doubts, but neither man could really imagine that the Iraqis would see them as conquerors, not liberators.

Another 13 years have now passed, and at last we have the Chilcot Report, an impartial official investigation into why Britain joined the United States in that invasion. (There is no equivalent American document.) It’s a 12-volume study that illustrates just how ill-informed and reckless the planners of that illegal war were, but it doesn’t tell us much we didn’t already know.

There are some juicy documents about the pre-war connivance between Bush and Blair, like Blair’s promise in 2001 that “We are with you, whatever.” But there is comparatively little on the scale of the disaster that the invasion inflicted on innocent Iraqis: thirteen years of war, up to 600,000 Iraqis killed and a country effectively destroyed. So this is a good time to recall the fate of the city of Fallujah.

Fallujah was a city of a third of a million people, less than an hour’s drive west of Baghdad, that was occupied by US troops in April 2003. It was the first place where American troops fired on Iraqi civilians (they were protesting against the takeover of a local high school by the US 82nd Airborne Division). It had fallen under the control of Iraqi resistance forces by the end of the year. That was the “First Battle of Fallujah”.

Fallujah was recaptured in November 2004 by US forces, at a cost of 95 American dead and 560 wounded. An estimated 1,350 insurgents were killed in this “Second Battle of Fallujah”. A large but uncounted number of civilians also died, as the American offensive involved massive artillery bombardments including white phosphorus shells. 9,000 of the city’s 39,000 homes were destroyed in that battle, and more than half were damaged.

The city was never properly rebuilt, but by 2006 about two-thirds of its residents had returned. Despite constant attacks on the occupation forces by the group that later turned into Islamic State, the United States returned Fallujah to Iraqi government control in 2008 – or perhaps we should say Iraqi government occupation, for by now the American-backed government in Baghdad was almost entirely Shia, and Fallujah is a Sunni city.

Sunni insurgents took back control of Fallujah in January 2014, six months before rest of western Iraq fell to the forces of Islamic State virtually without a fight. The pattern was the same: the new Iraqi army built up by the United States at a cost of $26 billion simply collapsed and ran away.

The “Third Battle of Fallujah” began in May of this year. Iraqi government forces (mosty Shia, of course), supported by Iranian troops and American air strikes, took almost six weeks to recapture the city, which by the end of the fighting contained only a few tens of thousands of civilians. More will return in due course, mainly because they have nowhere else to go, but most of the city is just ruins.

Other cities in Iraq are less comprehensively wrecked, but none of them are safe places to live in. The most recent bomb attack in Baghdad, on Saturday evening, killed at least 250 people. When the current Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, visited the scene of the bombing on Sunday, he was chased away by a crowd hurling stones, shoes and insults. And there is no end in sight.

Thirteen years, half a million excess deaths or more, millions of refugees, general impoverishment and insecurity, and an astoundingly corrupt government that is strongly and successfully resisting Abadi’s attempt to reform it. It is no wonder that even most of those in Iraq who suffered under Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical rule now wish he had never been overthrown.

“Saddam has gone, and we have one thousand Saddams now,” said Kadhim al-Jabbouri in a recent interview with the BBC. Jabbouri, who became famous for taking a sledgehammer to a statue of the dictator as American forces entered Baghdad in 2003, added: “It wasn’t like this under Saddam…We didn’t like him, but he was better than those people…There was no corruption or looting. You could be safe.”

The cautious ruminations of the Chilcot Report underplay the most important fact about the invasion of Iraq, which is that all these appalling consequences were entirely predictable. People who had any real knowledge of the political, ethnic and sectarian politics in the region and especially in Iraq DID predict them, including the relevant experts in the US State Department and the British Foreign Ministry.

Never mind whether or not the decision to invade Iraq was a war crime (though it was, under international law). Never mind whether the invaders’ motives were good or bad (they were the usual mixture of both, actually). What shines through is the sheer arrogance and ignorance of those who brought this calamity down on the Iraqis, who must now live out their lives in misery and terror. Thanks, guys.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 11. (“The city…city”; and “Saddam…safe”)

The End of the United States?

“If we do not get tough and smart real fast, we are not going to have a country any more,” said Donald Trump after the massacre in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando early Sunday morning, and The Donald never exaggerates. The United States is a very fragile entity, only two-and-a-bit centuries old. One more attack like Orlando – fifty dead and fifty-three wounded – and it’s finished.

No? That’s not what Trump meant? Then how many Orlandos would it take to destroy the United States? One a month?

That wouldn’t really do it either, because on average around two hundred Americans are killed and wounded in mass shootings every month. It’s been going on for many years, and the United States is still there.

Last year 374 mass shootings – defined as a shooting that kills or wounds four or more people – killed 475 Americans and wounded 1,870. The media go into a feeding frenzy whenever the number killed in a single incident reaches a dozen or so, but it doesn’t last long.

The politicians offer their “thoughts and prayers for the victims and their loved ones,” and everybody carries on as before. After all, two hundred killed and wounded a month in mass shootings isn’t all that big a number in a population of 325 million, and anyway trying to bring in gun control is not worth the political effort. It has been tried repeatedly, and it just doesn’t work.

Indeed, the National Rifle Association may be right in insisting that the problem is not guns but Americans. (Their slogan is actually “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people”, but we all know which people they are talking about.)

Firearms are also widely available in Canada, but the Canadian gun murder rate is eight times lower. Even in countries where assault weapons are widely available (like Switzerland and Israel, where military reservists keep their weapons at home), the firearms-related death rate is less than a third of the American rate, and mass shooting are very rare.

“Violence is as American as cherry pie,” as H. Rap Brown once put it, and on the whole Americans have just decided to live with it. That’s not an entirely unreasonable decision, because changing a whole culture is hard, slow, uncertain work, and 13,286 gun deaths per year (including massacres, one-on-one killings, suicides and accidents) is only one in every 25,000 Americans.

But what about terrorism? That’s a real threat, isn’t it? The aforesaid Donald Trump even tweeted that President Obama should resign immediately in disgrace if he didn’t say the words “radical Islamic terrorism” out loud. But it’s not even clear yet if that’s what the Orlando horror was really about.

It’s true that the Orlando shooter, 29-year-old Omar Mateen, was born in New York to Afghan immigrant parents who raised him as a Muslim, but his ex-wife says that he wasn’t very interested in Islam. Maybe he changed after she left (he used to beat her up a lot), but his father says that the trigger for his killing spree was seeing two gay men kissing in public in Miami.

On the other hand, there are reports that he called 911 (the emergency services) to declare his allegiance to Islamic State just before he started shooting, and some witnesses say he shouted “Allahu Akbar” (God is great!) as he was killing people.

Even if true, this doesn’t mean that Mateen was acting on Islamic State’s orders. IS websites do NOT encourage potential supporters to phone head office for instructions before going out to commit terrorist acts. Just go and do it, that’s all.

But it may also be that Mateen was acting out of a so-called “gay panic” – an extreme reaction to displays of gay affection, generally because the person is desperately suppressing such desires in himself. In that case, the whole “Islamic” thing would have been just a cover for his real motive, which he wanted to conceal.

We’ll know more later, but we may never know his motives for certain. It doesn’t much matter: people commit massacres for all sorts of bizarre reasons, and it makes no difference to the victims which particular one is driving them.

It shouldn’t make much difference to the public or the politicians either, because Mateen is just one more mass murderer among hundreds, very few of whom are Muslims. Donald Trump (and some other people) will be pushing the “terrorism” button as hard as they can, in the hope that they can fool people into backing extreme solutions to what is really a very small problem, but that is just cynical self-interest.

So what should happen? Nothing much, really. The US will go on living with the occasional mass murder because the culture is too hard to change. And terrorism – whether this particular event was terrorism or not – will continue to be one of the (relatively minor) costs of doing business in the 21st century.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 13. (“Firearms…rare”; and “But it…conceal”)