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Monday, 27 June 2016

How Brexit Broke Britain

There has been a lot of analysis of the Brexit vote; this article is one of the best.

What is missing is the peculiar dynamics by which the position of a party that scored less than 13% of the vote in the 2015 general election and only won one seat was able to secure over 50% of the vote in a referendum on the position they were advocating.

The Tories won about 37% of the vote in 2015 so even if every Tory voter was actually opposed to the EU, this still does not add up to the 52% Brexit vote. Take away the pro-Euro Tories and a substantial fraction of voters for parties who are pro-EU voted the opposite way to the party line. Some blame Jeremy Corbyn for not taking a strong pro-EU line in the referendum campaign. But his position – that the EU was flawed but it was better being in to fix it than out – is not much different from David Cameron’s and the only real difference is that Corbyn stated that view honestly rather than pushing hard to a yes vote, implying that he was more strongly in favour of the EU than he really is.

Even so, it is not usual that party supporters break ranks like this. Most parties can rely on their core base to vote for them no matter what – for example through the sort of change when Blair reverse much of Labour’s traditional policy position or when the US Democrats effectively switched sides with the Republicans on many major positions. With the Republican-Democrat switch, there was a switch in where the parties drew support: the Democrats used to be the party of the South. But this switch in support based took a long time and some very dramatic events like the Civil Rights movement (and even through that, some deeply racist Democrats did not switch sides: George Wallace of Alabama remained a Democrat despite a run for president as an Independent Party candidate, and only saw the error of his ways much later in life, when he ended his political career as an opponent of racism).

So let us study the dynamics of the thing – how Cameron got himself into such a mess.

With Europscepticism a major force among the Tories, he was able to secure his leadership as well as shore up votes in the marginals by promising a referendum. His calculation: not many people really wanted to break with Europe so by pandering to them, he could retain the leadership of his party and shift enough anti-EU voters his way in marginal seats to prevent UKIP from winning and to tilt such seats away from Labour.

The problem is that when the referendum came up, it was at a time when there was mood for shucking off the establishment – the same mood that gave Jeremy Corbyn Labour leadership, that made Bernie Sanders unexpectedly successful and that has kept Trump not only in the race but has made him the Republican candidate (presumptive but in reality, it would be pretty hard to change that now).

What is weird about all this is that the “anti-establishment” mood crystallizes around such different positions.

Trump and Sanders stand for completely opposed values yet a substantial fraction of Sanders voters are more willing to voter for Trump than Clinton.

Meanwhile, parliamentary Labour is revolting against Jeremy Corbyn, as if he is solely responsible for the Brexit vote. Labour MPs, listen up. The public voted Corbyn in because they found you revolting. Labour has failed to tap into the anti-establishment mood since Corbyn’s election not because of him but because of the rank and file who desperately hoped he would go away and they could return to the failed world of Blair and Brown.

The point of the anti-establishment mood is that people are tired of business as usual. That creates a need that can be fulfilled by sane politicians offering real alternatives – like Corbyn and Sanders. But of course their sort of alternative is not very palatable to the plutocrats behind the scenes so when politics as usual fails, they back unpleasant, irrational alternatives like the Tea Party in the US and UKIP in the UK. Out of this, Trump is something of an anomaly as he is not so much a representative of plutocrats as a representative of plutocracy: he does not stand for class interests but rather for himself.

The EU was in many ways a flawed creation – but one that blurred inessential differences and encouraged a rights-based view of difference. Splitting off the UK risks further splits – the Scottish independence movement is revitalized for example. If that goes ahead, it adds impetus for other separatist movements. The end result could be a Europe of much smaller countries and with no unifying framework. That takes us back to the 19th century.

If you really are opposed to the establishment – good. It needs shaking up. But do not be conned by voices of bigotry and hatred. This is not shaking up the establishment. It is about destroying the values that have made a world-wide civilization possible – one that respects difference but does not demand shallow capitulation to imposed values and identities.

Such a civilization does not exist yet, but there is a possibility of one – and the EU hinted at what was possible. The alternative in a world with advanced technology is mini-states hostile to difference and belligerent to those less fortunate than themselves; not an attractive prospect.

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Vegetarian Panna Cotta

The secret to good panna cotta is powdered agar-agar. Agar-agar is a gelling agent derived from algae (usually seaweed). You can also use gelatin, though gelatin is made from animal parts and can also be tricky to work with.

Here is my formula; scale it down if you want a smaller quantity. Some recipes substitute milk for some of the cream.
  • 1 litre milk
  • 300–400ml sugar, depending how sweet you like your dessert
  • 5ml (level teaspoon) agar-agar powder (you can use flakes but the quantity is much harder to measure)
  • half a vanilla bean
Split and scrape the half vanilla bean into the sugar in a saucepan and add the agar-agar. Mix thoroughly so the agar-agar is evenly distributed and won’t form lumps. Mix in the cream and heat to boiling. Reduce the heat and simmer for 2–3 minutes.

Panna Cotta Moulds – I ordered a set like this
and will update the article to review them.
Leave to cool, then remove the vanilla bean pod and decant into 6–8 moulds. Chill for at least 2 hours to set.

If you can find a mould with a removable end (see picture) so the panna cotta can be pushed out from the smaller end of the mould, it should be easy to unmould.

Applying heat to loosen it from the mould is tricky – you can easily end up unsetting the contents; if you are less concerned with being fancy, set it in the serving bowl.

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Of Clubbing Springboks and Other Unspeakable Crimes

What does the assassination of UK MP Jo Cox have to do with South Africa and our government’s increasing paranoia about protest?

The suspect in Jo Cox case, Thomas Mair, has links to the far-right Springbok Club, an organization that sports the old South Africa flag on its Facebook page and which equates the era of colonialism and racist rule in Africa to “civilization”.

No doubt murdering an MP in broad daylight fits their definition of “civilized”.

Such is the horror of bigotry: attitudes despising the “other” lead to distain for the value of “other” life. Ms Cox stood for the UK’s inclusion in Europe; that made her subhuman in the mindset of the extreme bigot.

Back to South Africa today, the apparently “new” South Africa with a different flag.

Over the last year, there have been about 14,000 service delivery protests, 20% of them violent. There has also been a growing tide of student protest: #RhodesMustFull, #FeesMustFall and, lately, rape culture.

Last year, the response of universities was attempting to contain protest, while agreeing with the goals – at least partially. The effect was to deflect protest to government where it belonged, at least with the fees issue. The result was dramatic: the protest movement forced a change from government that 20 years of polite conversation had failed to achieve.

So where are we now?

Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande published a paranoid diatribe on Daily Maverick (14 June 2016), claiming that student protesters are a tiny privileged minority out to create mayhem and who belong in jail.

I strongly oppose the kind of protest that doesn’t value life and that destroys infrastructure. But that does not mean there is no valid protest and that all protest should be criminalized, which is where we are headed. There is a line between militant protest and unacceptably violent protest and a rights-oriented society has to be very careful to place that line accurately. We also need to be very careful about using “lawful” as too strong a stick to prevent inconvenient protest. In the UK in 2008, Greenpeace activists who were accused of unlawfully damaging a coal power station were exonerated because the outcome of their protests had a higher public good than the damage they caused.

When we reach a situation where bigots and supposed progressives are speaking with the same voice, we have to be very, very worried that we have not placed that line correctly, that we are edging towards police-state conditions and that the underlying causes of the protest have become too uncomfortable to address.

On bigotry, what does Comrade Blade have to offer? Consider this:

It is a narrative of anger, of ears sealed against rational debate, eyes shut tight against reality, including the nature of the real challenges facing us as a country as we change for the better. It is a narrative initiated during the 1999 election by another minority party, one which had absorbed most of the Broederbond-fuelled members of apartheid’s ruling National Party, and much of its ideology. A narrative under the simple catch phrase, “Fight Back.”

This, of course, refers to the DA and its predecessor, the DP, which merged with the National party to form the DA. What he fails to mention is that the Nats demerged and their leadership decamped to the ANC.

It is with this background that I return to the dangers of cozying up to bigotry.

In South Africa, the legacy of racism has an obfuscatory effect. When the ANC aligns itself with bigots, the old divisions of race make that less apparent than it should be. That both old-school bigots and the ANC only see criminality in protest makes them odd bedfellows. For this reason, this is a rather fractious alliance, one that must be punctured by the odd Penny Sparrow incident to bring things back to normal – the ANC is the party of opposition to bigotry.

Then an inconvenient protest breaks out – the bigots and the ANC line up – oops, someone has to post a racist comment on social media to bring things back to normal.

What is increasingly being laid bare is that the ANC is not itself immune to bigotry, even if it has the option of beating a comfortable retreat to moral outrage about racism. The danger that this presents is that the ANC can march deep into bigot territory and cover its retreat with the race flag – with the actual damage to rights the government has inflicted lost in the resulting righteous anger over racism.

Take the question of rape culture. Here at The University Currently Known as Rhodes (UCKAR), after anti-rape protests broke out, the ANC Women’s League sent a delegation to express concern. Where were they 10 years ago during the Zuma rape trial when they supported him to the hilt despite his atrocious attitudes to women that emerged in court?

Given that rape is supposed to be a serious crime and we have evidence that it is not being handled adequately, are we attempting to remedy that? Possibly – but not as intensively as the government, with the connivance of universities, is attempting to criminalize protest. While naming someone as rapist is attacked as a contravention of the right to due process, Comrade Blade says that protesters deserve only one thing: jail. No hint there of a requirement of due process.

One of the more obnoxious manifestations of rape culture at UCKAR is a venerable tradition known as “seal clubbing”: a contest among senior students to have sex with as many innocent first years as possible. That this practice has such a repulsive name would be enough, you would think, to make it a target for eradication. But no: the university’s response is to warn new students of the practice, rather than target the problem at source. Has anyone said that anyone promoting this “tradition” belongs in jail? No?

Meanwhile, bigots applaud the university administration, in concert with the ANC government, for standing up to “unlawful” protests.

So here’s the real divide: those who truly want an inclusive, progressive society and those who have common cause with bigots. Let us stop pretending otherwise; if not the Springbok Club may find themselves in the awkward position of welcoming the ANC into its ranks.

Friday, 22 April 2016

How Justice Fails

At the university apparently still called Rhodes over the last week, there have been some disturbing events. A group of students published a list of 11 names of alleged rapists, and attempted to ferret them out of university residences. Protesters also invaded lectures and barricaded streets.

When vigilante justice arises, it is usually a consequence of the failure of regular justice. So you need to track back to the point of failure to stop it from happening.

Rape is notoriously hard to prosecute; this is true also in South Africa despite progressive legislation.

Where does this leave the victim, who is in a weak position versus the perpetrator? Do you report it to the police, undergo an invasive investigation, then find the perpetrator not only walks free but is able to threaten you?

Whether it is rape, sexual harassment or abuse of a position of power, there is an enormous amount of hypocrisy in our society. Remember Bill Clinton? His behaviour was at very least abuse of power, expecting sexual favours from people who looked up to him as president. And this was dismissed at the time as a right wing plot to discredit him (spot the irony: it was Clinton who pushed the Democrats well to the right of centre).

Then there is the mysterious case of IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn whose rape case was not prosecuted, yet the alleged victim was given a massive out of court settlement. This too was alleged to be a “political conspiracy”. Rape is not a civil matter; in the not too distant past, in this country and in many others it attracted the death penalty. Who ever heard of an out of court settlement for a serious crime?

To South Africa: in 2006, then-deputy president Jacob Zuma was tried for rape. The case has all the hallmarks of a person of power crushing a vulnerable accuser. Even if he was not guilty of rape (as claimed by the judge), he was at very least seriously abusing his position and his attitudes to women were revealed to be deeply problematic.

So what did those at the progressive end of politics, the natural home of feminism, do? They rallied around him. Every formation of the ANC including the Women’s League and Youth League supported him, as did the Communist Party. Cosatu’s support was the weakest, with a statement that the law must take its course, but even they did not break with him once his attitudes were a matter of public record and joined the rest of the alliance in welcoming his acquittal. Cosatu General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi was also accused of rape in 2013, a charge that was reduced to sexual harassment, But what was most bizarre about this was how Cosatu claimed they were considering pursuing a rape charge against him. Excuse me? Aren’t criminal charges a police matter? Why is the organization involved in any way?

Once again, a rape or sexual harassment charge is framed as a political vendetta rather than something that must be dealt with in the strongest terms as a matter of course.

We cannot excuse EFF leader Julius Malema from this malaise; when he took control of the ANC Youth League 2 years after the Zuma trial, he backed the Zuma version of events.

With this sort of thing happening at the apex of progressive politics in South Africa, why is anyone surprised that there is a rape culture amidst a general culture of patriarchy? Where is the leadership? Answer: at the core of the problem.

Back home, a student today told me that one of the 11 on the notorious list was well known for his predatory attitudes by his fellow residence inmates. Why did they not call him to account? If you know someone is like this and say nothing (or worse, encourage this behaviour), you are complicit.

So what is to be done?

The real problem is that post-apartheid, we did not reconfigure civil society and interpersonal relationships to fit a new progressive democratic order. We have a great constitution, generally good laws and excellent public institutions – on paper. But these things do not work the way they are designed.

What is really needed is a new social compact, and one that is built from the ground up, not top down. One that is based on a new discovery of each other, that each person is entitled to self-worth and being treated as of equal value by all, that no one should be denied their dignity and that we do not build ourselves by tearing others down.

Ultimately we must change the apex power structure – but it will not help to replace those at the top with others who found their way there by the same logic. A grassroots campaign to establish the new normal – that predatory behaviour is not acceptable, that you do not define a person by their availability for sex, that everyone is entitled to physical and emotional integrity will make it impossible for those at the top to behave like self-serving jerks because they will be out of step with the rest of society.

We can start today. Whenever we hear someone talking up predatory behaviour, making light of rape, belittling someone else – or generally behaving as if any of this sort of behaviour is acceptable – call them to account. “Normal” is established as much by peer pressure as anything else. We can do it.

We can define the new normal.

Friday, 1 April 2016

South Africa adopts new currency

Tshwane, 1 April 2016 – The South African government today announced at a press conference that South Africa is to rename its currency. The rand will be replaced by the gupta, and the cent by the zuma. Treasury has produced a sample image of the new 200 gupta note to illustrate the changes. Present were President Zuma, representatives of Treasury, present and former Finance Ministers and representatives of the Gupta family.

The new 200 gupta note.
Says Treasury spokesperson, Norand Gupta, “The new currency reflects the economic and political reality of the new South Africa, whereas the rand is an apartheid currency and the cent is a colonial currency.” Asked when an example of the zuma coinage will be available, Gupta explained: “We are still trying to source a metal inexpensive enough that the coins will not cost more to make than they are worth.”

Former Finance Ministers Nhlanhla Nene and Des van Rooyen, asked for comment, responded respectively as follows: “No comment” and “I have no time to respond, I am changing my name to Gupta.”

Says current Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan: “I am keeping my mouth shut for now in the hope that I will get something named after me too, preferably not the national debt.”

Asked for comment, President Zuma referred questions to the Constitutional Court. “The Concourt knows all the answers. Me? I am just a con. I tried to be an icon, but got stuck after thinking too much about ‘I’.”

Spokesperson for the Gupta family Nkosazana Dlamini-Gupta, ended the press conference with the following statement: “This should once and for all show the ludicrousness of the allegations of so-called state capture. The Guptas are allowing our name to be used for the benefit of the South African people and not charging a cent for this.” Asked by a reporter why this is relevant because the cent is being discontinued, Dlamini-Gupta admitted: “Well, we are charging a royalty of one zuma for every gupta printed. But that is cheap at the price.”

Saturday, 12 March 2016

How education theory could be used to help shape genuine democracy

How education theory could be used to help shape genuine democracy

Philip Machanick, Rhodes University
Come 1994, many South Africans assumed that the official end of apartheid meant “job done – we are a democracy.” But despite an excellent constitution and world-class public institutions, the country looks increasingly dysfunctional.

So if a great constitution and carefully designed public institutions don’t make a democracy, what was left out? I believe that, crucially, civil society was not retooled for freedom. Two concepts drawn from education research may hold a possible solution to this shortcoming: first, the idea that knowledge is socially constructed and, second, the notion that self-efficacy is a significant factor in ability.

Issues of agency

In an authoritarian state, there are a limited number of levers of power. Control of those levers is centralised. Ordinary citizens cannot easily fix societal wrongs, nor safely organise themselves into groups that aren’t sanctioned by the state.

In a democracy, though, ordinary citizens should have access to lesser levers that work to their personal or, in small groups, collective benefit. The workings of government are open to ordinary citizens. They can attend public meetings and access government policies and documents. This is particularly valuable at a local government level, where officials who control the processes that affect ordinary people’s lives are close to hand and should – in theory – be easy to reach.

But such levers are not familiar to most citizens in a country like South Africa, which has a strong culture of protest. This culture does not recognise that there are other levers of power besides those held by leaders in high places. At my own university, I’ve asked protesting students how the institution’s management could do better. Their response? “Don’t ask me. We have highly paid leaders who should be solving these problems.”

This suggests that change can only be achieved by supplication. Whether this is polite but possibly ineffectual or expressed with extreme anger, such supplication starts from the same place: the view that an individual or small groups of individuals lack agency. One of the biggest drawbacks of this approach is its short-term nature. An example from my own small town: in 2014, 3,000 residents signed a petition calling on the owners (government rail monopoly Transnet) to save the historic railway station from being dismantled by looters. The municipality and the provincial heritage authority had failed to act on earlier complaints.

That is an instance of supplication – asking or trying to order the authorities to fix things. The property was fenced off, security guards installed and the worst of the damage was repaired. But it was just a quick fix: residents were not empowered in any way. They have been excluded from planning the future use of the station site. They do not have the leverage to demand such inclusion unless they start another petition campaign.

This illustrates how problem solving has stalled in South Africa. The government is trying to take on too much and failing. Many transitional societies run into the same problem: there is too much to do and government becomes bogged down. With a more activist civil society, the weight of doing everything can be lifted from government so it can focus on bigger problems.

But how can these alternatives be introduced to South Africans?

Can we learn from education?

The idea that knowledge is socially constructed deviates from the earlier view of education theory that was more cognitive. In the social construction view, knowledge is not just about what you know, but also about how you interact with others and what you are.

What is missing in South Africa is the knowledge of what it means to be a citizen of a free, democratic society. That is not just about knowing that one is a citizen, but knowing how one should behave and interact with others. A social discourse is part of that knowing: when we enter a situation where we are unhappy with how others perform, how do we interact with them? How do you react when someone criticises the way you perform? These are not trivial questions in a multicultural country.

Self-efficacy is the perception that individuals are able to control events that influence their lives. In education, that sort of belief leads to better educational outcomes. It confers a kind of self-belief that you will be able to solve a hard problem.

This idea fits well with what Black Consciousness leader and activist Steve Biko called psychological liberation, which calls on oppressed people to liberate themselves from the externally imposed idea that they’re incapable and so should be looking for external salvation.

These ideas apply equally well in understanding how to reconfigure a failing society.

What is ‘normal’?

In a dysfunctional society, the norm becomes doing what is actually antisocial. In a place like South Africa that has never been “normal” in the sense of a free, open society where individuals have agency, there is no norm on which to build. Antisocial behaviours become the new normal when the shackles are loosed. There are some who believe that a return to an authoritarian society is the answer. It’s not.

Instead I propose drawing on those two ideas from education theory to build a functioning civil society in which the “normal” involves behaving in a socially aware manner, rather than doing what you like.

Many levers for democracy

I am not dismissing protest as a tool, but merely arguing that it is not the only tool. Stopping at protest implies that a society is not really democratic because treating supplication to the powerful as the only option for change implies that power relations cannot shift.

Ultimately a society can only work if the levers of power are effectively wielded. In an authoritarian system, that means the levers are centralised and tightly held. In a democracy, they are distributed and loosely held. For a genuine free democracy to work, citizens need to learn what it means to live free. A large part of that involves grasping the levers of power at their disposal.

The Conversation


Philip Machanick, Associate Professor of Computer Science, Rhodes University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Saturday, 5 March 2016

The Great Right Wing Attack on Feminism

Right wing sites and their followers on social media love bashing feminism. The usual tactic is to highlight some extreme action or statement as if it is all feminism is about. Sometimes this is made up or something more reasonable is taken out of context – but any movement has adherents who take things to an extreme. If you take those extreme events – whether imaginary, exaggerated or real – as representing an entire movement then it says more about you than it says about feminism.

What has feminism achieved? Here’s a short list of what it was like to live in a pre-feminist world:
  • women could not vote
  • women were paid a significantly lower wage for the same work and often did not have the same benefits (such as employer-sponsored retirement fund)
  • women could lose their job just for getting married
  • control over reproduction was considered wrong; a woman was supposed to make babies whether she wanted to or not
  • victims of rape were considered at least partly responsible
  • if women could get maternity leave at all, there was no matching paternity leave, meaning that they took the sole career cost of having a family
  • women were not considered suited to management jobs
  • women could not aspire to any professions out of the limited pool of teaching and nursing
  • women were not expected to take credit for scientific discovery even if they played a pivotal role (Marie Curie shattered that barrier by winning two Nobels in different sciences)
You could argue that some of this could have been achieved without feminism. But if you look for the opposite kind of society that has not only failed to develop feminism but retains a dogmatic pre-modern patriarchal outlook, very few of the above have occurred.

Try Saudi Arabia, for example, where women are not allowed to drive and are not even allowed out of the house if they may encounter unknown adult males without a male relative chaperone (a mahram:a young child will do). In practice, this is not strictly enforced in situations like shopping but a Saudi woman may not be examined by a male doctor, for example, with a mahram companion. I asked a Muslim work colleague about this and he explained that the Quran requires that a women have male company in a situation of danger – as a practical guideline because men are on average stronger – and the ludicrous implication of the Saudi law is that their society is unsafe in ordinary day-to-day situations.

Afghanistan, despite the overthrow of the Taliban, remains a deeply misogynistic society, as do the tribal regions of Pakistan, with horrendous practices like “honour” murders.

Even more so: regions under control of ISIS.

Generally speaking biggest the enemy of feminism is literalist, patriarchal interpretation of religion.

And that also is found in Western society in the form of movements like the Tea Party (which fortunately is constrained by a robust constitution that they clearly would like to tear up).

So do we still need feminism – aren’t the achievements I listed enough? As long as we still have patriarchal and misogynist attitudes in society we need a movement to counter that. As one example, the mentality that a rape victim “asked for it” or at very least ought to be ashamed still persists. Why, if that is not the case, is a rape victim entitled to anonymity?

If you get drunk and fall asleep without closing your front door and wake up to find your house emptied by thieves, does society expect you to be so ashamed that your identity should be concealed? Even if you did something stupid that left you vulnerable, no one has to take advantage of that. In fact you could argue that a crime taking advantage of vulnerability is worse than taking on someone able to defend themselves.

So: yes, feminism is still relevant and there is still work to be done. And no: I do not support ludicrous interpretations of feminism, even if those interpretations are real and not the product of the fevered imagination of rabid right wingers.

Update: Some right wingers may argue that feminisms past achievements are good but – job done – we can stop the whole movement now. However the right side of politics bitterly opposed all these advances at the time and it is unreasonable to suppose that they would not attempt to backslide if the pressure let up.

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

The Survivor Fallacy

Survivor Bias

Survivor bias is a particular kind of logical fallacy – if you only recount the experience of the survivor, you leave out the victim. It is part of a wider sort of fallacy that I call survivor fallacy – basing your theory of the world on only looking at evidence of survival.

In a certain sense, there is value in only looking at who survived because that represents a kind of Darwinism – those who survived, you would think, are the best role models. But this is fallacious reasoning. You also have to look at those who did not survive to see if the survivors are a lucky minority out of those who did something bad for survival. What you really need to look at is whether those who survived beat the odds – are they over-represented compared with similar individuals who didn’t survive?

Some numbers. If you do something that has a 1 in a thousand chance of survival and you are part of a subgroup of humanity who have a 1 in a hundred chance of survival, you are onto something.  Without this missing piece of analysis, you have nothing.

Here’s an example. I heard a news report of someone who was sitting in a car at a red light, unable to move, when he saw a huge truck hurtling towards him. He prayed mightily and somehow survived the complete and utter wreck of his car without a scratch. This, he claimed, was a miracle. The problem is, if you have a one in thousand chance of surviving such an event, you have to assume – if it is not just that you got lucky – that the other 999 unlucky sods did not pray just as fervently as you did. Of course, since they died, there is no way to ask them. But in a society with a high level of religious belief (up to 90% in tribal societies like the United States), you have to assume that a similarly high level of those who were crushed were at least as religious as the survivor.

So did prayer work? Not likely. If 90% of the population is religious and only one in a thousand survives this sort of crash, being religious doesn’t really help your odds. Unless you can show that more than 90% of the survivors were also religious.

Another car crash variant: the person who survived a horror smash because he didn’t put on his seat belt. The other 999 out of a thousand who die in this scenario don’t get to tell the tale.

Likewise people who drink like a fish and smoke like a fish (smoked fish is tasty) and live to be 90 are not typical – and you tend not to run into people who did likewise and died before they reached 50 because they didn’t live long enough to meet a lot of new people.

Anthropic principle

Another variant on the same kind of bias is the anthropic principle. Let’s say for argument’s sake (since we don’t actually know) that it is extremely, wildly improbable that intelligent life develops on a planet. After all it took some 4-billion years on this one, and we have not discovered any incontrovertible evidence of alien intelligent life. So does that mean life on this planet had to be have been created by a deity? No. Even if it is stupendously unlikely for the conditions for not only life but intelligence to develop, if it happens in one place, the creatures so developed (us, for example) would be around to ask this sort of question. That is the essence of the anthropic principle: if the universe was not set up to support life (for whatever reason – even for no reason) and it did not develop as it did here, we would not be here to wonder how it all happened.

You can’t make this stuff up – or can you?

Here’s a fun story that illustrates survivor bias.
Imagine a pre-industrial civilization that develops the false myth that pigs have an instinct to swim towards land, so all ships carry a pig. If the ship is slowly sinking or supplies are running short, the pig is tossed overboard, and the ship sets sail whichever direction the pig chooses to swim. Every now and then a ship is lost at sea and is never seen or heard from again. Every now and then a ship arrives safe and sound after the pig toss. After much merriment and celebration (the pig’s role is unstated at this point), the pig myth is considered confirmed.

What of the ships that are lost? Who knows … no one can report back if they tossed a pig overboard and everyone died.
Curiously, I made up this story a while back to illustrate the survivor fallacy and don’t recall telling it widely, but if you search on “pig swims towards land myth” you find some people quoting just such a myth. You just can’t make this stuff up. Or, rather: I did but it’s hard to be original where superstition is concerned.

Monday, 4 January 2016

The Missing Middle

I present some thoughts on why political opposition to the ANC is failing to make much of an impact on the ANC’s support base.

You need to take care not to lump all ANC supporters together.

The rural poor have had genuine advances: running water, RDP houses, fuller schools. That the water supply is unreliable, the RDP houses fall apart and most of the schools are little better than day-care centres reduces the value of these gains a lot, but they are gains. Add in social grants and food parcels, and the ANC makes a pretence at caring about this section of the community and no one did before, so they get away with it.

The group more likely to switch are the emerging middle class who are finding that they earn more than the NSFAS cut-off yet can’t afford university fees, so their prospects for improving their next generation are frustrated, and frustrated hope is a huge driver of change. This also is a group that is more likely to read forums like this, and to feel they are not at home with the people they find here. Would they vote EFF? Maybe, maybe not. Agang should have been attractive to this group, but failed for a bunch of reasons I won’t bore you with.

If you step back and look at the big picture, new political movements arise from new alignments of class interests. Old movements decay into patronage networks. Old movements’ survival game is thwarting any realignment of class interests. The ANC has that covered with workers because unions have been absorbed into the patronage system. This works because the unions have a deep hierarchy and a small number of leaders near the top can be bought off relatively cheaply (cabinet posts, provincial government etc. – Shilowa was a good example, while that lasted). The emerging middle class is harder to buy off because it does not have a hierarchical structure. Hence the government’s fearful response to #FeesMustFall.

Race is the government’s key weapon to stop a realignment of middle class interests into a powerful political movement. They failed to split the EToll protest movement this way, but they did manage to split #ZumaMustFall to a large extent because of racist responses by supporters of this campaign.

Any opposition movement to be successful must tap into this growing demographic and firmly condemn racism not only in its ranks but also in its wider support base.

So why not the DA? The DA has the same neoliberal economic agenda as the ANC and has a general arrogance about it that makes it a difficult choice for voters who have not already bought into it. Its history also makes it unattractive.

Neoliberalism is the agenda of the rich: in every country that has bought into it, the result has been increasing inequality.

Though the DP grew out of long-time anti-apartheid predecessors, its 1999 “Fight Back” campaign under Tony Leon was designed to attract pro-apartheid voters (“fight back” against what?). Then when the DA was formed by merging with the “New” National Party, the suspicion was deepened that this was a party of closet apartheid apologists. When the NNP split off and merged with the ANC, somehow this was not seen as negative for the ANC.

Because of this baggage, the DA has trouble cutting through. For this reason, I still see a case for a new movement. If anyone is interested let me know and I can start you off with what went wrong with Agang…