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Never mind the statistics just feel the…er… feeling. John Waters has looked into his heart again…. October 31, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Crime, Media and Journalism.


I’ve had no reason to write about John Waters recently. Not entirely sure why, a couple of weeks back he wrote something I strongly agreed with which was pleasant. But with the inevitability of cold in Winter one need merely wait for the next outburst and this week he’s back on top form. The subject is… murder and…er… ‘modernisation’.

There is a point, one can never be sure at what stage but it exists nonetheless, where the most able contrarian tips seemingly inexorably into being a curmudgeon and/or grumpy old man (or woman as the case may be). Christopher Hitchens, his near unimaginable brother Peter, Cohen, Dawkins, Greer. All have moved from one state to another. We can plot their progress on charts, but somehow that doesn’t quite indicate the fearsome energy of their trajectory. Sadly I fear that point was some ways back in the case of JW and that he has joined this glittering host.

One of the features of this process is the way in which an idée fixe develops. In Dawkins case it is that if one says loudly and with great repetition that God doesn’t exist this will somehow sway people from some heavy duty cultural and social conditioning. Well… I guess it’s an idea. In Cohen’s case it is that the Saddam regime was the clearest manifestation of fascism since Germany in 1945 and therefore had to be dealt with in precisely the same way. Genius, perhaps you’ll agree. With JW it is that every problem of the contemporary period is the responsibility of ‘modernisation’. What is fascinating is that JW tends to take the opposite tack from Dawkins – where one depends upon logic and rationality, the other has recourse to the wildest shores of the relative and the emotive.

So, to our columnist…

Experts, by definition, are conspirators against common sense…

The thought struck me last week in the middle of a radio debate with a criminologist on the subject of Ireland’s apparently (note my careful layman’s qualifier) accelerating murder rate. The first two items on the news at the top of that morning’s programme concerned violent killings, but this did not in any way dilute the criminologist’s determination to prove that murder is a media invention.

I made a crude sketch of comparison with New York City, where the homicide rate is now, following a massive spike in the 1980s, back to roughly where it was in the early 1960s. Less than a half-century ago, murders in Ireland were in single figures. This year, to date, there have been 60 homicides, and it is likely that the final 2007 figure will be 1,000 per cent up on when I was a boy.

There is a problem here. Is 60+ a 1000% increase on the early 1960s figures? Well, we’ve looked at these before, haven’t we. Because those figures were not quite in the single figures JW proposes. Between 1960 and 1965 they were for each successive year, 6, 13, 12, 5, 14, 12. Single figures in only two years. It gets worse. For the rest of the decade they remained above 12 and went up to 57 by 1974. [all figures are from The Village]

The expert, pursuing a familiar line, sought, in a series of increasingly fatuous arguments, to deny the validity of this telling comparison. I wasn’t allowing, she said, for the distinction between murder and manslaughter. The population of New York had fallen since the early 1960s. Irish juries had been reluctant to convict for murder while the death penalty remained in place. Far from having a murder crisis, she insisted, Ireland remains one of the safest, most violence-free places in the world.

I didn’t hear the interview, so I cannot tell whether this is a fair summation of the criminologists spiel. But, mention of New York is bizarre. Is he seriously making a comparison between a country of 3 to 4 million people and a city of many millions more? Is it possible to make a direct comparison between state and city? Between widely different sociopolitical and cultural backgrounds? And yet he appears to be doing so. And with no apparent irony considering the way in which he later denigrates those who try to propose international comparisons…

I do not need statistics to tell me that there are many more murders happening in Ireland today than when I was growing up. My sense that this is so has nothing to do with media hype or over-reporting. It is an impression gleaned in the same way as I glean a myriad of other impressions about the society I live in. It is based on what we used to call common sense.

But what does this mean, this recourse to ‘common sense’? A gut reaction? Looking into one’s heart? I don’t know, and I’ll hazard the guess few others do either. Consider the murder rate post 1974 when it jumped to 57. It then fell back to the 30s and has bumped along between 19 (1986) and 66 (2006) with peaks in 1997 (53), 2002 (59) and a drop to 46 in 2004. That is a considerable volume of murders. Each is a tragedy in its own right. But the problem is that it’s not – in international terms – anywhere near the top of the pile.

But why look at the statistics? As John Waters says…

Of course, Irish crime statistics are notoriously inadequate, and it is difficult to make precise comparisons between one country, or one era, and another. But, even allowing for the imprecisions of the available data, the general, approximate picture is stark. Moreover, that general statistical picture reflects what we had just been hearing on the news – what we have been hearing on the news for quite some time now. Looked at year-on-year, the figures appear to support these persistent assertions that the public have been bombarded with an exaggerated view of rising crime. But when you survey the graph of criminality climbing inexorably since the 1960s, it becomes clear that the public’s growing sense of the matter is well founded.

Unfortunately this simply isn’t accurate. Crime statistics regarding murder are not inadequate (note though the subtle shift of terrain in the paragraph above – no longer does he discuss murder but ‘criminality’, a much much more diffuse creature). A rise – inexorable or not, and it has fallen even in the recent past – is not exponential. Population increase alone would suggest that there would be a rise.

To requote Vincent Browne:

In 1983 the population was around 3.5 million; it is now over 4 million. The headline crime rate in 1983 per 1,000 of the population was 29.3. The rate in 2006 was 26. And throughout the period from 1983 to 2006 the rate per 1,000 of the population was have been either static or in decline.

But why mention that troublesome point? Or consider that at historic points the graph went up in a way that links the figures to various processes. The North. Drugs. So on. So forth. And this ‘growing sense’. Let’s think about that. What he seems to be saying is that some cumulative multiplier effect kicks into action. So we’re back on the territory of ‘feelings’.

Nor is it difficult to make comparisons between one country or one era. Otherwise why would JW have wasted 860 odd words on the subject, since if comparisons are difficult to make then common sense or not we have no basis for assessment. But that’s part of the process, because JW doesn’t want to accept the evidence from around the world. Doesn’t want to accept that all, while not exactly well, is not quite at the deluge stage. And hence the inevitable turn inwards. It is a problem, because I say it is a problem. Solipsism becomes the philosophical underpinning of the day.

And it is solipsistic, because curiously he makes no mention of the fact that between 1927 and 1938 inclusive the murder rate was generally as high or higher than it currently is. Perhaps the past is not quite as uncomplicated as he thinks, perhaps his parents might have had a word or two to say about the remarkable drop to single figures (now and again) during the 1950s.

But wait… it’s not all about murder. Perhaps for JW it’s not even about murder, since he argues that:

It is interesting to speculate on the motivations of these “experts”. Superficially, you might decide that they prefer to be saying something unexpected rather than something obvious, and so will continue to promote an exotic theory even in the face of overwhelming evidence. There’s no doubt that these specialists tend to have a contempt for the media, which they regard as pursuing an unscientific approach to reality. But perhaps the most significant factor is that, as a consequence of our way of educating them, experts tend to subscribe, in the manner of a faith, to a modernising ideology which, in an involuted and perverse way, regards criminality as a backhanded compliment to the robustness of the progress agenda. In a certain skewed sense our culture tends to regard rising crime rates as evidence that we are becoming like “other modern societies”. Murder and mayhem are therefore not merely inevitable but, in a certain sense, provide reassurances that the modernising project is unfolding correctly.

The problem is that the experts are right, and JW is sadly incorrect. There is nothing ‘exotic’ or ‘unexpected’ in saying that murder in this society is, while a genuine problem, still remarkably limited. That in comparison to other societies at similar levels of development it is low. That for the general populace the dangers of intersecting with it are remote.

To argue that theirs is a ‘faith’ when it is he who refuses to look at the statistics and draw their lesson is an assertion of remarkable … well, fill in your own word. To then say that they only do this because of some ill-defined link to ‘the modernising project’ (why yes, that pesky Enlightenment and its concentration on the Rational. How modish that must be some x centuries later) is to pile oddity upon oddity.

To then say that those who are actually expert in the field are incorrect because of a ‘feeling’ is to move, despite the rhetorical and lyrical flights of fancy, the language wrapped in prose that is close but unfortunately not quite there with Zizek (which only goes to prove that even if one does move into the thrall of psychoanalysis or pseudo-psychoanalysis a good strong materialist education in Slovenia while part of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia is no harm), is to move to a situation where the rational is dismissed. It’s magical thinking. No more no less.

So, we have an article, so lacking in context, social, political or historical as to be essentially nothing more than a simple attack upon ‘modernising ideology’ and the ‘progress agenda’.

And – in fairness to the criminologist and others, who exactly are we to compare ourselves against other than ‘other modern societies’? Does South Africa give us greater cause for comfort? Brazil? Perhaps Somalia? Afghanistan?

I’m not trying in any sense to downplay the cruelty and pain that accompanies murder. It is a crushing demeaning blow, the antithesis and yet somehow also a core part of the human, and something that our fictions play with too lightly. But it happens. It has happened and arguably it will continue to happen. We can, and must ameliorate it as best as is possible (look at the figures for murder in the domestic context, as Vincent Brown did at the weekend, which vastly outweigh gang on gang murders).

But this isn’t about preventing it, instead we are treated to a hastily assembled attack on ‘modernisation’. That societies change. That technological and social change has been rapid across the 20th century. That that 20th century saw waves of murders as high as the present period and in a population that was much smaller. That we have also seen the proliferation of drugs and arms. That our Gardai have – to my mind – actually managed to hold the line as a largely unarmed police force in this society rather well. That we had the irruption of an unstable and illegitimate polity a mere hundred miles or so to the North (a tricky one that because how to interpret the conflict there? Hard not to see that as a deep frozen history thawing far far too rapidly – but that’s not modernity, or one of the complaints of same, surely?). That change happens because we’re humans. Not one of these matters. Instead the straw man of ‘modernity’ is dragged out for yet another thrashing.

And even were ‘modernisation’ to blame. Or those who propose ‘modernisation’ – and while he doesn’t say that he sails close to the wind. How on earth are we meant to empirically engage with that? Shut down the libraries? Turn off the television? Turn back the clock?

The Waters of Jiving at the Crossroads has seemingly vanished. The Waters who gave us An Intelligent Persons Guide to Modern Ireland has apparently left the building. Both were interesting and useful works. Both contained a humanity and a sense of humour about the travails and triumphs of living in a complex society undergoing – as all societies do – continual change. Now we have a one-note attack on ‘modernisation’ that has become so sustained that I fear there may be a book on the topic in the works. One has to wonder when we’re going to start hearing some proposals for solutions instead of assertions that are factually and conceptually incorrect.

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1. chekov - October 31, 2007

“I do not need statistics to tell me that there are many more murders happening in Ireland today than when I was growing up. My sense that this is so has nothing to do with media hype or over-reporting. It is an impression gleaned in the same way as I glean a myriad of other impressions about the society I live in. It is based on what we used to call common sense.”

Right there we have a profound declaration of absolute stupidity, not to mention a total lack of insight into how people form ideas. His common sense is apparently unrelated to any stimuli of the senses, it just sits there and knows stuff about the world somehow. What a total moron.

My (slightly more polite) own take on waters: http://www.village.ie/Media/Newspapers/Columnists_take_on_the_world_not_reality/

2. ejh - October 31, 2007

To be honest, when we have pieces attacking the use of statistics and elevating “common sense” (i.e. believing what it suits one to believe) then Dawkins does rather seem to have a point.

3. Idris of Dungiven - October 31, 2007

How much does Waters drink? I’m not being funny. Kevin Myers’ descent into that grim place he now inhabits seems to have correlated with his acquisition of the pink, puffy face of the typical problem drinker. Now it may be that neither Waters nor Myers touch a drop of the devil’s buttermilk – but if they did, that would certainly explain the rather sub-standard quality of their work over the past few years and decades.

4. coc - October 31, 2007

“the general, approximate picture is stark”

This is funny. Is there a word for this? A Watersism perhaps?

Here’s a few more I made up myself:

“the lazy, formulaic article is incisive”
“the crazy, delusional journalist is insightful”

5. WorldbyStorm - October 31, 2007

ejh, I didn’t intend to knock Dawkins, someone I have enormous respect for, just the way he makes his points.

Idris, that’s a scary thought.

coc, that’s even more scary.

6. sonofstan - October 31, 2007

I could be completely wrong, but I have a vague memory from a TV programme Waters did about Castlerea (was the series called My Own Place?) that – contra Idris – he doesn’t drink – can’t remember if that’s ‘doesn’t drink anymore’ or ‘never drank in the first place’.

7. WorldbyStorm - October 31, 2007

I’m not sure either. That seems to ring a bell, but it could just be my mind playing tricks on me.

8. coc - November 1, 2007

His common sense is apparently unrelated to any stimuli of the senses, it just sits there and knows stuff about the world somehow. What a total moron.

He just feels it in his Waters!

L’esprit d’escalier never need go unexpressed on t’interweb.

9. deiseach - November 2, 2007

It reminds me of a recent spat in the English press where Melanie Phillips lambasted those who said that there was no stastistical link between the MMR vaccine and autism. Her assertion was that many people who had to live with the effects of autism on their children felt there was a link, and therefore it must be true. It’s like saying the evidence of my eyes says the Sun moves around the Earth.

Johnn, you don’t want to be like Melanie Phillips.

10.   Never mind the statistics just feel the…er… feeling. John Waters … by sweetthings - November 4, 2007

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