Is gay marriage bad for marriage?

Following the coverage of the gay marriage debate in Commons, and only hearing those on the side of the status quo defend themselves from being called bigots and nazis, I went looking for arguments in favour of ‘preserving marriage’.

Sure enough I came across c4m.org.uk and their 10 Reasons Why the Government is Wrong to Redefine Marriage. Not having an unlimited amount of time, I decided to only dissect the first argument  on their list; the exact text reads:

Evidence shows that redefining marriage actually undermines support for marriage in wider society. Neither has it delivered the promised stability for same-sex couples. In Spain, after gay marriage was introduced, marriage rates across the whole population plummeted. In the Netherlands too there has been a significant fall in the marriage rate since marriage was redefined. Same-sex marriage does not promote marriage.

Although there are a few statements in there (many that I take issue with), the thrust of the argument is that by looking at data from Spain & Holland, where gay marriage has been legalised, we see a falling number of marriages. This is due to said legalisation and we can therefore conclude that support for marriage is also falling.

The first point to make is that for this to be correct, the only way to support marriage is to be getting married. The figures only count marriages that take place, so anyone that is already married needs to get married again for their support to be registered.

What’s more, anyone not getting married after the legalisation of gay marriage does so because they do not believe in marriage. This decision has nothing to do with not having found someone to marry or not having enough money to do so.

However, I decided not to focus on the logic of the text (lack thereof?) and go hunting for the statistics.

Helpfully, the article does reference the Spanish [in Spanish] and Dutch figures, which means we can take a look at them.

España

Beginning with the Spanish figures, we can see that, since 2005 there has indeed been a decline in the number of marriages. But this is also true of the numbers since 2004, and in fact since 1989. So one could argue that this is part of a larger trend.

But even that is a simplification – between 1986 and 2007 we can see the figures rising and falling between 200,000 and 220,000. It is only after 2008 that the number of marriages really drops off. Exactly around the time of the financial crisis.

So what about the Dutch figures?

Nederland

Well yes, since 2001 when gay marriage was legalised, the number of weddings has fallen from 82,000 to 71,500. But again this doesn’t take into account fluctuations like an increase to 86,000 in 2002, or slight jumps in 2008 and 2010. So there hasn’t just been a steady decline.

What’s more, the figures show a decline of 6,000 between 2000 and 2001. So once again, whatever the reason for the decline, I might easily argue that it began before gay marriage.

But what of other countries that have legalised gay marriage? After hunting for the statistics for Canada and Argentina (to no avail), I came across the figures for South Africa and Belgium [in French - 1st .xls on the right] (which go right back to 1830!).

South Africa

For South Africa (gay marriage legalised 2006), the report I came across cites the 10 year period 2001-2010, that the year with the lowest number of marriages was 2001. In 2010 the figure stood at 171,000 (up from 135,000 in 2001), and so it might be argued (by c4m.org.uk’s logic) that gay marriage has increased support for marriage.

Belgique

In Belgium the figures show a steady increase in marriages from 2003 (gay marriage legalised) until 2008, when they dropped slightly to 2001 levels to put them in line with a decline that has been taking place for far longer.

The figures from all four of these countries hardly demonstrate compelling evidence that gay marriage undermines support for marriage.

In order to explain any decline/ increase in marriages would be to do a far more thorough investigation and analysis of a huge range of factors.

And even then, you still wouldn’t have proved the link between the number of marriages and support for them.

Bereavement more likely than divorce.

Way back in 2010 when the coalition agreement was put together, it seemed like every political commentator was clamouring to discuss the ‘fact’ that ‘British politics doesn’t do coalitions’. And claim that sooner, rather than later, it would all break down.

Two and a bit years later, the divorce still hasn’t happened; in my opinion it won’t because the Lib Dems stand to lose too much if it does break down – a central plank of their beliefs is that governance by coalition (proportional representation) is better than simple majority governments. Therefore, a breakdown in the coalition would mean that they’re wrong, and spell the end of any sort of chance for them in the future.

So divorce is pretty unlikely.

On Friday, Chief Political Correspondent for the Guardian, Nicholas Watt wrote a piece outlining the size of the Tory’s europhobic headache migraine, and it honestly seems to me that the reason for the current coalition falling apart is now more likely to be that the Tory Party simply implodes

Making the most of the British ego.

On my way to go shopping today, I was sadden to see that the UKIP sign urging motorists to ‘say no to the Euro’ has been renewed (not that anyone is asking). Although it was saddening because it reminded me of the strength of europhobic sentiments in the UK, it also reminded me of the fact that Britain’s relationship is almost exclusively based around economics.

 

It seems that Britain’s cooperation in the European project is a zero-sum game, whereby the appearance of any red in our column will spell the end of our involvement. While no other EU member would want to lose out economically, their equations are more complex. Their reasons for being involved with the EU do not boil down to money.

 

For instance, Spain and Greece need look back no further than 40 years into their histories to find themselves under the rule of dictators. While most of the Eastern European EU members need look just a little more than 12 years to see themselves being dominated by the USSR. Both these factors figure heavily in their decision to be EU members. 

 

The obvious point to make here is that Britain lacks any ‘heart’ for wanting to join, but what we might find is a new way of selling the EU to the British – by appealing to vanity.

 

For all its faults, Britain is democratic, secure, and has a (mostly) working economic model. These are attributes that other EU nations seek to emulate, and are why other states want us playing a large role within the EU. As much was made plain in a recent BBC Radio 4 documentary, Europe Moves East.

 

Although we gave up on our empire quite some time ago, much of Britain still holds the image of a world power in its mind. By emphasising our image within Europe as a leading light, we might convince  the British public that there’s more to the EU than the rebate. Indeed for many Eastern european member states, the EU forms “the bedrock for their infant democracies, and their security.”

EU reform is good but we need understanding.

It wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be, is about the best I can say of Ed Miliband’s speech to the CBI conference this week. I’d expected a damp squib of a performance, when in fact he came off as capable. And though I wouldn’t exactly describe his pro-EU arguments as new, they are at least cogent. His strategy is essentially to focus on reforming the EU and win over eurospectics. However, I don’t think it is as simple as that.

What is needed, is a genuine change in the media narrative surrounding the EU. For many British newspapers, the EU is the piñata from which sweets continue to fall, every time they flog it. So it’s no surprise that euroscepticism is on the rise. At best, I’d describe EU coverage as misleading, and the EU itself sees it as such an issue that they’ve gone to the trouble of devoting an entire blog to disprove anti-EU stories.

Part of fixing this first problem is that we need a greater understanding of firstly, what the EU is, and secondly, what the EU does; a problem demonstrated by the CBI speech. Admitting that the EU isn’t perfect and requires reform is part of Miliband’s new strategy (and rightly so), citing the EU-wide unemployment level of 25 million as evidence. However, this gives the misleading idea that the EU itself is to blame for such a figure. In actual fact, there could be a multitude of reasons for arriving at this number, but in the mind of the public it portrays the EU firmly as the bad guy. In short, the woes of European nation states cannot be automatically attributed to the European Union.

The other part of Miliband’s policy that I take issue with, is his call to cut the EU budget. While I agree that in hard economic times we should not see a dramatic rise, this should not mean we cut it. By that logic, once we return to growth, the EU budget should increase. It’s worth keeping in mind that the budget will run until 2020, which is quite a few years after our elected representatives will have presumably returned us to economic growth. Unless of course the politicians have no faith in their leadership.

Reith 2012: Ferguson’s Rules of Law (and his enemies)

A few days ago, I finally got round to listening to the last of this year’s Reith Lectures given by Niall Ferguson. During his quartet of lectures, titled The Rule of Law and its Enemies, he has aimed, as he said, to unlock the black boxes of democracy, capitalism (not that I’d say this needed unlocking), the rule of law, and civil society.

 

I found the lectures highly enjoyable and easy to follow and understand. First Ferguson would give a historical background, from which he then reasons his argument. And at just 25-30mins long each, followed by a Q&A session, not having enough time is hardly an excuse to avoid them.

 

He posits this year’s series on looking what has gone wrong in the West, that it is no longer the outright leader of the world. As evidence he cites the figure that the average American is now only x5 richer than the average Chinese (rather than x20 not long ago) and as a method of understanding this ‘fall’, he takes a look at the institutions/ areas mentioned above. Although I don’t entirely agree with the idea that the West’s decline in power is a direct result of an actual decline (more than as a result of the rise of the rest), it is still very much worth hearing him out.

 A mountain to crush the future

That said, in his first lecture, Ferguson did address one issue with which can definitely be held up as decline, our accumulation of public debt. This should not be confused with the current debate surrounding the deficit, the yearly amount our government overspends. Although this and the rate it should be cut is important, Ferguson focuses on the already established debt mountain, adding with it that future liabilities in the form of pensions and social care will form a crushing burden for future generations. He offers the American figure of $200tn as the different between current Federal liabilities and future Federal revenues in the USA. This surely strikes fear into the hearts anyone concerned with the future, and Ferguson adds that this is not even a complete figure.

 

This landscape can be viewed in just about every Western country and results from our current society living beyond its means, at the expense of future generations. This represents a breaking of the social contract laid out by, not Rousseau, but Edmund Burke. That of a social contract between the living, the dead, and the not yet born. Ferguson argues that failure to redress this imbalance will result in a pursuit of Mediterranean countries down a spiral of tax rises, spending cuts and a loss of credibility. Restoring the intergenerational contract is the West’s biggest challenge.

 The flow of capital under the law

In his next two lectures, Ferguson focuses on finance and the importance of the rule of law. On finance he argues that what is needed in order to reform the financial sector now, is not complex regulation (which will more than likely stifle the industry) but greater punishment and better oversight. Here again I find myself agreeing with him – after all, it seems that when the bankers have decided whether to undertake risky investments or break any laws, after balancing the risks, they still decide to go ahead. Far more severe punishments and robust supervision would go a long way to reforming banking culture.

 

Regarding the rule of law, Ferguson highlighted the importance of law in encouraging economic activity, and as a result actually spent quite some time talking about China. Necessary for further Chinese development, he says, is that the Chinese Communist Party establish itself as a legal entity (the reasons for which can be found in the lecture), and that the 150,000 or so lawyers in China, form quite a positive force for political change.

An educational cure

It’s Ferguson’s final lecture in the series where I find myself in greatest disagreement though. The talk is ostensibly about civil society, participation in which Ferguson describes as in decline (he does provide evidence, though this is contested in the Q&A). However, he spends what seems like the majority of his time speaking about the benefits of an expansion of private and independent secondary education, together with increasing the number of bursaries available to students from less well-off background and a voucher system. While a state monopoly is good at providing basic education, he argues, it is not good at providing a good education. Ferguson describes this as a plea for ‘biodiversity’ in the system.

 

In support of his prescription, he quotes statistics from the OECD’s PISA survey of education, citing our ‘poor’ performance. And the impressive turn arounds at many failing schools after gaining academy status. What’s more, he cites the promising progress that Toby Young is reporting at his West London Free School and the exam result triumph of the Success Academy in Harlem, New York. For a fuller outline of his argument, it’s probably best just to listen to the lecture.

 

And while I do (again) find myself in agreement with Ferguson that a higher level of independence for the schools is a good thing, I don’t agree that an influx of private schools into the system will help matters. In fact I disagree that private education system is necessarily better than state.

 

Firstly, I’m not convinced that the logistics of the move would work out – for the most part, our population doesn’t have the money to send their children to a private school, and for the state to pay for a voucher system would appear to be very expensive; an odd suggestion for someone who earlier advocated the rebalancing of public finances.

 

Secondly, if you were to consult the PISA results (handily available via Google) I would highlight Sweden & Denmark. Ferguson singles these countries out for praise as leaders in education reform that has enabled more children to attend private schools, though their PISA results peg them about level with the UK. Granted, it may be that the policy hasn’t had enough time to take effect but even if that’s so, that would mean it’s still too earlier to judge the success of the scheme.

 

A better direction for reform, it would seem, is to look at how often & when we test students, what subjects & options for study students have, and how much support is given to teachers (small, fewer classes & longer training). In short, the system to look at is Finland’s. I first heard about Finland’s education earlier this year by watching a documentary called The Finland Phenomenon. Finland’s system differs from others for many reasons – no private schools, no standardised tests, no homework, no league tables, schooling beginning at 7 – and yet it ranks 1st in pretty much every PISA category.

 

So I can’t agree with Ferguson on the expansion of the private sector education, especially when so, so many other people are cheering on alternate possibilities.

Photography Comes into Focus

I caught myself at a loose end in London yesterday. I’d been visiting some friends but had a couple of hours to spare, so I decided that I’d go via the Saatchi Gallery on my way back to Paddington, and take in Out of Focus: Photography.

I can’t pretend to know all that much about photography but I still enjoyed wandering around the exhibition and there were a few prints/ collections that caught my eye, first and foremost of which, were pieces from David Benjamin Sherry. These were landscapes that, individually would have been majestic, but with colour filters applied they elicited a series of other emotions. The yellow, red, turquoise and violet hues instead gave them etherial, peaceful and awesome qualities.

Chris Levine’s Lightness of Being was an individual print that held my attention for while. I’m fairly certain I’ve seen the print somewhere before, but have never really considered it before, and reading a little about it in the exhibition guide made me appreciate the subtle qualities of it. Levine actually snapped it while Elizabeth II was sitting for a holographic portrait in 2004, and caught the monarch in an moment of meditation. The crucial fact is that her eyes are closed, which allows us to see her in another light. Closed eyes, as the guide points out, “were reserved for great singers and musicians, who were in tune with another world; Kings, Queens and statesmen had to have their eyes open and fixed firmly on the here-and-now.”

‘Lightness of Being’ by Chris Levine

I found Katy Grannan’s series of Anonymous portraits from San Francisco similarly interesting. She chose a series of older people for the portraits, all shot against a white wall. Though the individuality of expression and appearance meant that every print was radically different, hinting at the different lives each had lived, the white wall gave a sense of commonality between the diversity of the people.

Matthew Day Jackson’s 48 prints of nature also left an impression on me. Each shot was taken in a different region of America, over a period of 4 months, and features a naturally occurring human-esque face. Some prints give up their look more easily than others, but taken together they give the impression of nature as a person. And at that, a being of permanence that was here years before us, and will remain once we’re gone.

Out of Focus: Photography is at the Saatchi Gallery, just off Sloane Square and is free. Be quick though, the exhibition closes Sunday 22nd July.

Once, twice, three times the tyranny.

Without meaning to, I recently read a trilogy of dictatorial oppression. Victor Kravchenko’s I Choose Freedom, Jung Chang’s Wild Swans and Art Spiegelman’s Maus recount the stories of survivors of brutal regimes that committed murder on an mammoth scale. In spite of the grim subject matter, the books are not in fact exceedingly horrific in their portrayals, preferring objectivity over high-drama and to anyone unfamiliar with the events (not that I am an expert) are well worth reading. They offer brilliant insight into the workings of extreme ideologies, personality cults, and the power they hold over their subjects; effects are still felt today.

I Choose Freedom, is pretty well summed up by its tag line: “the personal and political life of a Soviet official”, covering Kravchenko’s life from a childhood witnessing the Communist revolution to adulthood and defection to the West in 1944. Its publication in 1947 is notable because the Cold War hadn’t really gotten underway. The USSR was still seen in a positive light by many in the West, and when tales of inhumanity did make it out from behind the iron curtain, they were rubbished.

In fact, this is what happened to Victor Kravchenko when the French Communists published an article attacking his picture of complete imprisonment inside a state apparatus that created and fed off fear. Kravchenko later successfully sued them for libel. So too, the widespread famine, slave armies and paranoid witch-hunts did not sit easily with Communist sympathizers who likened Russia to a utopia.

Wild Swans constructs a similarly dystopian image, of a China that blindly loves, and yet is governed in a psychopathic manner by, Chairman Mao. Though Stalin created a personality cult and was admired by Mao, it would appear that the Chinaman took the concept to a new and dizzying heights, installing a regime that indoctrinated the Chinese from a young age. Chang says a few times that although on reflection, the ills of the land could not possibly be caused by anyone but Mao, it took a long time even for her to even contemplate the idea that he my be responsible for suffering on an unimaginable scale.

Its worth noting as well that both books also demonstrate the positives of Communism – examples where good management/ governance was of genuine benefit to the workers/citizens. However, over the lifetimes of her grandmother, her mother and then herself (and in I Choose Freedom), we are shown they system’s corruption and only makes for a more painful reading as the highly capable are persecuted and replaced by the more politically skillful (though inestimably less qualified).

Maus deals with extremism on the other end of the spectrum, telling the story of the author’s father in Poland during the rise of Nazism and the consequent Holocaust. It also differs for a couple of other reasons, a) it is a graphic novel and b) it was awarded a Pulitzer Prize Special Award in 1992. Not having read many graphic novels, I can’t compare it to others but Spiegelman’s use of the medium makes eloquent and beautiful use of both illustration and structure. It is eminently obvious why it is so highly lauded.

Although to say that the story is simply about Spiegelman’s father is rather misleading, I feel that it is as autobiographical, as it is biographical. Spiegelman shows the history and personality of his father, by showing how he researched and wrote Maus. You see how they interact, talk to each other and get an idea of how the Holocaust affected not just the father, but also the son.

Sense from madness

I think try to come away with any grand conclusions would require me to have read more books that I actually have and to be honest, have spent more time thinking about this post than I have. But there are a few things that struck me after having finished all three books.

For a start, the scale of the of deaths that the three dictators are responsible for is immense and he mindset whereby human life is given such a low value is almost unfathomable. In the case of Stalin and Mao, they seemed to be of the opinion that no matter how many people they killed, it was but a drop in the ocean of the overall populations. As for Hitler and the Nazis, they didn’t accept that what they were doing was inhumane, by the sheer fact that the victims were not human.

A feature of the Communist regimes that is worth exploring a little more, is that of the purges. Although both Stalin and Mao had led their countries to victory through revolution and world war, they felt that their struggle was not over and that subversive elements lurked. The numerous witch-hunts claimed many lives and caused untold disruption, what’s more, these purges were frequently conducted to satisfy centrally dictated quotas, which more often than not were used to settle feuds and jealousies. In I Choose Freedom and Wild Swans, time and again ‘the able but politically disinclined’ are picked off, many times by former friends – everyone learnt to look out for themselves.

The legacy of the events also impressed me. Maus is the obvious example of how history still affects the victims but it is interesting to look at how some still deny that these events occurred. Clearly the Holocaust Deniers are an illustration, but we can also see Mao Yushi in China (no relation to Mao), who has faced opposition to his articles calling for a reexamination of Mao’s record 36 years after his death; such is the power of his personality cult.

A modern day example of the personality cults can be seen in North Korea, and while many have either laughed at the North Koreans for mourning Kim Jong-Il, or questioning their sincerity, I think they were genuinely grieving. In an all-seeing, all-hearing, all-controlling state, it is more than possible to make the citizens think that black is white and white is black, even today.



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