Monday, June 09, 2008

Mark Steyn, demography and the pattern of global change

When I wrote Sunday Essay - Mark Steyn, the law and the future of blogging I did not intend to become involved in the discussion on the Steyn matter. Rather, I focused on a few things that caught my attention because of their implications for the world of blogging.

Then I noticed this traffic spike, with traffic coming from both the scepticslawyer blog and Mark Steyn's own site. Traffic has increased further since I started the post. So I started digging in a little, looking at other aspects of the discussion.

I had to grin.

Scepticslawyer combines the very different views of Legal Eagle and scepticlawyer.

I think that I would classify Legal Eagle in Australian terms as centre left. In mainline blog terms, she comes from the world of Club Troppo. By contrast, scepticlawyer is a libertarian. In blogging terms, she comes from the world of Catallaxy.

These are gross generalisations, I know. My point is that they are very different people, joined by a love of good writing, discussion and the law. By the way both, I tip me lid to you for the success of the new joint venture. Mark Steyn's drawing power is huge, yet in terms of click-throughs to this blog, there was one for you for every two of Mark's.

Poor Legal Eagle and Scepticlawyer. Some of the international blog discussion confused the two. Scepticlawyer became centre left. Annoyed, they had to try to distinguish themselves. This is very like, in family terms, what happens when my youngest gets called by her sister's name. Usually polite outrage is the best description.

Digging into the discussion, I decided that the most useful thing that I could do was to look not at the legal issues flowing from the case, but at Mr Steyn's original arguments that caused all the fuss. You will find the original article, an excerpt from a book, here.

In looking at the article, I found some difficult in breaking through to the core.

Mr Steyn is a professional writer and publicist. He writes to attract attention, to promote causes and, dare I say it, to sell books. He does so to considerable effect. He belongs to what Club Troppo classifies as RWDB, Right Wing Death Blogs. Further, he writes from a North American centric position.

This makes it difficult for someone like me who comes from a very different world to break through the barriers created by Mr Steyn's language to the underlying messages. Now here there is a strong similarity to some of the things that I have been saying, if from a very different perspective.

The Importance of Demographic Change

The nature of demographic change, the decline in the birth rate in developed countries and the consequent aging of the population, is the first building block in Mr Steyn's argument.

Over the last two years I have been arguing consistently and persistently that demographic change is the single most important challenge that Australia and the world faces. The posts are spread across several blogs. On this blog alone, I have written 39 posts on demographic matters.

In writing, I have drawn in part from the demography.matters blog. I may not agree with all their arguments, but this blog is one of the best I know that deals with the implications of demographic change on a sustained basis.

Put simply, while climate change and our responses to it may determine human survival in the long term, at national level the impact of demographic change will be (in some ways already is) the single most important policy driver over the next forty or fifty years. Never before have we lived in a world where many presently major countries will experience the combination of population decline with population aging. This will affect every aspect of life.

Demographic Change and the World's Muslim Population

While Mr Steyn is right to talk about the importance of demographic change, his arguments about the growth of the Muslim population do not appear to make a great deal of sense at global level.

I stand to be corrected on the facts, but when I look at the overall pattern it is far from clear to me that the Muslim proportion of the world population is going to increase significantly.

Over the next few decades, the biggest single population shift is going to be the rise of India. Yes, India does have a major Muslim majority, but the growth in the non-Muslim population will far outweigh this.

Pakistan and Bangladesh will experience significant population growth, as will Indonesia. These are all Muslim countries. I am not sure about North Africa without checking. My impression is that birth rates are or will drop there.

Sub-Saharan Africa will experience significant population growth, as will parts of Latin America. The first will increase Muslim numbers, but not necessarily the proportion of the Muslim population. The second will increase nominal Christian numbers.

So, overall, I would need to see the actual numbers analysed before I could accept Mr Steyn's point.

If Mr Steyn were to mount a more general argument about the overall challenge to western democracies as a consequence of population change, then he might have my support. The current split in the Anglican Church is an example of the trend here.

Demographic Change at Country Level

The position does change somewhat when we drop from global to country level. However, the striking thing here is the variation, a variation due to history and geographical proximity.

If I read the US correctly, the dominant immigration concern is the influx of Hispanics from south of the border, an influx that is changing the US in fundamental ways.

In Australia, the emerging immigration challenges to my mind will be posed by our responses to Papua-New Guinea, the Pacific Islands and Indonesia, as well as China and India.

As a simple example, PNG's large birthrate is shifting the population balance between PNG and Australia. It is not hard to see circumstances in which Australia might end up admitting a million or so PNG and Pacific Islanders over a decade or two.

Europe is different again because of its close proximity to predominantly Muslim countries. Then, too, there are the historical links and conflicts between Europe and the Muslim world.

The Muslim Fundamentalist Challenge

There is no doubt in my mind that Muslim fundamentalism does pose a real challenge. However, I see this in very different ways from Mr Steyn or indeed some of my blogging colleagues.

Fundamentalists of all types - Christian, Hindu, Muslim or the modern command and control environmental or social puritan - make for uncomfortable bed-fellows. Their central feature is not just that they believe that they are right, but that their rightness gives them the automatic right to impose their views on others. Today, the world is full of fundamentalists of all types.

To my mind, the real central feature of the rise of Western Civilisation has been the development of a view and supporting system that allows people to have different and deeply held views, but prevents them imposing those views willy-nilly on others. This view has developed slowly and been forged through blood and fire.

Many Muslim bloggers, and indeed Western bloggers too, point to the barbarisms of the European past. They are right, but both miss the point. Despite those barbarisms, in some ways because of them, Western Civilisation has displayed a capacity (however imperfect) to learn.

In this area I both agree and disagree with Mr Steyn.

He suggests, correctly in my view, that we have lost sight of the values of our own system.

In Australia, as an example, we have been so busy cutting ourselves off from the perceived evils of our own past that we have actually cut ourselves off from that past. We are like a tree whose root system has been severed.

He suggests, again correctly in my view, that we have lost the moral confidence to defend the things we believe in. However, things get confused here because we actually combine moral uncertainty with a sometimes astonishing and unthinking degree of arrogance in our willingness to impose our views on others.

This brings me to my disagreement with Mr Steyn, the way he has created an artificial construct of a Muslim fundamentalist challenge on one side, a threatened West that must defend its position on the other.

The Tragedy of 9/11

9/11 was a tragedy for the American people, as was Bali for the Australian people. The response to 9/11 has been a tragedy for the whole world.

Let me make my own position quite clear.

I supported the coalition invasion of Iraq. While I believe now that this was a mistake, having made the mistake I support the retention of troops in Iraq for the present. I supported the invasion of Afghanistan, and support continued Western involvement there. I believe that Muslim terrorism is a threat.

All this said, the US and broader Western response to 9/11 is, to my mind, a classic case of moral and political panic, of the loss of moral confidence that I referred to earlier.

At no stage has Al Qaeda or any of the other terrorist groups had the power to pose a fundamental challenge to the Western system or even individual countries. Yet in our moral funk we have turned what should have been a controlled, measured response into a global campaign that has twisted life and perceptions in every Western country and, in so doing, has weakened the very moral authority on which we depend.

The effects are profound. In Australia, for example, the anti-terrorism responses has weakened respect for the very institutions of the state.

Globally, it has damaged the moral authority of the US, while increasing US internal divides. To me, this is a profound tragedy.

The US is the world's only super power, the leader of the bloc of countries to which Australia belongs. Yes, Australia and Australians may disagree with the US on specific issues, but we also depend upon US leadership. An enfeebled US is, I think, not in any of our interests. Yet that is what we now have.


I thought that John Quiggin's post on this issue was one of his sillier posts. I have considerable respect for John, but really. Look at the level of analysis.

In response to my comment, John Quiggin wrote in a comment:

Umm, pot calling the kettle black? The level of analysis in your comment on me is zero, as far as I can see. If you don't like my analysis of the free speech issue, perhaps you could point out where you disagree, rather than relying on boo words.

As regards Steyn himself, his bigoted nonsense deserves no serious attention and will get none from me, as I made clear in the post.

Now it may be, as John said, a case of the pot calling the kettle black. Certainly there was no argument in my postscript, just the expression of an opinion together with a link to John's post.

The crux of my response to John's post lay in my view that his dislike of Mr Steyn's views was blinding him to the issues raised.

As I indicated in my postscript, I have a considerable respect for John. I will therefore accept his challenge and lay out the reasons for my view. However, I will not be able to do so before the weekend because I am running full day workshops round the state at the moment.


Anonymous said...

Another great post, Jim!

I am thinking of putting a disclaimer under my description at Skepticlawyer: I AM NOT A LIBERTARIAN, IT'S SL WHO IS THE LIBERTARIAN.

My sister always used to get very irritated when she got called by my name, although it didn't that happen often because we look quite different. I didn't mind being mistaken for her, but because I was 5 years older, it was a very rare event indeed.

skepticlawyer said...

We've really gone over the top with clarifications now - gravatars next to each post, identification everywhere, more details under the 'about us' tab.

What was irritating about one of the 'confused' international correspondents was the fact that he'd clearly gone to the 'About' tab... and not bothered to read it.


Jim Belshaw said...

Comments from both sides of SL. I feel honoured!

Helen, I did read the confused post - and the comments! Phooey is right! Still, the differing views do help give the blog character and that's important.

LE, perhaps something in the header? I am still grinning!

PS, thanks LE for the compliment.

John Quiggin said...

Umm, pot calling the kettle black? The level of analysis in your comment on me is zero, as far as I can see. If you don't like my analysis of the free speech issue, perhaps you could point out where you disagree, rather than relying on boo words.

As regards Steyn himself, his bigoted nonsense deserves no serious attention and will get none from me, as I made clear in the post.

Jim Belshaw said...

John, I have brought your comment up into the main post. I will respond properly at the weekend.