Thursday, February 24, 2005

Worrying lessons from Iraq for the EU debate

No major editorialising here (to avoid more pointless squabbles, more than anything), but it must be said that I find it rather difficult to understand how more and more Americans seem to be believing that Saddam Hussein had links to al Quaeda - 64% and rising. 47% think Saddam was directly involved in planning the September 11th attacks, and 44% think the hijackers were Iraqi. 36% still believe that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction when the coalition invaded, despite admissions from the invasion's leaders that there were none.

Now I know that this old report is from the BBC - supposedly a biased and anti-American news source - and that the UN is also supposedly useless, but I still find claims of links extremely unlikely. The fact that there have been arguments against links coming from respected and expert sources for so long, and yet an ever-increasing number of people seem to believe the connections were there, simply makes me dispair.

This is, of course, a major problem of political discourse worldwide. As so few people are genuinely interested in politics, the first opinion they hear - coming from a source they respect or trust - seems generally to be the one they sign up to. Whether there is supporting evidence or not.

This is precisely why EU-sceptics are so up in arms about the BBC's supposed pro-EU bias (which is just, like, their opinion, man), and why those of us who are pro-EU are so worried about the dominance of Rupert Murdoch's anti-EU newspapers. Once an opinion is foisted on an unsuspecting public, it is well nigh impossible to pursuade them to think again - largely because they simply aren't interested enough to be bothered.

The EU has (justifiably, in many cases) been the butt of many jokes in the British media over the last thirty-odd years. There has been corruption, often on worrying scales. There have been particularly awful policies (the Common Agricultural Policy being the prime example). These all make far better, more eye-catching news stories than "EU membership has attracted investment into Britain from the Far East" or "now that we're in the EU it's far easier to nip off to Paris for the weekend or the Costa del Sol for your hols".

People are more interested in the bad news than the good - it's part of that same, entirely natural, reaction which sees traffic slow down after a car crash so that everyone can get a good look. This also naturally means that they are also far more likely to remember the bad news.

On top of this, a number of Eurosceptic voices have been shouting very loudly about the dangers of further integration, and of the bureaucratic meddling in British affairs. Most of these opinions are based on a particular reading of some kind of truth, but the fact that they are just opinions is lost on most people. Meanwhile, the pro-EU camp has been somewhat more muted in publicising the benefits of membership, and has mostly been left picking up the pieces and trying to argue against an already formed hostile public opinon.

On the major issues (it is, after all, practically impossible to defend the CAP or corruption), the defence of the EU has never been entirely convincing - consisting mainly of "well, it's like that now - yes - but we're reforming the way the thing works, then it'll all be fine". It is easy to see why many people would react with "why bother reforming? Why not just pull out altogether if it doesn't work properly?" It's the "if it's broke, chuck it" attitude - a far easier (if usually more expensive) option than "if it's broke, fix it".

But in any case, even on those issues where the Eurosceptic case is weak (which, sadly, are never as eye-catching as tales of corruption and agricultural wastage), the fact that the hostile message is usually the first to reach the general public makes it well nigh impossible for pro-EU voices to get their side of the story a fair hearing. If Americans continue to believe there were links between Saddam and Osama after even Donald Rumsfeld denies that there were, how the hell are the pro-EU lot going to convince a sceptical public of the benefits of closer integration?

14 Comments:

Blogger john b said...

I've just read an interesting related piece from Tim Lambert on the Lancet study, and how even though all credible epidemiologists think it's valid, it still gets treated in the press as if it had been debunked.

It's worrying how much discourse - especially on the right-wing (Iraq, EU, global warming, etc) - seems just to completely ignore factual evidence in favour of boorish, false assertions.

2/24/2005 01:44:00 pm  
Blogger Churl said...

Nosemonkey, I've run into americans coming out with this idea of the BBC being "anti-US" a few times online, can you tell me where it stems from?

2/24/2005 03:36:00 pm  
Blogger Nosemonkey said...

Churl - I think it's largely because the BBC often points out when Bush has made mistakes or may have an ulterior motive and refuses indiscriminately to refer to anyone and everyone fighting against coalition forces in Iraq as "terrorists".

According to a fervent Bush-supporter I was chatting to in the pub before the US elections, there's also a lot of hostility from right-wingers in the US to the very concept of the BBC - the idea of a state-funded television service being "socialist" and (naturally) socialism has no redeeming features whatsoever.

I can't say I'm an expert on this, though. Personally I am firmly of the opinion that the BBC is one of the few things about this country we have left to be proud of. The Today Programme and Newsnight alone are worth every penny of the license fee.

But then again, I'm a filthy liberal, so I would say that...

2/24/2005 03:50:00 pm  
Anonymous FelixUSA said...

Nosemonkey,

First off, why do you post your opinions on a web log when you are so obviously sensitive to any differing point of view?

I normally wouldn't go the personal route, but in almost every post you make lately you allude with distaste to how certain persons will disagree with you. I'm not sure what you expect exactly. Sycophants?

Second, I'm just going to bypass arguing actual facts about Iraq since you're obviously oblivious to them and instead ask: What do you care?

Europe has made it damn clear for the last 30 years that Iraq isn't their problem (some areas of Europe even saw it as an opportunity to make some quick cash), so why should you start caring now when someone else decides to clean it up?

And spare us the "stirring up a hornets nest" speeches. The "nest" came pre-"stirred", mostly because of Europe. Only you're not going to indispose yourselves to help fix it.

So stop writing about it. Europe swore off it. All you're doing now is pissing off Americans and Iraqi's who actually are doing something about it.

Unless of course, that's the whole reason you write about Iraq...

2/25/2005 03:53:00 am  
Blogger Nosemonkey said...

Felix, old son, if you read the whole post, it's not actually about Iraq. It's about the difficulty of overcoming preconceptions, and changing the public's opinion after certain assertions have become entrenched.

You'll notice I didn't really offer too much in the way of my own opinion on the validity or otherwise of WMD or al Quaeda link claims. I certainly said nothing about any "hornets nests", didn't pass judgement on the invasion, and didn't state one way or the other whether I could care less about the Iraq situation.

This is because - in relation to this particular post - my opinions on that matter are irrelevant. The point is merely that those who initially made the claims have now publicly denied them, yet the public at large continue to believe them nonetheless.

Differing opinions are great - they help me work out whether any views I may have are actually valid or not (and considering that was the whole point of me starting this blog, that's all good). I'd just prefer it if these differing opinions were confined to posts where I've actually expressed my own views on the subject over which people posting comments think they disagree with me. A lot of the time commets - like yours here - make assumptions about my actual opinions which are way off the mark. If the people making the comments actually bothered to read what I have written, a lot of the time they'd realise that we actually agree on rather more than they think we do.

The reason I have been complaining about some of the feedback I've received recently is purely because, as in this case, it seems that certain readers of this blog only read certain parts of the various posts I make before leaping to conclusions and hitting the comment button. I merely find it somewhat frustrating to feel obliged to explain my position again when it has already been covered in the main post - and especially, as here, when my opinions on the matters they raise are not relevant to the main post.

It's lovely that people are reading the bloody thing, but generally speaking I'd prefer it if comments are to be made they take into account the whole argument, rather than just one or two introductory paragraphs. I just don't always have the time to constantly repeat myself in a desperate attempt to get people to shake off their preconceptions.

2/25/2005 10:15:00 am  
Anonymous -ronnie in new orleans- said...

Hey guy, I did read your post and I feel your pain.

Update to the intellectuals. A whole lot of people aren't that interested in the detailed analysis of political positions, especially when a lot of folks making the analysis come off as either insufferable snobs, bores, or morons.

To explain the polling anomaly I think that part of the misunderstanding comes from an idea I have seen bandied about on this weblog and elsewhere, that 48% of the US does not want "W" as president, largely because of his foreign policy. Both premises are demonstrably untrue even for those who flunked algebra.

Let's be generous and say it was a 50-50. We are only talking now about registered voters, 40% of whom did not vote. This was a true "referendum" election which we have only rarely, and 40% of the electorate basically said "it's OK" enough not to expend the energy to go to the polls and pull a lever. That's called voting with your feet.

Forget the stupid opinion polls. They are so sponsored that objective results are virtually impossible. They have become a political tool rather than a political gauge.

Most Americans work for a living. For a large proportion, many of them middle class, the demands of work and their selected favorite passtimes leave little time for detailed political analysis. The demise of network news into a discredited and largely unlistened to medium leaves folks to pick up political opinion the same way they learned about sex, anyway they can and with definite bias.

So go ahead and despair guy. It's the right reaction for anybody who thinks that some campaign of political education is going to produce a judicious and informed electorate. A lot of folks over here would just rather drink beer, watch football, and chase the other sex. I doubt you have a similar population in England since Euros are more sophisticated and intellectually nuanced than Americans. At any rate it is this group that skews the polls because they evaluate the issues by implication rather than by any rigid rational norm.

Zarquawi=AlQuaeda=IraQ=Saddam=Elections="W" was right.

And there is nothing wrong with that, except for intellectuals uninformed about reality. I'll consider myself corrected when the political science lecture at LSU outdraws the LSU-Ole Miss football game.

(Clarification: by football I mean men's football. The girls play soccer and nobody goes to watch that either.)

So, sans algebra, here are the real figures, as valid as any you will get in an official poll:

We're for "W" absolutely: 20%
We're not sure but "W"s OK: 10%
Who cares, we're American: 40%
We're not sure but traditional Democrats: 10%
We're African American: 12%
We're really old and scared: 5%
We just hate whoever: 2.9%
We wanna be like Europe: .1% (mostly dual citzenship)

You can easily see that the largest and most malleable segment is in the "Not sure" and "Who cares" demographic. The "Who cares" segment is inaccessible unless you can poll at ballgames so you are left with the "Not sures". These groups are usually only accessible through electioneering, sloganeering, scandalmongering, and various dirty tricks, in other words, political campaigning. They were about equally unsure during our last election.

So all is not lost Nosey. If you can identify a similar demographic in England (OK UK) you know where to go and what to do. Get you and your like minded chaps from behind those Macs and start shouting, singing, misrepresenting, and just being more competitive (dirty, ruthless etc.) than the opposition.

Your stuff needs to reflect old culture and symbolism to gain any traction though though. The EU is pretty short on tradition. How about:

"There will no more be an England." I'm sure someone already has that one on bumper stickers. And you could do all sorts of things with "England expects..."

And as for a song the Confederacy had a really good one that they don't need anymore and would be easy to modify. Kind of like we did with "God save..." How about...

"Hurra, hurra, for EU rights hurra.

Hurra for the Bonnie Blue Flag with all the little stars."

Hope this helps with your pro EU (re)education campaign.

2/25/2005 07:48:00 pm  
Blogger Nosemonkey said...

I've just got back from the pub and am somewhat drunk, so I'm afraid the only thing that stood out was the football one.

No, real men don't play football (just look at David Beckham). They play rugby. That's American football without all the time outs and body armour, you bunch of pansies...

2/25/2005 11:54:00 pm  
Anonymous -ronnie in new orleans- said...

"I've just got back from the pub and am somewhat drunk, so I'm afraid the only thing that stood out was the football one."

That probably proves the existence of the "Who cares" demographic in the UK.

"No, real men don't play football (just look at David Beckham)."

Who's David Beckham?

I like Tim Henman though. Been rooting for him every Wimbledon since Pete retired. Serve and volley purist; lovely game.

"They play rugby. That's American football without all the time outs and body armour, you bunch of pansies..."

Without the speed, power, and skill either. Reminiscent of female mud-wrestling without the excitement.

Come back....

2/26/2005 01:54:00 am  
Anonymous FelixUSA said...

"You'll notice I didn't really offer too much in the way of my own opinion on the validity or otherwise of WMD or al Quaeda link claims. I certainly said nothing about any "hornets nests", didn't pass judgement on the invasion, and didn't state one way or the other whether I could care less about the Iraq situation."

Really?

"Now I know that this old report is from the BBC - supposedly a biased and anti-American news source - and that the UN is also supposedly useless, but I still find claims of links extremely unlikely. The fact that there have been arguments against links coming from respected and expert sources for so long, and yet an ever-increasing number of people seem to believe the connections were there, simply makes me dispair."

That looked like 2 strawman arguments covered in "dispair" sauce to me.

Whether you're on your way to making a different argument is moot. Like a drive-by shooter, you're not going to get off the hook by claiming there was somewhere else you were going.

Seriously though, is it that you aren't aware of how offensive some of your arguments are? "Blah blah blah, there were no WMD's", as if that's the entirety of all the issues surrounding Iraq before the invasion? *

* (There were WMD research labs found in Iraqi scientists homes as well as a single mix-in-flight Sarin gas shell that was used in an improvised explosive device, to use two examples of evidence of WMD programs active in Iraq up to the day of the invasion. However, I'm sure you'll argue them off as anecdotal instead of indicative, as if either thing could exist without deeper programs behind them.)

Would you like your own arguments repeated back to you in the same fashion? "Blah blah blah, let's unify Europe and we'll have the power to do the things we've always wanted to do, like finishing off the Jews, deciding how the proletariat should live in years to come and selling advanced weapons to China".

Please, rise above Michael Moore-type arguments.

2/26/2005 02:26:00 am  
Blogger Nosemonkey said...

Felix, old son - I'll ask one more time - read what I've written.

If I wanted to get into another stupid spat with some rabid American patriot, I would have written about WMDs, the legality of the Iraq war and the like.

I didn't, so I didn't. I wrote about people's perceptions of WMDs. I have rarely written much about Iraq for this very reason - people like you come on and get het up about the thing if they sense the slightest hint that I might disagree with them. I honestly couldn't care less.

In future - as I have asked before - please show a modicum of civility and argue with me about the arguments I'm actually putting up. Don't attribute other things to me and then spout complete crap. If you do I'm afraid I'll simply start ignoring you.

Now be a good boy, OK? If you want to dispute my theory that it's very hard to shake political preconceptions, go right ahead. That's what the post was about. If you've got nothing to say about that, here's a hint - you don't HAVE to post comments on the internet...

2/26/2005 11:52:00 am  
Blogger Churl said...

Nosemonkey, thanks for the explanation, which Felix seems to have unwittingly underlined for you...

Ronnie, old love, I played rugby for 17 years. In the whole of that 17 years my team encountered one american football team that were willing to play rugby. They gave up at half-time as we were "too rough". They also couldn't understand how we could take tackles to the body from blokes wieghing on average 16 stone and still get up and weave with the ball up the pitch

2/26/2005 01:14:00 pm  
Anonymous FelixUSA said...

Nosemonkey,

More insults, great.

And no it isn't hard to shake political preconceptions. You just have to combat them with something more than misconceptions. Try that next time.

2/26/2005 02:59:00 pm  
Anonymous FelixUSA said...

Here's an example of a misconception: the Lancet study mentioned earlier.

Lancet conducted a poll of Iraqi citizens and compared the results to what the Iraqi Baathist regime reported as deaths in the years prior to invasion.

Right off the bat you have 2 concerns; does the poll accurately reflect deaths in Iraq, and were the deaths reported by the Baathist regime accurate (some sources, including Lancet themselves, questioned the number of deaths reported by Iraq in the years prior to invasion).

Maybe the Lancet study is the best statisticians can do given the circumstances. That's a far cry from proof of accuracy.

2/26/2005 03:29:00 pm  
Anonymous Hew BG said...

Come along now Felix.

I have to disagree with you on a number of points:

1) Look at the title of this webpage: Europhobia. This blog is not substantively about Iraq. It touches on Iraq, but usually only in the context of the fouled up mess that is the member states squabbling over foreign policy

2) Re-read the post: The Iraq stats were used as an illustration of the wider point: Electorates tend to form an opinion or a prejudice on a particular topic for a number of reasons (bad or good or whatever). Once formed, they are difficult to move. The whole point of the post is the last line: this is a big issue for the EU referendum campaign in the UK. This post is not about actual US performance in Iraq.

3) Your view of Nosemonkey regarding ability to accept differing opinions is, IMHO, wrong. Read some of the other articles and comments here. This blog is wide open and the comments in this section are all v friendly until you jumped in. Why would he, in the comment immediately yours, label himself as a "filthy liberal" if he was not a generally self-effacing sort of person?

Now just calm down, unless you have something substantive to say on the topic of the quality of the debate regarding the adoption of a Treaty establishing a Constitution for the European Union.

I can see you are just jumping at the chance.....

2/28/2005 03:51:00 pm  

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