Hard News by Russell Brown

Could be better

Things are not going well in Iraq. With 20-20 hindsight, it would surely have been better to allow Moqtada al-Sadr's al-Hawza newspaper to continue to publish its bile to a small audience. The closure of the paper by the Coalition Provisional Authority, and the subsequent insurgency, have set in motion the coalition's worst nightmare.

Suddenly remembering that there's a months-old arrest warrant active for Sadr isn't like to help much either. The guy's holed up in a mosque surrounded by his own do-or-die militia. Who's going to go and get him out of there?

Meanwhile, Juan Cole points out that one of Sadr's henchmen has called for an immediate withdrawal of Australian troops. Cole also looks at the CPA tactics in the past week or two:

I have long been a trenchant critic of the Sadrists. But they haven't been up to anything extraordinary as far as I can see in recent weeks. Someone in the CPA sat down and thought up ways to stir them up by closing their newspaper and issuing 28 arrest warrants and taking in people like Yaqubi. This is either gross incompetence or was done with dark ulterior motives that can scarcely be guessed at.

I defer, naturally, to Cole, but I can't imagine what the "dark ulterior motives" might be. I think it was just plain stupidity.

Meanwhile, mostly bad news at home for Bush in the latest Pew survey:

Public support for war in Iraq has been unaffected by the murders and desecration of the corpses of American citizens in Falluja. However, continued turmoil and violence in Iraq may be taking a toll on President Bush's approval ratings. More Americans now disapprove of the way he is doing his job than approve, though by only a slight margin (47% disapprove vs. 43% approve). Just four-in-ten approve of the way Bush is handling the situation in Iraq, his lowest rating ever and down from 59% in January. Bush's evaluations on other issues – the economy, energy and even terrorism – have fallen as well. And by a wide margin (57% to 32%) the public does not think he has a clear plan for bringing the situation in Iraq to a successful conclusion.

Nonetheless, nearly six-in-ten Americans (57%) continue to believe that the United States made the right decision in using military force against Iraq, which is unchanged from a mid-March Pew survey. However, public attitudes toward most aspects of the U.S. mission in Iraq have turned more negative since January, in the aftermath of the capture of Saddam Hussein.

Just 50% of Americans favor keeping troops in Iraq until a stable government is established there, while 44% support bringing the troops home as soon as possible. In January, the public by nearly two-to-one favored maintaining U.S. troops in Iraq until a stable government is formed (63%-32%).

This would seem to more than balance the last survey, which showed John Kerry struggling to convince the public of his merit on several key issues.

Riverbend's still writing well from Baghdad. She comments on the Sadr business and life in general, and tells another harrowing tale of arbitrary arrest and internment. Raed has his own blog now and he also has a rant about recent events:

Believe me, Bremer and Bush are totally lost; most of the time they don’t know what they want to do, and when they do, they don’t know how to do it. Believe me, they are playing with fire.

While Don Brash packs-'em-out in the provinces, Pansy Wong presided over an inaugural meeting of National's new gay branch in Auckland last night - apparently signing up 20 new members. I think this is a good thing. As OtherPundit points out, there's no law against being both gay and politically conservative. But they'll have to stick a muzzle on Gerry Brownlee some time: otherwise it's going to be hard staying in a party whose deputy leader has publicly equated same-sex civil unions with child prostitution.

Meanwhile, the Herald's editorial column has weighed in on the TV violence debate, quoting the AUT report on TV violence, but slamming the conclusions of its authors:

Astoundingly, they mocked the most compelling of recent research, and parental instinct, by suggesting the link between the high incidence of violence on TV and real-life aggression was "relatively modest".

The compelling research, says the Herald, is the 15-year (1977-1992) longtitudinal study conducted at the University of Michigan, in which children were surveyed for their viewing habits and then assessed again as young adults, finding that "Children's viewing of violent TV shows, their identification with aggressive same-sex TV characters, and their perceptions that TV violence is realistic are all linked to later aggression as young adults, for both males and females."

The Michigan study was published in a journal of the American Psychological Association, which would instinctively make me cautious. The APA applies some remarkably loose standards to research approval: it is a stronghold of the now largely debunked recovered memory movement, and it has declined to criticise its members' work in such wiggy fields as the hypnotic debriefing of UFO abductees. But it does oversee sound work too, so let's assume that the TV study is relatively robust.

The lead researcher on the Michigan study, L. Rowell Huesmann, is something of a star of the TV-begets-violence lobby. He has published a series of studies over the years and testified before a US Senate committee. Pulp Culture had an interesting column on him.

The only references I've been able to find for which shows were rated as "very violent" by the researchers in 1977 list Starsky and Hutch, The Six Million Dollar Man and Roadrunner cartoons. Oddly enough, I was 15 myself in 1977, I watched all of those (not so much Starsky and Hutch) and I struggle to imagine my parents forbidding me from watching Roadrunner.

The researchers found that girls who identified with "aggressive same-sex TV characters" - at the time, those in Charlie's Angels, Wonder Woman and The Bionic Woman - were more likely to be aggressive and commit crimes (throughout the study, incurring traffic tickets is counted as "aggressive" behaviour) when they grew older. So teenage girls should be protected from Xena, Warrior Princess, presumably. Superman and Batman or any of the other heroes kids might have fight their battles for them are also out, apparently.

In full, they said that "those who were found to be particularly prone to violent and aggressive behavior as adults had, as children, viewed large amounts of violent programs, identified with aggressive same-sex TV characters and perceived violent programs as realistic."

So we're not, it would seem, talking about your average kid here. But Huessmann dismissed that idea: "It is more plausible that exposure to TV violence increases aggression than that aggression increases TV violence viewing." It's all about television apparently.

But it's a bid odd that in casting around blame and implying that somebody ought to do something, the Herald editorial neglected to convey the Michigan researchers' advice, which was not to unplug the television altogether, but to watch with your kids and discuss what you're seeing. It's my bet that the author of the editorial hasn't actually seen the programmes he or she is talking about. A bit like Sue Kedgley.

I'm not at all a fan of visual violence. Reservoir Dogs left me cold (to what end? I asked myself) and I have no intention of seeing either Kill Bill or The Passion of the Christ. But I have seen what my boys see, and frankly, I'm less concerned about that than I would be if they were watching the relentless dry-humping that passes for daytime pop videos these days. They are quite clear on the fact that what they're watching isn't real. The younger one plays Warcraft and other strategy games, which I guess would count as violent, but are really intellectually demanding. I'm just, as ever, wary of moral panic …

If you missed it, you might also want to read Fiona's This just in: Rugrats is corrupting our children