Phoenix night: Conchita Wurst holds her trophy aloft after winning Eurovision 2014: Photo: © Andres Putting (EBU)
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Eurovision: A continent divided in sexual attitudes – or perhaps not?

Anti-gay petitions ahead of the contest suggested eastern countries would give winner Conchita Wurst nul points. But while their juries’ votes reflected this, public votes were encouragingly pro-Wurst. 

In a blog post originally published on Reading Politics, Dr Alan Renwick of the University of Reading looks at what voting patterns tell us about attitudes towards sexual minorities across Europe today

This year’s Eurovision Song Contest has been won by a bearded drag artist from Austria.  There was much talk beforehand about whether the votes cast for Conchita Wurst would reveal a divide across Europe in attitudes towards alternative sexual identities.  Attitudes in the north-west, many supposed, would be more progressive, while attitudes in the south and, particularly, the east were expected be more conservative.

Is that borne out by the results?  The map below colours in the countries participating this year according to the points they gave to Austria: blue countries gave Austria 12 points, red countries gave it no points, and the intermediate colours show the scale of points in between.  Certainly, things look bluer in the west (south as well as north) than in the east, though there are exceptions, notably the 10 points that went Austria’s way from Georgia.

 

Points given to Austria

 

If we look at averages, we can see that Conchita won, on average, 4.4 points in the countries of the former Soviet Union excluding the Baltics, 6.0 points in the remaining former communist countries, and 10.5 points in the remaining countries (Scandinavia, the west of Europe, Greece, and Israel) – so there does seem to be quite a difference from east to west.

But we need to dig a bit deeper.  The points that are awarded are, in almost all countries, calculated on the basis of a combination of a jury vote and a popular vote.  (This year, San Marino and Albania had only a jury, while Georgia had only a popular vote.)  If social attitudes differ across the content, we should expect that to be reflected in the popular vote.

As the next map shows, however, differences in popular attitudes seem to be much less marked than the overall points suggest.  Only one country – Estonia – put Austria lower than fifth in the popular vote.  Conchita ranked within the top three not just in most of western Europe, but also in Russia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia.  The average points she would have won had only the popular votes counted would have been 8.0 in the former Soviet Union excluding the Baltics, 7.3 in the other former communist countries, and 10.0 in the rest.  So the differences are really quite small.

 

Points for Austria based on popular votes only

 

The final map shows what the results would have been had only the jury votes counted.  Conchita would have done much less well by this measure.  Whereas she ranked lower than fifth in only one country in the popular vote, she failed to make the top five of the jury vote in sixteen countries.  And here there does seem to be more of an east–west split: seven of the nine countries giving Austria no votes on this measure are in the former communist world (San Marino and, surprisingly, Germany are the exceptions).  The juries in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Belarus all put Conchita among the lowest placed acts.  On the jury vote alone, she would have averaged just 2.5 points in the former Soviet Union except the Baltics, 4 in the remaining former communist countries, and 8.4 in the rest.

 

Points for Austria based on jury alone

 

The results suggest, then, that we do live in a divided continent.  But the divisions might penetrate much less deeply into society than we often suppose.  The differences revealed in the popular voting are slight, whereas those in the elite juries are very marked.

Of course, this is only one source of evidence.  There is much, much more than this to be said about attitudes towards sexual minorities around Europe and across the world.  Nevertheless, there might be reason to hope that, even in those countries where the ruling elites are often highly intolerant, the wider population might be readier to accept that different people might be different.

Dr Alan Renwick is acting head of the department of politics at the University of Reading

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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.