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Democratic Weather

Part of our eternal fascination with the weather is that we can do nothing about it, least of all predict it. The arbitrariness of the weather led our ancestors to assume that it was sent by capricious gods to annoy or punish mere mortals, or perhaps just for entertainment. This theory has persisted for thousands of years, and it makes sense to me. Weather forecasting, in spite of satellites and computers and sophisticated modeling techniques, remains almost as fallible as stock market forecasting. The weather will do what it will do, sending us from sub-zero to springtime warmth and back in a few days, and sometimes on the same day.

Winter here is full of surprises, mostly nasty ones. It keeps us off balance. The only good thing I can find to say said about our erratic weather is that it protects us against political enthusiasms. If you don't believe me, watch the television news every night for a week (Public Television of course). You will see a lot of political action all around the world. Most of this action consists of young men rioting, setting fire to things, waving machetes, looting stores firing guns in the air, and generally behaving badly. The scene is so familiar that we tend to glaze over. Where is this particular riot happening? Who can tell? All we can say for sure is that the participants are almost never wearing overcoats or fur hats or snow boots. They are very casually dressed, as if for the beach, and this is because they are warm. They are in the tropic zone, somewhere between latitudes twenty north and twenty south.

Even in more moderate latitudes a period of warm weather can spell trouble. The Paris police, for example, will not go into certain suburban areas on hot days. But the warmth doesn't last long, that's the important thing. Nineteenth century social philosophers took it for granted that climate affected behavior. Because they knew nothing about political correctness they referred to the "Warm blooded races" of the tropics. Now we understand that blood and race have nothing to do with it – it's warm weather that causes the trouble. Hot weather cultures are different from cold weather cultures, politically speaking – and it seems obvious why. Nobody can sustain political faith, let alone enthusiasm, through a New England winter. The weather reminds us every day of uncertainty, fate, misery, and death. This gives us a cranky, negative disposition – a disinclination to believe anything, especially political manifestos, and weather forecasts. The cold, and the anticipation of it, cools our passions all the way down to freezing point. We hate outdoor demonstrations, and on the rare occasions when they do happen in cold weather you can be sure that the demonstrators are really, really upset about something.

Steady warmth, by contrast, is inflammatory. It promotes outdoor activities like mass protests, and riots, almost as a kind of entertainment, and it uses up an enormous amount of energy – the energy that we northerners use on scraping windscreens, shoveling snow, and simply avoiding hypothermia.

If my theory is correct – that moderate temperatures promote moderate politics and vice versa - we have many things to be thankful for – not least that the southern tip of Florida falls just short of the tropic line, although only just.* Goodness knows what they might get up to down there if they had another couple of degrees of southern latitude. We should also consider the possibility – once again if my theory is correct – that the effort to plant liberal democracy in the blazingly hot Middle East has less chance than a snowball planted in a similar place.

*(Key West lies at 24.55°, and the tropics begin at 23.5°)

Copyright: David Bouchier

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.