In the first installment in this series, we discussed what we have termed The Chicago Gambit, named after the city most often used as an example, at least for the time being. The Chicago Gambit entails cherry picking data to make the case that stricter gun laws cause an increase in crime, or at least in homicide. Now we take a look at the flipside of this tactic: the argument that liberalizing gun laws results in general crime and/or homicide decline. The gun culture also has a favorite target for this approach: a large and very influential city that has been very much in the crosshairs of the legal battle over firearm legislation. Namely, the nation’s capital.
#2 : The D.C. Gambit
In 1976, Washington, D.C. passed The Firearms Control Regulations Act of 1975, which placed severe restrictions on the private ownership of firearms in the city. It did not, as is often claimed, ban guns altogether, though it did make the possession of handguns illegal. Then in 2008, the “conservative” Supreme Court overturned that law by giving the Second Amendment a major overhaul — decreeing among other things that the prefatory clause explaining the purpose of the amendment is really just garnish, and can be ignored. And what happened after that? Well, let’s turn again to JustFacts.com, which has some really handy facts about “gun control” in an easy-to-read visual format. Here is its graph of the homicide trend in D.C., with the point of the court’s ruling marked by the second red dot.
Unfortunately for JustFacts, this chart duplicates the blunder that so many pro-gun propagandists commit: including too much information for their own good, and thus sabotaging their own argument. Yes, the chart shows a sharp murder decline after the strict gun law was overturned. But it shows that the same sharp decline already had been in progress for several years before the ruling. It started falling off abruptly after an extremely sharp spike during the city’s particularly severe crack epidemic; and neither the spike nor the drop appears to be related to any change in gun laws. Claiming it does is rather like having a boat pull you through the water on a rope for 95 yards, then letting go and coasting for 5 more yards, then asserting you just swam 100 yards. Furthermore, homicide has been falling nationwide in recent years, so D.C. was not bucking a trend.
JustFacts also, like many pro-gun propagandists, omits certain facts that are not supportive of its cause. For example, there is the fact that the city of Washington has undertaken enhanced crime-fighting measures to which officials attribute the drop in homicides. Or that improved trauma care has helped reduce murder rates across the nation even though far more people are getting shot. Or that the D.C. homicide rate is very much on the rise again this year. That’s a very short term trend at this point; but the gun culture loves to cite short term trends or isolated quirks as “proof”.
Furthermore, it’s cherry picking to limit the discussion to homicide alone. Because one of the main mantras of the gun culture is “more guns, less crime”. All crime. This is founded on the belief that when citizens are armed, they make a big difference in reducing the crime rate. In other words, there are many instances of defensive gun use (DGU). And here’s where the gunsters really shoot themselves into a corner.
We’ve examined the problem of accurately estimating incidences of defensive gun use several times already in these pages. See previous posts: Make My Day; Mention Gun Defense Statistics; Estimating Defensive Gun Uses Reasonably; More On Defensive Gun Use. But to save you a little time at the moment, here are the Cliff’s Notes.
Gunsters frequently make very extravagant claims about the number of times per year an armed citizen uses a firearm in self defense. The numbers they cite are derived from various “studies” which are really surveys that determine how often gunsters claim such events occur. These surveys, the most frequently touted of which is the deeply flawed Kleck “study” projecting 2.5 million DGUs annually (this has become the very backbone of the Gunster Gospel), are wildly inconsistent not only with each other but with themselves. More to the point, they’re wildly inconsistent with the real world.
Notice that in the story mentioned in a link above (here it is again), the homicide is of a sort that often gets classified as a DGU, even though its defensive nature is, to say the least, highly questionable. Likewise for the homicide George Zimmerman committed. It was presumed self-defense in large part because only he survived to tell his side of the story. But it’s quite clear that he initiated the confrontation; and had he not been armed, it’s unlikely that he would have engaged in the cowboy swagger that caused it to turn violent.
Whatever criteria one uses, actual statistics, though they’re almost certainly incomplete, verify only a few hundred DGUs per year, as confirmed by media reports and/or law enforcement records. Gunsters have two handy dandy responses to account for this Grand Canyon of a discrepancy. First, they insist that the vast majority of DGUs are kept secret, even though in an incident that would genuinely warrant resort to a firearm, it would be irresponsible not to report it. Second, they say that most of the incidents that are reported don’t get covered by the media, because the media are all involved in a vast left-wing conspiracy to suppress anything that promotes the gun culture — never mind that violence, crime and sensationalism are the very lifeblood of the media. (This response tends to corroborate a point I’ve made before: that contemporary gun culture dogma is founded on political fanaticism at least as much as putative “gun rights”.) They have no explanation yet for the fact that gun-friendly websites which tally DGUs collected from many sources including submissions by fans still are unable to come up with a total greater than that reported in the media.
As it happens, I used Washington, D.C., for various reasons, as an illustration of the absurdity of the Kleck figure. A city with the population of Washington, particularly given its crime history, would be expected to experience about 4725 DGUs annually. Yet in scouring the pro-gun websites that collect such anecdotes of such acts, I was unable to find a single one within the previous 17 years! Whereupon some gunsters cried foul. Of course there were no DGUs in D.C., they proclaimed. The gun “ban” meant that law-abiding citizens were left defenseless.
One response to this response is to point out that even the NRA, which had been collecting such incidents since 1958 (18 years before the gun law was passed) had assembled only 24 DC DGUs since then — and many of those were quite questionable. But perhaps the best response is five little words: “from these cold, dead hands”. Recognize them? They were the rallying cry of the supposedly oppressed gun culture during the Heston era, and many gunsters still live by them. Never, never, never will they allow the government to “take away” their guns, they declare. But apparently, we’re to believe that this applies only to gun owners who don’t live in the nation’s capital, where gunsters so fully trust the government that they totally comply even with laws they consider an infringement on their “liberty”.
My selection of D.C. as an illustrative example had nothing to do with its gun laws and much to do with its suitability as an American Everycity. Conduct the same thought experiment with any other city and you’re likely to get similar results. Furthermore, if we assume that the absence of DGUs in places with strict gun laws can be attributed to those laws, then we’d also have to assume that places with lax gun laws would have to produce much more than their statistical average in order to result in that total of 2.5 million. Which makes the utter absence of DGUs in those locations all the more striking.
Still, let’s play along. Let’s say that during the time the gun law was in effect, law-abiding gunsters followed it to the letter and totally abstained from their passion for 32 years, and that accounts for the almost total absence of verifiable DGUs during that span. (We’ll just pretend those inconvenient years before the law was passed don’t even exist.) But once the Supreme Court issued its fiat, there was no reason for them not to stock up, eh? (Actually there was, but we’ll get to that in a moment.) So we should have seen a dramatic increase in DGUs during the past few years. But guess what? We haven’t. From what I can determine, the average yearly total is still just as zero as it’s always been. It appears that one or more of these things is true, at least for Washington: (a) “law-abiding” gun owners often aren’t exactly so law-abiding, but hoard guns in defiance of the law, and/or (b) the frequency of DGUs has been very, very, very, very, very overstated.
As you can see from this table of crime stats for D.C., the prevailing long-term trend, beginning about 1996, is a sharp decline in overall crime. (The table is not always in precise agreement with the final figures provided by city officials, but it’s close enough to give an accurate indication of the trend.) Overall, crime dropped from a yearly average of about 65,000 to a yearly average of 35,000 to 40,000. In contrast, crime has risen during 2 of the 4 complete years since the Supreme Court’s edict (not inclduing 2013). The average is still in that 35-40 thousand range, but it’s been ticking steadily upward; and that’s a very far cry from dropping by 4725. Note that the population of the city has increased considerably during that time, so the crime rate really hasn’t increased. But it also hasn’t decreased.
Ironically, by focusing on just the drop in homicides, the gunsters overlook what is perhaps the strongest chance they have to make their case: the steep plunge in overall crime in 2009, the year after the Heller ruling. It’s their best chance, but it’s still not a very good one. The crime drop in 2009 followed a steep crime increase in 2008, the year the ruling was handed down from Mount Scalia.
That was near the end of June, which means that the first half of the year had the gun law in effect and the second half didn’t. While I don’t have a monthly breakdown for general crime in D.C. in 2008, the breakdown for homicide is depicted in this chart from the metropolitan police department’s website:
As you can see, there was an increase in killings of more than 100 percent in July, the month following the ruling. Furthermore, the second half of the year produced 113, compared to 73 during the first half.
But wait a minute. Time out. Isn’t it unfair to focus on such a short-term trend? Bingo, my friend. The following month, and even the following 6 months, is too short a period to expect an accurate judgment about the impact of the ruling. So, for that matter, is the following year, and possibly even the following 6 years. Not that immediate results never can be obtained by changing the laws, but they just can’t be expected — particularly when, as here, there is good reason not to.
Contrary to what the gunsters are suggesting, the Heller ruling had no immediate impact at all. The city of Washington had plenty of other measures up its sleeve to help stem the flow of hot lead in the city. Indeed, more than three years later, The Washington Times — which, as part of the late Rev. Moon’s right-wing media empire, has an interest in protecting the profits of the gun lobby — ran an article bemoaning the fact that purchasing a firearm in the city was still enormously difficult, and residents were doing so at the rate of “only” about 250 per year. Given that, it’s naive and ill-informed to expect that increased gun availability was responsible for reducing crime in 2009, only a few months after the ruling — or for generating the concurrent decline in homicide.
In short, it is impossible to determine from simple crime statistics alone that either the 1976 gun law or its repeal has had an effect, either positive or negative, on the D.C. crime rate or on homicide specifically. For that kind of conclusion we must turn elsewhere.
For example, a 1991 study in the New England Journal of Medicine compared incidences of gun violence 10 years before and 10 years after the 1976 law went into effect, and concluded that the latter years represented a significant decrease in gun homicides and suicides in Washington, even though deaths by other means did not decline, and gun deaths did not decline in the surrounding municipalities. This doesn’t prove that the gun law was effective, but it offers evidence much more solid than the purported evidence that its repeal has been effective.
I probably don’t have to tell you that gunsters have come out against this study with six-guns ablaze. Their main contention is that the period studied “conveniently” ends just before the city’s tsunami of homicide (which, as we’ve observed, was almost certainly occasioned in large part by the crack plague) even though the authors of the study address that very objection in the study itself. The gunsters’ determination to find fault with this study is hilarious, given that they’re so often eager to swallow the Kleck malarkey wholesale. And that they so often stand on the thinnest slices of cherry-picked statistics.
(More to come on this topic.)
I’m sitting in my fifth grade class. The teacher stops talking in mid-sentence because she’s seen the principal appear in the doorway wearing his yellow raincoat and a grim expression. She goes back to see what he wants, and they talk in subdued tones for a couple of minutes. The only thing I overhear is “he was shot in Dallas.”
He leaves to deliver his ponderous message to other classrooms, and she returns to the front of the class to inform us that it’s President Kennedy who’s taken the bullet, and he’s in serious condition. She says she’s going to the office to listen for updates on the radio – that’s what we called our Internet in those days. It’s a bold and reckless move to leave a gang of antsy youngsters unattended, but since presidents don’t exactly get shot every day, we’re uncertain just how rambunctious we’re supposed to be. So out of sheer confusion, we end up being unusually well behaved in her absence.
A few minutes later the teacher returns and announces rather matter-of-factly, “he’s dead’. She then pays tribute to the fallen leader by reading a passage from a history book. It’s about the assassination of Lincoln, but she substitutes names and other details to create an instantaneous historical account of the most recent assassination . This is followed by a minute of silence, punctuated by her “amen”, and then we ready ourselves for early dismissal.
We don’t know yet that the world has been upended in an instant. We don’t realize to what extent JFK had embodied optimism and altruism and courage and vision. We just know that our parents have expressed grave misgivings about having a Catholic, whatever that is, in the White House. We don’t foresee that his murder has ushered in a new norm of gun violence, of high-profile public shootings that will include the president’s brother five years later and the president’s alleged killer only three days later.
We can’t predict that guns will become the new coin of the realm for an increasingly psychopathic society, a political hot button, a lightning rod for propaganda and greed and bitter divisiveness , a preferred means of quick distinction and immediate limelight for pathetic losers. Earlier in the year, a classmate had brought his hunting rifle to school one day to show off; and while the teacher reprimanded him, there was no disciplinary action. We have no way of imagining that a day will come when such an incident would have made national news.
For the moment, we just know that we’re leaving school early. As we saunter out to the buses, I hear a wise ass vocally imitating the sound of a bugle blowing “Taps”. Another wise ass comments to the principal, “are we going to celebrate?” The principal fixes him with an icy glare and replies, “I hope you meant that as a joke, son.” The wise ass hastily responds in the affirmative.
It isn’t until we get home that the day’s events become real for us. And what makes them real is the same thing that makes everything else real: television. It’s the medium the late young president had utilized as no other politician had done before, and none would ever do again. How ironic that he has become the first president whose assassination is covered by the medium. Over and over we see the tragedy played out in black and white, and after a while it starts to sink in that this is not a test. We’ve already failed the test.
For me, the punch in the gut comes when a reporter is trying to interview a man who had witnessed it all. The man starts to relate what happened, but before he can get very far he just breaks down and starts sobbing. Whereupon the reporter assures him, “that’s quite all right, sir”.
And that’s as real as it gets. Television has given us permission to mourn. To reflect. To recoil in horror. To say that the country will never be the same again.
Just when you thought Obama Derangement Syndrome couldn’t possibly get any more deranged. The competition was stiff, but the photo above is surely the silliest to come out of the shutdown of the federal government. This blatantly (and comically) Photoshopped image purports to depict how the evil Fuhrer in the White House was being “spiteful” by closing up national parks like Mount Rushmore. What it really exhibits is the extreme extremes to which ODS victims are willing to go in order to embarrass and humiliate themselves.
There are at least a couple of different versions of this image in circulation, accompanying various and sundry blog posts devoted to the furtherance of Obama Derangement Syndrome. At least one of them ran a disclaimer to the effect that “the photo is fake, but the story is real”.
Despite the disclaimers, it’s certain that many ODS sufferers will interpret the photo literally, and figure that black copters from DC did indeed drape those enormous stone heads on the mountain. But that’s a relatively minor point. The important thing is that the story itself is only marginally less phony than the photo. The essential claims are that (a) President Obama (or “Hussein”, as such ODS blogs tend to call him) blocked all public views of the famed monument; (b) that he did so out of “spite” — or, for some reason or other, to “punish” the American people for something or other; and (c) that he defied requests from the state to remove some of the cones blocking the roads.
But the National Park Service (not the president) closed the access roads for reasons of safety rather than “spite”. It also isn’t true that the NPS thumbed its nose at the state’s request to remove some of the cones; in fact, the NPS complied with this request. Moreover, the federal government even made an arrangement with states to reopen this and two other national parks during the shutdown. Oh yeah, and the closures did not totally block the view of the monument. Other than that, I suppose the story is somewhat in the neighborhood of accurate.
I wish I could say that rumors like these are rare occurrences. But with the ODS invasion of our planet in full swing, no rumor is too bizarre to be cranked out; and no rumor that is cranked out is too bizarre for the masses to believe. And the government shutdown was yet another golden opportunity for such rumors to erupt. (Of course, a butterfly sneeze would be construed as a golden opportunity to tack some sinister plot on The White House.) The era of the Obama presidency will be remembered as the age when lunacy became not only acceptable but chic. And the media will have played a huge role in making it happen.
It has become standard procedure for the media to invoke the “both sides do it” refrain every time Republicans or “conservatives” exhibit childish, hateful or arrogant behavior — while in contrast, whenever a Democrat or “liberal” does something wrong, it tends to be characterized as exclusively Democratic or “liberal”. Right-wingers say the president is a communist socialist Nazi Muslim atheist dictator who tramples on the Constitution and operates behind a veil of secrecy. The president says we need to overcome our differences and work together. The media report that both sides have indulged in partisan bickering.
The shutdown is no different. The mainstream media consistently referred to it as “an impasse”, ” a stalemate”, lack of “compromise”, “a game of chicken”, etc., etc., etc. Which is to say, both sides were doing in it. Well, to be fair, not all media outlets said this. Some of them just cut to the chase and ascribed the whole debacle to the president’s supposed refusal to “negotiate”.
In fact, the president bent over backward and tied himself into knots to compromise and negotiate (to an absolutely alarming degree for many of his supporters) in getting the Affordable Care Act (almost universally ridiculed as “Obamacare”) passed into law. But passed into law it was. It was signed by the president. And its constitutionality, which allegedly was in question. was upheld by a stridently “conservative” and shamelessly activist Supreme Court. Of course, if you point out to ODS victims that the ACA is law, they have a very ODS response handy: slavery was once the law of the land too, and helping people to live and stay healthy is comparable to keeping them in chains, torturing them, and forcing them to do hard labor — in fact, it’s the same thing. No, really.
The time for negotiation and compromise has come and gone. Now it’s a matter of following the law or doing everything in your power to thwart it out of a political an/or personal vendetta. The GOP chose the latter. Not only did Republicans engineer the shutdown, they plotted and threatened to do so for months, and even changed the rules to make such a shutdown inevitable. They were quite willing not only to hold the American public hostage, but even to hold Congress itself hostage. And despite their avowed concern for fiscal responsibility, they have voted to repeal the ACA at least 42 times, though they knew perfectly well they had no chance of succeeding, at a cost of at least 55 million. And they show no signs of ever stopping the stupidity. They also knew damn well that this attempt at extortion via shutdown would not derail “Obamacare”, but they were quite willing to subject countless Americans to the pain and inconvenience anyway in order to express their all-important, lemming-brained contempt for the guy in the Oval Office — as if people weren’t already well aware of it.
But couldn’t Obama and the Democrats also have done something to prevent the shutdown? Well, sure. They could have caved in 100 percent instead of only 80 or 90, but that would have set a very dangerous precedent that likely would have had greater long-term consequences than the shutdown itself.
Even some hard-right Obama haters admit that the GOP masterminded the shutdown — before resuming their regularly scheduled hard-wired programming of just laying all the blame at the feet of Obama and the Democrats. Jonah Goldberg of the ever-entertaining National Review, while conceding that the GOP started it, still insists that nonetheless, “President Obama and Democrats deserve the lion’s share of the blame for not only prolonging it but also making it as painful as possible”, whatever that means; and that the president’s putative refusal to “negotiate” is due to a “vindictive streak” that causes him to “punish his enemies.” How many head scratches can we work in there, Jonah?
Or some of them tried to tango around the blame game by arguing that even if the Republicans are to blame, they had some kind of Constitutional authority for their actions, so they’re really not to blame. Cute. Maybe we should point the finger at Thomas Jefferson instead.
Many of them, however, just skip the preliminaries and get right to the Obama blame impulse. When in doubt, blame Obama. The symptoms of Obama Derangement Syndrome, after all are: (a) a passionate conviction that absolutely anything the president says or does stems from sinister motives, and (b) the passionate conviction that anything that goes wrong in the U.S., if not the entire world, is directly traceable to the 44th chief executive.
Lest we forget, Barack Obama was democratically elected president of The United States. Twice. Indeed, he is the only president since FDR to be elected twice with a majority of the popular vote. And one thing he was elected to do was reform the healthcare system. But to the ODS crowd, he is a tyrannical dictator who somehow has unlawfully seized control of “their” country, and is now working his evil plan to control the universe — by, among other things, helping to ensure affordable healthcare. When there is, for example, a turnover of military brass in his administration as in any administration, it must be a “Stalinist purge” to install commanders “willing to kill Americans.” In other versions of the tale, he’s specifically purging Christians from the miltary. Or his critics. Or Romney supporters. Or all of the above.
And once the shutdown had ended, the president urged that saner heads prevail:
And now that the government is reopened, and this threat to our economy is removed, all of us need to stop focusing on the lobbyists, and the bloggers, and the talking heads on radio, and the professional activists who profit from conflict, and focus on what the majority of Americans sent us here to do.
What? Focus on facts more than propaganda? What a radical suggestion. And to the ODS brigade, it was more than just a recommendation. It was an imperious “demand” that you “ignore” anyone who “disagrees” him.
Okay, ODS sufferers, listen up: I’m really tired of having to defend President Obama, or any other politician, from wacky rumors and accusations. I really and truly am — there are other, far more important things I’d rather be discussing here. Can we just agree that you’ve made fools of yourselves enough for the time being and give it a little rest? Mind you, I’m not asking you to abandon hatred and delirium permanently; I realize they’re what gets you out of bed in the morning. But can you just allow a little time for both yourselves and me to catch our breath a little? Pretty please?
“Gun control doesn’t work”. That’s the unequivocal verdict of the NRA and its fan club. Quite often, gun lovers will back up this bumper sticker mantra with several others: “When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns”; “Criminals prefer unarmed victims”; “Guns save lives”; “More guns, less crime”. “If the gun-grabbing commie government tries to take away my guns, I’m gonna blow away a whole army of ‘em.” And so on. Sometimes, however they’ll also throw out facts — cherry-picked facts to support their unalterable belief that “gun control” ( a formerly respectable term that they’ve co-opted as a pejorative) not only is ineffective, but is even counterproductive. Like other cherry-picked facts (see previous post on cherry picking), the data they provide is usually not inaccurate; but it is often quite incomplete, resulting in a skewed perception of reality. Let’s take a look at a few of their favorite tactics.
For purposes of this series of discussions, we’ll be referring several times to the “gun control” feature on the website JustFacts.com. That’s not because I have some kind of vendetta against the folks at JustFacts. It’s because they present in a clear and concise manner the same typical and standard arguments and stats employed by gun cultists everywhere. While the website sabotages its credibility on many topics with reverent nods to such claptrap as the Kleck “study” and “Climategate”, it does present solid (cherry-picked) facts. And in particular, I like the “gun control” graphics, which often starkly point to conclusions quite different from what the authors intended. So let’s get them six-guns a-blazin’, podner.
1. The Chicago Gambit
Chances are you won’t be able to discuss gun regulation with a gunster for more than 10 minutes without him bringing up Chicago. That’s because Chicago has rather stringent gun policy, yet in 2012 it experienced 516 homicides (or, according to some sources, as high as 535)– an increase of in the neighborhood of 20 percent over the previous year (officially 433, though variously reported as 435 to 441). So clearly, “gun control” is to blame, right? Furthermore, since the city is the president’s hometown, Obama himself must be somehow behind it all. Especially since the city’s current mayor, Rahm Emanuel, was formerly Obama’s Chief Of Staff. For gun fanatics, many of whom are rabidly right-wing reactionaries, Chicago’s murderous ways are thus a triple dose of gloat juice; they’ve even been known to suggest that Mayor Emanuel is deliberately cranking up the bloodbath in order to give himself political leverage. No, really.
First off, we should note that crime statistics for cities are not necessarily a reliable gauge of the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of gun laws. Cities, after all, aren’t normally surrounded by barbed wire or moats, so it isn’t that difficult for guns to be brought in from the outside. This is especially true in a city like Chicago, which can be readily accessed by residents of at least three states — including deep red, gun-totin’ Indiana. Indeed, the rest of Illinois has more lax gun laws than does The Windy City; and this is one reason that advocates for stricter gun regulation stress the need for reform at a national level.
This is not to say that municipal gun regulations are utterly useless and shouldn’t be pursued. It just means that it’s difficult to assess their success or failure; and that their effectiveness itself may vary wildly. But if you want to select specific cities where “gun control” seems to have made a difference, there are plenty of them to choose from. There are, for example, New York and Los Angeles.
But the gun culture wants to train its crosshairs only on those cities with strict gun regulations that have experienced an increase in violent crime. Three years ago, Boston was all the rage, as 2010 saw a temporary (and relatively minor) jump in homicides for that city. But when levels returned to normal the following year, the gunsters turned their sights toward the Second City instead. But the focus is on only one particular year in Chicago — i.e., 2012. It’s not hard to figure out why if you take a look at the statistics for the few years leading up to that:
As even a casual glance makes clear, the city’s homicide tally had been on a rather steady downward slide for 20 years; thus, it appears that what happened last year was an anomaly rather than a trend. And this is borne out by the fact that the homicide rate for 2013 appears to have dived back down again, and has been on pace to be the lowest in about 40 years! No wonder you hear a lot more about 2012 than you do about 2013 or 2011. You also hear about isolated days or weekends of exceptional bloodshed much more than you hear about the overall trend (which is almost never).
This obsession with recent (though not too recent) crime statistics, and trying to tie them to “gun control” suggests that the gun lobby wants to give the impression that strict gun regulation is a recent development in Chicago. But far from it. Way back in 1982 the city passed one of the strictest of gun policies: an outright ban on handguns. And guess what? The streets haven’t become Armageddon Unlimited. In fact, at the time the ban went into effect, the city’s homicide rate had been on a steep escalator; but since then, it has dropped 17 percent.
This chart is borrowed from JustFacts, which seems to be implying that since Chicago homicides dropped “only” 17 percent during this time, as contrasted with a 25 percent decline across the country, this is an indication that “gun control” is a shot in the foot. But averages can be misleading; just because murders declined by 25 percent nationwide doesn’t mean that every city except Chicago experienced that much of a drop. The rate of decrease (or increase) varied widely from place to place. Furthermore, Chicago’s rate of “only” 17 percent (which is in fact quite impressive) incorporates a brief period (roughly 1990-94) when there was a temporary sharp spike. (Note that this chart is based on homicides per capita – an important consideration, especially here, since the city’s population has dropped significantly during this time frame.)
But look again at the graph above, and imagine that the little section with the sharp spike is missing, You’ll see that without it, Chicago’s murder rate would have dipped more than did the nation’s as a whole. Now here you may cry foul over the suggestion that we discard a slice of data that doesn’t fit a particular profile. The thing is if you’re going to draw a broad conclusion that “gun control doesn’t work” or even that the Chicago gun ban specifically hasn’t worked, you need to eliminate all other factors that might influence crime rates. That’s impossible to do in the real world; but as the next best thing, we can try to filter out major aberrations.
Crime, for example, might be influenced by demographics. If the demographic breakdown for a city remains more or less constant on a perennial basis, then it can be taken as a normal part of the backdrop that gun laws have to function against. But if there is a sudden drastic shift — say an influx of refugees from another country — then we might have to consider the possibility that racial, national and/or religious tensions could be contributing to any abrupt change in crime rate. (Please note that this is a purely hypothetical illustration pulled out of a hat; you shouldn’t assume that I’m suggesting particular nationalities, ethnicities and/or religions are more prone to crime.)
Chicago’s murder spike is so dramatic that it reeks of the freak factor. And indeed it coincides with the crest of the crack epidemic, which certainly contributed to violent crime in many places — it apparently hit Chicago with its fullest force slightly later than it did other major cities. The crack phenomenon was a relatively brief period that had never happened before and hopefully will never happen again. Thus, removing it and its probable aftermath from the equation just might yield a more accurate portrait of the long-term homicide trend. Even without doing so, however, we still are left with a declining homicide trend in Chicago since the gun ban went into effect.
Okay, we’ve been discussing homicide in general, and it may have occurred to you that not all homicides involve a firearm. But guns are the weapon of choice in the great majority of cases; while it may vary from year to year, the norm in the U.S. is around 70 to 80 percent of murders committed with guns (considerably higher than most other countries), JustFacts tries to hedge its bets by looking specifically at the portion of Chicago’s murders committed by handguns — which at first blush appears entirely relevant, since the city’s ban specifically targeted that flavor of firearm:
Since the outset of the Chicago handgun ban, the percentage of Chicago murders committed with handguns has averaged about 40% higher than it was before the law took effect.
This statement, along with several others and the supporting data, is lifted from a brief for the landmark 2010 Supreme Court case McDonald Vs. Chicago, which successfully challenged the ban. It was not long after the court’s ruling, by the way, that Chicago experienced its temporary surge in homicides. And it’s especially bizarre that gunsters should attribute the 2012 murder surge mostly to a law that already had been overturned. The brief also includes this statement:
Chicago’s handgun ban is an utter failure.
Which is an unsubstantiated claim. And this one:
Handgun Murders Have Soared During the 25 Years the Ordinance Has Been in Effect
Which is a bare-butted lie based solely on the apparent increase in the percentage of handgun murders among all homicides. But an increased percentage of another variable percentage isn’t necessarily an increase at all, much less a “soaring” increase. That “40 percent” figure incorporates the crack years, but even so, it doesn’t mean that handgun murders have been on the rise on a long-term basis. Despite the spin, handgun slayings have been decreasing during the past 20 years or so.
The counsel for McDonald et al and the writers of JustFacts have overlooked or ignored at least a couple of key ingredients. First, the ban is hardly the only gun law Chicago has put into effect. In fact, gunsters have been known to refer to the city as the “Gun Control Capital of the Nation”. The increasing percentage of handgun killings, rather than meaning that the handgun ban has not been effective at all, might actually mean that other gun laws are more effective — especially since the total number of gun killings has been on the wane.
Moreover, it’s possible if not probable that not even the percentage of handgun murders has actually increased. The figures cited are official numbers provided in the Chicago Police Department’s annual crime reports. But if you examine those official reports a bit more closely, you might notice something that never gets mentioned — certainly not by Wayne LaPierre.
It was not uncommon in past years for CPD statistics to list 20 to 30 percent of gun homicides as having been committed by firearms of an “unknown” type. That percentage has shrunk considerably as the percentage of official handgun killings has increased — which strongly indicates that many handgun murders in the past escaped categorization because they were listed as “unknown”.
JustFacts cites the particular example of the (post-ban) year 2005, for which handgun murders constituted a whopping 96 percent of firearm homicides. Notice the subtle shift in gears; after discussing the percentage of all homicides, they point to one year’s percentage of firearm homicides in particular. Whatever. That 96 is certainly extreme, and is quite a contrast to, say, 1981 (the year before the ban was passed), in which 42 percent of gun murders were committed with handguns. Even so, the total of such slayings for 1981 (374 ) is considerably more than the total (327) for 2005. (Factoring in the population, the handgun murder rate per 100,000 residents was 12.44 for 1981 and 11.29 for 2005.)
Furthermore, 68 percent of the 1981 firearm murders (546) were committed with a handgun and 26 percent (142) were committed with guns of an unknown type. In contrast, of the 339 firearm murders for 2005, only 1.5 percent (5) were listed as “unknown”. It’s entirely possible that all or nearly all of those 142 unknowns in 1981 were actually handguns, which would bring the year’s total to as many as 516, and the percentage of total gun murders to as high as 95. Even if we only assume that the “unknowns” were distributed among the same 11.5 to 1 ratio as the officially identified weapons, that would make about 504 handgun murders, and bring the percentage of all gun murders to about 92.
Homicide isn’t the only story, of course; there are other crimes to consider. And how has the overall crime rate fared in the wake of the handgun ban? The short answer is down, down, down. Every category of crime has seen an overall decline in Chicago for at least 20 years or so. (Burglary has been holding steady for the past 10 years, but was on the decline in the preceding years just like everything else.)
In sum, while we cannot prove that the handgun ban has been an effective deterrent to crime, we do know that its passage coincides with the reversal of a crime trend that had been on the rise prior to that and subsequently has been declining. When gunsters cite specific years that buck this trend, they are cherry picking. And when they bring up Chicago, they are fighting against their own cause. As more of them start to realize this, you can look for them to find another cherry-picked year in another cherry-picked city.
(NOTE: An earlier version of this article contained a confusingly worded sentence which suggested that homicide in Chicago since 1982 had dropped 17 percent per year instead of 17 percent overall. It has been corrected, and my thanks to readers who spotted the problem.)
You may have heard that the Associated Press recently was compelled to issue a retraction because of an embarrassing photo accompanying an article about global warming. The article had identified the photo as depicting ice melting at the North Pole; but in fact, it was a seasonally thawed “lake” (actually more of a pond) some 300 miles away. Chances are you heard about this from an anti-science relative, along with the comment, “Aha! This proves that global warming is a hoax.” To which, perhaps, the only suitable response is: “Aha! This proves you know how to cherry pick.”
Cherry picking, the seventh in our series of propaganda tools, consists of zeroing in on evidence that reinforces one’s argument, and discarding evidence that doesn’t. It’s the result of confirmation bias, which is a tendency — a tendency very deeply ingrained in the human species — to seek out confirmation of one’s beliefs and values. It usually doesn’t entail inaccurate information so much as incomplete information — facts ripped away from their context with other facts that would drastically affect their interpretation.
A frequent telltale sign that you’re being cherried is the reporting of a single anecdote followed by the words “this proves that…”. A single occurrence rarely proves anything except as noted above: The statement “This proves you know how to cherry pick” may be assumed accurate with reasonable safety, because doing something even once proves that you’re at least capable of doing it (it’s pretty damn hard to fly a plane once unless you know how). But it doesn’t prove that you do so habitually, and that’s the basis for “proofs” supported by cherry picking.
You might think that the Associated Press itself was guilty of cherry picking, but most likely it just committed an honest flub, placing the wrong picture with the right story. That’s been known to happen before. As far as Alex Jones and company are concerned, however, the journalists and editors were “blatantly lying”, which proves that global warming is a myth. But the AP had no need to lie or cherry pick, because there is an abundance of photos that starkly reveal thawing polar ice caps on a massive scale.
In any case, the AP gaffe is a journalistic lapse rather than a scientific lapse. It has no bearing whatsoever on the enormous mountain of evidence compiled through decades of climate science research. Yet the denialists speak as if they believe they can bowl that mountain over with a single cherry — from an entirely different orchard, no less.
The op-ed piece pushed by Jones and his faithful flock (it was re-posted from another website, Natural News) employs both of the most common cherries picked by the cult of climate science denial: (A) citing the beliefs of a few of the 3 percent of scientists (many of them affiliated with the petroleum industry and/or right-wing think tanks) as being more substantive than the 97 percent who have reached a consensus on global warming; and (B) citing instances of cold weather as contradicting warmer climate. Actually, long-term warming can contribute to short-term cooling; and the article also ridicules this sound fact as further proof that scientists are “incompetent”. It also brandishes a couple of phrases that qualify as both straw men and framing: “Earth worshipers on the Left”, suggesting that it’s the “other side” and not the anti-science fanatics who have systematically politicized this issue; and “the lie that mankind’s loathsome habit of improving life is killing the planet”, suggesting that it is the anti-science fanatics rather than the scientists who represent true progress. Cute. The article also indirectly pays homage to “Climategate“, a faux “scandal” that science deniers falsely claim impugns climate research. They really pulled out all the stops on this one. There’s even a nifty explanation for why scientists are so devious and nefarious: ”to take away your mobility and force you into crowded urban centers where you can be more easily controlled”. Heaven knows people in those crowded urban centers are nothing but automatons, with evil scientists pulling their strings.
Cherry picking may be thought of as the flip side or complement of an error that all of us have been guilty of at some time or other: faulty extrapolation — more colloquially known as “jumping to conclusions” . We tend to draw conclusions in line with what we want to believe, even when the evidence is insufficient. And then we try to convince other people that those beliefs are accurate by reversing the process, selecting facts that support the faulty conclusions.
In 1998 a fraudulent study proposed a causal link between autism and certain vaccines. This gained a great deal of traction with the public, in part because children begin to manifest symptoms of autism at about the same age they get the vaccines. So the two must be related, eh? It’s like surveying the smog in Los Angeles and deducing that it must be caused by palm trees. (Which appears to be just what Ronald Reagan may have done.) It’s a classic case of the cardinal sin of sociology: confusing concurrence with cause — or as it’s been expressed, confusing “with” and “because”.
The reputed autism-vaccine link has been soundly discredited, but that won’t stop people from believing it anyway if they are determined to do so. Okay, if you wanna believe it, go ahead. As long as you keep it to yourself, you may be guilty of nothing more than being misled into a faulty conviction. But when you start trying to sell your misguided belief to other people, you’re committing propaganda via the genus Pluckus redfruitus.
Sometimes people confuse cherry picking with illustration by example. (My attackers have been known to do so.) It’s an easy mistake to make — the line does get rather blurred. So let’s see if we can make it more distinct.
Suppose I’m discussing a certain extremist fringe group — we’ll call it the Koo Koo Klan — and I mention that it is racist. Then I illustrate this with a particular incident in which the group burned a cross on the lawn of an African-American family. Am I cherry picking or just providing an example? In a sense, it depends on whether the cart came before the horse.
If I’m basing my racist characterization of the KKK only on this one incident, then I just might have crimson-stained fingertips. There might be other reasons why they burned a cross on this family’s lawn. Maybe it was a twisted gesture of affection instead. Maybe they picked a yard totally at random. Maybe they didn’t like families with a certain number of kids or who drive a certain type of car. But if the organization has a history of burning crosses for racist reasons and has explicitly made racist comments in its official documents, promotional materials and speeches, then my conclusion is on much more solid ground; and my inference about this one action being of racist intent is more reliable, and may reliably be taken as an illustrative example rather than a definitive cherry.
As you no doubt are aware, cherry picking is a sort of Olympic sport among political pundits and partisans; and it often leads to some rather fascinating contortions of reason.
Consider, for example, a column by right-wing commentator Larry Elder titled What About the Stupid Lies Democrats Believe? (Elder, incidentally, is the author of the book The Ten Things You Can’t Say in America, which rehashes talking points that he and his fellow ideologues utter frequently even though they’re supposedly forbidden from doing so. They include the claim that “illegitimacy” is “America’s greatest problem”. Really.) Apparently on the defensive about criticism of the loony things right-wingers believe, he mentions just one of many –i.e., that President Obama is a Muslim — and plucks a few cherries to make it sound like that might not be such a fruitcake belief after all. Then he counters with a list of 5 “lies” left-wingers supposedly believe — which somehow excuses or mitigates the lunacy of right-wing beliefs. (That’s an evasive tactic we’ll be examining in the future).
His list of 5 supposedly wackadoo Democratic beliefs is really not far-fetched at all. and is highly suspect for several reasons. One of these “lies” in particular really jumps off the page at you: ”George W. Bush ‘stole’ the 2000 election”. Which he dismisses with this quote from the New York Times:
A comprehensive review of the uncounted Florida ballots from last year’s presidential election reveals that George W. Bush would have won even if the United States Supreme Court had allowed the statewide manual recount of the votes that the Florida Supreme Court had ordered to go forward. Contrary to what many partisans of former Vice President Al Gore have charged, the United States Supreme Court did not award an election to Mr. Bush that otherwise would have been won by Mr. Gore.
As we discussed in an earlier post (The Media Role in Bush vs. Gore, Part 3: What They Ignored) the allegation of a stolen election in 2000 is founded on numerous factors, all involving soundly documented instances of malfeasance by the Bush camp and/or the GOP on his behalf. There was, for example, the unwarranted (and evidently unlawful) purge of tens of thousands of likely Democrat voters, months before any ballots were even cast, from the rolls in Florida — where Bush’s brother just happened to be governor and his local campaign chair just happened to be Secretary of State. And there was the blatantly partisan intervention by a blatantly partisan Supreme Court — two members of which had direct ties to the Bush family and/or campaign — which included unnecessarily halting the Florida recount. And on and on and on.
But Elder ignores all of this, and focuses only on the projections of the media consortium which reviewed ballots long after the election was over. And it gets even better. He singles out a single statement by a single media outlet summing up the results. Not that it really matters. He could have found a similar quote in just about any major newspaper. As we discussed before (The Media Role in Bush vs. Gore, Part 4: The Cleanup), the consortium examined the outcomes under several different counting scenarios; and Gore would have won most of them – including any scenario involving a statewide recount of all ballots! And this, mind you, is even after all the shady shenanigans by the Bush gang. It’s hard to see how anybody could wring an unequivocal Bush victory out of all this, but that’s exactly what the media did. In nearly every case, news reports trumpeted the recount scenarios favoring Bush in its headlines, while burying in fine print the much more significant results favoring Gore. George W. Bush was not picked by the voters, but he was picked repeatedly by the cherry harvesters.
In short, Elder fails to make a case that the stolen election narrative is even wrong — much less that it belongs in the same corner of the loony bin as Obama the Muslim (not to mention death panels, forged birth certificates and Benghazi cover-ups). Yet he purports to have established both with a single quote from a single newspaper. He’s balanced quite a stack of cherries here.
In addition to overtly political topics, you’ll hear the sound of cherries being yanked from trees in relation to a number of other hot-button issues that almost invariably get linked to politics. Probably the two canards I hear cherried most often are: “gun control doesn’t work” and “American media has a liberal bias”. (Both of these constantly chanted mantras are on Elders list of things you can’t say. Really.) We’ll be dissecting both of these myths in due course. For now let’s just note that “proving” either of them would require an Everest-sized heap of data; but proponents of these beliefs are generally content just to “prove” them with a pebble or two carefully plucked from the mass.
Several years ago, the ever-entertaining National Review ran what may be my all-time favorite instance of cherry picking. There is unquestionably a liberal bias in the media, it declared, because x number of media outlets during a certain period of time ran y stories about “gun control” and only z stories about gun ownership. First off, the ever-entertaining NR was selecting a single issue as the determining indicator of bias. Then, it heavily stacked the deck by comparing coverage of “gun control” to coverage of gun ownership — how often is the latter really newsworthy? And do you really think that right-wing media would never have any interest in covering “gun control”? This illustrates just one of the many reasons why I can never resist affixing “ever-entertaining” to “National Review”.
None of the foregoing should be construed as an admonition against countering the prevailing paradigm. If I didn’t favor questioning “conventional wisdom”, this blog wouldn’t exist. (The prevailing paradigm, in case you really didn’t know, includes the “conventional wisdom” that media has a “liberal bias”; that “gun control doesn’t work”; that “both sides” are equally hostile and over the top; and that scientists are unscrupulous and inept.) But if you’re going to challenge experts in their own field, you’re going to need a hell of a lot more than your beliefs. And if you expect your beliefs to be taken seriously by people who are knowledgeable on the topic, those beliefs need to be backed up by more than a few cherry picked facts wrenched out of context.
1984 Will Not Arrive.
That was the title of a talk I once attended by legendary science fiction author Ray Bradbury, who laid out a solid case that the government will never be able to, nor even attempt to, keep tabs on its entire citizenry in an Orwellian fashion. Selected individuals, sure — some individuals present good cause to be monitored — but not the populace as a whole. No matter how sophisticated the technology, he observed, and no matter how much data is collected, sifting through the data in a meaningful manner requires human effort; and monitoring an entire population would be so time-consuming, so labor-intensive, and so expensive as to be profoundly prohibitive.
That fact, however, seems to be lost on most of the American public, as well as the media, particularly in light of recent revelations about the National Security Agency. All because of one man, quasi-professional geek turned folk hero Edward Snowden, who just 4 short years ago declared that leakers like him “should be shot in the balls”. But that was then, and this is now.
And now the media have erupted in a Libertarian orgy of paranoid paroxysms and dystopian delusions about how Big Brother has arrived in grand fashion. Here’s your impossible challenge for today, boys and girls: find a media story about this “scandal” that doesn’t call it a “scandal”, and/or doesn’t use the word “spying”. Reports that the NSA has sometimes inadvertently gathered superfluous information or otherwise erred are routinely packaged under the headline NSA Broke the Law Thousands of Times; and there seems to be scarcely a journalist anywhere who is capable of distinguishing between spying and data collection, or between a scandal and a fucking mess. The big bad guvmint, the official spin goes, has been listening to and taking notes on our phone conversations; and about two-thirds of Americans buy into this crock. But the odds against such a thing are astronomical.
Let’s do some simple and rough, but significant math, shall we? No no, don’t worry — it won’t hurt, I promise. Okay, then. There are an estimated 2.4 billion phone calls made in the U.S. every day. Let’s conservatively suppose that each one lasts only one minute. (The latest estimates I’ve seen are closer to two minutes.) About 200,000 people work for the 16 U.S. intelligence agencies. Only a relatively small number of them are actively engaged in intelligence gathering, but let’s pretend they all are. That means that if the government-haters are correct, each of these employees must listen to, at the very least, 200 hours of chatter every day. This is in addition to their other duties — poking through your emails, posts, and page views online, for instance. It’s always amusing to see how allegations that the government performs such superhuman feats are made by the same individuals who habitually denounce the government as being hopelessly incompetent.
What’s that you say? Police are sometimes guilty of snooping as well? Well okay. So let’s suppose that’s all that any of them ever do, and that they join forces with the feds in doing so. That would mean that each agent of evil must only listen to as few as 40 hours of talk every day. Maybe you’d better start worrying after all.
With such a staggering (not to mention time-warping) workload, intelligence bodies are necessarily going to be highly selective in whom they target. In other words, they’re not going to bother spying on anyone unless they have (at least what they consider) a good reason. But this kind of basic numeracy has been distorted, spun and distilled into the simplistic bromide “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear” — which the spinmeisters then ridicule because there’s always a chance you might have something to fear. There’s also a chance that you might be struck by lightning.
The mindset that “they’re watching me” is usually paranoia, but it’s also quite often egotism, founded on the conviction that “I’m so damn important the government must be monitoring me, because how dare they not.” Granted, abuses do occur, but they’re far from routine. This is not to say that you should play ostrich; but Chicken Little is an equally absurd bird. Vigilance is fine, but you don’t have to sacrifice sanity for it.
Apparently, actual spying on citizens occurs rarely , despite frequent rumors and accusations to the contrary. And many people are taking the bait. Suddenly, people are shocked, shocked, that the government has been collecting metadata (rather like a copy of the phone bill) of citizens’ phone calls. Gosh, Americans really hate to have their privacy compromised, don’t they?
Well actually, no. Phone companies have been selling the private dope on their customers for some time, with no uproar. Furthermore, the amount of personal data the public willingly and eagerly divulges on a daily basis (think Facebook, Foursquare, Twitter, etc. etc. etc.) dwarfs the amount of private information the government collects on the vast majority of them. People eagerly reveal to the whole world juicy tidbits about whom they’re sleeping with, what movies they watch, where they go and when, whom they vote for, where they work, what their children’s names are, how much they love Jesus and what they had for breakfast; but they’re outraged over Uncle Sam collecting a database of the phone numbers they’ve called.
Ah, but it’s one thing for consumers to willingly divulge intimate facts to commercial organizations, their friends and relatives, and perfect strangers in Bahrain; but it’s quite another for Washington to compile data on us without our consent. So that must explain all the ruckus, eh?
Well, now that you mention it, no. It doesn’t. Because don’t look now, but the U.S. government has always “spied” on its citizens — and in some instances actually spied without quotation marks. The FBI relentlessly bugged, shadowed and harassed Martin Luther King, Jr. for instance. In fact, on J. Edgar Hoover’s watch, that agency was more frighteningly abusive than anything the NSA appears even to have dreamed about thus far.
Speaking of which, NSA “spying”, if you insist on calling it that (and in some cases that word indeed would be justified) has been happening for years. And it hasn’t been a big secret, either; it’s been reported in the mainstream media many times, including several stories in The New York Times. Why hasn’t there been a massive outcry before Edward Snowden presumably delivered a lead slug to his own scrotum? Hmmm… could it be that it makes a difference when the president is behind it all? Yes, surely that must explain it.
Well, no, it doesn’t at all, for two reasons. First, the president isn’t really “behind it all”. Certainly, his is the desk at which the buck stops. But the NSA has been doing its business all along with the knowledge and approval of Congress and the courts. So it’s hardly been occurring in a vacuum or a deep dark dungeon. Or the Oval Office.
Second, Obama hasn’t exactly been the first chief executive to preside during such a massive data harvest. It was under his predecessor that the Patriot Act was passed, authorizing this kind of “spying” on the citizenry. Yet If you mention the Bush connection to your right-wing friends, you’re almost certain to receive a response like this: “There you go again, trying to defend Obama by saying Bush did the same thing. That doesn’t make it right for Obama to do it.” Which of course misses the point by a country mile.
Gaming the Blame Game
The point isn’t that “Bush did it too”, but that Bush did this. It isn’t about “defending Obama” (I’m not convinced there’s anything substantial to defend him from). It’s about trying to lend some perspective to the public’s reaction (and reactionism) and to highlight the glaring double standard of the media and the hypocrisy of the wingers. That’s certainly not an insignificant line of inquiry, especially since many of the wingers are denouncing Obama’s presumed hypocrisy and/ or flip-flopping since his expressed stance on the matter as a senator and a presidential candidate. (While his position has evolved since his days in the Senate, his actions as president are entirely consistent with his position on the campaign trail.)
By no means is everyone who defends the NSA also defending Obama. Take Dick Cheney. Please. He called Snowden a “traitor” and possibly a Chinese spy (which indeed would do a great deal to account for Snowden’s behavior) and also commented that:
“I think it’s one of the worst occasions in my memory of somebody with access to classified information doing enormous damage to the national security interests of the United States.”
If you think Mr. Cheney ever, in a billion years, even under the threat of Gitmo, would do anything that in any way whatsoever might be conceived as defending Obama, you really don’t know Dick. Practically since the day he left office, he’s been engaged in an unheard-of campaign to smear the new administration. Even while defending the NSA, he’s been very careful to make a point of proclaiming that the president has “no credibility”. (Yes, really — this is the same Dick Cheney who said that Iraq was amassing WMDs and that “we will be greeted as liberators” and “we are in the last throes, if you will, of the insurgency” and that the occupation of Iraq would last “weeks rather than months”. Among many many other things. And now he has the gall to pose as an authority on credibility. One thing you have to admire about the guy is his extraordinary capacity to keep a straight face.) And just for good measure, he chimed in with the cuckoo chorus proclaiming that Obama is involved in a “cover-up” of Benghazi. Yet for all his distancing of himself from the current administration, he is a proud backer of whatever the NSA is up to.
Ditto for many of his dittohead compatriots in Washington. They’ve been foaming at the mouth for at least 5 years in quest of some titanic regime-toppling “scandal”. They failed to find it in Fast and Furious. They failed to find it in Solyndra. They failed to find it in the IRS non-scandal. They failed to find it in Benghazi. They failed to find it in the deranged ranting about a forged birth certificate, despite some very creative attempts. So many of them were hoping that the NSA “spying” “scandal” would be, at long last his downfall. But like the other “scandals”, this one starts dissolving when you shine more light on it.
And the truth is, it’s a delicate tap-dancing act for Washington wingers to call for the president’s head on a platter over this, when so many of them… um, …support the NSA surveillance. In fact, many Republicans who have denounced the president as a totalitarian gun-grabber are all for NSA “spying”. Yep, they consider firearm registration to be a dangerous, unconstitutional intrusion on civil liberties. But collection of citizens’ metadata? Not so much.
One of the most fascinating things about this whole NSA flap is how it has united people across ideological boundaries, resulting in some very peculiar bedmates indeed. Michael Moore joins forces with the Ron and Rand Revue in denouncing the “spying” as an outrage and an assault on the Constitution and civil liberties; while very “liberal” Sen. Al Franken and very “conservative” Speaker of the House John Boehner join forces to maintain that the activities do not constitute spying, but an essential tool in the fight against terrorism.
One faction that has been pretty much unanimous in its stance is members of the right-wing punditocracy. These commentators basically fall into three categories: (1) those who ignore, deny or gloss over the fact that it was Bush (or some responsible adult in that administration) who got the ball rolling, and just blame Obama (e.g., Rush Limbaugh); (2) those who praised NSA intelligence under Bush but brand it as evil under Obama (e.g., Sean Hannity); (3) those who acknowledge that Bush started it, and that it was not a good thing but, what the heck, blame Obama anyway (e.g., George Will). What it all comes down to is that they subscribe to the maxim “Blame Obama First, Foremost and Forever”, no matter what. And their hatred of the president is being spread by millions of citizens who are convinced that because they hate Obama’s guts so much, then by god he must be doing something really bad. It sounds like a sort of reverse New Age weltanschauung: hate someone long enough and intensely enough, and they’ll eventually deserve it.
The Prime Factor
Which brings us to the real explanation for all the hyperventilation over the NSA “spying”. It isn’t a love of privacy. It isn’t a general hatred of the government. It isn’t even a concern about overreaching by a president in general. It’s the Obama Factor, which dictates that anything — absolutely anything and everything — the current president does is ten times as bad as anything anyone else would do.
You’ve seen the Obama Factor at work many, many times already, in a number of mega-silly narratives generated by the Obama Haters. Such as the president’s use of a teleprompter like any other speaker on television or in at public events. Or his attempts to reduce gun violence. Or, heaven forbid, his taking vacations – a manufactured outrage so contrived that sustaining it requires labeling even official trips as “vacations”. The extremist vendetta against this president has reached such Swiftian proportions that it has even the former chair of the RNC shaking his head in disbelief.
I’m not here to defend President Obama. Nor am I here either to condemn or condone anything the NSA or any other government agency does — so you can spare me the lectures about how “you can let the government have your phone records if you want to, but I’m going to fight for my constitutional rights”. I am, I assure you, as private a person as you’ll ever find; if I had political or religious affiliations, there’s no way I’d promote them on Facebook. And I’m no big fan of government incursion; I’ve long spoken out against official efforts to restrict the sexual, reproductive and marital choices of citizens, which I find far more intrusive than the collection of metadata — and infinitely more intrusive than gun regulation. Yet I also see merit in the argument that the president and the NSA should be thanked.
But here’s the deal. No matter whether we like it or not, the NSA program is being carried out either in accordance with or at least under the umbrella of the law of the land. It may not be good law. It may not even be on sound constitutional footing. But it is the law nonetheless. And in a sane and civil society, when people don’t like the law, they work to change it, and to close the loopholes.
In Twenty-first Century America, however, when people don’t like the law, their first impulse is to crucify the president for following it. (Or presume to know clairvoyantly that he is violating the law.) At least if the president happens to be a Democrat with initials BHO. And I’m just suggesting that it might be an instructive exercise to ponder why this is the case.
(See prior post, The Great American Scandal Scam, Part 1: The IRS Obsession.)
1. The victim was put on trial.
Supposedly, it was George Zimmerman who was tried for a crime. But the jurors were not allowed to hear the testimony of voice experts who say that he was not the one screaming for help in the 911 call. They also were not allowed to hear about the accused’s arrest record, his alleged history of domestic violence, and other facts from his past that might paint him as a trigger-happy hothead unfit to watch anyone’s neighborhood.
They weren’t allowed to hear about Martin’s past, either (except for his pot smoking, which evidently was considered a vital ingredient); but there was no need. Propagandists already had done a thorough job of saturating the American psyche with an unflattering portrait of the youngster who was not around to defend himself, and suggesting that because he might not have been a model teen, he deserved whatever he got.
This included lies about his height and weight and photos falsely purported to be of him — circulated by individuals raging about the dishonesty of the “liberal” media for printing actual photos of Martin that were not up to date. Heck, the brat even had — brace yourself — GOLD TEETH. Die, monster, die!
2. The verdict.
You seriously weren’t surprised, were you? Trayvon Martin had the NAACP behind him. George Zimmerman had the NRA. Get real. Nonetheless, one juror has stated that the accused “got away with murder”.
3. The media predicted riots.
Again. And they failed to materialize. Again. Although some folks did their best to stir up trouble.
4. People made irrelevant comparisons.
It’s like clockwork. “Well hey, blacks kill each other in Chicago every day, so why make a big deal out of this killing?” The reactionaries don’t stop to consider that if indeed it “happens every day”, that makes it by definition less newsworthy. And why imply that we have to choose whether to care about a single murder victim, mass urban violence, or war overseas? Even the smallest of minds is capable of caring about more than one thing at once.
And of course they also trot out the instances in which a black person kills a white person, and ask where’s the outrage over those.
My old friends over at my favorite gun propaganda website, called (natch) The Truth About Guns, jumped on this bandwagon with a story titled “Black Man Shoots White Teen, Jury Says Self-Defense. And Nobody Cares”. I assume the writer drew the conclusion that “nobody cares” because there hasn’t been the same level of media coverage or public outcry over the case referred to. He forgets to mention that the story is four years old. But more to the point, he incorrectly characterizes this incident as an “inverse image” of the Martin killing.
Not by a long shot. The black gunman, Roderick Scott, confronted not just one teenager but three. And he wasn’t stalking them or playing Batman; he discovered them actually committing a crime — i.e., burglarizing cars. Furthermore, he warned them that he was armed and ordered them to stay put until police arrive. Whereupon one of them charged him and he opened fire. The one constant is that it appears both gunmen may have acted rashly, lending substance to the belief that possession of a firearm tends to induce an individual to use it unnecessarily; but the circumstances under which Roderick Scott took a life were quite different from those under which George Zimmerman killed an innocent teen.
Yet the writer of the piece on TTAG lumps the incidents together and jointly moralizes thus:
Run with a bad crowd, bad things can happen. Act a certain way, dress a certain way, mouth off to the wrong person, and bad things can and do happen.
The problem with this grouping is that one might infer that by dressing and acting “a certain way”, and perhaps “mouthing off to the wrong person” Trayvon Martin was surely guilty of something that warranted his death. And that the boy Roderick Scott shot, who was actually committing a crime, was killed only because he was acting and dressing ” a certain way” or perhaps just “running with a bad crowd.” It’s creepy to realize that so many people who think this way are carrying loaded weapons.
Look closely at the supposedly parallel cases people throw at you, and you’re likely to find substantial distinctions like these. But in case you’re losing sleep over it, it’s probably true that there is more media coverage of whites killing blacks than the reverse. I’ve outlined some of the reasons for this in two previous posts on the topic. (Here and here.)
5. The gun culture waved its bloody flag.
The NRA attacked the media for covering the story, and attacked Attorney General Eric Holder for suggesting that states should review Stand Your Ground Laws — which supposedly means Holder is “pushing Obama’s (shudder) gun control agenda”. The NRA’s solution for preventing more tragedy of this type is, of course, to pass even more Stand Your Ground laws. Stand Your Ground, which influenced at least one juror’s decision, is a type of law that makes it easier to gun someone down and claim it was self-defense. Except for when it backfires. In fact, Trayvon Martin was the one who stood his ground in Florida, and by reports he was doing well at it without the benefit of any metal implements. But then George Zimmerman invaded his ground and killed him.
6. All the usual suspects mouthed off.
Glenn Beck. Rush Limbaugh. Sean Hannity. Ted Nugent. (The latter has such a long and fruitful tradition of bigoted, inflammatory, utterly delusional rhetoric that it was inevitable he would end up on the NRA board of directors.) They and their kindred were, as always, locked in mortal combat to see who could make the biggest ass of himself. Or herself — Ann Coulter and Michelle Malkin are invariably in on the action as well, determined to demonstrate that they can be Stupid White Men along with the worst of them.
7. White males felt threatened.
Many of them seemed to fear that since it was a black youth killed, it might appear that all white men are killers of black children. Never mind that the killer was only half-white; it pays to be preemptively reactionary. There was even a meme in circulation to the effect that “only in Obama’s America could a brown man kill a black kid, and the white man get the blame.” Notice the linking of the whole thing to a racially mixed president? A nice, classy touch.
Folks. The racial tension Americans have inherited is directly descended from a very long and very brutal history of racial oppression by — drum roll, please — white men. So yeah, it kind of is the white man’s fault. Sorry to be the one to break the news.
8. “Conservatives” attacked “liberals”.
It is an unwritten but immutable law that any time a tragedy occurs, right-wing fanatics must exploit it for political purposes, and use it as an excuse to trash “liberals”. Always. Every time. With no exceptions. Ever. While accusing “liberals” of doing what they themselves are doing.
Accordingly, in one of those twists of Bizarro Planet logic that make the wingers so endlessly entertaining, they proclaimed that them librulz, by drawing attention to racial inequality are actually creating it — that by discussing the ethnic aspects of the Martin case, they are guilty of “race-baiting”. Because we all know that the only way to deal with a problem is to insert your head deep into your ass and pretend it doesn’t exist.
They even attacked President Obama on the same grounds. (They’re under the illusion that he’s one of them librulz himself, but that’s another story.) One meme making the rounds said “If Trayvon Martin had been killed in Afghanistan, Obama wouldn’t even know his name.”
WTF??? Can you think of any president — or the leader of any nation — in the entire history of the world who was able to rattle off the name of every soldier who’d died in the line of duty? This has nothing to do with anything — except that Barack Obama is expected to perform 200 times as brilliantly as any mere mortal in order to avoid being classified as an evil failure.
9. Most people got it wrong.
Okay, so many of them librulz did make themselves easy targets. Not by “race-baiting”, but by focusing on the wrong question — just like practically everyone else. It isn’t a matter of racism, but of racial bias/ racial inequality. It’s unlikely that George Zimmerman harbors any blatant hatred of African-Americans. What’s far more probable is that Martin’s ethnicity was a factor (even if an unconscious one) in his being targeted for harassment that led to his death.
I once attended a talk by former NBA superstar Bill Russell, who said something I’ll never forget: “I don’t care what color you are, if you say you’re not prejudiced, you’re lying.” He said prejudiced rather than racist, but they’re two markers on the same scale. And it was quite a punch in the gut to my teenage self who’d smugly assumed that I’d purged every remnant of my Southern WASP heritage.
I don’t know if Mr. Russell was entirely correct, but he was definitely on the right track. As I’ve subsequently learned, most people do make snap judgments based on superficial characteristics, including skin color. Among other things, this means that people tend to consider darker skinned persons less trustworthy — and this attitude even prevails among darker skinned persons themselves! It’s a complicated problem with no pat solution. Sometimes its manifestation is very subtle and unconscious; sometimes it’s overt and ugly. But it’s always present.
Do them librulz sometimes go overboard in their consideration of race as a potential motive? Sure. That doesn’t mean they’re wrong to consider it all. Trayvon Martin is dead because someone regarded him as a “suspicious character”. And his killer is a free man because the jurors, despite their misgivings, felt compelled to accept his claim of self-defense — even though he instigated the altercation, aggressively stalking the youth even after being told by police to knock off the Rambo routine. If you’re really convinced that race couldn’t possibly have been a factor in all of this, you’re living in cloud cuckoo land.