On January 31, Media Matters published, as it does every year, an analysis of the biases exhibited in the Sunday network news talk shows during the preceding year. And even though its findings pretty much replicated what it discovers every year with a similar survey, the results might be quite a surprise to many people. Because contrary to the persistent narrative we hear about the “liberal media” dominating the American landscape, the survey, as always, indicates a very pronounced right-wing bias in mainstream media.
Now you may say that Media Matters is itself biased, and so this survey can’t be trusted. And you’d be half right. Media Matters is definitely biased, as I’ve mentioned before. But bias in itself isn’t necessarily a problem; biased is not a synonym for inaccurate or dishonest, even if they frequently all go together. (See previous post, Shades Of Subjectivity). Media Matters has an extraordinary track record of honesty, accuracy, and even balance. If you can find a more accurate accounting of media bias during the past year than the one it presents, I’d love to see it.
Besides, the type of survey in question is pretty much foolproof. Media Matters did not attempt to determine the biases evident in the stances taken on various issues, as that would have entailed too much subjective judgment. Instead, what it did was tally the biases of the personalities involved. And it’s almost always a simple matter to determine whether an individual — particularly a public figure — has exhibited an ideological position, and if so, what it is.
The report examines the four leading Sunday morning political talk shows: ABC’s This Week, CBS’ Face the Nation, Fox’s Fox News Sunday and NBC’s Meet the Press. And it examines each of them for six types of ideological bias: ideology of guests, ideology of interviewees, dominant ideology of panels, ideology of elected and administration official guests, ideology of elected and administration official solo interviewees, and ideology of journalist guests. (Note that there is some overlap.)
Only one network, ABC, displayed even a slight tilt to the left: it leaned slightly leftward on 3 of the factors, rightward on 2 of them, and was evenly balanced on the other. The other three networks were, with the exception of a single instance, consistently “conservative”, often to an extreme degree. The single deviation was that in the category of elected and appointed administration official guests NBC’s Meet the Press hosted “liberals” over “conservatives” by a slim 50-48 margin — hardly stunning given that it’s a Democratic administration. Nonetheless, Fox managed to dig up more Republicans to interview.
Of particular interest is the distribution of journalist guests:
As you can see, all 4 networks featured far more “conservative” than “liberal” journalists, even though allegedly there are far more “liberal” journalists to pick from. Yet 3 of the networks featured far more independents than either left or right; but good old fairandbalanced Fox had considerably more “conservative” than neutral journalists.
Are you shocked yet? None of this should come as a surprise to anyone who’s paying attention, but it runs very counter to the dominant narrative of the “librulmedia”. (Am I the only person who’s noticed that when people parrot the myth of the “liberal media”, they’re generally repeating a refrain they’ve heard from the “liberal” media?)
In his 2003 book What Liberal Media?, Eric Alterman comments that the persistent hammering away at the narrative of the “liberal media” is part of a tactic that he calls “playing the refs”: by constantly complaining about a supposed “liberal” bias, the right-wing punditocracy hopes to nudge the mainstream media even farther rightward than it already is. If that’s the case, the strategy seems to be working quite handsomely.
As 2013 was coming to a halt, the cult of climate science denial believed they had great reason to gloat. After all, hadn’t their favorite bogeyman, Al Gore, predicted 5 years ago that the Arctic would be free of ice by now? And wasn’t there still plenty of ice left at the North Pole? And heaven knows, as long as there’s at least one icicle left on Santa’s beard, it totally proves that global warming is a hoax. Ditto if we can establish that Al Gore has been wrong even once in his life.
Sorry to pop the bubbles in your champagne, deniers, but you got it wrong on both ends; both Gore and the scientists he was quoting were all too accurate.
Climate science denial is predicated on the belief that climatology is part of an evil commie plot to destroy the American economy by nibbling away at the mountain of profits raked in by corporate polluters. Somebody forgot to pass that memo along to the CEO of ExxonMobil, who has acknowledged not only that global warming is real, but that fossil fuels “may” contribute to it. But the global warming “skeptics”, as they like to fancy themselves, know better.
If you’re one of these cultists — oops, “skeptics” — then I’ve got some good news and some bad news for you. The good news is that them thar evil commie scientists were indeed mistaken. The bad news is that their error is minor, and not one that will be very friendly to your dogma. On the contrary, the estimates were too conservative: Arctic ice is disappearing even faster than projected.
The “skeptics” generally try to discredit climate science by stringent cherry picking. Unable to grasp the concept that global warming is an AVERAGE increase in WORLDWIDE temperatures over a LONG period of time, they instead seize upon very short-term variations in temperatures in one location, particularly if they happen to occur during the winter. The folly of this type of cherry-picking “skepticism”, particularly with regard to arctic ice, is readily apparent in the following graph borrowed from Truthout:
Yeah, there was a spike in the ice in 2013, just as there had been in certain previous years; but there’s still an unmistakable downward trend. Any gambler who records his wins and losses at the craps table long enough can show you a graph like this one. It doesn’t mean that probability is a hoax or mathematicians are frauds or casinos are generous. But gosh, ain’t it fun to just forget the facts and ridicule Al Gore.
If you try Googling something like “Gore’s 2013 prediction”, you’ll come up with an ocean full of blogs sneeringly touting Gore’s pronouncements that the Arctic would be ice free by 2013. What an idiot! What a lunatic! What a shill! What a propagandist! What an opportunistic manipulator!
But what you’ll have a much harder time finding is his actual words. So let’s take a look at them. Chances are you saw them here first:
Last September 21 (2007), as the Northern Hemisphere tilted away from the sun, scientists reported with unprecedented distress that the North Polar ice cap is “falling off a cliff.” One study estimated that it could be completely gone during summer in less than 22 years. Another new study, to be presented by U.S. Navy researchers later this week, warns it could happen in as little as 7 years.
In case you’re having struggles with the Mother Tongue, let’s point out that there’s a difference between “could” and “will”; between “one study estimated” and “without a doubt”; and between “in as little as 7 years” and “in at most 6 years”. In their ever-mounting desperation for a Gore flub, the anti-sciencers also turned to a speech he made in 2009, in which he supposedly said that the arctic ice could be gone in 5 years. Even if that had been what he said, that would mean this year (2014) and as of this writing it’s only January. But what he actually said was this:
Some of the models suggest that there is a 75 percent chance that the entire north polar ice cap during some of the summer months will be completely ice-free within the next five to seven years.
His office later clarified that he meant to say “nearly” instead of “completely” — in which case he was, again, too conservative, as the Arctic is already nearly ice-free during summer — but even as it stands, the statement leaves way too much wiggle room for anyone to declare that it’s wrong. Except, of course, for the Gore-hating science deniers. They’ve even misrepresented the words of the scientific source Gore was citing. But their most extensive smearing and distorting is, as always, reserved for Al himself.
As its own Exhibit A against Mr. Gore, PJ Media, one of those innumerable bastions of disinformation and general wingnuttery out in the blogoshpere, presents a brief, undated, uncontexted, garbled, and possibly edited clip of Mr. Gore appearing to say that arctic ice could be (or might be, or something) gone in 5 years. PJM notes that a presumably more damning clip that it had alluded to previously seems to have vanished down the “memory hole” along with, presumably, its smoking gun evidence that global warming is a hoax and thousands of the world’s top scientists are frauds. Doncha hate it when that happens?
The campaign to discredit Mr. Gore has been long, intensive, nasty, silly and downright bizarre. For sheer silliness, it’s hard to surpass the recent grade school gigglefest at Fox “News” over the fact that Mr. Gore’s book finally has, as any book eventually does (are you ready for this?) gone on sale. (Snicker snicker tee hee) Except maybe for photographing a copy of the book in the snow. But above all, there’s the standard practice of heavily editing his own words, as above.
As discussed previously , the Gore haters were relentless, systematic and unscrupulous in their efforts to assail Gore’s credibility during the 2000 presidential election, twisting his words like pretzels. When he said of a student’s campaign to clean up the toxic spill at Love Canal, “That was the one that started it all”, the librulmedia, taking its cue from GOP propagandists, quoted him as saying “I was the one who started it all.” And even more famously, of course, his observation that “During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet” will be forever remembered as “I invented the Internet”. They branded him permanently as a pathological liar without producing even one lie he’d told.
Not content merely to distort his words, the Gore haters have distorted his actions as well, pegging him as a blustery con man. What a hypocrite, they say, to warn people about the dangers of pollution when he, like any successful American, lives in a nice house and travels on planes occasionally. Obviously, he’s spent 4 decades warning about climate change just so he can put a feather in his own cap and rake in a few bucks in the process.
What you probably won’t hear these folks talk about is how he used planes after Hurricane Katrina. Remember Katrina? Even if you’re one of those sage souls who pooh-pooh the commie notion that global warming may have contributed to it, and instead chalk it up to gay marriage and abortion, you probably agree that the government’s finger-in-the-ass response to it was less than stellar — under the “leadership” of the guy who, by all evidence, had stolen Gore’s job. Meanwhile, Gore himself shelled out $100,000 of his own money to secretly charter two planes to fly to New Orleans and evacuate 270 stranded citizens — an effort in which he physically assisted. And he refused to discuss it with the media when they found out about it. A big spender he may be. A self-aggrandizing phony he ain’t.
Somehow, the rightwing anti-science vendetta against Albert Gore, Jr. reminds me of a line from the movie Love Story. Perhaps it’s because the author of the book , Erich Segal, was a friend of Gore’s at Harvard. Perhaps it’s because Gore’s good faith reliance on an inaccurate newspaper article about the book was transformed into another of his baldfaced “lies”. Perhaps it’s because the line in question was uttered by Gore’s Harvard roommate, future Hollywood superstar Tommy Lee Jones.
In any case Jones’ character, upon hearing the news that the male lead is romantically holed up in his room with his girlfriend, initially responds, “Again?” But then after a moment’s reflection, he amends it to the more appropriate reaction: “Still?”
Likewise, when I hear about the smears and distortions against Al Gore by climate science “skeptics” I seldom think, well there they go again. Because in all these years they’ve never once put on their clothes and gone home.
While I was visiting Florida recently, this news headline caught my eye:
Man fatally shot during Davie home invasion, police say
This piqued my curiosity, because I’d already written a post discussing how the frequency of home invasions is very greatly overestimated. Additionally, this appeared to be the kind of incident that would probably be classified as a defensive gun use (DGU), which, as I’ve discussed, is also vastly inflated.
So I read the story, which includes this statement:
The resident of the apartment had some company over and they tried to rob him, Capt. Dale Engle said.
Huh??? The resident of the apartment had some company over? How exactly is it a “home invasion” if you willingly let people into your home? This is a strong indication that the alleged defender has been hanging out with the wrong company; and while it doesn’t automatically negate the claim that he acted in self-defense, it certainly does place a big question mark next to it. And reading a little farther, we see this:
The man who was shot was found about 8 p.m. outside the front door of the apartment in the 6100 block of Southwest 48th Street.
Now it’s possible that he might have been shot inside the apartment and then stumbled outside to die. But in the absence of solid facts, we have to allow for the possibility that he already might have been outside when the resident grabbed his gun, then came out and shot him. Very defensive, no?
Finally, there’s this:
The names of those involved haven’t been released, and no charges have been filed in the case. An AK-47 assault rifle found in the grass of a nearby home Friday morning was being examined, Engle said.
An AK-47? Hey, just the perfect thing to defend yourself against home invasion. Especially by some of your buds that you’ve invited inside. Again, owning an AK-47 doesn’t automatically mean that you’re trigger-happy. But it certainly would seem to increase the odds dramatically.
Despite frequent wild claims of millions, the “confirmed” DGUs number no more than about 1000 per year. And a great many of those “confirmed” DGUs, on closer inspection, turn out to be not so confirmed after all because, as in the Davie shooting, the circumstances are fishier than Chicken of the Sea. Meanwhile, there are at least 400,000 crimes committed with a gun in the U.S. every year, and between 15,000 and 20,000 accidental shootings; altogether there are at least 100,000 gun injuries and/or deaths annually. All in all, it doesn’t add up to a very compelling argument that guns make us safer.
By now you’ve surely heard more than you ever, ever wanted to hear about the whole Duck Dynasty flap (if you live in The United States). But chances are you haven’t heard anything at all about the important lessons to be learned from it. So here are a few observations for your consideration.
1. Disapproval is NOT censorship.
It’s become an automatic response of anyone on the receiving end of a backlash for expressing bigotry or general idiocy to say, “Hey, you’re trying to censor me”. Or “you’re trying to suppress my First Amendment rights.” Poppycock, horsefeathers, balderdash and codswallop.
Duck Dynasty’s head mallard, Phil Robertson, expressed his mind (such as it is) and nobody tried to stop him. GLAAD and A&E expressed their disapproval. All were perfectly within their constitutional rights. So was the network’s decision to suspend Robertson temporarily while they reassessed their relationship with him.
The constitutional protection of the right to free speech was never intended as a shield against fallout if your speech is cloddish. If you call a guy a rotten sonofabitch and say his mother is a whore, he just might punch you in the nose. It’s not censorship. It’s not unconstitutional. It’s not intolerance. It’s Newton’s third law.
2. Overreaction has become the standard American reaction.
Let’s face it, we live in the Golden Age of the tempest in the teapot, an age in which any dumb joke or offhand whimsical remark triggers a hoopla of seismic proportions. The formerly innocuous neologistic verb Tweet has become a synonym for “invite an avalanche of distortion and negative publicity”.
So did people overreact to Robertson’s crass self-righteousness? Maybe. After all, there was far less outcry to his comments in the same interview to the effect that he thought African-Americans had been perfectly content with their social status in the pre-civil rights South, and that a non-Christian outlook leads to Nazism and genocide. (Hey, nobody ever accused him of being a history scholar.) And his remarks about homosexuality in the interview were really rather tame in comparison to his past sage utterances on the topic that also flew mostly under the radar.
But if the gay community and A&E were overreacting, their overreaction was blown to smithereens by the overreaction to that overreaction on the part of Robertson’s defenders.
Here’s GLAAD’s statement:
“Phil and his family claim to be Christian, but Phil’s lies about an entire community fly in the face of what true Christians believe. He clearly knows nothing about gay people or the majority of Louisianans – and Americans – who support legal recognition for loving and committed gay and lesbian couples. Phil’s decision to push vile and extreme stereotypes is a stain on A&E and his sponsors who now need to reexamine their ties to someone with such public disdain for LGBT people and families.”
As you can see, it’s much more elegant and civil than Robertson’s. As is the statement issued by A&E:
“We are extremely disappointed to have read Phil Robertson’s comments in GQ, which are based on his own personal beliefs and are not reflected in the series ‘Duck Dynasty.’ His personal views in no way reflect those of A+E Networks, who have always been strong supporters and champions of the LGBT community. “
And it’s certainly far more elegant and civil than the over-the-top reaction from Duck-lings, as typified by Fox “News”:
“A&E is apparently run by a bunch of anti-Christian, bigots. Duck Dynasty worships God. A&E worships GLAAD. If Phil had been twerking with a duck the network probably would’ve given him a contract extension. But because he espoused beliefs held by many Christians, he’s been silenced. Perhaps A&E could provide the nation with a list of what they believe is politically correct speech. Maybe they could tell us what Americans can say, think and do. Should the U.S. Constitution be amended to prevent Americans from holding personal beliefs that others might not agree with?… It’s not about capitalism. It’s about driving an agenda and shoving it down the throats of the American public. And Hollywood is beholden to an agenda that is anti-Christian and anti-family. ”
Good grief. They forgot to mention the ”Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids”.
You’ll notice that GLAAD and A&E (and most other people who objected to Robertson’s clueless crackerdom) limited their remarks to complaints about specific comments by a specific individual. They didn’t attack, insult, accuse or belittle him or anyone else. Not the rest of his family. Not duck hunters in general. Not Louisianans. Not guys who look like ZZ Top posing as GI Joe. And most certainly not Christians. But…
3. Americans desperately crave a narrative.
Have you noticed that people seem to find it increasingly difficult to view an incident as merely an incident? Everything has to be part of a trend, a movement, a plot, a conspiracy. Of course, the media do all they can to feed this attitude, and we could have an interesting chicken-and-egg debate about whether it’s more a matter of the media dictating or catering to the mindset; but in any case it’s pretty hard to deny that the mindset does exist.
In this instance, the overreaction to the overreaction tended to follow what has become a very popular narrative: that rejection of intolerance is more intolerant than intolerance itself. There was an explosion of rants about the oppressiveness of “political correctness”, whatever that is, on the part of the “Hollywood elites”. And always, such narratives absolutely and inevitably MUST lead to a scathing indictment of them librulz. This, the official spin goes, was another shining example of that ever-sought chimera, liberal intolerance. And oh yeah, it was a “war on Christian values”, as if all Christians were homophobic. (Quick, what did Jesus have to say about homosexuality?) But in fact some of them are actually too busy trying to improve the world to go around proclaiming that God is going to punish people for being the way He made them. And then there are the others…
4. Many Christians desperately want to feel persecuted.
They want it so much that they’re more than willing to pick a fight as often as possible in order to justify the paranoia. One group they love to pick a fight with is gays. (See previous posts on Gay Activism and the Christian Persecution Complex: “Playing Chikin“, “A Tale of Two Legal Judgments” and “The Kirk Cameron/ Anita Bryant Delusion“.) But they’ll settle for other groups as well.
Not long before the GQ story broke, another Internet narrative began circulating about Phil Robertson, to the effect that Duck Dynasty producers had asked him not to pray on the show, at the insistence of “atheists and liberals” — a claim which turns out to be quite unfounded . In another interview, he specifically mentioned that they frowned on his ending prayers with “in Jesus’ name”, possibly because it could offend Muslims. There’s no substantiation of this claim either, nor any reason to believe that in fact Muslims would be offended by such a thing.
It’s also interesting to note that this controversy erupted at time of year when the Christian persecution complex was already operating at full throttle. Every winter, one of the most inane of narratives, the “war on Christmas”, is as predictably conspicuous as eggnog and candy canes. Whenever someone says “happy holidays” or anything else except “Merry Christmas”, it’s taken as a sure sign that they’re out to eradicate the holiday altogether and ship all Christians off to a gulag in Siberia.
At about the same time the Duck Dynasty brouhaha was brewing, a woman in Phoenix who was collecting donations for The Salvation Army (which, lest we forget, is itself a Christian organization) was allegedly assaulted for expressing good will in an unauthorized fashion to a Good Christian. Is that censorship? Persecution? Political correctness? We don’t know, because The Indignant Guardians Of Liberty And Tolerance tend to become eerily silent about occurrences of this type. But maybe if Christians really are at war with the rest of the world, it’s because they’ve fired the first 5000 shots.
As we discussed in the previous post, they try to blame God for their bigoted and unenlightened doctrines, and quote cherry-picked biblical passages to buttress those beliefs. But this doesn’t work because (1) it’s very difficult to know exactly what the Bible says or intends; (2) the Bible often seems to contradict itself, and (3) you can find something in the Bible to justify anything you choose to believe.
One scriptural snippet the gay-bashing fundamentalists love to dredge up is Leviticus 18:22. What they fail to mention, however, is that the same book also states some other laws issued by the Almighty that most Christians wouldn’t want to live by. (At least let’s hope not.) And the Bible devotes even more wordage instructing you to sell your daughters into slavery, for instance. It’s the believers themselves who pick some biblical passages to live by and ignore others. And if there is a Guy Upstairs, he’s probably getting mighty annoyed at taking the rap for so long.
6. Americans love the lowbrow.
The above photo depicts the Robertson family in its pre-DD days. Chances are they wouldn’t have created such a media buzz if they’d continued grooming themselves like this. But fortunately for them, they underwent a savvy PR makeover, relinquishing an image that suggested the stereotype of the Homogenized Yuppie for one that suggests the stereotype of the Inbred Goober. And subsequently, their popularity has taken off like a skeet.
Americans have a fondness for, an infatuation for, an obsession with, the severely unsophisticated personality — not just the non-intellectual, but the anti-intellectual. Most people (hopefully) recognize that pop culture icons like Homer Simpson and Archie Bunker are meant to be satirical rather than exemplary. But there are real-life characters who are almost equally satirical, and they often end up in positions of power and influence: e.g., Sarah Palin, George W. Bush, and Dan Quayle. And did we mention Sarah Palin?
Phil Robertson was hired to be a buffoon, so nobody should be surprised by his comments in GQ. Or comments like this:
“Look, you wait ’til they (women) get to be 20 years old, the only picking that’s going to take place is your pocket. You got to marry these girls when they are about 15 or 16. They’ll pick your ducks.”
Really, Christians? You feel morally superior for standing behind someone like this?
It’s also no surprise that he was reinstated on the Arts and Entertainment network, though he is neither very artful nor, for may of us, very entertaining. His supporters rallied to his defense, and he probably picked up quite a few more troops along the way — which is one reason why it’s probably not a good idea to make such a fuss about his comments in the first place. In fact, it wouldn’t be a big surprise to learn that the whole thing was a publicity stunt cooked up by the Robertsons and the network.
But the real question is, why do so many people even give a shit at all about what someone like Phil says? That they do surely reveals something significant about contemporary American “culture” — something that, like the Robertson clan decked out in its waterfowl-slaughtering regalia, ain’t very pretty.
Whenever Americans of the fundamentalist Christian flavor get caught saying something that is bigoted, judgmental, or ill-informed, they usually offer the standard defense that God made them do it. “I’m just following scripture”, they say, and then quite often quote the Bible to prove it. Or do they? Actually, this defense falls flat because it ignores three very important facts about the Bible.
Fact # 1: It’s often impossible to know exactly what the Bible says or intends.
If it were always possible, then there wouldn’t be much variation in Christian dogma. Instead, there are as many as 41,000 denominations and sects. Some believe they’ll be whisked up somewhere past Deep Space 9 at the end of time. Others believe that paradise will be established here on earth. Some handle snakes, speak in tongues, sprinkle water on each other or dunk each other in it. Others think that any or all of these things are a bit wackadoo. All believe that their own doctrines are right and all the others are wrong. And all believe they get their authority straight from God — as funneled through the Holy Bible.
Trouble is, the book known as the Bible isn’t just a book. It’s an entire library of books, written by many authors in many genres over many centuries. Some of it is very poetic. Some of it is anchored in obsolete or even unknown cultural references. (How many Christians believe that “spare the rod and spoil the child” — which isn’t even a biblical quotation — means to spank children? Or that “take God’s name in vain” means to swear?) Some of it is obscure and even deliberately cryptic. All of it is written in a dead language — at least three of them altogether. And all of it has been heavily filtered through many centuries of translation, translation of translation, conjecture, textual corruption, copyist’s error, and editorial tampering.
The end result is that we have an approximation of an approximation of the original, but we really have no idea how approximate. The exact interpretation of the text is questionable at almost every turn. Need an illustration? Well okay, let’s look at, er, um… how about the very first sentence? Traditionally quoted as “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth”, the original text is probably more accurately rendered as “When God began creating the heavens and the earth…” What seems at first blush to be a slight grammatical/ syntactical variation actually could have a tremendous impact on whether believers subscribe to the anti-science mindset known as creationism.
Many versions of the Bible — including many editions of the notoriously staid King James Version — run a sidebar column of alternate interpretations like this in fine print throughout. How many “alternate” readings are really the true ones? How many times do alternate and accepted interpretations both miss the mark? We have no way of knowing. Anyone who claims to know exactly what the Bible says is practicing self-delusion.
Fact # 2: The Bible is full of apparent contradictions.
There are many lists of such contradictions, sometimes numbering several hundred. Some of them can be resolved by context, but many can not. There is definitely a textual inconsistency, for instance, about the content of the so-called Ten Commandments, and even about their exact number.
Some Christian apologists have attempted to address these discrepancies, and sometimes their explanations sound logical. But a great many other times, their arguments are nothing more than speculation, presumption and interpolation. Sometimes they can’t even offer that, and instead have to resort to declaring the problem an obvious copyist’s error.
They don’t seem to realize that if they admit of even one such error, they are opening the door to the possibility of many others. And when they open that door, out flies the notion of the Bible’s supposed infallibility. Moreover, the average Christian does not have the kind of erudite background that would enable him or her to untangle such problems in like manner; so naturally, you can expect Christians to entertain many contradictory beliefs. Which brings us to the big enchilada…
Fact # 3: It’s possible to find something in the Bible to support anything you choose to believe.
Absolutely anything. Wanna believe the center of the earth is a creme-filled chocolate coated cherry? There must be something somewhere in the deliberately vague and ambiguous Book Of Revelation to back you up.
Some Christians believe that musical instruments should not be used in religious services. Others wouldn’t dream of conducting services without them. Some believe alcohol and/ or caffeine are wrong. Others serve them at church functions. Some believe that gays are evil; others are themselves gay. Growing up in a Southern fundamentalist sect, I heard preachers quote “scripture” to support their own convictions that it was a “sin” to play checkers, go bowling, listen to pop music, wear makeup or jewelry (even a wedding ring) and even — I kid you not — wear glasses. While quoting passages to support segregation, patriarchy, and other things that seemed to serve their own interests at the time.
In the words of Susan B. Anthony:
“I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do because I notice it always coincides with their own desires.”
So in light of these three facts, and particularly this third one, we have to ask…
The Million Dollar Question…
Why do Christians so often zero in on biblical passages that seem to condemn entire groups of people — most of whom they know nothing about?
Aren’t there also passages about loving your neighbor and judging not and doing unto others? Why not focus on those instead? Why are so many Christians obsessed with biblical injunctions against homosexuality, but totally willing to ignore biblical injunctions against shellfish and pork? Or the endorsement of slavery, or the death penalty for homosexuality, “blasphemy”, adultery, rebellious kids, or working on Saturday? The only explanation they can offer is that some parts of the Bible have become obsolete. Fair enough. So why not the rest of it? Who gets (self-) appointed to make that determination?
The logical conclusion is that instead of believing what they find in the Bible, fundamentalists first believe, and then find it in the Bible. As you’ve surely noticed, when you challenge the beliefs of dogmatic individuals (of which there are quite a few), you’re likely to be met with defensiveness, hostility, and abject loathing. That’s because their beliefs aren’t just things they’ve adopted after examining the evidence; they’re things that have grown into their bones over a lifetime. When fundamentalists thump the Bible, they’re not probing for truth; they’re sounding out an echo chamber.
So sorry, thumpers, but you don’t get to hide forever behind God or questionable quotations lifted from an Iron Age literary artifact. You ultimately are responsible for your own beliefs. If you hate gays or Muslims or gays or atheists or gays or “liberals” or gays or homosexuals or gays, it’s not because God told you to. It’s because you’ve decided to hate gays or Muslims or atheists or gays or “liberals” or gays or homosexuals or gays. (And if there’s a God as vengeful as you maintain, you’re probably really pissing Him off.) And no, it’s really no less arrogant or judgmental to offer the popular defense that you “hate the sin but not the sinner”. It’s no easy task to separate (in the words of Yeats) “the dancer from the dance”. And besides you’re still the one deciding that someone else’s life is “sinful”, no matter how many Bible verses you stack up behind you. Or in front of you.
A Libertarian friend of mine who seems to be fond of guns (hmmm… have you ever met a Libertarian who’s not fond of guns?) recently sent me this link for my perusal. It’s a poll that apparently is meant to suggest that police in general disapprove of “gun control”. And that apparently is supposed to carry some weight because the police are dealing with guns and crime on a more or less daily basis, so they might be expected to know whether or not gun regulations are a good thing — an assumption which does indeed appear to have a certain amount of logic to it. I found this poll worth commenting on not only because the topic itself is interesting, but also because it illustrates some of the caveats about polls in general.
Virtually all of the mainstream media coverage I’ve found about the poll distorts — i.e., greatly exaggerates — its findings and import. Gun propagandists, including the NRA and my old friends at my favorite gun propaganda site, The Truth About Guns, have been waving it around like the ears of a bull they’ve slain in combat, hailing it as “potentially game-changing”. Sorry, but it’s nothing of the kind.
It’s being touted as the most comprehensive survey ever of law enforcement personnel on this issue, and that may even be true. Even so, the 15,595 respondents represent fewer than 2 percent of the nation’s 900,000 or so police officers (local, state and federal). Now under the right conditions, such a relatively meager sampling could be quite sufficient to obtain an accurate cross-section of the entire population in question. Many political polls, for example, project very accurate results with much thinner slices than that. The catch is that the sample has to be well chosen — i.e., it has to be selected in a manner that guarantees a random sampling without distortion. And this poll does not appear to have done this. On the contrary, it appears to have been conducted with a stacked deck that virtually guaranteed a desired result.
The survey was conducted by a website called PoliceOne, an online support group for police officers, which apparently made no effort to include the views of all police in the poll, but limited it to its own membership of 400,000. Not only is this fewer than half the number of total police officers, but the site’s membership is not even limited to police; it’s open to anyone in any country. The surveyors claim that the respondents are all “verified law enforcement professionals”, but in fact they “verified” this in the same way that Dr. Kleck “verified” his respondents had experienced a DGU: by asking them, and then taking their word for it. More than 5 percent, however, even admitted they’d never been cops; but even if all were, they would represent not only a small minority of police officers but a small minority of the website’s membership.
The participants were self-selected in response to email solicitation and an ad on the website. That’s an excellent means of obtaining participants if you really want skewed results. Particularly with a highly charged subject like “gun control”. Actually, it’s wise to be cautious with any poll about such intensely emotional issues, because it’s very easy for such polls to become slanted toward the reactionary side — which in the case of “gun control” generally means the Second Amendment cult.
Whipped into a froth by the likes of Wayne LaPierre and Alex Jones, they have been led to believe that: (1) they have a constitutional (if not a God-given) right to own a gun; (2) such a right is the very cornerstone of liberty; (3) any and every attempt to regulate firearms is an abridgment of that right, and (4) President Obama (or substitute the “liberal” of your choice) poses a dire, Hitleresque threat to life, liberty and the pursuit of firepower. Consequently, believers in “gun rights” tend to be more vociferous than those who know that the very idea of constitutional gun rights is bullshit (or at least understand that it’s debatable at best and therefore by definition cannot be absolute). But decibel level is not necessarily an indicator of demographic strength.
You get a good inkling of the problems permeating the survey when you read the announcement of the results on the PoliceOne site, including this: “(T)he survey found that the overall attitude of law enforcement is strongly anti-gun legislation and pro-gun rights.” This seems to suggest that the conductors of the survey are among those gunsters who hold “gun control” and “gun rights” to be mutually exclusive. which is by no means the case. Both are established by legislative and judicial action (not God or the Constitution, sorry), and far from being contradictory, they are complementary.
The wording of some of the questions on the survey provides further evidence of a lead-headed agenda. There is, for example, a question about approval of “the White House’s currently proposed legislation”. Invoking the specter of Obama is a surefire way to draw out the Second Amendment Mutant Ninja Turtles and other assorted Obama haters. And there’s one about a national database of legal gun owners, which is actually prohibited by federal law, and — contrary to NRA propaganda — is not part of Obama’s plans.
Just for good measure, there’s a response to one query indicating that those polled believe the biggest cause of crime is lack of “parenting” and “family values”. In case you’ve been living in a cave for the past 30 years, “family values” is a popular catch phrase that really has no meaning without elaboration, but which wingers often use to designate their own values — not infrequently including homophobia.
Perhaps the most interesting, and the most illuminating, replies concern the belief that armed civilians can or do play a crucial role in reducing crime. Asked to rate the potential for this on a scale of 1 to 5, respondents chose 5 by 54.7%; 4 by 21.7%; and 3 by 14%. But despite the popularity of the Kleck Kool-Aid, there is no evidence that armed civilians do in fact take a noticeable bite out of crime — much less effect a net reduction.
It always puzzles me when I hear about cops who oppose “gun control”. Do they harbor such an intense death wish that they want to see more guns on the streets with fewer restrictions? Do they relish the idea of being dispatched to a scenario like Newtown or Littleton or Jonesboro or Littleton or Stockton or Blacksburg? Ah, wait — that’s covered by a question on the poll. More than 80% of police, if the poll is to be believed, think it’s a good idea to arm teachers and school administrators. (And note Wayne LaPierre’s 180-degree turn on this issue.) So instead of just walking into a scene where one armed wacko might open fire, they’d prefer walking into a scene where any number might be opening fire. And no, it doesn’t work to say that the solution is just to make sure they’re well trained. Can you ever really be sure that perfect strangers are that well trained? Even if they are, can you guarantee that in such a panicky situation they will respond calmly, rationally, accurately?
(Incidentally, many gunsters are having a field day over the fact that the most recent school massacre du jour was committed by an individual who apparently had left-wing views — hell, he even seems to have flirted with communism, which we all know is synonymous with “liberalism”, eh what — and the media have not given this the kind of attention they’ve given the right-wing views of many many many other mass shooters. Which of course is missing the point by a mile. The real issue that has drawn media attention is whether an unbalanced individual can be nudged into violence by the endless stream of hateful, deranged and, lest we forget, gun-saturated, invective spewing from right-wing fanatics.)
During the bloodbath in Tuscon, an armed civilian attempted to intervene. Not only was he not successful, he nearly shot an innocent bystander. The gun culture promptly hailed him as a hero. And aside from the potential for armed citizens to harm each other, there is the potential confusion among law enforcement at such a scene about which gunman is which. But apparently we’re to believe that most police officers can’t figure out that this could be a problem.
Perhaps the one question that most starkly indicates a disconnect from the realities of police work is number 22: ”Considering the particulars of recent tragedies like Newtown and Aurora, what level of impact do you think a legally-armed citizen could have made?” To this, 80% chose “Casualties likely would have been reduced” and 6.2% chose “Innocent casualties would likely have been avoided altogether.” But how often has this been the case in the real world? About as often as Rush Limbaugh blows kisses to Barack Obama.
The gun culture has compiled a list of 9 such alleged incidents over a period of several decades to prove that this sort of thing happens “frequently”. Unfortunately, the list of the Golden Nine doesn’t quite hold up to close scrutiny. Almost all of the “armed civilians” were actually police officers, security guards or military personnel; but since they were generally off-duty, we’ll let that slide. What’s much more difficult to dismiss is that in every case it was doubtful whether the armed good guy actually made a difference. Meanwhile, one man who attempted to stop a mass shooting was killed, and another was seriously wounded.
Mother Jones, in an article examining the 62 mass shootings during the previous 30 years (several more have been added to the tally in the brief time since the article was published) noted that even if we generously assume one particular intervention (and killing of the criminal) by an armed civilian in 1982 did indeed prevent further bloodshed, that amounts to a success rate of only 1.6%. But Mother Jones used a rather restrictive definition of mass shooting: a shooting in a single location that claims at least 4 lives. There have been many many many other episodes involving more than one location and/or fewer or no fatalities. If we count those, the success rate in stopping them with more guns is very minute indeed — even if we’re extremely generous and count all of the Golden Nine.
Of course, you’ll hear the gun culture claim that there are surely many other successes; they just can’t, um, think of any right now. And they’ll claim that the reason there aren’t more is that most mass shootings occur in a gun-free zone. (Most? Try fifteen percent.) They will even claim that mass shooters deliberately select gun-free zones to go berserk in, But there’s no evidence to support this, either.
The truth about guns is that in the past few years, gun regulations have fallen like wounded children, while mass shootings have exploded. And “armed good guys” have been pitifully ineffective at stopping them. (I know, I know: things would go down very differently if you and your guns were on the scene, by god.) And while it may be true that “guns don’t kill”, they unquestionably have a tendency to be coincidentally in the neighborhood whenever someone receives a bullet wound.
Despite all this, it’s theoretically possible that most cops, against their own interests, really do favor more guns floating around with fewer limitations. But we have no way of knowing that at the moment, PoliceOne’s poll notwithstanding. What we do know is that such a conviction would be based on ideology rather than fact.
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.)