Some of you may have seen a couple of days ago that I had published a post called The Dishonest and Hypocritical Assault on “Moral Relativism”. That post, however, has not been completed yet, and the fragment was published by accident. Apologies for the confusion.
Even though they are often distasteful and disgusting and downright stupid — or perhaps precisely because they are often distasteful and disgusting and downright stupid — I have a certain fascination with Internet memes. They often encapsulate for better and (mostly) for worse the current moment in history, the present zeitgeist, the current propaganda-ruled culture of the nation I live in. The meme reproduced above (minus the grading) is one that I found especially noteworthy because it epitomizes, as few others I’ve ever seen, what is so egregious about a great many memes, and what is so awry and foul with the current state of public discourse in America. Let’s break it down bit by bit.
1. “Dear Democrats”
Though cloaked in the traditional salutation dear, giving the impression that this is a communication on the order of a friendly letter, this opening is a signal of the blatant polarization to follow. It suggests that nobody besides Democrats (and “liberals”) are alarmed about the current state of affairs in Washington. But so are independents, Libertarians, people with other party affiliations, and (despite their usual tendency to stick together no matter what) a growing number of Republicans. Even perennially tried and true member of the elephant herd George Will renounced his membership in the GOP when That Guy received the presidential nomination, saying “This is not my party.”
2. “For eight years we put up with”
Perhaps the best response to this is that a few pictures are worth a million words.
3. “your crappy choice of president”
Just about anyone of any ideological bent (present company included) can find something to disapprove of in Obama’s busy two terms in office. But there is no denying (though many people try very hard to deny it anyway) that he was a dynamic, effective and admirable leader. In fact, not long ago a group of some 170 political scientists ranked the nation’s presidents from first to worst. Obama was ranked 8th (up from 18th in the previous survey, when he was still in office), which is especially impressive considering how recently he left office — it often takes a few generations of perspective to fully appreciate a president’s impact. And number 45, by the way, was ranked number 45. But hey, what would political scientists know? They got no slogans.
To call Obama “crappy” is simply to substitute personal sentiment for fact. Which is, alas, something that happens with great frequency these days. “I believe in standing for the National Anthem, so everyone should.” “I don’t think gays should get married, so there should be a law against it.” “I’m a Christian, so everyone should live by Christian beliefs.” “I think abortion is murder so it should be outlawed.” “I love guns, so there’s a right to own one, and they prevent crime.” “I hate Obama, so he was a crappy president.”
4. “We complained about it, but we accepted it.”
“Accepted it” is an outright lie. “Complained” is the understatement of the millennium. See photos above. And see birtherism. And death panels. And he’s a Muslim. And he hates Christians. And he’s a socialist/ Marxist/ communist/ Nazi. And, and, and…
5. “You are showing us that you are weak, spoiled and inferior because you do not have the integrity”
You know irony is officially dead when someone uses a phrase like this while vigorously trying to defend the 45th White House Occupant. But aside from that, it also is a vibrant example of not only polarization but tribalism and confrontationism. It’s hard to imagine anything more “weak, spoiled and inferior” or more deficient in integrity than hurling childish insults. Especially ad hominem attacks against a wide swath of people you know nothing about. But this is exactly the kind of thing you’ll see in the cybersphere all the time. And it’s a telling illustration of why public discourse is at such a low state in America.
6. “to do the same thing”
False equivalence, false equivalence, false equivalence. One side is flying blimps of the baby dictator because (among many other things) he apparently conspired with Russia to throw an election, he lost the popular vote, he’s a bigoted misogynist who schmoozes with Nazis, he’s looting the nation for his own profit, and he can’t take a breath without lying. The other side burned effigies of Obama and spread loony rumors about him because he wanted to tax the rich, stop gun massacres, and make sure everyone had healthcare.
7. The Source
And notice who produced this meme: a group calling itself Alaska Patriots for a Free America. As we’ve discussed before, “patriot” is a popular word used in the propaganda technique of flag waving by those whose concept of “free” means free to impose their will on others.
This is certainly among the worst of Internet memes, but there are plenty of others to choose from. We previously noted several select examples promulgated by Liberal Logic 101, a fertile breeding ground for straw men.
The Other Side of the Coin
As you probably are aware, there are also plenty of good Internet memes out there. They may be vastly outnumbered, but they do exist. Here’s an example of one way a meme should be constructed. (Disclaimer: I created this one myself. But that isn’t what makes it a good one. It’s the other way around: I carefully put it together based on principles I’ve gleaned from many years of studying this sort of thing.)
First of all, I tried to be as non-confrontational as possible. The meme is not explicitly addressed to Republicans, “conservatives” or anyone else. They certainly are primarily the intended audience. But I’ve given them the chance to realize the shoe fits rather than try to force it on them with heated rhetoric. The impression I wanted to give them was that I was offering food for thought, for their own benefit — which in fact was exactly what I was doing.
I debated with myself for a long time about whether to add a final line: “And why should you be willing to give it to them?” This is certainly the question that I ultimately wanted them to consider — why should they play into the hands of propagandists, demagogues and hucksters? But I finally decided that it would be much more effective if they asked themselves that question rather than having someone else pose it.
What I did do, however, was point out as gently as possible something that they may not have realized: that the “liberals” they are being conditioned to demonize are not strangers and anonymous masses in remote locations; they are individuals with whom one comes in contact every day, and with whom one has had very positive experiences. And it doesn’t quite make sense mathematically that such librulz should be fine people individually, and yet add up to an evil threat as a whole.
This meme may not be perfect; it may not even be among the best you’ll encounter. But it was written thoughtfully rather than reactively, with good, constructive intentions. It’s the kind of meme we need to see a great deal more of — while seeing a great deal less of the first example.
Some time ago, we documented how reactionaries have a habit of redefining incivility (and civility) to suit their purposes, making huge shifts of the goalposts as it suits their needs. In recent days, there have been two well-publicized incidents that have made this tendency painfully apparent: the Red Hen affair, and the Maryland newsroom shooting.
In case you came in at intermission, here’s the backstory. For the past couple of years the nation has been totally dominated by the character who is now in the White House. On a daily basis, he has threatened and insulted people, characterized his media critics as “fake news” and egged his fan club to commit violence. He has cozied up to Nazis and white nationalists — like the one who drove into a woman and killed her — whom he characterizes as “very fine people”. He is, with little doubt, the most uncivil politician in the nation’s history. But since he spends about a third of his time on vacation, he can’t be nasty full-time; thus he has a bevy of professional liars to constantly spread his misinformation and divisive rhetoric on his behalf.
So then, as you almost certainly are aware, one of his hired liars and her companions dropped in at a Virginia restaurant called Red Hen. And she was NOT refused service. Instead, after she was served, the owner of the restaurant, having been alerted by her staff, drove to the restaurant, talked to her workers, and after getting a consensus from them (majority vote still means something in some sectors) very politely asked the hired liar and her group to leave. With her meal on the house.
So then the hired liar immediately wrote a whiny tweet, naming the restaurant and its location (not that she’d really expect the MAGA cult to use that information, heaven forbid), and insisting that she’s going to be nice and sweet to everyone no matter how much they abuse her. This is the same hired liar who repeatedly insults journalists just for having the temerity to do their jobs in her presence. Her equally vile father also weighed in on Twitter, again naming the restaurant and location (not that he was inviting the MAGA cult to harass it or anything):
Bigotry. On the menu at Red Hen Restaurant in Lexington VA. Or you can ask for the “Hate Plate”. And appetizers are “small plates for small minds”
This vile father, after all, is well known for his own huge mind and tolerance and his contempt for anyone who dares to refuse service to some individuals.
And he’s also a real enormous-cerebrum stickler for class, maturity and civility.
Right-wingers in general have made it clear that they think everyone has a right to be served anywhere. Except for gays, of course. And oh yeah, Democrats. These same wingers just recently were whooping it up over the Supreme Court’s edict that a baker had the right to actually refuse service to clients — not because they’re liars or accomplices to evil government policies, but simply because they’re gay.
And when a baker actually refused to serve Joe Biden — not because of anything Biden had said or done, but simply because he didn’t like Biden’s policies — he became a hero to the GOP and the reactionary media, which declared that he was standing on his “principles”, and being one of the “mini-revolutions”. He was even invited onstage at a rally by Paul Ryan.
So how did these wingers respond to the hired liar being politely asked to leave a restaurant? They went absolutely apeshit. (And bear in mind that these are folks who like to call other people “snowflakes”.) The so-called President of the United States weighed in himself, in exactly the manner that you would expect such a mature and civil world leader to do:
The Red Hen Restaurant should focus more on cleaning its filthy canopies, doors and windows (badly needs a paint job) rather than refusing to serve a fine person like Sarah Huckabee Sanders. I always had a rule, if a restaurant is dirty on the outside, it is dirty on the inside!
Never mind that the Red Hen has not had any health code violations in 4 years, while Mar-A-Lago has been cited 78 times in the past 3 years. Just dig the maturity and civility.
The media were all over the story, as if they’d suddenly emerged from the cocoon they’d been in for the past few years, wringing their hands and beating their chests, and crying “Whatever happened to civility?” (One answer: these same punditocrats labeled it “political correctness” and declared it to be evil.) And it wasn’t just the alternate universe cult media of Fox et al. Even the mainstream media (you know, the lamestream media, the librulmedia, the fake news media) chimed in with the chorus. Including the stalwart Washington Post, which normally is at least conscientious enough to elicit the harshest condemnation from the MAGA cult. In an editorial titled Let the [T—p] Team Eat In Peace, the Post opines that it’s a tongue-clucking shame so many people won’t allow these verminous government officials to just clock out at 5, forget all the loathsome things they’ve done during the day, and just kick back and have their private moments. Even though the Post acknowledges they are anything but deserving of such consideration:
Mr. Trump has ordered terrible violations of human rights at the border, he is demonizing immigrants by his actions and his rhetoric, and people need to speak up however they can.
They will get no argument from us regarding Mr. Trump’s border policy, and when it comes to coarsening the debate, he is the prime offender.
So we’re all clear that resisters are quite justified in resisting. Even the WaPo is clear on that point. And yet, it has insisted that these egregious offenders should be left alone to pass among us and behave as if they were perfectly normal and benign. Furthermore, the WaPo insults its readers with this (and hang onto your seat if you’re reading this for the first time):
How hard is it to imagine, for example, people who strongly believe that abortion is murder deciding that judges or other officials who protect abortion rights should not be able to live peaceably with their families?
How hard is it to imagine?? Seriously? HOW HARD IS IT TO IMAGINE???? Not very hard at all for anyone who isn’t comatose. Not only are people who protect abortion rights not allowed to “live peaceably with their families”; in some cases, they aren’t allowed to live at all. There have also been many instances of women’s clinics being bombed, defaced or otherwise attacked. And just about any woman who patronizes Planned Parenthood, even for a routine exam, faces a threat of harassment and abuse.
The MAGA cult heard the dog whistles and picked up on those subtle hints about the name of the restaurant. So they went online and began leaving nasty reviews, and death threats (in a very civil manner, no doubt) even though most of them had never even set foot in the place. In fact they targeted any restaurant named Red Hen, even those totally unrelated establishments hundreds or even thousands of miles away (one in the Philippines!) as well as the Red Hen chicken farm in frigging Montana. And a Red Hen restaurant in Georgia that closed in 2010.
Many such places were deluged with nasty online messages, nasty reviews, nasty telephone calls, and even vandalism. All very civilly, of course. Even when these establishments informed the cultists that they were different and unrelated businesses, the cultists often refused to believe it. They also jammed the (real) restaurant’s reservation system with phony reservations, so actual customers were unable to make them.
Those cultists who did manage to scrape up enough rudimentary geography to locate the actual target of their (civil) ire showed up in person with civil anti-gay picket signs, civil threats of violence and even a bucketful of chicken shit, presumably produced by very civil poultry, that was dumped in front of the restaurant. The restaurant owner who (politely — did we mention that?) asked the hired liar to leave was compelled to resign from her position and the Red Hen itself had to stay closed for several days.
And how did the indignant punditocracy respond to all of this? Well… um… we’ll surely be able to let you know any day now. We can tell you, though, that what they did do was lash out at Congresswoman Maxine Waters for urging other citizens to take a stand and give a cold shoulder to the administration’s evil henchmen. What else should we do? Welcome them with open arms, and thereby imply our consent to their foul deeds? But to hear the punditocracy tell it, she’d said something like… well, “if ballots don’t work, maybe bullets will”.
In fact the talking headlesses pointed the finger of blame at Waters a couple of days later when a gunman killed 5 people in the offices of the Capital Gazette in Maryland. Just try to wrap your head around that. A man slaughtered people with a gun (which “liberals” are always trying to restrict, and supposedly trying to “take away”); the victims were journalists (which the current putative president has been demonizing for months and months); but somehow a congresswoman who urged citizens to voice their displeasure with the current administration is supposed to be responsible for the bloodbath. Never mind that a certain right-wing rabble rouser*, only days before the shooting, had called for journalists to be massacred. Of course when someone did just that he offered the standard defense that he obviously was only joking hahaha and how could you be such an idiot as to take him literally even if deranged gunmen almost certainly would. All while being perfectly civil, no doubt.
Meanwhile, the wingnut blogosphere had a lip-smacking orgy of civil delight and celebration over the tragedy, saying among other things:
Good, hopefully they kill every fucking journalist.
AWESOME! MORE! MORE! MORE! I hope the police stand down for a while.
This story will be updated when more anti-gun faggots crawl out from under their rocks. as [sic] an aside, only 4 dead???? wtf if you are going to target reporters at least kill 400
dead journalists can’t spread leftist propaganda
Journos will pretend they did not deserve this despite being insufferable cunts
I seem to remember leftists talking about consequences
WOO! WOO! WOOOOOOOO! I can’t wait to see who our shooter is.
I hope many niggers have been killed.
And other such warm outpourings of right-wing civility. Along with, of course, all the usual loony tunes stuff about “false flags”, “crisis actors”, etc. And what kind of censure does the Foxiverse have for this kind of civil behavior? Well, um… we’ll get back to you on that. Eventually. Surely.
It isn’t just moving the goalposts. It’s moving them all the way into the bleachers, and then demanding more space. It’s working the refs, it’s invoking false equivalence and bothsidesism, it’s gaslighting. These people are playing a schoolyard game in which they get to walk up behind you and club you in the head, but when you turn to complain about it, they call time out, demand a safe space, and whine to the teachers about you bullying them. And the absurd media narrative about “civility” plays right into their hands.
(*As you may have noticed, I have adopted a policy of not naming odious individuals if I can avoid it. The last thing they deserve is more free publicity and ego-fluffing.)
William F. Buckley. Jonah Goldberg. Kyle Smith. There’s been an endless parade, over many decades, of worthy demonstrators of the intellectual bankruptcy of the National Review and the delusional culture it figureheads. We’ve already examined them in two previous posts; but sometimes twice just isn’t enough to adequately showcase just how godawful something really is. So let’s consider Jeremy Carl.
In a column written this year for Mother’s Day, he bemoans the fate of Phyllis McGinley. Phyllis who? Exactly. McGinley was once a heralded American (minor) literary figure, and the fact that she is not now a household name is a matter of grave concern to Mr. Carl. No, actually it’s a matter of great glee because it affords him an illustration of the Left’s War On American Motherhood. No, really. That’s the actual title of the piece: Phyllis McGinley and the Left’s War on American Motherhood. Which leftists presumably are waging when they’re not too preoccupied with their War On Christmas.
To Carl and company, anything vile or evil that exists in the world (and indeed anything they don’t like, which they hold to be synonymous with vileness and evil) is the result of sinister machinations by them librulz. And this time Exhibit A is the relative anonymity of Phyllis McGinley:
[W]hat consigned McGinley to the dustbin of literary history was her politics. And in the un-personing of McGinley, we can get a glimpse of the Left’s simultaneous ruthlessness and cultural hegemony. Simply put, McGinley’s thought crime was that she was a happy, Christian, suburban mother and housewife who extolled both her life in the suburbs and traditional roles for women. For the Left, her failure to be miserable and angry at her situation was an unforgivable sin. The erasure of her voice and what it represented is a sobering thought for conservatives on this Mother’s Day. As with much else in our culture, absent voices like McGinley’s, we look at motherhood, even, through a left-wing lens.
What does (or would) it mean to “look at motherhood… through a left-wing lens”? If you actually ask dedicated left-wingers they’d probably respond something like (a) recognizing that there is more to motherhood than a perpetual state of being “barefoot and pregnant”; (b) recognizing that motherhood is properly a matter of choice rather than coercion; (c) recognizing that women, even if they are mothers, have as much right to career fulfillment as anyone else; (d) recognizing that families having two mothers instead of just one are doubly motherly. The third mentioned has become more or less a reality, but it has been due to economic necessity as much as anything else. As for the other three, do you really believe they have won universal acceptance in the U.S. of A.?
One has to wonder how, given The Left’s ruthlessness and hegemony, McGinley ever sneaked into print in the first place, much less became so popular in her day. Never mind that The Left is so ruthless and hegemonic toward motherhood even though many leftists are themselves mothers and all of them have had mothers. What’s really so vicious and self-defeating of Them Libruls is to bury McGinley in oblivion even though she was n fact one of their own. At least, as Mr. Carl so pointedly fails to mention, she was a registered Democrat. Furthermore, she was pro-choice. In the frigging Fifties.
So then the librulz must have had a vendetta against her because of her anti-feminism, eh? After all, she was criticized by feminist Betty Friedan, and heaven knows Betty Friedan has totally dictated what ensuing generations of Americans read or don’t read. Oops, there’s a problem here too. McGinley, though she was at loggerheads with the feminist movement, was a bit of a feminist in her own way. In addition to being pro-choice, she used her platform to advocate for a liberal arts education for women.
Among her writings is a 1945 story called The Plain Princess (which Mr. Carl also fails to mention) that is nothing less than a modern feminist fairy tale. The female protagonist achieves her goals and overcomes her setbacks independently — not with any intercession from a male, but entirely by her own resources. So the ayatollahs of The Left buried this as well? When Mr. Carl refers to her “politics”, he apparently just means her chosen lifestyle. But McGinley’s contentment with being a housewife and mother was not intended as a declaration that all women should content themselves with those roles.
It never seems to have occurred to Mr. Carl that there might, just maybe, be other reasons for McGinley’s slippage from the public eye rather than a malicious plot by them librulz. Though he builds her up to be the most significant poetess since Sappho, the truth is she wasn’t really a poet at all, but a versifier — i.e., she wrote light verse as opposed to “serious” poetry. (True, she was skilled enough at it to win a Pulitzer. But the Pulitzer committee also dishes out trophies to cartoonists; does this make those cartoonists as accomplished in sketching as Picasso?) He mentions that none other than Sylvia Plath praised her early in her career, but fails to mention that Plath later spoke dismissively of her for squandering her potential by restricting herself to an output that was only two or three notches above greeting card doggerel.
Writers of light verse rarely enjoy a long literary longevity. Most people are also quite unfamiliar with Richard Armour, who penned far more light verse than McGinley and died more recently. Do them librulz also have something against Fatherhood? In fact, the only writers of light verse who are venerated across the generations are those who write verses or lines that are widely quoted, such as Ogden Nash. (And many lines attributed to Nash were actually written by Armour.) Most Americans are probably not even familiar with Nash; let’s face it, American society these days isn’t particularly literate at all. Which makes it all the more silly to make a political issue out of the public’s unfamiliarity with a decidedly lesser light in the American literary pantheon.
Mr. Carl also seems quite clueless about the fact that there’s a good reason light verse is so ephemeral: it tends to be topical and dated. Phyllis McGinley used the medium to extol the joys of a white picket fence Ozzie and Harriet existence that few readers can relate to anymore. Likewise, most readers are not that interested in poodle skirts or white powdered wigs or surreys with fringes on top. That doesn’t mean that such things have been quashed by the boot heel of the Evil Left. It just means that times change. Get over it, already.
The master’s voice
We’ve looked at only a few of the more egregious orgies of nonsense from the archives of NR, but there are plenty of others to pick from. On just about any given day, you can take a look at the titles of articles the esteemed journal has to offer, and see boilerplate delusional wingnut talking points on display: Yes, Hillary Should Be Prosecuted; Yes, the FBI is Biased (and only the president should fix it); No, There Is No Evidence the GOP Colluded With Russia (but there is evidence the Democrats did); Let’s Face It, Planned Parenthood Is Evil (because they “sell baby parts”, doncha know). Take just about any fact and stand it on its ear, and you’ll probably have a premise the NR editorship will salivate over. Would the rag’s venerable Founding Father have approved? Unquestionably, since a great deal of it occurred in his lifetime and under his stewardship.
Once upon a time the sage Mr. Buckley uttered this little gem:
Conservatism is the tacit acknowledgement that all that is finally important in human experience is behind us; that the crucial explorations have been undertaken, and that it is given to man to know what are the great truths that emerged from them.
This was in 1959, before the first moon landing, the Internet, personal computers, virtual reality, stem cell research, and a great many other “crucial explorations”. And while his statement is a rather accurate (though incomplete) reflection of the conservative mindset, it’s appalling if not terrifying to realize that this was uttered by someone who fervently believed such a mindset was a good thing.
Indeed, in the mission statement he penned for the premiere of his new journalistic bauble, he declared that NR “stands athwart history yelling Stop”. A magazine pitted not only against progress, but against history itself. How much more regressive does it get than that?
Naturally, this means that he considers liberalism Public Enemy Number One. In fact, the statement above is taken from his book Up From Liberalism. The keynote of his “conservative” worldview is that liberals are evil, and good “conservatives” must undo everything they’ve done. In other words, his “conservatism” is really neoconservatism, a different bird altogether. He was the torch bearer of the contemporary American reactionary mob that ultimately dragged the forty-fifth White House occupant into office.
He equates liberalism with communism, and communism with… well, devil worship or something. And he had no compunctions about tossing out some cutesy quotable straw men:
Liberals claim to want to give a hearing to other views, but then are shocked and offended to discover that there are other views.
Liberals don’t care what you do as long as it’s compulsory.
And this might be a good time to mention that he was equally perceptive and knowledgeable about other topics:
The Beatles are not merely awful; I would consider it sacrilegious to say anything less than that they are god awful. They are so unbelievably horribly, so appallingly unmusical, so dogmatically insensitive to the magic of the art that they qualify as crowned heads of anti-music, even as the imposter popes went down in history as “anti-popes.”
Liberalism, he proclaims, is oppression and totalitarianism. While conservatism is ultimate liberty. Even as he advocates white supremacy and discrimination against gays and forcibly tattooing people. And declaring that “Conservatives should be adamant about the need for the reappearance of Judeo-Christianity in the public square.”
He had a dream. To smash that Evil Liberalism and install “conservatism” on the throne. To make “conservatism” the hegemonic voice in American media and culture to an even greater extent than it already was. To impose religion on the public to an even greater extent than it was already being imposed. To make the world safer for Archie Bunker. These noble objectives live on in the pages and posts of the ever-entertaining National Review.
Amazingly, it’s now been 3 years since my post titled Singular Proof, for which I’d intended to write a followup almost since the beginning. The reason for that plan is that some readers seem to have misunderstood its intents — though frankly it appears that they were trying very hard to misunderstand. In any case, the sequel kept getting pushed to the back burner, because it seems I always had meatier matters to cover. But now, here at last is round two.
First, let me make it clear (in case I didn’t the first time) what the central thesis was: a single event — any single event — always proves at least one thing: namely, that such an occurrence is possible. One would think that such a truth would be self-evident. But apparently it isn’t. Because when I offered the illustration of Roger Bannister running the 4-minute mile for the first time, someone commented that his feat didn’t really prove anything, because it could have been just luck.
Well, sure. It could have been just luck. Or it could have been drugs. Or it could have been that he was mesmerized. Or it could have been divine intervention. Or he could have been guided by a cosmic beam projected from the mother ship hovering overhead. Or maybe some combination of the above. But guess what? Doesn’t matter one bit. Because Bannister’s run still proves that, one way or another, such a thing can be done.
It’s related to something called the law of the excluded middle. Which means basically that some propositions are either true or they are not — there is no middle ground. (This obviously does not include value judgments like “St. Louis is a big city”. St. Louis certainly would appear enormous to someone coming there from a town of 2000, but to a visitor from Istanbul, it would appear to be just a quaint little village.) Propositions of possibility, however, do fall under that heading; either a thing is possible, or it is not. If it is impossible, then by definition, it cannot happen. So if it does happen, that disproves its impossibility and, concurrently, proves its possibility. Every event is both a negation of an impossibility and an affirmation of possibility.
And it takes only a single instance to refute not only a presumption of impossibility, but any absolutism. Philosophers have famously noted, for instance, that the proposition “All swans are white” can be refuted by the observance of a single black swan. But such a single occurrence, though it clearly establishes possibility, says nothing about probability. It proves that some swans are black, but it gives no indication of how many.
Suppose your mother tells you that if you walk on the railroad tracks, you will get killed. But you decide, just once, to ignore her warning and walk down a railroad track for a hundred yards. And lo and behold, you live to tell about it. This single act of yours has discredited her belief that walking on railroad tracks inevitably leads to demise. But it does not establish that this is a safe practice. It does not mean that in general, people should walk on railroad tracks. It does not even guarantee that you will survive your second defiance of her admonition.
A single instance, then, is enough to disprove an absolute (walking on the tracks will get you killed); it’s enough to discredit an impossibility (you cannot walk on the tracks without getting killed); and it’s enough to establish a possibility (you can walk on the tracks and survive). But it does not establish a certainty (if you walk on the tracks, you’ll survive) nor even a probability (if you walk on the tracks, you’ll probably be safe). The latter proposition is where methodical investigation (science) comes in. In order to know whether it’s likely that you can walk on railroad tracks safely — and just how safe it would or wouldn’t be — we would need to compile some accurate statistics on the matter.
And of course the fact that you survive a single act of defying your mum does not mean that you made it through the day because you walked on the railroad tracks. In addition to falsely extrapolating a general conclusion from isolated incidents, one of the biggest mistakes people make is confusing correlation with causation: the telephone rings when you get into the bathtub, so it must be the act of getting into the bathtub that causes the telephone to ring; the leaves rustle when the wind blows, so it must be the movement of the leaves that stirs up wind; Roger Bannister ran the 4-minute mile wearing white socks, so the socks must have been the source of his superior speed.
Even rational interpreters of scientific data are not totally immune to this error. Years ago, research indicated that married people tend to be happier than unmarried people. And for a time, the conclusion many people drew from this was that there was something about marriage itself that made people happier; that a single person could become happier just by getting married. But finally, someone realized that this was putting the cart before the horse. It wasn’t that marriage made people happier; it was just that happier people were more likely to get married in the first place. (For, as someone astutely asked, “Who would want to marry a grouch?”)
I suppose to be generous I could assume that my critic wrongly concluded that I was conflating anecdotal evidence and anecdotal proof myself; but that would be extending a great deal of grace, since I made it clear that I was not doing any such thing. And anyone who’s read this blog very much at all knows that I’ve repeatedly not done it; I’ve stressed several times, to name just one example, that even though there are isolated incidents of an “armed good guy” stopping an “armed bad guy” that does not mean that in general guns make us safer — indeed, the evidence strongly indicates just the opposite.
If there was one passage in my post that might possibly, even by a huge stretch, have given someone the wrong impression, perhaps it was this:
Scientists, however, are sometimes scornful of anecdotal evidence, declaring it to be totally worthless. Which is ironic, given how dependent they are on it. A scientific experiment is preceded by a hypothesis. And where does the hypothesis come from? Anecdotal evidence, quite often. Like the rest of us, scientists exercise inductive reasoning: they notice specific events and extrapolate from them that there might be a general pattern. Unlike the rest of us, they undertake methodical tests in an effort to prove this hypothesis — or hopefully, an effort to disprove it, since that’s really the only way to accomplish either proof or disproof. And how do they do this? By collecting more anecdotes, either in a laboratory or in the wild. But this isn’t considered anecdotal evidence, since the events are collected systematically rather than haphazardly.
A reader purporting to be a scientist himself declared that I was quite mistaken about where a hypothesis comes from. It derives, said he, from a case study, and not merely from an isolated incident. Well, this is often true (especially in the social sciences), but so what? Don’t look now, but a case study is a collection of separate incidents. And some of the greatest scientific discoveries in history (microwaves, x-rays, and penicillin, to name just a few) sprang from observation of phenomena that were not only singular but accidental. Furthermore, even the most coldly calculated of laboratory experiments consists of a series of individual trials — each of which, as I meant to suggest, can be thought of as a narrative in its own right.
And just where do you suppose the concept for a case study comes from, anyway? Could it be from… an anecdote? Or two or three? Unless of course, it comes from a dream or a divine message delivered via burning bush. But wait, those are anecdotes too, aren’t they? When you get right down to it, all the wisdom the human race has accumulated in any field of endeavor — whether scientific, artistic, philosophical, athletic, or whatever — has depended upon the observance of single incidents. Such wisdom is expressed in generalities (It’s better to give than to receive; two times two is four; the days are longer in the summer and shorter in the winter; etc.) but such generalities are constructed of a series of singular instances.
This (supposed) scientist, by the way, also seized upon my mention that being a healthy vegetarian for several decades discredits the absolutism that eating meat is required to live a long and healthy life. This, he proclaimed, constituted a “claim” about the benefits of vegetarianism, which he in turn suggested was akin to claims about faith healing and communicating with the dead. If this really was a scientist speaking, it makes one really shudder to think what kind of illogic and irrationality must prevail among the lay masses.
One comment was to the effect that anecdotal evidence carries no weight even if it occurs a million times over. It’s hard to imagine anything more absurd. Suppose you have a city of a million residents, and the entire million die on the same day. Then you learn that the entire million ate shellfish from local waters on the day before their deaths. Wouldn’t you be just slightly inclined to be more wary of local shellfish than you would have been had there been only one such death? Of course, a million-fold unanimity is still not proof that the shellfish actually caused the deaths; it is, however — in the absence of comprehensive testing — a damn good indication that you would be prudent to avoid eating the stuff until you find out for certain.
A would-be assassin characterized my observations as “pseudoscientific nonsense” — which in terms of substance is no more noteworthy than any of the other attacks leveled against me. What is worth remarking about, however, is the commentator’s choice of vocabulary. He seems to be quite confused about the distinctions between unscientific, nonscientific and pseudoscientific (which is quite ironic given that the major linchpin of his attack was my unorthodox use of labels). So even though it’s a bit of a diversion, let’s take a moment to clarify these distinctions.
Unscientific means that something directly contradicts scientific fact — e.g., saying that the earth is flat or that men have fewer ribs than women, or that the earth is not getting warmer. Pseudoscientific is something that is not only unsupported by science, but is masquerading as science (we often call it quackery) — e.g., phrenology, snake oil remedies, and the anti-vax movement.
But there is another class of propositions that are unsupported by science, yet neither contradict nor pose as science; they are propositions that belong in another cognitive sphere altogether. For example: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” This statement does not contradict science — it is, in fact, essentially meaningless. And it’s also, in itself, quite harmless; the problem arises when people try to substitute it for scientific fact. Even then, it is not pseudoscientific, because it is not posing as science; it is posing as something superior to science.
Like the author of Genesis, or the individual who coined the phrase “It’s raining cats and dogs”, I was being nonscientific — but not unscientific or pseudoscientific, and most certainly not antiscientific. In asserting that scientific research is indebted to anecdotes, I was using a broad definition of anecdote, and perhaps indulging in a wee bit of poetic license. But not very much.
Recently I’ve had occasion to drop in again and check out the lay of the land at the National Review. And it really hasn’t changed much since I first familiarized myself with it nearly two decades ago.
Chasing the Chappaquiddick Chap
What led me back there was that someone brought to my attention a “review” of the film Chappaquiddick by the NR’s “critic”, Kyle Smith. (I put those words in quotation marks because Mr. Smith focuses on supposed political, rather than artistic, merit.) The caption breathlessly proclaims that the film “exposes Ted Kennedy at last”. This in itself was enough to make me bust a gut.
These are folks who are fond of promoting the silly and ill-informed stereotype of Hollywood celebrities as shallow, coke-snorting, self-absorbed brats who are out of touch with the real world — a myth adopted so people like NR hacks can summarily dismiss, in genetic fallacy fashion, any non-reactionary cause those celebrities espouse.
Yet when the film industry produces a flick that “exposes” a librul icon, they are eager to hail it as a divine revelation of infallible gospel.
And Mr. Smith is just getting warmed up. The first paragraph of this “review” reads:
Chappaquiddick must be counted one of the great untold stories in American political history: The average citizen may be vaguely aware of what happened but probably has little notion of just how contemptible was the behavior of Senator Ted Kennedy. Mainstream book publishers and Hollywood have mostly steered clear of the subject for 48 years.
A quick check of Amazon shows that no fewer than a dozen books about the Chappaquiddick incident are available for purchase, as well as many more books in which the event is at least discussed. A quick check of IMDB shows that it has been the subject of at least two documentaries. What would it take to avoid the charge that Hollywood and the publishing industry are “steering clear” of the subject — obsessive reporting of it 24/7? Been there, done that.
Mr. Smith evidently wants his readers to believe that the tragedy was just swept under the rug by the librulmedia. (Perhaps this is what he was taught in one of those “conservative” college classes.) It’s characteristic of wingers to figure that if they can’t remember something, then it didn’t happen.
But as someone who was both alive and sentient at the time, I can assure you that there was nobody this side of Andromeda who simply ignored the incident. It hardly could have received more media saturation even had Mary Jo Kopechne been wearing a stained blue dress. And years later, when it was still a heated topic of discussion, I recall commenting to someone that the senator must have been driving one hell of a huge automobile considering how many people were so certain of exactly what transpired that they must have been passengers themselves.
Wingnuttery sort of makes sense if you’re willing to ignore (or concoct) enough facts. It isn’t enough that Smith calls Kennedy’s behavior “despicable” without mentioning that the senator was severely disoriented from his injuries, including a concussion. He also declares, quite falsely, that Kennedy simply “rested” beside the water while Ms. Kopechne was drowning. In fact, despite his state of mental disarray, Kennedy made (as reported by The Boston Globe) at least “seven or eight” attempts to rescue her. But hey, who cares about pesky details when you have an ideology to promote.
The Big Fake-Out
While I was in the neighborhood, I also checked out another Smith masterpiece, Sinclair Broadcast Group’s Outrageous Assault on Our Democracy. The topic is a serious one, something that people are rightly concerned about: i.e., the way Sinclair has forced its talking heads to parrot a canned statement about “fake news” that makes it clear the network is goose-stepping behind the 45th White House Occupant. It’s a development that many of those talking heads themselves are quite uneasy about.
Smith, however, snidely brushes it aside in a manner that is his clumsy attempt to wield irony, a technique he doesn’t quite seem equipped for. While superficially striking a posture of concern, he makes it clear that in fact he is a Sinclair goose-stepper himself. He’s also a deft side-stepper, skirting the real issues with statements such as his closing:
Whatever will become of this country if people use the media properties they own to simply say whatever they feel like saying?
Allowing his strained irony to tip over into sarcasm, he scoffs:
Judging by the truth as established by ABC News, NBC News, CBS News, PBS News, NPR News, CNN, MSNBC, and nearly every newspaper and newsmagazine published in the United States, the truth is actually quite similar to what the Left believes.
It’s an obeisant nod not only to the “liberal bias” myth and the “both sides” myth, but to the popular right-wing narrative that certain media outlets (most notably CNN) exhibit biases and inaccuracies of only one flavor. And it’s a foghorn false equivalence to suggest that the sporadic (and mostly inadvertent) journalistic lapses of these outlets — of both a “liberal” and a “conservative” nature — are on a par with constant, round-the-clock, deliberate dishonesty and distortion of an exclusively right-wing bent by the likes of Fox and Sinclair. Mr. Smith seems to be utterly oblivious to the distinctions between bias, inaccuracy and dishonesty.
He also takes advantage of the opportunity to invoke that trusty old “Hollywood elite” myth with jabs at Jimmy Kimmel and John Oliver. Can he really be so clueless as to be unaware that most comedians are much better informed than the average citizen, much better informed than many politicians and putative journalists — and infinitely better informed than most NR hacks? Speaking of Kimmel, Smith indulges in another false equivalence by suggesting that ABC’s airing of Kimmel’s program over hundreds of stations is comparable to Sinclair headquarters dictating that its anchors parrot a boilerplate disingenuous and manipulative spiel.
And he sneers at veteran newsman Dan Rather, whom he labels as (wink, wink) a “widely respected source of nonpartisan media commentary”. Yes, this is the same Dan Rather who said…
George Bush is the President, he makes the decisions, and as just one American, wherever he wants to line up just tell me where..
…even as Dubya was gearing up to exploit the 9-11 terrorist attacks as a pretext for ramming through a whole raft of fanatical right-wing measures that were often quite unrelated to security. The same Dan Rather who later acknowledged that he failed, for years, to do his job by probing the supposed justifications for the assault on Iraq — a journalist undertaking that, I’m guessing, would have been regarded as hopeless and shameless librul propaganda by the good folks at NR. Most of us might be tempted to deprive Mr. Rather of his Librul Propagandist badge for this kind of neglect. But Mr. Smith knows better: he knows that anyone who fails to hew unwaveringly to standard right-wing talking points is so deep into left field as to be over the wall.
While he’s targeting Rather, Mr. Smith takes the opportunity to focus on a Facebook post that is (slightly) awkward in its wording, and declare that Rather has committed “grammatical lapses” and sneers, “You’d lose your ability to construct a sentence too if you sensed the risk as keenly as Rather does”. This from the same rag that not only touted the virtues of a tongue-tied “misunderestimated” simpleton, but now touts the virtues of an incurious despot who speaks “bigly” in three-word sentences, mostly with himself as the subject. It’s a glaring instance of genuine irony that seems quite lost on the redoubtable Mr. Smith.
Finally, he gets around to quoting the statement with which Sinclair is programming its talking heads, a superficially innocuous manifesto about shunning bias, false reporting, and an agenda in favor of Facts and Truth. Taken at face value, it’s a string of noble sentiments. But anyone who is at all familiar with Sinclair knows better than to take it at face value. Well, except for Mr. Smith, perhaps:
So Sinclair is against media bias, one-sided reporting and fake news? It asserts that truth is “neither left nor right”? Preposterous.
An even slightly perspicacious commentator might have observed that Sinclair’s very act of thrusting a cookie cutter declaration upon its mouthpieces is a damn good indication that it speaks with forked tongue.
And then he segues into the ultimate coup de grace to his own credibility:
Need I say more? These lunatics are actually playing into the hands of [the White House Occupant], who has also said he doesn’t think the media should run fake news.
Unless he’s much more adept at wielding irony than he appears to be, Mr. Smith actually believes that the Forty-Fifth White House Occupant — who rode to fame on the back of fake news, rose to the White House on the back of fake news, continues to profit from fake news, and spreads fake news with every breath — is actually a mortal enemy of fake news, just because he says so.
If you really believe that, you are not merely ignorant. You really shouldn’t try to live on your own without full-time supervision. On the other hand, you have a lucrative career awaiting you at the ever-entertaining National Review.
As we have seen in the previous installments, there is nothing in the Second Amendment that explicitly guarantees the right of an individual citizen to own firearms. But while arguing to the contrary, gunsters also hedge their bets by claiming that the amendment was not really meant to grant such a right but to reaffirm it; that, since many people owned guns in Revolutionary times, they obviously had a right to do so, and therefore such a right is still in effect today. It was and is, so they say, a “pre-existing” or “innate” right. Many times they will even refer to it as a “God-given” right, as if that celebrated stone tablet had had a flip side on which was engraved, “Thou shalt be armed to the teeth with weapons to be invented millennia hence”.
There are really two separate but related issues here: tradition as precedent, and the presumed right of ownership in general.
The tradition of tradition
By “tradition as precedent”, we mean the conviction that just because something has always been done or was done in the past, that makes it acceptable, preferable or even mandatory. This tenet is the backbone of conservatism and even neoconservatism. And it’s absurd on the face of it. As Tevye so famously discovers in Fiddler on the Roof, there are times when faith in tradition severely butts its head against harsh reality.
Surely anyone can readily tick off a list of activities that most people consider undesirable, yet have a very long tradition: murder, theft, rape, child marriage, racism, slavery, violent conquest, genocide and greed, to name just a few. Not only have all such actions been committed on an individual basis for countless ages, but most have been officially sanctioned by societies and governments at various times and in various places. Indeed, it’s hard not to draw the conclusion that tradition, far from being ample justification for continuance of an action, is more likely to be an indication that an action should be curbed.
There is an old saying to the effect that your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins. And quite often, one particular action that could be regarded as a right (or at least as permissible) under one set of circumstances could be justly prohibited in a different social context. If you only rode your motorcycle on deserted roads, it well might be that you would have a right to ride as fast as you wanted, without a helmet. But if there is a chance that other motorists will be using that road, then it is incumbent upon you to consider the lifelong impact upon their lives that your unhelmeted, dumbassed death might occasion.
If you live in a cabin on an isolated mountaintop, then you might have every right to burn your trash and take target practice in your yard. If you live in the heart of Los Angeles, that’s another matter altogether. So even if we assume that Americans in the Eighteenth Century had a right to own guns, that wouldn’t mean that the same is true in today’s radically different world.
Reason and the evidence of history indicate that if people followed what is sometimes called The Golden Rule, we’d all be much happier and better off. But they don’t, and won’t. Which is why we have laws.
Of course, the existence of laws and governments results in an occasional clash between legal rights and what we perceive as innate (“God-given”) rights. Homosexuality, for instance, has very frequently and universally been the target of repressive regulation. And we’d normally assume that a family has a right to have as many children as it wishes. But the government of China, fearing catastrophic overpopulation, decided that there should be no more than one child per family (in most cases), which seems to be a violation of said right.
On the other hand, one could argue that such an innate right does not really exist in circumstances under which large families would pose a burden to society (bear in mind that “society” is just another name for “other people”). Furthermore, it’s at least understandable if not justifiable that a couple in any country should be prohibited from having more children if they have been horribly abusive to the ones they already have.
In any case, whether it’s a matter of innate rights or legal rights, mere tradition alone is clearly not an adequate justification for any activity.
Nine-tenths of the law
But what about the right to own property in general? Surely in a free society you have a right to own your house, your land, your automobile, and — why not — your shooting implements, without any authorization from the government. Don’t you?
Actually, the same principle applies. Let’s not forget that for the vast majority of human history, there was a presumed innate right to own other human beings. It was not until fairly recently in our evolution that we collectively began to realize that slavery was not merely a swing of the fist, but a punch to the nose of human decency. And few people would maintain that a citizen has a right to own a nuclear warhead. Guns are designed for essentially the same purpose on a smaller scale.
But aren’t there indeed basic, innate human rights that cannot be justly compromised by any legislation? Well, sure. The Founders of the Republic summarized them very nicely: “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. That may sound like a short list, but it actually covers a great deal of territory. It includes, for instance, such basics as food, clothing, shelter and medicine. But do guns fall in that category? Perhaps for a limited number of individuals in a limited range of circumstances. But to declare that there is a “God-given” right for all citizens to be armed is a very big stretch indeed — particularly when the evidence indicates that guns do considerably more harm than good.
You certainly have an innate right to defend yourself from harm. So how, you may ask, do you defend yourself without a gun? We just as easily could turn the question around and ask how can you even consider guns a viable element of self-defense when they are statistically so ineffective and even, evidently, downright counterproductive. (As a person who once was mugged at gunpoint, I say with confidence that one reason I am alive today is that I wasn’t armed.) But the short answer is, you use your head instead of your trigger finger. It’s hard to be more specific than that, because techniques and strategies will vary by the individual. But in any case, it’s naive and foolhardy to assume that a right to self-defense means you should be armed. And it’s ill-informed to believe you have an innate right to be.
In short, the right that Americans now enjoy (if that is an appropriate word) to own firearms does not come from the Constitution. It does not come from God or any synonym thereof. It does not come from tradition or reason. It does not arise from a need. It proceeds solely from the fiat of “conservative” justices.