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April 18, 2007

"Politicizing" events and "exploiting" tragedies

I'm so sick of the charges and counter-charges of "exploitation" of the Va-Tech massacre for political purposes.

If people of good will think that they have an apt political point to make, let them make it without assailing them for somehow taking advantage of the tragedy. That goes for both the gun control and the anti-gun control camps.

Current events should shape policy discussions.

It's not a question of exploitation. It's a matter of proffering solutions and offering critiques while our increasingly fragmented national attention is focused on an issue.

If Instapundit thinks that the concealed carry ban caused the tragedy, let him say so. I think it's a dumb argument, but I don't see why there should be any kind of inverse statute of limitations for offering it. Yesterday I made fun of some wingnuts for rifling through their personal anxiety closets in public, trying to come to terms with the killings--but I was mocking them for saying stupid and venal things, not for "exploiting" anyone's death.

Trying to enforce an arbitrary line between "human" and "political" responses to tragedies is a political strategy in its own right.

Remember the intense pressure to avoid "politicizing" 9/11? I'm talking about the taboo against criticizing the president that went virtually unchallenged in the mainstream media for years after the attacks. The real effect of the taboo was not to keep our reactions to the tragedy pure. When we shut down serious discussion and debate, we ceded interpretation of our history to the Bush administration. We let them own it.  Those who wanted to keep the reaction to 9/11 "above" politics ensured the ultimate politicization of the event. If we had challenged the president from the beginning, he might not have been able to use 9/11 to goad us into war.

The administration loves to shield itself from criticism by accusing its opponents of "politicizing" some gaffe or scandal, or "exploiting" some monumental failure for political gain. It seems like a lot of Americans, liberal and conservative, are still taking their cues from Bush in this regard.

When a gunman shoots 33 people, it's only natural for the human mind to turn to larger questions, such as, "Are guns in school a good idea?" or, "Can we solve this problem with more guns?"

The gun lobby knows how this game is played. The Second Ammendment foundation accused gun control advocates of dancing in the blood of the victims. That was a bad faith attempt to shut down legitimate discussion by shaming their critics. Of course, they do this every time there's a gun-related tragedy. Every time we defer to them, we miss an opportunity for a national conversation about guns, and so, the status quo is perpetuated indefinitely by bullying rather than real consensus.

I agree with Jeralyn that we shouldn't make policy based on any individual crisis. Whatever policy we do adopt has to be based on a sober assessment of the big picture, the costs and benefits that will accrue to a whole society over many years. On the other hand, human nature is such that it sometimes takes a crisis to focus attention.

Why not have an honest and respectful debate about gun control, or misogyny, or any other issues that might arise in our attempts to understand this tragedy? Obviously, it's still very early in the investigation, and nobody has all the facts. On the other hand, it's never too early to start asking questions.

The taboo against "political" arguments in the wake of tragedies infantilizes the public and cheapens our discourse. If we rule out substantive discussion, we're left with a residue of content-free sentiment. If we refuse to debate, analyze, contextualize, or explain, we turn mass killings vacuous celebrity deathfests.


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"No, there are no relevant principles, except the facts."

Is the above a principle, or an empirical fact?

Facts without a pre-existing framework of principles and reasoning to interpret them are worse than worthless. They aren't atomic things that fly around the aether and zap themselves into a mind arbitrarily.

On your account, there is no difference between the fact that "Jagiello defeated the Teutonic Knights at the Battle of Grunwald" and that "jumping off of a high building will injure you."

There's an even simpler principle: empirical data are more useful than abstract principles.

No they aren't and you have no idea what you're talking about.

Let me lay this out for you, as simply as I can:

Perceptions do not simply present themselves as organized, "empirical" data sets. This requires organization, guided by "relevant principles" which are, by definition, abstractions.

To become meaningful, data must be further interpreted according to principles, rationally applied and relevant to that data. Facts can only become empirically valuable once so considered.

This is the most basic of epistemologic principles that underlies, among other things, the scientific method. I suggest a core text in cognitive psychology if you remain confused on the matter.

I have no idea why you include a reference to "post-communist Russia" in your response, except that you have no idea what I'm talking about and have yet to consider this at even the most elementary level.

As to your statement of fact that "guns cause the homicide rate to go up" you need to begin with the widely-known Sloan, et al. and Kellermann, et al. studies of 1998 and the extensive criticisms thereof, including reviews of substantial methodological flaws.

Kellermann may be found here:

Sloan here:

You should also peruse Kopel's seminal work The Samurai, the Mountie and the Cowboy for a discussion of sociological constructs and legal principles that differentiate and moderate firearms violence in Western industrialized countries.

In considering your point, ("...the right to own a handgun [is not] more important than the right to live...") it can with equal facility be argued that my right to life trumps your right to be secure from "unreasonable" search and seizure.

In Japan, police conduct biannual "courtesy visits" to households, something that has been prohibited as an unreasonable "warrantless search" in this country. I leave it for you to discover other significant differences between the United States and Canada or other countries, including matters of jurisprudence and legal process and their relationship to firearms violence.

Finally, there is at least one credible estimate of between 150 and 200 million firearms in private hands in the United States. It is entirely unclear empirically what legislation can do to reduce criminal availability of firearms and or decrease criminal homicides given this circumstance, unique among "first world" nations.

It matters that guns increase the homicide rate, a fact that nobody in this thread has yet to seriously contest

I'm sorry, but you simply haven't proved this. You've stated it, and you've insulted those who disagree with you, but that's not the same as proof.

That's not "blabbering about the meaning of 'causes'"; it's a simple fact. I agree that there's a correlation between number of guns and number of murders by gun. I agree that if you did house-to-house searches of every American residence and confiscated every single (legally and illegally owned) gun, there would be no deaths by gun. How does any of that prove that guns increase the homicide rate?

How does any of that prove that guns increase the homicide rate?

It doesn't. Nor does Kellermann's work on analysis:

Now consider his use of the shopworn gimmick: [Handguns exist] for the sole purpose of killing people.

I'm not going to launch into an exposition of development history, defensive tactics, cartridge design or wound incapacitation modeling, but every time that bromide is repeated, anyone with a serious understanding of the matter rolls their eyes and groans.

He doesn't know what he's talking about. It's not that he couldn't, it's that he simply doesn't care.

There's no comprehension of the definitions, no grasp of the logic of causal inference, no review of the pertinent literature and a lack of even the basic philosophical understanding necessary to engage in a rational argument on the topic -- yet he feels compelled to offer an opinion and demands to be taken seriously.

Billy, when first I read your views on "The Endarkenment" I thought it was pure hyperbole.

My apologies.

alon: I still disagree with things you've said, like "empirical data are more useful than abstract principles" and "guns increase the homicide rate" but I'm gathering an impression that (apart from calling Count Zero a "hack") you generally keep the tone of your posts respectful. As far as I can see, you earned my disagreement, but you didn't earn my insults. My apologies.

Still, I think you have some work to do when it comes to "cause & effect" and "correlation vs causation". Just a quick example: you earlier stated that "Handguns are what causes crime" but that's just nonsensical; handguns do nothing without the intent and action of a human being.

"handguns do nothing without the intent and action of a human being."

While to a modern mind it might sound like medieval nonsense akin to daemonic posession, there really is a 'theory' among gun-grabbers that a gun can control people and make them act violently. IIRC, it was Leonard Berkowitz who first referred to this as "the trigger pulling the finger."

It has been pretty well debunked both because of methodological flaws in the original experiments and the failure of subsequent attempts to reproduce the results. However, it still persists in the anti-gun propaganda giving some credence to the old saw about a lie circling the globe while the truth is getting its boots on.

Alon: I'm taking another look at this:

And there's a small group of people for whom the right is culturally important - under-30 people for freedom of speech and hunters for gun rights.

I already noted that I don't hunt--so that means, presuming I'm not unique, that there is also a small group of non-hunters who consider gun rights "culturally important", as you put it. I'm also over 30 and freedom of speech is important to me. Again, presuming I'm not unique, that means there is also a small group of people over 30 who think freedom of speech is important.

So: what point were you trying to make by noting the existence of these subsets? And what possible moral or ethical difference does it make how many people (or who they are, for that matter) think something is important or correct? After all, there's no magic number where wrong things become right and right things become wrong and facts.

IIRC, it was Leonard Berkowitz who first referred to this as "the trigger pulling the finger.

Indeed it was! Here are a couple of citations easily obtained through Google:

Berkowitz & LePage (1967): Subjects made angry by an insulting confederate gave more electric shocks when given the chance if a rifle and revolver were on a table nearby, than when badminton rackets were left on the table.

Berkowitz (1968): Children who had just played with toy guns were more likely to knock down another child’s blocks than children who had been playing with non-aggressive toys.

But, you have to dig a bit deeper to find something worthwhile:

(The references alone are worth the read.)

I call special attention to this:
Buss, A., Booker, A., & Buss, E. (1972). Firing a weapon and aggression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,
22, 296-302.

Here, subjects actually fired a pellet pistol as an experimental manipulation. (The dependent variable was the "aggressive" use of a bogus "shock machine.")

Interestingly, a significant inhibitory effect on aggression was seen, at odds with Berkowitz's findings, and it replicated.

You won't find that in any general psych texts. It's given scant attention despite major implications for the study of aggression within the discipline of social psychology, which is one of many reasons that I abandoned the field entirely.

"I'm not talking about Colombia, because I don't know its overall crime rate. In the US, we know the exact crime rate - at least, those of us who bother to check crime surveys do. Ditto in the UK and to some degree in Canada."

Again, you assume too much, and are confident in all of that "empiricism", its collection, interpretation and its pitch, that you've been flaunting as being the sole measure of everything.

You haven't given the slightest bit of thought as to where it's coming from, and it's apparent. Do you need to explain further?

Maximum Doltage.

Yo, yo, yo, you guys with the guns. The smokeless powder fumes are going to your heads. Calm down. This is the USA, remember? Legislation of any kind restricting gun ownership, sales, or use has almost no chance of being enacted or enforced. If Seung-Hui Cho can get a gun, you can too. Squeeze off the last few rounds in your magazine, go inside, pour yourself a drink, put in that old Rambo tape, and fucking relax.

cfrost: you're not exactly a deep thinker are ya. Is that really the best you can do, come up with a Rambo caricature to act as your straw man?



Stick with Firefly. Better acting, cuter actresses and a script that wasn't written by a VIC-20 running BASIC.

Ron, as I said, relax. No one is coming to confiscate anyone's guns. No one is going to shutter any sporting goods stores. Look out the window - no ATF agents. Holy crap, you guys are more paranoid than a tweaker on a ten-day binge.

"If I could have gotten 51 votes in the Senate of the United States for an outright ban, picking up every one of them . . . 'Mr. and Mrs. America, turn 'em all in,' I would have done it." -- Dianne Feinstein

Say again, cfrost?

"Billy, when first I read your views on 'The Endarkenment' I thought it was pure hyperbole.

My apologies."

Can you understand it now? I mean, when we have someone throwing down a dismissal of principles, as a principle, I don't know how it gets more clear than that, and this [ahem] 'quality' of thinking is everywhere, now.

Nobody has to apologize to me.

But we're all surfing through history. Keep your board waxed.


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