Wednesday, July 15, 2009

A blog post for anyone who prefers their pet kitten NOT to be armed with a Kalashnikov

Well, I had been starting to think that, with the European elections out of the way (in a very satisfactory manner), I might just let this blog fade away quietly into the sunset. But then last night I received a visit from the Ghost of Easter Past. Mr. Kevin Baker has a very serious itch, it seems, and he just needs to scratch it. Endlessly. Until the end of time. As it happens, I’m actually not proposing to join him on that voyage into infinity, but as I started to feel the danger of being drawn into yet another trainwreck of a comments thread, I thought it would at least make matters simpler to say my piece here.

A few months down the line, the obvious question I ponder when Kev dredges all this up yet again is, how on Earth did I ever get drawn into this? After all, gun control isn’t (or wasn’t) an issue I think about a great deal. In terms of issues which I could have imagined myself getting into conflict with American right-wingers over, the death penalty would have come top of the list by some distance. That is a subject I feel extremely passionately about and always have done. Indeed, I’m entitled to a vote in American federal elections and I always go out of my way to vote for candidates who are opposed to the death penalty (which led me, against almost every instinct in my body, to vote for Ralph Nader ahead of Barack Obama). If I see that a candidate is in favour of greater gun control, that’s certainly something that pleases me and makes them a more attractive option for me, but their views on that subject are not really a dealbreaker. Probably even their views on the Israel-Palestinian conflict would rank higher up the pecking-order than gun control.

So, given the low priority I instinctively accord the issue, how on earth did I end up (albeit briefly) in a ‘one-on-one debate’ about gun control with someone who seems to live and breathe nothing else?

The answer, of course, lies in my long-term fondness for the Rachel Lucas blog. Some of her political views are to the right of Genghis Khan, but her blog is unfailingly entertaining, and she is brilliantly witty. For the most part I was able to enjoy reading it without being tempted to enter the lion’s den by leaving a comment. The problem kicked in when she moved to the UK a few months ago. As always seems to happen with depictions of British life by Americans who live here (curiously this never happens with Australians or New Zealanders, or people from the Caribbean countries), everything I read seemed to have gone through some kind of weird distorting lens, and it just wasn’t describing a place I recognised. Probably this is something that happens to all of us when we are presented with an ‘alien culture’ – we just latch onto the few things we actually do recognise and are able to get our heads round, and use that information to try to make sense of the rest. Needless to say, the overall picture this leaves us with is hopelessly faulty. In Ms Lucas’ case, the information she was clinging to seemed to be coming largely from the type of people who leave comments after Telegraph or Daily Mail articles. This was leading her to excitedly ‘detect signs’ of a stirring in the British soul, that perhaps at some point during her stay here, she might even be witness to some kind of revolution, where the good people of Britain finally rise up, and demand an end to health care free at the point of need (‘socialised medicine’), human rights legislation, and the tyranny of a largely gun-free society. And of course, as someone who is plugged in to the rhythms of British society, the temptation was growing and growing just to gently say to her (for the sake of her avoiding inevitable disappointment as much as anything else!) “er, no. It just isn’t like that.”

Of course, all that the usual suspects at the Telegraph and Daily Mail actually tell us is that there are conservatives around (of both the small and large ‘c’ variety). And that there are ‘disgusteds of Tunbridge Wells’ around. But then there always have been. If these people haven’t managed to instigate a full-blown revolution at any point since 1945, it’s a touch optimistic to think it’s going to suddenly happen within the next year. (There was the ‘Thatcher revolution’ of course, but apparently even those sweeping changes weren’t enough to remove the ‘socialist’ label in Ms. Lucas’ eyes!)

So the temptation to point out these obvious truths eventually became too strong, and I left a comment. Fatefully, I did so after a post about a murder on the streets, the sole significance of which for Ms Lucas seemed to be that Britons were stupid and complacent for not realising that they could instantly solve such problems by having millions upon millions of legally-owned firearms sloshing around. Just like they have in America, where they have…er, a murder rate three times as high as we have here. Yep, that made sense. To be fair to Ms Lucas, she very charitably suggested the reasons for our stupidity and complacency were that we “are too damn nice”, and that we therefore “don’t like to make a stink”. (I’m sure certain members of the European Commission would be intrigued to hear that.) So I’m guessing that the majority of British people of both the left and the right would instantly understand why I regarded those remarks as provocative enough to finally say what I’d been half-wanting to say for quite some time – “no, you really just don’t get it”. I could have said that on any number of issues, but in the case of gun control the point is that we are, on the whole, rational people, we had a rational national debate after the Hungerford and Dunblane tragedies, and a considered, consensus view emerged on gun control legislation. It’s not an unwanted thing that is merely ‘tolerated’ (which ironically, is the case with so many other laws Ms Lucas could have chosen to mention).

What I didn’t realise is that contrary opinions on the Rachel Lucas blog are as common, or as welcome, as experts on the Geneva Conventions were in the inner reaches of the Bush administration. Soon I was fielding dozens of indignant objections, to which I had to come up with quick responses. Like most instinctive supporters of the consensus view on this matter in Britain, the arguments aren’t something I think about a great deal (because we don’t need to, the matter is settled). So I didn’t have a ton of ready-made statistics to fire back at people. But what most of us in Britain do nevertheless have is a kind of ‘race memory’ of the incidents that led us to where we are today, and that’s what I fell back on in response to the people who took issue with me. Of course, Dunblane and Hungerford are a big part of that race memory, but for most of us glimpses of what happens across the pond are a big part of it as well. For me, the most shocking incident I can remember was of an Aberdonian businessman who knocked on the door of a house in Texas seeking help. The homeowner decided on rather flimsy evidence that his home was under attack by burglars, took a ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ approach, and shot the entirely innocent businessman dead. Shockingly, not only did the homeowner not face any legal proceedings, but he was in fact lauded by many as having done ‘exactly the right thing’. So in defence of my corner, I naturally raised this case as an example of just how cheap life becomes in a paranoid, gun-ridden society.

As I was going purely from my own memory of news reports from some fifteen years ago, I did search for information on the incident on an internet search engine to refresh my memory. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any trace (I assumed that was because 1994 was largely ‘pre-internet’). So instead I related the story as I remembered it. I was soon lambasted for leaving out details – the incident had taken place in the early hours of the morning, and the businessman had jumped over a fence to knock on the back door, having received no response at the front. Of course, none of these details make any material difference (ie. ‘it’s 4am, someone’s pounding on my back door, therefore he quite simply must die’). But the fact that I had ‘conveniently omitted’ these details was cited as evidence that I ‘was not arguing in good faith’. This was endlessly repeated in various forms (another favourite was ‘intellectual dishonesty’) as a kind of mantra afterwards, and indeed it was trotted out again a few hours ago at Kevin’s blog by the ever-reliable 24-carat slab of walking, talking Pure Offensiveness that is the poster ‘Unix-Jedi’. Or perhaps it was ‘Linoge’. One of those two, anyway.

It’s been a recurrent pattern ever since, particularly once I moved into the debate phase with Kevin. If ever I couldn’t instantly provide rebuttals based on a similar range of precise historical details, numbers, statistics that all the obsessive gun enthusiasts have at their fingertips, that was a sign of intellectual dishonesty on my part. But I’m not steeped in this issue, and I’m not interested in becoming so. What I can say – as I believe could most instinctive supporters of gun control in Britain – is ‘this is what I believe, this is why I believe it. I’m a rational person, and my rationality is no less deserving of respect on this issue just because I don’t happen to have fanatically devoted my entire life to it. And as a rational person, I’m also capable of recognising holes in your contrary argument, and here’s what they are’. That I believe is a perfectly defensible basis for someone who only takes an occasional interest in an issue to enter into a debate with a true obsessive. And let’s not forget Kevin’s (utterly insincere) words when he challenged me to a debate –

“No, James, it's not about ‘winning’ or ‘losing,’ it's about the philosophy.”

So, for my part, that suggested I was being invited to expound my ‘philosophy’, and that Kevin was not interested in declaring victory whatever I said. Curious, then, that when I did just that, I found myself being instantly taunted that I had ‘lost’ (ahem) the debate – because I had dared to concentrate on my ‘philosophy’ and hadn’t bothered to try to compete with Kevin on his reams of voodoo statistics. I did, of course, point out that statistics that powerfully counter Kevin’s own are extremely easy to locate, and the fact I wasn’t interested in that kind of sterile exchange couldn’t be taken as meaning those statistics don’t exist. But, of course, with the childish triumphalism I’ve come to know and expect, Kev and his band of not-so-merry-men pretended to take it precisely that way.

The irony is, of course, that Kev’s barrage of voodoo statistics really are a distraction, something that shields him from having to front up to the real issue – and that issue is precisely his ‘philosophy’. His blog is entitled 'The Smallest Minority’ – the minority referred to is the individual. The contention appears to be that no society can be considered truly free unless the freedoms of that smallest minority are fully protected. Taken to a logical extreme, this means that no individual should ever be subject to taxation (without taxation there is no infrastructure or support network of even the most rudimentary kind, but that’s OK because with absolute ‘freedom’ comes the absolute responsibility of the individual to fend for himself). That to me is a rather bigger, meatier issue than the question of whether the individual should be allowed to own luxury items like handguns. But, that’s the bit of individual freedom Kevin chooses to fetishise, and that’s his prerogative. So why, then, does so much of his argument rely on get-out clauses such as ‘oh well, if the guns weren’t there legally, they’d be there illegally, you can’t wish away guns’. The obvious implication of such an argument is that if you could wish away guns, it would be a desirable thing. Kevin does not believe that, and never will. So why isn’t Kevin content to argue on the strength of his positive philosophy on freedom, rather than resort to these (to put it kindly) more pragmatic arguments?

Not only does he rely on them, he’s built up a kind of fortress based on ‘evidence’ that all supposedly points to the same conclusion – that, conveniently, the sort of society his philosophy demands, will also be a safer society. To him, that fortress is impregnable. With astonishing (and admittedly highly amusing) conceit, he declares the matter proved beyond doubt, then sits back, admires his handiwork, and then plaintively asks “why isn’t being right good enough for us?”.

There’s a saying in scientific circles that ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof'. The notion that a world in which the individual has an absolute right to own and carry firearms has been literally proved beyond doubt to be a safer world, is I would suggest precisely such an extraordinary claim. But unfortunately Kevin’s epic dissertations have failed to meet the standard of even ‘ordinary proof’. When I pointed out a few of the holes in his presentation of voodoo statistics (broadly the ‘correlation is not causation’ point) he and his supporters simply demanded to know where the statistical evidence was to underpin my own arguments. But the problem is, I hadn't actually at any point made the extraordinary claim that Kevin had made. I had simply set out my philosophy. Which is precisely what Kevin had requested that I do.

When I then pointed out this rather important distinction, Kevin was incredulous, and ever since has characterised what I said in the following terms (or a variation thereof) –

“In other words, ‘No fair using data against my emotions!'”

Simply won't wash, Kevin. Not even close.

So I return to the question of why Kevin prefers to hide behind his voodoo statistics, rather than make the positive case for his philosophy of individual liberty. I’d suggest it’s because if he did, he’d have to concede that even if there was compelling evidence that the price of his freedoms was a large number of avoidable deaths, he’d think that was a price worth paying. At the absolute minimum he knows there are specific circumstances in which it's almost unarguable that legal gun ownership has resulted in tragedy (Dunblane is such an incident). How can he present such a brutal, and frankly selfish philosophy to the world in completely unmediated form? He can't. For he also knows, that even in the US, the centre of gravity in public opinion is that there are some things that trump the absolute freedom of the individual. That’s why even in the ‘Land of the Free’, taxes must be paid, and clothes must be worn on the street. And I firmly believe that when it really comes down to it, the gift of life would always trump the individual’s right to own a luxury item.

NOTE : As always, I determine my own comments moderation policy and answer to no-one for it, a near-universal principle in the blogging world that is well-understood, except it seems by the KBFC. I will, however, repeat my previous offer – if anyone would be kind enough to explain the detailed circumstances in which this moronic catchphrase “Reasoned Discourse” came about, I will undertake to let your comment through. And in doing so, you might go a little way to dispelling my overwhelming impression that you have no interest in truly reaching out to, or communicating with anyone beyond your own closed little world, with all its little trademark in-jokes.