Monday, December 20, 2010

"This I Believe" (but you might have to work out the unpalatable bits for yourself)

As I mentioned in my previous post, I've been swithering over whether I should try to respond to Kevin Baker's latest contribution to the gun 'debate' now, or leave it until after the festive period so I can take my time over it and do it justice. However, in my heart of hearts I know that if I leave it that long, I may never get round to it at all, and there are just so many cavernous holes in Kevin's argument that I really feel it's begging for some kind of response, even if it's just a very abbreviated one and not very polished. So, as my mum always used to say, here goes nothing. Let's start with a few points on which Kevin seems to be deliberately misleading his readers -

"James has posted a few more times since then [spring 2009], but these posts cover the majority of the topic."

In fact, Kevin went on to concede in the comments thread that he hadn't even been aware of some of my most recent posts, let alone read them. It's of course entirely his prerogative if he doesn't want to bother doing his research properly, but it does make something of a mockery of his earnest attempts to psychoanalyse me for the benefit of his credulous readers later in the post. Specifically, he doesn't need to rely on his "feelings" about the underlying reasons for my opposition to the death penalty when I've discussed that topic here many times. For the record, his "speculation" is only half-right - yes, it's a "sanctity of life" issue for me, but no, it hasn't got anything whatever to do with "poor, misunderstood criminals". Conflating those two possible reasons is a fairly obvious example of Kevin's woolly thinking in characterising the motivations of "liberals" - someone who feels that the state has no business taking the life of a citizen in any circumstances (a libertarian worldview which, perversely, Kevin appears to reject) would not be remotely fazed if the criminal concerned was a monster. Sanctity of life means exactly what it says on the tin.

Next, Kevin flatly denies that he has ever said something that he has, in fact, said repeatedly - namely that his philosophy (rather like that of Karl Marx) is literally "provable".

"Not exactly. The difference is, I believe that statistics can disprove one philosophy, but not the other. James seems to think so, too, because in one of his later posts, he asks for statistical proofs!"

On the latter point, he's either consciously misleading his readers, or he can only have taken a very cursory glance at the post he's linking to. The point I actually made was that the onus is on those who claim their philosophy is literally provable to back that up convincingly when logical objections are put to them, rather than stick their fingers in their ears and plaintively cry "why isn't being right good enough for us?!". The silence when I raised several such objections was, indeed, deafening.

The third point of distortion (and this is the most brazen of the lot) is when he uses this quote of mine out of context to try to illustrate that I do not "use my full capacity for reason" -

". . . Rachel Lucas' bafflement in encountering a society where it's not simply the case that ordinary citizens are legally thwarted from owning guns for self-defence purposes – for the most part they simply have no wish to do so. After all, she comes from a society where it's taken as a given that people will be constantly aware of potential threats against them and will want to directly protect themselves against those threats, in many cases by owning and even carrying a gun. But upon arrival in Britain, she cites examples where innocent people have been attacked and have been unable to adequately defend themselves. Isn't it obvious, she asks, that these individuals would have been more likely to survive if they'd had a gun handy? On the face of it, the answer can only be yes. So haven't other people in the society around them heard about these attacks, haven't they read the newspapers, haven't they seen the photographs? Yes they have. So don't they want to possess a gun to lessen the risk of the same fate befalling them? On the whole, no they don't. Utterly inexplicable."

Now, can anyone detect just a trace of irony in those words? The point, of course, is that those of us who live in Britain read about horrific murders in the US all the time - and, more pertinently, there are far more such incidents per head of population than in the UK. Just like Rachel Lucas, we shake our heads in disbelief that they can't see where they're going so obviously wrong - but the difference is that we have a greater rational basis for doing so. The American philosophy on self-defence simply does not work - the defensive utility of guns self-evidently does not even begin to offset the greater risk of being attacked that is an obvious consequence of having millions upon millions of guns sloshing around.

"Mr. Kelly is convinced that only by disarming his neighbors can society enhance its collective "freedom from fear," and any attempt to illustrate to him that his simple and obvious solution is wrong is an exercise in "voodoo statistics" or is "incomprehensible." It has to be, because to acknowledge a flaw in one's basic philosophical premise means questioning the entire philosophy. As Nate noted, few people can do that."

And Kevin certainly isn't one of those people. Having harangued me for so long to engage with him on the statistical front, what do you imagine his reaction was to being presented with powerful evidence from the US and the rest of the world that gun legality increases both the gun homicide and general homicide rates? A vague mumble about how the funding of the studies calls their findings into question. Now, it is sorely tempting at this point to make an observation along the lines of -

"Not fair using FACTS against my BELIEFS!"


"Of course you don't believe those statistics - your philosophy won't let you."

But that would indeed be very childish.

One thing that fascinates me about Kevin's argument is the way he relies on insinuation and suggestion when he gets to the parts of his belief system that he (I suspect) fears would be unpalatable to some of the people he's trying to convince. So, as a public service, I'm going to try to join the dots and see how attractive Kevin's philsophy is when translated into plain English. He can always correct me if he thinks I'm going astray.

"I believe that John Locke was correct when he named three corollaries of that right as "life, liberty, and property," and that Thomas Jefferson was a brilliant rhetorician when he substituted "the pursuit of happiness" in the Declaration of Independence."

In other words, Kevin does not believe that the 'pursuit of happiness' means what it says, which is important, because that is crucial to justifying his contention that nobody has any business infringing his negative freedoms to enhance the general quality of life of the populace, ie. through the freedom from fear of having fewer guns around. But unfortunately for Kevin, it appears that Jefferson actually borrowed the phrase "pursuit of happiness" from Locke himself, who framed it in this ideologically unsound manner -

"The necessity of pursuing happiness [is] the foundation of liberty. As therefore the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness; so the care of ourselves, that we mistake not imaginary for real happiness, is the necessary foundation of our liberty."

Which begs the obvious question - is Kevin's rather narrow definition of freedom making him happy? Is it a true or imaginary happiness? And if it isn't making him truly happy, is he authentically more free than those of us he imagines to be in "bondage"?

Kevin also suggests that all authentic human rights are corollaries of the 'right to life'. I have some sympathy with that idea. The right to life certainly has no meaning without the right to food, shelter and decent health care. And yet Kevin would perversely regard those fundamental requirements as illegitimate on the basis that they 'take something away' from others. But doesn't his 'right to private property' infringe the theoretical freedom of others to walk across his lawn if they so choose? Doesn't that 'take something away' from them? Not very much, of course, but then the sacrifices required to meaningfully protect the right to life of everyone needn't be the end of the world either.

Moving on, this is Kevin's response to my suggestion that a massive policy effort to raise the educational and living standards of black people would wipe out the differential in the rates of gun crime between ethnic groups -

"Like gun bans, it's blindingly obvious to James that poverty is the driving force behind crime, everywhere. He might want to talk to Richard Cohen about that. We've had a decades-long "massive policy effort" the intent of which was to "raise the educational and living standards for black people up to the national average." Like gun control, it has failed utterly at its stated goals. The actual outcome has been a larger population living in poverty than we started with, and a poverty rate that's just about flat. Among that population are more broken homes, more fatherless children and a homicide rate six times greater than that of the rest of the American population.

But correlation isn't causation, and its implementers meant well and that's what really matters. And if they failed, it wasn't because the philosophy was wrong . . ."

And what is the inference here about what is so wrong with the philosophy? It can only be that he feels black people are innately more prone to violence than white people. No wonder he doesn't feel like fronting up to that.

A secondary inference is that people are responsible for their own poverty, and that government action is powerless to change that. From a UK point of view, it really is quite difficult to accept that worldview as credible, when you compare the rigid class system of the 1920s and 1930s which really did trap the bulk of the population in lifelong poverty, to the imperfect but improved situation of today in which those born into modest circumstances at least have a degree of hope.

Kevin repeatedly projects onto me the belief that people are essentially good (as opposed to his own conviction that they are born morally neutral) and that if you can only take away the factors in their environment that lead them to commit crime, they will no longer do so. But in truth, it doesn't much matter what your view of human nature is - what matters is the empirical evidence that if you improve people's lot in life, the crime rate falls. Not to zero, but very substantially. Who cares whether a positive environment is shaping the behaviour of a morally neutral individual, or if that essentailly good individual is reverting to his true nature? All we need to care about is that it works. Kevin's gloating about the failure of the policy drive to improve the living standards of black people might tell us something about the effectiveness of the methods used, but it tells us precisely nothing about what the dividends would have been had the objective been achieved.

Another point where Kevin relies on suggestion rather than fronting up to his beliefs is in his throwaway remark about my characterisation of the atomic bombings of Japan as "atrocities" -

"Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were genocide and indefensible! Once again, don't confuse him with facts and "voodoo statistics.""

But if Kevin doesn't think the bombings were atrocities, what does that tell us about his beliefs? That it is justifiable, in a conflict with the government and armed forces of another country, to mass-murder the innocent civilians of that country. What an extraordinary position to hold for someone who claims to view the individual as totally autonomous from the state. Precisely what quarrel did the children slaughtered by the thousand in Hiroshima and Nagasaki have with the US?

Last point for now (I could go on for weeks) - it's amusing to note that, despite Kevin's rejection of the idea that the safety of individuals can be adequately safeguarded by the collective action of entrusting powers to the state, he nevertheless feels that a collective approach is the only way of protecting individuals against the state. He feels that only if enough people arm themselves with guns can the hypothetical threat of the government turning against its people be headed off. As this is purely voluntary, he doesn't actually specify what can be done if people aren't willing to play ball in sufficient numbers - all in all, it seems like a bit of a wing and a prayer safeguard. He quotes 9th Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski -

"The Second Amendment is a doomsday provision, one designed for those exceptionally rare circumstances where all other rights have failed - where the government refuses to stand for reelection and silences those who protest; where courts have lost the courage to oppose, or can find no one to enforce their decrees. However improbable these contingencies may seem today, facing them unprepared is a mistake a free people get to make only once."

Quite so. What else can the citizenry do when faced with a tyrannical regime armed to the teeth with weapons of mass destruction? Just as well they'll have their trusty handguns.

"I believe the gun isn't necessarily civilization, but it is most definitely responsible for the existence of modern democracy."

Now, given that there are any number of modern democracies with strict gun laws, and many with a US-style free-for-all, Kevin might as well be asserting that heat, cuckoo clocks or the Spanish language are a necessary precondition for democracy. Of course, what he means is that UK democracy is bound to eventually falter - well, it's been several decades and it hasn't happened yet. Kevin is entitled to be an adherent to the Zhou Enlai interpretation (that it's too early to tell) but what he can't claim is the slightest evidential basis for believing that he is any more likely to be proved right than the rest of us.


  1. Kevin hit the nail on the head here James

    "It has to be, because to acknowledge a flaw in one's basic philosophical premise means questioning the entire philosophy. As Nate noted, few people can do that."

    Your premise is wrong james. It does not stand up to logical or factual scrutiny.

    What I said in "Sad But Predictable" is absolutely applicable to your situation, and I quote,

    It must be hard on the psyche to be challenged, have your entire belief system called into question, and have nothing concrete on which to anchor your defense. When your position is emotionally based you cannot allow it to crumble by admitting you're wrong.

  2. Ah, Mike. A pleasure deferred, and all that. Do you know, what's truly remarkable about that "sad but predictable" quote (which you've now used approximately 2473 times) is how uncannily similar it is to the quote of mine Kevin used in his post, characterising the reaction of people on your side of the argument to having your certainties challenged when they are so comforting and you have such emotional investment in them -

    This same pattern can be seen played out time and time again - and people will construct the most astonishingly complex defensive arguments just to avoid having to let go of their familiar certainties, whether those certainties be that cruelty to animals can always be justified because life wouldn't be so easy without it, or that wealth inequality is justified by differential intelligence, or that there was no immorality in the mass slaughter of innocents at Hiroshima and Nagasaki (because it was the US that dropped the bombs, and the US doesn't do genocide). The more well-rehearsed these complex arguments become (and the defence of the Hiroshima atrocity is a good example of one that has become extraordinarily well-drilled), the more you can see the signs of insecurity in the individuals putting them forward. Whether consciously or subconsciously, the defenders of the indefensible have evidently realised "we need something bloody good here, or everyone's going to see straight through us"."

    It seems that irony has yet to occur to you, Mike, or indeed to Kevin.

  3. Here's my response, James. Merry Christmas to you and yours.

  4. There's no irony James. My position is not emotionally based nor could you call it into question or cause it to crumble if you tried.

    Unlike you, I am not trying to defend the logically and factually indefensible. I have facts and logic on my side, which makes defending my positions and destroying yours a relatively easy, unemotional exercise

  5. "I have facts and logic on my side, which makes defending my positions and destroying yours a relatively easy, unemotional exercise"

    In which case, I'd suggest a demonstration might be long-overdue. After all, Usain Bolt doesn't go round telling people a hundred times a day he can run faster than anyone else - he actually does it now and again.