Saturday, November 13, 2010

Could devolved broadcasting powers unlock some extra flair and imagination?

I happened to see an episode of the Gaelic documentary series Eòrpa last night for the first time in ages. It told the compelling tale of a German sailor whose body was washed up on a rocky beach in Skye in 1945, and of the lifelong effect the incident had on the 17-year-old boy who found him, Angus MacPhee. The programme placed an ad in a local newspaper in the sailor's home town in Germany, and managed to track down his youthful great-niece, who was thrilled and extremely moved to travel to Scotland on behalf of her family and meet Angus.

One question that formed in my mind as I watched the programme was - how did such an obscure piece of history, and the highly personal tale that accompanied it, ever come to be explored with such care, and in such depth, by a major broadcaster? And of course the answer was obvious enough - Angus is a Gaelic-speaker, and thus the story could be authentically told (in part) in Gaelic. With a language community merely numbering in the tens of thousands to work with, Gaelic programme-makers have no choice but to pro-actively get out there, uncover fresh stories no matter how low-key or offbeat, and try to find the imagination to bring them vividly to life.

That's not an indictment of Gaelic broadcasting in any way - we need much more of it, and it also needs a far higher profile and more investment. But I can't help thinking that there must be an even greater untapped potential for flair and imagination in English-language (and perhaps Scots-language) programming made in and for Scotland that could be released if only broadcasting powers were devolved.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Waterboarding is no 'simulation'

I was disappointed to see Charlie Higson on Have I Got News For You help - probably unwittingly - to propagate the myth that waterboarding merely 'simulates' drowning because no water actually gets beyond the victim's mouth. This is the Wikipedia description :

"Waterboarding is a form of torture that consists of immobilizing the subject on his/her back with the head inclined downwards. Water is then poured over the face into breathing passages, thus triggering the mammalian diving reflex causing the captive to experience the sensations of drowning. In contrast to submerging the head face-forward in water, waterboarding precipitates an almost immediate gag reflex. It can cause extreme pain, dry drowning, damage to lungs, brain damage from oxygen deprivation, other physical injuries including broken bones due to struggling against restraints, lasting psychological damage and, if uninterrupted, death. Adverse physical consequences can manifest themselves months after the event, while psychological effects can last for years."

For auld lang syne...

My latest skirmish with the American gun enthusiasts took the following surreal turn today, as a result of my confounded impudence in suggesting that the sainted Bill Whittle (what do you mean, 'who?') was "some random guy on YouTube"...

'The Irritable Architect' : "Dont' flatter yourself, Jimmy.

No one knows who YOU are, either.

No one knows what you look like, nor can they associate your name with something notable in another field (Noam Chomsky, for instance, seems to think that since he's considered THE authority on linguistics, that he can transfer his "thinking" and public image upon us all, with regards to politics).


You are a nobody, and will always be, so don't, even for an instant, think of yourself as someone whom everyone should no about.


Since you obviously put a lot of value into the idea of "who someone is," instead of the argument being presented, YOUR argument holds no weight either.

Get in now, moron?"

Me : "'No one knows what you look like'

Except for the photo on my blog and Twitter feed, you mean?"

'Guest' : "Right, because no one has used a fake photograph on the intertubes."

Now, I'm not entirely sure what the point of that would be, given that a) posting a photograph on Blogger is optional, b) nobody gives a monkey's what I look like anyway (especially since I'm not actually - ahem - setting myself up on a par with Noam Chomsky), and c) the photo I posted doesn't exactly make me look like Anton du Beke or any other outstanding specimen of the male gender. However, as a gesture of good faith (double ahem), here's another picture.  It just so happens that a few hours ago, I stumbled across an ancient newspaper article that I'd forgotten ever existed, containing both my name and a photo of me at the age of seven. I'm in the bottom right-hand corner. Hopefully, it should be just about obvious that it's the same person as in the sidebar (well, on second thoughts, perhaps not)...

UPDATE : And a couple more from the same batch.  I don't like quite so delighted to be there in this one...

And my letter to a children's magazine a couple of years earlier.  Evidently I fell, hook, line and sinker for my teacher's propaganda...

Thursday, November 11, 2010

We Live in a Free World, I Whittle Down the Wind

While I'm on the subject of gun control, I thought I might as well offer a few thoughts on the Bill Whittle video that Kevin linked to as an indirect response to me the other day. Incidentally, a word of advice - don't ever call Mr Whittle "some random guy on YouTube" in the presence of the KBFC. He is, I am indignantly assured, a Giant Among Men. Here are just some of his pearls of wisdom -

"just because something is fun and scares away weenies doesn't mean that it's stupid"

Clearly he's determined to appeal to our hearts as well as our minds right from the off. Taking delight in scaring off "weenies" with guns doesn't make someone stupid either, but it probably does say quite a lot of other things about them.

"The philosophical substrata for gun ownership is something that most gun-owners understand in their bones"

As Paul Merton would say - that's good!

"They don't need to be told any of what I'm about to tell you because this kind of wisdom is inherent for many people. That's why we call it 'common sense'."

Curious that so many people imbued with this common sense, with inherent wisdom grafted into their very bones (by the Almighty?) are heavily concentrated in certain geographical areas, whereas those of us not quite so blessed also tend to be found disproportionately in particular places. Surely not a coincidence - perhaps there's some kind of 'common sense gene' that Mr Whittle could identify for us? To hell with spreading philosophical substrata to the less fortunate via YouTube - this guy could be in line for a Nobel Prize.

"have you ever wondered why the people who really enjoy telling others what to do and how to live, those fun-loving intellectual elites, seem to be so in love with totalitarian states where people are unarmed, and where survival is utterly dependent on some of the worst people in the world?"

Is he talking about the likes of David Cameron? If so, while I'm not exactly the UK government's biggest fan, I think that particular form of 'totalitarianism' may be getting a slightly bad rap. If, on the other hand, Whittle is seriously asking his viewers why 'the liberal elite' are so in love with leaders like Hitler, Pol Pot and Stalin, then the phrase "straw man argument on stilts" springs to mind.

"then ask yourselves, what stands in an unarmed population in the way of determined, heartless bastards like the SS or the Cossacks or the Revolutionary Guard or bands of Hutu militia?"

Absolutely - what has stood in the way of such evil-doers when faced with the "unarmed population" I've been living among all my life? And yet, to date, I've never actually had a Cossack invade my bedroom. Pure fluke, I suppose - I really must update those burglar alarm settings.

"You see, the Framers in their wisdom put the Second Amendment into the constitution to give teeth to the revolutionary, unheard of idea that the power rests with we, the people...

Criminals and criminal regimes throughout all of human history have and will conspire to take by force what they cannot produce on their own and these people must be stopped. The genius of the men who wrote the Second Amendment is that they realised that these people could be anybody, including people like those who wrote the Second Amendment."

Unfortunately, there was one piece of foresight that the Framers lacked - they didn't realise that their successors in positions of power would have exclusive access to weaponry of such unimaginable destructive force that it would be literally impossible for "we, the people" to defend themselves against a criminal regime with the will to use those weapons. Such hypothetical regimes must indeed be stopped - but how? Well, modern-day America depends on precisely the same shields that Britain relies on to ensure that our authorities' exclusive possession of handguns isn't abused - democratic safeguards and the rule of law. Is this approach naive? Does history tell us that it's doomed to fail? From his alarmist rhetoric later in the video, Mr Whittle clearly believes so. But when he says of the Second Amendment -

"You cannot remove that lynchpin of trust without collapsing the entire structure."

Too late, my friend, that bird has flown. Flown long ago. The supposed safeguards of the Second Amendment are a hollow shell, replaced by a situation indistinguishable from the one we have in Britain, whereby the people have exclusively "trusted" the most deadly weapons to the authorities, and would have no means of direct physical defence if those weapons were ever turned against them. A stubborn attachment to an 18th Century form of defence when faced with a hypothetical 21st Century threat may be disarmingly quaint, but it's no basis for rational law-making.

Amusingly, when I asked Joe Huffman last year how "the people" would actually go about defending themselves against nuclear weapons with their puny Second Amendment handguns, he told me that I simply didn't understand the mindset of an armed population, and that I could rest assured that the survivors of a nuclear attack would mercilessly hunt down the perpetrators. Well, I'm sure that's a great relief to us all.

Incidentally, I've always been curious about how so many American 'libertarians' manage to square their general philosophy with support for the death penalty. What would their advice be, for instance, to someone who had been wrongly convicted and was facing imminent execution? What would their advice be to that person's family? If the primary purpose of privately owned guns is to snuff out tyrannical actions by the government against the individual, can there be a more heinous abuse of the state's power than to take an innocent individual's life? Therefore, would the correct course of action for the family be to attempt to storm Death Row with guns, or should they accept that the rule of law must prevail, however unjustly? If the latter, why? (And please don't insult our intelligence by trying to wriggle out of the dilemma with the fiction that no innocent people are ever sentenced to death in the US.)

"America suffers an appalling number of handgun deaths each year, perhaps eleven thousand of them...but if we attempt to reduce this horrible number by banning handguns we are taking away the property of someone who has broken no laws"

No, we're not. We're taking away the property of someone who would otherwise be breaking the gun control laws we've introduced. As Mr Whittle would say himself - duh.

In other ways, though, I actually like this part of his argument, because it does what I've urged Kevin Baker to do in the past - it defends his philosophy of personal freedom on its own merits, and fronts up to the fact that he believes in it irrespective of the cost in human life. We know that's the case for Baker and his followers anyway, so why the need to use hocus pocus statistics to try to pretend that cost doesn't really exist? Well, I think we all know the answer to that. They know perfectly well that many of their fellow countrymen don't believe that the freedom to own guns is quite important enough to justify absolutely any and every cost, so they feel the battle of statistics is one they must fight - despite the strong whiff of intellectual dishonesty in falsely implying that they might feel differently if it could be definitively demonstrated that thousands of avoidable deaths are caused each year by gun legality. Whittle to his credit doesn't go down that road...or does he?

"It should be abundantly clear by now that the rate of handgun murders in the United States is not uniform. The murder rate of downtown Philadelphia is horrifying, but the murder rate in nearby Valley Forge, let's say, where there are probably more handguns and hunting rifles than anywhere else on the planet, is virtually non-existent."

Oh dear. Hocus Pocus City. Straight back, without passing 'go', to the magical thinking of Kevin and co that holds that the extraordinary disparity between the respective murder rates of the UK and the US can be easily explained away as entirely to do with "cultural factors" and nothing whatever to do with the rate of gun ownership, but simultanenously insists that any selectively culled internal differences in the US that superficially suit their own case must have nothing at all to do with any other factors - even ones as blindingly obvious as the difference between affluent rural areas and urban areas with social problems. Let's refresh our memory about what the evidence actually shows, shall we?

"Across developed countries, where guns are more available, there are more homicides. These results often hold even when the United States is excluded."

"After controlling for poverty and urbanization, for every age group, people in states with many guns have elevated rates of homicide, particularly firearm homicide."

"States with higher levels of household gun ownership had higher rates of firearm homicide and overall homicide. This relationship held for both genders and all age groups, after accounting for rates of aggravated assault, robbery, unemployment, urbanization, alcohol consumption, and resource deprivation (e.g., poverty)."

Finally, I'm struck by Mr Whittle's suggestion that legal gun ownership makes people "equal" and "levels the playing-field" between the strong and the weak -

"It means that even a schoolteacher can defeat a human predator who may have spent his entire life practicing violence"

Hmmm. Adverts for stocks and shares routinely warn that "the value of your investment may go down as well as up", and I feel that a similar disclaimer ought to be put on claims about the effect of guns on power relationships. It really depends on who is holding the gun at any given moment, doesn't it? We've heard many times before, for instance, about how gun legality empowers a victim of domestic violence to defend themselves with a gun (although some will wonder if walking out of the relationship might possibly be a simpler and somewhat less drastic solution). But does the evidence suggest it's likely to actually be that way round?

"Batterers use of guns : Recent gun owners were 8 times more likely to have threatened their partners with a gun than non-gun owners. Four main types of gun threat against partners were (a) threatening to shoot then, (b) threatening to shoot a pet or person the victim cares about, (c) cleaning, holding or loading a gun during an argument, and (d) shooting a gun during an argument."

So, it turns out that those who abuse power are more attracted to the idea of owning a gun than the most vulnerable, thus unbalancing power relationships between the strong and the weak even further.  Who'd ever have guessed such a thing?  Nate has suggested to me a couple of times in the past that owning a gun and learning to use it is an empowering experience that enhances confidence and a sense of self. But the example of domestic violence ought to be sufficient to remind us that there are millions of people out there who we actually don't really want to be a) any more empowered, b) any more confident in imposing their will on others, and c) armed with a gun. Mr Whittle tells us in another video that Tea Party conservatives accept human nature as it is and don't kid themselves that they can 'perfect' people. That being the case, it's - again - magical thinking on an industrial scale to imagine that in arming the general 'law-abiding' population you are only empowering 'decent' people. What you're actually doing is making it even easier for untold numbers of arrogant or angry people to abuse their power.

Whittle's real message is that if you want to be equal in his world - more pertinently, if you want to avoid being considerably less equal than you otherwise would have been but for the fact of widespread gun ownership - you have literally no choice but to own a gun, carry it around with you at all times, be trained to use it to a high degree of proficiency, and be blessed with the strength of mind to be ready to calmly use it at a moment's notice.  That's an odd sort of 'personal freedom', if you ask me.

Well, I think I've pretty much had my Tea Party fix for the day from Mr Whittle - now I'm off for some tea.

My response to Dean of AZ, part two

This is the continuation of my response to a poster on Kevin Baker's blog who attempted to answer the questions I posed back in June about statistics purportedly showing that widespread legal gun ownership in the US prevents crime. The first part can be found here.

My fourth question was - How many of these alleged crimes would have been attempted had it not been for the prevalence of guns in American society? There is absolutely no meaning in suggesting that legal firearms helped you prevent a crime, if the general legality of firearms caused - either directly or indirectly - that crime to be attempted in the first place.

Dean's response - WRONG. Because using ANY FIREARM in the commission of ANY CRIME is ANOTHER CRIME in and of itself. That's like suggesting that the automobile is illegitemate because they are sumetimes used in crime, or that steak knives shoudl be outlawed because they, too, are sometimes used in crime. The existence and presence of firearms, cars, or steak knives DO NOT CAUSE CRIME. To suggest so simply illustrates the depth of your ignorance. PEOPLE have morals, moral and immoral behavior, and inanimate objects cannot be the ends, only the means. If the ends are sufficiently motivated, either by violence, greed, or any other human failing, the means becomes irrelevant. Assaulting someone with a gun, steak knife, and car are all considered "assault with a deadly weapon, and we don't charge the weapon in court.

This is making my head hurt, because Dean is actually agreeing with a significant part of the point I was making, and yet is simultaneously suggesting that this agreement somehow renders me "WRONG". The use of any firearm in the commission of a crime is itself a crime, yes - and it's a crime that's much more likely to occur if there are lots and lots of guns around. Is Dean disputing that? It appears not. Yes, people might instead be committing another sort of crime if they didn't have a gun to hand...but then again they might not. And if they were committing another sort of crime, it's quite likely that it would be of lesser severity. See for example these sources -

"Across developed countries, where guns are more available, there are more homicides. These results often hold even when the United States is excluded."

"After controlling for poverty and urbanization, for every age group, people in states with many guns have elevated rates of homicide, particularly firearm homicide."

"States with higher levels of household gun ownership had higher rates of firearm homicide and overall homicide. This relationship held for both genders and all age groups, after accounting for rates of aggravated assault, robbery, unemployment, urbanization, alcohol consumption, and resource deprivation (e.g., poverty)."

My fifth question was - How many guns start off as legal but end up being held illegally?

Dean's response - This question is completely unrelated to the stated purpose of the list, which is to bring into question whether or not firearms (handguns in particular, I think) have a legitemate purpose. And, once again, stealing a gun, knowingly possessing a stolen gun, and using a gun in crime is still criminal, and it's not the gun's fault. I don't blame the internet for the idiotic opinions some people express, I blame the person. Once again, if a steak knife has a legitemate purpose, but is then stolen and used in a murder, does that obviate the legitemate purposes of all steak knives? The logic of your argument completely fails.

Firstly, Dean's characterisation of the purpose of my list of questions is wrong, which probably goes much of the way towards explaining why his responses are missing the point so spectacularly. It was Nate, in quoting the statistics in the first place, who was addressing the question of whether guns have a 'legitimate function'. My purpose in asking the ten questions was first and foremost to dispute the credibility of those statistics. Since Dean is for the most part failing to directly address the queries I was actually raising about the meaningfulness of the statistics, and is instead repeatedly 'responding' to other points he assumes I was making, we're not getting much further forward.

For what it's worth, though, on one point we can wholeheartedly agree - I don't blame inanimate objects for any crime. I blame the stupidity of the man-made laws that make it much easier for criminals to use deadly man-made weapons to commit man-made crimes. Once again, Dean isn't even bothering to dispute my central premise - that the legality of guns in the US allows a huge number of weapons to fall into the wrong hands, and thus many of the crimes that the statistics purportedly show have been thwarted with guns would not have been attempted in the first place had it not been for the millions upon millions of legally owned firearms sloshing about. Therefore my objection to the credibility of the quoted statistics on this point clearly stands.

See these sources for further information on the widespread irresponsibility of the fabled law-abiding gun-owning masses, that by extension hands criminals the means to kill, maim and terrorise -

"Many gun owners report storing their guns loaded and unlocked. Gun training is often associated with an increased likelihood of storing firearms in this manner."

"This study indicates that women, when they report a gun in the home, often incorrectly believe that it is stored unloaded and locked up."

My sixth question was - How many of the 'crimes prevented' can be put down to the values of a paranoid, brutalised society which teaches its children that the next threat is always round the corner, and that 'freedom' can only be won down the barrel of a gun?

Dean's answer - The purpose of the legalization of firearms here in the USA is to ensure that the balance of the power rests in the hands of the people. Your folks once threw off the yolk of English repression, did they not? Did they use "legal" weapons (sticks and fists, perhaps?), or was the possession of the swords, spears, etc. used to fight those battles then considered unlawful by the rule of the oppressor?

I've got some fantastic news for Dean - Scotland has moved on since the 14th Century, and even more excitingly, so has England. Scottish nationalists now do not seek to win freedom down the barrel of a gun (or whatever the equivalent weapons were at Stirling Bridge and Bannockburn), for the simple reason that we don't need to - we have a democracy (albeit an imperfect one) and since the 1970s the London government has recognised our right to become independent if we so choose. If we were to adopt the paranoia of the American gun lobby, though, we'd all be stashing firearms for a secret militia because "history shows those bastard English can't be trusted". And if we had such a culture, would our crime rate be higher or lower as a result? That was the essence of my question, which once again Dean has totally failed to address.

The Framers knew EXACTLY what they were doing when they put right in the Bill of Rights the assertion that the PEOPLE had a RIGHT to "keep and bear" the most deadly piece of military hardware of the day. You might not agree with that assertion, you clearly do not like it...

Again, it's not so much about whether I agree with it or like it (although I don't) - it's a very specific question about whether having such a gun-fetishising culture increases the crime rate, and if so what the implications are for the credibility of statistics purporting to show that guns are often used to prevent crime. As with questions 4 and 5, the difficulty is that legal gun ownership can't be meaningfully said to have prevented a crime if that crime would not have occurred but for the consequences of legal gun ownership. Nothing Dean says disputes that objection in any way.

Incidentally, to point out the blindingly obvious, "the PEOPLE" of the US no longer entrust themselves with "the most deadly military hardware of the day", so if that was the rationale for the Second Amendment, it's now utterly redundant. Present-day America (just like Britain) exclusively entrusts its most deadly weapons to the authorities, and the citizenry would be helpless if those weapons were ever turned against it. In Britain, we rely on democratic safeguards rather than direct physical protection to ensure that the government's guns are never turned on us - in exactly the same way that you do in the US to protect yourselves from a range of weaponry against which your puny Second Amendment firearm would be about as much use as a key-ring.

...but the fact remains that is OUR supreme law of the land, and it was imagined and included by people far superior in moral character than you or I.

Certain Americans could really do with a good deal more self-awareness when imagining that the mystical flawlessness of their constitution and the process that led to its creation ought to be as self-evident to everyone as it is to them.

My seventh question was - How many people were unnecessarily killed or injured by someone 'defending themselves'? This is a question that particularly troubles me given the rather broad definition of legal killing the US authorities seem to use.

Dean's response - Once again, pretty irrelevant to your question of "legitemate purpose" (see other responses above), unless of course you are trying to assert that even ONE life lost to a firearm is too many. In which case you better get your efforts off this topic and work instead to make your own country safer by banning cars, fatty food, and smoking, which each kill more people every year than firearms do (and that's even without accounting for the "saved" lives, which really should be subtracted off that total).

No, once again, my question related solely to the credibility of Nate's statistics - if some of the people alleged by the statistics to have 'prevented a crime' with a gun killed someone unnecessarily in doing so, that's a harm caused by legal gun ownership, not a benefit. So this is yet another question where Dean has not in any way disputed my actual objection.

My eighth question was - How many guns being used for defensive purposes have been wrested away and used by an attacker? In these instances people arming themselves with a gun have simply put themselves and others in far more danger.

Dean's response - Irrelevant. How many people in the UK have been bludgeoned toi death by items found in the home? Probably a higher number than this question purports to examine. See response to #7.

A fairly wild and improbable assertion there, about which Dean clearly has no idea whether there is any factual basis, and which in any case does not address the problem that a seized gun is likely to be of rather more use to an attacker than most other household utensils he might care to grab. Another question flunked.

My ninth question was - How many accidental shootings have there been from guns that were used carelessly, or not stored properly? Not related to crime, but these numbers would clearly offset any benefit Nate is claiming from gun legality.

Dean's response - Once again, not relevant to the report as referenced, however I will have to agree that many, if not all of these incidents are tragic and most likely preventable. How many deaths are caused by inattentiveness behind the wheel, or by drunk driving?? Many, many more, and I don't see you campaigning for the banning of alcohol or the government to require the installation of a breathalyzer in all new autos (although now that I have typed that I can see that coming to the nanny state nearest you, soon). LEGITEMATE PURPOSE - something I believe I have already established in #1-#5 responses, does not get erased by problems caused by misuse and abuse of inanimate objects by careless people.

Yes, I think you're probably getting used to the pattern here - no dispute of the central premise of my objection. Which is just as well, given this weight of evidence -

"For every age group, where there are more guns there are more accidental deaths. The mortality rate was 7 times higher in the four states with the most guns compared to the four states with the fewest guns."

"Both firearm prevalence AND questionable storage practices (i.e. storing firearms loaded and unlocked) were associated with higher rates of unintentional firearm deaths."

As for the comparison with the harm caused by the car, that is one 'inanimate object' that demonstrably has a social benefit that offsets the considerable downsides - whether it outweighs those downsides is of course a matter for debate, although most people seem to tacitly accept that it does. The whole point of the queries I've been raising about Nate's statistics is that they call into severe doubt the unproven assertion that there is somehow an equivalent offsetting benefit from the private ownership of firearms.

My final question was - How many suicidal people have found a quick and easy way out due to having a gun handy, when otherwise they might have stopped to think for longer and found a better solution?

Dean's response - If you care to explore the question, as I am not going to provide references, but in my psychology education for professionals involved in the treatment of those suffering from depression, bipolar disorder, or psychosis (who as a group constitute the vast majority of people who commit suicide), people who WANT to commit suicide will FIND A WAY. Does the availability of a firearm make it easier? Absolutely. But once the decision is made, those people make it happen.

Oh really? This astonishing mass of evidence tells a slightly different story -

"The preponderance of current evidence indicates that gun availability is a risk factor for youth suicide in the United States. The evidence that gun availability increases the suicide rates of adults is credible, but is currently less compelling."

"After controlling for poverty and urbanization, for every age group, across the United States, people in states with many guns have elevated rates of suicide, particularly firearm suicide."

"States with higher levels of household gun ownership had higher rates of firearm suicide and overall suicide. This relationship held for both genders and all age groups. It remained true after accounting for poverty, urbanization and unemployment."

"Changes in the levels of household firearm gun ownership was significantly associated with changes in both firearm suicide and overall suicide, for men, women and children, even after controlling for region, unemployment, alcohol consumption and poverty."

"Even after controlling for rates of attempted suicide, states with more guns had higher rates of suicide. Case fatality rates ranged from over 90% for firearms to under 5% for drug overdoses, cutting and piercing (the most common methods of attempted suicide). Hospital workers rarely see the type of suicide (firearm suicide) that is most likely to end in death."

"Levels of gun ownership are highly correlated with suicide rates across all age groups, even after controlling for lifetime major depression and serious suicidal thoughts. After controlling for divorce, education, unemployment, poverty and urbanization, the statistically significant relationship holds for 15 to 24 year olds and 45 to 84 year olds, but not for 25 to 44 year olds."

So that's that. Ten answers from Dean, none especially convincing, and several that didn't even address the actual question posed. It would be interesting to see if anyone can do better, but as it's taken five months just to get to this point, I won't be holding my breath...

Why the Liberal Democrats' broken promise on tuition fees wasn't just another manifesto pledge

I felt for Simon Hughes as he was faced with two scathing student leaders on Newsnight, as clearly his instincts on the subject of tuition fees are in the right place - which is more than can be said for most of his party's government ministers. But nevertheless I found myself getting increasingly irritated by the way in which he was defending the Liberal Democrat stance - that their opposition to tuition fees was one manifesto pledge, it would have been implemented had they won the election, they didn't win the election, a coalition was formed, compromises had to be made, etc, etc. I think most people understand perfectly well that you can only realistically be held 100% to a pledge about what you will deliver in government if you actually win the election outright and form a majority government - although admittedly some London scribes seem to struggle with that concept when they innocently ask why the SNP haven't "held the referendum" yet. But the pledge the Liberal Democrats signed (virtually in blood) on tuition fees wasn't a standard manifesto pledge about what they would hypothetically deliver as a majority government - it was a very practical pledge about how they would vote in parliament, one that they would have been in a position to honour in full whatever the outcome of the election. The only conclusion a reasonable person could have drawn from the pledge was that any coalition the Lib Dems entered into would at the very least have to be conditional on allowing the party's MPs special dispensation to vote against (not abstain - the pledge was very specific) any increase in tuition fees.

Some would have us believe that the pledge was idiotic and nigh-on impossible to fulfil. But there's actually nothing hard about voting in the Commons in the way you solemnly promised to - all you have to do is put one foot in front of the other.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Five months on : someone finally responds to my ten-question challenge (after a fashion)

A follow-up to last night's post about Kevin Baker : I left a comment on his blog expressing bemusement that after all his talk about how he needed more time to get his "Überpost" response to me "just right" and to give it his "best effort", we had waited five months and been rewarded with a 21-word post and a link to a YouTube clip by someone else. However, in his reply to my comment he suggested that this wasn't his real response, which is apparently still to come - fair enough, although I think my confusion was understandable, given that his post was entitled 'My Response to James Kelly'.

While I was at his blog, I did finally manage to provoke someone (a poster called 'Dean in AZ') to respond directly to my ten-question challenge from June 9th, in which I raised a series of logical objections to the suggestion that it had been 'proved' that widespread gun ownership in America prevents crime. It really is extraordinary that, with Kevin's enormous legion of followers who pride themselves on having an unanswerable response to any question, it's taken five months for even one of them to respond directly. However, better late than never - although, perhaps unsurprisingly, the answers are far from satisfactory, and in some cases actually help to bolster the points I was making. Let's take them in turn...

Question 1 was - How many of the attempted crimes allegedly foiled were actually genuine?

Dean's response - Since many CRIMES themselves are subjective in nature- for example, here in America "assault" is wholly in the mind of the assaulted; if you feel as if you are being threatened in a any way, you HAVE been assaulted! - the reporting of these crimes must therefor also be wholly subjective. Since the crime itself may be difficult if not impossible to substantially "prove", asking if "objectively establishing" that a crime has occurred is a moot and foolish point. Battery, on the other hand is easy to prove, but how do you prevent battery if you actually have to get hit to have the crime committed? Ah, you cannot. Thus, subjective reporting of "foiled crimes" is really the only way to get the data, short of putting up camera everywhere (1984-style; which your country is making an admirable attempt at doing, I might add).

It's true that there's nothing unusual about allowing people to subjectively decide for themselves whether a crime has been committed for the purpose of collating statistics - the British Crime Survey works in the same way. But it's nonsensical to suggest that this means a crime has actually taken place in every single case - if an alleged victim's subjective perception is really sufficient to meet the definition of 'crime', it would do the courts out of a job. My concern in raising this question is that if, for example, someone reacts in an over-the-top fashion to a stranger being close to their property and scares them away with a gun, of course they're going to rationalise that after the fact as a 'burglary thwarted' or whatever. They simply haven't given themselves a chance to discover that the 'threat' may not have been real. Dean implicitly concedes this point in saying that there is no way to 'get the data'. My objection therefore stands - it's quite possible (indeed overwhelmingly likely) that a signficant percentage of the 'crimes prevented' by guns are illusory.

Question 2 was - How many of the attempted crimes were serious and how many were petty?

Dean's response - DOES IT REALLY MATTER?

'Yes' is the short answer, given the suggestion that the 'crimes foiled' can be meaningfully weighed against the appalling loss of life caused by widespread gun ownership in America each and every year.

If a serious crime is, say, murder, and a "non-serious" crime is simple assault, are you saying it's OK with you that people get assaulted?

And this time 'no' is the short answer. The words "straw man" are springing to mind once again.

Without being to show you statistics (for the reasons listed in my response to #1 above), let's just say 10% of those would be serious crimes - like say murder - then we have "saved" as many murders as are "caused" (althought I do believe myself that people cause murder, not handguns). The question here is not if they prevent "petty" vs. "serious" crimes; the question is do handguns SERVE A LEGITEMATE PURPOSE. If any of the previous paragraph rings true to you, then they DO, and you are incorrect in your conclusions.

For Dean to state that my conclusions are incorrect, he first has to understand what they are, and clearly he doesn't. I'm not suggesting that guns served no 'purpose' in preventing petty crime (in fact I implicitly acknowledged that they did), I was instead pointing out that knowing the extent to which the crimes foiled were serious rather than petty is vital to any claim that this apparent benefit can be meaningfully weighed against the cost of thousands of lives per year. As Dean doesn't have the relevant figures (and apparently doesn't think they would tell him anything important if he did), the question remains unanswered.

Question 3 was - How many of these crimes could and would have been averted anyway, without the use of a gun?

Dean's response - Straw man alert!

Ah, we've been round this block before, Dean - that's known as 'projection'. As you're about to demonstrate...

" the UK, members of the public without guns prevent both petty and serious crimes every day of the week." I am sure they do... Just as there are members of the public without guns who do the same thing here in America. The report is specifically speaking to those situations where a gun was involved in the prevention of crime; if you concede that there are people out there preventing crime *without* having to resort to using a gun then clearly there are people out there that *HAVE TO* use guns to avert crime, AND IN DOING SO SUPPORTS ONCE AGAIN THAT THOSE SAME GUNS HAVE A LEGITEMATE PURPOSE. Everything else is just argument as to the matter of degree of the need. And, when you consider that at least SOME "serious" crime (see response to #2) must have been averted by the use/presence of a gun, then once again we come full circle to "legitemate purpose". If lives can be taken by criminals then lives can therefore also be saved by good people - or is that too farfetched an idea?

Sigh. My point was not that no crimes are ever thwarted in America without the use of a gun, but rather that many of the crimes prevented with a gun could and would otherwise have been prevented without one. Dean hasn't even addressed that point, so the question remains unanswered. It also needs to be pointed out at this stage that his logic is somewhat faulty - while I'm actually happy to concede that there are instances where guns genuinely do prevent crime (where armed police are involved, for instance) how that logically "follows" from the observation that some crimes can be prevented without a gun is a bit of a mystery.

Questions 4-10 to follow...

The hollowness of the 'Hiroshima defence'

Over at Better Nation, Malc has written an interesting post exploring the tension between his view that the main rationale for opposing the death penalty is quite simply that "killing is wrong", and his growing sense that killing might possibly be justified in some circumstances. He gives the example of a scenario in which you could save the lives of twenty people by killing one person who was about to attack them.

I think the answer to this conundrum is that the real rationale for opposing the death penalty is actually subtly different from the one Malc suggests - it's not that killing is in itself always wrong, merely that it's wrong for the state (or anyone else) to kill when it's not absolutely essential, ie. for any purpose other than to save the lives of innocents. Few people would say that it's wrong to take a life if you can be sure the person concerned is about to commit a murder and there is absolutely no other way of stopping them. But capital punishment in the modern world has got absolutely nothing to do with such a scenario. Perhaps in the chaos of war or an extreme natural disaster, there might be circumstances in which it is literally impossible to keep a dangerous murderer under lock and key, and the risk of that person killing again is so great that it is deemed necessary to execute him to protect others. I still don't personally think even that could be morally justified - unless there was certainty that an innocent person would die as a result of inaction, I don't believe the authorities should be playing God. But, all the same, I can see how others might reach the conclusion that such an act would be rational and responsible. In a stable country, however, public protection is never even the remotest consideration in judicial murder, because there's always the option of keeping the most dangerous criminals securely behind bars for the rest of their lives. In the modern US, executions are thus always utterly needless, senseless killings.

And an important twist on Malc's moral dilemma : what if you could save twenty innocent lives by killing one person who is also innocent? That is essentially the US justification for dropping the atomic bombs on Japan - an act which by any modern definition must have constituted a war crime, deliberately targeting as it did civilians (including children) by the thousand. Many more people would have died, the argument goes, if those innocents hadn't been massacred by the US. That premise is of course hotly disputed by many historians, but let's concede the point for the sake of argument. Is it sufficient to justify such carnage?

It's occurred to me before that a good way of looking at it is this. Supposing that, after the Argentinian invasion of the Falklands, the British government had not sent off a naval taskforce to retrieve the islands, but had instead instructed the SAS to kidnap twenty members of Galtieri's closest family, and execute them one by one until the Argentinians surrendered. Using the 'Hiroshima defence', if such a strategy had worked it could clearly have been said to have averted the war and saved 1000 lives. But would that have justified cold-blooded murder? I think I know (or perhaps I should say I hope I know) what most people's answer would be. And yet that's just twenty deaths, compared to something on the scale of genocide in Hiroshima and Nagasaki - which nevertheless 'feels' all right to a lot of people, simply because (as with all air attacks) it was effectively carried out by remote control.

Well, I needed a laugh...

This, apparently, is the promised killer "Überpost" from Mr Kevin Baker in response to my series of posts on gun control.

We've been waiting five months to see it.

It consists of twenty-one words and a link to a video by some Tea Party guy on YouTube.


Tuesday, November 9, 2010

How would a Galloway candidacy affect the SNP v Labour battle?

I'm ever so slightly dismayed by the hints from George Galloway that he might be gearing up for a run in the Holyrood elections next year. Although I certainly don't agree with everything he says and does, I've thus far been able to take a certain amount of satisfaction in his occasional triumphs since being expelled from Labour, as it was that party he was a perennial thorn in the side of (along of course with a US Senate Committee that was almost as clueless as Menendez and co). However, if he does stand for the Scottish Parliament, he unfortunately seems somewhat more likely to do harm to the SNP than to Labour, simply because the SNP are so reliant on their list seats in Glasgow (and because Labour have no list seats to defend in the city at all). I can see five possible scenarios...

1) Galloway is no longer the force he was, and in any case his defection to the bright lights of London a few years ago has done him few favours in Glasgow. He receives a derisory vote, making no difference to the distribution of seats.

2) Galloway still has a big enough personal following to secure a seat, but in doing so he simply takes a seat that would have been won by another far-left candidate anyway. This ties in with Jeff Breslin's theory that the socialists are likely to recover sufficiently from their 2007 trouncing to at least sneak a seat in Glasgow.

3) Galloway does still have a big following, and it's one that the two 'indigenous' socialist parties can no longer match following the Sheridan saga. He takes a seat on the Glasgow list that would otherwise not have been won by the far-left, and that would otherwise have been taken by the SNP.

4) Same as scenario 3, except that either the Lib Dems or Greens underperform in Glasgow to such an extent that Galloway takes a seat that would otherwise have been won by one of them, not the SNP.

5) Galloway doesn't poll strongly enough to take a seat, but does do well enough to split the socialist vote and prevent another far-left candidate from being elected. This would leave an extra seat available on the list to be seized by a grateful SNP, or another mainstream party - but almost certainly not Labour.

So that makes three scenarios that would have no impact on the Labour v SNP battle, one that would harm the SNP, and one that might even conceivably help them. Unfortunately I think scenario 3 is probably more likely than 4 or 5.

Monday, November 8, 2010

War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Voluntary Work is Compulsory.

I'm really pleased to see Caron Lindsay state so forcefully that in her view Liberal Democrat MPs should vote down 'compulsory community service for the unemployed' - which, incidentally, I also think is a very fair characterisation of what is apparently being proposed. I suppose some might quibble that, in contrast to community service, the unemployed will have the option of not doing the work and simply losing their benefit - but if that benefit is all that's keeping them fed, it's a rather meaningless distinction. Nevertheless, Political Betting's Mike Smithson had his own name for the proposals last night (and, no, I don't think there was any irony intended) -

"compulsory voluntary work for job-seekers"

Orwell would have had a field day. It's a timely illustration of how pernicious these ideologically-loaded terms are that someone could ever unthinkingly put together such a phrase.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Labour's AV alibi, gift-wrapped by Nick Clegg

Prompted by Andy Burnham's declaration that Labour will be giving next year's AV referendum no priority at all, John Rentoul has written what strikes me as a too-clever-by-half article that 'records the demise' of electoral reform. The most peculiar line is this -

"many Labour supporters have since decided that it is a bad idea by the simple equation: electoral reform means coalitions and Labour does not like this coalition"

Which is then flatly contradicted by this observation just four paragraphs later -

"what AV is not: it is not a proportional system"

Precisely. Which (unfortunately) means that it would not make coalitions any more or less likely than at present. If Labour MPs really are in a mind to rage against literally any system that can throw up the arithmetic for a coalition, then clearly they should be seeking to do away with first-past-the-post forthwith, because it is that, not AV, which has contrived to produce the current government.

And, for what it's worth, I think the rumours Rentoul is spreading of the death of the patient are greatly exaggerated in any case. There are any number of examples that demonstrate the far greater volatility of the electorate when faced with a referendum question - the Common Market vote in 1975 is the best-known example, but the more recent Northeast of England Assembly referendum produced an equally startling turnaround in the final stages. With YouGov showing an eleven-point lead for the No side, let's say I'm 'cautious pessimistic' about the outcome - but the arguments haven't even begun to be seriously put before the electorate yet. To pronounce the result a foregone conclusion at this stage is risible.

What is fair to say, however, is that not only was Clegg's desire to hold the vote on the same day as the devolved elections a cynical and disrespectful tactical manoeuvre, it's also proving to be spectacularly counter-productive - as Burnham's comment demonstrates, it's delivered to Labour a gift-wrapped alibi for not engaging in the campaign.