Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The other side of Reasoned Discourse : "I don't think you're a Nazi, but I do think you're a bigot."

I know I've had more comebacks than Frank Sinatra from my "Christmas blogging break", but it appears my off/on debate with Kevin Baker on gun control has very abruptly come to a definitive end, so I thought it might be fitting to use this post as a monument to the rather telling manner in which the landmark moment finally arrived. First of all, let's recall Kevin's idealistic words when he arrived at this blog out of the blue on 8 April 2009, proposing a debate -

"There are those like you who hold an honest belief that "gun control" works to (somehow) make the world a safer place. There are those like me and the majority of Rachel's commenters who hold an opposing view. There's a vast middle out there who don't know what to think, and a large segment of them don't care, but there are "fence sitters" - and many of them vote. They are interested - and these debates provide an opportunity to show both sides.

I believe that my side - argued calmly, with statistics (with sources!) and logic - is the one that is most convincing.

I did not engage you in Rachel's comment thread because I came to it too late, but I now invite you to actually debate this topic. I suggest that the forum for this debate be our two blogs. We can trade posts, or I'll be more than happy to give you guest posting privileges at my blog.

I'm quite serious. And I promise that you will learn things you didn't previously know. I don't expect to change your mind, but I do predict that you will be made uncomfortable by what you learn...

No, James, it's not about "winning" or "losing," it's about the philosophy. As I said above, I don't expect to change your mind, nor you mine. What I want to do is get the discussion out there where "fence-sitters" can find it.

You seem like the type capable of defending his position, and (given your performance at Rachel's) willing to.

You have no idea how rare that is. On my side of the fence we have a running joke about "reasoned discourse" - it's what your side does here on the internet generally when confronted with facts and reasoned arguments. They close their comments and often delete them. I don't think you'd do that.

Obviously, I think your philosophy is the wrong one. Just as obviously (as you noted) your philosophy is not unknown on this side of the pond. That's what I'm fighting, and - not to put too fine a point on it - I want to use a debate between us as a tool in that fight.

If you think you can defend your position, then accept my invitation. I believe I can defend mine. I have no doubt that in the end we will agree to disagree, but it is my most earnest hope that readers of the discussion will come away believing that my arguments are the more convincing ones.

Can you say the same?"

So there's not much doubt as to the inferences we are being invited to draw about anyone who runs away from an open, rational exchange of views, and specifically their confidence in their ability to defend their corner in such an exchange, and to ultimately prevail in the battle for the hearts and minds of the undecided.  Bearing all that in mind, spot the slight irony in the manner in which Kevin today announces that he's no longer quite so keen on this whole debating lark...

Baker : Yup. Our first principles are completely divergent. And while I'm content to leave his type alone, they cannot leave my type alone, because they feel threatened by us.

Me : Genuinely bemused by that comment, Kevin, given that it was you who came to me all-guns-blazing (if you'll forgive the expression) in spring 2009, not the other way round. Oh, I know that was before you "flipped my rock over", but let me remind you that you also claim not to have been remotely "surprised" by what you found under it.

You may not feel threatened by me or my "type", but you certainly feel threatened by something - isn't the whole raison d'être of this blog "our freedoms and way of life are under mortal threat"? A "decades-long hate crime", and all that?

Baker : James, the reason I blog? Agitate for individual rights? Put my hard-earned money into the hands of people who fight for my rights? Stand up to people like you who are afraid of people like me?

I don't want my headstone to read "He didn't love freedom enough."

Here's the deal, Sparky, which you (also unsurprisingly) can't grasp: I don't think you're a Nazi, but I do think you're a bigot. You're the one who nonchalantly threw out the accusation "It can only be that he feels black people are innately more prone to violence than white people." In no uncertain terms you called me a racist. I doubt you even considered the question for a second, you just put a checkmark in the box that said "gun-toting, knuckle-dragging, redneck racist." It fit your preconceived notions

So I thought I'd give you some of your own back. I should've known better. Water off a duck's back.

Oh, and on that Hiroshima/Nagasaki question. No, that was not "genocide." What we did to the Indian populations of North America was genocide. Try to learn the difference. I'm not proud of either, but I'm not disturbed by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, for reasons I have no doubt you'd reject. I don't care if you reject them. I do have objections to the genocide of the Indians.

You're welcome to continue to hang around. As someone called you in an email, you are more than welcome to become Scotadelphia, but I'm done with you. You've served your purpose as the quintessential example of type, and for that, again, I thank you.

Me : Kevin, the atomic bombings were genocide. I accept that's a controversial point of view even outside the US, but it's hardly a novel one, so for you to work yourself up into a state of moral outrage as if no reasonable person could ever make that claim is faintly ludicrous. The reason the bombings were genocide is that they clearly fit the definition of genocide. It was very telling that when I quoted that definition, neither you nor anyone else was able to explain why it wouldn't apply in this case. Your own tactic was to ignore the point completely, while others suggested that they (conveniently) preferred another definition entirely.

It's quite clear that your underlying reason for rejecting not only the genocide claim, but also the lesser claim of war crime/atrocity, is very simply that the bombings were carried out by the US to finish off a campaign that has since become an integral part of America's national story, feeding into the country's (partly justified) self-image as a force for good in the world. Indeed, you explicitly invited your readers to find what I said objectionable on the sole grounds that it attacked an action of the country they love - there wasn't even the slightest trace of a defence of the bombings on their own merits. Doubtless that tactic will work in the very narrow sense it was intended to (ie. demonising me as an individual) - but at the expense of any credibility you had left as someone who debates based on reason and logic, rather than on emotion, jingoism, and what in your country you would call 'handwaving'.

Now, onto the issue that clearly led you to lose the plot and write this intemperate piece. No, it is not true that I implied you held racist views on the basis of my own preconceived ideas, and it's categorically not the case that I said it without considering the point very carefully. I made the claim based specifically on a close reading of things you said in your previous post. As I pointed out in my reply, you seemed to me to be very noticeably switching to insinuation and suggestion whenever you got to the bits of your belief system that you felt would be somewhat unpalatable to neutrals in this debate. My intention was to tease out what it was you were so shy about fronting up to - I didn't claim to be 100% certain in the guesses I was making, as can be seen from my words "he can always correct me if he thinks I'm going astray" (which I note you didn't quote). To be fair, that's exactly what you did - it turns out you believe black culture, not black genes, is the problem. I'm not sure that's any more attractive a worldview, as it still pins all the blame on the black community, and runs away from society's collective responsibility for racial inequality. But others can make up their own minds about that. In that sense teasing out what you actually meant - when you seemed strikingly reluctant to spell it out - entirely served its purpose.

In closing, I'll just remind you of your stated reason for wanting a debate with me - it was that virtually all others on my side of the argument refuse to engage in a dialogue, resort to name-calling and mindless abuse upon having their belief system challenged, and go on to practice the fabled "Reasoned Discourse". Well, it's now plain for all to see that it is you who has unilaterally decided, as a result of arguments you've heard from me that your belief system is unable to cope with in a mature way, that withdrawal of engagement after one final abusive post is the way to go. That's fine. Now that you've made that unilateral decision, I won't be "sticking around" as you put it, any more than I have during the previous lulls in this 'debate'. There would be little utility in me doing so, as there are only a very small number of posters here who are any more interested in a meaningful exchange of views than you are. A few hours ago, I had a perfectly civilised debate with Nate (as I've had in the past) on my own blog, but unfortunately those with his constructive approach seem rare indeed.

What I will be doing, however, is posting your above comment on my blog, along with this reply, as a monument to the very telling manner in which this 'debate' finally came to an end. Thankyou for getting angry, Kevin, and a very Happy Christmas to you and all your readers. 


Incidentally, it's worth pointing out that one of Kevin's readers, who fully agrees with him on the substantive issue of gun rights, nevertheless suggested that he'd gone too far in his latest essay, noting that "referring to 'flipping over a rock', calling him a bigot - these are not the tools of reasoned debate". My suspicion is that, on reflection, Kevin knew perfectly well that he'd made a tactical blunder, hence his hurried attempt not only to draw a line under the whole debate (having first declared a total, crushing victory, naturally), but also to 'clarify' his abusive comments in the following hilarious terms - "Here's the deal, Sparky, which you (also unsurprisingly) can't grasp: I don't think you're a Nazi, but I do think you're a bigot." But hang on - in exactly what sense have I failed to grasp that? Did I ever actually give any indication that I thought he was calling me a Nazi, and not just a bigot? I can't help wondering if that's the very revealing slip of a guilty mind...

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Baker blows his top

Well, it seems I've made considerable progress - Kevin Baker actually read my response this time, as evidenced by this intensely funny 4,300 word ranting retort which repeatedly brands me a bigot.

When someone starts equating your opposition to private gun ownership with anti-Semitism (yes, really) it's probably high time to heed Marcia's advice, and get on with enjoying Christmas. Just before I do, though, one of Kevin's grandiose assertions is so exquisitely ironic in the light of recent history that I simply can't resist having a very small nibble...

"That's because James does not understand the difference between warfare and despotism. Governments (and terrorists) use WMDs on other populations, not on their own soil."

In that case, clearly Saddam Hussein's chemical weapons attack on his own people at Halabja - used endlessly as a justification for the invasion of Iraq in 2003 - was a figment of Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney's imaginations. Just to refresh Kevin's memory, here's the Wikipedia account of an incident which blows a hole in one of his articles of faith, ie. that privately-owned handguns are a meaningful protection against 'governments gone bad', because tyrannical governments always sportingly refrain from using WMDs against their own people...

"The Halabja poison gas attack (Kurdish: Kîmyabarana Helebce), also known as Halabja massacre or Bloody Friday, was an incident that took place on March 16, 1988, during the closing days of the Iran–Iraq War, when chemical weapons were used by the Iraqi government forces in the Kurdish town of Halabja in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The attack killed between 3,200 and 5,000 people and injured around 7,000 and 10,000 more, most of them civilians; thousands more died of complications, diseases, and birth defects in the years after the attack. The incident, which has been officially defined as an act of genocide against the Kurdish people in Iraq, was and still remains the largest chemical weapons attack directed against a civilian-populated area in history."

Oh, but wait - Kevin has suddenly remembered this rather huge problem. A few paragraphs later he hurriedly backtracks -

"James does not understand that governments tend not to bomb or gas their own population centers. Oh, Saddam did it, but he only gassed Kurds, not, say, downtown Tikrit."

So despotic regimes only "tend" not to do the blindingly obvious and quell revolts using the weapons at their disposal. Or, to put it another way, they don't do it, except when they do. Oh-kaaay...

Oh, and to answer Kevin's final question - "coming from a bigot, this is not a surprise. How's it feel, James?"

How's it feel to have so much in common with the likes of Alan C Baird? It feels fabulous, Kev. Thanks for asking. Happy Christmas!

The Day of the 'Combat Expert' cometh

Of all the many, many jaw-dropping contributions to the latest train-wreck of a comments thread on gun rights, one by the poster Sandro Rettinger takes the biscuit. It's of course standard fare for the Kevin Baker Fan Club to inform us letter mortals that we simply don't understand that guns are no more dangerous than other "tools for killing" such as lampshades, wedding cakes, event planners, thimbles, etc. (which begs the obvious question of why wedding cakes aren't more than sufficient for 'self-defence' purposes, but I digress). What makes Sandro different is that he styles himself a "combat expert" and deems that anyone who does not share his expertise is not even entitled to express a view on the relative deadliness of guns when compared to other items.

You might remember Prince Philip's spectacularly ill-judged contribution to the post-Dunblane debate on gun control, when he suggested on radio that if the massacre had been carried out with cricket bats, it would have been irrational to ban cricket bats. A member of staff at Dunblane Primary School (and a prominent supporter of the campaign to ban handguns) reacted with fury, pointing out that if Thomas Hamilton had only been armed with a cricket bat, it's quite likely she and other staff could have overpowered him before he'd even got close to killing as many as 16 people. So I put it to Sandro Rettinger that he was even denying the right of this woman, a witness to the tragedy, to hold a view on the topic. Extraordinarily, he didn't demur -

"If she's got all of your experience with the subject, then you're absolutely right I'd say she isn't qualified to hold an opinion on the matter, any more than I'm qualified to have an opinion on how best to design a supersonic airplane.

If recognizing limitations isn't humble enough for your tastes, well, that's just too bad...

And also, no, "having been nearby when something horrible happened" doesn't count as "combat experience". You seem to be under the mistaken impression that everyone's viewpoint has equal validity, irrespective of actual knowledge. Since you've provided no evidence that at the time of the attack, said staff member had any more idea of how to deal with being attacked by a baseball bat than by someone with a handgun, I can't say as I'm especially willing to consider her commentary on the subject as anything more than wishful thinking on her part.

If she wanted to be a truly effective defence for her charges, she'd be demanding to be armed herself, now."

Words fail me. Evidently it's high time we considered dismantling democracy and replacing it with a benign (ahem) dictatorship of the 'combat experts'.

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.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

An Über-Christmas awaits? Mebbes aye, mebbes naw...

Kevin Baker's long-awaited 'Überpost' in response to my series of posts on gun control has arrived, weighing in at just under 5000 words. To give him his due, it's a more thoughtful piece this time, and doesn't rely on the familiar 'statistical bombardment' technique. Something of an irony that, because for my own part I'd wearily given in to the inevitable and started discussing the statistical evidence in a number of posts this year (eg. here and here). Indeed, it's striking that Kevin is basically responding to things I said way back in the spring of 2009, rather than in my many posts this year on the subject (notably this one) although to be fair that's probably due to information overload.

All in all, he's presented me with something of a dilemma - having posted on an almost daily basis for most of this year, I'd more or less decided to take a break from blogging over the festive period. But in the light of Kevin's attempts to psychoanalyse me (not least in relation to my support for the SNP) it might be difficult to resist an earlier response. We'll see...