The story of the White House shooter John wrote about last night sent me digging into my archives to find a piece I wrote in the wake of the appearance of someone carrying a long gun at an appearance by President Obama. Or rather, in the wake of old friend Megan McCardle’s attempt to deflate what she saw as excessive lefty concern at the rise in threat displays at such events.
I thought of this piece a lot in the wake of the Gabby Giffords shootings, and though, happily, no actual harm was done this time, I’m reminded again of the same basic point: playing with the kind of rhetoric with which the right seems much too comfortable these days is simply dangerous.
So — and especially as my day job is making it almost impossible to come up with much useful original blogging, I offer what follows below the jump as a (to me) still on point response to those who think that it’s mere political correctness that decries this kind of talk these days.
…Pieces like this actually evoke more of a sense of wonder than anything else — not merely at the banality and evil so neatly conjoined in its content, but at the astonishing reality that anyone who routinely writes such…how to put this…bonecrushingly stupid; water-her-twice-a day dumb;* the wheel is spinning but the hamster’s dead** material, still has a job, much less an apparently appreciative audience.***
Actually, I think I have to credit McArdle with some cleverness here. Her post is so full of different instances of nonsense, bad faith argument, sheer failure to understand what she seems to think she is talking about that she achieves a certain effect: by seeding her post with so much to be debunked, she increases the odds that one whack-a-mole notion or another will slip past the defenses of rationality and real-world experience.
Life is, of course, too short to club every mechanical rodent that pops its head above the blissfully sunlit interior of McArdle’s mind, so what follows is an attempt at bullet-point fisking, a move towards a kind of blog-brevity that I have never executed successfully. So let’s see, why don’t we:****
So is this guy a terrifying threat to democracy? Or just a civic-minded citizen?
Species of logical fallacy? False dichotomy.
If you think that his position on healthcare changes the likelihood that he will discharge that weapon…
is this a rational belief?
Species of logical fallacy: Straw man.
I think carrying guns to protests is entirely counterproductive.
That’s one word for it.
Indeed, I’m not sold on the general virtues of protesting, which worked for Gandhi and the civil rights marcher, but has a dismal track record on other concerns.
Where to begin? Oh yeah — keep it short. I’ll merely glance at my usual rant about McArdle’s lack of actual acquired knowledge/experience out of which to base her claims. I’ll only say that anyone who takes as dispositive of the topic that Ms. McArdle is herself “not sold” on what she curiously calls the “virtues” of protesting♦ is a suitable purchaser for that bridge in Brooklyn I managed to pick up last week….
…Let’s see: I seem to recall that the aftermath of the Marcos instigated assassination of Ninoy Aquino demonstrated that protest has no power. Lech Walesa must be merely a shipyard worker with a gripe, given that the protests he led were so desperately ineffective. The South African case is enormously complicated, but if the business community in South Africa cut the underpinnings of the Boer cause in the eighties and early nineties, I’m sure it was because sustained, courageous, life-risking protest within the country and protest led pressure on international companies outside had nothing to do with it … it was all purely the milk of human kindness coursing through the veins of the NP that allowed Nelson Mandela to embark on that famous walk. And so on…[This was written before the Arab Spring, of course…]
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In other words, protest may not satisfy the kool kid McArdle appears to imagine herself to be, but people have died in proving her wrong time and again within even her callow memory. I’d add that he dismal track record of which McArdle writes exists, but should be sought in her own archives.
But I think people have a perfect right to do it, including with guns, though I also think the secret service is within its rights to ensure that they don’t have a sight line on the president.
That’s “Secret Service,” a proper name, not some generic function; and I’m sure its brave members sleep a little more soundly now that they know that Ms. McArdle has acknowledged her belief that they have the right to perform their duty.
But the hysteria about them has been even more ludicrous. Numerous people claim to believe that this makes it likely, even certain, that someone will shoot at the president.
I call Inigo Montoya on her use of the word “ludicrous” in this context.
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And as for the “numerous people…” sentence…this is both a logical fallacy — the straw man again, in her assertion that the claim has been made that the presence of guns at rallies make it “certain” that someone will shoot President Obama — and the coward’s argument. If numerous people have made this claim, name them, so that we may check and see if McArdle is reporting their claims accurately, and to see what arguments they might be making in support of whatever they assert.
This is very silly, because the president is not anywhere most of the gun-toting protesters…
I’m glad to get a reading on what McArdle thinks is silly; it helps calibrate the rest of her stuff. But while I guess worrying about the fate of the president is risible to some, the real kicker here, of course lies with the remarkable statement that it’s ok to bring a loaded gun to protest a presidential visit because “most” won’t be “near” President Obama himself.
It pains me to say something so utterly obvious and predictable but, if I may break the fourth wall for just a moment: Ms McArdle. Are you awake? Sentient? Even a little? Remember, when it comes to bullets…It Only Takes One.
And as for “near.” I’m guessing that McArdle’s upbringing/background is once again suckering her into the realm of unknown unknowns here; that relentless incuriosity of hers seems to keep her from grasping the fact that guns are not in fact solely short-range weapons.
The AR-15 rifle carried to the rally in Phoenix is a derivative of the military M-16.♥ It fires the NATO 5.56 round and while it has a number of variants, has an effective range of over 500 meters in its most common forms. While I hope indeed that the Secret Service does indeed manage to control all the sightlines to the president, half a kilometer is not what I would call near…and McArdle, whatever she actually knows of modern firearms, certainly manages to convey in this post complete ignorance of the subject.♣ [I did not say this at the time, because I thought it was obvious, but there are plenty of rifles which in skilled hands achieve accuracy over significantly greater distances than 500 meters.]
It is, I suppose, more plausible to believe that they might take a shot at someone else. But not very plausible: the rate of crime associated with legal gun possession or carrying seems to be verylow. Guns, it turn out, do not turn ordinary people into murderers. They make murderers more effective.
Species of logical fallacy: biased sample. The relevant sample is not all those bearing guns legally, but all those bearing guns in a political context, and perhaps in the specific context of Presidential appearances. However you might want to begin analyzing it, the group of those who consider it a form of acceptable democratic speech to bear a loaded gun at a political rally is a distinct subset of gun owners, and the assertion that their behavior will track that of the group at large is both bad statistical reasoning and bad-faith argument, all rolled into one.
So perhaps unsurprisingly, when offered the opportunity to put some money down on the proposition that one of these firearms is soon going to be discharged at someone, they all decline…
This is getting tedious: the fallacies here include the ad hominem argument — because people don’t bet, what they say is wrong — and yet another straw man. Who are these mythical non-gamblers. I’ll take the damn bet. Here’s a 100 bucks that says that some asshole fires a weapon at a political rally before the end of Obama’s first term. [I’d say, sadly, that the Giffords shooting/multiple murder incident settles this one.] I’d bet more but I just bought a house and haven’t got a dime to spare…and Mrs. Levenson raised her boy right, with the view that bet when you feel like it…but never your son’s lunch money.
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McArdle then approvingly quotes from that notorious bearer of bad-faith arguments in defense of faith, C.S. Lewis, to advance in someone else’s name the logical fallacy known as the slippery slope argument. It is certainly true that milk drinking leads to heroin addiction, but what’s even wierder about McArdle’s citation of Lewis’ Mere Christianity is that Lewis’s point, however flawed, has no discernable connection to McArdle’s argument. This is what I mean when I see in McArdle the bored monkey style of argument: fling enough faeces at a wall and perhaps something will stick, if only by oderiferous association.
I suspect that, like the notion that Obama is not a US citizen, or that George Bush either planned the 9/11 attacks or allowed them to happen, this is for most people what Julian Sanchez calls a symbolic belief. They don’t really believe that these people are thugs intent on murder–not in the sense that they have, with careful thought, arrived at a conclusion that they are willing to defend vigorously.
Two quick points. There is a false equivalence at work, to begin with. Birther and 9/11 conspiracy beliefs do not derive from the same underlying logical or empirical structure that the argument that the repeated incidence of bearing loaded firearms within the context of purportedly peaceful protest increases the risk of violence in the future.
The prediction may be wrong — that is, we may go through an entire eight year Obama Presidency with nary a hint of gun violence in political contexts. But the argument that such violence is a reasonable thing to fear is a qualitatively different one from that required to believe in the face of all evidence to the contrary that Barack Obama is not legally the President of the United States (or that George Bush evoked 9/11…or that FDR set up Pearl Harbor and all the rest).
Second: once again, McArdle has recourse to a bad faith, logically flawed argument here. She’s not that inventive, so she’s gone again to the straw man well.
Those who suggest that the presence of guns openly carried implies a series of risks — how many concealed weapons might be present; how much organization there might be in the insertion of armed protesters into the fabric of peaceful protest; how long it will take for over-the-top violent rhetoric to find a truly receptive ear amongst all these “patriots” — are not saying that any individual gun-toting asshole is a thug bent on murder.
They are saying that the more useful idiots like McArdle legitimize the presence of guns in political discourse, the greater the risk we take that the guns will stop being symbols, and will reappear as the tools they are…tools that are capable of dealing deadly violence at a distance.
McArdle would rather not dwell on that ugly fact of guns. They are not toys. They are not megaphones. They do not utter cute or funny or pointed commentary on the state of American polity today. They dispatch useful weights of metal at high speeds across considerable spaces with an accuracy restricted by the quality of the machine and the skill of its operator. Reality matters.
But it is pleasurable to tell yourself you believe terrible things about your enemies, and so you don’t examine the thought until someone says, “Well, how about $500 on it, then?” and you think about how much it would hurt to lose $500 on, and realize that you don’t actually have any reason to believe it’s all that likely.
Back to that again: the validity of the argument that bringing guns to political rallies is (a) dangerous and (b) if unchecked, likely to increase the risk of an act of political violence turns on whether or not someone will lay a bet with Ms. McArdle. See above for the fallacy involved, and then pause to consider McArdle’s framing of the argument as a whole.
Here she says, as the concluding thought of her attempted chain of argument, that the actual claim being advanced is that the presence of guns among anti Obama protesters is evidence of the evil of opposition to Obama and not, as stated by those who make real arguments on this matter, that the increase in the threat of violence is likely to lead to an increase in violence itself.
This is a predictive argument, and I hope that is wrong — or rather that the making of it helps create the conditions that will prevent it from becoming right. Were civilized people to say that whatever one’s legal rights to bear arms might be, it is socially unacceptable to do so at a political rally, especially one at which an elected leader is present, then the risk of violence would be reduced, I hope to the level that the Secret Service could manage without breaking a sweat.
[Can’t embed this anymore, so check out the link for the required pop-culture video comment]
But the point I’d finish with here, to counter McArdle’s attempt at a conclusion, is to remind everyone of the intellectual and emotional poverty of McArdle, along with that of those on the right who like her are trying to turn our politics into a game of high-school debate, unanchored in lived experience. She asserts, in effect, and almost in so many words, that the fear of political violence is a mere abstraction — her “symbolic belief.”
She is, of course, totally, utterly, and almost painfully wrong — as everyone knows who can remember back just a few years, read a book, perhaps, …or even managed to recall the fate of a couple of people who shared a last name with someone else famous who died on Tuesday.
Specifically: I was born in 1958. Since then, there have been ten presidents who have served before the current incumbent: Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II. Of them, one was killed by a rifle. Another had guns drawn on him twice in two weeks. A third was shot outside a Washington DC hotel by a deranged celebrity hound. Three out of ten.
More: Over the history of the presidency, ten out of the first 43 presidents were subject to attempted or successful assassinations. Political violence is a fact of American history.
Taking note of that risk is not mere mental masturbation, pleasuring ourselves in the contemplation of the demonic nature of the opposition.
It is simple prudence.
Let enough people with guns get close enough to powerful people, and the American experience is that something bad will happen…at a rate approaching (and in recent times exceeding) one time out of four. (And yes — I know about the sample size and so on…)
Let’s add to that.
You may have noticed that the current President doesn’t look like his 43 predecessors. He is, not to put to fine a point on it, black, African American.
McArdle may not wish to dwell on the subject, but there is something of a history of violence imposed on African American leaders in this country. There is as well a hint of a racial overtone (ya think?– ed.) to at least some of the commentary around the Obama administration from the right.
Put that together: Obama is in an office that is historically a target; he is a member of a group that has been preferentially selected for deadly force in the context of political action; and there has been a demonstrable escalation of rhetoric against his policies and his person.
And thus the ironic (and that’s putting it nicely) grotesquery that is McArdle’s last line, a castigation of people like me who are, in her view, merely enjoying our fantasy of potential assassination:
Unfortunately, these sorts of fun pastimes are horribly corrosive to civic society.
Well, so they are, in the form committed by the disastrous McArdle.[Last thought: I see via TBogg that McArdle has committed a second atrocity to compound the one fisked above — but I’m too tired, and so must you too be if you’ve read this far, to bother with more of the same. I guess this is yet one more example of the monkey poop approach to political argument. Keep flinging the shit long enough, and some of it’s bound to hit something. But still, McArdle’s not worth the attention her relentless awfulness earns her…a fallacy I’ll leave to you to name.]
*with thanks to the late great Molly Ivins — who would have devoured McArdle for lunch (w. barbecue sauce) and used her metacarpals for toothpicks.
**and thanks to Herb Caen, whose column over the years provided a constant lesson on the joys of the English language and the extraordinary peculiarities of which the human species is capable.
***though I suppose the bulk of her readership may be, like me, those drawn to intellectual trainwrecks, who cannot turn our horrified eyes away…
♦by virtues she means here, apparently, effectiveness, which is a virtue only in certain, deeply unlovely philosophies. Which is, I guess, what one would expect from this source.
♥Just to forestall the predictable flames: I do know that the Phoenix assault rifle bozo was in fact kept well out of sight and range of the President. The point is not that he could have shot Barack Obama. It is that the weapons being used as symbols of speech and liberty by McArdle and others are in fact tools that in properly trained hands can impose deadly violence from a great distance.
♣Just to play w. wingnut stereotypes, I, a child during the ’60s (not, note, a child of the 60s), raised in Berkeley, have — as do many of my peers — plenty of exposure to firearms. My family were literally gunners — grandfather a colonel in the Royal Horse Artillery and my uncle a major in the Royal Artillery, and I in my California youth spent a fair amount of time in real ranch country, where guns were in fact tools.
I got taught proper gun safety, and handled first the usual kids’ guns, single shot bolt-action .22s, and then more powerful ones, both hand and long guns.
Berkeley itself was hardly ever the pure hippie-dippie pacifist sheep zone of popular right wing fantasy. Just to admit my own idiot youth: among my least proud memories of my childhood in Berkeley itself was with another faculty-brat lefty friend, peering out of a window across the street from a Buddhist meditation center, plinking soda cans off their wall with my air rifle. I don’t know if adolescent boys are always assholes, but I sure had my moments.
And lest any folks on the far side of the political spectrum with more rage than sense think cracking loud in Berkeley might be a good idea, I’d just think back on a number of friends I had — left to the core refugees from special forces. Don’t ever make the mistake that because someone is quiet and maybe has a mellow hair style they are unarmed and safe to mess with.