Thoughts on Alfie Evans

Anger is toxic, and it has no place in ordinary political disputes. I’m very reluctant to add to it.

And yet, it is less with anger and more with a sense of bone-deep bewilderment that I–reluctantly–read a few articles about Alfie Evans.

Aflie is a baby with a severe neurological affliction that–according to doctors–has left him in a vegetative state with no conceivable chance of recovery. This is tragic, and no one is to blame for Alfie’s condition.

The UK courts have decided that no further care should be given to Alfie because there’s no hope of his recovery. This is tragic, but also defensible. It’s not possible to expend unlimited resources on every tragic case, and hard calls have to be made.

But where things stop making sense to me is where the UK government has refused to allow Alfie to be transported to Italy for additional care. Alfie has been granted Italian citizenship, the Italian military sent a plane to UK to fly him to a hospital in Italy, and all of this was done–one guesses–largely in response to the Pope’s public support for Alfie.

The UK government’s response is, essentially, that Alfie’s parents don’t know what they’re doing. The doctors know better. That may be true. Even the Italian hospital admits it can do no more than keep Alfie alive while doctors study his case. No one things there is a miracle cure.

But here’s the thing: why does the UK government, or any group of doctors, get to decide?

It gets more baffling still. Now Alfie’s parents, haven given up on the Italian option, just want to take him home. But even that they cannot do unless the doctors say so. In what universe is that a morally defensible position to take? Quoting an anonymous British father:

When my son was born nearly 16 months ago, I found to my amazement that I could not take him home until a paediatrician had signed a small slip of paper, to be handed in at the exit, authorising his release. I joked to my wife that we were only parenting under licence from the State. It seems less of a joke now.

The last straw–and the cause of the anger I can’t deny I feel about this–is the insufferable arrogance of the UK politicians and medical experts. For example:

Lord Justice McFarlane said parents, like those of Alfie Evans, could be vulnerable to receiving bad medical advice, adding that there was evidence that the parents made decisions based on incorrect guidance.

and:

Hospital officials at Alder Hey say they have received “unprecedented personal abuse” from the global backlash to Alfie’s case. The Liverpool hospital has faced several protests in recent weeks, organized by a group calling itself “Alfie’s Army.”

“Having to carry on our usual day-to-day work in a hospital that has required a significant police presence just to keep our patients, staff and visitors safe is completely unacceptable,” the hospital’s chairman, Sir David Henshaw, and chief executive Louise Shepherd said.

Oh, is it “completely unacceptable” for people to protest what is essentially government-sanctioned kidnapping? I’m so sorry! I come from this crazy moral universe where parents–and not the government–are the guardians of their own children.

Or here’s another one:

Sometimes, the sad fact is that parents do not know what is best for their child,” Wilkinson said. “They are led by their grief and their sadness, their understandable desire to hold on to their child, to request treatment that will not and cannot help.

The UK was, in many ways, the birthplace of our political heritage of individual liberty and rights. It’s mystifying–and tragic–to see the sorry state of decay it has fallen into today.

So tell me, folks, am I missing some really vital aspects to this story that make it something other than a micro-dystopia?

Why do gun rights advocates fight common sense reform?

Each time our country focuses on the gun debate, a lot of proponents of gun control accuse gun rights advocates of not caring whether people die. It’s my impression that gun control proponents believe gun rights advocates disagree with gun control legislation because we are selfishinsane, and possibly sociopathic. If we cared about saving innocent lives, especially those of school children, why would we fight against common sense gun reform? I’d like to offer a few thoughts on how about half of America could disagree with certain gun control proposals for reasons other than mental or moral defect.

1) Gun rights advocates think of each gun policy in terms of a cost benefit analysis. Is there evidence that Policy X will decrease the frequency or lethality of mass shootings or of gun crime in general? How will the policy affect citizens’ abilities to defend themselves? Is it Constitutional?

It’s my impression that many gun control advocates don’t view policy proposals the same way. I’ve seen a lot to suggest gun control advocates believe (a) few or no people really use their guns in self defense and (b) either the Constitution has been interpreted incorrectly by SCOTUS or, even if the Founders did intend personal gun ownership, their views were borne of circumstances that no longer apply today. And I expect that if I too thought the factors of self-defense and Constitutionality were greatly exaggerated or even made up, I would view certain gun policies very differently. If you don’t believe the policy will cost anything substantial, you don’t really need to do a cost benefit analysis (and therefore you will have a very different idea of which reforms are “common sense”). I think, generally, that’s how most gun control advocates see this, but I’m open to correction there.

2) There seems to be an asymmetry of knowledge about guns between the gun control and gun rights sides, and it influences whether each side thinks a given policy will be effective or have undesirable side effects.

I get how gun rights advocates come off as pedantic when correcting terminology, and it’s easy for me to believe that there are people who really are just trying to feel superior or make the other side feel foolish. But I think the terminology and concepts are a lot more than semantics: they are directly relevant to the effects a given policy will have.

The gun control side may feel we’re making a big deal about small details, but it’s hard to discuss gun control proposals if neither our side nor your side is sure what exactly you’re talking about.

And from the gun rights side, it appears that the people most passionate and insistent on certain policies have little understanding of what those policies would mean. I’m really not trying to be rude and I’m sorry if it comes off that way. But the same side posting memes like this…

…just proposed legislation that would ban tens of millions of civilian-owned guns.

The bill prohibits the “sale, transfer, production, and importation” of semi-automatic rifles and pistols that can hold a detachable magazine, as well as semi-automatic rifles with a magazine that can hold more than 10 rounds. Additionally, the legislation bans the sale, transfer, production, and importation of semi-automatic shotguns with features such as a pistol grip or detachable stock, and ammunition feeding devices that can hold more than 10 rounds.

For reference, many of the most recommended pistols bought for home defense and as concealed carry firearms are semi-automatic and can hold more than 10 rounds; it’s also standard for pistols to have detachable magazines.

HR 5087 would ban the Glock G17 as an “assault weapon.”

I think for the most part the people who support that legislation don’t even realize that’s what the legislation would do. They believe it would ban only the so-called assault weapons that they further believe are used in most mass shootings. Neither of those beliefs are true.

3) I recognize some gun rights advocates have a knee jerk reaction against any limitation on guns; I think this reaction is primarily due to believing both that the legislation will make no positive difference and that it will be a slippery slope. The general impression from the gun rights side is that the gun control side neither understands guns nor cares how legislation would affect general gun ownership because they don’t believe people should have guns in any case. It’s not so much “We want to take your guns” as “we don’t know or care if the proposals we’re pushing will result in taking your guns.”

4) That said, there are proposals that even most gun owners would be fine with. Proposals focusing on who can have guns rather than which guns they can have seem to get pretty broad support. For example, Pew Research has found that most gun owners and non-gun owners alike support proposals focused on background checks, mental health issues, and no-fly lists.

Note the measures gun owners support the most all focus on who can access guns rather than which guns citizens can access.

More recently there seems to be momentum behind “red flag” measures which would allow authorities to temporarily take guns from people deemed dangerous. Such bills are primarily sponsored by Democrats but are seeing some Republican support too. I think the gun rights side generally believes that proposals that focus on the people rather than the guns are more likely to be both effective and Constitutional.

So why do gun rights advocates fight common sense gun reform? To summarize:

  1. We don’t believe many of these policies would accomplish what proponents claim.
  2. We’re worried about inhibiting citizen self-defense.
  3. We’re concerned about the Constitutionality of some of these policies.
  4. We suspect the people pushing for these reforms don’t understand or care about the full effects of these policies.

None of this means we don’t care if innocent people are hurt. That’s why we do support some gun reforms: specifically the policies we believe will best ensure the safety of ourselves and others while respecting Constitutional rights.

Link collection: America’s Gun Debate

In the last week or two I’ve read (or at least skimmed) a lot of interesting pieces on guns, gun crime, gun control, etc. Below are most of the links, listed in order of their publication date. I don’t necessarily agree with or endorse everything in each link (obviously, since some of them are directly contradicting each other), but they gave me a lot to think about, so I’m including them here if anyone else wants to read more.

2013:
Analysis of Recent Mass Shootings – National Criminal Justice Reference Service, 2013; Study found that up to 77% of mass shootings did not involve an assault weapon or even a high capacity weapon.
Reducing Gun Violence in America – Center for Gun Policy and Research, 2013; This link is to an entire book. I read the forward, in which the authors make the following suggestions:

  1. Require background checks for all gun sales, including private sales at gun shows and online,
  2. Make gun trafficking a federal crime,
  3. Limit the availability of military-style weapons and of high-capacity magazines with more than 10 rounds,
  4. Have all federal agencies to submit their relevant data to the national gun background check database,
  5. Have the Justice Department to make a priority of prosecuting convicted criminals who provide false personal information during gun purchase background checks,
  6. Make a recess appointment to get someone to head the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and
  7. Stop supporting the Tiahrt order, which keeps the public in the dark about who gun traffickers are and how they operate.

Guns and School Safety Survey Results – School Improvement Network, January 23, 2013; a little over 1 in 8 educators (13.5%) both own a firearm and would bring it to school if they were allowed to.
Guns In Schools: Firearms Already Allowed In 18 States With Few Restrictions – Huffington Post, March 17, 2013
Police Gun Control Survey: Are legally-armed citizens the best solution to gun violence? – PoliceOne.com, April 8, 2013;

  • 91% of LEOs didn’t believe an assault weapons ban would help,
  • 91% supported conceal and carry permits for civilians,
  • 86% believed casualties would be reduced at recent mass shootings if armed civilians had been present, and
  • 81% were in favor of arming teachers and school administrators who had been properly trained.

Colorado’s school shooting — over in 80 seconds – CNN, December 15, 2013; An armed Student Resources Officer responded immediately to a school shooter.

2015:
Comparing Death Rates from Mass Public Shootings and Mass Public Violence in the US and Europe – Crime Prevention Research Center, June 23, 2015
Here’s where you’re most likely to own a gun – Business Insider, July 3, 2015; Alaska has the highest percentage of gun ownership; Delaware has the lowest.

2016:
13 Charts Put America’s Gun Violence in Perspective – Independent Journal Review, January 8, 2016
Across the country, school districts are quietly arming teachers for the next shooting – The Washington Post, April 14, 2016
The Media Keeps Misfiring When It Writes About Guns – Slate, June 26, 2016
Texas school warns: Our teachers ‘may be armed and will use whatever force is necessary’ to protect students – The Washington Post, September 22, 2016
Firearms on College Campuses: Research Evidence and Policy Implications – Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, October 15, 2016; Table 1 summarizes State Campus Carry laws
What Conservatives Get Right About Guns – GQ, October 28, 2016

2017:
America’s Complex Relationship With Guns – Pew Research Center, June 22, 2017
Illinois school where teacher took down gunman recently trained for active shooters – CBS, September 22, 2017; An unarmed teacher stopped a gunman.
How to Reduce Mass Shooting Deaths? Experts Rank Gun Laws – New York Times, October 5, 2017; Experts ranked assault weapons bans as slightly more effective than a ban on all semiautomatic guns.
6 Reasons Your Right-Wing Friend Isn’t Coming To Your Side On Gun Control – The Federalist, October 6, 2017
Supporters of stricter gun laws are less likely to contact elected officials – Pew Research Center, October 12, 2017

2018:
Background Checks Are Not the Answer to Gun Violence – New York Times, February 12, 2018
US Mass Shootings, 1982-2018: Data From Mother Jones’ Investigation – Mother Jones, February 14, 2018
Why The AR-15 Is America’s Rifle – NPR, February 15, 2018
“Fuck you, I like guns.” – AgingMillennialEngineer.com, February 15, 2018
An ‘Assault Weapon’ Ban Won’t Stop Mass Shootings – Reason, February 15, 2018
How white nationalists fooled the media about Florida shooter – Politico, February 16, 2018
Disarming ‘Individuals With Mental Illness’ Would Affect a Quarter of the Population – Reason, February 16, 2018
Texas Teachers Can Pack Heat; Florida Lawmakers Pushing For Options – WFMY News, February 17, 2018
Gun Rights Expand Even as Mass Shootings Spur Calls for Stricter Laws – Wall Street Journal, February 18, 2018
A Cure for Mass Shootings Doesn’t Exist – Reason, February 18, 2018; The author explains why he doesn’t believe an assault weapons ban, background checks for private sales, and broadening the exclusion for mental health problems would curtail mass shootings.
Real Solutions for Curtailing Gun Violence – The Wall Street Journal, February 20, 2018; The author suggests dramatically increasing penalties for stealing a firearm, enforcing laws against straw purchases of handguns, and finding practical, legal ways of stoppping people with mentall illness from purchasing firearms.
Mass Shooting Survivors Come Out Against Gun Control Too – The Jack News, February 22, 2018
In 2017, Americans narrowly opposed allowing teachers and school officials to carry guns – Pew Research Center, February 23, 2018
Poll: Support for stricter gun laws rises; divisions on arming teachers – CBS, February 23, 2018
The case against arming teachers – Vox, February 23, 2018
Sources: Coral Springs police upset at some Broward deputies for not entering school – CNN, February 24, 2018
What Critics Don’t Understand About Gun Culture – The Atlantic, February 27, 2018

Click on the image to go to the Pew Research Center’s report.

How difficult would it be to arm teachers?

Recently a friend of mine shared this post in which Jim Wright asks a few “basic questions” about how we would arm teachers. Wright suggests it would be essentially impossible to properly train teachers to respond to school shootings, saying even our soldiers aren’t trained to handle such a situation. He asks who will pay for the training, who the teachers will answer to, which weapons will be allowed, what insurance the school will acquire, and whether a teacher will be held liable for mistakenly shooting an innocent bystander or for failing to stop an active shooter. He claims “the hole is bottomless,” concluding:

I’m asking BASIC questions about this idea of arming up teachers and putting amateurs with guns in schools. Questions that any competent gun operator should ask. You want to put more guns, carried by amateurs, into a building packed full of children. I don’t think I’m being unreasonable here.

Wright is reflecting the skepticism and indignance of many people. In particular some of my friends who are teachers have made posts clearly stating they do not want to carry weapons to school and are dismayed by the thought. More than one of them have shared this video in response.

Click the image to see the public video on Facebook.

Several go beyond saying they personally don’t want to carry weapons to asserting no one else should have firearms on school property either, often making demands along the lines “Don’t bring more guns into my school.”

Two quick notes on that last part:

  1. Assuming any increase in quantity of guns means an increase in danger seems simplistic to me. More guns can increase or decrease danger depending on who is carrying them and why. A gun in the hands of a kid hoping to kill as many people as possible is not equivalent to a gun in the hands of a trained Student Resources Officer or conceal carry permit holder hoping to keep as many people alive as possible.
  2. In this context, the phrase “my school” is off-putting. Schools don’t belong only to the teachers working in them; they also belong to the children attending and the parents of those children, especially when we are discussing the best ways to protect our children. I understand there are many parents who do not want armed school staff. And there are many parents who do, like me. My point here is not that the answer is simple, obvious, or unified; my point is teachers don’t have the only say in this debate.

Anyway, the objections to arming teachers seem to make several assumptions:

    1. We don’t have the resources to arm teachers.
    2. The logistics of arming teachers are too difficult to disentangle.
    3. Teachers don’t want to be armed.
    4. Armed teachers would make schools less safe, not more safe.

In terms of the law, as of May 2016, there were 17 states that banned conceal carry guns on college campuses; 1 state (Tennessee) banned students and the public from carryng guns on campus but allowed faculty members to do so; 8 states allowed conceal carry guns; and the remaining 24 states left the decision to the school. Of course this information is for only college campuses, not K-12 schools.

Given the option, many school districts already allow their teachers to be armed. This fact alone puts the first three assumptions to rest. Apparently resources, logistics, and desire were not dealbreakers in arranging to have armed school employees on campus. Here is an excerpt from a 2016 Washington Post article:

The Kingsburg Joint Union High School District in Kingsburg, Ca., is the latest district to pass such a measure. At a school board meeting on Monday, the Fresno Bee reported, members unanimously approved a policy that allows district employees to carry a concealed firearm within school bounds.

The employees will be selected by the superintendent, and will have to complete a training and evaluation process. The new policy was made effective immediately.

While proposals to arm teachers have been familiar refrains in Texas and Indiana, the passing of such a mandate on the West Coast signals that the strategy is being considered elsewhere in the country.

In fact, the Folsom Cordova Unified School District covering the cities of Folsom, Rancho Cordova and Mather, Calif., has allowed employees to bring guns to school since 2010, but only revealed the policy to parents last month.

Some people against the idea of arming teachers say it will create an intimidating environment for kids, but note Folsom Cordova’s school district allowed it for 5-6 years before anyone even knew about it. Arming teachers had so little impact on the daily school environment people couldn’t even tell it had happened.

In the wake of the most recent shooting, more school boards are following suit, voting unanimously to allow trained employees to carry concealed weapons.

People opposed to arming teachers seem to envision a bureaucratic and expensive process that results in an intimidating environment where teachers nervously walk the hallways with rifles over their shoulders. The reality is that arming teachers has so far consisted of allowing those who want to be armed to first get training and then either carry concealed weapons or keep weapons locked in safes. From what I can tell, the individuals who want to be armed cover the costs of the training, permit, and firearm themselves. Again, the school’s resources, logistics, and the teacher’s desire don’t seem to be issues.

To my mind, the only real issue is the question of whether allowing teachers to carry concealed weapons will overall increase or decrease student and staff safety. Despite how horrifying school shootings are, they are also exceedingly rare. And while I have no specific data on this, I suspect that even if firearms were permitted on all schools across the country, relatively few teachers and other school staff would choose to carry them. The odds seem very low of a school shooting happening in such a way that an armed staff member would even be present to react. Meanwhile, having legal guns on campus opens the door to accidental injuries. Some of my friends against armed school staff have posted stories about teachers forgetting their firearm or having it stolen while on school property. There’s a cost-benefit question here: if arming teachers increases the chances of accidentally injuring or even killing students but also increases the chances of saving lives during school shootings, how do we quantify those two factors and weigh them against each other?

I know of no hard data here. We do know that in our country, in general, guns are used more often in accidental deaths than in justifiable homicide. However we aren’t just considering accidental deaths but also accidental injuries, and we aren’t just considering justifiable homicide but also self-defense that involves injuring but not killing the shooter or even not firing the gun at all but brandishing it and getting the shooter to stand down. Additionally the overall statistics for the whole country include people who have received no training in the safe use and storage of firearms, whereas conceal and carry permits typically require training, and individual school districts could require further training as needed. Apparently there are quite a few school districts that have allowed armed staff for years, and I have not been able to find any stories of accidental deaths or even injuries from a teacher’s gun on school property.

Meanwhile, it is intuitive to me that if a teacher were to find herself in the position where there is a mass shooter attacking her or her students, both she and her students would have a greater chance of survival if she had a gun than if she did not. When Sandy Hook happened, I cried as I read in absolute horror about Lauren Rousseau and her first graders, completely trapped and defenseless. Even at the time I wondered if it would have been different if she had had a gun.

A note here: I don’t want the world we live in, the society we live in, to require first grade teachers to need guns. I don’t want there to be any guns on any school property at all. I don’t want children to have to do active shooter drills, or teachers to have to be trained to recognize gun shots, or parents to drop their kids off and worry if they will be safe each day. It’s awful. It’s infuriating and heartbreaking, and sometimes I can hardly stand to think about it.

But I also don’t think we have a way to 100% ensure that deranged or evil people will not be able to show up and try to kill as many unarmed teachers and children as possible. In fact, given our country’s unique relationship with guns, and our relatively unique 2nd amendment, I think preventing such shootings is ridiculously difficult. I still think we should try, but I don’t think our efforts to stem the death toll should be limited only to preventing shooters from showing up in the first place. I think we should also have efforts to address what innocent people can do if a shooter does show up.

As I write this post, a news story is breaking suggesting that not only did the School Resources Officer fail to engage Nicholas Cruz, but so did three additional deputies present during the shooting. All four officers remained outside the school while Cruz shot unarmed teachers and students. Some opponents to arming teachers point out that if even trained officers struggle to engage a mass shooter, how can we expect teachers to be able to handle it? But this question presumes that teachers get any choice; the reality is that if the shooter is already in the school and breaking into the classroom, the teacher will have to face the shooter anyway. And I can’t help but wonder: if police won’t engage the shooter, how can we disarm teachers and tell them to wait for the police?

 

TSA link collection

Just a reminder as you travel this holiday season: the TSA is a total waste of money.

The following lists are nowhere close to comprehensive. They are just the links I happened to save over time. The first two groups (Fools, Criminals) are only anecdotes and are a small sample over the course of many years. However, the third group (Incompetent) involves larger sample sets and speaks to the central question: Does the TSA keep us safe?

Fools:
TSA fires screener caught sleeping in Seattle – CNN, January 6, 2003
Florida teen detained because her purse had an image of a gun – Yahoo News, December 2, 2011
TSA subjects wheelchair-bound three-year-old to humiliating search – The Daily Mail, March 19, 2012
TSA Apologizes To Family After Clip of 3-Year-Old Girl in Wheelchair Goes Viral – Huffington Post, February 21, 2013 (Note this is a separate instance than the previous story.)
TSA Humiliated Double Amputee Marine – KTLA, March 22, 2013
TSA Agents Detained Nine-Year Old Boy Because He Had A Pacemaker – Reason, August 23, 2016
A panty liner triggers a TSA pat-down – Washington Post, March 30, 2017

Criminals:
3 ex-TSA workers plead guilty to theft – Seattle Pi, September 23, 2005
TSA Screener Arrested [after taking money from a passenger’s wallet] – TMJ4, October 14, 2006
Ex-TSA agent sentenced for role in pot smuggling scheme at LAX – Daily Breeze, March 25, 2013
6 Shockingly Childish Abuses of Power by Airport Employees – Cracked, April 22, 2014
Suit: Man held 20 hours after asking to file TSA complaint – San Diego Tribune, February 4, 2015
Video Shows Airport Security Tackling Cancer Patient With Disability – Huffington Post, August 12, 2016
A TSA agent who may have lied about a bomb threat can’t be sued – Los Angeles Times op-ed, August 26, 2017 (Passenger threatens to file a complaint against TSA agent, so TSA agent falsely tells police passenger made a bomb threat.)

Incompetent
Airport screeners fail to see most test bombs – Seattle Times, October 28, 2006
The Things He Carried – The Atlantic, November 2008 (Atlantic correspondent carries prohibited items on to multiple flights while investigating what the TSA can actually detect.)
TSA’s Program to Spot Terrorists a $200M Sham? – CBS, May 19, 2010 “The program is failing to catch terrorists. It’s never even caught one.”
Does the TSA Ever Catch Terrorists? – Slate, November 18, 2010
TSA Source: Armed Agent Slips Past DFW Body Scanner – NBC, February 21, 2011
The case for abolishing the TSA – Vox, May 26, 2014
Acting TSA director reassigned after screeners failed tests to detect explosives, weapons – CNN, June 2, 2015 (Note in both 2006 and 2015 the TSA failed to detect the relevant items over 90% of the time.)
Please, TSA Workers, Don’t Come Back – Reason, January 9, 2019

And just for fun:

See also the related DR post: TSA: A Cost-Benefit Analysis

White women and Trump.

nymag-women-for-trump2
Photo from “9 Women on Why They’re (Still) Voting for Trump,” New York Magazine

53% of white women voted for Trump.

In the circles I run in, there was tons of coverage and discussion about the myriad comments Trump has made over the years that many of us consider blatantly sexist. When the Hollywood Access tape came out, I took (and still take) his comments as an admission of sexual predation, a topic that means a great deal to me. I was already a #NeverTrump conservative, but the Hollywood Access tapes made it much more difficult for me to understand how people of good conscience, especially women, could vote for this man.

My feed started to include articles such as The Atlantic’s “The Revolt of the Conservative Woman” and viral tweets from conservative women feeling betrayed by their party’s defense of Trump. Between his apparent gross disrespect of women and the opportunity to elect the first female president, I thought women would vote in droves for Clinton and against Trump. Article’s like FiveThirtyEight’s “Women are Defeating Donald Trump” seemed to think so too.

But clearly I was missing some major parts of the puzzle. (Apparently a lot of us were, including the pollsters.) As Walker pointed out recently, Trump’s support among (all, not just white) women was only slightly lower than the average for Republican presidential candidates since 2000 (42% compared to an average of 44.2%). Clinton’s support among women was exactly average for the Democratic presidential candidates since 2000 (54%). Women weren’t driven to the polls to vote against Trump or for Clinton—overall turnout among women was only 1% higher than in 2012.

So what happened? What pieces of the puzzle was I missing, that women were neither particularly repelled by Trump nor particularly inspired by Clinton?

 

Maybe it was bigotry.

Predictably, some of my leftist friends think the missing puzzle pieces are racism and (internalized) sexism. I’ve seen repostings of LV Anderson’s piece at Slate (“White Women Sold Out the Sisterhood and the World by Voting for Trump”), which is filled with explanations like this:

What leads a woman to vote for a man who has made it very clear that he believes she is subhuman? Self-loathing. Hypocrisy. And, of course, a racist view of the world that privileges white supremacy over every other issue.

Sarah Ruiz-Grossman at Huffington Post authored a letter to white women that started with “Fellow white women, I’m done with you.” In sync with a lot of the commentary I’ve read, it showed no curiosity as to the perspectives, hopes, fears, or values of millions of women that led them to vote for Trump (or at least not vote for Clinton). Instead, and again, it simply told them what they didn’t care about, what their moral failings were, and what they must do now.

While I appreciate the frustration, I think this approach is an awful strategy. Lambasting people, especially conservatives, for bigotry has not been terribly effective at changing their minds (or votes). Berating the other side seems to mostly get them to tune out entirely when the inevitable accusations of prejudice begin. And the rampant shaming of Trump supporters clearly did nothing to dissuade them throughout the primaries (when shaming was coming from conservatives and liberals alike) or the rest of the election. Why would it work now, when they’ve won? They have less reason than ever to be concerned about the opinions of people who show no understanding of their perspectives or interest in their wellbeing.

But it’s not just that I think accusing people of bigotry is poor strategy; I think it’s poor reasoning too. In this post I go through three theories of how voting for Trump was bigoted and explain whether I think those theories make sense.

 

Theory 1 – Internalized sexists: women voted for Trump instead of Clinton because they are sexist against female candidates.

How Trump measured against Clinton is a major factor. The pantsuit nation adored Clinton, of course, so for them this was no contest at all. But we aren’t looking into what HRC’s biggest fans thought; we’re exploring the millions of women who disagreed.

It’s not that everyone who voted for Trump thought he was wonderful: exit polls show that 20% of people who voted for Trump had an overall unfavorable opinion of him. Nearly a quarter of Trump voters said he wasn’t qualified for or did not have the temperament to be president, and a full 17% of people who voted for Trump to be President said they would be “concerned” if he were elected!

But 28% of Trump voters said they chose him mainly because they disliked Clinton. Trump received about 60M votes, which would mean about 17M cast their votes primarily as a vote against Clinton. Along the same lines, while voter turnout for Trump was slightly lower than it had been for Romney, voter turnout for Clinton was much lower than it had been for Obama.

Some will argue that these numbers show sexism: people so rejected the idea of a female leader they either stayed home or voted for someone they despised just to stop Clinton. Actually women get accused of sexism no matter which way they vote: Women who backed Clinton are accused of bias, just “voting with their vaginas,” and the rest of us are accused of not voting for her because we’re misogynists. It’s a lose-lose.

But these theories ignore the fact that women don’t generally vote based on gender, and gender stereotypes end up being less relevant than party affiliation in voting decisions. In other words, we vote based on political positions. The reality is that most of the women voting for or against Clinton did so based on a variety of competing concerns and priorities, just as most men choose their candidates.

nymag-vondran

CNN reported that millennial women in particular “rejected the notion that gender should be a factor in their vote.” As FiveThirtyEight put it:

Clinton’s stunning loss Tuesday night showed that issues of culture and class mattered more to many American women than their gender. The sisterhood, as real sisterhood tends to be, turned out to be riddled with complications.

On average, for the last 5 presidential elections, 89% of Democrats chose the Democratic nominee and 91.4% of Republicans chose the Republican. Last week 89% of Democrats chose Clinton and 90% of Republicans chose Trump. If internalized sexism were a major factor in terms of female nominees, we’d expect 2016 to show a drop in Democrats voting for the Democrat (as internally sexist Democratic women abandoned Clinton) and perhaps even a jump in Republicans voting for the Republican (as internally sexist Republican women were motivated to stop Clinton). But there was no such change.

Similarly, if internalized sexism was a major factor we’d expect Clinton to get a lower proportion of women’s votes compared to previous Democratic nominees. Yet, as mentioned above, she got exactly the average proportion of women Democratic nominees have had in the last five presidential races. Or, if we’re operating under the idea that only conservatives can be bigots, we’d at least expect a higher proportion of women to vote for Trump in order to stop Clinton. Yet Trump got just slightly less than the average proportion of women Republican nominees have had for the last five races.

If anything, these stats suggest women weren’t influenced by gender at all.

 

Theory 2 – Indifference to sexism: women cared more about party lines than taking a stand against Trump’s misogyny.

There are several assumptions embedded in this line of thinking: (A) The women who voted for Trump accessed the same information we did about him. (B) When they assessed that information, they came to the same conclusions we did about the degree of Trump’s misogyny. (C) There was nothing else in the balance for them in this election that could have meant more to them than Trump’s misogyny.

2a. Trump voters were likely accessing different information.
Hopefully it’s not a secret that conservatives and liberals consume different media. I wish I had time to do an entire blog post on how drastically this impacts our views of each other and of our political landscape. But the main point is we should be very careful when assuming that everyone else—especially people that run in different social circles and already hold different perspectives—“knows” the same “truths” we know. Which stories get reported and how they’re described varies a lot, and sadly, at least in my experience, most people don’t look for sources from worldviews they don’t hold. Or, if they do, it’s not in an attempt to observe and understand, but to feel outraged and argue.

So when John Oliver does a witty, biting piece on “making Donald Drumpf again” and you see it reposted over and over, that doesn’t mean everyone saw it. The people who already hated Trump were a lot more likely to see it than anyone else. Late night comedy is, after all, a bastion of liberal derision.

Pictured: Echo Chamber with John Oliver
Pictured: Echo Chamber with John Oliver

2b. Trump voters were likely interpreting information in different ways.
That’s not to suggest Trump supporters were wholly unaware of criticisms against him. I think it’s unlikely, for example, that many Trump supporters didn’t at least hear about the Hollywood Access recording. But the context in which conservatives in general, and enthusiastic Trump supporters specifically, interpreted that was often quite different than how leftists saw it.

Many people (including me) were disgusted and horrified by Trump laughingly talking about getting away with kissing and groping women without their consent. But many others mostly heard politically-motivated faux outrage. The same people so focused on Trump’s comments and the sexual assault allegations against him remained dismissive or defensive about the long history of sexual misconduct and assault allegations against Bill Clinton—and Hillary Clinton’s role in silencing Bill’s accusers. Clinton fans retorted that Hillary isn’t responsible for Bill’s behavior, but that misses the point. She’s responsible for her behavior: she referred to these women as “floozy,” “bimbo,” and “stalker,” and put great effort into “destroying” their stories.

Yeah, okay.
Yeah, okay.

Good luck telling conservatives they must take a principled stand against sexual assault while refusing to acknowledge that the Clintons basically embodied rape culture.

nymag-eberly

Of course the Hollywood Access tapes are only one example of Trump’s sexism, but the pattern remains the same. Whatever example you point to, if outraged accusations of bigotry are coming from leftists or the media, conservatives are extremely skeptical. In fact, getting back to point 2a, conservative circles are more likely to have articles about people who made up stories of hate crimes – stories which, before being shown to be false, often caused viral online outrage (as well as extensive donations to the alleged victim).

I find this problem very frustrating. I do believe the left is too quick to claim bigotry, but I believe the right is therefore too quick to dismiss actual bigotry. Robby Soave of Reason.com summarized this view well:

[It’s] the boy-who-cried-wolf situation. I was happy to see a few liberals, like Bill Maher, owning up to it. Maher admitted during a recent show that he was wrong to treat George Bush, Mitt Romney, and John McCain like they were apocalyptic threats to the nation: it robbed him of the ability to treat Trump more seriously. The left said McCain was a racist supported by racists, it said Romney was a racist supported by racists, but when an actually racist Republican came along—and racists cheered him—it had lost its ability to credibly make that accusation.

Kirsten Powers explained the same idea in terms of misogyny:

After all, these same voters have watched as every Republican candidate in recent memory has been accused of waging a “War on Women.” If Democrats are going to claim that Mitt Romney and John McCain hate women (and they did), then they shouldn’t be surprised when voters ignore them when they say Donald Trump hates women. If every Republican is a misogynist, then no Republican is.

I don’t believe the right’s resistance to recognizing bigotry is all the left’s fault. I think that’s a factor, but ultimately we’re all responsible for assessing each situation and trying to be fair-minded about it.

Even so, I think many conservatives viewed the outrage over Trump as nothing more than yet another chapter in a long history of selective and manufactured leftist outrage, and so they discounted it. So even if they had watched John Oliver, they probably would have just rolled their eyes at another leftist show mocking conservatives again.

2c. Trump voters were weighing a lot of additional concerns apart from bigotry.
But there were a lot of conservatives who heard about the problems with Trump and were seriously concerned. Many of them became the #NeverTrump crowd, but others still voted for Trump. Why? Because they weren’t balancing the problems of racism and sexism against nothing. They were taking those issues and factoring them in with a lot of other issues, weighing each one, and coming to a decision. Even women who voted against Trump had other concerns they considered more important than sexism.

Many reject as ridiculous this concept of weighing multiple factors, saying it’s a weak excuse to try to cover up bigotry. They assert nothing could outweigh the civil rights threats Trump represents, and therefore the people who came down on Trump’s side, by definition, just didn’t care enough about civil rights.

11-10-16-i-dont-care-about-you
Keep lecturing people about what they don’t care about while showing no understanding of what they do care about. That’s been so effective so far.

Interestingly, I saw the same reductive thinking from conservatives trying to berate #NeverTrump people into voting for him. If you didn’t vote for Trump—if you voted for Clinton, or even if you voted third party—you must not care about massive government abuse and corruption, our country’s impending economic collapse under an overregulated welfare state, and, possibly above all, the killing of tens of thousands of babies.

Does that last part sound hyperbolic to you? Because, for a huge portion of the pro-life movement, that was the assertion. Many pro-lifers view abortion as morally equivalent to any other unlawful human death. If you want to imagine the abortion debate from a pro-life perspective, just replace the concept of “fetus” with “toddler,” and listen to how the arguments sound. So when Hillary Clinton campaigned on a platform of no restrictions through all three trimesters and requiring Medicaid to cover abortions, that was an absolute deal breaker for many people. Abortion happens in this country roughly 1 million times a year. Imagine for a moment you were choosing between (1) a candidate who stirs racial animosity and blatantly disrespects women and (2) a candidate who unapologetically embraces policies making it legal to murder a million toddlers a year. Who would you pick?

If your first response is to explain why that second description is false, you’re missing the point. Yes, I understand that for many, abortion is nothing at all like killing a toddler and even the comparison is offensive. I’m not trying to convince anyone here how to feel about abortion. I’m trying to convince people that you can’t sincerely talk about what motivates others if you refuse to acknowledge their actual perspectives. People who voted for Trump could (a) recognize Trump’s racism and sexism, (b) care greatly about those issues, and (c) still believe the threats Clinton represented were more dire. The only way you can genuinely believe that every single vote for Trump represented at minimum a callous disregard for civil rights is if you ignore or dismiss the circumstances and value systems of millions of people.

nymag-nicholson

Passion about abortion likely affected many of women who voted for Trump. LV Anderson was aghast that more than half of white women would vote for a man who said he’d appoint Supreme Court justices to overturn Roe v. Wade. It is amazing to me that so many people are still taken off guard when women are antiabortion. Half of American women are against abortion, and that has been true since long before Trump entered the primaries. Yet each time thousands or millions of women don’t go for the pro-choice position, pro-choice people are just so surprised. This is another example of the same pattern: be totally unaware of what people have repeatedly said they care about, and then be surprised and angry when they vote for the things they said they cared about all along.

I’ve used abortion as an example of competing values, but it’s only one of many. A recent New York Times article profiled women who voted for Trump. While 22-year-old Nicole Been mentioned her deep opposition to abortion as part of her stance, other women discussed Trump’s approach to veterans, their own dire financial situations, and their disillusionment with Democratic efforts to improve their lives. Another New York Times article profiled college-educated women who voted for Trump; they, too, opposed abortion, but focused more on economic security and job and college prospects for their children.

Article after article about the parts of the nation that went wholeheartedly for Trump (including many counties that had previously voted for Obama twice) describe recurring themes of economic and cultural despair, resentment at being derided by the rest of us, and the way economic and racial anxiety intertwine. (Here’s one or two more.)

Note that racial anxiety is one of the recurring themes. The left seems to want to reduce this narrative to bigotry and nothing more, and I’ve spent a lot of time here explaining why I think that’s inaccurate. But the right seems to want to reflexively deny bigotry had any part to play, and I don’t think that’s true either. At minimum there was certainly a racial component to Trump’s candidacy. Looming large in the support of Trump were concerns about minority groups getting unfair preferential treatment and resources, immigrants taking resources and increasing criminal activity, and terrorists threatening our safety.

 

Theory 3 – Institutionalized sexism and racism – regardless of personal motivation, women who voted for Trump supported a platform that would disproportionately harm minority groups.

A major hurdle with discussions of racism and sexism is the use of the same words to mean very different things. In my right-leaning circles, “racism” generally means an individual’s disdain or animosity towards others based on race. Same thing with “sexism,” but based on sex. In my left-leaning circles, “racism” and “sexism” often mean individual disdain or animosity, but can also mean cultural norms and systemic and institutionalized systems that disproportionately negatively impact minority groups.

So when someone claims that a vote for Trump was racist, they could either mean (a) the person casting the vote has disdain or animosity toward people of other races or (b) the person casting the vote, regardless of his or her motivations, helped to uphold systems that have major negative impacts on women and nonwhite people.

The interesting thing about the “effects not intentions” version of racism is that it can be empirically verified. Motivations can be pretty complicated, multifaceted, and irrational. Effects can be objectively measured. So if “racism” (or sexism or Islamophobia or homophobia) is defined as “policies and practices that hurt these groups,” and if electing Trump ends up hurting these groups, then it follows that electing Trump was racism, by this definition.

3a. It’s reasonable to believe electing Trump will end up hurting these groups.
Trump campaigned on ending sanctuary cities, suspending visas, and deportation. If implemented, those policies would disproportionately affect undocumented immigrants (about half of which are Hispanic or Latino, followed by Asian) as well as American citizens from families with mixed citizenship statuses. Whether you agree with these policies or not, and whether you personally care how these policies affect others or not, it’s hard to deny that they will negatively impact immigrants and their family members who are American citizens.

Trump has talked about requiring immigrants from predominantly Muslim countries to register upon entering the U.S.  Alternatively he called for a ban on Muslims immigrating to the country; while he clarified this would not apply to American citizens, it’s hard to believe such policies and related rhetoric about Muslims won’t affect public perception of and reaction to Muslims already living here. The FBI has released data showing a 67% increase in hate crimes against Muslims in 2015. Some are worried this trend is related to Trump’s rise and campaign rhetoric; others say there are other factors–such as 2015 terrorist attacks–that likely played a part. But I think either of those reasons underscores the central point: when the public increasingly perceives a group as dangerous, violence against innocent people in that group becomes more likely.

It seems like Trump’s potential effects on African American communities have been less of a focus, but there are reasons for concern. (This link includes some reasons I think conservatives will dismiss as more faux outrage, but, for what it’s worth, I believe some of these points are pretty valid.)

While Trump didn’t propose specific policies against LGBT folk, the 2016 Republican Party platform did object to legalized gay marriage and take other positions seen as anti-gay. Because Trump was the Republican nominee and can now nominate SCOTUS judges, many believe he will work to adopt those Republican positions. I think it’s unlikely gay marriage will get overturned, but I don’t think it’s a certainty, and I see why many people are worried their marital status could be threatened.

Trump has a history that suggests a pretty disrespectful view of women, not to mention (again) his statements in the Access Hollywood recordings. To the extent women believe support for Trump signals societal dismissal of sexual assault, that belief could have another chilling effect on women reporting assaults and seeking help. I watched this play out on both the national level and with women I know personally after the Access Hollywood firestorm. Women (and men, for that matter) who have experienced sexual assault listened as friends and family who were Trump supporters minimized, dismissed, and, in my opinion, very generously interpreted Trump’s statements. That was difficult. Victims of sexual assault hear those reactions and believe the reactions would be the same if they came forward with their own stories. I can understand why people fear this kind of dismissal of sexual misconduct will only get worse now that Trump will be president.

A vote for Trump lent support to these policy proposals and attitudes, even if the person voting didn’t personally support one or any of the above. In this sense I think Theory 3 is truer than the other theories—I think a Trump administration will very likely make life harder for these groups.

3b. First problem: negative effects count as racism regardless of what they’re being weighed against.
Consider Trump’s campaign regarding Islamic terrorism. I do believe requiring (mostly) Muslim immigrants to register upon entering the country, or refusing to let them enter at all, will negatively affect the public’s views and behavior toward Muslim Americans and Muslim immigrants already here.

But I also recognize that the people who support these measures believe they will significantly increase our national security and safety. Based on my understanding of Theory 3, what Trump voters believe about these measures (and how those beliefs speak to their motivations) is irrelevant, because Theory 3 is all about effects on minority groups, not the intentions of the people pushing these policies. Whether they sincerely believe these measures will save American lives doesn’t change whether or not this approach is defined as racist.

And we’ve only talked about what they believe, not what is objectively true. Apparently NSEERS, the similar Bush-era program that required immigrant registration, was ineffective at preventing terrorism; it sounds like it was just more security theater, but in this case directed at specific groups. But suppose, hypothetically, immigrant registration made a huge difference in national security. Suppose—as I suspect is the belief of some who support this idea—that without immigrant registration we’d have more San Bernadino and Pulse nightclub shootings. Or another World Trade Center.

If these policies actually prevented terrorism deaths in our own country, does that change whether they are racist? If I understand Theory 3 correctly, it does not. In this way Theory 3 rings a bit hollow for me, because while it is at least technically accurate and objectively measurable (does X policy negatively impact Y community or not?), if it ignores all other factors I still consider it misleading.

3c. Second problem: conflating Theory 3 with Theories 1 & 2.
In my experience, the left frequently blurs the line between “negative impacts” and “personal animosity.” A great example is the Slate article “There’s No Such Thing as a Good Trump Supporter.” Chief political correspondent Jamelle Bouie argues that Trump supporters do not merit empathy because they “voted for a racist who promised racist outcomes.” He cites other authors who have claimed Trump’s victory does not reveal an “inherent malice” in the populace (referring to the “personal animosity” definition of racism). Bouie counters with the “negative impacts” definition:

Whether Trump’s election reveals an “inherent malice” in his voters is irrelevant. What is relevant are the practical outcomes of a Trump presidency…If you voted for Trump, you voted for this, regardless of what you believe about the groups in question.

But, as the title of the piece suggests, Bouie is not condemning only the effects of voting for Trump; he’s condemning the Trump voters themselves. He asserts that it is myopic and even “morally grotesque” to suggest Trump supporters are good people. He compares Trump voters to the men in the early 20th century who organized lynchings (they “weren’t ghouls or monsters. They were ordinary.”) and the people who gawked and smiled at those lynchings (“the very model of decent, law-abiding Americana.”) He sums up: “Hate and racism have always been the province of ‘good people.’”

Note the switch here. Bouie is no longer talking about practical outcomes; he’s talking about hate. He has switched from the “negative impacts” definition of racism back to the “personal animosity” definition. So is he saying that most Trump supporters did not have inherent malice but should be condemned for the policies they supported? Or is he saying that anyone who can support Trump has to be, at least in part, motivated by hate?

And this is often how I see the conversation going. To (heavily) paraphrase:

Person A: If you voted for Trump, you’re racist.
Person B: I’m really not. I disagreed with a lot of what he said but I thought Clinton would do more damage in XYZ ways.
Person A: Yeah, you may not personally feel racist but you supported racist policies. It just shows you think the concerns of white people are more important than the actual human rights of everyone else.
Person B: That’s not what I think at all!
Person A: It’s not about what you personally think! It’s about what you supported!

And repeat.

In other words, in principle motivation is supposed to be irrelevant because racism is about effects, but in practice accusations of racism nearly always boil down to motivation—at best a selfish indifference and at worst outright malice. So, in principle, I think Theory 3 has some merit and is worth talking about. In practice, I find I just end up repeating the arguments I made for Theories 1 & 2.

 

Does Dallas prove “good guys with guns” is a lie?

After the sniper in Dallas killed five police officers, I saw several posts like this:

GGWG pieces

The idea is that there were not only armed police officers present but also citizens with open carry licenses, and yet all these “good guys with guns” didn’t stop the bad guy with a gun from killing people. That much is true. The people pointing this out then often conclude that good guys with guns won’t protect us. That much is false.

Of course if you mean good guys with guns can’t prevent bad guys with guns from hurting anyone ever again, yes, I agree. But I doubt most gun rights advocates believe or have made such an extreme claim. It’s not that good guys with guns will always be able to keep everyone safe; it’s that good guys with guns will be able to protect people more often than good guys without guns.

I think most people on both sides of the gun control debate recognize this to some extent, because almost everyone agrees the police (“good guys with guns”) should be armed. In fact, using Dallas to claim good guys with guns don’t protect us is especially interesting because both civilians and LEOs with guns weren’t able to stop the sniper. Yet gun control advocates are pointing to Dallas as a reason to disarm civlians only, not the police.

And, I mean, I agree that we definitely shouldn’t disarm the police. It seems clear to me that (1) a military-trained sniper is not representative of the dangerous people police are more typically up against, and (2) everyone would have been worse off if the police hadn’t had guns.

It’s true that civilians and LEOs with guns were unable to stop the sniper before he hurt anyone, but it’s false to suggest the guns were irrelevant or of no benefit, and it’s nonsensical to suggest that if good guys can’t protect people from a military-trained sniper, they can’t protect people in more typical situations. For example, just yesterday (also in Dallas incidentally), a legal gun owner with a pistol stopped a robber with an AK-47.

HuffPo GGWG

There are snippet self-defense stories like that regularly, but they don’t make nearly the media ripples that shootings make. I think that’s understandable to some extent: stories about things going right generally don’t get as much attention as stories about things going wrong, especially when things go really wrong. And there’s a matter of degree here too: in terms of media exposure, a snippet about a civilian stopping a robber might be parallel to a snippet about a robber shooting and wounding a single person. They’re both relatively minor stories. But what would the “good guy” equivalent be to stories about horrific mass shootings? Because a story about preventing a mass shooting doesn’t have nearly the media impact mass shootings have. But I digress.

Gun control advocates point out that if the sniper hadn’t had a gun, he couldn’t have done the damage he did. And I think they’re right. I think it’s obvious. I don’t find compelling the gun rights arguments that imply people can be just as dangerous with knives or baseball bats or whatever as they are with guns.

But while I also wish the sniper hadn’t had a gun, it’s not clear to me what the solution is, for two main reasons. (1) Gun ownership is a Constitutional right, so, absent amending the Constitution, gun control measures can’t undermine that right. (2) The measures would have to effectively stop people from obtaining guns illegally, at least at a level that would make up for stopping “good guys with guns” from being able to protect themselves and others from “bad guys with guns.”

I’m open to the possibility that there are gun control measures that can accomplish both of these feats, it’s just not clear to me right now what those measures would be. I think I’ll save that topic for future posts.

The SJW who cried “police brutality.” The LEO who cried “self-defense.”

Asking for evidence of police brutality doesn’t make you blindly pro-cop. Being skeptical of the officer’s POV doesn’t make you blindly anti-cop.

The Boy Who Cried Wolf by paperlait
The Boy Who Cried Wolf by paperlait

I’ve seen people defend Officer Sean Groubert shooting Levar Jones even after Groubert was fired and charged with a felony count of assault and battery (he has since plead guilty). I’ve had arguments with people who claim the video of Officer Michael Slager repeatedly shooting Walter Scott in the back was deceptively edited, even though Slager has since been fired and charged with murder and obstruction of justice. There are people for whom no amount of evidence is enough.

So when someone says “We weren’t there. We don’t know what happened. We shouldn’t jump to conclusions,” I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels weary and angry. I get frustrated because so many times those statements are insincere; so many times, when it comes down to it, the person patiently calling for objectivity and evidence doesn’t actually care about evidence at all. He says “Give the investigation time,” but he means “no matter what surfaces, I’ll assume the officer was in the right. No matter the injustice, I’ll believe the dead deserved it.”

But I need to be careful about my assumptions. On the surface there’s no way to tell the difference between the person who is really just going to side with the LEO no matter what and the person who genuinely cares about clear thinking and due process. It’s unfair to assume anyone calling for more information falls into the former category.

It’s also unhelpful. I want more people to consider the possibility that serious systemic problems are at play here; accusing people of bigotry just for asking for evidence isn’t likely to start a thoughtful conversation.

The principles of (1) innocent until proven guilty and (2) proof beyond a reasonable doubt inevitably mean truly guilty people will go free. Our justice system is (supposed to be) designed to err on the side of freeing the guilty rather than imprisoning the innocent. In fact, jurors are given explicit instructions to this end: if they’re presented with multiple theories about how a crime happened, they are supposed to pick whichever is most reasonable. But if there is more than one reasonable theory, they are supposed to pick the reasonable theory that finds the defendant innocent.

In the case of an officer-involved shooting, that means if there’s a reasonable chance the officer acted in self-defense and there’s a reasonable chance he did not, the jury is supposed to assume it was self-defense. Given how often LEOs do have to fear for their lives–and given that the dead can’t talk–this means an officer can claim self-defense and, absent extremely explicit evidence to the contrary, the jury will assume that’s the truth.

I would think that’s what we’d all want for ourselves if we were accused of a crime. We’d want the evidence to have to show beyond a reasonable doubt that we did the deed before we could be found guilty. Of course we would.

I would also expect we’d all want the right to defend ourselves in dangerous situations. That’s why I think it really undermines the Black Lives Matter movement and its allies when people fail to distinguish between LEO self-defense vs LEO abuse of power. For example, I’ve seen a few posts along these lines:

mic article

This article references a database put together by The Washington Post to track officer-involved shooting deaths. But the stat is for everyone shot and killed by police, whether those citizens were a danger to the officers’ lives or not. While I think it’s important to track that kind of information, I also think it’s misleading to use it in the context of police brutality.

Police brutality is unwarranted LEO aggression and violence, but not all LEO aggression is unwarranted. Good cops acting in self-defense shouldn’t be lumped in with corrupt cops abusing their power or even with incompetent cops dangerously overreacting. And victims of police brutality shouldn’t be lumped in with people killed attempting to commit violence against others. Equivocations like these are part of the reason so many hesitate to condemn a given shooting, instead asking for more information. It’s “the Social Justice Warrior who cried ‘police brutality,'” and many people aren’t interested in more accusations until all the facts are in.

The problem with that, though, is that there are a lot of cases in which the facts are never all in.

The Walter Scott case is a great example of what so many people now fear and expect: Officer Slager is being charged not just with murder but also with obstruction of justice because, after repeatedly shooting Scott in the back, Slager told investigators that Scott had been advancing toward Slager with a taser. It was only when a citizen turned over a cell phone video that it became clear Scott had actually been running away from Slager. If the citizen hadn’t come forward with the video, what are the odds Slager would’ve been charged with anything?

Similarly, when multiple deputies beat Derrick Price, two of them later submitted falsified reports claiming Price had resisted arrest. According to court documents, security footage later revealed that “Price was compliant and immobilized during the entire time of the beating.” The two deputies subsequently plead guilty to deprivation of rights, but if there had been no security footage it’s unlikely their false reports would’ve been discovered.

These are examples of officers being willfully deceptive, but I expect there are plenty of situations where an officer recounts events sincerely and still gets them wrong. Eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable; I see no reason this would apply less to officers than anyone else.

For example, Officer Groubert suggested he shot Levar Jones because he perceived Jones to be a threat, claiming Jones “dove” into his van. Groubert may very well have believed that, but his own dash cam footage shows Jones simply reach into the van directly after Groubert asked for Jones’ license and registration. That footage contributed to Groubert being fired and charged, but if there had been no dash cam footage, would citizen safety still depend on Officer Groubert’s judgement?

Officer Timothy Runnels tased teen Bryce Masters until Masters went into cardiac arrest. Police later claimed Masters had been uncooperative during the stop, but dash cam footage shows Masters only asking whether he was under arrest before Runnels tased him and dropped him face down on the pavement. Runnels has since been fired and plead guilty to civil rights violations, but if there had been no dash cam footage?

Some people say these cases show our system does work because–given sufficient evidence–officers are charged with crimes. But I hope you can see how problematic this is. These cases are rare in that there was clear-cut video footage. How often do officers overreact, like Goubert did, or willfully try to deceive, like Slager did, with no video evidence to catch them? Perhaps it almost never occurs, and the exceedlingly rare times when it does occur happen to be disproportionately caught on video.

But I doubt it. A lot of people doubt it. Each time an LEO is caught not only unlawfully hurting citizens but also trying to cover it up, it greatly erodes public trust. And each time seemingly damning evidence proves insufficient to even indict an officer, it greatly erodes public trust. Each time there’s no major repercussion for anyone from the LEO himself to his superiors for, at best, grave errors in judgement, it greatly erodes public trust.

And once the public no longer trusts the system, cautioning people to reserve judgement until all the facts are in starts to sound a little too much like telling people to never judge an officer-involved death at all. In most cases all we can do is wait for one side of the story, and we already know what that side will say. It’s “the LEO who cried ‘self-defense.'”

So, while I understand people calling for calm and for evidence–a good approach not just here but in general–I also understand a lot of people feeling completely disillusioned and distrusting of the evidence-gathering process. I understand why having a jury decide an officer shouldn’t be indicted or isn’t guilty doesn’t necessarily convince the public the officer actually isn’t guilty.

People seem to believe this level of suspicion can only stem from a general anti-cop sentiment, but I don’t agree. Given the known cases of officers abusing power and then lying about it, it’s reasonable for people who respect the profession in general to still have major concerns about this issue specifically. I don’t agree with Jon Stewart on everything but I thought he was spot on here:

jon stewart quote

I don’t pretend to have a simple solution to all of this. I want to live in a society where people of color and LEOs are safe. I want us to respect the principles of “innocent until proven guilty” and “proof beyond a reasonable doubt.” I want law enforcement agencies to responsibly police their own ranks. It doesn’t seem like any of that is happening right now.

I’m not sure what to do, but I am sure that assigning the worst motivations to the other side doesn’t help anything. We may not be able to fix everything quickly, but we can at least try to understand where people are coming from.

 

Hard Thoughts About Security, Sciences, and the Humanities

846 - 9-11 From Space
Image of the 9-11 attacks from space, taken by NASA. (Available from the Wikipedia entry on the 9-11 attacks.)

In the wake of another shooting of unarmed American servicemen, the Navy (according to NBC) “plans to station armed guards at all of its reserve centers across the country.” That might be a good idea, but it falls far short of what most Americans have been calling for as an apparently common-sense reaction to attacks on servicemen and women on their bases: let them carry guns. I mean, these guys are trained to handle firearms, right? What could be more obvious than giving a gun to a soldier or marine?

Yeah, it’s not actually that obvious. And it’s not just politics that are stopping that from happening:

Negligent discharges: One subject the military really doesn’t like to talk about (Foreign Policy)

Here’s an amazing number that I had never seen before: Since the beginning of the U.S. operation in Iraq [through May 2011], more than 90 U.S. military personnel have been killed there by negligent weapons discharges.

‘Disturbing trend’ seen in negligent discharges of weapons in Afghanistan (Stars and Stripes)

In the past 18 months, troops in Afghanistan have accidentally killed themselves or others at least six times and wounded nearly two dozen more troops through unsafe weapons handling, according to Army statistics released to Stars and Stripes.

 

There are other reasons for not issuing weapons to on-base personnel (the logistical headache is immense, especially when considering that bases have to get locked down whenever a weapon is misplaced), but the big one is the simple one: handing out guns is liable to end up killing more folks than the terrorist could accomplish.

Terrorist attacks are scary, but in many cases the irrational reaction of people to scary things is more dangerous than the thing that they are afraid of. Fear might not be the only thing we have to fear, but it’s definitely near the top of the list. Another example: more folks probably died in car crashes they took to avoid flying after 9-11 then actually died in the 9-11 attacks.

In the months after the 2001 terror attacks, passenger miles on the main US airlines fell by between 12% and 20%, while road use jumped. The change is widely believed to have been caused by concerned passengers opting to drive rather than fly. Travelling long distances by car is more dangerous than travelling the same distance by plane. Measuring the exact effect is complex because there is no way of knowing for sure what the trends in road travel would have been had 9/11 not happened. However, Professor Gerd Gigerenzer, a German academic specialising in risk, has estimated that an extra 1,595 Americans died in car accidents in the year after the attacks – indirect victims of the tragedy.

That was just the first 12 months after the attack. If the trend continued for another few years–even at a reduced rate–it could easily be the case that the number surpassed the 9/11 death toll.

As human beings we like to pretend that we don’t put a price tag on human life, but that’s not true. We do. All the time. We just don’t actually look at it. In my systems engineering courses, for example, we learned various ways to extrapolate a price value for a human life based on indirect decisions. Simplistic example: suppose there’s a dangerous portion of a highway with no physical barrier between opposing lanes, and every year 5 people die in accidents there. Installing a concrete barrier would lower that to 4 lives, and would cost $100,000. If the barrier doesn’t get installed then, willingly or not, we’re saying that a human life is worth less than $100,000 in this case.

Of course you can’t actually derive a “real” value of human life that way, but that’s actually one of the most interesting things: if you apply this kind of analysis across a wide range of examples–from road safety to asbestos removal–you will easily see that when the threat isn’t scary (as with traffic deaths) the value of human life is very low. But when it is scary–as with asbestos–we will often as a society decide to spend millions of dollars or more per life saved.

It’s not just about money, of course. I’m only using that as an example of the fact that–even when we don’t like to admit it–we have to make these kinds of trade-offs. They are unavoidable. This is why, every time I hear someone say something, “We have to do whatever it takes to save even one life,” I have to stifle an urge to smack them. Anyone saying that is a fool or a liar. In either case, the last person that should be in charge of deciding what we’re willing to spend to save a life is the kind of person who pretends we don’t have to make the decision at all.

It’s not just about money, by the way. There are other things at stake. How many of our civil liberties and our culture of openness have we already sacrificed in the name of preventing terrorist attacks? What are we getting for those sacrifices? Not much, most estimates seem to say, but the real answer is: no one knows. No one knows ’cause we’re not even supposed to ask the question. We’re not supposed to admit that there’s a tradeoff. That there’s a cost.

This kind of emotional decision-making is double-edged disaster. We spend billions on scary things that aren’t that dangerous, and then refuse to spend smaller sums of money on things that could save large numbers of lives. I was in Hungary for the last two weeks and, in trying to explain why most of America doesn’t have effective public transportation networks–I got to explaining our culture of cars. I pointed out that, because transportation to school and sporting events and other activities is so complicated and (time) expensive, we continue to let kids start driving at 16 in large part as a way to offload the burden on their parents. My Hungarian friend–where the minimum driving age is 18 and lots of people don’t get licenses until much later (if at all)–asked if the 16-year old drivers were good drivers. Of course they are not, I said. They have very little training, very little experience, and are dangerously immature. Doesn’t that result in danger? Well, yes it does. Off the top of my head, there are about 30,000 fatalities related to driving in the US every year. Of course, a lot of those don’t have anything to do with teenage drivers (drunk driving is a pretty huge portion of it), but there’s no doubt that thousands of kids are killed or seriously injured every single year. What would it cost to save them? Who knows. Where’s the rhetoric about, “If we can save even one life…”? Nowhere. Because it’s not scary.

I put a lot of emphasis–I’ve done it in this post and we do it in many of our blogs at Difficult Run–on the kind of quantitative analysis that you get from economics (my background) or engineering (Bryan’s) or business (Walker’s) or computer science (Ro’s). Sometimes I even go out of my way to take a swipe at the humanities–especially modern art and academia. But I understand very well that these are not fundamentally quantitative questions. Neither economics, nor engineering, nor business, nor computer science can answer questions about the tradeoffs we have to make between dollars or hours or civil liberties on the one hand and lives on the other. These are fundamentally philosophical and moral questions, and we have to seek philosophical and moral answers. And, like all philosophical and moral questions, they will probably never have a clear, objective, final answer.

But seeking those answers is worth it. It’s worth it from a practical standpoint because the kind of emotionally-driven policy that arises in the absence of clear-eyed analysis is Pareto inefficient. Sorry for the econ jargon, but it’s an important term. If a situation is Pareto efficient, it means that you can’t make one person better without taking from someone else. So Pareto efficiency isn’t necessarily a good place to be. It could be very unfair, for example. If you give $10 to Tom and $90 to Sue, that’s Pareto efficient, but it’s not fair. But the one thing that Pareto efficiency gets you is no waste. If you give $10 to Tom and $10 to Sue and then light the other $80 on fire, that’s Pareto inefficient. So Pareto efficiency shouldn’t be a final goal but it should be a bare minimum. And right now, there’s no doubt that our patchwork response to security is far, far from Pareto efficiency.

Simple example of Pareto efficiency from the Wikipedia page. All the red dots are Pareto efficient because there’s no waste: you’re getting all you can out of Item 1 and Item 2. The only way to get more of Item 1 in that case is to give up some of Item 2 (or vice versa). The gray dots are Pareto inefficient. You can get more if Item 1 without sacrificing Item 2 (or vice versa). If you imagine the two items are “Safety” and “Civil Liberties” you can see that picking which of the red points is difficult, but picking *ANY* of the gray points is insanity.

Seeking the answers is also worthwhile from a philosophical standpoint. Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living. I believe that’s because if you don’t examine your life it’s not really your life. You’re just acting out the social conditioning you’ve been raised with. You’re not an independent agent in that case. You’re just a conduit through which cause and effect flow. Once you examine your life–once you adopt certain principles and attitudes and goals based on your own deliberation and values–you start to truly live. And this is true even if you don’t actually change very many of your decisions or actions. You might take a hard look and decide that the values and goals you ended up with from your parents and society are actually fairly reasonable and keep things more or less as-is, but–even in that case–there’s been a tremendously important shift because now they are your values and your goals.

So, when I write posts expressing cynicism about modern art or academic philosophy, it’s not because I think that art or philosophy are dispensable. It’s because I think that they are indispensable, but that (1) the modern incarnations have often lost their way and become empty shells and (2) they become monstrous in the absence of a commitment to including hard data where applicable.

From my perspective, it doesn’t take a lot to remind an economist that art isn’t accounted for in the GDP figures. Physicists ignore air resistance in an awful lot of their models, but it’s not like they actually get confused and forget that it exists. Economists ignore lots of human foibles in their models for the same reason, and they are just as unlikely to somehow become confused and mistake the simplified models for the real thing. In fact, I would argue that very few people are more aware of human foibles than economists precisely because they are so routinely reminded of the incredible gap between their simple models and messy reality. Thus, we get books like Nudge or The Myth of the Rational Voter or Predictably Irrational: all investigations into how economic models of human nature fail written by economists.

On the other hand, I have routinely had to sit through painfully ignorant scientific or economic diatribes by humanities scholars who literally don’t have the first clue about what they are talking about. There’s a reason Marx is not taken seriously as an economist by economists and yet you will still find plenty of Marxists in English departments who either don’t know or don’t care to separate from his philosophical stances (which continue to be relevant and interesting) and his economic theories (which are about as relevant for modern economic policymaking as Copernicus’ model of the solar system is to getting an astronaut to the moon.)

In simple terms: I know lots of economists and engineers and scientists who are conversant with, for example, pragmatism, but I don’t know of any humanities professors who could give you a cogent explanation of, say, marginalism.

Maybe that assessment is off base. It could be.

But the point–and this is true regardless of my perception of whether the humanites or the sciences are in deeper trouble today–is that we need an approach that embraces both and rejects fear-based decision making. We need folks to be conversant in the elementary basics of statistics and math and have an intuitive desire to base their analysis on hard data and then be willing to use that as the foundation for moral and philosophical arguments about how to set policy based on open-eyed analysis rather than emotionally-driven instinct.

Is that asking a lot? Maybe. But come on, people. How much time do we spend watching cat videos or reflexively sharing political memes that assume the other side is all composed of evil morons?

We can do better than we are doing.

 

Federalist: Was I Wrong To Support Gay Marriage?

868 - Gay Marriage

I haven’t written much about Obergefell v. Hodges. I still don’t have a lot to say on the matter. I will just point out that, within hours of the decision, articles were already calling for churches to be stripped of their tax-exempt status.

It’s difficult to see how the nationwide legalization of gay marriage could have any kind of significant negative repercussions for anybody who’s not gay. Difficult – but not impossible. Because now that the US government formally recognizes marriage equality as a fundamental right, it really shouldn’t skew the tax code so as to give millions of dollars in tax breaks to groups which remain steadfastly bigoted on the subject.

I’m talking, of course, about churches.

Gay marriage was legalized by the SCOTUS in no small part as a reflection of public will, as the majority of justices saw it. And that public will was based largely in the rhetoric of civil liberties and live-and-let-live. One of my concerns all along has been that it will not stop there, however.

It is too early to say the sky is falling. And, in any case, skies tend to fall slowly. But it’s worth thinking about.

Over at The Federalist, David Harsanyi is already having second thoughts about his support for gay marriage:

How many backers of theoretical gay marriage will regret the reality of gay marriage? As a matter of policy, it doesn’t matter much anymore. And I have no moral qualms about same-sex marriage itself. I don’t believe it destabilizes the institution or ruins the lives of children. Then again, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum, either. If same-sex marriage isn’t just a pathway to happiness, freedom, and equality for gay citizens, but a way to pummel religious Americans into submission, it will be a disaster.

We’ll see how things go, but I have a hunch I already know. The same people who told me again and again that I was being silly to fear these kinds of repercussions will, one by one, begin to ask me, “Well, why shouldn’t this follow logically?” Which, as I’ve always known, is precisely the point.