Dunning and Kruger told us they would come.
I was about 15 or 16 when my father cancelled our membership in the National Rifle Association (NRA). Money was tight back then, but Dad said that wasn’t entirely the issue. He was also fed up with their politics.
I was mortified.
The old “If guns are outlawed” sticker was then sitting on the bumper of my first car (which wasn’t yet running), and a stack of hunting and shooting magazines rested on a shelf in my bedroom. My private arsenal had already outgrown the gun-case. At the time, there just wasn’t much about the NRA that I didn’t like. Oh sure I’d noticed a myopic one-sidedness to some of the articles in those magazines, but for the most part, I was down for the main agenda. Dad never did explain to me what had bothered him about the NRA back then (the early 80s). I reckon he was just hoping I would grow a dose of moderation at some point. This was hardly the only obsession that could have given him cause for such concerns.
I guess Dad got his way on this one at least. My views on guns and gun control are complex. ‘Ambivalent’ may be a better word. My take on the legal issues doesn’t map well onto either the left or the right on the actual issue of gun ownership. I’m open to gun control, but skeptical of its impact (at least one any scale that’s practically possible in the present political climate). It hasn’t escaped my notice that I live in a region where firearms can be damned useful. (By way of illustration, one of my students took a job collecting plant samples this summer. Part of her training including a day or so learning how to handle a firearm. In the land of polar bears, a gun can be an essential part of scientific research.) I’ve also got a lot of friends and neighbors who feed themselves by use of firearms, and I’m not in the habit of turning down a good bowl of tutu (caribou) stew. The bottom line is that I won’t be campaigning for full disarmament anytime soon. Few do, really, but if complete disarmament is your bandwagon, then I am definitely not on board.
There is one other bandwagon I’m not climbing aboard any time soon, and that is the one run by the NRA. Any latent interest I might have had in that organization slipped away during the Clinton administration. The television ads from that era telling us that every honest gun owner ought to be a member didn’t exactly inspire me to get out my checkbook. Hearing countless people spouting their fears about ‘thuh guvment’ was enough to send shivers up my spine and put a large dose of queazy in the pit of my stomach. I recall “Impeach Clinton” bumper stickers within the first few months of his first administration. In time his critics would find reasons. In the interim, suddenly Bill Clinton was the source of the New World Order, notwithstanding Bush Senior’s use of the phrase to sell Desert Storm. Within the space of a single election, Clinton became the source of all that was wrong with the world. Seeing the same people who had supported centralization of power throughout the Reagan and Bush administrations suddenly play underdog against government authority was more than a little disconcerting.
It got a lot more disconcerting after the Oklahoma City bombing.
You can’t run a direct line of reasoning from Charlton Heston’s “take my gun from my cold dead hands” speech to that bombing, no, but these two notes fit in the same damned tune. The right wing now sings a constant chorus of ‘don’t tread on me’ messages, and most of them serve simultaneously to valorize the weekend warrior games of countless over-gown boys and to demonize the best efforts of anyone involved in pretty much any kind public service. Hating the government is a popular sport in what passes for ‘conservative’ circles these days. The problem is you can’t shoot at the government and you can’t bomb the government. Hell, you can’t even shout at the government. You can only do these things to real people, people who work for the government, and the trouble with demonizing that government is its a damned effective way to demonize real people. It’s a damned effective way to justify hurting real people. An awful lot of people died in Oklahoma City because someone decided to strike a blow against the government, and his ideas about that government had an awful lot in common with those pushed by the NRA for a couple decades now. Is the one the cause of the other? Maybe not, but it’s a damned reckless message just the same.
What I specifically object to is the scorched earth tactics that the NRA keeps producing. Talking of Second Amendment solutions and other confrontations with the government may sound like the words of brave people put-upon by dark forces and powerful institutions, but they are also clear and obvious efforts to intimidate the rest of us. While other interest groups go to the voting booths, hire lawyers to plead their case, or sometimes take to the streets with a sign or three, elements of the gun rights crowd keep threatening to use their guns under some unspecified conditions. It’s easy enough to imagine the scenario without its details. They will fight back against tyranny, of course; that’s what these people keep telling us. The problem of course is that tyranny may very well be a few unwelcome regulations and the tyrant may well be (as it was in Oklahoma City) ordinary people just trying to do their damned jobs.
Don’t get me wrong. For better or for worse, the Second Amendment is part of American government. There are certainly arguments to be made about its proper scope, and still other arguments to be made about the effectiveness of various gun control measures, but there is no excuse for the constant litany of violent fantasies surrounding firearms ownership. An awful lot of people keep telling us they and their guns are the best protection from government overreach, and every time I see or hear this message I find myself hoping for protection from precisely the folks producing it. I realize echos of this message come to us from the days of America’s founding fathers, but those echos have been twisted by ideology, augmented by fraudulent representations, and generally milked for everything they could possibly be worth. In the end, it isn’t America’s founders that keep this threat of violence alive in America’s politics today. It is the words and deeds of shameless people.
…which of course brings us to the latest twist in Donald Trump’s campaign. These are his words on the subject:
Hillary wants to abolish, essentially abolish the second amendment. By the way, and if she gets to pick, if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do folks, although the second amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.
To say these remarks have sparked outrage is putting it mildly, but let’s be clear. This is not an obvious call for gun owners to assassinate Hillary Clinton. It isn’t even a clear call for armed rebellion in the case that Hillary wins the election. There isn’t really anything clear about this message at all, but then again there wouldn’t be.
It’s Trump, remember?
He and clarity have never really been on speaking terms.
What this rhetoric ALSO isn’t is a responsible case for the Second Amendment. To begin with, the claim that Hillary Clinton wants to abolish the Second Amendment is hardly supported by the evidence. She favors a variety of gun control measures, yes. This does not mean she wishes to abolish the Second Amendment after all. It’s a straw Hillary that Trump is talking about, not the real one.
It’s really not clear how the straw Hillary who wants to abolish the Second Amendment altogether would even go about it, but it actually is clear that she couldn’t do it just by appointing a few judges. That move is neither sufficient nor necessary to do away with the Second Amendment (in principle or practice).
Hillary may well support gun control measures that many gun owners wouldn’t want to see passed. She may even advocate measures that ought not to be passed by any objective measure of their merits. Gun control measures, perfectly sound or bat-shit crazy, do NOT add up to the abolition of the Second Amendment. And let’s be clear, even Scalia, in the infamous Heller decision suggested that some regulations could be consistent with the existence of the Second Amendment, a Second Amendment he construed explicitly (and quite controversially as an individual right).
Simply put, regulations are on the table with or without Hillary as POTUS. Also the Second Amendment remains on the table with or without Hillary as POTUS. Far from the dooms-day scenario Trump trots out in this speech, another Presidential Clinton is at best/worst just another twist in the long case history of the Aecond Amendment. It’s not the end of the Second Amendment or civilization itself. So, yes, Trump is exaggerating, which is putting it mildly.
That exaggeration is not simply a mistake. Realizing just how badly Trump is exaggerating the prospect of a Presidential Hillary helps us understand how to take the comment that Second Amendment people might be able to do something about her after all. These Second Amendment people would be acting in a fantasy world in which a President, and a President alone is enough to render the legal landscape hopeless. If Trump is really suggesting something as mild as voting or rallying to his cause, then there is no need to raise the specter of a gun-grabbing apocalypse in preparation for it. His wording is ambiguous of course, but it’s the ambiguity of plausible deniability. And when speaking to millions, some of whom are clearly quite excitable, Trump’s message will take on many meanings. He knows that. The man is not THAT stupid. Many, perhaps most will take his words to mean something as radical as it takes to say something really rude to a cotton-picking liberal, but some will take them far worse. Some folks are quite prepared to kick their John Wayne fantasies into high gear. A responsible candidate knows this, and a responsible candidate doesn’t rouse his support base, or any subsection of it to the brink of violence.
He has been doing this throughout his campaign. I know of no other candidate in recent memory who has deliberately provoked violence at his own rallies, always falling short of directly calling for it, but often coming as close as one might without explicitly endorsing it.
During the primary season, the actual violence at campaign rallies clearly worked in Trump’s favor. What began as a series of news stories about Trump’s own supporters beating various protestors transitioned seamlessly into a series of stories about protestors engaged in all manner of violence against Trump’s own supporters.
Trump’s fighting words couldn’t help but fall on angry ears for his critics. Many of us have responded with such radical actions as a contemptuous tweet or a few minutes of outraged gripetude, but some took it further. Some engaged in genuine violence. The pay-off for Trump was obvious enough as he and his supporters played the victim and cast his critics as those with no respect for civil society.
What better context for Trump to present himself as the law-and order candidate!?!
A responsible candidate would have asked his supporters to step back and let security handle matters. If Trump said such things on some occasions, on others he talked about how those beaten deserved it, suggested he would pay for the lawyers of those beating protesters, and otherwise said a number of things encouraging the violence in his own supporters. and to provoke violence against his opponents.
Simply put, violence has worked well for Trump. He provoked it to his benefit in the primaries, and it should come as no surprise that he continues to do so in the present general election cycle. He started the general election by fantasizing about hitting his critics at the Democratic National Convention. You can see it in this passage. It isn’t until the very end that we come to realize he is talking about something other than outright violence, and you come to that only after indulging in a long violent fantasy.
The things that were said about me, I mean, should I go through some of the names? I, You know what I wanted to, I wanted to hit a couple of those speakers so hard, I would have hit them, no-no, I was gonna hit them so, I was all set, and then I got a call from a highly respected governor, ‘how’s it going Donald?’ I said; “well it’s going good, but they are really saying bad things about me. I’m gonna hit them so hard, I was gonna hit one guy in particular, a very little guy, I was gonna hit this guy so hard his head would spin, he wouldn’t know what the Hell happened, and, he came out of nowhere, he came out of nowhere; they made deals with me, ‘would you help me this; would you make this deal and solve the problem.?’ I solved the problem. I do a great job. I was going to hit a number of those speakers so hard their heads would spin. They’d never recover. And that’s what I did with a a lot of, that’s why I still don’t have certain people endorsing me. They still haven’t recovered.
It could be an accident of course. And elves could bake chocolate cookies under a full moon. This is a conscious effort on Trump’s part. Just as above, this is a message calculated to stimulate violence. It is ambiguous enough to evade responsibility for that violence, but it’s evocative enough to encourage it just the same.
And so here we are, at a new low point in American politics, at least in my own memory, a Presidential candidate stirring up violence in the service of his own campaign. It says a lot about Trump’s character that he is willing to do this to get the position. It says a lot about how he plans to run the country, and what it says about those plans is damned frightening. We can add his penchant for promoting violence to Trump’s sustained and very deliberate courtship of white nationalists throughout his campaign. This man has already done irreparable harm to the nation, and it’s hard to imagine what good things he could possibly do as President to overcome the harm he is clearly willing to do in the service of becoming President. More likely, he will just go on hurting people and encouraging his supporters to do the same.
Today’s message is distinctive insofar as it’s a clear and definitive marriage of two trends within the current GOP. On the one hand, we have Trump’s general efforts to wind up the nation to state of hysteria, to create the sense that America rests on the brink of social breakdown. On the other we have the long-standing right-wing message of violent opposition to government authority, one rooted in a myopic devotion to a single civil right. It’s marriage made in Hell, or at least a cheesy overpriced hotel equivalent thereof. Donald Trump is a huckster. That much should be clear to pretty much anyone this side of a mental ward. But he’s a huckster with a heart full of bile.
How does Texas State Senator, Dan Patrick feel about a ruling by Orlando Garcia declaring a Texas ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional? He’s most upset! So upset, he has declared once and for all that marriage is between one man and another man. This would apparently rule out polygamy as well as both straight marriages and lesbian unions, which makes Patrick’s stance on marriage very unusual indeed.
…as least it would if he were serious about it.
This was of course a typo, or more like a thinko. …a brain fart? Okay, let’s call it a brain tweeto! But it was a glorious tweeto, just the same. No, I’m not talking about the simple irony of a pseudo-conservative Republican (or one of his staff members) tweeting something so unexpected. I mean to say, the mistake is actually quite revealing because Patrick’s tweeto could queer our whole sense of the politics at stake here (pun intended). All we have to do is take it seriously.
If only for a moment some folks could imagine a world in which the state of Texas (or any other such state) took it upon itself to legislate Homosexual unions, they might find themselves looking at the issue of gay marriage from a whole new perspective. The Christian right is frequently found howling in rage over the aggressive nature of the gay rights movement and (shudder) the gay agenda! What this ‘gay agenda’ means varies from one faith-filled narrative to the next, but moments like this one really do underscore the one-sidedness of the whole issue. The fact is, for all the controversial posturing on all sides, one thing we are NOT looking at here is a serious attempt to restrict marriage to gay unions. It seems imaginable only as a joke or a mistake of some kind.
But of course such a thing would be outrageous. Truly, it would! But what makes it outrageous to tell heterosexual couples they cannot get married when the Christian right constantly assures us that it is fair and reasonable to do this to those of homosexual persuasion? How is it that people who would no more accept this kind of government intrusion into their personal lives can do this without thinking twice to others?
People like Senator Patrick take for granted the power their own numbers give them. They also take for granted changes in custom that effectively polygamy from people’s from the table without requiring them to square it with their own stated principles. Most importantly, they take for granted the knowledge that government regulation of marriage will not interfere with their own lives, and especially their own divorces.
…apparently, they also take for granted the ability to blame someone else for the mistake.
…that one day, folks will stop playing the race card …card.
…that one day, accusations of racism will be judged on the merits of the actual claims and not simply taken up as plot points in a well-known narrative.
…that one day some folks really will stop crying racism whenever convenient. …and that other folks will stop dismissing cries of racism whenever convenient.
I have a dream that professional bigots will no longer find an audience ready to believe that ‘racism’ needs a prefix and ‘reverse’ really needs a place to hang out.
In this dream no prominent figure would be so foolish as to suggest that the best way to end racism would be for people to stop complaining of racism when it happens. Should such a figure step forward, she would be banished to the Hell of many guffaws, which is admittedly happening, now but in this dream she does it without the golden parachute for a job well abandoned and a history of throwing her own allies under the bus.
In this dream my hero Sally the Smart Swan shows up and puts putrid pundits in their place, saying; “knock it off you damned head; stop talking!” She waves her wand and war ceases to be about peace, taking from people no longer counts as providing them jobs, and kindness no longer leaves a bruise. (Some folks still fuck for virginity, that was always a good idea.) Then a pack of wild jackalope buy the world a coke and sing in perfect harmony. …everyone except me, I’m off-key of course, and my pants are down.
I did mention this was a dream.
In any event, I have a dream that one day recursion will not simply mean a political u-turn back to old Jim and his Crows. Or that people who send us on such a trip will not loudly proclaim their commitment to values they clearly don’t hold.
I have a dream that concerns about opportunistic anti-racism will not serve the goals of opportunistic anti-anti-racism. It’s a funky dream to be sure, and somewhere in this dream the Great Double Negative will descend from the sky and pronounce its wisdom to all! “Yea verily!” it will say (because the Great Double Negative talks like that). “Tis true, a not well knotted becomes a do, and a tangled web it weaves for me and you!” And the crowd will cock their heads slightly and look confused (because no-one talks like that anymore, if anyone ever did), and they will shout up at the Great Double Negative; “Get to the point you damned personification!” The the Great Double Negative will say; “If you consistently oppose anti-racism, there is a point when we might be justified in suggesting you are yourself a racist!” And “Oh” said the crown, surprised thatactually made sense, and “no” said the echo-chamber hoping they could bend a yea into a nay and no-one would notice.
I have a dream that anti-war speeches will not be out of place at the funeral of a peace activist.
I have a dream that people who say liberals are communists are fascists, and the Holocaust starts with compassion will be recognized for their comedic genius, because no-one would be so foolish as to take that as serious political commentary.
I have a dream that people who attack others will not play the victim when they draw return fire, and that those seeking to defend such people will read their words before telling the rest of us all about it.
I have a dream in which helping people is not confused with enslaving them, in which those defending privilege do not call others ‘elitist’ in a folksy voice, in which poverty is not blamed on efforts to end it, and in which greed is not celebrated as the source of all that is good and gooey.
I have a dream in which not being racist does NOT mean you wait for others to use racial epithets first, and in which the word ‘satire’ does not absolve one of all guilt.
I have a dream in which professional bigots will not count as ‘conservatives’, ‘patriots’, “Christians”, or even ‘entertainers’. I have a dream in which such people are dismissed for the living caricatures that they are.
I have a dream in which those actively working to stop African-Americans from voting, lower wages, and take away all forms of public support do not assume the voice of civil rights leaders and lecture others on dreams they clearly do not themselves share.
This is not a dream without enemies; it’s a dream in which those enemies do not include quite so many clowns. In fact it’s a dream full of tougher questions and better arguments, but it’s a dream in which the other side doesn’t stand every important value on its head and their professed politics comes a lot closer to an honest engagement with the rest of us. But that’s all just a dream of course. In the real world, all of this continues as before, and amazingly with straight-faces all around.
And lotsa people have their pants on the floor.
Sarah Palin appears here (I’m sorry) by way of The Hollywood Reporter. The American Headache Institute comes to us courtesy of HKS, who assures me that this is where Sarah can be found. I think she might be the director.
Those Americans calling themselves ‘conservatives’ got a chance to show us their response to this sort of dilemma back when Rush Limbaugh attacked Sandra Fluke, actively misrepresenting her testimony before an unofficial hearing and insulting her on his radio show. He would later retract the insults while leaving his lies about Fluke’s actual testimony uncorrected. His lies continue to circulate through the population, effectively replacing a responsible debate about the wisdom of mandatory birth control coverage and reasonable accommodations for religious objection with a fantasy battle over personal sex lives and government subsidies. The end result would seem indefensible, even outright embarrassing for anyone implicated in supporting Limbaugh.
One would think the responsible thing to do would be to say not just ‘no’, but ‘Hell no’, and refuse to back Limbaugh’s approach to the subject. One might even suggest that such an approach would help to distinguish the conservatives from the many playground bullies currently reveling in the delusion that their sundry bits of prejudice add up to some sort of political philosophy.
Suffice to say this was not the most common Republican response to the situation. The right wing echo chamber cried foul over liberal backlash against Limbaugh and quickly spun the story into a case-study in liberal hypocrisy. Liberals condemn Limbaugh, so the argument goes, but then look at Bill Maher and his comments about Sarah Palin! (I recall a few other examples, but Maher clearly occupied center stage in the right wing response to this issue.) Thus, Limbaugh’s disgusting personal attacks on a young student activist became proof of liberal misogyny?
How many of the right wing pundits jumping on the “what about___” response ever bothered to make a principled criticism of Limbaugh, one that went beyond merely disclaiming the insults to call him to account for his misrepresentations of her testimony? I wouldn’t say that the answer is ‘none’, but it certainly falls well short of the total commenting on the issue. Most of these ‘conservatives’ have simply been content to comment on liberal hypocrisy without making any serious effort to correct those in their own camp.
The focus on liberal hypocrisy enables conservatives to defend Limbaugh and complain about Maher without ever laying their own cards on the table. So long as the focus of thought rests on whether or not liberals have been consistent on the issue, right wing pundits never have to take responsibility for addressing the issues squarely themselves. And they can effectively work both angles of the debate just as they accuse liberals of doing, all the while laying responsibility for the inconsistencies of the entire national discourse squarely at the feet of those damned liberals.
And thus the charge of hypocrisy facilitates the same.
We could call this particular gambit the META-HYPOCRISY SHUFFLE. It consists of disguising your own inconsistencies by pretending you are just responding to those of someone else. There is nothing particularly new about this tactic, nor is it exclusive to conservatives. And of course the plot thickens when calling attention to this problem as well, because one can always add another layer to the house of cards by refusing to take a stand on the particulars while complaining about the inconsistency of the other guy.
…and on into infinity.
The problem is easy enough to identify. Untangling it is another matter, not the least of reasons being that the perception of hypocrisy is easy to manipulate in a variety of ways.
If you are not sure whether or not any particular individual is guilty of hypocrisy, you can always use the tactic of INCONSISTENCY BY ASSOCIATION. This consists of treating all of those who belong to a given group as though they are collectively responsible for producing a single ideologically consistent position. Thus, if I can find one self-described conservative who says that it is wrong to degrade women, quote him, then go find another self-described conservative who does just that, well then voila! I have proven conservatives inconsistent.
…unless I haven’t.
To make the charge honestly, I need one person who does both things, not two or more people who simply share the label.
And of course there is always the possibility of GAMING THE PRINCIPLE. This is really just another variety of the straw man fallacy. The tactic exploits a common weakness that typically accompanies expressions of outrage. When people are really angry over something, they often fail to state the principles they feel have been violated with any degree of precision, …or even at all. This makes it easy for others to come along and rewrite the principle in question for them. Even if the outraged individual has spelled out the specific principles they feel have been violated, a loose paraphrase can often lead readers to forget that inconvenient detail.
Someone who feels that Sandra Fluke did not personally deserve Limbaugh’s personal attacks, for example, could easily be construed as claiming that one ought never to insult a political opponent (thus confusing a claim about what is a reasonable criticism with a claim that some people ought never to be criticized). The point here is to supply a principle to one’s critic that puts him on the worst footing possible, even if that principle has little to do with their actual concerns. From there it is a simple task to demonstrate the individual in question has violated the principle they never actually endorsed, and that’s Q.E.frickin-D.
Except that it isn’t.
To make the charge honestly one must be sure that a person has violated a principle she herself has actually advocated, not one that sounds close enough.
And finally there is the very simple tactic of SKIPPING THE FACTS. Just because accusations and insults may be leveled in all directions does not mean that all of them have equal value. Sometimes party A really has done something wrong and party B hasn’t. It’s easy enough to flip the tables of accusation and say; “see how you like it?”…but if the claims don’t have equal merit, then this gambit is hollow as hell.
All of these tactics help to transform the sort of inconsistency that shows up under the scrutiny of critical thinking into one that will show up in a political narrative whether or not it is warranted on the facts at hand. These tactics did not emerge with the Limbaugh-Fluke controversy, nor will they be filed away in the wake of that dust-up. They are constant presence in the political landscape, and the right wing of this country is making very effective use of them.
In the long run, the problem here is not that questions about liberal behavior have been put on the table; it’s that putting those questions on the table has become a very effective way to get questions about right wing behavior off the table.