FRIDAY, MAY 27, 2022
Our rhetoric emerges: At the top of our "highly educated" press corps, statistics can be quite hard.
Consider the report by German Lopez in today's New York Times. Its headline is simple: "America's Gun Problem." Its first presentation looks exactly like this:
LOPEZ (5/27/22): This chart, looking at public shootings in which four or more people were killed, shows how much the U.S. stands out:Number of mass shootings
Developed countries, 1998-2019
United States: 140
Finland: 3 ...
The numbers continue from there. Surely, though, you can see the statistical problem. The chart directly compares raw numbers of mass shootings in countries with vastly different sized populations.
Adjusting for population, Finland's rate of mass shooting would actually be larger than ours! That said, the New York Times didn't adjust for population as it presented these data today.
This is an astonishing type of journalistic bungle—but it's a type of bungle which is astonishingly common in a newspaper like the Times.
In fact, the U.S. does have a major "gun problem," compared to other developed nations. Within the past few days, that very same New York Times republished this 2017 essay by Nicholas Kristof.
Does our country have a type of major gun problem? Kristof's essay makes that point quite clear through the use of non-bungled statistics.
Kristof's statistics were adjusted for population! Even so, they define a major problem for our country—in "Gun murders per 100,000 population," to cite one example.
Today, the New York Times tried to address this matter again. But statistics are often amazingly hard at this famous, peculiar newspaper.
Basic assessment can be amazingly hard
At newspapers like the New York Times, basic assessment can also be very hard. Consider the "Interpreter" essay by Amanda Taub in this morning's print editions. The essay carries this headline:
In the U.S., Backlash to Civil Rights Era Made Guns a Political Third Rail
Why have "gun control" / "gun safety" laws become a major battleground in American politics? Taub presents a thesis which pleasingly serves blue Storyline:
She says that conservative America's focus on gun rights emerged as a backlash against the civil rights era, especially the Brown decision.
Any such thesis will warm the cockles of blue tribe hearts. Who knows? Taub's assessment may even be accurate in some basic sense!
That said, Taub's analysis draws on the conclusion reached in a single academic study. Any journalist can prove any thesis if that is the standard of proof.
In many fairly obvious ways, our struggling country does have a major "gun problem." According to Kristof's numbers, our rate of gun murders—after adjusting for population—is six times the rate of the nearest developed nation, and things get much worse from there:
Our nation's rate of gun murders is more than 30 times the rate in Australia, in Germany, in England. That's a fairly obvious type of "gun problem." But our society is suffused with journalistic problems as well.
Rhetoric can be very hard
Two weeks ago, a teenaged boy, or a teenaged man, shot and killed ten people in Buffalo, New York. On the "cable news" programs designed for viewing by our own blue tribe, multimillionaire pundits quickly got busy establishing our floundering tribe's preferred rhetoric.
It seems to us that the judgment of these well-known players was often extremely poor. On the May 18 Morning Joe program, it fell to pundit emeritus Mike Barnicle to establish the prevailing narrative, in which the horrific behavior of one teenager was somehow said to have somehow established "who we are:"
BARNICLE (5/18/22): One of the more shopworn phrases that we’ve heard repeatedly over the past few days with reference to Buffalo—this, the latest example of who we are—is the phrase “This is not who we are.”
That’s not true. This is who we are.
"This is who we are," the shopworn pundit fuzzily said. He was contradicting President Biden. For videotape, click here.
In the face of that assessment, let's take a look at the record! There are toughly 330 million people in the United States. By way of contrast, one person (1) had engaged in an horrific act of murder.
Somehow, though, the gruesome behavior by one teenager had now shown who "we" are. As the pseudo-discussion continued, Barnicle pseudo-explained:
BARNICLE: There will be another Buffalo! And what happens with social media is, the outrageous becomes normal.
And our fury, our anger, our unrest, our divisions about what happened in Buffalo, where people shopping for groceries were killed because they were Black—That’s all! That’s the single reason they died, their skin color.
So we’re shocked. We’re upset. We’re angry. We’re mystified. Until next weekend.
BARNICLE: Until a playoff game begins. Until another shooting occurs. And then we’ll start this all over again. I don’t know whether it’s beyond legislation or beyond hope, but I do know one thing.
This. Is who. We are.
Loathing Americans first, Barnicle explained what "we" would do in the wake of these vicious murders. "We" would be angry and upset, he explained—until the next playoff game starts.
The aging mouthpiece didn't explain how he could actually know this. Instead, with Mika chiming in, Barnicle slowly and dramatically restated his fuzzy thesis:
These racial murders show "who we are," he slowly / dramatically said.
At this point, there's something you very much need to know about pundits like Mika and Barnicle. Judged by normal intellectual standards, they just aren't especially bright.
They spend lots of time in makeup and hair. They know about their Q ratings.
As Chris Hayes explained when he went prime time, they absorb their lessons in "showmanship" from their corporate employers. But nothing about these famous figures suggests that they're especially bright.
This helps explain how our own blue tribe manages, with such regularity, to generate the types of rhetoric which stand in the way of achieving political / policy success.
In what way did that racially-motivated mass murder show the world "who we are?" Consider:
Mike Barnicle didn't commit the murders. In what way did these murders show us who Mike Barnicle is?
The murders in question were committed by one person—by one deranged teenager, out of a total of 330 million people. In what way did those murders show the world who anyone is, aside from that one deranged teen?
What could Barnicle possibly mean by his sweeping assessment? It's possible, though highly unlikely, that he could have answered that question had a real discussion occurred.
In fact, real discussions rarely occur on tribally segregated "cable news" show like the current iteration of Morning Joe. Instead, carefully-selected groups of tribunes will all state, and then restate, the current tribally-sanctioned, mandated points of view concerning the day's basic topics.
Things were somewhat different this day; Joe Scarborough quickly pushed back against what Barnicle said. The racial murders didn't show who we are, Scarborough said at extraordinary length.
At one point, he seemed to say that they only show who Trump voters are.
In point of fact, no Trump voters had murdered anyone that day, but that's what Scarborough said. Finally, the Princeton peacock rose to defend the original claim:
GLAUDE: I want to say something to Joe, because I was thinking about his hesitancy to agree with Mike that this is who we are.
Joe, I want to say that this is who we are as a country. I understand, I understand your impulse. I think we have to admit it, man...
"We have to admit it," the peacock said. Along the way, the Princeton professor had offered what may pass for a clarification in these analytical killing fields.
"We have to admit it," Glaude had said. "This is who we are as a country." Eventually, though, he further explained what we have to admit:
"That racism, that white supremacy, that this ugliness is baked into us from the very beginning."
Professor Glaude told Joe that we have to admit those things. But is that white supremacy, that ugliness, baked into Glaude himself? In what way did the Buffalo murders display any such fact about Professor Eddie Glaude, or about anyone else?
The professor had committed no racist murders. In what way did the racist murders show us who he is? Rhetoric was being established, but very few answers emerged.
To the extent that this was a discussion at all, it was a very dumb one. Such performances now dominate "cable news," a profit-based format which is now almost wholly segregated by viewpoint.
Quite a ways back, our corporate news orgs abandoned the Crossfire model, in which opposing pundits barked at each other, red tribe offset by blue. Instead, they turned to a more pleasing "homogeneous viewpoint" model, in which satisfied viewers will near nothing in the course of a morning, or in the course of an evening, with which they don't agree.
On that morning's Morning Joe, Mike and Eddie and Mika herself were defining the new rhetorical normal. In these ways, we routinely let corporate-selected multimillionaires define the way our embattled blue tribe is going to lose, lose, lose.
At present, our blue tribe would like to find the way to win certain political fights—fights about abortion rights, fights about gun purchases. The chance to win those fights almost seems to be present. But when we let our peacocks decide, we often manage to invent rhetorical ways to lose.
Unfortunately, when we establish our tribal rhetoric, we define our political selves. It seems to us that these peacocks were making the road to victory extremely long and hard.
Tomorrow: "Exactly who we are"