The Same Lame Blame Game

Here’s a fun little experiment you can do at home. Pick up a video game. It can be any kind of video game, all the way back to an Atari 2600 cartridge to a PlayStation 4 disc. Now, use it in the way it was intended by the manufacturer.

How many people did you manage to hurt? How many people did you kill?

Okay, now try using it in any way you can conceivably think of, even in ways never intended by the manufacturer. How many people can you manage to injure or kill before you get taken down by the police or your fellow citizens?

According to President Trump, the greatest threat to our country, and particularly our young people, comes from video games “shaping young people’s thoughts”, according to a report from the Washington Post. The report added that “[h]e also proposed that ‘we have to do something about maybe what they’re seeing and how they’re seeing it.’”

Well, yeah. Because goodness knows that we’ve established time and again that playing violent video games leads directly to an increase in violent behavior. Oh wait, no we haven’t. But just in case, we should violate the First Amendment rights of video game makers to be on the safe side, because that’s the best and most direct way to resolve the problem.

Apparently Brent Bozell, president of the Media Research Council, suggested that violent video games “needed to be given the same kind of thought as tobacco and liquor.” Of course, because video games have been known to cause cancer and drunk driving. That’s some quality thinking there, Brent.

And that’s not the worst of the kind of conclusion-first, evidence-not-at-all thinking on display at this particular meeting. Rep. Vicki Hartzler was quoted as saying “[e]ven though I know there are studies that have said there is no causal link, as a mom and a former high school teacher, it just intuitively seems that prolonged viewing of violent nature would desensitize a young person.” I’m just curious, exactly what did you teach? Because I can’t imagine any teacher I ever had literally stating “I know there are studies that have said there is no causal link” and then trumping those factual studies with their own “intuition”. Then again, they never had the benefit of being legislators, which apparently gives you… supernatural powers?

Speaking of legislators, Sen. Marco Rubio felt the need to chime in with his usual wisdom, “acknowledg[ing] there is no evidence linking violent video games to the tragedy in Parkland. But he said he wanted to ensure ‘parents are aware of the resources available to them to monitor and control the entertainment their children are exposed to.’” Wow, that’s a brave stance. I wasn’t aware that the ESRB rating system for video games and the MPAA rating system for motion pictures were state secrets. Thanks for getting those declassified and making them available to parents everywhere, Sen. Rubio. With leadership like that you should consider running for President.

If these politicians and other “crisis actors” (yeah, I said it) really believe there’s a causal link between video games and real world violence, they need to step up and put their money where their mouth is. Start funding some quality, rigorous studies into the phenomenon, or better yet lift the ban on the CDC investigating the potential link. Address the very real concerns raised with the studies they continuously lean on (you know, the ones that don’t show a causal link?) and find something more than a spurious correlation.

The hysteria over video games recalls the hysteria over Dungeons & Dragons from the early 1980s, the outrage over explicit music that managed to stretch all the way from the mid-80s to the late 90s, banned books that seem to be a perennial controversy, or any time bad or undesirable behavior is blamed on media or culture rather than placed squarely where it belongs: on the people who perpetrate it. That’s not to say that the media doesn’t influence behavior to some extent, but to ban media in an attempt to control a handful of bad actors is very much akin to cutting off the noses of an entire community to spite one face.


Anarchy X: The Second Amendment

“A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

What is it with those Founding Fathers? Once again, we have a set of words and clauses that obscure as much as they illuminate. I know, I know, some people look at this and say that it’s perfectly clear what it means. Unfortunately, I’ve had as many people tell me it clearly means one thing as I have had tell me it clearly means something diametrically opposed that the only thing I can say with certainty is that there is no “clear” meaning.

So here’s what I think this means, and I know this is not the most popular definition, but I’m going to put it out there: people have a right to defend themselves, from any and all comers. This includes state actors, foreign and domestic. Keep in mind that it was not so long before the drafting of the Constitution that a war was fought by the people, using their own weapons, to fend off an oppressive government. As the old saying goes, “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, national rebellion.”

For those who believe the purpose of this amendment was to establish a militia for national defense, and we don’t need that since we have a standing army or the National Guard or whatever else, allow me to point out that at the time this was written the people of this country already had plenty of experience with their government having a standing army. If you don’t believe me, check the Third Amendment. It exists specifically because of past experiences with the British army back when they were British citizens. However, we don’t need to restrict ourselves to the intent of the past; we can look to the present to consider what our best course of action is.

Consider the Arab Spring that so much has been made of, and Egypt in particular. So many people were elated when Hosni Mubarak was deposed, and they anticipated the rise of democracy. But a funny thing happened rather quickly. Turned out that it wasn’t really Mubarak who was in charge after all, it was the military. The guys with the guns. And they aren’t giving up so easily. The protesters might have won a major battle, but there’s a long war left to go.

This isn’t to say that the U.S. is the same as Egypt, not even close. But there were a lot of people who got very upset at the Patriot Act, and that’s not the only restriction on freedom we’ve seen in the last twenty years. What happens if this trend continues for another twenty years? What about if the protesters who occupied parks across the country feel they aren’t being listened to? What if they start to riot and get thrown in jail, and emergency powers are enacted to deal with the problem?

These aren’t likely scenarios, but they are possible ones, and they aren’t the only ones. They are simply a few of the ways that a government that has nothing to fear from the people can start to tighten its grip on the people it is supposed to protect, often with the best of intentions (and we all know everyone in government has the best of intentions, don’t we Messrs. McCarthy and Nixon?) And governments should be afraid of their people. Every day, in every way, governments should rule with a very light hand because they understand the price of choosing wrong.

Gun control advocates will try to claim there is a public interest in limiting the number and availability of guns, but why? How does that help? This is like any other sort of prohibition, in that the more you do it the more you drive the market underground, and the more you give profits to criminals.

The worst part is when good people start to use the exact rhetoric for gun control their opponents use in other circumstances without even batting an eyelash at the irony: “Register your guns; if you’re innocent you have nothing to worry about.” Sure. While we’re at it, let’s just go ahead and get fingerprints and DNA from everyone in the country as well. Same logic applies, right? Makes it easier to find the bad guy when a crime is committed. More accurately, too.

I’m not going to say something silly like “guns don’t kill people.” Of course guns can kill people. So can cars, knives, rocks, televisions, glass bottles, and (if you eat enough of it) my mother’s cooking. That doesn’t mean we try to ban those other things (although if anyone wants to try to ban mom’s cooking, sign me up.) We acknowledge the risks, and we do what we do in any situation: we enforce the laws we already have. If you hurt someone with a gun, you committed a crime and you should go to jail. Simple. That doesn’t mean that owning a gun should be a crime all by itself.

ADDENDUM: I originally wrote this post before the shooting in Aurora, Colorado. First, I would like to say my heart goes out to those who lost friends and family that day. To those who wonder if this changes my position on gun ownership, I regretfully have to answer no. This is a black swan event. I do not believe that extreme cases such as this make a good and justifiable case for any sort of gun control, as they are an example of the sort of individual I spoke of above who will find a way to hurt other no matter what, and punishing the vast majority of law-abiding citizens in an unreasoning attempt to protect us is specious and wrong-headed. However, in the name of fairness, I would like to direct anyone who is interested to this post by Jason Alexander, which represents the opposing view (h/t to R.L. Mirabal). While I do not agree with everything he has to say, I do believe he has some salient points to make and his post is well worth reading. If nothing else, he at least seems open to rational discussion, rather than simple finger-pointing and blindly clinging to one position. In times like these, more rationality and less blind ideology would be a nice change of pace from all of us.

Anarchy X: An Occasional Series on Politics and American Life

I decided it was time I got my thoughts on paper (yes, I’m old enough that I still think of typing as writing and my computer screen as paper) about politics, specifically the intersection of politics and American life, mostly because I’m American and that’s what I know. So the first place to start is with “what is politics?” Carl von Clausewitz famously wrote that “war is the continuation of politics by other means.” I happen to disagree; I think he got it completely backwards.

What is war? War is the wholesale application of violence to achieve specific material ends. Politics (at least one definition of politics and the one most applicable to von Clausewitz) is the wholesale threat of violence to achieve specific material ends. Dress it up as nicely as you want, at the end of the day that’s the difference between the two. If you don’t believe me, try to disregard the law of your choice and see if the nice policeman simply asks you politely to cease and desist, or if he may very well at some point consider utilizing some form of force to compel you.

That being the case, it’s all about which came first, the chicken or the egg, in this case the chicken being war and the egg being politics. Another way of considering it is to take it down from the wholesale level to the retail level: personal violence used to achieve specific material ends and personal threats of violence used to achieve specific material ends. This makes things much clearer: we have archaeological evidence of hominids doing violence to each other that predates our evidence of language. Ipso facto, politics is the continuation of war by another means.

Does this mean I abhor politics and everything it accomplishes? Not at all. I believe in self-defense, I believe in just war theory, and I believe it is preferable for us to talk out our problems than for us to fight out our problems. But I also believe that when we lose sight of what the tools we are using really are, then we tend to overuse them. When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks very easy to solve. The greatness of politics is also its weakness; it removes and distances us from the immediate pains and burdens of the violence of forcing our collective will on others, which makes it so much easier to use that force. Here’s another famous aphorism from Lord Acton, and this one I agree with completely: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

So what does this have to do with American life, and why “Anarchy X”? By now you may have realized I have certain anarchist tendencies at heart, although many hard-core anarchists would thoroughly disagree with my stated opinions regarding the value of politics and war. The X is a reference to both the Ten Commandments and the original Bill of Rights, both of which have had a major effect on the shape of politics and culture in America and will be the launching point for future posts in this series. Hopefully I’ll cover other topics as well, but if I manage to cover all twenty of those, that’s enough ground to keep me busy for quite a while. It should be a fun ride.