Monday, December 28, 2015

Study gun violence in the US? Don't count on it

previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 27 December 2015

It is not because the truth is too difficult to see that we make mistakes ... we make mistakes because the easiest and most comfortable course for us is to seek insight where it accords with our emotions — especially selfish ones. — Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Why do we bother arguing with numbers? Numbers and statistics are ubiquitous in our society. Someone should do a content analysis of our media and speech and see how much content is oriented around numbers whether it be rankings, opinion polls, scores, profits, costs, guns and crime. Yet, to what degree does any of it make a difference? What numbers change anyone’s mind?

Take the “gun debate.” Recently crime statistics were the topic of the nanosecond. In short, murders and violent crime are way way down. Of course the perception of violence and violent crime is way way up. Research into the perception of crime suggests that one’s perception of crime is not based on personal experience as much as media viewing habits. In other words, those who watch a lot of crime shows and news (both of which are ubiquitous) overestimate by a significant amount the actual level of crime and violence. The actual numbers don’t matter.

Take one disagreement between pro-gunners and anti-gunners: What it means to have lots and lots of guns. The pro-gun side claims more guns reduce crime, especially the murderous kind. The anti-gun side claims, no, more guns leads to more violence. This is what scholars call an empirical question, we can answer this. So, let’s look at the states with the most guns and compare it to the states with the most murders. (This is not perfect because not all gun violence ends up with a corpse, but this is how research proceeds.) We are going to “correlate” state murder rates with gun registrations, a measure of ostensibly legal guns. Washington, D.C., Arkansas and Louisiana are in the top 10 in terms of both number of guns and murder rate. Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Georgia are among the top 10 murder rates but rank in the next 10 in number of registered handguns. South Carolina and Tennessee are in the top 10 of murderous states but fall in the middle of registered guns. None of the 10 states with the lowest murder rates are among the states with the 10 highest gun registrations. Montana, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, and New Hampshire are among the bottom 10 murder rate states but fall in the range of 11-30 in terms of gun registrations. There is a correlation here but it’s not nearly as strong as either side wants to believe.

Looking just at murders with guns, by far the most common means, it’s clear that not all people are equal. Not to dismiss the tragedies, but the chances of being murdered by a gun in the U.S. is much greater for males than for females. The Brookings Institute analyzed data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and found for women, the gun murder rate is less than five per 100,000 while for men, it is at least three times higher. In short, gun violence is a “man thing,” though not all men are murdered equally.

The greatest gun danger to white men is suicide, not being murdered. Almost 80 percent of gun deaths among whites are suicides, while it’s black men who have reason to fear others with guns, over 80 percent of gun deaths among blacks are murders.

As a scholar, arguments over numbers call for more research which means more numbers. There are all kinds of interesting correlations (correlations do not equal causation) regarding guns and violence, risk factors, and cultural factors. All of which are worthy of study and could yield some valuable insights regarding policy. 

 Yet, as a nation, as reflected in our national policies, we choose to NOT study it. A 1993 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, funded by the CDC, that concluded rather than protection, guns in the home pose an increased risk of homicide by a family member or intimate acquaintance. This article received a lot of attention and the NRA began a campaign to stop federal funding of such research and succeeded. In 1996 an amendment to the omnibus budget bill was passed that prohibited any CDC money to be spent on research that advocated or promoted gun control. That ban remains in effect and was later expanded to include the National Institutes of Health.
A continuing mistake.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

As 'privatization' expands, the public sphere erodes

previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 13 December 2015

Editor’s Note: This is the second of a two-party series of essays about free speech on college campuses.

Two other forces have brought us to the point where students feel threatened on ISU’s and other campuses by “street preachers” and “unsafe” in the face of passionate disagreements and potential objectionable Halloween costumes. And they are related. The first is the incredible narrowing of the “public” as well as the tarnishing and demeaning of all things public.

“Private” is good, while “public” is bad. What public institution is held up with pride in the United States anymore? Certainly not democratic government or our courts. Even the military is forced to increasingly privatize. Public education once used to be held up, but not anymore with those who are entrusted with our public institutions working effectively to undermine them. Public lands are constantly under fire to be privatized. National, state and municipal Parks’ budgets are cut and cut until they are no longer truly public because to stay in operation they have to charge user fees and then “privatized.”

Who doesn’t love Disney World? But you don’t have freedom of speech there. Try wearing a provocative piece of legible clothing without a Disney trademark. Go to a town square, and you can start talking loud about the mayor if you want, except there are no people anymore in the town square, they are at the mall. So, go to the mall and start on about the mayor being a crook; you will be escorted out. Public might as well be “pubic” in today’s America. Facebook isn’t public, not only can people “block’ you but Facebook can violate your constitutional rights by shutting you out, except it’s not your constitutional right, you have to play by Facebook’s rules and that is their right as (private) property owners. Even the Livefyre commenting feature on the Tribune-Star’s website where this essay appears has “rules” about speech.

As we de-public our democracy, we create fewer and fewer spaces where those cherished rights can be exercised. You don’t have rights to free speech in the workplace (unless you work for the government, oh right, not even there, ask the Terre Haute police officer about his political statements contrary to the current administration’s favor). You don’t have rights to free speech in a private home at the dinner table. As a culture we might emphasize it, but it mostly only works when people are relatively equal. Your boss or your mom aren’t going to respect your mouthiness as free speech, its back-talking or insubordination and you get grounded or fired for it.

Most of those corporate sponsored SEC football schools, like Missouri, Arkansas, Florida, Auburn, Georgia, Kentucky, LSU, Mississippi State, Tennessee, and Texas A&M, are all government schools established as Land Grant Universities by the Federal Government following the Civil War to specifically further the industrialization of the country, but today, they are more like private schools because the states are getting out of the public anything business (even prisons as they are rapidly being privatized). And with that privatization comes the inevitable treating students as “customers.” And customers are treated well are they not?

I mean, if an employee is treated shabbily by a boss, we hardly care. Just look at the waning public support for unions. But if a customer is treated poorly by a business, it’s known and in some cases, some treatment is considered illegal, such as refusing to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding, or refusing to serve a customer with the wrong religion or skin color. Public institutions treat people shabbily, like the IRS, while our universities recruit students as though they are heading off to a private resort and given the debt that so many students carry even in public (government) colleges. No wonder they feel the right to exclude offensive individuals from their “private” space, especially the obnoxious and biased press.

No, it’s not the “pussification” of America nor is it the” progressivism” of higher ed or the continued insensitivity of the dwindling white power structure of academia, it’s the systematic devaluation of and shrinkage of the “public” in our society. Free speech only ever existed in the public sphere which once was ubiquitous, especially with such incredible institutions as education and a press that served the public. But today, public is an insult and everyone unquestioningly assumes the superiority of “private.”

The result is a loss of social space to exercise free speech or to have a free press. Besides, the “press” is so vilified today. For some, it’s the press that is the “enemy.” Mizzou students formed a ring around protesters to protect them from the intrusive eye of the press. Later some of them will be the legislators who pass laws that make it a crime for journalists to take pictures of factory farms to show the public the conditions of the animals that become bacon and hamburgers. As our “public” rights erode, “private” rights expand.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Free Speech is Taking a Beating on Campus

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of two columns from Thomas L. Steiger on the subject of free speech on college campuses. 

The events at the University of Missouri and Yale last month have pushed questions of free speech and freedom of the press into the limelight. I’ve been thinking about free speech and its meaning in our society today since ISU’s “microdrama” surrounding free speech when the Chief of ISU Public Safety sent an email to all students pointing out that the evangelizing by Terre Haute’s own fiery modern circuit riders, Brother Jed, Sister Cindy, and I’m sure in spirit, “Mad Max”, was protected speech under the US Constitution.

I don’t know what precipitated it, but I’m guessing that some ISU students who didn’t like the street preacher’s insults of “fornicator,” “whore,” “whore monger,” and “sinner” either complained or perhaps got physical, because the preachers were then relocated with a barricade around them with a sign that read “THIS IS PROTECTED SPEECH YOU HAVE THE OPTION TO LISTEN OR IGNORE WALK AWAY OR STAY YOU MAY ALSO PARTICIPATE THREATENING OR INTIMIDATING CONDUCT WILL NOT BE ALLOWED.”

I was surprised by this and began watching the students interact with the street preachers. The angry students worry me. I saw no one trying to use humor to argue back. I know our students are religious and many know their bibles and have paid attention to the lessons of their home church, but few tried to argue with the preachers at that level, instead people were googling things to hurl back to the preachers.

Brother Jed, Sister Cindy and (now departed) Mad Max first insulted me when I was a 17-year-old freshman at the University of Florida. Holding court on the Plaza of the Americas with often 100s of students mocking back at them was great entertainment in a pre- Internet time. I recall Jed calling me a whore monger. I actually was familiar with the term, my preference for 1940s serial detective novels taught me a lot. As an awkward 17-year-old on a campus of 60 percent males, I wished I was a whore monger.

Jed, if you have never seen him, has quite an act. It’s dramatic and very physical. We learned to imitate it and often would line up behind Jed and go through his motions with him. Sometimes he would get agitated with us. We never threatened him. We mocked him; laughed at him and each other. I don’t recall any anger. I saw intense anger, perhaps hatred, as ISU students yelled “you preach hate” at the street preachers.

Because of the threatened boycott of one of the sacred rites of fall advertising, SEC football, by 30 African American gladiators (football players) the attention of the nation was momentarily fixed. The hunger striker never seemed to make the news. But, by god, threaten Saturday football in the SEC and stuff happens. A university president and chancellor are toppled. But it was the student reporter getting poor treatment and a liberal journalism prof stopping the reporter from doing his job that really hijacked the show. Follow that up with the controversy at Yale over Halloween costumes and you now have this essay.

Conservative reactions to the Yale incident, where the Yale administration sent out an email to the students to be culturally sensitive regarding their Halloween costumes and a faculty member who thought the Administration’s official email was a bit heavy handed and encouraged the students to express themselves and for others to just look away or ignore a costume they didn’t like, led to an eruption on campus where the faculty were harangued, apologies demanded, threats made, etc. Look it up, it’s a fascinating peek into the lives of some of our most privileged students.

Conservatives have jumped on this with their usual memes around such topics with the “pussification” of America, which is nothing more than a not-so-subtle complaint about women’s greater equality. One thing has changed on American college campuses, there are more women than men today and while there are still some areas that are still heavily male, they are dwindling.

Another conservative meme, one artfully crafted by that noted sociologist George Will (anyone who knows him will smile at me calling him a sociologist) blamed “higher ed progressivism” for the debacle at Yale. Really? So a year or two at Yale causes this? Never mind the 12-14 years of private school education among a select “people like us” atmosphere. Or that Yale students aren’t like “government” school university students who attend “public” (said with derision) universities where the grounds are public property and free speech must be respected. It’s not just a school policy as it is at Yale, but American Constitutional Law that protects it at a government school like ISU.

Liberals are having a hard time responding to these issues. They can’t seem to deal with the contradictions. It’s OK, use the contradictions to move the discussion along. Use data, evidence, and reason. Oh, and throw in “nuance.” That’s always a winner.

Next week: As public rights erode, private rights expand.
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