There has been much ado, among people who make much ado over such things, about a new study in the American Journal of Medicine that debunks a favorite claim of the gun lobby, the deterrence hypothesis — that is, the idea that high gun ownership drives down crime rates.
The deterrence hypothesis (whose adherents would be offended by my use of “hypothesis”) divides the world into two groups: “law-abiding citizens” who go about their daily lives without being violent, and “criminals,” predatory creatures who survive by victimizing the law-abiding. By arming the law-abiding, we scare the criminals straight or at least convince them to move to horrible places like New York where the helpless citizenry is disarmed. And to prove it, proponents of this idea point to American data on crime rates and gun ownership, which tend to show that where gun ownership is higher, crime rates are lower.
There are a number of problems with this idea, among them the fact that gun ownership is higher in rural America, where crime is lower regardless of the supposed deterrent effect, and that its dichotomy of good guys and bad guys is the property of an eight-year-old’s mind. But no matter; in the great culture-war tradition of refusing to talk about the real issue — differing values and worldviews — the other side is keen to find proof that the deterrence hypothesis is flat-out wrong.
Enter our new study. In summary, the authors took data on gun ownership, crime rates, and mental health in 27 developed nations and fed them through the magical statistical machine of regression, which led them to conclude that gun ownership is correlated with higher firearms-related deaths to a greater degree than is mental health. Correlation is not equal to causation, they sagely advise, but it sure looks like deterrence is full of shit, as is the claim that mental health is the real problem. And that’s true — but the people making much ado about this study then go on to claim that it demonstrates that higher gun ownership leads to higher crime, a claim that is probably full of shit.
The fact of the matter is that this study is neither truly new, nor very good. Previous research has used homicide rates and gun ownership from similar sources to demonstrate that homicide rates are higher in countries where gun ownership is higher. Gary Kleck has criticized that work, noting that when we discard the single outlier — the United States, with its outrageously high gun ownership rates — the supposed correlation disappears. Much as I am inclined to take Kleck with a grain of salt, his point here stands, and it leads me to sniff this new study carefully, and to note an odour of fish.
The problem with any such analysis is in the sample, of course, and two things about the sample leap out. The first is the choice to restrict the analysis to 27 developed nations. While that’s defensible, because we don’t want to confuse the matter by mixing stable democracies with countries racked by political violence, it also leads us to discard all of the potentially confounding evidence. We know that the US has high gun ownership and a high rate of violence, and that Japan has low gun ownership and low violence, and that the other guys are somewhere in between, and we can be pretty confident of the results simply by selecting that sample and ignoring (for example) Jamaica, where private gun ownership is banned but the homicide rate makes Detroit look peaceful. One might argue, of course, that we exclude those countries because we suspect their rates of violence have other causes, but this in turn suggests that we ought to be controlling for a lot of “other causes” — which we are not.
The second is the importance of two obvious outliers, the United States and Japan. The US has the highest rates of gun ownership and mental illness, and Japan the lowest rate of gun ownership and a low rate of mental illness. The US also has the highest rate of firearm-related deaths, and Japan the lowest — a disparity so marked that we have to use a logarithmic scale to plot the regressions. So here’s a legitimate, obvious question: what happens to the strength of this correlation when those two outliers are removed?
We might also ask whether the rates of mental illness, which come from WHO data that relies on local diagnosis rates, are truly reliable. Is the disparity between the American and Japanese rates truly reflective of their national mental health, or might it also reflect differing cultural attitudes towards mental health? And can we really say that this proves mental health is not the problem?
Probably not. And this is the problem with much of the “proof” bandied about in the Great American Gun Kerfuffle: it really isn’t proof at all. It is the same old data, the same old ideas, and the same old arguments, endlessly lobbed back and forth to no avail. No one is changing his mind, because we are failing to address the truth of the matter. Gun ownership in the United States is a cultural phenomenon. The gun is a symbol that stands for, or against, a vision of how Americans ought to live and what kind of a place the United States ought to be. No one is willing to talk about this frankly, because that’s a conversation about values. And nobody wants to admit that the problem of American violence is primarily a problem of values — of America’s fondness for the idea of violent self-determination. No one wants to consider that the gun is a symptom of a deeper problem, not a cause. So America retreats into its war of statistics and data, and gets nowhere.
So Trayvon Martin is dead, and George Zimmerman is free, and a whole lot of people are understandably upset about those two facts. A whole lot of other people seem to be upset that people are upset. The result is an awful lot of stupid squawking, none of which brings us closer to understanding a thing. Indeed, one of the motivators of that squawking is a subconscious desire not to understand a thing. It’s better that way.
To understand why we prefer not to understand what has happened, let’s return to the most basic facts. A man carrying a concealed handgun gets it into his head that another man, who has done him no harm, is up to no good. He pursues the second man. A confrontation occurs. He shoots and kills the second man. And then the law lets him go, because he says it was self-defence.
The law is a reflection of the nation that creates it. It is not a mere rulebook, but a description of our shared values, and most of the time it works pretty well, because we share fundamental intuitions of what is just and what is not. The image reflected in the imperfect mirror of the law looks a lot like us, and we are content. But when a man with a concealed handgun pursues another man for no good reason, and ends up shooting him, our intuition that he is blameworthy collides with the fact of his acquittal with a discordant shriek and a rending of metal. We stare into the mirror of the law and a fearful, angry man gripping a handgun stares back, and we rub our eyes and shake our heads and mutter, “That don’t look a thing like me.”
It most assuredly does.
This is, of course, cognitive dissonance, and to resolve it we go in search of explanations that protect our sense of who we are. For some, this mandates that Trayvon Martin be transformed from the victim of random events into a villain who deserves his fate. It is not enough simply to believe that Zimmerman feared for his life at the moment he pulled the trigger, because the uncomfortable fact is that Martin himself undoubtedly felt also that he was defending himself. So Martin has to become a criminal, a hulking 6’2″ fighter with a history of drug use, burglary, and who knows what else. Martin is vilified, Zimmerman justified, the law is just, and the reflection in the mirror looks just fine.
For others, the problem is more difficult. The law cannot be so easily vindicated, and so we declare that the reflection in the mirror is not us but those other guys. The courts are racist, the cops are racist, and the jury was racist; everyone but us has somehow missed the obvious fact that Martin was shot because he was black. And the problem is guns: guns, guns, and more guns, the American fetish, guns and the gun nuts who like guns and whose powerful lobbyists push through laws that allow people like George Zimmerman to shoot people like Trayvon Martin and get away with it. So the reflection in the mirror don’t look a think like us, but we’re fine with that, because that’s not us at all: we’re the disenfranchised ones who bear no responsibility for the law.
None of this is quite right, of course. Zimmerman may well have feared for his life at the time he pulled the trigger, but Trayvon Martin was not a hulking, violent monster; he was a 17-year-old kid prone to the same lapses of judgment as other 17-year-old kids, lapses of judgment that might include jumping a man who followed him at night for no apparent reason — if indeed that is what happened. And while it would be silly to pretend that race and guns are not in play, the unpleasant reality is that Zimmerman walked free because the prosecution failed to make a coherent case against him, one that would establish not that his actions were blameworthy, which they indisputably were, but that they were criminal, beyond a reasonable doubt. The outcome may not have been just, but it was not in the least surprising.
So America is left facing the mirror, one in which men carrying concealed weapons may shoot and kill anyone who seems to be an imminent threat. One of the better explanations for what has gone wrong in America is that its laws have failed to keep up with its “gun culture,” but this, too, is inadequate. American law has not failed to keep up with its gun culture at all; American law is the product of American culture, and of its gun culture. The problem is not that American law has failed to respond to the fact that perhaps 1 in 20 Americans now carries a concealed handgun; the problem is that it has responded — just as it responded to the 19th century revolution in firepower by discarding centuries of common-law tradition in favour of the “True Man” doctrine, the precursor to Stand Your Ground.
America has responded to its sheepdogs — those who for whatever reason appoint themselves the task of protecting the bulk of the American people, the sheep, from harm — by reassuring them through laws like Florida’s 2005 Stand Your Ground law that they will not be punished for their acts. And although Stand Your Ground was not in play in Zimmerman’s defence, the rationale behind it colours the American common law, going back to 1876 when the Ohio Supreme Court decided, in Erwin v. State, that the right to personal autonomy trumps the public peace. It’s a foundation principle of American thought: you have the right to be anyplace where you have the right to be, and to do anything that you have the right to do, to go anywhere and do anything unless the law prohibits it. That gives you the right to protest in the street against a court verdict; it equally gives you the right to follow an unarmed man who has done you no harm, just because you think he looks suspicious.
This is what you get, in short, when you hold the right to individual autonomy above all others, when you forget that rights go along with a responsibility to preserve the public peace. And this is why the image in the mirror, as ugly as it may seem, is undeniably accurate. Zimmerman’s right to autonomy was supreme; Martin’s became irrelevant, because he is dead. That’s America, where history is written by the victors, and has been since 1876.
… but I’ve been hard at work, as promised, on what has turned out to be a lengthy treatise on what is loosely called “gun culture.”One of the problems with writing a lengthy treatise on such a topic is that all kinds of stuff happens that you could comment insightfully on, but can’t, because you’re too busy hammering away at the treatise itself. Much has happened: the Aurora theatre massacre, the Sandy Hook massacre, the elevation of gun control (briefly) to the top of the American legislative agenda, the repeal of Canada’s long gun registry, the ongoing legal kerfuffle over Quebec’s attempt to preserve the registry data as the basis of its own long gun registry, and of course the trial of George Zimmerman. But I have been too busy even to blow the dust off this blog — which is frustrating, because much of the commentary on these subjects is painfully silly, if you have spent months with your head buried in the topic.
But now, the work is mostly done, and the dust is blown off. I am fully armed and ready to tangle with anyone.
We (by which I mean “I”) haven’t been too active around here recently, thanks to one thing or another, but a couple of things have happened:
I ranted and raved about Canada Reads in the new issue of Canadian Notes & Queries, which you should rush out and buy immediately:
It is difficult to decide which was the greater travesty: that one of the Canada Reads panelists, Debbie Travis, could not muster the mental resources to finish one of the books, or that the winning book, The Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis, was so outrageously bad that her failure to finish it vindicates her.
Okay, if you don’t want to buy the magazine (boo, hiss), you can read it here.
I reviewed David Adams Richards’s new book, Facing The Hunter, for the National Post:
Everything rural is good: Farming does not convert wildlife habitat into empty fields, no one ever drained a wetland for the sake of another field and farm runoff never hurt our water quality. Everything urban is bad; indeed, the indefensible in hunting — trophy hunting, hubristic excesses and overkill — is the work of urban hunters. All ills owe to “urban culture,” “urban ideas” and “urban sentiment.” Herein is a drinking game: Down a shot for each repetition, and you will soon be plastered. But you will be no closer to understanding, for Richards does not explore the ideas with which he takes issue. He simply writes them off as “urban” and moves on.
Since nobody actually buys newspapers, you can read that here.
I know that I said a couple of things, and that 3 > 2, but anyway … new projects are afoot here at the Banjaxed Institute of Writing Stuff About Things. Expect to read about North America’s gun culture. On that note, I leave you with this, hoping you’re well stocked up on canned goods and ammunition:
It is often argued, and always by critics, that we cannot have great literature without great criticism. If this is true, then it follows that we cannot have great criticism unless we have great criticism of that criticism. Thus, this review of a review.
One might hope that a book review would provide the reader with insight into the book under review. One would frequently be disappointed. In place of insight, we too often get nothing more than debris from the collision between the book and the reviewer’s prejudices, or worse, the reviewer’s sense of how he would have written the book if only he weren’t a lazy little dipshit of few redeeming qualities whose greatest contribution to our literature thus far has been a glowing, if semi-literate, review of a book by Terry Fallis. And so it is with Hubert O’Hearn’s review of Marina Endicott’s new novel, an effort that does little to advance the form, nor, indeed, to advance anything at all.
O’Hearn’s review suffers first from stupidity. Reviewers everywhere, allow me to offer you a tip: do not double up your lead by slamming the book with two paragraphs of insult, and then follow up by complaining that you were unable to keep track of which character was younger through some three hundred pages of reading. Your inability to keep track of even the most trivial detail will mark you as a buffoon whose ability to read the more subtle variations of character is surely in question. If you are unable to grasp that the character whose name commences with “B” is younger than the character whose name commences with “C,” the reader may well question whether the problem lies with the book, or with the reviewer.
Above all, O’Hearn wishes that Endicott had not written her book, but had written his instead. It’s a common mistake among those who haven’t quite gotten down to the real work of writing their own: how nice it would be to have someone else drop your book in your lap! And when they fail to do so, the disappointment!
And so O’Hearn complains that Endicott has not used her three sisters in the manner he would use three siblings, if only he were to get off his lazy ass and write something of consequence. And that Endicott did not give Swain’s Rats and Cats the importance O’Hearn would have accorded them, if only he were to get off his ass and write something of consequence. And that Endicott has not concerned herself with the audience, which O’Hearn surely would, if only, etc. The failure of her book, apparently, is that it is her book, and not O’Hearn’s, a point underscored by his continual complaint that she wastes her material.
O’Hearn also complains about the quality of Endicott’s writing, in a paragraph that leaves one muttering, “Physician, go fuck thyself”:
But really— scudding? Slow-flurrying? In trying to write, shall we say, ‘in period’ Endicott throws in clunky phrasing that brings to mind nothing other than The New Yorker and Wolcott Gibbs’ famous description of Time magazine’s style: ‘Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind.’ One other point— Groucho actually was from that period, and he sure never talked like that, nor did Bob Hope, George Burns, Jack Benny, Fanny Brice or, hell, anyone who ever drew a living breath.
Notice the wordiness (‘shall we say,’ ‘nothing other than’), his missing comma, his comma splice, his brutal misuse of the em-dash, and the tin ear that leads us from Time magazine style to Groucho Marx through that clumsy “one other point.” This man cannot write.
I am reminded of Jim Harrison’s complaint that he can’t give a damn about a critic who hasn’t written a good book: if your own stuff is no good, who the fuck cares what you have to say? Harrison is wrong here, in that one can be a superb critic without being a competent novelist, but he still has a point: who cares what you have to say about how other people write, if you can’t yourself write an acceptable English sentence? In O’Hearn’s one paragraph I find three errors of punctuation, not to mention a solid dose of the “clunky phrasing” he so derides.
But worse than any of this is the evident glee O’Hearn finds in kicking around someone who has put two more novels out to face the critics than he himself has managed. Reading O’Hearn’s disclaimer (“I’m not enjoying writing this”), complete with emphatic italics, I find myself muttering that the lady doth protest too much. There is the double lead, his sarcastic complaint that the non-sequential names “must have seemed writerly and symbolic,” and his attempt at a final witticism. A reviewer who does not enjoy savaging a book discards sarcasm. To be savage and to pretend one would rather not is dishonest, or, in more precise terms, chickenshit.
Books deserve to be reviewed well, and The Winnipeg Review usually rises to a better level.
I can’t comment on whether The Little Shadows is a good book. Perhaps it is. Perhaps, on the other hand, it’s the kind of book club fiction I so despise. But I can’t help but feel that, having read a review, I should have some sense of which it is. I don’t. O’Hearn, as a reviewer, is a failure. He has provided me with some sense of his pettiness, but no sense of its object.
It occurs to me only recently that I may be guilty of holding back my views on the Giller Prize’s unaccountably short-sighted and tone deaf decision to allow the public to vote one title onto their longlist via the moronic “Reader’s Choice” poll organized by their “broadcast partner,” CBC Books, an organization that appears to be dedicated to enlarging its audience through the destruction of Canadian culture.
So let me now be clear: I was not entirely certain this was a good idea.
Yesterday’s longlist, complete with Readers’ Choice pick Extensions, by Myrna Dey, vindicates that view. I find two serious problems with this book’s place on the longlist: the pungent odor of fish attending its selection, and the poor quality of the writing. In short, as certain outspoken critics warned us might happen, a bad book now appears on the Giller longlist by dint of an effort to stuff the ballot box.
I was prepared to argue that Myrna Dey’s sudden, eleventh hour surge to the top of the poll suggested a concerted campaign, rather than genuine reader interest. I was prepared to use LibraryThing (two copies) and GoodReads (4 copies) as indices of the book’s actual sales (apparently, very small), and then argue the improbability of an essentially unknown book inspiring such an outpouring of affection from the few people who read it as to propel it to the top of the pile. Yes, I was prepared to gather all my evidence and lay out the argument … but then Myrna Dey told the Toronto Star that she credits “a vast network of friends and a Facebook campaign by her daughter in Edmonton with pushing her over the top.”
Elana Rabinovitch started backing away from the Readers’ Choice almost as soon as it was announced, by hinting that it may not happen next year. It hardly credits the Giller Prize when an author, quoted in one of the country’s largest newspapers, openly admits that a spot on the longlist belongs to whoever can organize the most effective Facebook campaign. It is no longer necessary to argue that the Readers’ Choice cheapens the longlist; it has happened. And it is telling that not one of the top ten Readers’ Choice titles made the jury’s longlist.
The Globe & Mail and the National Post, to their credit, have mostly ignored the Readers’ Choice selection. There’s no point in jumping to cover what is ultimately the product of a Facebook campaign. But others have given it more space. Quill & Quire fawningly pretends that Facebook really had little to do with it. The CBC, predictably, wants us to know about the contest they administered. And the Star made the Readers’ Choice their headline and wrapped all their coverage around it.
This leads us to the second problem. Is it any good? Quill & Quire, unaccountably, reviewed this one with kid gloves — and I have to say that I normally see no point picking on a small-press debut that is unlikely to go anywhere. But when a book gets on the Giller longlist, and particularly when it gets there via the controversial Readers’ Choice, we have to be critical. And, based on the first thirty pages published online by NeWest Press, Extensions got a free ride from Q&Q.
Nothing in the first thirty pages suggests that the book is worthy of any award. The dialogue is weak, devoid of any subtext. We frequently get two beats of dialogue, followed by a paragraph of exposition. The characters are almost completely lacking in personality. There is no fire in this writing, no energy, no particular beauty. The writing never commands notice — unless it’s for an unfortunate sentence like “Macy had fallen asleep on Gail’s knee, and she rose carefully to slip into the house with her.”
The first thirty pages teem with the kind of bad writing habits around which creative writing classes are built. Dialogue is repeatedly used for exposition (“I winced that Gail had to work in the ‘Constable,'” the narrator tells us; rest assured, your reader winced, too). Lines are tagged with such words as “Monty grinned.” The dialogue lacks tension or any sense of dramatic purpose. Scenes lack conflict or drive. Arabella’s friends are all perfect. And the exposition … the exposition….
If it hardly credits the Giller that a book can be pushed onto the longlist via a Facebook campaign, it credits the prize less that the book thus nominated is so demonstrably weak. And it should disturb us all that this book, by dint of being the Readers’ Choice, receives so much attention. One hopes that the people who organized this farce will be similarly disturbed.
Recently I pulled Leon Rooke’s The Last Shot off my shelf, and noticed little red page flags sticking out of it. Most curious. How did those get there? I must have stuck them there, for some reason. So I promptly investigated them to see if I could figure out why.
This was pretty easy. They marked stories that I liked. All except one, which just marked a page. But scanning quickly down the page, I found why the flag was there. The reason looked like this:
In Prissy’s estimation Ganger was a boy of weirdly morbid and demented disposition. He was gravely barbecued in the belfry.
That sentence. Ganger is barbecued in the belfry — and not lightly grilled, mind you, but gravely barbecued. That’s a sentence I wish I’d written.
I was thinking about that sentence and it struck me that this wonderful sentence manages, using only seven words, to break three rules much touted by that industry which purports to teach people how to write. That is, it tells, rather than shows; it uses one of those dreaded adverbs; and it is based on a hackneyed phrase, a worn-out metaphor, a cliché. And this should tell you that something is deeply wrong with the “how to write” manuals and the writing workshops, rather than the sentence in question.
So the lesson of the day, I suppose, is that you can follow all the standard writing advice, and write the same way everyone else does, or you can rewrite the rulebook to your own ends.