»  Radio Derb — Transcript

        Saturday, December 22nd, 2012

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[Music clip: From Haydn's Derbyshire Marches]

01 — Intro.     And Radio Derb is on the air with our Christmas broadcast. This is your festively genial host John Derbyshire with a glance at the news.

Sad news it is over there in the States: innocents slaughtered by a madman. Last Friday's shooting at a Connecticut elementary school cast a pall over the festive season. It's what's been filling the newspapers, though, so let's cover it as best we can.

02 — A zone of chaos.     I can never think of anything much to say about events like this. Given all the anfractuosities of human nature, this bizarre and extraordinary kind of event seems to me to belong to the random portion of our life in this universe, like asteroid strikes.

I'm skeptical of talk about causes and solutions. I don't believe this is a zone of cause and effect, of problem and solution: I think this is a zone of chaos; a zone where stuff happens, without any rhyme or reason we can comprehend at the present state of our knowledge.

For sure the event itself is not an issue on which any sane person can take sides. There is no argument to be made for the mass murder of little children. Even in the worst extremes of total war, where things can get pretty indiscriminate, the deliberate targeting of children is beyond the bounds of acceptable behavior, by common agreement among civilized peoples.

There are of course related issues on which we can take sides; but the arguments on those issues are so well-worn, have been so often heard, my reading eyes find it a struggle to get all the way through any commentary on them. I'll discuss three of the commonest in just a moment, each in its own segment, since these sidebar issues are once again in the air; but it'll be a perfunctory discussion.

Aside from recording what happened, expressing proper condolences to the bereaved, and mocking some of the sillier statements of our politicians, there is not much for either news journalists or opinion journalists usefully to say about a lunatic shooting up an elementary school. Unless you are a lunatic yourself, it's a horror beyond imagining — the more so in this case because it happened right before Christmas, the happiest time of the year for little kids.

That's just saying the obvious, though — something we all know by instinct. Beyond that, what's worth saying?

About the incident itself, nothing that I can think of; so let's take a look at those related issues.

03 — Guns and liberty.     Gun control is the related issue that generates the most discussion when mass shootings happen. Not much ever comes of all that discussion, though, and for a fundamental and very excellent reason: In order to confiscate more than three hundred million privately-held firearms, or even to exercise much more control over them than the authorities currently have, we would have to become a completely different nation.

There would need to be some major amendments to the Constitution, a great expansion of federal policing powers, a widespread new agreed conception of the citizen's relationship to his state — indeed, a new conception of the states' relationship to the federal power … We'd be back to 1787 and the Federalist Papers, re-arguing the basics.

It's no use saying "Other nations do it." Other nations are not the U.S.A. They don't have our Constitution, our laws, our customs, our history, our geography, or our demography.

There are plenty of people who would like to see changes to our national life as fundamental as that, and some of those people are in positions of power. There aren't anything like enough of them, though, thank goodness.

And the gun issue, among all other issues, has this one reassuring peculiarity: That a serious federal power play against gun owners would meet vigorous resistance which would — by definition! — be armed resistance. Nobody should wish for push to come to shove over gun control: but the knowledge of how events might evolve if it did, is a sufficient deterrent to the gun-grabbers.

Second Amendment rights have another thing going for them, too: They are defended by one of the best-organized and most effective lobbies in our political life, the National Rifle Association. I'm an NRA member, and if you own one of those three hundred million guns, you should be too. In the wake of the Connecticut murders, gun ownership rights are going to come under sustained attack.

I don't, as I've said, think anything much will come of those attacks; but to be on the safe side, I just sent the NRA a hundred bucks. I urge you to do whatever you can to support them, and help keep our historic liberties intact.

04 — I'm eccentric, you're weird, he's crazy.     The second sidebar issue here, much commented on in the past few days, is the identification and treatment of mad people.

The common narrative goes something like this:

  • Up until the late 1960s we put crazy people in secure institutions. Then two things happened.
  • First, psychopharmacology reached a takeoff point, where we had some psychoactive medications that in at least some cases could make crazy people less crazy. Looking back, we were a bit overconfident there. Not all the drugs performed as advertised; some had side effects worse than the condition they were supposed to help. Still there was genuine relief in many cases, so that institutionalized people could be sent home to live fairly normal lives … so long as they took their meds, of course.
  • Second, there was a change in thinking about mental illness. In part this was an aspect of the overturning of accepted notions and conventions that was going on all over society in the 1960s, and in part it was a genuine concern for the rights of people incarcerated against their will.
  • Some of this rethinking went over the top. The radical British psychiatrist R.D. Laing, for example, often seems to have been saying that crazy people's point of view was just as sound as sane people's, if not better — that society at large is crazy and could be improved by appreciating the perspective of the schizophrenics. These ideas are in direct line of descent from the so-called Frankfurt School of Marxism that flourished in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. The Frankfurters argued — to boil it down to a thumbnail sketch — that capitalism makes you crazy.
  • It wasn't all over the top, though. There was some genuine libertarian concern that people's natural rights over their own bodies were being taken away. Remember that at that time the U.S.S.R. was locking up political dissidents in mental asylums and forcibly medicating them. This was the Cold War, and Americans of the classical liberal tradition — what we nowadays call "libertarians" — didn't want to be doing anything the Soviets were doing. A key name here is the American psychiatrist Thomas Szasz, who died just a few weeks ago.
  • These changes in our thinking were memorably represented to the public in Milos Forman's 1975 movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, which was set in a mental hospital. That's the movie in which Jack Nicholson tells his fellow inmates, quote: "You're no crazier than the average asshole out walkin' around on the streets." The villain of the movie is Nurse Ratched, a bourgeois authority figure, memorably played by Louise Fletcher; so there is a dash of Szasz's libertarian social critique, and a dash of Laing's leftist one.
  • Well, the two things — confidence in new drugs and the change of thinking about mental illness and rights — together led to massive de-institutionalization. This went too far, and whereas before we were too ready to put people in asylums, we are now too reluctant, so that crazy people are at large to harass us in the streets and subways, or to commit atrocities like last Friday's in Connecticut.

That's the common narrative. There's a case to be made for it. Certainly there are people on the streets of New York who ought to be under institutional care. Heck, I'll name one for you: Naeem Davis, the guy who threw a New Yorker to his death under a subway train December 3rd.

Identifying dangerously crazy people before they do outrageouly crazy things is a hit-and-miss business, though. We weren't any better at it in the age of institutionalization than we are now. The worst massacre of elementary-school children in all of U.S. history was not the one in Connecticut last Friday, it was the school bombings in Bath Township, Michigan that killed 38 kids and six adults. That was in 1927. I'm sure that at the time the Michigan bomber was cooking up his murderous plan in freedom, there were thousands of harmless people locked up in that state's asylums.

Or think of Charles Whitman, who went up the tower at the University of Texas Austin campus in 1966 and murdered 14 people. That was in the age of institutionalization, though towards the end of it, and Whitman was in fact taking prescription psychoactive medication at the time.

I return here to my opening remarks about this being a zone of chaos, in which seeking for rhyme or reason in the event is futile. I don't mean that it's inherently futile, or will always be futile: but it's futile right now because we don't yet understand enough about human nature.

The way our minds are constructed, we are always driven to seek rhymes and reasons for things. We weren't very good at this, though, until historically quite recently — until scientific method came up in the 17th century. Seeking rhyme and reason for earthquakes, our pre-scientific ancestors came up with folk explanations involving angry gods, restless dragons, and such. We now know that those folk explanations are false. Earthquakes are caused by convection flows in our planet's molten interior causing cracking and shifting of the solid crust.

Perhaps one day we'll know why crazy people do crazy things, and how to identify those people accurately. Perhaps we'll be able to stop the crazy things, though that doesn't necessarily follow: we understand earthquakes, but we can't stop them. Still, understanding would be nice.

We don't have it yet, though. Our understanding of the mind is not far beyond the angry gods and restless dragons stage.

I don't have much patience with explanatory thinking at the folk level; I want to see hard, reproducible scientific results. Until they come along, I'll hold on tight to my liberties. Without science, we only have pseudoscience: and pseudoscience has always been close friends with tyranny.

05 — Is it the culture's fault?     Third in the sidebar issues to the Connecticut shooting is a collection of ideas about what we loosely call "the culture."

I'm sure you've heard some of this commentary. Violent video games; violent movies; absent fathers; the decline of religion.

Well, maybe; but the correlations are feeble and there are too many other variables mixed in there. George Orwell was deploring the violence in American popular media 68 years ago, in an essay discussing James Hadley Chase's thriller novel No Orchids for Miss Blandish, quote:

There exists in America an enormous literature of more or less the same stamp as No Orchids. Quite apart from books, there is the huge array of "pulp magazines," graded so as to cater for different kinds of fantasy, but nearly all having much the same mental atmosphere. A few of them go in for straight pornography, but the great majority are quite plainly aimed at sadists and masochists.

End quote. That was in 1944. Since then the decades have rolled by, murder rates have risen, fallen, risen, fallen; and incidents like the Connecticut shooting have happened at intervals, to no pattern I can discern. Americans have always had an appetite for violence in their entertainment; that they are any more so inclined now than in the past, I can't see.

There must be forty million people at least, adults and children, in the United Sates playing violent video games. If 100 of them go out and commit mass shootings, which is surely an over-estimate, that means 99.99975 percent of them didn't. This is not exactly an epidemic sweeping the nation.

The death of a child is the worst thing we can imagine; but that's no excuse for losing our sense of proportion. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, in an average year around fifteen children aged under five drown in 5-gallon buckets. Four or five a year in that age group drown in household toilets. I'd like to live in a world without tragedy too; but that's not this world.

The fatherless kids argument might have something to it; but there have been fatherless kids in all times and places. Indeed, there were many more in the past than now, because many people died young before modern medicine came up. In what biologists call the EEA, the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness, the environment in which our species evolved, fatherlessness must have been very common. If it caused gross psychological dysfunction, evolution would have taken care of that.

Furthermore, to the degree that fatherlessness has anything to do with it, the topic leads us into a place where most Americans would prefer not to go. Fatherlessness is much more common among blacks than among nonblacks. If fatherlessness is causative, therefore, mass killing should be proportionately more a black thing than a nonblack thing.

There is an urban legend to the contrary. The urban legend says that sure, blacks may commit more one-on-one homicides than whites, but spree killing is a white thing.

In fact that urban legend is false. Per capita, blacks commit serial killings at about twice the white rate. Any number of websites have crunched the numbers to point this out, and at least one person, name of Justin Cottrell, has written a book about it, title Rise of the Black Serial Killer, published in May this year. The urban legend persists because the mainstream media sensationalize white killers and deliberately under-report others. That happens because the mainstream media are run by liberals who nurse a paternalistic fondness for blacks and a deep hatred of low-class whites.

Note I said that on the statistics, blacks commit serial killings at about twice the white rate. Based on Bureau of Justice statistics, the overall homicide rate for blacks is seven to eight times the nonblack rate — that's whites and Hispanics aggregated.

So while blacks are over-represented in serial killings, they are not as over-represented as they are in homicides generally — a crumb of consolation for those who liked that urban legend.

Even after taking all that on board, though, we haven't established a clear arrow of causation from fatherlessness to mass killing. The collective behavior profiles of the races differ in so many ways, outcomes A and B could be A causing B, or A and B could both have some common cause X, or their co-appearance could be dumb coincidence.

Well, if you can get a clear arrow of causation out of all that, you're smarter than I am.

The religious issue is even murkier. The least religious state in the Union, by church attendance, is Oregon; the most religious is Mississippi. Which of the two, do you think, Oregon or Mississippi, has the higher rate of violent crime? Right. Same internationally: Pakistan and Nigeria are much more religious than Japan and Iceland, yet far more violent.

When cause and effect are as muddy as this; when so many variables are in play; when the only explanations available are those from folk speculation, filtered through the power urges of ambitious politicians and social engineers, I say let's stand firm by our old liberties while we wait for science to come up with something better than restless dragons.

06 — Miscellany.     And now, our closing miscellany of brief items.

Imprimis:  Just in case my segment on gun control there left you in any doubt about the connection with liberty, here is the opinion of the Chinese Communist Party, as relayed through their official propaganda network the so-called Xinhua News Agency. Quote:

Obama said of the latest tragedy the country had "been through this too many times," and it was time to put aside political differences and "take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this." … Action speaks louder than words. If Obama wants to take practical measures to control guns, he has to make preparation for a protracted war and considerable political cost.

End quote. Once again, that was the opinion of the Chinese Communist Party, which not only prohibits its citizens from owning guns, but prohibits them from owning anything with any security of possession, since the Party reserves to itself the right to confiscate property, including land, from anyone, any time.

This Party, which crushed an unarmed student demonstration with tanks and machine-gun fire in 1989; and which twenty years before that plunged China into a decade of disorder, madness, and murder; and whose policies, ten years before that, caused upwards of thirty million Chinese citizens to starve to death; this Party is now shedding crocodile tears — or perhaps dragon tears — at, quote from Xinhua, "the … heartbreaking deaths of … 20 schoolchildren." The Chinese word for chutzpah, in case you're wondering, is 厚顏無恥 Hold on to your guns, citizens.

Item:  Three weeks ago we reported on U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg telling a conference that she hopes to see an all-female Supreme Court one day.

Here's another gal of the same kidney: Glowering crop-haired lesbian British movie director Phyllida Lloyd. Miss Lloyd complained on a British radio show that Shakespeare wrote far more male characters into his plays than female ones. By way of fighting back against the patriarchal Bard, Miss Lloyd is currently staging an all-female production of Julius Caesar. I can imagine the script revisions: "Et tu, Brute, you bitch?"  "Friends, Romans, countrypersons," etc.

Miss Lloyd is, however, willing to allow men on stage too. She just wants equal numbers of men and women in all theater companies, put into force of law by the European Union, along with, quote, "gender-blind casting."

Well, there are some precedents. In European opera the "pants role" — where a female singer plays the part of a male — is long established, while in classical Chinese opera men sang all the roles, no women allowed at all.

And remember that scene in Huckleberry Finn where the Duke and the King play Romeo and Juliet respectively. The King protests that, quote: "But if Juliet's such a young gal, Duke, my peeled head and my white whiskers is goin' to look oncommon odd on her, maybe."  "No, don't you worry," replies the Duke. "These country jakes won't ever think of that."

I think modern theater audiences are a tad more sophisticated than the tobacco-chewing denizens of the 1840s American backwoods, though. Juliet with whiskers, or Richard the Third with two humps on the front instead of one on the back, might be too much for them.

Item:  Finally, from those ingenious Japanese, a marvelous new gadget — just the thing for a last-minute present for that special person in your life: a smart toilet that you can flush remotely using your iPhone. The same app will raise or lower the toilet seat for you, and keep track of your bowel movements, I guess in case you forget to.

The opportunities for double-entendres here are legion; but I have gotten in enough trouble about double-entendres from last week's broadcast, so I'll just leave you to sit and contemplate that one quietly in a room of your own choosing. Just make sure to wash your hands afterwards, please.

07 — Signoff.     OK, listeners, that's it for this week's broadcast, and indeed for 2012. I shall be taking a week off with the family next week in the dear old U.S. of A., so our next broadcast will be Saturday, January 5th.

[Party sounds] As you can probably hear, we have a party starting up. Some of the boys and girls from the village have come out to join us in the studio, and, er, … Who's this coming in? Oh, it's Nikki Nicolaides, and, good heavens! he's in Greek national dress: the tutu, the tights, pompoms on the shoes … I must say, he looks rather handsome … [Bouzouki] Oh, and there goes George Manolarakis, our village dentist, starting up on the bouzouki. I'd better get in with the party spirit.

Here's some Christmas music for you. The other day I happened to be chatting in a group that included Father George Rutler, the gentleman who conducted Bill Buckley's funeral service. Someone in the group asked me what my favorite Christmas carol was. After a moment's thought I said "O Come All Ye Faithful." Father Rutler, who has actually written a book about hymns, said that was his favorite, too. Now that's an opinion that can't be gainsaid. So here is that lovely hymn, sung by the King himself. No, not that King, this one. Merry Christmas, everybody!

[Music clip: Elvis, "O Come All Ye Faithful."]