Bill O’Reilly on Guns: Six Specious Reasons to Support the Status Quo

October 2, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

I figured that after today’s massacre in Las Vegas, I could count on Bill O’Reilly for some specious arguments about guns. He didn’t let me down. In a post (here) of only 270 words (237 if you leave out his recounting of some of the facts), he manages to make at least a half dozen misleading or false statements.
1. But having covered scores of gun-related crimes over the years, I can tell you that government restrictions will not stop psychopaths from harming people.

They will find a way.
This is the all-or-none fallacy. It implies that since we can’t entirely stop murderous psychopaths, we shouldn’t try.  We can’t “stop” highway deaths either. Does that mean we shouldn’t try to make make roads and cars and even drivers safer?

The killer had a lot of rifles, some of them fully automatic (probably converted from semi-automatic). He also had lots and lots of bullets. Even if he couldn’t have been stoppped, restricting the kinds of guns and ammuntion psychopaths and anyone else can get will reduce the number of victims. 

2. The issue is so polarizing and emotional that little will be accomplished as there is no common ground.
This is a variant on the first argument. Since we might not be able to solve the problem entirely, we shouldn’t bother trying. Civil rights was polarizing. Healthcare, abortion, same-sex marriage, legal weed – all have been (and in some cases still are) polarizing. Should we give up on trying to do something about these issues until we have consensus? If you don’t look for common ground, of course you’re never going to find it.

3. The NRA and its supporters want easy access to weapons, while the left wants them banned.
All-or-nothing and no-common-ground again. O’Reilly implies that there is nothing between unlimited access and a total ban on all firearms. That’s obviously wrong. O’Reilly is also factually incorrect about what NRA members and people on the left want. A majority of NRA members support background checks and some restrictions on firearms. And nobody on the left has proposed a total ban.


4. This is the price of freedom.  Violent nuts are allowed to roam free until they do damage, no matter how threatening they are.
O’Reilly plays the American trump card – Freedom. Almost guaranteed to win any argument here. But he plays it as though there is only one freedom card. Either we have it or we don’t. He’s saying that any restriction on guns will totally eliminate freedom.

Australia, Canada, the UK, Germany, and all these other well-functioning democracies – are they substantially less free than the US? Have they sacrificed all their freedom by making weapons of mass slaughter hard to get?

5 and 6. The Second Amendment is clear that Americans have a right to arm themselves for protection.  Even the loons.
The Second Amendment says nothing about self-protection. If it was so clear, would the Supreme Court have taken over two hundred years to figure it out? (DC v Heller, 2008),  Nor has the Court said that crazy people have the right to buy guns. In fact, two years after Heller, the Court said explicitly that states could prohibit the mentally ill (and felons) from possessing guns.

So there you have it – six specious arguments in favor of not trying to do anything to reduce gun violence and death. O’Reilly didn’t go the “thoughts and prayers” route. He didn’t say, “This is a time for our thoughts and prayers for the victims. It’s not a time for politics.” (It never is.) Instead, he found another way, less sanctimonious but more deceitful, to say, “Let’s not even try to think about policy, about what we can do.”

Hef and Auguste Comte

September 28, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

One tiny fun fact that you probably won’t find in the Hugh Hefner obituries this week: The brains behind Playboy was a sociologist, A.C. Spectorsky.

Spectorsky did not have a sociology degree. He had a BS in physics from NYU, and worked in media. But his writing had a sociological bent. His 1955 book The Exurbanites (he coined the term exurbs) was reviewed by C. Wright Mills.

Spectorsky (left) and Hefner, 1956.

In 1956, he became associate publisher of Playboy, and I suspect that it was Spectorsky’s ideas that transformed Playboy, surrounding the photos of bare-breasted women with pages that proclaimed the cultural sophistication of the magazine and its readers. With Hef, he moved Playboy from the nudie-mag periphery to a more central place in the culture, with circulation numbers to match.

His byline was A.C., and most people called him Spec. But the initials stood for Auguste Comte.He was named after the man often credited with coining the term sociology.

Status Politics and the NFL

September 27, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Some issues in status politics have real consequences. Obamacare, for instance. For much of the opposition, Obamacare was less about healthcare than about the status of different groups. The question was not, “Who will have better health insurance?” It was, “Whose country is this anyway?”

In a blog post back in 2009 (here), I quoted a Pennsylvania protestor who shouted at her senator, “This is about the dismantling of the country.” Obamacare became a symbol. It was about how people felt morally, not physically. For the opposition, it symbolized that “their” country had been “taken away” from them. They were going to take it back. (See my post “Repo Men.”)

Republican votes to repeal, up until January 20, 2017, were also symbolic since the GOP representatives  knew there was no chance that Obama would sign the bill into law. With Republicans in control of the White House and Congress, the consequences of repeal would be real, not just symbolic. Even so, they came very close to passing laws that would have had very real and negative consequences for millions of Americans.

There are better vehicles for status politics than issues that have real consequences, especially when the consequences harm the same people that are driving that vehicle. You want issues that are purely symbolic – issues like statues and flags or kneeling and standing. This is not the politics of who gets what and how much it costs; it is the politics of who feels how. In everything that I have read in the last few days about NFL players “taking a knee” during the playing of the national anthem, none of the arguments for or against was based on the effects their behavior might have. The closest anyone came was Jeff Sessions: “It’s a big mistake to protest in that fashion because it weakens the commitment we have to this nation.”*  Nor could I find any speculation on the effects that of Trump’s call for the players to be fired and for the NFL to make a rule requiring players to stand during the song.

Instead, the arguments were about legitimacy and about right and wrong. So the relevant evidence is not about causes and effects but about who thinks what. In many ways the results are predictable. Republicans agree with Trump; Democrats are more likely to support the dissenting players; Independents are somewhere in between. (The data comes from a Reuters/Ipsos survey of people who have at least some interest in pro football.)

(Click on an image for a larger view.)
Overall, fans support the players right to express political opinions (49%-43%), though nearly 60% of Republicans would deny them that right. On the other hand, a majority (58%) also think that the players should be required to stand (among Republicans, 86%).


As for the president’s “You’re fired” suggestion, only the Republican fans agree. Democrats (80%) and Indepedents (64%) disagree. (Cato survey here )



A majority of the fans also think Trump should have kept his mouth shut on the topic, though again, Republicans sided with Trump.


It’s important to note that these are one-shot polls, at least so far. Subsequent polls, if there are any, with slight difference in wording may get different results. It’s also possible that opinion on this issue may change rapidly, perhaps in the way that attitudes towards same-sex marriage changed in recent years. The sight of several players kneeling during the national anthem may become the new normal.

Sacred Meets Profane in an Ad for Lamb

September 20, 2017Posted by Jay Livingston

It’s always tempting to draw conclusions about culture from successful advertising campaigns. After all, if they’re successful, they must have struck some sympathetic vibrating string in the culture. But which one?  Interpreting these ads is game all can play, but it would be hard to say which interpretation is correct. Among all the harmonious cultural elements, which one is most important?

It’s easier to pick out the note that’s out of tune. So with ads, the cultural interpretation game is easier when an ad is conflict with the culture rather than in harmony. When I came across this Australia Day ad for lamb from Meat and Livestock Australia, my first thought was: Sacrilege. You could never put this on the air in the US. A lot of Americans still take their religion seriously.


You can tell a joke about Jesus and Moses on the golf course, but when you do basically the same thing – putting sacred figures in contemporary profane* situations – as a TV ad, it goes too far, even if the irreverence is equal opportunity. At the table, besides Jesus and Moses, are the Buddha, Kuan Yin (the Buddhist goddess of compassion), Confucius, Dionysus and Aphrodite, Thor, Isis and L. Ron Hubbard. Oh my gods.

The MLA (no, not that MLA. The Meat and Livestock Australia MLA) had obviously been worried about the reactions of some religious people for whom religion is no laughing matter. Note that Mohammed does appear in the ad; he’s just phoning it in. And anyway, you probably don’t need an ad to convince Muslims to eat lamb.

The MLA was apparently less concerned about the reaction of other groups. The Indian Society of Western Australia spoke out against the portrayal of Ganesha (“the elephant in the room”) as being a meat-eater. The MLA apologized, saying it was not their intent to offend.** But as far as I know, they haven’t pull the ad. 
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* “Profane” in Durkheim’s sense of “everyday,” as contrasted with “sacred” times and places.

** I’m a tad skeptical about this claim of not intending to offend. The MLA’s previous Australia Day ads have also been criticized for insensitive depiction of Aboriginals and for “inciting violence against vegans.”