In an absurd instance of partisanship disguised as criminology, the L.A. Times is laying blame for the future homicide rate on people’s dissatisfaction with President Obama:
The recent spike in violent political rhetoric coupled with last week’s arrest of two men who threatened the lives of two Democratic House members has a lot of commentators worried about a surge in domestic political terrorism. Those fears are misplaced. Not because there won’t be violence, but because politically inspired violence won’t necessarily be aimed at politicians.
You see, it’s not that “there won’t be violence.” It’s that people who oppose the Democrats will go on killing sprees against ordinary Americans instead of politicians. Or maybe in addition to them. Times editorialist Gregory Rodriguez says so. He read a book about it. Or, hopefully, he just skimmed it, because then what he writes here isn’t entirely the book author’s fault:
A few months ago, Ohio State University historian Randolph Roth published a groundbreaking book, “American Homicide,” that offers something like a unified theory of why Americans kill each other at such a high rate and what can be done about it. After meticulously tracing trends in violence and political power in the U.S. from colonial times to the present, Roth concludes that high homicide rates “are not determined by proximate causes such as poverty, drugs, unemployment, alcohol, race, or ethnicity, but by factors … like the feelings that people have toward their government and the opportunities they have to earn respect without resorting to violence.”
All the way from colonial times.
Now, I have little doubt that Rodriguez is offering a less than complete description of the actual theory Roth is positing. At least, one might hope. Historians get in so much trouble when they project their political fantasies about things like homicide and gun control back onto the past.
Or worse, when they project those fantasies forward. If the book is being accurately described in the L.A. Times, it sounds a lot like another classic of historical-criminological projection, All God’s Children, in which New York Times reporter Fox Butterfield blamed the Civil War for things like carjackings in upstate New York during the Carter years. Any projection will do in the service of projecting blame from the people actually committing crime and onto the rest of us. Or our great-great-grandparents. Or children. If it takes telescoping 250 years of history and as much data on comparative homicide rates as can be massaged from fragmentary sources in order to prove that America is and always has been rotten to the core, then caution be darned:
Roth’s analysis in fact puts politics at the very root of the highest homicide rate of any First World democratic nation. He points to the Civil War as the genesis of even peacetime unrest. It was not simply a case of violence begetting violence. Rather, high homicide rates were the symptom of low overall political confidence. The Civil War, Roth says, was “a catastrophic failure in nation building,” when a large percentage of the population lost faith in government and eyed their countrymen with distrust. “Our high homicide rate started when we lost faith in ourselves and in each other,” he says. Conservative writers like to argue that distrust for government is part of our birthright as Americans. And they’re right. It’s built into the system and can be found in the writings of Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson. But there’s a difference between distrust and disdain. The tradition of truly hating government began with the Civil War and a nation literally torn apart by contrasting visions and mores.
Sigh. When I see history being slapped around like a bag of cats, it’s my brain that feels disenfranchised.
And then I remember that we are exceptional in America, and if our birthright is to be exceptionally violent because we’re such innate aberrants, then it’s up to us to embrace it. At least we’re not a bunch of milquetoasts like the French:
I know, I know, it’s not fair to bring this other stuff up (Hitler). Professor Roth says he is looking only at a very specific phenomenon: street crime in relation to political dissent that at the same time is not a direct expression of either organized or unorganized political action and which occurs only in “First World democratic countries” (no Pol Pot) (No Mao).
Sort of like longitudinally comparing Newark to the Cotswolds and finding us short. And there might be a lesson in that, but then again, maybe we should just move along from the whole “analyze” thing and start blaming Republicans, because the Times editorialist is chafing at the bit to get there:
Roth essentially believes that that antagonism plays out today when elections leave half the nation feeling empowered and the other half feeling disenfranchised. The more people who feel empowered, the lower the homicide rate.
Ummm, the more which people feel empowered? One man’s empowerment is another man’s dis-empowerment, but with one of the outcomes, the murder rate goes down? Let’s just not go there.
So, how does the professor arrive at the far end of this fascinating veiled leap? Does he have data winnowing the political views held by the murderers themselves? Has he uncovered some trans-historical political satisfaction scale for the homicidally disaffected?
Of course not. He has no way of determining the actual politics of actual killers, who make up only the tiniest of fractions in any of the communities being thus tarred with their presence. And then there’s the sticky wicket of not being able to produce any coherent measure of “empowerment” for large portions of the non-homicidal population throughout most of history. Women of all races were never, until recently, as empowered as men, but that didn’t drive them to commit enough murders to affect the murder rate. Likewise, murder rates by slaves and ex-slaves don’t exactly support Roth’s hypothesis. And over the past fifty years, the political, economic and social power of African American men has increased as the murder rate among them rose precipitously, then fell, then rose again, then recently fell slightly, then even more recently started climbing a bit.
Details, details. Apparently, it’s not about actual power: it’s about perceptions of power. Can the homicide rate really be minutely correlated to municipal or national feelings? Are killers as a group actually (and solely) driven by their sense of representational power? What happens when the President is a Democrat and the Mayor a Republican? In New York City, when this was true, there was the most statistically significant decrease in crime in the last half century. But if Roth is to be believed, the New York miracle had nothing to do with policing or sentencing and everything to do with conscious — if unclear — political choices made by the killers and potential killers themselves.
What do you do with a theory like this when Bill Clinton is “feeling your pain” as Rudy Giuliani offers you a curt “up yours”?
If people feel their government shares their values and acts on their behalf, they have greater trust and confidence in their dealings with others. Conversely, those who feel out of power and mistrustful of government carry those attitudes into everyday relationships with murderous results. As Roth sees it, even activists and politicians — from the right or the left — who sew [sic] bitter disdain for government are indirectly encouraging the mistrust that breeds violent behavior. “The extent that people feel dispossessed affects how they deal with other people,” Roth told me. “They carry that anger … to a discussion in a tavern or a property dispute. That anger can cause us to lose our temper more quickly.”
A property dispute? A tavern? Remember, Roth is insisting that trans-historical homicide rates “are not determined by proximate causes such as poverty, drugs, unemployment, alcohol, race, or ethnicity.” So the next time you’re in a tavern, and that really drunk Colonial guy at the end of the bar slits some guy’s throat with a cutlass while screaming about easements and letting the cat go in his yard, remember:
That was really a fight about perceptions of political disenfranchisement.
Now here’s where the story gets really . . . academic. Roth claims to have discovered what fueled the white homicide rate in 1980: it was losing the Vietnam War (in 1973). No, busing. Oh sorry, the Iran Hostage Crisis:
Roth’s research compares the trends in “political trust” and murder statistics. For example, white homicide peaked in 1980, the final year of the Carter administration, when people angry over school busing, the Iran hostage crisis, and the defeat in Vietnam were u[n]happy in large enough numbers to bring white trust in government to its post-war low.
Now, I know the Ford years were not particularly memorable for any of us, but, come on. What does 1980 have to do with a war that ended in 1973, besides 1980 being the year when the white homicide rate peaked and Reagan entered office? Is there even one iota of evidence that white men who committed homicide in 1979 were Reagan supporters who would soon start feeling better about things once Carter was gone, and stop the killin’? Could Roth produce evidence of even one murder related to feelings about the Iran hostage crisis? But wait, we’re just coming up to the real point:
Does this suggest that Barack Obama’s election will cause a shift in rates of violence? Absolutely. According to Roth, FBI data released in December bear that out. In the first six months of 2009, urban areas that Obama carried saw the steepest drop in the homicide rate since the mid-1990s.
Actually, that drop wasn’t nearly as steep as the one previously mentioned that occurred after Republicans seized control in places like New York City and restored order, following the murderous bloodshed that reigned during Democratic administrations (which were, by the lights of this theory, better received). Also, there is currently an uptick of violent crime in many urban areas, including Chicago, despite Obama still being president. Could Republicans be creeping into urban areas and killing people there, just to muddle the theoretical waters? I wouldn’t put it past them. Not that there is any evidence of this happening.
But that’s just evidence. And what, allegedly, is happening on the flip side of the coin? Roth’s answer delivers far less than it promises:
In the first six months of 2009, urban areas that Obama carried saw the steepest drop in the homicide rate since the mid-1990s. During that period, the states with the largest percentage of counties that voted more heavily Republican in 2008 than they did in 2004 saw an 11% rise in homicide in cities of over 100,000 residents.
Whoa. That looks like a lot of work. States — states, not urban areas, or suburban or rural areas — with “the largest percentage of counties” that “voted more heavily Republican in 2008 than they did in 2004” saw homicide rates climb “in cities of over 100,000.” I think what Roth is trying to say here is that his argument doesn’t work if you compare Red states and Blue states, or Red counties to Blue counties. Crime rates actually remain pretty geographically stable, except for the “donut effect’ occurring in some big cities where public housing, and the crime that goes with it, is being pushed outside city limits by gentrification. But those generally aren’t places that voted more heavily Republican in 2008 than 2004, so he isn’t counting them.
What is he counting? Not very much, really. The difference between a tiny number of bizarrely selected places over a tiny period of time. Sort of like statistical gerrymandering.
But what’s really important is that the Republicans are going to kill everyone:
I asked Roth to speculate on what could happen if the right continued its violent rhetoric and didn’t gain seats in November or 2012. He suggested looking back at the 1960s and 1970s, when left-wing activists were preaching their own disdain for government. As trust of government evaporated, the murder rate doubled. As my grandmother would say, “God Bless America.”
No, Gregory Rodriguez, bless your heart, as polite folks are wont to say when someone utters something embarrassingly dumb. More than dumb, actually: the insinuations in this article are offensive, albeit impressively bipartisan in their offense, if you think about it.
Then there’s the untruthiness. For instance, the murder rate started climbing in the 1960’s long before Bill Ayers and his utterly charming wife began advocating killing cops and extremely pregnant movie stars and other living things.
Frankly, I don’t know who should be more insulted: Republicans who are being accused of responsibility for future acts of street violence because they lost 2009 elections, or Democrats who are being portrayed as being such innately violent people that they must get their way in the voting booth, or else the murder rate will rise again.
I like to think better of all people who choose to express themselves politically. I don’t presume they’re one chad away from bloodshed, for instance, even when I don’t agree with them. But maybe that’s just me.