Procrustean Rashomon

Sorry Jesse; they’ll keep getting away with it. Over and over.

Everybody likes a good procedural.   If the fundamental elements of the dramatic formula work their magic even once, then all the necessary ingredients are present, and it can work a hundred times more with the most trivial variations.

So, instead of Columbo, or Monk, or Perry Mason, why not pitch a new show in which every episode always begins with the shooting death of a large, unarmed black man in his late teens by a man of some other race.  The footage will be grainy and with rapid, frenetic shifts in the camera position so that it’s never quite clear to the audience what really happened.

The stories all take place in the town of Gini, Virginia, with the intro sequence showing a large sign displaying: “Welcome to Gini – Proud to be a Diverse and Vibrant Community.”

The mystery exists for the characters of the show as well, including the same collection of random members of the community, but that doesn’t stop them at all from losing their damned minds and immediately jumping to unjustified conclusions.  There’s always a team of four detective special agents tasked to investigate these, ‘sensitive matters’.

Three of them are old timers who hate each other’s guts and who go by the collective name, “three blind mice” which is an allusion to the metaphor about blind men describing an elephant.”

You’ve got Senior Agent Irving Trunks, with good connections in politics and a steamy relationship with his journalist gal pal.  Rumor has it that he’s on the take along with some of his powerful friends in high places.  That might be why he tends to leave certain critical bits of information out of his reports, and also why a certain scummy lawyer is always receiving early tip-offs and can get to key witnesses before anyone else knows they exist.

But somehow Trunks is Mr. Teflon – nothing sticks – and the accusations never seen to hurt his career.  Trunks is frequently having private, conspiratorial conversations about the case with the competent but very politically ambitious District Attorney who is always sensitive to public opinion and obsessing about winning the next election as a white guy in diverse, vibrant Gini.  He and Trunks seem to have a certain … understanding.

Next up is Agent Mohammad Tusk has two brothers in federal prison for mysterious reasons which are never made clear, and since he’s gotten the special treatment from the TSA one too many times he’s got a serious grudge against all symbols of authority.  He used to work as an inspector general in IA – internal affairs – and he’s seen every kind of bad a bad cop can be and earned no friends and a hell of a lot of enemies in the process.  So naturally he’s got a chip on his shoulder a mile long towards those idiot bastards on the beat.

And then there’s Agent Sean Patrick Ryan O’Tayle, a fourth generation cop who has lost three male relatives and members of the force – to include his own father – to fatal encounters with criminal scumbags.  His great-grandad was one of the last marshals in the Old West, and he’s a real ‘law and order’ kind of guy and a devout Catholic family man.  He’s kind of punchy, and a choke-hold-first, ask-questions-later kind of guy, but he’s got a sensitive side and his hidden secret is his deeply paranoid fear that he’ll follow his father into an early grave and leave his wife a widow to take care of their 7 kids.  That is, unless he’s always the quicker draw, like great-grand-pop was.

But there’s also, “The New Guy” – a transfer from the big city.  Turns out that New Guy – something they will continue to call him no matter how many season extensions get greenlighted – is a real glasshole.  He’s always wearing some big, fancy, high-tech monocle augmented-reality device that, he says, “Gives me access to all the information,” and, “Allows me to see every angle clearly and simultaneously.”

It’s also got a special feature – the “Bayesian Anticipated Baseline Engine” or “The Babe” which talks to New Guy in a computer-cold but somehow still sexy Scarlett Johansson voice.  The Babe uses open source social media, government data and statistics, and that great source of accurate undernews – amateur bloggers – to notice patterns and derive the best guess as to what really happened given the initially limited amount of information.

Like in Columbo, “The Babe’s” first guess at the answer is almost always right, it’s just a matter of collecting the evidence.  In the middle of the show, some new piece of information will seemingly prove The Babe to be completely wrong, and the Blind Mice will enjoy giving the New Guy a ruthless ribbing for it, but then, “The Twist!”, and that piece of information will turn out to be fraudulent and The Babe wins again.  Catchphrase, “Always play the odds, gentlemen.”

But let’s get back to the beginning of the show.  After the initial incident footage, we watch the detectives receive their mission brief at headquarters from The Chief.  “We don’t know all that much yet.  Got a 911 call late last night from a man who said he shot Tyrone Washington dead in what he claimed was a random act of violence gone wrong.  A few witnesses disagree.  We’ve got him in a holding cell right now, but there’s not much to go on.  Finish reading these preliminary reports, get your butts out there, and solve this case!”

Back at the desks, Agent Trunks takes only the most cursory glance skimming through the case file, senses an opportunity, gets that sinister gleam in his eye, and says, “Unarmed black male teenager gunned down?  Hell, ain’t it obvious?  Hate-crime homicide; open and shut.  What more do we need to know?  Now, if you don’t mind, I’ll be by the digital sender making calls to by girlfriend, a scummy lawyer, the District Attorney, and a buddy on capitol hill for … um … no particular reason.

Agent Tusk noticed the guy in the holding cell is a Federal Air Marshal who used his service handgun to shoot Tyrone.  “Says here he shot Washington with military-grade frangible RRLP rounds – reduced ricochet, limited penetration – the kind of thing they give to Spec Ops forces for close-quarters combat in urban terrain.  What the hell do you need that on a plane for, or while walking around in a vibrant neighborhood late at night?  Good grief, everyday is September 11th to these wackos.  Talk about overkill; are we becoming a fascist police state or something?  Just crazy.”

Agent O’Tayle is not having it.  He adjusts his taser holster slightly and says, “Oh, come on.  A man’s got a right to defend himself, and normal bullets would do more damage and pose more hazard to bystanders.  I did a tour in the Marines before joining the force, and I can tell you don’t know jack about military equipment.  Anyway, this guy’s a Marshal and that means he’s one of the good guys putting his life at risk protecting the rest of us, knows how to control himself and handle a weapon, and has probably got a spotless background.  I say we give him the benefit of the doubt here, especially given that nasty scar on his jawline.  Also, you know the kind of neighborhood Tyrone lives in, bullying thugs for life all over the place, muggings and fist-fights every night.  Says here Tyrone’s got a sealed and expunged juvie record, but we don’t have a copy of it.  What do you think was in there?  Parking tickets?  Overdue library books?  No way Mo.”

New Guy has The Babe hack into the files, check out the relevant facebook and twitter accounts, look up some crime statistics, and download all the surveillance videos with 24 hours and 10 miles of the incident scene.  The Babe, cool and calm as ever, says, “Analysis shows a 90% probability that Tyrone was in the wrong, but only a 10% probability that use of deadly force was necessary and disengagement and safe retreat was impossible.”

The three blind mice all scoff at this pronouncement in their own characteristic ways.

Gradually, over the course of the hour, the mystery will unravel piece by piece.  But not before the scummy lawyer, the journalist, the politician, and the District Attorney have incited the locals and stoked up a riot with their sensationalist and mendacious coverage of the incident.  The riot completely distracts the Three Blind Mice who proceed to debate the relative merits of the protestors and their behavior.

But the New Guy trudges on, doing the Yeoman’s work of actual investigation and collection of evidence, and eventually proves The Babe correct.  But only after it’s too late.  The DA got reelected by putting the Marshal on trial and ruining his life, the Journalist won a Pulitzer, the scummy lawyer gets priceless free publicity and makes a fortune in the settlement, and so forth.

When the New Guy announces his findings, the three blind mice try to walk back their most extreme incorrect assertions to avoid embarrassment, but mostly they just complain about The Babe’s invasion of privacy and unauthorized disclosures of confidential information, and then they shrug their shoulders and try to forget the whole, nasty business.

Until the next episode, where it all happens all over again!  And again, and again.  It’s tragic and kind of depressing sometimes, but always hugely entertaining.  Come on, you know you’d watch it.

What’s the name of the show?  What else?  ‘Bonfire!’ (Tom Wolfe, Executive Producer) with an image of a silhouette of the town of Gini in the midst of a raging conflagration as the logo.  It’s supposed to symbolize what happens to a community when the incitement machine gets busy spinning its narrative.

Bonfire

***

I can’t do any better than Steve Sailer has done in commenting on the facts and coverage of the Ferguson incident, so please donate to him.  (See 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and pay special attention to his list of media narrative fiascos for new episode screenplays for Bonfire!)  It seems that these events are now a permanent part of our cultural landscape and there’s nothing anyone can do about it apparently.  There is too much to gain politically and in eyeball indoctrination time, and no one pays any price for making mistakes, or just lying and making things up.

But what I would like to comment on is the nature of how those conversation occur and how our discourse about these matters tends to proceed.  Which is with complete incoherence and more permanent irreconcilability than between Israel and Hamas.

Arnold Kling has his famous “Three Axis Model” of politics which he expressed at length in his short book, “The Three Languages of Politics” (buy it!)

The Three Axis Model says that our three major ideological factions tend to have obsessive-compulsive one-track minds, and process every political and governmental issue within that particular frame of analysis.  They are all wearing blinders and using both high and low-pass filters to block out any inconvenient truths and to try to force the real world to conform to some false mythology that allows them to press their agenda forward.

These frames are so incomparable that they are essentially orthogonal axes.  What is most salient for one faction is inconsequential for another.  People are literally “talking past one another.”

Another way to visualize it is that three separate trials are going on.  Each judge is examining the same underlying event but pursuing entirely different causes of action related to it.  Thus the questions of which facts are material and relevant to an essential element, and which lines of inquiry are productively probative of those facts, are entirely different.  One judge is conducting a murder trial, and another is trying to determine the disposition of the priceless antique murder weapon.  Most of the time, each judge is focused on their particular priority and neither judge probably cares very much about what is happening in the other case.  If they try to discuss their cases over lunch, they will bore the hell out of each other, because they just couldn’t care less about the other issues.

So, for any major media event of this kind, each faction – Progressives, Libertarians, and Conservatives – will first decide what agenda item is most important to them, then tend to take a very selective sample of the facts, stretch them to fit their preferred ideological version of reality with their own good goods and bad guys, and thus tell stories that differ greatly from each other and also with reality.  Procrustean Rashomon.

Because they care about different things, none of these ‘conversations’ can ever go anywhere but in endless pointless circles.  If there were direct contradictory claims and a shared standard of judgment (a ‘shared language’ or ‘axis’ to use Kling’s terms), then one could have a classic debate with the potential of resolution on the basis of logic and evidence.  But when the standards differ that kind of resolution is impossible.

Kling has written his own brief three-axis post about Ferguson, and in the show outline above, Trunks represents the Progressives who mostly care about social injustice and are obsessed with trying to tell a story of an America teeming with murderous white racist men.  Tusk or O’Tayle will try to point out to Trunks that it really doesn’t make sense to the oppression narrative that the ‘protest’ against ‘racist police’ would manifest itself in the mob-like destruction and looting of private storefronts which had nothing to do with the incident. To liberal Trunks, this is inherently excusable and completely besides the main point.

Tusk represents the Libertarians who despise state coercive power and authority so much and so generally they find it hard to think straight about the mere practical trappings of that authority when donned by the individual agents of that authority, and so they are going on and on about the visual impressions of observing police equipment and tactics about all of which they are really pretty ignorant.  They are also trying to complain about the same events as the Progressives – if on somewhat different grounds – and distinguish themselves from the Conservatives because they know the most important thing in life is to not be affiliated with them and thus targeted by the Progressive attack machine once that hornet nest gets stirred up.

And O’Tayle represents the Conservatives who mostly care about preserving law and order via deference to state authority, who don’t believe in the Progressive narrative about homicidal hate-criminals, and who probably isn’t very sympathetic to the plight of welfare-dependent underclass communities and the volatile thugs that tend to emerge from them.

The larger point is that all three blind mice have valid points to make if the others cared or would be willing to hear them, but they’re not. When O’Tayle tells Tusk that officer Darren Wilson was dressed in normal police clothes when the shooting occurred, Tusk says that’s not the point.  But everything everyone says in never ‘the point’ for everyone else.

So the formula is probably fixed for all time, they will go on and one talking past each other in exactly the same way, and Bonfire! will be extended for more seasons than General Hospital.

At least until we get some New Guys.

Or at least, until every non-black man in America gets the message that they cannot shoot an unarmed black man under any circumstances, no matter how justified, without completely ruining their own life and finding themselves at the center of the big top in a modern-day inquisitorial circus.

Not that this will stop the shootings, but that the market for unregistered drop-guns will probably explode and everyone who thinks they need to carry a weapon will start carrying two.  You know, one for each of ya.

And actually, to whatever limited extent they had to do so, they arguably already have gotten the message, which is why the prestige press can’t ever find a case that actually fits their narrative and why these events always turn into such media fiascoes over and over.

***

One final note about the nonsensical charges of ‘militarization’ of the police that mirror the work of Mainstream Libertarian Writer (Cato, Reason) Radley Balko and his two books, Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America, and, Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces.

Even Ross Douthat – one of my favorite writers – finds himself overwhelmed enough by his hollywood-primed intimidation by the Soldier-like appearance of contemporary police uniforms and military-origin of their equipment, that he links to a picture of ‘heavily-armored‘ police on PBS, amongst other things.  Yes, some civilian police have armored vehicles all over the world, and for good reason, but no, cops don’t drive main-gun ‘tanks’, Ross.

UPDATE: Oh God, Ross, there you go again.  Complete proving my point.  Grenade launchers? Tanks?  Really?  Come on.

When Ross repeats ‘Grenade Launcher’ (three times!) he means to evoke Rambo’s high explosives, but police are only ever equipped with tear-gas, and the safest way to distribute it a good distance into a riotous mob is by means of indirect fire for which you need a tube propulsion chamber, that is, unless Ross would prefer police to throw actual ‘grenades’ (ooh! that sounds scary too!) or aim them directly at peoples faces.  Your call, Ross.  Police have used riot control gas in less safe and effective ways for decades and no one calls it ‘militarized’.  A real military with real ‘tanks’ meaning to take out a massed formation would use this:

Ok, if the police start carrying those, I’d agree that it’s, “Time to take their toys away.”

Ross goes on:,

The only recent calm on Ferguson’s streets came after state cops started walking through the crowds in blue uniforms, behaving like police instead of storm troopers.

Heh, I beat him to the punch on the Stormtroopers, see below!  Predictable.  Oh, and those blue uniformed policemen were walking through a crowd of members of the Bloods criminal gang, of which Michael Brown was most likely a member.

Calm. Also, packing heat.

Well, despite the time-tested and always effective technique of neutralizing looters and vandals by walking down a street in the middle of the day, in front of a million cameras, and with the firearm with which the press is more comfortable, the calm was, alas, short-lived for reasons unknown.

“Peace and justice took a very different turn after dark,” Johnson said. “Molotov cocktails were thrown, there were shootings, looting, vandalism and other acts of violence that clearly appear not to have been spontaneous, but premeditated criminal acts.”

Police demilitarization success story

And the Chief did more than just walk around:

St Louis County Police confirm at least 200 of their officers are on scene and helping handle the situation. They confirm the Domino’s Pizza on West Florissant was set fire and burned. [The Domino’s Pizza in Ferguson are popular KKK hang-outs that totally had it coming, as everybody knows.] They also confirm multiple businesses vandalized and looted. Unbelievably, County Police told Fox 2 News that its officers were at the Ferguson Market earlier when looters showed up, but were ordered to “Stand down” by incident commanders at the scene and basically withdrew and allowed the looters to have their way with the store.

Um, who’s the ‘tomfool police’ now, Ross?

Douthat adds:

But there may be trade-offs here: In an era of atomization, distrust and economic stress, our punitive system may be a big part of what’s keeping crime rates as low as they are now, making criminal justice reform more complicated than a simple pro-liberty free lunch.

Now where have I heard that before?

END UPDATE

To anyone who has never actually worn that clothing or equipment, or been around people who have, it looks scarier than a typical policeman’s garb with an ordinary protective vest despite carrying an incredibly deadly .45 but in a holster and magazines on a belt.

But that’s only because we’re used to seeing them that way, and not because it makes any actual difference.

I’m sure a visitor from the United Kingdom to the U.S. in 1946 would be taken aback when seeing a normal, armed post-war U.S. police officer, but that’s just status-quo bias, reacting to any deviation from the baseline to which one has calibrated their expectations.

To anyone that has ever worn this ‘scarier’ equipment, it looks like no big deal at all, just a different configuration that is a lot more practical, comfortable, and effective which is exactly the reason a Soldier dresses that way.  In fact, most Soldiers would want to carry a .45 for close-quarters combat like many cops do, but they have to settle for lower stopping power M-4/AR type carbines and 9mm handguns.

Cops are not Soldiers.  Because there is some overlap in the tools and techniques best suited to their work does not have any special meaning.  Cops cannot aim mortar tubes, throw high-explosive grenades, operate crew-served weapons, forward-observe to adjust indirect fire, call for close air support, operate tanks or artillery pieces, be prepared to operate in the presence of WMD contamination, or provide higher-echelon level logistics.

The problem is that, when you put the entire modern kit together, a cop looks enough like a Star Wars stormtrooper to a journalist that they can’t keep their heads screwed on right.  What they should do is consider the devices one by one and try to actually prove that it will make a positive difference by taking it away.

Let’s consider body armor for example.  What frankly amazes me is all the talk about ‘body armor’ being ‘militarization’ and having something, somehow to do with what happened to Mike Brown.  Check this out:

BodyArmor

176,000 results?  It’s only been a few days!  When will it hit half a million?

But we’re just talking about protective vests.  Of course they look military because they all do the same things, are made out of the same stuff, and tend to look the same way.  The implication is that somehow life will be better if we just take these vests away or deny the police the ability to wear them.  Ok, now where do people explain the mechanism of how that works.  Zero out of 176,000, guaranteed.

Here’s a link to the terrifying Business Insider piece, which fails to make even one logical claim.  No one can be surprised by any silly thing Exum says anymore, but Szoldra should be ashamed for this:

“If there’s one thing I learned in Afghanistan, it’s this: You can’t win a person’s heart and mind when you are pointing a rifle at his or her chest.”

Yeah, I’m betting that when you were in Afghanistan, you also learned that when in those situations in which you might need to point a rifle at someone’s chest, it’s best to be dressed and equipped just like that.  And the problem is that it’s hard to know when you’re going to be in that situation, which he can learn from the latest Green-on-Greene incident.

Gee, I wonder how someone like Agent Trunks – operating on the Progressive axis of politics and describing a delusional alternative reality would try and explain that shooting to Tusk and O’Tayle?

But it’s still unclear whether the gunman had Taliban ties and whether he slipped through the military’s screening process, said Philip Mudd, a CNN counterterrorism analyst and former CIA official.

[Yeah, he also works for Soros-funded New America Foundation.  Just back from a trip to Cuba, Google’s Eric Schmidt is Chairman of the Board, and Obama pal Anne-Marie Slaughter is President and CEO.  Recent blog post – “Does America Need a Tahrir Square?”  Oh, that sounds like a great idea.  After all, it worked wonders for Egypt.  Find the right Ferguson formula one day and we just might get one!]

“I don’t think we should look and make judgments about the vetting process too quickly,” he said. “You would think on the surface that maybe he was recruited by the Taliban. That’s not necessarily the case.”

Witnessing the horrors of war sometimes inspires soldiers to turn against their onetime allies, he said.

“He might have seen something in the last months or years… and sometimes there is an emotional switch that turns on after their recruitment, after their vetting, that leads them to say, ‘I want to do something about this. I’m going to kill someone in the U.S. military,'” Mudd said.

Whoa…

I’m thinking they didn’t teach Mudd that insight of killer-profiling at the FBI Academy.

Looks like I can find all the Bonfire! script writers I want at CNN and NAF.  They’re pros at fiction there.

 

UPDATE (28-AUG-2014):  I would like to recommend that everyone read two things.  1. The high-quality dialogue between myself and Vladimir in the comments sections below, and 2. Richard Epstein’s “Lessons From Ferguson“, which is the most level-headed, reasonable, and accurate essay I’ve seen any Libertarian write about the matter.  Indeed, it is a kind of a <i>cri de coeur</i> of one of the most brilliant, prominent, and thoughtful Libertarian public intellectuals that the ‘new class’ has very much lost its way.

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15 Responses to Procrustean Rashomon

  1. Pingback: Procrustean Rashomon | Reaction Times

  2. Jefferson says:

    Reasonable doesn’t mean what it used to. Also, congrats on turning Alexander into a neoreactionary. I stand corrected on that one.

  3. doombuggy says:

    I was at a dinner party the other night. A big lefty acquaintance was there, waxing about a play he worked on: MLK themed where Blacks lived in fear of being dragged behind a pickup truck, etc.

    My first thought was, “Oh, so you did an Obama re-election event?”

    Second thought was, “It’s been 50 years since The Event, yet it still provides material, the iterations continue,”

    It didn’t seem like the occasion to mount a challenge, but there comes a time when one needs to point out the perennial nature of such things. But among family and friends, what does one do? Make one statement, and let it stand? A dialog? Is such a thing possible?

    • Handle says:

      From a 2002 interview with Steven Pinker (HT Sailer)

      Q: Aren’t we all better off if people believe that we are not constrained by our biology and so can achieve any future we choose?

      A: People are surely better off with the truth. Oddly enough, everyone agrees with this when it comes to the arts. Sophisticated people sneer at feel-good comedies and saccharine romances in which everyone lives happily ever after. But when it comes to science, these same people say, “Give us schmaltz!” They expect the science of human beings to be a source of emotional uplift and inspirational sermonizing.

      With your friend’s play, it’s the classic hero-angels vs. evil-demons childish and sermonizing tale without any hint of the adult world of moral uncertainty and ambiguity that shows off a true artist’s talents to express insight about human nature and make the audience actually think about the human condition. Ordinarily people would sneer at a play like that, but if it’s got the right good guys and bad guys, the usual standard is waived.

      But you’ll notice that the sneering is usually well justified in terms of the quality of the product. As Camille Paglia quipped, “Cant kills creativity.” It does this by winning approval on the basis of ideological matters orthogonal to quality and also by the effect of such ideology inoculating the product against valid criticism. Artists need harsh criticism and only the most well-deserved praise in order to excel and flourish.

      If I were responding to your friend, I’d say that as a sophisticated consumer of the performing arts, I find I am am almost always disappointed by ‘conventional and boring’ (that’s where I sneer) good-guys vs. bad-guys stories. That’s been done over and over and anybody could do it. A story with a faulty hero and a sympathetic villain, however, now that’s hard to pull off and the mark of a true talent. Let me know when you work on one of those.

      • Dan_Kurt says:

        re: ” A story with a faulty hero and a sympathetic villain, however, now that’s hard to pull off and the mark of a true talent.” H

        If you haven’t already, go to AMAZON and buy a few of the Parker novels by Richard Stark. The early ones are cheap.

        Dan Kurt

  4. Vladimir says:

    Police have used riot control gas in less safe and effective ways for decades and no one calls it ‘militarized’.

    I don’t think you can dismiss this issue so easily, though. While, as in anything else nowadays, the respectable ways of raising this concern are full of leftist distortion and nonsense, we can still look at it from a broader historical perspective. And from this perspective, it’s undeniable that in English-speaking societies, there has been a slow and gradual but overall a very dramatic evolution of the police forces in the last few generations — from civilian public employees who are merely paid to do full-time what is otherwise the right of every free subject or citizen, to a standing armed force tasked with maintaining internal security and public order, with special privileges over ordinary civilians and unquestioned authority in all interactions with them. It’s also clear that their attitude in more recent times has undergone a pretty dramatic shift that can be reasonably described as becoming more similar to the mentality of a hostile occupation army, with zero tolerance for anything but unquestioned compliance in their interactions with civilians. (A while ago I was active in a libertarian forum where a cop participant would insist that in the U.S., the police are civilians. But while this was true some generations ago, and is still so in theory, I don’t think it reflects the reality nowadays at all.)

    The key insight here, however, is that the correct analysis of this phenomenon leads to profoundly reactionary conclusions. A free people can flourish without having to submit themselves to a standing army to maintain order, but this requires a moral fiber in individuals and an extremely strong social fabric that are anathema to progressives. (And which, indeed, give rise to all kinds of extremely non-progressive social norms and institutions.) However, a people consisting of atomized individuals, with all social authority outside of the bureaucratic absolute state crushed and eliminated, and a large underclass that is the inevitable product of progressive social engineering, cannot function unless the state institutes a de facto standing army of some kind to patrol the streets; public order and safety will not happen spontaneously. What’s more, if this standing-army-like police is made to treat everyone with full procedural equality, as progressivism insists, then the only practical option is the lowest-common-denominator policy where everyone is treated under the worst possible assumptions.

    Now, progressives have no particular objection to this kind of thing, as long as the procedural equality is observed in meting it out. (And there is no disparate impact, but they will insist that this is impossible if the procedural equality is observed.) Progressivism, after al, is an ideology of absolute state. So when they object to the police becoming akin to a standing army with a hostile attitude to everyone, this typically happens only when they see it as a convenient rhetorical weapon in service of their other ideological goals — it’s just not something they’d get worked up about, unless they suspect that this crushing state power may be used for goals they disapprove of.

    On the other hand, libertarians and conservatives often have some vague intuitive understanding of the real issue, i.e. that the change in policing is just another manifestation of the sad fact that Americans and other Anglos are no longer a free people capable of governing themselves. However, as in everything else, instead of coming to the ineluctable reactionary conclusions, they try to talk about it in ways that they hope it will get them status points and sympathy from progressives. Of course, the progressives are not fooled by this, and as always, insist on a full and uncompromising acceptance of their ideology before they show any signs of approval.

    By the way, some years ago there was an interesting discussion of this issue on the late Lawrence Auster’s blog, with his regular leftist correspondent participating:
    http://www.amnation.com/vfr/archives/013820.html

    • Handle says:

      Thank you for your comment Vladimir, insightful as always. Sorry about not approving it earlier, I didn’t realize it was sitting in the approval queue due to multiple links. I think I should address your points systematically, so here goes:

      1.

      “I don’t think you can dismiss this issue so easily, though.”

      Well, it really depends on what one’s perception of “this issue” really is or ought to be. I think you and I probably share a perspective on that which is not merely distorted nonsensically in the opinion columns, but really distinct from how the matter is being discussed even by very intelligent people who are far from doctrinaire leftists. For me, the real and important issue is one that is clearly distinguishable from matters of appearances and equipment, but the bulk of the advocacy I’ve come across is obsessively fixated on that distracting cynosure both in their complaints and criticisms, as well as their policy proposals. This is especially disturbing given that it is happening in the special context of a response to a riotous-mob, which has been met historically by an inescapably harsh and severe response by English-speaking police or part-time militia forces even before modern weapons and tactics were in existence.

      Confusion between the symptoms and the disease is more than mere distortion, most especially when it is accompanied by a narrative full of actual malice towards innocent agents caught holding the bag and stuck between a media rock and a social-breakdown hard place, and furthermore amounts to confusion over cause and effect. And, of course, if the focus on symptoms is permitted to obscure the issue such that no one feels it necessary to investigate the uncomfortable disease itself, then we end up in a classic trap of intellectual stagnation with error becoming increasingly entrenched.

      If the commentariat wants to honestly examine the root causes of unruly disorder which have led us to our present state, and bemoan the regrettable transformation of policing which has occurred as the inevitable and probably necessary consequence of that context, then I will support them entirely. Of course, there is zero appetite to do this, and instead one sees a market for all sorts of specious and delusional excuses that even reverse the direction of causation as if it was armed police that generated violent criminals instead of the other way around. The same reversal occurred in the 1950’s – and which persists in some quarters to this day, alas – when the liberal conventional wisdom had it that crime rates were caused by incarceration instead of incarceration rates having a suppressing impact on crime. Instead of, “Time to take away their toys!” it was, “Time to take away their jails!” which was a failed experiment with profoundly catastrophic consequences. Again, it was symptoms vs. disease.

      2.

      “it’s undeniable that in English-speaking societies, there has been a slow and gradual but overall a very dramatic evolution of the police forces in the last few generations — from civilian public employees who are merely paid to do full-time what is otherwise the right of every free subject or citizen, to a standing armed force tasked with maintaining internal security and public order, with special privileges over ordinary civilians and unquestioned authority in all interactions with them.”

      Agreed entirely. It slightly depends what you mean by internal security, the responsibility for which is more fragmented and still largely the purview of the FBI and Department of Homeland Security, with local police acting in a federal-auxiliary / deputized first-responder capacity until the main elements arrive on the scene.

      But much of that is the trend towards labor flexibility, general or multi-purposefulness, and efficiency with many public professions of a particular type. If the purpose of the profession is to be prepared to respond to crises of uncertain frequency of occurrence, and there is spare capacity, slack time, and common skill-sets then it makes sense to “cross-train” personnel to perform similar and related functions for which there is a great deal of inherent synergistic overlap in tasks and competencies. Not to mention the incentive created by the ability to surge manpower from one place and typical task-set to another – for example when Soldiers are sent to fight wildfires or dig sandbags.

      The fact is that public perception of the appropriate segregation of these professions is outdated and over-compartmentalized and not even in tune with reality; it is just the binning to which we’ve become accustomed through passive exposure to erroneous cultural messages. Firemen only rarely fight fires anymore and would sit idle all day long if that’s all they were trained and permitted to do. Today, they mostly arrive on the scene of auto accidents and medical emergencies and provide HAZMAT and EMT functions, but no one bemoans the ‘medicalization’ of the Firefighting Force. Firefighting used to be mostly a matter of the call-up of ordinary civilian volunteers, and still is in a few place of dwindling number, but the move to professional full-timers of such versatility that they mostly do other things is, in my book, a positive development, and probably one that was inevitable given financial incentives.

      Similar things could be said about the transformation of the National Guard from its role as the local militia mostly operating under State Active Duty to a Federalized appendage that mostly trains and deploys to assist the operations of the Federal Government, but which is also prepared to carry out multiple purely local emergency-response tasks along a broad spectrum of civil emergencies and disturbance.

      The bottom line is that the transformation of the Police into forces able to do everything from write tickets to control riots is part of a broader economic phenomenon that transcends ideology or policy, in addition of course to being a consequence of the transformation of manner in which criminal justice is executed and other shifts in culture and societal orderliness.

      3.

      “It’s also clear that their attitude in more recent times has undergone a pretty dramatic shift that can be reasonably described as becoming more similar to the mentality of a hostile occupation army, with zero tolerance for anything but unquestioned compliance in their interactions with civilians.”

      I tend to agree with that assertion, though I think it is slightly exaggerated. If someone were skeptical about that statement, how might you demonstrate it? In my few encounters with police in my life – in which perhaps it can be said I’ve benefited from privilege and been too consistently courteous and polite and obedient to get the full picture – I’ve experienced a wide spectrum of attitudes without any apparent shifting of the mean. From highly friendly and helpful Andy Griffiths who are generous with warnings, to “obey-immediately-or-else”, write a ticket for a newly nonfunctional tail-light and “tell-it-to-the-judge” Sharondas. Cops tend to experience a wide variety of attitudes as well and usually know whether they can likely trust the individual to correct the violation or whether they are just hearing the same lame excuses they’ve heard a million times and being blown off entirely.

      I would like to emphasize I am not a knee-jerk Police defender when I think they overreach in this regard, and I’ve read reports of incidents in which they clearly do so, but it’s hard to judge the overall situation from a few media reports in exactly the same way that sensationalist reporting tends to encourage people to believe their children are at higher hazard when the actual risk has fallen. In particular, I think the apparently widespread seizure of personal property both for information gathering and following the sketchy doctrine of presumed criminal forfeiture is an outrageous abuse. Laws – or the pretense of the authority to do so even in the absence of a law – forbidding civilians to record their own experiences and encounters with agents of the government and resulting in the confiscation of those recording devices are also detestable to me.

      I keep some surreptitious CopWatcher apps on my phone for the same reason I keep a firearm – not that I ever expect to use it in my defense, but that I like having the option and insurance should it ever prove necessary, and I think I have the right to exercise such defenses in exigent circumstances. I’d be upset at the increased restriction of either of these liberties without substantial offsetting personal benefits, the argument for the existence of which in the case of police encounters is probably impossible to make.

      4.

      “The key insight here, however, is that the correct analysis of this phenomenon leads to profoundly reactionary conclusions. A free people can flourish without having to submit themselves to a standing army to maintain order, but this requires a moral fiber in individuals and an extremely strong social fabric that are anathema to progressives. (And which, indeed, give rise to all kinds of extremely non-progressive social norms and institutions.)”

      Agree completely. Bravo. I interpret “give rise to” as “necessitate the existence and robust societal support for or tolerance or maintenance of”, but let me know if I am incorrect in doing so.

      5.

      “public order and safety will not happen spontaneously”

      Of course, but this is of course the problem with articles focusing on equipment because that is precisely the background implication and the inference they seek that the reader draw. The idea is that if we, “take away their toys” and start marching in solidarity in the midst of an aggrieved community that the ceasefire will stand, calm will be restored, and public order and safety will indeed emerge spontaneously. The alternative reactionary interpretation (or ‘diagnosis’) is that Progressive policies -> Social Breakdown -> Public disorder and dangerousness -> The need for battle-ready police, and thus the prescription is to reverse the progressive social engineering to whatever extent this may even remain possible and hope that the equipment will no longer be necessary. This is the same as hoping that one might remove the IV which delivers harmful chemotherapy drugs just as soon as the cancer is beaten into remission.

      The commentariat’s interpretation is Battle-read Police + Racist Oppression Abuse of Power -> Lawless and unjustified overuse of deadly force -> Aggrieved community of innocents who can never get ahead because The Man is keeping them down. With that delusional diagnosis, the nonsensical prescription is, “take away their toys!” which is the same as saying that the real reason the patient is sick – losing weight and hair and experiencing nausea and fatigue – is the introduction of the chemotherapy drugs themselves, and if the IV is removed, then the patient will naturally recover.

      6.

      “What’s more, if this standing-army-like police is made to treat everyone with full procedural equality, as progressivism insists, then the only practical option is the lowest-common-denominator policy where everyone is treated under the worst possible assumptions.”

      This is an important point about the inevitable consequences of absolutist egalitarianism that is applicable to fields well beyond policing, for instance, education.

      7.

      “However, as in everything else, instead of coming to the ineluctable reactionary conclusions, they try to talk about it in ways that they hope it will get them status points and sympathy from progressives”

      I somewhat agree that this is happening, but as I said above, I judge that this does far more harm than good in completely confusing the issue, and as with the link you provided to Crooked Timber, probably doesn’t even benefit them in terms of points – or at most prevents them from acquiring more penalty points. It isn’t actually talking about the cancer – how it got there, how to remove it, etc. – to talk about the unfortunate side-effect symptoms of the chemotherapy. The expression is that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. But they are trying to administer only the sugar (the hope of de-escalation resulting from social order) without the medicine (reactionary social policies).

      In the 2×2 matrix composed of (orderly vs. disorderly population) and (friendly-but-weak vs. oppressive-but-battle-ready police), the best outcome (situation 1) is obviously orderly people and friendly cops, which is what used to exist throughout the English-speaking world. Orderly people with oppressive police (situation 2) is a non-ideal situation reminiscent of some Communist states, and Disorderly people with battle-ready police (situation 3) is also the non-ideal situation in which we find ourselves. But the worst outcome of all and the lowest of the multiple social equilibria is a Disorderly people with a purposefully weakened police force (and criminal justice system) (situation 4), which is bound to generate the chaotic insecurity that is epidemic and perpetual in all kinds of basket-case countries.

      I have no intention whatsoever of letting Libertarians and Conservatives complain incoherently about the transition from 1 to 3 by advocating policies that will undoubtedly take us from 3 to 4.

      • Vladimir says:

        This is especially disturbing given that it is happening in the special context of a response to a riotous-mob, which has been met historically by an inescapably harsh and severe response by English-speaking police or part-time militia forces even before modern weapons and tactics were in existence.

        It’s certainly true that summoning the army, or mobilizing a posse or militia, to deal with a riotous mob would have always been entirely within the spirit of common law and English liberty. Also, laws against rioting have traditionally been famously severe. (Under Canadian law, participants in a riot are in theory still liable to life imprisonment merely for failing to disperse within thirty minutes, once ordered to do so in the name of Her Majesty by a justice or peace officer!)

        That said, while in England the government’s response to rioting would inevitably be effective and severe, in much of the U.S. before the mid-20th century, the law enforcement was often too weak to prevent riotous mobs from going out of control and accomplishing their goal before they petered out. (This most famously happened with lynch mobs.) The implications of this fact on the functioning of the local government (which was then by far the most important level of government in the U.S.) is a very interesting question. But in any case, certainly there would have been no hand-wringing over a heavy-handed suppression of a mob given to vandalism and looting, if such suppression was successful.

        In the 2×2 matrix composed of (orderly vs. disorderly population) and (friendly-but-weak vs. oppressive-but-battle-ready police), the best outcome (situation 1) is obviously orderly people and friendly cops, which is what used to exist throughout the English-speaking world. Orderly people with oppressive police (situation 2) is a non-ideal situation reminiscent of some Communist states, and Disorderly people with battle-ready police (situation 3) is also the non-ideal situation in which we find ourselves. But the worst outcome of all and the lowest of the multiple social equilibria is a Disorderly people with a purposefully weakened police force (and criminal justice system) (situation 4), which is bound to generate the chaotic insecurity that is epidemic and perpetual in all kinds of basket-case countries.

        I have no intention whatsoever of letting Libertarians and Conservatives complain incoherently about the transition from 1 to 3 by advocating policies that will undoubtedly take us from 3 to 4.

        That is an excellent summary of the problem. In a sense, the crux of the issue is that conservatives and libertarians, fearful as always of breaking any progressive taboos and stirring the hornet’s nest of progressive outrage, are unwilling to say two evident facts.

        First, that the “social progress” from the last few generations, which we are supposed to celebrate as a victory against the monstrously dark and oppressive past, clearly cannot have been such an unalloyed good, if it has taken us from a situation where spontaneous order with minimal state interference can be generally taken for granted, to one where we need a de facto patrolling standing army to maintain order.

        Second, that the shift to battle-ready police with Robocop attitudes has been to a large degree necessitated by the progressive insistence on procedural equality and their legal innovations, most notably from the Warren court era, making effective common-sense policing impossible. This leads to the police routing around these obstacles by developing an approach that maximizes severity and intimidation while remaining within these latter constraints, and which is then, in pursuit of procedural equality, meted out both to decent people who don’t deserve it at all, and to the criminal underclass, for whom it is, if anything, still way too lenient. Just another manifestation of anarcho-tyranny, in other words. (Of course, this is in practice moderated by the common-sense attitudes of individual officers on the ground, and it also seems like in places with enough concentration of the elite, this can be raised to an almost official unprincipled exception.)

        For me, the real and important issue is one that is clearly distinguishable from matters of appearances and equipment, but the bulk of the advocacy I’ve come across is obsessively fixated on that distracting cynosure both in their complaints and criticisms, as well as their policy proposals.

        This is one point where we disagree. As Gene Wolfe wrote in one of his novels, “We believe that we invent symbols. The truth is that they invent us; we are their creatures, shaped by their hard, defining edges.” It is no accident that in every civilized society in history, soldiers and other men whose office involves bearing arms and applying violence have always had the most elaborate and prominent symbols — except maybe, again by no accident, for those in religious offices — and that the line between utilitarian and symbolic value of arms, uniforms, and other soldierly equipment has always been fuzzy.

        These symbols have fundamental importance in guiding, both consciously and unconsciously, the attitudes and decisions of everyone involved in any situation where violence may be applied — those on the giving and receiving end of it, as well as side observers who have to decide whether the violence in question was reasonable and lawful or tyrannical and criminal. There is always a complex system of signaling and Schelling points involved in any such situation. And it’s impossible to change just the symbols and expect that things will continue working as before — even if it looks like there is no clear reason why it would matter.

        In particular, since time immemorial, English-speaking societies have maintained a sharp distinction between soldiers on the one hand and civilian peace officers on the other, with vast differences not only in their lawful authority and responsibility and circumstances in which they are summoned to act, but also in their appearance and symbols. It is overwhelmingly likely that diminishing this latter distinction will have a great impact in practice, even if the letter of the law remains the same.

        What exactly this impact will be, and through what exact mechanisms it will play out, are complex questions that can be debated at length. But it was not out of whim that English-speaking peoples have always abhorred the idea of having ordered maintained by standing armies in peacetime, and it seems at the very least plausible that policemen looking like soldiers would lead to some problems that had always motivated this abhorrence in the first place.

        Of course, not that the incoherent complaints we discussed above will help either understand or mitigate these problems. But it’s definitely a topic that deserves a serious consideration on our part.

        • Handle says:

          This is one point where we disagree. As Gene Wolfe wrote in one of his novels, “We believe that we invent symbols. The truth is that they invent us; we are their creatures, shaped by their hard, defining edges.” It is no accident that in every civilized society in history, soldiers and other men whose office involves bearing arms and applying violence have always had the most elaborate and prominent symbols — except maybe, again by no accident, for those in religious offices — and that the line between utilitarian and symbolic value of arms, uniforms, and other soldierly equipment has always been fuzzy.

          These symbols have fundamental importance in guiding, both consciously and unconsciously, the attitudes and decisions of everyone involved in any situation where violence may be applied — those on the giving and receiving end of it, as well as side observers who have to decide whether the violence in question was reasonable and lawful or tyrannical and criminal. There is always a complex system of signaling and Schelling points involved in any such situation. And it’s impossible to change just the symbols and expect that things will continue working as before — even if it looks like there is no clear reason why it would matter.

          In particular, since time immemorial, English-speaking societies have maintained a sharp distinction between soldiers on the one hand and civilian peace officers on the other, with vast differences not only in their lawful authority and responsibility and circumstances in which they are summoned to act, but also in their appearance and symbols. It is overwhelmingly likely that diminishing this latter distinction will have a great impact in practice, even if the letter of the law remains the same.

          What exactly this impact will be, and through what exact mechanisms it will play out, are complex questions that can be debated at length. But it was not out of whim that English-speaking peoples have always abhorred the idea of having ordered maintained by standing armies in peacetime, and it seems at the very least plausible that policemen looking like soldiers would lead to some problems that had always motivated this abhorrence in the first place.

          Of course, not that the incoherent complaints we discussed above will help either understand or mitigate these problems. But it’s definitely a topic that deserves a serious consideration on our part.

          Over at Kling’s place, I discussed this, “clothes make the man” argument a bit. Let me bifurcate the issue here.

          One the one hand, I readily concede that there are subtle and complex psychological influences at play both for participant and observer, and that the ‘theatrical aspect’ of appearances plays on both the audience and the actor, as any drama instructor would tell us when discussing the important of dress-rehearsal on the centering process of getting into character.

          That being said, the concrete irony in this particular case is that Officer Wilson was not wearing any of that stuff when the shooting of Michael Brown took place – the casus belli of this whole fiasco. He had what any American would recognize as the ordinary uniform , garb, and sidearm of a typical municipal policeman. No camouflage uniform, no carbine with scope and tear-gas launcher, no body armor, and so forth. Indeed, the complaints about appearances come in precisely those circumstances in which the city, county, and state police were deployed in their alternative capacity as mob-busters which was historically reserved to Soldiers who, were they to be performing the same function, would carry and wear precisely the same equipment for instrumental and perfectly justifiable reasons.

          Indeed that is a good point about ‘militarization’ in general, which is that the police are not, in fact, ‘militarized’ all the time at all – far from it – but only in those circumstances in which there is a very strong justification for military-style weapons, tactics, and equipment.

          Nevertheless, the Libertarians and Conservatives who complained about this garb repeatedly tried to draw an inference that is completely a non-sequitur, namely, that the fact that the police even have these uniforms, weapons, and body armor in the inventory at all somehow generates instances of unjustified and excessive uses of force, even when they’re still hanging in the wall-locker.

          But, again, let me repeat the facts of this case.

          First, it was not at the time, and still remains, not at all clear whether Officer Wilson used excessive, unjustified force against Michael Brown, or acted at all unreasonably under the difficult and confusing circumstances of the shooting. Many Libertarian and Conservative columnists, however, and without anything like a sufficient degree of evidence, immediately adopted the progressive frame that the shooting death of an unarmed black youth by a non-black must certainly be the result of some racist injustice or undue psychological influence caused by ‘militarization’.

          Second, even if we grant for the sake of argument that the event is presumptively injust in se, there is the problem with Wilson not being ‘militarized’ at the time of the incident. Now we are getting into very speculative psychological territory, in which the face that Wilson may once have worn such clothing and been trained in the use of such equipment makes him a permanent loose-canon no matter what he is carrying at the moment of an incident. That is starting to sound a bit far-fetched.

          And Finally, when the riots begins including death threats and arson and vandalism and looting against completely innocent civilians who had no relation to the event whatsoever, the press is shocked and surprised to discover that mob-busting forces look ‘militarized’ despite the fact that mob-busting has been executed by militarized personnel for good reason throughout history and indeed all over the globe in the contemporary context, and that the equipment, tactics, and weapons of anti-riot police – whatever psychological impact they might have – also fulfill completely utilitarian requirements related to survivability.

          I very much doubt that Libertarians and Conservatives want riot cops to have to face the mob without body armor, which will almost certainly yield a modern kind of unstoppable lynch mob of a different color and character – but astonishingly that is precisely what they argued for. The only way they could sustain such an argument was to reverse reality with the logic – historically leftist thinking mind you – in which riot-police cause riots instead of riots causing the deployment of riot-police.

          Like I said, I agree with you on the first fork of the argument, and furthermore share the dream that the traditional institutional patterns could be restored. But I really think that if this is what Libertarians and Conservatives are trying to get at, then they are arguing for it in the most indirect and perverse manner possible, especially since it is inseparable from a narrative style in which the police are defamed as childish yet psychopathic incompetents.

          And let me add two additional ironies. First is that as imposing and intimidating as we are led to believe these RoboCops appear in their body armor, and as unrestrained as that getup is supposed to encourage the police to be, it has proven almost completely ineffective in actually quelling the rioters and putting a definitive stop to the criminal activity and those ‘premeditated acts’. In other words, they are if anything not imposing enough, and seen by their audience – rightly, it would seem – to be little more than paper tigers, hemmed in by the restrictive rules of engagement and the media coverage just salivating for an opportunity to sensationalize a single minor incident of excess. So, we are told that the ‘militarized’ police are both terrifying and rogue, yet what we actually observe is disciplined adherence to restrictive policies even in the face of personnel and community danger, and a lack of any ability to inspire the adequate amount of fear. Again, the assertions are completely at odds with reality.

          And finally, there is the odd emphasis on only this one kind of psychological influence. For the past several years, however, the press and political class have been trying to enrage and incite black communities with utterly fabricated misrepresentations of these rare incidents, and the entertainment industry has been feeding them a steady stream of violence-justifying oppression-opera in the form of Django unchained, 12 years a slave, and a large number of biographical movies of black celebrities which always play up the experience of cruel racism to the maximum degree. Black popular music is also filled with antisocial messages of hated and disrespect for police and mainstream white society. The fact that this stream of narratives and images would have a profoundly corrupting and destabilizing moral and behavioral effect on black audiences is obvious, and yet goes completely unmentioned in the context of an actual anti-authority black riot. Instead, we are left with the alternative directivity psychological theory regarding police equipment, which as I’ve shown above is the very opposite of obviously applicable to this case.

          Again, if libertarians and conservatives want to complain, they ought to identify the actual problems at the heart of this matter, or, as I pointed out with my Bonfire! metaphor, we will just be getting more of the same, again and again, forever.

  5. ||||| says:

    “The larger point is that all three blind mice have valid points to make if the others cared or would be willing to hear them, but they’re not. When O’Tayle tells Tusk that officer Darren Wilson was dressed in normal police clothes when the shooting occurred, Tusk says that’s not the point. But everything everyone says in never ‘the point’ for everyone else.”

    The larger larger point is that collective decision-making has a different fitness function relative to individual decision-making (or belief construction) and evolutionarily, can you guess which is more relevant?

    http://www.eecs.wsu.edu/~holder/courses/CptS570/fall07/papers/Dietterich00.pdf

    The introduction is enough to get the gist.
    For a similar thing from another direction:

    http://www-personal.umich.edu/~axe/research/Axelrod%20Dion%20Further%20EC%20Science%201988.pdf

  6. VXXC says:

    Brilliant! I’m in study test mode so missed this gem.
    BABE. Bet on the odds.
    Rgrds,
    Clan O’Tayle.

  7. VXXC says:

    Handle the Police may be becoming the Censors in the Roman sense. Run it through the BABE and see…

  8. R. says:

    In fact, most Soldiers would want to carry a .45 for close-quarters combat like many cops do, but they have to settle for lower stopping power M-4/AR type carbines and 9mm handguns.

    This is some grade A sarcasm. I believe and sincerely hope.

    • R. says:

      In case no one got it, AR rifles typically fire bullets with 3-4 times the energy of a .45.
      Furthermore, with modern HP projectiles a 9mm is as deadly as a .45..so unless a cop is really dumb they’d prefer a carbine for the actual CQB.

      • Handle says:

        Doesn’t matter. Opinion Journalists are comfortable with handguns and normal uniforms and outraged and terrified by rifles or anything else. They can profitably vent those irrational emotions to those who share their ignorance. That’s all there is to it. Nothing at all to do with practical considerations.

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