Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Not Really About Guns

Gun Control issues are not something I am much interested in, but it comes up frequently on sites I comment on. In particular, European commenters bring it up a lot, and more than American blue-staters, they believe that gun ownership is an enormous contributor to crime rate. It’s a consistent bit of nonsense which dominates the discussion from the other side of the issue as well: many conservatives swear by John Lott’s More Guns, Less Crime, which attempts to show that concealed carry permits reduce crime. They do, but not much. There are other factors which overwhelm the gun-law effects no matter what legislation is or isn’t passed. Sports analogy alert: it would be like examining park effects to determine why Barry Bonds hits more home runs than Roger Clemens. There may actually be something there to measure, but specialization, at-bats, and steroids dwarf all other considerations.

Two cultural factors provide almost complete explanatory power: heritage and ethnic diversity. Heritage I will discuss in the next post. Ethnic Diversity was in the news this week because of a study by Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone. The study is not new, but his ongoing work recently got some press because of Putnam’s influence in the Blair administration and Jack Straw’s recent flap over women wearing the veil. A summary of the study appears here, and further information here.
The core message of the research was that, "in the presence of diversity, we hunker down", he said. "We act like turtles. The effect of diversity is worse than had been imagined. And it's not just that we don't trust people who are not like us. In diverse communities, we don't trust people who do look like us."

Prof Putnam found trust was lowest in Los Angeles, "the most diverse human habitation in human history", but his findings also held for rural South Dakota, where "diversity means inviting Swedes to a Norwegians' picnic".

People exposed to more ethnic diversity have less trust of their surroundings. The average bigot observing his neighborhood interprets this as “we never had so much crime until the blanks moved in.” That is in one sense true, but not for the reasons the bigot thinks. When the New Group moves in, there is not only mistrust, anger, and violence between the New Group and the Old Group. There is also increased mistrust, anger, and violence in both groups amongst themselves. It is as if some “not-safe” switch is thrown in everyone, and we all get more irritable. Plus, we have so many things besides race to divide ourselves around. Accents, language, age, wealth, education.

The study humorously – or sadly – notes that this phenomenon plays out even between Swedes and Norwegians in South Dakota (the violence, not so much. Not for the last few centuries, at any rate. We will revisit that under “heritage” considerations). It is not racial difference or even appearance difference, it is mere difference. Race and appearance difference are just good activators of the “not-safe” switch. Urban history, both recorded and oral, confirms that ethnic neighborhoods were mistrustful and violent even when the divisions were ethnic, not racial. Over time this recedes, as people come to not just intellectually accept that “those Ukrainians are mostly alright people, just like everyone else,” but actually have their “not-safe” switch turned off, which is a far less conscious process.

What I am lightly calling a “not-safe” switch is not really an either/or proposition in the mind. There are degrees of comfort or agitation. In Dublin, I could tell that the natives were of a different tribe than I am, but still felt almost completely safe, because it looked the same as a Knights of Columbus carnival on the South Shore of Boston - which I regard as a safe place.

Wherever folks are mobile and look different, violence increases. In America, there is much more ethnic mixing than in other places. Whenever I mention that, Brits and Canadians get huffy, and quick to point out that their countries have multiracial places as well. Yes they do. Like Toronto or Birmingham, for example, where violent crime is rising. There are also places in America that are more homogenous, and crime tends to be lower there.

But the homogenous places in America actually have as much mix as most of the rest of the world does in its diverse areas. Until recently, the only thing besides Swedes in Sweden were Danes or Finns. In such situations, the social bonds which lead to things like, oh, generous welfare subsidies, are easier to maintain. As Europe tries to absorb Islamic immigrants, the fellow-feeling wanes. Look what a great job they did accepting Jews and Gypsies over the centuries, if you want to peer into the Eurabian future.

Because mobility is a large factor in different groups brushing up against each other, I have to conclude that our economic freedom, which allows and even encourages folks to move around the country, pushes up our crime rate. But economic freedom is also much of the solution, as working together - and prospering together – has been an enormous engine of American unity. In the short term, everyone would prefer to just be with “their own people.” But to sell electric can-openers and improved spreadsheets, you have to branch out and deal with the others. Over time, it can work. It has worked.

Don’t take European criticism about American racism and our supposed disdain for the poor to heart. We are accomplishing here what no one has ever accomplished. We do not always succeed in swallowing new problems whole. But the level of diversity in America is greater than the Roman Empire’s, and certainly well ahead of the cafes of Paris.

8 comments:

GM Roper said...

AVI: "Don’t take European criticism about American racism and our supposed disdain for the poor to heart. We are accomplishing here what no one has ever accomplished. We do not always succeed in swallowing new problems whole. But the level of diversity in America is greater than the Roman Empire’s, and certainly well ahead of the cafes of Paris."

AVI, the best ending to the best post I have ever read on the "gun" issue. The cultural differences between the U.S. and Europe are very real but the mistake Europeans make, I think, is that their cultural viewpoint is superior and that alone makes them right. Not by a long shot. I haven't owned a gun, pistol or rifle in years and years. The last pistol I owned was over 30 years ago and the last rifle over 20 years ago, I don't miss them, but knowing that I have the freedom and the right to purchase one is not something I'm willing to give up, no matter who comes knocking at the door.

Great post my friend.

Anonymous said...

For the most part, serious crime is an urban affair, and high levels of gun ownership are rural affairs.

The UCR breaks down crimes into different city sizes(and a jillion other ways), but take the cities out of the equation and the US is a pretty safe place.

Doug W said...

Maybe your safe switch is broken, 2 summers ago I remeber the ferris wheel getting stuck mid ride and something catching on fire. (Thought I would put that in, irrelevent to the post as it is.)
Best wrtitng in a while by the way.

Bird Dog said...

Don't you think humans have strong tribal instincts? It seems quite natural to me. It is difficult to know how to fully trust, or even to understand, people from different backgrounds.With people from similar backgrounds, you know what they are and where they are coming from. Nothing to do with skin color. I have many more shared cultural data points with a black Baptist from South Carolina than I do with a Moslem from Boston.

bs king said...

To pull out some more pop culture on you, there is a very similar point made at the end of the movie 8 mile. Eminem's character (white) is in a rap "battle" with a rival (black). The predominantly black crowd is against him until he works in to his rap the point that he grew up as their next door neighbor (down, out and poor) and that his rival went to private school in another district. Very quickly the crowd switches allegiances, now cheering him on. That movie had far too many excellent points in it for something geared towards the audience it was geared towards.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Some excellent points here. Yes, race is a large factor in violence, but not in the way people think. In the absence of other data, people will gravitate to those that look most like them. But over time, they sort along the lines of other differences.

Example: when I went to one of my son's sporting events, I would gravitate toward the other fathers, even if I didn't know them. Race was barely relevant compared to age. I am definitely heading toward the African-American guy who's my age over the teenagers of my race.

SB said...

With the exception of countries or regions where racism is fully "encoded" - e.g., the old American South or apartheid South Africa - it seems to me most racism is about culture rather than color. It's easier to accept someone who looks different if they speak like you, dress like you, share similar beliefs, etc. Paradoxically, it may also be easier to perpetrate violence against someone who seems to share your culture - because you have a better idea how they will react, what the limits are, and how the rest of the community will respond. All things being equal, attacking strangers is a risky endeavor. Which may be why some people spend so much time attacking their own cultures rather than others - they know the system, and they know the consequences will be relatively easy to live with.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

That's an intriguing idea, sb.