Where's the Objectivity?
Is An Idea Bad If It Doesn't Support Your Agenda?
AUGUST 01, 2002 by SHELDON RICHMAN
During a recent scandal, William Bennett wrote a book titled The Death of Outrage. The bigger scandal, however, is the death of objectivity, or the ability to evaluate an argument or claim with detachment. Many people look only to see if it supports their agenda. If it does, it’s good; if it doesn’t, it’s bad.
Two years ago Michael Bellesiles, a historian at Emory University, published Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture, which purported to show that early Americans were uninterested in guns, even for hunting, and did not commonly possess them. The gun culture was a contrivance engineered by gun manufacturers after the Civil War, Bellesiles wrote.
The book was received by the big-government, anti-self-defense crowd with great hosannas. Bellesiles’s thesis, it was said, should make Americans rethink their love affair with guns and realize that they have been wrong about the Second Amendment. Left-liberal reviewers such as Garry Wills in the New York Times Book Review and Edmund Morgan in the New York Review of Books could not praise Bellesiles’s work enough. They proclaimed that Bellesiles’s overwhelming evidence exposed the gun culture as, in Wills’s word, a “superstition.” Morgan wrote, “Bellesiles has deprived modern gun owners of the portion of our past that has lent the most respectability to their claims of historic validity.” Terry Gross, host of the NPR interview program “Fresh Air,” introduced Bellesiles as the author of the book many people had been waiting for, one that was highly relevant to the contemporary gun debate. Bellesiles was awarded the Columbia University’s coveted Bancroft Prize in History.
Observe the non sequitur: The early American attitude toward guns, whatever it was, cannot prove or disprove that individuals have a right to keep and bear arms. The right to have guns doesn’t obligate anyone to have or like them. So even if Bellesiles were right, it would have little to do with the modern debate over firearms or the meaning of the Second Amendment.
But Bellesiles is not right, as has become increasingly clear. A second wave of reviews, some by gun-control sympathizers, have found serious problems with his research, such as his use of probate records. Some records Bellesiles claims to have consulted don’t exist; one set was destroyed in an earthquake-in 1906. In short: Arming America “has spiraled into an enormous academic scandal, with scholars from every quarter claiming his work is at best sloppy, at worst falsified” (Kimberley A. Strassel, “Guns and Poses,” Wall Street Journal, February 22). Bellesiles is being investigated by his university.
How could a book that disintegrates at the slightest touch have been so well received? Because it said what some people wanted to hear. It was useful in advancing the anti-gun agenda. That was enough.
Here’s an example from the other direction. It is entirely likely that when environmental activists learned that Bjørn Lomborg, a Danish professor of statistics and a Greenpeace member, was checking the late Julian Simon’s claim that the world is in good shape and getting better, they must have been overjoyed at Simon’s impending comeuppance. Instead, Lomborg’s book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, has been greeted with virulent scorn. Not because he made errors or falsified data, but because he presented voluminous evidence that Simon was right. Thus Lomborg’s book is an impediment to advancing statist environmental measures. And Lomborg the man, who would have been sainted had he refuted Simon, is instead slandered and even threatened.
Here is the latest case. In May the U.S. government stated in two Supreme Court briefs that the Second Amendment refers to the individual’s right to keep and bear arms. This reversed the decades-long position that the Amendment protects only a collective right related to the militia.
The reaction by the anti-gun lobby can only be described as hysterical. According to Michael Barnes, president of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence and a former congressman, “This action is proof positive that the worst fears about Attorney General Ashcroft have come true: his extreme ideology on guns has now become government policy.” If it’s extreme to believe that rights belong to individuals, the Declaration of Independence is the most extreme document ever written.
The Brady Center press release continued: “The Department’s new policy weakens the federal government’s defense of gun laws. . . .” This is the real issue for the anti-self-defense lobby. It’s not concerned with the soundness of the policy. All that matters is its agenda. Anything that works to restrict and outlaw gun ownership is good. Anything that promotes it is bad. Objectivity and honest discourse are irrelevant–if not counterproductive.
New York Times columnist Bob Herbert is alarmed that the administration’s position will put “more guns into the hands of more people.” Even if true, that does not prove that the position is wrong. Herbert also claims there was “no need for the government to take a position on the Second Amendment in the two cases for which the briefs were submitted.” So what? The issue is whether the position is valid.
Obviously, gun rights belong to individuals. There’s no one else for them to belong to. And the Supreme Court has never said otherwise. On the contrary, the Court has said “the people” in the Bill of Rights means individuals.
The Second Amendment, of course, does not say that “the people shall have a right to keep and bear arms.” It says, “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” The Amendment does not create the right–it recognizes it. This is important because it puts the Amendment’s preamble–”A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state”–into perspective. The anti-gun lobby says this means only that states may arm their national guards. But the framers did not attribute rights to states, only to persons. The one reference to the states in the Bill of Rights is about powers, not rights.
The Amendment mentions the militia only to suggest that a citizen-based defense (the militia) will be effective if people know how to use guns, and that proficiency with guns depends on individuals’ being free to possess them. Hence, “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”
The game is now visible for all to see. Illiberal academics and others pose as champions of science, reason, and open debate, but their actions say something else. They are defenders of an orthodoxy, and woe betide anyone who dares to utter heresy. Would anyone trust them near a set of thumbscrews?