Thursday, April 19, 2007

Blog War!

Well, not really. Or at least I hope not. In my earlier post, I took issue with Radley Balko on a couple of matters, and he was kind enough to leave a comment defending his honor. First of all, let me say that I'm a huge fan of Balko, both of his work at The Agitator and his stuff at Reason. If I believed in God, I would say he's doing god's work, particularly his stuff on Corey Maye, and the continuing attention he's paid to the issue of paramilitary police raids. I agree with him lots of the time, really I do.

But I still think his comment about the Duke Lacrosse case and the defenders of the players was wrong, or at least unproven. To recapitulate: Balko criticized law-and-order conservatives for not caring about due process except when it came to affluent white Duke Lacrosse players. MichaelW took issue with Balko, and Balko responded to him. I then entered the fray here, and both Balko and MichaelW were kind enough to add comments to my blog.

Anybody who wants to get the full flavor of the exchange is welcome to dig through all the past posts on it. As I see it, the crux of the debate is the existence of law-and-order conservatives who generally oppose (or don't care about) due process, but who suddenly began to care in the Duke case. Now, I don't deny, in principle, that such individuals might exist, but I do think that Balko paints with too broad a brush, and that he fails to prove that such an attitude is widespread among conservatives. In fact, he has yet to demonstrate that even a single person fits his description.

In his comment here, Balko claims to have given several examples in the posts that I linked. Actually, as MichaelW pointed out, no, he didn't.

So how could Balko prove his argument? Two ways that I can think of. First, he could show that a particular law-and-order conservative had made comments disdainful of due process ("who cares about the trial? Hang 'em high!"), but that he or she had suddenly become all concerned in the Duke case. Or, alternatively, Balko could show that somebody with a long record of writing on criminal justice issues had never before evinced concern about due process or prosecutorial misconduct, except in the Duke case. This would, at a minimum, require him to make some overall assessment of the body of a commentator's work.

Balko's first post gives no links at all. He merely points out a google search reveals that the Duke case was a bigger story than the case of James Giles. Well, maybe it shouldn't be, but there really isn't a lot of logic as to what becomes a big story and what doesn't. And it's highly relevant that the Duke case originally became a big story because the identity politics left so very much wanted to believe the accusations to be true. More to the point, the fact that the Duke Lacrosse story was a bigger story than the James Giles story doesn't prove Balko's point about law-and-order conservatives and due process. It proves that some stories get the limelight while others don't, and that the process by which this happens is neither predictable nor logical.

Balko's second post is long and covers a lot of ground, and it does contain links, but none of them prove his point. He links to material by Jack Dunphy, Michele Malkin, and Heather MacDonald, but those links don't prove Balko's case. Dunphy's article points out the rather obvious fact that the Duke case became a big media case largely because it was affluent white lacrosse players accused of raping a black stripper. He observes, correctly, that more heinous crimes by blacks against whites or other blacks don't get the same media attention. None of this is at all relevant to Balko's original claim: that law-and-order conservatives don't care about due process except in this one case.

Malkin's blog post is just a blip, linking to Dunphy and MacDonald -- she makes the same point that they do: that the media scrutiny given to the Duke case obscures the reality of black crime rates. Now, I suppose you could make an argument that Malkin supports his claim that law-and-order conservatives only care about due process in the Duke case. She did, after all, write that book defending internment (which I have not read), and so could be considered an enemy of due process. There's an argument there, but, notably, Balko didn't actually make it -- I did.

The problem, though, is that, while I haven't read her book, I certainly get the sense that she defended internment as an emergency wartime measure. I don't know of any evidence that she disparages due process generally in ordinary criminal cases, and Balko doesn't point to any.

MacDonald's article makes the same point Dunphy does: that the black crime rate is a serious problem. And she ties it in with a specific example of a widely-condemned police shooting which, she argues, was justified under the circumstances. Again, it doesn't prove Balko's point.

Finally, in his comment her, Balko gives a laundry list of people who, presumably, fit his generalization: "How about LaShawn Barber? The Powerline bloggers? The bloggers at Red State? Also, Michael Savage, Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, Glenn Beck, and Rush Limbaugh. Michelle Malkin. John Derbyshire. Jack Dunphy." It's quite possible that some of them do -- particularly the radio guys like Savage, Hannity, and Limbaugh. However, the truth is that I don't really listen to any of them, or read their stuff on the web, so I don't have much of a sense of the body of their work. In any case, simply listing somebody's name doesn't prove they fit a particular generalization.

Look, I don't deny that there may indeed be law-and-order conservatives who give short shrift to issues of due process and prosecutorial misconduct. And maybe a few of them "got religion" in the Duke lacrosse case. I'm just saying that Balko hasn't identified any, nor has he shown that such an attitude is widespread or typical. I probably agree with Balko more than, say, Michelle Malkin, and I certainly like him a lot more than Sean Hannity, who has the IQ of a chipmunk. But I just think one ought to try to be fair to people, even if one disagrees with them.

Maybe I've given this more attention than it deserves, and if Balko replies, either here or on his blog, I'll probably let him have the last word, unless he accuses me of raping pandas or something. But I just didn't think his initial comment was fair.

Let me address one tangential issue. The folks whom he cited -- Dunphy, Malkin, and MacDonald don't demonstrate Balko's original point, but he makes a somewhat different point about them, which I think is worth examining separately:

When people write this kind of tripe, I always wonder, so what's your point? That is, what do they want to happen?

Should every crime story come with a disclaimer that says, "NOTE: The Daily Herald wants its readers to know that black people commit disproportionately more crimes than white people"? Should Time magazine do a cover story on "The Dangerously Criminal Black Man?" What's the point in letting everybody know what races commit the most crimes?

Are they giving us these statistics for the purposes of making public policy? What would a public policy look like that takes these statistics into consideration? Would it mean that black people should get fewer constitutional protections than white people because of their propensity to commit more crime? Would it be a justification for racial profiling--for police to randomly pull over black men in nice cars because there's a higher chance that they're dealing drugs? Does it excuse some of the horrible police attitudes toward black people?

I'm not sure why Balko feels the need to refer to these articles as "tripe" when he doesn't seem to dispute their factual accuracy. Is he saying that people ought not write articles containing factually accurate information if the facts are inconvenient? Isn't it defense enough to say that the article reports the truth, and it's good to know the truth generally?

If nothing else, the media tends to report man-bites-dog stories precisely because such stories are unusual. But there is a risk that because something is widely reported, people will think that it is common. For example, I have no problem with the fact that the media gave a lot of attention to the shooting at Virginia Tech. But I would certainly welcome an article pointing out that it is a very rare event. At the public policy level, it's quite possible that there simply aren't any real conclusions to be drawn from this atrocity. Going back to the Duke lacrosse case, if the initial accusations had been borne out, many people might have had the impression that rich white young men routinely rape black women, and the truth is that while that does happen, it is very rare.

But Bako does have a valid question: what, if anything is the policy relevance of the points that Dunphy and MacDonald make? It's possible that there are no implications at all, that for purposes of public policy we should ignore the relatively higher black crime rate. But let's find out the truth first, think about what the numbers are, discuss the ways they might be relevant to public policy and debate the question before we decide that there aren't any implications.

That said, I can think of a couple areas of possible relevance, and no I don't think that the police ought to be allowed to pull over black men at random. I'm not taking any policy position here, but just throwing out some questions we might want to think about.

First of all, knowing these statistics might give us pause when claims about racial profiling are made based solely upon disparities in raw numbers. For example, it might well be the case that more black men will be pulled over, or arrested, or whatever. Real police racism, when it occurs, should be rooted out and punished, but we should examine accusations very carefully, particularly when they rely upon statistical disparities in raw numbers.

Second, as Balko himself notes, at least some of this disparity may well be driven by the war-on-drugs, both because it can suck young black men out of the legitimate economy and because of various aspects of our policy, such as the crack-powder distinction. In arguing for reform of our drug laws, running the gamut from legalization to eliminating the crack-powder sentencing disparity, might it be nice to know how those laws affect black-white disparities?

Third, while Balko and I might agree that the government ought to get out of the business of social engineering, it's clear it is in that business, and will remain so for the foreseeable future. I'd like to see the welfare state eliminated, but even I realize this is not a viable short-term goal. Given that fact, maybe we should at least consider the possibility of redesigning the welfare system to incentivize black family formation and/or reduce crime rates. But like they say, the first step to solving a problem is admitting you have one.


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