It has been many moons since I last posted. My apologies. I hope to be posting more regularly soon.
But in the meantime, I won an essay contest and finally have my work published by a legit, external party! Check out my essay on climate change and poverty reduction (it’s short): http://www.brettonwoods.org/sites/default/files/documents/Henry_Owen_Award_Essay_Waldroup_1stPlace.pdf
(Here is an explanation of the contest: http://www.brettonwoods.org/article/inaugural-owen-award-celebrates-graduate-students)
The Elements of Style, by Will Strunk and E.B. White, has been the Bible of English style for two generations. The book provides all sorts of advice, including the now famous dictum “Omit needless words!” as well as the rule of using ‘s after all words to make them possessive, with the exceptions of Jesus, Moses, and other ancient names, which only warrant an apostrophe. While several of the book’s points are well-founded, it also has more than its share of absurdities. Recently coming across several other lists of writing tips from famous authors, it seems that the majority of them are full to the brim with ridiculous rules and suggestions.
So last night I went looking for my copy of Strunk and White in order to denounce it. To my great consternation, my copy of this little book had been stolen! My wife apparently took it to school, where, as an English teacher, she supposedly has some use for it. I am deeply skeptical. (She claims to have had it at school for a year. Apart from my skepticism, she is also violating the role of a private library as a working tool, as outlined in a previous post.) But not to worry, I have several other works that refer to the book extensively, so there is still plenty of material for my diatribe.
The problem with many of these style guides is that “good” style changes dramatically with time. As languages change, so to do the expectations of readers and the way in which words are best able to communicate their intended purpose. What one style guide says is best in 1959 (when The Elements of Style was first published) may not apply today. That said, many of the most basic suggestions from Strunk and White are still worth following:
- “Omit needless words,”
- “Do not join independent clauses by a comma.”
- “Use the active voice.”
These are all legitimate pieces of advice that are likely to improve the readability of any text. But other rules come across as attempts to create laws out of pet peeves:
- Spell out dates in quotations (e.g., “August ninth”) but not when the author is using a date (August 9th)
- Use “which” for nonrestrictive clauses and “that” for restrictive clauses
- Only use “hopefully” to mean “in a hopeful way” rather than the more common usage
- Do not use “claim” as a substitute for declare, maintain, or charge
- Do not use “due to” to mean “through, because of, or owing to”
Such rules are utter nonsense, and are based entirely on a prescriptivist desire to keep language from changing, to maintain “purity.” These types of rules are all predicated on the understanding that whenever the rules are being written down (say, in 1959), that era’s language is the way the language ought to be. But since language is constantly changing, any such claim is absurd, for there was always an earlier, “purer” language from which the current manifestation evolved. While some standards tend to last through the ages, such as concision, petty proscriptions of definitions which have crept into new areas, such as with “claim” or “due to” above, are bound to be ignored by the masses as the new definitions become part of the next generation’s idea of “pure” language.
The wonderful website Brain Pickings recently posted some other writing tips from long dead writers. Here are selections from the twenty most common writing mistakes in the eyes of HP Lovecraft, sci-fi and fantasy author, in 1920:
- “Barbarous compound nouns, as viewpoint or upkeep”
- “Use of nouns for verbs, as ‘he motored to Boston,’ or ‘he voiced a protest.’”
- “Errors in moods and tenses of verbs, as ‘If I was he, I should do otherwise,’ or ‘He said the earth was round.’”
- “False verb-forms, as ‘I pled with him.’”
- “Use of words in wrong senses, as ‘The book greatly intrigued me,’ ‘Leave me take this,’ ‘He was obsessed with the idea,’ or ‘He is a meticulous writer.’”
I too would call “viewpoint” barbarous. Only pirates use that word, in my experience. Of course, we say many of the other things forbidden in this list, and no one in his right mind would correct them. In fact, the dictionary now even includes “pled” as a perfectly endorsed past tense of “to plead.” Were he still alive today (check out that subjunctive, Lovecraft!), I bet Lovecraft would have started a petition to undo the deleterious effects of google’s entry into the dictionary as a verb.
Some of the most famous stylistic rules are in fact vestiges of other languages that need not apply in English at all. For instance, the injunction against split infinitives, as “to quickly run” or “to fervently believe,” is based on a former incarnation of the idea of a “pure” language. Back in the day, many believed Latin to be the perfect language. In Latin it is impossible to put anything in between the two components of an infinitive (“to” and “run,” for instance) because infinitives were a single word (“to run” in Latin is “currere”). Great English writers have ignored this rule in every century since the 1300s.
Another oft-cited rule is to never end a sentence with a preposition. John Dryden, in 1672, apparently criticized Shakespeare-contemporary Ben Jonson for such a sin, and it has been brought up in every generation since then. Once again, this construction is impossible in Latin, and Dryden was known to first write in Latin, as he thought it the superior language, and then translate into English, explaining his opposition to dangling prepositions. But there is no sensible reason to follow such a rule, and, again, great writers and even very large newspapers like the New York Times have routinely ignored this rule.
The list of erroneous rules and suggestions for writing could go on and on. In every age, writers think that their own writing is the height of language, but every new age heralds new feats of language and writing that add new dimensions to the English repertoire. In their better moments, many of the same rule-wielding writers quoted above still saw the larger picture. So after having bashed their many pieces of bad advice, here are a few sage comments worth considering:
“Style rules of this sort are, of course, somewhat a matter of individual preference, and even the established rules of grammar are open to challenge. Professor Strunk, although one of the most inflexible and choosy of men, was quick to acknowledge the fallacy of inflexibility and the danger of doctrine.”
- E.B. White, in one of his better moment – Essays of E.B. White, 325
“All attempts at gaining literary polish must begin with judicious reading, and the learner must never cease to hold this phase uppermost. In many cases, the usage of good authors will be found a more effective guide than any amount of precept. A page of Addison or of Irving will teach more of style than a whole manual of rules, whilst a story of Poe’s will impress upon the mind a more vivid notion of powerful and correct description and narration than will ten dry chapters of a bulky textbook.”
- H.P. Lovecraft, from the article on Brain Pickings
“If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes, but by no means always, find the way to do it. You must perceive the excellence that makes a good story good or the errors that makes a bad story. For a bad story is only an ineffective story.”
- John Steinbeck, another article from Brain Pickings
Flipping through the channels over Christmas break, I stumbled upon Dr. No, the first James Bond film from 1962. Never having seen the film, and intrigued by the antique feel of the movie, I ended up watching a sizable chunk of it. It was immediately clear that this erstwhile Bond was very different from his more recent resurrections. To check the latest evidence (and for fun), last week my wife and I finally saw the most recent Bond installment, Skyfall. Comparing the two films, some differences were obvious – the awkwardly moving backgrounds when Bond is driving, for instance. But there were a number of more subtle, more significant changes as well, mirroring fundamental ways our society has changed since the 1960s. Here I will focus on three themes: the perception of women, the use of technology, and the notion of heroism.
The Perception of Women
If there is one theme around which James Bond is constantly criticized, it is the way he treats women. I cannot help but agree that Bond has consistently used and abused women, treating them as playthings which can be thrown away at a moment’s notice. In the most recent Bond movie, this trend is still noticeable, and in some ways, his treatment of a character who he knows to be a sex slave may be a new low in the Bond world.
That said, and I admit it is a rather large caveat, the depiction of women in Bond films has nonetheless improved in other ways since Dr. No. First and foremost, women have much more volition in the new films. One of the most interesting things I noticed watching Dr. No is how often Bond grabs the wrists of the women he is interacting with. Bond’s interactions with the first Bond girl, Ursula Andress, are consistently of this nature. For instance, I remember a scene where they are on a beach (shortly after Andress’s character is introduced) and need to run away quickly. Bond grabs Andress’s wrist and they run the length of the beach in that pose, as if the woman was incapable of realizing that running away from bad guys with guns was a prudent idea. Couldn’t Bond just have said “follow me” or grabbed her hand instead?
No, both of these would have given the woman too much volition, more than was good for her in those days. Today, while Bond is clearly still the dominant character, many female characters, especially in the movies starring Daniel Craig, are portrayed as strong and willful. They have their own goals and aspirations that they tend to carry out on their own (especially in the recent Quantum of Solace). Bond is no longer in the habit of grabbing wrists and showing other overt forms of domination. In fact, Bond is shot and (ostensibly) killed by a woman at the very beginning of the latest movie.
Furthermore, it should certainly be pointed out that casting the character “M” as a woman for the past two decades was a huge step up for the depiction of women. After all, M is officially superior to Bond and had always been cast as a man before Judi Dench stepped in. Although (spoiler alert!) what does it say that M will be played by a man going forward? Until the issue of using women purely for sex is resolved, the Bond critics will still have plenty of ammo. But while there is still room for improvement, the depiction of women has improved in many subtle ways since the days of Dr. No.
The Use of Technology
Guns, explosions, and epic chase scenes have always played an important role in Bond movies. But the use of technology in recent movies has changed dramatically, most of all in Skyfall. In this movie, Bond is given a gun and a radio by Q, head tech wizard. That’s it. No bazookas. No cars that can launch guided missiles or turn into submarines. In many ways, this use of technology has actually come full circle. In Dr. No, there were some decidedly low-tech death mechanisms. I mean, really, who sends a spider to kill James Bond? Utterly outrageous. Unless, of course, the spider has a laser mounted to his head and doubles as a land mine. Unfortunately, Sean Connery did not have to deal with either of these possibilities. He just had to wake up and smash the spider. Add the spider to the ridiculous dragon-tank in Dr. No and the tech bonanza of the 1990s and 2000s looks positively magical.
But today we have reverted to those low-tech days. Sure there are still explosions, but only when explosions would actually happen. (As a side note, check out my favorite movie explosion from Steve Martin’s Pink Panther. Biker + fruit stand = explosion!!!)
In fact, in Skyfall the filmmakers seem to make a special point of exhibiting just how low-tech Bond has become, with only his gun and his radio. Q points out that “we don’t go for that sort of thing anymore,” referring to the glitzy gadgets of yore.
Nor do most of the people in Generation Y. In the past, technology has been more of an aspiration than a reality. Society longed for that next cool product that would magically ease its troubles. Those gizmos continued to appear – refrigerators, microwaves, cassette tapes, CDs, computers, etc. But Generation Y has grown up with all of this and more – specifically the internet and all of the Apple products that seem to be beyond this world. Technology is no longer aspirational; it is embedded very deeply in everyday life. We can no longer think of life without smartphones and mp3s and high definition and wireless internet. They are integral to our understanding of reality.
This embeddedness of technology is so strong that we are also much harder to impress. New gadgets appear every day, and very few of them are actually radically new. Our expectations are too high. Accordingly, Bond has lost all of the fancy gizmos – very little the filmmakers could create would make much of a difference to us anyway. But what does make a difference is the human ability to control situations as Bond does. He still uses cool technology from time to time, but he impresses us with his finesse and suave and ability to incorporate technology into his strategy for defeating the enemy. No longer do people go to Bond movies to see the latest in technology. Apple and Google do that for us. Now they actually go to see Bond.
And that brings me to my final point.
The Nature of Heroism
Bond is still a hero, but he is a more complicated hero than he used to be. Until the latest Daniel Craig version, Bond was merely sexy, suave, and extremely lucky. Now Bond is all those things and more: frail, flawed, emotional, complex(ish). That is to say, Bond is becoming a real character, god forbid.
In Casino Royale, this new Bond begins to make an appearance. That movie, more than any other recent Bond movie, focuses on Bond’s ability to outwit his opponents rather than just outgun them. The movie is slower to develop and has more of a dark tinge to it as well – so much so that some people were turned off by the lack of normal Bond action. (I thought it was terrific.) In Quantum of Solace the new Bond adds some emotional depth as he seeks revenge after being betrayed.
In Skyfall, though, the new Bond truly arrives. He gets shot and goes off the grid for months, depressed, fallen, resorting to drink and silly spectacles with scorpions to retain his manhood. He returns when MI6 is bombed – grizzled, incapable of controlling his emotions, completely un-suave. On his first mission to gain information from an assassin, he fails miserably, both in terms of physical performance and at achieving his goal. He is only spared by that fortuitous Bond luck.
We finally get a glimpse of Bond’s past in the movie too, and we see it is dark – dark enough that he finds considerable pleasure in literally burning down his past. He even exhibits some emotion for the dying M. But the key is that he overcomes all of these things. He gets past his frailty; he overcomes his tragic past; he masters his emotions.
This is much more akin to the nature of heroism we see in most good literature. Heroes are not flat and unidimensional, born of greatness and living in greatness. That was the old Bond, who was always in control, always suave, never frail, never hurting. And certainly never emotional. But in an age where terrorism lurks in the recesses of our minds and financial markets crash on a semi-regular basis and no one seems to know what to do, the age of the superman has come to an end. We no longer want our heroes to reflect utter dominance in all situations because we no longer feel dominant in all situations (as we, especially in America, did for much of the 20th century). We need a hero who makes mistakes, who is haunted by the past, but who can still triumph over adversity. Bond is slowly becoming that type of hero.
Keep it up.
Today I encountered an image that surprised me. It was an image of Brian Wilson, a somewhat seedy closer for the San Fransisco Giants. It caught my eye because I noticed he had started curling the mustache on his trademark black beard:
Here is a separate photo of Wilson with his more traditional look (and his Giants hat):
Of course, you may come to notice that these two photos are not actually of the same person. The first photo, in its entirety tells a story unfamiliar to Mr. Wilson:
The man is a recently graduated Afghan police officer, soon to take on the formidable challenge of being a middleman in Afghanistan, between the oft-hated Americans and the unsure local Afghans. It is a task I would not envy.
I would wager that when most Americans think about Afghanistan, they think of something like this:
To many Americans, Afghanistan is synonymous with “Taliban,” forever labeling the country as alien, backwards, hostile, evil. Since our interaction with the country is essentially limited to news coverage whenever there is a bombing or police shooting there, such opinions are, frankly, not surprising. It is easy to forget that the US sided with the precursors of the Taliban when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in the 1980s. But it is even easier to forget that the people of Afghanistan are not so different from ourselves. The above photo, while revealing only a superficial physical resemblance, nonetheless reminded me of our common humanity.
I enjoy writing poetry, and I have decided to post some of my poems more often on this blog. So you can expect to see more of them in the future. Here is a poem for the new year. Hope you enjoy!New Year Forecasts by Jonathan Waldroup We are as a horse and cart, unguided, Traveling a rutted road That stretches straight, unending, Flanked by forests thick, primeval. Fools, we peer into the distance To know our fate and profit by it. But suddenly the horse will turn And yet again soon after: This is a wood with many roads, Though none are traveled Ere we stumble on them, blind.
The tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary is still fresh in our minds, and the debate on what should be done in response, if anything, is at full tilt. There are so many angles on the issue: gun ownership as a protection against tyranny, limiting the freedom of responsible members of society to reign in the harmful few, gun ownership as a crime deterrent or enabler, to name a few. I have talked about the first item in previous blogs (most recently concerning the Arab Spring and previously with respect to Gabrielle Giffords), arguing that guns no longer serve as any sort of protection against tyranny.
The second issue—limiting the rights of all to prevent the unstable few from committing atrocities—can be addressed rather quickly. We already do this in many areas of life, including weaponry. We do not allow people to buy bazookas, tanks, jets, missiles, etc., despite the fact that this is limiting the freedom of people who mean no harm, because the weapons are capable of causing such vast devastation. On a more mundane level, we limit the speed of cars on the road because of the safety hazard they pose, and we require people to wear seat belts (in most places) because it saves lives. In all of these cases we have chosen to forego some liberties to promote the greater good (saved lives). This is the nature of the social contract – give up some rights to gain greater benefits.
This simple acknowledgement of the way modern states function shows the absurdity of the “guns don’t kill people; people do” argument. The same could be said of speeding cars or bazookas, and yet we still place limits on such things.
That said, my primary purpose in this blog is to address the last issue in my list: does gun ownership increase or decrease violent crime, especially homicide? I am particularly interested in what gun ownership rates around the world have to do with homicide rates and the common arguments on the topic. To that end, you may have seen this graph floating around the internet recently (or others like it; here’s another one):
This looks pretty convincing. You’ve got some really high homicide rates in countries with low gun ownership, and then much lower homicide rates as you move to the right. But the problem with data-based arguments is that they tend to be accepted without any critical analysis.
Here we have several problems.
First, and most importantly, the graph implies that civilian-owned firearms cause lower homicide rates. Clever economist that he is, Mr. Davies knows he can claim no such thing with this graph and merely states that countries with higher firearm ownership rates also have lower homicide rates. Just because two variables are correlated does not mean either one causes the other. But the clear implication of causation in producing the graph at all is very misleading on the part of Mr. Davies.
Second, sometimes it does not make sense to compare every country in the world. Economists are big fans of global data, and sometimes such data can be very helpful, but other times global data actually confuses the matter by making unjust comparisons. This is one of those cases. El Salvador, with the highest homicide rate in this graph was due almost entirely to gang violence, which has raged for years in that country (here is a recent article about gangs there). The gangs there have access to heavy weaponry, including assault rifles and grenades, which they use to prosecute their conflicts. In such a case, guns for self-protection are not the point – the violence is occurring between people who already have plenty of guns. When gang violence is the key driver of violence, what is needed is stronger law enforcement and rule of law, along with an attempt to address the roots of gang conflict.
Similarly, Ivory Coast has been in and out of civil war since 2000, the main source of its violence. More guns will not solve the problem – violence from wars only stops when one side wins and sets up a legitimate and stable government. In Honduras and Jamaica, drug trafficking and gang violence contribute to the high rates of homicide, again, unrelated to the rate of civilian gun ownership. In fact, in the data I use below, which was trying to approximate the data used for the above graph, 18 of the top 20 countries by homicide rate are in the Caribbean, Central America, or major drug production areas of South America.
When drug cartels and gangs are the main source of violence in a country, normally the bulk of the violence occurs between members of those groups, who already have plenty of guns. More guns for the civilian population who live around the conflict (but are not key players) will not end the violence. That is, if Gang A and Gang B are fighting and already have plenty of guns, arming group C (the civilian population) will not reduce conflict between A and B. Group C just wants to stay out of it. Fighting will continue until the root causes of the conflicts are addressed (e.g., the lack of economic opportunities for gang members, the high price and demand for drugs, etc.).
The problem with all of this is that murder in some countries has very different causes than in others. In wealthy countries like the US, murder is not due to civil war, country-wide gang violence, or massive drug cartel armies battling it out. So comparing such countries with the US and other wealthier countries is completely absurd and tells us nothing significant about gun ownership.
So I set out to look at the data from a different perspective. First, I tried to recreate the data from Mr. Davies’ graph above, using this data, so that I could compare the results with his. The data is not precisely the same, as Davies did not link to his precise sources, but I used similar time frames (2007). The graph I created is below:
It looks very similar. The US is still way to the right. Honduras is up top. My main point here is to show that the data is similar to Mr. Davies’ (I think the other differences are due to fluctuation year to year in some of the worst conflict zones).
Then I decided to add GNI per capita (similar to GDP per capita, a simple measure of average income; data from the World Bank) and graph that against homicide. The results are below:
The thing to notice here is that the graph looks very similar to the plots of firearm ownership and homicide. My point is that it is not hard to create a graph that shows murder rates going down as some other variable goes up. I’m sure we could produce similar graphs with variables like years of education, lifespan, and many others. Except in the case of income and homicide, there is some theoretical reason to think the relationship may be causal. After all, drug cartels and gang violence do not thrive in rich countries because they have stronger law enforcement, better prospects for their citizens (so they don’t turn to gangs), and diversified economies that provide many legal sources of income for their citizens. Many problems improve as countries get richer. Nonetheless, the relationship looks weak. So now let’s consider something else.
Now this is a much different picture, isn’t it? This graph shows firearm ownership and homicide rates in OECD countries (a club of rich countries) that also have a GNI per capita of more than $25,000. As you can see, among wealthy nations similar to the US, as firearm ownership increases, so does homicide. This is completely different than the depiction of the data when looking at the whole world, comparing incomparable countries. And of course, that nation on the upper right, with very high firearm ownership and murder rates, is the US. The implication is obvious: even if guns are sometimes used to protect the innocent, any deterrence of homicide is outweighed by an even larger increase in homicides due to the availability of guns.
So if anything, we should expect that more guns will lead to more violence, not the other way around.
But, as I have discussed, correlation is not causation. So, in this new case, are the higher gun ownership rates causing higher homicide rates?
This possibility is supported by a number of studies, particularly by David Hemenway, Matthew Miller, and Deborah Azrael. A good summary of some of their main findings (on this topic and related ones) and a few of their articles are cited here: Harvard Injury Control Research Center. There are some fairly obvious candidates for why this relationship may exist. For instance, the availability of a gun may lead to fatal escalation in moments of anger and passion, when otherwise fists or less lethal knives would have been the weapons of choice. Guns may be taken by other members of a household (besides the gun owner) and used contrary to the owner’s will, simply because they are available. Attempts at deterrence by a gun-owner untrained to actually fight in such situations may lead to an even greater use of lethal force by criminals. These are just some of my own hypotheses, but I think the first one is probably the most likely.
My main point in this article is to show that the oft-cited data about guns and crime internationally is often misread. However, I also acknowledge that there are opposing views, most especially by John Lott and his collaborators (one of whom was my former professor, for whom I have immense respect). Lott and Mustard’s original article that started this debate can be found here, but it only deals with the right to carry concealed weapons, not overall ownership, and not in comparison to other countries. Lott’s later book that fleshes out his argument is called More Guns, Less Crime, and he wrote another book later again responding to critics. A good critique of his second book is here. Finally, another good summary of info on gun violence in the US is here. Overall, I think that research in recent years has largely shown that more guns does NOT equal less crime, contrary to Lott.
I do not believe all guns should be banned, nor do I think that such an outcome is at all possible in the US any time soon. But strict controls on who can buy guns and the types of weapons and accessories available for purchase would reduce gun violence in this country (if also combined with efforts to reduce the vast quantity of guns already floating around the US).
As many have pointed out, the same day of the Newtown shootings, a man attacked young students at an elementary school with a knife in China. While it was also horrible, without the gun the outcome was very different. The man in China wounded 23, but none died. If only that had been the outcome in Connecticut.
An Elegy for Sandy Hook
by Jonathan WaldroupThe blood of babes, spilt, in wanton debt Beneath the gaze of silent, mournful walls That bore their watercolor dreams, still wet: Stick figure families, dogs and cats and balls, Intricate tales behind each one. The vacant forms of flesh will linger on In vacant bedrooms, pregnant with their cares. The silence clamors louder than a song They might have sung at dusk to teddy bears, Who now are friendless, too. Next week unknown, next year untried, unseen, Loves unexpected, faults untested. Death Too soon for them, too late to spare the mien Of shadow on the living, without Lethe, That sweet river of forgetfulness. They’ve gone to realms beyond the light of day Or dark of night – ripped and torn from love To Love, unspeakable – gone, away From fear and wrath to what we call “above.” We ponder thievery from heaven. For numbness, waking death, and grief untold Shall haunt those of us here for years to come. Our hope, the knowledge of the pains of old That one day passed away, unnoticed, dumb. At long last. The pain will lift, the hate subside – one day, We hope; the unforgiven sins removed. The tears will cease, the scars will fade – one day New joy will come and soothe what death removed. But for now, we weep.