Anatomy of a Culture War Weapon

BJ Campbell
· 10 min read

or “Biting the Hand that Tweets You Must Be Done with Care”

(screenshot taken from townhall.com on 5/8/2018: https://townhall.com/columnists/kurtschlichter/2018/05/07/why-science-and-experience-command-that-you-buy-an-assault-rifle-n2478108 )

I’m new to Twitter, having basically just started an account to categorize links to Medium articles. So I was curious when I discovered that the well regarded Mr. Kurt Schlichter was going to do a Townhall.com piece referencing my most recent article, which was a fun jaunt into the mathematics of flooding, zombies, revolution, and the underbelly of California liberal anarchy preparedness. While I absolutely appreciate his praise, and the bump in traffic has been fun to watch, he appears to have not read the rest of the gun series, the ultimate point of which was to absolutely not do what Townhall did in that article. Before we break Townhall’s article down, we should first lay some quick groundwork to bring us up to date.

We opened the original gun series in March with a detailed look at how Vox and Mother Jones manipulate data to turn science into a culture war weapon.

Before we break down Townhall’s stab at what amounts to a very similar thing…

…let’s unpack the left’s. First, the left hides suicides and accidents in a bivariate graph correlating gun ownership and “gun deaths,” fooling the reader into thinking that homicides correlate in a bivariate way with gun proliferation when they actually don’t. Next, they propose policy measures directed at gun proliferation, even though those policy measures don’t meet any standard of efficacy. Finally, they accuse anyone who disagrees with that policy, or at least let’s say NRA members, of being willful accomplices to gun homicide. That’s what “blood on their hands” means. The thing gets shared virally in Facebook arguments where lefties tell righties that they’re all murderers for disagreeing with them. Make some signs, have a march.

Image credit: http://gorgeousfm.com/march-for-our-lives-global-protests-for-us-gun-laws/ although the original may have been raked from Sky News

Not all of that architecture is baked into the specific Vox piece we critique in the above link, but the overall framework is everywhere, and should be very familiar. It gets liked and shared, and drives media traffic to Vox and Mother Jones and such, because it exhibits all the properties of a culture war weapon, which we discussed here:

From that article:

1) “All the people you’re arguing with are stupid and here’s why”

2) “Share this article to prove how virtuous your side is, or alternately how much more virtuous you are than your friends because you found the article first”

These are the two most common forms of culture war weaponry in employ today, by people on all sides. One is the attack, which undermines someone else’s virtue, and the other is the defense, where you buttress your tower of virtue against attack. They take these forms because virtue is the fundamental quality of a culture. This stuff gets liked and shared far more than anything else.

But we’ve trashed the left-media plenty over the past two months, so let’s turn our gaze across the battlefield towards the right. Mr. Schlichter has made a career of battling these culture wars, so it’s not surprising that his approach would take the same form, and he makes a few errors in the article which are honestly a bit dangerous. I hope my series on guns, and the following fun little exercise in prepper math, didn’t attack liberal people or conservative people. It definitely attacked the left-media at times, because they deserved it. But liberals aren’t bad people, nor are conservatives bad people. There’s no reason they must war, if they could both just become better informed, and approach their culture war skirmishes calmly.

The Townhall article did not appear to be interested in that. Its opener:

It must be nice walking through life believing that the paradise the founders built here in North America is the natural state of man, and that we can therefore forgo the difficult and dangerous tasks associated with defending it. But some of us don’t have the luxury of illusions. We know that peace and civilization are not the natural state of man, and that the black swan events that we have somehow convinced ourselves could never happen do happen with startling regularity. And this is why you should buy guns and ammunition.

Specifically, you should own, at a minimum, a modern semiautomatic rifle like an AR-15 that is simple to operate, easily accessorized for the individual user, reliable, and rugged.

Good gracious.

First, let’s be fantastically clear about something: Not everyone should buy a firearm. This needs to be repeated. Not everyone should buy a firearm. Owning a firearm is a responsibility, and only people willing to properly adopt that responsibility, and engage themselves in the proper education and training should consider buying one. They’re a little bit dangerous. You need to be willing to learn how they work, how to clean them, and how to maintain them. Learn how to store them away from children, the mentally ill, or the suicidal. Learn how to operate them. Practice with them. And, truthfully, be willing to use them in the horrible circumstance for which they were intended. Many of our countrymen and women don’t fit this description, and if they don’t, they should not choose to buy a firearm.

If members of the right want the left to respect their choice to buy a firearm, they must respect members of the left’s choice not to buy one. That should be obvious. Further, there are folks on the left who’ve bought them too, so it would be wise for Townhall to think carefully about who they might be stepping on with these sorts of articles.

The central animus of this debate is of people telling other people what to do, as opposed to people respecting other people’s choices, and that’s the core problem.

Next, let’s look at the architecture of the executive summary. Townhall is not attacking the left-media for mischaracterizing facts, as I’ve repeatedly done. They are attacking liberal people themselves. This doesn’t convince anyone of anything. Nobody crosses the battleground to shake hands after an opening salvo like that. They dig their heels in and arm themselves with their own culture weaponry, which is not conducive to constructive dialog.

I also question the characterization that the natural state of mankind is violent chaos. This is an oft discussed topic, with no clear answer. I suspect liberals and conservatives hold different opinions on this topic owing to nothing more than differences in their personality typing. Historically speaking, it seems to me that the natural state of mankind is one of prolonged stretches of peace, pockmarked with occasional outbursts of massive, civilization scale group violence. To state that either of those modes is explicitly the natural state of mankind is very presumptuous. As an engineer, I know that any self-correcting system which corrects based on a trailing indicator is going to oscillate, and I personally think the model can extend to societies. Instability leads to overcorrections, and the wilder overcorrections involve bloodshed. More on this below.

If you don’t agree with me, you clearly hate science. Why do liberals hate science so much?

This is a classic culture war attack, of the form “all the people who disagree with (us) are stupid,” as referenced above and in the prior article. I can understand why Townhall is doing this, because the left uses this same “science denier” weapon quite often, sometimes very inappropriately. That doesn’t make it any less distasteful when the right does it. Unconstructive things are unconstructive regardless who says them.

But it is science — the math is clear that chaos is in the cards, and you better be ready. As BJ Campbell writes in his brilliant article The Surprisingly Solid Mathematical Case of the Tin Foil Hat Gun Prepper (Or, “Who Needs an AR-15 Anyway?”)thank you Kathy Shaidle for the pointer! — we already face a significant chance of significant upheaval in the near future even before we factor in the kind of attacks on the rule of law and on citizen sovereignty that we’re currently seeing from the left and their Fredocon appeaser pals.

I again thank Townhall for the reference, and I do appreciate the positive review, but this mischaracterizes the analysis a bit. The math is only clear that chaos is in the cards sooner or later, not necessarily the “near future.” Near would imply a time scale, so to make that claim Townhall would have to first define what they consider to be “near.” This is a bit of a Motte and Bailey fallacy. “Something will happen eventually (motte), therefore it’s right around the corner! (bailey).”

Like Townhall, I emphatically support the overall position that being prepared for bad stuff is worthwhile, but that point can be made without making implications that the mathematics don’t explicitly support.

People’s estimations of the likelihood of chaos can and should vary. I cooked up a ballpark of a 37% chance of nationwide violent revolution over an average life span in my prior article, with a very simple approach, and that chance seems reasonable to me given what I see in the political landscape today. Townhall’s writers may think the true chance is even higher, and they could be right. A particularly talented statistician or “Deep Learning” guru could spend days or months trying to nail down a better number. A risk management professional wouldn’t do the sort of analysis I did at all. They’d be focusing on symptoms, not probabilities. They’d read the tea leaves with math, based on looking at a snapshot of now. I would be honestly surprised if some well provisioned risk analysis professionals weren’t already doing this, either in the private sphere or in the Army. If they aren’t doing it, they should be.

My read of the tea leaves aligns with Mr. Schlichter’s in many ways. I think the bizarre turn our country has taken in the last half a decade is exacerbating this probability, and I agree with Townhall that the left-media is partially responsible for that. But it’s not just the behavior of the left exacerbating this, it’s also the behavior of the right, including at times Townhall. In my opinion, the abject ridiculousness of the entire 2016 election process on both sides is a glaring symptom. Further, I think a major contributor to that problem is the fundamental change in the revenue modes of the media itself.

(Traffic = revenue)

(You get the most traffic from secondary sharing)

(The stuff most shared is culture war weaponry)

(The media becomes culture war arms dealers)

We visited this before in the “Media Engine of Chaos” article. Townhall does this with their article every bit as much as the left-media does elsewhere. They’re both getting clicks by peddling arms to echo chambers. And I absolutely cannot hold it against Mr. Schlichter personally, because if he wasn’t doing it, someone else would be. It’s a giant free market race to the bottom of a bucket of handwaving freakoutery. He’s just playing his role. If he didn’t play it, then Townhall might fire him and find someone else who would.

Mr. Schlichter goes on in his article to recount some culture war skirmishes he’s had on twitter with one of his liberal counterparts, to which I am wholly unaware and intend to remain so, and then he gives a deeply personal and very enlightening Rodney King Riot anecdote, which I found enriching. Korean immigrants on rooftops protecting their stores with rifles is something I find wholly American, as do I national guardsmen bringing their own guns to the party. In addition, his estimation that the national guard can’t save you from nationwide chaos seems very accurate to me, and he supports it very well.

The Townhall piece does eventually mention that only people willing to assume the proper posture of responsibility should buy an AR-15, here:

And you should too, if you are mentally sound, law-abiding, and have the willingness to train and responsibly use one. Because, while the chance you will ever have to fire a weapon is very low, the downside of not having one when you need it is very high. You die.

In my opinion, that qualifier is too weak, and much too far down the article. Most people quit reading by this point. (If you’re still reading this one, thanks!) And again, it falls into the common culture war trap of telling other people what they should do. In a free country, the line should be drawn at, “I choose to do this, and this is why I made my choice.” That’s a position, not an attack, and that position is a way for people who disagree to find acceptance, if not common ground. Attacks don’t persuade.

And since their article is an attack on people, instead of a clearly framed personal position, it makes me question the impetus of the article itself. The article appears purely to be intended to drive traffic. The article’s closer suffers similar flaws:

Instead, be guided by science. The science, supported by experience, make clear what you need to do. Buy guns and ammunition. Get an AR-15.

Gee, why do liberals hate science so much?

Sigh.

While I do tremendously appreciate the praise Townhall conveys towards my article, they appear to have deeply missed my larger point. Mr. Schlichter is, by his publication history at least, someone with grave concerns of the ongoing culture war turning violent. I share this specific concern. But Townhall’s mode of expressing that concern makes the situation worse, all the while it makes Townhall more clickmoney. And it is these modes themselves which, in my estimation, push the culture war toward the threshold of violence. There could not be a clearer example of the deeply rooted mechanics of this problem, than someone who’s obviously alarmed about the problem advancing that very problem through their own alarm. And being rewarded for advancing it.

And it may not even be his fault. Townhall is just another cog in a national media machine of hyper-factionalization, which is feeding back on itself by its own flawed design.

This is my gravest concern about the modern media environment. Systems which correct based on trailing indicators oscillate, like a pendulum. Those which correct based on leading indicators stabilize, like a pendulum in a tub of molasses. And those which don’t correct at all, inflate uncontrollably, like an overly wound grandfather clock pushed out the back of a C-130. Our current profit drivers in media do not, in my estimation, have any self-correction mechanics in them whatsoever, because there’s no good-faith crosstalk.

And that’s a recipe for disaster, as the culture war inflates.

An index of prior articles can be found here:

Handwaving Freakoutery

Culture War Analysis, Media Criticism, and Occasional Esoterica. (also gun math)

BJ Campbell

Written by

Conscientious objector to the culture war. I think a lot. freakoutery.com www.patreon.com/bjcampbell

Handwaving Freakoutery

Culture War Analysis, Media Criticism, and Occasional Esoterica. (also gun math)

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