Good Will & Sheep’s Guts

Christmas has come and gone, and another year’s War on Christmas is coming to a close.

  • Glenn Beck’s website, The Blaze, carried numerous stories about diverse skirmishes in the War on Christmas.
  • The Huffington Post kept a running tally of Fox News stories about the silliness on the Right.
  • Where other traditionalist sources viewed the War on Christmas hanging in the balance, Western Journalism reported that the traditions were winning the 2014 campaign. Bill O’Reilly pick up on this, too.
  • And The Daily Beast, a pretty good right-of-center news source, declared that the War on Christmas is somehow a good thing.
  • On the left side of the political spectrum, athiest Gabriel Arana offered up an essay in Salon about his struggle to “overcome” the holiday.

 

My personal experience was altogether positive. I had great times with my family, and, like Scrooge’s nephew: “I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that—as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good; and I say, God bless it!”

For sure I didn’t have any offended feelings because of the way someone greeted me. I didn’t feel at any time that anyone was imposing their values on me, nor that anyone was denying me the free exercise of my own treasured values. Most people wished me a “Merry Christmas.” Those who said “Happy Holidays” seemed to be just as sincere and cheerful despite their different choice of words.

I understand that the purported War on Christmas is part of a wider dispute about political correctness in a multicultural world. How to be respectful and courteous to others is a question that needs to be thought on. But it is not just a matter of America’s population becoming less White and less Christian in the 21st Century. How to be respectful and courteous is a question that needs to be thought on at all times and places.

I can share some insights on respect and courtesy gained from my travels around the world. I lived seven years in the mountainous hinterlands of the former-Soviet Central Asian Republic of Kyrgyzstan.

While I and my family were there, the Soviet influence was weakening and muslim influences were growing in the Kyrgyz mind. But there was a great deal of diversity even in that small and remote country, and nobody felt inhibited in their own observations or expressions.

Kyrgyz people would nearly all encourage us and other foreigners to take part in their celebrations. They weren’t exclusive about it, and they certainly weren’t timid. They enjoyed their celebrations and customs, and they were proud and generous-minded about them. The notion that we might be offended by their invitation to join in never entered their minds.

new-years
Soviet-style New Years Day.

The city of Naryn where we lived has close to 40,000 Kyrgyz, a few thousand Kazak, Uzbek and Dungan residents, and perhaps 30 European and American guest workers. We were far more the minority there than non-Christians are in the US. But we didn’t feel threatened or put out, because the people were so cheerful and happy about their special occasions.

The major holidays in Kyrgyzstan and throughout Central Asia are Nooruz – the Persian (and more generally muslim) new year – and the actual new year’s day on January first. This later holiday is a combination of our Christmas, Halloween and New Years Day.

In addition to these major holidays, Kyrgyz culture is manifest in besh barmak. Besh barmak is not a holiday but a ceremonial way of eating. It is obligatory for weddings and funerals, and optional for holidays and to make visitors especially welcome.

Besh barmak begins when the guest arrives. Nothing is done ahead of time because the guest needs to see the work being done especially for their benefit. Cushions that might have been laid down ahead of time are instead left in storage until the guest arrives so a deliberate show can be made about fetching them for the guest. The eldest guest is positioned opposite the door – ostensibly the most desirable spot because it is the warmest. Then everyone shares a cup or three of tea. Directly after, one of the young men of the family excuses himself and goes out to select a sheep to slaughter. At certain times of the year, the flock will be very near and he’ll return in a few minutes. At other times of the year, the flock can be miles away and he may be gone for hours. But the hallmark of hospitality is doing things in the guests’ sight, so everything has to wait.

Eventually the young man returns with the sheep. Everyone is called outside to attend a prayer while the sheep is ceremoniously killed. Guests and hosts then return inside (into the house or the yurt) to converse and wait while the carcass is cut into pieces and boiled. Then comes a long, slow, leisurely process of eating the sheep bit by bit. It is not for the faint of heart.

In my experience of doing besh barmak 20 times or more, each household sets great store in doing things the proper “Kyrgyz way.” But they do things very differently. One critical element of the besh barmak ceremony is honoring one particular guest by bestowing the most desirable morsels on them. The host might give an eyeball of the sheep to that guest and wish them something fortuitous. Or they might give the guest the fat from the sheep’s tail. Or they may give the guest the tender meat from the sheep’s palate. Each of these things happened to me or my wife. (Tail fat is repulsive but goes down if you swallow it quickly. The eyeball is rubbery. The palate meat is pretty ordinary.) It never occurred to us to refuse what we were offered. What mattered most was that our hosts were giving us their best. Often they would make a sausage of the small intestine, which sounds filthy. But we sat and talked while they rinsed and rinsed the intestines until water poured in one end came out clean at the other. Our hosts were as aware as we were of what intestines are, and they didn’t want to eat anything unwholesome.

woman-and-child
Kyrgyz friend and my daughter Jenny rinsing meat.

In every case, the host explained that they were doing besh barmak the “Kyrgyz Way.” Oddly, though, they seldom did it the same way as others. Most people followed their own clan custom or village custom or even the custom of their particular family. Even in a very cohesive culture like the Kyrgyz, there is no single prevalent national custom. But each Kyrgyz household presents it the way they know it. And they do it with the best of good cheer and with utmost confidence that the guest will enjoy it.

people-eating
Me, my Kyrgyz host and his daughter, my daughter, all gathered around the dastarkan.

 

It would be good if more Americans were like the Kyrgyz. If everybody approached Christmas with the good will and magnanimity that ought to be natural; if everybody saw this and every other holiday, in fact this and every other day of the year, with a more generous attitude, I think we’d get along better.

My ideas are silly

John Kenneth Galbraith once remarked that good ideas are more apt to come from outsiders than insiders. He was talking about John Maynard Keynes, who held only minor positions in the British Treasury. “The curse of the public man,” said Galbraith, “Is that he first accommodates his tongue and eventually his thoughts to his public position. Presently saying nothing but saying it nicely becomes a habit. On the outside one can at least have the pleasure of inflicting the truth.”

The pleasure of inflicting the true is why people write blog posts. But what are the implications for a system in which every important decision is made by “public men” who accommodate their thoughts to their positions? Isn’t it obvious that nothing fresh is possible? Isn’t it obvious that any real, profound change becomes unthinkable? Rhetoric may flow hot and virulent, but action will not.

Start a conversation in your workplace today about what the country needs. It is much more likely someone will recommend a change of actors than a change in structure. Any suggestion of a very significant reorganization of society is likely to raise strong objection: one person will say the new idea will provoke some new problem, another will just say it can’t be done.

 

martyn4/kunkap/k58
Thomas Carlyle

Thomas Carlyle, the 19th Century English sage observed the same problem in his day: people who had no ideas of their own were quick and confident in shooting down the ideas of others. Carlyle (Past and Present):

What is to be done, what would you have us do? asks many a one, with a tone of impatience, almost of reproach; and then, if you mention some one thing, some two things, twenty things that might be done, turns round with a satirical teehee, and, “These are your remedies?” The state of mind indicated by such question, and such rejoinder, is worth reflecting on.

It seems to be taken for granted, by these interrogative philosophers, that there is some ‘thing,’ or handful of ‘things,’ which could be done; some Act of Parliament, ‘remedial measure or the like, which could be passed, whereby the social malady were fairly fronted, conquered, put an end to; so that, with your remedial measure in your pocket, you could then go on triumphant, and be troubled no farther. “You tell us the evil,” cry such persons, as if justly aggrieved, “and do not tell us how it is to be cured!”

 

 

I’m reminded of Herman Cain, pizza magnate and 2012 presidential candidate, who complained that government legislation is too muddled and declared that if elected he’d only approve bills from Congress if they were no longer than three pages.

 

 

Cain’s “three-pages” idea was silly when seen as a specific policy. But Cain was profoundly right in declaring bad legislation a problem in need of a solution. Stuffing massive bills with diverse, unrelated elements (including earmarked spending and favors for lobbyists) in order to accumulate votes is a terrible way to legislate the people’s business. But sloppy, last minute, slush-filled continuing resolutions has become normal. Congress hasn’t accomplished its budget duties in a non-emergency way since 1996.

And the issue came to the forefront again this week when Congress passed a continuing resolution budget bill that was, by all accounts, filled with pages and pages of rotten stuff that should have been debated – stuff that would never have passed through a majority process had it been debated – but which became law in the undemocratic process that governs America now.

 

So the system is rotten and in desperate need of change. Yet when a man stands up and declares a solution, he is laughed at by people who have no solution themselves other than shuffling the deck. Carlyle understood well. He offered no ready solution to the problems of Victorian England. In fact, he told the Victorians that no solution was possible for them as they were. The only cure, he declared, begins with a change of character. When they “exchange their dead hearts of stone for living hearts of flesh,” then progress will be possible:

 

If thou ask again, therefore, What is to be done? allow me to reply: By thee, for the present, almost nothing. Thou there, the thing for thee to do is, if possible, to cease to be a hollow sounding-shell of hearsays, egoisms, purblind dilettantisms; and become, were it on the infinitely small scale, a faithful discerning soul. Thou shalt descend into thy inner man, and see if there be any traces of a soul there; till then there can be nothing done! O brother, we must if possible resuscitate some soul and conscience in us, exchange our dilettantisms for sincerities, our dead hearts of stone for living hearts of flesh. Then shall we discern, not one thing, but, in clearer or dimmer sequence, a whole endless host of things that can be done. Do the first of these; do it; the second will already have become clearer, doabler; the second, third and three-thousandth will then have begun to be possible for us.

 

I suspect America’s solution is similar. I don’t think the solution lies in anything John Boehner or Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush or Todd Rokita has in mind to do. I suspect the solution lies with the up and coming Millennial Generation.

 

Bob Herbert’s “Losing Our Way”

Bob Herbert’s new book, Losing Our Way, makes an important contribution to our thinking about public affairs.

Bob Herbert
Bob Herbert

The book begins with the story of Mercedes Gorden, driving home through Minneapolis at the end of her workday in August of 2007. She passed over the Mississippi River on the I-35 highway bridge, thinking about her plans for an upcoming wedding. Suddenly the road buckled and the bridge collapsed.

Ms. Gordens car fell some 60 feet, landing on dry ground near the foot of the bridge. She had almost made it across before the collapse. Mercedes Gorden suffered hours of intense pain and fear, was rescued, and then spent weeks in the hospital and months in physical rehab. She was one of the lucky ones. In all 145 people were injured and 123 died. Herbert tells how Gorden recovered with help from her fiance (now husband).

But the real value of the book is in reminding us that all the suffering happened because someone didn’t care — because of official dereliction. The I-35 bridge was rated “structurally deficient” when it collapsed. It had been rated structurally deficient as far back as 1990, and as recently as 2005. But it never got fixed. (There were work crews on the bridge the day it collapsed, but they were only paving the surface — not fixing the defects.)

I don’t know the precise distribution of blame. Surely the fault is shared by federal and state bureaucracies, as well as shared between the private contractor who built the bridge and the government inspectors who neglected its flaws. From the National Transportation Safety Board report on the disaster:

 “Contributing to the design error was the failure of Sverdrup & Parcel’s quality control procedures to ensure that the appropriate main truss gusset plate calculations were performed for the I-35W bridge and the inadequate design review by Federal and State transportation officials.  Contributing to the accident was the generally accepted practice among Federal and State transportation officials of giving inadequate attention to gusset plates during inspections for conditions of distortion, such as bowing, and of excluding gusset plates in load rating analyses.”

Look at that again: “the generally accepted practice . . .  of giving inadequate attention…” In short, irresponsible people weren’t doing their job properly. And because they did their jobs shoddily, the bridge collapsed and 158 people were killed or injured.  Certainly none of the people involved intended the disaster. But  none of them took sufficient action to keep the bridge safe, either.HerbertLOW

Some disasters are Acts of God – strange, unusual combinations of circumstances that couldn’t be predicted and couldn’t be opposed. The Perfect Storm in Sebastian Junger’s book, for example. But behind most disasters lies human negligence. The famous Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse, the Johnstown Flood of 1889, the levy breaches in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina: these were all made worse by negligence and cheapness. It was caused by people who took a job in which they pledged to act for the public interest, and then failed to do their duty.

 

After dealing with the Minneapolis bridge collapse, Herbert moves on to education, poor care for veterans, military operation that endanger soldiers with no commensurate gain, income inequity, and the growing prevalence of low-wage, no-benefit jobs. These problems, Herbert points out, are all failures in areas American used to be good at.

“There were signs everywhere that the American center was not holding, from the wretched job market to the deplorable state of the government’s finances to the increasingly prohibitive cost of a college education to the steady decline of the middle class. As I moved about the country, covering one disaster after another, I couldn’t help but think that there was a great deal of denial about how bad things had become.”

 

My thoughts after reading the book is how moderate and reasonable it is. I don’t see how any reasonable person would disagree with Herbert’s agenda. Of course, not everyone does. As of Dec 14, 2014, the Amazon.com reviews had one one-star review:

 

Wingnut

 

The review is nonsense from a person who can’t have read the book. Herbert has no socialist leveling agenda. His call for more local control of schools is the opposite of socialist. Instead, he’s saying the people responsible for public facilities ought to keep them repaired. He’s saying soldiers’ lives and bodies ought not to be frittered away on pointless military patrols in places where American has no objectives and no interests. He’s saying education is a public good and should not be managed as a conduit for corporate profits.

Does anyone disagree with any of those contentions?

The problem is, not many people who agree with Herbert are willing to step forward and work for change. We get duped every four years by campaign slogans about change, and we forget that whoever gets elected, and however the party balance tilts, it is all still the same system. In 2008, President Obama ran on the promise of  “Change”, but he is finishing out the final two lame-duck years of his presidency as the living symbol of the status quo.

Bob Herbert shows us how America has lost its way. He leads me to the conclusion, and the conviction, that finding our way again is going to be a grass-roots task. If it isn’t done the right way, but fresh associations of concerned, community-based citizens, it won’t happen at all.

 

Giving Up Too Soon

Barry Goldwater was right when he said, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” I don’t mean to say that slapping a “Liberty” label on something makes it good. But I think a good outcome requires the right plan, pursued with determination. If you set out to do the wrong thing, you’re certain to fail. But failure is also certain if you strive halfheartedly to accomplish the right goal,  or if you give up before you get it.

Which brings me to a recent audio podcast from The Week contributor Michael Brendan Dougherty. Listen to it (about five minutes) and then come back for my thoughts:

http://theweek.com/article/index/273007/america-is-too-big-to-be-a-real-democracy

 

It seems to me that Dougherty makes the second of the two errors introduced above – what Goldwater called “moderation in the pursuit of justice.” Dougherty acknowledges that a government that is responsive to its citizens is desirable. But then he tells us we can’t have one:

“And so we’re stuck with this enormous country with an enormous shared history and an enormous federal government. It just seems that gigantism is the birth defect of the American republic. . . . As with any birth defect, we just have to learn to live with it.”

“We just have to learn to live with it” is tantamount to saying nothing can be done about “gigantism.” Dougherty tells us repeatedly that gigantism is antithetical to democracy. The title of his article is “America is too big to be a real democracy.”  He explains that the massive size of the federal government of and congressional districts plus the excessive power of the political parties make it impossible for us to have any genuine role of the way the country is run.

Madison

 

According to Dougherty, the problem of out of control, self-serving government isn’t new. Rather it’s a defect that was there from the beginning. James Madison recognized it in the 1780s. But Madison thought growth and expansion would solve government cooptation by narrow factions. Madison wrote in The Federalist No. 10 that a large nation would be more democratic:

“The smaller the society, the fewer probably will be the distinct parties and interests composing it; the fewer the distinct parties and interests, the more frequently will a majority be found of the same party; and the smaller the number of individuals composing a majority, and the smaller the compass within which they are placed, the more easily will they concert and execute their plans of oppression. Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other.”

Dougherty is probably right in calling this statement by Madison a mistake. There is no evidence that America’s two monster political factions have weakened as the nation has grown to over 300-million people and a $15-trillion economy.

But at this point Dougherty just gives up and tells us we have to live with what we’ve got. Instead of looking about hopefully for a new solution that might work better than Madison’s failed one, Dougherty tells us to be content with highways:

 “The benefits of living in a continent-sized empire are also pretty great. There’s something amazing about building highways from the Atlantic to the Pacific without needing an international summit. Nor do we need a passport to travel them. We have a mostly free market of huge proportions into which we can sell our wares and services.”

I don’t find this very convincing. In the first place, they have highways and “mostly free markets” across Europe, which is about as a big an economic entity as the US. They have highways all across Central Asia. Crossing borders without passports isn’t “amazing.” Passports are no big deal. It certainly isn’t a good great enough to offset responsive government, which Dougherty seems to be telling us it is.

Political leaders throughout history have told the people that what they’ve got is enough. The Romans kept their non-citizen population at heel by giving them panem et circenses (bread and circuses.) Many centuries later, the repressive regime of Mussolini was justified by the phrase, “But the trains run on time.” Both these example live in history as bad ideas that lead to bad outcomes.

Bread and Circuses
Bread and Circuses

It seems to me that Dougherty is, perhaps without meaning to, urging Americans to accept the same sort of bad deal. He admits our country doesn’t have good representative government. But he implies that we should accept that disappointment. I recognize that Dougherty is responding especially to the notion of secession which he rightly describes as extreme and unlikely. But after setting aside that one stupid response, Dougherty seems content that no other response is possible, or needed.

Madison’s original idea for preserving representative government in a large nation failed. Massive size has not protected our country and its republican institutions from control by self-interested faction. Dougherty jumps to the conclusion that self-interested faction is here to stay.

“But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.” Thomas Jefferson agrees with me that Americans shouldn’t just accept what we get from Washington. Being dead nearly 200 years, Jefferson isn‘t going to give us many practical ideas for fixing what’s wrong in Washington and 50 state capitols. But ideas are not the problem.

There are scads of ideas that would help restore public influence over American governance. A first step is to overturn Citizens United. Politically motivated gerrymandering must be stopped and political districts in every state drawn by non-partisan technocrats. If congressional districts are too large, let’s have more members of Congress. And if that means they and their bloated staffs won’t fit on Capitol Hill then let members of the House of Representatives stay home. They can forego caucuses and committees and lobbyists and vote electronically from their districts. Devolve many of the functions done badly by federal bureaucracies down to the states (and I don’t mean to state agencies that administer federal regulation). Let the states be the little laboratories of democracy that Justice Louis  Brandeis said they should be. But balance greater state autonomy with a new Bill of Rights that is a lot stronger than the one we have.

Let’s get started.

 

 

 

What we don’t know hurts us every day

We suffer greatly from lack of understanding. The problem isn’t that most people are ignorant. For the most part, people get along swell interacting with systems and technologies they don’t understand. It has always been that way. People who couldn’t weave or smelt have been wearing clothes and using iron tools for centuries. Smartphones are just a recent extension of this old principle.

Americans are notoriously ignorant of world geography, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, either. In practice it works out to be a very bad thing because Americans are bellicose and eager to mess in other countries’ affairs. If our tendency was to leave places we’ve never heard of alone, then ignorance could keep us out of troublesome adventures.

No, the lack of understanding that concerns me is the ignorance of experts. There are many subjects – some of them utterly crucial – that cannot be understood completely and unambiguously no matter how much one studies. Sometimes it is impossible because the data needed to think clearly doesn’t exist. At other times everyone refuses to respond to the obvious because the implications of a right decision are inconvenient or impolitic. And sometimes malicious people use their influence to keep the issue clouded.

I could talk about global warming here, or the effects of government fiscal policy on a nation’s economy. The decades-old debate between Keynesians and Austrians has less to do with difference values and goals than with wildly different interpretations of some very recent and well-documented historic events. Millions of words have been written, yet the two sides can’t reconcile.

The recent case of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri reminds us of how strongly our system of law and justice relies on the testimony of witnesses to alleged criminal incidents. The legal system can make the right decision only if eyewitnesses provide accurate details of what happened. And they seldom do.

 “Research shows that the human mind is not like a tape recorder; we neither record events exactly as we see them, nor recall them like a tape that has been rewound. Instead, witness memory is like any other evidence at a crime scene; it must be preserved carefully and retrieved methodically, or it can be contaminated.”

The Innocence Project is dedicated to chronicling (and overturning) criminal convictions of innocent people because of bad evidence. “The Innocence Project’s groundbreaking use of DNA technology to free innocent people has provided irrefutable proof that wrongful convictions are not isolated or rare events but instead arise from systemic defects.”

 

Those systemic defects include experts who are consistently wrong about the topic of their expertise. One celebrated case of this sort is that of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in (where else?) Texas in 2004 for the arson murder of his three children. The fire was in 1991. Arson investigators combing through the wreckage afterwards found clear evidence that flammable accelerant had been used to fuel the fire. There was no doubt that Willingham was the only adult in the house at the time the fire broke out, so it must have been Willingham, prosecutors reasoned, who set the fire.

willingham-and-children
Cameron Todd Willingham and his family

 

Except the arson investigators were wrong. The smoke patterns, burn marks and other signs on which they based their conclusions were really there. But their conclusion that those signs could only appear when fuel was poured on a fire was wrong. The New Yorker’s excellent report on the Willingham case is the best single thing to read. And it explains that ‘“each and every one” of the indicators of arson had been “scientifically proven to be invalid.”’ The particular arson investigators who testified at Willingham’s trial didn’t know any better, and they convinced the jury that Willingham was guilty. Between his conviction and his execution there was plenty of review showing the mistakes the witnesses had made.

 “In a scathing report, [scientist Craig Beyler] concluded that investigators in the Willingham case had no scientific basis for claiming that the fire was arson, ignored evidence that contradicted their theory, had no comprehension of flashover and fire dynamics, relied on discredited folklore, and failed to eliminate potential accidental or alternative causes of the fire. He said that [original investigator and prosecution witness] Vasquez’s approach seemed to deny “rational reasoning” and was more “characteristic of mystics or psychics.” What’s more, Beyler determined that the investigation violated, as he put it to me, “not only the standards of today but even of the time period.”’

But neither the Texas appellate courts nor Governor Rick Perry took action to stop Willingham’s execution. Thus, the mistakes of well-intentioned incompetents and scoundrels combine to bring disastrous results.

In the Willingham case, something awful happened. And I can’t stress too much that the mistakes were made by certified experts with years of experience, giving sworn testimony after weeks of preparation. They were using the same methods they’d use hundreds of times. The terrible truth is not just that Willingham was falsely convicted, but that hundreds of people have been.

 

Pit bull dogs are a great and long-standing controversy in this country, and another case of confused facts and pseudo-facts. Pit bull proponents say they are loyal and loving animals that are misunderstood. Their detractors say pit bulls bite little children and should be extirpated. These divergent statements are mutually exclusive and equally true.

 

Dog attacks in which a person is killed are rare events. It happens a few dozen times a year in America. A tiny portion of all dogs attack people. And the same is true for pit bulls. A tiny portion of pit bull dogs attack and kill people in a year.

But there is another way of looking at the question. Of dogs that do attack and kill people, how many are pit bulls? And the answer, if you believe dogsbite.org, is most of them.

The US Center for Disease Controls keeps scrupulous records of the way Americans die. But since 1998, it has refused to track the breed of dogs that kill people. The best information it had at that time showed that pit bulls were responsible for most fatal attacks.

Page 837 of the CDC’s report states “Rottweilers were the most commonly reported breed involved in fatal attacks, followed by the pit bull types.” And that was true of the years 1997 and 1998. But on the same page is a data table showing 20 years of fatal dog bite incidents. Thirty-six incidents are counted for Rottweilers. For pit bulls there are 66.

Is that a big deal, or not? Well, yes, 66 dead people is a big problem if you esteem human life. Doubly so if you esteem the lives of children, who are disproportionately the victims of dog attacks. To make sense of any number, most people try to insert that number into a more complete context. And as soon as you try to compile that context about dog bites, you run into problems.

To begin with, nobody knows how many dogs there are in the US. Nobody counts them all. The American Kennel Club keeps a precise up-to-date tally of registered pure-bred dogs, but pure-breds are only part of the total. So once you’ve got the numbers reported by the AKC, you have to then say, “And more besides that.” Some cities and communities require dog owners to pay a tax, but despite the benefits of registering their dog many people shirk the law. So once again, local registration provides an exact tally of an unknown fraction of a larger total.

When no exact tally exists, we rely on estimates.  There are 70 to 80 million dogs in the US according to the ASPCA, and 83.3 million according to The Humane Society. The American Veterinary Medical Association estimated just under 70 million dogs in 2012. They reach that number by surveying households across the country, finding that 58.4% of households in their sample have one or more dogs, then multiplying the total number of households by .584.

Given these estimates of the total number of dogs, it only gets trickier to count the number of dogs in a breed. Breeders try to keep the breed closely connected to the rules of conformation. Ordinary owners define their pet much more loosely. The owner of a German Shepherd/Labrador mix might call it a Lab for convenience. Or they might call it a mutt.

The fudge factor probably makes a greater difference for pit bulls than for other breeds. The American Pit Bull Terrier and the American Staffordshire Terrier are two specific breeds. The term “pit bull” refer to these and other breeds, and also to mixed breed dogs with the same or similar conformation. And since the same word can sometimes mean a specific and narrow group and other times a much broader group, there is always confusion.

Without good numbers it is nearly impossible to compute trustworthy rates. But even with that handicap, we know something about dog attacks.

Since 1998, there isn’t any official source of breed-specific incidents on DBRFs (Dog Bites Resulting in Fatality). Local police and media and perhaps veterinarians keep records, but no central authority collates all that disparate data. And that is where dogsbite.org has stepped up to the plate. Relying on volunteers to report incidents from their communities, dogsbite.org compiles the reports, keeps ongoing tallies, and maintains a database.

For each incident, the site reports details gleaned from local news sources and police reports. To be honest, those are not ideal sources. Newspapers and television stations are particularly apt to tell the story people expect to hear. I searched for “Indianapolis Star dog bite fatalities” and Google returned 150,000 items. Then I googled “Indianapolis Star pit bull bite fatalities” and got over a million items. That shouldn’t happen! Every pit bull attack is also a dog attack, and I’m sure each article about pit bulls included the word “dog.” The broader “dog bite” search ought to have produced more results than the more specific and narrow “pit bull bite” search. But people’s ears perk up when they hear things they expect, and the pit bull stories probably got linked and shared more often.

Which is not to find fault with dogsbite.org. I get the impression that they are pretty rigorous in their methodology. I doubt they are cherry-picking pit bull stories. They include other fatal dog bites when they happen. Their site explains that it can take weeks for them to gather all the details they require for a single incident. So they are relying on the news reports only for first alert, and they gather the details themselves before posting an incident on their site.

In 2013, dogsbite.org reports 32 dog bite fatalities, of which 25 were done by pit bulls. We don’t know how many dogs there are, or how many pit bulls there are in the US, but does anyone think pit bulls are 2/3rds of all the dogs in America? I’ve seen estimates that pit bulls are 3% of all US dogs, which would mean pit bulls are 42 times more likely to kill people than dogs in general. But I’ve also heard pit bulls are as high as 20%, which would still make them only 6 times more likely to kill.

This site called The Real Pit Bull stressestwo points: first is the rarity of death-by-dogbite is stressed. More people die from drowning than from dogbites. More die from aspirin than from dogbites. More people die from falling coconuts than from dogbites. That is probably all correct information. Their second point is that many of the fatal attacks are perpetrated by dogs that aren’t properly pit bulls at all.

Has the pace of dog bites changed over time? Has the prevalence of pit bull DBRFs increased? Consider the following:

Vick

 

 

See the big increase in pit bull incidents since 2007? If true, that makes all reference to older data, such as that “Real Pit Bull” relies on, unreliable. Arguably, the owners of that site might claim they are using the latest data from an official source. But they aren’t helping readers know the full truth.

Stonewalling new information is one way to act in bad faith. Another is to introduce, or to quote, information that is correct but doesn’t mean anything. An example of that is this study of genetic differences between pit bulls and other dogs:

“It turns out that pit bulls are, in fact, absolutely the same as all dogs,” argues Dr. Karen Overall, a veterinary behaviorist and researcher in the psychiatry department at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine – Philadelphia. She bases her views on her own genetic research. What’s more, this summer the Supreme Court of Alabama ruled there is no genetic evidence identifying pit bulls as inherently any more dangerous than other dogs.”

The key to this statement is the basis in genetic research. It is saying that all dogs are the same when you look at them under a microscope. And that may be true. You can’t tell a classical pianist from a model train aficionado by looking at their driver’s license, either. Every dog in the world is Canis lupus familiaris and has the genetic makeup of that species. But there is, nonetheless, wild disparity in dogs’ conformation and behavior. Saying the differences don’t appear in the genome in no way implies the differences don’t exist.

Another bad-faith approach is the hyperbolic conclusion. Consider this from a pet advocacy group:

 “The bull breeds are often grossly misunderstood. The qualities that make these dogs tenacious players in obedience and agility games also attract highly unscrupulous people looking for strong competitors for their dog fighting rings. The sorry result is that bull breeds, in particular the APBT, have gained a reputation over recent years for being dangerous. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

What does it mean to say “Nothing could be further from the truth?” A statement that is as far from true as possible would be one that was never true. But some pit bulls are dangerous at least some of the time, aren’t they?

 

My personal experience with dog bites is slight. Our daughter Sarah was bitten in the face a few years ago by a Belgian Tervuren we had then. The only time I’ve been bitten hard enough to draw blood involved a German shepherd/Labrador or German Shepherd/Retriever mix while I was riding past the house on a bicycle. The dog bounded out of the yard, snapped at my calf muscle and then backed off and barked as I pedaled on. My thought at the time was that the dog was guarding its property and considered me a threat. Once it judged that I was moving away it left me alone.

 

My conclusion from all this is sense that many vital functions of a decent society are yet to be perfected in America. Trial by jury is a worthy thing – is clearly better than the fiat of a tyrant. But the system we have of misremembering witnesses and worthless experts can be improved upon. The way we look at each and every public concern can be done better.

Let’s begin.

 

Vick