Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Maybe You're Just Born Bad?

Richard Cohen usually strikes me as a reflexive thinker - programmed to repeat a perspective that he adopted, without question, decades ago. On occasion, he revisits one of his bromidic thoughts and shares what he believes to be insights, but instead reveals himself to be an astonishingly weak thinker - perhaps not as compared to the average adult, but certainly as compared to people who are paid to think and write about issues.

In today's column, Cohen asks, "Did liberals get it wrong on crime?" By which he apparently means himself and some of his (imaginary?) friends.
The good news is that crime is again down across the nation - in big cities, small cities, flourishing cities and cities that are not for the timid. Surprisingly, this has happened in the teeth of the Great Recession, meaning that those disposed to attribute criminality to poverty - my view at one time - have some strenuous rethinking to do. It could be, as conservatives have insisted all along, that crime is committed by criminals. For liberals, this is bad news indeed.
Where to begin.... First, if Cohen were to actually look at historic crime trends, he would find that crime was low during the Great Depression - and that economic downturns aren't associated with increased crimes. Second, assuming Cohen has eyes in his head, he should be able to look around himself and see that crime occurs at all levels of society. Third, although perhaps Cohen has never before heard of the so-called "nature-nurture debate", there are vanishingly few people aside from Cohen and his (imaginary?) friends who believe that human behavior is dictated exclusively by nature or by nurture. Fourth, not many liberals are complaining about Cohen's claim that the myth of an immigrant crime wave has been shattered. Fifth, establishing a correlation is not even close to establishing causation - something that Cohen overlooks even as he is essentially making that very point about the association between poverty and crime.

There is, on the other hand, a broad consensus that early childhood experiences and the conditions within a community affect the likelihood that somebody is going to become involved in crime. It should be obvious to Cohen that the tautology, "crime is committed by criminals", is not helpful. The question remains, why do people become criminals.

Cohen shares another platitudinous observation,
By and large everyday people do not go into a life of crime because they have been laid off or their home is worth less than their mortgage. They do something else, but whatever it is, it does not generally entail packing heat. Once this becomes an accepted truth, criminals will lose what status they still retain as victims.
Seriously, until now Cohen and his (imaginary?) friends believed that the first thing somebody would do when facing the prospect of a job loss, foreclosure or other financial setback would be to rob a bank? To start mugging people in Central Park? "Oh no, I'm financially secure but upside-down on my mortgage - where's my gat?". Assuming that Cohen and his (imaginary?) friends truly used to feel sorry for bank robbers, muggers, burglars and thieves, was Cohen's contemplation of the roots of crime truly that simplistic? Even Marie Antoinette is attributed with more nuanced views on poverty. Concerns about the impact of impoverished families and communities on child development aren't about "feeling sorry for" those who turn to crime - the goal is, in fact, to reduce their number.

Cohen assures us that his claim "is not as outlandish as it may seem", supporting his point with what can fairly be described as an outlandish argument:
I recall that after the Watts riots of 1965 (34 dead), someone determined that the mobs looted only those stores owned by the miserly and the mean. In other words, the store owners had it coming, and the rioters, which is to say the criminals, were just getting some justice, often in the form of a TV set.
Did you get that? He's out to disprove an opinion he believes that "someone" made, some 35 years ago, assuming his recollection is accurate. But apparently his research on this issue ended 33 years ago....
So two years later, in the immediate aftermath of the Newark riots (26 dead), I conducted a one-man, totally unscientific survey of looted stores. I detected no pattern. Generous owners were trashed. Good guys suffered. The mob was not administering justice. It was getting stuff for free.
I am in no way defending looters, who are quite reasonably categorized as thieves, but I'm wondering exactly how Cohen did this "research"? Did he go to a few looted stores and ask the owners, "Are you a good guy who didn't deserve this, or a bad guy who got what was coming," and find to his surprise that every store owner claimed to be a "good guy"? And seriously - a "one-man, totally unscientific survey" that established "no pattern"? He thinks that is relevant?

Cohen also offers up an anecdote that supposedly documents "liberal dogma that criminals [are] like everyone else, only more desperate":
Probably the ultimate example of this was cited to me years ago by a woman who had her necklace yanked from her while walking in Manhattan. When I commiserated with her, she said of the crook - I am not making this up - "he probably needed it more than I did." This is liberal guilt at its apogee.
What amazing logic:
1. A woman who had her necklace ripped off her neck said that the offender "probably needed it more than I did."

2. ??????

3. Therefore, liberals think criminals are like everyone else, only more desperate.
It would remain a non sequitur even if Cohen established that the woman was a liberal, which he of course did not. On the other hand, perhaps the woman had a jewelry box overflowing with necklaces back at home and, as she worked through a traumatic experience and came to terms with her relatively modest loss, meant nothing more than what she said.

Cohen again flashes back to the 1960's (and earlier), presenting his version of the game, "What a hippie might say" ("all wealth comes from theft") followed by the most topical cultural reference he could come up with - Stephen Sondheim's lyrics from West Side Story making fun of bad parenting as the cause of teens joining street gangs. It took Cohen more than fifty years to process they lyrics from "Gee, Officer Krupke"?

Cohen concedes that "environment has to play a role and the truly desperate will sometimes break the law", presenting as his example "Victor Hugo's impoverished Jean Valjean, who stole bread for his sister's children." He concludes,
But the latest crime statistics strongly suggest that bad times do not necessarily make bad people. Bad character does.
Well... let's revisit those crime statistics for a moment. Cohen doesn't present evidence that the crime rate was steady during the recent recession - his statistics reflect a significant drop in crime. Cohen extrapolates from a reduced crime rate1 that bad economic times won't transform an otherwise law-abiding adult into a criminal. Great. But what of all those people Cohen believes are born bad - bad to the bone? Does he believe that a recessionary economy causes them to be more introspective and to mend their ways? (Or perhaps that it gives them time to catch a rerun of West Side Story on TV and enjoy a Cohen-like awakening upon hearing The Jets sing about Officer Krupke)? Or, I ask rhetorically, is it that he simply hasn't thought things through?
1. Statistics derived from UCR's should be taken with a grain of salt, but let's assume that the overall crime trend is accurately reflected in the FBI's data.

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