Thursday, August 21, 2008

Guns, the Web, and Hopeless Naïveté

Today I intended to write about the excellent documentary about conscientious objectors, Soldiers of Conscience – which my brother co-edited – and some of the concepts therein. Okay, I admit it, I was going to engage shamelessly in promotion of a beloved family member, and glory in my association with him.

But I won't write about conscientious objection today – I hope to another time. Here's why: A couple days after the June 26, 2008, Supreme Court ruling on District of Columbia v. Heller, I looked up the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution on Wikipedia:
A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.
I was amazed to learn that, in the summer of 1789, the language that was to become the Second Amendment, when first brought to the floor of the House of Representatives, included verbiage protecting conscientious objection:
The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; a well armed and well regulated militia being the best security of a free country; but no person religiously scrupulous of bearing arms shall be compelled to render military service in person.
When I watched Soldiers of Conscience, I mentioned this history to my brother. A few days ago, he told me that he hadn't found the reference to conscientious objectors in the Wikipedia entry on the Second Amendment. So this morning I logged onto Wikipedia to find the language – partly to point it out to him and partly to feed into my intended post today.

I found that the entry had been changed, in a small but extremely significant way. The first sentence now reads as follows: "The Second Amendment (Amendment II) to the United States Constitution is a part of the United States Bill of Rights that protects the pre-existing individual right to possess and carry weapons (i.e. 'keep and bear arms') in case of confrontation" (emphasis and links in the original). A footnote simply quoting the majority opinion in the Supreme Court's ruling on District of Columbia v. Heller is provided to back up this statement.

Um, exsqueeze me?

I couldn't resist writing about this, and dropping conscientious objection as today's topic (sorry O Beloved Brother Who Co-Edited Soldiers of Conscience, which, by the way, I highly recommend to all three of my readers). At first I thought, "well, maybe, when the Supreme Court rules on something, it just kind of becomes an incontrovertible fact...?" Then I snapped out of it. I mean, the Constitution is a living document, and this is the Second Amendment we're talking about. When you look up the Fourteenth Amendment on Wikipedia, the Due Process Clause is not described as protecting a woman's right to an abortion. Instead, the Clause "has been the basis of much important and controversial case law regarding privacy rights, abortion...and other issues."

And "pre-existing"? Click on that "pre-existing" link in the quotation above, and see where it takes you. Okay, fine, I'll do it for you – sigh... That link takes you to the Wikipedia entry for "natural right," which is defined as "the concept of a universal right inherent in the nature of living beings, one that is not contingent upon laws or beliefs" (link in the original).

I personally don’t have a problem with gun ownership – I am forever grateful to an uncle who taught me and the rest of us kids how to handle and shoot guns, and how to be safe about it. My problem is with criminals’ easy access to guns, and I don’t understand why, in many states, it’s easier to own a gun than to own a car. In other words, I think gun ownership should be better regulated. And while I'm no Constitutional scholar (I don't even play one on TV), I just can't understand how the Supreme Court interpreted the Second Amendment the way it did in June.

But here's the thing: let's put aside, for a moment, our disagreements about gun ownership and any Constitutional protection thereof. Can we agree that controversy surrounds the idea that the Constitution protects our right to own and carry guns? To say otherwise is to make a meta-argument in favor of a Constitutional right to own guns; put another way, it's equivalent to pretending to step outside of the debate while still engaging in it. This is a powerful (and sneaky) way of getting your point across.

Now here's where the "hopeless naïveté" comes in: I had known that Wikipedia is "written collaboratively by volunteers from all around the world," and I had known about pranks and about some "volunteers" essentially arguing with each other – thereby distorting their debates, to our detriment – by replacing one another's entries. But I hadn't really paid close attention to Wikipedia, and I had assumed that the pranks and the distortions only happened with some relatively unimportant topics. I mean, wouldn't Wikipedia be reliable on the big issues through focused management of its entries on those issues? And wouldn't each of these issues to be assigned to, say, a select, well-informed, diverse, and small group of people with exclusive editing access who make changes to their entries only through consensus?

A lot has been written about the dangers of readily available, false information that people accept without question, and how Web technology is so powerful in this regard. But, to paraphrase the NRA party line, "the Web doesn't misinform people – people do." And I would add that people allow themselves to be misinformed. (Thankfully, the NRA doesn't say, "Guns don't kill people – people do. And, oh, by the way, the victims allow themselves to get killed.")

Granted, the Web is extremely powerful, thanks to how easy it is to use. Anyone who's used a card catalogue knows this. But it's just a medium, and there are, there always have been, and there always will be other media available to cynical and short-sighted people who wish to disseminate false information – and to those poor souls who readily accept false information as fact.


Anonymous said...

First off, Wikipedia is rife with inaccuracies, personal logrolling, vendettas and the other detritus of an undisciplined society. It's no wonder that colleges now permit no more than one Wikipedia reference in papers.

Second, on gun laws: Vermont, my native state, has no gun laws. If you're 18, you can buy one, carry it concealed, no problem. Vermont also has no gun crime to speak of, unless suicide is a crime.

Washington, until Heller, had the toughest gun laws in the country; it also has tragic levels of gun crime.

The lesson, to quote PD Moynihan: Culture, not politics, determines the success or failure of a society.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I meant, DP Moynihan, above. Only Allah is perfect.

Adam said...

A few things.

One, why don't you look at the wikipedia editing logs, and try to find out who made the change? You could even ask them why, or change it back to see what happens / get into a discussion about it. (or at least precipitate one)

Two, you left out all the commas when you quoted the 2nd Amendment. they make it much more confusing. :)

three, I am kind of surprised at your description of an ideal wikipedia. You described, almost exactly, the classic encyclopedia article creation model. E.g. farm it out to a small group of experts, etc.
Wikipedia is precisely not that. They tried that model, and got nowhere. that's why Britannica updates so infrequently. the expert team model takes f__ing forever.

finally, ask your brother what he knows about conscientious objectors in WWII being used to study human physiology, specifically how long people can go without eating, and what happens to their bodies when they do.
(up to six months and all kinds of weird stuff)

Nick Peterson said...

Checking the Wikipedia editing logs is a great idea. I'll do that and let you all know how that goes.

The version of the Second Amendment without commas is apparently the one that the states ratified, while the one with commas was what the House and Senate approved. Both versions are commonly used.

Regarding your surprise at my description of "an ideal wikipedia": I guess my description is another example of my hopeless naïveté!

David said...

I'm surprised any colleges allow any references to Wikipedia at all. I guess that's my hopeless naivete, less the accent and umlaut. Then again, I just learned that "surprise" is not spelled "suprise." Not all that bright, I ain't.