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Send in the Clowns


Comedian Stephen Colbert took a few minutes out of his demanding schedule of scholarly meditations to mock my views on gun control last night, which is all to the good: Like anybody else with a new book to flog, I appreciate the publicity. One of the things I get into in The End Is Near and It’s Going To Be Awesome is that the regulatory should implies the regulatory can. Like many of our debates, the gun-control argument is years behind the times: The interesting question is not whether we should have gun regulations like those of Illinois or gun regulations like those of Utah, but whether, in an age of functional gun components made by 3-D printers from widely available software, regulation of any sort will long be practical.  

I did not see the Colbert segment, having been at that moment engaged in a slightly more interesting debate on the subject of gun-control rhetoric with David Ropeik and Zach Beauchamp, hosted by The Huffington Post. I would very much like you to watch the video, which you can see here. Mr. Ropeik, an instructor at Harvard, is reduced to asserting that we should not undervalue intellectually vacuous arguments, because people respond to them. Mr. Beauchamp takes it one step farther, finding a positive good in intellectually vacuous arguments and recasting the logical fallacy of tu quoque as a valid line of reasoning. Mr. Beauchamp is a blogger for ThinkProgress, which specializes in the intellectually vacuous, so no surprise there, but I suppose that there is enough country-club Republican in my soul that I had expected more from Harvard.

Mr. Colbert, of course, does not make arguments — he makes mockery. Unlike his colleague Jon Stewart, he has a genuine gift for it. But like Mr. Stewart, Mr. Colbert is engaged in an enterprise that is fundamentally cowardly — hiding behind the skirts of satire when it suits him, venturing out when he can do so without a substantive challenge. He would not last a minute in a straight gun-policy debate with Charlie Cooke. I do not fault Mr. Colbert for his business model — their world is full of dull people, somebody might as well make a buck off of them — but I do fault those who take such things seriously. (I do not think that Mr. Colbert’s audience realizes that he is the Barnum in this relationship, and they are the dysgenic defectives parturitated at 60-second intervals.) Then again, if we are to be governed by clowns, we may as well have our debates moderated by them as well.


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