We Cannot Abandon Humanity

Public Anthropology & Bill Gates

Was thinking about being an American Anthropologist, the journal American Anthropologist, Public Anthropology and America at a time near the 4th of July, 2013. Then as Bill Gates read Jared Diamond had to get ready for for the biggest Jared Diamond review of all time. With 12 million Twitter followers and over 72 billion dollars, the American Bill Gates recently reclaimed the richest person in the world crown from Mexico’s Carlos Slim Helú. I am left repeating the delusional chant from the Celebrity Net Worth blog: USA! USA! USA!

For all those who doubted Jared Diamond’s effect on the telling of world history:

None of the classes I took in high school or college answered what I thought was one of the biggest and most important questions about history: Why do some societies advance so much faster and further than others? While people disagree with minor parts of Diamond’s argument, the basic idea–that the differences between societies are largely explained by geography–is very persuasive.

Well, Bill Gates, if you would have taken some real history and anthropology classes, the ones where you read books like Eric Wolf, Europe and the People Without History, perhaps geography as justification for power may not have been so excusable. But if you do have time to read into the ethnographic record, I’ll take a re-tweet for Yanomami Ax Fight: Jared Diamond, Science, Violence & the Facts. Thanks!

Big Questions for American Anthropology: Who Are We? Qui Sommes-Nous?

The 2011 American Anthropological Association Presidential Address by Virginia Dominguez, Comfort Zones and Their Dangers: Who Are We? Qui Sommes-Nous? has now been published:

Who and what then is the AAA and, more generally speaking, the profession of anthropology (esp. in the United States)? When I think of the American Anthropological Association and the fact that it is old and very large, indeed by far the largest national association of anthropologists in the world today, I consider the question especially significant for the profession. National associations exist in many parts of the planet, and the AAA is arguably just one of them, formally existing to serve anthropologists in the United States (whatever their place of birth or origin). But is an association that includes so many colleagues from around the world, that is located in the arguably most powerful country in the world in 2012, and that is so much larger than all other national anthropological associations not worth a closer and more critical look? The evidence offered here does not really support the view that U.S. anthropology is all that “progressive,” “liberal,” or “center left” especially within its ranks, that is, especially when looking at serious arenas of inattention and inaction within the profession itself. (2012:404)

Dominguez’s lecture was pointedly aimed at anthropology’s comfort zones, but it seems to have gone mostly unnoticed on the blogosphere. It is of course not-open-access, but it is right next to Why the AAA Needs Gold Open Access by Tom Boellstorff–which did get blogosphere notice. The Virginia Dominguez article seems a bit more critical than my write-up of the lecture as Anthropology’s Challenge: We can be better, and I will eventually try to re-visit that post in the light of the published article. In the meantime, a miniscule percentage donation from Bill Gates could easily make all the articles in American Anthropologist open access. Forever.

The Long Tail of the American Anthropologist–and Bill Gates

On the issue of open access, Doug’s Archaeology has a fascinating analysis of AAA digital downloads. Doug’s post is aimed mostly at showing how important blogging can be, and the power of the AAA blog. However, what struck me (and I’m grateful to Doug for this comment back-and-forth) is really how huge American Anthropologist is in comparison to the rest of the bundle. It’s approaching the kind of winner-take-all dynamic discussed in Black Swan Anthropology.

This made me wonder if perhaps everything else except American Anthropologist could go open access. But as Doug points out, that would mess up the metrics, and much more importantly, it’s the big bundle that counts.

This also brought me back to the first thing I really published, Copyright 2002 American Anthropological Association, Inverting Development Discourse In Colombia: Transforming Andean Hearths. I went back and looked at the original copyright form, and it reads “Authors may post their articles on their own websites but are expected to notify AAA and to prominently display the following line: ‘Copyright 2002 American Anthropological Association.'” So that seems pretty straightforward, I’m displaying the line, and I’ve sent an e-mail via the AAA Reprints & Permissions site. There was a bit of hassle involved, but it seems that if enough authors examined their existing agreements, we’d basically have effective open access to AAA publications. Which seems like a workable solution until that Bill Gates donation rolls in.

It also strikes me how incredibly lucky I was to get an early article in American Anthropologist. I lucked out with two sympathetic reviewers who continued to insist there was potential and helped me pull out the main themes (the third reviewer was never convinced). I also lucked into some favorable editorial decisions. At the time, I thought publishing in AA would change my life–that everyone actually read those journals. It didn’t change my life that way–no one started calling or e-mailing out of the blue. Surprise, surprise. But it did change my life in that I was then able to look a whole lot better in the academic job lottery. Not better enough–I was still able to completely blow an interview with Berkeley–but I did get an interview.

Of course, if there’s anyone who has shown us how winner-take-all can work–even with what was arguably inferior technology–it’s Bill Gates.

An American Anthropologist Looking Back July 2012-July 2013

Did American Anthropology just blow it with Bill Gates? Maybe, but consider this:

Although some aspects of anthropology appeal to various sectors of the public, the fact is that a large part of what anthropologists have to say requires intellectual effort, and moreover is often rather disturbing to people’s peace of mind.
–Jonathan Benthall, Enlarging the context of anthropology: The case of Anthropology Today 1996:136

In a search for where I had used that wonderful quote from Benthall, an early editor of Anthropology Today, I re-visited a July 2012 post on What is American Anthropology. As I was composing that post, I learned that Michel-Rolph Trouillot had passed away.

Trouillot was an incredible inspiration for me as an anthropologist and for this blog. Trouillot was very attune to the unwitting American-ness of so many anthropologists–I remember Trouillot reading Clifford Geertz in a seminar and remarking on how American Geertz was. It also seems that at the time of Trouillot’s passing, the issues facing anthropology were rather different. Sure, there were significant problems of anthropology not being involved in public debates, but there was at least a hint that when someone said “anthropology,” they were likely to think about David Graeber and Occupy Wall Street. In other words, Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years was certainly the biggest book–in Trouillot’s terms–to contest the Savage slot:

Anthropology’s future depends largely on its ability to contest the Savage slot . . . Solutions that fall short of this challenge can only push the discipline toward irrelevance, however much they reflect serious concerns. In that light, calls for reflexivity in the United States are not products of chance, the casual convergence of individual projects. Nor are they a passing fad, the accidental effect of debates that stormed philosophy and literary theory. Rather, they are timid, yet spontaneous–and in that sense genuinely American–responses to major changes in the relations between anthropology and the wider world, provincial expressions of wider concerns, allusions to opportunities yet to be seized. (Trouillot 2003:9)

So even as the value of anthropology had come under attack, there was also a sense in July 2012 that it may have been a Great Year for Anthropology.

But that was all before the one-two-three punch of Jared Diamond, Napoleon Chagnon, Steven Pinker, who together bash anthropology at the same time as they completely resurrect the Savage slot that Trouillot spent his life trying to contest. Hardly a coincidence that Bill Gates is also a Steven Pinker fanboy.

Looking back, the missing piece for me is still Newtown and the gun reform debate we never really had. As a whole, American anthropology had nothing to say about gun culture and gun violence. As Hugh Gusterson pointed out–Making a Killing in the U.K. based Anthropology Today–American anthropologists had done almost no fieldwork or ethnography on such issues in the United States. There was no professional statement or prepared position. Recent anthropological articles regarding gun reform continue to be eclectic, from a statement that no gun control is possible without Second Amendment repeal, to the idea that we are in the evolutionary equivalent of a novel environment.

And so, American anthropologists have studied violence in every other part of the world, in every other time, but we have hardly done enough in the United States. The Diamond-Chagnon-Pinker juggernaut claims of “decreasing violence in modern states” roll along, a comforting displacement in the wake of Newtown and drones and Afghanistan. Like Jared Diamond’s displacement onto geography, American power becomes accidental. We ignore a history of interconnection with others, so that we can now deign to save them: enter the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

American anthropology has yet to shift the story-line. War, Peace, and Human Nature is a good start, but it was initially priced and targeted for academic audiences. Virtual War and Magical Death: Technologies and Imaginaries for Terror and Killing began with a better price, a better picture, and a disturbing message that all those computers might have something to do with terror. However, most non-academic readers will be unlikely to make it past the introductory paragraphs.

Of course we also need to be careful not to fall into another common American assumption–that things change simply by writing or blogging about them. Nevertheless, if American anthropologists were saying really smart things about gun reform, immigration reform, international aid, technological terror–if we could develop a position and keep plugging at it–we may not have been in reactive mode when people like Brooks-Chagnon-Diamond-Friedman-Pinker-Wade get their press splash. Or Bill Gates tweets out his Jared Diamond review.

Do American Anthropologists Really Need Saving?

Some strangely good news at the end of this pay-walled article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Aid That Does Not Help: Lila Abu-Lughod will be publishing Do Muslim Women Need Saving? in October 2013. Abu-Lughod’s 2002 article was powerful:

Could we not leave veils and vocations of saving others behind and instead train our sights on ways to make the world a more just place? The reason respect for difference should not be confused with cultural relativism is that it does not preclude asking how we, living in this privileged and powerful part of the world, might examine our own responsibilities for the situations in which others in distant places have found themselves. We do not stand outside the world, looking out over this sea of poor benighted people, living under the shadow–or veil–of oppressive cultures; we are part of that world. Islamic movements themselves have arisen in a world shaped by the intense engagements of Western powers in Middle Eastern lives. (Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?, 789)

However, the original was written during the first invasion of Afghanistan, and could not be a commentary on how much the world has turned through Iraq–and now Egypt, Libya, Syria, Turkey. I hope my hopes are not too high for this book-length treatment, but I’m already planning to use it for Anthropology 101.

Similar signs of hope at upcoming public-themed anthropology conferences–at American University, the Public Anthropology Conference (October 2013) and what will be the record-setting annual meetings for the American Anthropological Association (November 2013), Future Publics. American Anthropology may be White Public Space. But hey, we’re not as white as The Edge or the Being Human conferences, or the Management Committee for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

American Anthropology – We Cannot Abandon Humanity

We cannot abandon the four-fifths of humanity that the Gorbachev Club* see as increasingly useless to the world economy, not only because we built a discipline on the backs of their ancestors but also because the tradition of that discipline has long claimed that the fate of no human group can be irrelevant to humankind. (Trouillot 2003:138)

* At the 1995 closed-door meeting of the Gorbachev Foundation in San Francisco, members of what has become a global oligarchy calmly agreed that at some point in this twenty-first century only two-tenths of the world’s active population would be necessary to sustain the world economy. The middle classes as we know them are likely to disappear. Chunks of humanity will become irrelevant. John Gage and Scott McNealy of Sun Microsystems suggest the motto of that future: “to have lunch or be lunch.” And how will the prosperous fifth appease those who may not want to be someone else’s lunch? Former U.S. National Security Adviser Zbignew Brzezinski, the very one who coined the word globalization, provides the most successful answer: tittytainment–titty as in tits and motherhood, that is, enough milk for the poor to survive poorly and plenty of entertainment to maintain their good spirits (Trouillot 2003:56, drawing on The Global Trap: Globalization and the Assault on Prosperity and Democracy)

To cite: Antrosio, Jason. 2013. “Public Anthropology and Bill Gates: We Cannot Abandon Humanity.” Living Anthropologically website, https://www.livinganthropologically.com/bill-gates/. First posted 11 July 2013. Revised 22 September 2017.

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  • Discuss White Privilege

    Jason, yet another wonderful post. I was thinking of it as I made my latest comments on Savage Minds, and saw them sink like the proverbial stone in water because they were about race-power-whiteness.

    In particular, I was struck by this quote from your post, which applies to anthropologists themselves, especially when it comes to truly critical anthropological discussions of race-*global white supremacy*-power:

    “Although some aspects of anthropology appeal to various sectors of the public, the fact is that a large part of what anthropologists have to say requires intellectual effort, and moreover is often rather disturbing to people’s peace of mind.”
    –Jonathan Benthall, Enlarging the context of anthropology: The case of Anthropology Today 1996:136

    The race-avoidance that characterizes the ‘white public space’ of anthropology is largely a product of discomfort with confronting white power/privilege/supremacy head-on, and doing the not-easy (and yet also not-really-that-hard, because, honestly, how hard is it too see connections, inequalities that should be obvious, or to engage them as part of a discussion when they are clearly relevant?) work of acknowledging the ways in which a taken-for-granted white norm/body/subject position so often frames anthropological scholarship and theorizing (and then proceeds to make false, universalizing claims). And this white racial norm, and the race-avoidance attendant to it, is certainly not separate from the contemporary and historic debt anthropology owes to the 80% of humanity, largely non-white and in Europe’s former colonies, on whose backs anthropologists have made a living for decades.

    Yes, anthropologists owe these populations’ ancestors, but we also owe present members of these marginalized groups, as we continue to ‘speak for’ them, because of the same institutional and structural inequalities which make anthropology ‘white public space’. Many (white) anthropologists are so used to being The Expert studying others, and the expert on Others, that is hard for them to look critically at themselves, especially in relation to issues of race and white privilege. But not to do so means to not address the implicit biases and structural inequalities that make it possible for so many, and especially the oligarchs of the Gorbachev club, to see vast swaths of humanity as disposable–as well as makes it possible for white men like Bill Gates and Jared Diamond to see ‘doing good’ for those poor Others in paternalistic terms uncritical of white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy and the colonial relations/domination/exploitation which birthed it.

    Can we value people without being honest about why and how we don’t value you them already? And if anthropologists can’t even value speaking subalterns–anthropology’s ‘internal others’–enough to take seriously what they have to say, to engage it and not ignore or dismiss it (especially when the discussions of power, race, and privilege become necessarily uncomfortable), then how can we expect others, non-anthropologists to do the same?

    -Discuss White Privilege

    • Discuss White Privilege

      And by ‘owe these present subaltern populations’ I mean we owe them real respect, and the courtesy of listening to what they have to say, and engaging it instead of dismissing what they are saying. After all, isn’t this what anthropology is supposed to fundamentally be about, based on?: empathy?

      • Hi Discuss White Privilege, thank you for the comment and for the kind words, perhaps too kind, about my post. I was interested that you turned to Benthall rather than Dominguez, but certainly your comment sent me back to Trouillot, and how he talked about anthropologists ignoring local academics and local analysts:

        The rhetoric of the Savage slot is what ensures that the voice of the native is completely dominated by the voice of the anthropologist. Geertz has the right positions: Anthropologists indeed stand behind the natives. But we are not so much reading over their shoulders as we are writing on their backs.

        This positioning is confirmed by anthropology’s flagrant contempt for the most obvious and recognized forms of metasocial commentary emanating from local voices: the discourse of local politicians, local media, and especially local scholars. (2003:132)

        I think this may be why, at least for me, that Survival International’s mustering of Angry Papuan leaders demand Jared Diamond apologizes has been one of the most effective critiques of the Diamond-Chagnon-Pinker enterprise. What Survival International did, more than any anthropologist to date, was to actually bring native voices into the debate, however briefly.

        • Discuss White Privilege

          Thanks for the always-thoughtful response, Jason.

          I think of the issue of contempt in relation to my most recent Savage Minds comments, posted this morning in response to the Zimmerman verdict, which again raised the question of kinship and whose children count: a question raised by the Sandy Hook tragedy, which needs to be revisited in the aftermath of the lack of justice for Trayvon Martin and his family, especially as Florida’s Stand Your Ground law is also a gun control issue–and yet I don’t see a lot of (white) anthropologists framing the Trayvon Martin case as such, or making the necessary connections to structural violence and structural inequality–inside and outside of anthropology.

          Sadly, when ‘natives’ turn around, especially when we are also anthropologists (even if ex-communicated or in exile, self-imposed or otherwise), and ask (other) anthropologists to stop writing on our backs–and to stop ‘speaking for’ us–we are often greeted with contempt, usually in the form of dismissal and silence, if not abuse and violence.

          Additionally, your mention of Trouillot’s quote on writing on natives’ backs reminds me of the renowned woman-of-color anthology This Bridge Called My Back. I think the implications of this back-breaking (and soul-crushing, life-depriving) work is worth thinking about in relation to a Black Feminist critique of anthropology not just as ‘white public space’, but also patriarchal and androcentric space. It is also worth thinking about how, all too often, white women anthropologists do the work of white supremacy, especially as this issue of white women supporting white supremacy is discussed in relation to the decision rendered by the all-female jury in the Zimmerman case. All to often humanity is abandoned by such women in the service of white supremacy (and ‘white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy’ in particular).

          In many ways anthropologists have *already* abandoned humanity. The extent to which far too many find it difficult and unnecessary to ‘discuss white privilege’, even in the aftermath of a killing as heinous as Trayvon Martin’s, does not bode well for appeals to anthropologists, or others, not to abandon humanity–especially when the humanity in question looks like the human being on the cover of Virtual War and Magical Death. Hard to see how one can change structural violence and structural inequality one can hardly get most anthropologists to engage or care about, either substantively or at all.

          I weep for Trayvon Martin’s family. And I am outraged to live in a country in which white children in Sandy Hook matter because of race/skin color, but black children like Trayvon Martin don’t. Abandoned humanity, already.

          I hate to quote a bumper sticker, but the message is so apt: If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention. Apparently, not a lot of anthropologists are paying attention: not a good sign for a discipline in which powers of observation are supposed to be foundational. (Noteworthy counter-examples being Kate Clancy’s Twitter and Sarah Kendzior’s Twitter and Al Jazeera English’s responses to the Zimmerman verdict, and why ‘discussing white privilege’ matters and should in fact be central to anthropological praxis.)

          • Helga Vierich

            I found this whole discussion to be very American. I am Canadian, and I sometimes am surprised by the extent of racial agony still going on in the United States. The socio-economic data, and associated infant mortality and lifetime disease and life expectancy data, tell a story of deeply ingrained racial antagonism – of almost unbelievable depth.

            And, this is a country where even slightly darker people, who are still classified, in that old “race naming” system, as “Caucasian”, have to admit to being “Latino”… as if this were some kind of real racial or ethnic group. It is all very perplexing, especially since, after 2011, another group of “Caucasian” people, those from the middle east, have become subjected to intense scrutiny. They appear to be rapidly moving into “nonwhite” within the mythology of race as it exists in the USA.

            I am disappointed with Bill Gates… and with anyone, frankly, who can be beguiled by the facile, if well written books of Jared Diamond, Steven Pinker, and Napoleon Chagnon. I realize however, that, just as in other fields of popular writing, the appeal is to the middle range of readers. They are “well written” as popular books. And they repeat a popular set of ideas, ideas that appeal to a much broader range of readers than the articles in American Anthropology!

            So, there is no use whining about this. The world’s majority of literate souls is simply not yet going to want to sit down and read ” Inverting Development Discourse in Colombia: Transforming Andean Hearths”. Perhaps they will never be ready. We anthropologists are going to have to start writing essays and books that will have an impact, meaning disseminate ideas. Because, right now, and for many years now, we have only been writing to get jobs and add to our resumes. We have not been writing for the general reader.

            Most of us have not, in fact, even had time, or interest enough, perhaps, to read many of each other’s books and papers. This is especially true with the multiple fractures into sub-sub-subdisciplines, geographic specialities and political camps that have occurred over the years.

            I don’t know quite how this happened. Even the AAA meetings have become popularity contests, at times, with the big names drawing huge respectful crowds, but where the best papers are often presented to a tiny handful of variously bored and eager graduate students in some airless room off the main venue.

            The creation of blogs like Jason’s and the explosion of discussion on line has been like a breathe of fresh air. I recall several years ago being totally shocked by a talk I saw posted on Youtube, during which a bush-haired fellow presented a table of “data” on warfare “among hunter-gatherers”. I could read the names of the groups on the slide shown and it was clear that most of these groups were not even hunter-gatherers! I found out over the next few days that the data came from a book by Lawrence Keeley, and that the presented of the talk was, thankfully, not an anthropologist, but a psychology person called Steve Pinker. I immediately got in touch with both of them to warn them that there data was incorrect, and ordered Keeley’s book.

            Steven Pinker seems to be a pretty nice guy. He has always answered me most politely, but Keeley was immediately extremely defensive and questioned my right to argue with his thesis. I did my best to apologize, for I had not yet read his book. Once I got the book and read it, I renewed contact and told him, essentially, to smarten up and stop short of trying to apply his conclusions – which serve well enough for the post-Neolithic record, but cannot be extrapolated into the more distant past, not stand up well in the light of data from a proper sample of recently documented mobile foragers. But sadly, he seems to already have all the smarts he is ever likely to get.

            But it was not until I found Jason’s blog, and the blogs of many other anthropologists, that i began to find anyone with whom I could actually discuss the merits of my own discomfort, let alone the merits of the juggernaut of books and articles that have combined in past two years to apparently reinstate the ideas of Thomas Hobbes, and to attach to his bright comet and trail of warfare stretching eight million years into the human and prehuman past.

            I find it sad that Richard Dawkins, who came up with the idea of using the “meme” as a replicating unit within human cultures, should become involved, in collusion with these others, in pushing for the popularity of a fundamentally racist and elitist “meme” of the “brutish, nasty, and short” life of “savages” which so much careful archaeological and ethnographic work had just begun to dislodge from the public imagination.

            Don’t they realize what they have done?

            “Civilization” is some great human enlightenment project? It is a cure for the devilish side of human nature?

            Surely no one who knows anything about culture and mankind could still actually believe that?

            Ahem. Rhetorical question. Of course, they could. Because most people believe it. All too readily.

            Being human and living in a culture makes everyone an authority. No need to read any anthropology – most of it is hard work and dull… besides, it makes a person uncomfortable.

          • Hi Helga, thank you for writing this. It gives an accurate assessment of the state of anthropology. I was thinking about it when I wrote Anthropology Is Your Ally in response to Steven Pinker, and since you have made a comment there, will head there for a reply. Thanks!

        • Discuss White Privilege

          ‘White public space’ is *sociopathic* space. Sociopathy is characterized by a lack of empathy. Anthropology is supposed to be about empathy (or so claim anthropologists like Rex, on Savage Minds). So anthropology should not be encouraging or institutionalizing a lack of empathy. I hope people will really think about the implications of this. The anthropological lack of interest in the Trayvon martin case, and issues of (antiblack) racism (in the US) more broadly, is about a fundamental lack of empathy that which encourages abandoning humanity.

          Nothing can change in anthropology, or more broadly, when more (white) people/anthropologists really just can’t go to the place Sarah Kendzior went in her Al Jazeera English post on the Zimmerman verdict. When US anthropology just can’t be honest about the implicit biases so many anthropolologsts have toward black people, how much they fundamentally don’t see them as human beings of equal worth and value, how can we really think that asking them, or others, not to abandon humanity is going to do anything. Soul-searching first. And it’s just not happening. It’s just not. No matter how egregious the racist incident, it just is not happening, not penetrating the bubble of anthropological ‘white public space’.

          Too many anthropologists are convinced they are not racist, they are not part of the problem. And yet they are. If we can’t even acknowledge this, then where can appeals not to abandon humanity really go?

          Sometimes things just need to be put in stark terms: is the discomfort of reading a comment that asks one to discuss white privilege worse than having your black son murdered and watching the killer go free, with impunity? Perspective, anthropology. If you can’t care about and empathize with this, then yes, humanity already abandoned.

  • Disuss White Privilege

    Sorry to keep posting, Jason, put there’s a lot out there, especially on Black Twitter/in the Black blogosphere that probably isn’t getting to a lot of White Anthropology, so…

    If anthropologists want to take seriously the admonition of your blog post, to not abandon humanity, then I do hope that AAA, and especially AAPA, will make statements in the aftermath of the Zimmerman verdict, especially given that the ways in which Trayvon Martin was cast as a dangerous Black Threat relate directly to all the worst pseudo-scientific racist assumptions that anthropology, and especially the AAA race statement, is supposed to counter–especially the idea that Black people are less-than-human, more like the other great apes than other human populations, more animalistic and constitutionally criminally-inclined.

    If this is not a ‘teachable moment’ for an anthropology that claims to be and wants to be ‘publicly engaged’, then what is?


    • Thank you for this and for related comments in this thread. I agree that this is very related to the issue of gun reform. I was able to revisit my post on Teaching Race Anthropologically and found it interesting that it was directly next to Gun Culture and Anthropology. That was the first thing I tried on gun reform, which was way back when Charles Blow wrote about “gun culture” after the Aurora-Colorado shooting.

      I have not had a chance to compose a longer blog-post, but my initial take–as I commented on Savage Minds–is that U.S. politicians were also apparently unable to empathize with Newtown parents-kids or even with one of their own who had been shot in the head. They wouldn’t even vote for background checks!

      Not sure yet exactly what to make of that, but when it comes to gun laws, empathy with victims does not seem to get much traction.