Bi-Weekly "Metapolitics" Discussion

This is a past event

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Frankford Hall

1208 Frankford Ave · Philadelphia, PA

How to find us

Just ask the hostess for our group...

Location image of event venue


Our standard discussion venue is Frankford Hall in Fishtown near the corner of Frankford & Girard Streets. SEPTA's Girard Station is just a block or so away, and there's also usually spaces available for street parking in the surrounding neighborhood. If you can't find a spot on the street, there's a paid parking lot called "Park America" nearby at 1320 N. Front Street.



This meetup and the next will look at the phenomenon of ideologically-motivated violence in the U.S. and the difficult epistemology of quantifying it since only two sub-types ("hate crimes" and "domestic terrorism") are tracked by law enforcement agencies and many authorities on the subject allege that there's drastic under-counting.

Incidents of ideological violence are tracked & measured not only by law enforcement but also by social scientists to measure the underlying social tensions within a society. Below you can see a graph constructed by UConn professor Peter Turchin that graphs various forms of political violence throughout American history. Next week, we'll examine Turchin's claim that there's a rising trend of political violence in the US that will peak around 2020 and which may surpass the peak in the 1970s and rise to a level not seen since the 1920s.

We'll start our discussion by addressing the question of whether or not certain types of crimes with ideological motives deemed "hate crimes" or "terrorism" by the authorities should be punished more severely, and if so why? We'll also address a related ethical question - do members of a terrorist's "in-group" have a moral duty to condemn their actions?

Next, we'll dive into the statistics... The first thing you notice when you start to look into the statistics on hate crimes, terrorism & riots is that people on both the left & right sides of the political spectrum often claim that these crimes are undercounted when their opponents commit them but overcounted when their side commits them. In an effort to try to get a sense of how these crimes may be misclassified, we'll compare officials stats on crimes that appear to have an ideological motive to similar types of crimes that are usually more common but aren't singled out for having an ideological motive.

So, in the second part of the discussion, we'll look at the number of documented "hate crimes" along with estimates of unreported or undocumented hate crimes, and then we'll compare this to the much larger number of inter-racial crimes which don't clearly have a racist motive.

In the third part, we'll look at crimes recorded as "terrorism" and set these against the larger backdrop of "mass killings" which don't clearly have an ideological motive.

In the fourth part, we'll do our best to quantify mass violence with ideological motives (e.g. race riots, political protests or rallies that turn violent) and set them against the backdrop of other types of "multiple offender" crimes that lack a clear ideological motive and appear to be motivated by more common criminal motives like tensions within criminal networks (e.g. gang warfare), material gain (e.g. flash mob robberies) or too much alcohol & diffusion of responsibility (e.g. sports riots). In this context, "flash mob violence" occupies a middle ground - conservatives often see it as akin to race riots when black suspects are involved, whereas progressives see it as random juvenile mischief akin to college student riots.

In the fifth & final section, we'll look at arson attacks that appear to be hate crimes or done with political motives (e.g. eco-terrorism, anti-capitalism, anti-abortion-ism) and compare these to the number of arsons & "suspicious" fires that appear to have other motives (e.g. juvenile mischief, revenge, insurance fraud, concealing another crime), as well as fires that appear to have happened by accident.

NOTE: This discussion will be run back-to-back with a Skeptics meetup on police violence. Here's the link to the event's discussion outline:

For those who want to dive into this subject, I've created a bibliography with a list of articles & videos in our meetup's discussion tab:

The outline below is my attempt to provide you with the pertinent information, especially rough numbers on the types of violence we'll discuss. It's not as short & succinct as some of my previous discussion outline, but unfortunately this is a sprawling topic and the usual sources we use just haven't done it justice in my opinion. I've included some charts & graphs to try to help you get a quick, general sense of the magnitudes of hate crimes & terrorism, as well as their fluctuating rates over time and the way they compare to more general types of violence.

As usual, I don't expect people to read every article prior to attending the discussion. Please just try to read one article from each of the 5 sections - that shouldn't take you more than an hour. Before our meetup, I'm going to jot down some notes below each article that summarize its main points, so that if you can't read every article you can at least read my notes and get a general sense of what it's about.


1) Eugene Volokh, "The Perils of Hate Crime Laws" (short article)

Volokh, a libertarian law professor at UCLA, points that since "hate crimes" are by definition crimes that are committed because of a belief regarding the race, religion, color, disability, sexual orientation, national origin or ancestry of a person, they can potentially apply to all sorts of valid exercises of free speech, such as political protests that involve even minor property damage or civil disobedience.

2) German Lopez, "Why it’s so hard to prosecute a hate crime. Hate crime laws may not stop hateful acts. But they’re still important." (short article)

Lopez reports that every hate crime expert he spoke to agreed that hate crime laws probably don’t deter any crimes. He also noted that one expert, Jack Levin, cited the empirical evidence against expanding prison sentences because severity of punishment doesn’t do much to prevent crime and prison can exacerbate recidivism.

However, Lopez noted that hate crime laws often devote funds to police departments and label these acts as a more high-profile crime, which encourages law enforcement to take the issue more seriously. He cites Levin's argument that hate crime laws have an important symbolic meaning as well: "They send a message to two groups: They send it to the perpetrator, informing him that our community will not tolerate his intolerance. And then at the same time, they send a message to potential victims that they are welcome in our community."


3) Scott Alexander, "You Are Still Crying Wolf" (long blog post)

Scott Alexander is no fan of Donald Trump, but he argues that the liberal media narrative that Donald Trump is an "openly white supremacist candidate" is "crying wolf". He also argues that the popular notion that a substantial portion of Trump's support comes from right-wing hate groups is wrong. He uses the SPLC estimates (shown above) of hate group numbers to roughly calculate that there may be about 5,000 Klansmen and about 50,000 alt-right white nationalists, which ends up at about 0.02% of the US population.

(Scott doesn't do this, but if we compare his estimate of right-wing hate group members to the number of street gang members shown in the charts above, we see that street gangs are at least an order of magnitude larger. And the 850,000 gang members shown on those charts doesn't count prison gangs or biker gangs - a quick Google search shows that the latest FBI estimate is 1.3 million gang members in the U.S.)

Scott address concerns about larger numbers of "openly racist" Americans who aren't active members of hate groups. He looks at a variety of public opinion polls and the lackluster support David Duke got when he ran for the state senate in Louisiana to determine the number of "openly racist" Americans, and he gets about 1-3%. He notes this percentage is in line with noisy poll results he's looked at in the past that indicate about that many Americans believe in truly crazy conspiracy theories like "lizard people" controlling the government. Since most of these people are in Solid South red states and don’t matter in the electoral calculus anyway, Scott argues that this is not a sizable demographic block that can propel Trump or any other politician to power in the face of widespread opposition from minorities and their allies. He points out that Trump actually got more votes from minorities than Mitt Romney in 2012.

Scott addresses widespread media reports of a big spike in hate crimes after Trump's election. According to the SPLC, they compiled reports of about 300 "hate incidents" in the week following the election, and if we take that number at face value and figure 47% of America supports Trump (i.e. there are 150,000,000 Trump supporters) that means there has been one hate incident per 500,000 Trump supporters. Even if there are ten unreported attacks for every reported one, which means that the total is one hate incident per 45,000 Trump supporters.

4) Eugene Volokh, "Race-Based Hate Crimes — How Many, and Against Whom?" (short article)

Volokh notes that there's 2 sources for hate crime stats - the FBI Uniform Crime Report (UCR) and the BJS National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS). The UCR only covers crimes reported to police, whereas the NCVS is the result of polls that attempt to capture the additional crimes that were not reported to police. For 2005, the UCR reported about 7000 hate crimes and indicated that the victimization rate for race-based hate crimes is 20 times higher for blacks than for whites. The NCVS reported about 210,000 hate crimes, and depending on how you interpret the stats it looks like the victimization rate for race-based hate crimes would be about the same for blacks as for whites or perhaps 1.4 times higher for blacks.

5a) Bill Whittle, "Crime Stats, 2010" (short video, 1:19 min.)

Whittle, a conservative pundit, cites the racial breakdown of violent crimes from the BJS (i.e .the NCVS not the UCR) in 2010 to argue that there's a huge amount of black-on-white crime that dwarfs the official hate crime stats which goes mostly unreported by the mainstream media.

5b) Tim Wise, "Race, Crime and Statistical Malpractice: How the Right Manipulates White Fear With Bogus Data" (long article)

Tim Wise is a prominent anti-racists activist, and he takes issue with the statistical malpractice committed by right-wing pundits who claim that blacks are criminally victimizing whites at massive and disproportionate rates. He argues that even though there are more black-on-white crimes than white-on-black crimes, this can be completely explained by two factors having nothing to do with anti-white bias: namely, the general differences in rates of criminal offending, and the rates at which whites and blacks encounter one another (and thus, have the opportunity to victimize one another). Once these two factors are “controlled for” in social science terms, the actual rates of black-on-white crime are lower than random chance would predict.

Wise also points that although the numbers of black-on-white homicides are higher than the reverse, the black victims of white murderers is actually a higher percentage of the black population interracially killed than the white victims of black murderers as a percentage of the white population. In fact, any given black person is 2.75 times as likely to be murdered by a white person as any given white person is to be murdered by an African American.


6a) Lisette Padilla, "What Is America's Biggest Terrorist Threat?" (3:05 min.)

Padilla cites stats indicating that after 9/11 only about 9 American Muslims per year have been involved in terrorists plots and by 2012 there had been only about 20 attacks resulting in about 50 deaths. On the other hand, in the same time period, there were about 337 right-wing terrorist attacks per year, and they killed more than 5 times as many Americans as the Muslim terrorists.

6b) Megan McArdle, "Tallying Right-Wing Terror vs. Jihad" (short article - critique of stats presented in the above video)

Writing in 2015, McArdle takes issue with a study reported in the NY Times that claimed that since 9/11 nearly twice as many people have been killed by white supremacists, anti-government fanatics and other right-wing extremists than by radical Muslims. She starts by pointing out that by starting the body count the day after the 9/11 attacks, this excludes a major "black swan" event that is infrequent but has a high impact. If you have high-magnitude but low-frequency events, then during most intervals you choose to study, other threats will seem larger -- but if you zoom out, the big, rare events will still kill more people. She argues that we don't say that California should stop worrying about earthquake-proofing its buildings, just because in most years bathtub drownings are a much larger threat to its citizens.

The other major criticism of the study McArdle makes is that it had suspiciously expansive definitions of what it considered "terrorist attacks" as well as who it classified as "right-wing extremists". Many of the so-called right-wing terrorist attacks were not attacks on the general public or government buildings but rather white criminals engaging in flash shootouts with police over incidens unrelated to their ideology or while engaging in robbery. The only way they got classified as "right-wing extremists" is because they had expressed anti-government views to acquaintances and/or frequented right-wing conspiracy websites. She notes that similar borderline cases were not counted as Muslim terrorists, like the Washington Beltway snipers who had expressed jihadist sentiments in jail. Restricting the count of "right-wing" attacks to those that seem to have had a political purpose, drops the tally of right-wing terror to 41 or less, and including the 10 people killed by the Beltway snipers would all by itself would bring the number of jihadist killings up to 36. Then the story becomes less "right-wing terror is much more dangerous than jihad" and more "Muslim terrorists have killed some people in the United States, and other kinds of ideological murderers have too."

McArdle doesn't mention this, but it's worth noting that even if we assumed that all races & religions had about the same small percentage of members with propensity to commit terror attacks, based on demographics we would normally assume that white Americans would commit far more than American Muslims. There are about 3.3 million Muslims living in the U.S. (~ 1% of the total population) whereas non-Hispanic white Americans make up about 62.6% of the population. Even if we restricted this to the 150 million Americans that Scott Alexander estimated to be Trump supporters and thus nominally "right wing", that means right-wing Americans outnumber Muslim Americans almost 50-to-1. The fact that right-wing terror attacks don't come close to being 50 times more frequent than Muslim terror attacks even with very expansive definitions of what constitutes "right-wing terrorism" indicates that the percentage of the Muslim American population inclined towards terrorism is much higher.

7) Selwyn Duke, "Are Most Mass Murderers Really White?" (short article)

Duke notes that left-wing pundits & the liberal media tend to portray mass shooters as disproportionately white males, but that the data from Mother Jones' database doesn't support that. Of the last 20 killings, 9 were committed by non-whites which is 45% - this exceeds the non-whites' 67% of the population. Of the last 30 killings, 11 were committed by non-whites which is right at the 37% mark. If we go all teh way back to the beginning of the database's records starting in 1982, there are 66 mass killings where the race of the perpetrators are known and 22 were non-white which comes to one-third. Since racial demographics of the US have changed a lot over the past 31 years and an approximate average of the non-white population during that period comes to 28.5%, this would still indicate that mass murders are slightly disproportionately non-white. The only racial group that seems to be conspicuously overrepresented among mass murderers is Asian Americans, which is odd since they otherwise have the lowest crime rate of any group.


I couldn't find any charts or graphs to give you a visual representation of the size & frequency of mass ideological violence like political rallies & protests that turn into riots. However, to get a rough sense of the way mass political & racial violence in the U.S. compares to sports riots and multiple-offender crimes (a broad term for crimes committed by 2 or more people), check out the following links:

* Wikipedia entry for "List of Incidents of Civil Unrest in the United States (21st century)"

* Wikipedia entry for "List of Ethnic Riots (in the United States since 1978)"

* Carl Bialak, "The Latest Kentucky Riot Is Part Of A Long, Destructive Sports Tradition"

* Bureau of Justice Statistics, "Percent distribution of multiple-offender victimizations"

8) Cetin Hakimoglu, "Why There Isn’t More Civil Unrest in America, and Why I’m Not Worried" (blog post)

Hakimoglu is a Turkish-American blogger with a background in mathematics & finance who's "Grey Enlightenment" blog might be considered "Alt-Lite", i.e. a less radical contingent of the AltRight & Neoractionary bloggers. You'd think this would make him more likely to hype the recent protests & rioting of "antifa" & "black bloc" anarchists, but he ends up being one of the few people I could find who expressed skepticism about the apparent uptick in civil unrest. He looks at the list of "civil unrest" incidents from Wikipedia I linked above and argues that when "adjusting for populations and absence of social media, it’s actually kinda remarkable there isn’t more unrest now. Had social media and smart phones existed in the 60′s and 70′s, and had the US population been as large then as it is now (200 million vs. 330 million today), there would have been possibly hundreds more incidents than listed."

He attributes this to 5 factors: (1) Millennials being relatively disinclined towards protests than Boomers, (2) high living standards, (3) poor Americans being less likely to protest than middle & upper class Americans, (4) social media "slacktivism" replacing real-world activism, (5) America’s large geographic area and ethnic & cultural diversity acting as a buffer against unrest by lowering social cohesion.

9) Daniel Denvir, "Are Violent 'Flash Mobs' Really a Trend?" (short article)

This article came out in the summer of 2011 right after some violent "flash mob" incidents in Philadelphia, Chicago & Washington, DC, but unlikely many of the other media reports it questions whether this apparently new trend is real or merely apparent. The author hypothesizes that it may be a new trend caused by the intersection of de-facto racial segregation, high income inequality & social media/smart phone technologies that allow new types of organizing. However, the author also notes that it may just represent a geographic displacement of teenage criminal activity that used to take place in poor, black neighborhoods into rich, white commercial districts. If that's the case, crime stats wouldn't register an overall uptick in multiple-offender crimes, and of course "flash mob violence" isn't an official criminal categorization so you can't search the FBI's UCR for it.

Like the media-hyped "knockout game" trend in 2013, it's not clear that crime stats can allow us to determine if it's really a new crime trend or just a new trend in media reporting. In both cases, conservative pundits tended to present this as anti-white hate crimes, whereas liberal pundits argued it was just random juvenile mischief akin to college student riots - reprehensible but not racially-motivated.


10) Leah Libresco, "The Causes of Black Church Fires Resist Easy Explanations"

11) Chris Weigant, "Occupation, Arson and Terrorism" (short article)