Is Evidence Rhetoric’s Best Friend?

The evidence suggests that evidence ought to be rhetoric’s best friend. Long ago and far away, I read an article about the prosecutor in Patty Hearst’s trial–this was shortly before the trial got under way. The writer for the SF Chronicle suggested that the prosecutor was not a flashy court-room presence but won cases by amassing and presenting solid evidence. The writer contrasted the prosecutor to one of the flashiest court-room presences of the era, F. Lee Bailey, whom Chronicle columnist Herb Caen dubbed Flea Bailey. Bailey and Hearst lost, as you know.

But fast forward to the mid-1990s, and Flea is there again for yet another trial of the century (there were so many), and the evidence in the O.J. Simpson trial seemingly doesn’t prevail. One reason it doesn’t is that the police handle some of it in ways that are, at least, perplexing; that Johnny Cochran focuses like a laser on the only audience that matters, the jury; that the prosecution is baited into having O.J. try on the gloves; that Mark Fuhrman is a nightmare witness for the prosecution; that the prosecution gratuitously fixates on a single time-line; and so on. At any rate, audience (the jury) seemed to trump evidence in that trial, although the point is obviously debatable.

2010: How does evidence figure into an immediate controversy, immigration from Mexico and new laws in Arizona? For help in answering the question, provisionally, let’s turn to some paragraphs from a column by Eugene Robinson (May 4, 2010), Washington Post, about illegal immigration and border-control (I added bolding):

Anyone who thinks such extremism [exemplified, he argues, by the Arizona laws] could be quelled if the federal government would just “secure the border” really ought to visit Arizona and take a look. Or at least consult a map. Or even just read up on what is happening at the border — which, according to Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, “has never been more secure.”

Border crossings by undocumented immigrants have declined sharply over the past decade. With more Border Patrol agents on duty than ever before, apprehensions of would-be immigrants along the 2,000-mile border have dropped from a peak of 1.8 million in fiscal 2000 to 556,000 in fiscal 2009. Some of the decrease might be the result of tougher border enforcement, but the weakness of the U.S. economy also could be a factor.
* * *
Sen. John McCain, who should know better, said recently that failure to secure the border “has led to violence — the worst I have ever seen.” Gov. Jan Brewer said she signed the state’s outrageous new law because of “border-related violence and crime due to illegal immigration.” But law enforcement officials in border communities say this simply is not true.

Roy Bermudez, assistant police chief of the border city of Nogales, told the Arizona Republic that “we have not, thank God, witnessed any spillover violence from Mexico.” The newspaper reported — citing figures from FBI crime reports and local police agencies — that crime rates along the border have been “essentially flat for the past decade.” Violent crime is down statewide, as it is nationally.
* * *
It should be pointed out there wouldn’t be any drug-related violence along either side of the border if Americans would curb their insatiable demand for illegal drugs. It also bears noting that the Mexican drug cartels procure their assault weapons on the U.S. side of the border, where just about anyone with a pulse can buy a gun.

[The mayor of Phoenix suggests] that the only solution is comprehensive reform that provides a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants already settled here, a legal way for temporary workers to come and go, and increased quotas for Mexicans who want to immigrate permanently. [end of paragraphs from Robinson]

So, by focusing on numbers and authorities (local law enforcement), Robinson highlights evidence: numbers of illegal immigrants much lower than before; cross-border violence apparently not a problem so far; guns in Mexico’s “drug-wars” spring from U.S.; mayor of Phoenix favors a multi-faceted approach (as opposed simply to building a wall).

Such evidence and appeals to local authorities should be rhetoric’s best friend in this debate, but they won’t be. Anything like what the mayor suggests will get slapped with the label “amnesty,” which will trigger a Pavlovian response from a larger political sector. Even a reference to guns coming from the U.S. will trigger another response from another (if overlapping) sector focused on the Second Amendment. Enter wedges; exit evidence; no entry of legislation permitted, except that of the sort just passed in Arizona–which won’t solve any problems.


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