How Much Violence Is Being Committed In Your Name?

My neighborhood is a tranquil place—the sort of area where you watch images of war and oppression from far away. Those columns of black smoke, the men riding by with their Kalashnikovs at at the ready, seem to come from another world. And, as always in such situations, such unfamiliar people are easily made to feel as if they are Not Like Us. We, after all, get into political shouting matches and root for opposing teams. They shoot and bomb each other. What is wrong with such people? But the differences between a peaceful street in, say, Belgium and a war-torn street in Iraq are deceptive. We live in a single world of organized mayhem. It's just that those of us who live in comfortable local circumstances are separated from all the actual and potential brutality that is required to maintain our quiet oases.


How to express this, and analyze it? Perhaps we could use data to put all the world's collective violence—the work of armies, police forces, bandits, guerrilla bands, terrorists and other any other organization that wields lethal force—on a single scale. A single metric might be the amount that any population spends, per person, on committing violence in the name of that population. I'll take myself as an example. I live in New York City. So, let's take the annual budget of the police force here. In 2014 its budget (pdf) was $4.75 billion. Of course, most of that money was spent on non-violent activities, like detective work, traffic enforcement, school safety, refurbishing dowdy buildings and so on and on. Let's assume for the sake of argument that only 10 percent of the budget actually supports violence—acts in which the police beat, choke, taze, shoot or otherwise hurt people (or seriously threaten to do so). If that's correct, that's $460 million, divided by 8 million people, or a little less than $60 a year per person.

In addition, according to this report (pdf) New York state spent another $5 billion in 2013-2014 on public safety—state troopers, prison guards, the national guard, anti-terrorism investigators, and so on. This spending covered disaster preparedness and relief, and of course much of the work of these units of government does not involve hurting others (the state's public-safety budget also includes all it does to help veterans). So again let's assume 90 percent of the money does not buy bullets or tasers or pay for time spent inflicting harm on others. That leaves $500 million, divided by 19.65 million New York State residents, or $25 per person spent for violent acts or the credible threat of violent acts.

Now we come to the big, ahem, guns. The United States defense budget for the coming fiscal year is $495.6 billion. Divided by a population of 317 million, that's roughly $1,500 per person. But, again, defense spending encompasses disaster relief, basic scientific research, medical care, pensions—all manner of activities that do not involve firing bullets into people or dropping bombs on them. Let's take, again, my quite rough guess that only 10 percent of spending supports organized lethality. That's $150 per person on the Federal level.

According to this very rough guess, them, as I walk down my peaceful Brooklyn street, watching the children play without a care, various levels of government that represent me are spending about $240 a year—or $20 a month—on me alone, to pay for violent acts. To buy and maintain drones and missiles, fighter jets and battleships, sniper rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, rifles and service revolvers, bullets, tasers, pepper spray, tasers and other tools of organized lethality. And, of course, for the pay and maintenance of the people who use them. For my family of three, this collective commitment to violence costs $60 a month.

Now, this calculation is a thought experiment. An analysis based on really careful parsing of government spending might come out lower, or higher, by a lot. Moreover, I haven't allowed for the fact that within the nation police don't protect all 317 million Americans equally. The police in any given area are spending their time protecting some people against others. That this line of protection is heavily racialized is increasingly obvious. How to work that fact into the estimates is not clear to me.

But more accurate figures, whatever they might come to, would still represent a very large amount of annual spending for the purpose of either threatening or inflicting injury on people all over the world, from Raqqa to Rikers. I don't write this to argue that all of those people are innocent victims, or that we should never do violence. But we should face up to the world we really live in, and the things that are done in it, in our name. We should not be like the young student in Tolstoy's After the Dance, content with life and full of romantic notions, because he doesn't see the brutality all around him. The angry man in the Mad Max truck on the evening news is no alien. In a bloody, angry world, we are all playing the same game.

Illustration: Scene from After the Dance, via Wikimedia.

Follow me on Twitter: @davidberreby

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Image: The Pudding
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  • If you seek fame, become an actor, musician or athlete rather than a politician, entrepreneur or scientist

Chicagoland is Obamaland

Image: The Pudding

Chicagoland's celebrity constellation: dominated by Barack, but with plenty of room for the Belushis, Brandos and Capones of this world.

Seen from among the satellites, this map of the United States is populated by a remarkably diverse bunch of athletes, entertainers, entrepreneurs and other persons of repute (and disrepute).

The multitalented Dwayne Johnson, boxing legend Muhammad Ali and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs dominate the West Coast. Right down the middle, we find actors Chris Pratt and Jason Momoa, singer Elvis Presley and basketball player Shaquille O'Neal. The East Coast crew include wrestler John Cena, whistle-blower Edward Snowden, mass murderer Ted Bundy… and Dwayne Johnson, again.

The Rock pops up in both Hayward, CA and Southwest Ranches, FL, but he's not the only one to appear twice on the map. Wild West legend Wyatt Earp makes an appearance in both Deadwood, SD and Dodge City, KS.

How is that? This 'People's Map of the United States' replaces the names of cities with those of "their most Wikipedia'ed resident: people born in, lived in, or connected to a place."

‘Cincinnati, Birthplace of Charles Manson'

Image: The Pudding

Keys to the city, or lock 'em up and throw away the key? A city's most famous sons and daughters of a city aren't always the most favoured ones.

That definition allows people to appear in more than one locality. Dwayne Johnson was born in Hayward, has one of his houses in Southwest Ranches, and is famous enough to be the 'most Wikipedia'ed resident' for both localities.

Wyatt Earp was born in Monmouth, IL, but his reputation is closely associated with both Deadwood and Dodge City – although he's most famous for the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which took place in Tombstone, AZ. And yes, if you zoom in on that town in southern Arizona, there's Mr Earp again.

The data for this map was collected via the Wikipedia API (application programming interface) from the English-language Wikipedia for the period from July 2015 to May 2019.

The thousands of 'Notable People' sections in Wikipedia entries for cities and other places in the U.S. were scrubbed for the person with the most pageviews. No distinction was made between places of birth, residence or death. As the developers note, "people can 'be from' multiple places".

Pageviews are an impartial indicator of interest – it doesn't matter whether your claim to fame is horrific or honorific. As a result, this map provides a non-judgmental overview of America's obsession with celebrity.

Royals and (other) mortals

Image: The Pudding

There's also a UK version of the People Map – filled with last names like Neeson, Sheeran, Darwin and Churchill – and a few first names of monarchs.

Celebrity, it is often argued, is our age's version of the Greek pantheon, populated by dozens of major gods and thousands of minor ones, each an example of behaviours to emulate or avoid. This constellation of stars, famous and infamous, is more than a map of names. It's a window into America's soul.

But don't let that put you off. Zooming in on the map is entertaining enough: celebrities floating around in the ether are suddenly tied down to a pedestrian level, and to real geography. And it's fun to see the famous and the infamous rub shoulders, as it were.

Barack Obama owns Chicago, but the suburbs to the west of the city are dotted with a panoply of personalities, ranging from the criminal (Al Capone, Cicero) and the musical (John Prine, Maywood) to figures literary (Jonathan Franzen, Western Springs) and painterly (Ivan Albright, Warrenville), actorial (Harrison Ford, Park Ridge) and political (Eugene V. Debs, Elmhurst).

Freaks and angels

Image: Dorothy

The People Map of the U.S. was inspired by the U.S.A. Song Map, substituting song titles for place names.

It would be interesting to compare 'the most Wikipedia'ed' sons and daughters of America's cities with the ones advertised at the city limits. When you're entering Aberdeen, WA, a sign invites you to 'come as you are', in homage to its most famous son, Kurt Cobain. It's a safe bet that Indian Hill, OH will make sure you know Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon, was one of theirs. But it's highly unlikely that Cincinnati, a bit further south, will make any noise about Charles Manson, local boy done bad.

Inevitably, the map also reveals some bitterly ironic neighbours, such as Ishi, the last of the Yahi tribe, captured near Oroville, CA. He died in 1916 as "the last wild Indian in North America". The most 'pageviewed' resident of nearby Colusa, CA is Byron de la Beckwith, Jr., the white supremacist convicted for the murder of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers.

As a sampling of America's interests, this map teaches that those aiming for fame would do better to become actors, musicians or athletes rather than politicians, entrepreneurs or scientists. But also that celebrity is not limited to the big city lights of LA or New York. Even in deepest Dakota or flattest Kansas, the footlights of fame will find you. Whether that's good or bad? The pageviews don't judge...

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