Enlightenment values down: "Beware of interesting times," the sages have famously said.
We live in that kind of time. Consider two things Eric Levitz has recently said.
Yesterday, at New York magazine, Levitz offered a sensible warning about the dangers of overstating the extent of the dangers faced by public school students.
"Schools in the United States are safer today than at any time in recent memory," he said, linking to published statistics. "Criminal victimization in America’s education facilities has declined in tandem with the nation’s collapsing crime rate."
Levitz made a sensible argument. On balance, you may or may not agree with his point of view. Along the way, though, he made a peculiar comment.
LEVITZ (2/22/18): In the wake of the Parkland shooting, progressive activists and commentators (including this one) repeatedly claimed that there had been 18 school shootings since the start of this year. When the Washington Post looked into that statistic—and found that it included a suicide in the parking lot of a long-closed elementary school, and that there had only been five incidents that resemble the popular understanding of a “school shooting”—some progressives mocked the paper for its callous pedantry.Say what? According to Levitz, many people were saying that there had been 18 school shootings this year. In fact, said Levitz, there had been, at the most, only five such incidents.
This sort of response struck me as defensible—until the victims at CNN’s town hall began using the supposed ubiquity of school shootings as a justification for policies other than gun control.
Should people say 18 if the actual number is five? Was it "callous pedantry" when the Post noted this rather large difference?
There was a time when everyone would have known the answer to those questions—but that time isn't now. "This sort of response struck me as defensible," Levitz weirdly said.
Perhaps Levitz was simply throwing a bone to the rampaging herd. But what a remarkable statement!
Let's call them "Enlightenment values." According to one such basic value, you really shouldn't go around making wildly inaccurate statements. Even if you, and your cause, are both wondrously good!
Perhaps you can't see what difference your wild misstatement makes in the particular instance. Traditionally, that doesn't matter. Unless you're a medieval yahoo or a nut, it's something you just shouldn't do. There was a time when everyone knew this.
Levitz saw the gang abandon this value—and he said it seemed to make sense. Then, today, he wrote a piece about Trump's speech at CPAC.
For the record, Levitz is one of them college graduate fellers (Johns Hopkins 2010). He's also a ranking professional journalist, but this is preliterate work:
LEVITZ (2/23/18): Referencing congressional Democrats’ opposition to his administration’s proposed changes to legal immigration, Trump told the crowd of right-wing activists, “They’re willing to give us the wall. But they don’t want to give us any of the laws to keep these people out.”In that passage, Levitz tells us who Trump meant when he referred to "these people"—but he doesn't provide the surrounding text which lets us assess his claim. Trump is full of clumsy locutions and lousy ideas—but this is the fuller text:
Here, “these people” are, by definition, a group of U.S. residents and citizens who have entered the country legally, through the existing immigration system (ostensibly, including his own father- and mother-in-law).
TRUMP (2/23/18): To secure our country, we are calling on Congress to build a great border wall to stop dangerous drugs and criminals from pouring into our country. And now they’re willing to give us the wall. But they don’t want to give us any of the laws to keep these people out. So we’re going to get the wall. But they don’t want to give us all of the other, chain migration, lottery, think of a lottery. You have a country, they put names in, you think they’re giving us their good people? Not too many of you people are going to be lottery. So we pick out people. Then they turn out to be horrendous. And we don’t understand why. They’re not giving us their best people, folks. They’re not giving us—use your heads.As with almost everything Trump says, that passage doesn't exactly parse or make clear sense. Still, the most obvious antecedent for "these people" is the unpleasant word "criminals." In a jumbled way, Trump seems to be saying that some people coming in through "chain migration" or the "lottery" have "turn[ed] out to be horrendous."
They may have entered the country legally, but they've turned out to be criminals! Almost surely, that has actually been the case in any number of instances—and no, it really isn't a reference to his own in-laws. (Are we now required to make the dumbest possible connection every time?)
Trump's policies may or may not make sense, but Levitz's prose style plainly doesn't. In what universe does a ranking national journalist quote and interpret a statement in that fashion?
Levitz thought it was OK to say 18 when the number was five. He thinks it's OK to quote and then interpret a speech in the manner displayed.
It's fairly plain that Donald J. Trump is slowly driving some journalists nuts. Basic values are being abandoned. These values track back many years.
"Callous pedantry!" That's what the armies of outrage say in response to such obvious observations. It's the way real dumbness has always begun, especially before the Enlightenment, back in the days of the trials.