Dean Barnett over at Hugh Hewitt’s blog, has some very thoughtful reflections on Peggy Noonan’s column from last week on the Virginia Tech shooting. He did not like it because he thinks that it demonstrates a kind of reflexive "things used to be better" sentiment that he finds distasteful. At the time that I saw Noonan’s column, I thought that it was very good--though I liked different things in it than the things Barnett emphasizes. (For example, I especially liked her description--and subsequent retraction of the adjective--of the campus mental health officials as "endearing losers.")
I think Barnett raises a good point worthy of serious consideration, however. There is a tendency (and Barnett rightly points out that it is common on both the right and the left) for people to look at the past with a kind of nostalgia that is not productive. I do not deny that it can be helpful, by way of contrast, to examine the present in light of the past. But getting the past right requires more than nostalgia. When the past is considered with nostalgia only, it very often leads to hysteria in the present. Beyond that, heavy doses of nostalgia tend to have the effect of making one humorless and ungrateful and unmindful of the tragic/comic nature of our existence.
That was an odd post. He takes a swipe at Tancredo's spokesman for making the same point that he himself then makes - that there have been bad people for a very long time.
I don't see anything wrong with Noonan's basic point, that we should not want to reach the stage where something like VT happens and we shrug. Kitty Genovese syndrome is to be resisted, even at the cost of nostalgia.
John, I don't go as far as Barnett in decrying nostalgia. I like nostalgia and I'll admit that I'm often guilty of pure nostalgia. But it is a kind of guilt. And it is useful to remind ourselves, occasionally, to check our nostalgia with facts. Here's just a quick example: Kitty Genovese.
While Genovese's neighbors were vilified by the article, "38 onlookers who did nothing" is a misleading conception. The article begins:
"For more than half an hour thirty-eight respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens."
The lead is dramatic but factually inaccurate. None of the witnesses observed the attacks in their entirety. Because of the layout of the complex and the attacks took place in a different locations, no witness saw the entire sequence. Most only heard portions of the incident without realizing its seriousness, a few saw only small portions of the initial assault, and no witnesses directly saw the final rape and attack in an exterior hallway which resulted in Genovese's death.
I never said 35 people saw the attack. But they heard it and did nothing, because that was the mindset they have grown to accept. People adapt quickly to whatever is going on around them.
There is a continuum here, to be sure. We don't want to be like ancient Egypt, with zero change in society for thousands of years. But of all the flaws we have to fear, I really don't think excessive nostalgia is near the top. I doubt there has been a people in history with less of an eye to the past than Americans.
New York has always been coldly indifferent to the troubles of "other people" (only something like 9/11 brought out real emotion). The sad thing is, the country has become more and more like New York. I guarantee you that Ms. Genovese would have been helped in Peoria, at least in 1964.
I lived in New York and did not find it a cold place. People were kind and helpful as they are anywhere if you are open to them. There are cold and even evil people who live there, but there are such people anywhere. Were things better there in some "good old day?" Maybe so. Or maybe in densely populated places people have always more reason to lock their doors and close their windows.
Julie, thank you for the information on Kitty Genovese. I always took the story as given and it is good to read the facts.
Well, Kate, my first trip to NYC I observed people stepping OVER bums sleeping on the sidewalk. I do think it has to do with density and time constraints, but it is still hard to watch. And no returned my smile or my hello...just looked at me like I was a lunatic.
On the flip-side, the New Yorkers I've known have been refreshingly honest people. I suppose some might find it boorish, but I appreciated it.
You really do not want to wake the bums in NYC. I also admit that on my first day in NY, (just off the plane from Portland, Oregon, in 1974) the subway door opened to a pair of feet, in men's shoes and so presumably the feet of a male body, though barely seen from my seat, with the toes pointed up. Some people walked gingerly around him to get on the car. Most went to the other door. As one man said, "Whadda ya gonna do?" I could hear a young man on the subway platform calling for the cops as the doors closed. My friend asked, "Was he dead?" to which people who had seen the face of the man said, "He was definitely dead." The consensus seemed to be that since he was dead, and there was someone calling the cops, there was not much else to be done. So, "Whadda ya gonna do?"
And as to the bums, were so many (though seemingly fewer or at least less visible after Guiliani had been mayor, when I lived there in '02) and they were either serious substance abusers or mentally ill, and the former wanted your money, and the second might want your life in one way or another. Those sleeping on the ground had probably been up all night, so it was kinder and safer to let them sleep.
Which was why people avoided your eyes in NYC, because you might be a nut who wanted either their money or attention in some other unwanted way. I smiled anyway, not being able to help myself, and met many interesting people as a result. Indoors, in museums for example, or restaurants, where you are less likely to meet the mad, you will get a warmer reception. Neighbors in my apartment building were neighbors, as they are not always in suburbia. I liked that.
I lived in Manhattan for 17 years, until 2002, and my impressions match Kate's. Of course, people are wary. Friendliness sometimes takes the form of yelling and mocking and gruff good cheer. You want coldly indifferent? Boston is your town!
It's fascinating that people are so quick to accept what they read on wikipedia.
Here is an article to consider. The reason Wiki comes up first when you run a Google search is because Google rigs its on system to make it happen. And who writes Wikipedia?
John: You'll get virtually the same explanation of the Kitty Genovese story anywhere you go--so if you have a better or a conflicting source, go ahead and cite it. Wiki is not the best source. New York is not the kindest city. Someone should have helped that poor woman. What is your point about any of these things? I have no particular interest in debating or defending any of them.
My only point was that it is important to check our emotional reactions to stories we find shocking with reason. It is easy to get swept up in emotions--particularly when they are justified and righteous. I don't really think that is a debatable point. If you have never been swept up in emotion by a particularly outrageous story then you are a better man than I.
But thanks for the link on Wiki. I'm not surprised by it because it is fairly easy to see the bias of the thing in even casual use of it. But it is not unlike the bias that pervades most secondary treatments of subjects so I did not suspect such an obvious and intentional connection to the left. I must say, however, that I was appalled by what I read on Wiki while helping my second grade daughter write a report for school on C.S. Lewis. Anyone who has kids should not assume that it is o.k. to set them free on Wikipedia without guidance. Print it out and read it before you pass it on! This is not World Book Encyclopedia! There is a sick fascination on Wiki (and in this Genovese story it was apparent also) with making an issue of every kind of real or imagined sexual perversion of every person examined--even when it is apropos nothing. If you're not keen on having your kid read all about that kind of stuff, make sure you read it first.