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Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan argued Friday that America is suffering from a "crisis of character," and while her decades of perspective are important in judging these trends, Noonan doesn't take into account how technology has changed that perspective over the years.
In the column, Noonan notes
that only 24 percent of Americans responding to a poll feel we're "on the right track." Her diagnosis:
Every story that has broken through the past few weeks has been about who we are as a people. And they are all disturbing.
A tourist is beaten in Baltimore. Young people surround him and laugh. He's pummeled, stripped and robbed. No one helps. They're too busy taping it on their smartphones. That's how we heard their laughter. The video is on YouTube along with the latest McDonalds beat-down and the latest store surveillance tapes of flash mobs. Groups of teenagers swarm into stores, rob everything they can, and run out. The phenomenon is on the rise across the country. Police now have a nickname for it: "flash robs."
In isolation, these stories may sound like the usual sins and scandals, but in the aggregate they seem like something more disturbing, more laden with implication, don't they? And again, these are only from the past week.
The leveling or deterioration of public behavior has got to be worrying people who have enough years on them to judge with some perspective.
Something seems to be going terribly wrong.
This is a worry Noonan has expressed elsewhere
, but in this case, her evidence seems flawed. We've made the point before
, and we'll make it again, that the internet allows us to encounter disturbing people and things, but this isn't conclusive evidence that there are suddenly more
of those disturbing things in existence. Platforms like YouTube and Twitter, and devices like smartphone cameras, make it easier for us to share our outrage. Thus, an unfriendly encounter between a TSA agent and an airline traveler, which would have remained unseen years ago, can now make its way to Noonan's laptop. But that doesn't mean there are more scandalous encounters than at some other time in history.
You could make the case that this amplification of outrageous stories actually undermines Noonan's fears. Isn't the reason we tweet and e-mail these videos to one another the result of our outrage we experience while watching them? And isn't that outrage founded in the American cultural values whose seeming absence Noonan laments? Rarely does a YouTube clip of a teenager helping an old woman across the street (to be clichéd) speed around the Web. Who on earth would pull out their iPhone to document this? Maybe that's because such moments don't seem exceptional. Videos of teenagers robbing a 7-Eleven
, thankfully, remain both exceptional and ire-inducing to those of us who send them around.
Noonan's perspective isn't to be dismissed, and maybe there's something to it if she tells us that it "seems" there are more troubling news stories out there than there were before. However, it's important to bring to Noonan's life experience an understanding of how our media culture has changed in those years, and how that affects this perspective. In today's media world— and anyone who's seen a photo by Weegee or read a tabloid should agree —if it bleeds, it still leads. But who's to say it's bleeding more than usual these days?
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is an associate digital editor at Boston Magazine
and a former staff writer for The Atlantic Wire.