Saturday, January 15, 2011


I came of age during an era when social relations seemed characterized by entropy. Our mundane life was agreeable enough, but the public life you read about and the common life you experienced in various ways seemed to decay in quality a little more each year, and it was difficult (or at least difficult for me) to acquire a sense of when some sort of equilibrium might be reached, if even a disagreeable one.

In certain respects, the gradual erosion of the quality of life has continued (e.g. the durability of family relations and the set of understandings which buttresses that). In others, there has been good work done on the reconstruction of social norms. I was riffling through the New York State Statistical Yearbook the other day and discovered that the frequency of major crimes in this state has declined by about 65% in the last thirty years. The five boroughs of the City of New York - the sorry-assed Bronx included - have crime rates that would have been characteristic of rural counties when I was in high school.

There were roughly 700 urban riots in this country in the years running from 1964 to 1971. You could likely pick any two week period in the summer of 1967 and find as much urban mayhem as the entire country has experienced in the last 40 years. Indigenous political violence perpetrated by established and abiding associations (as opposed to ad hoc collections of friends) has never been much (just enough to get Shana Alexander a book advance now and then). Still, the country saw the last of it around about 1985. There have been since 1933 a dozen or so attempts to assassinate political notables. Puerto Rican nationalists tried to kill President Truman in November 1950 and then shot up the House of Representatives in 1954. These aside, American assassins in our time have worked alone, represented only themselves, and often carried motives that were obscure or incomprehensible.

A dozen occasions since 1933 translates into one attempt every six or seven years. As it has been, though, the most recent attempt 'ere the last week was 29 years ago. All of which is to say that in the 21 years Mr. Limbaugh has been on the air, the 14 years Mr. Hannity has been on the air, the 10 years Mr. Beck has been on the air, and the 8 years Mr. Levin has been on the air, American politicians have been going about their business threatened only by ordinary street crime and their own drinking habits. Would any of our vociferous political climatologists care to tease out the causal relationships there, according to the understandings of human motivation they have elected to apply over the last week? Over to you, Mr. Weisberg.