A few friends and I were having dinner in downtown Washington, DC last night. While we were walking out, I saw a man—he appeared to be mentally ill or perhaps under the influence—come out of nowhere and aggressively lunge toward my friend, making contact. It was over in a second, and I couldn't really make out what happened. Fortunately, it didn't get worse than it was, but it was unsettling.
When we thought about what to do next, my friend wondered if he should call the police. The man appeared to be trailing us from a block or two away and was shouting at people on the street. It wasn't about getting the man in trouble, my friend reasoned, but rather about making sure he couldn't potentially assault anyone else.
On the other hand, we more or less assumed that the police couldn't do anything—or, perhaps more precisely, that they wouldn't. It wasn't so much that the police were incompetent or that they were participating in some sort of deliberate work slowdown, as has been the case in other American cities. It stemmed rather from a more general sense of lawlessness and that vaguely unsettling feeling one experiences in certain parts of the city at certain times of night.
Before 2019, I don't really remember local crime being a regular topic of discussion among friends in DC. It is now. Most of my friends can relay a recent experience with petty crime and the sense of fatalism that comes from realizing that authorities and institutions probably won't do much, for whatever reason. Anecdata, of course, is not the same as data. In cities such as Philadelphia and San Francisco, progressive district attorneys repeatedly insist that their critics have gotten the facts wrong. As the New York Times recently reported, San Francisco district attorney Chesa Boudin routinely "confront[s] voters with data that shows overall crime has not increased meaningfully while he has been in office, even as some categories have risen during the pandemic." Perhaps more irritating, Larry Krasner, Philadelphia's cantankerous district attorney, has developed a habit of browbeating critics in town hall meetings with appeals to "the science" and how his in-house criminologist can give people the real numbers if they really want them. Ordinary residents are being told that what they perceive to be true is not, in fact, true. They are, in effect, being gaslit.
The problem, here, is that we understand and interact with the world around us based on perception and feeling. Politics is about policy, but it is also about human nature and realizing that human nature, however one wishes to characterize it, is a constant to contend with. You can try to transcend it by appealing to people's better angels or through education and enlightenment—but only up to a point. Information, facts, and education don't necessarily serve the purpose liberals assume it will. Very few of us will read a detailed academic journal article about trends in crime reporting before deciding how to feel about crime.
It also depends on which facts one actually pays attention to. Any self-respecting political scientist will be well aware of how the data can be manipulated to confirm one's priors. A criminologist—considering how politicized debates over crime are—will presumably have ideological biases that inform his or her research. Are you looking at "overall crime" or certain sub-categories—and who's to say which sub-categories matter more than others? No one, in the end, is a disinterested observer.
But the debate over facts and (mis)information obscures a more fundamental objection. The data miners and the otherwise well-intentioned people who believe, as one might believe in a religion, that the facts will save you seem unable to grasp that crime isn't just crime (is anything ever really only what it seems to be?). Crime is also a proxy for a deeper malaise, that inchoate sense of almost-but-not-quite social collapse that's in the air we breathe, impossible to measure with precision but unmistakably there all the same. Part of it draws on our own confusion, driven by the intuition that things shouldn't be the way they are. When we see the tent encampments that have spread throughout Washington, DC over the past two years, it suggests that something has gone very, very wrong. This is the most powerful city in the world, and yet people are living in makeshift tents in the richest parts of the city, a stone's throw from the White House and the U.S. Congress. And no one seems to know what to do about it. Or they do know what to do about it but can't be bothered to act. Either that, or they've found a way to quickly resign themselves to a new reality—the so-called "new normal."
'Things aren't worse; they just seem worse' makes for an odd battle cry, and I, for one, don't find it particularly reassuring. This—whatever this is—is obviously not the end of the world, but that's only reassuring insofar as most things aren't the end of the world.