“You’re never as clever as you think you are.” –Mom
I was impatient as a kid. As has become archetypical of my generation, I wanted everything immediately and perfectly, and I read injustice in the heavens at my every frustration. You see, entitlement, particularly of the sloppy, Digital-Age variety, is an intensely emotional commitment. Whether it manifests in idle resentment or exhibitionist rage, a debt denied is an existential offense to the moral order that happens to linger in your orbit. So when I wanted snacks, I deserved them now. When I finished my homework, I assumed it was eo ipso done right—who has time to check their work when the universe beckons with dodgeball and moon pies, hide-and-seek and fireflies?
Fortunately, the many responsible adults in my young life disagreed with my less-than-adorable assessment of universal truths. I was required to wait for my turn or the appropriate time or the rightful owner’s consent in order to do things. I was made to double-check my math, proofread my writing, defend my assertions, and right my wrongs. In short, I was made to check my work. Moreover, I was taught the world would expect such things of me because those who run the world expect such things of themselves, and that is how good men behave. You get ahead by being on point, and thus you earn your keep.
It seems the world didn’t get my upbringing.
As the recent Manti Te’o scandal marinates in memes, a recurring wonder reaches crescendo: why didn’t any of these reporters bother to check their work? From Sports Illustrated to CBS to The Chicago Tribune to Salon to the Associated Press, a story got reprinted over and over again with hardly anybody confirming anything. How was this possible? How often does such a thing happen without our knowing it? Perhaps the most chilling insight into this ridiculous affair comes courtesy of NPR:
“The truth is that much of the time, reporters are just like everyone else: They largely believe what they read in the papers and see on TV. So each successive journalist unconsciously relied on the last for confidence in what he or she was presenting to the public. And this story was one they wanted to believe.”
As disturbing as that might sound, something about it rings true. We are, after all, a culture fond of propagating frequently misattributed quotes—often from Shakespeare or Morgan Freeman—and jumping on celebrity causes—from Kony 2012 to It Gets Better—with devils for entrails. Speaking of videos, doctored accounts have led our federal executives to fire people in embarrassingly hurried error and our trustworthy pundits to double down on discredited network lines. While we’re at it, how many people, news anchors, and governments have been fooled by satire to date?
In our current debates over violence, there has been much appeal to raw emotion to blunt the sobering checks of reason. From the offset, the rhetorical issues surrounding so-called “assault weapons” has degenerated so far that Wikipedia is now more credible on this matter than The New York Times. Beyond that, there has been the bizarre notion that feel-good, do-something bans on rifle cosmetics and rare-in-crime magazines is a “sensible” way to credibly reduce any kind of violence. But notwithstanding all that confusion, we still have partisans like Andrew Cuomo and Rachel Maddow calling for “moving fast” on “sensible” gun laws and “common-sense” restrictions, even as Vice President Biden notes the established ease of getting around bans.
There were many practical lessons I learned growing up an impatient, quick-tempered brat in the singular nexus of ethnic and cultural diversity that is the U.S. Army. One key understanding was that “fast” and “sensible” are competing goods, and there is nothing common about “common sense” (another way of saying, be wary of groupthink). Sometimes, the situation demands immediate decision and you cannot afford to “overthink”. Deliberation does have costs, after all. The other side of that coin, however, is the old adage: there’s never enough time to do it right, but there’s always enough time to do it over. Enter: New York.
In wake of the tragedy and outrage of Newtown and the ubiquitous desire to do something about it, Andrew Cuomo set out to push the “toughest gun control legislation in the country” before anyone could stop and think too much about what it was they were passing. And so they did. It is illegal to have unfashionable rifles and old magazines with eight or more clips in New York. There are no exceptions to this law. Now, as every police officer in the Empire State prepares to become a gun criminal, Governor Cuomo and the nation’s gun-control enthusiasts are learning that hallmark lesson of my childhood: always check your work.