This week saw a small and telling controversy involving a mural on the walls of Roosevelt High School in Los Angeles. The mural is big—400 feet long, 18 feet high at its peak—and eye-catching, as would be anything that “presents a colorful depiction of the rape, slaughter and enslavement of North America’s indigenous people by genocidal Europeans.” Those are the words of the Los Angeles Times’s Bob Sipchen, who noted “the churning stream of skulls in the wake of Columbus’s Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria.”
What is telling is not that some are asking if the mural portrays the Conquistadors as bloodthirsty monsters, or if it is sufficiently respectful to the indigenous Indians of Mexico. What is telling is that those questions completely miss the point and ignore the obvious. Here is the obvious:
The mural is on the wall of a public school. It is on a public street. Children walk by.
We are scaring our children to death. Have you noticed this? And we’re doing it more and more.
Last week of course it was Cho Seung-hui, the mass murderer of Virginia Tech. The dead-faced man with the famous dead-shark eyes pointed his pistols and wielded his hammer on front pages and TV screens all over America.
What does it do to children to see that?
For 50 years in America, whenever the subject has turned to what our culture presents, the bright response has been, “You don’t like it? Change the channel.” But there is no other channel to change to, no safe place to click to. Our culture is national. The terrorizing of children is all over.
Click. Smug and menacing rappers.
Click. “This is Bauer. He’s got a nuke and he’s going to take out Los Angeles.”
Click. Rosie grabs her crotch. “Eat this.”
Click. “Every day 2,000 children are reported missing . . .”
Click. Don Imus’s face.
Click. “Eyewitnesses say the shooter then lined the students up . . .”
Click. An antismoking campaign on local New York television. A man growls out how he felt when they found his cancer. He removes a bib and shows us the rough red hole in his throat. He holds a microphone to it to deliver his message.
Don’t smoke, he says.
This is what TV will be like in Purgatory.
It’s not only roughness and frightening things in our mass media, it’s politics too. Daily alarms on global warming with constant videotape of glaciers melting and crashing into the sea. Anchors constantly asking, “Is there still time to save the Earth? Scientists warn we must move now.” And international terrorism. “Is the Port of Newark safe, or a potential landing point for deadly biological weapons?”
I would hate to be a child now.
* * *
Very few people in America don’t remember being scared by history at least to some degree when they were kids. After Pearl Harbor, they thought the Japanese were about to invade California. If you are a boomer, you remember duck-and-cover drills. The Soviets had the bomb, and might have used it. I remember a little girl bursting into tears during the Cuban Missile Crisis when I was in grade school.
But apart from that, apart from that one huge thing, life didn’t seem menacing and full of dread. It was the boring 1950s and ‘60s, and the nice thing about a boring era is it’s never boring. Life is interesting enough. There’s always enough to scare a child.
But now it’s a million duck-and-cover drills, a thousand alarms, a steady drumbeat of things to fear.
Adults have earnest discussions about how more and more of our children are being prescribed antidepressants and antianxiety drugs. What do you think—could there be a connection here?
Why are we frightening our kids like this, with such insensitivity? Part of it is self-indulgence, part of it is profit, but not all of it is malevolent. Some of it is just mindless. Adults forget to think about kids. They forget what it’s like to be a kid.
ABC’s John Stossel is a person in media who knows. He did a piece recently on the public-service announcements warning about child abduction. He asked some children if the warnings worried them. Yes, they said. One little boy told him he worries every night “because I’m asleep and I don’t know what’s gonna happen.”
* * *
Children are both brave and fearful. They’ll walk up to a stranger and say something true that a grown-up would fear to say. But they are also subject to terrors, some of them irrational, and to anxieties. They need a stable platform on which to stand. From it they will be likely to step forward into steady adulthood. Without it, they will struggle; they will be less daring in their lives because life, they know, is frightful and discouraging.
We are not giving the children of our country a stable platform. We are instead giving them a soul-shaking sense that life is unsafe, incoherent, full of random dread. And we are doing this, I think, for three reasons.
One is politics—our political views, our cultural views, so need to be expressed and are, God knows, so much more important than the peace of a child. Another is money—there’s money in the sickness that is sold to us. Everyone who works at a TV network knew ratings would go up when the Cho tapes broke.
But another reason is that, for all our protestations about how sensitive we are, how interested in justice, how interested in the children, we are not. We are interested in politics. We are interested in money. We are interested in ourselves.
We are frightening our children to death, and I’ll tell you what makes me angriest. I am not sure the makers of our culture fully notice what they are doing, what impact their work is having, because the makers of our culture are affluent. Affluence buys protection. You can afford to make your children safe. You can afford the constant vigilance needed to protect your children from the culture you produce, from the magazine and the TV and the CD and the radio. You can afford the doctors and tutors and nannies and mannies and therapists, the people who put off the TV and the Internet and offer conversation.
If you have money in America, you can hire people who compose the human chrysalis that protects the butterflies of the upper classes as they grow. The lacking, the poor, the working and middle class—they have no protection. Their kids are on their own. And they’re scared.
Too bad no one cares in this big sensitive country of ours.