Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The Sky Is Falling! Again! Really! We Mean It This Time!

NOTE: I am going back and trying to fix all current articles, to (1) add labels on the topic of each essay, (2) fix all links so they point to copies of essays on this blog, or, for external articles, point to working copies or archive.org if possible and (3) copying to this blog any cited essays which are not presently on the blog. In the future I intend to go back and copy over all the remaining articles from Random Notes (I already did this for the much smaller blogs "Examining the War on Drugs" and "Nation of Whiners") to this blog, but for now I am limiting myself to essays cited in this blog. Hopefully I shall be able to do this in a week or so, and all current essays will have working links and labels before mid February. (This specific essay was cited in "Envy Kills".)

No, sadly this is not a post about the most recent environmental scam. Nor about the economic woes besetting us. No, this time I am going to gripe about the news media. The reason I chose today to gripe is that a news story struck particularly close to home, and made clear to me just how amusingly alarmist the media can be.

Now, before I start, I suppose I should make clear that I do think there has been a general decline in society. We have become more coarse, less civil, we have accepted standards of behavior we would not have in the past. We have created racial, cultural and religious balkanization which is quite harmful to society. And our habit of turning youth culture into popular culture has forced children into ever more extreme rebellion. But, having said all that, I still think the media overreacts in amusing ways.

The specific story that brought this home was a report about children making bombs.

Which, of necessity, involves a bit of personal disclosure.  During my youth I was supposedly a fan of model rockets. However, like about 90% of "rocket enthusiasts", my interest was not centered on the rockets, nor on flight at all, but on the moderately powerful explosives stashed away in the rocket engines. Oh, when we couldn't get rocket engines we would make explosives out of strike anywhere match heads, or gunpowder if we could get it. Or maybe incendiary devices out of aluminum foil and household cleaners. Or amateur napalm out of "liquid wood". At worst we would be reduced to scraping iron filings off sparklers or adding powdered sugar to some small stash of explosives to create a pretty fireball.

However, the best explosive available to amateurs was certainly found in rocket engines. It was rather powdery, but that was no problem. Mixed with some rubber cement, perhaps a bit of powdered charcoal, it formed a nice poor man's plastique, suitable for all sorts of mischief. It could be packed into jars and cans to make a loud bang, or piled with home made sand bags to make a handy cratering charge. With a little work and a lot of explosives it could even be used to cut through old pilings or phone poles, as we discovered after a number of tries. It could even be surrounded with the aforementioned iron filings or powdered sugar to make a pretty impressive fire bomb. It was the all purpose explosive of my youth.

All of which makes me think that fears of the "new phenomenon" of children making bombs is just absurd. Children have made explosives as long as commercially available explosives have existed. I have no records, but I am certain some inventive child of the colonial era snatched dad's powder horn and made some mischief of his own. For that matter Byzantine children probably dreamed of the day they could lay their hands on some Greek Fire as well, though the poverty of the era probably kept that one confined to dreams.

And I think to some degree the same applies to fears of teen promiscuity, and all those other teen fears. Looking back on my youth, I am sure much of what went on would horrify not only parents of that era, but parents of today as well. I know I would be frightened to think of my son following in the same course I did for much of my youth.

So, I am sure someone will ask, if I think the media blows such things out of proportion, and if teens today often do no more than they did decades ago, why do I say that children are rebelling in more extreme ways. And to answer that I have to answer there are three differences.

First, there is the question of attitude. When we were behaving in these ways, we knew we were doing something wrong, we were consciously violating taboos. Many today, especially in sexual matters, don't seem to realize there is a taboo, they seem to think it is normal and expected. For example, the modern teen acceptance of casual promiscuity, while it may not lead to any more sexual activity, is certainly very different than the perspective of my youth. Likewise the casual way which teen pregnancy is regarded by many. There were certainly a few pregnant teens when I was growing up, but they were seen as peculiar, perhaps shameful, which made others take steps to avoid pregnancy. Now they are viewed as, if not the norm, at least an acceptable alternative in many segments of society. And that definitely has an effect on how teens behave.

Second, there is the matter of behaviors breaking out of insular groups into the mainstream. And, sadly, the punk rockers to which I belonged are partly to blame here. We took what had been the behaviors of the lowest of low class and made them cool to the middle class. And I see more of that now than when I was young. What would have been acceptable only among certain lower class groups and a few rebellious teens of the middle and upper classes are now acceptable across the boards. Violence, drug abuse, teen pregnancy, casual promiscuity, all have broken out from relatively small pockets of society and become common among groups which would never have accepted them in the past.

Finally, there are behaviors where the media is right and teens really have changed. For example, violence. Yes, there was fighting when I was young. During my brief layover in public school, between private school and being a high school drop out college student, there were constant skirmishes between the poor black kids and the "white trash" redneck kids. However, in my youth the worst escalation ever was an incident involving a baseball bat and broken leg, and that was treated as a crisis. Never once did knives or guns enter into things. (There was a single stabbing at the junior high, but that was a total aberration and the girl was actually jailed.) The level of violence which we see today really is unprecedented, and the way it has spread is unusual as well. Not just gangs, but those who would emulate gangs are now involved. 

Of course, in some cases, the media may just be a bit ahead of the curve. While I believe their their tales of wild teen orgies are simply exaggerated descriptions of events that would have been familiar enough in my teen years, the prevailing attitudes toward sex do make it likely that sex will continue to become ever more casual. While I doubt the innate human tendency toward possessiveness and jealousy will allow orgies to become the norm, I do expect that casual sexual encounters and teen pregnancy will continue to become more common. 

But enough on that subject, it is one I have explored in several previous essays. For now let me just say that, while I do think there is a real problem, that we are following a very destructive course, mostly due to our tendency to accept youthful behavior as the pattern for society, I also think the media is doing us no favors by exaggerating the current impact of that trend. Yes, things are beginning to come apart, but saying the end is nigh does not help to point out that trend. Instead it makes the media sound alarmist and absurd and makes it harder to point out the very real problems.

POSTSCRIPT
My previous essays on this topic can be found here:
Frightened for our Future
The Adoration of Youth
I Blame the Romantics
Revisiting an Old Topic
These are related posts on cultural balkanization:
The Important Lesson of Racism
The Costs of Understanding
The Problem With Cultural Relativism
Predictability
More Harm From Multiculturalism
Some Notes on a National Language
Pluralism Versus Multiculturalism
Non-Judgmental Ethics?
And, finally, some posts on the lionization of "outsiders" and the effects it has:
Violence and Culture
Looking over these essays, I think I may need to do a better job of consolidating all my thoughts. So expect to see me revisiting this topic at least once more.

POSTSCRIPT II

I am a bit amused by the claim in the news report that the growth of bomb making is due to the easy availability of explosive recipes on the internet. That would make sense if lack of a recipe ever kept us from building a bomb in my youth, but that never happened. We learned how to make bombs by word of mouth, or trial and error, or form such dubious sources as the rather dodgy Anarchist's Cookbook (a copy of which still lingers in my basement somewhere). If anything, the internet made life a bit safer by putting a few better recipes out there and removing the need to experiment to see how well something explodes. So, if anything, the internet has not increased the number of bomb makers, it has just made their life a tiny bit less dangerous.

POSTSCRIPT III

By the way, as I mentioned the Anarchsist's Cookbook, I have to bring up a vaguely related point. If any of my readers followed the scandal around Jay Forman and his fabricated "monkeyfishing" tale, familiarity with the Anarchist's Cookbook makes his other story, about shooting rats in an apartment, more amusing. The "silencer" he describes, which experts considered "implausible", is quite familiar. The method he describes to silence a rifle is lifted almost word for word from an equally dubious plan provided by the Cookbook. Which makes me think Mr. Forman was once again embellishing reality, and using a hoary old source book for the details.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/12/11.


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