Technological Fears and Media Panics

“One of the first characteristics of the first era of any new form of communication is that those who live through it usually have no idea what they’re in.”
~Mitchell Stephens

“Almost every new medium of communication or expression that has appeared since the dawn of history has been accompanied by doomsayers and critics who have confidently predicted that it would bring about The End of the World as We Know It by weakening the brain or polluting our precious bodily fluids.”
~New Media Are Evil, from TV Tropes

“The internet may appear new and fun…but it’s really a porn highway to hell. If your children want to get on the internet, don’t let them. It’s only a matter of time before they get sucked into a vortex of shame, drugs, and pornography from which they’ll never recover. The internet…it’s just not worth it.”
~Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories

“It’s the same old devil with a new face.”
~Rev. George Bender, Harry Potter book burner

Media technology is hard to ignore. This goes beyond it being pervasive. Our complaints and fears, our fascination and optimism are mired in far greater things. It is always about something else. Media technology is not only the face of some vague cultural change but the embodiment of new forms of power that seem uncontrollable. Our lives are no longer fully our own, a constant worry in an individualistic society. With globalization, it’s as if the entire planet has become a giant company town.

I’m not one for giving into doom and gloom about technology. That response is as old as civilization and doesn’t offer anything useful. But I’m one of the first to admit to the dire situation we are facing. It’s just that in some sense the situation has always been dire, the world has always been ending. We never know if this finally will be the apocalypse that has been predicted for millennia, an ending to end it all with no new beginning. One way or another, the world as we know it is ending. There probably isn’t much reason to worry about it. Whatever the future holds, it is beyond our imagining as our present world was beyond the imagining of past generations.

One thing is clear. There is no point in getting in a moral panic over it. The young who embrace what is new always get blamed for it, even though they are simply inheriting what others have created. The youth today aren’t any worse off than any other prior generation at the same age. Still, it’s possible that these younger generations might take us into a future that us old fogies won’t be able to understand. History shows how shocking innovations can be. Talking about panics, think about Orson Welles’s radio show, War of the Worlds. The voice of radio back then had a power that we no longer can appreciate. Yet here we are with radio being so much background noise added to the rest.

Part of what got me thinking about this were two posts by Matt Cardin, at The Teeming Brain blog. In one post, he shares some of Nathaniel Rich’s review, Roth Agonistes, of Philip Roth’s Why Write?: Collected Nonfiction 1960–2013. There is a quote from Roth in 1960:

“The American writer in the middle of the twentieth century has his hands full in trying to understand, describe, and then make credible much of American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meager imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist.”

Rich comments that, “Roth, despite writing before the tumult of the Sixties, went farther, suggesting that a radically destabilized society had made it difficult to discriminate between reality and fiction. What was the point of writing or reading novels when reality was as fantastic as any fiction? Such apprehensions may seem quaint when viewed from the comic-book hellscape of 2018, though it is perversely reassuring that life in 1960 felt as berserk as it does now.”

We are no more post-truth now than back then. It’s always been this way. But it is easy to lose context. Rich notes that, “Toward the end of his career, in his novels and public statements, Roth began to prophesy the extinction of a literary culture — an age-old pastime for aging writers.” The ever present fear that the strangeness and stresses of the unknown will replace the comforting of the familiar. We all grow attached to the world we experienced in childhood, as it forms the foundation of our identity. But every now and then something comes along to threaten it all. And the post-World War era was definitely a time of dramatic and, for some, traumatic change — despite all of the nostalgia that has accrued to its memories like flowers on a gravestone.

The technological world we presently live in took its first form during that earlier era. Since then, the book as an art form is far from being near extinction. More books have been printed in recent decades than ever before in history. New technology has oddly led us read even more books, both in their old and new technological forms. My young niece, of the so-called Internet Generation, prefers physical books… not that she is likely to read Philip Roth. Literacy, along with education and IQ, is on the rise. There is more of everything right now, what makes it overwhelming. Technologies of the past for the  most part aren’t being replaced but incorporated into a different world. This Borg-like process of assimilation might be more disturbing to the older generations than simply becoming obsolete.

The other post by Matt Cardin shares an excerpt from an NPR piece by Laura Sydell, The Father Of The Internet Sees His Invention Reflected Back Through A ‘Black Mirror’. It is about the optimists of inventors and the consequences of inventions, unforeseen except by a few. One of those who did see the long term implications was William Gibson: “The first people to embrace a technology are the first to lose the ability to see it objectively.” Maybe so, but that is true for about everyone, including most of those who don’t embrace it or go so far as to fear it. It’s not in human nature to see much of anything objectively.

Gibson did see the immediate realities of what he coined as ‘Cyberspace’. We do seem to be moving in that general direction of cyberpunk dystopia, at least here in this country. I’m less certain about the even longer term developments, as Gibson’s larger vision is as fantastical as many others. But it is the immediate realities that always concern people because they can be seen and felt, if not always acknowledged for what they are, often not even by the fear-mongers.

I share his being more “interested in how people behave around new technologies.” In reference to “how TV changed New York City neighborhoods in the 1940s,” Gibson states that, “Fewer people sat out on the stoops at night and talked to their neighbors, and it was because everyone was inside watching television. No one really noticed it at the time as a kind of epochal event, which I think it was.”

I would make two points about.

First, there is what I already said. It is always an epochal event when a major technology is invented, going back to the many inventions before that such as media technology (radio, films, telegraph, printing press, bound book, etc) but also other technologies (assembly lines, cotton gin, compass, etc). Did the Chinese individual who assembled the first firework imagine the carnage of bombs that made castles easy targets and led to two world wars that transformed all of human existence? Of course not. Even the simplest of technologies can turn civilization on its head, which has happened multiple times over the past few millennia and often with destructive results.

The second point is to look at something specific like television. It happened along with the building of the interstate highway system, the rise of car culture, and the spread of suburbia. Television became a portal for the outside world to invade the fantasyland of home life that took hold after the war. Similar fears about radio and the telephone were transferred to the television set and those fears were directed at the young. The first half of the 20th century was constant technological wonder and uncertainty. The social order was thrown askew.

We like to imagine the 1940s and 1950s as a happy time of social conformity and social order, a time of prosperity and a well behaved population, but that fantasy didn’t match the reality. It was an era of growing concerns about adolescent delinquency, violent crime, youth gangs, sexual deviancy, teen pregnancy, loose morals, and rock ‘n roll — and the data bears out that a large number in that generation were caught up in the criminal system, whether because they were genuinely a bad generation or that the criminal system had become more punitive, although others have argued that it was merely a side effect of the baby boom with youth making up a greater proportion of society. Whatever was involved, the sense of social angst got mixed up with lingering wartime trauma and emerging Cold War paranoia. The policing, arrests, and detention of wayward youth became a priority to the point of oppressive obsession. Besides youth problems, veterans from World War II did not come home content and happy (listen to Audible’s “The Home Front”). It was a tumultuous time, quite opposite of the perfect world portrayed in those family sitcoms of the 1940s and 1950s.

The youth during that era had a lot in common with their grandparents, the wild and unruly Lost Generation corrupted by family and community breakdown from early mass immigration, urbanization, industrialization, consumerism, etc. Starting in the late 1800s, youth gangs and hooliganism became rampant, as moral panic became widespread. As romance novels earlier had been blamed and later comic books would be blamed, around the turn of the century the popular media most feared were the violent penny dreadfuls and dime novels that targeted tender young minds with portrayals of lawlessness and debauchery, so it seemed to the moral reformers and authority figures.

It was the same old fear rearing its ugly head. This pattern has repeated on a regular basis. What new technology does is give an extra push to the swings of generational cycles. So, as change occurs, much remains the same. For all that William Gibson got right, no one can argue that the world has been balkanized into anarcho-corporatist city-states (Snow Crash), although it sure is a plausible near future. The general point is true, though. We are a changed society. Yet the same old patterns of fear-mongering and moral panic continue. What is cyclical and what is trend is hard to differentiate as it happens, it being easier to see clearly in hindsight.

I might add that vast technological and social transformations have occurred every century for the past half millennia. The ending of feudalism was far more devastating. Much earlier, the technological advancement of written text and the end of oral culture had greater consequences than even Socrates could have predicted. And it can’t be forgotten that movable type printing presses ushered in centuries of mass civil unrest, populist movements, religious wars, and revolution across numerous countries.

Our own time so far doesn’t compare, one could argue. The present relative peace and stability will continue until maybe World War III and climate change catastrophe forces a technological realignment and restructuring of civilization. Anyway, the internet corrupting the youth and smart phones rotting away people’s brains should be the least of our worries.

Even the social media meddling that Russia is accused of in manipulating the American population is simply a continuation of techniques that go back to before the internet existed. The game has changed a bit, but nations and corporations are pretty much acting in the devious ways they always have, except they are collecting a lot more info. Admittedly, technology does increase the effectiveness of their deviousness. But it also increases the potential methods for resisting and revolting against oppression.

I do see major changes coming. My doubts are more about how that change will happen. Modern civilization is massively dysfunctional. That we use new technologies less than optimally might have more to do with pre-existing conditions of general crappiness. For example, television along with air conditioning likely did contribute to people not sitting outside and talking to their neighbors, but as great or greater of a contribution probably had to do with diverse social and economic forces driving shifts in urbanization and suburbanization with the dying of small towns and the exodus from ethnic enclaves. Though technology was mixed into these changes, we maybe give technology too much credit and blame for the changes that were already in motion.

It is similar to the shift away from a biological explanation of addiction. It’s less that certain substances create uncontrollable cravings. Such destructive behavior is only possible and probable when particular conditions are set in place. There already has to be breakdown of relationships of trust and support. But rebuild those relationships and the addictive tendencies will lessen.

Similarly, there is nothing inevitable about William Gibson’s vision of the future or rather his predictions might be more based on patterns in our society than anything inherent to the technology itself. We retain the choice and responsibility to create the world we want or, failing that, to fall into self-fulfilling prophecies.

The question is what is the likelihood of our acting with conscious intention and wise forethought. All in all, self-fulfilling prophecy appears to be the most probable outcome. It is easy to be cynical, considering the track record of the present superpower that dominates the world and the present big biz corporatism that dominates the economy. Still, I hold out for the chance that conditions could shift for various reasons, altering what otherwise could be taken as near inevitable.

* * *

Fear of the new - a techno panic timeline

11 Examples of Fear and Suspicion of New Technology
by Len Wilson

New communications technologies don’t come with user’s manuals. They are primitive, while old tech is refined. So critics attack. The critic’s job is easier than the practitioner’s: they score with the fearful by comparing the infancy of the new medium with the perfected medium it threatens. But of course, the practitioner wins. In the end, we always assimilate to the new technology.

“Writing is a step backward for truth.”
~Plato, c. 370 BC

“Printed book will never be the equivalent of handwritten codices.”
~Trithemius of Sponheim, 1492

“The horrible mass of books that keeps growing might lead to a fall back into barbarism..”
~Gottfried Wilhelm, 1680

“Few students will study Homer or Virgil when they can read Tom Jones or a thousand inferior or more dangerous novels.”
~Rev. Vicemius Know, 1778

“The most powerful of ignorance’s weapons is the dissemination of printed matter.”
~Count Leo Tolstoy, 1869

“We will soon be nothing but transparent heaps of jelly to each other.”
~New York Times 1877 Editorial, on the advent of the telephone

“[The telegraph is] a constant diffusion of statements in snippets.”
~Spectator Magazine, 1889

“Have I done the world good, or have I added a menace?”
~Guglielmo Marconi, inventor of radio, 1920

“The cinema is little more than a fad. It’s canned drama. What audiences really want to see is flesh and blood on the stage.”
~Charlie Chaplin, 1916

“There is a world market for about five computer.”
~Thomas J. Watson, IBM Chairman and CEO, 1943

“Television won’t be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.”
~Daryl Zanuck, 20th Century Fox CEO, 1946

Moral Panics Over Youth Culture and Video Games
by Kenneth A. Gagne

Several decades of the past century have been marked by forms of entertainment that were not available to the previous generation. The comic books of the Forties and Fifties, rock ‘n roll music of the Fifties, Dungeons & Dragons in the Seventies and Eighties, and video games of the Eighties and Nineties were each part of the popular culture of that era’s young people. Each of these entertainment forms, which is each a medium unto itself, have also fallen under public scrutiny, as witnessed in journalistic media such as newspapers and journals – thus creating a “moral panic.”

The Smartphone’s Impact is Nothing New
by Rabbi Jack Abramowitz

Any invention that we see as a benefit to society was once an upstart disruption to the status quo. Television was terrible because when listened to the radio, we used our imaginations instead of being spoon-fed. Radio was terrible because families used to sit around telling stories. Moveable type was terrible because if books become available to the masses, the lower classes will become educated beyond their level. Here’s a newsflash: Socrates objected to writing! In The Phaedrus (by his disciple Plato), Socrates argues that “this discovery…will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. … (Y)ou give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”

When the Internet and the smartphone evolved, society did what we always do: we adapted. Every new technology has this effect. Do you know why songs on the radio are about 3½ minutes long? Because that’s what a 45-rpm record would hold. Despite the threat some perceived in this radical format, we adapted. (As it turns out, 45s are now a thing of the past but the pop song endures. Turns out we like 3½-minute songs!)

What parallels do you see between the invention of the internet – the ‘semantic web’ and the invention of the printing press?
answer by Howard Doughty

Technology, and especially the technology of communication, has tremendous consequences for human relations – social, economic and political.

Socrates raged against the written word, insisting that it was the end of philosophy which, in his view, required two or more people in direct conversation. Anything else, such as a text, was at least one step removed from the real thing and, like music and poetry which he also despised, represented a pale imitation (or bastardization) of authentic life. (Thank goodness Plato wrote it all down.)

From an oral to a written society was one thing, but as Marshall McLuhan so eruditely explained in his book, The Gutenberg Galaxy, the printing press altered fundamantal cultural patterns again – making reading matter more easily available and, in the process, enabling the Protestant Reformation and its emphasis on isolated individual interpretations of whatever people imagined their god to be.

In time, the telegraph and the telephone began the destruction of space, time and letter writing, making it possible to have disembodied conversations over thousands of miles.

Don’t Touch That Dial!
by Vaughan Bell

A respected Swiss scientist, Conrad Gessner, might have been the first to raise the alarm about the effects of information overload. In a landmark book, he described how the modern world overwhelmed people with data and that this overabundance was both “confusing and harmful” to the mind. The media now echo his concerns with reports on the unprecedented risks of living in an “always on” digital environment. It’s worth noting that Gessner, for his part, never once used e-mail and was completely ignorant about computers. That’s not because he was a technophobe but because he died in 1565. His warnings referred to the seemingly unmanageable flood of information unleashed by the printing press.

Worries about information overload are as old as information itself, with each generation reimagining the dangerous impacts of technology on mind and brain. From a historical perspective, what strikes home is not the evolution of these social concerns, but their similarity from one century to the next, to the point where they arrive anew with little having changed except the label.

 These concerns stretch back to the birth of literacy itself. In parallel with modern concerns about children’s overuse of technology, Socrates famously warned against writing because it would “create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories.” He also advised that children can’t distinguish fantasy from reality, so parents should only allow them to hear wholesome allegories and not “improper” tales, lest their development go astray. The Socratic warning has been repeated many times since: The older generation warns against a new technology and bemoans that society is abandoning the “wholesome” media it grew up with, seemingly unaware that this same technology was considered to be harmful when first introduced.

Gessner’s anxieties over psychological strain arose when he set about the task of compiling an index of every available book in the 16th century, eventually published as the Bibliotheca universalis. Similar concerns arose in the 18th century, when newspapers became more common. The French statesman Malesherbes railed against the fashion for getting news from the printed page, arguing that it socially isolated readers and detracted from the spiritually uplifting group practice of getting news from the pulpit. A hundred years later, as literacy became essential and schools were widely introduced, the curmudgeons turned against education for being unnatural and a risk to mental health. An 1883 article in the weekly medical journal the Sanitarian argued that schools “exhaust the children’s brains and nervous systems with complex and multiple studies, and ruin their bodies by protracted imprisonment.” Meanwhile, excessive study was considered a leading cause of madness by the medical community.

When radio arrived, we discovered yet another scourge of the young: The wireless was accused of distracting children from reading and diminishing performance in school, both of which were now considered to be appropriate and wholesome. In 1936, the music magazine the Gramophone reported that children had “developed the habit of dividing attention between the humdrum preparation of their school assignments and the compelling excitement of the loudspeaker” and described how the radio programs were disturbing the balance of their excitable minds. The television caused widespread concern as well: Media historian Ellen Wartella has noted how “opponents voiced concerns about how television might hurt radio, conversation, reading, and the patterns of family living and result in the further vulgarization of American culture.”

Demonized Smartphones Are Just Our Latest Technological Scapegoat
by Zachary Karabell

AS IF THERE wasn’t enough angst in the world, what with the Washington soap opera, #MeToo, false nuclear alerts, and a general sense of apprehension, now we also have a growing sense of alarm about how smartphones and their applications are impacting children.

In the past days alone, The Wall Street Journal ran a long story about the “parents’ dilemma” of when to give kids a smartphone, citing tales of addiction, attention deficit disorder, social isolation, and general malaise. Said one parent, “It feels a little like trying to teach your kid how to use cocaine, but in a balanced way.” The New York Times ran a lead article in its business section titled “It’s Time for Apple to Build a Less Addictive iPhone,” echoing a rising chorus in Silicon Valley about designing products and programs that are purposely less addictive.

All of which begs the question: Are these new technologies, which are still in their infancy, harming a rising generation and eroding some basic human fabric? Is today’s concern about smartphones any different than other generations’ anxieties about new technology? Do we know enough to make any conclusions?

Alarm at the corrosive effects of new technologies is not new. Rather, it is deeply rooted in our history. In ancient Greece, Socrates cautioned that writing would undermine the ability of children and then adults to commit things to memory. The advent of the printing press in the 15th century led Church authorities to caution that the written word might undermine the Church’s ability to lead (which it did) and that rigor and knowledge would vanish once manuscripts no longer needed to be copied manually.

Now, consider this question: “Does the telephone make men more active or more lazy? Does [it] break up home life and the old practice of visiting friends?” Topical, right? In fact, it’s from a 1926 survey by the Knights of Columbus about old-fashioned landlines.

 The pattern of technophobia recurred with the gramophone, the telegraph, the radio, and television. The trope that the printing press would lead to loss of memory is very much the same as the belief that the internet is destroying our ability to remember. The 1950s saw reports about children glued to screens, becoming more “aggressive and irritable as a result of over-stimulating experiences, which leads to sleepless nights and tired days.” Those screens, of course, were televisions.

Then came fears that rock-n-roll in the 1950s and 1960s would fray the bonds of family and undermine the ability of young boys and girls to become productive members of society. And warnings in the 2000s that videogames such as Grand Theft Auto would, in the words of then-Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, “steal the innocence of our children, … making the difficult job of being a parent even harder.”

Just because these themes have played out benignly time and again does not, of course, mean that all will turn out fine this time. Information technologies from the printed book onward have transformed societies and upended pre-existing mores and social order.

Protruding Breasts! Acidic Pulp! #*@&!$% Senators! McCarthyism! Commies! Crime! And Punishment!
by R.C. Baker

In his medical practice, Wertham saw some hard cases—juvenile muggers, murderers, rapists. In Seduction, he begins with a gardening metaphor for the relationship between children and society: “If a plant fails to grow properly because attacked by a pest, only a poor gardener would look for the cause in that plant alone.” He then observes, “To send a child to a reformatory is a serious step. But many children’s-court judges do it with a light heart and a heavy calendar.” Wertham advocated a holistic approach to juvenile delinquency, but then attacked comic books as its major cause. “All comics with their words and expletives in balloons are bad for reading.” “What is the social meaning of these supermen, super women … super-ducks, super-mice, super-magicians, super-safecrackers? How did Nietzsche get into the nursery?” And although the superhero, Western, and romance comics were easily distinguishable from the crime and horror genres that emerged in the late 1940s, Wertham viewed all comics as police blotters. “[Children] know a crime comic when they see one, whatever the disguise”; Wonder Woman is a “crime comic which we have found to be one of the most harmful”; “Western comics are mostly just crime comic books in a Western setting”; “children have received a false concept of ‘love’ … they lump together ‘love, murder, and robbery.’” Some crimes are said to directly imitate scenes from comics. Many are guilty by association—millions of children read comics, ergo, criminal children are likely to have read comics. When listing brutalities, Wertham throws in such asides as, “Incidentally, I have seen children vomit over comic books.” Such anecdotes illuminate a pattern of observation without sourcing that becomes increasingly irritating. “There are quite a number of obscure stores where children congregate, often in back rooms, to read and buy secondhand comic books … in some parts of cities, men hang around these stores which sometimes are foci of childhood prostitution. Evidently comic books prepare the little girls well.” Are these stores located in New York? Chicago? Sheboygan? Wertham leaves us in the dark. He also claimed that powerful forces were arrayed against him because the sheer number of comic books was essential to the health of the pulp-paper manufacturers, forcing him on a “Don Quixotic enterprise … fighting not windmills, but paper mills.”

When Pac-Man Started a National “Media Panic”
by Michael Z. Newman

This moment in the history of pop culture and technology might have seemed unprecedented, as computerized gadgets were just becoming part of the fabric of everyday life in the early ‘80s. But we can recognize it as one in a predictable series of overheated reactions to new media that go back all the way to the invention of writing (which ancients thought would spell the end of memory). There is a particularly American tradition of becoming enthralled with new technologies of communication, identifying their promise of future prosperity and renewed community. It is matched by a related American tradition of freaking out about the same objects, which are also figured as threats to life as we know it.

The emergence of the railroad and the telegraph in the 19th century and of novel 20th century technologies like the telephone, radio, cinema, television, and the internet were all similarly greeted by a familiar mix of high hopes and dark fears. In Walden, published in 1854, Henry David Thoreau warned that, “we do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us.” Technologies of both centuries were imagined to unite to unite a vast and dispersed nation and edify citizens, but they also were suspected of trivializing daily affairs, weakening local bonds, and worse yet, exposing vulnerable children to threats and hindering their development into responsible adults.

These expressions are often a species of moral outrage known as media panic, a reaction of adults to the perceived dangers of an emerging culture popular with children, which the parental generation finds unfamiliar and threatening. Media panics recur in a dubious cycle of lathering outrage, with grownups seeming not to realize that the same excessive alarmism has arisen in every generation. Eighteenth and 19th century novels might have caused confusion to young women about the difference between fantasy and reality, and excited their passions too much. In the 1950s, rock and roll was “the devil’s music,” feared for inspiring lust and youthful rebellion, and encouraging racial mixing. Dime novels, comic books, and camera phones have all been objects of frenzied worry about “the kids these days.”

The popularity of video games in the ‘80s prompted educators, psychotherapists, local government officeholders, and media commentators to warn that young players were likely to suffer serious negative effects. The games would influence their aficionados in the all the wrong ways. They would harm children’s eyes and might cause “Space Invaders Wrist” and other physical ailments. Like television, they would be addictive, like a drug. Games would inculcate violence and aggression in impressionable youngsters. Their players would do badly in school and become isolated and desensitized. A reader wrote to The New York Times to complain that video games were “cultivating a generation of mindless, ill-tempered adolescents.”

The arcades where many teenagers preferred to play video games were imagined as dens of vice, of illicit trade in drugs and sex. Kids who went to play Tempest or Donkey Kong might end up seduced by the lowlifes assumed to hang out in arcades, spiraling into lives of substance abuse, sexual depravity, and crime. Children hooked on video games might steal to feed their habit. Reports at the time claimed that video kids had vandalized cigarette machines, pocketing the quarters and leaving behind the nickels and dimes. […]

Somehow, a generation of teenagers from the 1980s managed to grow up despite the dangers, real or imagined, from video games. The new technology could not have been as powerful as its detractors or its champions imagined. It’s easy to be captivated by novelty, but it can force us to miss the cyclical nature of youth media obsessions. Every generation fastens onto something that its parents find strange, whether Elvis or Atari. In every moment in media history, intergenerational tension accompanies the emergence of new forms of culture and communication. Now we have sexting, cyberbullying, and smartphone addiction to panic about.

But while the gadgets keep changing, our ideas about youth and technology, and our concerns about young people’s development in an uncertain and ever-changing modern world, endure.

Why calling screen time ‘digital heroin’ is digital garbage
by Rachel Becker

The supposed danger of digital media made headlines over the weekend when psychotherapist Nicholas Kardaras published a story in the New York Post called “It’s ‘digital heroin’: How screens turn kids into psychotic junkies.” In the op-ed, Kardaras claims that “iPads, smartphones and XBoxes are a form of digital drug.” He stokes fears about the potential for addiction and the ubiquity of technology by referencing “hundreds of clinical studies” that show “screens increase depression, anxiety and aggression.”
We’ve seen this form of scaremongering before. People are frequently uneasy with new technology, after all. The problem is, screens and computers aren’t actually all that new. There’s already a whole generation — millennials — who grew up with computers. They appear, mostly, to be fine, selfies aside. If computers were “digital drugs,” wouldn’t we have already seen warning signs?

No matter. Kardaras opens with a little boy who was so hooked on Minecraft that his mom found him in his room in the middle of the night, in a “catatonic stupor” — his iPad lying next to him. This is an astonishing use of “catatonic,” and is almost certainly not medically correct. It’s meant to scare parents.

by Alison Gopnik

My own childhood was dominated by a powerful device that used an optical interface to transport the user to an alternate reality. I spent most of my waking hours in its grip, oblivious of the world around me. The device was, of course, the book. Over time, reading hijacked my brain, as large areas once dedicated to processing the “real” world adapted to processing the printed word. As far as I can tell, this early immersion didn’t hamper my development, but it did leave me with some illusions—my idea of romantic love surely came from novels.
English children’s books, in particular, are full of tantalizing food descriptions. At some point in my childhood, I must have read about a honeycomb tea. Augie, enchanted, agreed to accompany me to the grocery store. We returned with a jar of honeycomb, only to find that it was an inedible, waxy mess.

Many parents worry that “screen time” will impair children’s development, but recent research suggests that most of the common fears about children and screens are unfounded. (There is one exception: looking at screens that emit blue light before bed really does disrupt sleep, in people of all ages.) The American Academy of Pediatrics used to recommend strict restrictions on screen exposure. Last year, the organization examined the relevant science more thoroughly, and, as a result, changed its recommendations. The new guidelines emphasize that what matters is content and context, what children watch and with whom. Each child, after all, will have some hundred thousand hours of conscious experience before turning sixteen. Those hours can be like the marvellous ones that Augie and I spent together bee-watching, or they can be violent or mindless—and that’s true whether those hours are occupied by apps or TV or books or just by talk.

New tools have always led to panicky speculation. Socrates thought that reading and writing would have disastrous effects on memory; the novel, the telegraph, the telephone, and the television were all declared to be the End of Civilization as We Know It, particularly in the hands of the young. Part of the reason may be that adult brains require a lot of focus and effort to learn something new, while children’s brains are designed to master new environments spontaneously. Innovative technologies always seem distracting and disturbing to the adults attempting to master them, and transparent and obvious—not really technology at all—to those, like Augie, who encounter them as children.

The misguided moral panic over Slender Man
by Adam Possamai

Sociologists argue that rather than simply being created stories, urban legends represent the fear and anxieties of current time, and in this instance, the internet culture is offering a global and a more participatory platform in the story creation process.

New technology is also allowing urban legends to be transmitted at a faster pace than before the invention of the printing press, and giving more people the opportunity to shape folk stories that blur the line between fiction and reality. Commonly, these stories take a life of their own and become completely independent from what the original creator wanted to achieve.

Yet if we were to listen to social commentary this change in the story creation process is opening the door to deviant acts.

Last century, people were already anxious about children accessing VHS and Betamax tapes and being exposed to violence and immorality. We are now likely to face a similar moral panic with regards to the internet.

Sleepwalking Through Our Dreams

In The Secret Life of Puppets, Victoria Nelson makes some useful observations of reading addiction, specifically in terms of formulaic genres. She discusses Sigmund Freud’s repetition compulsion and Lenore Terr’s post-traumatic games. She sees genre reading as a ritual-like enactment that can’t lead to resolution, and so the addictive behavior becomes entrenched. This would apply to many other forms of entertainment and consumption. And it fits into Derrick Jensen’s discussion of abuse, trauma, and the victimization cycle.

I would broaden her argument in another way. People have feared the written text ever since it was invented. In the 18th century, there took hold a moral panic about reading addiction in general and that was before any fiction genres had developed (Frank Furedi, The Media’s First Moral Panic). The written word is unchanging and so creates the conditions for repetition compulsion. Every time a text is read, it is the exact same text.

That is far different from oral societies. And it is quite telling that oral societies have a much more fluid sense of self. The Piraha, for example, don’t cling to their sense of self nor that of others. When a Piraha individual is possessed by a spirit or meets a spirit who gives them a new name, the self that was there is no longer there. When asked where is that person, the Piraha will say that he or she isn’t there, even if the same body of the individual is standing right there in front of them. They also don’t have a storytelling tradition or concern for the past.

Another thing that the Piraha apparently lack is mental illness, specifically depression along with suicidal tendencies. According to Barbara Ehrenreich from Dancing in the Streets, there wasn’t much written about depression even in the Western world until the suppression of religious and public festivities, such as Carnival. One of the most important aspects of Carnival and similar festivities was the masking, shifting, and reversal of social identities. Along with this, there was the losing of individuality within the group. And during the Middle Ages, an amazing number of days in the year were dedicated to communal celebrations. The ending of this era coincided with numerous societal changes, including the increase of literacy with the spread of the movable type printing press.

The Media’s First Moral Panic
by Frank Furedi

When cultural commentators lament the decline of the habit of reading books, it is difficult to imagine that back in the 18th century many prominent voices were concerned about the threat posed by people reading too much. A dangerous disease appeared to afflict the young, which some diagnosed as reading addiction and others as reading rage, reading fever, reading mania or reading lust. Throughout Europe reports circulated about the outbreak of what was described as an epidemic of reading. The behaviours associated with this supposedly insidious contagion were sensation-seeking and morally dissolute and promiscuous behaviour. Even acts of self-destruction were associated with this new craze for the reading of novels.

What some described as a craze was actually a rise in the 18th century of an ideal: the ‘love of reading’. The emergence of this new phenomenon was largely due to the growing popularity of a new literary genre: the novel. The emergence of commercial publishing in the 18th century and the growth of an ever-widening constituency of readers was not welcomed by everyone. Many cultural commentators were apprehensive about the impact of this new medium on individual behaviour and on society’s moral order.

With the growing popularity of novel reading, the age of the mass media had arrived. Novels such as Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740) and Rousseau’s Julie, or the New Heloise (1761) became literary sensations that gripped the imagination of their European readers. What was described as ‘Pamela-fever’ indicated the powerful influence novels could exercise on the imagination of the reading public. Public deliberation on these ‘fevers’ focused on what was a potentially dangerous development, which was the forging of an intense and intimate interaction between the reader and literary characters. The consensus that emerged was that unrestrained exposure to fiction led readers to lose touch with reality and identify with the novel’s romantic characters to the point of adopting their behaviour. The passionate enthusiasm with which European youth responded to the publication of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) appeared to confirm this consensus. […]

What our exploration of the narrative of Werther fever suggests is that it acquired a life of its own to the point that it mutated into a taken-for-granted rhetorical idiom, which accounted for the moral problems facing society. Warnings about an epidemic of suicide said more about the anxieties of their authors than the behaviour of the readers of the novels. An inspection of the literature circulating these warnings indicates a striking absence of empirical evidence. The constant allusion to Miss. G., to nameless victims and to similarly framed death scenes suggests that these reports had little factual content to draw on. Stories about an epidemic of suicide were as fictional as the demise of Werther in Goethe’s novel.

It is, however, likely that readers of Werther were influenced by the controversy surrounding the novel. Goethe himself was affected by it and in his autobiography lamented that so many of his readers felt called upon to ‘re-enact the novel, and possibly shoot themselves’. Yet, despite the sanctimonious scaremongering, it continued to attract a large readership. While there is no evidence that Werther was responsible for the promotion of a wave of copycat suicides, it evidently succeeded in inspiring a generation of young readers. The emergence of what today would be described as a cult of fans with some of the trappings of a youth subculture is testimony to the novel’s powerful appeal.

The association of the novel with the disorganisation of the moral order represented an early example of a media panic. The formidable, sensational and often improbable effects attributed to the consequences of reading in the 18th century provided the cultural resources on which subsequent reactions to the cinema, television or the Internet would draw on. In that sense Werther fever anticipated the media panics of the future.

Curiously, the passage of time has not entirely undermined the association of Werther fever with an epidemic of suicide. In 1974 the American sociologist Dave Phillips coined the term, the ‘Werther Effect’ to describe mediastimulated imitation of suicidal behaviour. But the durability of the Werther myth notwithstanding, contemporary media panics are rarely focused on novels. In the 21st century the simplistic cause and effect model of the ‘Werther Effect is more likely to be expressed through moral anxieties about the danger of cybersuicide, copycat online suicide.

The Better Angels of Our Nature
by Steven Pinker
Kindle Locations 13125-13143
(see To Imagine and Understand)

It would be surprising if fictional experiences didn’t have similar effects to real ones, because people often blur the two in their memories. 65 And a few experiments do suggest that fiction can expand sympathy. One of Batson’s radio-show experiments included an interview with a heroin addict who the students had been told was either a real person or an actor. 66 The listeners who were asked to take his point of view became more sympathetic to heroin addicts in general, even when the speaker was fictitious (though the increase was greater when they thought he was real). And in the hands of a skilled narrator, a fictitious victim can elicit even more sympathy than a real one. In his book The Moral Laboratory, the literary scholar Jèmeljan Hakemulder reports experiments in which participants read similar facts about the plight of Algerian women through the eyes of the protagonist in Malike Mokkeddem’s novel The Displaced or from Jan Goodwin’s nonfiction exposé Price of Honor. 67 The participants who read the novel became more sympathetic to Algerian women than those who read the true-life account; they were less likely, for example, to blow off the women’s predicament as a part of their cultural and religious heritage. These experiments give us some reason to believe that the chronology of the Humanitarian Revolution, in which popular novels preceded historical reform, may not have been entirely coincidental: exercises in perspective-taking do help to expand people’s circle of sympathy.

The science of empathy has shown that sympathy can promote genuine altruism, and that it can be extended to new classes of people when a beholder takes the perspective of a member of that class, even a fictitious one. The research gives teeth to the speculation that humanitarian reforms are driven in part by an enhanced sensitivity to the experiences of living things and a genuine desire to relieve their suffering. And as such, the cognitive process of perspective-taking and the emotion of sympathy must figure in the explanation for many historical reductions in violence. They include institutionalized violence such as cruel punishments, slavery, and frivolous executions; the everyday abuse of vulnerable populations such as women, children, homosexuals, racial minorities, and animals; and the waging of wars, conquests, and ethnic cleansings with a callousness to their human costs.

Innocent Weapons:
The Soviet and American Politics of Childhood in the Cold War

by Margaret E. Peacock
pp. 88-89

As a part of their concern over American materialism, politicians and members of the American public turned their attention to the rising influence of media and popular culture upon the next generation.69 Concerns over uncontrolled media were not new in the United States in the 1950s. They had a way of erupting whenever popular culture underwent changes that seemed to differentiate the generations. This was the case during the silent film craze of the 1920s and when the popularity of dime novels took off in the 1930s.70 Yet, for many in the postwar era, the press, the radio, and the television presented threats to children that the country had never seen before. As members of Congress from across the political spectrum would argue throughout the 1950s, the media had the potential to present a negative image of the United States abroad, and it ran the risk of corrupting the minds of the young at a time when shoring up national patriotism and maintaining domestic order were more important than ever. The impact of media on children was the subject of Fredric Wertham’s 1953 best-selling book Seduction of the Innocent, in which he chronicled his efforts over the course of three years to “trace some of the roots of the modern mass delinquency.”71 Wertham’s sensationalist book documented case after case of child delinquents who seemed to be mimicking actions that they had seen on the television or, in particular, in comic strips. Horror comics, which were popular from 1948 until 1954, showed images of children killing their parents and peers, sometimes in gruesome ways—framing them for murder—being cunning and devious, even cannibalistic. A commonly cited story was that of “Bloody Mary,” published by Farrell Comics, which told the story of a seven-year-old girl who strangles her mother, sends her father to the electric chair for the murder, and then kills a psychiatrist who has learned that the girl committed these murders and that she is actually a dwarf in disguise.72 Wertham’s crusade against horror comics was quickly joined by two Senate subcommittees in 1954, at the heads of which sat Estes Kefauver and Robert Hendrickson. They argued to their colleagues that the violence and destruction of the family in these comic books symbolized “a terrible twilight zone between sanity and madness.”73 They contended that children found in these comic books violent models of behavior and that they would otherwise be law abiding. J. Edgar Hoover chimed in to comment that “a comic which makes lawlessness attractive . . . may influence the susceptible boy or girl.”74

Such depictions carried two layers of threat. First, as Wertham, Hoover, and Kefauver argued, they reflected the seeming potential of modern media to transform “average” children into delinquents.75 Alex Drier, popular NBC newscaster, argued in May 1954 that “this continuous flow of filth [is] so corruptive in its effects that it has actually obliterated decent instincts in many of our children.”76 Yet perhaps more telling, the comics, as well as the heated response that they elicited, also reflected larger anxieties about what identities children should assume in contemporary America. As in the case of Bloody Mary, these comics presented an image of apparently sweet youths who were in fact driven by violent impulses and were not children at all. “How can we expose our children to this and then expect them to run the country when we are gone?” an agitated Hendrickson asked his colleagues in 1954.77 Bloody Mary, like the uneducated dolts of the Litchfield report and the spoiled boys of Wylie’s conjuring, presented an alternative identity for American youth that seemed to embody a new and dangerous future.

In the early months of 1954, Robert Hendrickson argued to his colleagues that “the strained international and domestic situation makes it impossible for young people of today to look forward with certainty to higher education, to entering a trade or business, to plans for marriage, a home, and family. . . . Neither the media, nor modern consumerism, nor the threat from outside our borders creates a problem child. But they do add to insecurity, to loneliness, to fear.”78 For Hendrickson these domestic trends, along with what he called “deficient adults,” seemed to have created a new population of troubled and victimized children who were “beyond the pale of our society.”79

The End of Victory Culture:
Cold War America and the Disillusioning of a Generation

by Tom Engelhardt
Kindle Locations 2872-2910

WORRY, BORDERING ON HYSTERIA, about the endangering behaviors of “youth” has had a long history in America, as has the desire of reformers and censors to save “innocent” children from the polluting effects of commercial culture. At the turn of the century, when middle-class white adolescents first began to take their place as leisure-time trendsetters, fears arose that the syncopated beat of popular “coon songs” and ragtime music would demonically possess young listeners, who might succumb to the “evils of the Negro soul.” Similarly, on-screen images of crime, sensuality, and violence in the earliest movies, showing in “nickel houses” run by a “horde of foreigners,” were decried by reformers. They were not just “unfit for children’s eyes,” but a “disease” especially virulent to young (and poor) Americans, who were assumed to lack all immunity to such spectacles. 1 […]

To many adults, a teen culture beyond parental oversight had a remarkably alien look to it. In venues ranging from the press to Senate committees, from the American Psychiatric Association to American Legion meetings, sensational and cartoonlike horror stories about the young or the cultural products they were absorbing were told. Tabloid newspaper headlines reflected this: “Two Teen Thrill Killings Climax City Park Orgies. Teen Age Killers Pose a Mystery— Why Did They Do It?… 22 Juveniles Held in Gang War. Teen Age Mob Rips up BMT Train. Congressmen Stoned, Cops Hunt Teen Gang.” After a visit to the movies in 1957 to watch two “teenpics,” Rock All Night and Dragstrip Girl, Ruth Thomas of Newport, Rhode Island’s Citizen’s Committee on Literature expressed her shock in words at least as lurid as those of any tabloid: “Isn’t it a form of brain-washing? Brain-washing the minds of the people and especially the youth of our nation in filth and sadistic violence. What enemy technique could better lower patriotism and national morale than the constant presentation of crime and horror both as news and recreation.” 3

You did not have to be a censor, a right-wing anti-Communist, or a member of the Catholic Church’s Legion of Decency, however, to hold such views. Dr. Frederick Wertham, a liberal psychiatrist, who testified in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education desegregation case and set up one of the first psychiatric clinics in Harlem, publicized the idea that children viewing commercially produced acts of violence and depravity, particularly in comic books, could be transformed into little monsters. The lurid title of his best-selling book, Seduction of the Innocent, an assault on comic books as “primers for crime,” told it all. In it, Dr. Wertham offered copious “horror stories” that read like material from Tales from the Crypt: “Three boys, six to eight years old, took a boy of seven, hanged him nude from a tree, his hands tied behind him, then burned him with matches. Probation officers investigating found that they were re-enacting a comic-book plot.… A boy of thirteen committed a lust murder of a girl of six. After his arrest, in jail, he asked for comicbooks” 4

Kindle Locations 2927-2937

The two— hood and performer, lower-class white and taboo black— merged in the “pelvis” of a Southern “greaser” who dressed like a delinquent, used “one of black America’s favorite products, Royal Crown Pomade hair grease” (meant to give hair a “whiter” look), and proceeded to move and sing “like a negro.” Whether it was because they saw a white youth in blackface or a black youth in whiteface, much of the media grew apoplectic and many white parents alarmed. In the meantime, swiveling his hips and playing suggestively with the microphone, Elvis Presley broke into the lives of millions of teens in 1956, bringing with him an element of disorder and sexuality associated with darkness. 6†

The second set of postwar fears involved the “freedom” of the commercial media— record and comic book companies, radio stations, the movies, and television— to concretize both the fantasies of the young and the nightmarish fears of grown-ups into potent products. For many adults, this was abundance as betrayal, the good life not as a vision of Eden but as an unexpected horror story.

Kindle Locations 2952-2979

Take comic books. Even before the end of World War II, a new kind of content was creeping into them as they became the reading matter of choice for the soldier-adolescent. […] Within a few years, “crime” comics like Crime Does Not Pay emerged from the shadows, displaying a wide variety of criminal acts for the delectation of young readers. These were followed by horror and science fiction comics, purchased in enormous numbers. By 1953, more than 150 horror comics were being produced monthly, featuring acts of torture often of an implicitly sexual nature, murders and decapitations of various bloody sorts, visions of rotting flesh, and so on. 9

Miniature catalogs of atrocities, their feel was distinctly assaultive. In their particular version of the spectacle of slaughter, they targeted the American family, the good life, and revered institutions. Framed by sardonic detective narrators or mocking Grand Guignol gatekeepers, their impact was deconstructive. Driven by a commercial “hysteria” as they competed to attract buyers with increasingly atrocity-ridden covers and stories, they both partook of and mocked the hysteria about them. Unlike radio or television producers, the small publishers of the comic book business were neither advertiser driven nor corporately controlled.

Unlike the movies, comics were subject to no code. Unlike the television networks, comics companies had no Standards and Practices departments. No censoring presence stood between them and whoever would hand over a dime at a local newsstand. Their penny-ante ads and pathetic pay scale ensured that writing and illustrating them would be a job for young men in their twenties (or even teens). Other than early rock and roll, comics were the only cultural form of the period largely created by the young for those only slightly younger. In them, uncensored, can be detected the dismantling voice of a generation that had seen in the world war horrors beyond measure.

The hysterical tone of the response to these comics was remarkable. Comics publishers were denounced for conspiring to create a delinquent nation. Across the country, there were publicized comic book burnings like one in Binghamton, New York, where 500 students were dismissed from school early in order to torch 2,000 comics and magazines. Municipalities passed ordinances prohibiting the sale of comics, and thirteen states passed legislation to control their publication, distribution, or sale. Newspapers and magazines attacked the comics industry. The Hartford Courant decried “the filthy stream that flows from the gold-plated sewers of New York.” In April 1954, the Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency convened in New York to look into links between comics and teen crime. 10

Kindle Locations 3209-3238

If sponsors and programmers recognized the child as an independent taste center, the sight of children glued to the TV, reveling in their own private communion with the promise of America, proved unsettling to some adults. The struggle to control the set, the seemingly trancelike quality of TV time, the soaring number of hours spent watching, could leave a parent feeling challenged by some hard-to-define force released into the home under the aegis of abundance, and the watching child could gain the look of possession, emptiness, or zombification.

Fears of TV’s deleterious effects on the child were soon widespread. The medical community even discovered appropriate new childhood illnesses. There was “TV squint” or eyestrain, “TV bottom,” “bad feet” (from TV-induced inactivity), “frogitis” (from a viewing position that put too much strain on inner-leg ligaments), “TV tummy” (from TV-induced overexcitement), “TV jaw” or “television malocclusion” (from watching while resting on one’s knuckles, said to force the eyeteeth inward), and “tired child syndrome” (chronic fatigue, loss of appetite, headaches, and vomiting induced by excessive viewing).

However, television’s threat to the child was more commonly imagined to lie in the “violence” of its programming. Access to this “violence” and the sheer number of hours spent in front of the set made the idea that this new invention was acting in loco parentis seem chilling to some; and it was true that via westerns, crime shows, war and spy dramas, and Cold War-inspired cartoons TV was indiscriminately mixing a tamed version of the war story with invasive Cold War fears. Now, children could endlessly experience the thrill of being behind the barrel of a gun. Whether through the Atom Squad’s three government agents, Captain Midnight and his Secret Squadron, various FBI men, cowboys, or detectives, they could also encounter “an array of H-bomb scares, mad Red scientists, [and] plots to rule the world,” as well as an increasing level of murder and mayhem that extended from the six-gun frontier of the “adult” western to the blazing machine guns of the crime show. 30

Critics, educators, and worried parents soon began compiling TV body counts as if the statistics of victory were being turned on young Americans. “Frank Orme, an independent TV watchdog, made a study of Los Angeles television in 1952 and noted, in one week, 167 murders, 112 justifiable homicides, and 356 attempted murders. Two-thirds of all the violence he found occurred in children’s shows. In 1954, Orme said violence on kids’ shows had increased 400 percent since he made his first report.” PTAs organized against TV violence, and Senate hearings searched for links between TV programming and juvenile delinquency.

Such “violence,” though, was popular. In addition, competition for audiences among the three networks had the effect of ratcheting up the pressures for violence, just as it had among the producers of horror comics. At The Untouchables, a 1960 hit series in which Treasury agent Eliot Ness took on Chicago’s gangland (and weekly reached 5-8 million young viewers), ABC executives would push hard for more “action.” Producer Quinn Martin would then demand the same of his subordinates, “or we are all going to get clobbered.” In a memo to one of the show’s writers, he asked: “I wish you would come up with a different device than running the man down with a car, as we have done this now in three different shows. I like the idea of sadism, but I hope we can come up with another approach to it.” 31

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Juvenile Delinquents and Emasculated Males

I was reminded of an old post of mine where I discussed an unintentionally humorous bumper sticker: “Kids who hunt, fish, and trap don’t mug little old ladies.” The logic being used is rather odd, the former having little to do with the latter. It just makes me smile.

The fact of the matter is that few kids do any of those things. It’s true that most kids who hunt, fish, and trap don’t mug little old ladies. But then again, it’s likewise true that most kids who don’t hunt, fish, and trap also don’t mug little old ladies. Despite the paranoia of right-wing media, there isn’t a pandemic of juvenile delinquents taking advantage of the elderly.

The culture wars never die. In one form or another, they’ve been going on for a long time. The same kind of rhetoric can be found even centuries ago. It’s a powerful worldview, eliciting generational conflict. It seems that adults have always complained about kids being worse than they were before, as if the entirety of civilization has been a slow decline from a Golden Age when perfect children once were obedient little angels.

Seeing that post again, I remembered a book I read about a decade ago: Jackson Lear’s Rebirth of a Nation. The author explained the reason manliness and character building suddenly became an obsession around the turn of the century. It led to stocking rivers with game fish, the creation of the Boy Scouts, and greater emphasis put on team sports.

It was far from a new concern. It was built on the Jeffersonian views of agrarian democracy. Immediately following the revolution, it became a fear that the next generation of children needed to be carefully shaped into good citizens. The wholesome farm life was a major focus, especially among the ruling elite who worried about the unruly underclass. This worry grew over time. What exacerbated the fears over the following generations is that in the mid-to-late 1800s there was the beginnings of mass industrialization and urbanization, along with the commercialization of every aspect of life such as the emergence of a consumer economy and consumer culture. The consumer-citizen didn’t fit the heroic mould of old democratic-republican ideals of masculinity.

It relates to why Southerners worried about the end of slavery. It wasn’t just about blacks being free. It was a sign of the times, the end of the independent farmer and the rise of paid labor. Many worried that this would simply be a new form of slavery. How could a man be a man when he was as dependent as a child on another for his living?

This was a collective concern. And so society turned to collective answers. This contributed to the push for Prohibition and public schooling. It was a sense that boys and young men, in particular, had lost some essential element of character that once came natural to their agrarian ancestors. This new generation would have to be taught how to be real men by teaching them hunting, fishing, trapping, sports, etc.

* * *

Rebirth of a Nation:
The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920
By Jackson Lears
pp. 27-29

But for many other observers, too many American youths—especially among the upper classes—had succumbed to the vices of commerce: the worship of Mammon, the love of ease. Since the Founding Fathers’ generation, republican ideologues had fretted about the corrupting effects of commercial life. Norton and other moralists, North and South, had imagined war would provide an antidote. During the Gilded Age those fears acquired a peculiarly palpable intensity. The specter of “overcivilization”—invoked by republican orators since Jefferson’s time—developed a sharper focus: the figure of the overcivilized businessman became a stock figure in social criticism. Flabby, ineffectual, anxious, possibly even neurasthenic, he embodied bourgeois vulnerability to the new challenges posed by restive, angry workers and waves of strange new immigrants. “Is American Stamina Declining?” asked William Blaikie, a former Harvard athlete and author of How to Get Strong and Stay So, in Harper’s in 1889. Among white-collar “brain-workers,” legions of worried observers were asking similar questions. Throughout the country, metropolitan life for the comfortable classes was becoming a staid indoor affair. Blaikie caught the larger contours of the change:

“A hundred years ago, there was more done to make our men and women hale and vigorous than there is to-day. Over eighty per cent of all our men then were farming, hunting, or fishing, rising early, out all day in the pure, bracing air, giving many muscles very active work, eating wholesome food, retiring early, and so laying in a good stock of vitality and health. But now hardly forty per cent are farmers, and nearly all the rest are at callings—mercantile, mechanical, or professional—which do almost nothing to make one sturdy and enduring.”

This was the sort of anxiety that set men (and more than a few women) to pedaling about on bicycles, lifting weights, and in general pursuing fitness with unprecedented zeal. But for most Americans, fitness was not merely a matter of physical strength. What was equally essential was character, which they defined as adherence to Protestant morality. Body and soul would be saved together.

This was not a gender-neutral project. Since the antebellum era, purveyors of conventional wisdom had assigned respectable women a certain fragility. So the emerging sense of physical vulnerability was especially novel and threatening to men. Manliness, always an issue in Victorian culture, had by the 1880s become an obsession. Older elements of moral character continued to define the manly man, but a new emphasis on physical vitality began to assert itself as well. Concern about the over-soft socialization of the young promoted the popularity of college athletics. During the 1880s, waves of muscular Christianity began to wash over campuses.

A Generation to End All Generations

Steve Bannon is someone to be taken seriously. A while back, I quoted something he said that is quite telling when put in context. He declared that, “It will be as exciting as the 1930s.” Isn’t that a strange statement by a right-wing extremist. That statement has gone along with progressive rhetoric that Trump rode to power.

Bannon directed the documentary, “Generation Zero”, in 2009. It is a propaganda piece that was pushed by right-wing media. And unsurprisingly it blames the political left, along with some good ol’ fashion hippie punching and minority scapegoating. The documentary attempts to resurrect the culture wars for the purpose of somehow explaining the economic crash. Even so, it is based on an insightful, non-partisan generations theory that should be taken on its own terms. If you want to know the playbook Bannon is going by, you’d need to read The Fourth Turning by William Strauss and Neil Howe.

What the theory explains is that the last time we were at this same point in the cycle Franklin Delano Roosevelt came into power and entirely restructured the American economic and political system. And I’d note that this was accomplished with the use of a soft form of corporatism, most apparent in Californian big ag. This earlier corporatism kept its distance from the worst aspects of fascism. But with the living memory of World War II fascism fading, Bannon and Trump are a lot less wary about playing with fire.

Here is the documentary that puts a right-wing spin on Strauss and Howe’s theory:

I forgot that it was Bannon who made that documentary. I saw that when it came out. It didn’t get much attention at the time outside of right-wing media. My only interest in it was that it used Strauss and Howe’s generations theory which I’d been reading about since the late 1990s or early 2000s.

Largely unknown to the general public, Strauss and Howe’s work has been known by politicians for years. As I recall, Bill Clinton had positive things to say about the theory. You’d think he could have explained to Hillary why she should take it seriously because obviously she didn’t take it any more seriously than Obama.

For years, people speculated and warned about the possibility of those like Trump and Bannon using the theory as a playbook for gaining power. I guess it worked. I think Bannon is misreading the situation quite a bit, though. Or rather he is reading into it what he wants to believe.

He probably does have a good basic grasp of Strauss and Howe’s theory. And so I’m sure he understands where the country is right now. But his understanding of the reasons is most likely shallow, as is typical of the right-wing mind. He has a narrative in his head. The problem is reality doesn’t tend to conform nicely when humans try to project narratives onto it.

Ideological narratives can be dangerous, especially when we start believing our own bullshit. Some see Trump as non-ideological, as a new form of authoritarianism that doesn’t require those old forms of ideological justification, from fascism to communism. This theory proposes that we’ve entered a post-ideological era. That is naive. Trump may have a simplistic ideology of plutocracy, but no doubt it is an ideology. And Bannon for certain is playing an ideological game. In generations theory, he found the perfect frame for a political narrative.

Like Bannon, I years ago sensed the moment we were entering into. It was as if I could hear the clicking of gears. I barely could contain myself because I knew something entirely different was afoot. And it had nothing, absolutely nothing to do with Barack Obama. There were larger forces in society, like vast ocean currents. But I’ve never been one to so easily try to force my own narrative onto events. Unlike Bannon, I’m not seeking power. I have no desire to try to force reality to conform to my beliefs and ambitions. When it comes to theories such as this, I take them with a grain of salt. But I realized that, true or not, someone could take it as a plan of action and make it real.

Bannon is a man with a vision and with a mission. He will change America, if at all possible, or else maybe destroy it in the process. He is playing for keeps. With generations theory, he has a sledgehammer and he is going to whack everything in sight. This won’t be remembered as an era of ideological subtlety. The lies and propaganda, the spin and bullshit is going to come at us with the fury. Alternative facts is just the beginning of it. It will feel like we’ve entered an alternative reality.

“It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone.”

* * *

Trump, Bannon and the Coming Crisis
from Generational Theory Forum

Is Steve Bannon the Second Most Powerful Man in the World?
David Von Drehle

Donald Trump, Stephen Bannon and the Coming Crisis in American National Life
by David Kaiser

What’s Next for Steve Bannon and the Crisis in American Life
by David Kaiser

What Steve Bannon really wants
by Gwynn Guilford and Nikhil Sonnad

Bannon’s film blamed racial-bias law for financial collapse
by Ben Schreckinger

Steve Bannon film outline warned U.S. could turn into ‘Islamic States of America’
by Matea Gold

President Trump’s chief strategist believes America will face a ‘massive new war’
from The Week

Revealed: Steve Bannon ‘is obsessed with a book arguing institutions are destroyed and rebuilt every 80 years’
by Clemence Michallon

For haters only: watching Steve Bannon’s documentary films
by John Patterson

What I Learned Binge-Watching Steve Bannon’s Documentaries
by Adam Wren

You can learn a lot about Steve Bannon by watching the films he made
by Ann Hornaday

These Films That Steve Bannon Produced Are Terrifying
by Cate Carrejo

The Rightwing Documentary Producers Who Are Shaping Trump’s America
by Peter Hamilton

“That party could find itself out of power for a generation.”

What this election means will become more clear over time. The demographic data during the campaigns was interesting, indicating a voting public that was in flux with shifting patterns. It will be interesting to look at the data about who did (and did not) vote and how they voted.

The long term consequences might mean parties that no longer resemble anything from the past. The two parties might essentially switch places. Democrats could become the new big biz party, if the Clinton cronies maintain power. Meanwhile, Republicans might become the new working class party with strong union member support and an economic populist agenda.

Another possibility is that we might see the eventual death of one of the main parties. At the moment, Republicans could be in the more dangerous position. They have the numbers and power in Washington DC to do almost anything they want. They better pick their battles wisely and ensure they gain victories worth winning. They have one shot to show themselves to be a party of reform. If they fail, they could be facing a dire situation far beyond merely losing the mid-term elections.

In a book published in 1997, William Strauss and Neil Howe made a prediction. I read that book not long after that and so the prediction has been on my mind for a while. They wrote that whichever party was in power when the crisis hit “could find itself out of power for a generation.” They saw the beginning of the Fourth Turning as happening sometime early in this century and then in the years following would come the crisis, but this involves predictions of large historical cycles that could be off by a decade or so. Here is the full quote (The Fourth Turning, p. 312):

“Come the Fourth Turning, America will need both personal sacrifice and public authority. The saeculum will favor whichever party moves more quickly and persuasively toward a paradigm that accommodates both. Both parties should lend seasonality to their thinking: Democrats a concept of civic duty that limits the harvest, Republicans a concept of civic authority that limits the scattering. If they do not, the opportunity will arise for a third party to fill the void – after which one or both of today’s two dominant parties could go the way of the Whigs.

“History warns that when a Crisis catalyzes, a previously dominant political party (or regime) can find itself directly blamed for perceived “mistakes” that led to the national emergency. Whoever holds power when the Fourth Turning arrives could join the unlucky roster of the circa 1470 Lancastrians, circa 1570 Catholics, circa 1680 Stuarts, circa 1770 Tories, circa 1860 Democrats, and circa 1929 Republicans. That party could find itself out of power for a generation. Key persons associated with it could find themselves defamed, stigmatized, harassed, economically ruined, personally punished—or worse.”

Barack Obama’s presidency didn’t seem to fit this prediction, despite some fearing it would. He has retained his favorable ratings and nothing horrible went wrong during his administration. It’s just that he turned out to be an ordinary professional politician, but still he succeeded in creating healthcare (insurance) ‘reform’ and under his watch the US military took out Osama bin Laden who was America’s most hated enemy. Even the earlier Bush presidency is still remembered without too much negativity, as it was a time of growing patriotic fervor, even with it having ended on the sour note of the Great Recession.

Donald Trump, however, is an entirely different kind of creature. He will either take Republicans in a new direction or he will take them over a cliff. Upwards and onwards or down and out. It’s hard to see a third option of maintaining stasis. The problems that might come barreling down on the Trump administration could be more than can be handled, even if the Republicans had a worthy vision to offer and workable plans to implement.

Democrats are lucky for power having slipped from their grasp. Now that Clinton lost the election, her sins will slowly but surely disappear from public awareness. She might as well be a non-entity at this point. Anything that happens in the immediate future won’t be blamed on Democrats. They have been sent to wander in the political desert. Upon their return, they can act as prophets from the wilderness, pretending they were never a part of what caused all the problems in the first place.

Voters have short memories. It doesn’t matter who is to blame. What wins elections is who gets blamed. I almost feel sorry for Republicans in their victory. They have some tough years ahead of them. It could very well turn out to be a no-win situation, no matter what they try to do.

Even some on the political right have had these exact same concerns, based on the same prediction of Strauss and Howe. Back in March over at Red State, Ausonius wrote about “this ominous warning for Republicans, who think Trump is the answer for 2016”. The author continues:

“Since 1992, we have endured three Baby-Boomer presidents, a mediocrity, a passable one, and one complete disaster. We currently have two more Baby-Boomer candidates near 70 years of age, whose characters are less than savory, and whose ideas are stale, ridiculous, or formulas for destruction. It is quite possible that a Trump or H.R. Clinton presidency will not address the crisis, but will instead contribute to it by a combination of egotism, incompetence, and ideological blindness. […]

“Republicans could become 21st-century versions of their 1929 ancestors, if they select candidates – and not only for the presidency – incapable of dealing with the chaos around us. Our politicians, and certainly the president, must have a character derived from virtues: the charming, smooth-talking, tell-’em-what-they-wanna-hear techniques of the sociopathic salesman are dominant because a large minority (I hope it is not a majority) of the electorate is thinking on the 12-year old level used by television, the only level it can use.”

* * *

The Most Significant U.S. Political Development In Over 30 Years
by Neil Howe, Hedgeye

Neil Howe Warns The ‘Professional Class’ Is Still In Denial Of The Fourth Turning
by Tyler Durden, Zero Hedge

Has The Fourth Turning Brought Us Trump?
by Scott Beeken, Bee Line

From Generational Theory Forum:
Presidential election, 2016
The Most Significant U.S. Political Development In Over 30 Years
Neil Howe: It’s going to get worse; more financial crises coming
Neil Howe: ‘Civil War Is More Likely Than People Think’
It Ain’t Over, Folks
Grey Champions and the Election of 2016
Has the regeneracy arrived?
A Realignment Theory
Will a nationalist/cosmopolitan divide be the political axis of the coming saeculum?
Political Polarity To Reverse On Gun Control, States’ Rights?

 

Fearful Perceptions

They all look the same.

That is a stereotypical racist statement, an excuse for generalizing, but it isn’t just rhetoric. It is directly related to perception and so is the basis of racism itself. You first have to perceive people as the same in order to perceive them as a race in the first place.

I’ve even heard otherwise well-meaning people make comments like this, with no self-awareness of the racist implications of it. Most racism operates unconsciously and implicitly.

Then this informs specifically how an individual is seen. For example, all people perceived as ‘black’ also are perceived as older and guiltier—see the MNT article:

“The evidence shows that perceptions of the essential nature of children can be affected by race, and for black children, this can mean they lose the protection afforded by assumed childhood innocence well before they become adults,” said co-author Matthew Jackson, PhD, also of UCLA. “With the average age overestimation for black boys exceeding four-and-a-half years, in some cases, black children may be viewed as adults when they are just 13 years old.”

Consider another aspect of perception, that of generations over time. Most people, especially as they age, look to the past with nostalgia. The world used to be a better place and the people were better too.

I’ve explored this before with the rates of teen sexuality and all that goes with it. Many older people assume that a generation of sluts has emerged. It is true that kids now talk more openly about sex and no doubt sexual imagery is more easily accessible in movies and on the web.

Even so, it turns out the kids these days are prudes compared to past generations. Abortion rates are going down not just because of improved sex education and increased use of birth control. It’s simply less of an issue because the young’uns apparently are having less sex and it sure is hard to get pregnant without sex. To emphasize this point, they also have lower rates of STDs, another hard thing to get without sex.

On top of that, they are “partaking in less alcohol, tobacco, and drugs.” Not just prudes, but “boring prudes.”

None of that fits public perception, though. Everyone seems to know the world is getting worse. I’m not necessarily one to argue against the claim that the world is going to shit. There is no doubt plenty going wrong. Still, I do try to not generalize too much.

The other article I noticed, by Mike Males at CJCJ, is also about changes in crime rates.

Imagine that a time-liberated version of vigilante George Zimmerman sees two youths walking through his neighborhood: black, hoodied Trayvon Martin of 2012, and a white teen from 1959 (say Bud Anderson from Father Knows Best). Based purely on statistics of race and era, which one should Zimmerman most fear of harboring criminal intent? Answer: He should fear (actually, not fear) them equally; each has about the same low odds of committing a crime.

So, why are young blacks such an obsession of our collective fear?

In the town I live in, white kids commit crimes all the time and it rarely get covered by the local media, but any black kids step out of line and it is major news. Over about a decade (1997-2009), there were two incidents where police shot an innocent men, one white and the other black. Guess which caused the most outrage? Guess which one now has a memorial in the local city park? Let me give you a hint: It wasn’t the black guy, despite his having been fairly well known in town and well liked by those who knew him.

Further on in the CJCJ article, the author points out that:

We don’t associate Jim and Margaret Anderson’s 1950s cherubs with juvenile crime—but that’s based on nostalgia and cultural biases, not fact. Back then, nearly 1 in 10 youth were arrested every year; today, around 3 in 100. Limited statistics of the 1950s show juvenile crime wasn’t just pranks and joyriding; “younger and younger children” are committing “the most wanton and senseless of murders… and mass rape,” the chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency warned in 1956.

We certainly don’t associate 1950s white kids as having been dangerous criminals. Even so, if you look back at the period, you quickly realize that adults during that era were scared shitless of the new generation, between the new media of television and the emergence of full-blown Cold War paranoia. To get a sense of how kids were perceived back then, watch the movie “Village of the Damned.”

And, with immigration barely a trickle, that was when whites came to hold the largest majority in any time of American history. Following decades of racial laws and practices, it was the perfect white utopia or as perfect as it was going to get.

It is true that there was a decline, having begun with Boomers and perfected with my own GenX peers. I’ve written about that issue a lot. The economy was heading down its slow decline and lead toxicity rates shot up like never before. So, the parents were losing their good jobs while the kids’ brains were being poisoned, a great combination. The whole world was shifting beneath the American population, and it didn’t tend to lead to good results. Communities and families were under extreme stress, often to the breaking point.

Since the sainted Fifties, America has seen rapid teenage population growth and dramatic shifts toward more single parenting, more lethal drugs and weapons, increased middle-aged (that is, parent-age) drug abuse and imprisonment, decreased incarceration of youth, decreased youthful religious affiliation, and more violent and explicit media available to younger ages. Horrifying, as the culture critics far Right to far Left—including Obama, who spends many pages and speeches berating popular culture as some major driver of bad youth behavior—repeatedly insist.

It used to be that blacks were blamed for almost everything. They still are blamed for plenty and disproportionately so. Yet the political right has started to viciously turned on its own favored group, the white working class. Charles Murray did that in his recent book, Coming Apart, where he almost entirely ignored blacks in order to focus on the divide emerging between whites, sorting into the low class losers and the upper class meritocracy.

In a post from last year, I pointed to some articles discussing Murray’s book. One article (by Paul Krugman over at Truthout) makes a relevant point:

Reading Mr. Murray’s book and all the commentary about the sources of moral collapse among working-class whites, I’ve had a nagging question: Is it really all that bad?

I mean, yes, marriage rates are way down, and labor force participation is down among working-age men (although not as much as some of the rhetoric might imply), but it’s generally left as an implication that these trends must be causing huge social ills. Are they?

Well, one thing oddly missing in Mr. Murray’s work is any discussion of that traditional indicator of social breakdown, teenage pregnancy. Why? Because it has actually been falling like a stone, according to National Vital Statistics data.

And what about crime? It’s soaring, right? Wrong, according to Justice Department data.

So here’s a thought: maybe traditional social values are eroding in the white working class — but maybe those traditional social values aren’t as essential to a good society as conservatives like to imagine.

Nell Irvin Painter at NYT offers this thought:

Involuntary sterilization is no longer legal, and intelligence is recognized as a complex interplay between biology and environment. Indeed, the 1960s, the era that Mr. Murray blames for the moral failings that have driven poor and middle-class white America apart, was the very same era that stemmed the human rights abuse of involuntary sterilization. (Not coincidentally, it was the same era that began addressing the discrimination that entrenched black poverty as well.)

The stigmatization of poor white families more than a century ago should provide a warning: behaviors that seem to have begun in the 1960s belong to a much longer and more complex history than ideologically driven writers like Mr. Murray would have us believe.

Considering it all, who should we fear? That is who should we fear, besides Muslims, immigrants, and foreigners. Should we fear blacks? The young? Or the Poor? Fortunately, we don’t have to choose between our fears. Any combination of black, young, and poor will do—all three together, of course, being the worst.

When fear drives perception, we perceive a fearful world. To release the tension of anxiety and paranoia, someone has to be the scapegoat, whatever group is easiest to generalize about without any confusing emotions of empathy, which in practice means those with the least power to speak out and be heard. The generalizations don’t need to correspond to reality, just as long as a good narrative can be spun in the mainstream media.

From Bad to Worse: Trends Across Generations

I came across recent data on the increasing mortality rates for middle-aged Americans (as pointed out in a comment from a post on Social Darwinism). It’s been written about in a number of places: David Cay Johnston at Al Jazeera America, Ian Sample at The Guardian, and elsewhere. The Atlantic article by Olga Khazan included two telling graphs:

The first thing I noted was that this is precisely about my generation, the first wave hitting their 50s these past few years. The infamous Generation X was known for its social problems in youth and now here we are again, carrying our problems into middle age. It is interesting that I have yet to see anyone else observe that this is a generational phenomenon, besides a rare comment.

This trend actually began during the Boomers, as the shift for 45-54 year olds followed 1998, but it has been worsening with Generation X. Before that, there had been a steady decline for the mortality rates of the middle-aged of the GI Generation and Silent Generation, bottoming out with the first wave of the Boomer Generation. As the chart shows, it was only over this past decade, when the GenX vanguard came into this age demographic, that the rates climbed back above where it was in 1990.

With Generation X, following the post-WWII baby boom, there was obviously a decline of the birth rate which also began as a shift with the late 1950s Boomer birth cohort, although the baby bust didn’t hit a low point until the middle of GenX. This nadir was in 1975, the year I was born. My generation was the first highly aborted generation, but its a bit odd that the birth rate began its decline about a decade in advance of abortion rate increase.

This also was a time of increasing childhood poverty, even as elderly poverty was decreasing. Funding and welfare directed toward children went on the decline during this era, although it did shift back up some with the following Millennial Generation, even as childhood poverty rates remained high:

Poverty by age

I see that child poverty hit one peak in 1983, when I turned 8 years old. The last time it had been at that level was decades before. It is strange, however, that the elderly poverty rate kept on its continuing decline. This decline of poverty has been mostly focused on the GI and Silent generations, having dropped from a high level with the Lost Generation. It dropped again in the 1990s, with another low point for the first wave of Millennials, and then rose again with the Recession back to where it was when I was a kid.

At the same time, GenXers had parents with high rates of being divorced or otherwise single. This corresponded with high rates of working mothers and kids being left alone at home after school. Mine was a generation of latchkey kids, not seen since the Lost Generation. Also, the rates for childhood and youth paid labor hadn’t been this high since early 1900s when Lost Generation kids worked as newsboys and in factories and mines.

Writing about Generation X in the early 1990s, Neil Howe and William Strauss put out a book, 13th Gen, that was published in 1993 (they designated this the 13th Generation, since that is what it is in the order of Anglo-American generations). The year 1993 was around the time the last wave of GenXers were either exiting elementary school or entering high school (I graduated in 1994), depending on the endpoint given for this cohort. These authors place the last year of GenX as 1981, although some place it as late as 1984. The first wave was sometime in the early-to-mid 1960s, with an approximate two decades in between.

From that view of the early 1990s, Strauss and Howe wrote that,

“Every day, over 2,5000 American children witness the divorce or separation of their parents. Every day, 90 kids are taken from their parents’ custody and committed to foster homes. Every day, thirteen Americans age 15 to 24 commit suicide, and another sixteen are murdered. Every day, the typical 14-year-old watches 3 hours of TV and does 1 hour of homework. Every day, over 2,200 kids drop out of school. Every day, 3,610 teenagers are assaulted, 630 are robbed, and 80 are raped. Every day, over 100,000 high-school students bring guns to  school. Every day, 500 adolescents begin using illegal drugs and 1,000 begin drinking alcohol. Every day, 1,000 unwed teenage girls become mothers.

“Assessing the harsh living environment of today’s rising generation, once national commission recently concluded: “Never before has one generation of American teenagers been less healthy, less cared for, or less prepared for life than their parents were at the same age.” In the 13er cult film Heathers, one teenager put it more bluntly: “You don’t get it, do you? Society nods its head at any horror the American teenager can bring upon himself.”

“Thirteeners may or may not be a “bad” generation, but what is not debatable is that their condition is bad. Even their worst critics have to admit that whatever badness they are is a reflection of how they were raised—of what other people did to them, thought of them, and expected from them—and of what happened in the adult world throughout their childhood years.”

Strauss and Howe point out that all of this is worse for minorities (p.120):

“The young male residents of Harlem are less likely to live to age 40 than the young male residents of Bangladesh—and face a higher risk of being killed by age 25 than the risk faced by U.S. troops during a full combat tour in Vietnam.”

At Alternet, Dan Hoyle made a similar observation (The Jail Generation):

“Although juvenile poverty rates have steadily declined, the percentage of children raised in single parent homes has risen from 12% in 1970 to 28% in 1998. Although it is unclear how large a role increased prison populations play in this phenomenon, the increase has been most marked among those populations that have high incarceration rates. In 2000, only 38% of black children were being raised in two-parent homes.”

There are studies that have analyzed this. Mass incarceration has played a major role in the breakdown of families and communities. GenX was the first generation to be targeted by the drug wars and mass incarceration, and this has left some communities with most of the men either in prison or caught up in the legal system. It has been devastating, especially for poor minorities, but it has harmed the entire generation to varying degrees.

Some of the articles about the middle age mortality have blamed it on increasing drug use. There might be some truth to that. If one really wants to understand that problem, the best analysis available is Johann Hari’s Chasing the Scream (see here). Still, it isn’t clear that drug use has changed all that much, even ignoring abuse of prescription drugs by earlier generations. Though drug addiction rates do vary a bit over time, they remain surprisingly stable this past half century—for anything earlier than that we don’t have accurate data.

Sure, the drug wars make everything about drugs more dangerous. Yet that is no different than how Prohibition made every aspect of alcohol riskier and more harmful. Hari, for example, explains how black markets end up making illegal substances more potent and hence more addictive. So, it is government policies that have this biggest impact on changing public behaviors across generations. Different conditions lead to different results, unsurprisingly.

Some of it is a change in attitudes, which is behind the change in government policies. Strauss and Howe make clear how the earth shifted under the feet of GenXers, just as they were learning to walk (pp. 59-61):

“Circa-1970 polls and social statistics showed a negative shift in public attitudes toward (and treatment of) children. As millions of mothers flocked into the work force, the proportion of preschoolers cared for in their own homes fell by half. For the first time, adults ranked autos ahead of children as necessary for “the good life.” The cost of raising a child, never much of an issue when Boomers were little, suddenly became a hot topic. Adults of fertile age doubled their rate of surgical sterilization. The legal abortion rate grew from next to nothing to the point where one of every three fetuses was terminated. In 1962, half of all adults believed that parents in bad marriages should stay together for the sake of the children. By 1980, less than one fifth of all adults felt that way. America’s great divorce epidemic was underway.

“Divorce. The fact of it, the calculations influencing it, the openness about it, the child’s anxiety about it, the harms from it, the guilt after it: Here lay the core symptom of Silent nurture of the 13th. America’s divorce rate doubled between 1965 and 1975, just as Atari-wave 13ers passed through middle childhood. at every age, a 13er child born in 1968 faced three times the risk of parental break-up faced by a Boomer child born in 1948. Silent parents, authors, and screenwriters addressed divorce as though it were an episodic childhood disease like the chicken pox: something you catch, get sick from, and then get over. […] provoking children of secure families on the fragility of their world. […]

“But if parents liked to stress the “positive” side of divorce, children were left staring at the dark side. according to one major survey of 1970s-era marital disruptions, only one-fifth of the children of divorce professed being happier afterward—versus four-fifths of the divorced parents. […] Of all child generations in U.S. history, 13er kids are the “onliest,” their families the smallest, their houses the emptiest after school, and their parents the most divorced. Three of five 13ers have zero or one sibling, versus less than two in five Boomers at like age. Over the span of this one generation, the proportion of children living with less than two parents increased by half, and the proportion of working mothers of preschool children doubled. fewer than half of all 13ers are now reaching age 16 in households with two once-married biological parents. One 13er in five has half-siblings. If the proliferation of half-thises and step-thats was a challenge for the greeting-card industry, it was devastating to the kids themselves.”

To continue (p. 66):

“Academic journals suddenly abounded with articles about a brand new topic: family violence. Over the 13er child era, the homicide rate for infants and children under four rose by half, the number of reported cases of child abuse jumped fourfold, and the number of vulnerable “latchkey” children fending for themselves after school more than doubled.”

This was a messed up generation, in so many ways. The data makes this clear. I recently showed, for example, how ‘slutty’ was my generation as teens. But the pivotal issue is this was the world into which GenXers were born, and it was all that my peers knew. We were told that we were a bad generation and we came to believe it, a bad generation for a bad era (pp. 87-89):

“When something goes badly wrong, a 13er’s first instinct is to blame himself. That makes some sense, given the world he inhabits. Consider how the public health risks of American teens have changed since the 1950s: Compared to teenagers a third of a century ago, 13ers face a sharply lower risk of dying from accidents or conventional diseases, but this advantage has been almost entirely offset by what elders look upon as “self-inflicted” risks. In the ’50s, the worst threats to youth were random diseases like influenza and polio that attacked good and bad kids with equal cruelty—afflictions that have been mostly conquered. Now, the worst dangers are behavioral. AIDS. Drug and alcohol abuse. Eating disorders. Homicide. And, of course, suicide. Almost by definition, “good” kids are the ones who avoid these dangers, and “bad” kids are the ones who get plastered. […] By almost any measure, the first Atari-wave 13ers, born from 1961 through 1964, mark an extreme for the sociopathology of American youth. They set the all-time U.S. youth records for drunk driving, illicit drug consumption, and suicide. They have been among the most violent, criminal, and heavily-incarcerated youth cohorts in U.S. history. Among later-born 13ers, the picture is brightening some—but not much. Many more kids than a quarter century ago continue to inflict upon themselves (and others) the most violent forms of adolescent trauma.”

Indeed, my generation was violent. After dropping mid-century, violence shot up both toward self and others. Suicides are more common among whites for some reason. But during the spike, blacks almost caught up with the white suicide rate.

Most of that increase was among the younger demographics. Why is that? Many have pointed out the rise and fall of heavy metal toxicity from pollution, especially lead additives in gasoline, although an earlier spike was related to lead in paint and farm chemicals (see here, here, here, and here):

Graph showing correlation between lead exposure and violent crime in USA

09205-scitech1-timelinegraph

I’m always surprised this kind of data isn’t brought up more often. It is clearly related.

One might expect children who had higher rates of pollution exposure and hence toxicity, which is to say poisoning, would as adults show health and behavioral problems and that this would then extend into continuing health and behavioral problems as they aged. That an increase in middle age mortality would be seen among this population is the opposite of shocking. Heavy metal toxicity really messes up the body, not just the brain, and the negative effects are lifelong.

Throw on top of this a generally worsening economy and prospects for this generation. What would one expect? Certainly not improvement in the rates of social and physical health.

I’ll end with one last passage from Strauss and Howe (pp. 98-101):

“It’s a well-known complaint that American living standards, on average, have flattened out ever since American productivity began stagnating in early 1970s. What’s less well known is how this leveling of the national average has concealed vastly unequal changes in living standards by phase-of-life, and how the interests of older Americans have been protected at the expense of young people. Consider the following core indicators of economic well-being: worker pay, total household income, household wealth, home ownership, and the likelihood of poverty. From the late 1930s to the early 1970s, all these indicators improved briskly for every age group. Since then, they have diverged markedly across different age brackets. For households headed by persons over age 65, these indicators have continued to improve as though nothing had gone wrong. For age 35 to 65, most of them have just held steady. But for households headed by persons under age 35—the age bracket 13ers have been entering ever since the 1970s—every one of these indicators has gotten worse. Some have fallen off a cliff. […]

“13ers came to realize that they bore most of the burden for the Reagan-era prosperity that so enriched their elders. They watched the drawbridge slam shut on most of the lucrative professional monopolies dominated by older age groups. They watched U.S. manufacturers respond to efficient global rivals by downsizing through attrition, letting their high-wage older work force age in place. They watched the total number of Fortune 500 jobs (cushy benefits and all) reach its historic peak in 1979—just when they first came to the job market—and then head south ever afterwards Those paths blocked, millions of 13ers wedded their future to the one economic sector in which real pay declined, fringe benefits evaporated, and investment and output per worker showed literally no growth at all: the unskilled service sector. Ronald McDonaldland

“During the Bush years, most of today’s 40 million 13ers living on their own hit their first recession. And behold: This was the only cyclical downturn ever recorded in which all the net job loss landed on the under-30 age bracket. Not on Boomer post-yuppies, not on Silent prime-of-lifers, certainly not on G.I. retirees. Subtract 13ers from the employment tally, and presto: No recession! […]

“[13ers] are beginning to ask harder questions about the policy gridlock over most of the issues vital to their economic future. Like why the college class of ’92 faces the most difficult job search of any class since the Great Depression, with nearly a third of entry-level jobs disappearing and average pay falling for those who remain. Or why the proportion of college grads taking jobs that don’t require college degree has doubled over the last decade. Or why the federal deficit keeps growing on their tab. Or why the income tax rates on billion-dollar investments are held down while FICA tax rates on the first dollar of wage income keep rising. Or why unemployment benefits are extended for households already receiving checks, but nothing is done for the most younger households can’t qualify. or why senior citizens get to clamor for yet a third layer of health insurance when one-fourth of all 13ers have no insurance at all. or why a skimpy urban youth bill, drafted in the wake of the L.A. riots, is allowed to grow into a giant Christmas tree of goodies for affluent older people. […]

“Since the early 1970s, say many economists, America has been undergoing a “quiet depression” in living standards. A bit more pointedly, columnist Robert Kuttner describes 13er as suffering from a remarkable generational disease . . . a depression of the young” which makes them feel “uniquely thirsty in a sea of affluence.” From 1929 to 1933, the bust years we call the “Great Depression,” real household income fell by 25 percent all across America. Now once again: what was the dip in age-bracket income that 13er have suffered since replacing Boomers? Twenty percent for young men? Thirty percent for young parents with children? Thirteeners get the message, even if others don’t, about a “quiet” trauma today’s older people would regard as a history-shattering catastrophe if it fell mostly on their heads.”

Alan Moore, Comic Books, and Generations

I came across a year old article about Alan Moore, written by Alison Flood in The Gardian. In it, some comments from an interview are quoted. It is supposedly his last interview, so he claims.

My first take was that Alan Moore had become a crotchety old man. For those of us who are male, it is hard to avoid this fate. I’m halfway there myself. The world passes us by, no matter how hard we try to keep up. Growing old and approaching death can put one in a bad mood.

Much of Moore’s commentary comes off as a petty, emotional rant that was fueled by frustration and bitterness. I get it. I could imagine all the critical attention an artist receives could wear a person down after a while. It would be hard to hold it all at arms length and consider it neutrally or just ignore it. I sympathize. Even if he is a crotchety old man, he has every right to be so.

Anyway, his major gripe seems to be the following:

“To my mind, this embracing of what were unambiguously children’s characters at their mid-20th century inception seems to indicate a retreat from the admittedly overwhelming complexities of modern existence […] I would also observe that it is, potentially, culturally catastrophic to have the ephemera of a previous century squatting possessively on the cultural stage and refusing to allow this surely unprecedented era to develop a culture of its own, relevant and sufficient to its times.”

Wasn’t he once a child who innocently loved comic books? He overlooks the fact that these days, just as in the past, most people who read comic books and watch the movies based on them are those on the young end of life, not crotchety old men. He seems to have forgotten what it was like to be a child. I’m sure he read all kinds of cheap entertainment crap as a child, but it drew him into the comic book world and inspired him to try his own hand at the form.

His complaints could also come off as being arrogant and somewhat hypocritical. He is complaining about the very field that made him famous and I’m sure quite wealthy. It’s as if he is arguing that, since his own great accomplishments, there is nothing original left to be done with superheroes. This is naive as well. As I write, there are comic book artists pushing the form in entirely new directions, including in terms of superheroes. Just like Moore and his peers did, every new generation will re-create the entertainment media in entirely new ways with new messages.

Another thing More takes issue with are the accusations that he isn’t being appropriately sensitive to racial and gender issues. He spent his life trying to be a sensitive white male and then many who are younger dare to complain that he isn’t being sensitive enough. His defense for his portrayals of sexual violence toward women is that they aren’t any more overrepresented than are the the acts of non-sexual violence. It doesn’t occur to him that it is problematic that both are being overrepresented, as compared to normal life.

Over at popmatters.com, Shathley Q discusses an entirely different interview with Rob Salkowitz. A useful point is made:

“Rob muses on the idea that there’s always a kind of generational lag in comics. It’s the idea that comics’ fandom shifts generations much earlier than comics’ creators. And that the art isn’t always up-to-speed with the artists.”

That lag time is quite apparent in the case of Alan Moore. Several new generations of new comic book audiences have entered the scene since he started his comic book career. Even younger GenXers were still in their diapers when he published his first work. Generations Z and Y weren’t even in existence yet.

That wasn’t always the case. When Moore was a kid, most comic book artists were barely beyond being kids themselves. Back then, it was a young field, in more ways than one. Comic books were only coming into significant popularity the decade before Moore was born.

It was that popularity that got parents and authority figures so worried. The kind of complaints Moore makes now are reminiscent of the complaints back then. These juvenile entertainments were making their way into mainstream influence. With the rise of youth culture, it was as if the entire society was turning juvenile. It was the rise of youths as a major market force. The Comics Code Authority was established the year after Moore was born. Because of this, the 1960s saw the rise of underground culture, including new comic books avoiding censorship.

Another angle to consider is to the earlier context of comic book violence, including sexual violence. The early critics were particularly irate by the violence-and-sex-obsessed nature of the medium, and their criticisms certainly weren’t based on feminism. It is interesting that even, though Moore complained about people holding onto the established comic book superheroes, he defends his own use of that old school comic book sexual violence. Why does he criticize others for the former while defending the latter against the critics who he sees as attacking him? It is strange how strong an argument he makes for his right, almost moral obligation as he states it, to portray sexual violence. He apparently is quite attached to it.

Those are just some semi-random thoughts. My main interest was how generational experience might have shaped some of Moore’s opinions. He was a Boomer, the early popular comic book artists were GIs and Silents, and in recent decades new generations of comic book fans have become artists in their own right. A lot has changed over that time. Moore seems to have an uncertain relationship to that change, embracing it in some ways and demanding even greater change, while in other ways still being stuck in an old mentality.

Rates of Young Sluts

There is nothing that gets the political right as excited as the sexual activity of the youth. They stay up late at night obsessing over all the teenagers having sex and worrying about how it is destroying our country. It’s almost as bad as Islamic terrorists or Obama, same difference.

I came across A few graphs about teen pregnancy and sex by Ampersand, over at the ALAS! A BLOG. This particular graph caught my attention:

age-of-having-sex-graph

I was born in 1975, the great and wondrous GenX. My generation, of course, was the most slutty as teenagers. I didn’t personally contribute to most of those numbers, but it is nice to know that my peers were getting it on at such inspiring rates. At age 14, one in ten of my cohorts had or at least claimed to have had sex.

Since that low point in American sexual depravity, the average age of early sexuality has been going up and up. It’s just like the violent crime rate, that also grew with my generation and then reversed course. It probably is another side effect of all that lead pollution that fucked with the young tender brains of my generation.

Anyway, it turns out kids these days aren’t so slutty. That is interesting as the kids these days are largely the children of those earlier slutty GenXers. But just going by the graph, leaving out the even lower teen sex rate of GenZ, there isn’t a massive difference between the teen sex rates of Millennials and that of Boomers and Silents. My parents were born in the 1940s, when even at that time at least half of my parents’ peers were having sex at some point during their teenage years.

My parents would be shocked by such data. They would deny having done any premarital hanky panky, and I have no reason to doubt it. But Jeez! their generation wasn’t all that different in rates of youthful sluttiness. The youngest generation right now isn’t particularly slutty or not necessarily any more slutty than those old people were at the same age.

Not only are the young’uns having less sex (with lower rates of pregnancies, abortions, and STDs), but also partaking in less alcohol, tobacco, and drugs. Kids are becoming boring prudes.

Republicans, Who They Are and Where They Are Heading

I love looking at demographic and polling data. It can bring up insights that one would otherwise not have considered. Public Policy Polling put out a release that broke down Republican opinion. I highly recommend looking at the data for yourself.

Some reporting on it has focused on the gender divide. Republican men are more motivated by fiscal issues. And Republican women are more motivated by social issues. That leads to the odd results of Republican women being stronger supporters of Christian theocracy in America, despite the obvious fact that would harm women the most. Fortunately, female Republicans are a smaller proportion of the GOP.

One sad part of the data is the age component. Younger Republicans aren’t becoming more liberal. What the data doesn’t show is that the younger cohort in general is becoming more liberal, and they are also less supportive of the Republican Party. What is happening is that the few young folk left remaining in the Republican Party are the most extreme elements. Basically, there are almost no moderate young Republicans left. Moderate Republicans have been disappearing for a long time, but we are about ready to declare them finally extinct.

Considering this, I wonder what the Republican Party will look like 10 to 20 years from now. They are at a crises point. The party has been mostly some combination of older people, whites, and men. Obviously, it can’t stay that way. As the few remaining young reactionaries push the party even further toward radical right-wing politics, a choice will have to be made. If they continue down that path, they will become obsolete.

Trends in Depression and Suicide Rates

I just watched this video and recommend it.

Stephen Ilardi made two very important points.

First, depression is a disease of civilization. He spoke of research done on a hunter-gatherer tribal people. What the researcher found was that depression was almost non-existent among them. They lived a hard life and often hard deaths, but they weren’t clinically depressed. Nor did they have many of the other diseases of civilization, all of which are related to inflammation in the body.

He points out that studies have shown that depression is related to inflammation in the brain, at least partly caused by an unhealthy ration between Omega 6 fats and Omega 3 fats. Combined with the stresses and social isolation of modern society, clinical depression has become a massive problem.

Second, clinical depression is a growing problem. Each generation has higher rates of depression than the generation before. It correctly can be called an epidemic at this point and it increases as people age. The younger generations will as they age, if the pattern holds, have 50% or more experiencing clinical depression.

This gets at an issue I continually return to. Everything is getting worse for the young generation such as poverty, economic inequality, unemployment and homelessness. My generation is the first generation do worse than their parents in the 20th century. My generation as children had poverty rates not seen since the Great Depression and had the worst child suicide rates since such things were recorded. How bad does society have to get before even children become so desperate and hopeless that they kill themselves?

Most people in the older generations never personally experienced these kinds of conditions. Because of this, they have no tangible understanding, no sympathy. They can’t see how this is a systemic problem throughout society, a problem transcending individuals and even generations.

I’ve previously discussed this a bit in terms of capitalist realism (see here and here), but I’ve never gone into much detail about this before. The analysis behind the concept of capitalist realism is based on the collective inability to imagine alternatives and hence collective inability to perceive the problems of the present system. The individual is the product and the scapegoat of capitalist realism.

* * * *

I decided to look more closely at the increasing rate of suicide.

There definitely is something going on in society. It’s hard to make a simple assessment, but obviously particular demographics are hit really hard, specifically the youth demographic (also particular states and white men). A lot of it seems to do with the economy such as with peaks during industrialization and the Great Depression and then a slow rise during the era of globalization.  Overall national suicide rates go up and down. It is only with particular demographics that you see long-term trends.

http://www.haciendapub.com/medicalsentinel/homicide-and-suicide-america-1900-1998

http://www.suicide.org/suicide-statistics.html

U.S. Suicide Rates, 1950–2003
(per 100,000 population)

1950 1960 1970 1980 1990 1995 2000 2001 2002 2003
All ages, age adjusted 13.2 13.2 13.2 13.2 12.5 11.8 10.4 10.7 10.9 10.8
5–14 years 0.2 0.3 0.3 0.4 0.8 0.9 0.7 0.7 0.6 0.6
15–24 years 4.5 5.2 8.8 12.3 13.2 13.0 10.2 9.9 9.9 9.7
15–19 years 2.7 3.6 5.9 8.5 11.1 10.3 8.0 7.9 7.4 7.3
20–24 years 6.2 7.1 12.2 16.1 15.1 15.8 12.5 12.0 12.4 12.1
25–44 years 11.6 12.2 15.4 15.6 15.2 15.1 13.4 13.8 14.0 13.8
25–34 years 9.1 10.0 14.1 16.0 15.2 15.0 12.0 12.8 12.6 12.7
35–44 years 14.3 14.2 16.9 15.4 15.3 15.1 14.5 14.7 15.3 14.9
45–64 years 23.5 22.0 20.6 15.9 15.3 13.9 13.5 14.4 14.9 15.0
45–54 years 20.9 20.7 20.0 15.9 14.8 14.4 14.4 15.2 15.7 15.9
55–64 years 26.8 23.7 21.4 15.9 16.0 13.2 12.1 13.1 13.6 13.8
65 years and over 30.0 24.5 20.8 17.6 20.5 17.9 15.2 15.3 15.6 14.6
65–74 years 29.6 23.0 20.8 16.9 17.9 15.7 12.5 13.3 13.5 12.7
75–84 years 31.1 27.9 21.2 19.1 24.9 20.6 17.6 17.4 17.7 16.4
85 years and over 28.8 26.0 19.0 19.2 22.2 21.3 19.6 17.5 18.0 16.9
Male, all ages 21.2 20.0 19.8 19.9 21.5 20.3 17.7 18.2 18.4 18.0
Female, all ages 5.6 5.6 7.4 5.7 4.8 4.3 4.0 4.0 4.2 4.2

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/2013/05/chart-americas-rising-suicide-problem.html

http://news.msn.com/science-technology/us-suicide-rate-for-middle-aged-rose-28-percent-in-past-decade

Suicide rate: Chart.

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/06/chart-what-killed-us-then-and-now/258872/

historicaldeaths-615.jpg

http://www.newrepublic.com/article/113316/suicide-rates-rise-us-because-economy-not-culture

http://www.afsp.org/understanding-suicide/facts-and-figures

http://grerp.blogspot.com/2010/12/thoughts-on-fourth-turning-part-2.html

http://2020plus.net/Editorial-323-Mal-Fletcher-Middle-Age-Suicides-Does-X-Mark-The-Spot.aspx

http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=14191&page=0

http://www.richardeckersley.com.au/attachments/YMHPbook_chapter_1.pdf