Monday, June 28, 2010

Fun with Dick and Jane

When we were youngsters in school, our world view was very simple.

In the second grade, I learned how to read from the "Fun with Dick and Jane" series. I remember one book in particular, where Dick and Jane visit Grandpa's farm, complete with chickens, goats, cows, a red barn with silo, and friendly Grandpa on his tractor and motherly Grandma baking pies in the kitchen.

They never mentioned Silas, the hired hand, who drank too much. Or that Grandpa liked to listen to Rush Limbaugh and shout epithets at the radio. Or that Grandma was suffering from hoarding disorder.  Or that the friendly mailman was perhaps a bit too friendly.

In short, there were no crazy or criminal people in Dick and Jane's world.   Everyone was nice, happy, and world was a perfect place. And to some extent, it took the next couple of decades of my life to figure out that not only were there crazy people on the planet, but that perhaps most of them were crazy, to some extent or another. Contrary to what we were taught in school, crazy was not the exception, but the norm. Rational thinking is what is rare in this day and age.

Perhaps the first intimations that all was not a sunny Dick and Jane world was a lecture I was given in school, accompanied with a 16mm film, entitled "Stranger Danger". In the film, a man in a white, 1968 Pontiac Bonneville sedan drives around, offering candy to children if they will go for a ride in his car. We were told not to take the candy, under any circumstances. I asked, of course, if it were permissible to take the candy and then run away really fast, at which point my teacher started scribbling furiously in my "permanent record". To this day, whenever I see a white, 1968 Pontiac Bonneville, I think of Stranger Danger.

But for the most part, during my childhood, criminals and crazy people really didn't register on the Richter scale. The bad guys got caught every week on TV, within the confines of a 22-minute Cop show. Organized crime, corruption in high places, or in the corporate world wasn't talked about - and perhaps didn't happen as often as today. And crazy people, if they existed at all, were talked about in hushed tones.

Was our world always the way it is today, and as a child I was shielded from it? Or have we traveled down some sort of slippery slope since then, and like a frog being slowly cooked in a pot of water, haven't noticed the temperature change until it is too late?

Perhaps statistics would tell if the crime rate or merely our perception of crime has actually increased. One thing is sure, today, the Cop shows on TeeVee and the movies, often show the criminals getting away. Or the shows are about the criminals, with the Cops as the bad guys. Our cultural perception of crime and criminality has changed, to be sure. Crime is now viewed as inevitable, or an unsolvable problem, particularly with regard to organized crime and the "war on drugs". And criminals are often viewed as quasi-heroes in many books, films, and TeeVee shows, if not as victims themselves. Let's face it, when you watch the Sopranos, you rooted for Tony, didn't you?

As I noted in an earlier blog entry, the de-institutionalization of the mentally ill has made their presence in the community more noticeable. And the shame of mental illness, at least as characterized in 1960's terms, has largely faded away. Mental illness is no longer talked about in hushed tones anymore. But it seems these days, everyone is on an anti-depressant, and on every block there is one crazy-cat-lady or one hoarder. Perhaps this is a result of the general aging of the population. Or perhaps we are all getting a little crazier over time. Maybe its because of all those microwaves. Better wear a tinfoil hat!

But perhaps the saddest thing about our modern era is that the ideal of the perfect, friendly, and safe world of Dick and Jane is no longer viewed as desirable or realistic. We live in a world of a harsh new reality now, and you'd better get used to it, buster! Stranger Danger is the new primer for children. And as far as anything else goes, we'll I've got mine Jack, you get yours. It's a gimme, gimme kind of world now.

This new level of hostility is seen everywhere in common daily life and over petty occurrences. People tailgate like mad now, if they are convinced you are going 5 mph too slowly. Competition for something as simple as a parking place or a place in line is viewed as a life-or-death matter (and sometimes escalates into one). Perhaps this is an inevitable consequence of our more crowded society and an inevitable result of the population boom.

It may sound hard to believe, but when I was a youngster, in many places in your average town, there were vacant lots without homes on them. Land was cheap, and there was no pressing need to build on every last 1/4 acre. Even more unbelievable, there was land that was essentially abandoned or unused. Behind our home in Lake Forest, for example, was an enormous field that must have covered 100 acres or more. Today, of course, it is a housing development.

When I moved to Fairfax County in 1987, people actually farmed there. Today, the County is "built out" - there are no more undeveloped tracts of land anywhere in the county (other than Parkland and roadways). The population of the County is greater than the State of Vermont. In less than two decades, the landscape there changed dramatically. Multiply this times the many suburban areas across the country and you can see that America has irrevocably changed - forever - in the last few decades.

Of course, my parent's generation could say the same thing. Back when they were young, there were no "Sunbelt" cities or Interstate Highway System. Life was even simpler back then. That was their reality, and to their parents, it seemed hopelessly complex, what with the Model-T cars, radios, record players, and all.

So today's generation probably finds the present social climate acceptable, as it is the climate they are used to. But to me, it seems more and more like Hong Kong, in terms of population density, and less like Mayberry RFD. And even in the less densely populated areas of our country, it seems that social mores have changed irrevocably. People today seem more polarized and ready to pounce on one another, rather than to try to get along. It is all too easy to demonize whole populations on a whim.

Social and political issues have polarized small villages and towns. And often, these are silly disputes over nonsensical things. A town famous for its local potters is rife with controversy, over, what, I am not sure (white clay versus brown clay?). Villagers in another town are in a protracted 10-year dispute over the renovation of a local bar. Websites are started, names are called, and people are hung in effigy. It all seems rather silly to me. The idea of compromise and getting along seem to be lost. People want a winner-take-all solution, or nothing. And most often, they end up with nothing, other than lingering hard feelings that last for years.

It seems that something significant has been lost over the decades. For the average citizen, 30-50 years ago, there were moral rules that were obeyed in addition to the laws of the land. You didn't cheat people outright, or try to take advantage of someone to the fullest extent possible. We didn't have payday loans with 300% interest. The phone company didn't send out $3000 cell phone bills and expect to be paid. Banks didn't issue mortgages with "toxic" interest rate escalation clauses, and they certainly didn't issue them to people they knew couldn't pay them back. There was what you could do under the law, and then there was a set of unwritten moral rules on top of that. Certain things just weren't done!

Today, only the rule of law is the outer bounds for the behavior of many people - there are no moral obligations that restrain their behavior. And even the rule of law can be bent or broken if you have enough money or influence. Self-interest is all that matters, it seems, and it touted as the engine of free enterprise. So if you can fleece a customer, go for it. Never mind that long term, such actions will tend to suppress commerce, as consumers become wary of engaging in commerce. All that matters today is the quarterly profit or loss statement.

And for many, this also means using chicanery and strategy to get what they want. Can you manipulate public opinion or use procedural techniques to get what you want? Then do it. So long as it puts a penny more in your pocket, it should be done, regardless if the social cost is in the thousands of dollars.

Many on the Right decry the changes to our modern society and claim they want to return to the Mayberry or Dick and Jane society of the past. But others note that such nostalgia is somewhat selective. Crime and criminality existed back in those days, but was not as talked about - particularly corruption and organized crime. And the idealized view of the past fails to take into account the rights of minorities and women in those days. Not every one was content as Aunt Bea.

And of course, the irony is, the folks on the Right are the ones most likely to champion "self interest" as the best motivation for our economic engine. They fail to realize that unfettered self-interest, without an underlying values system, will not lead to a return to the innocence of Mayberry, but more of the dark Gotham City of Batman Returns.

And lest you think I am picking on the Right, the folks on the Left are no better. Folks in Ithaca, New York, like to tout their cultural and social sensitivities as a status symbol. But it is little more than that. They take a patronizing, and condescending attitude toward the "less fortunate" which does little to alleviate their plight (and most likely perpetuates it). Perpetual welfare - also something not mentioned in the Dick and Jane world. And intolerant? You'd find more flexible thinking at a Born Again Christian Convention than in downtown Ithaca. Ithacans are very liberal, tolerant, free-thinkers, provided you think exactly as they do.

No, creating a permanent underclass welfare state is not the answer either, nor is feeling sorry for criminals (at the expense of law-abiding citizens). The actions of the Left have only amplified the actions of the Right in this regard. Leftists are arguably worse than Rightists, in that they commit the additional crime of hypocrisy. They claim to own the moral high ground, but engage in the same selfish behaviors - for different reasons - than those on the Right.

So perhaps it is not realistic to "go back" to an earlier time - nor desirable. However, it is possible that we can change the society we are in? I am beginning to think the answer is "Perhaps not". Population pressure is what drives the changes to our society. As our country and our planet becomes more and more crowded, competition for resources - everything from rare earth metals to parking spaces at the mall - becomes more intense. Playing nice and living according to a moral code become, for many, a nicety that is not affordable.

So what was the point of this post? I am not sure I had one - or one that could be succinctly stated in 10 words or less. As I get older, I think more and more than the time I lived in was not a bad one, and I am not sure I want to see the time that comes after me. And perhaps every human feels this way. When I was born, we had already won the great war against fascism. We fought and won a cold war against Communism. We put a man on the moon (and haven't returned since). Our technology has advanced considerably since then, and things that we used to dream about in high school (miniature computers, portable phones) are now everyday consumer goods. And the rights of individuals in our society are greater than at any time in the history of our planet. Yes, there has been an upside to change over time.

And perhaps the kids of today see that upside and their children will see an even brighter future. The "war on terror" and the "war on drugs" will be won - or at least figured out. And maybe they will learn to get along with less hostility or need to scapegoat. Or perhaps they will just get used to it. Or perhaps it is just human nature for people to squabble and scrabble for every last handhold and advantage, like rats scrambling from a sinking ship.

Or perhaps that big comet will come and just wipe it all out. Either way, I'm good with it.