Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Hijacking of Our Kids' Minds

It started again with a Peggy Noonan article from the past that I re-read today, titled 'We're Scaring Our Children to Death'. Reading some reviews of this article on other websites I realized that the opinions on this, as usual, is as polarized as they could get. On the surface, there is nothing wrong with the argument. Noonan says that we are scaring our kids by publicly displaying scenes of racial violence and cruelty on murals near schools; she goes on to unfold other ways in which we unleash fear on kids: by exposing them to menacing rappers, potty-mouths (she mentions Don Imus and Rosie O'Donnell), deranged murderers on TV (Virginia Tech murderer's rants aired publicly), graphic ads, scary news reports, warnings of global warming showing glaciers melting, international terrorism.

She says that in her youth, living in Cold War-era duck-and-cover drills were pretty scary, but in general a kid could be a kid.

Nothing wrong with that article, is there? Or isn't there? When you went through that laundry list, it surely must have struck you like a shock of cold water- that cynicism that prompts you to investigate further what others have to say about this, what other issues Peggy Noonan herself has written about, what spin may lie between those words. It's good to be a media-skeptic.

Just to make it clear, I do admire and agree with some of Noonan's writings. This isn't meant to single her or other political conservatives out; and this extends, as we shall see, just as much to political liberals. This is something deeper than the clash of these two strata of society.

Yes, on the one hand it makes sense. About six years ago, I read an article in a British newspaper (which I cannot find anymore on the internet) about how parents have changed for the worse. It bemoaned the fact that the carefree kids of yore no longer exist. In the past, a happy schoolboy could walk home from school with mud all over him, roam about the streets, talk to a tramp by his fire, listen to his tall tales (and learn something of life in the process), buy lozenges from a chemist and be completely carefree (so the article said). This recalls to mind my own childhood in India, the India of pre-mobile phone, pre-conspicuous consumption, pre-congested road days; and it inexorably brings to mind characters like Richmal Crompton's William, Enid Blyton's Famous Five or the Secret Seven, and the Pevensie children from Lewis' Narnia. Some common elements in these works of fiction include responsible older kids who are honest, loyal, brave and responsible for the weaker and younger ones- Julian Kirrin, Peter Pevensie, Peter of the Secret Seven... the kind of boys and girls who were at one time England's backbone (if only idealized in fiction). William is a notable exception, but even he is the leader of his gang and his leadership pulls them through every danger. This article lamented that today's parents keep a tight leash on kids by giving them mobile phones, ask them to call often and assure them of their safety, warn them not to talk to any stranger, accept candy from noone except parents, and so on. We can sympathize with all of this, but the point is not lost on those of us who have known a normal childhood.

On the other hand- we need to ask ourselves. If something is truly dangerous, should we not warn our kids? Crompton's William roams his village streets at dusk when there are air raid sirens during World War II, which strikes me as being unrealistic or simply that his parents were irresponsible. The Pevensie kids make their journey away to the safe countryside from war-ravaged London around this same time. The Famous Five and Secret Seven move around the wilderness unsupervised, accept refreshments from wayside inns or strangers, all the while showing exemplary presence of mind and courage.

So isn't it important to warn kids of these things? When there is a war, shouldn't kids know about it? Iraqi kids, for instance- shouldn't they be asked to be careful when roaming the streets? Danger needs to be conveyed and kids need to deal with it sensibly- upto a point. Kids cannot solve all the problems facing our world, and exposing them to only this grim nature of our fallen world, with no detectable ray of hope is not a good thing. As Noonan says, the counter-argument to this in the past was 'if you don't like it, change the channel.' But, as she says, it is now everywhere. True, entertainment in inescapable. Video games, TV, songs, movies, all portray a coarse culture with a taste for the profane and the violent.

But I digress. If you notice, both the Left and the Right are pretty adept are politicizing almost every thing on the planet- religion, morality, the environment and now the issue of what is suitable for kids. Noonan's writing laments the decay of politics and smear campaigns, the Right talks about the "culture of death" when referring to issue such as abortion and euthanasia. The Left talks about global warming, the war in Iraq and the impending financial crisis in the form of the looming national debt, housing market worries and so on. It's part and parcel of politics to talk about the ills of the opposition, but to invite kids to share in this fear is dangerous. There is a right way to talk to kids; and whatever we are doing now through our media, schools and public life- is not it.

A year ago, local politicians in Cochin, India organized a march by schoolkids to save Mangalavanam, a neglected, wild mangrove forest right in the middle of bustling, bursting at the seams downtown area. The threat was from a group of people who wanted to turn this into apartment blocks. The aim of the march was to ensure that the forest remains as it is. While this is laudable, the claims of this groups were as follows: Mangalavanam, being a green spot, in this rapidly rising urban area, serves as the city's lungs and the otherwise harried residents would not be able to breathe easy at all without such a spot. Some politicans also claimed that bat droppings in this forest purified the air around this place, whatever that means. This pseudo-scientific theory belies what is most obvious: for such an important green spot in the middle of a city, what has been done to make this place welcome to the residents of the city, to help them sit there and breathe its air, to admire nature around them? Absolutely nothing! The place is crawling with snakes and noone can actually enjoy it at all, with all those bat droppings around. There is no stewardship to any of this, just emotional blackmail. One must inevitably ask- for what purpose? The answer is the same: for political mileage.

Peggy Noonan, Dan Rather, Lou Dobbs, and the rest of the journalistic community are all guitly of it. Besides the scare factor, if kids need a break from anything, it is precisely this. All this agenda-driven overdrive to get their allegience.

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