Information, observations, and analysis from the James River valley on the Northern Plains-----
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Last Tuesday, gangs of teen-agers gathered on the south corners of the intersection of Sixth Avenue and Dakota Street at the behest of anti-abortion and pro-choice organizations to carry signs and demonstrate the positions of their sponsors on Referred Law 6. For those who are not familiar with Aberdeen, Sixth Avenue is the main drag. It is also U.S. 12. As you drive in from the east, you will pass the major implement dealers, the airport, Wal-Mart, Menards, Target, what is left of the mall, fast-food outlets, motels, the library, a multitude of strip malls, and on it goes out to the cattle farms and ranches to the west. The corner of Sixth and Dakota features Burger King, KFC, a bank, and an outfit that sells hot tubs. The anti-abortion demonstrators camped in front of the hot tubs. The pro-choice demonstrators were in front of "have it your way" Burger King.
The anti-abortion people had their teen-age surrogates out there first. When the pro-choice organizations heard this, they lined up kids to represent the opposition viewpoint. Nothing wrong with that. Except that they were kids.
Some vile exchanges took place between the demonstrator camps and between them and passing motorists. The vileness had little to do with the convictions of the demonstrators. It has more to do with the culture of the young and what--much as we deny it--our high schools have turned into. We are a viciously divided society, and the attitudes of our culture are reflected in the bitter and often dangerous factions that create the social atmosphere of our high schools. While the administrative and teaching staffs of our schools try their hardest every day to moderate the factionalism and turn the focus to education, their efforts cannot compensate for the rip-tides of hatred that surge through teen-age society and carry young people out to angry, stormy seas.
Teen-age culture is angry and bigoted. It is divided into factions. Over the years when I have asked freshmen students to write analytical papers about their educational experiences, they all acknowledge the divisions of students into the popular kids, the preppies, the gangstas, the motor heads, the druggies, the gothics, the jocks, and on and on. The papers all reflected a bitter disdain held by the factions toward each other. They were remarkable in that only an isolated few reflected any inclination toward tolerance, good will, and the acceptance of differences. To someone of my age, this is not familiar territory. While there were social factions in high schools of my day, the student body was not divided by them. People of varying backgrounds and varying interests were more involved with including diversity rather than finding social pretexts for exclusion. I have two high school-aged children, and I am troubled and puzzled by the attitudes they hold toward their peers. I also recognize that I am part of a group that they disdain. I am old. I have nothing I can communicate. My life and its experiences are irrelevant. Their attitudes are shaped by popular culture and peers.
As a long-time political operative and "adviser," I have been critical of the way election campaigns are run. Major political figures hire young operatives from out-of-state to come in and run their campaign offices. I have no problem with that. They work cheap, they put in horrendously long hours, and they invest a level of energy that is daunting. The problem is that they are young. Their inexperience and their youthful presumptions often damage campaigns.
I am not suggesting that we elders can do any better. Many older people are mired in the well-this-is-the-way-we-used-to-do-it mode. They are not particularly tolerant of youthful presumption. A few years ago, I suggested that a board of experienced people in the county be organized to consult with the young campaign staffs and show them around the county so that they would know who was who and what was what. Initially, the advisers did head off some potentially harmful intra-party gaffs and some mistakes in organizing supporters. But the sense of self-importance and impatience of the young soon prevailed, and they tended to dismiss the information given by the more experienced hands. When mature people realize that their efforts are an annoyance to the campaign staffs, they tend to withdraw from campaign activities. After this last election, I am more convinced than ever that political parties need to find a way to utilize the knowledge from experience and the energy of youth in coordinated ways. It would civilize campaigns considerably.
What happened on Sixth Avenue last Tuesday was as much a problem with the mindless factionalism of youth as it was with the issue at hand. The kids were responding much like they do at confrontations with fans from opposing sports teams. There was an element of juvenile exhibitionism that soon turns to anger and confrontation. The groups yelled insults at each other. One group had a bull horn and shouted every insult they could remember from the Comedy Channel. For them, the whole experience was something of a lark, but it turned to anger and got out-of-control and the police were called quite a few times.
I had a discussion with some of the young demonstrators and asked if they thought their behavior was making a positive statement for the pro-choice side. They looked at me with that what-has-that-to-do-with-it? look and showed the resentment that the young often have for the old. Some of us called the headquarters of the sponsoring organization that pays the local staff members, and they ordered the staff to either establish some decorum or send the young demonstrators home. Things quietened down, but for many witnesses the confrontations were not forgotten. They carry images and incidents that for them characerterizes the sides of the abortion debate.
We cannot blame the kids for their excesses. Adults showed the same anger and intolerance in their letters to the editors--except that editors will not allow such abusive and profane language. Many bloggers framed the debate in terms of hostility and hatred, too. Blogs often reveal character. The kids and their propensity for getting vicious and acting out bring to the surface the attitudes and values that drive our general culture. While we may lament and shame our youth for their behavior, we cannot face the fact that they are expressing the attitudes and values of the culture that is shaping them. We adults have created that culture, but we have little influence in controlling its results.
The week before the election, I stopped by the printer to pick up some campaign literature we had ordered. As I came in the door, a woman behind the counter said, "Brown County Democrats, right.?" Before I could say yes, another woman customer snarled something about Democrats and gave an evil derisive laugh. This little episode is what was being replayed and intensified out on Sixth Avenue on election day.
Our children did not do us proud that day. But they are expressions of what they learn from us. Don't disparage the kids. Examine our failings as a culture and a society.Here is a link to another account of this incident: http://www.aberdeennews.com/mld/aberdeennews/news/opinion/15994091.htm