The day the O.J. Simpson verdict was announced, I said to my then-teenage son, “David, please forgive me. I am handing over to you a worse America than my father handed over to me.”
Unfortunately, I still feel this way.
With the important exception of racial discrimination — which was already dying a natural death when I was young — it is difficult to come up with an important area in which America is significantly better than when I was a boy. But I can think of many in which its quality of life has deteriorated.
When I was a boy, America was a freer society than it is today. If Americans had been told the extent and number of laws that would govern their speech and behavior within one generation, they would have been certain that they were being told about some dictatorship, not the Land of the Free. Today, people at work, to cite but one example, are far less free to speak naturally. Every word, gesture and look, even one’s illustrated calendar, is now monitored lest a fellow employee feel offended and bring charges of sexual harassment or creating a “hostile work environment” or being racially, religiously or ethnically insensitive, or insensitive to another’s sexual orientation.
Meanwhile, all employers in California are now prohibited by law from firing a man who has decided to cross-dress at work. And needless to say, no fellow worker can say to that man, “Hey, Jack, why not wear the dress at home and men’s clothes to work?” An employer interviewing a prospective employee is not free to ask the most natural human questions: Are you married? Do you have a child? How old are you? Soon “How are you?” will be banned lest one discriminate on the basis of health.
When I was boy, what people did at home was not their employer’s business. Today, companies and city governments refuse to hire, and may fire, workers no matter how competent or healthy, who smoke in their homes. Sarasota, Fla., the latest city to invade people’s private lives, would not hire Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt or John F. Kennedy if they applied for a job.
When I was a 7-year-old boy, I flew alone from New York to my aunt and uncle in Miami and did the same thing coming back to New York. I boarded the plane on my own and got off the plane on my own. No papers for my parents to fill out. No extra fee to pay the airline. I was responsible for myself. Had I run away or been kidnapped, no one would have sued the airline. Today, fear of lawsuits is a dominant fact of American life.
When I was a boy, I ran after girls during recess, played dodgeball, climbed monkey bars and sat on seesaws. Today, more and more schools have no recess; have canceled dodgeball lest someone feel bad about being removed from the game; and call the police in to interrogate, even sometimes arrest, elementary school boys who playfully touch a girl. And monkey bars and seesaws are largely gone, for fear of lawsuits should a child be injured.
When I was boy, I was surrounded by adult men. Today, most American boys (and girls, of course) come into contact with no adult man all day every school day. Their teachers and school principals are all likely to be women. And if, as is often the case, there is no father at home (not solely because of divorce but because “family” courts have allowed many divorced mothers to remove fathers from their children’s lives), boys almost never come into contact with the most important group of people in a boy’s life — adult men. The contemporary absence of men in boys’ lives is not only unprecedented in American history; it is probably unprecedented in recorded history.
When I was a boy, we had in our lives adults who took pride in being adults. To distinguish them from our peers, we called these adults “Mr.,” “Mrs.” and “Miss,” or by their titles, “Doctor,” “Pastor,” “Rabbi,” “Father.” It was good for us, and we liked it. Having adults proud of their adulthood, and not acting like they were still kids, gave us security (as well as something to look forward to in growing up). Today, kids are surrounded by peers twice, three, four times their age.
When I was a boy, the purpose of American history textbooks was to teach American history. Today, the purpose of most American history texts is to make minorities and females feel good about themselves. As a result, American kids today are deprived of the opportunity to feel good about being American (not to mention deprived of historical truth). They are encouraged to feel pride about all identities — African-American, Hispanic, Asian, female, gay — other than American.
When I was a teenage boy, getting to kiss a girl, let alone to touch her thigh or her breast (even over her clothes) was the thrill of a lifetime. Most of us could only dream of a day later on in life when oral sex would take place (a term most of us had never heard of). But of course, we were not raised by educators or parents who believed that “teenagers will have sex no matter what.” Most of us rarely if ever saw a naked female in photos (the “dirty pictures” we got a chance to look at never showed “everything”), let alone in movies or in real life. We were, in short, allowed to be relatively innocent. And even without sex education and condom placement classes, few of us ever got a girl pregnant.
When I was a boy, “I Love Lucy” showed two separate beds in Lucy and Ricky’s bedroom — and they were a married couple. Today, MTV and most TV saturate viewers’ lives with sexual imagery and sexual talk, virtually all of which is loveless and, of course, non-marital.
When I was boy, people dressed up to go to baseball games, visit the doctor and travel on airplanes. Today, people don’t dress up even for church.
When I was a boy, Time and Newsweek were well written and relied little on pictures and illustrations. Today, those magazines often look like adult comic books by comparison. They are filled with large illustrations and photos, and they dumb down the news with features like “Winners and Losers” and “Who’s Up and Who’s Down.” And when I was a boy, it would have been inconceivable for Time to substitute anything, let alone a tree, for the flag planted by the marines on Iwo Jima.
One might argue that these are the same laments that every previous older generation has expressed — “Ah, when I was young” But in America, that has not been the case. In America, the older generations tended to say the opposite — “When I was a kid, things were worse.”
Can we return to the America of my youth? No. Can we return to the best values of that time? Yes. But not if both houses of Congress, the presidency and the Supreme Court move the country even further leftward. If that happens, many of the above noted changes will simply be accelerated: More laws restricting “offensive” speech will be enacted; litigation will increase and trial lawyers will gain more power; the American military will be less valued; trees will gradually replace the flag as our most venerated symbol; schools will teach even less as they concentrate even more on diversity, sexuality and the environment; teenage sex will be increasingly accepted; American identity will continue to be replaced by ethnic, racial, gender or “world citizen” identity; and the power of the state will expand further as the power of the individual inevitably contracts. It’s hard to believe most Americans really want that.