Perspective both geographic and temporal leave one wondering just where American society is going. I came here to research a magazine piece on tunnel warfare, but was, not unexpectedly, struck by the different tenor of life. We in the United States pride ourselves on having the best country in the world. In many ways we don’t.
Crime is rare Okinawa, except when committed by American GIs stationed here. (In a store I saw a sign: “Because of recent incidents of theft, groups of American boys are not allowed inside.”) Civility is usual, not a cause for surprise as it is when it breaks out in America. Parents do not become anxious when they lose sight of their small kids in a supermarket. Nobody is going to snatch them. Outbursts of almost psychotic violence are not part of what I suppose we would call the automotive experience.
When in the mid-seventies I first visited Japan extensively enough to get a feel for things, crime wasn’t an issue. I could walk with a date in winding alleys of Tokyo or Fukuoka late at night without hesitation. When I lived for some time in Taipei in the same years, the same was true.
On the way to Okinawa, I read Joseph Heller’s account of growing up in the Jewish neighborhoods of Coney Island in the thirties. In his entire childhood, he said, he didn’t remember a single rape, assault, or armed robbery. People didn’t have much, though they weren’t hungry or desperate. Despite living on the verge of poverty, life was peaceful and law abiding. Parents kept tabs on their kids. It worked.
Much the same was true of Arlington in the fifties, where I spent much of my kidhood. People were solidly middle-class, the men just back from the big war. Zero crime. Kids played unsupervised until dark on summer nights in great sprawling games of hide-and-go-seek that covered blocks. Parents didn’t worry. There weren’t any drugs, criminals, perverts, or explosions of weird violence. Today I might think it boring, but it was civilized.
On the other hand, around 1900, Appalachia was not. Drunkenness was rife in the hollers, killings by knife or gun common, illegitimacy the norm. There was a near-complete lack of ambition and enterprise and a disdain, or at the very least no desire, for schooling even to the level of marginal literacy.
Why are some societies chaotic, violent, and riddled by crime, when others aren’t?
It isn’t race. The Appalachian people were white. The blacks in rural areas where I grew up didn’t shoot people or get into serious scrapes with the law.
As best I can see, the problem is one of a general loosening of social control. Police and laws work well only as backups to, as enforcers of, rules of behavior that are built into a society. Cops can arrest, say, a drug dealer, but doing so is effective only if people agree that drugs are not to be tolerated. We no longer have a consensus that much of anything isn’t to be tolerated. Perhaps more correctly, law and social policy have made it impossible to enforce the popular will.
A fair number of whites quietly believe, incidentally, that violence is somehow built into black society. I don’t think so. Talk to blacks who gather at the scene of street crime. The invariable response of adults is a shaking of heads and the question, “What has gotten into these kids?” Much of the surge of blacks into PG County is an effort to get their kids away from the shootings and drug culture of the city. They don’t think chaos is natural. They just don’t know what to do about it.
Until we manage, black and white alike, to reimpose social discipline, nothing will change. The first need is to control and socialize the young (who, notice, commit the crime.) This means stopping illegitimacy, which leaves children to run wild. We probably can’t stop it: The full force of lesbian feminism, which dominates politics, opposes male participation in the raising of kids. No politician will buck NOW.
And we need to force the courts to let us say “No” to things that almost no one wants except judges and the ACLU. For example, Hollywood vaunts grotesque violence, sex, and the use of drugs. Kids will do what we glamorize. Do you want this?
Yet the courts are beyond democratic control. So that isn’t going to happen either.
We don’t have to live this way. Others don’t. Yet watch, we will.
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