mass culture

Karen Klein, the grandmother/bus monitor whose bullying by a group of middle school students was captured on video and posted online, has become a bit of a celebrity over the summer of 2012. I have nothing but respect for this eminently decent woman. But the story of her ordeal has followed an all-too-common trajectory in the American media. Shock has been followed by anger, followed by abstract gestures, followed by self-congratulation.

Clearly, there is a brighter side to the disgusting display of cruelty and intimidation by a pack of malevolent punks taunting an elderly woman, trapped in a school bus with them. The perpetrators were caught, and are now known to their neighbors for having mocked, physically threatened, and inflicted considerable emotional pain on a woman who had done them no wrong, simply because they thought it would be entertaining to do so. Mrs. Klein handled herself with dignity in an impossible situation. And it looks as though the financial support occasioned by the YouTube video and efforts of good Samaritans in an online giving campaign will bring her some amount of pleasure and even financial security for her future.

But I’ve heard more than enough about the bright side of this story. In particular, the notion that “something good” came out of this incident leaves me incredulous. Why incredulous? Because the heart of the “silver lining” seems to be an attempt on the part of the press in particular to reassure Americans that we remain “basically decent”—good, caring people who will do the right thing if only called upon to do so.

Isn’t it pretty to think so. Some people did some nice things. But the virtue required to toss a few coins into an online kitty because you’ve seen a disturbing video is rather minimal. The display is, in fact, all too indicative of the superficial mass culture we have come to inhabit. It reminds me of nothing so much as the “sponsors” in the recent movie, The Hunger Games. In that movie young people, forced into a large-scale, extended fight to the death, strive to present themselves in an appealing manner in pre-game interviews and on camera once within the arena; their goal is to entice people rooting for them to send in needed supplies at crucial points in the game. Like a television pledge drive, the manipulation of mass audiences, whether for good cause or ill, is not something about which we should be congratulating ourselves. I will be pleasantly surprised if we don’t see fake or exaggerated videos crop up in an attempt to capitalize on this latest take on the phenomenon of mass, abstract concern.

To anyone who tossed money into the kitty for Mrs. Klein, I say “good for you.” But the real test of virtue concerns what one does in one’s own neighborhood or city, faced with real, immediate problems, not how one responds to publicity. Those who sent letters, and those in Mrs. Klein’s neighborhood who reached out to her acted in a genuinely decent manner. But, frankly, online campaigns rooted in online videos are, well, just a bit creepy. They bespeak our increasingly pathetic attempts to build a “national community” of concern for people we don’t know on account of things that look particularly good, bad, or disturbing when captured on video. Sometimes these outpourings are critical to addressing massive disasters, but they remain abstract, mass-level emotional phenomena open more to manipulation and shallow self-congratulation than the forging of bonds of humanity. And, if I’m in trouble, I’d rather have a decent set of neighbors than a “caring” bunch of strangers any day of the week.

Even creepier than the internet-as-community fallacy is the suggestion being made that the taunting video should lead us to put cameras in all our school buses so that incidents like this won’t happen again. That there remain people who are willing to give up yet more of their human dignity to the watchful eye of the state is sad. That such a policy, but for cost considerations, probably would have been implemented already, seems sadly clear. The assumption that we won’t have to fear bullying if we just have big brother watching over us in those buses is a sign of just how far we have sunk into dependency on the government to act as our parents.

Other possibilities for systemic responses seem hardly more promising. It looks as though these youths will not get the punishment they deserve (a summer spent in juvenile hall after conviction for assault), and even if they did, my fear is that the long-term result still would be yet more power in the hands of the educrats who already have brought us so many bad ideas and policies. Yet more programs run by un- and mis-educated, ideologically driven bureaucrats convinced that cruelty arises from failure to buy into liberal orthodoxies on race, class, sex, and sexual orientation will do what they have always done: make matters worse.

Of course, we have little choice but to take one or more of these comfortable, co-dependent routes to (non)reform. To really examine the problem, here, might make us look into the deeper mistakes underlying our entire public school system.

It is often said that bullying has been around for a long time, and that we are just now becoming “enlightened” enough to deal with it. It is true, no doubt, that bullying has been around for a very long time, in many forms. My guess is that it has been around approximately as long as mankind. (“Cain, meet your brother, Abel.”) That being the case, we cannot hope to eliminate this phenomenon also known as human sin. Rather, we need to work out better ways to treat those who are its victims with kindness and to punish its perpetrators so as to teach them the importance of being decent human beings, or removing them from decent society—neither of which will be accomplished by the lawyer-drafted half-apologies we’ve seen in this case. At least as important, we need to better structure our institutions to make such inhumane conduct less likely.

Our current educational system is incapable of dealing with this or any other substantial issue of human behavior for the simple reason that it is incapable of treating children as human beings. I know many, many people who have been victims of bullying, as, on occasion, was I in my youth. But, looking back on my own experiences in school, I am convinced that no decision my wife and I have made for the upbringing of our children was more important than this: never, ever to allow them to be warehoused.

My wife and I have utterly abandoned the public schools; we also, by the way, have refused to send our children to any of the mammoth parochial schools that often are their only alternative. The inability of Americans to recognize the ways in which the simple problem of scale encourages pack behavior astounds me. And the role of the school bus—gathering children from miles around to ship them to one, central warehousing facility—has been critical to developing pack mentalities.

The death of the neighborhood school was no accident. Neither was it simply a liberal plot to empower the government. Even today one hears defenses of the warehouse model of schooling on the grounds that it is cheaper, provides more resources for the facilities left standing, and, most important from what I gather, provides for better sports facilities and larger, more talented teams.

It also, of course, tosses children into a mass of strangers, forcing them to compete with so many of their fellows in so many areas of student life that all but a few are left with only failure in a myriad of “fair” competitions. The result, not surprisingly, is anger at a system in which one cannot shine because one is never given the chance to learn to compete well within the small groups in which they can find something at which they are relatively good. The school system’s mass of disappointed, dislocated youth is kept in order, if at all, by adults who are overwhelmed by the sheer mass of humanity they must tend; adults who have been indoctrinated into an ideology in which virtue is an archaism at which one snickers and good character is a self-conflicting morass of radical autonomy, liberal pieties, and tolerance rooted in ignorance and self-interest.

We should not be surprised that such a system relies on a myriad of rules for order and still produces chaos, ignorance, and pockets of resistance rooted in the most primitive urges. Add to this the typical self-involved, absentee parents, whose major demands for education reform are all-day kindergarten and on-site daycare so they can fully dispose of their kids at as early an age as possible, and you have the perfect breeding ground for cruel, selfish punks (and their victims).

If we are going to continue shipping our children to centralized warehouses in the name of sports, or “resources” or anything else, we should not be surprised that we have a war of all against all, with only a leviathan administration to maintain the semblance of peace. And we had best not allow grandmothers to serve as bus monitors. Far better, if “efficient,” “unified” school districts are our model, to hire ex-cons, preferably armed with something more intimidating than a fierce look, to force the socially dislocated beings we have created to behave in a peaceful manner.

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