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Gary Horton: Tether kids to civility

Full speed to port!

Posted: June 8, 2010 8:06 p.m.
Updated: June 9, 2010 4:55 a.m.

Astute folks hear the wisdom that generally accompanies old age. Wise grandparents - and even wise old taxi drivers - have much insight to offer.

My wife, Carrie, and I just returned from our favorite vacation spot - Bermuda. We were already in New York for our son Chris' graduation, and Bermuda was just a rock skip out of New York.

Favorite among our Bermuda activities is simply chatting with Bermudian taxi drivers. Almost universally, the drivers are senior men, often over 70. They are friendly, social and nearly to a one, happy to engage their passengers with stories, opinions and island history.

Their colorful recollections go way back to when the island was isolated, quaint and proper. These experienced gentlemen speak firsthand of the change that international intrusion, modern media and Internet technologies have wrought upon their traditional island culture of 60,000 Bermudians.

During this trip, the drivers spoke extensively of an emerging criminality among some of the island's young men. They refer to these men as, "the ones who don't understand." Some drivers just call them "dumb."

You see, only three years ago, Bermuda had very little crime, almost zero gun violence and no murders. In 2010 alone, it has experienced more than 100 shootings and 24 murders. This crime explosion is perpetrated almost exclusively by young men in their late teens to late 20s. Much of the activity emulates violence glorified in popular new media.

The old-timers lament this "ignorance" of their grandsons. The grandsons lament the slowness of life on their island compared to the hyper fast, sexed-up and violence-glorified outside world pictured on their TVs, music videos and computers. In this, Bermuda serves as both a petri dish and mirror.

A petri dish because we see in the Bermudian micro-environment some of the damning byproducts of the exploding media and Internet frontier. A mirror because it reflects emerging elements of our own deterioration here at home.

Frederick Law Olmstead, the great American planner, landscape architect and social observer, often commented on forces that strengthen and weaken civility and society. Borrowing from Horace Bushnell, Olmstead wrote: "Every new immigration, or settlement of the social state, involves a tendency towards social decline. There must in every such case be a relapse towards barbarism, more or less protracted."

Olmstead observed when men leave established society to settle new frontier, rules of civility are quickly lost amid the scramble, confusion, base expediency and separation.

"Me" replaces "we," as civilities and norms are forgotten and left behind. Crudeness and barbarism rise in the vacuum.

In his time, Olmstead was speaking of the impact of physical immigration to physical frontiers. Today, we send our children packing (or seduced - take your pick) into new electronic frontiers. They're immigrating into electronic super-reality worlds, bombarded with 24/7 images, media seduction and virtual realities - which to our kids can be every bit as disconnecting as crossing the plains in covered wagons or sailing tall ships away to the New World.

In Bermuda, as with most developed countries, we've given, forced or suffered kids an absolutely unprecedented level of exposure and connectivity to experiences and influences outside their cultural norms - and sometimes beyond their ability or age to reasonably assimilate. The rate of this technological change is so great that the societal impact is almost immeasurable.

The new "e-frontier" is a constantly changing space and state that those just one generation prior don't comprehend, don't respect and to their detriment, don't fear. That such extensive migration of kids' minds should come with a physical social decline as Olmstead predicts should surprise no one.

The new media and "e-world" explosion compromises our children's connection to history, culture, civility and even ties to physical society. Their old world can seem boring and quaint compared to the speed allure of the new.

Today, our kids absorb influences and enter spaces far removed from quaint Bermudian islands or quiet, gentle suburbs. For both better and for worse, ever-expanding new frontiers are at their fingertips, in their eyes and ears and in their minds.

When for worse, the degradation that in some incur on their voyage, we see acted out in the real world.

As Carrie and I visited popular spots on the island, we saw notices excluding locals wearing various indicators of anti-social inclination or criminal affiliation. One popular eating establishment bluntly excluded any local under the age of 23.

Once-quiet Bermuda is suffering a youthful crime wave, and it's driven by a myriad of new influences.

Back in the U.S., we witness our own concerns. Crime, we have long had. But we also see increasing social insensitivities, sexual crudeness and debasement, educational decline and a troubling isolation from meaningful civil connection. Such shifts carry a heavy price when "e-tastic" fantasies get rudely unplugged, and our kids are judged in the real world on real world actions, accomplishments and merit.

Some kids grow stronger in the new "e-world" challenge. Others may falter, juggling between fantasy, reality and constant distraction.

Our Bermudian petri dish vacation didn't seem to hold out the best promise for Bermuda. Nor does what we see in our larger American venue, as kids migrate away from "where we were" at warp drive speed, deeper into the ever-expanding e-world experiences.

Wisdom suggests we tether our kids to the real world, emphasizing civility and real-world practicality. It's a wild west in the new e-world, and experienced old guys and taxi drivers know youngsters can get lost in the scramble and confusion without strong guideposts to make safe their way.

Gary Horton is a Santa Clarita resident. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal. "Full Speed to Port!" appears Wednesday in The Signal


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