RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Stem the Epidemic of Bad Behavior

The Christian high holidays (Halloween through Easter) have kicked off. The old man and I spend this time catching up on popular culture after the farm year. So, we went to a movie, The Martian, on Halloween. It was excellent, by the way, with almost-seamless seams between the real and the special effects. There was a salute to the importance of food for survival; tubers made an appearance—potatoes raised on Mars. At film’s end, there was a cameo by green and red vegetables. It might be the first time ever that a movie party featured something besides cupcakes or cheese platters.

But the dark days have their spooky side and at the apex—Christmas—Hollywood offers a bunch of terror flicks. We won’t be going to these. We get our winter terror from the news media and their incessant articles about incessant wars and the plight of children.

The rising generation, sometimes called “Generation RX,” to mark it as the most drugged-up generation yet, medicated for asthma, diabetes, allergies, ADHD and so forth, are also called “Generation Zero,” for “Zero Hope.”

Indeed, there is a lot to mourn. From early childhood, these youngsters are subject to violence in the media, on-line, and in games. Even the lego men are angry. Check it out. While the lego ladies smile, their partners may be sad firemen, scowling superheroes, or just plain huffy-looking construction workers, pirates, astronauts, cowboys, and cops. Kids could think that all the guys are ready for war. And if not war in Syria, then war on drugs, war on terror, war on poverty, war on obesity.

As Malcolm Gladwell put it in a recent New Yorker, violence is becoming “ritualized.” Gladwell builds a well-reasoned theory around the idea that young men in particular, who plot to wreak havoc on society, are imitating earlier school shooters and bomb makers in the same way that kids of earlier generations have imitated heroes like the astronauts in The Martian.

The more kids that behave badly, Gladwell claims, the more that will behave badly. Even perfectly nice kids with two perfectly nice parents can get caught in the competition to prove something new. Gladwell tells the story of John, a kid that had access to a handgun and an assault rifle, but “on the day of the attack, he would start with a .22-calibre rifle and move on to a shotgun, in order to prove that high-capacity assault-style rifles were unnecessary for an effective school attack.”

Waseca, Minn. (pop. 9,410 in 2010) cops caught John with a storage bin full of explosive makings. He explained his scheme to destroy his school: “I would detonate when people were fleeing, just like the Boston bombings, and blow them up too. Then my plans were to enter and throw Molotov cocktails and pipe bombs and destroy everyone and then when the SWAT comes I would destroy myself.”

There was no explanation for this young man’s fantasy except that he had access to the media, which reports on terrible events every day. The terrible events, coming over the same channels as Dancing with the Stars or the World Series have about the same relative importance to the young mind even though we oldsters can discriminate between positive and negative role models. The escalating bad behavior is similar to epidemics of throwing toilet paper into the trees, goal post tearing, mailbox bashing or skinny dipping in the rich guy’s pool. Similar, that is, in that when one dude does it, the next one picks it up and expands, then the epidemic grows.

But the big question is, obviously, how do we stop the epidemic? What is the plan to stop the violence?

So far, nobody has come up with an answer, but I think the solutions have to come from us, the elders. We have to become mentors for the next generation. We have to take a kid or two under our wings.

To me, living near a county seat town about the same size as Waseca, the malaise of rural youngsters has to do with boredom and unemployment. Rural places at one time supplied all the summer jobs a teenaged boy could want. There were weeds to pull, houses to paint, barns to nail boards on. Today, chemicals handle the weeds (sort of) and the houses are clad in siding. As for nailing boards on barns, well, they’ve mostly been torn down.

When I talk about this, I hear, “Nobody wants to work that hard any more.” Usually, this comment is followed by a long diatribe about how hard the speaker worked back in his day.

Put that comment in the same rubbish bin with “Nobody wants to cook any more” or “Kids don’t want to eat vegetables.” Again, we elders have to teach them to cook and how to eat vegetables.

Each of us could, and should, make a difference in at least one young life. It’s the only way to create new rituals and un-ritualize the violence.

Margot Ford McMillen farms near Fulton, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, December 1, 2015

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