Monday, April 25, 2016

On Being A Member Of The Moral Panic Generation

Todd Rundgren's band Utopia knew that the Beatles burning of 1966 was more a sign of the early 80s than an image of the past

I was born in 1975, the year of the lowest birth rate on record in American history. That reflected both a sluggish economy as well as a shift away from the power of the traditional family in post-60s America. It also made me the perfect age to endure a whole raft of moral panics, which came fast and furious in the 1980s as a response to the very era of decadence that I and my generational cohort was born into.

During the years when I was first able to trick or treat, the rumors about poisoned candy intensified. In the early 1980s in my grade school years "stranger danger" became a constant fear. It didn't help that two boys were horribly murdered in Bellevue, Nebraska, (my home state) by a serial killer who picked them up in his car.  As I got older, sex, drugs, and rock and roll all became deadly and even devilish. By the time I was in middle school, I got heavy indoctrination in anti-drug propaganda, as was the style at the time. Tipper Gore and the PRMC were telling everyone that the music their kids liked was evil, and started slapping "explicit content" warnings all over it.  Others went further, claiming backwards messages were inserted to incite devil worship and suicide. Instead of empathy and compassion, the AIDS epidemic resulted in fear and scapegoating of gays and panic over how it spread. I was constantly on the lookout for drugs being pushed on me, and constantly told when I went to the big city (Omaha, in my case) to be on the lookout for gang members who would hide under cars and slash my ankle tendons as part of their initiation.  Hell, I couldn't even enjoy a harmless game of Dungeons & Dragons, which had been declared Satanic. At one point a family member panicked because someone had told her that Nintendo was Satanic, too. She couldn't actually remember the reason, but evidently my playing Nintendo was endangering my soul.

I've been thinking a lot about how this particular moment in American cultural history came to be. As more and more mothers worked, we were the daycare kids before becoming latchkey kids. The guilt and anxiety over this transition, combined with the rising influence of hardcore evangelicalism and Reagan-era backlash against the permissiveness of the 60s and 70s, perhaps made this all inevitable. Back in the sixties when Bible thumpers burned Beatles albums it was pretty obvious that the Fab Four were not under any serious kind of threat. All of a sudden, in the 1980s the Dobsons, Falwells, and Pat Roberstons of the world had their own media empires and powerful friends in office.  Boomers who may have strayed from the righteous path started going back to church, but it was more likely to be of the mega variety. Even for those of a more secular bent or adhering to a different religious sensibility, a reevaluation of values, as Nietzsche would put it, was in the offing.

Whatever the reasons, the sons and daughters were forced to atone for the sins of the mothers and fathers. Although members of my generation were the most likely in history to experience parental divorce, it was our generation, not our parents' generation, that bore the cultural fallout. We were an object of suspicion as much as we were of protective anxiety.  In school we were a "nation at risk" according to a famous report from 1983.  In my teen years the African American and Latino members of my cohort were labelled "superpredators." Youth were feared as products of a society gone wrong, cannon fodder in the culture wars.

But nowadays, my comrades in the moral panic generation have had the last laugh. I have a theory, borne out by data,  that the recent spike in those declaring themselves religiously unaffiliated began with my generation. Bombarded with a newly strengthened conservative Christianity powerful enough to engender court cases accusing day care centers of running Satanist death cults, many of us decided that religion just wasn't for us. We were bombarded with anti-drug education using spurious methods, but still were more likely than our parents' generation to favor legalization, which now looks like it is possible in the next ten years. With the advent of streaming on the internet, the attempt to limit music that teenagers can hear is now pretty much null and void. Hilary Clinton's "predator" comments -intended to harness the moral panic for the Democratic side- are now used AGAINST her. LARPing has become commonplace and is no longer fodder for scare-books like Mazes and Monsters.

People like to put my generation down as disaffected, but that disaffection is actually wisdom. We were fed massive tranches of steaming bullshit and fear mongering in our youth, and it's given us a healthy distaste for authority and a well-developed ear for malarkey.  (And yes, I am aware that generational thinking is notoriously subjective, but just indulge me this once.)  If that means we're not as big of "joiners" as our millennial juniors are, that's fine. We survived the wave of moral panics and defied them so that those younger than us could grow up with more possibilities for action and the necessary faith to be able to push for change. You're welcome!

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