20 things to leave in the 20th century, Part 3 

Sorting the Century

15. The Youth Obsession
Our willingness to be titillated commercially by images and promises of youth is pathetic and would be worthy of exile to the 20th century on aesthetic grounds alone. But there also are more serious ethical and practical objections to our youth obsession that make necessary its destruction, which should be among our collective New Year's resolutions.

As to the problems of images of youth we may be brief. Children in ads for adult underwear or jeans serve no purpose other than to stimulate prurient interest that may be effective from a marketing perspective but which is clearly less advantageous to the culture collectively, and to the victims of emboldened pedophiles individually. The JonBenet Ramsey phenomenon, particularly the relentless peddling of her image, is the ultimate expression of this tendency (and perhaps its most dire consequences).

Now as to promises of youth, our obsession is not merely the age-old desire to be young (or at least young-looking), a transparent and serene fact of human nature. Nor is our obsession for youth the exclusive province of women (there are now, after all, products such as "Just for Men"). But in the commercial culture we inhabit the valuing of youthfulness has been incited to such pathological degrees (cosmetic surgery, liposuction and other radical youth-seeking measures) that it threatens to become a problem not of degree but of kind.

There is in fact such mania for youthfulness that the obsession appears to be (and for all practical purposes often is) an abdication of adulthood. This is aesthetically odious, like an elderly woman in a miniskirt, not because of its mere unsightliness, but also because of the absence or deformity of character it reveals. It is also dangerous. If abdication of adulthood also means desertion from some of the responsibilities of parenting, then children are that much more left to fend for themselves in the commercial culture, that much less trained and equipped to combat it.

Our commercial culture essentially teaches children they are insignificant except as consumers of what the commercial culture produces. Children instinctively know this is wrong, but when parents fail to help them define themselves apart from it, this very denial of childhood itself yields either cynical acquiescence to the commercial culture or a properly contemptuous rebellion that, increasingly, surpasses rage. That is, it results in a revoltingly precocious consumerism or a resentful pagan nihilism capable of, and tending toward, Columbine.

Free markets are wonderful laboratories for revealing human nature, but they offer little, and have little incentive, to suppress the more troubling tendencies from which free markets can profit. That is where maturity and other species of wisdom come in. Act your age, and let your children have theirs.

16. Our love of handguns
by Col.Jerry A. Oliver, Chief of Police

[image-1]A new year usually means new resolutions. This year, the idea of new resolutions seems to have taken on even greater importance since we're about to begin a new millennium in a much safer city.

We are resolved this next year and well into the next decade to continue to reduce illegal handguns on the streets of Richmond through Project Exile and by any legal means necessary. This would include the creation of new legislation and providing more education and the development of new attitudes about conflict resolution by our citizens.

I recall one case in which detectives arrived at a scene to find two dead people. After interviewing witnesses and others who knew the victims, detectives determined that the two had gotten into an argument. Neither one was willing to look at the other's viewpoint, and both were carrying handguns. Instead of communicating through words, they chose to communicate by using their handguns. They both fired, and they both died.

If we continue to reduce the "carry rate" of illegal and legal handguns in the city, much of the spontaneous violence and precipitous homicides we've seen in past years around the availability of guns, would decrease significantly.

Although we will never be able to totally get rid of handguns in our society, we certainly want to leave some of the attitudes about handguns and weapons behind in this century and move to a more enlightened place in the next century.

The Richmond Police Department's New Year's resolution is to make that happen. We resolve to reduce the carry rate and the spontaneous recreational violence that occurs. We know that conflict will always exist, but by diminishing handgun availability, we will reduce the chance that an argument will become lethal. Every conflict doesn't have to end with someone dying.

If we're truly going to be the world-class city that we all hope to become, we must leave our attitudes about guns and gun violence on this side of the Y2K divide.

17. SOLs

The SOLs are an amazing accomplishment. In adopting them, the Virginia Board of Education has managed to break down even the most exciting concepts and skills into their itty-est, bitty-est, boring-est parts. A few examples:

Virginia's kindergartners "will investigate and describe the results of dropping a two-colored counter or using a multicolored spinner."

Virginia's fourth graders "will investigate and describe the relationships between and among points, lines, line segments, and rays."

Virginia's eighth graders "will describe orally and in writing the relationship between the subsets of the real number system."

Enough is enough. Our poor students can't see the forest for the trees. In fact, they can barely see the trees anymore, so involved are they with the minutiae of each leaf.

In the future, let's pay more attention to the big picture. Let's find ways to unlock our children's creativity. And let's help them think things that have never been thought before.

18. The appointed mayor

Richmond will be an adolescent city as long as it acts like a strict parent doling out small bits of responsibility to its elected officials. Here, mayor, cut this ribbon, sit in this special chair for meetings — just make sure you check with the city manager before you do anything important. It's time to elect the man or woman ourselves. And while we're at it, let's make City Council a full time job. Just like all the other grown-ups have.

19. Road Rage

[image-2]Illustration by Jeffrey BlandWhen your dad pounded into you the importance of being a defensive driver, he didn't know the half of it. When he instructed you to keep at least two-and-a-half car lengths between your car and the car in front of you, he surely was worried about braking distance, not bullet distance.

But sometime around the start of this last decade of the century, people started snapping on the roads. At first, it was an appalling curiosity of the L.A. highways, people picking each other off from their cars. Then they gave it a name, road rage, and like everything that comes from L.A., soon enough it caught on around the country, including in nearby New Kent County where a young woman was murdered in a road-rage incident last summer.

How did we get here? How did we arrive at a time when the police actually instruct people to look straight ahead in their cars and not make eye contact with the other human beings driving next to them? Does anyone remember when driving was a pleasure, when families actually went for Sunday drives for something to do?

Do you ever get into your car if you don't have to? You take your life into your hands every time you do, and not just because of the hazards of maneuvering a two-ton metal cage.

This thing we've dubbed road rage is one of the more despicable developments of the late 20th century and we propose to leave it there, stranded on the side of the on-ramp to the next century. And it can be done. There is an instantaneous solution to road rage: Think. Every time you get into the car, every time you cut someone off or are cut off. Think first before you react. Just think.

20. Dot Com

People with children say that from the moment their child is born, they simply can't remember what life was like before the baby's arrival. We can relate, sort of, and maybe you can tooA. We are having trouble remembering life before the words dot com entered the lexicon, upon the birth of that bloated, wailing wonderbaby named the Internet.

Awww, wasn't it cute when it was first born? You can shop, you can keep in touch with old friends, you can send pictures to the grandparents with the click of a button. A world of knowledge at your fingertips for important research and personal self-improvement. Remember the dreams we had for the baby?

Who knew he'd grow up to be a porn star?

We have found the Internet to be only marginally useful, mostly for e-mail and some shopping. But encountering the overwhelming amount of digital detritus out there in cyberspace is like standing atop a mile-high stinking mound of landfill trash digging for grandmom's wedding band.

This dot com. That dot com. Janegetmeoffthiscrazything dot com. The culture has been overrun by two tiny syllables, one of which isn't even a word. Not to possess the suffix is not to exist, so we have tampax.com. and poptarts.com. and tacobell.com and a universe of other useless Web sites adding to the cyberglut.

Television (that medium that will be destroyed by the Internet, just you watch) is hungrily devouring dot com advertising dollars, which will top $7 billion (not a typo, that's a "b") for 1999. (Anybody stop to ask yet if the Internet is itself such a powerful tool, why is it forced to market itself through TV?) Monster.com, Amazon.com, Yahoo.com, e*Trade.com, Ameritrade.com. Dot com, dot com, dot com.

Dot com, it seems, has replaced amen as the punctuation mark to everything. Even you, a human being, are less valuable without it. How does a pingpong-playing Turkish amateur photographer get the attention of a half-million people each week? How does some average-looking girl named Jenny get every guy in America wanting to peek into her bedroom? How does a morbidly obese former pop star get anyone to care about her gastric bypass surgery? Because they have dot com after their names, and you don't.

Maybe Ted Kaczynski doesn't seem so crazy anymore, letter bombs notwithstanding. Let's sacrifice the baby for the greater good, pull the plug and sit back down in front of the TV, where we belong.

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