Sunday, September 10, 2006

Life Is Dangerous, Or So We Believe

In most ways, the lives of middle-class Americans have improved enormously over the past thirty years. But not in every way. For a variety of reasons, mostly cultural, kids have a lot less freedom of movement in their daily lives than they once did, which I think is a shame.

When I was 11 and 12 years old, New York City hosted the 1964-65 World's Fair in Flushing Meadows in Queens, just a few hundred yards from Shea Stadium. I vividly remember several times when I traveled to the fair on my own by subway--a trip that took over an hour and required several changes of trains, since we lived in Brooklyn--and spent all day there, just checking in with my parents once or twice to let them know I was okay.

I've long assumed that what I did then was very unusual and was permitted only because I was somewhat neglected as a child. But yesterday during the Mets game I heard this (paraphrased) exchange between two of the broadcasters:
Gary Cohen: You can now register online to buy Mets playoff tickets. That's a lot better than the old system that required people to line up for twenty-four hours of more for tickets. I remember back in 1969 when I was 11 years old I camped out overnight at Shea to get playoff seats.

Ron Darling: Can you imagine letting an 11-year-old camp out at Shea today?

Gary Cohen: Not in a million years.

Ron Darling: I used to hitchhike to high school.

Gary Cohen: Wow. Times have changed.
I guess I wasn't the only "neglected" kid back then.

Crime rates have gone up since the 1960s (they peaked in the early 90s and have now fallen back to mid-70s levels). But I'm not convinced that the shift in parental attitudes is mainly a rational response to a more dangerous world. I think periodic waves of hysterical television coverage of rare but sensational crimes (like child abduction by strangers) play a major role as well. The success of the Bush administration in inculcating an atmosphere of paranoia about terrorism has been built on several decades during which the media softened us up, creating a permanent public atmosphere of nagging, non-specific anxiety about life in general.

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