'Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone. --John Donne, 1611
On the commuter train from downtown Los Angeles to Irvine the other day, a man said to the stranger next to him: "A lot of people are killing their families now. What's the deal?"
Haven't most of us had a moment when we considered events from the past few years and wondered--however fleetingly because the thought is so profoundly unsettling--whether civilization is unraveling? And asked ourselves what the deal is.
Maybe it was the horrific details of some children coldbloodedly gunning down their parents, police officers or other children. Or the images of our neighbors setting fires and arming themselves against looters after the Rodney G. King verdicts. Or reports of children laughing at movie portrayals of the Holocaust or, perhaps more chillingly, at scenes of cruelty designed by some of our other neighbors to make them laugh. ("The Terminator:" "Consider this a divorce.")
It might have been the shock of the genial-appearing sports legend O.J. Simpson standing accused of murdering his former wife and her friend. Or perhaps it happened in your own home when your 10-year-old mentioned she would feel safer if she had a gun in her purse.
Are provocative solutions to our social problems being proposed around "family values"?
Since Dan Quayle, the term family values has become a joke ("Addams Family Values," "Trump Family Values"). The Los Angeles County Children's Planning Council, like other panels attempting to pin down the causes of our current problems, came up with poverty, violence, substance abuse and racism.
Some researchers might add biology, saying violent environments produce chemical changes that can be inherited.
Yet many from the left, the right and the "extreme center" do not apologize when they say the deal basically is that children today experience a pathetic lack of meaningful contact with caring adults.
An array of public opinion polls has shown that most people agree. What they usually mean, though, is, "Not in our own homes, of course, because everything there is fine, thank you, but the problem is in the homes of those other people. And in the schools."
But when you go out and talk to people about our moral crisis, you find some palpable differences these days.
One is that there appears to be less moralizing and less blame being passed around. People now are calling for personal responsibility, not just from "them" but from "us." As parents, they say, let's not lie to our children; as teachers, let's not fear instilling core values; as neighbors, let's volunteer to help children separated from their parents. Let's all do better to support one another.
But answers are elusive as to how we get there from here. How can you teach values to your 2-year-old or to the neighbor's troubled adolescent when it's on the "to-do" list somewhere between find another job, get some sleep, lose 15 pounds and do the laundry? The answer: We do the best we can.
Sweeping social and cultural solutions are often heartfelt and have the ring of common sense. But with notable exceptions, they are rarely supported by empirical evidence that they can change behavior on a large scale. If they ever get put into practice, it's usually because of a leap of faith by a private foundation. More realistic may be the small steps, the changes individuals and families and communities make in their immediate worlds.
Then there is the minority opinion that we may be over-reacting.
Kirk Astroth, a Montana State University youth specialist, observes that in every decade since the 1930s, elders have said young people are out of control. In fact, he argues, today's teen-agers are better educated, healthier and more responsible than teen-agers of the past. Even among those who grow up in vulnerable environments, Astroth maintains that the great majority do not develop self-destructive patterns of behavior.
It might be worthwhile taking a look at them, he suggests.
Indeed, young people and those working closest to the trenches seem to be among the least depressed about the future. Generation Xers on a computer bulletin board say the biggest problem in society today is reporters and other adults who ask stupid questions.
In any case, as psychologist and sociologist Carolyn Reid-Green observed, pessimism is ultimately pointless because it closes doors to solutions. There are plenty of people doing fine work with children and families, she said. "It's just not enough."