Broken glass: A futurist's look at today

By Lawrence Henry
web posted June 1999

In thinking about the shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, and about the more recent shootings in Conyers, Georgia, a metaphor -- one already admirably used -- has occurred to me.

New York Police Chief William Bratton, hired and directed by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, began the practice of something called "broken glass policing" -- with spectacular effects on the crime rates in New York City. Broken glass policing grows out of sociological studies that show that little crimes lead to big crimes. In one noteworthy experiment, a car was abandoned in a bad neighborhood, and nothing happened to it -- until its windshield was broken. Shortly thereafter it was cannibalized of all its useful parts and left a wreck.

Clean up the broken glass -- the petty crimes and vandalisms -- and the big crimes won't happen.

So where does our society-wide broken glass come from? I can't say for sure. Nobody can. But I'll summarize here the kinds of large, secular, domestic trends that have occurred in the United States since about 1960. I'll try to do this as plainly and without prejudice as I can, leaving readers to draw their own conclusions. I won't load the data. But I will confine myself to domestic trends. The fall of the Soviet Union certainly counts for effect domestically, as does the globalized economy; but I won't include them here.

Here they are:

Television: Particularly since the advent of cable television, channels have multiplied and program offerings have proliferated. First-run movies, without censorship, are available; and there are special channels for special interests, including sex. The VCR allows "time shifting," so viewers can see what they want when they want. Total TV watching per person and per household has increased to the point where TV viewing is the dominant activity of most Americans.

Advertising: (See "Television," above) The impact of any given advertising campaign has been diluted tremendously from the 1950s -- and it's grown much, much more expensive. At the same time, more channel outlets, supplemented by more radio and print outlets, allow more ways for advertisers to target audiences than ever before. An advertising mentor of mine liked to say, "Your message competes with all messages in all media all the time." The only way to "break through the clutter" is with repetition. Sure enough, we have more advertising, by volume and by repetition, than ever before.

"Question Authority": This slogan, first heard in the 1960s, has now thoroughly penetrated American life as a reflexive attitude. Children are taught, as a key principle of their education, to doubt any received wisdom. Listen to voiceover announcers on radio or television. The deep, authoritative, masculine voices of the past have been replaced, in many cases, by adolescent sneers. "Question Authority" may also be understood as "Dump on Men."

Computers: Computer usage has now penetrated just about half of American homes. Together with the Internet, which I'll include (inadequately) under this heading, computers have helped create the largest have/have-not split ever seen in any society: the split between those who have access to information and those who don't. Unlike television, computer knowledge grows from the bottom up, not from the top down. We have scarcely begun to realize the potential of that revolution.

Prosperity: According to most portfolio managers I talk to, we are in the Reagan Recovery. This economy, in other words, dates from the Tax Reform Acts of 1984 and 1986, most conspicuously from 1986, when the top marginal rate was dropped to 28%. Margaret Thatcher has said, "There are no permanent political victories," but this one comes close. It is now politically impossible for anyone to propose confiscatory rates of taxation on higher incomes. (They do it other ways, of course.)

Anti-Tobacco Activism: A "devil made me do it" movement as powerful as the "wet-dry" conflict of the early 20th Century, the anti-tobacco movement may be read as a bellwether of post-1960s attitudes: "Somebody else hurt me, somebody else ought to pay, somebody else ought to be held responsible." I subsume the anti-gun movement within this one, because they're really one and the same, and their soldiers are the same: the trial lawyers. The significant point: Law is being used here to destroy lawfulness. On a day-to-day level, the movement has demonized some 40 million people, and turned some tens of millions of others into stark raving jerks.

Abortion: Since the Roe vs. Wade decision, more than 35 million unborn babies have been aborted.

The Collapse of Education: Some people say "the deliberate ruin" of education. It amounts to the same thing. It includes school busing, whole-language learning, the self-esteem movement ("Outcome-Based Education"), the dilution in the value of a college degree (there are more students now in college than in high school), and the takeover of universities by radical multicultural theorists and deconstructionist philosophers. This trend also includes the decline of the English language and the decline of reading.

Identity Politics: Best traced in the corruption of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, identity politics found its best, if inadvertent expression, in Al Gore's goof translation of "E pluribus unum" as "Out of one, many." (It means the exact opposite.) Hubert Humphrey famously declared that if the Civil Rights Act could be construed to mean racial quotas, he'd eat the act page by page. It's a good thing HHH isn't with us anymore. He'd have to start eating.

The Church-Culture Split: Religion has effectively been banned from the public square. Since "public" increasingly means "on TV," I need only note here that, in the 1950s, numbers of popular television entertainers identified themselves proudly as committed Christians: Danny Thomas, the Lennon Sisters, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Pat Boone. No more.

I have tried -- as I say -- to state these trends plainly. You may quarrel that my selection alone shows prejudice. But I don't think anyone could claim that the trends I've named a) aren't big or b) aren't important.

Having stated those trends plainly, I ask this question: How many of these trends can accurately be described as vandalism, as the active defacing of some part of our culture? The answer, of course, is: Almost all of them.

So where's the broken glass? Everywhere.

Until we make a real effort to clean it up, we're going to get more school shootings.


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