The Lessons of Littleton

A reply to Peter Bearse

by John B. Rickman

Whenever one of these ninety day wonders like Littleton happens the "viewers with alarm" round up the usual suspects, or as Peter Bearse puts it, trots out the "same shopping list of potential remedies".

After viewing with alarm the events at Littleton, Mr. Bearse trots out "values education," the usual suspect that traditionally heads the shopping lists of conservatives.

Sorry Mr. Bearse but we have all "been there, done that" and it doesn't work! In this country there is no "ours" when it comes to values. We have always been a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic society (we only avoided speaking German as a national language by one vote) and we have traditionally had no values in common.

Take Christianity, for example. Back in 1776 only about 18 percent of the population identified themselves as Christians and by 1789 it had dropped to only 15 per cent.1

This was in the urbanized east. Out west the percentage was somewhere around 5 percent! This despite the fact that the ratio of ministers to settlers was five times higher than in the east. In fact it was a common assumption among the pioneers that headed west that they were, in part, fleeing the interference of Christian Blue Noses in their lives.

How about sex? Those who preach traditional values would have us believe that it was only since the sixties that sex outside of marriage became commonplace in American culture but; a recent examination of court records, birth certificates and family Bibles reveals that fully one third of all brides in Colonial America were pregnant at their weddings.

As Mark Twain said about babies: "The first one can come at any time after the wedding. All the rest take nine months."

Abortion? Thirty percent of all pregnancies in Colonial America ended in abortions. Infanticide? Fifty percent of girl babies died in the first thirty days of birth compared to ten percent for boys. The most common cause? Suffocation!

Well at least "traditional America" was less violent -- right? Wrong! This is probably the period of lowest violent crime in American history! What evidence can I come up with to support this claim since there was no central body keeping crime statistics until the F.B.I. started earlier this century.

Only anecdotal but none the less compelling. For example, Arthur Feleig (a.k.a Weegee) the famous news photographer of the Forties, personally photographed five thousand murders in New York city in the period from 1943 to 1948! That is more than three a day for one man and he had the negatives to prove it.

H.L Menken, the famous Baltimore newspaper man, while working the night shift back around the turn of the century, had a rule for himself and all his reporters, they couldn't go out drinking with the gang each night until they had filed their first homicide, or serious violent crime of the night (one filing per reporter). The guys had usually gotten their first story of the night and were gathered at the bar by ten o'clock every night!

Youth violence? Billy the Kid had killed his first man by age fourteen (which was not all that unusual) and had killed twenty more by the time he was old enough to vote. Most cowboys who gunned each other down in the streets of the old west were younger then the boys at Littleton and Senator Strom Thurman's father, a lawyer in the rural South around the turn of the century, gunned down an unarmed man in broad daylight in front of witnesses and gave as his only defense at his trial "the man dissed me." He was acquitted. It seems that it was a "traditional value" to kill anyone who dissed you in the old South!

Conservatives tend to be very poor historians, they have the bad habit of viewing the past through rose colored glasses.

The fact is that we are in a cultural high point in American history and the only thing that would make things better would be the decriminalization of drugs, which would lower the crime rate, and cut back on youth violence by removing the source of money which most young violent offenders use to buy guns.

If anything, the attempt to cram conservative dogma (in the guise of "traditional values") down the throats of America's youth might have the exact opposite effect from that hoped for.

A recent political cartoon by Ted Rall of Universal Press Syndicate shows a youthful offender explaining the roots of his behavior to a Congressional panel. He explains that he needed to express his violent and aggressive impulses vicariously but everywhere he looked violent video games had been banned and all his favorite porn sites had been blocked on the internet.

This was bad enough but what finally drove him to disembowel the marching band was the school prayer group!

1The Churching of America by Roger Finke & Rodney Stark 1993