Fear and trembling over Pokemon and watch fobs
By Paul McMasters
First Amendment Ombudsman
First Amendment Center
In ever-increasing numbers Americans are patrolling the aisles of toy stores, cruising grocery store checkout lanes, poring through schoolbooks and surfing the Net and TV in search of sex, violence and assorted other threats and insults to home and family.
Here is just a sampling of recent dispatches from the front lines of the cultural wars:
The children's pastor at a Colorado Springs church told his 85 young charges that the popular Pokemon games and toys were instruments of the occult and evil, then took a blowtorch to the trading cards and a 30-inch sword to the plastic action figures. His 9-year-old son then strode dutifully to the front of the room and ripped the limbs and head off a Pokemon doll. Getting in the spirit of the demonstration, the children chanted: "Burn it. Burn it. Chop it up. Chop it up."
The publisher of Archie Comics, which owns the rights to Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, recently demanded that actress Melissa Joan Hart be removed as the star of the ABC program of the same name. Michael J. Silberkleit was upset because Hart had appeared in Maxim magazine without as many clothes on as he had wished; she also discussed drinking and sex in an accompanying interview. On the Archie Comics Web page, parents are assured that its characters don't drink or, uh, have sex. In other words, you can't be a character if you want to be in the comics.
In a national campaign launched this summer, a group called Morality in Media is targeting sex-saturated magazines menacing children and adults alike in grocery store checkout lines. No, not Playboy and Penthouse, but Cosmopolitan, Redbook, Marie Claire, Glamour and Mademoiselle. Morality in Media wants the stores either to drop the magazines or put them in plain brown wrappers. One mother said, "Magazine covers sometimes force parents to confront issues that children aren't yet ready for." Nor are the parents.
Then there were the Muscogee County, Ga., school officials who gladly took on the laborious task of altering thousands of copies of a fifth-grade history text. After someone alertly pointed out that the watch fob in a photo of the Emanuel Luetz painting of "Washington Crossing the Delaware" might be viewed as the general's genitalia, teacher aides worked for two weeks to paint over the offending fob in each and every picture. In nearby Cobb County, school officials apparently were more pressed for time so they just ripped the pages out of the books. Even though students had failed for decades to spot this threat, they now are safe from a painting that might well have been titled "Washington Grossing Out the Troops."
OK, just one more.
The South Carolina Board of Education has agreed to review complaints about the wildly popular children's books about Harry Potter, a fictional orphan who attends a school for wizards. After listening to the laments of frightened parents, one board member said, "Censorship is an ugly word, but it is not as ugly as what I've heard this morning." Then again, ugly is as ugly does.
Have we gone nuts, or what? Is this the America we thought we were? Aren't we the ones who have endured unbelievable hardships and overcome frightening challenges to protect our freedom and independence? Aren't we the ones who roll up our sleeves and go to work when there's a job to be done? Aren't we the ones who take great pride in minding our own business?
Yet here we are, minding everybody's business but our own. We find danger in the most mundane of things. We find insult in the most innocuous of things. We find vileness in the most innocent of things.
We've lost touch with common sense as well as common decency.
There are so many real threats to our way of life and our children, it's a wonder that we find so much time to stampede the horses over imagined threats. Our children are being abused in their own homes. They are starving by the thousands. They are suffering from untreated diseases. They are leaving schools unprepared to function in the larger society.
In the meantime, we jump and start and froth at the mouth over magazine covers, play toys, fictional characters in books, and watch fobs.
Wouldn't it be nice if all of this energy and effort could be channeled into making a difference rather than making a mess of our children's lives?
Couldn't we all just get a grip?
Parents should love their kids, not fear them. They should teach them, not stifle them. They should introduce them to real things that are good rather than cower and whine in the face of imagined or trivial threats. They should encourage them to lead by example rather than try to force their values on others.
And they should stay out of grocery stores and avoid looking at pictures in history books until all the scary things go away.
Paul McMasters may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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