Remember when being able to hold your liquor was a mark of pride? When the fellow who'd had "a few too many" was the life of the party? "Have one for the road," we'd say, laughing.
Few would say that now. Groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and public service announcements such as "Friends Don't Let Friends Drive Drunk," turned "designated driver" into common parlance. America changed its mind: Drinking and driving don't mix.
Jeff Bleich hopes that something like this will happen to America's view of violence.
Bleich, the executive director of the National Campaign Against Youth Violence, believes that, for all our protestations against violence, they do not tell the whole story. A kind of comfort with violence--much like our old enthusiasm for our image as hard drinkers--is very much a part of who we are.
Bleich considers this eminently changeable. Americans once littered freely--but no more. People who would never have imagined themselves picking through their trash to discard selected items are now fervent recyclers. We battled drunk driving. Now we must learn to stand against violence.
At first blush, Bleich seems an unlikely crusader. Decidedly calm and entirely conventional in mien, Bleich was a partner in a San Francisco law firm and a professor of constitutional law at Berkeley until three months ago. Now he's in Washington heading a group of educators, parents, executives, clergy and people from the media, juvenile justice and youth development--a group that grew out of the White House Summit on Youth Violence in May.
In other words, Bleich is leading the official response to Littleton.
Amid the national horror that rose up after that Colorado high school tragedy, America went looking for villains. Too many guns, brutal video games, violent media images, dysfunctional families, lax law enforcement: You name it, we seized on it. Something had gone bad, and we were determined to figure out what it was.
Where we went wrong was in looking for something that had changed, Bleich told a Media Institute gathering here last week. The problem lay in what had long been true: Violence and America are a pairing of long standing. American kids, like their elders, are far more violent than their counterparts in other nations.
The only change has been "our willingness to believe that our youths are violent predators"--somehow outside the national norm. When, in fact, says Bleich, violence is part of "our belief system." You could almost say we think of it as one of our charms. That's my phrase, not Bleich's, but he has his own way of cutting through the fuzz that has grown over our thinking about violence and young people.
For one thing, he doesn't talk about violence and young people. He talks about boys, since boys commit 95 percent of the violence.
We encourage boys to believe that "in order to become an honorable man, you've got to demonstrate that you're willing to get violent." Fighting, guns, our enthusiasm for regarding ourselves as ever victorious in war, our selection of "heroes" such as John Wayne, our taste in media, even our language--in countless ways we put violence at the center of our self-definition. When Bleich goes into boardrooms to get corporate backing, he hears statements like, "We've got to get this violence thing by the throat." Or, "We've got to go for the jugular."
Says Bleich, "We're a society in which excessive rates of violence have been in some sense normalized."
So violence is a learned behavior; then it can be "unlearned." There is no inevitability to its presence in American culture. We can elect not to embrace it as part of our national ethos--much as we elected not to condone drinking and driving.
Of course, that will take some doing. Bleich points to Boston's experience. Once the capital of youth violence, Boston determined to make it unacceptable. Working with citizens to identify troubled kids, giving kids more to do, instituting media literacy and nonviolence programs in schools, Boston reduced its youth murder rate by 90 percent in a decade.
He thinks this can happen nationally. "What we're trying to do ultimately, I hope, is change the way people think."
That sounds formidable. It also sounds logical. If you take our embrace of violence and mix it with guns, inject it into the media, couple it with poverty and hopelessness--you get a dangerous, even life-threatening potion. Bleich has his eye on the root of the problem: Fundamentally, we accept violence as part of who we are.
Bleich thinks we can change our minds.