The 1960 musical Bye Bye Birdie yelped “Kids! What’s the matter with kids today?” Back then not much, as a matter of fact. A lot, evidence suggests, nowadays. Torino’s Winter Olympics showed what’s the matter with kids: Many are rude, narcissistic, and spoiled to the gills.
The Olympics once represented the best of America’s best man- and maidenhood. Bob Richards: reverend and decatholoner. Rafer Johnson: sprinter and pioneer. Peggy Flemming: girl next door. Each etched deference, teamwork, and stoic heroism–we, not me.
By contrast, these Games blared shallow, callow culture-with-an-edge divas. “[To them] style matters. A lot,” mused Sports Illustrated. Added the New York Times: “No good-conduct medal for ugly Americans.” Uncle Sam must have been crying “uncle.”
Consider Lindsey Jacobellis, who, leading in a snowboardcross race, grandstanded near the finish, fell, and blew a gold medal for the sake of showboating. “I have no regrets,” she huffed, uncaring that America might. “I’m excited to go back and have a nice steak and a normal-sized bathroom.” What’s the matter with kids today? Many love me, myself, and I.
Another 2006 Olympics centerfold was Bode “I’m going to ski wasted” Miller, who, wasting a life, smashed into a slalom gate, gestured obscenely, and sought victimization in a victim age. “It’s a constant drain,” mourned dad, “to do something Bode doesn’t like.” What Bode likes: being a drunken poster boy for mindless, clueless cant.
Skip repeats ofAll In the Family. Olympics speedskating mimed radio’s old The Bickersons. Looking out for No. 1, Shani Davis skipped the team long-track skating, cost them a medal, insulted interviewers, and traded slurs with teammate Chad Hedrick. “My heart’s bigger than everybody else out there,” whined Hedrick. Poor Shani was a victim, too: “People don’t understand me.” Actually, we understand too well.
Enraged, five-time Olympian Chris Witty knocked our “in your face society.” A U.S. official said the Games should be “about sportsmanship,” not competition with a sneer. Donating $40,000 to refugee relief, speedskater Joey Cheek showed goodness redolent of a time when cool and mean were contrary. How did we plunge from then to this?
Begin with culture, as toxic as Love Canal. Self-esteem trumps the Golden Rule. Obscenity floods film. Most network television is a horror house. The Wall Street Journal reports: “New network [MY Network TV] Will Showcase Greed, Lust, Sex.” Spineless parents accept this trend; courageous parents don’t.
The National Survey of Families and Households finds children from traditional families less prone to fail in school, use drugs, or become coarse and profane (like today’s Olympians). A University of California at Berkeley survey of middle-class children from age 5 to their early 20s says that discipline helps manners and mores. Raised right, you act right.
If not–well, visit any mall to see the contrast. Teenagers jostle the elderly. Few boys open a door for girls. And girls are too busy dressing like an MTV Video “ho” to notice. Dialogue is a contact sport; English superfluous to profanity. What’s the matter with kids? Gaucherie is their DNA. Recently I called the wife of a national pollster “ma’am”; she reacted like Dracula at the sign of the cross.
Priorities have consequences. Americans in 2006 shout that money rules; ethics are situational; beauty is skin-deep; and humility is for squares. Diogenes sought honesty; we seek designer garb, an iPod, the latest DVD. “Style matters”–depth does not.
Many children are as honest, kind, and moral as children were a decade ago. Many more, I suspect, are not. Tom Brokaw deemed the adults of World War II “the greatest generation.” What if the Winter Olympics reveal a showboating, trash-talking, striving-pathetically-to-be-hip “worst generation” of kids?
–Curt Smith has been a speechwriter for President George Bush. He is the author of eleven books and is a senior lecturer in English at the University of Rochester.