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Wednesday 22 August 2012

On Growing Up and Propaganda

One thing I can remember very clearly about growing up was the ever-present threat of thermonuclear war.  The commies, we were told at every opportunity, had "the Nuke" and they wanted to destroy us all. We had nukes, too, but we'd only ever use them in self defence -- at least, that's what the adults said. We were the good guys. Them Russians, they were the bad guys and they were out to get us because we had freedom and they didn't.  Classic propaganda.  Sometimes I would go to bed wondering if I would be vapourised in my sleep.  If you lived in a big city, you were lucky, because you would be incinerated instantly. But if you lived just far enough away from a blast to survive it, you would turn into a radioactive zombie, or something like that.  I saw it in a film, I think. Good times.

In school, we did nuke drills every so often.  I think they were called "emergency drills." I suppose that was a little less frightening to us squiddies. The teacher would give us an urgent command, and we'd all scramble to get into a tuck position under our desks.  I remember even then wondering how the hell my desk was going to save me from a nuclear blast. It might protect me from a chunk of spit-ball plastered ceiling crashing down, but a nuclear explosion?  Heh, some desk. But the important thing was don't look into the light, Carol Anne.

There were other dangers to worry about, too.  Like, strangers. Don't talk to them. Don't accept their candied bribes. Don't ever get into their car or van, even if they say they are a family friend, or your mum is in hospital dying after being run over by a train. If you see a strange man (and it was always, always, always a strange man, never a woman) and he wants to talk to you, run away as fast as your little legs will take you and scream for help. Don't look back. Just run.

Oh, and there were drugs. Drugs were bad. Some drugs, the adults told us in hushed tones, were laced with another even worser drug called PCP, and if you took any drugs laced with PCP you would go crazy and rip out your eyeballs, or bite off the nose of a police officer who would then have to shoot you in the face, or you would jump off a really tall building because you thought you could fly, but you couldn't fly and you would die a horrible squishy death, and your family would be really, really sad because you were squished dead because you took drugs.

So we had Nukes, Strangers and Drugs to be worried about. And, from what I recall of my childhood, that was pretty much it. Except for that pesky hole in the ozone layer, which would grow bigger and expand and spread all over the world and we'd all be cooked to death by the sun, unless of course another ice age hit, which was predicted often, and then if that happened we'd all freeze or starve to death whilst simultaneously being cooked by sun and possibly being attacked by radioactive zombie strangers on PCP.  (Also, thinking about it, we were told to stay away from Ouija boards, because you would get possessed by evil spirits and be lost forever in limbo. But that was the crazy lady down the street who said that, and she had like 13 cats, so it probably doesn't count.)

If you could bypass all three -- or five -- of these things during your childhood, you won the childhood game. You would grow up to be an adult, who then could do anything they wanted to do in life, like be a fireman or a doctor or a film star.  You could be rich and famous if you did well in school first anyway.

Well, that was the 70s and 80s for you. I suppose it was similar for kids growing up in the 50s and 60s, but I didn't grow up then so I don't know. But anyway, I guess we had it pretty easy. We only had three to five things to really worry about.  Kids today have to worry about many more things than I did.

No, that's not right.  It's everyone else, a few generations of overprotective adults who are worrying about what could happen to the kids, and it's not even their kids they are worried for.

Anyway, when I was young it seemed to me that adults (our parents) couldn't wait to get rid of us each morning, particularly during summer, but wintertime was fair game too. Eat some breakfast, and then go out and play by 8:30 a.m.  Be home by 12 for lunch, they'd say.  After lunch, it was back outside until about 5 or 6, and then we'd have dinner, and maybe go out some more, and then if we were lucky (and quiet!) we could watch a half-hour of the telly before bed.

So we played outside, a lot.  Even if we didn't want to play, we went outside. By ourselves. Unsupervised, for the most part. And played. Or did something for hours at a time. When we exhausted all of the games we had learnt and got bored of them, we invented new games and played them until those go boring. Nobody got kidnapped by candy-wielding strangers.  Nobody died. We rode bikes and climbed trees. We played hide-and-seek. Sometimes we got hurt -- a skinned knee, a broken arm at the worst.  Sometimes we fought with other kids. Sometimes we did something stupid or wrong and got punished. Spankings, even. My grandmother had a proper paddle. She was not shy about using it if we acted up. But that was just childhood. Ultimately, sore-bottomed and scarred by our unsupervised outdoor adventures, we won the childhood game and survived it all.

And you have to wonder, how the hell did we survive childhood at all?  We didn't have endless laws and adults trying to save us from harm every second of the day.

We didn't wear helmets when riding our bikes.

Seat belts or child seats in a car? Please.

Laws to save us hapless kids from second-hand smoke?  Nope.

Ah, yes. Smoking. What about it? As you might have already guessed the adults in our life told us not to smoke.  Smoking, they said all the time, was bad for you.  We believed them. Honestly, we believed them. We even believed the PCP and radioactive zombies from Russia things, although we may have mixed up the details here and there. Smoking would harm our lungs amongst other dangers to the body, and -- my favourite -- would stunt your growth. So long as we lived under their roof, we lived by their rules. No smoking. When you're an adult, they said, you can do what you like to yourself.  Until then NO SMOKING.

In our teens we smoked anyway. Sometimes we got caught.  "What were you thinking?" they asked us. Well, we were thinking we wouldn't get caught.  We knew it was wrong for us to smoke, being kids and all.  Smoking was for adults. We knew. And really, because we desperately wanted the childhood game to be finished, and specifically because they told us not to do it, we did it anyway.  We were not seduced to smoke by advertising of any kind, of which there was plenty about. We were not seduced by pack designs or what we saw in films, or even what our favourite musicians did. We smoked because we wanted to be rebellious, to do something we were not allowed to do, and of course to be grown up. We smoked because they told us not to smoke, or because our friends were smoking. Risks be damned, we will do what we like.

And we drank booze now and then-- beer or spirits.  Some of us did drugs, too. When the "drug awareness" campaigns of the 80s came to our school to teach us about the harmful effects of cannabis ("you'll feel light-headed and dizzy if you smoke cannabis," one ex-cop told us) and other drugs, we listened intently to their propaganda and said, "Aw, hell yeah, that sounds cool." Yep. By telling us not to do it, by saying it was illegal and we'd go to jail, we showed them and did it anyway.  That's what kids do sometimes. I'm not advocating that kids should rebel or do what they please. I'm just saying, kids will be kids.

We got jobs in our teens, too. Actually, my very first job was the summer when I was twelve. I washed dishes part-time in a restaurant. It was a shitty job. But they paid me to do it. The following summer, I got a job in a supermarket. I continued to work in a supermarket until I was sixteen.  I also had side jobs, doing gardening stuff, mowing grass, pulling weeds. If it snowed, we shovelled drives to make a few pennies. We would wash cars, or windows. I once even helped to fell a few trees and got to use a chain saw. I was only 14 for that one. Good fun. I wasn't exploited by these people. We wanted to work, so that we could make money, so that we could do stuff, and buy stuff. It was legal, too.

And I survived all of that somehow.

Looking back, I made it through childhood because my family was looking out for me. And at times the neighbours were looking out for all of us even if we kids didn't realise they were doing it. We were a community. We were self-regulating, self-protecting. We didn't need excessive laws to protect the children of my era.  We, the community, the street I lived on, and the neighbouring streets too, and the crazy cat lady along with the other parents who had children... we all had each other. We all relied on each other to make sure that everyone would survive, both kids and adults. And I mean that in the literal sense. My community wasn't wealthy either. We were relatively poor. Not destitute. Just struggling to get by most of the time. We relied on everyone, but we never relied on the government to solve our problems. It was an unspoken responsibility to look after others. A duty, perhaps. That was my community, in a small city even.  What was yours like?  What is yours like now?

So now it's the adults who are ruining everything for other adults and using the children as the excuse to do it, because we must have forgotten how to be a community and self-regulating.  Thing is, adults can no longer do what they like. My parents lied to me, but I'll forgive them. They probably didn't know it would come to this horrible nanny state filled with the hateful clones of Simon Chapman in every corner of the world.

Now we have adults telling adults how much to eat, drink, not to smoke. Adults pass laws that affect other adults because of the children.  Adults are no longer adults. We're still children in the eyes of nannying busybodies, who think by dint of being elected that they have a right to dictate our lives.  They don't, but we have let them do it anyway.

We seem to be living in a perpetual state of fear of every probability, no matter how remote the chances. There's always something bad around the corner, just waiting to hurt us. The media tells us this every day.  You could die from this, or that. And because that's how we think, because people are afraid of remote possibilities, we all forget to live. And if we're not living our lives, neither are our children living their lives.

So if you really want to protect children, then perhaps people need to stop protecting them so much. Otherwise, your kids will never grow up. And they will have only propaganda to rely on to keep them safe. Which is no comfort at all.

Still, I think the kids are all right, probably.  Maybe.  Are they? You tell me.