When did the United States get so Damn Uptight?
by Mark E Andersen –
Last week my 16-year-old son and I were talking about my exploits as a teenager. My son said, “Dad, things were so less uptight when you were a kid. What happened?” My initial response to him was: “Ronald Reagan.”
Since then, I have given this a lot of thought. And while I do stand by my original answer of Ronald Reagan, there is actually so much more to it.
The reason I start with Reagan is because while he was president, the legal drinking age was raised from 18 to 21. It’s a move that I have disagreed with since I was 17, when the drinking age changed. Eighteen-year-olds can serve in the military, can vote, can marry, can enter contracts, and they can go to prison—but they can’t have a beer. If you are old enough to fight and die for your country, you are damn well old enough to have a goddamn beer.
Reagan also ignored AIDS. Not only was it ignored, but it became such a stigma that it changed the way Americans viewed sex. The sexual revolution that started in the 1960s came to a screeching halt in the 1980s, and conservative Christians were more than giddy about using the AIDS crisis as a bludgeon while touting the decay of American society.
Then there was Jessica McClure. It was October 1987 when the 18-month-old girl fell into a well. What would have been a local news story for the Midland, Texas, area (and may have made the wire services prior to CNN) became international news. For the next two days her story was broadcast continuously across the world and set the stage for the 24/7 news cycle we know today. Prior to this event, a local news story (like a baby falling in a well) stayed local. Today, every missing child, every domestic dispute, and any controversial “news” item becomes fodder for the 24/7 news cycle. Want to know why you won’t let your kids go to movies by themselves? It isn’t because the world is a more dangerous place—it is because how we perceive the world has changed.
And the evolution of uptightness certainly didn’t end with Reagan.
Fast forward more than a decade and the world was horrified by the Columbine shootings. Suddenly, our children were no longer safe at school. Two troubled teens walked into their high school on April 20, 1999 and killed 12 classmates and one teacher. School discipline was forever changed after that day: Zero tolerance policies, police involvement in student discipline, and active shooter drills became part of most students’ lives. Before Columbine, if you did something stupid at school you likely were sent to the principal’s office. Post-Columbine, you would end up meeting a police officer.
Then came September 11. On a day that marked one of the worst moments in our country’s history, we saw so much of the good in Americans. For a brief moment, we put aside our differences and came together—and then our leaders sent our young men and women into a war that there was no justification for. They authorized torture and lost sight of bringing the perpetrators of the worst attack on American soil to justice.
It wasn’t just our leaders that lost sight of America that day: Corporate America also lost sight of what and who we are. Executives at Clear Channel Communications, now known as iHeart Media, sent out a list of songs after 9/11 that they suggested be removed from playlists in the aftermath of the attacks. This was just a suggested list, but anyone who works in corporate America knows that if a suggestion comes down from on high, it is generally not something that is optional. A few of the 165 songs on that list were John Lennon’s Imagine, a song about peace and love; Black Sabbath’s War Pigs, an anti-war anthem; and Van Halen’s remake of Dancin’ in the Streets. The full list is here if you want to peruse it. It’s a disturbing chapter because in 2001, Clear Channel operated the largest number of radio stations in the country. While this wasn’t governmental censorship, it was a clear case of corporate censorship and shows the dangers of concentrated media ownership.
What will it take to get us back to where we once were? I don’t mean that in an “I want my country back!” kind of way. While some things have gotten better in the U.S. (LGBT rights, for example), we have gone backward on others—like voting rights. Then there is women’s health, and the number of forced birth laws that have passed in state legislatures has been mind numbing.
So let’s discuss this: How do we get back to the point where we are moving forward as a nation—instead of taking two steps forward and three steps backward?
Reprinted with permission from Daily Kos