Monday, December 7, 2009

An End to Bullying [April 13, 2007]]

While being interviewed for a documentary about the Moody Blues a couple of days ago, I was asked if I’d ever seen the group live, and, if so, what my impressions were. All I could remember about their performance at LA’s Fabulous Forum in 1970 was that I wasn’t very nice to my sister, who, because the Moodies had come to occupy a place in her heart formerly reserved for Herman’s Hermits, had appealed to me to take her along.

I acceded with considerable reluctance. Ideally, I’d have turned up at the shows I was reviewing for the Los Angeles Times with a ravishing blonde on my arm; as of the spring of 1971, attentive readers will know, I began doing precisely that. Most often in the early days, though, I went alone, and fretted fervently about people noticing an empty seat beside me. I thought being seen with my kid sister was even worse; I had my image to think of!

My sister was only around 14 at the time, and this may well have been her first big concert. I remember her being thrilled to death. And I could hardly have been more aloof.

Shame on me.

Around 25 years later, I took my daughter, around 11, to her own first concert – the Butthole Surfers – whose drummer I’d interviewed over the phone for a little specialty magazine -- at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco. She wondered if we might go backstage and get the band’s autographs. I was afraid we’d be unable to get backstage, and I’d look a chump in my daughter’s eyes, or – worse! – that we’d have no such trouble and that the drummer would snicker at us for soliciting his autograph. I played it safe and now, a dozen years and more after the fact, wince at the memory of letting my daughter down.

More shame on me.

Not that I didn’t already look a chump in her eyes, mind you. A few months before, we’d made a right turn off Market Street just as a skaterdude in his early 20s blew into the intersection at around 80 miles an hour from behind us, and wound up embossed on the hood of our little Toyota (as I, back in the days when I used to bicycle back and forth between LA’s Koreatown and Santa Monica to woo the occasionally ravishing blonde from whose womb my daughter would later spring, wound up adorning many a car turning right off Wilshire Blvd in Beverly Hills). After ascertaining that he was all right, I stupidly resolved to scold him for having startled us and endangered himself. He made a brief show of contrition, and then indicated that I could either truncate my remarks or get walloped over the head with his skateboard. It has always been my way to defer reflexively to even the mildest display of ferocity, so I jumped immediatelyback behind the wheel and quickly drove us away, thus revealing to my daughter that she had a coward for a daddy.

As attentive readers of these remarks will know, I had no idea as a little boy what courage looked like. My dad reflexively submitted to my mother, who herself immediately caved in at the most negligible show of strength. Or maybe the problem is that my testes are underactive, and that I’d jump back behind his steering wheel and drive away even if I’d had my brawl-loving granddad, John Ned Kaufman, as my principal role model.

It’s my observation that people are born with strong predispositions to either fight or flight, and that the playgrounds and schoolyards (like the prisons and corporate boardrooms) of the world will always have a fairly predictable ratio of bullies to patsies – of predators, to invoke the title of my fab unpublished 2005 novel, to prey.
When I hear politicians and others discussing juvenile bullying, I always wonder if they and I are of the same species, as their proposed solutions invariably strike me as inane. We’re going to discourage the naturally dominant from ritually humiliating the naturally meek by getting celebritiesto proclaim themselves anti-bullying? Oh, fat, fat chance! Or how about the popular advice to the bullied just to ignore their tormentors? Oh, that’ll work like a charm!

Have the people who come up with this stuff ever spent a day as children?

When my daughter was in third grade, I had the idea of trying to make bullying look uncool, and started what I called the Kindness Club, from which one was automatically expelled for acts of cruelty. For about a week, all her classmates wanted to be in it, and the class alpha male, a prolific humiliator of weaker classmates of both sexes, told me proudly how he’d broken up several fights on the playground. I dared be delighted until my daughter advised me that he’d started the fights to give himself a forum in which to be heroic. Within two weeks, he’d denounced the Kindness Club as really lame, and had resumed being the bane of Patrick’s and Will’s and that sweet, rotund, smart boy whose name I can’t recall’s existence.

As best I can make out, there is only one way to combat bullying, that revealed in my worst-selling (but published!) 2004 novel Waiting for Kate Bush. Vigilantism. Because fear and fear alone will keep bullies from bullying. I believe that unemployed Eastern European and other asylum seekers should visit the schools periodically and kick in the ribs (if not crania) of anyone they observe bullying. Will the heavily accented mercenaries occasionally make mistakes and kick in some undeserving ribs? Almost certainly. But is it too high a price to pay to spare countless meek kids suicide-engendering anguish?

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