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One From Column A...

By Russ Smith | Posted 5/2/2007

Two columns, on completely different subjects, were published last week, and I'm not sure which one left me feeling more vexed or at least confused. The writers in question: the Sun's Rick Maese, about the Orioles' continuing attendance woes at Camden Yards, and the Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan, worrying that "We are scaring our children to death."

Let's consider Maese first, since baseball is a lot more fun than looking at another picture of Seung-Hui Cho, and silly insults aimed at an entire city are easier to slough off from a sportswriter than a mass-audience personality like Garrison Keillor, Rush Limbaugh, or Jon Stewart. Maese's April 25 column had good intentions, essentially pointing out that when the Red Sox (or Yankees) play in Baltimore, they bring along a large fan base and, as supply-side economics would suggest, the residual business to the neighboring establishments near the ballpark aren't insubstantial.

Yet was Maese auditioning for a role in a third-rate comedy club when he opened his piece with these words about Boston fans? "They come to town today wearing their cargo pants and backward ball caps. They have thick accents, thirsty livers, and girlfriends with blond streaks running through their hair. As they do a couple of times a year, these chowder-eating tourists invade Camden Yards as though it were their own, putting their feet on the coffee table and tracking mud onto the carpet."

Geez, that's a heap of insults in just one sentence. Who knew, for instance, that Boston tourists were unique in their preference for cargo pants and backward ball caps? I've never seen such attire in Baltimore, where young men and women wear tweed in the winter, seersucker in the summer, and the only acceptable headgear is the boater. And what's with the crack about "thirsty livers"? That couldn't be a slur on Irish-Americans, many of whom settle in the Boston area, for certainly that kind of generalization fell out of popular parlance about 50 years ago. If it didn't require extensive research to figure out who exactly is serving as the Sun's publisher this month, I'd call and suggest that Denis O'Leary make a visit to the city and escort Maese to sensitivity courses. As for the "blond streaks" put-down, I guess signifying the "white trash" element ostensibly common in Sox fans, a touchy person might call that sexist.

Maese is correct that Sox games are terrific for the O's bottom line, and in fairness his point, until Peter Angelos can put a winning team on the field, Red Sox games are a needed economic boost to the Inner Harbor area. Still, when my sons and I attended the April 25 game, there was no evidence of unruly behavior. In fact, in section 16, where we usually sit, there were more O's fans than cargo pant-wearing drunks from Boston in attendance, a marked difference from last year. I'm at a loss for this early season optimism, especially when O's manager Sam Perlozzo is still at the helm, but the Baltimore fans who still make it to Camden Yards do seem more cheerful.

Noonan's April 27 essay was more disturbing because it tackled more serious issues. (Disclosure: I've met Noonan several times, and she's a charming and perhaps brilliant woman; in addition, on occasion my op-eds or books reviews have appeared in the Journal's pages.) But one line in her column really stood out: "I would hate to be a child now." That opinion is backed up by the contention that kids can't escape a media culture that's driven by ratings, circulation, and sales figures--hence the ceaseless coverage of the Virginia Tech massacre and the bad behavior of celebrities--and politicians of both parties who will say anything, no matter how provocative, in order to further their own careers.

Furthermore, Noonan claims that in the 1950s and '60s--with the exception of the Cuban Missile Crisis--for a child "life didn't seem menacing and full of dread." She says it was a "boring era." This sentiment may be well-intentioned, but it's naive revisionism. Consider just the 20th century in America and it's easy to find plenty of events that children, if they were inclined, could be terrified of. My parents were adolescents during the Great Depression and began raising a family as the United States entered World War II; their parents grew up at a time when the flu and polio killed or maimed millions and infant mortality was still high. That's scary stuff that makes a mockery of violent television shows, the acceptance of obscenity in pop culture, or apocalyptic predictions of the earth's demise due to global warming.

As for the '60s, there were the mass murderers Richard Speck and Charles Whitman, political assassinations, racial riots, the Vietnam draft, rednecks beating up hippies, kids overdosing on drugs, and increasing alienation between generations. It wasn't boring.

Noonan says that today affluence buys protection, keeping privileged kids "safe" from "the magazine[s] and the TV and the CD and the radio." I don't think any economic segment of youth particularly wants to be sheltered that way, and they clearly aren't, but her idea that the world is more terrifying than the past doesn't hold up. I've no complaints about the year I was born, but despite the constant concern for "the children," the 21st century isn't at all a bad time to grow up.

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