Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Walt Disney World – final post

This is a long post with a somewhat rambling diversion. But it contains some thoughts I need to put front and center, because it deals with what I see as a decline in American morals. Some people, most of them religious fundamentalists, define morals on the basis of who you sleep with or how you make love. I define morals based on whether you apply the Golden Rule to your conduct (so, from the available evidence, did Jesus Christ). An example: While waiting at Akron-Canton Airport for our flight, an announcement went over the PA asking if any couple would be willing to split their seat assignments so a mother could ride with her young daughter. Dan & I volunteered. That’s the Golden Rule in action. (Air Tran bumped us up to Business Class for our return trip, which was a pleasant surprise.)

By far the most frustrating part of our trip to Walt Disney World was something we encountered every day: rude behavior from children and a good number of adults. As I previously related, Dan and I used Disney’s transportation for travel throughout WDW. If I could only air one complaint about Disney it would be that they do not provide adequate transportation: there were too few buses and monorail cars – so we often waited longer than necessary and vehicles were standing room only. We also encountered one bus driver who was plainly not fit to be behind the wheel of such a large vehicle. The transportation situation must be even worse at peak season.

It was in the buses that we observed children lazing in seats while adults (some of them elderly) stood while the vehicle made its way to and fro. Dan and I were appalled – and we weren’t the only ones. I was far from a perfect child, but I would certainly have had the sense of mind to surrender my bus seat to an adult. If I hadn’t, my parents would have swatted the sense into me via my backside. Of course, the parents here were to blame - they often lacked the good sense to put small children on their laps so another adult could have a seat. Discourteous behavior on the buses was duplicated at restaurants, in queues, and even on rides: kids ran around like plague ridden rats, shoving adults out of the way and throwing temper tantrums at the slightest provocation.

All of the badly behaved children had one thing in common: they were American. I have rarely been as ashamed of my country as I was during the week I spent at Disney. Watching how they behaved, I shuddered to think of what foreign visitors would say about Americans after returning to their homelands.

As touched upon at an earlier post, Dan & I observed a family with superbly behaved kids at San Angel Inn one evening, and I thought to myself, “This is a nice change”. Listening to their conversation, I realized the family was British. The father spoke to his children like they were grown-ups, and these kids did behave like miniature adults (British adults, as some American grown-ups were as bad as their kids). Indeed, during our entire trip to WDW, we never observed a foreign child who was discourteous in any way.

Where did we go wrong? Let’s compare & contrast two societies: The United States and Great Britain.

It seems to me that America’s expectations of instant gratification (which the Great Recession seems to have done little to correct) came about in the generation following World War II. After the war, American soldiers came home, got married, bought homes, and had kids – all in an era of unprecedented prosperity (the likes of which would be repeated in the 1990s). For the first time in world history, a nation held a prosperous middle class – which in & of itself was a good thing. (It’s worth remembering that during the war, food, clothing, and gasoline were rationed – and the President regularly took to the radio to caution Americans not to make unnecessary purchases, especially those involving installment payments.) After the war, whether one paid for something in cash or financed it made little difference; if an American wanted something, he bought it. And over time, the homes became bigger, cars became fancier, children’s toys became more elaborate – but just as quickly discarded. The values of thriftiness learned in the Great Depression and shared sacrifice learned during World War II were lost. At the same time, the value of working with one’s hands was diminished as the service economy took over – and fewer & fewer Americans could be troubled to paint their own homes or fix their own cars. Also, an attitude of “me first” (or even me only) took hold among the adults. Such an attitude (and I won’t deign to refer to it as a philosophy, despite its designation as such by Ayn Rand acolytes) didn’t have to be indoctrinated into children – “me first” is their default position.

Contrast this with England’s postwar experience. As pianist Stephen Hough relates, the experience of England’s people in the decade after World War II was far removed from Americans’:

“It is often forgotten that the years immediately following World War II involved more suffering for the British people in many ways than the six years of combat. Rationing lasted well into the mid-1950s, and homelessness, hunger, and deprivation, along with listlessness and depression amidst the cities’ unrepaired, litter and rat-infested bomb sights, made those years of ‘victory’ seem at times like a cruel irony. With air-raids, threats of invasion, and a certain man with a moustache as an enemy there seemed a moral purpose behind the hardship. People joined together and cheerfully kept ‘the home fires burning’ as a community through the dark years of the war. When all this was over things just wouldn‘t return to normal – like a nasty virus which lingers: insufficiently serious to take time off work, but debilitating enough to make useful activity impossible.”

On top of all that, the British Empire was crumbling, while America’s Empire (which was as much economic as military) was just solidifying. England’s parents had to tell their children that they weren’t going to get everything they wanted for Christmas. On the rare occasions the family could afford to dine out, the children would be expected to sit in their seats without fidgeting. Also, the English were more accustomed to public transport than their American counterparts, whose parents were part of the car culture – so kids already knew to surrender seats to adults, especially the elderly.

English culture has long been based on the concept of respect – it may have started with deference to the monarchy, but with the demise of England’s class system, it has evolved into mutual respect for everyone. At the same time, America, with it’s not-so-rugged individualism, has devolved into “I’ve got mine, you’re on your own, pal.”

But sometimes, the kindest thing you can do for a child is to say “No.”

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