The Culture of Contentment


January 05, 1993|By CLARENCE PAGE

Washington. -- Japanese tourists bound for the United States may well remember 1992 as the year of defensive travel. One major Japanese newspaper offered America-bound travelers helpful phrases in ''survival English.'' The ''words you'll get killed by if you don't know'' included, ''Hold it,'' ''Halt'' and, ''Don't move a muscle.''

Elsewhere, a three-day seminar in Tokyo taught the America-bound how to perform such useful street tasks as raising one's hands high above one's head if told to ''stick 'em up.''

These and other defensive travel events followed a shock wave of reaction in Japan when a 16-year-old Japanese foreign exchange student was fatally shot in Baton Rouge after he visited the wrong house in search of a Halloween party. The student, Yoshihiro Hattori, apparently did not understand homeowner Ronald Peairs' command to ''freeze.'' When he moved, he was shot with a .44 Magnum.

The story shocked Japan, which has a handgun homicide rate 70 times smaller than ours. Violent crime and its accompanying paranoia are almost unknown there. Here we are just as likely to shrug it off. That's life in the new U.S.A.

We're jaded. Americans used to be shocked a mere 25 years ago by muggings that don't even make the newspapers today. Inner-ring suburbs have become accustomed to crime rates that would have shocked inner-city residents a generation or so ago.

The past year has shown us how hard it is for us to be impressed even by a riot anymore. Remember the hopeful civic leaders who called the Los Angeles ''uprising'' a ''wake-up call?'' Well, most Americans appear to have punched the snooze button again.

I remember it well. For a few encouraging days last spring we actually saw a marvelous window of dialogue open up in the nationwide walls of silence that usually keep blacks, whites, Latinos and Asians from talking candidly with one another. President Bush and candidate Bill Clinton paid their obligatory visits to the riot scene, decried the horror and promised to restore the blessings of capitalism to economically blighted areas.

But, just as quickly as the window opened up, it slammed shut. The candidates may have been the only people who could single-handedly make urban affairs a major issue. But they quickly slipped back to the suburbs, the election year's battleground, to talk about ''the economy,'' which has been a temporary recession for the suburban middle class compared to the permanent recession that has settled into inner cities.

A major poll taken after the riots by the University of California at Los Angeles Center for the Study of Urban Poverty found that, on the whole, Los Angeles residents did not become substantially more pessimistic about living in the area, perhaps because their feelings were so gloomy already.

One group stood out as most likely to have experienced greater pessimism and alienation about racial fairness in Los Angeles: economically successful blacks, a group that bought into a dream that had failed to deliver.

And, significantly, a sharp increase in the sale of guns and portable telephones was reported after the riots. Tourists, beware.

In Japan, young Hattori's parents collected more than 800,000 signatures for presentation to the U.S. ambassador calling for a national ban on handguns in American homes. A noble gesture, but almost hopelessly naive when viewed through the eyepiece of American culture and politics.

Besides, guns are just the bitter fruit of other, more deeply rooted problems that lead otherwise law-abiding citizens like Ronald Peairs to take the law into their own hands, shoot first and feel miserable about it later.

Most amazing, we accept it. The escalation in fear and firearms is hardly limited to Los Angeles. What once was an odd tragedy in big cities like Los Angeles or New York is becoming commonplace in middle American towns like Baton Rouge. Our response: Buy more guns.

Our tolerance for this costly state of affairs characterizes what John Kenneth Galbraith calls the ''Culture of Contentment,'' the title of a book he released last spring before the riot could give him an excellent example of his point. ''The present age of contentment will come to an end,'' he writes, ''only when and if the adverse developments that it fosters challenge the sense of comfortable well-being.''

The book didn't make much of a splash, compared to such Galbraith landmarks as ''The Affluent Society.'' Maybe today's culture is still too content to care.

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