I teach a general physics course for engineering-technology students at the joint regional campus of Indiana University and Purdue University two evenings per week. Every now and then you get a student who is such a high-caliber person that you just can't say "no" to him or her. Nathan was such a student of mine, last year, and so when he came around recruiting a couple of months ago, I of course said "yes." He's the president of the local chapter of Phi Kappa Theta, which is a sort of honor society and service organization, and he wanted people to be on a local discussion panel that is satellite-linked to a national version of the same. I agreed to be a panelist in the fifth discussion of the series, and so last night I attended the fourth discussion, just to get warmed up.
The big national speaker was Dr. Juliet Schor, a sociologist from Boston College and the author of Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture. She's a good speaker, and presented some fairly horrifying data concerning the amount of media exposure kids are getting these days and the social, economic, and cultural impact of that exposure; and she had a number of ideas about possible mitigations of those impacts. Some of those ideas were great (pre-empt media time with family/outdoor/creative time, sharply limit TV, have nutritionally-sound family meals in your home); and one or two I was skeptical of (mostly government limitation or prohibition of advertising of particular categories of things to particular categories of people). A good speaker and a solid thinker.
The local panel was six people, five of whom were women and four of whom were nurses (the faculty adviser for the local Phi Theta Kappa chapter is on the nursing-school faculty, and she tends to recruit panelists from close to home, I think). They kicked the topic around for a while, mostly in personal and practical ways. I would not want to stereotype, but it was pretty much a "women's" conversation, rich in anecdotes about their children and grandchildren and how they had encountered and resisted commercialization of these kids, and the increasing difficulty of doing so effectively. As the allotted time ran out, a man in the audience claimed the floor. He was maybe a few years older than me, and he was tense. I've been sitting here listening this whole time, he said with an angry voice, and not one person on this panel has said one word about curtailing the power of corporations. You've been talking and talking about parents' responsibilities, and what you can do at home, but that's not going to change anything. What has to be done is for everyone to organize politically! He went on for a couple of minutes in the good, old-fashioned Popped-Forehead-Veins Marxist style that you seldom hear any more (this side of Havana or Pyongyang, at least). It made me ... well, not angry, exactly, but irritated; I think mostly because he was barking unpleasantly at a handful of women who did not seem to be enjoying it, and I would have thought that elementary politeness would call for a little more measured tone. But it got me to thinking.
Assuming that we would agree that the commercialization of childhood is a problem -- and I suppose most all of us would agree -- I had just been listening to the classic Left remedy: empower our supervisors, our Dear Leaders, to curtail the modes and content of the communication available to the evildoers. A decade or so ago, I would have given the classic Right answer: the magic of the marketplace will right all wrongs and adjust all malfunctions, if only it is left completely free to operate as it will. And those two represent your two basic doctrinaire approaches to pretty much every question. It occurs to me that they have one important idea in common: that there are positions occupied only by Good People. My Red Guard fellow audience member has faith that only good men get to occupy high public office, and the ne'er-do-wells are all on the Wal-mart board of directors. Had we heard from a Young Republican, he'd have said that the good guys are all in Wal-mart top management, and the scoundrels are all infesting public office. But both believe in good guys.
I don't have a solution that I feel very good about; I suppose I'd favor some form of the shield-your-children-and-muddle-through approach. Advertisers don't exactly have (completely) free speech now, and probably don't deserve it ... but I also don't want our glorious supervisors to get any greater powers of limiting their speech, because they'll end up limiting mine. But not having to pretend to have a totally-effective, ideologically-pure solution is ... sort of liberating, in itself.