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August 25, 2004 - Style Weekly (VA)

OPED: The Dark At The Bottom

By Travis Charbeneau

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Kids are ignorant, not dumb. They see the priorities. Why should they value education when, plainly, we don't?

Amongst other afflictions, I'm a lap steel guitar player. My job involves going into saloons and getting people to drink more alcohol by assaulting them with live music. I've never liked the seemingly hard-wired connection between bars and live music, particularly when my comrades and I succeed to the point where the customers drink enough to produce their pistols, threatening to mess with the "live" part.

The general rule is to keep playing. And if we play loud enough, we can often divert attention from anything but actual gunfire - at which point, like everyone else, we begin hugging the floor.

Lately, I've been playing in a mellow duo accompanying the soon-great, always-wonderful Ben Jordan, and back in July we got a gig at The Canal Club down in the Bottom. I had played there before in a band and liked it for being a big room where the stage was roomy and the crowds usually large and attentive.

But, unknown to us last July, The Canal Club was almost dark, as in "closed." The big upstairs stage I'd enjoyed before was dark.

We played downstairs to perhaps five people, two of whom were "with the band," such as we are. Apparently, there had been recent incidents of more than usual success in the live music/alcohol consumption/pistol-producing department.

The prospect of mayhem and death had dampened enthusiasms. Once more, crime was eating the people and profits of Richmond.

Crime has been taking a bite out of Richmond for many years now. Last year's bite is written into next year's city budget - and into your personal profit and loss statement.

Whatever your "enthusiasm," in terms of conducting business in Richmond, the prospect of mayhem and death will surely dampen it. The only enthusiasm not dampened by crime is what Eisenhower might have termed "the Criminal Justice/Corrections Industrial complex," now a power lobby in every state and federal body.

The CJ-CI complex easily out-lobbies interests in education and social programs, because tough laws, mandatory sentences and, most of all, Prohibition II: "the Drug War," have created demand for a supply of police, bricks, mortar, guards and bureaucrats.

This enriches a very big lobby that is against crime and for motherhood. It's a perpetual motion machine: Skimping on social services and schools to pay the CJ-CI complex assures the creation of more angry, illiterate criminals who can only go to the CJ-CI complex. We're caught in a downward spiral of botched priorities.

We don't want to pay a few dollars up front getting decent schools and help for single working moms. We prefer paying millions of dollars on the back side, "correcting" the predictable result of our front-side folly: trigger-happy kids with nothing to lose.

Recently, gang activity is up, gangs and the CJ-CI lobby, being the only institutions actually investing seriously in our children.

I understand that the Swiss keep assault rifles in their houses as part of a simple national defense plan, to wit: Who wants to attack a mountainous country where everybody has a machine gun? The Israelis, awash in terrible violence on a daily basis, are likewise armed, but like Switzerland, England, Canada or New Zealand, their murder rate is insignificant compared to ours.

I forget my Michael Moore, but "Bowling for Columbine" re-related the familiar statistics, with a few dozen fatalities for all those other countries and thousands of shot-dead citizens for the United States.

It's not just easy availability of firearms, though that doesn't help. We apparently prefer it this way - unless we or someone we love are personally popped. Or our particular gig goes dark.

Otherwise, we enjoy electing "tough" politicos who build a bigger prison where we need a better school. In Richmond, the minute any child of sufficient means reaches school age, it is whisked away to our local versions of Columbine: suburbs where the stars shine, schools are whiter, and the delusion of "safe" soothes the savage commute back to the bleeding city.

Opponents of educational spending and social supports say caring is for wimps. They don't know why we kill each other in such outlandish proportion to other nations, either, but, whatever it is, it isn't the lack of education and social supports. It's an erosion of traditional values by the liberal media - or too much gun control, taking the firepower out of the hands of law-abiding citizens who might otherwise provide triangulated counterfire from across the bar, literally lighting up those dark clubs and taking out the bad guys.

But this is crazy. People learn the vast majority of their behavior, good or bad.

And learning involves teaching, both by our despised teaching institutions, and by the day-to-day example of a society that looks down on teaching. Everything from teachers salaries to the derisive platitude, "those who can do, those who can't, teach;" the burgeoning home-school movement; and the vouchers - with respect, few can be unaware of our disdain for the public school system - especially in cities. They give damning evidence.

Kids are ignorant, not dumb. They see the priorities. Why should they value education when, plainly, we don't?

Crime, gangs, violence - it always gets back to teaching, the business of creating citizens instead of problems.

Travis Charbeneau is a writer who lives in Richmond. Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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