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July 17, 1997

Full Flaps

Caution: Adults on Board

During the course of his early morning walk last Sunday, it might have been more merciful had Edgar Mullen met up with Andrew Cunanan. Instead, Mullen must now watch what is left of his life ooze away protractedly from the daily dagger thrusts that a false accusation of pedophilia brings.

In the country's current climate of spurious piety it isn't necessary to have a cessation of all vital signs to be effectively rendered terminal, as Mullen discovered when he spotted the leaflets around his Russian Hill neighborhood libeling him as a sexual predator of young boys. One guesses that the phoned death threats he received afterward possessed a certain comic superfluity.

It's curious, our immoderate embrace of this totemic reverence for children, and curiouser still our attempt to use it to focus and regulate both behavior and social policy. As a weapon, it is potentially as lethal as anything Cunanan has employed in his arsenal to date, powerful enough to inhibit even due process and ex post facto constitutional guarantees, as the Megan's Law legislation mandating sex offender registration and community notification bears out. Mullen may yet avoid the fate of many released and paroled sex offenders who have met with community violence and expulsion. I find it of more than significant interest that Mullen is separated from his wife and four children. I'm making no inference here, other than what is emblematic and generally illustrative: we've been habitually traversing a route over the past 15 years which flagrantly displays children as tokens of emotional exchange in the rancor of parents' divorce proceedings.

This ire of course loosens the fastenings of our heightened consensus of children as inviolate, by officially stigmatizing them as the objects of one or the other parent's perverse gratification. Such small steps in the arena of post-marital acrimony -- accusations largely lacking definitive evidence -- open vistas equal to those endless journeys of public expurgation currently consigned to convicted sex offenders. The codification of what we allege to be our deepest taboo unsheathes shivs of convenient utility between parents, the contumely of their uncouplings expressive of a breadth of unresolved personal matters. The regularity with which children are exalted and then summarily dismissed surely ought to inspire us to broader examination of such atmospherics.

* * *

Nancy Scheper-Hughes pinpoints it compendiously in her book Child Survival: "The time of greatest public outcry against child abuse is also the time of the widespread, official planning of sacrifice of children in public policy." Indeed, what is most most notable about the war being waged against the rest of us by those with a divine-right sense of entitlement is its success in enjoining us to open a parallel front against our young. The certifiable horror stories of children neglected, abused and slain by familial hands since the 1980s measure in the thousands; and yet it is a toll of aberrancy whose sheen of grotesquery is but a pale reflection of the malign intentions responsible for the massive funding cutbacks in children's programs and related social services. Obviously, our inability to affix the political and economic context within which abuses occur has accelerated the overclass's momentum; it now enjoys license to dispense with what remains of sustainably remunerative working-class jobs, and its draconian reforms of the safety net almost appear emending. The consequences for children in abusive situations of a further lessening of available options for their parents constitutes a criminal exacerbation of this climate of pathology.

The poorest of children understandably take on the brunt of this double burden of federal proclamation and parental terror. The approaches reenforce each other, with children simultaneously becoming the pawns of policy and the punching bags -- or worse -- of increasing parental anxiety and insecurity. For the suburban middle class in particular, as we have witnessed in any number of high-profile debacles, when connubial bliss wanes into contempt, someone must take the blame. Analysis of societal givens and their destabilizing permutations yield people only the vaguest explanations for the failures of their split-level fairy tales, and thus children frequently become the chits of interpersonal revenge. On a broad plain, across class lines, the "recovered memory" movement and its regressive search for a single unitary source of life's problems has become a metaphor for our powerlessness in the face of the logic of order imposed by those entrusted to leadership.

How do we summon a language to describe a country which propels us to hate our offspring? And more, how do we fathom the vileness of having us venerate those same children we've been turned against? Is there a point at which these inducements to guilt can be accorded appellatives congruent to the control mechanisms of full-blown authoritarianism? Will that be anytime soon, do you suppose?

The most telling sense of this rot comes through in the current rush for regimentation and rectification of children's behavior. What could be easier for policy implementation than bullying the most vulnerable among us; by bringing the adults on board, its manageability is assured. For all its loathsome circuitousness, the subliminal procedure for crafting the ideal child is ingenious: The middle class is asked if it really wants its children to inculcate the values of inner-city children. Would it like to see its children acting out in similar fashion? Are the manifestations of rap videos and the gangsta sensibility a proper environment for its sons and daughters? Another subset of the larger war is thus engaged, that of children against children, in the best traditions of divide-and-conquer invincibility.

Congress' convincing the TV networks to label their programming is the latest of such coups. You and I might term the effort to undermine the foundations of our freedom as patently abusive of our children and their futures; civic sentry moralism sees it instead as necessary to ensure the docility and pliancy essential to the nation's mandate for orderliness and individual responsibility. For poor children, the punitions of welfare reform began that process; more affluent children can avoid opprobrium through less stringent means. However, all young people, without favor, can look forward to someday being tried as adults rather than juveniles in criminal cases.

The influences pressing upon our cherished children are constant and ever more novel, goes the abiding officialese, necessitating government's present effort to persuade the computer industry to provide monitoring software for the Internet. Individual web sites will be rated for "family friendly" content, and be either blocked or accessible accordingly. A 16-year-old high school student reading this column today, for example, wouldn't be able to view the on-line version under the proposed Internet strictures.

It's difficult not to remain utterly fascinated amid this welter of sick official sanctity, and one comes to yearn for the next daily episode. One such demonstration was granted recently by the chief moral vector himself. Clinton took advantage of a Rose Garden occasion to comment on the Mike Tyson incident, predictably declaring it as unrepresentative of the American character or some such self-serving blather. Pier-Six brawls are too indecorous for our guardians of propriety, it seems. But you would expect as much of a cloistered thuggishness reduced to one furtive obsession: Batter the kids, and the body politic will follow.


--Copyright John Hutchison 1997



A More Perfect Union

San Francisco's Powers-That-Be have decided that Union Square needs spiffing up. To this end, the PTB -- in this case, the city government, a number of design organizations, and Macy's -- put together an international competition to solicit ideas, with the winner to be announced on July 28. (This is a behind-closed-doors operation. The proposals were to have gone on public display in the windows of the former Emporium store on Market Street, but it turned out that Macy's needed the space to promote a pre-season sale. Meanwhile, the empty windows of the old I. Magnin store on Union Square remain enigmatically shrouded in white paper.) The sponsors have nothing to lose: even the $10,000 prize was amply covered by the 1,073 aspirants who paid $20 apiece to enter. The project has yet to receive funding, but the group undoubtedly took encouragement from the success of the Simon/DeBartolo Group in promoting its Field of Dreams.

Despite San Francisco's long-held reputation for valuing the voice of labor, Union Square actually acquired its name from a different constituency. During the Civil War, ideological battles were fought in the streets of the city in the form of rowdy torchlight parades and other, more destructive disruptions. The space bordered by Powell, Geary, Post, and Stockton Streets provided an ideal venue for bonfires and orations as civic leaders used mass meetings to further their powerful and profitable alliance with the federal government. If, as the historian Howard Zinn argues, the War Between the States culminated in a victory for Northern-style capitalism, then the square's variegated past suggests that it is indeed aptly named.

The space was there before the name. In 1850, when Mayor John White Geary donated the land to the city for a park, it seemed very distant from the center of things in Portsmouth Plaza. Geary, who dabbled in real estate as well as politics, had the notion that beautifying the area would increase the value of the surrounding property, which he owned. The lure of politics may have overcome his business instincts, however, because he didn't actually stick around long enough to give his plan a chance. Geary became governor of Kansas in 1856-57, effectively but briefly binding a tourniquet around the bleeding territory. By the end of his life in 1873, he had moved still further east, to serve as governor of Pennsylvania.

The space took on a spirit of its own, one congruent with its entrepreneurial conception. During the summer of 1864 it rocked to the sound of hammers as the Mechanics' Institute erected a huge pavilion to house the fourth industrial fair it had hosted in a decade. The structure occupied most of the block: flag-topped towers marked the outermost edges, and four redwood-covered wings intersected beneath a dome rising more than one hundred feet. Fair-goers like Mark Twain flocked enthusiastically to see "pomological, ichthyological, mechanical, and a general variety of specimens" that included a miniature Labyrinth Garden and an equally small Skating Pond (complete with skaters in full motion) as well as a two-ton chunk of cheese. The exposition was partly a charitable fund-raiser: people contributed 25 cents to the U.S. Sanitary Commission (a forerunner of the American Red Cross) to see the cheese and a 200-pound silver brick from Nevada, which lay inside a flower-covered pagoda surrounded by a circle of jetting water. But it was primarily a self-congratulatory showcase for the region's extraordinary commercial and technological advances, stimulated by four years of mining discoveries and wartime demands.

Perhaps reflecting the peculiarly Victorian penchant for combining religious and technological success, San Francisco's most prominent protestant churches congregated around the square in the late nineteenth century. But they, and the way of thinking they represented, soon became irrelevant and vanished. The century concluded with celebrations of the splendid little Spanish-American War, in which the United States protected its extensive investments in Cuba and became a major colonial power by acquiring the territories formerly ruled by Spain. In 1901 President William McKinley presented the city with the twentieth-century equivalent of a golden spike, a link to the new global economy, when he broke ground in the middle of Union Square for a monument -- a 97-foot granite column surmounted by a bronze figure of Victory -- in honor of Commodore George Dewey's defeat of Spanish forces at Manila Bay.

After the earthquake in 1906, the monument stood tall amid the rubble. The recently constructed Hotel St. Francis, in majestic ruins nearby, was rebuilt within a year. And one by one, elegant department stores gathered where the churches had stood. In 1942 the surface of the square was ripped off and replaced as the landscaped roof to a four-level underground parking garage (the first of its kind in the country). The city's habit of marrying technology and commerce continued, for the garage offered valet parking, allowing shoppers to walk directly from their last stop of the day to their waiting vehicle. In those days, according to WPA chroniclers, Union Square represented "to an international clientele and to San Franciscans the city's traditional demand for quality." Even in the mid-1960s, Chronicle writer James Benét noted that it was the spot where "the city earns its world-wide reputation for handsome dress."

And now? The St. Francis remains. So does as the monument, its lustered dulled by generations of roosting pigeons and Filipino objections to the Eurocentric inscription. The department stores are retrenching and regrouping as suburban malls and catalogue shopping change retail patterns. The square itself has grown dingy. In a city with a high tolerance for trash, its level of litter is relatively low, but the pavement and walls are embedded with substances better not investigated too deeply, and even the floor of the automatic, self-cleaning J.C. DeCaux toilet would benefit from a good scrubbing. Grime and all, the area gets a lot of use. On a recent afternoon when the cold summer fog was numbing tourists' knees, the benches and lawns were filled: well-dressed office workers, shivering foreign visitors, and shabby street people talked, ate their lunch or simply took a rest. At noon on a sunny day when a band is playing, it's standing room only. But the San Francisco Prize Coalition is right -- we need a new design.

Macy's and Company is trying desperately to revive the old role of the square as a commercial catalyst. Instead of authorizing a Union Square Theme Park -- a sanitized haven for hordes of happy consumers -- it would be far more realistic, and far more fun, to redesign the space in explicit recognition of its present uses. Capitalize, if you will, on the wonderfully varied population that has long been part of San Francisco's attraction. Keep the square simple, as befits its position between downtown and the Tenderloin. Keep it clean, as befits a city with pride in itself. Fill it with flowers, as befits an oasis in the middle of a concrete wasteland. Make it friendly: remove the "No Loitering" signs. Make it quieter: restrict traffic to Powell Street and the existing one-lane route to and from the garage. Invite the people of San Francisco, on a series of weekends, to sweep and polish and plant, making this space truly their own. And then, echoing the five-day bash that marked the rebirth of earthquake-ravaged Market Street in 1909, have the happiest house-warming party imaginable.

--Copyright Betsey Culp 1997

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