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No, the Times They Aren't A-Changin'

Feb 10, 1997, Vol. 2, No. 21 • By ALAN EHRENHALT
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Jon Katz

Virtuous Reality

How America surrendered discussion of moral values to opportunists, nitwits & blockheads like William Bennett

Random House, 212 pp., $ 21

Thirty years ago, Bob Dylan issued a belligerent warning to the mothers and fathers of baby-boom America: "Don't criticize what you can't understand/Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command." It's hard to imagine a more chilling thing to say to the parent of an adolescent. Of course, not many parents were listening -- the primary consumers of this record-album manifesto were the teenagers Dylan was encouraging to rebel. He knew perfectly well when he wrote "The Times They Are A-Changin'" that he was speaking to and for his own generation, and that was what gave Dylan's lyrics their odd sort of primitive power.

Had Dylan been 50 when he wrote those words, they wouldn't have sounded very dramatic; he would have seemed like a confused middleaged man seeking to curry favor with his children. Still, every generation produces its share of older people who seek out roles either as Pied Piper to the young or as voice of doom to the old, or both. In retrospect, most of them come off as hyperbolic fools. If you want to see a good example, pick up an old paperback copy of Charles Reich's The Greening of America. "The new consciousness is sweeping the high schools, it is seen in smiles on the streets," Reich proclaimed in that bestseller, published in 1970. "Hardly anybody of the older generation, even the FBI or the sociologists, knows much about it, for its language and thought are so different from Consciousness II as to make it virtually an undecipherable secret code." How Reich managed to crack the code as a 42-year-old Yale law professor, he didn't bother to say.

It's not hard to understand why Pied Piperism attracts middle-aged writers like Reich who ought to know better. They have an opportunity in one stroke to identify themselves with the energy and idealism of adolescence, and to establish a posture of moral superiority to their stodgy contemporaries still standing in the doorway and blocking up the hall.

This is the opportunity that has been seized eagerly by Jon Katz, former newspaper editor and TV news producer, novelist, and current media critic for Wired. In his new book, Virtuous Reality, Katz makes almost the same claims for the youth culture of the 1990s that Bob Dylan and Charles Reich did for the youth culture of the 1960s. This time, though, the instrument of rebellion isn't primarily music, or drugs, or politics; it's the Internet. " Kids are moving out from under our pious control," he lectures his own parental cohort, "finding one another via the great hive that is the Net. . . . American kids now have the most diverse, sophisticated and interesting culture on the planet. They aren't going to give it up. Grasp this or pass into history."

Dylan's version was a little more colorful: "You better start swimmin' or you'll sink like a stone." But it's really only the medium that's different; the message has the same ominous tone to it. Katz believes that access to the Internet is giving young people a common language and a sense of generational solidarity that will forever set them apart from their elders. He celebrates this new consciousness as a genuine rebirth of free thought and expression in America. He thinks concerns about the offensive nature of Internet communication are exaggerated, and attempts to regulate it futile. He considers the would-be regulators to be narrow-minded modern incarnations of Anthony Comstock and the Society for the Suppression of Vice.

Of all the villains determined to spoil the young people's innocent fun, one in particular drives Katz crazy: William Bennett. Katz dislikes Bennett so much that he can't even wait for the introduction to start unloading on him: The book's subtitle dubs Bennett a "nitwit" and a "blockhead." And Katz keeps it up for much of Virtuous Reality's 212 pages. Bennett is a shameless self-promoter who made millions of dollars packaging useless homilies into The Book of Virtues. Bennett was an incompetent public official whose failures as education secretary and as drug czar disqualify him as an authority on any aspect of public policy. "Bennett is not only a bully," Katz says, "but an especially coldhearted one when it comes to children, for whom his concern is as selective as it is lucrative."