Early this week, a packet of about 75 letters arrived, written for a composition class by Cal State Fullerton business administration students. They were responding to a column of mine about the Los Angeles riots.
After reading them, I stuck them in a drawer.
Then, a couple days later, Vice President Dan Quayle delivered his denunciation of TV's "Murphy Brown" as symbolizing society's lack of values--a problem that, he said, was the root cause of the L.A. riots.
Quayle said later that he hadn't seen the "Murphy" episode, during which an unwed Murphy Brown gave birth, and never watched the show. I considered the fact that he presumably had as much time as he needed to formulate his remarks and, in addition, a national forum in which to discuss them. The net result was that he used a TV sitcom as his reference point.
I reread the letters from Cal State Fullerton. Judith Remy Leder, who teaches the class, said the students wrote their papers in 70 minutes.
Here are some excerpts. Then you tell me who's done the most impassioned and eloquent thinking about the problems of inner-city America--these college students or the vice president:
From Kimberly Messner: "The riots in L.A. are an embodiment of a moral decay rampant across America. . . . What varies by neighborhood or class is the level of crime people believe they can get away with. . . . What I'm saying is that the willingness to do the worst that you can do with impunity is not confined to a few square miles in the ghetto."
From Nathan Camp: "We have splintered as a society with no real understanding of who the other groups are. . . . The parents of this lost generation are the depressed and oppressed minorities, tired of the manacles that were supposed to be removed by Lincoln. They have been betrayed by justice and society has turned its back on them."
From Hoa Van: "How can we ask these people to care for our society when they have nothing to look forward to, and have absolutely no powers. . . ? If we want change in our society, we don't have to call to heaven to help us. We can do it ourselves, not you and me, but people from the top."
From Amorette Martinez: "Instead of being afraid of these individuals, why don't we try to find out why this happened? What makes people so angry that they destroy their own community . . . ? We cannot just fear them and ignore them until this happens again."
From Junior Usaraga: "Our society has grown far too accepting of the problems that plague the country and numb us to the deterioration of the family structure, without which the teen-agers run rampant. No morals, no obligations and responsibilities, and no respect for anything is a freedom our government condones by not providing for its people the equality of education needed to combat the ignorance breeding the disregard for human value and potential."
From Heidi Blochl: "I feel the problem goes far beyond the (Rodney G. King) incident and brings out many social issues that we are failing to address. . . . Now we are faced with an even bigger problem--single-parent households. The one parent must take on the duties of what two often find challenging. . . . There is an overall absence of morality, and I feel a good portion of this is caused by the media and our overall television programming. We are constantly being bombarded with violence. By constantly focusing on the negative, we help to create a sense of apathy and uselessness. The social problems that underlie this whole disaster must be faced."
From Kathy Morgan: "We all have to come down off our pedestals and take a closer look at what's happening to the victims of prejudice and poverty-stricken individuals. I think if we listen closely, we'll hear a cry of help."
From Lisa Kluever: "I think it's true that the rioters who could not have cared less for Rodney King have no sense of social responsibility, but I also think society hasn't taken any responsibility for them. We should not have to take all of the blame for what they did--they have to be responsible for themselves. But I think we need to try to understand better what they live with and try to correct the problem our society created."
From Ellen Lesher: "Like fleas trapped in a jar for days, at first they jump high trying to escape, but after so many tries, they decide their efforts are fruitless. When someone finally takes the jar top off, the fleas are defeated, no longer wanting to jump out. We do need to listen to the pleas of the inner cities."
From Frank Charles Parlato: "These people feel so rejected that they have no regard for the consequences for their actions. In my opinion they probably feel condemned to life in an unforgiving and hostile environment which isn't much better than prison life itself. I suppose that in a way many of these people feel they're in a prison in which society has locked them away with little hope of escaping."