Jewish World Review March 16, 2004 / 23 Adar, 5764

Leonard Pitts, Jr.

Leonard Pitts, Jr.
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Consumer Reports

In flagrante in public ... inexcusable | Let me set the scene.

You're sitting in traffic with your 4-year-old. Suddenly you notice she's watching with rapt interest something in the next car. You glance over and realize that the other vehicle is equipped with one of those DVD screens that are available on certain late-model cars.

The option is usually marketed as a way of keeping kids quiet on long road trips. But what the folks over there are watching is more loin king than "Lion King." Because there onscreen, before your daughter's steadily widening eyes, is a pair of exceedingly fit people using their private parts in ways the child never imagined they could be used. It is, in other words, a porn flick. In traffic. In public.

This is not just something that could happen, but something that already did. And the mother in question, 26-year-old Andrea Carlton of Gurnee, Ill., was outraged. "You're not allowed to have sex in your car," she said, "so why are you allowed to watch it?"

We have the Associated Press to thank for bringing this incident to our attention. According to its recent story, more and more drivers are using their onboard DVDs to screen pornography. I won't call it a trend, because that probably overstates the case. But even if we're only talking about a few isolated incidents, it still seems to speak to a rather troubling aspect of life in America just past the turn of the century.

Call it the loss of the public square.

I'll elaborate, but first let me head off any misunderstanding. My concern here is not that some people choose to entertain themselves with pornography. Frankly, so long as no children or beasts are involved, I don't care what grown people watch in the privacy of their own homes.

Public spaces, however, are a different matter. It used to be that you were sent into the world beyond your front door with an understanding that the public square belonged, well ... "to the public." To all of us. You were taught that it betrayed a lack of class and intelligence to act as if it belonged to you alone.

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Where I come from, we had a term for that understanding. We called it home training.

Which is, apparently, a lost art. As a result, the idea that you do not bring private behavior into public places has largely disappeared. It has been replaced by a sense of entitlement, a sense that the public square is an extension of one's own living room or bedroom, in which you may do as you darn well please.

So you run "Debbie Does Dallas" on the DVD in your car, heedless of who might see. You roll through the streets with the car stereo turned up to 11 and curse words echoing down the block. You show up at the supermarket with your hair piled up in rainbow curlers. You have a loud and animated cell phone discussion of matters gynecological and urological while waiting in line at the bank. You all but make love on a park bench.

All those behaviors have more in common than obnoxiousness. Meaning, they all proceed from a profound lack of respect for oneself, for other people and for the fact that public space is shared space.

Who can be surprised, then, that cocooning became one of the most influential social trends of the last decade? When going out becomes an aggravation, it makes sense that sensible people would stay in, order out and make it a Blockbuster night.

But there's a cost. In hiding out behind our own walls, we lose community, that reminder that one is answerable to something larger than one's self. Granted, that's an old-fashioned notion. The idea that there is something called the common good and we all owe something to it seems to have passed away unnoticed somewhere in this last generation.

We should be troubled by what we've embraced in its stead. A culture where nobody owes anybody anything.

And they screen porno movies in the public square.

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