The Cure for bad behaviour?

A small Kansas suburb is spending $237,000 researching gothic teens.

Rishi Dastidar

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Topics Politics

Dipping into the pork barrel is perhaps the most time-honoured tradition in US politics.

It is a strictly utilitarian approach to democratic representation, where a member of Congress is judged on his ability to grab back from Washington as much of his constituents’ hard-earned tax dollars as possible. What it is used for is an unnecessary worry. The greater the bounty, the greater the likelihood that he’ll be sent back to DC to dip his hand in again.

It’s an attractive, win-win scenario – right? Politicians don’t have to worry about getting elected on the basis of anything tricky like principles or policy – and voters get to roll around in the mud of municipal munificence. Hog heaven all round.

Citizens Against Government Waste, a non-governmental organisation, disagrees. It monitors US government largesse on ‘earmarked’ projects, highlighting particularly fatuous examples of wasteful spending. Its latest report has one particular humdinger: Congressman Sam Graves, Republican representative for Blue Springs in Missouri, has managed to attach to the current education bill going through the US Congress a federal grant of $237,000 directed to the Blue Springs police department’s Youth Outreach Unit (YOU) to ‘research gothic culture’ in the district.

Gothic culture? Why would it be necessary to research gothic culture? How much of a problem is it? And what will be done once the research is completed?

The Youth Outreach Unit is in no doubt. YOU is a highly regarded team that tries to save those kids of Blue Springs who might have fallen into difficulties, or who are ‘engaged in life-threatening or criminal behaviors, empower[ing] young people to make healthy lifestyle choices’ (1). When it announced the allocation of the gothic culture research grant, YOU argued that ‘The funding will support public safety efforts including surveillance, training, education, awareness, and youth and family counselling in order to reduce incidences of criminal and delinquent activity tied to this youth movement and counterculture’ (2).

This gets closer to the real fears at work here. Blue Springs is an ordinary quiet town of 48,000, a satellite suburb of Kansas City. While no politician might say it out loud, who would want a Marilyn Manson fan here? Beyond these local concerns about local Goths, there is broader concern about unruly teens. Tragic events like the Columbine school shootings in Colorado in 1999 and last week’s terrible events in Erfurt in Germany, where 14 teachers and two pupils were shot dead at a school by a former pupil, spark heated debates about young people, society and ‘what went wrong’ – with attempts to look for causes in everything from the films young people watch to the music they listen to.

Horrific events like these are noticeable by their unpredictability. But the Blue Springs grant looks like an attempt to spot early those kids who might be tempted to redress problems at school with weapons instead of words.

According to assistant city administrator Eric Johnson, the effort is aimed at identifying individuals involved in extreme delinquent behaviour. ‘Our campaign is not to go out and say all Goth members are bad’, he says (3). Presumably, all that money will mean that city officials can actually define this culture rather more accurately than merely relying on the incidences of dark clothing and a bad record collection.

There is plenty evidence that this research grant is a spurious one. City officials offer no statistics or evidence showing a link between being a Goth and the instances of behaviour the city is supposedly combating. And the city seems to believe that delinquent behaviour doesn’t exist among other high-school ‘tribes’ – you know, the sporty ones, the cheerleading ones, the popular ones. It seems it is only kids who wear black and listen to The Cure who drink, smoke, steal or screw.

Why should government money be spent on research that is unnecessary, and likely to drive a wedge between officials and those they are trying to reach? Substituting the words ‘black’, ‘homosexual’ or ‘Jewish’ for ‘gothic’ shows how such a policy, however noble the motive, could take on sinister overtones. Blue Springs might present the research as just pre-emptive social work, but the relevant clause in the education bill suggests something more. It specifically refers to ‘combating Goth culture’, not merely researching it. In fact, this clause stinks so much that the Bush administration asked for it to be removed from the bill. Congress refused (4).

This all sits rather oddly with Blue Springs’ police department’s stated aim of maintaining ‘the highest level of respect for an individual’s rights and human dignity by providing equal treatment of all persons without prejudice and bias’ (5). Perhaps this is actually achieved by watching, spying on and generally disapproving of a very small minority who have not caused any harm to anybody else.

Luckily for Blue Springs, the grant has not received much attention. Because if it was examined a little more closely, people might become concerned that their sons and daughters were being ‘researched’ on the basis of what they happen to wear and listen to, and where they hang out.

Rishi Dastidar is researching media regulation at the London School of Economics

(1) Youth Outreach Unit section of the City of Blue Springs website

(2) City’s Youth Outreach Unit to receive federal funding for gothic culture research,City of Blue Springs, 10 April 2002

(3) Grant targets ‘Goth culture’, Blue Springs Examiner, 11 April 2002

(4) The Goth grant, Blue Springs Examiner, 18 April 2002

(5) Blue Springs police department mission statement, on the City of Blue Springs website

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Topics Politics