Paul Goodman, Growing Up Absurd

pages 42-44

During childhood, they played games with fierce intensity, giving themselves as a sacrifice to the game, for play was the chief business of growth, finding and making themselves in the world.  Now when they give they are too old merely to play, to what shall they give themselves with fierce intensity?  They cannot play for recreation, since they have not been used up.
The proving behavior is endless.  Since each activity is not interesting to begin with, its value does not deepen and it does not bear much repetition.  Its value as proof quickly diminishes.  In these circumstances, the inevitable tendency is to raise the ante of the compulsive useless activity that proves one is potent and not useless.  (This analysis applies equally to these juveniles and to status-seeking junior executives in business firms and on Madison Avenue.)
It is not surprising then, that, as Frederic Thrasher says in The Gang, “Other things being equal, the imaginative boy has an excellent chance to become the leader of the gang.  He has the power to make things interesting for them.  He ‘thinks up things for us to do.'”
At this point let us intervene and see what the Official Spokesmen say.

Last summer, after a disastrous week when there were several juvenile murders, the Governor of New York made the following statement (NYT, September 2, 1959)
We have to constantly devise new ways to bring about a challenge to these young folks and to provide an outlet for their energies and give them a sense of belonging.

The statement is on the highest level of current statesmanship — that is why I have chosen it.  It has been coached by sociologists and psychologists.  It has the proper therapeutic and not moralistic attitude, and it does not mention the cops.  (The direct appeal to force come a couple of weeks later, when there were other incidents.)

The gist of it is that the Governor of New York is to play he role that Thrasher assigns to the teen-age gang leader.  He is to think up new “challenges.”  (The word could not have been more unfortunate.)  But it is the word “constantly” that is the clue.  A challenge can hardly be worth while, meaningful, or therapeutic if another must constantly and obsessively be devised to siphon off a new threat of “energy”.  Is not this raising the ante?  Solidly meeting a real need does not have this character.

(“The leader” says Thrasher, “sometimes control the gang by means of summation, ie by progressively urging the members from one deed to another, until finally the extreme of some sort is reached.”)

My guess is that in playing games the Governor will not have so lively an imagination as the lad he wants to displace as leader;  unlike the grownups, the gang will never select him.  One of the objective factors that make it hard to grow up is that Governors are likely to be men of mediocre humane gifts.

The psychology of the Governor’s statement is puzzling.  There are no such undifferentiated energies as he speaks of.  There are energies of specific functions with specific objects.  In the case here they might be partly as follow: in adolescents a strong energy would be sexual reaching.  For these boys, as for other adolescents, it is thwarted or imperfectly gratified, but these have probably not learned so well as others to cushion the suffering and be patient; so that another strong energy of the delinquents would be diffuse rage of frustration, perhaps directed at a scapegoat.  If they have been kept from constructive activity making them feel worth while, a part of their energy might be envious and malicious destructiveness of property.  As they are powerless, it is spite; and as they are humiliated, it is vengeance.  As they feel rejected and misunderstood by governors, their energy is woe; but they react to this with cold pride, and all the more fierce gang loyalty to their peers.  For which of these specific energies does the Governor of New York seriously plan to devise an outlet?  Their own imaginative gang leader presumably does devise challenges that let off steam for a few hours.

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