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The Barney Syndrome: I hate you, you hate me, we're as mean as we can be.

Barney is ticking some people off. Unless you've been in a deprivation tank or without television for the past several years, you know what I'm talking about. Barney is the purple-and-green dinosaur with the goofy voice that has made a mint bouncing around on public TV, clapping his paws and saccharinely singing: "I love you/You love me / We're good friends / like friends should be." He's the 1990s version of Mr. Rogers in a fuzzy purple suit with a fat tail.

Like Mr. Rogers, he's a nice guy. As purple dinosaurs go. On his program, which airs several times a day, seven days a week, he spends 30 minutes talking about sharing, helping others, respecting adults--all the things that should make him a hero for our times. Heck, he doesn't even use the "H-word," for goodness' sake. Barney's world is a happy world--which might be why he is irritating the sourpusses everywhere else.

Not long ago, I was standing in a department store near a bin full of hundreds of Barney dolls. As I watched, a seven- or eight-year-old boy walked by, stopped in front of the bin, formed his right thumb and index finger into a make believe gun, and began blasting away at all those innocent Barneys. It was a massacre. A few minutes later, a second boy, maybe ten years old, strolled by and finished off the survivors with a make believe assault rifle. As he walked away, he blew a puff of air across his still-smoking finger and said, "I hate Barney."

Later, on late night television, I watched a comedy sketch in which pro basketball star Charles Barkley pummeled a helpless and hapless imitation Barney in a one-on-one game. The audience cheered Barkley on as he blocked, elbowed, and slammed into the increasingly bewildered and banged-up Barney look-alike.

Why such cold blooded nastiness toward something that just wants to sing songs and play imagination games? Maybe it's because some people are jealous of Barney's money. He is a multi-millionaire thanks to slick marketing and crass commercialism. But golly, that's the American way. Maybe it's because he's not very athletic; in fact, he's a little effeminate and that always tends to rankle some people: football coaches, truck drivers, and just about anyone from Texas. Maybe it's because he just doesn't sing very well--but neither does Leon Redbone, and I've never heard of anyone wanting to put a bullet between his eyes because of it.

These might all be reasons, but I think it goes deeper than these things. This dislike for nice-guy Barney seems to reflect a growing meanness that is pervading (and prevailing in) our daily humanity.

I first began to recognize it in the messages I saw on T-shirts. When I was in college, the T-shirt messages I wore or saw were kind, passive, or just plain silly. My favorite displayed the caricatures of Laurel and Hardy smiling broadly at anyone who chanced to look at my chest. Another popular one was the Woodstock logo--the dove sitting on the guitar neck. Then there was the figure of the guy with the exaggerated stride and bulbous nose who encouraged one and all to "Keep on Truckin" I didn't know what it meant, but I never felt threatened by it.

Over the years, though, T-shirt messages have started to display a certain edge and impatient or even impertinent attitude toward others. First, the smile on the bright yellow "Have a Nice Day" face got turned into a frown. Next, shirts began to proclaim "I'm with Stupid" or to ask testily, "What the Hell Are You Looking At?" Today, the messages are just downright mean: "Here's a Quarter, Call Someone Who Cares"; "Places to Go, People to Annoy"; "If You Don't Like My Attitude, Call 1-800-Who-Cares"; "If I Promise to Miss You, Will You Go Away?"; "I'm Busy, You're Ugly, Have a Nice Day"; and "If I Looked Like You, I'd Kill Myself."

And it doesn't stop with T-shirts. I drove by a house in the country the other day where the welcome mat was replaced by a sign posted beside the front door: "No Trespassing, Asshole!" Moreover, our neglect of common courtestes feeds this sense of meanness. We neglect to hold doors open for others and to say thanks when someone does for us. We neglect to use our turn signals. We neglect to say "excuse me" when we bump into or cut in front of someone. We neglect to apologize when we're wrong. We neglect to acknowledge those we pass on the street with a friendly hello or just a smile. Instead, we choose to hide behind tinted car windows, sunglasses, and Walkman headphones.

I worry about this, especially with the recent yammering about dismantling the welfare system and replacing it with one that relies on the abundance of kind, caring, and compassionate people who will surely give to anyone in true need. Right now, if I was truly in need, I'd be nervous.

Consider a survey conducted recently on a TV talk show. People on the street were asked to make a choice: if your dog was drowning and a stranger was drowning, which would you save? Four out of five said that they would save their dog. Then there's the story of the two women who were trapped in their car by rising water when floods swept through California in the early part of 1995. The first motorist to stop offered to help but wanted them to pay first. The women were frightened and desperate, but not that frightened and desperate; they decided to wait for a second motorist who saved them free of charge.

This me-first attitude is applauded by many who believe that it's about time we started looking out for ourselves first and everyone else be damned. It's referred to as rugged individualism, and conservatives especially admire and sup port it. But there is a fine yet distinct line between rugged individualism and selfish egoism. Unfortunately, that line seems to be getting fuzzier by the day.

Maybe there's hope, though. The other day, as I searched for my car in a crowded mall parking lot, I saw a bumpersticker that read: "Mean People Suck." That's a start. Next, we'll work on forgiveness.

John C. Moor is a lecturer in the Humanities Department at Firelands College in Huron, Ohio, where he teaches composition, literature, and journalism. His writing has appeared in Family Times, the Ohio-Michigan Line, and Bend in the River. He is also coeditor of the book In Buckeye Country.
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Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:The Popular Condition; mean behavior
Author:Moor, John C.
Publication:The Humanist
Article Type:Column
Date:Nov 1, 1996
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