Your Child Is Probably a Thief

There's a reason kids today can't look you in the eye.

My nephew Patrick was down at our Shore place over the weekend. I own a small abode in Ocean City with my brother and sister-in-law, which has proven to be a godsend innumerable times over. Ask anyone with a slice of real estate at the Shore, and they’ll tell you what I am now telling you, that your blood pressure drops 20 points as soon as the marshy sea air starts wafting through the car windows as you approach.

Patrick is 23 and whippet smart, with a recent master’s degree in civil engineering from Drexel in his pocket and a recent trip to Honduras building a house for a poor family on his resume. He is, in short, the kind of nephew an uncle is proud to introduce. We were sitting in the living room when I remarked he seemed remarkably engrossed in his phone. He was reading a book, he said. This was not surprising—young people use their phones for everything but taking a shower anymore, and I am sure that’s coming. But it was when he casually mentioned he was reading a PDF of said book, downloaded from the Internet, that my antennae went up.

“A PDF?” I asked. “How much did that cost?”

He looked at me like I was nuts. “Uh, nothing,” he said. He’d downloaded it for free, he said, though he couldn’t recall the specific site. He went on to say he never paid for books anymore, or music, for that matter. Who does? His iPod has more than 1,000 songs, yet he paid for less than 10 percent of them. He seemed completely baffled by the look of horror on my face as he relayed all of this.

“So you stole them,” I said matter-of-factly.

“It’s not stealing,” he said defensively. Novels, songs, magazine articles, whatever—they’re all over the Internet, he said, and people share them, and what’s wrong with that? He argued that given his limited budget it was much better, for example, that he was downloading shared music files for free, which in turn allowed him to share them with others—exposing that band’s music to a group of people who otherwise would have never heard it. His logic seemed to be that it was a small matter that the band got cheated out of sales revenue, because the payoff of additional people listening more than made up for it.

I was unmoved. “You’re stealing,” I repeated.

And he is. As is, evidently, most of the rest of his generation (and, I suspect, a fair percentage of mine). Which continues to both vex and puzzle me. If your waitress goes back to the kitchen to grab an order for another table, you wouldn’t dream of getting up from your booth and skipping out on the bill. At least I hope you wouldn’t. But anymore, I can’t really be sure.

The casual air of thievery of the works of the creative class has become commonplace, a modern version of that old chorus from “Master of the House” from the musical Les Miserables, as the unctuous innkeeper Thenardier details how he rips off his guests: “Here a little slice/there a little cut/three percent for sleeping with the window shut.” Don’t know it? Don’t worry—I’m sure you can  download it illegally.

It used to be that you heard music on the radio and went out and bought an album (I’m dating myself) or a 45 (now I’m really dating myself) and you played it for your friends, and then they went out and bought it for themselves. Comic books, books, magazines and newspapers may have been occasionally shared, but only after someone had first ponied up for the original, and the sharing was not done among 100,000 people. Today, piracy has taken on its own sort of flair. As I explained to Patrick that the 800 or so songs on my own iPod had either been purchased through iTunes or transferred from old CDs I already owned, he shot me a look that could only be interpreted as, How quaint.

When casual theft goes from being morally bankrupt to standard practice, there’s something wrong, people. Call it the Napstering of American life. There is a default position of, “Oh, what’s the harm?” that is the standard refrain for all of this, to which I say: Ask the people who produced the songs, who wrote the books, who spent money and years of sweat to come up with an original creative composition, only to see it co-opted with nary a thought by people who find beating the system not a game, but as much a part of daily life as breakfast and watching television.

It’s all part of something larger, I think, the general vanishing of common values. The small things begin to disappear—holding a door for a lady, taking off your hat during a ballgame as the national anthem is played—and the snowball rolls down the hill from there. A woman in Moorestown has founded a company called Socially Savvy to teach kids things like how to make eye contact and introduce yourself, and how to eat at a restaurant. You know, the things parents used to teach. Alas, parents are now too busy being as rude as their kids. I was out to dinner in Somers Point a few weeks ago when a family of four sat down at the table next to me; the mother and two daughters spent the entire meal either texting or surfing the web, as the dad sat there in silence, looking at the walls like a bewildered doofus you’d see in a commercial for floor wax.

I know, I know—blah blah blah, you say, rolling your eyes as people like me lament the loss of such anachronisms as polite dinner conversation, as if we’re all trying to return to the age of Edith Wharton. But is honesty really anachronistic?

I gave Patrick suitable grief for all of his illegal downloading, and told him he needed to march into a Barnes & Noble and buy a damned book. Predictably, he thought my remonstrations hilarious. But somewhere deep down I think he knows I’m right. Or at least that I have a point. I just have to hope he remembers it the next time he goes to download a song.