Yes, I know you love your children, as I love mine. That’s not in doubt. But do you love mine and I yours? Because collectively there seems to be a problem. Ferguson may have awakened a few people to some of the ways in which our society discriminates against African Americans — if “discriminates” is a word that can encompass murder. But when we allow the murder of young black people, is it possible that those people had two strikes against them, being both black and young?
Barry Spector’s book Madness at the Gates of the City is one of the richest collections of insights and provocations I know of. It’s a book that mines ancient mythology and indigenous customs for paths out of a culture of consumerism, isolation, sexual repression, fear of death, animosity and projection, and disrespect for the young and the old. One of the more disturbing habits of this book is that of identifying in current life the continuation of practices we think of as barbaric, including the sacrificing of children.
The Gulf War was launched on fictional tales of Iraqis removing babies from incubators. Children were sent off to recruiting offices to kill and die in order to put an end to imaginary killing and dying. But war is not the only area Spector looks at.
“No longer allowed to engage in literal child sacrifice,” he writes — excluding as exceptional, I suppose, cases like the man who threw his little girl off a bridge on Thursday in Florida — “we do so through abuse, battery, negligence, rape and institutionalized helplessness. Girls eleven years old and younger make up thirty percent of rape victims, and juvenile sexual assault victims know their perpetrators ninety-three percent of the time. A quarter of American children live in poverty; over a million of them are homeless.”
A major theme of Spector’s book is the lack of a suitable initiation ritual for adolescent men in our culture. He calls us adults the uninitiated. “How,” he asks, can we “transform those raging hormones from anti-social expression into something positive? This cannot be stated too strongly: uninitiated men cause universal suffering. Either they burn with creativity or they burn everything down. This biological issue transcends debates over gender socialization. Although patriarchal conditioning legitimates and perpetuates it, their nature drives young men to violent excess. Rites of passage provide metaphor and symbol so that boys don’t have to act their inner urges out.”
But later in the book, Spector seems to suggest that we’ve actually understood this situation too well and exaggerated the idea. “When polled, adults estimate that juveniles are responsible for forty-three percent of violent crime. Sociologist Mike Males, however, reports that teenagers commit only thirteen percent of these crimes. Yet nearly half the states prosecute children as young as ten as if they were adults, and over fifty percent of adults favor executing teenage killers.”
Sometimes we exonerate children after killing them, but how much do they benefit from that?
In reality baby boomers account for most drug addiction and crime, and most are of course white. But the punishment, just as for racial minorities, is meted out disproportionately. “American youths consistently receive prison sentences sixty percent longer than adults for the same crimes. When adults are the victims of sex crimes, sentences are tougher than when the victims are children; and parents who abuse their children receive shorter sentences than strangers do.”
Not only are we collectively harder on kids than adults, just as on blacks than whites, but when we do focus on crimes against kids, Spector argues, we scapegoat priests or gays or single men, at the expense of addressing “unemployment, overcrowded schools, family disintegration or institutionalized violence. It is now virtually impossible for men to work in early education; they comprise only one of eleven elementary teachers.”
Why do we allow a system to continue that discrimintes against children? Are we oblivious, distracted, misguided, short-sighted, selfish? Spector suggests that we are in fact carrying on a long history. “There is considerable evidence of the literal killing of both illegitimate children (at least as late as the nineteenth century) and legitimate ones, especially girls, in Europe. As a result, there was a large imbalance of males over females well into the Middle Ages. Physical and sexual abuse was so common that most children born prior to the eighteenth century were what would today be termed ‘battered children.’ However, the medical syndrome itself didn’t arise among doctors until 1962, when regular use of x-rays revealed widespread multiple fractures in the limbs of small children who were too young to complain verbally.”
Spector also notes that of some 5,000 lynchings in the United States between 1880 and 1930, at least 40 percent were human sacrifice rituals, often carefully orchestrated, often with clergy presiding, usually on Sunday, the site chosen in advance and advertised in newspapers.
Greeks and Hebrews saw child sacrifice as part of the none-too-distant past, if not the present. Circumcision may be a remnant of this. Another may be an adult looking lovingly at a baby and remarking that they are “So cute I could eat them up.” The idea of children as prey may date all the way back to an age when large predators frequently threatened humans. The fear of large predators may continue thousands of years after being relevant precisely because it is taught to children when they are very young. It might disappear from adult minds if it disappeared from children’s stories. Depicting a foreign dictator as a wild beast in editorial cartoons might then just look stupid rather than frightening.
There is a popular trend in academia now of blurring the lines between types of violence, in order to claim that because child abuse or lynching is being reduced (if it is), so is war. That claim has been oversimplified and distorted. But Spector and experts he cites, and many others, believe that one way to make all varieties of violence, including war, less likely is to raise children lovingly and nonviolently. Such children do not tend to develop the thought patterns of the supporter of war.
Do we love our children? Of course we do. But why do less wealthy countries guarantee free education through college, parental leave time, vacation time, retirement, healthcare, etc., while we guarantee only war after war after war? There was, during the last cold war, a song by Sting called Russians that claimed there would be peace “if the Russians love their children too.” It went without saying that the West loved its children, but apparently there was some slight doubt about the Russians.
I happened to see a video this week of young Russians dancing and singing in Moscow, in English, in a manner that I think Americans would love. I wonder if part of the answer isn’t for us to love Russian children, and Russians to love American children, and all of us collectively — in a larger sense of collectively — to start systemically and structurally loving all children the way we personally cherish our very own.
Here’s one basic place we might start. Only three nations have refused to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child. They are Sudan, Somalia, and the United States of America, and two of those three are moving forward with ratification.
My fellow Americans, WTF?