Protection Racket

July 6, 2012

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

What we can’t think about: we use fantasies about endangered children to work off fears we can’t handle.

Why it matters:  It doesn’t work.

Yes, children can be victims.  Headlines shudder when a parent or a psychopath maims or kills an infant.  Kids die in sensational and trivial accidents–just as adults do.  Still, this isn’t the early modern period, when as many as two-thirds of children bit the dust before age ten, and newborns were often named for a dead sibling they were replacing.  We furnish car seats, helmets, vaccinations, consumer regulations, and long prison sentences for child pornography.

Don’t get me wrong. Concern for the young matters: for their own sake, but also because they stand between us and extinction.  Yet there is something disproportionate and unrealistic about that concern nowadays.  The 1980s and 90s saw hysteria about child sexual abuse falsely imprison nursery school providers. Like 1980s feminism, which stressed the helplessness of victims, fantasies about satanic cults focused on childhood, as did the ads on milk cartons seeking children who turned out not to be abducted after all.  For good reasons, today’s feminism emphasizes the need to resist convictions of futility.  But victimization fantasies have not quit the field.

I was reminded of this recently when a friend who is researching early childhood development reported that the regulations surrounding work with children these days are paralyzing.  He and his students are designing simple exercise equipment for kids, so there are predictable legal hassles: fears of accidents, with lawsuits, medical bills, and parental harassment.  The number of consent forms required even to photograph a child opens up suspicions of some darker purpose.

The exercise project grew out of a Head Start program that found some minority kids in a nearby city are developmentally lagging because with parents working and fears that it’s too dangerous to play outside, the kids end up inert in front of a television set. If the fears are realistic, then why isn’t the community aroused to create safe play spaces?

If we really believe that kids are endangered, why aren’t we acting to solve the problem?  The contradiction is grotesque. A third or more of American kids grow up in poverty.  What could be more dangerous than that?

You can think of all sorts of plausible explanations for this bizarre disconnection.  Though overpopulation may be the gravest threat to humankind, and too many kids grow up in squalor, people have bombed abortion clinics and murdered doctors.   Presumably they identify with unborn fetuses, or to put it another way, fetuses function as markers for fears of terrible vulnerability.  They allow us to think about things in ourselves otherwise kept in denial.

The rage to protect also offers a heroic role as St George rescuing the princess–and fertile posterity–from the dragon of death.  That need for heroic mastery of death is of course nothing new, alas.  Consider the paranoid urban legend that grew up around Simon of Trent (c. 1475) and other toddlers supposedly ritually murdered by Jews, not to mention the epidemic witchcraft hysteria that imagined neighbors cannibalizing infants.  Heroism amok leads to the fantasy of tyrannical supremacy that exterminates children, as in Herod’s massacre of the innocents in the Christian story.

The rage to punish such scapegoats is the evil that Ernest Becker saw triggered by fears of vulnerability–and above all, death.  What makes the obsession with childhood victimization worth our attention now is that the victimization–and the aggressive response–are not always as obligingly transparent as a dragon or crones stirring a stewpot.  Death-anxiety is especially poisonous because it’s so often disguised.

As with the harmless common cold virus, which triggers miserable bodily overreaction, defenses against anxiety can make things worse.  Some doctors suspect that an aggressively hygienic environment may be contributing to the sudden epidemic of allergies  to things like peanuts.  For children who are never permitted to show or experience it, anger can seem paralyzingly dangerous.

If I had to sketch a context for such inflammatory responses to life, I’d wonder about the insane cult of competition in American life–insane because the working poor and the powerless are continually bullied by Social Darwinist demands to be more competitive and to “suck it up,” while Wall Street, the military, and politics (think gerrymandering and Citizens United election money) all strive mightily to create monopolies.  They love Soviet-style central planning and loathe competition.

As the nation declines from the affluence of the postwar years, the deep force at work is triage.  Power hogs resources at the top as it does among our primate cousins.  Jobs and unions suffer, families need two parents in the workforce, basic rights such as retirement and medical insurance remain starved, education shrinks.  The pressure is on to find polite ways of starving and disposing of the unemployed and unfit.  Listen to faux conservatives and you hear eugenics flourishing in sinister euphemisms.  The same righteous fist that would defend the fetus hands out shovels to bury children of the living poor.

So who can be surprised that when power and money are monopolized, people feel like victimized children?  If the historically unprecedented bounty of electronic communication is used not for problem-solving but for unreal “reality” shows and, as Neil Postman says, “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” who wouldn’t identify with the bewildered child, at risk from predators that can’t reliably be seen, let alone vanquished?

Children are not simply diminutive adults.  But they’re also not lifelike dolls who mimic speech when you pull a string.  If they’re not, why should we be?



  1. Kirby,

    Hi Kirby. Bruce Floyd here.

    I don’t know that the following poem by Robinson Jeffers is apposite to your essay or not. I find congruence, but others may not. Jeffers saw what Becker did: we delude ourselves about the nature of life, about our place in the sheme of things. We forget we are part of a whole, not a whole in itself. We are obsessed with ourselves, so in love with our kind, so solipsistic that we blindly destroy the earth to amuse ourselves, to enrich ourselves. We think we can control what we cannot. We cannot rescue humankind from the blind indifference of the universe or from each human’s ineluctable fate of death. Better, some think, to fabricate the boogeyman–the predator, the poor, the powerless, those with different shaped noses–than to face the dark truth of the human predicament. Jeffers says in another poem that “Ants or wise bees, or a gang of wolves, / Work together by instinct, but man needs lies / / These lies are called faith, and their formulation / We call a creed, and the faithful flourish,/ They conquer nature and their enemies, they win security. . .” At what cost? Then what is the answer. Here is Jeffers’ thought on the matter:

    The Answer

    Then what is the answer?—Not to be deluded by dreams.
    To know the great civilizations have broken down into violence, and their tyrants come, many times before.
    When open violence appears, to avoid it with honor or choose the least ugly faction; these evils are essential.
    To keep one’s own integrity, be merciful and uncorrupted and not wish for evil; and not be duped
    By dreams of universal justice or happiness. These dreams will not be fulfilled.
    To know this, and know that however ugly the parts appear the whole remains beautiful. A severed hand
    Is an ugly thing, and man dissevered from the earth and stars and his history…for contemplation or in fact…
    Often appears atrociously ugly. Integrity is wholeness, the greatest beauty is
    Organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things, the divine beauty of the universe. Love that, not man
    Apart from that, or else you will share man’s pitiful confusions, or drown in despair when his days darken.

  2. Well, i wouldn’t find just social Darwinianists of the political/economic spectrum indulging in such denial and scapegoding. Under the ‘Labour’ Gov in the UK Paedophiles were, apparently, everywhere – if you had a job anywhere near kids you had to be checked and triple checked. Fortunately some of this legislation is now being undone, not that i side with the current Gov.

    Its funny that you should mention the anti-abortionists, as i know one of those, but only virtually, on the www. He claims that an abortion is a crime against humanity and that it is the guilt of society. He calls women who have had abortions (in all circumstances) Nazis with an Auschwitz for a womb, and expects rape victims to bare the progeny of their attackers. He froths so ferociously at the mouth about this that i began to suspect something was up with the poor fellow, and made some enquiries in discussion….

    Tip – its something to do with guilt (expiation)

    He’s very much of the political left, loves to use the word fascist, a man tormented by the powerfull symobolic image of an aborted foetus.

    Just how far away are we from the truth about ourselves exactly??

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