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Do Americans Hate Children?

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?

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