The late comic Bill Hicks had little patience with people who go on about saving the children and doing it for the kids. You either love all people of all ages or you shut the f**k up, he snarled. Well, thats one point of view. Yet its safe to say how we treat kids on an institutional level is a fairly good measure of where were heading as a cultureupward, downward or completely sideways.
The other day a friend dropped by with two items in hand. One was a newspaper review of Joel Bakans book, Childhood Under Siege: How Big Business Targets Children. The other was a glossy insert for childrens clothing, which featured page after page of three to six year-old models in hip, adult-styled garb. The tykes in the pics posed haughtily, wearing cynical, inward expressionsthe defiant look of anorexic runway models. I felt like I should have been handling the insert with tongs.
Neil Postman was right on the money. Back in 1982, the gravel-voiced media studies professor prophesied the disappearance of childhood in a book of the same name. Two decades later, it almost seems the window for playful, pre-juvenile innocence is closing.
University of B.C. law professor Joel Bakans new book acts as an appendix and update to Postmans work, and crystallizes what many parents already know: their influence on their kids is being overwhelmed by a 24-hour corporate assault that extends into the classroom, home and beyond. Doctors are coerced and seduced by big pharmaceutical companies to hook kids on psychoactive drugs, teachers have to compete with Facebook and Twitter for students attention, legislators sign off on lowered ages for child labour and fashion editors merrily erase any sartorial line between infancy and adulthood. Over the last 30 years, deregulation, privatization, weak enforcement of existing regulations and legal and political resistance to new regulations have eroded our ability, as a society, to protect children, Bakan recently wrote in an article for the New York Times.
That goes in spades for children from afar, who are less likely to garner media attention after encountering First World profiteers masquerading as saviours in suits. In 1996, the worlds biggest research-based pharmaceutical company conducted an illegal drug trial on 200 Nigerian children. Eleven children died from a meningitis drug called Trovan, and many were left disabled. Recently released embassy cables from WikiLeaks revealed how the company planned to defuse this public relations bomb by hiring investigators to find evidence of corruption against a Pfizer-probing attorney general in Nigeria. (Last month, Pfizer announced it was making hefty payments to parents of four of the children who died in the experiments.)
Bear in mind, this incident wasnt dreamed up by the Taliban or al-Qaida. It was cooked up somewhere along the corporate chain of command. Wed all prefer to think of this sort of thing as an anomaly, but its just a more pungent flavour of business-as-usual. Bakan says 156 countries, including Afghanistan and Haiti, have signed an international treaty that bans the employment of children under 15, yet Canada and the United States have refused.
Brutish Columbia is on the cutting edge in this department, with the most regressive child labour laws in North America. Bill 37 allows children as young as 12 to work in any employment area except mining and serving liquor. All thanks to Gordon Campbell, the man identified as a visionary in his Order of British Columbia award. Certainly Campbells vision for provincial workers tested 20/20 with his big-money supporters, who could also see the clear outline of a pliant, uncomprehending labour force under five feet tall.
Hopefully the current focus on corporate manipulation of children will widen into bigger questions about labour, capital, people and planet. Adult blights and oversights tend to be passed down the generations, along with the character-deforming traits attached to the monomaniacal pursuit of the almighty dollar. Its a pattern with a long pedigree. Our civilized world is nothing but a great masquerade, wrote the 19th century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. You encounter knights, parsons, soldiers, doctors, lawyers, priests, philosophers and a thousand more: but they are not what they appearthey are merely masks... Usually, as I say, there is nothing but industrialists, businessmen and speculators concealed behind all these masks.