Monday, December 18, 2006

Re-issue of Hillary Rodham Clinton's 'It Takes A Village'

I see that Hillary Rodham Clinton's 1996 book, It Takes A Village, has been re-released on its 10th anniversary. I am no expert on political campaigns of any kind, but I wonder if this is such a smart idea for Senator Clinton. That book championed what I described, in a long review in the Times Literary Supplement at the time it first appeared in 1996, as "liberal therapeutic authoritarianism" - the state entering family life in order to therapeutically manage intimate family relations. (You can download the TLS review free, here.)

I would have thought, for what it's worth, that Senator Clinton has come a long way toward remaking herself as a genuine moderate within the Democratic Party, and to gaining considerable new respect for herself across the partisan spectrum especially on foreign policy, even from people instinctively hostile to her. She has a very sensible and intelligent piece, with Republican senator John Ensign in today's Wall Street Journal, for example, urging an oil trust for Iraq. I don't understand why her campaign would want to remind even moderates and independents of why they didn't like her back in the mid-1990s. But what do I know?

I paired her book in the review with a second book, a history and interpretation by social historian Emmy Werner's Pioneer Children on the Journey West, which examined the letters and diaries of written by children who made the 19th century journey west, by oxcart, handcart, walking across America. Some of those letters and diaries - many written by girls, in the rising generation of common-school literacy - are truly extraordinary documents, and what they mostly do is touch an ethic of virtue and responsibility and interior resilience quite at odds with today's therapeutic society and liberal authoritarianism.

Let me say, as someone who is not a social conservative, but a small-l libertarian conservative, that obviously the right is fully capable of introducing governmental management of families. In the mid-1990s, however, people were less aware of the ways in which the American left had shifted from its liberal-libertinism of the 1960s and 70s, the "do your own thing" years, to a new political and social formation of liberal authoritarianism. I'm sure that's not a surprise for anyone today, but I think it was a little bit news back in the mid-1990s.

There is a lot of the late Christopher Lasch in my review; he had died young of cancer just a couple of years before. There is also reference to an outstanding - and devastating - essay on the book by Jean Bethke Elshtain, if I recall from The New Republic. And there is also a reference to a truly extraordinary essay by the great sociologist and social theorist Zygmunt Bauman - his description of today's poor as being different from the poor of yesterday, because today the poor are seen as merely "flawed consumers," from the critical theory journal Telos in the late 1980s. I didn't even refer in my review to P.J. O'Rourke's hysterically funny review from the Weekly Standard or someplace (not wanting to get upstaged).

And reviving It Takes A Village today also means noticing that it is featured, thinly disguised, as the basis for one of the books in Lemony Snicket's thirteen volume children's series, his magisterial disquisition on all the ways in which adults deal with children through passive aggression (and passive aggression, let's be honest, is the tone of It Takes A Village from opening paragraph to last; Clinton addressing with the American public as though a parent dealing with a child) - Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events - the volume titled, The Vile Village.

Does Senator Clinton really want to bring all this back again? Well, a bit from the review:

Children going west

Times Literary Supplement (London)
July 19, 1996


Hillary Rodham Clinton's book, It Takes a Village: And other lessons children teach us, purports to reassert the mutualism of the pioneer company at the level of America as a whole, so to remind us all that we live in a "village" that stretches from sea to shining sea. In Clinton's book, society is a village, but society is also the state. The state creates conditions of mutuality among society's consumer-citizens and additionally between these consumers and the contemporary poor, whom Zygmunt Bauman once tellingly described as suffering from the poverty of "flawed consumers". The principal task of this supposed mutualism is the raising of America's children, because, Clinton solemnly assures us, "each of us" - every person in the village - "plays a part in every child's life".

Clinton appears genuinely to believe this overheated rhetoric and to regard it as the basis for actual governmental policy. But, as Jean Bethke Elshtain has pointed out: Clinton tries to justify the extension of her metaphor by arguing that the village is evolving: "[it] can no longer be defined as a place on the map, or a list of people or organizations, but its essence remains the same: it is the network of values and relationships that support and affect our lives." Since this encompasses just about everything one can imagine, depending on how strenuously one defines "affect," what is left of the village? . . . Not a whole lot, I fear.

Nor does it ever occur to Clinton that the various state institutions in which she purports to locate a revived pioneer-style mutualism and community are nearly all "mediating" institutions, "clearing" institutions, deliberately constructed to provide not identification, but anonymity, as between donors and recipients, consumers and "flawed consumers". Clinton's village is not a village of shared, face-to-face interactions, but a universal commodities exchange of face-less, anonymous transactions. Commodity ex-changes have their virtues, as Clinton knows better than most, but affective bonds of the kind that matter to children are not among them.

Moreover, her world of institutions applied to children is not one of villagers confronting each other head-on about their gripes and irritations and disagreements, but instead an authoritarian world of strangers placing anonymous calls on toll-free hotlines to report alleged abuses of children to impersonal state authorities, who only by wilful suspension of disbelief and the complete elision of community and state can be counted as part of anyone's "community". The national consumer culture that Clinton mistakes for the national community does not want to deal directly with its neighbours, precisely because it is not a community: it wants an abstract authority (increasingly one to which it can report in secret) to do so and maintain order instead. Clinton's book is simply an elaborate way for her to raise her hand and volunteer for the job of chief authoritarian.

But if Clinton's flight to the fantasy of the village is meaningless, it is not unmotivated. She instinctively understands that while few would question the legitimacy of the state acting in its own name, for example, to fight a war, far more would question the legitimacy of the state, acting openly as the state, to determine how to raise their children, and to enter the home to see how the programme was being carried out. Hence her reach for soft ideologies, kindlier and gentler names for the state: she does not attempt to conceal the role she envisages for the state inside every family, but she does seek for it a specious communitarian legitimacy that she hopes will slide by as unassailable.

It Takes a Village is consequently, beyond the inadequacy of its central ideas, nearly unreadable, badly organized, platitudinous and noxiously pious. It would not be worth noticing - one wonders how, but for Clinton's exalted marriage, it would have found a publisher - except as a kind of index to the values of the bureaucratic-managerial New Class that Clinton embodies and which seeks in these kinds of inane materials a public ideology. It affirms everything and nothing, it is sensitive to everything but ultimately demands obedience from everyone.

Clinton's barely disguised message is that parents are agents of the state in raising children who, at bottom, belong to the state. It is a ringing surrender of the traditional (but, in America, always marginal) Left concerned with class power to the only widespread radicalism the United States has known in this century, the radicalism of the helping professions, the social-worker cops who are eager to sign up for, in Alexander Cockburn's words, the "therapeutic policing" of America's families, so to heal and nurture the body politic. Religion and God Almighty, schools, after-school programmes, day care, health clinics, Planned Parenthood, the Boy and Girl Scouts, and every non-profit organization able to put out a policy report on any subject can all be useful to the state's task of raising its children, Clinton tells parents - and mummy and daddy can be useful, too.

Clinton begins by saying that "whether or not you agree with me, I hope it promotes an honest conversation among us". It is quickly evident, however, that she intends a conversation with the parents of America in much the same way that my mother, when I was a child, intended many conversations with me - the conversation was not "honest" or "over" until I came to agree with her. Clinton's most strongly held belief is that biological parents are incompetent - as she repeatedly says, "parents . . . need 'expert' coaching" - and that unless they receive the training in parenting that she got through studying child development, and live under the "guidance" of social workers, medical professionals, child experts, and all the various "authorities" that Clinton promiscuously cites in her book, they will damage their children in endless ways, big and small.

Stated this way, of course, many parents are likely to object that, no, they feel perfectly competent to raise their children or, at least, feel they are no worse at it than the alleged experts. And so Clinton adopts the strategy of showing that she herself was hopelessly incompetent as a parent until she received the benefit of all these experts. The baldest example occurs when she recounts trying to breastfeed her daughter in hospital and being disturbed to find milk running out of the baby's nose: fortunately the kindly nurse intervened to point out that she was holding the baby in an "awkward way", ie, upside-down.

The consequences of Clinton's views for ordinary families are not trivial, and they ought to loom larger in the pre-election debate in America than they do now, especially given the increasing likelihood that Clinton will have four more years to lengthen her footnote in the history of the American family. For, relying largely on assertions of her own parental incompetence in order humbly to imply everyone else's, she proposes one state intervention after another directly into family life, such as mandatory home nurse visits to families with new babies. Ostensibly, such visits would be designed to offer unthreatening advice to new mothers and fathers: obviously the more fundamental purpose (which Clinton, with her characteristic economy with the truth, fails to mention) is to undertake surveillance directly within the home and report back to state agencies for possible further action. Such proposals, at bottom, are little more than passive aggression made public policy.

Doubtless Clinton would deny that she means any such draconian consequences, and, in any case, if a family has no shameful secrets to hide, then why should it worry about being watched over? Should we not be pleased to know that by this means all our children are protected? It is striking that after a protracted discussion of Bill Clinton's dysfunctional family, even declaring it a "legitimate family", Hillary Clinton never says whether, under her schemes of intervention, that same family today would be professionally re-organized via foster care or what the effects would have been on Bill, for good or ill, had his alcoholic step-father been imprisoned for wife-beating. She also never considers whether her own father, who "was not one to spare the rod", might not have been prosecuted on child endangerment or similar charges under the anti-corporal punishment laws of several American jurisdictions, of which her children's rights movement has been a strong proponent.

Middle-class American parents thus ought not to take comfort that such surveillance and intervention are aimed at the poor, at mothers on crack and the like, and surely not at them. Certainly Clinton intends no such limitation, if for no other reason than that her friend and president of the Children's Defense Fund, Marion Wright Edelman, would consider it racist. The great breakthrough of social-worker radicalism in the past two decades, which sets it apart from its earlier ferments in the early twentieth century, and one in which Clinton can take pride, if she likes, is the acceptance in social policy that child abuse, both physical and sexual, is pandemic across all families, of all classes, and not just among the poor. This assumption of the risk of incest by fathers with their daughters is the largely unstated basis for much family policy in the United States today. Since, according to contemporary therapeutic ideology, virtually any measure is warranted to weed out child abuse, and since it might occur within any family, no matter what the outward appearances (and denial is the surest sign of abuse), then the state must act to dismantle the wall of privacy behind which the family in this century has existed. It has extended by an act of ideology the management of the poor to the management of the middle class: Clinton is unapologetic about wanting to extend it still further.

There is, of course, a residual appeal to constitutional liberties to which the courts still sometimes refer (often only after, however, children have been removed from their parents, sometimes for years, while the courts and the social service agencies that Clinton regards as the backbone of the family consider such questions as whether a three-year-old unweaned child is sexually abused by suckling). But, in fact, liberalism's wall between public and private is a waning paradigm.

With the loss of privacy, however, also goes the very possibility of family intimacy. Just as every serious religion knows that there can be no sacred without a veil between the world and the inner temple, so too intimacy requires that it not be visible to the world. Despite their lip-service to the preservation of intimacy, in the eyes of the therapeutic classes this loss appears to be no bad thing, being yet another step on the road to eradicating abuse.


Anonymous said...

As one who is concerned about issues of privacy and the encroachment of government into greater areas of individuals lives, perhaps you could comment on these recent developments: 1)the signing of a law by George W. Bush allowing the opening of mail to U.S. citizens without a warrant, and 2) the routine collection of fingerprints of all European travelers to the United States, with or without probable cause.

I find both of these acts by a sitting President more alarming than the hypothesis of Ms. Clinton's book.

Anonymous said...

You said it, anonymous 12:29! What about sneak-and-peak searches, the librarian and store-owner provisions of USA PATRIOT Act, the elimination of habeas corpus, Total Information Awareness and the NSA spying program? And to think this list still only scratches the surface.

As for the social sphere, No Child Left Behind, Head Start, faith-based social services, D.A.R.E., Scared Straight, prohibition, the daily scares around pedophiles and Our Children (including prosecution of 16-year-olds for taking photographs of themselves as "child pornography"!), the Republican paternalistic rhetoric of "our children" and "our seniors."

I see plenty to critique in the statism that disguises itself as therapy and family policy, but it's always had right and left flavors. This post plays into Hillary's own strategy by pretending she, as one of the most Democratic supporters of all the key Bush policies, is somehow a liberal, let alone an ideological warrior of the left!

And this country has always been full of radicals, millions of them, coming from every possible ideological direction.