Love, Inc

The intersections of emotion and capitalism.

Is "Thomas the Tank Engine" to Blame for Bad News?

Innocent childhood structures much of the violence happening this summer

This summer the world has exploded into deadly conflict and dehumanizing dislocation. Palestine is rocked with Israeli missiles. Eastern Ukraine has disintegrated into what could be called a Civil War if the Russian army weren't there so in fact is more like Palestine: a full out invasion of a smaller and less powerful country by a more heavily armed one. Then there are the tens and tens of thousands of young refugees from Central America showing up in the United States and the horrifyingly unwelcome response from citizens and politicians alike. As is often the case when the world falls apart, many of us look for who is to blame? The Jews? The Muslims? The Russians? The Ukrainians? Fascists? Nationalists? Children?

Yes, I said children. I don't mean actual children, but a very dangerous concept of childhood that motivates much of the violence in these scenarios. That's right, I think Thomas the Tank Engine might be to blame. Well maybe not just Thomas, but the sort of "innocence" that show represents. Because innocence is never an innocent category. Not when it comes to war (or love for that matter).

Innocence was invented as a category to mark childhood off from adulthood during the Victorian Era. Before then, children were sinful (that's why they went to hell if they died before Baptism). But sometime around 1850 or so, a little cherub, pink-cheeked, blond and blue-eyed, was created. The thing is, this innocent little child was always already white and well off. Poor children were still slaves or exploited in factories or on farms (as they are today). It was children of wealth who were afforded this new special status of cherubic- removed from all forms of labor- to be protected and kept pure of the evils of greed and avarice that structured most children's lives. 

It is exactly this sort of cherub that shows like Thomas the Tank Engine represent. So ridiculously sweet and innocent–where scary bad people never win and everyone who is good and works hard is rewarded. It's the kind of kid's show that sets your teeth on edge with its saccharine messages about a world that is ultimately safe (when cocooned in privilege and wealth). And that world came crashing down around Thomas last week when the actor who is his voice, Martin T. Sherman, quit because it turns out his bosses at HIT Entertainment were paying him so little he could not survive on the money despite the 250 million that the show produces in revenue annually. Poor Mr. Sherman tried to go public in a newspaper interview, but was immediately threatened by Hit Entertainment with a lawsuit. He feels "so bullied."

This true story about Thomas the Tank Engine undermines the idea of a world where life is ultimately fair and children are fantastic receptacles of all that is good in the world. Which is a good thing since the "innocent child" structures what is happening in the world this summer. In Russia, the "innocent child" (always an ethnic Russia; obviously not a Jew or a Central Asian) is portrayed by many nationalists at that which must be protected from the "pedophiles" in Western Ukraine who wish to corrupt them. State-run ORT ran a crazy story about Ukrainian nationalists who nailed an etnhic Russian woman's child to a board. Crazy, but widely believed and still up on their website. In Israel and in Palestine it is children who must be "protected" with more violence. And in the US, faced with large numbers of child refugees, the argument has been about whether these refugees are "really children" or in fact "knowing" creatures who cannot be afforded the need for protection.

In Cape Cod, MA when local (white) residents learned that some of the child refugees would be sheltered there, many responded by refusing to accept them as children. As one local resident said: 

They're not all little, cute, little kids with brown eyes. They know what they're doing. And they're going to be sucking us dry. Send them the hell back.

But it's the "child" as a fantasy that we should send the hell back. People do horrible, terrible things in order to protect "children." They kill, rape, wound and destroy other humans, including children. Instead of continuing with the rather sick fantasy of innocence let's actually engage in reality. The War on Drugs meant to "save" kids in the US from additction resulted in the gang violence from which the child refugees are running. Russian and Israeli nationalism and colonialism have run into Ukrainian and Palestinian nationalism for so long now it is impossible to imagine a way out, and yet it is children who suffer the most from the violence. If we actually care about real children, as opposed to cherubs, we will seek nonviolent solutions on all sides. But the world has never really cared about real children. Only sweet little train engines like Thomas. And in this world, even Thomas cannot be saved. 

Laurie Essig, Ph.D., is a professor of sociology and women and gender studies at Middlebury College.

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