Kirby Farrell Ph.D.

A Swim in Denial

Beating Up Baby

Too many mouths to feed? Children draining you? Have you tried triage?

Posted Dec 12, 2012

With too many mouths to feed, Jonathan Swift recommended that the irish eat their extra babies. Some solutions never go out of style. Consider the US, where 1 out of every 4 American kids lives in a family that had trouble finding the money to feed them last year.[1] But then, 1 out of 6 Americans are signed up for food stamps these days, up from 1 in 50 in the 1970s.

 Such numbers can spoil the appetite of free market conservatives who believe that food handouts create dependency and even more mouths to feed. For them, bread goes with circuses, so they vote to slice food programs to the bone. In the season of Dickens' Tiny Tim, what springs to mind is the festive holiday goose and the Goose—oops, Ghost—of Christmas Future: symbols of fertility and death. Children literally are the future, yet they drain your resources. As they shamelessly wax, you wane. If they're someone else's brats, rivals to your own painstakingly cultured darlings, and a hole in your taxpaying pocket, you're likely to be conflicted about them.

 We "Save the Children" when they're starving faraway tots. But conflict sharpens closer to home, where we're apt to feel we're competing for stuff. At home is where corporate media can headline stories about welfare cheats and inner city "superpredators"—kids, not hedge fund crooks. The ambivalence gets really twisted if you hear of poverty hollows where families deliberately keep kids illiterate so they can qualify for disability assistance.[2] 

This ambivalence looms larger when you're wealthy enough to lobby against "wasteful" child welfare programs from Head Start to food stamps. The mentality implied begs for attention, not only because it's conflicted, but also because the rich are reluctant to be seen beating up babies.

It's tempting to recall that males of some other species may kill the young of a new mate, just as human warriors have historically enslaved or exterminated the offspring of rival males. There's an echo of this behavior in the corporate drive to pay CEOs obscene bonuses while keeping those on the bottom on the bottom. When the boss outsources those jobs, it can mean social death for those "terminated." 

Or perhaps survival anxiety is at work. Many ancient cultures sacrificed children to win more life from the gods. When it functioned as birth control, sacrifice compounded the prosperity. In a modern economy, boom times such as the 1990s create an atmosphere of bountiful fertility. Your tribe and your wallet expand as if by magic. After work Wall Street honchos relaxed in strip clubs and left generous tips (no kidding). You feel potent, masterful, full of symbolic immortality that can feel as convincing as the real thing. You can use up some of the extra bounty in a McMansion or wars. But booms turn into bubbles and then busts. With the global economy rapidly rebalancing and US living standards under pressure, insecurity can make whole lives, not just the dinner plate, look empty. In hard times the neighbors threaten to be drooling parasites draining your vitality. You want to squeeze their "entitlements," and hire more security cops and talk jocks to raise your voice over the noise of the mob. You want to sacrifice the losers to make the herd stronger. If you have a weak stomach for sacrifice, then you call it "creative destruction."

 But what if you and the nation's corporations already have bulging coffers? Why fight to the death over somebody's food stamps?

 You can portray the battle against "entitlements" as a heroic struggle to "balance" a budget by blocking the "takers'" greed for "stuff," as one politician put it. But the conflict also makes sense as a skirmish over scarce food. After all, money buys food and all the other things we "consume" to fill us up. This behavior also points to our evolutionary past: as scavengers. When your puppy snatches up a ball and runs away with it, this is scavenging behavior.  If you chase her, the pleasure of the game resonates with the excitement of sport when one player "steals" the ball from an "opponent" and becomes a "star," an immortal. In this sense, winning is like immortality: you can never get too much. You can't eat a football, but at the base of the brain, evolutionary memory is still at work.

 A wonderfully naïve illustration of the mentality is an op ed piece by Charles Krauthammer—Dr Krauthammer actually, since he's a psychiatrist as well as a career spokesman for conservative wealth. The doctor is ostensibly arguing that negotiations over the "fiscal cliff" tax hikes are "nothing but [an Obama] power play."

In fact, the essay's rich metaphors treat the negotiations as war, with money, masculinity, and self-esteem at stake.  The doctor rallies congressional conservatives to fight an uncompromising (in effect, merciless) battle to preserve Bush-era tax cuts for the very rich. The alternative would be "unconditional surrender," with Republicans (apparently all men) losing "their trousers." The threat is castration and loss of "self-respect." The death-anxiety in this diatribe is obvious enough, even in the wisecrack that "in nobler days" Republican leaders would have demanded that Obama's treasury secretary face them in a duel of the sort that killed Alexander Hamilton.

 But the striking detail is the doctor's sly equation of giving with submissiveness and emasculation. The essay is factually disingenuous, since it trivializes the tax hike on the rich as "a rounding error" and puts the "rich" in scare quotes as if they're just everyday working stiffs like you and me. More brazenly, the essay claims that the middle class is "where the real money is."

 Interestingly, what is really at stake emerges in the prophecy that what looms is a "collapse under the burden of unsustainable debt." Supposedly this apocalypse will force Obama's Republican successors to tax the middle class and take "subsidies [entitlements] from the mouths of babes." Of course this is exactly what conservative austerity plans have been moving toward all along: cuts in programs for children on all levels. This is classic projection: Not I, but you, want to hurt children.

 Make no mistake: it's about money. But it's also about money being more important than fostering persons who—like it or not—will grow up to be your fellow citizens.

 However seriously we take the "debt crisis," the hidden issue is the way wealth would sacrifice poor children. In an age of outsourcing, these poverty kids are superfluous. Politics needs tough men "with trousers" to triage the extra mouths. Although much of this tough talk is corporate sponsored, the business model it implies sees hoarding of profit as the goal, and job creation abroad wherever labor is cheapest. The hope is that austerity could drive immigrants and their kids to "self-deport."

 But wait, you say, how can such unprecedented wealth be so cruel toward kids? The core answer is Ernest Becker's: that survival anxiety makes us aggressive, the more so when it's masked by denial.[3] But again, the motive is overlaid with scavenging joy and the eerie way in which money can be children and children can be money.  Unlike real kids, your money doesn't sass you with a mind of its own. It obeys. It expands your mastery. You don't want "no count" kids—immigrant kids, losers—"taking" from you.

This is why the pundit concludes his pep talk by asking, "What should Republicans do?" And he answers: "Stop giving stuff away." Like his claim that the usually pliable Obama is the "intransigent" one, the phrase neatly turns the reality inside out. What has been an attack ad synonym for welfare fraud—"stuff"—here stands for "conservative" intransigence which in turn stands for manly warrior heroism "with trousers." Manhood is tacitly a fight to the death, so keep a tight fist, boss.

 It's expensive, all this lobbying, attack ads, and corporate media. But it must be worth it if it keeps hungry mouths from pestering your doorman on Park Avenue. 


Krauthammer: <<

1.  USDA, Economic Research Report No. (ERR-132) 30 pp, April 2012


2. Nicholas Kristof, "Profiting from a Child's Illiteracy," NY Times, Dec. 7, 2012

3. Becker is best known for The Denial of Death, but his Escape from Evil directly examines survival anxiety and aggression.  My Berserk Style in American Culture uses Becker to explore the way aggression can become a normative cultural style, as in "going postal" rampage killing.

About the Author

Kirby Farrell, Ph.D., is the author of The Psychology of Abandon. He teaches at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. 

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