Sunday, October 29, 2006

Sara's Sunday Rant: Adult Supervision

Sara Robinson

OK, so it appears that we are all pretty much over George Lakoff and his parenting frames. Given the number of peevish comments I got here and elsewhere for simply responding to a commenter who asked a question involving these ideas, there are apparently a lot of people on the progressive side who are beyond ready to move on.

With that in mind, there's another potentially useful frame emerging that may have more resonance at this particular political moment (and has the added benefit of dropping the gender baggage inherent in Lakoff's frame). It seems to me that the discussion we need to be having is not about Mom versus Dad anymore. In 2007, the real frame that best describes our political alternatives may be Grown-Ups versus Children.

This is, very admittedly, a political retread from the 70s, when it was one of the sturdiest wheels under the GOP's ride to power. They offered themselves up as the Adult Supervision, clear-eyed and responsible, the only ones who could be trusted with authority. This frame drew a strong contrast between these stalwart conservatives and the liberals of the time, who were (unfortunately, all too easily) portrayed as childish, impractical, given to magical thinking, irresponsible with money, too caught up in instant self-gratification to plan for the future, and generally untrustworthy. The GOP, under the avuncular guidance of people like Ronald Reagan (who'd demonstrated as governor of California that he knew how to give those UC brats the spanking they deserved), would restore the proper order in the national family, and put the grown-ups firmly back in charge.

That worked out very, very well for them. So well, in fact, that they've been riding that image as The Adult Supervision for three long decades, mostly without having it questioned anywhere, by anyone.

But maybe it's time we started asking those questions. I mean, just take a look at what's going on out on the playground these days. We've got:

-- People in the White House who spend their days waiting for Big Daddy In The Sky to get home. (He's promised to come back any minute now. Really.)

-- People who think their Big Daddy is bigger and smarter than the Muslims' Big Daddy, and can beat him up.

-- A White House with a First Lady -- and several Office Mommies whose job is apparently keeping Junior in milk and cookies.

-- Public policy on reproductive health that basically amounts to telling kids, "Just don't touch anything down there. Not yours. Not anybody else's. If a grownup touches you, shut up about it. That's all you need to know. No, we will not answer any more questions -- what kind of evil child are you, anyway?" (Evidently, nobody in America is grown-up enough to be given adult-level information about sex.)

-- A president who plays dress-up -- baseball hero, cowboy, jet fighter pilot, army man, massage therapist, Decider -- every chance he gets. (The vice president's favorite fantasy character is evidently Elmer Fudd.)

-- The same "It's OK -- if I wreck it, Dad'll just buy me a new one" attitude toward the environment that's so infuriating in spoiled sixteen-year-olds.

-- The same befuddled theology that drives us to put 12-year-olds in confirmation class, in the hopes of instilling the beginnings of moral maturity.

-- A war-financing plan that's apparently based on the same budgeting strategies used by 10-year-olds with unlimited supplies of Monopoly money.

-- A political spoils system based on the same "you're his friend, so you can't be my friend" in-group rules that govern access to your eight-year-old's treehouse.

-- The same "Nuh-huh. Not me. I didn't do it. Nobody saw me, you can't prove it, it was broke when I got here -- and anyway, Billy did it" approach to responsibility characteristic of six-year-olds.

-- The same "If I close my eyes and cross my fingers and wish really, really hard, the hurricane will turn the other way" faith-based emergency planning style of four-year-olds.

-- The same kind of public (and private) tantrums -- sometimes including words that would make Grandma blush -- that get well-parented two-year-olds sent directly to their rooms for a proper rest.

In a post last week, I quoted Indian psychiatrist Salman Aktar who pointed out the infantilizing effects of authoritarian religion. He said:

Fundamentalism [seeks] to offer a world of simplicity, lack of personal responsibility, immortality, purity and simplicity. These are notions of children. This is how two-year-old and three-year-old children think. This is not how a grown-up, adult person thinks. Fundamentalism turns us from adults into children, turns us from individual units of flesh, psyche and spirit, thinking, pulsating, changing, constantly struggling with choices, decisions, tragedies, losses, mishaps, triumphs and victories….Fundamentalism removes us from such war, from such complexity, from personal responsibility, from impurity, from handling looking death right up front in the eyes and then adopting to live in a more responsible manner.

Fundamentalism lulls us into a sleep of childhood, a sleep of simplicity but it is worse than childhood because a child is always questioning and attempting to come out of its innocence bit by bit. Fundamentalism is worse than childhood because it takes us backward, not forward. And with fundamentalism comes its twin sister, prejudice, and its evil brother called violence.

Robert Altmeyer's work, as presented by John Dean in Conservatives Without Conscience, suggests that this childlike -- or childish -- view of the world is as characteristic of political authoritarians as it is of religious ones. As a result, we have become a nation led by moral children ("whiny-assed titty-babies" or WATBs in the emergent phrase of the left blogosphere) -- people whose total refusal to accept responsibility and inability to empathize with anyone's interests but their own would have rendered them unfit for any kind of paying work (let alone leadership positions) if more sensible heads were in charge. Accountability makes them whine. Consequences make them cry. They are not above holding their collective breath until they turn blue. And it's all your fault for being so mean!

It's almost impossible to imagine how these people could have ever been taken seriously, how they could have gotten away with presenting themselves as people of unshakeable principle. We were promised the kind of ethical stalwarts who could be trusted to do the right thing, regardless of the difficulty or the sacrifice required of them. They'd pay the bills, plan for the future, keep the roof over our heads, get up every day and do what had to be done on behalf of the family. Because that's what grownups do.

But we now see them for what they are: impulsive, selfish, often aggressive emotional children whose actions come roaring straight out of an untamed id. They are not governing this country so much as using (and abusing) it as their own private tree fort and clubhouse -- one that we are paying to prop up, every day, in treasure and lives, while they pull up the rope behind them and pass around the kewl torture pictures, order in pizza delivery from Haliburton on our credit card, and talk about how stupid those moralizing grownups are and how sucky it is to have to live by their idiotic made-up rules.

It's gone on long enough, this Kindergarten Regime. In fact it's deja vu all over again, as the GOP has become everything it once accused the Democrats of being: childish, impractical, given to magical thinking, irresponsible with money, too caught up in instant self-gratification to plan for the future, and generally untrustworthy. Which means it's not about Mom versus Dad any more. It's about the grownups, all together, prying little Georgie's fingers off the levers of power, and showing him that yes, we do mean what we say. And it's about discipline, self-control, and putting the lines of family authority back in their proper order.

The language that proceeds from this frame will come naturally -- nay, almost automatically -- to anyone who's ever been a parent:

"Don't hit. Use your words."

"If wishes were horses, beggars would ride. And if wishes were buses, 3,000 people in New Orleans would still be alive."

"I don't care if Saddam's mom lets him do it. In this house, we don't torture people."

"Someday you're going to be invited to eat dinner with the Prime Minister -- and you're going to thank me for teaching you some table manners."

"Stop blaming Billy for everything. He hasn't been around here in months."

"That's all the money I'm giving you this week. Don't come back around next Saturday telling me you need more."

"Put that thing away. You'll shoot your eye out."

"I don't care how big you are. You can't go around taking stuff that doesn't belong to you. You give that country back to the Iraqis. And I mean NOW."

The government of the world's leading nation is not a treehouse. It's not a birthday party. It's not a game of army men in the woods after school. It's serious business, best left to grownups. And the Republican Party doesn't appear to have a single grownup left.

Cultural conservatives like to sing the praises of Tough Love. It'll be interesting to see if that enthusiasm for it holds when they're the ones being told to that their behavior is unacceptable, that every moment they stand before us is an "accountability moment," and that their actions have brought about consequences that have ruined the prospects for the entire family.

Update: Barbara at Mahablog has a more serious take on this same idea.

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