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WFN -- The Politics of Children
The Newsletter of the Women's Freedom Network
[http://www.womensfreedom.org/ ] (January/February 2001)
has reprinted this article, which originally appeared in
The New Presence: The Prague Journal of Central European
Affairs (Winter 2001).  WFN has become one of our biggest
supporters.
Stephen Baskerville
***************************************
THE POLITICS OF CHILDREN
An example of practices and vested political interests
by Stephen Baskerville
Among the memories from the years I taught politics at Palacky
University in Olomouc was how my students would react when
I tried to impart to them the virtues of western feminism.
To my chagrin, they - especially the female students - would
almost invariably respond by saying feminism was a "totalitarian"
movement of which they wanted no part.
A matter of definition?
The term "totalitarian" is frequently used to characterize high-profile
feminist campaigns such as "sexual harassment" and "date rape."
Much of this is exaggeration.  Yet far more serious, and much less
scrutinized, is something going on in the United States  - the
billion-dollar divorce, child custody, and child support industry.
In only the last few months, according to one federal public defender,
"the number of federal child support prosecutions has skyrocketed."
And it usually is the father who is targeted.  If children are given in
custody to the mother, a father's name is automatically entered on a
government registry, and his wages may be garnished.  The government
has access to all his financial records.  A father will be questioned
about how he "feels" about his children, what he does with them, where
he takes them, how he kisses them, how he feeds and bathes them,
what he buys for them, and what he discusses with them. Family courts
regularly tell fathers what worship they may or must take their children
to and control heir discussions with their children about matters such as
religion and politics.  Fathers must surrender personal diaries, notebooks,
correspondence, financial records, and other documents.
In many jurisdictions it is now a crime to criticize family court judges.
Following his congressional testimony critical of the family courts in
1992, Jim Wagner was stripped of custody of his two children and jailed
by a Georgia judge.  In both Britain and Australia, fathers have been
jailed for criticizing judges. Children too have been jailed for refusing to
testify against their father.
Government agents increasingly assume a vast array of intrusive powers
over parents whose children they control.  "Never before have federal
officials had the legal authority and technological ability to . . . keep tabs
on Americans accused of nothing," declared the Washington Post.
Not just a U.S. problem
It is not fathers' groups alone that have voiced alarm.  Taylor Burke,
a bank president in Alexandria, Virginia, objects to being forced to
monitor his customers for the government.  "We're all good citizens.
But it doesn't mean we spy on our neighbors," Burke told the Post.
In Britain, the National Association for Child Support Action has
published a "Book of the Dead," chronicling 55 cases where it claims
the official Court Coroner concluded fathers were driven to suicide
because of judgements from family courts.
Why is this happening?  The English-speaking countries with their
Common Law tradition allow enormous power to judges and lawyers.
But the problem is increasingly worldwide.  In 1997 the German
magazine Der Spiegel ran a cover story on "The Fatherless Society."
In February 1998 Deputy Pavel Dostal, now Minister of Culture, met
with Czech fathers protesting outside Parliament for changes in the
family law.
Psychologist Eduard Bakalar, who has served as a court expert in
custody cases and heads Consultancy for Fathers (Poradna pro otce)
in Prague, says while fathers have not been criminalized to the extent
they have in the anglophone nations, they do face systematic bias in
the courts, which has been the prelude to criminalization.  Bakalar also
observes "constant anti-father propaganda" in the media, especially
noting the impact of American films.  "It is a systematic effort to devalue
fatherhood," he says.
Vested interests
A massive bureaucratic machine ostensibly dedicated to child welfare
has developed a vested interest in removing as many children as possible
from their fathers (and mothers), and its influence now extends to the
highest levels of government.  Campaigning for president, Al Gore
recently called for jailing more fathers.  The Clinton administration has
been especially skillful at using children politically.  "Children, it can be
fairly said, have been an obsession for this administration," writes
columnist Richard Cohen, and his words are borne out by administration
officials.  "Government has got to ensure that parents are old enough,
wise enough, and able to care for their children," insists Attorney General
Janet Reno.  Likewise, Hillary Clinton often proclaims, "There is no such
thing as other people's children," and rejects the notion that "families are
private, nonpolitical units whose interests subsume those of children,"
believing instead in "the status of children as political beings."
This is not the first time children have been politicized to advance an
agenda.  When the Communist secret police files were opened after
1989, many were surprised by how little the state was concerned
with its citizens' politics and how much it was obsessed with their
private lives.  "The biggest surprise was the banality of the files,"
Tina Rosenberg quotes the head of a citizens' committee in her book
The Haunted Land.  "A lot of information about family, personal
problems."  But this is neither surprising nor banal when one bears
in mind that the aim of the modern state has been to control this sphere
of life.  Punishing children for their parents' activities, especially during
the Prague Spring, was also well known practice in Czechoslovakia.
Yet in the new politics of children we are seeing today, the use of
children and families has for the first time become not one tool among
others, but a central objective of state policy.
Stephen Baskerville teaches at Howard University in Washington, DC.  He
serves as spokesman for Men, Fathers, and Children International, a
coalition of 12 fatherhood organizations from 9 countries, including the
Czech Republic, and serves on the advisory board of Gendercide Watch,
a human rights organization that monitors gender-based killings.
***************************************
Stephen Baskerville, PhD
Department of Political Science
Howard University
Washington, DC  20059
703-560-5138
202-806-7267
"A single, seemingly powerless person who dares to cry out the word
of truth and to stand behind it with all his person and all his life, ready
to pay a high price, has, surprisingly, greater power, though formally
disfranchised, than do thousands of anonymous voters."
                             -- Vaclav Havel

 

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