The Assault on the Young

— Henry A. Giroux

UNDER THE REIGN of neoliberal capitalism and its most devout missionary, George W. Bush, mainstream national politics has been largely narrowed to the related, though important, concerns of terrorism, globalization and war.

Even as the Bush Administration makes inflated claims about economic growth, the gap between the rich and the poor increases, environmental safeguards are dismantled, the incarceration of African Americans and Hispanic men reaches record numbers, child services are slashed, millions lose their jobs.

Yet the issues that dominate corporate media are concerned mostly with the nuclear buildup of North Korea, the potential war with Iraq, and the role of the United States as the single most powerful nation emerging as the economic and political global empire.

Despite concerns about what future generations might inherit, how globalization, war, repression, and terror affect children has been largely absent from even left challenges to this global domination. Similarly, little is said about the connection between the aggressive global logic of neoliberal capitalism, which undermines non-commodified public spheres and all aspects of the public good, and the current domestic assaults on youth.

At issue here is neoliberalism’s refusal to honor the importance of the social contract, mediated by liberal, democratic ideals in which adult responsibility is expressed through a willingness to fight for the rights of children, enact reforms that invest in their future, and provide the educational conditions necessary for them to make use of the freedoms they have, while learning how to be critical and engaged citizens.

Since the Reagan/Thatcher revolution of the 1980s, institutions committed to public welfare have been disappearing. Rather than being cherished as a symbol of the future, youth are now seen as a threat to be feared and a problem to be contained.

A seismic change has taken place: youth are portrayed as the source of most of society’s problems, condemned for violence, drugs, and crime – a generation of shiftless riff-raff, thugs, or potential terrorists.

Production or Punishment

The devaluation and criminalization of children runs through various government policies that have shaped the last two decades. Increasingly children are subject to the harsh patriarchal nature of a society that abandons all who are not productive.

Yet when adult society wants to punish children, they are often treated as adults and subject to the most brutal machinations of the criminal justice system, including incarceration in adult prisons and the imposition of the death penalty.

While representing 40% of the world’s population, youth rarely have a voice in any of the public dialogue about what curtailing of civil rights, dismantling of big government services or the rise of the security state might mean for them. Youth have no rights or power when it comes to decisions involving wars. Yet they are the population, after all, who will fight and die in war.

Youth are banished from the concerns of the moral community because they are viewed as disposable and unproductive, and their fate is not unlike that of the new poor who under the reign of neoliberalism are banished from visibility as they are removed from the discourse of social concern to the rhetoric of pathology.

Zygmunt Bauman’s comments about the poor in present-day society extend to those youth in whom society has chosen not to invest. He observes:

“While banishing the poor from the streets, one can also banish them from the community of humans, from the world of ethical duty. This is done by rewriting the story from the language of deprivation to that of depravity. The poor supply the ‘usual suspects’ rounded up to the accompaniment of public hue and cry whenever a fault in the habitual order is detected. The poor are portrayed as lax, sinful and devoid of moral standards. The media cheerfully cooperate with the police in presenting the sensation-greedy public lurid pictures of the crime-, drug- and sexual promiscuity-infested ‘criminal elements’ who find their shelter in the darkness of mean streets.”

Child Sacrifice and the Empire

Outside of the contributions of Ed Herman, Noam Chomsky, Bob Herbert, and a few others, there is almost no mention of how children figure into debates about empire, war and foreign policy.

As a result of the U.S. bombing of Iraq in 1991, and the UN sanctions imposed afterwards, Iraq lost a substantial part of its electrical grid, which serviced equipment in its water and sewage plants.

According to Anupama Roa Singh, one of the country directors for UNICEF, over half million Iraqi children under the age of five have died since the imposition of sanctions. In 1998 the BBC reported that 4,000-5,000 Iraqi children are dying every month from treatable diseases spread because of poor diet and the breakdown of the public infrastructure.

A recent study, The Impact of War on Iraqi Children, claims that children under eighteen – 13 million in all – are “at a grave risk of starvation, disease, death and psychological trauma,” and are worse off now than they were just before the outbreak of war in 1991.

According to Eric Hoskins, team leader for the report, an elongated war in which food and medical supplies are cut off could result in the death of “as many as hundreds of thousands of children.” This reality undercuts any moral discourse the Bush administration could possibly use to defend a coming war that can only intensify children’s suffering and death.

Astonishingly, both the Clinton and Bush administrations have been willing to defend the slaughter of children as politically expedient. On May 12, 1996 Madeleine Albright, Clinton’s U.S. Secretary of State, appeared on the news program, 60 Minutes. The show’s host, Leslie Stahl, asked: “We have heard that a half a million children have died. I mean that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And – you know, is the price worth it?”

Albright responded: “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price – we think the price is worth it.” How might the parents of Iraqi children respond? How might Iraqi youth respond?

Market Over Justice

The moral insensitivity and inhumanity that underlie U.S. policy towards Iraq cannot be reduced simply to the expediency of its anti-terrorism campaign or its need to seize Iraq’s rich oil reserves.

The roots of this indifference lie in the larger framework of neoliberalism, with its refusal to subordinate economic considerations to the imperatives of democratic values. Neoliberalism roams the world seeking to reduce everyone to a customer and all relationships to the exchange of capital.

Destroying the public sector and transforming everything in the image of the market, neoliberalism cancels out the democratic impulses and practices of civil society by either devaluing or absorbing them within the logic of the market.

This is what Milton Friedman, the reigning guru of neoliberalism, applauds in Capitalism and Freedom when he argues that “The basic problem of social organization is how to co-ordinate the economic activities of large numbers of people.”

There is no language here for recognizing anti-democratic forms of power, developing non-market values, or fighting against substantive injustices in a society founded on deep inequalities. Hence, it is not surprising that Friedman can argue without irony that he does not “believe in freedom for madmen or children.”

Clinton’s dismantling of the welfare state and Bush’s tirades against big government are part of the domestic war against young people, especially those marginalized by race and class.

In the United States, one of the richest countries in the world, nearly nine million children are without health insurance (90% of whom have working parents), 12.1 million live in poverty (the poverty rate is 3% higher today than it was in 1969), 1.4 million are homeless, millions are excluded from affordable health care and decent early childhood education, and 3.5 million lack adequate housing needs.

More than 45% of minority children attend schools in which more than half the children are both poor and fail to pass even the most basic levels of national tests in reading and math.

These problems are fueled by not only a contempt for the most elemental values of a democratic society but also by a class divide in which “0 percent of the nation’s property is now securely in the hands of 10 percent of the population ... and the 13,000 richest families possessed a net worth equivalent to the assets owned by the country’s 20 million poorest fmilies.”

While ranking twelfth among the industrialized countries in the percentage of children in poverty, the United States has the dubious distinction of ranking first in the number of millionaires and billionaires. While ranking number one in health technology, the United States ranks twenty-third in infant mortality.

Children Pay the Cost

The Bush administration’s neoliberal policies and the social conservatism that fuels it is reflected in the proposed 2003 federal budget, which eliminates 8,000 homeless kids from educational benefits, cuts child care from 33,000 children and eliminates another 50,000 from after school programs.

At the same time half a million poor families and their children will be dropped from receiving any heating assistance. Moreover, the 2003 budget allocates more money for tax cuts for the rich than it does for education and low-income child care combined.

Ironically, when President Bush was asked to defend the largest defense spending in the last two decades, he responded “We’re interested in defending freedom, no matter what the costs.”

With most states facing massive deficits, poor families and their children will be denied public services, cut off from health benefits, and reduced to handouts offered by faith-based charities. Even though massive budget cuts in many states are slashing many critical services for children, states refuse to curb massive welfare handouts for corporations and still feed the prison industry.

In spite of a $25 billion deficit this year, Governor Gray Davis of California has “proposed a $40 million increase in the corrections department’s $5.3 billion budget and wants to spend $220 million on a new death row at San Quentin.”

Corporate Captivity and Criminalization

In light of more cuts in already slashed public expenditures, the only remedy for the Bush administration is privatization. The results are on display in thousands of schools in which corporations put ads on school walls, buses, bathroom walls, books, and even use brand names as part of the knowledge used in corporate sponsored curricula.

As schools sell off their services to private contractors, the likes of McDonald’s, Hershey, Pepsico, Coca-Cola, KFC, Frito-Lay, Domino’s and 7 Up substitute junk food rather than nutritious meals during the school lunch period. Even liberals, such as Jane Brody, have pointed out that what the schools now teach are the “3C’s: Candy, Cookies and Chips.”

In exchange for money and audio-visual equipment, over 12,000 schools in the United States have contracted with Channel One, which requires children to watch a twelve-minute television program with two minutes of advertising. Children in schools are the captive audience for corporate interests.

Urban youth in the public schools face the stepped up application of profiling, widespread use of random drug testing, physical searches, the increased presence of police and the application of zero tolerance school policies.

As the state is increasingly reconfigured as a conduit for the criminal justice system, it punishes those young people who are caught in the downward spiral of its policies. Punishment, incarceration and surveillance have come to represent the role of the new state.

The increasing militarization of public space means that in many suburban malls, young people, especially urban youth of color, cannot shop or walk around with<->out having appropriate identification cards or being accompanied by a parent. They are subject to rigid curfew laws and gang sweeps.

Children have fewer rights than almost any other group and fewer institutions protecting these rights. Moreover, they are being incarcerated at record levels. For a third of all minority youth, the future holds the disturbing possibility of either “prison, probation, or some form of supervision within the criminal justice system.”

Paul Street states that in Illinois, for every “African-American enrolled in [its] universities, two and a-half Blacks are in prison or on parole ... [While] in New York ... more Blacks entered prison just for drug offenses than graduated from the state’s massive university system with undergraduate, masters, and doctoral degrees combined in the 1990s.”

Repressive policies and practices are reinforced and extended through an appeal to national security, but the roots of such repression lie in the transformation of a supposedly democratic state into an openly corporate state. The current derailment of civil liberties is part of a broader attack on democracy.

A World Without Children?

With few exceptions, debates about globalization seem to take place in a world without children. Yet the massive changes prompted by globalization have had a profound affect on the world’s 2.9 billion children.

In a new world order marked by deregulation, acceleration, free-flowing global finance, trade and capital, the nation state becomes the national security state, engaged in both fighting the alleged threats from domestic terrorism – signaled by an over-the-top racial profiling and anti-youth repression – and external terrorism.

The response to the latter is largely manifested in the most blatant racism and xenophobia directed at Arab and Muslim populations and immigrants.

As globalization and militarization mutually reinforce each other, both as economic policy and as a means to settle conflicts, wars are no longer fought between soldiers but are now visited upon civilians and appear to have the most detrimental effects on children.

Within the last decade, two million children have died in military conflicts. Another four million have been disabled, 12 million have been left homeless, and millions more have been orphaned.

Increasingly children are being recruited, abducted, or forced into military service as lighter weapons enable children as young as twelve to be trained as effective killers. The fruits of modern warfare enable children to kill as well as be killed.

The International Committee on the Red Cross estimates that “some 110 million land mines threaten children in more than 70 countries” and that they are chillingly effective: “82.5 percent of amputations performed in ICRC hospitals are for land mine victims.”15 An estimated 8,000-10,000 children die each year from land mines while far more are maimed.

As the leading supplier of arms in the world, the United States bears an enormous responsibility for fueling military conflicts throughout the globe. The Congressional Research Service, a division of the Library of Congress, reported that in 2000 U.S. manufacturers signed contracts for just under $18.6 billion in weapons sales, primarily to developing countries.

It should then come as no surprise to learn that the domestic market is no longer at a safe remove from the scorched earth policies of arms manufacturers. The United States ranks worst among industrialized nations in the number of children killed by guns, with over 50,000 American youth killed since 1979.

Exploiting the Powerless

Neoliberalism’s profit-at-any-cost ideology has rewritten the meaning of class warfare with respect to children. The division of labor and exploitation promoted through neoliberal globalization has given new meaning to Manuel Castells’ pronouncement that the primary labor issue in the new information age “is not the end of work but the condition of work.”

The search for cheap labor, the powerlessness of children, and the 120 million children who are born poor each year create fertile conditions for significant profits through the hiring of children. The International Labor Office estimates that 120 million children between the ages of five and fourteen are compelled to work full time, often under harsh and inhumane conditions, and that if part time work is included the figure reaches 250 million.

Children are engaged in various forms of labor, ranging from domestic servants, shoe production to brick making and agricultural work. Many are injured or killed on the job, with the number of annual injuries estimated at 70,000.

But the most destitute children are often forced into bonded slavery in order to pay off their family loans or are sold outright on the market by their families in the hopes of bringing in additional income. Many become domestic servants or street beggars while others are forced into prostitution.

Driven by the globalization of child pornography rings (largely circulated through the Internet) and organized sex tours, there is a growing market of children used as sexual commodities. While the figures on this illicit trade are difficult to establish, it has been estimated by the Center for Protection of Children’s Rights that more than a million children enter into prostitution each year, many with HIV infections.

Child prostitution is also on the rise in the United States, with an estimated 100,000 to 300,000 children exploited through prostitution and pornography.

Defaulting on Obligations

In spite of the real crisis that children are facing all over the world with respect to the violation of their rights and their bodily dignity, the United States has even refused to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (passed in 1989), the small arms treaty, and the land mines treaty).

Moreover, the Bush administration has rejected the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, refused to sign the protocol for the Biological Weapons Convention as well as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (which 130 countries have signed).

While claiming to hold “family values” as the center piece of conservative ideology, the Bush administration reinforces poverty, inequality, militarism, and terrorism that prey on those groups that are the most vulnerable, and this is especially true of children.

Samir Amin has rightly argued that it is the absence of social values such as generosity and human solidarity that “reinforce[s] submission to the dominating power of capitalist ideology.” And yet it is precisely through a focus on the obligations that adult society has to children that such values become concrete and persuasive.

It is often difficult for adults to dismiss the suffering of children as a matter of individual character or to reduce their plight to the realm of the family or private sphere, the depoliticizing strategy of choice used by social conservatives and neoliberals.

A critical analysis of the plight of children is not only important for its own sake, but also because it points to a much larger social analysis in that the various forms of oppression that children experience directly undermine the dominant and traditional justifications for larger class, racial, sexual and gendered divisions in society.

The emphasis on children’s experience is important here because it foregrounds the relationship between power and the lived realities shaped by material relations of power.

More specifically, children provide a more crucial way to analyze hegemony. That is, “hegemony” in this instance does not simply refer to the ideologies, discourses, or images that represent children or position them in particular ways, but also to the way in which they actually experience the different modalities of power and powerlessness as an empirical reality within particular class and racial formations marked by deep inequalities of power.

The suffering of children throughout the world has reached epidemic proportions. Between 1994 and 1998, 200 of the world’s richest people doubled their net worth to more than $1 trillion and “the assets of the top three billionaires are more than the combined GNP of all least developed countries and their 600 million people.”

Yet most of the 34,000 children who die daily from hunger, lack of safe water, and numerous preventable diseases are largely from the least developed countries. Such vast inequalities in wealth have severe consequences for children and speak powerfully to the need for progressives and others to fight to extend freedom, justice and equality on a global level.

We need a new language, an ethical language, in which children are not detached from politics but become central to any transformative, global agenda conceived in terms of social and public responsibility.

No promise of democratic socialism is viable if it doesn’t recognize that children not only are the most viable symbol of the future, but provide an important political and ethical point of reference for reminding adults of the responsibility they have for making such a future possible.

(Please check the print edition for the footnotes.)

ATC 104, May–June 2003