Imperialism is Bad for Children

Submitted by George Friday on Tue, 02/12/2008 - 21:03.

by Eric Tang
Sometimes I wonder who's more indecisive when it comes to children and youth-the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) or the US left. As a father of a two-year-old and an organizer who has worked with marginalized youth communities for over a decade, my thoughts have been trained on both institutions for some time. And though they may seem an odd pairing at first glance, the two institutions hold quite a bit in common.

Over the past forty years, the AAP has flip flopped on issues ranging from nurturing an infant solely on breast milk, to circumcision, to pushing Ritalin on a generation of teens. Meanwhile, the institutionalized left-ranging from the left of the Democratic Party, to the Social Dems, to even those continuing to press for a revolutionary tomorrow-seem altogether vexed when it comes to the "Youth Question." Do youth-particularly the disempowered and disenfranchised-rise to the standard of an Oppressed Group? Or would this be an affront to historical materialism? Are they truly the movement leaders with whom our future hopes and dreams for liberation rest? Or are they merely an ancillary political wing-a youth brigade or campus group to be trotted out on strategic occasion? And, finally, as the US left now attempts to feverishly repackage itself in the wake of numerous losses, are youth an asset or a liability in that effort?

I would argue, then, that the pediatric community and the left are susceptible to the kind of debilitating uncertainty that results from far too much "line-struggle". (It bears mentioning here that in addition to the daunting AAP "Guidelines," pediatricians are also beholden to what they call their very own "Red Book," a red encyclopedic tome on infectious disease which physicians are compelled to comply with. Mao's little red notebook, I'm sorry to say, pales in comparison). Resultantly, both doctors and revolutionaries are prone to miss the proverbial forest for the trees when it comes to youth and children.

Sobering Realities for Youth

Despite advances in medical technology and millions spent on research, few can claim that the overall health of the nation's children has improved; rising rates of juvenile disease and an overall lack of access that poor children have to health care are inarguable facts. And despite a valiant Civil Rights movement, as well as youth-centered liberation movements across race, gender and sexuality-based communities, we are now staring at record numbers of incarcerated youth (mostly Black and Brown), accompanied by shamefully high child poverty rates. Meanwhile pharmaceutical companies and the prison industrial complex make off like bandits.

But these days, while the AAP continues to be entrenched in its internal debates, two-line struggle on the Youth Question has all but faded from left and progressive dialogue. While this should signal a step in the right direction-suggesting, perhaps, that we have moved-on from empty talk to concrete action in support of youth-the truth is that young people have simply fallen off the liberation map. And if they do appear, it is only as specter-a subtext in broader, more urgent debates about the war, reconstituting our movement, defeating the right. Those listening carefully enough hear it in the voices of baby boomers making occasional apologies for the left's past impulsiveness, for its failure to delay gratification and carefully strategize the long-haul, and, as some have brazenly accused, for its long and twisted love affair with "identity politics." Blame it all on their once youthful naïveté.

In a November 21, 2005 Nation editorial, Eric Alterman sounds off on a similar theme, as he bluntly suggests who is to be prioritized and, conversely, who needs to be flat-out dumped, if liberals are to win back their good name in the wake of a second George W. Bush victory. In addition to shoring up support from the largely middle-class MoveOn.org base, Alterman calls for "a language that transcends the identity politics and competing victimizations of the past few decades, which have weakened liberalism from within and tarnished its good name among the white working class."

Though a relatively young activist myself (I'm 31), I can't recall a time when a call for a United Front of the Left so seamlessly and self-confidently left-out the "other America"-code for the urban poor which in turn is often code for the nation's most marginalized youth. The point is made all the more profound when one considers how the revolution of the 60s-across class and constituency-was largely sparked by the revolt of youth living in cities hardest hit by postindustrial blight and racial violence. Nearly forty-years ago, these young people "took it to the streets" before the New Left had made it popular to do so. But today, urban-based youth are viewed as a liability for the left's resurgence. It's an astounding about face.

As an example, consider the relatively muted and ambivalent response on behalf of the left (both here in the US and internationally) towards the urban youth uprisings that recently took place in France and Australia. Young people in both countries were rising up against deep-seeded poverty and racial state violence- against a postcolonial "cleansing," according to some. Yet few public leaders among the international left and progressives stood firmly in their corner.

The Peace Movement

And then there's the matter of the War on Terror. On the issue of war casualties and the rising death toll in Iraq, the left can steal moral high ground from the right. Yet the fact that both the majority of dead US soldiers and much of the Iraqi "collateral damage" are children and youth passes as only a grim demographic fact among the anti-war crowd. Little-to-no mention is made of the distinctly precarious position that youth occupy in these times, as well as the need for a corresponding set of distinctly youth-driven demands in the face of endless war.

About a year before Katrina hit New Orleans, I happened to be on the gulf coast of Florida, holed up with my partner and then-newborn daughter as we waited-out another Hurricane named Charlie. If the pediatric community agrees on one thing, it's that heavy doses of television are bad for children. And I seemed to have spent far too much time in front of the tube that week, receiving my minute-by-minute reports on Charlie's path. Yet while channel surfing with five-month-old Lola curled in my lap, I couldn't help but recognize a disturbing, cross-cutting theme embedded in several of the major news programs. It was simple enough: A celebration of children who had survived terrible acts of violence, particularly war injury. One young girl stood out. Her name is Zeynab, an eleven-year-old from Basra, Iraq whose entire family (seventeen members) were wiped out by a cluster bomb that had mistakenly targeted her home. Somehow she survived to tell her story on Larry King Live.

But as it turned out, King was not very interested in the topic of war, or even the courageousness of this child. Instead, the show focused on its other guest, Heather Mills, wife of former-Beatles great Paul McCartney. Mills' charity had raised money to buy hundreds of prosthetic limbs for children maimed in war, including Zeynab. What a great thing Mills was doing for the world's children, opined King.

Yes, television is bad for children. But so is imperialism, I thought to myself. We're all still waiting for that pediatric guideline to come out.

Eric Tang is a New York City-based writer and activist. He spent almost a decade as a community organizer in the Southeast Asian neighborhoods of the Bronx. These days he provides training and support to youth groups around the country while also building Refugio, a resource and training center for New York City grassroots activists.