Monday, February 05, 2007

Salon on spanking

In an article in Salon this morning, Eilene Zimmerman goes off on a proposed California law against parents hitting children. The legislation is highly unpopular in California, and evidently has no chance of passage.

But even though it won't pass, it "raises the question of how far the government should go in telling parents how to raise their children" (not to mention providing material for an article, always useful for a writer.) Ms Zimmerman sees a slippery slope yawning before her, though, as it happens, many civilized countries have such laws. Sweden is one. But it seems Sweden is not a popular role model for Americans, law-wise.

The author's view is that we already have laws against "physical abuse," which should be sufficient. Physical abuse is legally defined as assault which leads to physical impairment. In other words, if you don't break any bones or leave any bruises you are home free, as a parent who hits children. And the author's implicit, but somewhat conflicted, view is that it should remain that way, although, being a capable writer, she does not place her own opinion on laws against hitting children in the same paragraph as her mention of physical impairment.

My own feeling is different from hers. It's true that I am not in favor of major, punitive criminalization of hitting children--we are already too punitive as a nation. That is part of the problem. But certainly making it a misdemeanor punishable by, say, a fine would be A-OK in my book. In Texas you can beat your child in public and get away with it, no problem, but if you forget to get your car inspected on time you will owe the government $135. (I have no problem with the latter, by the way.)

Underlying the article, it seems to me, is a fundamental notion, deeply rooted in the American psyche, of the legitimacy of inflicting physical pain on people--a notion that is really not questioned by the author, though when her American psyche encounters another world-view, it does recoil in amazed horror.

How are we going to teach our children to cross the street safely, if we don't whack them to alert them to the danger?

To digress a little bit, as part of our national character, we don't much question things like the fundamental police power of enforcing "compliance," at least by non-lethal means. In other words, if you question authority you can expect, and should expect, to get into, um, compliance, through somebody putting some pain and suffering on you, if need be. As far as most Americans are concerned, the taser is fine and dandy for that purpose, a big improvement over the bullet or the billy club. But this is territory that Ms Zimmerman does not explore.

One of the proponents of the California legislation mentioned in Zimmerman's article is a law professor with the unfortunate name of Thomas Nazario. (You can already see it coming, can't you.)

Zimmerman declaims in passing--without seeing any irony in her own contribution to the public discourse--against America's saturation with opinion on child-rearing, which produces, in her view, massive parental anxiety. I suppose if you are anxious about not being able to continue hitting your disobedient kid, there may be something to that. She yearns for a simpler time, when spanking was spanking, not child abuse.

Shortly into the second page of her article, she quotes someone calling the proposed California legislation fascist. The word "fascist" appears five words away from the name "Nazario," who, as I mentioned, is a proponent of the law. I told you that you could see it coming.

We see here the utility of projection in american politics--as for example Rush Limbaugh's calling women he disagrees with feminazis, while if we pause and search for irony, and scratch the surface of Mr. L himself we might find something close to the very essence of a real Nazi, un-adjectively-modified. Or perhaps we might merely find a huckster with no principles and a shrewd view of those of his audience. In any case the dogs are loose now; fascists are running in the street, which is where we are at the end of the article, though the author's internal conflict over her own position puts in a surprise appearance in her final paragraph.

"Should any of us be doing these sorts of thing? Of course not" she says, of hitting children. But she doesn't want to be arrested for it, if she does it.

And I don't want her to be arrested either. What do I want? I guess I want her to go back to her own memories of being spanked and hit as a child, and see if she is really as unimpaired as she thinks.

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