CHILDHOOD: History and Critique (CHC) is a series of interviews, commentary, and happenings in historical studies of childhood presented by Dr. Patrick J. Ryan, Kings University College at Western University, Canada.
This summer British Airways interrupted my in-flight movie to ask for a charitable donation. There we were, jet-setting at six kilometres above the earth, as a promotional video showed silken flight attendants and pilots walking a dusty road hand-in-hand with barefooted African children. Seeing passengers fold-up their “High Life” magazines to toss a few dollars into a hat, while these images were projected upon rows of individualized screens, struck me as one of the world’s particularly absurd moments.
Several weeks later, I searched in vain for this video. It may have vanished from cyber-space after a pilot took his own life amid allegations that he had molested children while participating in the Airline’s program; law suits have followed. British Airways’ programs are hardly alone in providing a venue for the exploitation of children, anymore than child-rescue or child-saving discourse is incidental to larger structures of class, race, and globalization.
The most troubling stories are simultaneously familiar and disorienting. What to think?
Should we read ever popular child-saving campaigns for ideological concealment – as if they were like the happiness blankets offered in-flight to facilitate “deep, undisturbed sleep”? This is part of the story. Companies hope to associate themselves and what they sell with progress and human well-being. Canada’s Free the Children calls their corporate sponsors “change makers,” “visionaries,” “champions,” “ambassadors,” and “friends” – valuable tributes for Allstate, Cineplex, Ford (and others) in a media saturated world. But, there is more to it. If We Day (proclaimed as a “rock concerts for social change”) feels like a “pep-rally”, it also features everything from the Dalai Lama to Justin Bieber. There must be more than one line of thought at work.
Consider Barnardos history of manipulation of childhood images. The photograph above created controversy in late 1999 by showing an infant injecting himself with heroine. The caption read, “Battered as a child, it was always possible that John would turn to drugs. With Barnardo’s help, child abuse need not lead to an empty future.” The image was purportedly designed to raise consciousness and money for preventative programs for ‘at-risk’ youth. Some publications refused to run it – arguing it was obscene. It doesn’t offend me, but it also does more than its producers say they intended. The image hails forth the possibility that a young adult addict remains in essence a person worthy of forgiveness and care – like a child. Though more caustic, its affect is similar to the substitutions used in Goebel Reeves‘ “Hobo’s Lullaby,” performed by both Woody and Arlo Guthrie. In these texts, the juxtaposition of image or melody and word begins to erase a distinction that child-saving discourse itself relies upon: the polarity between innocence and guilt, between purity and profanity. As they destabilize the line separating the saved from the damned, they propagate an unsettling feature of modern discourses of personal transformation – something akin to what Stanley Fish called “self-consuming artifacts.”
If nothing else, the complexity of these texts foster thoughts and feelings that might move readers in opposing directions. They produce conflict at least as much as they conceal it. This is another reason to be careful with the concept of ideology. As Mitchell Dean explains, the “objective of ideology critique is to unmask the ideological content of language to reveal real relations of subordination.” Ideology critique handles the power-knowledge relation by discounting not only multiplicity, but the possibility that culture produces who we ‘really’ are and how we “actually” relate. If language is not a mask, but is the way we produce ourselves and our relations, then there is no pre-discursive “real” or “root” or “base” to be revealed. Analysis should ask what texts do, not what they hide or uncover.