Childhood Under Siege – Review and Q&A with Joel Bakan

The cover design for Childhood Under Siege: How Big Business Targets Children is forcefully linear, with the black-and-white-and-red colour scheme of a thousand classic political posters.  If the attitude of the two children holding hands is ambiguous, the oppressive quality of their surroundings is definitely not – as billboards tower above them and meaningless corporate names dominate the skyline.

I asked Joel Bakan about his title choice during a Skype chat that, like an aging jalopy, hiccuped and juddered but got us there in the end.

“I used the metaphor of siege I suppose because there have been historically many instances of people who are under siege resisting and of overcoming the siege and of actually moving forward from there.  So for me, while siege is a scary notion, it’s a notion that suggests resistance is possible – and I believe that’s the case here.”

It’s important to bear this intention in mind while reading the book, which (on the covers and between them) demonstrates again and again that corporations are very big while individuals – parents and children alike – are very small.

Bakan examines five aspects of this assault faced by children and parents:

  1. New media and marketing through social networking
  2. Drugs, disorders and the corruption of scientific research and publication
  3. Environmental hazards and the spread of mis-information on health risks
  4. Exploitation of children in labour in the USA and Canada
  5. Mis-education in schools and how an emphasis on achievement through standardized testing misses the point of learning entirely

As he said in interview:

“My central argument is that if we hand over influence and authority of our children to institutions that are actually designed to be incapable of having regard for anything but their own interests, what we can expect is essentially what we get – and that is a complete unbridled attempt to mine profit from children and to exploit the vulnerabilities of children, to exploit the fears of parents.  This is not at all surprising.  

There is nothing in the character of the corporation as an institution, as a legally constituted institution, to suggest they would do anything but that.  So let’s be clear about that.  Let’s not be mislead or beguiled that somehow corporations can be benevolent, that they can be the friend of parents and children.  That’s a ridiculous assertion – and I’m saying this as a legal scholar who’s an expert in the legal constitution of the corporation.  And that’s a fundamental point because I do think that we, through our government, through ourselves as individuals, are misled, successfully from the perspective of industry, misled to believe that corporations can be a benevolent force, that they can truly be socially responsible.  

So then the question of ‘what do we do?’  And I guess another main point of the book is that there’s only so much we can do as individual parents.  And I go back to Karl Marx’s idea that we make choices but not in conditions of our own choosing.”

Siege is strongest when he is speaking on corporate acts of unregulated self-interest, perhaps unsurprising given that his last book and film were  The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power.  As a lawyer and a parent, Bakan provides a strong collection of case studies and citations of further reading for anyone interested in exactly how for-profit corporations dominate our lives, manufacture our desires, and provide the illusion of free choice in a world of options limited to those they want us to see.  The notes alone run to nearly 100 pages, creating a compelling and comprehensive roadmap of available literature for further self-education.

He is somewhat weaker on the distinction between “childhood” and “children’s lives”, and it is a shame that he does not interview any actual children to speak to their own experiences (though he says this will be redressed in the creation of this book’s film).  This absence is felt most in the first chapter, where his sharp critique of children’s time online will inevitably open him to unfair labeling as simply a member of an uncomprehending generation.  The examples of explicitly violent games that he provides are undeniably disturbing, as is the development of them by companies such as Nickolodeon.  However, I would have liked to have seen the distinction made more clearly between today’s exposure to cartoon violence and that of vintage Tom and Jerry fans, for example.  I’m inclined to think that in this case, unlike the one he makes later about environmental toxins, the issue really is one of persistent or continuous exposure – essentially, that the problem isn’t the violent online games so much as the almost total loss of other play options.

As for the accusation of ‘uncoolness’, Bakan draws a distinction between progress and purchasing – between the inevitable and essential separation of children from their parents in values, tastes and ambitions, and the corporate simulacrum of this through brand allegiance. It’s the gap between being a punk, and shopping at Hot Topic, and he explains that he is not separate from the world he is criticizing, saying:

“There’s this intergenerational tyranny, right, where my parents liked Frank Sinatra and their parents thought they were insane, I liked the Beatles, my parents thought I was insane.  I think it’s very important that subsequent generations challenge the values and ideas and predilections of previous generations.  So I’m not in any way trying to take this approach that there shouldn’t be change.  In fact I believe that progress comes from younger generations toppling the beliefs and ideals of older generations.

But what I think is going on here is something entirely different.  What’s going on here is that you’ve got this huge cultural force, capitalism, corporations, that has targeted and set its sights on children as a resource to mine for profit.  And that for me is different, and much more profoundly disturbing that just the usual intergenerational protest and challenging.  And so I do, when people say “oh you know, get off your high horse, isn’t this just another case of parents being worried about Elvis Presley swinging his hips” – No, I don’t think it’s that.  This is a case of very powerful cultural, economic, political force specifically and by design targeting children without any concern for their interest and with every concern for exploiting their vulnerabilities to make a profit.  And this is something new.”

And later, he continued:

“You know, here I am on my computer, on my Mac, talking to you – and it’s pretty cool.  And I like it.  And I’m not in this book suggesting that we shouldn’t pursue progress and technology and medical treatments…  What I am suggesting is that our conception of progress should be our definition of progress and not one that is defined by the self-interests of corporations and, more importantly, that it shouldn’t be one that overrides the interests of children to achieve it.”

Ultimately, SIEGE is an informed and essential guide to the numerous ways in which corporate self-interest dominates the landscapes of modern, Western childhood, and how little our governments and public institutions do to protect us.  It will be somewhat daunting to already overwhelmed parents and child-advocates being shown the calculated extent of misinformation that bombards them – though Bakan is clear on the solution: governmental regulation.  He states in his conclusion:

“Public regulatory systems and other governmental measures can certainly provide better protection to and support to children than they currently do.  That will not happen, however, unless we as citizens demand that is does, which is why, I believe, being a good parent today requires more than just making good choices as a parent.  It requires as well that we work to change the conditions in which we make those choices; that we demand governments take action to protect children from harm at the hands of corporations and other economic actors.  Being a good parent, in other words, means becoming engaged as a citizen in the collective practice of remaking society – in that thing called democracy.”

Due to some technical difficulties, the recorded clips from the interview are delayed, but I hope to post them, or at least a more complete transcript, online shortly.

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