COMMENT: by Andrew BoltNews Weekly
How modern culture erodes family ties
, April 21, 2001
Assaults on the family as an institution are more subtle now than ever before, but Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt warns of the State's continuing power to undermine parental responsibility.
There is a culture war out there, and the reason why the family is the centre of this culture war is that it's perhaps the social in stitution that's most resistant to change. It's also the institution that has been the target of the hostility of most radical social reformers.
You've seen this quite often in history, where people try - often consciously - to supplant the family: first, by smashing family authority. I can actually point to examples of this. There were Mao's Red Guards, for example, and Stalin's Red Pioneers: members of these groups were encouraged to dob in their parents. There was the Hitler Youth, whose members were also encouraged to dob in their parents. In each one of these cases, you see a political force trying to make a direct connection with the children, by-passing the parents.Family weakened
Now I'm certainly not suggesting that we're facing anything quite so overt and maniacal right now here in Victoria, or in Australia. Nevertheless, I don't think anyone here, for example, would feel that the family as an institution is stronger now than it was, say, 30 or 40 years ago.
That is the caveat to my original statement: that, while the family is indeed one of the institutions most resistant to change, it's not immune to change.
The assault that we've seen in this country has come in various ways. I don't suggest that we've had anything like the Jeff Kennett Pioneers, or the Steve Bracks Red Guards. But there have been cultural assaults to seduce parents out of feeling responsible for their children. Concepts of easy divorce; open marriage; too-easy promotion of de facto families (which I got sucked into at one stage); and now blended families - with a gradual weakening of probably the greatest responsibility that almost all adults will ever know, which is, to care for their own child.
This is a betrayal that has led to a million children in this country living without at least one of their parents.
I can't help thinking that this kind of betrayal lives with children in a deep, deep way, for a very long time. They might not be very conscious of it; outwardly a lot of kids get over it, shrug it off. But it's a hell of a lesson to learn when very young.
One of the saddest examples of this encouragement of parents to neglect their duty, as I see it is that of feeding them psycho-stimulants such as Ritalin, to combat ADHD (Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder). This is a condition that no-one's properly managed to diagnose. It includes as its manifestations a variety of things: fidgeting, inattention, indiscipline. These are exactly the kinds of things you would expect from children who simply aren't getting enough of their parents' time and attention.
I'm no medical expert, and I would have to accept that in some cases a diagnosis of ADHD might well be true. But I'm also not an idiot, and I think that a tenfold explosion of this diagnosis in the last decade is much more than a suddenly recognised medical condition. And I just wonder what the hell we're coming to, that we can be feeding kids amphetamines to shut them up, instead of giving them our time.
The cultural assault has been on our children, too. It's not just on the parents. The anti-authority, anti-parental campaign is a little bit like Mao's campaign to destroy everything that was old. The trends, I think, are unmistakable. Literature
For me, the best example of them is in the works of John Marsden, a man whose books are regularly awarded prizes by the Children's Book Council of Australia, and are stuffed onto school reading lists. The implicit message from this man is that there is no parent or teacher - in any of the seven books of his which I've read - who emerges as a positive figure, to whom the child could go when in trouble. All the parents and teachers are evil, neglectful, untrustworthy. Behind all of them is Marsden whispering, "You can trust only me".
I think this is a very sinister message. It's dreadful that this kind of writing is not recognised as a threat, as anti-social, but is in fact given some of our highest prizes.
To be honest, technology is making the job of parenting infinitely harder. The TV, the Internet, the worlds of possibilities now open to children, not all of which you can be aware of, and not all of which are presented to your child at a time when that child is right and ripe and ready to deal with those possibilities.
Think of the films, the TV, the surprise ads which you didn't know were going to come up, but which have sort of ambushed you in your home. And as children get richer, of course - this is one of the problems, you've got money, they've got money, everyone's got money - they actually get more attention than ever before from adults who've got something to sell, and who have no scruples about how to sell it.
You see Eminem, the rapper whose lyrics include fantasies about raping his mother and murdering his girlfriend, sold to children. Many a child has $30 in his pocket now, and it's hard to stop him from getting his hands on that sort of stuff.
Or take Hannibal, which initially was rated as suitable for children. Including the scene of a man sitting there with his brain exposed to the air, his skull cut off, and Hannibal slicing the brain, frying it, and then feeding it to the man who's still talking while blood's running down his nose. You see all this in intimate detail. This is a film about which our censors think: "Take your children!" Culture shift
Forty years ago, we had a controversy - I don't know if you remember it - about the film Bambi. Now Bambi was widely thought to be maybe too shocking for children, because the mother gets shot in the end by hunters. You think, "How far we've come! A controversy over Bambi's mother, to a man's brain being eaten in view of children."
You've actually seen, alongside this, the State - which is a shorthand way of saying bureaucrats, and politicians, and academics, and unfortunately, people like myself and my colleagues, all setting the cultural tone - increasingly supplanting the role of parents. You see this process at its worst, I think, in child care for babies. Drop your child off when he's six months old, or even three months old; and the State will finance that, don't worry about it. You see women being fed the message (usually by State-paid bureaucrats) that it's fine to do all this: "We want you [women and men] to go to work, we don't want you to look after your children". That's what the message is that the State is putting out. And it's denying, in turn, payment for those who decide to stay at home to look after their children.
Then you get the academics presenting this very dodgy research which says that children are actually better off in child care. I remember one Australian piece of research, about three years ago, that said: "Child care is not harmful to children at all - we've just done the results. Sure, children who go to child care end up brattier, but ..." Well, this is exactly the problem! But it's treated as either not a problem, or, in fact, a virtue, that the kids are more assertive.Sex education
You see other things, of course, such as sex education classes at school. I'm not necessarily averse to my child being given those, or being asked to discuss (as children now are when 13 or 14) sex scenes in books. But the point about this is that while I might not be averse, other parents might well be. The State is here actually saying, "You may have different views on this, but this is what we say you should do; and what we say, goes. Unless you're prepared to dip deep into your pockets, and pay for a private education." So the State has in fact declared that "these are the certain mores that will exist for your kids, and you ... well, forget about you."
The problem with all that is that if we'd got these things so right, we wouldn't actually be seeing all the signs of distress that we are seeing, would we? For example, we in Australia have the second-highest rate of teenage abortions in the world.
Then you get your great moral programs about the evils of racism and sexism; advertising campaigns in schools; welfare benefits for children who leave home. And now, we have [State Education Minister] Mary Delahunty giving permission for schools to distribute condoms. I mean, if your neighbour, without your approval, started to say to your child, "Here, have some condoms", you would be outraged. I should imagine that you could take some sort of legal action against your neighbour (though I don't know what the action would be), because that behaviour would be obscene. But a teacher may do the same thing, unquestioned.
Again, a lot of parents might approve of it. In which case, I'd say, "Do it yourself at home. Put your little bowl of condoms in your hallway. Let your child have them. But don't impose those values on others who disagree with them."
The problem with this State action is that when the State steps in like this, it's going too far. Let's be honest, there are bad parents. This is always the State's excuse: "There are bad parents". And there are. But, by going too far, the State actually encourages people to surrender their responsibilities.
Let's face it: parenting is hard. It's very demanding, particularly in these times, when a lot of people are confused about what the rules should be, what's best to do. "Shall I teach my child about sex at this age, that age, or what? I don't know. I'll leave it to the experts." This thought-process is very tempting. Yet the experts don't always have it right.
I've lived for years in Asia, and for a couple of years in Holland. When I came back here, I realised that in many respects this is a damned fine country. But we have to admit that some things we're doing are not working very well at all. And if you look at most of the signs of social distress among children in particular, almost every indicator of them is bad, pointing to worse. We've got youth suicide rates - particularly among boys - three times worse than they were 30 years ago. We've got drugs, of course; we all know about those. We've got school bullying that anecdotally - because these things are hard to measure - is running at very high, and worsening, levels. We've got youth violence worsening, and I think that's at a record high as well.
The ironic thing about this nihilism is that sometimes the ideals people fasten on are healthy, and sometimes they're not. While I'm not a Christian, I actually take my hat off to Christianity.
Whereas if you look at something like Greenpeace (which is fundamentally a religious thing), you get people directed into beliefs like the primacy of the earth above humanity, which lead to people getting hurt. Right now, Greenpeace is running a campaign against golden rice, a genetically modified rice that could save 50,000 children per month from going blind through Vitamin A deficiency. Think of it: 50,000 children. But Greenpeace has said no. It's part of the whole Greenpeace campaign to stop genetically modified food. Meanwhile, 50,000 kids go blind, and lots of other kids die. They're human sacrifices to the Greenpeace religion.Prescribing poison
I think people have at last started to realise, and are beginning to wake up to, the fact that many of our children don't look too healthy. The trouble is that while people are starting to diagnose the right symptoms, they're prescribing the same poison. Two examples now from both sides of politics.
Jeff Kennett gave the prestigious Menzies Lecture, just after he was first elected Premier. He pledged then to strengthen families. In this speech Kennett used the word "family" seven times, and the word "leadership" just twice.
In 1999, a few months before he actually lost power, Kennett addressed the Liberal State Council. In this speech he mentioned the word "leadership" seven times and "family" not at all.
As for Labor, there was an article in The Australian in March from the rising Federal Labor frontbencher Lindsay Tanner: a man of the future. Tanner said that he'd noticed all these signs of distress which I've been telling you about, and that he had the prescription for solving them. I quote directly, so you know that I'm not making it up:
"The struggle to reduce male alienation, anger and violence must start in our ..." Now, finish that sentence. I would have thought that the word to finish it would be "families". His conclusion: "schools". Forget families. Back to school!
There is a problem with looking to politicians for the answers. That method treats the whole problem as one which can be addressed by a few government programs, or by just a few more joint sessions of Parliament. You see that a bit with the Prime Minister's new advertising blitz against drugs. Expensive ads, aimed at kids, blaming them: "It's your fault that you're taking these drugs". The average age now for first-time use of heroin is 17. Whose fault is that? 17-year-olds? I'd look at their parents: not in every case, but the first question I would ask is "What's happening in your family life?" I admit that the follow-up booklet is much better than the initial campaign was, but I doubt that many people are going to read it.
But the battle is to be fought on many fronts, including the technology front. Filters on the Internet; work habits and patterns; these are important. But the whole thing amounts to a culture war. It's a war that's not to be solved by a $50 million government program which begins on this date and ends on that date, after which we'll all be happy and perfected human beings. It's a culture war that's going to involve us all, and demands something of us all.
Where, for instance - George Pell excepted, and he's now leaving Victoria - are the church leaders in this fight for a more civilised future?
Where, for those who are not Christians, are the secular leaders who can actually see the damage being done to this most fundamental unit of any civilisation, and who recognise the danger?
Where are the academics, the journalists, the child development experts, the judges, the teachers? Where are they all to redirect our culture, so that our children - the most vulnerable members of our society - are protected, loved and nurtured?
We are having right now a huge debate over the "stolen generation". They say, "Never again will we do this: will we take Aboriginal children away from their homes and their cultures." But only this month, in rural Victoria, ads were placed - and a State Government Minister went to promote a campaign in the country, not in the city, which would have been too embarrassing - appealing for white families to put up their hands to foster part-Aboriginal children. Fundamental family breakdown is the Aboriginal community's Number One problem. Forget the "stolen generation". Forget "land rights". Breakdown of Aboriginal families is the issue. Yet ATSIC was forced (almost at gunpoint) to donate, finally, $1 million per year towards limiting domestic violence throughout Aboriginal Australia.
ATSIC spends about $20 million per year on its own publicity. It has made us spend $20 million chasing the myth of a "stolen generation". This generation did not exist. There were individuals stolen, yes, but not a stolen generation. No good will come out of the myth. It promotes a victim mentality. It's a horrendous waste of public money: 20 times the amount spent on helping people who are getting really hurt.
The trouble is, of course, that I don't think there's any easy road map to get to where most of us would like to go. I even doubt that we'd agree on the best route either.
Yet I take some encouragement from the people who criticised the man who's probably my favourite author, Charles Dickens. His critics, particularly from the Left, would say: "Well, yes, but he's got no scheme for improvement, no road map, no manifesto". It's true. As George Orwell said, all that Dickens really wanted to do was to tell people to be nicer to each other. And yet the abuses he wrote about, despite his lack of a manifesto, did actually wither away in time. In the end, a little bit of love and attention do make a lot of difference. The difference they make in particular is to children. I think that's my hope.
- This is an edited version of the speech that Mr Bolt gave to the Endeavour Forum's 22nd anniversary dinner at Ashburton, Victoria, on March 29.