“For the Kids”: Rahm Emanuel’s Grim Fairy Tale

This is a blog about children and how we as parents, caregivers and general putter-uppers relate to them.  This is why we have to talk about the Chicago mayor, Rahm Emanuel, for Rahm is all about the kids. Rahm has uttered the words “It’s for the kids” almost as many times as he has slashed budgets for social programs; and if you know Rahm that will be many times.

Here are some of his public statements in defense of our kids.  He has promised to “open up the doors of the future for our kids.” He has been ever ready to “find the resources to achieve what we need to provide for our children.” And when bad bad men were bringing gang violence into children’s lives, the Mayor used his steely glint and Captain America voice to frighten them away:  “Don’t touch the children of the city of Chicago”, said Mayor Rahm.

Sometimes I wonder if Rahm’s speechwriters actually wrote this stuff, or he is just going off from having watched too much Chris Nolan.

There are two things wrong with this picture.  One is the actual record of Mayor Rahm Emmanuel.  And the other is what this “for the kids” rhetoric signify in our culture.

Keeping Track of Rahm’s Love

Rahm “loves” our kids so much that:

--His school “reforms” have targeted and closed schools largely located in Latino and African American neighborhoods.

--He wants a 90 minute increase in the school day without increasing teacher’s pay.  Indeed, he has denied teachers a scheduled 4% annual raise.

--He thinks that the one group of people who should not decide how large class sizes ought to be are--teachers.

--He wants to cut art, music, physical education, library and world language teachers from schools, obviously kids hate this stuff.  Which kid would rather draw when she can take a yummy standardized test?

--He wants to reduce the number of counselors, social workers, nurses and school psychologists.

--He wants to close public libraries but use public taxes to open a Hyatt.  Presumably kids prefer hot stone massages at union busting hotel spas rather than go to the library for free books and movies.

He also loves us so much, as parents and caregivers, that he wants us to have time with our kids by:

--Raising our retirement age

--Raising our retirement contribution

--Freezing pension increases for those already retired.  I bet you didn’t know: it’s working class grandparents buying too many zhu zhu pets for kids that has been causing the budget deficit.

And Rahm has done all of the above in the name of our kids. “Without pension reform” Rahm said, “we’ll be forced to mortgage our children’s future”.  If teachers’ wages aren’t cut, he said, children will get “the shaft”.  And now that the Chicago Teachers Union is gearing up for strike action, Rahm is planning to hire scabs to run schools.  The scab program is named, you guessed right, “Children First”.

Why use this “for the kids” rhetoric?

The primary prop that holds up this “I am for the kids” discourse is the presumed innocence of the child.  The child needs a protector and politicians are ever ready to wear that cape.

Historically children were not always regarded as innocent or vulnerable, but roughly from the seventeenth century, they were differentiated from adults as a special social group requiring adult care and supervision. 

But it took more than two hundred years for capitalism to take this logic seriously enough to relinquish the profits it made off of child labor.

This is very significant because ideas that advocated for child labor co-existed with ideas that regarded children as precious and in need for care.

On the one hand capitalist society produced William Blake who celebrated the innocence of childhood and the philosopher John Locke who strongly criticized corporal punishment of children.  On the other hand, coming nearly hundred years after Locke, a time in which presumably society had had the opportunity to generalize ideas around children’s innocence and fragility, James Heywood, an English banker (1853-1872) had a very different vision for children.  In his 1836 speech to the House of Commons Heywood said:

…If the provisions of this [anti-child labor] bill is enforced, and if all persons under eighteen years of age were prevented from working more than ten hours per day, great distress among the working classes would be the inevitable consequences. I know the case of a single family - a father and eight children, all upwards of fourteen years of age - whose earnings were diminished by 13s. in the first week after the act of the last session came into operation…

My fear is, that, from mistaken notions of humanity, we may inflict upon the working classes a deeper wound than we propose to cure. We must remember that food and clothing are as essential to health as air and exercise; and take care that while we give the later we do not take away the former.

This is exactly what it sounds like.  James Heywood, respectable banker, was making a case in favor of child labor, for the sake of the children.  And he was neither unique nor an outlier.  Leading members of the rising industrial bourgeoisie of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Europe and North America were strong spokespeople for child labor.  Nearly all of them cited reasons of compassion for the children and their families as explanation for their position.

When ideas part ways with material practice, we can no longer simply call them ideas.  They then deserve the title of “ideology”.  If you are advocating for a 7 year old to work a 12 hour shift at your linen factory, but you write pamphlets about how this was for the good of the kid, then your ideas have acquired the muscular purposefulness of an ideology.  Those ideas now work not to reveal the truth about society but to hide it.

Similarly when you use the formulation “for the kids” to steal money from those very kids’ parents to give to multi billion dollar hotel chains while you close their schools, your words are not just lies, they are weapons that forcibly screen reality.

Besides trying to draw a veil over the truth, this rhetoric about protecting children while gutting their lives has one other significant feature.  The rhetoric always applies to the children of people other than the speaker’s.  And his country club friends.  And the campaign donors from his yachting club.  And his…you get the picture.  Any children but their own.  Just like the most strident voice for war in Washington would gladly pay for her/his child to skip military service.  Rahm Emanuel's children do not go to the public schools that their dad is demolishing.  They go to a private school.

This is where the politicians’ rhetoric about kids comes a full circle.  Because it is fully divorced from material reality and actually works to screen it, it hovers over us as bloated bubbles of moralism.  Rahm’s claims about children, just like Heywood’s packaging of child labor, can only exist by a moralistic tautology: how are you for the kids? By being for the kids.  It is moralistic because it evokes the innocence and vulnerability of children not to champion them, but to stop us from querying that formulation.

The only way to burst this “for the kid” bubble is to be for the kids.  It’s as simple as that.  To talk about and ask where all the kids--not just their kids—are going to get quality housing from, affordable food from, quality education from.  We can only fight this false ideology with real ideas about who deserves public services and how to pay for them.

There exists a long history of real people fighting for real kids.  A popular song that came out of a bitter miner’s strike in 1933 in Tennessee had the right idea:

My children are seven in number, We have to sleep four in a bed; I'm striking with my fellow workers. To get them more clothes and more bread Shoes, shoes, we're striking for pairs of shoes, Shoes, shoes, we're striking for pairs of shoes.

Pellagra is cramping my stomach, My wife is sick with TB; My babies are starving for sweet milk, Oh, there as so much sickness for me. Milk, milk, we're striking for gallons of milk, Milk, milk, we're striking for gallons of milk.

And in Chicago this September the CTU might be striking to defend public education.

And yes, if they do, they will be proudly striking for our kids.