Book Review: Childhood Under Siege, by Joel Bakan

by Peter Prontzos

In civilized societies, perhaps the most despised person is the one who preys on children. Even in jail, child molesters are often segregated from other prisoners for their own safety.

Human beings have a natural tendency to love their children and most will do anything to protect them from harm. Noted primatologist Frans de Waal has made a convincing case that love originated from the evolutionary need to protect our young, who are uniquely vulnerable in their early years.

It is difficult, then, to understand why we — especially those of us who are parents — tolerate the kinds of attacks that are taking place on our children.

But as Joel Bakan describes in Childhood Under Siege, they are being assaulted in ways that are often extremely subtle, but also extremely profitable.

From junk food to video games to toxic chemicals to prescription drugs, the danger to children’s health is being deliberately increased — all to improve the bottom line.

Bakan provides numerous horror stories regarding children’s games, some of which can be extremely violent. He describes, for instance, an online game called, Whack Your Soul Mate, in which a player can choose how to kill his or her “love.” In one manifestation, “the man hands the woman a heart-shaped box of chocolates, and watches as she opens the box and a spring-loaded cleaver pops out and cuts her head off, blood gushing everywhere …”

What wholesome fun.

Shifting to other threats, the author details how pharmaceutical companies manipulate research as well as reports in medical journals to hide the fact that many of the drugs that are prescribed for children are actually ineffective, dangerous, or both.

The book also provides horror stories of children over-dosing on drugs, or killing themselves while under the influence.

Big pharma spends huge sums of money to entice doctors to prescribe these drugs, with tactics ranging from dinners and vacations to visits by what has been termed, “Pharma babes” — often former cheerleaders who may offer “sexual favours” and other gifts to their clients.

Not surprisingly, the increasing amounts of artificial chemicals in our foods and environment take a huge toll on children. Babies are most vulnerable when they are developing, and nowhere are they more at risk than in the womb, (as documented in Arthur Janov’s new book, Life Before Birth).

And Scientific American recently reported that, “fetuses are particularly vulnerable to … even extremely low levels of some environmental contaminants.”

This work provides some grim examples of this threat, such as the diseases and deaths associated with the tar ponds of Sydney, N.S., and the dangers from Bisphenol A (BPA), “a key ingredient in food and drink containers [including baby bottles], plastic wraps and the lining of cans.”

Bakan, who teaches law at UBC (and who wrote The Corporation), also describes how British Columbia has, “the most astonishingly neglectful child labour laws in North America … [where] a child at 12 years old can go to work, in just about any job, hazardous or not.”

This particular law was introduced by the Liberal government of Gordon Campbell to make B.C. more “economically competitive,” (according to a government statement). Bakan explains that corporations “tend to favour permissive labour laws” since they can pay children less than adults, and because children are less likely to resist harsh or unfair working conditions.

Bakan stresses that “science” can be misused by corporations in their drive to increase profits. As Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin explained in a Massey Lecture, science “is a human productive activity that takes time and money, and so is guided by and directed by those forces in the world that have control over money and time.”

I had two primary emotions when reading this book. One was sadness in hearing about so much needless suffering inflicted upon young and innocent lives. The pain that their parents felt is hard to imagine.

The other feeling was, frankly, outrage, at what we allow big business to do to our children.

I believe that parenting is not only the most important job in the world, it is also the most difficult. By what right do corporations have to make this vital and demanding work even harder?

Society needs to help parents to ensure the well-being of their children, and Bakan explains that for roughly 100 years, Canada and many other countries gradually strengthened the laws to protect children.

Beginning around the 1980s, however, child protection was significantly reducedas corporate-friendly neo-liberal policies — including privatization and de-regulation — spread around the world. (Such policies allowed Wall Street speculators to make the toxic investments which triggered the global recession).

Reversing this dangerous trend is the goal of Childhood Under Siege.

By informing parents (and others who care about children) of the dangers that we face, Bakan hopes that an informed public will demand that our governments live up to their prime responsibility: to protect its citizens — especially its children — from harm.

This review was originally published on Nov. 3, 2011 in the Vancouver Sun



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