Standing for Children, or Clinton?

Against the Current, No. 65, November/December 1996

Susan Dorazio

I WAS ONE of the tens of thousands of people who attended “Stand for Children” in Washington, D.C. on June 1. This was to be a broad-based apolitical event intended to express the commitment and resolve of children’s advocates, and to “send a message” to everybody else about the plight of so many of our kids.

As an activist I was skeptical of the value of such an event, but as a day care worker I was enticed by the prospect of a mass gathering of children and adults reassuring each other, and reminding the country, that we exist and that we matter. In the end, ambivalence persisting but hope (and curiosity) prevailing, I boarded one of our area’s four buses and headed for the rally.

It was a beautiful day, warm and sunny, and everyone seemed in good spirits as we stumbled off the buses and thronged the Metro headed for the grounds of the Lincoln Memorial. It was an unusual experience for me to be in a crowd as diverse as this–I enjoyed that.

My friends and I got caught up in the party atmosphere and took our time getting to the rally, stopping off along the way for something to eat and a look at the White House. When we got to the Mall we wandered around the display tents representing an array of community and professional organizations, admired the T-shirt designs bedecking contingents of adults and children from various groups and locales, and settled in for the after<->noon’s program.

Not aware that a march across the Potomac had taken place earlier, what we got were the speeches and some music, visible and audible thanks to several large video screens along the length of the Reflecting Pool. It was at about this time that my enthusiasm began to flag.

How many more religious intonements would we have to endure? How many more uplifting testimonials? How many more well-meaning celebrity well-wishers? What was I doing here? What was anybody doing here? Was I a participant in an historic and much needed call to action on behalf of our children and their families, or an extra in a made-for-TV

I reminded myself that such an undertaking obviously requires planning and organization, but this agenda was so tightly packed as to be nearly stupefying. At one point it literally put me to sleep. Again, the size and composition of the crowd excited me, yet they were so quiet. They applauded politely. My friends and I chatted, tuned in and out of the speeches, kept track of the time.

At some point there was supposed to be a 1000-voice children’s chorus, but it was getting close to bus departure time so we left. I was back home at 4:15 am, wrote a critique of the rally as a “letter to the editor” later in the day, and returned to my day care center the day after.

A Stand Without Politics?

Since then I’ve been pondering the event and my reactions to it. My first line of analysis held that this was yet another misguided expression of the concern by a lot of people for our children’s welfare–so cruelly disregarded by our government. So as not to “exploit” children and to attract as many people as possible, this “Stand for Children” would be a “non-political” rally, emphasizing harmony and unity and rejecting controversy and conflict. At the very least, this approach is simplistic.

Like mothers and apple pies, children in theory and rhetoric are revered. Also like mothers, in practice they are more likely reviled. Pretending that a love-in for kids will do them much (if any) good is honest and deceitful, and a great disservice to the children we are “protecting” from political debate.

The most dire problems so many of them face (child care, health care, housing, education) are the result of public policy and require political solutions–not “politics as usual,” of course, but a grassroots-based, independent, egalitarian political movement and a party that will be viable alternatives to the political system and parties we are currently struck with.

But while this is all true, I think a more fruitful analysis of the “Stand” would take it out of its rarefied neutrality and place it precisely in the context of partisan politics, specifically the Clinton presidency and reelection strategy.

That is, the basic problem with the event–and the anger to dissident forces that actually might bring about structural changes on behalf of children and their families–is not that it was naively apolitical but that it was cynically political, with its explicit anti-Gingrich rationale sugar-coating an implicit “Clinton-or-else” message (the 1996 version of our quadrennial lesser-evil ritual).

How hard is it to believe that Clinton’s increasingly conservative election-year posturing has not been taken as a directive by such administration adjuncts as “Stand” organizer Marian Wright Edelman? How helpful to the cause to counter, as the “Stand for Children” agenda did, the Christian Right with the Nondenominational Center, or “their” bootstrap testimonials with “ours.”

If a “rally” of this sort had been staged in the midst of the Vietnam War it would have been considered a disgrace. But in this era of “reconciliation” (i.e. liberal political expediency) it is touted as a great step forward instead of the cop-out that it is.

To let this approach go unchallenged is to give up on our kids in a very serious way. It tells them that we don’t care enough about their problems to fight like hell to solve them–that demonstrations end wars, but picnics end poverty. This is not true.

As a teacher of young children I think endlessly about what they need and want for themselves and from each other, and from the adults in their lives. The recurring concepts are respect, compassion, truth, honesty, information and skills. We are not doing them any favors by turning their current, and worsening, social, political
and economic plight into a stage show to make the adults in their lives feel better and take politicians and bureaucrats off the hook.

We should not just care about them, but fight for them–at least as hard as we did for the national liberation forces of Southeast Asia and Central America. To do this we need to take a closer look at the design of such events as the “Stand for Children,” and be clear about the reasons for our participation.

Most importantly, we need to wake up to the current political situation–one that is deadening us from doing the kind of political organizing and actions that could replace the Clintons and Doles, and their corporate sponsors, with a just and humane system worthy of ourselves and our kids.

ATC 65, November-December 1996