New Presence: The Prague Journal of Central European Affairs (English version of Nova pritomnost), Winter 2001. Reprinted in the Newsletter of the Women’s Freedom Network, January-February 2001.


This highly-respected magazine is the successor to Pritomnost, which was the leading voice of intellectuals in inter-war Czechoslovakia.  It championed liberal democracy against both Fascism and Stalinism during the 1920's and 1930's.  Obviously it does not have a large US readership, but for this magazine to take up this issue marks it as a significant question of human freedom.  New Presence is influential among intellectuals and former dissidents throughout Central and Eastern Europe, and this article could have a substantial impact on the US image in the region.

It is of course sadly ironic that it must be left to a magazine in a former communist country to expose human rights abuses in the US, UK, and other western democracies, who not long ago were sending academic missionaries such as me to the region to teach them how democracy works.   I like to see this as payback for the years when Eastern European dissidents were forced to published in western journals.

Dekujeme a gratulace (our thanks and congratulations) to Eduard Bakalar, our leading colleague in Ceska republika.

Stephen Baskerville

 


"A single, seemingly powerless person who dares to cry out the word of truth   and to stand behind it with all his person and all his life, ready to pay a high price, has, surprisingly, greater power, though formally disfranchised, than do thousands of anonymous voters."

-- Vaclav Havel (former dissident and now President of the Czech Republic)


 

 

THE POLITICS OF CHILDREN

An example of practices and vested political interests

By Stephen Baskerville


Among the memories from the years I taught politics at Palacky University in Olomouc was how my students would react when I tried to impart to them the virtues of western feminism.  To my chagrin, they - especially the female students - would almost invariably respond by saying feminism was a "totalitarian" movement of which they wanted no part.

A matter of definition?

The term "totalitarian" is frequently used to characterize high-profile feminist campaigns such as "sexual harassment" and "date rape."   Much of this is exaggeration.  Yet far more serious, and much less scrutinized, is something going on in the United States - the billion-dollar divorce, child custody, and child support industry.

In only the last few months, according to one federal public defender, "the number of federal child support prosecutions has skyrocketed."  And it usually is the father who is targeted.  If children are given in custody to the mother, a father's name is automatically entered on a government registry, and his wages may be garnished.  The government has access to all his financial records.  A father will be questioned about how he "feels" about his children, what he does with them, where he takes them, how he kisses them, how he feeds and bathes them, what he buys for them, and what he discusses with them. Family courts regularly tell fathers what worship they may or must take their children to and control their discussions with their children about matters such as religion and politics.  Fathers must surrender personal diaries, notebooks, correspondence, financial records, and other documents.

In many jurisdictions it is now a crime to criticize family court judges. Following his congressional testimony critical of the family courts in 1992, Jim Wagner was stripped of custody of his two children and jailed by a Georgia judge.  In both Britain and Australia, fathers have been jailed for criticizing judges. Children too have been jailed for refusing to testify against their father.

Government agents increasingly assume a vast array of intrusive powers over parents whose children they control.  "Never before have federal officials had the legal authority and technological ability to . . . keep tabs on Americans accused of nothing," declared the Washington Post.

Not just a U.S. problem

It is not fathers' groups alone that have voiced alarm.  Taylor Burke, a bank president in Alexandria, Virginia, objects to being forced to monitor his customers for the government.  "We're all good citizens.  But it doesn't mean we spy on our neighbors," Burke told the Post.

In Britain, the National Association for Child Support Action has published a "Book of the Dead," chronicling 55 cases where it claims the official Court Coroner concluded fathers were driven to suicide because of judgements from family courts.

Why is this happening?  The English-speaking countries with their Common Law tradition allow enormous power to judges and lawyers.  But the problem is increasingly worldwide.  In 1997 the German magazine Der Spiegel ran a cover story on "The Fatherless Society."  In February 1998 Deputy Pavel Dostal, now Minister of Culture, met with Czech fathers protesting outside Parliament for changes in the family law.

Psychologist Eduard Bakalar, who has served as a court expert in custody cases and heads Consultancy for Fathers (Poradna pro otce) in Prague, says while fathers have not been criminalized to the extent they have in the anglophone nations, they do face systematic bias in the courts, which has been the prelude to criminalization.  Bakalar also observes "constant anti-father propaganda" in the media, especially noting the impact of American films.  "It is a systematic effort to devalue fatherhood," he says.

Vested interests

A massive bureaucratic machine ostensibly dedicated to child welfare has developed a vested interest in removing as many children as possible from their fathers (and mothers), and its influence now extends to the highest levels of government.  Campaigning for president, Al Gore recently called for jailing more fathers.  The Clinton administration has been especially skillful at using children politically.  "Children, it can be fairly said, have been an obsession for this administration," writes columnist Richard Cohen, and his words are borne out by administration officials.  "Government has got to ensure that parents are old enough, wise enough, and able to care for their children," insists Attorney General Janet Reno.  Likewise, Hillary Clinton often proclaims, "There is no such thing as other people's children," and rejects the notion that "families are private, nonpolitical units whose interests subsume those of children," believing instead in "the status of children as political beings."

This is not the first time children have been politicized to advance an agenda.  When the Communist secret police files were opened after 1989, many were surprised by how little the state was concerned with its citizens' politics and how much it was obsessed with their private lives.  "The biggest surprise was the banality of the files," Tina Rosenberg quotes the head of a citizens' committee in her book The Haunted Land.  "A lot of information about family, personal problems."  But this is neither surprising nor banal when one bears in mind that the aim of the modern state has been to control this sphere of life.  Punishing children for their parents' activities, especially during the Prague Spring, was also well known practice in Czechoslovakia.

Yet in the new politics of children we are seeing today, the use of children and families has for the first time become not one tool among others, but a central objective of state policy.


Stephen Baskerville, who taught in the Department of Politics and European Studies at Palacky University in Olomouc from 1992 to 1997, now teaches at Howard University in Washington.  He serves as spokesman for Men, Fathers, and Children International, a coalition of 12 fatherhood organizations from 9 countries, including the Czech Republic, and serves on the advisory board of Gendercide Watch, a human rights organization that monitors gender-based killings.