|The Spirit of Conformity
By John Bedell
For those of us who worry that a great dull cloud of suburban conformity is spreading across America, the Washington Post of May 30 brought more disturbing news. On the second page of the front section was a little piece on JoAnn McGuckin, the woman from Idaho whose children staged an armed standoff with sheriff's deputies last year. Then she defied everyone, saying "she would not let the government tell her how to raise her children." Now she is said to be "very remorseful about some of the decisions she made while she was ill" and her life is said to be "finally returning to normal." She has part-time custody of her six minor children and, best of all, "has settled into routines such as going to their soccer games."
Now, I understand that there are other issues here, and that the "layers of garbage and clothing intermingled with dog feces" in the McGuckins' house represent a real health problem. But the whole tone of this piece is that the Department of Health will consider returning McGuckin's children to her if she tones down her anti-government rhetoric and starts acting more like a soccer Mom. In Idaho!
Flip to section B, and we find the story of a 19-month-old girl, the youngest of thirteen children, who died after her father left her in a locked van for seven hours. A tragic story, to be sure, but consider the spin put on this by the Post. The mother and father are said to be "caring parents who are sometimes disorganized"; the father once left a 3 year old behind in a video store, and had to be called back to retrieve the child. "Neighbors described the family's life as somewhat chaotic." Well, ok, I can see that. But it goes on:
In a neighborhood of neatly trimmed lawns and freshly potted flowers, the Kelly home showed peeling paint around the front door, a lawn with bald spots and a numeral missing from the mailbox.A number missing from that mailbox isn't just a maintenance issue, it's a sign that something is profoundly wrong. Any eccentricity is a potential danger; let your lawn go to weeds and the next thing you know you're leaving your children to die somewhere. Take one step outside the mainstream and you'll soon be falling off the deep end. These sentiments are always expressed in terms of concern for the children, public health, care for the mentally ill, and other laudable goals, but the underlying tone seems to be: If you're not one of us, you're one of them--and you know what they're like. If you don't keep your lawn neat, go to soccer games, and generally try to fit in, you don't really love your children and you may not be a fit parent. Fortunately, it is still very hard in America for the authorities to take children from their parents until something really drastic happens, but the attitudes that underpin both these stories suggest that a different kind of regime would have the support of many "concerned" people, and that ought to be of real concern to the rest of us.
June 1, 2002
A society that will trade a
--John Stuart Mill