Alice Miller is dead.
You may not know much about her, but she played her part in getting Us all to the point We’re at now.
She was a psychologist, German born, and in her 87 years she lived through the era of the Third Reich.
In 1981 she published a book, “The Drama of the Gifted Child” (it had originally been entitled “Prisoners of Childhood”). Among her other titles were “For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-rearing and the Roots of Violence” and “Thou Shalt Not Be Unaware: Society’s Betrayal of the Child”.
They came at a very interesting time. Nationally, the radical feminist agenda (which became the stream of feminism that organized itself along the lines of revolutionary cadres and ‘went to Washington’) was looking for ever-expanding ways to ‘deconstruct’ social and cultural mores and the institutions that supported them, in order to extend their zero-sum game of making room for ‘women’ (thereby conducting political hostilities not only against ‘men’ but against the culture and civilization that ‘dead white European males’ had – over the course of two and half millennia – managed to put together in the teeth of humanity’s dark and bloody foibles).
And standing smack dab in the revolution’s giddy but gimlet-eyed path was the Family – with its distribution of labor organized around the raising of children and the transmission of such culture as Western humanity and its American variant had managed to achieve. Oh, and to prepare them for adulthood by helping children to master their powers and achieve – the word was better known then – Maturity.
The Family was – even more than ‘religion’ – a target: it represented Cultural Authority, and the responsibilities that it imposed cramped the style of ‘women’ who should be free to go out and have fun having a job and making guy-money. (Which dampdream, in the event, was undercut over the years as the ‘industrial base’ that provided the cash was undermined in another ‘success’ of the conflicting and incoherent radical feminist programme – but I digress.)
Since the 1960s and even before that, the increasing corps of ‘child experts’ and ‘child psychologists’ had been urging American parents to forego ‘authority’ and be more ‘therapists’ to their kids.* Parents’ authority over their families was to be considered more in ‘contractual’ terms – with the kids as parties to the contract (if not actually ‘consumers' of their parents’ services).
The objective for parents was no longer to make sure that – to the extent it is ever possible – kids could be raised to be ‘good’ and not ‘bad’, but rather that the the kids be ‘happy’ and not ‘unhappy’.
Nor do I hold any brief for making kids genuinely unhappy. But the task of mastering one’s human impulses – given the stunningly wide moral range of human impulses, and some of them dark if not also bloody – means that you have to learn to say No to some of those impulses, and in the beginning that some older human with the authority to do so says No to you.
Otherwise, you wind up reaching the age of legal majority unable to say No to yourself in a lot of instances where you really should – for your own as well as everybody else’s good . And when THAT happens, then the government police-power has to step in and be a ‘parent’ – perhaps a Nanny – to you, and then you wind up with an unripe and immature Citizenry in need of a Parent – which is hell and gone from the Constitutional and Founding vision. Although perhaps that is now becoming clear to Us.
Unless you are a financier and are making bets with other folks’ money and getting paid a sinfully huge salary to do so … but again, let me not digress.
Perhaps understandably, but also stunningly, her core assumptions were shaped by … the Holocaust.
This might not be as ground-breaking as it seems. In her seminal feminist tract of 1963, Betty Friedan had compared being a ‘housewife’ to being imprisoned at Dachau – a repugnantly ignorant (and insensitive as well as un-informed) piece of agitprop trumpeting that never received the opprobrium it so richly deserved.
Miller, speaking now on the basis of expertise comprised of the fact that she had been alive during the era and read some stuff, asserted in the accents of seasoned scholarship that “I have not been able to find a single [death-camp official at any level] who did not have a strict and rigid upbringing”.
The ‘logic’ of that assertion thus being that if you had a strict and rigid upbringing then you were automatically prepped to be an official of the death-camp regime.
Which is a chunk of Swiss cheese from hell, rationally and logically speaking. Thus that the death-camp regime – if not also the Holocaust itself (she wasn’t really interested in pursuing the thought) was the result of a strict familial upbringing. And therefore (if you want to keep up the polite pretense of her logicality) that strict familial upbringing guaranteed more Holocausts, as well as kept millions of children in the status of death-camp inmates. Indeed, Hitler himself had grown up in a 19th century, semi-rural Austrian family of strict up-bringing.**
It shouldn’t have taken a college student with more than an Intro course in Critical Thinking to see through the gaping holes in the whole thing.
But it was a revolution and anybody who struck the rightand Correct ‘note’ was bound to be welcomed aboard and – as the media like to say – ‘hailed’.
Both Hitler and Rudolf Hoess (SS commandant of Auschwitz) had been “trained to be obedient so successfully and at such an early age that the training never lost its effectiveness”. So then: simply learning “obedience” was going to lead to Hitler and the death-camps (and the morally frakkulent adults such as the SS camp command staffs). You can see where Miller was offering nothing less than authoritative catnip to the cadres.
That the West – and surely the Church – had always taught that ‘loyalty’ and ‘obedience’ are only as good as the Cause to which you give your loyalty and obedience … this did not detain Miller or the cadres. Indeed, such facts would ‘obstruct’ the Right Order of the Revolution and were therefore un-Correct. And was even “backlash” (although how a teaching that pre-existed the revolutionary agenda by millennia could be labeled as nothing more than a “backlash” response … well, go figure).
And so training kids to be “obedient” was erased, and the parental authority necessary to achieve that along with it. Marvelous.
"The Holocaust would have been impossible without this sort of upbringing”, she said. Of course, the Holocaust wouldalso not have been possible if those future-death-camp staffers were not fed as children, so perhaps feeding kids is complicit in the Holocaust as well. But that would have been, in the 1980s in America, thinking too much. Perhaps it still is.
But not to mire herself in the past, she also asserted that “60% of German terrorists in recent years have been the children of Protestant ministers”. So ‘religion’ as well as "obedience" are also causes of the Holocaust and of ‘terrorism’ [as it was defined in the 1970s and early 1980s in Europe]. The catnip is being mixed with industrial-grade alcohol and the cadres can party-hearty with a revolutionary abandon! Wheeeee!
So, as Hunter notes, in Miller’s view and in her phrasing, “the traditional middle-class family can be characterized as ‘the prototype of a totalitarian regime’”. You can see where a liberty-loving, red-blooded American Beltway literally leaped to the empowering assistance of ‘governance feminism’ in the late 1980s and the 1990s (especially once Bill and Hilary presided sensitively and responsively in the White House). It wasn’t for the votes, dear Citizens; it was for liberty and to prevent another Holocaust. ***
Good frakking grief.
Miller channeled Freud: the trouble was with ‘pedagogy’ – with child-rearing by authoritative adults itself. There is, she said, a power-struggle between children and adults, and given their powerlessness, the kids would always lose. This tied right in with Identity Politics and its demand that the previously ‘silenced’ be given a voice, while simultaneously undermining Family and any pesky concepts of Maturity. It was all political; the personal was political; the personal – I would add – was ONLY political.
That was the Flattening and lethal substrate of the whole revolution: it was anti-Family, anti-Constitutional, and – not to put too fine a point on it – crushingly anti-human. In 1984 We were heading toward “1984”, and not simply from the Right.
As with so many of these whackulous ideas of those days, they were denied a deserved spot in the corner of scholarly thought reserved for ideological and academic eccentricities because they were taken up by the media. And in this case the ‘elite’ media: PBS ran a documentary miniseries hosted by one John Bradshaw entitled “The Family”. Its core question: How could Hitler happen?
And you know what the answer was.
The rules of ‘obedience’ and ‘submission’ to authority held sway, intoned Bradshaw, in “96 percent of American families” (appreciate here that ‘scientific’ statistical evidence) and so it wasn’t just a “German” problem. Any times parents exerted authority, they were yielding to being “authoritarian” ... and brewing another Holocaust.
All I will say here is that the children of those mid-1980s are now walking around as fully-accredited adults. And, by status if not competence, as Citizens.
Hunter notes – and not at all irrelevantly – that Bradshaw and others went on to set up a brisk cottage-industry in Self-Help and 12-Step type stuff for parents and for former children who now had to re-parent and self-parent themselves.
And that’s where We are now, isn’t it?
*For an extended discussion of Miller and the era, see James Davison Hunter’s “The Death of Character” at pages 95-7, though the whole book is worth a read. Perhaps if you still have a job and it gives a paid vacation and you can afford to go to a beach and lie around for a week or two this summer. And can afford the book in the first place (my copy is a $17 paperback).
**I can’t resist: if strict family upbringing results in ‘Hitler’, and such an outrageous method of child-rearing is almost universal in Western culture and has been for some centuries, then shouldn’t we ‘logically’ have had innumerable Hitlers rather than just the one? Of course, the quick Correct response is that the West is indeed bethumped by many Hitlers, and they are called ‘men’ – after which the congregation may cheeribly retire to the buffet table for Chardonnay and salad. Ah, those were the days, my friend!
***I won’t go into it here, but kindly note the deployment of ‘the Holocaust card’ in all of this; that trope had migrated from foreign affairs and – doubtless because its success there made such an impression upon them – been taken up by the cadres of revolution in Our domestic politics. Oy.