The Politics of Fatherhood
by Stephen Baskerville
As a society we are always in danger of forgetting what we have learned, and I think it is the appropriate role of this University, with its role in the history of civil rights, to remind us. For it is the responsibility of scholars, perhaps more than others, to point out and criticize the abuse of power. "The neutral scholar is an ignoble man," wrote Frederick Douglass. "The future public opinion of the landmust redound to the honor of the scholarsor cover them with shame."
What we are now seeing, to paraphrase Douglass, is the authoritarian power of the courts advancing, "poisoning, corrupting, and perverting the institutions of the country." In fact, what we are witnessing today may be the most massive institutionalized witch hunt in this country's history.
Never before have we seen, on such scale, mass incarcerations without trial, without charge, and without counsel while the media and civil libertarians look the other way.
Never before have we seen the spectacle of the highest officials in our land including the President of the United States, the Attorney General and major cabinet secretaries, and leading members of Congress from both parties using their office as a platform to publicly vilify private citizens who have been convicted of nothing and who have no opportunity to reply.
Never before have we seen government officials walk so freely into the homes of private citizens who are accused of nothing and help themselves to whatever they want, including their children, their life savings, their private papers and effects, and eventually their persons.
Not since the days of Communist Eastern Europe and Nazi Germany have we seen the regular use of children as informers against their parents.
Never before have we seen the stealing of children systematized to a bureaucratic routine. To find the forced separation of children from their parents on such a scale we must go back before the days of Communism and Nazism. Though both these regimes routinely took children from their parents, they did so on a scale that was miniscule compared to what is now practiced in the United States. Indeed, we must return to the days of American slavery to find a time when state power was used to forcibly break up families on a scale comparable to what is taking place today.
It is not lightly that I invoke the slave system. It is to illustrate our experience that any system of domestic dictatorship no matter how apparently "private" and apolitical poses a serious threat to a democratic society. Nowhere is this more destructively seen than in the impact on our children themselves.
Politically, the decisive argument against slavery was not so much its physical cruelty as the corruption it wrought in the political system and in the minds and souls of what should have been free citizens. It fostered tyranny in the slaveholder, servility in the slave, and moral degradation in both. Such habits of mind were said to be incompatible with the kind of republican virtue required for a free society.
The abolitionist Charles Sumner warned of the impact on the development of white children growing up in slave societies. "Their hearts, while yet tender with childhood, are necessarily hardened by this conduct, and their subsequent lives bear enduring testimony to this legalized uncharitableness," he wrote. "Their characters are debased, and they become less fit for the magnanimous duties of a good citizen."
Something similar is at work with the children who are now growing up under a state that forcibly destroys their families and their fathers. No people can remain free who harbor within themselves a system of dictatorship or raise their children according to its principles.
This too is "the politics of fatherhood."
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Paper presented at the plenary session of the conference on "The Politics of
Howard University, Washington, DC, March 23, 1999.
Copyright © 1999 Stephen Baskerville. All rights reserved.
Stephen Baskerville teaches political science at Howard University.
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