We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s won both “A Wall Street Journal Best Book of 2015” and “A Boston Globe Best Book of 2015”. I covered some of the contents of the book in a couple of previous postings. The subject of this posting is “Why did Americans want to believe that daycare centers doubled as satanic abuse temples?”
The author’s theory is that the root was social change with which Americans were not comfortable:
California became the first state to legalize no-fault divorce in 1969, and since then the social expectation that people get married and that marriage last until one spouse’s death has steadily declined [history]. As divorce rates increased, the fact of having been divorced became less of a social liability for women and even, in some cases, a mark of independence.
And as the presence of women in offices and other professional environments became less of a curiosity and more of an accepted fact of life, new possibilities for the organization of life back at home proliferated: single parents, second and third marriages, cohabitation, second and third marriages to people with children from previous marriages, same-sex marriages. Every stage of this diversification of private life has been accompanied by anxious predictions of moral decay, social breakdown, and sexual anarchy. Legislators have responded to and fueled these anxieties by passing laws designed to shore up the nuclear family’s crumbling walls. But the legislation has had no effect—the percentage of Americans who are married continues its steady decline.
“Marriage as a social institution (an economic partnership, a secure context for child-rearing) only works when it’s more or less compulsory,” Ellen Willis wrote in the late 1980s. By the time she made her observation, many people had decided that what they most wanted from marriage and the nuclear family, in spite of the difficulties involved, was to get out [the uniquely U.S.-style process].
The trouble since then has been to acknowledge this shift, to accommodate it, and to help people acclimate to its effects. This difficulty became especially acute in the 1980s, and it is worth considering that the psychoanalytic theory of repression, so maligned by Roland Summit, Jeffrey Masson, and the recovered memory therapists, provides a detailed description of what happens when people are unable to acknowledge what they already know and want. Repression is not so much an act of passive forgetting but of active mental avoidance, and it isn’t so much events or memories that are repressed but rather ideas and desires. We repress that which we do not want to think about. One of Freud’s most important intellectual leaps was the insight that repression occurs because of a particular desire’s “sharp contrast to the subject’s other wishes” and its incompatibility with “the ethical and aesthetic standards of [the subject’s] personality.” On a social scale, the idea of the nuclear family’s decline emerged with an alarming speed and force, and for many people it seemed to be alarmingly incompatible with the rest of society’s ethical and aesthetic standards—its culture, its rhetoric, its view of what made for a good life. The family’s decline was repressed almost from the very moment it began.
Recovered memory and the day care and ritual abuse hysteria drove the social repression of two ideas. First, the nuclear family was dying. Second, people mostly did not want to save it.
Readers: Is there anything similar going on today? What is it that most of us want but refuse to acknowledge that we want? And whom do we try to blame?
My suggestion: Inequality Hysteria. My rich friends on Facebook want their paychecks to be 10-100X what an average American earns. They want to keep as large a percentage of this paycheck to spend for themselves and their kids. They decry “inequality” but consume like crazy. For example, instead of keeping the old car for another few years and giving $100,000 to “the vulnerable” they buy a $100,000 Tesla. Instead of confronting the fact that they spend 5X what would be necessary to achieve a lifestyle they would have considered “comfortable” perhaps 10 years ago, they look for scapegoats to prosecute. Lo and behold, it turns out that there are millions of guilty Trump voters whose crimes include racism and sexism. Is the analogy too much of a stretch?