Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Root of Dictatorship

In Montessori, Dewey, and Capitalism (p. 117), I gingerly suggested that the root of dictatorship is the parent/child relationship. The simple reasoning was that if one thinks it is right to coerce children, then it must also be right to coerce adults. (Restraining children who are about to harm others or themselves is not counted here as coercion.)

It seems, however, that my comment was too tame and needlessly cautious. At least that is my conclusion after reading works by Alice Miller, Lloyd deMause, and Bruce Perry.

Miller, a Swiss psychologist (and former psychoanalyst), provides the strongest link in her book For Your Own Good,* in which she quotes the untranslated German text Schwarze Pädagogik, a collection of extensive excerpts from child-rearing and educational guidebooks of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Germany. “Black pedagogy” is the literal translation of this work, but Miller refers to it as “poisonous pedagogy.”

The upshot of advice from this period is to break the child’s will, to beat the wickedness—which usually means the budding assertiveness and independence—out of the child, and to command strict, unquestioned obedience to authority (of the parent, teacher, and other adults). In the course of enduring this brutality, shame, and humiliation, children are expected to thank their tormentors for the “discipline” and in some cases to kiss the hand that has just viciously beaten them. It is, after all, for their own good. (Even without these demands, Miller points out, abused children defend and cling to their abusive caregivers, because the small amount of caregiving they have received is all they know.)

Hitler and all the leaders of the Third Reich, says Miller, suffered this “pedagogy” and proudly passed it on to their children and subjects. Hitler often bragged of not flinching when his father repeatedly beat him. In For Your Own Good and elsewhere Miller cites D. G. M. Schreber, whose nineteenth-century book on child-rearing went through some 40 editions and preached self-renunciation and self-denial. When his nanny fed his child before herself, Schreber fired the nanny, thus sending a message to all of Germany that the goal of child-rearing is to harden children and rid them of alleged weakness. They must learn to sacrifice from the first day of infancy on, said Schreber. With this kind of upbringing, asks Miller, is it any wonder that the German people became attached to Hitler as a father-substitute and were only too glad to obey his commands?

Lloyd deMause, psychoanalyst and founder of the Journal of Psychohistory, traces the bleak history of childhood, concluding that it “is a nightmare from which we have only recently begun to awaken” (1, p. 1; see also 2). While his psychoanalytical jargon can become a bit much, his historical facts are shockingly accurate and well documented, for example, the extensive infanticide, usually of baby girls, practiced in ancient Greece and Rome and the legal right of Roman fathers to kill their children.§ Brutalization, terrorization, and sexual abuse were common throughout history, gradually improving over the centuries such that the descriptions in the above paragraphs are actually an advance over the past!

Although traumatic childhoods per se do not trump free will and deterministically turn children into dictators or sacrificial lambs, those experiences certainly make recovery difficult, and it would require an unusual child to break free of the circumstances. Bruce Perry, neurobiologist and psychiatrist, specializes in childhood trauma and neglect. He acknowledges (without endorsing free will or volition outright) that children do make hundreds, perhaps thousands, of decisions while growing up (The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog, pp. 119-20). It is those decisions, not genes or environment, that ultimately determine whether one neglected child (such as an infant left home alone every day for hours in a dark room) becomes a psychopathic killer and another an emotionless, socially awkward adolescent.

To be sure, Perry insists, early discovery and non-drug, empathetic psychotherapy are the remedies to such disturbances. Trauma of any kind—and this includes spanking by hand—overloads the brain’s stress response systems, causing a loss of felt control and competence by the victim. That is, the trauma prevents or erodes the development of self-esteem and independence. It does not have to be physical force. Trauma can be emotional abuse brought about by raging insults, name-calling, and belittling, or the lack of nurturing warmth, hugs, and empathetic understanding. Neglect, Perry points out, is not the prerogative of the poor and uneducated. There are also many uncared for infants, children, and adolescents among the educated well-to-do.

For as far back as we can go in history, children—at least those that have been allowed to live—have been beaten by their caregivers, abused, manipulated, and commanded to obey authority. Obedience and independence are opposites. A parent/child relationship that commands obedience from the child is one that prepares the way for dictatorship. A free society thrives on independence; it requires a healthy disrespect of authority, which is acquired through nurturing, warm, and affectionate caregiving. Coercion of any kind, physical or emotional, in the parent/child relationship must be eliminated.




*Alice Miller is well known for her first book The Drama of the Gifted Child, also published under the more correct title Prisoners of Childhood. Its thesis is that childhood experiences, many of which are traumatic, influence our adult behavior, trapping us in the futile pursuit of infantile needs that were not satisfied by our parents.


“The only vice deserving of blows is obstinacy. . . . Your son is trying to usurp your authority, and you are justified in answering force with force in order to insure his respect, without which you will be unable to train him. The blows you administer should not be merely playful ones but should convince him that you are his master. . . . this will rob him of his courage to rebel . . .” J. G. Krüger, 1752, quoted in Miller, pp. 14-15.


The Political Consequences of Child Abuse,” Journal of Psychohistory, 26:2, Fall 1998.


§Carl A. Mounteer, “Roman Childhood, 200 B.C. to A.D. 600,” Journal of Psychohistory, 14:3, Winter 1987.


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