Joel Bakan argued in The Corporation that insufficiently regulated corporations can negatively impact society. He takes a similar bent in his latest, Childhood Under Siege, writing that our most vulnerable citizens—children—are harmed through violent video games, overprescribed psychotropic drugs, environmental pollution, child labor and indifferent school systems. All told, Bakan contends that these practices benefit large corporations and reflect society’s failure to protect children.
Here, we spoke to the author about the difficulties of instilling positive values in a world where “Whack Your Soul Mate” exists.
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The Corporation painted a broad and generally critical picture of how big businesses and corporations work today. Why did you focus on children in this one?
Both topics are related. I’m a legal scholar primarily. I became interested in the legal composition of the corporation because basically we’ve created an institution that’s programmed to always pursue its own self-interest. So what I tried to argue is how we can understand what is happening in the world as corporations gain more power and as governments retreat from regulating them.
So they threaten childhood itself?
Yes, I look at that issue in relation to childhood as an institution and the lives of children and the harms that children suffer as a result of the increasingly unbridled power of corporations, and how the whole notion of childhood is shifting and how the culture of childhood is shifting.
Do you have children?
I do, and that’s why it’s a much more personal book than The Corporation. Society constantly thinks about children and childhood from the perspective of individual parents, but what we are not doing is looking at how we as a society create conditions that either foster or undermine the values that we believe childhood is all about.
At its most basic this book is really a call to say we have to start thinking in broader political, cultural, social terms, not just in terms of what we do as individual parents, but about how we are creating conditions in which individual parents make choices.
One of those choices concerns the Internet. Were you surprised to discover sites like “Whack Your Soul Mate,” that makes a game of choosing how to brutally murder a spouse?
Yes, I was really quite appalled when my then 12-year-old son [knew about it and] said, “Hey yeah, you know, we’re all looking at addicting games.”
Sites like this must make it difficult for today’s parents to teach positive values.
Absolutely. I write about how things have changed and why they have changed. The “why” is very important because I do try to link the changes to broader political and economic shifts. And it’s not just the “how” and the “why,” but what do we do about it? I don’t look at just one sector; instead I look at the range of pressures on childhood, on children, that are coming from a hyperbusiness-oriented culture.
It’s shocking to read that legal drugs to modify children’s behavior or mood have increased fivefold since 1980. Some measures have been implemented to inform the public about these drugs. The book notes, for example, that in 2007, Congress required that clinical trials be registered at clinicaltrials.gov. Has that been helpful?
I think that there’s a real problem with this kind of halfway measure, that is, simply putting the results on a website, because if the doctor says your child should be on [a drug] because your child is depressed, and we head off to the registry we find that it’s not there because it only applies to drugs produced after 2007. We can’t really figure out what the heck is going on.
Then there’s the final problem that doctors themselves may not be reading [the website] because they mainly rely on the published literature in the medical journals. There’s no obligation for pharmaceutical companies to publish [results] that are negative so the bias is toward positive results.
There’s so much to think about. What can we do to help children?
One thing we can do is inform ourselves and vote. I don’t want to lead people to feel hopeless. I’m quite optimistic about our capacities to make good and healthy societies. The state of our world depends on our ability to find ourselves as citizens. The future of our world depends on our children. I believe the idealism of youth will prevail.