After reading the April 23 cover story of The Independent Weekly, the Triangle’s left-wing alternative newspaper, I am convinced that there are few things funnier than watching leftist parents agonize between their standards for everyone else and those for their own children. Consider:
• Rosie O’Donnell trying to reconcile her virulent antigun stance with having armed bodyguards for her kids.
• Lennard Davis, a professor of gender theory, recoiling in shock when his son greeted him with “I’m transgendered!”
• The Nation writer Kathy Pollitt’s compromise with her 13-year-old daughter mere days after the Sept. 11 attacks: “My daughter, who goes to Stuyvesant High School only blocks from the World Trade Center, thinks we should fly an American flag out our window. Definitely not, I say: The flag stands for jingoism and vengeance and war. She tells me I’m wrong — the flag means standing together and honoring the dead and saying no to terrorism. … I tell her she can buy a flag with her own money and fly it out her bedroom window, because that’s hers, but the living room is off-limits.”
At issue here is that thorniest of problems for leftist parents: toy soldiers. The Independent story’s author, Barbara Solow, has a little boy, almost six, whose “favorite plaything” is his GI Joe action figure.
The article’s genesis, the author explains in This-Is-Really-Serious Italics, is her return home Feb. 15, 2003, from a “big anti-war protest” in Raleigh that had her “feeling pumped up.” Then she saw her son (with emphasis added):
Sam, my almost-6-year-old, greets me eagerly at the front door. He’s dressed in full combat regalia — green-and-black splotched camouflage shirt, jacket, pants and army helmet. Clutched in one fist is his GI Joe action figure, which has lately become his favorite plaything. … I want to grip the furniture as I’m hit by a wave of psycho-spiritual vertigo. Worlds are colliding in my living room: the looming war with Iraq and my blond, blue-eyed boy playing soldier.
Mercy — “psycho-spiritual vertigo?” That sounds like an absolutely awful affliction, provided of course it’s not a Hitchcock festival. Heavens, what to do?
I take a breath, look into Sam’s smiling face and get a real grip. “GI Joe’s just a toy and he’s just a kid,” I tell myself, as I give them both a hug. He’s innocent.
This “real grip” lasts but a carriage return. “Or is he?” Solow writes next, and then goes off into fretting about ubiquitous aggression, teachable moments, child psychologies, and the like. Along the way she finds things in toy departments that set off her “outrage meter,” such as an Easter basket at a Wal-Mart that contains a green, plastic army soldier.
By far the biggest offender was “a new line of military action figures called ‘World Peacekeepers.'” As Solow notes with mounting revulsion, they “aren’t carrying a blue flag of the United Nations. They look just like” — and here she employs Hope-You’re-Sitting-Down-For-This Ellipses — “the U.S. troops we’re watching on TV.” (The article includes a photograph of a box of toy soldiers labeled “Army Heroes: Force Peace Keepers.” The top righthand corner of the box carries a cautionary label: “Warning: Choking Hazard.” Even upon viewing the box!)
To survive that affront Solow convened a focus group. I’m not kidding.
After another offensive toy-buying excursion (recounted in italics, natch), Solow describes an ambush:
From the back seat, Sam surprises me with one of his laser-beam questions. “Mom, are you cheering for America, Iraq or both?”
Here’s her reaction, and his response (emphasis added):
His antennae have definitely picked up the signals — he knows we’re not enthusiastic about this war. We’ve also talked about the fact that America hasn’t won every war it’s ever fought. Still, it takes me a long moment to answer back.
“Both,” I say, and mark the silence that ensues. This is a hard concept for him to accept. And it’s one his new toy can’t help him with. Finally, he comes to a decision. “I’m cheering for America,” he says, bouncing the soldier on his lap.
One can just imagine a woodcut of this car scene being used to illustrate the expression “a pregnant pause.” And oh the bittersweet stab of the little one’s budding independence! How to deal with that? Here’s how Solow dealt with it:
I’m not out to squelch any of Sam’s natural interests, or cast adult shadows on his current view of war as a contest for which you choose sides and “cheer.” Still, I can’t help feeling uneasy about his growing military collection.
It’s time to talk to some experts.
At this stage we are all reminded of one advantage of print over televised media: the ability to take a break from a story and return without missing anything, so that at any time one may stop reading to laugh fully and deeply. To guffaw, as it were. My boy cheers for America — doc, ya gotta help him! How ’bout Ritalin? I want a second opinion! What do you mean you’d rather schedule an appointment for me?
The experts give Solow mixed messages. The first one, John Fairbank, associate professor of medical psychology at Duke University Medical Center and co-director of the National Center for Child Traumatic Stress, gives her the bad news: “it’s developmentally appropriate for a 6-year-old boy to run around as GI Joe.” Nevertheless, in a bedside manner befitting one skilled in medical psychology, he offers a little affirmation, too: “it’s ‘challenging’ dealing with the way toys are sold through commercial media.”
Another expert sees GI Joe as a potential gender-role buster, since (you can see this coming, can’t you?) with him “it’s a way for boys to play with dolls.”
Others point past the toys themselves to finger the real culprit: American society. Lefties nationwide slap their foreheads — of course!
A focus-group pal notes post hoc that “[t]he pilots who are in Iraq now were raised with video [games].” (They were also raised under eight years of Clinton, too, hot shot. Correlative causation is fun!)
In all, Solow expends well over 4,000 words and consults several different experts as she struggles with the issue of toy soldiers. Finally, in another italicized section dated April 9, 2003, Solow informs us that,
I’m feeling pumped up, but in a different way than I did after the anti-war rally. I finally have some clarity about what it is I dislike about our expanding arsenal of war toys (including the ones that don’t look like war toys) — and what I want to do about it.
Small world — I was pumped up on April 9, too! I think — no, I’m sure of it — it has everything to do with watching statues toppling all over Baghdad, Iraqis cheering in the streets and giving flowers and kisses to folks dressed in “full combat regalia,” and other mundane events. Striking how it took real soldiers — pilots and GIs “raised on video” — less time to topple the truly violent regime of Saddam Hussein than it took our author to achieve “some clarity” about her problems with toy soldiers.
And what was that clarity?
This can’t just be about buying the “right” toy or encouraging the “right” play (as if we know what that is). It has to be about making kids aware of how violence works in our lives — how we reward it, as well as fear it, and who are its most frequent victims. We have to cop to our own fascination with power and control, and we have to find ways, without scaring them too much, of showing the toll violence takes–including on those who perpetrate it.
(Still, I hope she turned the TV on that day. Talk about a teachable moment!)
Solow decides to let Sam keep his GI Joe — “but we might want to have a talk about those ‘World Peacekeepers.'” (By “we” of course she means herself; however, perhaps with toothpicks, glue, and blue construction paper, she and the boy could make those soldiers some UN flags.)
Her clarity, in sum:
For now, he can cheer for America all he wants. As long as he eventually learns not to treat war and violence like child’s play.
For now? Advantage to print media again.
Jon Sanders, a policy analyst at the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, is a former child who shot toy guns, played video games, and even watched such hardcore fare as “The Three Stooges” and those deliciously violent Roadrunner cartoons. His three-year-old daughter currently likes playing with toy dinosaurs. Look for his forthcoming article, “I Fear My Daughter Will Learn to Bite Herbivores and Play in Tar Pits,” in the June 31 issue of Gullible’s Travails.