It is often hard to give my ten-year-old daughter, Cleo, the information she is asking for without upsetting her. Her curiosity is not prurient, and she generally doesn't want to hear about the most violent and degrading aspects of things.
I do my best to shield her from the worst knowledge, but I don't have ultimate control over this. She already knows enough to be able to intuit greater detail into media coverage. It is hard to maintain a balance between helping her to understand a very complex, intertwined set of issues, and being the agent of destruction of her sense of confidence in the world.
At times - and with all of the passion and force that a ten year old can muster - Clio has even wished that she hadn't been born at all, if this is the way things really are in the world.
Her own solutions have alternated between the hopeful (wanting to work on behalf of endangered species) and despair (thinking that it would be best for all concerned if we simply eliminated the whole stupid human race from the planet and left the other species to their own devices in peace).
In the weeks leading up to the Quebec City summit, Clio became increasingly fearful of what might happen there, particularly to me. Every day the media increased its coverage of the security preparations: the building of the fence, the numbers of security forces, the expectations of tear gas and flying plastic bullets.
Every time I came home from a meeting or got off e-mail, I had more nasty information. Clio didn't want me to go - not because she thought I'd do something foolish, but because she didn't trust the security forces to behave themselves.
I had to explain to her why I would put myself into such an apparently dangerous situation. We had many conversations over the past several weeks: we talked about the FTAA and the profit motive; about McDonalds Happy Meals and the environment; about how free trade has worked in practice, child labour and the working and living conditions in the Mexican maquiladoras and other free trade zones.
We also talked about the connections between these global issues and what we have been experiencing on the local level, particularly through an example she knows first hand: the disarray of the Ontario public-education system.
Like any sane person, Clio responded to all of this with anger and bewilderment: "it's all so stupid!"
Clio came to understand that there is an incontrovertible connection between the local and the global, and that to spend $70-odd-million on security just to prevent people who think differently from participating in the discussion is simply immoral. She gave me her blessing and agreed that I had to go. But that didn't mean that she liked it any better, and she reserved the right to be afraid.
A few days before I went to Quebec, Clio awoke from a nightmare. She dreamed that she looked out of her bedroom window and saw a mob of white people rampaging through our backyards. They were throwing a black baby around, tearing it to pieces. When the crowd had dispersed, Clio, myself and other family members went outside to get the frozen, disembowelled baby, who was still alive. We wrapped it in a blanket, collected its organs and brought it into the house. Clio woke up just as my mother was putting the baby back together.
Those of us who were there know what happened in Quebec City. For those at home, it was a different experience. Clio stayed behind with her grandfather, glued to the live coverage on TV. When I called on Friday evening, she wisecracked about the tear gas canisters that were being thrown back at the cops. I got the impression that she was both elated and horrified. When I got home, she clung to me as though she would never let go. Now that it is over, my daughter is proud of me, I think.
She knows that we each did the right thing: me, in going, and her, in letting me. But she also knows that there is more to come.
The other night, Clio was in the bath and I was reading some article or other about - what else - the ideological basis for free market economics, which has always struck me as pseudo-science. I was hit, all of a sudden, with a powerful nostalgic sense of how betrayed I had felt when I was ten, and I began to grasp the enormity of the universe and the terrifying smallness of me. At the same time came a dawning awareness of the misery of most of the human race, of which I appeared to be only the smallest blip.
The Vietnam War was on, as were the wars in Biafra and Bangladesh, the Portuguese African colonies, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia. Perhaps what affected me the most were the ubiquitous images of kids my own age, napalmed or pot-bellied from malnourishment.
I could see that the world was a horrific mess, but couldn't make sense of it. I resolved to become a nun so that I could devote myself to helping heal these wounds. To the consternation of my atheist mother, I started to go to church. But she indulged me, and gave me an ebony crucifix to wear around my neck.
By the time I was fourteen, I had long stopped going to church, but I had become active in solidarity work for African liberation struggles and the United Farmworkers.Variations of this dawning of awareness must be a common experience of growing up. Some of us respond to it by shutting it out and relegating it to our subconscious. Others, like Clio, I hope, think it is all stupidly unnecessary, and respond with the determination not to participate in the perpetuation of misery and destruction if they can possibly avoid it.
Some of what Clio and I have been dealing with must also be a common experience of parenting. We all have to find some way to account to our children for the way things are. Children hold us personally accountable, at least to some extent.
At Clio's age, most kids are still growing out of the sense of their parents as omnipotent and infallible beings. Often they are torn between being critical and adoring of their parents. We are often their most intimate models, after all. I think that kids do want to be able to believe in us and trust that we will do the right thing, however big or small the issue at hand.
The other night, I went into the bathroom, sat down on the toilet lid, and talked to Clio while she took her bath. I told her about when I wanted to be a nun. I asked her if she felt betrayed, as I did.
Clio said that she felt as though all of her security had been destroyed, pulled out from under her. She also said that, now she understands how vulnerable I am to all of the violence the government can muster, she no longer feels that my protection is all she needs in the world. Her disappointment in humanity is profound. And it is only a little allayed by the knowledge that, as long as there is breath in the species, there will always be those who fight back and envision a better reality.
Throughout all this, I have been consistently impressed by the humanity and intelligence of Clio's responses, and the ways in which she is actively struggling to make sense of everything. Most of all, I have been impressed by her growing ability to live with the ambivalence and complexity that all of these issue give rise to. She also talks about it with her friends, her teachers and her extended family. I occasionally find myself wishing that I had had someone like her in my own life when I was her age to help me sort it all out.
These are vital conversations.
I remember my mother, always an activist, always angry and a fighter, apologizing to me once for the mistakes her own generation made in buying into the nuclear arms race. I often feel apologetic towards this new generation of kids. But I feel that this is not a fruitful response. Knowledge and consciousness can seem like a curse because of the sadness, frustration, anger and sheer helplessness it often entails.
There is power, though, in both the anger and the consciousness. It's good to unravel the mysteries of human nature and our collective history as a species together, and to help the young to have a sense of their own agency.
As Clio said the other night, "the world is going to keep getting worse and worse, and better and better."
Bronwen Cunningham is active in Rebuilding the Left (Toronto), teaches cultural history at the Ontario College of Art and Design (where I am also a dean of Liberal Studies), and is also the coordinator of Initiatives in Cultural Democracy (Laidlaw Foundation).
For more rabble news coverage of the Quebec Summit and its aftermath, please click here.
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