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Obama's Challenge to America's Parents | The Nation

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Obama's Challenge to America's Parents

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Barack Obama got himself attacked by Jesse Jackson, who is supposed to be 150 percent in his corner. What ticked Jackson off was the Democratic presidential candidate telling an NAACP convention that "teaching our daughters to never allow images on television to tell them what they are worth; teaching our sons to treat women with respect, and to realize responsibility does not end at conception; that what makes them a man is not the ability to have a child but to raise one.... That's a message we need to send."

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Nicholas von Hoffman
Nicholas von Hoffman, a veteran newspaper, radio and TV reporter and columnist, is the author, most recently, of...

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Jackson mumbled something about Obama being a candidate for castration and remarked that, "Barack, he's talking down to black people." In the ensuing kerfuffle, reported by Associated Press, "Obama spokeswoman Linda Douglass denied the candidate was trying to boost support among white voters with his own 'Sister Souljah' moment. Addressing a black audience in 1992, Democrat presidential candidate Bill Clinton accused the hip-hop artist of inciting violence against whites.... [which] helped reinforce his image as a politician who refused to pander."

Obama's talk was similar to those that the actor Bill Cosby and others have been giving for years. Admirable as they are, they also reinforce the belief that irresponsible parenthood, family breakdown and educational failure is primarily a black/Latino phenomenon. Obama's intention was hardly to help fix the idea more firmly in the book of national truths which are not true. Nonetheless, a better Sister Souljah moment would have been delivering his speech to an all-white audience. They badly need to hear it.

Electoral politics being what they are, you cannot blame the first African-American candidate for not finding a white audience to scold about how they bring up their children. Actually, Obama has come close to it. In many of his speeches he has mentioned getting kids of all backgrounds off their cell phones, their iPods, IM, Grand Theft Auto IV, FaceBook and junk TV.

Doubtless Obama would raise these topics from the White House lectern, but with a collapsing economy, a war or two and a world in turmoil, family and child-rearing is not going to be a major theme of his time in office. Nevertheless, the fact that a President might address this subject is a step forward. Until now the only highly placed persons to take on the task have been the wives of the present and immediate past Vice Presidents, although Tipper Gore and Lynne Cheney have been ignored or howled down for their efforts. Tipper Gore was famously attacked as being pro-censorship and Lynne Cheney--well, she has just been attacked. Thus the national figures left to carry on have been such people as Cosby, who has directed his efforts toward the African-American world.

Other than Cheney and Gore, no white political leader has carried the message to the Caucasians who, judging from the ever-diminishing accomplishments of their offspring, are in as urgent need of getting the word as persons of color. When the topic is brought up, white people as well as members of other groups slough off their responsibilities by blaming the schools and the teachers.

Schools and the teachers have a lot to answer for, but no school system or method of instruction can accomplish much with students who have no intention of learning and whose lives are centered on the isolated, commercially created subculture of American childhood and youth.

If and when we get serious about raising a generation of literate, children, we will see that the area is a minefield. Hundreds of billions of dollars in sales would be threatened if growing up in America ceases to be all about getting stuff and having a good time.

The Xboxes and iPods will not be put away merely because a parent says so. Somebody has to make sure that the child does it. As of now there are not many people who want that job or are in a position to take it on.

Millions of parents can't. They are working, trying to put food on the table. As a nation we have shown we are not able to build an adequate child care system for children whose parents must work. The suggestion that mothers or fathers stay home touches off a firestorm, as does the corollary idea of family allowances or paid parenthood.

Flawed and flamboyant, Jesse Jackson wasn't the perfect candidate, but his idealism and progressive message led The Nation to endorse his bid for the White House.

It is to his credit that Obama has gone as far as he has in this minefield. Others will have to go farther. If a new dawn is to break, it cannot be left for him to be the only public figure to call America's parents to account. Wanted are legions of celebrities, public figures, politicians of both parties, gadflies and agitators to pound home the word that America is running out of generations of young to endow with an inheritance of helplessness and incompetence.

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