Wednesday, 25 November 2009

The Return of the Atheist Bus Campaign

"Please don't label me," begs the Benetton child on the billboard poster that marks the latest phase of the notorious, and increasingly inacurrately named, Atheist Bus Campaign, "Let me grow up and choose for myself." The target this time is not buses but faith schools, those Orwellian mind re-processing plants for the nation's youth, responsible for deluding our children into praying before false idols, robbing them off that most fundamental of consumer rights: choice. If last year's buses promised us the freedom to "enjoy" our lives, today's billboards, much like the defenders of private health care and private education, asseverate "choice" as their mantra and raison d'etre.

Religion here - and not just religion - is just one more case of brand loyalty amongst formally free consumers. We thence must damn faith schools in much the same way as we would advertisements in children's television scheduling - as premature, unfit for impressionable young minds, who, at any rate, lack the proper purchasing power for such commitment. And so the poster reminds us, in the silhouetted list that forms its backdrop, of the many and varied goods on the doctrinal market place: "Libertarian child, Buddhist child, Agnostic child, Scientologist child, Humanist child, Catholic child, Anarchist child, Zoroastrian child, Atheist child, Muslim Child, Capitalist child, Socialist child, Sikh child, Marxist child, Mormon child, Protestant child ... " All beliefs are apparently equal and free to choose amongst, like a sort of Argos catalogue for our most personal convictions. Nobody, claims Richard Dawkins, would think of labelling their child a Marxist child or a post-modernist child, after all.

The chief problem with the new posters is their implict assumption that some kind of neutral and ideology-free upbringing is both possible and desirable. That we might be able to raise our children without importing to them any values whatsoever (or at least, any values sufficiently coherent to add up to some sort of system or grand recits), so that they might then choose for themselves upon reaching an age of sufficient responsibility - say 17 or 18, around the same time as their first credit card, one presumes - seems as fanciful as it is naive. There are of course rare examples of children who appear to have grown up outside the human symbolic network - poor Kaspar Hauser, out in the woods, and little Isabelle Queresma, raised by chickens - but it would be a rare parent indeed who would hold them up as the very paragons of a healthy upbringing.

In the end, there is really no such equality amongst the various 'options' on offer in the background of this poster. One sort of 'child' is not quite equal to all the others. For to raise one's child ("unideologically") in a capitalist society is always already to raise a 'Capitalist child'. Its values will be those of capitalist society, up to and including the belief that one can shop for religions just as one might pick and choose amongst washing machines. Indeed, perhaps the only defence against this auto-engendering of the capitalist child is precisely to explicitly label and raise your son or daughter as a 'Marxist child' or - why not? - a 'Protestant child', 'Muslim child' or 'Catholic child'. With the the almost wholesale collapse of any sort of Left opposition in Western societies, religion has become practically the only bulwark, the only mainstream voice of opposition, against the excesses of capital, from the trademarking of the human genome to the rapidly escalating gap between rich and poor. So, "label me" cries my inner child, "and label me clearly," for there is no label so indelible as that which claims it is none.