Saving Ourselves to Save Our Children

November 13, 2014
Russell Banks
Author Russell Banks delivered the Ingersoll Lecture on Nov. 5. / Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva

 "We have unknowingly sacrificed our children in order to feed Moloch," said author Russell Banks, describing Moloch—a Levantine god to whom children were sacrificed—as "god of capitalism."

Considered one of America's most important fiction writers, Banks put forth discomfiting truths of modern day consumerism before an audience at Harvard's Sanders Theatre on November 5 when he delivered Harvard Divinity School's annual Ingersoll Lecture on Immortality.

Banks prefaced his talk by stating: "I am a storyteller and an atheist. That does not mean I have no vision of immortality." He then took the audience through the story of consumerist targeting of young children in America and its significance if indeed we were to have an afterlife, or immortality.

Immortality, according to Banks, exists through one's children, and their children, and so on. He expanded on that vision by posing a question inspired by contemporary American philosopher Samuel Scheffler's work:  "What would life be like, i.e. present day human life, collectively and individually, if we knew 30 days after our death, no one, absolutely no one, would be alive?"

Quoting Scheffler, Banks argued that a world with no afterlife would be "characterized by widespread apathy and erosion of social institutions and social solidarity." Thus, Banks stated, the human race, in protecting its children, was creating an afterlife.

Bringing the focus back to the present, Banks turned his concerns to "lost children,"—a theme that runs through two of his works, The Rule of the Bone and The Sweet Hereafter, and the story of his own childhood. He described how he and his siblings were "emotionally abandoned" by both parents and grew up being "denied the sort of protection against the immoral and impersonal forces in our world that could harm if not annihilate us."

Banks explained that The Rule of the Bone and The Sweet Hereafter could be read as fables that told the tale of lost children of now and of the adults that were left behind. Both stories were meant to lead us to a "self-reflective awareness of the depersonalizing use of children."

Children, he stated, are the single largest segment of the consumer economy, and are worth over a trillion dollars to the gross national product—an example of modern-day "immoral" forces.

According to Banks, an average American child watches an estimated 25,000 to 40,000 television commercials per year. In 2010, around 15 billion dollars was spent by companies advertising strictly to children, and over 4 billion dollars in 2009 was spent by the fast food industry alone. In 2010, American teenagers spent 160 billion dollars per year on consumer goods, while children up to age 11 spent around 18 billion dollars a year.

In addition, he explained how a new category of consumers, infants and "tweens,"—children between 8 to 12—were being targeted by marketeers.

"Tweens heavily influenced more than 30 billion dollars and other spending by parents…Infants now had their own television network, with BabyFirstTV. com." Beyond this reach and numbers, advertisers had also "learned to sexualize sexless children to sell them sexy things."

"When a society transforms its children into consumers, making them want, want, want, in order to sell their parents not what the children need but what they have been made to want, it commodifies and monetizes the children. It objectifies them. It dehumanizes them," Banks explained.

If we want to save our children from Moloch, he said, "we must first save ourselves." Those who could help save ourselves were artists and storytellers, who could "show us how to be truly human, which is to have an afterlife."

This is because artists reveal to us who we truly are, in a nonjudgmental way, inspired by their love of humanity.

"The sole task of art has been to reveal to the tribe what it is to be a human: Not a thing, not livestock, not a commodity, not merely a consumer."   

In introducing Banks, David Carrasco, Harvard's Neil L. Rudenstine Professor of the Study of Latin America, said it was "significant" that Banks chose to travel north to south in his writings rather than along the east-west axis of history and culture.

"By making the north-south and south-north a key part of his world view, he not only opened himself to the stories and peoples of the Caribbean and Latin America, he uncovered alternative views of U.S. history, culture, and rich material for his next novel."

Among his large volume of work, Banks wrote the novel Continental Drift in 1985, which traced the drift of two families migrating in two opposite directions.

HDS Dean David N. Hempton traced the long line of renowned intellectuals who have presented the Ingersoll Lectures.

Commenting on the workshops series that was organized leading up to the Ingersoll Lecture, he said: "It's hard for me to capture in words the depth and quality of engagement with his writings on display this afternoon. Russell Banks himself stated that one of the sacred pleasures he has as a writer is the knowledge that somehow the story that he has created makes a deep contact with those who read, but likely he will never meet. Today, we read and met, which was an unusual pleasure."

—by Kalpana Jain