I posted a video on Facebook of Anthony Sanchez, a 34-year-old California man, using a belt on his stepson in a senseless display of rage. The two were playing catch. The boy didn’t perform up to standards, so the father laid the leather to him. It was ugly. But was it a crime?
California prosecutors apparently think so.
If it is a crime, then how many of our parents are criminals? On my Facebook page, I posted a glib note to my mother advising her to plead the Fifth Amendment if anyone asked her about how I was a child. I got more than a few lickings, and I am not sure all of them were deserved.
This posting did not sit well with some folks close to me. "This is not who you are at all," one said. "You would never tolerate the treatment of a stepson in such a manner."
That’s true. I would not. Neither would I tolerate the treatment of any child in such a manner. It violates my sense of decency to use that kind of force on a child. There’s something twisted about it; it seems less a form of discipline than a gratuitous lack of self-control on the parent’s part.
But that does not mean that corporal punishment of this sort is a crime. Do we need to involve the state in every dispute in which the dark side of human nature is exposed and rubbed raw? Is the state, or, more to the point, those employed by the state, any better suited to smoothing over the rough places in life?
In truth, I fear the therapeutic state more than I fear isolated acts of violence and cruelty.
The future is foreseeable for the California man and his family. He has been charged with some form of assault, or child endangerment. He will now be presented to court as an accused criminal. He will be diverted to a program run and operated by social workers. He might be assigned an anger management program, or perhaps a program to deal with others stressors in his life. These social workers will then determine whether he successfully completes the program. If he does, his criminal charges might be dropped. If the social workers say he failed the program, he might be prosecuted to the fullest, and perhaps sent to jail. After serving his time, he’ll be placed on probation and then subjected to another set of programs supervised by social workers. Child welfare workers will demand that the family accept services. Set another place at the table in the Sanchez home; the state is moving in.
Here’s the bottom line: I don’t trust social workers with my liberty. I don’t want the decision of whether I remain free in the hands of some young man or woman with a bachelor’s degree and a head full of secondhand knowledge about human nature and social engineering. I’ve seen far too many probationers pushed around and even bullied by officious and well-meaning twenty-somethings armed with the moral certainty and fury of those possessed with dogma unsalted by experience.
Experience teaches that life remains a mystery and mastery of our instincts, passions and desires remains a grand fiction. Give the state a vision of how human nature works, and it soon asserts the power to, as Jean Jacques Rousseau put it long ago, "force us to be free." No thank you.
During the past twenty years we’ve come to experiment in the criminal justice ever more with various visions of the therapeutic state. If we could just compel people to see themselves as we think they really are, why we’d all be happier. The new centurions in this state are social workers. We give to these well-meaning by horribly ill-equipped tyros the keys to our prisons. Tap dance to your social worker’s tune or land in a cell. Forgive me if I don’t sign on to this dumbed-down version of Plato’s Republic.
Corporal punishment of children strikes me as a uniquely bad idea. The video of the California man beating striking his stepson is disturbing. But I am not sure responding with prosecution makes sense. It sometimes seem that the national anthem is being replaced one person at a time with a twelve-step program. The grand therapists in our midst seem unable to rest until we are singing some version of trust and obey.
Do I think the man should have struck his stepson? No. But neither do I think that the act was a crime. And if it was a crime, I fear the prosecution of the crime more than the isolated act so vividly captured on film.