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  • Children, Ideology, and Iconography:How Babies Rule the World
  • Karen Dubinsky (bio)

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Nicaragua, "Nicaragua Must Survive," AMNLAE (Asociación de Mujeres Nicaragüenses Lisa Amanda Espinoza), undated (circa 1980). Source: Sam Slick Collection of Latin American and Iberian Posters, Center for Southwest Research, University Libraries, University of New Mexico.

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Children are generally not considered to be political citizens. Right-wing political commentator Glen Beck recently issued a telling remark on the matter, immediately after the 2011 massacre at the Labour Party youth summer camp in Norway. "It sounds a little like, you know, the Hitler Youth or whatever," he opined. "Who does a camp for kids that's all about politics? Disturbing." 1 Despite the multiple inaccuracies, not to mention mean-spiritedness, of Beck's musings, he voiced a conventional assumption: only "totalitarians" (such as Nazis or Communists) ignore the cordon sanitaire that separates children from political realities. However, while children rarely achieve political citizenship, the world's political posters provide an extensive visual argument that children are political subjects. Popular images of highly politicized children have been hiding in plain sight in the iconography of nation states, political parties, and social movements for many decades. "Disturbing?" People around the world, of all political persuasions, would seem to disagree.

The images, typical examples of which are represented here, are familiar.

Children are almost always depicted as defenseless, cowering from ideologies or bombs or poverty or forms of racialized violence, in need of a strong nation state, or revolution, or political party to protect them. The dangers facing the sleeping child in the British Conservative Party advertisement from 1931 (fig. 1) are unspecified, but her savior is clear. Similarly, in the 1984 poster from OSPAAL (Organización en Solidaridad con los Pueblos de Asia, Africa y América), the sad-eyed South African child has little but mute appeal to deliver him from the barbed wire of apartheid (fig. 2). In both of these cases, the vulnerability of children authorizes a particular form of subjectivity, which ought to be understood as political. The baby in the arms of the Sandinista militant in early 1980s Nicaragua (an iconic revolutionary mother, gun, and child combination repeated in the iconography of national liberation movements the world over) [End Page 7] plays the same role as the earnest young boy under the tutelage of the Lenin-like father figure in the Soviet Union (figs. 3 and 4). They represent the hope and pride of a marginalized class (sometimes racial) group, or a newly empowered revolutionary state or movement. In other contexts, such children might highlight the failure of the promise of prosperity for all. The common denominator is helplessness; they are as rich in symbolism as they are short on power. The real historical actor is the adult viewer.

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Figure 1.

Defenceless Childhood, The Conservative Party (1931), Courtesy of the Hulton Archive, Getty Images.

"Men act and women appear," wrote John Berger, famously, more than thirty years ago. 2 In political posters, children appear so that adults can act. One of the most natural, taken-for-granted social categories for several centuries has been the distinction between adult and child. I believe the imagery of children in political posters (generally designed by and for adults) can teach us a great deal about how these relations of power are maintained. Such children do not simply absorb, experience, or represent adult-initiated political issues. [End Page 8] They also sustain them. When we look across national borders and political ideologies, we can make important transnational comparisons and generalizations about how children sustain political movements, causes, and events. We can also start to see the global knowledge about "childhood" which this visual archive has helped to create.

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Figure 2.

Organización en Solidaridad con los Pueblos de Asia, África y América Latina, 1984. Source: Sam Slick Collection of Latin American and Iberian Posters, Center for Southwest Research, University Libraries, University of New Mexico.

These questions arose for me as I was researching adoption and child-migration controversies in Cuba, Guatemala, and Canada. 3...


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