Tuesday, June 5, 2012

A bit of applied semiotics: what does nanny state mean? and how does it mean it?


The righties in the US have really gotten to like the term "nanny state," which I find interesting because it ends up meaning something very different in the US than it did in Britain where it originated, and I suspect that's because for the most part, nannies in the US are a coastal-affluent-trendy way of saying "day care sitter."

In the country that gave us the term "nanny state" (it first appears in print from a Tory commentator in 1965), a nanny was something highly specific: a full-time servant given charge over the employer's children. Her job was to enforce household policy regarding children, which meant that the children were to be some version of clean and presentable on short notice, delivered to specified locations on time, fed (according to the whims of the policy-making parents), and in general maintained as not-too-much-of a nuisance making satisfactory progress toward release into the larger world of school (itself a holding pen until they could be turned loose into the world).   By definition her job was to push children around and make them do things they did not enjoy, but by tradition she was also often the main source of affection and attention.

Nanny, as the fusion of that definition and that tradition, merged totalitarian authority ("but it's for your own good, dear!") with genuine affection and concern (if you read memoirs of Britons who were born into the nanny-equipped classes anywhere before 1960, there's a chapter that might as well be machine-generated about how our chubby little hero(ine) became aware that Nanny was their real source of love and support whereas Mummy was an indifferent and/or slatternly drunk and Father either a sadistic brute or an ineffectual closet case).  For the educated classes in Briton (which, until the last generation or so, was much, much smaller than it was in the US), the idea of being primarily raised by the parents was somewhat less appealing than the idea of being raised by wolves,*  and Nanny was very likely the only reason you were going to survive childhood. 

Her key characteristics were that she was officious, domineering, and deficient in explanations, but also had your best interests at heart and secretly liked you much more than she let on.  She was in charge of things and yet down the social ladder from you; right about most things most of the time and yet hadn't anything like your education or prospects.

Hence the nanny state: the idea of turning the voting population into a helpless (if resentful) object to be scolded, scrubbed, forced to eat its vegetables and go to bed on time, yet also loved and taken care of, by an overworked, underpaid, well-meaning but put-upon and not-too-brainy servant in the form of the Civil Service.

As a Tory nightmare of where the Labour version of the welfare state was going, it was strikingly apt in arousing fears: •fear of never getting away from Nanny and her rules, and thus never, ever being able to get drunk or wasted, have kinky sex, abuse less fortunate people, or shoot yourself when you felt like it. 
•fear that those unworthy working-class clowns who were currently forced to be raised under the brutal regime of Mum and Dad might get some of Nanny's love**
•fear that now that Nanny was a mighty and eternal bureaucracy, she might want to be paid, perhaps even so much that the family would have to dip into principal
•fear that with a whole nation to take care of, Nanny might not have time to make her little dears feel special anymore
•fear that everyone might just decide to stay home with dear old Nanny forever, and then who would be there to overrun the world and make them wear pants and fill out forms?

Now, that extended metaphor of Nanny fit beautifully with the Tory self-concept and approach to the world, as expressed in what they wanted to do with the already-running and popular welfare state: lay down the rule that Nanny was not to coddle the children too much, prohibit her competing for Mummy's affection or giving approval when Father intended to withhold it, and in short make sure that if the children had Nanny, they wouldn't like her too much, and would instead retain their proper, hopeless, miserably unrequited love for Mummy and Father.

But here in the US, you have to get pretty far up the social ladder to find a genuine nanny.  The extremely rich, in fact, generally import them from Britain or France; the merely rich have always spent more time with their own children than their British counterparts.  Much more commonly here, the "nannies" are actually people who come in to look after the kids while the mother is working some career (though at the upper end of the scale the "career" may be volunteering at a nonprofit, shopping obsessively, or practicing self-improvement).  As a matter of Anglophilic fashion, wealthy Americans call them "nannies,"*** but more accurately, most of them are daycare sitters.

The role of an American daycare sitter, even though she shares the title of nanny, is very different.  First of all, parents change out daycare sitters much more frequently, hire them for shorter periods of time, and generally treat them as straightforward wage labor. Secondly, they're on call, and paid, for specified hours. Thirdly, they're expected to do child maintenance and perhaps some housework; they're not typically the center of the kid's world, nor are they expected to live and breath the child's welfare.

Thus an American hearing "nanny state" probably catches the idea of "don't let him play in traffic" and "make sure she eats her broccoli," and certainly  "We know best and this is for your own good," but most of the complex overtones of frustrated and withheld love, trusted/hated authority, feeling safe v. feeling smothered, are not there.  A Briton who dreams of escaping the nanny state is dreaming of the greater independence and dignity of being a big boy or girl (however misleading that Conservative pitch may be in fact); an American who dreams of escaping the nanny state is dreaming of staying up till all hours watching movies he's not supposed to, having a whole quart of chocolate ice cream all to herself, shoving other children off the swings and not letting them have any turns at all EVAR, and maybe getting into the liquor or gun cabinet. 

This is why, I think, the expression "nanny state" has an underlying fury on this side of the Atlantic that it doesn't on the other.  Over there "the nanny state" is the state not letting one grow up into a fully realized person, which is something an adult may be properly annoyed and even infuriated about, but there's not much underlying guilt about feeling that way.  On this side, "the nanny state" is the no-fun, bored, doesn't-love-you wage-worker who is standing between you and all the fun things teenagers aren't allowed to get their mitts on—for excellent reasons.  There's a certain guilt and shame in resenting the person who is keeping you from going completely to the devil, and it expresses as a mindless, aggressive fury.

On either side of the Atlantic, I think there's a fairly simple solution: grownups don't need nannies, and where the welfare state resembles a nanny, it needs to be changed so that it doesn't.  As a socialist, let me propose something thoroughly bizarre: that we simply expect adult people to obey laws and not rip off more than they are entitled to, and having made sure they do that (by enforcing laws and taking some basic precautions against fraud), we simply allow them to go to the devil if that is their choice.  The poor are adults without enough money, not children to be instructed, protocriminals to be pre-rehabilitated, mental patients to be treated, or brain-damage cases to be gently coddled and encouraged.  If we fix the "without enough money," with some mixture of income supplement and material goods and services, we will have done all that it is our business to do. 

True, they may never find real perfect love, or complete safety, or a perfectly balanced diet, or a well-adjusted attitude, but then, they don't necessarily do that now—not even with Mrs. Rose Pragmatic there to change their nappies, or Señora Rosa Pragmática to change their diapies. It would be better if we let them look for it, or even decide whether they wanted to look for it,  like grownups.


*This may explain the perennial appeal of The Jungle Book.

**It is very difficult for people with inadequate, self-centered, neglectful, violent, exploitive, or sadistic parents (let alone those who were a combination) to imagine what life was like with good ones.  This accounts for more of literature, politics, art, religion, and everything human than anyone wants to admit.  In all social classes, people with rotten, or even just average, parents tend to project parental rottenness downward; that is, if your parents were somewhere south of adequate, you tend to project an even-worse version of them onto the social classes below the one where you grew up.  A posh Briton whose father was a punitive cold fish imagines that working class fathers all ignore their children completely except to beat them; an American who grew up in an affluent exurb with a neglectful party-animal  mother thinks the "trailer trash moms" are all feeding the kids on dry cereal while drunkenly copulating with swarms of recent parolees.  Perhaps the possibility that parents with a tenth of your parents' income might have given more real love and support to their children than you ever got is just too hard to bear, or perhaps it's just that since so many other good things are distributed on a class/status basis, people with little or poor experience of real parental care think that it must be distributed that way too.

***Just as Americans call once-a-week cleaners "maids," part-time yard workers "gardeners," gophers "personal assistants," or apartment building doormen "concierges."  Pumping the title of the paid help elevates your own status.   Next copy editor I hire has to have a current driver's license and voting registration, so that I can refer to him/her as my Licensed and Registered Ortholinguist.