As a conservative parent of sometimes refractory children, I read this old cartoon with mixed feelings. Blaming the misdeeds of a “wayward child” entirely on society is dishonest and exculpatory in many cases. Some parents are bad parents. Some are consistently negligent, indulgent, cruel, or even debauching. All parents sometimes fall short of the ideal. But blaming the misdeeds of a “wayward child” entirely on the parents, as this cartoon does, is equally dishonest and exculpatory.
Every parent learns that “society” grabs his child in much the same way that King Kong grabbed Fay Wray, and that his position is, thereafter, much like that of a pilot in one of those puny biplanes. This cartoon was published in 1929, and it is absurd to say that parents of that time were not losing influence over their children to the schools, the movies, and the youth culture that was made possible by the automobile. In just four years, legislators would repeal prohibition, thereby substantially weakening the position of parents who were trying teach their children temperance.
The word socialism was first used as the name of the doctrine that a man is entirely shaped by his social conditions, that he therefore bears no personal responsibility for his conduct, and that society can therefore be rearranged in such a way that all men will conduct themselves admirably. This is a false and pernicious doctrine.
But the inversion of this doctrine that I call Iron Individualism is equally false and pernicious. Everyone knows that a man who lies down with dogs gets up with fleas; but not everyone admits that a man must lie down somewhere, and that he is bound to be flea-bitten if dogs occupy every square inch of the ground.
Iron Individualism is popular with stupid conservatives who fail to notice that they have absorbed this false and pernicious doctrine from their environment in much the same way that an Easter egg absorbs color from a bowl of dye. These stupid conservatives take the view that the test of a truly virtuous man is his ability to sit in a brothel with a doxy on his knee and a drink in his hand, and yet refrain from squeezing the doxy or sipping the drink. I say the test of a truly virtuous man is whether he sees that his virtue is like a plant that requires propitious environmental conditions, and whether he therefore works to ensure that those propitious conditions are maintained.
In my experience, the doctrine of Iron Individualism is applied to parenting by people who have no children, whose children are in their infancy, or whose children have been so long grown to maturity that the parents are sinking into senility. As many of you no doubt know, these useless fools have a great deal to say about “setting boundaries,” but, alas, almost nothing to say about how a boundary-setting parent can enforce the boundaries he has set. The legislator and policeman of the cartoon will have something to say if he attempts to enforce his boundaries with punitive beatings. The bespectacled teacher and minister will have something to say if he sets his boundaries anywhere other than the boundaries approved by progressive moralists. And the auto salesman, movie mogul and roadhouse owner will build their businesses just beyond those boundaries, and they will equip those businesses with flashing signs, beckoning lights and an ample advertising budget.
And when a struggling parent fails to hold the line in these decidedly unpropitious social circumstances, the proponents of Iron Individualism will jeer that it is entirely his own fault.