Why did Americans want to target daycare workers back in the 1980s and 1990s?

We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s won both “A Wall Street Journal Best Book of 2015” and “A Boston Globe Best Book of 2015”. I covered some of the contents of the book in a couple of previous postings. The subject of this posting is “Why did Americans want to believe that daycare centers doubled as satanic abuse temples?”

The author’s theory is that the root was social change with which Americans were not comfortable:

California became the first state to legalize no-fault divorce in 1969, and since then the social expectation that people get married and that marriage last until one spouse’s death has steadily declined [history]. As divorce rates increased, the fact of having been divorced became less of a social liability for women and even, in some cases, a mark of independence.

And as the presence of women in offices and other professional environments became less of a curiosity and more of an accepted fact of life, new possibilities for the organization of life back at home proliferated: single parents, second and third marriages, cohabitation, second and third marriages to people with children from previous marriages, same-sex marriages. Every stage of this diversification of private life has been accompanied by anxious predictions of moral decay, social breakdown, and sexual anarchy. Legislators have responded to and fueled these anxieties by passing laws designed to shore up the nuclear family’s crumbling walls. But the legislation has had no effect—the percentage of Americans who are married continues its steady decline.

“Marriage as a social institution (an economic partnership, a secure context for child-rearing) only works when it’s more or less compulsory,” Ellen Willis wrote in the late 1980s. By the time she made her observation, many people had decided that what they most wanted from marriage and the nuclear family, in spite of the difficulties involved, was to get out [the uniquely U.S.-style process].

The trouble since then has been to acknowledge this shift, to accommodate it, and to help people acclimate to its effects. This difficulty became especially acute in the 1980s, and it is worth considering that the psychoanalytic theory of repression, so maligned by Roland Summit, Jeffrey Masson, and the recovered memory therapists, provides a detailed description of what happens when people are unable to acknowledge what they already know and want. Repression is not so much an act of passive forgetting but of active mental avoidance, and it isn’t so much events or memories that are repressed but rather ideas and desires. We repress that which we do not want to think about. One of Freud’s most important intellectual leaps was the insight that repression occurs because of a particular desire’s “sharp contrast to the subject’s other wishes” and its incompatibility with “the ethical and aesthetic standards of [the subject’s] personality.” On a social scale, the idea of the nuclear family’s decline emerged with an alarming speed and force, and for many people it seemed to be alarmingly incompatible with the rest of society’s ethical and aesthetic standards—its culture, its rhetoric, its view of what made for a good life. The family’s decline was repressed almost from the very moment it began.

Recovered memory and the day care and ritual abuse hysteria drove the social repression of two ideas. First, the nuclear family was dying. Second, people mostly did not want to save it.

Readers: Is there anything similar going on today? What is it that most of us want but refuse to acknowledge that we want? And whom do we try to blame?

My suggestion: Inequality Hysteria. My rich friends on Facebook want their paychecks to be 10-100X what an average American earns. They want to keep as large a percentage of this paycheck to spend for themselves and their kids. They decry “inequality” but consume like crazy. For example, instead of keeping the old car for another few years and giving $100,000 to “the vulnerable” they buy a $100,000 Tesla. Instead of confronting the fact that they spend 5X what would be necessary to achieve a lifestyle they would have considered “comfortable” perhaps 10 years ago, they look for scapegoats to prosecute. Lo and behold, it turns out that there are millions of guilty Trump voters whose crimes include racism and sexism. Is the analogy too much of a stretch?

More: read We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s


11 thoughts on “Why did Americans want to target daycare workers back in the 1980s and 1990s?

  1. While the repression theory is great pop psychology, the Satanic day care trials were just witch trials. Witch trials have occurred in every human society and in every period in history, whether or not that society was under stress from social change at the time. The divorce rate in 17th century Salem was not going up at the time of their witch trials.

    It is my belief that witch trials result from a flaw in our programming – humans are highly programmed to detect patterns and act upon them – that collection of dots on the horizon is a pack of lions moving in, so get your spears ready. This is very adaptive and has contributed to our survival – our ancestors who were not good at pattern recognition got eaten. But our antennas are too exquisitely tuned so that we see and hear things that aren’t even there – false positives instead of false negatives. We are so good at detecting patterns that we assign meaning and causation where none are present. We invent invisible gods, we attribute crop failures to witches, etc. There is a streak of paranoia in humans, not just the clinical kind but the subclinical kind where you imagine spies, Satanists, etc. – your milk has spoiled, the revolution has failed, etc. and you don’t want to blame it on yourself naturally, so you have to pin the blame on someone. Someone who is socially weak like old ladies or pre-school teachers who are not going to be in a position to fight back.

  2. By the way, McMartin and Buckey got off easy – they only spent a few years in jail awaiting trial for their non-existent crimes.

    Dan and Fran Keller spent 23 years in prison after their wrongful conviction for Satanic preschool sex abuse.


    In addition to the legal “reforms” mentioned which made future witch trials easier, police and sex abuse investigators no longer videotape their child interviews so that the tapes can’t be subpoenaed by the defense.

    So everyone learned from this case, but not the lessons you might have wanted them to draw.

  3. I don’t know your “rich friends on facebook” so I can’t comment on whether your “inequality hysteria” hypothesis is correct. If it is, they aren’t representative of most of the people I know who are unhappy with the Trump presidency.

  4. It seems that the current virtue signaling population faces a lack of meaning and direction in their lives. The unabomber called this the disruption of the “power process”. Currently, society wants a purpose in their lives beyond netflix and chill. Even the poorest American has access to guaranteed housing and lots of child support benefits if they are willing to sell their soul and dispense with all meaningful effort in productive endeavors. There is nothing particularly bad in American life except for when one goes bankrupt because they had an encounter with our healthcare or criminal justice system.

    Some observations:

    1. Lack of pervasive problems or threats: Raw opium is no longer the first thing people use to treat their ailments, women don’t widely die from child birth, starvation is a 3rd world issue, disease is increasingly an old age problem, people go mostly trouble free until they are old.

    2. Self-serving Moral Outrage: The idle mind quickly finds things to be concerned about. Pussy grabbing, driving after a beer, drug use, offensive costumes or speech and then expresses an outrage far out of proportion with the act. This boosts one’s self-esteem: “At least I am not like those bad people.” Fighting these issues on a real level has been replaced with facebook posting and supporting new, more invasive laws.

    3. Scapegoating: The right blames anyone with a tan at this point for all their economic difficulties. The left blames all the offensive, deplorable people. Both sides claim addictive substances are destroying us. The economy would be so much better if people signed a contract for sex and had a third bathroom for the trannies. The economy would be so much better if those Mexicans stopped showing up to illegally work for those white people and sell them those drugs.

    4. Cognitive dissonance: Life is fairly comfortable, yet it is still stressful. The U.S. bombs all kinds of enemies, but nothing gets better in those regions. We’re really smart, but use russian rockets. We’re really talented but watch foreigners pick up the big academic prizes and increasingly occupy universities. If only we weren’t abused or microaggressed we could be just as successful…

  5. @Scientist, excellent observations.

    btw – why is it that some of us ‘libertarians’ or whatever you want to call us visitors of Phil’s blog have so many liberal Democratic friends? I can count on my fingers the number of conservative Republican facebook friends I have in my list (or in my life for that matter), but my list of liberal minded friends is miles long. I think the ratio is like 97 to 3 or something if I took a guess. Perhaps it is because I don’t tend to regularly enjoy the things that conservatives enjoy (church, high school sports, and nascar). I sympathize with creative and academic/scientist types (having been one) who preach the cultural marxism, but feel I can also understand the common man on the street who doesn’t visit Starbucks everyday or see Operas/Musicals.

    Why do socialist liberals think money falls out of the sky for pensions and entitlements and college tuition and science research? Why do they think it is possible to mandate progressive thinking on everyone?

    Why do religious conservatives think that the Bible is the truth? Why do they need to judge the LGBT and transgendered folk?

    Maybe we need to split into different cultures.

  6. Declining procreation means too many are first borns, looking for people to boss around and judge.

  7. The money’s less, but most of the unhappy with Trump people I know are financially secure, physically healthy people with easy, nonprofit/.gov jobs that don’t pay a huge amount but aren’t outsourceable.

    They often lament the evils and horror of Trump and Trump voters in between posting pictures of their quarterly ski vacations, cruises and road trips to SWPL approved national landmarks. When they’re not posting pictures of their very expensive breakfasts, lunches and dinners made from Colin the hand-fed chicken and Ginger the organic biodynamic pig on beds of biodynamic quinoa and kale.

  8. GermanL,

    We have already split into different cultures, but the political system hasn’t caught up.

    One of the most dangerous cultures is the “justice” system.

  9. @Neil

    I don’t know PG’s rich friends either but my experience with establishment Democrats is that they really don’t care about inequality. Back when Piketty’s book was topping the New York Times bestseller list, Obama gave a speech and then—presumably—declared mission accomplished. Because he spent the rest of his administration pushing the TPP.

    The only policy proposals I’ve ever heard from establishment Democrats addressing inequality is “more education.” Because of course the nation needs 150 million software engineers. And while employed engineer numbers are still shy of 150 million we can maybe have some more H1bs right? They create jobs. Win win!

    The only people who really care about inequality are the Berniecrats and I don’t know any rich ones, with the possible exception of Jamie Johnson.

  10. There is always a vindictive media frenzy surrounding mothers accused of killing their young children. The feeling that such crimes put lesser ones like genocide and war profiteering in the shade, seems to be widely held. This is a displacement from unacknowledged feelings of guilt about abortion. We’ve all agreed (well, with the exception of certain religious zealots…) that abortion is fine, but we don’t want to think too carefully about it.

  11. Philip, there are several good candidates for “today’s insane moral blindness”, but probably the most tragic is encouragement of children to change their “gender”, amounting to medically endorsed child abuse because of the chemical and surgical interventions performed on children and adolescents of whom a large majority would otherwise be expected to revert to identifying as their “gender assigned at birth” anyway by the time they were adults.

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