James Akre on the historic proportions of our culture’s folly with regard to our perverse approach to breastfeeding.
American historian Barbara Tuchman published in 1984 what many consider to be her greatest contribution to popular history, The March of Folly (New York, Ballantine Books). Here Tuchman analyzes what she considers to be four monumental political blunders committed through the ages in “the blind pursuit of policy contrary to self-interest”: the Trojans hauling the wooden horse within their walls some 28 centuries ago, the Renaissance popes provoking the Protestant secession, the 18th-century British attempting to maintain a colonial presence in North America, and what the author labels 20th-century America’s self-betrayal in Vietnam.
Tuchman describes four kinds of misgovernment: tyranny of oppression, excessive ambition, incompetence or decadence, and folly or perversity. She concentrates on the last in a specific manifestation—the pursuit of policy contrary to the self-interest of the constituency or state involved. She defines self-interest as “whatever conduces to the welfare or advantage of the body being governed, folly being a policy that in these terms is counterproductive.” In addition, she considers her analysis of political folly to be independent of era or locality, timeless and universal, and unrelated to type of regime, nation or class. In a word, she believes her approach to be an archetype of truly universal proportions.
To qualify as folly for her inquiry, the policy adopted must meet three essential criteria: first, it must have been perceived as counterproductive in its own time, not merely in hindsight; second, a feasible alternative course of action must have been available; and to remove the problem from personality, a third criterion is that the policy in question should be that of a group, not an individual, and should persist beyond any one political lifetime.
Applying these same criteria to breastfeeding in many environments today, I believe that Tuchman’s model provides a startling parallel of indeed historic proportions. Surely, few observers would openly contest that breastfeeding “conduces to the welfare or advantage” of all human society. Likewise, artificial feeding is widely, if hardly unanimously, perceived as counterproductive for the common human good. A feasible alternative course of action to artificial feeding is most assuredly available; it’s called breastfeeding. And if we take even a cursory glance at the evolution in society over the last hundred years or so, we recognize that artificial feeding has become the accepted, even expected, child-feeding norm of many groups, thus persisting beyond the lifetime of individuals.
Will breastfeeding, too, one day have its historian-chronicler who tries to unravel the train of events leading to the 20th century’s failed mass alternative-nutrition child-feeding trials? And will this same analyst remind her contemporaries of the abundant voices that clamored for change—as much in public attitudes as in public policy—after meticulous investigation had determined beyond the shadow of a doubt that the unnatural practice of routine non-emergency breast-milk substitution was so irredeemably wanting?
James Akre is an author and commentator whose focus is on the sociocultural dimension of the universal biological norm for nurturing and nourishing infants and young children, and on identifying pathways for ensuring that breastfeeding and breast-milk feeding are routine once more everywhere. His international public health and development career spans five decades, including more than 30 years with agencies of the United Nations system (International Labour Office, United Nations Children’s Fund, and the World Health Organization where he was the liaison officer (1990–2004) for LLLI), and seven years working in Turkey, Cameroon and Haiti. He is a member of the editorial board and reviewer for the International Breastfeeding Journal, and he is also a reviewer for Pediatrics and Maternal & Child Nutrition. He is a member of the Scientific Advisory Committee of LLL France and a past member (2004–2010) of the Board of Directors of the International Board of Lactation Consultant Examiners (IBLCE).