Breastfeeding: sidestepping the march of folly

In 1984, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Barbara Tuchman published The March of Folly[1], which many consider to be her greatest contribution to popular history. Here she 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
  • America’s 20th-century self-betrayal in Vietnam

Tuchman also describes four kinds of misgovernment:

  • Tyranny of oppression
  • Excessive ambition
  • Incompetence or decadence
  • 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, Tuchman 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.
  • Third, to remove the problem from personality, 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 undeniably 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.

Also, 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 early 21st century’s failed mass alternative-nutrition child-feeding trials?

And will this same analyst remind her contemporaries of the abundant voices, way back in 2016, 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?


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[1] Tuchman, Barbara. The March of Folly: from Troy to Vietnam, New York, Knopf, 1984


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