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For the Kids
Won’t somebody please think of the children?
Viktor Orbán delivered his annual State of the Nation address in Budapest last Saturday, February 18. The speech was standard fare for the Hungarian strongman, but one part stood out for its sudden resonance within our American context. After rattling through a litany of issues from the plight of ethnic Hungrians abroad to his continued overhaul of Hungary’s media and information sectors, Orbán concluded by turning to the issue of protecting Hungary’s children. Orbán’s government has waged a sweeping culture war on the country’s LGBTQ community, largely under the guise of protecting kids—most commonly, this is done by linking gay and trans issues to sexual abuse and misconduct. Comparing Hungary’s extremist turn on these issues to the rest of Europe, Orbán explained:
Children are sacred to us, and it falls to adults to protect children at all costs. We do not care that the world has gone mad. We do not care what repellent aberrations some people indulge in. We do not care how Brussels excuses and explains the inexplicable. This is Hungary! And this is where the strictest child protection system in Europe should be!
These plays are increasingly common across the anti-liberal right. So, when Marjorie Taylor Greene took to Twitter this week to call for “a national divorce,” it’s unsurprising that much of her argument focused on the people every divorce affects the most: the kids. After all, it was QAnon and its pervasive conspiracies about the torture and abuse of children that first propelled her into politics.
Greene’s thread focuses heavily on the topic of transgender minors and sexual issues more broadly. Greene frets about “Drag Queen story times” and asserts that “Red states would maintain the truth that there are only two genders and would require the biological identity of each person’s gender on their identification, not how the person identifies.” I am not advocating here for a totally unregulated approach to how children experiencing gender dysphoria seek and receive support. But this is not a call for any sort of caution; it’s a flagrantly anti-trans bit of hate mongering and a call for public institutions to aggressively chasten any children who might exist outside of a deeply conservative view of sex and gender.
But she also stresses other desires for control over kids in public schools. Most notably, she says that in “Red State” America, “schools would bring back prayer in school and require every student to stand for the national anthem and pledge of allegiance.” These are the preoccupations of an ideologue looking to make schools incubators for their own politics. It’s worth noting that people like Greene see education as a competing space for this kind of indoctrination, projecting fantastical assumptions onto their perceived opponents. As Greene puts it, “blue states would likely eliminate the anthem and pledge all together and replace them with anthems and pledges to identity ideologies like the Trans flag and BLM.” This has much less to do with the happiness or education of the students and more to do with control.
Similarly, Donald Trump’s recent announcement that, if given a second term, he will call for the disciplining of students to be placed under the authority of the Department of Justice and the Department of Education echoes this concern for physical control over children. Trump claims he is seeking to “end the leftist takeover of school discipline and juvenile justice.” This is frightening indeed, and it’s a good example of how vulnerable young people are to the forceful application of state power. For the record, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Marjorie Taylor Greene’s home state of Georgia has no prohibitions on either the use of solitary confinement for youth or the shackling of youth during court appearances.
Other People’s Kids
It is unqestionably important to protect children from all manner of interpersonal and institutional abuse from which they cannot protect themselves. But, again, that includes parents—a fact that undermines the idea that parents have or should have totalizing control over how their child moves about in the world. But those like Greene and Orbán are only interested in how this power can be used to sever some parents from their kids. That is to say, the logic of preventing abuse gets expanded to include parents who are merely attempting to love and raise their children as best they can. Take, for example, Ron DeSantis menacing Florida parents with the prospect of sending child protective services to their homes if they allowed their children to attend a drag performance. Or look at the ways in which Greg Abbott’s Texas has pursued the parents of trans children, indicating to state agencies that parents allowing their children to go on puberty blockers should be treated as child abuse and subject to investigation.
Texas also offers a natural jumping off point to discuss another bogeyman of the American right: birthright citizenship. In 2018, when Donald Trump began aggressively floating his desire to end birthright citizenship, Senator Ted Cruz expressed support for the idea, stating, “I have long supported ending birthright citizenship. Now, it is an open question legally what the right means is to do so.” Then, there is of course the children detained at the border, part of a broader stain of immigration injustice that goes back multiple administrations.
For those who do make it beyond the border, many hardliners are in fact uninterested in their education. Greg Abbott has chafed at the requirement on states to educate all children, no matter their legal status, set down by the United States Supreme Court in Plyler v. Doe. Abbott has cited the strain this places on local districts, saying, “The state of Texas should not be bearing the burden of the cost of immigration that's resulting from the Biden Administration's refusal to enforce the immigration laws.” It’s true that America needs immigration reform, but one has to wonder how politicians so supposedly concerned with the wellbeing of children can take positions like those of Cruz and Abbott.
To my mind, this is quite a slippery view of a society in which children are prioritized. It allows parents framed as allies to take an invasive approach to governing their children’s lives, whereas the relationship between other people’s kids and their families can be severed at will so long as it's in the furtherance of hard right policy preferences.
A Person’s A Person
At the core of much of this is a logic that treats children as the property of their parents and, in an extended sense, of the nation. But this is a faulty and coercive ways of thinking about children in a free society. Parents are their children’s guardians, not their masters. And children are individuals whose education, development, and socialization are part of a journey toward adulthood and a fuller capacity to express and embody their independence and agency. They are not mindless things that become fully actualized persons on the stroke of midnight when they turn 18. And many of our laws acknowledge these facts.
Of course the banning of books, repression of sexual and gender exploration and expression, and use of state power with regards to our kids is a liberty issue. Moms for Liberty, for example, proudly boasts “We do not co-parent with the government.” The group has helped lead the charge for book bans in districts across the country and backed extremist candidates eager to force curriculum and school governance into a tidier, more right-wing mold. The hypocrisy here is that they only make claims about parents’ rights and parents’ interests. But this is a woefully inadequate way to think about freedom as it relates to how our public institutions interact with minors.
It is beyond obvious that there’s a need for protective services and laws for children, as the recent discovery of rampant child labor law violations in meatpacking plants shows. But I am also persuaded that we should do more to empower young Americans as they journey from childhood to adulthood. I am convinced that there is justification in lowering voting ages in America and other liberal democracies to 16—a step already taken in a handful of places like Malta, Wales, and some German states, to name a few. I also believe we should be offering more robust alternative paths to traditional secondary and college education for students who would rather pursue technical or apprenticeship training. Adolescence should not be a holding pattern for would-be citizens but a fertile, explorative period of coming into one’s agency as a member of a free society where one has political and economic power.
Yet the vision of how both the family and the state relate to children offered by today’s hard right is at once paternalistic and coercive. It is protective largely insofar as this is a conduit for legislating against groups that have already been designated enemies. And it cares little for the physical or intellectual independence of persons who, while not yet fully grown, are nevertheless members in their own right of the society they inhabit.