They Want Your Children, and They Want Them Now: Culture Wars and Angry Parents
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One of my favorite lectures to give, back in the day, was on the trial and death of Socrates. You might remember the ancient case: indignant Athenians, smarting from the city’s recent defeat to Sparta, and casting about for a scapegoat, charged the old philosopher with “corrupting the minds of the young.” His teachings, the prosecution argued, had led young men astray, and the consequences had proved disastrous for Athens. Socrates cheerfully pled guilty: “My aim is to persuade you all, young and old alike, not to think about your lives or your properties, but first and foremost to care about your inner self. This is my teaching, and if it corrupts youth, then I suppose I am their corrupter.”
Do I need to remind you that that earned Socrates his death sentence?
Nearly 2500 years later, and still, the most emotive battleground in the culture wars is the fight over what we teach the young. Conservatives fret that their children are exposed to critical race theory, and to the notion that gender occurs on a spectrum rather than in a rigid binary. Liberals are apoplectic that a high school coach can now pray on a football field, and they worry that racists will recruit their young to far-right causes. Both sides worry that impressionable kids will be pressured and manipulated into doing what they do not truly want to do.
(Parenthetically, it’s not just what we teach the young, it’s how and where. When it came to how best to respond to COVID, conservatives and centrists saw remote education and mandatory masking as twin disasters that robbed young people of the urgent need for normalcy; lefties insisted that in-person, unmasked education was an unacceptably grave risk for children, particularly from poor, non-white families. Normalcy! Equity! There was lots of shouting. Parents got very angry at each other and called each other names, because nothing gets us exercised like the specter of our children’s deepest needs being ignored because of someone else’s misguided ideology. But the pandemic is not my topic here.)
On Friday, hours after the Dobbs decision, Emily Seife, a senior editor at Scholastic Press, tweeted “My colleagues and I absolutely do want your YA (young adult) books about abortions. There aren’t enough of them and these stories need to be told and normalized.”
Conservatives, including the ubiquitous Ben Shapiro, found that tweet and jumped on it with thinly disguised glee. “They want your children, and they want them now,” Shapiro tweeted this morning, deploying what is simultaneously the laziest and most inflammatory cliche of any and all culture wars. They – the gays, the non-binary Satanists, the Communists, Campus Crusade for Christ, the Proud Boys, the pedophiles, the pornographers, the Future Farmers of America – are always exactly what you fear most.
If you’re a white lefty, you get frantic that misogynist far-right incels are coming for your kids, and the next thing you know they’ll be storming the capitol. If you lean right, you are terrified that little Kayden, a boy made male by the omnipotent creator, might read the wrong book and decide they are now Kayleigh. If you are Anytus, Lycon, or Meletus, you are enraged that the young men of Athens are asking questions of their fathers. Tell me your politics, my friend, and I’ll tell you your fears.
I want some good young adult novels about abortion:
I want to read a novel about Michaela, who gets pregnant at 14, and chooses an abortion without telling her parents. She goes on to college and thrives.
I want to read about Samantha, who gets raped at a party, and because of her strong religious views, goes through with the pregnancy and gives the baby up for an open adoption to a family in her church. She and the child stay close, and Samantha tells her story of becoming a campus pro-life activist.
I want to read about Nevaeh, who marries the boy who got her pregnant even though her mother begs her to abort the pregnancy; they make it work for a while, but then her husband bails and Neveah moves back in with her parents, and as the novel finishes, has just been accepted to a pre-med program.
I want to read about Audrie from Alabama, who tells her parents when she’s pregnant, and is moved by their unconditional support – which includes taking her several states away to get a safe, legal abortion. While in Virginia, Audrie falls in love with Alicia, a girl from South Carolina who has traveled for the same pressing reason.
I want a story about Chaya Mushka, who grows up Orthodox, gets betrothed as a 17 year-old virgin, and with her young husband, becomes a Chabad missionary laboring in Oslo or Omaha or Ouagadougou. It’s hard work, but Chaya finds beauty and transcendence in bringing light and Torah to the world.
I want all those stories, stories familiar and confounding. I want books that challenge whatever we think we know of the right way to live in the world.
What we should want are young adult novels that tell hard stories, but tell them in ways that remind us that teens invariably surprise their elders. If you only want your teens to read stories that point them in one direction, you’re doing violence to their own unique callings. I know you want to raise little Malcolm Cesar Chavez Whitcomb to be a social justice activist; you dream of him becoming a charismatic community organizer bringing transformation to the Southside; I know you want Mary Agnes Theresa O’Shaughnessy to stay a child of the church; you dream of the day she receives the Holy Sacrament of marriage, her white dress an outer and gleaming sign of her radiant inner purity.
It’s okay to dream dreams for your kids. It’s okay to want them to go down a particular religious or political path. Parenting doesn’t require that you approach everything with a maddeningly value-neutral approach. There’s a world of difference, though, between saying, “This is our way” and saying “This is the ONLY way.”
One of Heloise’s early memories is of being present at her brother’s brit milah. David was circumcised by a mohel in front of several hundred people in a synagogue, and the entire spectacle was live streamed to our fellow students and teachers of Kabbalah around the world. It was a strange and bloody business, but a beautiful one. Heck, in 2012, Eira and I were committed enough to the Kabbalah Center that we let a rabbi pick our son’s name. (He could have easily been a Yehuda, but we would have WASPed it to Jude.)
Now that we are no longer involved in the Centre, Heloise asked if we regretted circumcising David. (David, interestingly, has yet to loudly protest that he was robbed of his foreskin, but I expect to get an indignant phone call in oh, about nine years.) I explained that we did what we felt was right at the time, with full awareness that what we were choosing might be the wrong thing.
We knew it wasn’t the only way, but it was our way, I said.
Long ago, when I lived a more extravagant and public life, we flew often. Thanks to frequent first class trips to Europe, Eira and I eventually got elite status on British Airways. We liked all that ridiculous cosseting, so we made an effort to get ever greater perks when we flew. This entailed only booking flights on airlines that were part of BA’s Oneworld Alliance. (Hang on, there’s a point here, I’m not boasting or lamenting, though someday I should tell the ridiculous story of how we got extra status points by flying from Los Angeles to Hong Kong , first class, for the weekend – and via London. Three quarters of the way around the whole damn planet, just to go from the Silver to Gold tier in Oneworld! I needed to sleep in my car for many nights, and skip many meals, to atone for that kind of indefensible extravagance.)
We also flew often to New York in those days. We always flew American, because it was in Oneworld and we had status. As I explained to Heloise, we knew that United and Jetblue and Delta also flew from LAX to NYC, but we were committed to American. In other words, we made a choice that worked for us while recognizing that perfectly valid alternatives existed that might be better for others. As with airlines, so too with religions or sexual mores or musical tastes; when we were in the Kabbalah Centre, we were committed to doing what we did wholeheartedly, keenly aware that not only was ours not the only right option, we had a moral obligation to expose our children to alternatives.
You do need to choose some path at some point, I said to my daughter. You can’t get stuck in analysis paralysis. To stay with the travel analogy, you can go to the departures terminal at an international airport and look at all the places you could go. You may want to go everywhere, but you need to pick one place first; you can’t be in Bogota and Berlin and Brisbane simultaneously. Pick where you think you want to go, make a choice, and go and see. If you’re incapacitated by worry you’ll make the wrong decision, you’ll never leave the airport.
If you believe that only one airline will get you to New York, or that only one faith will get you home to the Lord, or that only one particular critical lens explains history, you will understandably panic at the thought that your precious little lambs might be lost to error. If they get on the wrong plane they might end up in Marrakesh instead of Manhattan; if they don’t recite the right formulas, they might end up in an eternal lake of fire instead of rejoicing in paradise with you. No wonder you see yourself as a happy (but anxious) warrior in the Great Battle for the Bunnies. They want your children and they want them now. To the barricades! To the boycotts! To the Cancellations and the Firings and the School Board Recall Elections! They are coming for your kids!!!!!!!
I love Heloise and David with every fiber of my being. I am a good dad. Not a perfect one, or even a great one, but I live in the constant state of exhaustion, worry, wonder, and hope that’s familiar to every devoted parent.
My pedagogy and my politics are drawn from my lived experience. I believe children are a gift and a charge, but I have no illusions that I know best what path they ought to follow. We will continue to raise them in our ways; they will make banana ice cream on the Fourth of July because that is what our family does. They will know that their parents care more about their manners and their social adroitness than their grades, and that makes us a little different than some other moms and dads. They also know that at some point – the time is already now for my daughter – they will start to hear other voices, other calls, and encounter other values.
Of course they are coming for my children. I want them to come for my children. I want my children to assess what it is that’s on offer and decide for themselves whether it strikes them as good, true, and beautiful.
My children have marinated in the blended values of their mother’s family and mine. It is good and right that they go out into the world, encounter other tastes and values, and make the choices that resonate with the deep part of themselves that even a loving father cannot hope to fully understand.
Perhaps Heloise will throw herself into ultra-Orthodox Judaism. Perhaps she will join an anarchist pansexual art collective. Perhaps she will become a cop. Perhaps… I will just wait and see, whispering in her ear how proud I am of her, and how interested I am to hear what she has learned from those eager to teach her what they claim is the truest and best way to see the world.
The thing about genial, tolerant liberalism is that it is, in the end, a radically modest way to live. It knows that the human heart is a labyrinth beyond our power to comprehend, and it knows that each child is more than the intellectual and spiritual property of its parents. We chose a path for our children, a comically unusual path of Jewish mysticism, WASPy manners, Colombian folk customs and a Protestant work ethic. It was our way, not the only way, and we’re pretty damn sure it won’t be David and Heloise’s way when and if they are called to make families of their own.
They are coming for you, my children. Tell me what they’re whispering to that inner self of which Socrates spoke so long ago! We’ll tell you our own stories, and we are ready and eager to be surprised by what you choose.
We guarantee we will be surprised.
We guarantee we will not be disappointed.
Very appreciative of this essay, Hugo. It speaks to me as I navigate a tenuous family situation involving a pregnant niece and her very conservative, Christian parents.
I considered sending this to my siblings, but think it will not land well or be heard.
Thank you for the time and thought involved in writing it. It's an important message that requires constant exposure throughout time.