Posted: February 5, 2009
hat young children are impressionable is hardly news to any parent, but there are moments when it is really brought home. Last year, we took our children to the Memorial Day parade in Washington, D.C. When we returned home, our four-year-old son began gathering household props and became before our eyes a soldier, a drum player, a horse—even the man who scooped up horse manure along the parade route.
I was reminded of lines from Walt Whitman's "There Was a Child Went Forth."
There was a child went forth everyday;
And the first object he look'd upon, that object he became;
And that object became part of him for the day, or a certain part of
the day, or for many years, or stretching cycles of years.
Whitman captures the child's sensitivity to the world—a child embraces the world and is fundamentally shaped by it. The poet focuses chiefly on a child's encounter with the natural world—spring lilacs, morning glories, apple blossoms, the "wholesome odor" of a mother as she goes about her work. His point is that children are passionate, sensuous creatures who lack filters and thus absorb the world with an intense indiscriminateness.
When children nowadays go forth into the world, however, they are likely to encounter more than Whitman's pretty lilacs and blossoming trees. They encounter, among other things, violent video games, pornographic internet sites, and sexually explicit and violence-soaked music—and that's just in the safety of their homes and under the watchful, caring eyes of their parents. Though our age seems in certain respects child-centric—we helmet our children, shuttle them to after-school activities, and bubble-wrap their self-esteems—ours is in fact an R-rated era. Adults today seem unwilling to serve as filters for their children, whether out of selfishness, indifference, or just plain ignorance. We have abandoned the ancient and necessary chore of scooping up the manure and minding the culture, leaving our children to become whatever they should happen upon.
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Why and how this happened is the subject of David Tubbs's new book, Freedom's Orphans: Contemporary Liberalism and the Fate of American Children. Tubbs, a former social worker and now an assistant professor of politics at King's College in New York, argues American constitutional doctrine has become so preoccupied with the rights and freedoms of adults that it has largely lost its concern for the moral well-being of children, the group most vulnerable to public immorality. His goal is to figure out what led contemporary liberalism down this path of wholesale child neglect.
Much of the problem, he argues, can be traced to the predilections, beginning in the 1960s, of contemporary political and legal theory. It was at this point that liberal scholars began to embrace the untrammeled freedoms of what Isaiah Berlin described as "negative" liberty. Whereas 19th-century liberals, such as J.S. Mill and Alexis de Tocqueville, saw a link between personal responsibility and freedom, contemporary liberals such as Ronald Dworkin, Stephen Holmes, Thomas Nagel, and George Kateb, have, in Tubbs's view, embraced a narrower rights-based individualism. This newer liberalism rejects legislation aimed at sustaining public morality. The older liberalism considered such legislation an aid to freedom: by helping children grow into self-governing citizens it made a contribution to ordered liberty. Today's liberalism has no room in its analysis for such a dialectical understanding, condemining such laws as obstacles to individual autonomy.
In the newer liberalism, individuals—not the state—must judge what is good or bad. This leads, as Tubbs explains, quoting the political theorist George Kateb to "the promiscuous acceptance of one thing after another." This "promiscuous acceptance" of all things short of tangible harm to the individual, Tubbs explains, has led to a peculiar "moral reticence." Adults have been liberated to pursue whatever their grown-up hearts desire, unencumbered by the needs of children, who become an afterthought, at best. Indeed, Tubbs suggests that for the theorists of this newer liberalism "the archetypal figure in political society is the adult citizen, living in a world where only adults are present." From this idea's pervasiveness he concludes that "contemporary liberalism has a bias against children."
Others before Tubbs have bemoaned such moral lassitude and proposed solutions like a religious awakening, revitalized civil society, restored patriotism—or a culture war. One might have thought that Tubbs too would have recommended one of these routes to reform. But instead he embraces "values-pluralism"—and seeks to bend it to his purposes.
A relatively new philosophy, values-pluralism posits that as central as liberty is to the liberal project, it does not enjoy "lexical priority" over other competing values and goods that contribute to human flourishing. A value-pluralist approach certainly recognizes the importance of personal freedom and individual rights; however, it weighs those goods against other competing goods such as the interests of children, says Tubbs. Under the dispensation of values-pluralism, communities could choose the safety interests of children over the free-love interests of adults.
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Tubbs's book is in many respects an extended meditation on some of the leading theorists of contemporary liberalism, including Susan Okin, who plays a pivotal role in his analysis, taking up one of the book's longest chapters. Tubbs seems to have a love-hate relationship with her. On the one hand, he praises her appreciation of the significance of children and the family and her "urging liberal theorists to give more attention to the family and for stressing the political relevance of family life." On the other hand, Okin plays the villain for Tubbs in so far as she tends to elevate the freedom of women above the welfare of children.
In Women in Western Political Thought (1979) and other works, Okin argued that liberal theories like John Locke's shared hidden and not-so-hidden patriarchal assumptions and adopted false gender-neutral language to hide the fact that the social contract was for adult males only. The social contract relied on a traditional division of labor between the sexes, a division that ultimately saddled women with the role of housewife. Those who sought "to have it all" inevitably bumped into the "glass ceiling." Okin's solution to these inequities was to call for a re-education of liberalism—to make it genuinely genderless. This would entail, for starters, educating children about the injustice of gender stereotypes, and creating a new welfare state, one that redresses gender inequities.
Although he objects to most of Okin's program, Tubbs accepts parts of it and acknowledges that he shares her larger approach. For example, he endorses one of Okin's more radical policy proposals—requiring employers to split a husband's paycheck, making half directly payable to the housewife for her work at home. For Okin, this makes the housewife less economically vulnerable, especially in cases of divorce. But wouldn't this then be a case, to borrow a line from Marx, of tearing away the "sentimental veil" of the family and reducing "the family relation to a mere money relation"? It seems Tubbs has forgotten one of his book's central goals, namely, to advance a type of "moral or cultural conservatism that recognizes that children's welfare can all too easily be sacrificed to the ideology of the market."
Tubbs shares something else with Okin and modern feminism: the desire to unveil liberalism's hidden assumptions and then to construct a purer movement, one that takes into account (in his case) the interests of children. Even as there are problems with the feminist view that liberalism is tainted by its patriarchal roots, however, so too are there problems with Tubbs's claim that contemporary liberalism is the root cause of cultural neglect. He barely pauses to consider whether our shoddy culture really can be blamed on Ronald Dworkin. He pins the blame on liberal academics without considering whether the real problem is modernity itself—the two, after all, are not identical. Technology—from television and the internet to the Pill—may have more to do with our R-rated culture than does any scribbler. Similarly, the decline in religion's institutional authority obviously has added to the cultural deliquescence. Tubbs no more succeeds in laying the blame for child neglect at liberalism's door than feminists do with the blame for gender inequality.
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Tubbs insists that his book contains no religious agenda, but was inspired by his experience as a state investigator for child support cases. I'm perfectly willing to accept his denials; yet one can't help detecting a religious fragrance throughout the work, a religious sense of unease with liberalism itself, evident, for instance, in Tubbs's extended defense of old state laws banning contraceptives to married couples (though he acknowledges we are too far gone to reinstitute them).
Tubbs's disenchantment with liberalism is also on display in his insightful discussion of First Amendment jurisprudence. He points out an apparent inconsistency in the Supreme Court's recent rulings in this area. In cases involving the Establishment Clause, e.g., Lee v. Weisman (1992), the Court assumes that children are highly impressionable and needing protection from state-sponsored expressions of religious faith. Yet in cases like Cohen v. California (1971) involving a child's possible exposure to obscenity and pornographic images, the Court assumes that children are resilient and can, like adults, "avert their eyes" and manage their impressions. Rather than arguing that the Court can't have it both ways, however, Tubbs suggests that from the Court's "liberal-individualist account of the human person" the two rulings may be consistent. Having made negative liberty its lodestar the Court aims, above all else, at the avoidance of compulsion—whether in matters of religion or sex.
The response of the classical liberal tradition to the Court's rulings would have been straightforward enough. There was in this tradition a keen awareness of the impressionability of children, which partly explains the tradition's efforts to shield not only children but adults as well from state coercion in religious matters. That we now even debate the question of whether children ought to be exposed to obscenity would have been incomprehensible to liberalism's early theorists. For Tubbs the matter is not so straightforward, however. He is willing, for the sake of argument, to "assume" that the Court's Establishment Clause cases were "correctly decided," but it's a grudging endorsement at best. One suspects that Tubbs would welcome a constitutional jurisprudence that shielded children from obscenity but not from religious influences.
Perhaps this explains Tubbs's rather odd turn to values-pluralism—because it provides the opening to positive liberty, and especially to religion, that classical liberalism never did at least as centrally and deeply as he'd like. Values-pluralism, he seems to believe, will allow religion to reenter the liberal garden. I have my doubts about this, and even if values-pluralism did provide such an opening, the religion(s) let in may not be congenial to Tubbs's and other American conservatives' most basic cultural concerns. Religion, particularly in our post-9/11, postmodern age, can take many surprising forms. To be sure, Tubbs has written a fine, valuable polemic, one that rightly highlights the precarious place of children in our promiscuous age. But I prefer to have my polemics, whether of the religious or the liberal species, served up straight.