Last week this blog explored political theorist Benjamin Barber’s thinking about the danger of conflating the idea of individual liberty with the concept of freedom in a democratic society: “Freedom is not just about standing alone and saying no. As a usable ideal, it turns out to be a public rather than a private notion… Nowadays, the idea that only private persons are free… turns out to be an assault not on tyranny but on democracy. It challenges not the illegitimate power by which tyrants once ruled us but the legitimate power by which we try to rule ourselves in common. Where once this notion of liberty challenged corrupt power, today it undermines legitimate power.” (Consumed, pp. 119-120) Barber reminds us that as citizens of a democracy, we have chosen to accept the social contract: “a covenant in which individuals agree to give up unsecured private liberty in exchange for the blessings of public liberty and common security.” (Consumed, p. 123)
If Barber were alive today, he would worry about what political scientist Maurice Cunningham has profiled as far-right think tanks promoting, far-right funders paying for, and politicians like Ron DeSantis exploiting so-called parents’ groups like Moms for Liberty, Parents Defending Education, and No Left Turn in Education. Barber would have noticed the collaborative, far-right campaign encouraging parents to think they are entitled to public dollars for unregulated private schools and to believe it is their personal right to ban books, shape the school curriculum and individually approve teachers’ lesson plans.
Last Tuesday, the NY Times columnist Jamelle Bouie explored how extreme individualism is playing out in 2023—when parents, operating as advocates to protect their own beliefs and biases, have been awakened by manipulative politicians to band together and declare that they no longer feel bound by the laws and practices created through the democratic process. Bouie describes the shredding of the social contract: “You may have heard the phrase ‘parents’ rights.’ It sounds unobjectionable—of course parents should have rights—which is probably why it’s become the term of choice for the conservative effort to ban books, censor school curriculums and suppress politically undesirable forms of knowledge… The official name for Florida’s infamous ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill, prohibiting ‘classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity,’ is the ‘Parents Rights in Education Act.’ And the state’s ‘Stop WOKE Act’—short for ‘Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees,’ which outlaws any school instruction that classifies individuals as ‘inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously,’ was framed, similarly, as a victory for the rights of parents.”
In addition to the Florida laws, Bouie examines Governor Glenn Youngkin’s Virginia campaign for so-called parents’ rights, a proposed Texas ban in Kindergarten through twelfth grade classrooms of any discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity, and the Parents’ Bill of Rights legislation passed last week by the U.S. House of Representatives.
Bouie notices that, “‘Parents’ rights,’ like ‘states’ rights,’ is quite particular. It’s not about all parents and all children and all the rights they might have.” “‘Parents’ rights,’ you will have noticed, never seems to involve parents who want schools to be more open and accommodating toward gender nonconforming students. It’s never invoked for parents who want their students to learn more about race, identity, and the darker parts of American history. And we never hear about the rights of parents who want schools to offer a wide library of books and materials to their students.” “The reality of the ‘parents’ rights’ movement is that it is meant to empower a conservative and reactionary minority of parents to dictate education and curriculums to the rest of the community. It is, in essence, an institutionalization of the heckler’s veto, in which a single parent—or any individual, really—can remove hundreds of books or shut down lessons on the basis of the political discomfort they feel. ‘Parents’ rights,’ in other words, is when some parents have the right to dominate all the others.”
As Barber, the political theorist, explains, a society dominated by extreme individualism, “challenges… the legitimate power by which we try to rule ourselves in common.”
Bowie notes that today’s parents’ rights juggernaut is a product of political manipulation by far-right Republicans, not a spontaneous movement as its sponsors intend it to appear. Instead it is a cynical attempt to undermine public education and, at the same time, our democracy: “Ultimately, then, the ‘parents’ rights’ movement is not about parents at all; it’s about whether this country will continue to strive for a more equitable and democratic system of education, or whether we’ll let a reactionary minority drag us as far from that goal as possible, in favor of something even more unequal and hierarchical than what we already have.”
Last Friday, Bouie followed up with a second column listing all the ways the same far-right politicians neglect children’s well-being even as they appeal to parents by pretending to protect children from so-called WOKE books and discussions about sexuality and so-called “critical race theory: “There is a lot… that the Republican Party is prepared to do to protect children from the world at large. But there are limits. There are lines the Republican Party won’t cross. The Republican Party will not, for example, support universal school lunch to protect children from hunger… In the United States Congress, most Republicans will not support a child allowance to keep children and their families out of poverty… And in the wake of yet another school massacre… Republicans refuse to do anything that might reduce the odds of another (school) shooting or make it less likely that a child dies of gun violence.”
Bouie drives home that neither the far-right ideologues nor the “parents’ rights” mobs they have spawned really care about the needs of our nation’s children: “What sounds like due consideration for parents as the most important adults in the lives of most children is in fact a rallying cry for a subset of the most conservative and reactionary parents, who want a state-sanctioned heckler’s veto over the education of all the children in the community. It is a Trojan horse for the slow destruction of public schools. Something similar is true of the constant calls to ‘protect children.’ The way they talk about them, these ‘children’ are not real, living, vulnerable kids. They are a symbol, and the calls to protect them are an excuse, a pretext for wielding the state against the perceived cultural enemies of the American right. These champions of children aren’t all that interested in young people as citizens with rights and entitlements of their own.”