I grew up in a period of conservative resurgence in the US. I lived in Massachusetts, known nationally as the People's Republic of Taxachusetts. Even the liberal state of Massachusetts went for Ronald Reagan and the neoliberal agenda that set off this conservative wave in 1980. The "Christian Right" driven by Jerry Falwell and the "Moral Majority" put the culture wars into play and "family values" became the center of those wars. We have to do policy X "for the children," for the "safety of the family," for the sake of the "traditional family." Needless to say, it left a lot of people out of the agenda.
But the focus in this was often kids. Making sure that the next generation of kids always did better than their parent's generation. In many ways, that argument, looking back, had as the presumption that only financial success mattered. But that argument by itself can carry a long way -- we know that poverty hurts kids and women the most. So, lifting them out of poverty seemed to be the road to happiness and well-being.
The Clinton years brought some drastic changes. The politics turned "nasty," personal. The culture wars heated up even more. As Pat Buchanan said at the 1992 Republican convention, "My friends, this election is about more than who gets what. It is about who we are. It is about what we believe, and what we stand for as Americans. There is a religious war going on in this country. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as was the Cold War itself, for this war is for the soul of America."
But the 1990s seemed to be the start of a strange trend in the middle of the culture wars. Nobody really knows why but school shootings became a thing. No act of terrorism is more haunting than somebody rampaging through a school blowing holes into kids who were once able to sit in a care-free environment. And they came in succession, one after another, one worse than the previous one -- Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Parkland -- all horrible scenes of carnage. The worst of these was Newtown. I'm from New England and I remember Sandy Hook in Newtown, CT and the chills it sent down my spine. I've driven through Newtown in my travels through New England and it's still difficult to believe that something so monstrous occured in this quintessential New England town. But not even the darkest scenes of five-year old kids could move politicians to do something about the wonton killing of little children. They just continued with "thoughts and prayers" for the victims.
The recession of 2008-2010 came and the leaders haggled over whether the country could afford to help feed families while corporate millionaires became wealthier. Education for children? Food for children? Healthcare for children? We can’t afford it. Just like we couldn't afford background checks, assault weapon bans, waiting periods for gun purchases.
You see, the word “afford” has a different connotation here. It’s not a financial term; it’s a word of “political will.” It’s not that we can afford ($$$) it, it’s that we can’t risk it. Political leaders, with a yellow streak a mile wide down their backs, couldn't afford to make a moral choice to stand up for what was right, what was honest, and to say “no.” Too much power, too much money, too much self-absorption.
What the leaders forgot was that this should never been about people’s rights – the right to kill kids, the right to deprive kids, the right not to educate kids – it was and is about the responsibility to do so. And therein lies the problem – nobody wants to make a decision and to take responsibility. Which gets us to today.
We are telling teachers to sacrifice (as if they haven’t already) and to teach students in-person in an environment that is ripe for viral transmission. We don’t offer kids PPE; we don't offer them masks (believe it or not, some families just can’t afford them all the time); we don’t offer them the technology. But it’s important to make sure that Mom and Dad get the economy cranking up again, even if it kills them. So, we have made schools and teachers the cheap substitute for affordable childcare and for holding politicians accountable as to why a single parent can’t earn enough money so that kids have a parent at home. We used to be able to do that before we decided in the 1980s to destroy the middle class.
Elections, power, and money again become the object of attention. Who voted to use kids as the sacrificial lambs for a bad public health and public policy experiment? Who signed the parental notifications that gave politicians the permission to use kids as guinea pigs in a horrible experiment? Who said your kids were expendable? And why aren’t we more outraged?
Like many social scientists, I’ve witnessed things in other countries that have caused me to shake my head and wonder how far into the depths of depravity can humanity slide. It seems each year, there is always some event or other items that demonstrates that we have not even come close to a bottom on this. The COVID-19 school experiment is the next level into the depths of depravity that politicians have conjured up.
This generation of kids has been brutalized, marginalized, and stigmatized. This generation of kids has been left to fend for themselves in so many ways. Now, we want to use them in a grand experiment. The golden rule for politicians’ decision-making is “would you want this for yourself.” How many politicians would be willing to sit in a closed classroom for seven to eight hours a day with kids who may be unknowingly exposed to a viral contamination that has the potential to kill them, their friends, or even their family members?
Good luck to all the kids, teachers, and parents in this maniacal experiment. But before we give in to this, let’s ask ourselves: who made the decision that our kids were expendable?