interesting times

When the Ideologues Come for the Kids

Photo: Mesamong/Getty Images

Like any religion, wokeness understands the need to convert children. The old Jesuit motto (sometimes attributed to Voltaire) was, after all, “Give me the child for the first seven years and I will give you the man.” And so I was moved but not particularly surprised by George Packer’s tale of a progressive school banishing separate restrooms for boys and girls because this reinforces the gender binary. The school did not inform parents of this, of course:

Parents only heard about it when children started arriving home desperate to get to the bathroom after holding it in all day. Girls told their parents mortifying stories of having a boy kick open their stall door. Boys described being afraid to use the urinals. Our son reported that his classmates, without any collective decision, had simply gone back to the old system, regardless of the new signage: Boys were using the former boys’ rooms, girls the former girls’ rooms. This return to the familiar was what politicians call a “commonsense solution.” It was also kind of heartbreaking.

As an analogy for the price of progressivism, it’s close to perfect. Authorities impose an ideology onto reality; reality slowly fights back. The question is simply how much damage is done by this kind of utopianism before it crumbles under its own weight. Simple solutions — like a separate, individual gender-neutral bathroom for the tiny minority with gender dysphoria or anyone else — are out of bounds. They are, after all, reinforcing the idea that girls and boys are different. And we cannot allow biology, evolution, reproductive strategy, hormones, chromosomes, and the customs of every single human culture since the beginning of time to interfere with “social justice.”

It’s also vital to expose children to the fact of their race as the core constituent of their identity. Here is an essay written by a woke teacher about the difficulty of teaching “White boys”:

I spend a lot of my days worried about White boys. I worry about White boys who barely try and expect to be rewarded, who barely care and can’t stand being called on it, who imagine they can go through school without learning much without it impacting in any way the capacity for their future success, just because it never has before.

This sounds to me as if he is describing, well, boys of any race. And when boys are labeled as “White” (note the capital “W”) and this requires specific rules not applied to nonwhite boys, they often — surprise! — don’t like it:

This week, a student spoke up in class to say that every time a particular writer talked about White people and their role in racism, he would start to feel really guilty, and it made him not want to listen … I try to keep an arm around the boys who most need it, but it’s hard, because I’m also not willing to give an inch on making my room safe for my students of color. It’s not their job to keep hurting while White boys figure it out.

Children, in other words, are being taught to think constantly about race, and to feel guilty if they are the wrong one. And, of course, if they resist, that merely proves the point. A boy who doesn’t think he is personally responsible for racism is merely reflecting “white fragility” which is a function of “white supremacy.” QED. No one seems to have thought through the implications of telling white boys that their core identity is their “whiteness,” or worried that indoctrinating kids into white identity might lead quite a few to, yes, become “white identitarians” of the far right.

One of the key aspects about social-justice theory is that it’s completely unfalsifiable (as well as unreadable); it’s a closed circle that refers only to itself and its own categories. (For a searing take down of this huge academic con, check out Douglas Murray’s superb new book, The Madness of Crowds.) The forces involved — “white supremacy,” “patriarchy,” “heterosexism” — are all invisible to the naked eye, like the Holy Spirit. Their philosophical origins — an attempt by structuralist French philosophers to rescue what was left of Marxism in the 1960s and 1970s — are generally obscured in any practical context. Like religion, you cannot prove any of its doctrines empirically, but children are being forced into believing them anyway. This is hard, of course, as this teacher explains: “I’m trying. I am. But you know how the saying goes: You can lead a White male to anti-racism, but you can’t make him think.”

The racism, sexism, and condescension in those sentences! (The teacher, by the way, is not some outlier. In 2014, he was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year!) Having taken one form of religion out of the public schools, the social-justice left is now replacing it with the doctrines of intersectionality.

Last week, I defended drag queens reading stories to kids in libraries. I don’t take back my words. Getting children interested in reading with costumed clowns strikes me as harmless. But when I was directed to the website of Drag Queen Story Hours, I found the following:

[DQSH] captures the imagination and play of the gender fluidity of childhood and gives kids glamorous, positive, and unabashedly queer role models. In spaces like this, kids are able to see people who defy rigid gender restrictions and imagine a world where people can present as they wish, where dress up is real.

However well-meant, this is indoctrination into an ideology, not campy encouragement for reading and fun.

And then there is the disturbing “social justice” response to gender-nonconforming boys and girls. Increasingly, girly boys and tomboys are being told that gender trumps sex, and if a boy is effeminate or bookish or freaked out by team sports, he may actually be a girl, and if a girl is rough and tumble, sporty, and plays with boys, she may actually be a boy.

In the last few years in Western societies, as these notions have spread, the number of children identifying as trans has skyrocketed. In Sweden, the number of kids diagnosed with gender dysphoria, a phenomenon stable and rare for decades, has, from 2013 to 2016, increased almost tenfold. In New Zealand, the rate of girls identifying as boys has quadrupled in the same period of time; in Britain, where one NHS clinic is dedicated to trans kids, there were around a hundred girls being treated in 2011; by 2017, there were 1,400.

Possibly this sudden surge is a sign of pent-up demand, as trans kids emerge from the shadows, which, of course, is a great and overdue thing. The suffering of trans kids can be intense and has been ignored for far too long. But maybe it’s also some gender non-conforming kids falling prey to adult suggestions, or caused by social contagion. Almost certainly it’s both. But one reason to worry about the new explosion in gender dysphoria is that it seems recently to be driven by girls identifying as boys rather than the other way round. Female sexuality is more fluid and complex than male sexuality, so perhaps girls are more susceptible to ideological suggestion, especially when they are also taught that being a woman means being oppressed.

In the case of merely confused or less informed kids, the consequences of treatment can be permanent. Many of these prepubescent trans-identifying children are put on puberty blockers, drugs that suppress a child’s normal hormonal development, and were originally designed for prostate cancer and premature puberty. The use of these drugs for gender dysphoria is off-label, unapproved by the FDA; there have been no long-term trials to gauge the safety or effectiveness of them for gender dysphoria, and the evidence we have of the side effects of these drugs in FDA-approved treatment is horrifying. Among adults, the FDA has received 24,000 reports of adverse reactions, over half of which it deemed serious. Parents are pressured into giving these drugs to their kids on the grounds that the alternative could be their child’s suicide. Imagine the toll of making a decision about your child like that?

Eighty-five percent of gender-dysphoric children grow out of the condition — and most turn out to be gay. Yes, some are genuinely trans and can and should benefit from treatment. And social transition is fine. But children cannot know for certain who they are sexually or emotionally until they have matured past puberty. Fixing their “gender identity” when they’re 7 or 8, or even earlier, administering puberty blockers to kids as young as 12, is a huge leap in the dark in a short period of time. It cannot be transphobic to believe that no child’s body should be irreparably altered until they are of an age and a certainty to make that decision themselves.

I don’t have children, but I sure worry about gay kids in this context. I remember being taunted by some other kids when I was young — they suggested that because I was mildly gender-nonconforming, I must be a girl. If my teachers and parents and doctors had adopted this new ideology, I might never have found the happiness of being gay and comfort in being male. How many gay kids, I wonder, are now being led into permanent physical damage or surgery that may be life-saving for many, but catastrophic for others, who come to realize they made a mistake. And what are gay adults doing to protect them? Nothing. Only a few ornery feminists, God bless them, are querying this.

In some ways, the extremism of the new transgender ideology also risks becoming homophobic. Instead of seeing effeminate men as one kind of masculinity, as legitimate as any other, transgenderism insists that girliness requires being a biological girl. Similarly, a tomboy is not allowed to expand the bandwidth of what being female can mean, but must be put into the category of male. In my view, this is not progressive; it’s deeply regressive. There’s a reason why Iran is a world leader in sex-reassignment surgery, and why the mullahs pay for it. Homosexuality in Iran is so anathema that gay boys must be turned into girls, and lesbian girls into boys, to conform to heterosexual norms. Sound a little too familiar?

Adults are increasingly forced to obey the new norms of “social justice” or be fired, demoted, ostracized, or canceled. Many resist; many stay quiet; a few succumb and convert. Children have no such options.

Indoctrinate yourselves as much as you want to, guys. It’s a free country. But hey, teacher — leave those kids alone.

Foreign Interference, Part II

You’ve got to love Rudy Giuliani. His foam-flecked meltdown on CNN last night was not exactly a sign of confidence in his beleaguered client in the White House. Roy Cohn would have been a little smoother.

What Giuliani admitted — and then tried to deny he admitted — is that he went to Ukraine in order to get the government in Kiev to investigate a potential scandal involving the Bidens. Once again, Trump was seeking support from a foreign power in order to influence next year’s presidential election. Hey, he got away with it once. Why not twice? All of which casts a whole new and incriminating light on that phone call with the Ukrainian president that an intelligence agent brought to the attention of the authorities via the whistle-blower statute.

Do I believe that Trump is perfectly capable of using his office to lean on a foreign government to expose a political opponent? Well, duh. And do I believe that he and his attorney general will do everything they can to keep this bottled up and away from the congressional oversight it clearly merits and legally requires? Of course they will. And the worst of it is: They have a point.

The trouble in our constitutional system is that a confidential presidential phone conversation with a foreign leader is obviously covered by executive privilege. In fact, I’d say it’s one of the most defensible cases of executive privilege there is. The president must have the ability to speak candidly with foreign leaders, and his conversations should not be available to anyone outside the Executive branch. Separation of powers requires that even the Congress be excluded from the details of this kind of discussion. And yet that discussion may well present a real threat to national security, and constitute an impeachable offense.

What do we do then? The elevation of a despicable, shameless liar and con artist to the presidency has revealed a core weakness in the U.S. Constitution. Its attribution of executive authority to one individual, the president, gives that individual extraordinary control over the entire government. If that individual is a traitor, a crook, or a pathological liar, too bad. You either impeach him … or he wins. You begin to understand why the Roman republic vested this kind of authority in two men, so that if one were corrupt, the other might correct it. We have no such system. We have, in effect, a dictator of sorts, and since Trump has no other way of operating, we have slid — perhaps irrevocably — away from liberal democracy toward an elected form of tyranny. The Founders simply assumed that a figure as depraved as Trump would never win an election.

More to the point, his criminality is backed by a solid majority of his own party. It seems increasingly likely to me that Trump’s “defense” will be to admit he did it, and insist there’s nothing wrong with it. And who believes that the GOP won’t support him on this? Rudy gave Hannity the game plan last night, and from now on, the right-wing media will likely ignore a massive abuse of power and focus on yet another largely incomprehensible conspiracy theory about Biden.

As I’ve said over and over again, the instinctual tyrant never stands still. Each time he survives, he moves the baseline. The corruption, profound now, will only intensify. The abuse of power will grow. Each time we fail to hold the tyrant accountable is an opportunity for him to up the ante yet again. Which is to say there is one obvious remedy for this lawlessness and borderline treason. Impeach!

Madam Speaker, the ball is now in your court. Please don’t fuck it up again.

Brexit Bright Spots

Through the Westminster grapevine, I’m hearing hints that the U.K. and E.U. positions on Brexit are getting closer. We all knew it would come down to the wire. Hard negotiations are like that. Yesterday, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said that he had received a new formal proposal from Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday night. Juncker’s language was more conciliatory than it has been, especially on the main sticking point, the “backstop” designed to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. He said he did not have “an erotic relation” to the backstop, in which the U.K. would be permanently trapped in the E.U. Customs Union, and was open to “alternative arrangements … allowing us and Britain to achieve the main objectives of the backstop.”

One possible solution: to keep Northern Ireland inside the Customs Union, but leave the rest of the U.K. out of it. So the hard border would actually be the Irish Sea, which is both enforceable and leaves Ireland’s Good Friday Agreement in place. Of course, this means that one part of the U.K. would be treated differently than the rest. But Northern Ireland is unique. Unlike Wales and Scotland, there is a sea between Ulster and the mainland U.K. And there are special factors — namely the long internecine, sectarian strife — that render a new, hard land border highly contentious and potentially dangerous.

There’s already a proposal from Johnson, which the Irish government is considering, to keep a customs-free zone for food and agriculture across the whole island. Surely this could be widened and built on. And this might only be a temporary arrangement, with the Brits doing what they can to see if new technology might construct a virtual border without a physical structure and checkpoints. (Don’t ask me how that would work — but it might.)

There is surely a sweet spot there — and both Boris and the E.U. have a huge incentive to get a deal. The E.U. would avoid a real economic blow at a time of slowing growth; and Johnson would be able to get a compromise through the Parliament, because only the man who led the Brexit campaign has the credibility with the Tories to tell them that this deal is the best they’re going to get. And it would be better than May’s. Having delivered Brexit, Johnson could then call an election.

In those circumstances, I suspect he’d do pretty well. He has had nothing but terrible press since entering Number 10 — but he is more popular now than on day one, with his favorable/unfavorable mix currently at 38/54. This doesn’t sound very good — until you realize that his main opponent, Jeremy Corbyn, has a favorable rating of 18 percent and an unfavorable of 70. The Tory party as a whole, meanwhile, has a double-digit lead over Labour in the latest poll of polls, and, in some, the Liberal Democrats are neck and neck with Labour.

The Eurocrats are not doing themselves any favors either. At their party conference last week, the Liberal Democrats invited Guy Verhofstadt, the chief E.U. negotiator on Brexit, to speak of his European vision. Here it is:

The world order of tomorrow is not a world order based on nation states or countries. It’s a world order that is based on empires. China is not a nation; it’s a civilization. India, you know it better than I do, is not a nation. There are 2,000 nations in India. There are 20 different languages that are used there … The U.S. is also an empire, more than a nation. Maybe tomorrow they will speak more Spanish than English; I don’t know what will happen. The world of tomorrow is a world of empires, in which we Europeans and you British can only defend your interests, your way of life, by doing it together in a European framework and a European Union.

So many people assume that the E.U. is about internationalism, openness, transcending the old power politics. It is, in fact, a would-be empire, big enough to compete for power in the world against the U.S., China, and the rest. It is an imperial project that sees no value in nation-states. Britain, on the other hand, has already had a real empire and now just wants to govern itself.

See you tonight on Real Time With Bill Maher on HBO at 10 p.m. ET. And, of course, next Friday.

Correction: The original version of this column mistook the activist American College of Pediatricians for the American Academy of Pediatricians. We apologize to the Academy and have removed the quote.

Andrew Sullivan: When the Ideologues Come for the Kids