Last week, The Atlantic’s George Packer published a wordy essay about his family’s experiences moving their kids into and out of various private and public schools in New York City. “When the Culture War Comes for the Kids” is an October Atlantic feature. On Friday, Andrew Sullivan plucked bits of the essay out to rail against identity politics, intersectionalism, and transgender school bathrooms.
These men probably feel super-moderate and revolutionary (since it’s now revolutionary among the left to not be a transgender ideologue) to notice there’s something off about boys kicking in the doors of the girls’ toilet stalls in transgender bathrooms. Simultaneously, however, they adhere to the very ideology that leads to transing the bathrooms.
Besides this stance both men share, Packer’s extremely long essay contains many other gems of leftist cognitive dissonance, some funny, some enraging, and some heartbreaking. Here’s a non-exclusive list.
1. I Pushed the Overton Window So Far It Makes Me Uncomfortable
Sullivan is famous for laying public discourse groundwork that helped lead to the Supreme Court’s magical discovery somewhere in the Constitution that men and women aren’t different. That would be Obergefell v. Hodges, which forced states to issue same-sex couples marriage licenses on the grounds that a man-woman pairing is indistinguishable from a man-man pairing or a woman-woman pairing.
This same legal ideology now forms the groundwork for the bevy of activist court cases and federal regulations forcing various institutions to transgender bathrooms, showers, sports, and sex curricula. Sullivan is a major advocate for this legal philosophy except when it inevitably leads to trans bathrooms for children. Packer likewise endorses LGBT ideology except for this consequence of it. But it’s not clear why besides “This makes me feel bad.”
“The question is simply how much damage is done by this kind of utopianism before it crumbles under its own weight,” Sullivan wrote in his reaction to Packer’s essay. “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…[according to] biology, evolution, reproductive strategy, hormones, chromosomes, and the customs of every single human culture since the beginning of time.”
What’s that you say, Mr. Sullivan? There’s a man who makes this same argument. You might like to meet him. His name is Ryan Anderson.
2. Bathroom Violence Is Real
After a second grader—I repeat, a second grader—in Packer’s son’s K-5 public school identified as transgender, without telling the parents the school de-sexed all of the bathrooms. Packer writes:
Kids would be conditioned to the new norm at such a young age that they would become the first cohort in history for whom gender had nothing to do with whether they sat or stood to pee. All that biology entailed—curiosity, fear, shame, aggression, pubescence, the thing between the legs—was erased or wished away….
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.
But we’ve all been told that genderless bathrooms are a civil right and it’s transphobic to suggest it might lead to violence, or at least discomfort! Is reality clashing with the narrative again?
3. The Extreme Importance of Married, Attentive Parents
Packer backhandedly highlights the importance of married, two-parent homes to kids’ success and happiness. When describing the worries that drive elite parents like him to compete in “The Hunger Games: NYC Schools,” he also accidentally describes the type of fierce, joint parental commitment kids need to turn into contributing Americans.
Far below [parents] see a dim world of processed food, obesity, divorce, addiction, online-education scams, stagnant wages, outsourcing, rising morbidity rates—and they pledge to do whatever they can to keep their children from falling. They’ll stay married, cook organic family meals, read aloud at bedtime every night, take out a crushing mortgage on a house in a highly rated school district, pay for music teachers and test-prep tutors, and donate repeatedly to overendowed alumni funds. The battle to get their children a place near the front of the line begins before conception and continues well into their kids’ adult lives.
But I bet if someone suggested that if poor people acted this way they also could help their kids rise above their circumstances, he’d label that racism, sexism, bigotry, or some other dismissal of his own observation. I bet this because in the article Packer attributes poverty and lack of achievement to social factors individuals can’t change: “meritocracy” and “racism.”
4. Why Schools Can’t Help Being Political
One of the left’s best insights is that schools not only cultivate skills and knowledge, but also attitudes and behaviors. The left cares a lot more about the latter, another reason the schools they run tend to devastate poor kids and become politically corrupt.
Public schools’ relentless focus on politics has affected Packer’s children deeply, as they do every child. Here are some eye-popping examples of what the left does to kids using its control of education.
…progressive politics meant thinking in groups. When our son was in third or fourth grade, students began to form groups that met to discuss issues based on identity—race, sexuality, disability… Other, less diverse schools in New York, including elite private ones, had taken to dividing their students by race into consciousness-raising ‘affinity groups.’ I knew several mixed-race families that transferred their kids out of one such school because they were put off by the relentless focus on race.
…[Packer’s elementary school-aged son had] been painfully aware of climate change throughout elementary school—first grade was devoted to recycling and sustainability, and in third grade, during a unit on Africa, he learned that every wild animal he loved was facing extinction. ‘What are humans good for besides destroying the planet?’ he asked. Our daughter wasn’t immune to the heavy mood—she came home from school one day and expressed a wish not to be white so that she wouldn’t have slavery on her conscience. It did not seem like a moral victory for our children to grow up hating their species and themselves.
…[Packer’s son’s fifth grade] was an education in activism, and with no grounding in civics, activism just meant speaking out. At the year-end share, the fifth graders presented dioramas on all the hard issues of the moment—sexual harassment, LGBTQ rights, gun violence. Our son made a plastic-bag factory whose smokestack spouted endangered animals. Compared with previous years, the writing was minimal and the students, when questioned, had little to say. They hadn’t been encouraged to research their topics, make intellectual discoveries, answer potential counterarguments. The dioramas consisted of cardboard, clay, and slogans.
If you don’t think 10-year-olds should learn all about sexual harassment, LGBTQ sex, gun violence, environmentalism, and other PC slogans, public schools may not be for you.
5. Plenty on the Left Don’t Like Identity Politics Either
Packer seems to be fine with public schools teaching small children about transgenderism and the impending environmental apocalypse, but identity politics’ increasing anti-white racism and victim hierarchy is too far for him for some reason. Maybe it’s because he’s white.
Regardless, his essay offers some incisive commentary on identity politics that many on the right could agree with.
The politics of identity starts out with the universal principles of equality, dignity, and freedom, but in practice it becomes an end in itself—often a dead end, a trap from which there’s no easy escape and maybe no desire for escape. Instead of equality, it sets up a new hierarchy that inverts the old, discredited one—a new moral caste system that ranks people by the oppression of their group identity. It makes race, which is a dubious and sinister social construct, an essence that defines individuals regardless of agency or circumstance—as when Representative Ayanna Pressley said, ‘We don’t need any more brown faces that don’t want to be a brown voice; we don’t need black faces that don’t want to be a black voice.’
6. Leftist Curricula Makes People Ignorant and Sad
Packer also gives a spot-on sketch of how most curricula, as I’ve seen in both public and private schools, today withholds from children what is most important and instead teaches a disjointed collection of subjects that coalesce only in undermining family, faith, and freedom. It’s sad and enraging, all at once, primarily because American children deserve better, but also because these mal-educated kids are going to vote soon.
Packer also notes in several places that schools’ relentless focus on leftist politics makes his kids depressed, withdrawn, and anxious,. Hm, maybe an ideology and school system that does this deserves a re-evaluation.
I wished that our son’s school would teach him civics. By age 10 he had studied the civilizations of ancient China, Africa, the early Dutch in New Amsterdam, and the Mayans. He learned about the genocide of Native Americans and slavery. But he was never taught about the founding of the republic. He didn’t learn that conflicting values and practical compromises are the lifeblood of self-government. He was given no context for the meaning of freedom of expression, no knowledge of the democratic ideas that Trump was trashing or of the instruments with which citizens could hold those in power accountable. Our son knew about the worst betrayals of democracy, including the one darkening his childhood, but he wasn’t taught the principles that had been betrayed. He got his civics from Hamilton.
7. Tacitly Admitting It’s The Left’s Fault NYC Schools Suck
Democrats have run New York City for a century. According to Wikipedia, “New York City has not been carried by a Republican in a statewide or presidential election since President Calvin Coolidge won the five boroughs in 1924.” Packer’s essay makes a lot of how the city’s schools neither serve poor nor rich kids well, to the point that he and other privileged city people shell out the equivalent of a down payment on a house where I live ($30,000 and up) for each kid, each year, to avoid these schools in favor of ones run—gasp!—privately.
Packer describes his children’s government-assigned elementary school as “forever improving on a terrible reputation, but not fast enough.” When he visited, “Students were wandering around the rooms without focus, the air was heavy with listlessness, there seemed to be little learning going on.”
Not surprisingly, the Packers didn’t enroll their kids. Guess it’s just too bad for all the other kids whose parents can’t afford $30,000 per year to make the same choice. He probably sends them thoughts and prayers. Now, which political party is it, again, that favors letting parents control which school gets their kids’ state education dollars? Which is the reason no vouchers bill can pass the New York legislature?
“Our city’s are among the most racially and economically segregated in America,” Packer notes. What he doesn’t note is that they are controlled by the farthest-left Democrats in the country. In fact, all of the most racially and economically segregated schools are. Could that be partly because lots of people on the left say one thing about racial diversity while doing another? If that’s the case, how come they are by far the quickest to play the “racist” card against others? Could projection have anything to do with it?
It sure would be a shame to pay New York City taxes for schools that don’t serve the young or taxpayers well while spending $22,000 per child every year, more than every other school district in the country. Somehow, however, Packer can’t seem to connect all this to a specific governing philosophy.
8. Blaming Not the Left that NYC Schools Suck
Instead, Packer blames that old leftist bogeyman, “institutional racism,” for the state of New York City public schools. It’s another strange tactic given, again, that NYC boasts one of the farthest-left environments in the nation, and even in the world.
“The legacy of racism, together with a false meritocracy in America today that keeps children trapped where they are, is the root cause of the inequalities in the city’s schools,” Packer writes. A city run by Democrats for the last century is rife with “institutional racism.” That’s his approving quote of a fellow NYC parent. I guess he’s really into friendly fire right now.
9. Meritocracy Isn’t Opposed to Equality
Packer spends a lot of time on his conception of meritocracy, a system of anxiety he blames for testing and parents trying to get their kids into “prestigious” preschools starting before birth. He juxtaposes it against broad concepts like “equality” and “democracy.” Oddly, however, his conception of “merit” seems to rest entirely on income and job prestige, a Marxist and materialist conception of the cosmos.
What Packer calls “meritocracy” seems to be in reality a corrupt anti-meritocracy where character doesn’t matter so much as getting ahead of the other guy, by hook or by crook. Some people move up by buying powerful friends; others by monetizing their position on the identity politics matrix. Neither is based on genuine merit, but on pretense. It’s all about manufacturing the right brand, not about constructing a reliable product. How NYC.
“The claim of democracy doesn’t negate meritocracy, but they’re in tension,” Packer notes. “One values equality and openness, the other achievement and security. Neither can answer every need. To lose sight of either makes life poorer. The essential task is to bring meritocracy and democracy into a relation where they can coexist and even flourish.” Exactly. Gee, I wonder how we could balance the fact that people have different capacities for excellence with not locking people into one station based on stereotypes? How could we get the people with stronger abilities to use them to serve those with weaker abilities rather than exploit them?
Well, we could provide equality of opportunity, and require people to rise by benefiting others who can freely choose their services. No special favors for anyone, meaning no hiding any lack of achievement of any person, whether rich or poor, and rewards that any individual did not himself earn. Each person rises or falls strictly on his own hard work and talent.
If anyone complains that under such a system poor people cannot succeed, they should look at the children of Indian and Jamaican immigrants, who achieve at extremely high rates even when poor. Perhaps if people stopped shouting “racism!” about every single instance of group outcome differences we could actually discuss why so others can learn from success.
In a true education meritocracy, only parents’ choices would determine which schools win students. That would provide an equal opportunity to all, and satisfy both meritocracy and democracy. Instead the current system is closer to oligarchy.
That is how all centrally controlled systems tend, because they consolidate power away from individuals and toward special interests. Then quality goes down, the price goes up, and only the richest people can escape. It’s no accident that New York City’s schooling ecosystem matches the social conditions in Venezuela.