Malevolence and Misunderstanding

Lancelot:  Your rage has unbalanced you. You, sir, would fight to the death, against a knight who is not your enemy. Over a stretch of road you could easily ride around.

Arthur:   So be it. To the death!

               —Excalibur

Question #1: How many times in your life have you lost a friend because one of you malevolently decided to hurt the other?

Question #2: How many times in your life have you lost a friend over a misunderstanding?

I am glad to report that I have lost few friends in my life.  But as far as I can tell, all of the rare exceptions were driven by misunderstandings.  Someone spoke rashly, which hurt someone’s feelings, which led to retaliation, which led to more hurt feelings, and so on.  Or, someone acted as they thought proper, but someone else perceived otherwise, which led to offense, which led to counter-offense.  The same goes for all the people I know well.  They’ve lost many friends, but years later they flounder to explain the casus belli.

Is my corner of the world unusually free of sheer evil?  Probably.  Still, I doubt my experience is unusual.  I bet that most readers have lost at least five times as many friends to misunderstandings as they have to malevolence.

How can you tell the difference between malevolence and misunderstanding?  Try this a helpful thought experiment.  Imagine both sides calmly describe what they saw with their own eyes and heard with their own ears to a neutral outsider.  If the outsider would tell both sides to forget the dispute and stay friends, you had a misunderstanding.  If the outsider would say, “This is a bad match,” you still had a misunderstanding; just one that’s likely to recur.  But if the outsider would tell one of you, “Get away from this toxic person,” you saw – or were – malevolence.*

Why appeal to “neutral outsiders”?  Well, the main reason misunderstandings arise is because most human beings rush to assume malevolence.  Indeed, this is built into the very concept of the “misunderstanding”!  Sure, I sometimes speak rashly.  Sure, I’m no mind reader.  When my friends speak rashly to me, or fail to understand my feelings, however, the default explanation is not that they spoke hastily or failed to see the world from my perspective.  The default explanation is that they consciously decided to make me suffer.

Yes, it’s childish to think this way.  But what can I say?  People are childish.

Small example: Friday I was shopping with my sons.  My back was hurting, so they were pushing the cart.  When I got in line, a women immediately pulled up her cart behind me.  By this point, my sons were ten feet away.  When I asked her to make room for our cart, she grew angry: “Well that’s strange!”  Even my highly visible back brace was not enough to make her wonder about my situation.  When I meekly got out of the way and offered to let her go ahead of me, she huffed and moved to the next lane.  To me, this was a textbook example of a misunderstanding.  Still, I suspect she went home and told her family about how awful I was.  I made the effort to understand where she was coming from, but somehow she gazed into the heart of a total stranger and saw malevolence.

You could object, “Yours is hardly an original point.  Parents and teachers routinely alert children to the risk of misunderstandings.”  Fair enough.  My claim, however, is that this lesson rarely sinks in.  Adults remain prone to misinterpret mere misunderstandings as malevolence.  Indeed, there are mighty social and political movements that angrily strive to amplify this error – to ascribe malevolence recklessly, and demean those to ask us to mimic the perspective of a neutral outsider when conflict arises.

These days, the Me Too movement is the highest-profile example.  When you carefully listen to the public accusations, their severity varies tremendously.  The case of Bill Cosby is light-years from the cases of Louie C.K. or Aziz Ansari.  Is it possible that the latter two celebrities were involved in misunderstandings that bizarrely became national crises?  Entirely possible.  But most Me Too activists don’t just gloss over this possibility; they view those who muse, “Maybe it’s all a big misunderstanding” with hostility.  At risk of creating a new misunderstanding, my reaction to most Me Too scandals is precisely, “Maybe it’s all a big misunderstanding.”  Indeed, I maintain that we should presume that conflicts are misunderstandings in the absence of strong evidence to the contrary.

How far should we apply this insight?  Far indeed.  Even tiny slights, uncharitably interpreted, often spiral out of control.  So let us assess behavior with perspective and charity.  Much conflict between Democrats and Republicans rests on misunderstandings.  Much of the conflict between Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter conflict rests on misunderstandings.  So does much of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Indeed, part of the reason why I’m a pacifist that so many international conflicts are plainly rooted in misunderstandings.  (If you can’t wait to scoff, “So the Nazis just had a big misunderstanding with the rest of Europe?,” you are fostering a misunderstanding between us.  Over a stretch of road you could easily ride around).

If we fully accepted the prevalence of misunderstandings, couldn’t a malevolent person take advantage of us?  I’m afraid so.  Fortunately, that’s a minor danger compared to the opposite mistake.  Remember: When you lose a friend over a misunderstanding, you don’t merely mistreat a friend.  You deprive yourself of friendship in a lonely world.

* A worse, but still tolerably good rule of thumb: If your own complaints against your former friend seem less compelling to you years later, you probably had a misunderstanding.  If your complaints actually seem more compelling years later, malevolence is more plausible.

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Trump and Netanyahu: “Mutual Defense” or Just Mutual Political Back-Scratching?

On September 14, US president Donald Trump tweeted (of course) the suggestion of a US-Israel “Mutual Defense Treaty,” citing a call with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Hopefully there’s less going on here than meets the eye: The tweet may just be another mutual publicity back-scratch of the type Trump and Netanyahu frequently exchange when they find themselves in political pickles. And Netanyahu is likely in the biggest such pickle of his career.

After failing to put together a ruling coalition in the wake of April’s general election, Netanyahu called another election for September 17.

Netanyahu also faces imminent indictment on three corruption charges, with a court hearing on the charges scheduled for early October. In June, his wife Sara took a plea deal and paid a fine for misusing state funds.

Netanyahu’s personal future may well depend on him having a political future. He’s pulling out all stops to change the April results, from approving new Israeli squats (“settlements”) in, and even promising to annex parts of, the occupied West Bank, to conducting military attacks in Syria and Iraq and along the Lebanese border.

Talk of a “Mutual Defense Treaty” with the US may well drive some badly needed votes his way, especially to the extent that such a treaty might be thought available only to Netanyahu and his Likud Party but not to Benny Gantz’s Blue and White alliance (the platform of which, by the way, bars indicted politicians from serving in the Knesset, Israel’s legislature).

So maybe Trump’s tweet is just politics. But if it’s for real, it’s a bad idea for the US, a bad idea for Israel, and a bad idea for world peace.

The US doesn’t need Israel’s assistance to defend itself. It already spends far more than any other state in the world on its military,  that amount is many multiples of any amount reasonably related to actual defense, and it faces no existential military threats other than attack with nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles, which Israel couldn’t plausibly reduce.

Israel hasn’t faced a military threat to its existence since 1973, and given the web of US-influenced and US-financed relations it’s created with Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, isn’t likely to face any such threat not of its own making for the foreseeable future .

As for peace in general, Trump proposes a “Mutual Defense” pact with a rogue nuclear garrison ethno-state in a tinderbox region. What could possibly go wrong?

A “Mutual Defense Treaty” with the US would only encourage further bad behavior and saber-rattling on the part of the Israelis toward e.g. Iran and Syria. That’s the kind of behavior bound to eventually CREATE a real military threat, resulting in the Israelis demanding US support pursuant to the treaty, on a claim of “Mom, he hit me back FIRST.”

It’s time for the US to start furling its post-World War Two “security umbrella” instead of inviting suspect new partners to join it beneath that umbrella. America’s future, if it is to have one, requires a non-interventionist foreign policy.

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Buddhist Anarchism and Nonviolent Communication

Here are some pieces that I wrote up for two episodes of the Anarchy Bang podcast. One episode was about buddhist anarchism and the other episode was about Nonviolent Communication & anarchism.


Buddhist Anarchism

It’s hard to really know where to begin with Buddhism, given that there are so many different ways that people relate to the thing. Buddhism can be seen as a religion, a philosophy, an approach to psychology, a personal practice or a culture. And then there are the infinite different sects, traditions, branches and sub-branches within Buddhism. It all can very quickly become very overwhelming and confusing.

That all being said, the way that I like to begin to make sense of Buddhism is by studying some of the renowned lists within Buddhism. What better way to organize one’s thoughts on something than to use lists? One list in particular stands out to me the most, it’s called “the three marks of existence”. Basically it lists the three qualities that mark life as we know it. The first quality is that change is constant and inevitable, that nothing lasts forever. The second is that everything is comprised of many different interacting components and forces acting on it, that nothing exists on it’s own, in and of itself. Basically, “anti-essentialism” is how I like to look at it. And the third is that suffering exists, it’s an experience that we all have.

This then goes into perhaps the most famous list within Buddhism, the Four Noble Truths. The first one is what I just mentioned, that whole “suffering” thing that we all have. The second is that there is a root cause to this suffering, and that is craving or clinging to our ideas of what we want. The third is that it is indeed possible to overcome this kind of attachment. And the fourth is the way to go about doing that, which is itself another list, the Noble Eightfold Path.

…And as much as I love the Noble Eightfold Path, I won’t go into that list here.

So what does this all have to do with anarchism? Well, as I see it, that whole “suffering” condition that we all experience makes us all crazy, it makes us all desperate and frantic, even if we are able to put up a good front and present ourselves as being mature capable thinkers. Our lack of dealing with our own suffering head-on deprives us of our own personal power.

Buddhist practice is all about developing one’s own personal power, self-mastery, cultivating one’s ability to choose and act on one’s choices, rather that letting one’s own old habits, old beliefs and emotional reactivity dictate one’s life. It’s also about getting more peace and contentment in one’s life. You are not always going to get what you want, anarchists will always disappoint you, your dreams for an anarchist world will never happen, and if you do decide to embark on a Buddhist practice, you will probably fuck that up too. But the paradoxical beauty of Buddhism is that even with that all being the case, one can come to acceptance of all of that, and still keep on going. At least for as long as this life you are living now exists.


Nonviolent Communication & Anarchism

Nonviolent Communication (also known as “NVC” or “compassionate communication”) is a set of conceptual tools and a general worldview that a number of anarchists have found useful and at times have adopted. Some have found it to be a how-to guide for living without hierarchy and domination, whereas others have found it to be a series of tips for approaching conflict in ways that are hopefully more productive.

NVC can be used as a way to do conflict resolution, which is what it is best known for, but it can also be used for meeting facilitation, counseling & therapy, and some would say for social change work itself. The crux of NVC is developing one’s ability to make distinctions between objective observations vs. subjective interpretations, bodily-felt feelings vs. cognitive evaluations, and fundamental human needs vs. the infinite ways that needs can be met. The ultimate goal of NVC is for it’s practitioners to come to embody a way of being that the psychologist Carl Rogers said is most helpful in relationships: heartfelt authenticity, empathic understanding and unconditional positive regard. The idea is that through such qualities being present in a relationship, that relationship will eventually and inevitably become stronger, autonomy-respecting, collaborative and conducive to those involved realizing their own personal power. Anarchy, baby!

Some related readings

The Basics of Nonviolent Communication

Key Assumptions and Intentions of Nonviolent Communication

Compassionate Anarchism

Can the Social Order Be Transformed through Personal Practice? The Case of Nonviolent Communication

Person-centered Therapy

 


I will begin with a quote which has always been the touchstone for me and my anarchism, that famous quote from Gustav Landauer:

“The State is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of behavior; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently toward one another… We are the State and we shall continue to be the State until we have created the institutions that form a real community.”

With this in mind, I immediately ask: what are the different kinds of relationships that would comprise anarchy? What would these relationships look like?

The answers that I come up with is that these relationships would, generally-speaking, acknowledge and respect the autonomy of everybody involved while also enabling people to cooperate, collaborate and make decisions together as equals, with no one person or group of people bossing everyone else around. All of this stuff is easier said than done, which is why I eventually started to look for some guides and pointers for how to actually do this, practically-speaking.

This lead to me eventually discovering something called “Nonviolent Communication”, or “NVC” for short. NVC generally lives in the self-help/self-improvement world, and the demographic that is mainly drawn to NVC is middle-aged middle-class 1st world white women with liberal/progressive politics. In short, NVC is not at all something that originates from the anarchist scene, yet as soon as I started to study I immediately saw the connections and correlations with anarchism, and I got quite excited about that.

For about five years I was a zealous missionary for a kind of NVC-anarchist hybrid that I tried to develop and promote to anybody who would listen to me. For the next ten years after that I had more of a low-key involvement with NVC lasting until just last year when I decided to end my involvement with the NVC milieu altogether. My overall takeaway message from the whole thing is that while some maps, guides and conceptual schemas may be helpful for actualizing anarchy in the real-world, ultimately human beings with all of their complexities, foibles and psychoses go above and beyond anything that we can come up with.

To quote our anarchist daddy, Mikhail Bakunin: “No theory, no ready-made system, no book that has ever been written will save the world. I cleave to no system. I am a true seeker.”

This leaves me with a belief that Nonviolent Communication is something that can be useful and helpful for anarchists, if one cares to spend the time & energy to seriously consider it. I do not think that NVC is something that anybody “should” do, and in fact I think that the moment that one looks at it that way the whole thing becomes completely worthless and a waste of time. But if the sincere interest and desire to learn NVC is there, then the time spent can be worthwhile. So let’s talk about Nonviolent Communication.

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Added “Friction” Does Greater Harm to Good People

In my continuing “Scott Adams (is wrong) on guns” series (that’s a new tag), I have looked at many of his “halfpinions” (his word) concerning guns.

Here’s the next installment. Yes, this is something I’ve brought up before, but it bears repeating since he’s still misrepresenting the issue.

When people object to his anti-gun ideas by reasonably pointing out that bad people will still get guns and suicidal people will still kill themselves he likes to say that of course they will, but any new “law” will add “friction” to the process, and “add friction; get less of that behavior (crime/suicide)”.

Again he’s acting on the faulty premise– the assumption– that guns are bad; that they are the problem; that cutting back on their availability even a little is generally a good thing. They aren’t, and it isn’t. Starting from a flawed premise, he arrives at a dumb “halfpinion” of his own.

Yes, you might “add friction” to a bad guy getting a gun with which to violate innocent people but those aren’t the only people to whom you are adding friction. You also add friction to the good, innocent people looking to get a gun for defense at the same time you add friction to the bad guys looking to violate the innocent. You are adding friction to the girl whose crazy ex is promising to kill her. I lost a friend to this added friction about 26 years ago as she waited for governmental permission to buy and carry a gun for self-defense. Guess who didn’t bother following the friction-causing “laws”.

Who is more accustomed to dealing with added friction on a daily basis?

Who has the connections to do an end-run around your added friction? It’s not usually the good people.

It’s always going to affect those who want a gun for self-defense more than it will affect the bad guys who want a gun for offense. Add friction, you get less self-defense.

You might “add friction” to a suicidal person’s attempt to get a gun with which to end his own life. This might save a few lives– the lives of those who don’t have some other method immediately available and who will soon change their mind about committing suicide– but how many innocent lives are you sacrificing in the process? Do you really believe it’s worth the cost to trade one person who wants to die for one person who wants to live— even if those wants are temporary whims?

He pretends he’s already considering net “gun deaths”, but he can’t be. There is no way to record how many lives are saved with guns, so how can you credibly consider them? Very few of those cases ever get reported– to government or the media. Most cases of self-defense don’t result in the gun being fired. And even in the small number which do, unless a shot is fired and you’re in a town where the gunshot will attract unwanted attention, who’s dumb enough to call the cops on themselves? Even if you are in town, I’d bet in most cases the sound of a gunshot isn’t currently pinpointed if no one reports being shot. No one can know even a reasonable estimate of how many lives are saved with a gun, so there is no possible way to calculate the net “gun deaths”.

He’s only looking at half of the picture and ignoring the inconvenient part– just as he does in all his “gun control” [sic] ideas. This is his definition of a “halfpinion” which he claims everyone else is exhibiting while he’s the only one who isn’t…while he does it right in front of the world. And it’s because he starts with the predetermined assumption that guns must be bad, that guns are a problem, even as he paces gun owners by claiming to be “pro-gun; pro-Second Amendment“.

If you start with a faulty premise you’ll come to dumb conclusions because you’re thinking of the topic incorrectly.

I’ve tried to get his attention, but he ignored my attempts. He probably blocked me if he saw my tweets since I wasn’t kind or gentle with my criticism, and yes, I did make it personal because he’s personally advocating this toxic mindset. I didn’t expect to change his mind, anyway, but I want to give you the mental tools to refute the claims of anti-gun bigots whenever they crop up. They are wrong, even if they are popular and believe they are smarter than you and me.

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How Shift Happens in Our Lives

There are a lot of us who would like to change something, but find it difficult to make that change. I’m here to share with you the fact that making a shift like this is absolutely possible, and share how that shift might happen.

So let’s start with this: making a shift in our lives is absolutely possible. Not only have I made dozens of changes in my life, I’ve seen hundreds, even thousands of people change in my Sea Change Program and now my Fearless Training Program. It’s not always easy, it’s often very messy, but it’s absolutely possible.

Let’s look at how shift happens most often.

The Phases of How Shift Happens in Our Lives

Here’s how the change often happens, in my experience:

  1. You struggle with the change. This phase might take years — there’s something in your life that’s making you unhappy, unhealthy, or struggle with work or relationships. You want to change it, but either it’s too difficult or you aren’t very motivated to do it. You struggle, you give up, you feel bad about it. Repeat for months or years. This might be thought of as Phase -1.
  2. You are finally ready to change. Something clicks for you — it’s almost like a switch being flipped. You decide it’s finally time to change. For some people, it’s hitting rock bottom — things get so bad that you are finally faced with the fact that you need to change, and you want to change. Other times, it’s getting inspired by something you read or watch, or hearing about someone else’s change. Sometimes it’s just having the courage to really sit and reflect on the change that you want and why it’s so important to you, and then resolving to get serious about it. We’ll call this Phase 0.
  3. You start the shift, probably with some enthusiasm. You might go all in and be incredibly enthusiastic about the change, and get new books and equipment, watch videos, read about it online, download an app or two. The first few days, you might be super motivated and diligent. For some people, this initial surge can fade quickly (in 1-4 days) or last a little longer (5-9 days). It’s a bit rarer for it to last 2 weeks but it can definitely happen. Let’s call this Phase 1.
  4. You find it harder or different than you thought, and struggle a little. Often people find change to be more difficult than they thought, or not meeting the expectations they had. This can bring struggle or even quitting. If you struggle but don’t quit, you can make it into the next phase. The problem is that we have a fantasy of how it will happen, and it rarely goes that well. We think we’ll be in shape to run a 5K after a week of running. We are surprised that working out at the gym is so tough. We are not masters of the French language in 14 days. And so on. It can be discouraging. Sometimes people just lose focus because of too much going on — this is a sign that they aren’t as motivated as they need to be, if busyness can sidetrack them easily. Let’s call this Phase 2.
  5. You stick with it and find some positive change. If you do stick with it through that initial struggle, and keep at it … you’ll find change starting to happen. That will feel good and be encouraging. Most people don’t stick with it long enough for change to happen, even though it can start to happen after a week or two. If you get to this stage, rejoice! You are probably in the top 10% of people who want to make changes. This phase can last for a pretty variable amount of time — a week, a month, maybe two months. This is Phase 3.
  6. You get sidetracked but then come back again (or not). At some point, probably in 2-3 weeks after getting to Phase 3 above (maybe longer), you will get sidetracked. It’s inevitable. No one is completely focused on one thing forever. You travel, you get sick, you have visitors, you get busy at work, you have to move, there’s a crisis in your family, your child or pet gets sick. This is Phase 4, and it’s not necessarily the end of this change — though for many people, it is the end. They get sidetracked and go all the way back to Phase -1 above, when they’re struggling for a long time. But it doesn’t have to be the end — it’s just a brief break of a few days or even a few weeks. You get sidetracked, probably discouraged, and you probably don’t want to think about this change because it makes you feel bad to think about it … but then you decide to face it and start again! You pick the next smallest step and start. Maybe you find ways to motivate yourself that are similar to Phase 0 above. You get started again.
  7. It becomes a part of your life. This Phase 5 is similar to Phase 3, in that you’re chugging along nicely and making the change happen … but in this phase, it gets easier and easier and becomes a part of your lifestyle. Or maybe not, and it’s actually just a repeat of Phase 3 and then you go through Phase 4 and then repeat a few times. But if you reach Phase 5, it can seem really easy and seem like you’ll never have to worry about this again. This is when it’s a good idea to start a new change.
  8. Things start to slip back until you refocus yourself. But at some point, many people slip back into their old habits, despite the change becoming easy. The old habits haven’t always completely died. By the way, this isn’t a universal phase — I’ve never slipped back into smoking, for example. But for me, exercise, diet, and other similar habits have all slipped back from time to time. It might feel discouraging to have to start again. And some people never start again because they’re discouraged. The successful ones just start again and get focused and motivated again. The good news: it’s much easier the 2nd and 3rd time around! It’s not as much of an uphill struggle.

So as you can see, it’s a messy path. There are starts and stops. There’s motivation and then getting discouraged. There’s interruptions and restarting. There’s long-term change and slipping back again (sometimes). Shift happens, but not at the pace we like and not how we’d like it to.

This is the process of human beings shifting habitual patterns.

By the way, to have complete transformation of your life, you’ll need to create several (or many) of these shifts.

Key Skills in Creating Shift

Armed with that information, what do we need to create this kind of shift?

Here are the skills that will make shifts much more likely to happen:

  1. Recognizing what you need to change and then flipping the switch. We can fool ourselves about needing to change, for years. Instead, it’s a powerful skill to take a look at your life and see that you need to make a change. Often it shows up in others — they are constantly reacting negatively to our behavior, but perhaps we rationalize why they’re wrong. Often we know we need to change but don’t want to face it. The skill, then, is to get very honest with yourself and recognize that a change is needed, and then finding a way to flip the switch so that you’re committed and taking action.
  2. Starting and setting yourself up well. When you are ready to take action, get good at actually getting started. It doesn’t matter how you start — don’t get caught up in indecision and research. Instead, take action. But make one of your early actions be setting yourself up for future difficulties: set up accountability, tracking, motivation, so that when you falter, you’re more likely to stay in it or come back to it.
  3. Encouraging yourself when you’re discouraged. You will get discouraged or lose motivation at some point. Get good at encouraging yourself instead of discouraging yourself. This takes practice, but can be as simple as repeating, “You can do this!”
  4. See your rationalizations and get back on track instead. Similarly, there will be times when you’re rationalizing not doing it. You got off track, or there are things getting in the way. Get good at noticing your rationalizations and getting back on track. This is pretty much the same as the first skill at the top of this list, but applying it during the process instead of before the process starts.
  5. Starting again with a small step. Similarly to the above, really — just get started. Find the next small step and take action. Encourage yourself, over and over.

These skills obviously overlap, and you can practice them over and over again as you make a change. In this way, ever time you get sidetracked, demotivated, or struggle, it’s a great opportunity to practice the change.

Ready to make a change? Join my Sea Change Program (free for 7 days, $15/month after) and commit to making a shift in your life.

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How Government Programs Ruined Childhood

An op-ed in Sunday’s New York Times entitled “We Have Ruined Childhood” offers disheartening data about childhood depression and anxiety, closely linked to school attendance, as well as the disturbing trend away from childhood free play and toward increasing schooling, standardization, and control.

“STEM, standardized testing and active-shooter drills have largely replaced recess, leisurely lunches, art and music,” says the writer Kim Brooks, who is the author of the book, Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear.

While many of Brooks’s insights are spot-on, the undertones of her article make clear that she is focused on the collective “it takes a village” narrative of childrearing. Indeed, her book praises “the forty-one industrialized nations that offer parents paid maternity leave—to say nothing of subsidized childcare, quality early childhood education, or a host of other family supports” (p. 50).

The assertion is that most parents are desperate and alone and they must rely on government programs to help raise their children. She writes in her article:

The work of raising children, once seen as socially necessary labor benefiting the common good, is an isolated endeavor for all but the most well-off parents. Parents are entirely on their own when it comes to their offspring’s well-being…No longer able to rely on communal structures for child care or allow children time alone, parents who need to work are forced to warehouse their youngsters for long stretches of time.

This narrative is backwards. It was the expansion of government programs, particularly in education, that weakened the family, led many parents to abdicate responsibility for their children’s upbringing, and caused them to increasingly rely on government institutions to do the job for them. These institutions, in turn, grew more powerful and more bloated, undermining the family and breeding contempt for parental authority. What may seem like a charitable endeavor to help families ends up crippling parents and emboldening the state. As President Ronald Reagan reminded us: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.”

Brooks knows better than many of us the terror associated with granting the state more power: Her book details her harrowing ordeal of being accused of child neglect and ordered to complete 100 hours of community service for leaving her child alone in a car for five minutes while she ran a quick errand. The village shouldn’t be in charge of raising children; parents should.

So how did we get here? While the seeds of mounting state power and institutionalization were sown in the 19th century and spread throughout the 20th, it was Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson who dramatically accelerated these efforts in 1964-1965 with his “Great Society” legislation. One of the most consequential effects of Johnson’s Great Society proposal was getting Congress to pass the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA) which gave unprecedented control of education to the federal government, mainly through the funding of a variety of government programs. In fact, expanding the government’s role in education was a stated goal of the Great Society plan. As Johnson himself stated: “And with your courage and with your compassion and your desire, we will build a Great Society. It is a society where no child will go unfed, and no youngster will go unschooled.” (Heaven forbid a child be unschooled!)

The result of Johnson’s plan was the establishment and enlargement of programs such as Head Start, which was initiated in 1965 to provide government preschool and nutrition programs to low-income children. Despite billions of dollars spent on the federal Head Start program over the last half-century (the annual Head Start budget is over $10 billion in 2019), the results have been disappointing. As researchers at the Brookings Institute noted, the most in-depth studies of Head Start show that any initial gains disappeared by the end of kindergarten. More troubling, by third grade the children in the Head Start program were found to be more aggressive and have more emotional problems than children of similar backgrounds who did not attend Head Start.

Not only are these outcomes concerning for the children involved, they also indicate how government programs can strain family relationships. Notably, it was the parents of the Head Start children who said their children were more aggressive than non-Head Start children of similar backgrounds, suggesting that parental bonds could be compromised at the same time that government early learning programs could foster maladaptive social behaviors. When parents, not government, are in charge of determining a child’s early learning environment they may rely on informal, self-chosen networks of family and friends, thus building social capital in their communities, or they may choose from among various private preschool options where they retain control over how their child learns. If parents are not satisfied, they can leave. When government increasingly controls early childhood programs, reliance on family members, friends, and other private options fades. Grandma is no longer needed, and she becomes less of an influence in a child’s life and learning and less of a support system for her daughter or son.

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Johnson’s Great Society plan had other consequences that served to weaken family roles and strengthen government. The Child Nutrition Act of 1966 greatly expanded the National School Lunch Program, allocating additional funding and adding school breakfasts. While no one wants a child to go hungry, relying on government programs to feed children can cause poor health outcomes, strip parents of their essential responsibilities, weaken informal family and community support systems, and lead parents to hand over even more control of childrearing to the government.

Perhaps the most far-reaching impact on education of Johnson’s Great Society was the lasting legacy of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that paved the way for ongoing and amplified federal involvement in education. It was the ESEA that was reauthorized in 2001 as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) that led to the standardization of schooling through Common Core curriculum frameworks, as well as regular testing. No Child Left Behind morphed into the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015, again a reauthorization of Johnson’s ESEA, that tried to shift some curriculum standard-setting to states but retained regular testing requirements under federal law.

In her weekend op-ed, Brooks laments the increasing role of regimented schooling in children’s lives. She writes:

School days are longer and more regimented. Kindergarten, which used to be focused on play, is now an academic training ground for the first grade. Young children are assigned homework even though numerous studies have found it harmful.

She is absolutely correct, and the culprit is increasing government control over American education through the ongoing reauthorization and expansion of federal education programs. Longer, more regimented, more standardized, more test-driven schooling is a direct consequence of the government’s education policy.

The inevitable result of these expanded government powers is less control over education by parents. As parents lose this control, they cede more authority to government bureaucracies, which in turn grow more powerful and more bloated while parents get weaker and more vulnerable.

I agree that childhood is being ruined, as children play less, stress more, and find themselves in institutional learning environments for most of their childhood and adolescence. I also agree that the problem is getting worse. The solution, however, is to weaken government and strengthen families, not vice versa. Put families back in charge of a child’s education. Grant parents the respect and responsibility they rightfully deserve. Remember that the government’s role is to secure our natural rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—not to determine what those pursuits are.

Childhood is being ruined and parents are the only ones who can save it.

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