The great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky considered crimes against children as the ultimate human sin. He wrote about it in his landmark novel The Brothers Karamazov in 1880.
“Love children especially, for they too are sinless like the angels,” says the Russian monk, Father Zossima, the spiritual guide of the religious novice Alyosha Karamazov in the novel. “They live to soften and purify our hearts and, as it were, to guide us. Woe to him who offends a child!”
How needed are those words today in the United States, where children are under assault from both the Left and the Right. Where are the Father Zossimas to stand up to the political leaders and activists who would put children back to work into what writer Edwin Markham once called the “Bastilles of Labor”, the factories and farms where they could work cheap and fill the gaps left by adult workers no longer willing to slave away at unlivable wages?
Where are the Father Zossimas who would protect children from the crazed attackers who shot their way through dozens of schools in 2022, killing 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas, and continuing their assaults today while politicians argue the sanctity of the 2nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution?
Where are the Father Zossimas who would protect children from sexualized performances in kindergartens and grade schools by Drag Queens who want to push a Queer theory agenda that would reformulate “children’s relationship with sex, sexuality, and eroticism,” in the words of North Carolina therapist and author Paula Rinehart?
Bastilles of labor
Recent reports by In These Times, the New York Times, and the U.S. Department of Labor show that hundreds of underage children are working at fast food outlets, construction projects, food processing plants, farms, and factories across at least 20 states. “Some were working 12 hours a day and many were not attending school,” Sonali Kolhatkar wrote for In These Times.
Many of these children are undocumented migrants from Central America, the victims along with their parents of neoliberal economic and trade agreements and policies that have impoverished small farmers and blue-collar workers across the Global South and forced them to migrant into foreign lands like the United States in search of jobs and sustenance.
This past March Arkansas’s Republican governor, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, signed into law a bill that eliminated requirements by employers to verify the age of children before hiring them. Republicans are leading the charge to eliminate such requirements, and they’ve succeeded in Iowa and Wisconsin, and are pushing similar bills in other states. The U.S. Department of Labor reported this month that some 300 children in Kentucky worked illegally at McDonald’s franchises.
Post-pandemic demands by workers for better wages and working conditions have led profit-obsessed employers to seek other sources of labor, rather than simply paying workers what they deserve.
Nearly 120 years ago, during the great Muckraking era in journalism, poet and teacher Edwin Markham raged in Cosmopolitan magazine against the child labor practices of the day. “An army of one million seven hundred thousand children are at work in our `land of the free’ … many of them working their ten or fourteen hours by day or by night, with only a miserable dime for a wage!”
Both the robber barons and the preachers of the day defended the practice of sending children off to “the ogre scream of the factory whistle” where they worked so hard that at night “they fall asleep with the food unswallowed in the mouth.” Many of these children were young daughters of the South, sweating away their childhood in textile mills and subsceptible to the desires of their overseers if they happened “to be cursed with a little beauty.”
Markham’s public outrage helped spark widespread condemnation of child labor and passage of laws that largely eliminated it—for a time.
In a land where the 2nd amendment is more important than children
Between 2019 and 2021 the United States reported more than 1,700 mass shootings. Hundreds more came in 2022, and the numbers are climbing in 2023. Children are often the victims of these shootings, and schools are especially vulnerable.
Last month thousands of students in the Nashville area walked out of their schools and to the Tennessee State Capitol to protest the state’s lax gun laws in the wake of a March 27 shooting at the Covenant School, a private Christian school where police said 28-year-old Audrey Hale killed three children and three adults before being shot and killed.
Republican Governor Bill Lee pledged $155 million toward increased security at schools but he’s done nothing to repeal the 2021 statute he championed that allows 21-year-olds to carry handguns in public with no requirement for a permit. The state Legislature is considering a bill to lower the age to 18.
Meanwhile in Uvalde, Texas, mourners this month marked the one-year anniversary of the shooting at Robb Elementary School that left 19 children and two teachers dead. They also watched in despair as proposals to tighten gun laws in Texas floundered before the state Legislature.
Their fellow mourners in Tennessee can understand their frustration. “We all want to live through high school,” Amy Goetzinger, 17, told the Chalkbeat Tennessee publication as she protested her state’s inability to make guns less accessible to potential murderers.
Drag queens and young children
Democrats and left-leaning liberals don’t get off the hook in the multi-faceted assault on children taking place in the United States.
A video filmed in 2022 by BlazeTV host Sara Gonzales showing a Texas drag queen dancing to a sexually provocative song in front of a young girl at a restaurant in Plano, Texas, not only went viral but also sparked outrage by politicians in the state who vowed legislation that would crack down on such performances. Leading the charge were Republicans, not Democrats.
The video was an early volley in a growing battle not only over children and exposure to highly sexual drag queen performances but also to questions of the propriety of allowing children to undergo life-changing gender transition procedures.
A commitment to equality and fairness in the treatment of people who are not strictly heterosexual is admirable, but should such a commitment include allowing blatant sexual demonstrations in front of young and vulnerable children who have enough challenges in their lives without a premature push to assess their sexuality? That includes allowing them to make or be part of decisions that they don’t have the maturity to make?
Paula Rinehart, a therapist in Raleigh, North Carolina, says drag queen culture ultimately attempts to “deconstruct childhood” and thus rob “children of the innocence that protects their maturing process” in the name of liberating “society from the oppression of gender.”
“Children are neither hormonally nor psychologically inclined to explore their sexuality,” Rinehart writes. “They don’t naturally worry if they are `nonbinary’. They must be primed, stimulated, dragged in that direction.”
A final word
A key word in Rinehart’s comment is “dragged”--children forced into back-breaking labor, exposed to life-threatening assaults at schools where they are supposed to learn and not hide under desks, and drawn into adult sexual wars. We adults have a responsibility. We should be not only protecting, educating, and preparing children for adulthood. We should also, as Father Zossima says, admire, appreciate, and love them for their ability “to soften and purify our hearts.”