Before Politics, There's the World
I’ve mentioned a few times in the past that I spent a couple school years working in my hometown’s public school district. I spent the bulk of that time as a paraprofessional in a program for students with severe emotional disturbance. The program was housed in a regular K-5 public school but separate from the regular classrooms, though a handful of the higher-functioning students were partially mainstreamed. I quit at the end of the school year. I had grad school to go to, but even if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have kept going. The job was just too emotionally punishing. A lot of these kids were, at 8 or 9 or 10 years old, damaged in profound and debilitating ways. They self-harmed; they attempted to harm their peers; they would on rare occasions become so agitated and destructive that they had to be sent off in an ambulance. No one ever got specific about the source of any given kid’s problems, but the general problems were pretty obvious - physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect. I felt guilty about my inability to cope with the constant emotional stakes of the job, especially considering that the permanent staff there were people who were totally dedicated to helping the hardest-to-help kids.
Yet there’s a species of commentator who would call them callous, even abusive. That’s because, every once in awhile, it was necessary to physically prevent a child from hurting themselves or others. When I say it was necessary, I mean that it was necessary. In one incident, a kid became frustrated with his math assignment and without warning took hold of his big fake gold “G-Unit” medallion and started striking himself in the face with it. I was only a few paces away, but before I could stop him he had already opened up a large gash on his eyebrow, requiring a hospital visit. I also saw students go from quietly doing work to lifting a heavy desk off of the ground to bash one of their peers within a matter of seconds. There too I had to physically intervene, or else another kid would have been badly injured. In that year I think I probably had to physically restrain a kid less than a half-dozen times, but it did happen. Nobody liked it. Everyone would have rather done anything else. But sometimes there was just no choice; the idea of verbally de-escalating a kid who’s genuinely trying to kill another kid is not a serious response to an immediate problem. But there’s been a number of arguments in the media that insist that physical restraint is 100% unacceptable at all times. I wrote about this frustrating tendency here.
I got an opportunity to hash this out with a critic of physical restraint late in my grad school experience. There was a symposium or conference or whatever that I attended about special ed, and there was a panel about physical restraint. One of the people on the panel was a crusading type who insisted that there was never a moment when educators had to physically intervene to stop a child from hurting themselves or others. I brought my personal experience to bear, asking her what she would have done when one of my students was already engaged in violence. She said that she would have verbally de-escalated them. I told her that these were moments where harm was already being done, by children with serious documented behavioral issues who were often so exercised that they were incapable of listening at all. She said that she would have verbally de-escalated them. I said that there were legitimately situations where the choice was between physically intervening or allowing a child to endure major injury. She simply said, once again, that she would verbally de-escalate any child.
There was simply no bridging the divide. My perspective was informed by the understanding that children, including children who were typically harmless and sweet, could be capable of acts of unprovoked and sudden violence. That understanding was the product of experience. But my experience was no match for her sunny, uncompromising, willfully ignorant commitment to the idea that children could always be talked down, could always be relied on to be subject to rational appeal. I gave up the line of questioning. I could see that there was no force on earth that could pierce the armor of her convictions. She wanted it to be true, and so it was.
I thought of that experience when I read this piece on adoption by Larissa MacFarquhar in the New Yorker. It is, I think, a pitch-perfect example of the contemporary tendency to simply wish away any sort of necessity other than moral or political necessity. The essay is a relentless chronicle of all of the ills of adoption, why adoption is alienating and traumatic for the adopted child, how adoption scars adoptees for life, divides them from their cultures, leaves the without an identity…. Yet what MacFarquhar says in parentheses and half-sentences is the most important point of all - that adoption is inherently a response to the unavoidable tragedies of human life, a necessarily imperfect solution to very real and persistent problems. Because MacFarquhar is dedicated to framing her story as the kind of simplistic victim narrative that has so much presence in contemporary magazine writing, reflecting on the fact that adoption is inevitable and necessary would get in the way. To the degree that adoptive parents are represented in the piece at all they’re implied to be clueless at best, indifferent and ignorant colonizers who snatch up children who aren’t theirs without caring about the consequences. Almost entirely undiscussed is the fact that the world houses both children who need homes and loving and nurturing adults with homes to share. That’s why adoption exists. That’s always been why adoption exists. Kids need parents and parents need kids. No facile trauma narrative can change that basic arithmetic.
This is very sad but true: some parents are shitty, abusive people who shouldn’t raise kids, and some birth parents just don’t want their children. That’s reality.
MacFarquhar of course trots out the hoary old nostrum that interracial adoption is wicked, not just complicated but actively malign. What the reader must ask for themselves (and which the average reader won’t consider at all) is the question, why has interracial adoption been common in the past? And the answer to that question is very simple: there have been more Black children in need of adoption than prospective Black adoptive parents. I mean, obviously. Of course we can talk about the sociological and economic conditions that have traditionally left Black parents more likely to give children up for adoption than to adopt, and we can lament them. I lament them. But Black kids need homes, and there’s historically been too few Black families for them. So too with adoption from Asian countries, which as the piece says have fallen off a cliff in the past two decades: there were more poor Asian kids who needed homes than there were homes to go to in their countries of origin. Again, you can discuss the global conditions that led to so many Chinese and Korean and other kids who needed adopting in the late 20th century all you want. Go right ahead. It doesn’t change the fact that in material terms untold thousands of Asian children had their lives dramatically improved through the adoption process. Including, yes, by being adopted into white families.
There’s a profound, obviously-motivated incuriosity in MacFarquhar’s piece about what the alternatives are for most children who end up adopted. The general options are childhoods spent in orphanages, in foster care, or in some cases back with birth parents who have various problems like drug addiction or a tendency to violence. There are of course dedicated and compassionate people working in orphanages and foster care. But is MacFarquhar really under the impression that those options are systematically superior to adoption? The requirements to adopt have only gotten more strict over time. Adoptive parents as a class are richer and more stable than the average American family, again owing to ever-more-exacting standards. The dream is for all kids to end up back with their birth parents, who are without exception stable, financially secure, and kind. But that’s only a dream. Some birth parents are too violent, some are too addicted, some are too mentally ill, and some are too dead. Meanwhile the essay is casually insulting to adoptive parents everywhere, barely deigning to consider their point of view at all. Some people are infertile, thanks to genetics or illness or happenstance. Should they really be barred forever from raising children? When so many of them feel so deeply and passionately that they can raise a human life in safety and comfort? Yeah, it’d be best if they could just have their own babies. And it would be nice if every birth parent was capable of raising kids the way they deserve to be raised. It would also be nice if no dogs ever died. But they do.
I’m sure you can fit this all into a culture war frame if you’d like to. Over time, an attitude has congealed that suggests that my perspective, the insistence that some things in the world are just broken and need to be understood in those terms, is inherently conservative. But I think it’s horseshit, personally. The left has never stood for pleasant fantasy or cheap idealism that occludes basic apprehension of the world as it actually exists. The socialist mantra is that a better world is possible, not that a perfect world is possible. And as time goes on my weariness with all of the various pleasant-and-false visions of our affairs grows and grows. I have no time for it anymore, no patience. The world is broken. We are obligated to cobble together the best life we can for everyone. Make material security wherever you can and comfort from there if you’re able. If you want to insist that saying there are limits to the possible is conservative, enjoy your dream world, but leave it out of my politics. The question is pre-political.
I began this piece with a story, and I will end it with one too. I am in favor of broad and sweeping police and prison reform. I support serious efforts to rein in violence and corruption in police forces and using personnel other than the police to handle many of the duties that are now performed by cops. It needs to be easier to discipline, fire, and prosecute bad cops. We desperately need an end to the doctrine of qualified immunity that protects far too many police officers from legal accountability. I think we need serious sentencing reforms such that penalties for many crimes are dramatically lighter. I think we’re in desperate need of top-to-bottom prison reform so that our penitentiaries are safer, more humane, and free of sexual violence. And I think we need comprehensive systems for rehabilitating and reintegrating freed prisoners so that they can better rejoin society, which helps everyone. I am deeply committed to criminal justice reform.
But. Until recently, there was a big problem in my apartment building. The residents in question live three floors above us, so we rarely directly experience what’s happening, but sometimes the problem spills out into the lobby and sometimes other residents are shouting about it. The issue is that there’s a young woman who lives with her mother, grandmother, and young child in the building, and she has a boyfriend. And that boyfriend has been a source of constant trouble for that family, trouble that has spilled out and caused stress and unhappiness for the neighbors around them. Almost daily. He shows up, and they fight, and they scream, and they break things, often in front of the kid. Neighbors have called the landlord constantly, they’ve called the cops. A social worker came and spoke to her. Several times, or so I’ve heard, she’s given him the heave-ho, declaring that she was done with him and telling him to never come back. But he always does come back, despite what she’s said, despite various neighbors confronting him. He always comes back, and violence follows.
Things finally got better. You know when things finally got better? When he got put in jail, apparently for beating her up. That’s when things got better for her, her mother and grandmother, her kid, and the neighbors who had to put up with it all. You don’t hear her or her mother constantly crying anymore. The building has been far quieter and less tense. The air has been let out of the balloon. Things got better when he got put in jail. I acknowledge that, on some level, it’s a sad thing. I don’t take it lightly. Putting a human being in a cage is an immensely consequential act. And I sincerely hope that he can be rehabilitated, that the conditions he’ll experience in jail are humane, and that he doesn’t go away for too long. But in this era of Twitter leftists who think you should never call the police, ever, under any circumstances, I’m not at all sorry that someone made the call that sent that guy to jail. Not at all. Because he needed to go away for awhile. He had broken the social contract too many times. He was a constant danger to her and her family. So he needed to go away. Not get arrested and put right back on the street so that he could come back and fuck her life up again, but to go away long enough that she could start to heal and move on. You see, some people aren’t good people, and sometimes people who aren’t good people need to go away for awhile. That’s just the way the world is. It isn’t perfect. But perfect was never in the cards.