The Age of Universal Welfare and the Age of Fear


With some unavoidable-in-the-New-York-Times adjustments for identity politics, Kim Brooks’s “Motherhood in the Age of Fear” is an encouraging sign that the push-back against the latest variation of judgment culture is spreading into precincts proximate to its origin.  Her topic is the criminalization of a decision not to cave to theoretical threats to one’s children under every circumstance, which became of interest to her after a warrant for her arrest in Virginia followed her home to Michigan.

While on a trip to see her parents, her four-year-old son was prepared to put up a fight about getting out of the car for a five-minute errand, and so she left him in the locked car, with the windows cracked on a cool, cloudy March day, just as so many of us who are over (say) 40 were left to wait in cars.

It took me a while to figure out what had taken place in the parking lot — that a stranger had watched me go into the store, recorded my son, recorded the license plate on my mother’s car and called 911.

When our flight landed in Chicago, there was a message on my phone: “I’m trying to get ahold of Mrs. Kimberly A. Brooks. I need to speak with Mrs. Brooks about an incident this afternoon in a parking lot.”

Conservatives have been calling out all this meddling and shaming for years, so it’s good to see reality beginning to mug the New York Times crowd.  One can’t help but think that they’ve got a good deal of thinking left to do, though.  Clearly, they’re identifying the problem, as illustrated by a woman with a similar experience.  Brooks asks what Julie Koehler (a lawyer) would tell other women who might be approached by a police officer for leaving their children in a car:

“I would tell them to ask the officer what law she was breaking. I would tell them to ask why and how going into a store for a few minutes meant she was abandoning her child. I would tell her to ask if she was under arrest, and if not, if she was free to go.

“And if it’s not a cop but a person on the street, calling them names, yelling at them that you’re a terrible mother, threatening to call the police and have their children taken away, then I’d tell them to be extremely calm and clear with that person. I’d tell them to take out their own phones and start recording the interaction. I’d tell them to say calmly and assertively: ‘I haven’t done anything wrong; I haven’t broken any law. My child is fine. I don’t know you, so please step away from us. You are harassing me, and you’re harassing my child. If you don’t stop harassing us, I’ll have to call the police.’”

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What’s odd, though, is that Brooks doesn’t seem to see how much worse this judgment culture can get given progressive policies and assumptions.  To wit:

In a country that provides no subsidized child care and no mandatory family leave, no assurance of flexibility in the workplace for parents, no universal preschool and minimal safety nets for vulnerable families, making it a crime to offer children independence in effect makes it a crime to be poor.

How could she not see how much worse the harassment becomes as we move in this direction?  If the collective is providing families with all of these benefits — and doing so explicitly to give them space to be doting parents — being judgmental about how people are using their increased latitude will be that much worse.  The woman (or man) who goes in the store for five minutes will have no excuse for not feeling like dealing with a tantrum at that moment.