Melissa Harris-Perry and the bludgeon of "Collective Responsibility"

For those who have never had the misfortune to be caught unawares by one of MSNBC’s “Lean Forward” advertisements, they are typically vacuous statements of typical leftist pablum wrapped up in lofty rhetoric and set in some sort of idyllic venue, all to reinforce the point that “Government is good. Government is your friend.”

As readers of RedState are aware, commentator Melissa Harris-Perry came up with a doozy this week. She said, among other things:

“We’ve always had a private notion of children, your kid is yours and totally your responsibility. We haven’t had a very collective notion of these are our children.”


“We have to break through our kind of private idea that kids belong to their parents or kids belong to their families and recognize that kids belong to whole communities.”

Predictably, the right – including this site – balked at the “collectiv[ist] notion” that “kids belong to whole communities.” We on the right know all too well what happens when others decide for us that “it takes a village to raise a child” (to quote another famous collectivist).

As a result of the outcry, Perry has, in her own words, doubled down. In so doing she has once again demonstrated that the left quite simply doesn’t understand the concept of responsibility at all.

Perry writes, “I started asking myself where did I learn this lesson about our collective responsibility to children.”

She answers this question through a litany of examples from her own life, including her own parents, teachers and other acquaintances, who strove to make a difference in the lives of their communities.

But there is a big difference between voluntarily seeking to make a difference in the life of a child or children, and being responsible for that child.

The one who is responsible in a given situation is, of course, the one who bears the ultimate decision-making authority and is accountable for the success or failure of those decisions. I say “of course,” though the notion is anything but intuitive for the typical leftist – who generally wants all of the decision-making authority and none of the accountability.

Perry’s own examples demonstrate the utter emptiness of her defense. Her mother volunteered to enrich the lives of “under-resourced children” by serving on non-profit boards. Good for her! But did she take decision-making responsibility for those children? Is she – like a parent – legally and morally accountable for the decisions those children made later in life?

No, of course not. Nor is Perry’s father who served as a little-league coach, or the teacher who gave extra time and energy to nurture Perry as a child, or the men who volunteered as crossing guards in her neighborhood, or – especially – the conservative, carpooling moms who gave rides to her children, and whom Perry wields in a bald-faced attempt to boost her “bipartisan cred.”

That’s not called “collective responsibility.” It’s simply called “community.” There was a time in this country when we understood the difference.

But Perry is being disingenuous. She can pretend she was only referring to investing in the lives around us, as does anyone who is part of a community. But she gives the game away when she ties these admirable acts of volunteerism to the adoption of progressive policies, such as higher property taxes to pay for increased education funding, and gun control “to protect all the children of our communities.”

Ah yes, there it is. The familiar progressive refrain that “collective responsibility” demands “doing what I want you to do.” We’ve heard that one before – in Mayor Bloomberg’s ban on large drinks, or in Michelle Obama’s attempts to dictate the foods schools can serve in their cafeterias.

It’s for the children, after all.

Perry writes,

“Please keep your kids! But I understand the fear. We do live in a nation where slaveholders took the infants from the arms of my foremothers and sold them for their own profit. We do live in a nation where the government snatched American Indian children from their families and “re-educated” them by forbidding them to speak their language and practice their traditions. But that is not what I was talking about, and you know it.”

Do we? Do we really “know it”??

I remember, as a child whose parents took on the responsibility of home-educating me, back before homeschooling went “mainstream.” I remember the terror that came with every daytime knock at the door. I remember the stories of people – some of them from nearby towns – losing custody of their children, or at the very least having their homes invaded by law enforcement personnel, simply because they chose not to send them to the public schools Perry so vocally champions (and on which she complains that you and I don’t spend enough money).

I remember hiding in the back bedroom, never going outside during school hours, hoping I wouldn’t be next.

If Perry truly understood the historical examples she brings up, she’d realize that instead of an opportunity to play the race card, they are the historical precedents for a trend that continues to this day.

But she doesn’t understand. To her, as to most progressives, “collective responsibility” is just a means to instilling “collective values” – namely: hers. If you doubt that, ask Perry whether she supports school choice, if the school in question chooses to teach creationism (hint: she doesn’t).

Ask her whether she supports the Obama administration’s position in Romeike vs. Holder that “There is no fundamental right to homeschool.”

Ask her whether she supports a school that intentionally lies to its students in service of liberal talking points.

Nearly two years ago, I became keenly aware of the awesome responsibility that comes with being a parent. As I watch my young son learn from me – absorbing my every move and hanging on my every word – I’m struck by the fact that I am, every day and not always intentionally, playing a role in shaping his character and his future.

That is responsibility.

In jumping to Perry’s defense, leftist rag Salon Magazine writes “When we cling stubbornly to the party line that the family, and only the family, can be responsible for every aspect of a child’s life, what we’re really talking about here is laying all the obligation on mothers.”

It’s a testament to the left’s projection tendencies that the author of this piece assumes fathers are irrelevant, just as the left has been trying (and failing) to prove for the last fifty years.

In the two years since my son’s birth, my wife has maintained one entrepreneurial business endeavor and founded a second. She has travelled all over two states and the District of Columbia to work with clients, sometimes in the middle of the night. She has invested in and enriched numerous lives . . . all while dealing with a toddler who, to this day, wakes up between 5 and 10 times per night, and has done so most nights for the past two years.

The only way this is possible is because, in our household, the obligation of caring for our child does not rest solely on her shoulders. Melissa Harris-Perry is accidentally right when she notes that parents can’t go it alone. If I were to “lay all the obligation” for my son’s life on his mother, she wouldn’t have been able to do any of this. But if she gets called out by a client in the middle of the night, she knows I’ll be there to take care of our son when he wakes up crying, and his grandmother will be there to take him when I have to get up and stumble, bleary-eyed, into the office for a full day of work the next day. In our household, there is no “going it alone.” We’re in this together, and thanks to a wonderful, amazing extended family, we’re both able to have fulfilling careers as well.

And all without having to rely on the government to “share responsibility.”

Salon (and Perry) also belittle the parents who – like my own mother and mother-in-law, find fulfillment in choosing to devote their entire lives to their children instead of having a career outside the home. My mother was also my teacher, my chauffeur, my violin practice partner, and so very much more. My father was my principal, my mentor, my patron, and more as well. One or the other of them got up every morning for three years when I was a young teenager to drive me on my paper route in order to instill in me the value of hard work and earning my own way. They hauled me all over Northern California to music lessons, orchestra rehearsals and performances, church functions, local theater productions, and more. The government didn’t do that. My parents did, in partnership with a whole lot of other parents and friends.

That  – not the government – is community. It’s the same sort of volunteerist, non-coercive community Perry’s own life story unintentionally highlights. Perry uses the notion of “collective responsibility” to guilt-trip gullible viewers into throwing more money at a public education system specifically designed to pop out compliant citizens. What she misses . . . or worse, intentionally ignores . . . is that the state has repeatedly demonstrated that it is quite possibly the worst entity to which I could surrender responsibility for my son. Because the very structure of the state is tailored to deflect responsibility for anything.

That’s one reason (of many) that my wife and I will probably homeschool our son once he is older. He is our responsibility – he is not a ward of the great collective. I will be held legally liable for the decisions he makes in my home, and morally culpable long after that for the lessons he learns from me – both intentionally and unintentionally given.

No, my wife and I could never deal with the craziness of parenthood absent our community of family and friends – just as Perry’s own parents could not. But to use that fact as a justification for the state to enact its own “collective” agenda in contravention of a parent’s wishes is not just misguided, but reprehensible.