We’ve all become aware of the degree to which the battle over things like reopening schools has become a tribal imperative among those on the left who seem unwilling to accept even a slight risk for the greater good. Today the Atlantic has a piece about this phenomenon titled “The Liberals Who Can’t Quit Lockdown” which strongly suggests a lot of this is a kind of endless overreaction to President Trump.
For many progressives, extreme vigilance was in part about opposing Donald Trump. Some of this reaction was born of deeply felt frustration with how he handled the pandemic. It could also be knee-jerk. “If he said, ‘Keep schools open,’ then, well, we’re going to do everything in our power to keep schools closed,” Monica Gandhi, a professor of medicine at UC San Francisco, told me. Gandhi describes herself as “left of left,” but has alienated some of her ideological peers because she has advocated for policies such as reopening schools and establishing a clear timeline for the end of mask mandates. “We went the other way, in an extreme way, against Trump’s politicization,” Gandhi said…
“Those who are vaccinated on the left seem to think overcaution now is the way to go, which is making people on the right question the effectiveness of the vaccines,” Gandhi told me. Public figures and policy makers who try to dictate others’ behavior without any scientific justification for doing so erode trust in public health and make people less willing to take useful precautions. The marginal gains of staying shut down might not justify the potential backlash.
One of the central stories related in the piece takes place in the very progressive town of Somerville, Massachusetts, a place where 57% of voters supported Bernie Sanders in 2020. Last fall, other towns were sending kids back to school but Somerville’s mayor put a stop to that in her town. Instead there was an investigation focused on how to improve school buildings to limit COVID risk. That eventually led to various recommendations (new HVAC, new toilets, even UV sterilization machines) with a price tag of $7.5 million. Meanwhile, kids were stuck at home.
Months slipped by, and evidence mounted that schools could reopen safely. In Somerville, a local leader appeared to describe parents who wanted a faster return to in-person instruction as “fucking white parents” in a virtual public meeting; a community member accused the group of mothers advocating for schools to reopen of being motivated by white supremacy. “I spent four years fighting Trump because he was so anti-science,” Daniele Lantagne, a Somerville mom and engineering professor who works to promote equitable access to clean water and sanitation during disease outbreaks, told me. “I spent the last year fighting people who I normally would agree with … desperately trying to inject science into school reopening, and completely failed.”
In March, Erika Uyterhoeven, the democratic-socialist state representative for Somerville, compared the plight of teachers to that of Amazon workers and meatpackers, and described the return to in-person classes as part of a “push in a neoliberal society to ensure, over and above the well-being of educators, that our kids are getting a competitive education compared to other suburban schools.” (She later asked the socialist blog that ran her comments to remove that quote, because so many parents found her statements offensive.) In Somerville, “everyone wants to be actively anti-racist. Everyone believes Black lives matter. Everyone wants the Green New Deal,” Elizabeth Pinsky, a child psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital, told me. “No one wants to talk about … how to actually get kindergartners onto the carpet of their teachers.”
High school students still haven’t returned to classrooms in Somerville and the piece notes that the mayor won’t promise they will be open full time in the fall.
None of this is about science or any reasonable assessment of risk. It’s a kind of pessimistic neurosis which nevertheless does real harm to a lot of people, most especially the children of these adults who’ve been out of school for more than a year at this point.
I keep thinking that surely at some point progressives will snap out of it and remember that school is important and that kids falling behind or completely falling out of touch with school is a terrible thing for them. But it never seems to happen. Some of these people are so committed to this knee-jerk fixation on ensuring zero risk and opposing anyone who disagrees that they may still be arguing about this in the fall.