Melissa Harris-Perry and the Firestorm Over ‘Collective’ Parenting

Your kids don’t belong to you—but the whole community. David Freedlander on the line that sparked outrage.

Heidi Gutman/MSNBC

When is a television ad not just a television ad? When it fires off another shot in the seemingly never-ending culture war.

That’s what happened this week when social conservatives caught wind of a television spot featuring MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry promoting her weekend show on the network.

In the ad, Harris-Perry, looking off camera, says the U.S. never invested properly in public education. “We’ve always had kind of a private notion of children. Your kid is yours, and your responsibility,” she says. “We haven’t had a very collective notion of ‘These are our children.’ So part of it is 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.”

The ad started running last Thursday, but it ignited a firestorm of controversy over the weekend after Sarah Palin tweeted: “Apparently MSNBC doesn’t think your children belong to you.” “Unflippingbelievable,” she added. The former Alaska governor kept at it this week, tweeting: “Dear MSNBC, if our kids belong to you, do your kids belong to us too? If so, can we take them hunting after church in our big pickup truck?” By this point, other culture warriors had joined in. Rush Limbaugh chipped in likened the comments to “communist genocide.”

“This is Marx, Engels, ‘The Communist Manifesto,’ he added. “The nuclear family has always been under attack by communists, by leftists. The nuclear family always, just like religion, must be destroyed and in its place, the community, collective. So while this is outrageous in its self-contained form, it isn’t anything new.” Harris-Perry’s message amounted to enlisting children in a kind of forced labor, he added. “You need your yard mowed, what do you do? You go knock on the door down the street and say, ‘Your kid that you don’t own, I do today for the next hour. Your kid’s gonna mow my yard, and then after that my trash needs taking out, and after that I need somebody to go to the grocery store for me. My kid’s tied up, so I’m claiming your kid.’”

Fellow radio personality Glenn Beck spent nearly an hour talking about the spot, describing it as part of a long-running conspiracy to shift the onus for care-giving away from parents.

“The idea behind this is going to be so appealing to so many people,” Beck said. “So many people are going to say, ‘I love that. Because I’m freaked out. I don’t know what to do with my kids.’ And I think that there’s a good 20 to 30 percent of America, maybe even higher now, I’m not sure, [that] will gladly have the state take that over so they don’t have to worry about it. Yet another one of your responsibilities taken from you—I’m sorry. Another one of your responsibilities that you will gladly hand over because you don’t know what to do. And so they will do it for you: don’t worry! We’ll raise your kids. We’ll train your kids. We’ll educate your kids because it’s working out so well.”

Days after the controversy first flared, feelings about the ad were still raw in the evangelical community. Allan C. Carlson, president of the Howard Center for Family, Religion, and Society told The Daily Beast that the ad was a reminder of why the nation needs small, de-centralized school districts.

“I am sure she is not aware of it, but the words she could have been said by Marx, Engels, or Lenin,” Carlson said, echoing Limbaugh. “It is the communist understanding of where children come from and who they belong to. This concept of children belonging to the community is really spooky.”

Harris-Perry, who is also a columnist for The Nation and a professor of political science at Tulane, declined an interview request, as did MSNBC. However, a network spokesman pointed The Daily Beast to a blog post the host wrote in response, in which she expressed surprise at the outrage her ad had created.

“Those of you who were alarmed by the ad can relax,” she wrote. “I have no designs on taking your children. Please keep your kids!” She added: “I venture to say that anyone and everyone should know full well that my message in that ad was a call to see ourselves as connected to a larger whole. I don’t want your kids, but I want them to live in safe neighborhoods. I want them to learn in enriching and dynamic classrooms. I want them to be healthy and well and free from fear.”

Even one Harris-Perry defender acknowledged that her remarks may have been overly simplistic. Yes, public education is poorly funded, and yes, there may be a strain of individualism in the culture that discourages community investment, but one is not necessarily caused by the other.

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“It is an over-simplification, but I think there is a kernel of truth to it,” said Stephanie Coontz, a former director of the Council on Contemporary Families, which researches changing family practices. “There is an awful misinterpretation to what she is saying. For those who wonder what Jesus would do, Jesus said, ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me.’”

But according to Steven D. Martin, the executive director of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, which attempts to bridge the ideological divide between right and left in evangelical communities, the spot hit a raw nerve among social conservatives who fear the power of government.

“It is the big division of the day: is government of the people, by the people, and for the people, or is it an enemy out there that is trying to take our guns and be authoritarian?” he said. Those who believe the latter think, he said, that Harris-Perry was “fundamentally making a statement that ‘I can’t trust the people that I live with. I can’t trust the town, and I can’t trust the government I am a part of and I can do it on my own and more faithfully than any system can.’”