Lenny Bruce understood the impotence of childhood: “When you are 8 years old,” he said, “nothing is any of your business.”
Children born to citizens of the United States or within our boundaries are themselves citizens of the United States. Yet they are denied the full rights of citizenship until the age of majority. Restrictions on the right to work, consume alcohol and tobacco, and serve in the Armed Forces are designed for a youngster’s own good. But it is in order to protect adults that children are denied the right to vote, though I’d trust most 16-year-olds before the 60-year-olds who cast their ballots for Rick Perry.
Mark Foley, the Florida congressman who styled himself a leader of efforts to protect children, abused minors and helped undermine Republican control of Capitol Hill. Voters are remarkably tolerant of ignorance, incompetence, and greed, but they draw the line at men who try to seduce under-age male pages. However, more systemic abuse of minors is not only accepted but, particularly in Texas, rewarded. The officials returning now to Austin have exacerbated poverty and pollution, which cause disproportionate harm to children. Though the minimum voting age is 18, many cling to power through infantile appeals. Their campaigns play at make-believe — the illusion that they are Hollywood cowboys and big-game hunters.
If real children had voted in the recent election, Governor Perry and his fellow ageist politicians might have been more intent on serving the younger citizens of Texas, without eviscerating the state’s Child Protective Services, removing tens of thousands from the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and undercutting public education. With their indifference to poverty, hunger, homelessness, ignorance, pollution, and abuse, Texas officials have jeopardized the welfare of constituents under 18, following the lead of their national party. The Republican Senate blocked ratification of the Convention of the Rights of the Child ever since President Bill Clinton signed it. The United States thus remains the only nation in the world other than “enlightened” Somalia not to join a treaty guaranteeing basic freedoms and protections to its most vulnerable citizens. One provision of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, a prohibition against capital punishment for minors, would terminate an enterprise for which this state is world-renowned.
When the Texas Supreme Court ruled that public schools throughout the state had to be funded equitably, it took four special sessions before the legislature devised a plan aimed more at reducing property taxes than improving education. As lieutenant governor, the most powerful figure in the legislature, David Dewhurst has been in a position to enhance — and even save — the lives of Texas children. He waited until his reelection campaign to announce a program he calls “Texas Children First.” Will the name prove as Orwellian as the federal “Clear Skies Initiative,” which was an excuse to ease up on polluters, or “No Child Left Behind,” which left many worse off than before?
If children are second-class citizens, Dewhurst, newly reelected and eager to move to the governor’s mansion, proposes a five-point plan to advance them to first. His call to “Ensure Texas children are healthy” is unobjectionable, especially without details that might elicit objections. He also pledges to “Keep education a priority,” though one might question the appropriateness of the verb “keep” in a state that ranks near the bottom in every significant measure of education. However, Dewhurst emphasizes that the “key component” of his plan is protection of children from sexual predators. He proposes mandatory prison sentences of 25 years for sexual violence against a victim under 14 and death sentences for repeat offenders.
Though physical abuse of a minor is abhorrent, it is not clear that execution of molesters deters others. It might even encourage the kind of person who seeks pleasure in violating taboos. And for all the hundreds of Texas children who have been molested, there are hundreds of thousands who suffer from inadequate housing, nutrition, health care, environmental protection, and education. If we truly want to put Texas children first, the first thing to do is get serious about that.