Mary Wakefield Mary Wakefield

The ‘luxury beliefs’ that harm vulnerable children

John Broadley

Now that everyone insists that the oppressed must be lifted up – or platformed, if you’re that way inclined: why does no one in the West give a second thought to the most obviously powerless group: kids in care – children who’ve been abandoned by or taken from their parents? An astonishing amount of kids brought up in care end up in jail or homeless or preyed on by gangs. Why no Facebook filter for them? Why no flag-in-bio solidarity?

Opposite me now in a café in Cambridge is a man who might have answers. Rob Henderson grew up in institutions and foster homes in California – ‘I think it was like 16 different houses in total.’ He escaped the usual fate of kids in care via the air force and university and now, at 33, he has written a book, Troubled, about his life and his thoughts. Troubled does not reflect very well on human nature.

‘Somehow expressing concern for disadvantaged kids became coded as conservative or right-wing’

Henderson says: ‘I think somehow expressing concern for disadvantaged kids became coded as conservative or right-wing. There’s this meme of “Oh won’t someone think of the children” and it became a kind of punchline and it became associated with finger-wagging church ladies. The last thing an educated member of the cultural elite wants to be is thought of as the sort of narrow-minded church lady. It’s just so much more fashionable to talk about climate.’

Henderson is dapper, contained, clear-thinking. He’s half-Korean and, he’s recently discovered, half-Mexican. To look at him, you’d never guess the utter chaos of his early life. Henderson’s mother came from a stable, middle-class family in South Korea, but from the moment she arrived in California she dived straight into sex and addiction. Two baby sons were taken from her before he was born, and when he was three years old he was taken too.

Here’s his earliest memory from his book: ‘It’s completely dark. I am gripping my mother’s lap. Burying my face so deeply into her stomach I can’t breathe. I come up for air and see two police officers looming over us. I know they want to take my mom away, but I’m scared and don’t want to let her go… The memory picks up, like a dream, in a long white hallway with my mother. I’m sitting on a bench next to her drinking chocolate milk. My three-year-old legs dangle above the floor. I sneeze and spill my chocolate milk. I look to my mom for help, but she can’t move her arms. She’s wearing handcuffs.’

One of the recurring themes in Henderson’s memoir is the emotional pain inflicted on children as they make and are forced to break attachments. It can last a lifetime. ‘In the foster homes, I lived in nine different kinds of homes by the time I was eight,’ he says. Of the many betrayals in his young life almost the most sickening is that he was also abandoned aged nine by a foster father he loved. Gary Henderson wasn’t an addict or a drifter but when his wife left him, he broke contact with their small foster son just to punish her. That’s what I mean about human nature.

At certain points in his teenage life Henderson looked almost certain to follow the usual trajectory for institutionalised kids worldwide: addiction, prison. But he escaped his own fate by joining the air force, then Yale via a ‘warrior-scholar project’. It was at Yale that he witnessed up close the episode that first alerted many of us here to the madness that was incubating in universities across the western world.

It was just before Halloween in 2015. Erika Christakis, a teacher at Yale, wrote an email suggesting to students that perhaps they were robust enough to decide between themselves which Halloween costumes were culturally insensitive. What ensued was a full-on howling meltdown followed by a witch-hunt. Students declared themselves traumatised. There were death threats. Erika left Yale. I remember a YouTube video which showed her husband, Nicholas Christakis, surrounded by a mob of screaming, weeping, ululating students. As he tried to reason with them, they were quite clearly itching for a lynching.

Henderson’s Yale classmates were some of the richest and most privileged young people on the planet, yet according to them, they’d suffered far more than he ever had. It was explained to him that he was ‘too privileged to understand the pain these professors had caused’.

It’s to Henderson’s great credit that instead of despising his peers, the hysterical, self-absorbed children of the elite, he studied them. ‘I really wanted to understand what these students thought,’ he says. And it was at Yale that he devised the theory he’s become known for – the concept of luxury beliefs.

Luxury beliefs are ideas or causes a genuinely privileged person espouses, safe in the knowledge that they’re insulated from their effects. For instance, when the middle-class left in this country bewail the evils of stop and search, that’s a luxury belief: they’re never going to have a child stabbed with a zombie knife. When my good friends talk down capitalism, while living off its proceeds, that’s a luxury belief. When privately educated children cheer on the idea of communism, you’ve got to hope that’s a luxury belief.

The indescribably awful Scottish hate crime law that came into force on Monday is the horrific consequence of a snowballing set of luxury beliefs, and as ever it won’t be the progressive political class who reap the consequences. It’ll be the poor. Luxury belief pairs naturally with the phrase first coined here in The Spectator by James Bartholomew: virtue-signalling, because the point is not to fix a problem but demonstrate progressive cred.

‘Abolish the police’ sign held at a protest in New York City, 28 August 2020 (Getty Images)

America is awash with luxury beliefs: defund the police, legalise drugs, decriminalise shop-lifting etc. But for Henderson the most pernicious is the idea that the old two-parent family is outdated, and that children are equally likely to thrive in all types of care.

‘By the 1970s divorce and all this free love had spiked across the socio-economic ladder, but then if you look at the 1980s, for the upper class it had reverted, whereas for the lower classes and the working class, they just never recovered,’ he says. ‘Families continued to deteriorate over time. Today if you visit poor working-class areas in the US and in the UK, to see a child raised by two parents is an anomaly. It’s this massive class divergence.’

Henderson pauses, then adds: ‘I know a lot of people right now are focusing on social media and smartphones and devices to explain why kids are unhappy, but I wonder if… I mean we’re now two to three generations into unmarried parenting and divorce being relatively normalised, if that might not have an effect, especially for less educated, lower-income people… Now you’re seeing Zoomers in their twenties who were raised by a single parent who was raised by a single parent. They have no model at all of what a stable family looks like and they’re passing on a lot of that feeling of instability.’

There’s selfishness at play too though, isn’t there? I say. People can’t tolerate any more the idea that they might have to be a little unfulfilled at times in a marriage, and yet stay for the sake of the children. There’s this idea that you have a duty to your own happiness.

‘I have had two conversations recently with two different guys,’ says Henderson, ‘and they both told me a similar story. One worked in finance, the other was a tech executive and both had been married for a few years. Each had a couple of small kids and they were becoming a bit bored and unhappy and wondered if maybe it was time to move on. There was no abuse or mistreatment but it was just less exciting and stimulating than they’d hoped and they were considering breaking up the marriage, leaving their wife, leaving their kids.’ (Over here, we call that ‘doing a Hancock’ I tell him.) ‘Both guys got in touch with me because they had read something that I had written on my Substack and they both told me, “I realised that I was being selfish and I decided to reconnect to the marriage, to my wife, to the kids.”’

Henderson’s point here is that it is possible to change the culture – people can be persuaded to act like that church lady, to think of the children. ‘There’s so much focus on economics and finance as a driver of behaviour,’ says Henderson. ‘I just think it’s a real mistake. We forget the role of culture and ideas.’

But how can we possibly change the culture? How, in a post-Christian world, can we, for instance, bring back shame for fathers who abandon their families?

‘Educated people are perfectly willing to use shame for certain behaviours,’ says Henderson. ‘So they are willing to stigmatise misogyny and homophobia and racism, and cigarette smoking.’

What are you thinking? Warnings on condom packets? ‘This extra-marital affair could seriously affect your kids?’ Maybe a photo of a poor, neglected child? Henderson doesn’t laugh. He looks as if this might be just the sort of jolt society needs.

‘I think the reason is, people are naturally drawn to exhibitions and demonstrations of strength, so when they see people marching and chanting at movements to change climate policy, for instance, they are drawn to that united force,’ he says. So it’s precisely because they have no power and no visibility that middle-class luxury believers don’t fancy championing kids? ‘I’m not confident about this, but I think people are almost repelled by the weakness of children. Kids can’t vote, they don’t unite and rally and agitate in favour of their own interests. They can’t say “Hey, pay attention, we are being harmed.”’ Thank God then that Rob Henderson, at least, is doing it for them.

Watch Rob Henderson discuss luxury beliefs on The View From 22: