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Yearning for answers

So. I haven’t read any of the details about the state versus the Yearners for Zion, so I will state up front that my half-formed views are probably wrong. But I think there’s stuff in there that’s interesting about our attitudes toward the state, the courts, individuals and communities. So I’ll ramble a bit, and y’all can come back with more well-informed shit. Like we do.

The thing I find most interesting is that the state clearly thought that the cult-community-compound was far too icky a place to be allowed to bring up children. Icky, icky, icky. That’s not wrong. But the state appeared to think that ickiness absolves the state of its constitutional and statutory obligations. The court disagreed, and so do I.

Look, I’m told that the children, particularly the girls, were being brainwashed and intimidated for the purposes of sexual, economic and domestic exploitation. That’s a bad thing. If there are laws on the books about it, we need to examine their application, and if there aren’t, we need to consider some. But real carefully. Because I don’t think that the exploitation is why the state took the kids away, really. Icky, icky, icky. Strange customs, strange clothes, strange hair.

What about young hasidic women in those towns in upstate New York? Lots of people find those towns icky. Not quite icky enough for the state to intervene, at least not in New York. What about polyandrous households whose icky hair is bald-old-hippies-with-ponytails? Should they get to raise kids? Who gets to decide that?

Hard cases make bad laws, everybody knows that, and one of the reasons that’s true is that people like me say things like if there aren’t laws on the books about this, we need to consider some. It’s a balancing problem: we do need to consider laws about parents brainwashing, intimidating and exploiting children, but we also need to consider the application of those laws against the icky. I look at these situations and am baffled. What mechanisms could be sufficient to protect differences in child-raising and also protect children? How could we have laws that are broad enough to apply to everybody (and the glory of our system is that laws do apply to everybody), but that aren’t so vague as to leave the actual enforcement open to discrimination, which history tells us most often benefits the privileged and burdens the weak?

One answer, possibly the best answer, is that the courts watch the watchmen. Better than that, the legislators make the laws, the cops enforce them, and the courts judge them: each group can effectively veto the previous one’s actions. I like that. On the whole, it works, or at least it fails less spectacularly than most other structures. But the results sure are inconsistent.

That’s what I’m taking away from the story at the moment. There are injustices all over, and we should strain to catch them, slow them, reverse them, all while trying just as hard to avoid committing new ones. We’re trying to walk between the raindrops, and the thing is that it never completely works, and it gets the just and the unjust a little wet. But maybe it’s the best we’ve got.

Maybe, in other words, sending those poor saps home to their families, while awful and dangerous, is less awful and dangerous than the alternatives.

At least alongside fighting the cultural battle, the one that makes our children think that exploitation is ickier than strange hair.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


I have been following the situation, since it's going down in my neighborhood of the world. It looks to me like this is one where all the choices are bad. The state does have real concerns beyond 'icky' that do involve real laws. There is hard evidence of multiple cases of girls under the age of 16 giving birth (and thus having underage sex) with their spiritual-if-not-legal 'husbands' (and thus presumably the fathers of the children) being adults. So they have hard evidence that there are violations of the statutory rape laws going on. On the other hand, the foster care system is awful. So it is not clear to me that taking the kids from their homes is an improvement. Also, as a judge just ruled, the state failed to show that the boys and the prepubertal girls are at risk of abuse (except for the 'icky' factor you noted) so it's not clear they had legal standing to remove those kids at all.

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