Front Row Kids Revisited (Yep, the d*mn Virus)

Since I generally stay away from the popular press for sanity and utility reasons – tends to drive me crazy and be useless – I don’t know how that whole ‘front row kids’ thing from a few years ago went over. I suspect that Arnade’s division seemed obviously true to many people, and obvious balderdash to many others. I’d also imagine that, of those two groups, the first would be a lot more engaged in talking about and promoting this analysis, while the second would be more likely to role their eyes and find something better to do.

Chartiers Elementary School Classroom | Historic Pittsburgh

Accepting for the moment this front row/back row division of the world: for a front row kid, this idea that he is defined by his place in school is very appealing; I’d go so far as to suggest doing otherwise is almost unimaginable for him. Unfortunately, I’d say the same for most back row kids.

What’s lurking here: school is the primary formative experience of all front row and most back row kids. Coming from a rootless, cruel, and self-centered personal life, where mom and dad have divorced, moved, and remarried, often several times, school for such emotionally battered children is an oasis of order. Unlike their relationship with their parents, the rules in school are pretty clear: to be valued, to get approval, just do what the teacher says.

In the process of seeking personal fulfillment and career success, they have learned from their families, such as they are, to casually sever whatever non-work related relationships they may have otherwise formed. A child leaves a house full of emotional and sometimes physical insecurity, and spends most of his waking hours in a place where success is clearly defined for them.

To tell such a child, now grown into a physical adult and inescapably defining his success in terms of compliance, that something an authority figure has told them is wrong, is never going to be seen as a mere intellectual dispute. It is an attack on that which defines who he is. It is an assault on his entire world.

Here’s Arnade’s definitions, from a Forbes article (in which the writer seems to accept the distinction, and has moved on to worrying over what to do about it). This is a masterpiece of Orwellian newspeak. I’ll offer my corrections line by line:

Front row kids:

Mobile, global, and well educated (Rootless, disdainful of local loyalties, thoroughly indoctrinated)

Primary social network is via colleges and career (Social network is shallow, diffuse, and ephemeral)

Intellect is primary. (Compliance is primary) View world through framework of numbers and rational arguments (Has internalized the idea that compliance is rational, and that only the numbers and arguments presented by authority figures count regardless of their inherent soundness)

Meaning (and morality) comes from careers and intellectual pursuits (Has no concept of what meaning and morality are)

Faith is irrational. (Has internalized a strawman) They see themselves as beyond race and gender (They are obsessed with race and gender)

View their lives as better than their parents and their children’s lives will be better than their own (Contrary to what they see all around them, they accept the fantasy that success in school guarantees success in life)

Back row kids

Stay where they are born. (Are loyal and patriotic) Education beyond high school degree is via smaller state schools, community colleges, and trade schools (Recognize, however dimly, that college is a fraud)

Primary social network is via institutions beyond work. (Don’t think of family, etc., as ‘institutions.’ Love, and has a visceral loyalty to the people who love them and recognizes a duty to love and be loyal in return.) Such as family, geographic community, and Church (Finds fulfillment and meaning as part of a family, village or neighborhood, and church)

Faith is central. (They know what faith means. They reject the strawman) They find meaning (and morality) through the “Decency of hard work” (They work for reasons other than mere personal fulfillment – they find fulfillment in performing their duties to the family, village, and church they love)

They have “traditional” views of race and gender (They reject the authoritarian indoctrination of the schools)

They view their lives as worse than their parents and their children’s lives will be worse than their own (They have a toehold in economic reality – it will be a lot of work for them and their children to get as far as their parents.)

A front row kid’s sense of reality will always be tenuous, because it will always be contradicted by experience. The approval of teachers and schools, the gold stars, the pat on the head, the straight A’s, the diplomas, the advanced degrees – these are what stand between them and the abyss of abandonment they experienced in their family life. On this level, a front row kid really is triggered by simple, harmless words – any words that point out the contradiction. ‘Fake news’ points out the perfidy and incompetence of their peers. Those elite journalists went to the best schools, got the best degrees, and are front row kids to a degree to which most front row kids can only spire. That they are getting mocked for being such obvious frauds is unendurable! Those journalists are both front row kids like us, and stand in the role of teachers as the vanguard of the institutions that give meaning to their lives.

The key here for today: front row kids truly believe that parroting what they hear from whoever stands in authority IS science, logic, intelligence, and reasonableness itself. Agreeing with teacher IS morality. Opposing what the person in authority says IS anti-science, irrationality, and stupidity, and EVIL. They have been told that they are the best educated, most reasonable and most moral people the world has ever seen – and, as the price to be paid for acceptance and approval and something that almost feels like love, they believe it. This price, this membership in the kool kids klub, demands any who express doubts about any part of the program be treated as heretics.

As of today, I have had someone I know, who has an advanced degree, unload on me for calling the COVID panic a fraud, and, with complete disdain for any evidence, logic, math that might enter into the analysis, call me tool for stupid, evil politicians who want to get us all killed out of pure malice. I was accused of promoting conspiracy theories, which was backed up by a stream of conspiracy theories.

A stranger called me a monster and insane for pointing out something completely obvious from all the available data: that a child stands virtually no risk from the Kung Flu. Unlike the case above, this time I got a chance to point to the CDC data that backs this up; pointed to the IFR calculable from that CDC data. It simply was not possible to change her mind, because it’s not a question of thinking. It is a question of personal identity established over 16 or more years of schooling.

Simply raising questions about the government’s response to COVID, simply pushing back at all on the assertions of the talking heads, is enough to trigger a strong emotional reaction in front row kids. To take any pushback seriously would be to shake the very ground upon which they stand. To accept any view contrary to the front row kid group-think would be to cast oneself adrift, to sever social ties (such as they are) and force a reevaluation of the premises upon which your life has been built.

To say this is difficult is a wild understatement. If an authority figure comes along and says something diametrically opposed to what was said yesterday, front row kids will believe it without a moment of cognitive dissonance. COVID was not a problem – until it was. Masks didn’t help at all, until they might help some, until they are mandatory. And the front row will switch allegiance accordingly, and woe to him who points this out!

For change to happen, the easier route, which has happened many times, is simply to change the authority figure. Our current authority figures are fighting this with desperate fury. Or, I suppose, enough cognitive dissonance might eventually get through. Resistance to this level of fundamental, definitional change is strong, life and death strong.

I do not need to point out to regular readers that this transference of loyalty from family to state via a certified agent of the state – a teacher – and the replacement of thought with obedience is exactly what Fichte proposed way back in 1807.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

20 thoughts on “Front Row Kids Revisited (Yep, the d*mn Virus)”

  1. Tremendous article, very glad I discovered this blog. I’m often completely blown away when I meet coworkers, sometimes decades older than myself who still parrot back exactly the same ideas in exactly the same tone of voice as a handful of college professors from their school days, most of them completely unable to imagine a world different from the one they currently think they live in. I can only imagine it must be a kind of survival mechanism. There’s real fear in the eyes when you touch a handful of forbidden words, I can’t imagine what terrible events in the past could have produced so many of these kinds of people. Science denial is the new religious herecy so soon they are going to start crucifying people for using the wrong pronouns, this is settled “scientific” fact by now so I hear from the front row kids.

  2. If I managed to run into the “front row” vs “backrow” thing, I managed to suppress it….

    Doesn’t match what I saw, anyways. By the guy’s figuring, I should’ve been a “front row” kid. But…well, I’m much closer to the uncorrected version on the parts that fit, and I didn’t reject institutions outside of work and school….


    1. I don’t think of this much as a real-world distinction, as if all people fall neatly into one or the other group, as a glimpse into the minds of people to whom this makes sense. The contempt, no matter how veiled in fake pity, in which those who went to ‘good’ colleges hold those of us who may or may not have gone to good schools, as they count cood, but rather don’t consider school as definitional. I mean, really – front row kids? Like, brown-nosing the teacher and eagerly doing whatever busy work they throw at you today makes you, not just smart, but morally superior? Please.

      I sat in the back and read, as long as they let me get away with it.

      1. Ha!

        We’re now in shaman territory: where our self-identified best and brightest believe only the shaman’s incantations assure us that the sun will rise tomorrow, and pointing out that the sun rises anyway will get you crucified.

      2. Charitably, there are a lot of ways of dividing humans into categories, and a fraction fit observation for some cases. If you pick an observer who chanced to see only those cases, you may hear a report that the division is entirely true. If you pick an observer who saw none of those cases, entirely untrue.

        There are hundreds of millions of people on Earth. I would be surprised if a human could substantiate a claim of observing even a million personalities. We are all working off of relatively few observations.

        There are a fair number of books out there by people convinced that they have a useful category for understanding mental traits. They are garbage if you assume that their reduced order model captures everything of importance about human variation. But some of them can be fairly useful, if one is aware of the limits of the theory.

        If the writer actually observed something, and reported it truthfully, it might be better than a horoscope if used carefully. No theory of human origin is going to be good enough if used blindly, and foolishly.

    2. Hah! I was thinking similar things. There’s a lot of in-between. My home life was strained enough, and school easy enough, that I should have been a front-row sort. But I disliked having attention drawn to me, schoolwork was too easy to hold my interest, and I was a wee bit claustrophobic– I wanted to sit *near the exit*– wherever that happened to be. But I know a few people who fit the profile pretty well…

  3. You know, this makes intuitive sense. Still chewing on it to see if it holds up.

    The lifelong friend whose behavior lately has been most baffling on this front– in exactly the way you describe: everything they say on CNN is the absolute truth, and anyone who doubts it is endangering good people everywhere– also had a nightmarish home life in childhood. So maybe it’s not so baffling after all.

    1. Yea, this works for good and bad: I also know people – I’m closely related to several – who rebelled at school because it was what their parents wanted them to do. Yet, weirdly – and this took me a bit to figure out – even they are letting school define them: they are the rebel, the drop out, the troublemaker. Now, this can carry over into real life, but the seeds are planted in school: obey, do not question, or you are a bad apple.

      That said, the worst, by far, I’ve ever run across when it comes to preening yet nervous conformity to whatever the authority figure tells them were absolutely the kids most heavily invested in the labels school gave them – the better the student, as the school understands a good student, the more impervious their certainty that the authority, completely internalized, is Just Right, and only evil, stupid people would dare disagree.

  4. Nothing, absolutely nothing, has baffled and confounded me more than people I see sharing articles about how much better Murphy and Cuomo have handled the pandemic than the South.

    The media lies, yes. But people are believing it! People who lived IN NJ!

    How? How is this possible?

    It beggars belief.

      1. There is literally no justification for it. It’s incredible people can even write those articles with a straight face, let alone share them like they’re some sort of “Gotcha, bigots!” caught in the cookie jar evidence.

  5. Reminds me of that pop punk song from back when pop punk was on the radio: “High School Never Ends”.

    I think the “social network primarily through work” is a big part of the effectiveness of this new, imposed groupthink.  You can’t go to jail for saying something un-woke, but you can get fired.  For people who only socialize with acquaintances from work, this means that there is practically no “safe space” in their lives where they can speak frankly.

  6. There are people who read Chris Arnade’s stuff and come away with the idea “front row = me = morally superior”?  That’s depressingly funny.  Like, “I’m just like Holden Caulfield, I’m a hero!” funny.  I think a lot of people turned to his work to try to understand the Mysterious Trump Voter, because a lot of people’s brains are broken and that is all they can think about.  So stuff got weird.

    I think he initially set out to show people some of their fellow citizens whose lives and perspectives they might not consider.  But his work became a sort of critique, if not of the “front row” as such, then of a system that gives so much power and influence to people who are selected for and socialized as the “front row” is.  According to Arnade, this has created a powerful class of people who have been systematically blinded to certain important aspects of what it means to be human, and little contact with what the fellow-citizens on whose behalf they pretend to exercise power actually value.

    Some of his recent focus has been on the pandemic, how the “front row” class has enacted a set of policies that seem plausible to them because it is working all right for them and that’s all they really know.  I have my issues with his characterizations, but I applaud him for pointing out some of the ways that our system of schooling systematically elevates people with an odd and narrow view of the world to positions of power.

    1. “According to Arnade, this has created a powerful class of people who have been systematically blinded to certain important aspects of what it means to be human…”

      That nails it. How many times have you seen pushback on the CDC guidelines derided as simply “anti-science”? As if Science(TM) provided the only understanding of human behavior?

  7. So long as home is a place of love and order, where the parent hunger is filled by actual parents, supported and surrounded by the eternal Father, all it takes is the tiniest disruption of the front row, to turn a thorough-going front-row-er into a bit of a skeptic.

    The more disruotions, the more likely to move, mentally at least, into the back.

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