In politics, your children are not interesting.
Your young have nothing valuable to say about issues, candidates, cultures, or events. They aren’t informed, they aren’t aware, they aren’t equipped, they have no real ideas, and their thoughts are not their own.
And worse, they’re struggling. A lot.
So please do them and the rest of us a favor. Unburden your offspring from the awesome responsibility of making you satisfied with yourself for having raised and offered a 21st century high-tech breed of child soldiers.
Before you draw conclusions, I write this not to attack your children, but to save them from you. Our culture is replete with the exploitation and prostitution of children by politically-active, conscious “adults.” This social scourge has everybody pitching in, including you. You do it every time you cheer or co-sponsor some squeaker on a platform babbling about your favorite agenda item. You do it every time you make up or circulate hearsay about an 8-year-old crying over an election result. You do it when you make kids the centerpieces of media-focused movements or rallies that guilt trip and terrorize the disinterested. Boomers, Xers, elder millennials; parental failures alike who have created a climate of peaceless public misery, and your children have become husks and casualties without glory on your social media battlegrounds. They have become wasted units, sacrificial pawns, and stunted squires in your tribal war efforts and partisan campaigns.
Ever since students marched in the streets in protest of endless or ill-advised wars, America’s modern political culture has fetishized children as “leaders,” “game changers,” “charge takers,” etc. Partisans – left and right – are doing it with increasing verve as the civil war rises to total war.
And yes, on this, the Left at present is more plainly egregious than the Right, but not universally so and in no way underrating the Right’s shared culpability. The Right spent years trying to cultivate conformity around school prayer, or in forcing creationism as “science” and abstinence-only as “sex ed.” Less draconian yet little different from the Saudi practice of teaching elementary geography with Israel prohibitively unidentified on the atlas.
Still, I’m going to use mainly left-wing examples, but not all the obvious ones and not the way you think. This is not about some Time-anointed Swedish girl with a mighty-kids frown taking boat rides to cry over the rising tides. This is not just about some 11 year old wannabe Republican who gets a panel or interview at CPAC. Nor just about skimpy Pensacola pageant propagandists performing in a stadium full of seemingly everyone Chris Hansen failed to catch. This is not just about right-wing idiots on YouTube who get their own Wikipedia pages before they get their drivers’ license. It’s not their fault. And when you use them, you’re not hurting your enemies nearly as much as you’re hurting the kids.
So strap in or limp away now. First: an illustration by anecdote.
Feinstein Did What Now?
In late February of 2019, Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) met with members of a youth-led 501(c)(4) political action coalition called the Sunrise Movement. The Sunrise Movement is headquartered in Washington, D.C. and focuses its lobbying and activism on issues primarily based around climate change alarmism, radical environmentalism, and green energy. The Movement brought a group of young children from San Francisco and their adult sponsors to the Hill to meet with Feinstein and press her to support the proposed Green New Deal.
Here is a brief video that the Movement took of the exchange, edited down to make Feinstein look as unsympathetic and dismissive as possible. Don’t worry about the complete exchange. I am only interested in discussing here what the Movement thought was a sound tactic against Feinstein. Just watch the 2 minutes.
Okay, for those of you who didn’t watch it, Feinstein tells the kids that she’s working on a different bill, and that the problem of climate change will not be worked out in ten years – a supposed scientific deadline for the human race on Planet Earth. When pressed further, she comments on the arrogance and entitled attitudes of the group for coming to her – a 30-year political veteran fresh off a California reelection – and demanding things be done their way. Later, one of the adults effectively calls her a coward, to which Feinstein sarcastically responds “make a Senate run yourself then.”
So let’s adopt the Sunrise Movement’s version of this event. Let’s assume the worst of what Feinstein did. With her arms crossed and her stern voice of disapproval, Feinstein stared down a group of kids (and maybe one teenager) and their adult chaperones – her own constituents, no less – and she “politely” told them to go pound Pismo sand. She was cold and condescending. She indicated in just about every way that she isn’t impressed with them, doesn’t need them, and has no interest in lifting a finger for them.
This version of Diane Feinstein is my hero.
What the Senator did in this moment defies the most basic tenets of conventional wisdom in American politics. There is not a single textbook for proper politician conduct that would tell you that this is a good idea. Children are “sacred.” Not in a way that actually helps them, though. When politicians call them “sacred,” they’re defining children as prospective lobbyists – customer bases and advertising targets – not as vulnerable, up-incoming members of the community whose innocence is an interest in itself.
To put it another way, if you’re a candidate for office, one of your first challenges is to kiss a stranger’s baby in public without looking creepy. Visiting schools and daycares to promise them the Moon, dropping by the leukemia wards to get those poor frail kids to smile on camera with you; this is your new job. “Children are our future!” you will hear yourself say, along with “it is our responsibility to leave our children better off and with more opportunities than we had.” These are all silly platitudes, but you will obey without a second’s hesitation because the last thing you ever want to happen to you is to be seen putting down or stomping out the dreams and aspirations of a child. Nothing looks worse than that. All children are precious gifts and promised heroes. The blind kid can fly the space shuttle and the paralyzed kid can swim a marathon. You might as well act as if they’ve already done it.
What that all that puff and fluff misses is that children are not just soon-to-be adults whose futures are presently under our collective construction. The value of innocence isn’t just in its loss or discard. In any decent civilized country, children are well relegated to their state of bliss, learning, and non-responsibility. They are depoliticized because they are, in effect, non-citizens. They’re figuring out the basics, exercising, testing limits, observing, questioning, and repeating. Children are simultaneously living their best lives as creatures of our envy and, as Hannah Arendt once observed, the barbarians invading civilization every generation. They give the rest of us the payback we deserve for the hell we put our parents through, and they force us to clean up our acts so we can lead by the best example.
In other words, as adults, our relationship with children is personal, familial, and communal – not political.
So if children are off limits to political attack, then they should be off limits to political acclaim. But ceaseless politically-driven acclaim is all they get, which piles on the weight of unsaid expectations. That neurosis arrives downstream from culture, and it has been with us since the Boomers.
Children used to be defined as a clear class of individuals between the ages of birth through 17. Now they might as well be defined up to the age of 25. 26, if you include health insurance requirements. But this doesn’t actually help them.
Since the ’80s, children have become the new altars of mass social worship and devotion. They have become the ultimate “projects.” Objects of endless fawning and helicopter obsession; children can apparently do no wrong. Unless, of course, they deviate.
It began with the Baby Boomers – a stuffed, spoiled, repugnant generation if ever there was one – turning their children into vessels of their own narcissism. Boomers inherited relative stability and then laid waste to it. They lapped up all the sex, drugs, and rock & roll they could get, dodged the draft, spat at the troops, and acted like free-spirited pioneers of justice and liberation in between joint hits and vinyl tracks. Funny how their narrative has changed since their midlife crises when they realized how much they need their children to provide for them in retirement. Now Boomers act like all that was just a pleasant distraction. They act like they’ve worked hard for their whole lives, and stayed righteous and focused throughout. It’s a We Didn’t Start The Fire woe-is-us generation.
Boomers never came to grips with their burnout, mortality, and replaceability. And through their “self-esteem movement” of the late ‘80s onwards, they have passed on their worst, most despicable traits to their offspring in the name of commodifying them. My millennial generation is a hell-spawn of that hell spawn. Products of the “Self Esteem ” culture loaded with insecurity, desperate to self gratify and recreate the pretended, revisionist glories of our “revolutionary” parents. My generation works hard but we are no less delusional and narcissistic. We are a hopelessly gullible rabble of pinball wizards and secular hero worshipers. We just haven’t had fifty years to act like we own the world yet.
In the decade or so we have had, however, we have torn our social fabric asunder. Today’s pedo-partisanship stems from prevailing conventions of modern child rearing. And the kids are both inheriting this mess and following our example in perpetuating the worst of it due to nearly three decades of narcissistic parenting and resume arms racing.
Make no mistake. What we’re seeing here is a multi-generational compound of failure resulting in widespread misery. A long, grotesque experiment in coddling, bubbling, managing, sheltering, shielding, structuring, scheduling, trapping, busy-working, assembly lining, and programming the children; all done ostensibly in the name of empowering them. I credit authors Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff and their excellent book The Coddling of the American Mind, primarily chapters 7-10 (and endnotes) for the facts I’m about to throw at you.
As you read them, the Latin phrase cui bono[?] (“who benefits?”) should float at the forefront of your mind at all times.
Children are “growing up” slower, duller, and with about as much independence as a sheep on a ranch.
With feeble immune systems, heightened Ritalin dosages, and “safety leashes,” children are being raised and “educated” without risk or relaxation. Sociologists at the University of Michigan found that between 1981 and 1997, the overall amount of playtime for kids dropped by 16%, and most of the activities went from outdoor to indoor. During that same stretch, time spent at school rose by 18% and time spent doing homework rose by 145%. They have entrance exams for Kindergarten. Yes, a system designed to prepare children for grade school now requires its own rigorous preparation. And it’s done mainly just so kids can test well and compete in the college admissions game. Ah yes – college – where after incurring enough debt to match the GDP of a small island nation, the lucky little sprouts enter into a Brave New bureaucracy that will deprive them of what they actually need to learn if they suspect that they aren’t emotionally ready for it. A haunted sanctuary that will nauseate them with platitudes about how much their safety is of paramount concern, but will punish them for the slightest step out of line. From 2003 to 2013, spending on student services by public research universities increased by 22.3%, while spending for research and curriculum increased by less than 10%. Speech codes, “bias incident reports,” the Title IX expansions by the Obama Administration’s Department of Education – all examples of feeding and expanding the paternal bubble of campus luxury and tyranny. Colleges are essentially corporations that compete with each other to address the increasing demand for amenities and show as much force as possible in the course of overreacting to anyone – student, group, faculty, or outside speaker – who dares to offer actual diversity.
Any kid who does get to play outside or do something that involves physical exercise will do so in a carefully supervised environment where all possibility of losing or defeat is forced out by the authorities. God help you as a parent if your kid shows up anywhere in public with a bruise, bump, cut, scrape, or scratch in a noticeable area, or wearing a sling or walking with crutches because they fell hard enough to remember it. People look at you like you just nailed your kid to a crucifix and set it on fire.
You might as well just wrap your kid into a giant condom.
But don’t worry. I’m sure none of this has any effects on their health or functionality. I’m sure they’re not having any difficulty adjusting. Who could possibly suggest that kids are burning out and buckling under the encumbrances, pressures, and mundanity of this instruction?
Before I let more statistics fly, let me drop the sarcasm and personalize this for a moment. I grew up in an affluent Massachusetts town, and went to a public school that is ranked safely in the top 1,000 schools (out of roughly 17,000 ranked) in the entire country. Since 2011 – well after I had graduated and left it all behind – I’ve seen reports of at least one student suicide per year. One was as young as 10. I have little to add to the words of Erica Taylor in her blog post on the subject. The point is – these aren’t just statistics. My home community is a disturbingly reliable illustration of a social wound growing within our country. Every one of these is its own story. Usually the same story, but each individualized into personal tragedy.
Over the past five years, rates of student anxiety, depression, and suicide have gone through the roof. The Higher Education Institute reported that over the course of this decade, the percentage of college students who claim to have a psychological disorder has risen 3x for girls (5% in 2010 to nearly 15% in 2016) and 2x for boys (3% in 2010 to 6% in 2016). The National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported that in the 2000s decade, a depressive episode per year was common of about 12% of adolescent girls. Since 2014, it’s reached almost 20%. On a normal-sized campus, that would be roughly 4-8 episodic-depressive girls per dorm room floor. If that isn’t bad enough, suicide is now the second most common cause of death for young people aged 15-24. The 1999-2016 Fatal Injury Reports taken by the Center for Disease Control show a sharp increase in the adolescent suicide rate. In the 2000s, the suicide rate hovered steady around 3% for girls and 11% for boys. But since 2013, it’s risen to around 5% for girls and 15% for boys. Penn State’s Center for Collegiate Mental Health found that between 2010 and 2017, reports of students seeking care due to self harm rose from 21.8% to 27%, and students seeking care due to serious consideration of suicide rose from 24% to 34.2%.
The kids are not alright. And now you want to throw them into the pit of partisan politics?
It is not a knock against children to observe that they are ill suited to politics. They don’t work, they don’t pay taxes, they don’t fight overseas, police, operate heavy, sophisticated machinery, or negotiate, and they don’t budget. Children think both too big and too small, and their one-dimensional emotions travel with them everywhere they go. Even the most well-mannered, thoughtful child is not attuned to the greater complexities, mysteries, and paradoxes of the world, institutions, and human behavior. Children are unschooled in the cruelty of chance and in the many faces of human nature. They don’t know economics, they can’t trace the throughlines of history, they can’t connect or contrast perspective, and they can’t think much beyond what’s directly in front of them.
These all are hard enough things to expect of adults, especially today. If people who spend years, decades of their adult lives have as much trouble with politics as we see they do, what exactly is a child supposed to add? What all important perspectives are the adults missing that some kid fresh off his first wet dream can produce for us? That includes your kid too. Your kid – who will parrot your exact words every moment that they’re awake enough to hear them. Just because he/she has a better understanding of the most recent app or computer software out there doesn’t mean they’re ready to take on the challenges of the human race before they’re old enough to know which side of the playpen smells the worst.
To the extent that children are capable of sophisticated political thought, the game is rigged against them from the moment of first flirtation with it. We often hear people lament that “the adults are acting like children.” This is both true and revealing. By saying that, we expressly acknowledge that we hold children to a different standard, and that it is one beneath the adults. We expect less of children and we understand that they don’t know what they don’t know. It isn’t their fault; they’re just young.
What your child does have to offer is the overwhelming emotion that usually stems from their excitement upon discovering an issue they think they care about. That might sound like a beautiful moment of growth from a state of innocence. But to the ochlocrats on social media and elsewhere who constantly thirst for fresh meat in their ranks, it is a neon signal of vulnerability. These groups include the Sunrise Movement, which lured those poor hysterical little girls to the steps of the Senate and social media like it was a big green ice cream van.
The hellscapes of the internet host an entire parallel universe of fake interaction and public masturbation. On Twitter, Facebook, etc., we engage not in discourse but in what Kevin Williamson labels, in his recent book The Smallest Minority, “anti-discourse” – a utilitarian hierarchy of likes, shares, retweets, selfies, and clickbait. You are recognized and valued based on what you can contribute to the feeds and feedback loops. You are a pundit with all of the backlash and none of the pay. The currency traded on these networks is “status,” measured in the eyes of the beholding tribes. And the trade is neither constructive nor enlightened. It is a giant ongoing cafeteria food fight for empty, sexually-frustrated rage monkeys reveling in the license to be as petty, bullish, and destructive as they have always wanted to be. The cretins and plebiscites that make up the rabble seek to elevate themselves and their status by forming and joining mobs and various collective efforts to tear down the perceived status of others. And they will recruit whomever they can. This is not just a game for blue checkmark adults. It is grassroots militant democracy in action – participated in by every soul-dead schmuck and peon thirsting for a chance at enjoying the briefest pleasure of social power. Power they will use against you without a moment’s hesitation. The list of victims is endless, and the mob is aching to put your name on it. Especially if you appear in any way to be happier than they are.
Forgive me for the crime of thinking that this is not the healthiest environment for children.
Of course, when children are introduced to the degenerate spectacle, it’s easy to see why they fall in love with it. A chance to get noticed by your favorite pop star before you reach your 20s? The opportunity to respond to politicians you hate and get your joke shared by someone famous who can rocket you into virality and stardom overnight? The deceptive feeling that maybe for the first time you have your own voice and there’s a world out there eager to hear it? It’s their chance to remake themselves; to enjoy the expressive privileges of adulthood, maybe even become famous. And parents will push them towards it for the vicarious pride in the “independence,” “maturity,” and “leadership” ostensibly demonstrated by the child, especially if they think there’s a chance that a college will be impressed by it.
But this is precisely what makes the social media climate such a dangerous and dishonest trap. These screen-addicted kids are light-led like moths towards the very thing that will amplify and aggravate the anxiety and depression they already feel from the regular pressure to perform and excel in both school and all seventeen different resume-building activities their parents have picked out for them. They’re encouraged to add thoughts they don’t have on issues they know nothing about on forums of socializing that will not give them the catharsis they seek.
As such, children do not benefit from social media or political participation. They are used. Their energy is siphoned and injected into the “causes” they join. And the euphoria they feel is a grave lie.
That’s just the demand side.
On the supply side, by using children as representatives and mouthpieces, a mob also gets to indulge in a motte/bailey pattern of fallacious rhetoric. When a child gives voice to politics, marvel and behold! Let’s all throw a Prince Ali parade for the heroism of this bright young courageous leader having grown up so fast and taken the first steps into this big world. Aren’t you proud? Pay attention and pay tribute, for this is the voice of the future! But if you dare disagree with that child or dissent in any way, you’re a bully and a blowhard, picking on and trying to ruin the life and happiness of the helpless little flower who just… wants… to make… the world… a better… place.
If that “logic” isn’t dishonest enough, the next step is even worse; ochlocratic fear flattery.
If you – a kid – “succeed” at the game and reach a status of partisan celebrity, you’re not just verified or recognized. Now you’re “feared.” Hey how about that? Get big enough in this hellscape and you will see adult mob partisans publicly state (with nary a shred of evidence to support it) that their supposed enemies are “afraid” of you. Like Jesus or Gandhi. Did you expect that? I bet you didn’t, but now you can revel in the thought that apparently there are people out there quivering and squirming in their deathbeds in dread of your very existence. These are, of course, people you have never heard of and have no reason to interact with. But your enablers really need you to know that they’re out there. The mob will use your face and likeness to taunt and flash.
And best of all, now anyone who might disagree with or refuse to join you can be safely cast into the fear camp. No one can criticize you, which also means no one can criticize the mob behind you. They are, after all, your friends who are looking out for you.
The mobs that employ children for these dual purposes are using them as both the tips of the spear and the meat of the shield. The children are their cannonballs and cannon fodder at the same time. They will not stop…
…And the national media is there to help them.
News Media Porn
I’m not going to name any names.
If you’ve made it this far and aren’t pre-meditating my murder yet, then you know that this entire time, I’ve been talking about adult neglect. Parents, teachers, counselors, chaperones, and, yes, you too; it’s about our lack of leadership. It’s also about “journalism” as the toxic feeder of American child soldier politics.
And, unfortunately, nowhere was our dead-beat social abdication more apparent than in the immediate aftermath of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre in February, 2018. We failed a community and a nation.
The children of that school are victims of two horrors, not one. The first and obviously far worse offense was done by a lone madman – a boy who, on multiple occasions, told everyone but the extraterrestrials of his intentions and plans to slaughter the school, and was given the blessing and assistance of seemingly the entire Broward County Sheriff’s Department to do so.
The second is the opportunistic swarm by the media that followed.
Before the bodies were cold, before the blood stains were cleaned, and before anyone in the community could even breathe, the new apprentice celebrity hunt began. With notable exceptions, the national press is a parasitic clique of spin artists and character assassins. Nothing brings out their hard-ons like dead white kids in a swing state. The national media swarmed and descended upon the community like vultures. Not to help investigate the facts; not to direct the nation to blood centers or relief services. All that was just ancillary. They came to find the class “gunners” who would be willing to lash out on camera like Derek Vinyard in American History X.
To their delight, an entire generation has grown up with the impulse to document and ingratiate themselves on camera. These kids have been trained from birth to get in front of every camera they see, and to grab and drop every mic they can find. Now in a state of shock, survivor’s guilt, and human irrationality, these children were in the most vulnerable state imaginable.
The media took these kids and made them child soldier recruitment tools. Junior varsity activists given the keys to the big leagues. They marched, they opined on TV, they got their blue checkmark and became gravity points for the usual social media juvenile posturing described earlier. The rest of us watched them do it in real time, and a disturbing number of us applauded the effort. Even actual pundits and media figures – many of whom are cynical and egotistical enough to think that these kids remind them of themselves – attempted to bolster themselves by acting as the kids’ biggest cheerleaders. So did you.
The nation followed this sick reality program all the way to the end, and the media kept reporting it. We saw them talk, talk, and talk some more, and not even just about all the guns they had suddenly become experts on. One of the organizers of the March talked about how during the immediate week after the shooting, the activists traveled directly from press events and public rallies to classmate funerals. We saw them fight with each other on social media. We saw them become memes and caricatures and targets of defamation. We saw prom pictures, and we even saw a college admission scandal.
And then, of course, the cherry on top: roughly a year after the March, we saw a pair of teenage suicides in the same week.
All this attention was supposedly intended by the media as an expression of empathy and an attempt at victim empowerment. It never works that way. The social fabric grants kids like these only the illusion of power and does them no favors. The pressure they face will continue; the coping will stagnate. Some may end up set for life – anointed by partisans as the leaders of the future. The rest of the community they came from has not recovered, and all the media did was turn it into a circus. I hope you enjoyed the show.
And I hope you look forward to seeing more of the cast.
If all of this sounds at least a little f***ed up to you, good. Now you’re where I was years ago as I saw the personalization of partisanship grow and innocence shrink. Now you’re where I was years ago when I saw that all of the above had nothing to do with empowering kids and everything to do with ballooning adults. And if you know me, I’m sure it crossed your mind that I am writing this, despite the fact that I am a 30-year old* millennial with no kids of my own.
But the ad hominem fallacy is a thing. And contrary to what you might think, I have not used it even once for this entire piece. This piece is an attack on one of the biggest ad hominems I’ve ever seen. This is not about discrediting their arguments but illustrating a bigger picture. It behooves all of us to step back and take stock of what’s important. Whether by admired emulation or bitter reaction, children reflect our teachings back upon us. A notable exception is always nearby, but in the aggregate what reflects back upon us this decade is nothing less than disgrace and failure. If children are so important to us, if children are so valuable and precious, and if we truly believe that they are worth the help, the protection, and the parental effort, then keep them out of the pit for as long as possible. Children are not ready for the mud even if they think they are, and we abandon our responsibility to them when we indulge their appetites for it. We destroy their childhoods to boost our adult standing, and we set them up for failure to feed our ego. It’s abuse.
If there’s any hope to fix it, it would come in part from following in the footsteps of Feinstein’s courage. The Atlantic’s Caitlin Flanagan wrote a good piece about her interaction with the Sunrise Movement, but where I disagree with her is in the idea that Feinstein was somehow “taking the children seriously.” She gave a serious response, but taking them seriously was exactly what Feinstein was not doing. She took herself seriously. And thus she towered over them. You should do the same. And in this context, taking yourself seriously means – in effect – taking your citizenship seriously. It is to appreciate the difference between your level of social participation and that of a child, who spends years developing into their best selves and learning the self determination, self definition, and self governance that they need to become valuable and contributing citizens in the first place. Maybe you’re still learning all that too.
Any hope to cleanse this country of its pedo-partisan compulsion would come from a harsh but necessary presumption. Presume – until proven otherwise – that any kid (and for these purposes you might as well define “kid” up to the age of 25) preaching political gospel, touted or hailed as “brave” or “iconic” or “needed,” or plastered as the face(s) of a social movement is a canonized little puppet king acting as unwitting slave to the egos of their “adult” cohorts. You can agree with every word of a platform, whether you’re a MAGA hat or a pussy hat, and still find the practice disgusting. If children are off limits to political attack, then they’re off limits to political acclaim.
And if you can’t do that – if you insist on taking yours down the path of actual child actors/pop stars and further contributing to the softening and mental degradation of an entire generation – make yourself a real profile of courage and admit it.
At least then the rest of us will know that just like your kids – you’re not worth taking seriously either.
*Technically 29 at the exact time of this piece’s publication, but who’s counting?
Acknowledgment: This piece would not have been possible without the help of my friend Blake Faulkner. His time, his thoughts, and his insights were invaluable, and for all of that and more I thank him immensely.