Youth, age and generalizations thereupon

Jonah Goldberg writes a serious syndicated column, and a less serious online column, The G-File.

Goldberg first wrote in USA Today anticipating Wednesday’s walkout in schools across the country:

Later this month, high school kids will hold big demonstrations in Washington and elsewhere to demand gun control in the wake of the shootings in Parkland, Fla. That’s fine by me. I disagree with the thrust of what they want to do as a matter of policy, but it’s a free country.

My problem is with the resurgence of an old American tradition of celebrating young people as inherently wiser and more moral than adults. There are really three problems with the fetishization of youth in politics. First, it’s based on a faulty premise: that young people have a radically or uniquely superior insight into political affairs.

This is an ancient confusion. It usually hinges on misinterpreting the fact that young people see the world with fresh eyes, as it were.

And it’s true that young people have a gift for cutting through the false pieties and polite fictions of modern life, as when a nephew points out how much weight you’ve gained. Even the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes is a story about a kid too ignorant to know when to placate a king’s vanity.

But the simple fact is that young people are not, as a group, better informed, wiser, smarter or even more enlightened than older people. This is a fact of science and social science alike. We are born ignorant of the world we live in and only lose that ignorance over time.

Think about what you knew and understood at half your current age. Were you smarter then? Wiser? Why assume it works differently for anyone else?

“To all the generations before us,” Cameron Kasky, one of the Parkland survivors recently said on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, “we sincerely accept your apology. And we appreciate that you are willing to let us rebuild the world that you f—ed up.”

I get the passion. I get the rage and trauma behind it. But this nonsense is as pernicious as it is obnoxious (I’ve apologized for nothing, by the way, have you?). It’s also not true.

Young people today, and particularly young Americans, should be brimming with gratitude for the world they are inheriting. Lest you think this a cranky right-wing sentiment, let me align myself with Barack Obama: “If you had to choose a moment in time to be born, any time in human history, and you didn’t know ahead of time what nationality you were or what gender or what your economic status might be, you’d choose today.”

Kasky is standing on a soapbox built with the toil of previous generations and he’s taking a sledgehammer to it — because he doesn’t know better.

My hunch is that a great many people who take offense at my criticism do so either because of Kasky’s traumatic experience or because they agree with him — if not about the bankruptcy of the past then about his anti-gun agenda.

And that brings me to the second problem with the glorification of youth: It invariably involves powerful adults finding kids who agree with them on some issue and then claiming that all young people think this way (and then hiding behind the myth that we must listen to “the children”). If these Parkland kids came out for concealed-carry or arming teachers, you can be sure MSNBC would not be touting them in commercials.

But the most galling thing about adult partisans hiding behind kids is that it amounts to a kind of power-worship. “I know that whenever you disapprove of young people, you’re in the wrong,” the author Tim Kreider wrote in The New York Times, “because you’re going to die and they’ll get to write history.” Never mind that factually, this is balderdash.

Young people change their minds about lots of things as they get older, and historians rarely lock in the views of young people a few decades later. This is also ethically bankrupt because it assumes that whatever kids today believe will be right because the victors write the history, so we should just surrender to the youngest mob.

Democracy depends on arguments that are not contingent on your age. Lots of kids don’t understand that, but grown-ups are supposed to.

Then he wrote in his G-File about said column:

There were many dumb reactions. Of course, this is to be expected. As King Leonidas might say if he were the ruler of a social-media platform, “This is Twitter!

Still it’s been a rather remarkable experience watching people freak out over such an obviously correct point.

In fact, I thought I inoculated myself from the more ridiculous accusations in advance. But alas, what I thought was a feature of my column was for some its fatal flaw. …

I’ve been writing about the inanity and jackassery of generational stereotyping and youth politics for literally 25 years, going all the way back to when I was a young twentysomething. But, apparently, that argument cannot be made independent of the Parkland kids because, in this moment, they are speaking for all youth and therefore, thanks to the transitive property of generational numinosity, any criticism of young people qua young people is “attacking” the Gun Control Youth League. Never mind that young people are as divided on the issue of gun control as everyone else.

It’s a funny analogue to the crap I get from some Trump supporters who think that I’ve changed since his rise. I’ve been against sexual depravity, protectionism, populism, industrial policy, orange-tinted skin, executive overreach, etc. for decades. Then Trump comes along, I keep saying the same things, and, suddenly, I get all of this “What happened to you?!”

So let me try this a different way: Nothing in the passages that follow is in any way, shape, or form negative commentary or invidious insinuation about the Parkland students. They are right about everything, no matter the subject.

I would even stipulate that no youths from Florida are ever wrong about anything and that their sagacity and good conduct should never be doubted or gainsaid. But, then again, I can only ask so much willing disbelief from my readers. Regardless, seriously, this has nothing whatsoever to do with the Parkland kids or even the issue of gun control.

Let’s establish a baseline. I assume we can all agree that everyone is born remarkably dumb. Ever try to talk about the causes of the First World War with a newborn? So frustrating.

There are few things more settled in science than the fact that humans start out not very bright or informed and that this condition only wears off over time — i.e., as they get older.

Only slightly more controversial: Young people tend to be more emotional than grown-ups. This is true of babies, who will cry about the silliest things (hence the word, “crybaby”). But it’s also true of teenagers.

Again, this is not string theory. We know these things. And the idea that I must provide empirical evidence for such a staggeringly obvious point is hilarious to me.

Aside from all the social science, medical science, novels, plays, poems, musicals, and movies that explore this fact, there is another source we can consult on this: ourselves.

Every not-currently-young person reading this “news”letter has one thing in common: We were all young once.

This is what I mean when I say that “youth politics are the laziest form of identity politics.” Say what you will for racial-identity politics, there’s at least a superficial case that such identities are immutable. I can never be a black woman. And before everyone gets clever, even if I dropped a lot of coin on cosmetic surgery, I can never claim to know what it’s like to be a black woman.

You know what I can claim, though? Knowing what it’s like to be young. Sure, I can’t claim to know what it’s like to be young in 2018, but as the father of a 15-year-old, I’m not wholly ignorant on the topic either. On the other hand, my 15-year-old has no clue what it was like to be young in the 1980s.

And that’s why youth politics are such a lazy form of identity politics. (It’s also why generational stereotypes are lazy.) Here’s a news flash for you: There was no “Greatest Generation.” The dudes who stormed the beaches of Iwo Jima and Normandy: badasses and heroes, to a man. The dudes back home in the drunk tank on D-Day? Not so much.

This is what I hate about all forms of identity politics. It’s an effort to get credit or authority based upon an accident of birth. The whole point of liberalism (the real kind) is the idea that people are supposed to be judged on the basis of their own merits, not as representatives of some class or category. Of course, one needn’t be absolutist about this. A little pride in your culture or ethnicity won’t do any harm. But reducing individuals simply to some abstract category is the very definition of bigotry.

There is no transitive property to age. If a 17-year-old cures cancer, that’s fantastic. But the 17-year-old who spends his days huffing glue and playing Call of Duty is still a loser. I’m a Gen Xer. I take literally zero pride in the good things people my age do. I also have zero shame about the terrible things people my age do. Why? Because age is as dumb a thing as height or hair color to hitch your self-esteem to. What kind of loser looks back on a life of mediocrity and sloth and says to himself, “Well at least other people in my age cohort did great things!”?

And yet, we constantly invest special virtue in young people. As Socrates explained to Meno, there are no special virtues for young people. There are simply virtues. If a young person says that 2 + 2 = 4, that’s no more right or wrong than if an old person says so. The bravery of one 18-year-old does not negate the cowardice of another 18-year-old.

And that gets me to the next of my supposedly outrageous points: Older people know more than younger people. I’ve been stunned by the number of people offended by this. A lot of folks are getting hung up on the fact that young people know more about some things than older people. Fair enough. The average young person knows more about today’s youth culture and gadgets than the average fogey. My daughter can identify the noise coming out of my car radio. When I was a kid, it was running joke that grown-ups couldn’t figure out how to make the VCR stop flashing “12:00.” It never dawned on me that knowing how to fix that problem meant I knew more about politics than my dad.

This isn’t just a point about technological know-how or public policy. There’s an emotional narcissism to youth. Because a rich cocktail of hormones courses through teenagers’ still-developing brains, young people think they are the first people to experience a range of emotions. But we’ve all experienced those emotions. It’s just that when you experience them for the first time, it’s easy to think it’s the first time anyone has experienced such emotions. The first time you fall in love — or think you’ve fallen in love — as a teenager is a wildly intoxicating thing. And there’s nothing more infuriating than when old people tell you, “It’s just a phase.” That, however, doesn’t mean it’s not true.

Indeed, “You just don’t get it!” might as well be the motto of youth.

My objection to youth politics is simply one facet of my objection to identity politics — but it’s also a part of my objection to populism. That’s because youth politics is a form of populism. It claims that passion and the group are more important than reason and the individual. It is the passion of the crowd. And when grown-ups bow before the rising generation, it is a form of power-worship. “Children are the future!” is literally true in the sense that they will be alive after the rest of us are dead. But that does not absolve the rest of us from our responsibilities. Nor does it negate arguments that young people don’t want to hear.

Liberals love to talk about root causes. If you assign blame for the Parkview school shooting to anyone or anything that meets your political worldview (guns, violent video games, inadequate mental health care, the ______ization of society, etc.) besides the shooter, then you also have to grant that the Parkview students who bullied, or bully, other students or merely shun them also deserve some blame. Tell that to a young gun control proponent and see what happens.

Someone (read here to try to discern whom) once observed that if you’re not a liberal at 20 you have no heart, but if you’re not a conservative by 40 you have no brain. We’re hearing from the liberals.

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