Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
Last Saturday hundreds of thousands of high schoolers gathered across the country in a “March for Our Lives” rally. Organized and financed by anti-gun nuts and other left-wing outfits, and ornamented with Hollywood celebrities like George Clooney and Oprah Winfrey, the spectacle was filled with the emotional exhibitionism and juvenile policy recommendations one would expect from the most pampered and worst-educated cohort of young people in American history––the perfect shock troops for progressive propaganda.
Progressivism, like its totalitarian cousins, is an ideology of melodrama and moral exhibitionism. The complexity and mystery of a flawed human nature and its actions are reduced to Lenin’s simple analysis: “Who, whom.” In the fight between righteousness and evil, who will win, the oppressor or his victim? The revolutionary is strengthened by his perceived own moral superiority, his certainty that he on the side of history’s angels. After all, he is struggling for the brave new world: heaven on earth, the utopia of radical equality and social justice, and the final banishment of misery and oppression. In such a cosmic battle, who has time for critical thought or empirical evidence?
This leftist melodrama has always been attractive for the callow young, as the hinge-year 1968 showed. Teenagers are prone to grandiose self-regard, impulsive behavior, and a preference for feeling rather than thinking. They are attracted to sentimentalism and melodrama, the emotion that validates their inflated egos rather than the thought that challenges their exaggerated self-importance.
Once upon a time, experience in a hard, indifferent world, the virtues like self-reliance and impulse-control nourished by faith and tradition, and an education based on mental skills and the lessons of history taught the young that their feelings and “self-esteem” don’t amount to a hill of beans in this flawed world. They also learned that good deeds are more important than fine words, that acting on their impulses and seeking instant gratification carry a high price, and that duty and obligation and responsibility to others in the end are the foundations of our political and social order.
Starting in the postwar fifties, increasing wealth, more time spent in school rather than factories and fields, consumer capitalism’s promotion of impulse-buying, and a culture of materialism that defines the self through fashion, consumption, and popular culture rather than through education, challenges, and character––all exacerbated the flaws of youth that the larger culture once tried to correct, but now indulged. Movies, music, and soon the therapeutic curricula of schools reinforced and glorified these flaws rather than disciplining and correcting them. The “human sciences” replaced the doctrines of faith and wisdom of tradition in explaining human nature and its proper aims.
The last three generations have been marinated in these social and cultural dysfunctions that have resulted in a sense of entitlement and outlandish expectations. Adolescence has been extended far beyond the traditional beginning of adulthood, and increasingly shaped by a leftist political ideology that rationalizes and exculpates bad character and destructive choices as the fault of a corrupt political, economic, and social system. But the old-left call for the violent overthrow of such an evil establishment is now merely a rhetorical flourish. Symbolic politics like marches and demonstrations that occasionally stray into vandalism and petty thuggery are preferred, for they are relatively risk-free, and draw the attention of sympathetic media and like-minded adults who praise the youngsters’ “passion” and “commitment” to “change” and a “better world.”
We have been witnessing for some time this combination of adolescent immaturity and therapeutic leftism in the college “snowflake” and “safe-space” phenomenon, and in the intolerance of dissent and willingness to use tantrums to shut up anybody challenging the self-importance of pampered, privileged college students. We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that now high school students are being recruited by the left to “march” against the wicked NRA, which stands in the way of the longtime leftist goal of gutting the Second Amendment. The progressive goal of centralized and concentrated power, and the transfer of all authority and autonomy from the citizens and states to the federal Leviathan, is challenged by the right of citizens to own a means of self-protection that guards against the monopoly of force, historically the foundation of tyrannical power.
And what better occasion for chipping away at the citizens’ right to keep and bear arms than the telegenic sentimentalism of a school shooting? And what better cat’s paw for achieving change than innocent high school kids and their trauma––carefully selected, of course, to bring the right message? The drama and pathos of victims, particularly when they’re young, is a great vehicle for peddling incoherent and useless policies––and for camouflaging the truth that those recommendations are basically misdirection from the progressives’ political goals.
Take David Hogg, who was present during the attack last month on the high school in Parkland. The seventeen-year-old appears with four other Stoneman Douglas students on the cover of Time, and has become a darling of the anti-gun crowd for his profanity-laced tantrums that demonstrate perfectly the portrait sketched above: “The pathetic f***ers that want to keep killing our children, they could have blood from children splattered all over their faces and they wouldn’t take action because they all still see those dollar signs,” he said of the NRA and other lawmakers defending the Second Amendment.
Notice how this callow youth simply regurgitates the stale clichés of the gun-control fundamentalists. He obviously has no clue that the NRA has political clout not because of the pittance it gives politicians compared to, say, public-employee unions, but because millions of Americans support its mission to defend a Constitutional right they hold dear. Nor does he realize that a young person dying in a mass school shooting by a psychopath with a rifle is a rare occurrence, compared to dying in a car accident, or being beaten to death, or being killed by a motorist while walking or biking to school. He has no clue that the demonized, perfectly legal AR-15 was already banned from 1994-2004, without lowering gun-deaths even as the number of guns increased. Like his equally addled elders, he can’t fathom that more regulations of guns do nothing to keep them out of the hands of thugs and psychopaths, but do complicate and limit the rights of law-abiding citizens.
No thought, no empirical evidence, no respect for facts, no reasoned arguments, just the potty-mouth, hysterical emotion, bathetic drama, and attention-getting antics of an immature child who thinks his feelings are the world’s highest priority.
This same juvenile thinking characterizes another high-school teen, this one interviewed by The Wall Street Journal: “I make it a point to tell my mother I love her every day, because I want that to be the last thing I say to her in case anything happens to me at school,” she said, adding that gun violence “is something I don’t want to have to think about on a daily basis.” While the young woman is obsessing over the rare deaths from school shootings, 11 teens die every day from texting while driving. But we see no mass-movement to hold cell-phone manufacturers, and their billions spent in lobbying pols, responsible for the carnage their products cause. Throw in drug overdoses and drunk-drivers, and kids and their parents have much more likely risks to worry about when a child leaves for school.
But we can’t blame the young. The progressive transformation of our culture has been directed at creating just such students, whose natural inclinations to self-drama and emotion rather than thinking make them perfect constituents for an ideology that flourishes among those who obsess over their feelings, and who demand the elimination of the sad constants of risk and suffering. The tragic wisdom that flawed humans are free to choose wickedness, and that the utopia of a world without risk or suffering is impossible, contradicts the pipe dreams of the left. So those who believe traditional wisdom must be trained from an early age to cede their freedom and autonomy to the technocratic elite that needs them to remain children.
Of course, there are millions of young people who somehow have managed to avoid this progressive siren song. They join the military, work for charities, and “march for life” and the rights of the unborn. But they are demonized and scorned by the progressive pundits and politicians who distrust anyone who challenges their narrative. This silent cohort of the young is the true resistance against an ideology that prefers them to be robotic shock troops.