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The Failure of the Adults

Liberals, of course, have responded with horror: When Michael Knowles called her “mentally ill” on Fox News and said she was “being exploited by her parents and by the international left,” Democratic commentator Chris Hahn shot back, “You’re a grown man and you’re attacking a child. Shame on you.”

Even when people disagree about Thunberg in this way, however, they tend to agree on one thing: Politics is a depraved, gross adult realm, and if grown-ups were doing a better job, kids like Thunberg wouldn’t have to wade into it.

Adults with wildly varying agendas have long used kids to serve their own political interests. “Think of the children!” has been a rallying cry for everyone from anti-nuclear activists to crusaders against gay marriage or abortion. As a political strategy, this makes some sense; whatever their politics, most adults are distressed when “children,” as an amorphous group, appear to be in trouble. Hillary Clinton famously used children as her signature cause when she was first lady, publishing It Takes a Village in 1996, when her public image was mired in scandal. This abstract fetishization of children can feel like a dishonest, manipulative trick, premised on the ethically wrongheaded assumption that kids are deserving of care and protection, while adults, as part of the evil (political) adult world, are not.

Of course, children have a rich tradition of taking political action on their own behalf. Just as kids have sexuality (whether adults like it or not), they also have politics (whether adults like it or not). During the early twentieth century, American children organized against their own labor exploitation. During the civil rights movement, black kids brave enough to integrate white schools drew admiration and sympathy, often far more than the adults putting their bodies on the line to integrate lunch counters and public transit. On television, the sight of these children, facing extreme racism, dressed in their Sunday best, with such serious faces, explaining to reporters, in a matter-of-fact way, their intention to attend school, had a profound effect on white American consciousness.

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