The cult of children

For the embarrassingly sycophantic Indian media, last month’s United Nations general assembly was all about Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But the only global leader the rest of the world wanted to hear from was Greta Thunberg. The teenage Swedish activist has become the cynosure of a global movement to hold governments to account for their promises to cut carbon emissions. In New York, at the UN Climate Action Summit, Thunberg admonished the world’s leaders for playing fast and loose with the futures of the young, for focusing on money and politics when all the science points to catastrophe if a commitment is not made to reversing the anthropogenic impact on global warming.

The response to Thunberg’s flygskam”, a new Swedish word to reflect an attack of the conscience at contributing to the malefic impact on the environment of airplane travel.) Predictably, Thunberg — a bookies’ favourite to win this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, eventually won by the Ethiopian prime minister — has become a pawn in the battle between “left” and “right”, between conservatives who appear to feel obliged to be angered by her and their supposedly virtue-signalling ideological antagonists who treat her as if she were a Nordic Cassandra, come to show us the error of our ways though we’re determined not to listen.

It’s an indictment of the shallowness of the media that Thunberg, rather than her “message”, has become the focus, the subject of endless cod analysis and, sadly, real invective. In India too there have been whole newspaper columns devoted to, essentially, bullying and insulting a child while making the argument, unironically, that her mental health is being put at risk by her parents and supporters. There is no question that the need of the self-proclaimed right-wing commentariat to mock and disparage Thunberg is, to use one of their favourite epithets, weird. But it’s no more weird than seeing adults, many in positions to have an effect on policy, defer cringingly to a child, as if their patronising display of letting the child have her head is the equivalent of taking serious action to combat climate change.

There is no question that the need of the self-proclaimed right-wing commentariat to mock and disparage Thunberg is, to use one of their favourite epithets, weird. But it’s no more weird than seeing adults defer cringingly to a child
Parents the world over know the feeling of being confronted by an aggrieved ward, of thinking that you’ve been muddling along, doing your admittedly feeble best by your child before being blindsided by a squall of recrimination. Yes, kids, Larkin was right. They f*** you up your mum and dad. But the tragic crux is the inevitability of it all — “They may not mean to, but they do... Man hands misery to man / It deepens like a coastal shelf”. Thunberg too will be confronted by her own generation’s future venality, rapacity and rank incompetence.  “I should be at school,” Thunberg said in New York, her voice shaking with anger. It’s hard to disagree. Instead, a crown of thorns has been placed on her head; she has been sentenced to a nomadic life as an adornment at conferences, an apostle of our impending doom, an exemplar of a generation’s impotent fury to be gawked at and applauded by grownups who are shirking their jobs. 

No child should be on the front lines of a war. That is an abdication of adult duty and responsibility. This is not to say that children should be silenced, seen but not heard — it is, of course, their futures at stake; just that a child’s conviction and clarity of thought and purpose needs to be tempered with a dose of adult complexity. But what hope is there of the latter, in a world in which movies adapted from comic books dominate the multiplexes and the middle-aged bury their noses in fantasy fiction.

Back in February, Thunberg issued one of her typically peremptory pronouncements at the Indian government: “Dear Mr Modi... if you keep on doing business as usual... bragging about the little victories, you are going to fail. And if you fail, you are going to be seen as one of the worst villains in human history.” Villains and heroes, it’s all just a bit... childish. Well, we get the leaders we deserve.

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