The Corner

Energy & Environment

Greta Thunberg Cannot Be Both a Shield and a Sword

Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg joins Italian students to demand action on climate change in Rome, Italy, April 19, 2019. (Yara Nardi/Reuters)

Here is the first rule: If you comment on politics, you are liable to be criticized. Here is the second rule: The more vehement you get in your rhetoric, the more vehement the reactions against you are likely to be. Here is the third rule: There are no exceptions to the first two rules.

There are no more rules.

I do not know whether the people who are trying to inoculate Greta Thunberg from criticism genuinely believe that we’re too stupid to see the game that is being played, or whether they know that we can see it, but imagine that they can win it by brute force. Either way, they are wrong. What is being attempted with Thunberg is one of the oldest tricks in the book. First, you find a young person who shares your politics and cast them as the uncorrupted prophet of a new generation. Second, you have them argue their case as often and as loudly as possible. Third, you cast all pushback as “inappropriate” or “bullying” or “punching down.” “Why,” you ask, “are you criticizing this sweet little girl who is just trying to help us in our quest to reorder the entire world?”

This process is not only transparent; it is grotesque. There exists no universe in which one can simultaneously cast a person as a brave truth-teller whose words must be heeded, and as an innocent, fragile child who is beneath the notice of any well-rounded adult. A sword is not a shield and a shield is not a sword. One must pick one. If Thunberg’s tears are notable on one side of the political ledger, then they are notable on the other. If her anger and fear and instability are the key to her message and appeal, then they may be referenced by her critics, too. If her age makes her different, then . . . well, her age makes her different: “Gosh, she’s only sixteen!” “Yes, exactly, she’s only sixteen.” To indulge any other approach than this is to permit one group within our raucous political conversation to short-circuit it completely.

Were Thunberg merely emoting, there would indeed be a case for ignoring her. But then, were she merely emoting, she wouldn’t have an audience. Her audience has grown because she is making concrete claims: The world will end in eight-and-a-half years; my future has been ruined; the economy can’t grow indefinitely; nuclear power is bad; the following countries are guilty, etc. To sit this one out would be to permit the adult advocates of those presumptions to smuggle them into the media, the United Nations, the European Union, and so on, and to do so without evaluation, pushback, or discussion. That will not stand — and it shouldn’t.

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