If you see a provocative headline in the form of a question, the answer is always no. Should we require dogs to wear pants? Can we save the earth by showering monthly? Should the voting age be lowered to 16? The last one’s actually an issue now; Speaker Pelosi endorsed the idea. Nonsense! you say. Eighteen’s the right age. When you turn 18, that’s when everything changes.
Seventeen years, 364 days old: You believe government should divert all military spending to patching the ozone hole, maybe with spackle or a big umbrella or something.
One day later: You’re reading Foreign Affairs with a furrowed brow, vaguely alarmed that the situation in Upper Gjerkistan has deteriorated since 1973.
Seventeen years, 364 days old: “Hey hey, ho ho, Rhyming chants have got to stop — hold on, let me check my notes.”
One day later: You’re writing a well-reasoned letter to the editor of the newspaper, feeling rather proud that you laid in a stock of “Forever” stamps before the price went up.
Seventeen years, 364 days old: filming yourself for YouTube grinding scotch-bonnet peppers into your eyes for the Samson Challenge.
One day later: Staring at the mirror while shaving, you ask yourself, “Do I have enough insurance? My agent thinks so, but perhaps I should get a second opinion.”
Seventeen years, 364 days old: “Bernie Sanders is awesome! I’m going to set his speeches to music and form a hardcore speed-metal band to tell the story of the forgotten working class! We’ll call it ‘the Rust Belt Sanders’!”
One day later: You find yourself admiring the timbre of Benny Goodman’s clarinet; it reminds you that the woodwinds are the closest approximation to the human voice.
Okay, so 18 isn’t a magic age. But we have to make a cutoff somewhere, and besides, 16-year-olds lack the judgment and tempered spirits to make good choices. Unless they’re like me. I spent the years of 16 through 18 training to be a sociopathic lawyer. Or, as it was called, “high-school speech and debate.”
Every year we got a topic, and we learned to argue it from both sides, regardless of our true beliefs. In the morning you’d argue passionately for the 55-mph speed limit, your chest welling with emotion over the lives saved and oil conserved, and the next hour you’d snort with contempt over this symbolic gesture that accomplished nothing but placating the killjoys who hated the open road.
We made it to state finals one year, and I got a trophy for demolishing an argument I privately agreed with. I’m surprised the judges didn’t say, “Your intellectual corruption is complete! Your ethics are purely situational, your morality entirely subjective and predicated on the ego-inflating promise of money and fame. Go forth and bill some hours, young man.”
At 16, in other words, I knew a lot about a few subjects, because if I didn’t study the subject and get prepared to demolish timorous peers, I wouldn’t get to go on bus trips, stay in motels, and meet girls.
But — and this is crucial — I was very special, and everyone else at 16 or 17 is as ill informed as a bag of doorknobs.
Kidding! Some are. Some aren’t. No one’s ever up to speed on everything. So why not let 16-year-olds vote if they’re just as poorly informed as a 40-year-old?
Some liberals want the age dropped for an obvious reason: The kids will vote D., because they are passionately engaged about Things and Stuff. They have the right to weigh in on the future, since — to quote the great seer Criswell — that is where they will spend the rest of their lives. If the world is going to be uninhabitable in a dozen years, the globe scoured by fire and locusts and floods, then of course kids will demand the immediate implementation of the Green New Deal, which puts everyone to work lowering the oceans, maybe with a bucket brigade.
See, the grown-ups have ruined the world, and the kids are saying, “Now it’s our turn to ruin the — no, that’s not quite it. Old white men with their old ideas — they’re the worst! That’s why we’re marching for Bernie and his 19th-century solutions.”
The problem with the youth isn’t that they’re passionate about Things and Stuff; that’s the nature of being young and ignorant of the interminable line of history stretching back to the first day some hominid stood up and another one clouted him with a rock for being privileged. The problem is the hoary old liberal notion, born in the ’60s, that passion confers authority.
If you say, in a calm voice, “A hot dog, technically, is a sandwich,” you might get an argument. If you use a loudspeaker to declare at a rally that buying Hebrew National franks contributes to a systemic oppression of Palestine, you will be invited on CNN to discuss how to decolonialize the hot dog, and the only pushback from the host will be a question like “Some would say that tofu alternatives are not available in disadvantaged communities. How do you respond?”
It’s come to this: Democratic presidential candidates are required to state whether they want high-school freshmen to vote, how much socialism they want, how soon they want to eliminate air travel and hamburgers, how little free speech the government should allow, and whether abortion should be legal past the point where the baby has made it through the magical personage-conferring birth canal. The TV debates are going to be lit, as the kids say.
Not that they’ll be watching. Headline: Are the debates on Netflix? You know the answer. Never mind.
This article appears as “Age of Ignorance” in the April 8, 2019, print edition of National Review.