Magazine | April 8, 2019, Issue

The Politicization of Youth

(James Gourley/Getty Images)
It is childish to use one’s kid as a political prop

Not too long ago, a young friend of mine was trying to remember the name of a movie. “You know that movie where the two women drive off a cliff at the end? What was that movie called? Was it Laverne & Shirley?”

And he wasn’t even trying to be cruel. In his mind, all of those things just collided together, and why shouldn’t they? When you’re young, everything that happened before you were born is history, and everything that happened afterwards is life. It’s only natural, if you’re young, to care more about life. Laverne, Shirley, Thelma, Louise — what’s the difference, really, if you were born in 1987? One is a TV show that went off the air in 1983; the other is a movie that premiered a mere eight years later.

But when you’re old — and I’m not pointing fingers here, but you know who you are — history and life become so muddled up that the only way to keep the memories straight is to know where you were when certain things happened. The way an old person keeps Reykjavik and hanging chads and ketchup-as-a-vegetable and Janet Reno and fidget spinners all in the right blips on the time line is to think about what was going on in your life at the time: senior year in college, remodeling a house, ninth grade, making real money for the first time, and right before I had my first colonoscopy.

In politics, it often comes down to an emotional memory. Did I care whether George H. W. Bush prevailed against Michael Dukakis in 1988? I really, honestly, and truly did. Did I care, eight years later, whether Bob Dole unseated Bill Clinton? I really, honestly, and truly did not. The difference wasn’t the country or the world or the challenges of the end of the American Century. The difference was me: In 1988 I was 23 and thought that life was full of critical turning points, and in 1996 I was 31 and thought, You know, things just tend to work themselves out. Also, as I have mentioned, in 1996 I was making real money for the first time.

The Obama years are, for me, a mishmash of iPhones. I remember sending emails on my very first iPhone to a politically wise friend of mine, asking when he thought Obama would drop out and concede the Democratic nomination to Hillary Clinton. I can still conjure up the mental picture of his reply — “He won’t. He’s going to win” — and the derisive snort I made when I read it. (I made similar snorts eight years later, by the way.)

I’m pretty sure it was on the 2008 iPhone 3G that I saw a video, produced by some neighbors of mine in Venice Beach, of a dozen or so young kids in identical powder-blue T-shirts with “Hope” emblazoned in what we now call “Obama sans” or “Obama Neue” font, singing a song composed by their beaming parents — visible, like all good progressive parents, just at the edge of the screen, making encouraging gestures and gazing with admiration at their children. “Obama’s going to change it, Obama’s going to lead them,” a picture-perfect little girl sings — she’s even, adorably, missing her front teeth. The kids sing and chant and make stylized jazz hands, and yes, they’re singing about Obama, so yes, it’s all a little much, but it’s hard to watch a bunch of sweetly cheerful children around ten or eleven and keep a scowl on your face. I managed, obviously, but not without some real effort.

The parents, of course, are awful. Dressed in Venice Beach Bohemian, hairdos all kooky and quirky, one of them plays the flute, interesting hat wear, adult males with skateboards — it’s all a little bit past parody, though because these are my neighbors I know it’s true. I know them because I’ve seen them at the local coffee shop with toddlers named “Hosea” and “Mabel,” “Esteban” and “Strawberry.” I’ve seen them look at their kids the way I sometimes look at my Labrador, with a kind of open-mouthed adoration, with the kind of love you can have for a thing that will joyfully and enthusiastically learn the basic commands, run and chase a tennis ball, climb up next to you on the sofa, and put its head in your lap, pretend to care about what you care about, and sing a stupid song you wrote about Obama.

The video is still up there, on YouTube, and depending on your point of view it’s either a nutty artifact of a profoundly silly cult or a grim herald of things to come. My vote is the latter, because ever since I watched that video on my iPhone 3G I’ve been watching similar videos on thinner and faster phones: videos of children at town halls, prodded by their parents (iPhone 4); videos of children protesting this or that complicated issue with doe eyes and hand-painted T-shirts (iPhone 5); and, most recently, a staged confrontation between children upset about climate change and the senior senator from California, Dianne Feinstein, who finally snapped (she’s almost 90, after all) and told the kids to shut it. And, boy, did that cause a freak-out, because you’re not supposed to yell at someone else’s kids, just like you’re not supposed to reprimand someone else’s dog.

Last month — and I know it was last month because I saw it on my new iPad Pro with Retina display — I watched an eleven-year-old boy perform a drag act at a gay bar in Brooklyn, collecting dollar bills from adult male patrons and getting a lot of positive media attention. His parents aren’t evident in the video I watched, but news accounts portray them as terrifically supportive. They’d have to be, I guess, because someone has to pay for those outfits and all that makeup. The kid is good but, to judge from the video, not much of an earner. Yet, anyway.

The parents are brainwashing those kids! is what we hear, on Fox News and on Twitter timelines. And that’s probably true, although the thing about brainwashing is that it doesn’t really last.

They’re using their kids as props! is another claim, and that’s definitely true. There’s something off-putting about parents who are so eager to put their obedient and politically aligned children front and center, uploaded to YouTube or annoying a senator or twerking for dollars in drag. It’s weird and creepy in the same way that the old Toys-R-Us logo was creepy. It had the “R” printed backwards, as if drawn by a child. (Or a Russian, but that’s not what they were going for.)

We knew it wasn’t drawn by a child. We knew it was drawn by an art director who was trying to draw like a child, which made the whole thing seem forced and untrue, like a bunch of kids pretending to love a presidential candidate or an eleven-year-old lip-syncing to songs he (I hope) doesn’t totally understand.

Full disclosure: I am not licensed to practice psychology, though I’m about to do it anyway. We say that parents try to “live through” their children. Their hopes and dreams, thwarted ambitions, unrealized goals — all of these are loaded onto their offspring in a set of impossibly heavy expectations in order to have their children become just like them, only better. Here, though, with these parents, it seems to be reversed. They don’t want their kids to be like them; they want to be their kids. They don’t want to be grown-ups with all of that irritating experience and perspective. They want to be children, wearing T-shirts and shorts, confronting politicians with youthful zeal and ignorance, not being responsible for doing the reading or appreciating the complexity. Not being adults, in other words. The children of these parents have become what Freudians might call “self objects” — empty vessels to be used to wrap up some unfinished business, to complete some childhood experiences, to have the activist and politically dramatic youth that kids who grew up in the ’80s and ’90s didn’t have.

Look at the faces of the parents in that long-ago Venice Beach video. (For that matter, look at their clothes! Perfect for after-school play dates!) Listen to the voices of the parents of those kids who got an earful from Dianne Feinstein. They sound like petulant children. The actual children involved, on the other hand, sound a lot more tempered and philosophical. Maybe that’s why their parents gave them such grown-up, old-timey names. It keeps them in their place. “Doug” and “Jennifer” sound like kids’ names. “Hosea” and “Mabel” sound like old people.

It was more than ten iPhones ago when my Venice Beach neighbors made their children sing praises to Barack Obama. The angelic children of that video are now twelve years older — some of them out of college already, on the way to lives of their own. Some of them, I’m pretty sure, work at my local coffee shop, and every now and then I try to look past the neck tattoos and ear gauges and skinny jeans and see if I can recognize one or two. I wonder whether they remember that day and that song. I wonder whether they have a really clear memory of the man they were singing about or it’s all a Laverne & Shirley & Thelma & Louise muddle. I wonder, while I watch them gravely pour out some heart-shaped latte art, whether their parents ever backed off and let them have childhoods of their own.

This article appears as “Their First Protest” in the April 8, 2019, print edition of National Review.

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