In February 2019, a clip of a bunch of elementary-school students getting chastised by California Senator Dianne Feinstein went massively viral. In the clip, which was posted by the environmental group the Sunrise Movement, the children urged the Democratic Senator to reconsider her refusal to support the Green New Deal. In the clip, you can slowly see Feinstein lose her patience with the children until she snaps. “I’ve been in the Senate for over a quarter of a century and I know what can pass and I know what can’t pass,” she scolds.
On social media, reactions to the clip were split into two camps. On one side, many criticized Feinstein for adopting such a harsh tone with a group of scared children, and for being so dismissive about their concern for their own futures. On the other, many accused the children’s teachers and parents of cynically weaponizing them for the benefit of pushing their own political agenda. The latter was approximately my view at the time the clip went viral: watching a group of small children harangue an elected representative on an issue I felt they could independently know nothing about made me uncomfortable, and as a parent I was unsure whether I would want to see my own child used in such a fashion.
I was in the wrong camp. I realize that now. And what made me realize this was seeing Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist who drew widespread ire from conservatives after delivering an impassioned speech at the United Nations General Assembly yesterday. “People are suffering, people are dying, entire ecosystems are collapsing,” she said. “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth.” In her speech, Thunberg was soft-spoken yet straightforward, eloquent yet extremely impassioned. Her speech was covered by pretty much every media outlet, serving as grist for conservative trolls like Candace Owens, Tucker Carlson, and the president. Such “pundits” attacked the 16-year-old for everything from her perceived histrionic tone, to her appearance, to even her neurological differences. (Thunberg is on the autism spectrum, and has referred to her Asperger’s diagnosis as her “superpower” as an activist; in a rare move of contrition, Fox News issued an apology after commentator Michael Knowles referred to her as “mentally ill.”)
Perhaps the most common allegation levied against Thunberg by the right was the claim that she was not acting of her own volition, but serving as a tool to promote her parents’ views about climate change. Over and over, the consensus on the right was that a teenage girl could not possibly come to her own conclusion about the climate crisis without being indoctrinated by her parents — or, as Carlson put it, Thunberg was an example of the left using “children to demand power.” As the Parkland kids proved last year, of all the gripes the right has about the left — that they are elitist and privileged, that they eschew the values of the working class in favor of Hamilton singalongs and gender-neutral bathrooms and trigger warnings — nothing makes them shit their diapers more than seeing a child espouse left-wing talking points, be it about reproductive freedoms or gun control or, in this case, the right not to have our homes and loved ones consumed by rising sea levels.
In many ways, this argument was an expertly crafted hybrid two of the most common strains of right-wing thought: the paranoia-fueled idea that positive media coverage in any form, particularly of a prominent young woman, is the result of a vast left-wing conspiracy; as well as the cynical belief that anyone who appears to exhibit anything other than Ayn Randian self-interest must be either a propaganda tool, or motivated by less than altruistic principles. But it also happens to be wrong, for reasons that go far beyond Thunberg. There is a long, long history of children in activism, with many risking their own welfare to put themselves on the front lines for their beliefs.
If the right is to accuse Thunberg of being a propaganda tool, then they must, in turn, level the same allegation against the thousands of courageous black children who marched in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, to protest segregation, only to be sprayed with fire hoses and attacked by police dogs. And they must, in turn, say the same about the 100 child textile workers who joined Mary “Mother” Jones in 1903 on a three-week march from Philadelphia to New York City to speak out against the lack of legislation protecting American children, one-sixth of whom were employed as factory workers according to a 1900 census, many of whom were being injured or maimed or killed on the job. They must say the same about Kid Blink, the adolescent boy with one eye who led hundreds of newsboys on strike in 1899 after newspaper moguls started charging them for the right to do their jobs, thus cutting into their already-meager family’s income (yes, this is what Newsies is based on); and they must say the same about Sylvia Mendez or Malala Yousafzai or Clara Lemlich or Ruby Bridges or Joseph Agricol Viala or the children who fought in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising or any of the other thousands of young people who have risked their lives and even the lives of their families to speak out against the cruelty and fear of grown-ups who should, and never do, know better.
What’s more, children are not just capable of important activist work — often, they are remarkably good at it. It is largely thanks at least in part to their efforts that underage labor laws are now strictly implemented in the United States, while names like Bull Connor, the police chief who authorized the use of attack dogs against the Birmingham children, are regarded as a shameful smear on our nation’s history. That’s not to say that children can totally erase the damage that their parents have done — obviously, de facto segregation and child exploitation still exist —, but they can and have continuously proven their ability to contribute to its undoing.
If they are somehow steered in that direction by their parents, who have the wisdom and generosity to recognize the mistakes that their generation and generations before have made, then honestly: who the hell cares? What difference does it make if Greta Thunberg’s parents have led her to the same conclusion that scientists and academics and climate experts have? This is not even a question of practicing empathy for your fellow man, or speaking out against injustice, or being on the right side of history; it is a question of being on the right side of the present, of believing in a version of rapidly unfolding events that is backed by scientific consensus. Teaching your child about the reality of climate change is as much a parental responsibility as teaching them the color yellow, or what sound a cow makes. So why are we even raising this question? What does it matter if our children are being indoctrinated, if the ones doing the indoctrination are right, in every possible sense of the word?
It’s certainly possible that Thunberg and all the brave children who came before her were strongly influenced by their parents in forming their views. But I’m not sure any rational or empathetic person would say that’s a problem. I’m not sure any rational or empathetic person would look at the steely resolve in the eyes of the children who marched in Birmingham, at the glint of the attack dogs’ fangs inches away from their faces, and think about anything other than their courage; I’m not sure any rational or empathetic person would hear the story about the young people in the Warsaw Ghetto who rose up against the SS in the face of certain death, and think, “But where were their parents?” And make no mistake: Thunberg’s call to action is just as urgent, the threat of climate catastrophe just as immediate. In light of the overwhelming evidence supporting this, it’s almost impossible to believe that the right would get quite this riled up over seeing a child believe in something. At the end of the day, the only explanation is that they believe in nothing.