Culture War

Everyone Should Leave Greta Thunberg Alone

December 12, 2019
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(OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)

Greta . . .

And just like that, the lines were drawn.

Of course, Donald Trump had to weigh in on Time magazine’s choice of Greta Thunberg as “Person of the Year.”

And, of course, he had to do it in the most offensive way possible, essentially a mocking a teenage girl with Aspergers for having “anger management issues.”

As the New York Times’s Maggie Haberman noted: “Asperger’s is difficult for teenagers under any circumstance. Being mocked by the president of the US – whose allies get very angry about what gets said about some children – is its own category.”

So once again our ability to hold two ideas at the same time is going to be sorely tested. But let’s try: It is possible to regard Trump’s attack on Thunberg as cruel and tasteless; while also regarding her choice as “Person of the Year” as absurd.

Here we wade into the treacherous waters of cancel culture, because to question Times choice has become the opposite of virtue signaling.

But making someone like Thunberg—or any other child—into a political icon literally infantilizes politics. We know how this works, and it is almost always a bad idea. “These children have been transformed into sanctimonious clarions, advocating outcomes preferred by the adults in their lives, and it’s a tragic waste of youth,” Noah Rothman wrote in Commentary.

The exploitation of the child prophets is also opportunistic. The whole point of the child icons is that they are screens on which adults can project their agendas while hiding behind the purity of children who most people will be loath to criticize. In effect, these children are turned into human shields for the adult advocates. Loathsome is not too strong a word for grownups who use children in such a manner.

And the people who gravitate to the child prophets attribute to them the wisdom and moral clarity that adults lack. But this image of the deeply-wise teenager seldom survives contact with an actual adolescent. Which, of course, isn’t their fault. If adolescents were, as a class, wise and prudent, we’d let them make all sorts of important decisions for themselves. But we don’t, because as both a matter of nature and nurture—there’s brain chemistry going on in adolescent development, in addition to the maturity gained through life experience—they have not had the chance to develop all of the pathways to adult rationality.

Greta Thunberg is, in many ways an exceptional young lady. And good for her. But turning this girl into an oracle is both unserious and deeply cynical. And kind of awful.

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It’s also, from the perspective of Time’s “award,” silly.

In choosing the Swedish teenager, Time bypassed the pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, the U.S. whistleblower who has brought us to the brink of a presidential impeachment, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. All of whom have been much—much—more impactful in the world. And for anyone tempted to say that actually climate change is the pre-eminent crisis of our time, then how is Thunberg anything more than an ill-chosen mascot? If the magazine wanted to highlight climate change, the editors should have chosen someone who made substantive progress on the issue. Like perhaps an actual climate scientist.

But Time’s point wasn’t substance. It was celebrity and the irresistible witness of the child prophet. “She has offered a moral clarion call to those who are willing to act,” the magazine declares, “and hurled shame on those who are not.”

Time’s write-up verges on hagiography: “It’s as if Thunberg were the eye of a hurricane, a pool of resolve at the center of swirling chaos. In here, she speaks quietly. Out there, the entire natural world seems to amplify her small voice, screaming along with her.”

We are reminded of her made-for-television story. “Thunberg began a global movement by skipping school: starting in August 2018, she spent her days camped out in front of the Swedish Parliament, holding a sign painted in black letters on a white background that read Skolstrejk för klimatet: ‘School Strike for Climate.’”

But Thunberg’s story actually began with a deeper crisis when she first learned about the dangers of climate change: “She was 11-years-old when she fell into a deep depression,” Time reports. “For months, she stopped speaking almost entirely, and ate so little that she was nearly hospitalized; that period of malnutrition would later stunt her growth.” She was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, OCD, and selective mutism.

Thunberg has described her Asperger’s as her “super power,” and indeed, her efforts to persist in spite of her issues is admirable, if cautionary. Her age and condition means that we should be cautious and discreet in criticism, but it also means that we should be cautious in making her an idol and thrusting her into the vortex of media, politics, and celebrity.

She is a girl—a real human being—not a symbol. She has challenges and superpowers and a good part of growing up is learning to turn the former into the latter when you can. She deserves compassion and respect and we should realize that what Time and the rest of the media has done to her is the very opposite of respect. It’s exploitation.

Just last month, Thunberg made headlines for declaring that the climate crisis “not just about environment,” but also “colonial, racist, patriarchal systems of oppression”:

It is a crisis of human rights, of justice, and of political will. Colonial, racist, and patriarchal systems of oppression have created and fueled it. We need to dismantle them all. Our political leaders can no longer shirk their responsibilities.

That article carries two other bylines: Luisa Neubauer, who is identified as “a German climate activist,” and Angela Valenzuela, “a coordinator of Fridays for Future in Santiago.” Both of them are adults.

Did Thunberg write this word salad of leftist jargon? Or did she just sign on to something that the grown-ups wrote? Who knows. Teenagers believe lots of things, briefly. Normally society goes out of its way to make allowances for teenagers for precisely this fact. And there is no reason—none at all—for Neubauer and Valenzuela to have roped Thunberg into making their argument.

Except that she has become a useful front-person, a public face and symbol to be deployed for others in pursuit of their own agendas. Such exploitation is grotesque no matter who’s doing it. Sometimes the media understands that.

But where everyone in the media understands how awful it is that adults conscripted the Trump Girls into their cause, Greta Thunberg is magically viewed as having complete agency in her own life and beliefs.

Time insists that Thunberg speaks simple truths “in a fateful moment.” But none of this is really “simple.” Climate change is mind-bendingly complex and there are thousands of people who have spent, collectively, hundreds of years studying the science, trying to understand its extent, its causes, and its consequences—not to mention the most efficacious ways of dealing with it. And all of this discussion entails not just science, but politics and economics and a universe of downstream consequences so vast that nobody—literally nobody—fully understands what the unintended consequences of even the most prudent “solutions” would look like.

As the bumper stickers assure us, children are indeed our future. But the present is the province and the responsibility of adults.

Charles Sykes

Charlie Sykes is a founder and editor-at-large of The Bulwark and the author of How the Right Lost Its Mind. He is also the host of The Bulwark Podcast and an MSNBC contributor.