March 14, 2018

Jonah Goldberg on Youth Identity Politics

Good Jonah Goldberg rant:


Youth Politics Are Stupid

Let’s establish a baseline. I assume we can all agree that everyone is born remarkably dumb. Ever try to talk about the causes of the First World War with a newborn? So frustrating.

There are few things more settled in science than the fact that humans start out not very bright or informed and that this condition only wears off over time — i.e., as they get older.

Only slightly more controversial: Young people tend to be more emotional than grown-ups. This is true of babies, who will cry about the silliest things (hence the word, “crybaby”). But it’s also true of teenagers.

Again, this is not string theory. We know these things. And the idea that I must provide empirical evidence for such a staggeringly obvious point is hilarious to me.

Aside from all the social science, medical science, novels, plays, poems, musicals, and movies that explore this fact, there is another source we can consult on this: ourselves.

Every not-currently-young person reading this “news”letter has one thing in common: We were all young once.

This is what I mean when I say that “youth politics are the laziest form of identity politics.” Say what you will for racial-identity politics, there’s at least a superficial case that such identities are immutable. I can never be a black woman. And before everyone gets clever, even if I dropped a lot of coin on cosmetic surgery, I can never claim to know what it’s like to be a black woman.

You know what I can claim, though? Knowing what it’s like to be young. Sure, I can’t claim to know what it’s like to be young in 2018, but as the father of a 15-year-old, I’m not wholly ignorant on the topic either. On the other hand, my 15-year-old has no clue what it was like to be young in the 1980s.

And that’s why youth politics are such a lazy form of identity politics. (It’s also why generational stereotypes are lazy.) Here’s a news flash for you: There was no “Greatest Generation.” The dudes who stormed the beaches of Iwo Jima and Normandy: badasses and heroes, to a man. The dudes back home in the drunk tank on D-Day? Not so much.

This is what I hate about all forms of identity politics. It’s an effort to get credit or authority based upon an accident of birth. The whole point of liberalism (the real kind) is the idea that people are supposed to be judged on the basis of their own merits, not as representatives of some class or category. Of course, one needn’t be absolutist about this. A little pride in your culture or ethnicity won’t do any harm. But reducing individuals simply to some abstract category is the very definition of bigotry.

There is no transitive property to age. If a 17-year-old cures cancer, that’s fantastic. But the 17-year-old who spends his days huffing glue and playing Call of Duty is still a loser. I’m a Gen Xer. I take literally zero pride in the good things people my age do. I also have zero shame about the terrible things people my age do. Why? Because age is as dumb a thing as height or hair color to hitch your self-esteem to. What kind of loser looks back on a life of mediocrity and sloth and says to himself, “Well at least other people in my age cohort did great things!”?

This is what I hate about all forms of identity politics. It’s an effort to get credit or authority based upon an accident of birth.

And yet, we constantly invest special virtue in young people. As Socrates explained to Meno, there are no special virtues for young people. There are simply virtues. If a young person says that 2 + 2 = 4, that’s no more right or wrong than if an old person says so. The bravery of one 18-year-old does not negate the cowardice of another 18-year-old.

And that gets me to the next of my supposedly outrageous points: Older people know more than younger people. I’ve been stunned by the number of people offended by this. A lot of folks are getting hung up on the fact that young people know more about some things than older people. Fair enough. The average young person knows more about today’s youth culture and gadgets than the average fogey. My daughter can identify the noise coming out of my car radio. When I was a kid, it was running joke that grown-ups couldn’t figure out how to make the VCR stop flashing “12:00.” It never dawned on me that knowing how to fix that problem meant I knew more about politics than my dad.

This isn’t just a point about technological know-how or public policy. There’s an emotional narcissism to youth. Because a rich cocktail of hormones courses through teenagers’ still-developing brains, young people think they are the first people to experience a range of emotions. But we’ve all experienced those emotions. It’s just that when you experience them for the first time, it’s easy to think it’s the first time anyone has experienced such emotions. The first time you fall in love — or think you’ve fallen in love — as a teenager is a wildly intoxicating thing. And there’s nothing more infuriating than when old people tell you, “It’s just a phase.” That, however, doesn’t mean it’s not true.

Indeed, “You just don’t get it!” might as well be the motto of youth.

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