When an argument has lost all moral footing, ignores all empirical fact and delights in willful ignorance, it usually only has one tack in the face of courage and truth — to delve ever-deeper into immorality, falsehood and ignorance.
Such was the case in America’s “welcome” of Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist who is inspiring youth across the globe.
Thunberg’s opponents have found no level to which they’re unwilling to stoop in attacking her. They’ve likened her to Nazi propaganda, drummed up inane conspiracy theories and attacked her for her youth, her looks and her Asperger’s. Some have taken the marginally innovative approach of attacking her parents for daring to allow a teen of the female persuasion to have a voice.
These attacks drip with the misogyny and fear that has kept our society locked in its downward spiral toward a post-apocalyptic nightmare. Just as the dinosaurs were unable to see their own demise coming, our present-day dinosaurs are blissfully unaware of our impending demise, blinded by willful ignorance and greed.
Fear demands they attack Thunberg, because she represents everything that threatens them. She is female. She is young. She speaks truth. She forces us to face our shameful negligence, laziness and cowardice. And, she’s attracting a level of attention that scares the bejeezus out of the dinosaurs.
Already she’s been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize — which she deserves — and was one of Time’s Most Influential Teens of 2018 (though confining her to the “teens” category is condescending).
In April, she took Britain’s Parliament to task with the same fervor she showed most recently in Washington and New York.
“This ongoing irresponsible behavior will no doubt be remembered in history as one of the greatest failures of humankind,” she told Parliament. “You lied to us. You gave us false hope. You told us that the future was something to look forward to.”
By May, Britain’s advisory Committee on Climate Change recommended a “net zero” carbon emission target by 2050, and by mid-June Parliament adopted that ambitious goal. If only Congress were so responsive and subject to well-deserved shame.
Thunberg’s activism stands out so starkly, and inspires so many, because it is so diametrically opposed to the cowardly way we’ve allowed our children’s future to be squandered for profit margins and a few points in stock portfolios.
But, as jarring and necessary as Thunberg’s activism is, we must recognize she is not the first — and hopefully not the last — youth to summon enough courage to speak up, when adults are mired in apathy and cowardice.
Anne Frank died at age 15, and her voice still resonates today with the call, “Never again.”
It took the courage of nine black teenagers to desegregate Little Rock Central High School in 1957. Three years later, America had to find its courage in a 6-year-old, when Ruby Bridges became the first black student to integrate an elementary school in the South.
It was teens — about the age of Thunberg — who desegregated American lunch counters. It was teenagers, and younger, who braved fire hoses, police dogs and batons to shame America’s conscience in 1963 Birmingham. It was teenagers who walked into bullets and tear gas, and inspired others to break the back of South African apartheid, in 1976.
In 1989, it was teens, not tanks, who initiated the peaceful toppling of Czechoslovakia’s communist government.
Malala Yousafzai had the courage to speak up for justice in the face of the Taliban in Afghanistan. In 2012, at age 15, her truth-telling earned Malala a bullet to the head. And yet, in the face of those who hate and seek to dispel truth, she speaks on, with courage and strength.
There are many more like Malala, Anne, Ruby, the Little Rock Nine and Greta. Yet-uncorrupted by the power structures we allow to persist, they hold up a painful and inconvenient mirror to our willful ignorance, our apathy, negligence and greed — our failure as their elders.
The truth they tell is hard to hear. But, we need to hear it. Over and over again, we’ve needed their light to lead us in our darkest times. And this is one of those dark times.
These young people never asked for this role. They did not want this role. They did not deserve this role. They deserved to be young people — carefree and cared-for by competent and deserving adults. And yet, when they saw we would not act, they had the courage to stand up and do what we would not.
For having the courage to lead us, in spite of our weak-kneed failures, these young people deserve our praise and support. They do not deserve to be excoriated by so-called adults who have no recourse in the face of science and common sense but to attack a teenager for having the audacity to speak the truth.
Greta deserves better from us. Our children deserve better from us. And if we want our legacy to be worth telling, we better start delivering better to our youth.