Being Terrible to Teens Is an American Political Tradition
Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg are the latest to experience the terrible underside of being part of the larger debate.
In the weeks since the Parkland, Florida school shooting, negative scrutiny of outspoken, young survivors has been steadily building. Emma Gonzalez, one prominent survivor and activist, has been dubbed a “skinhead lesbian,” and this week, David Hogg, another survivor, was accused of whining over his college admissions records.
A lot of people are outraged at what they view as an extraordinary smearing of kids who entered the political arena willingly, but also because the spotlight was brought to them after a crazed gunman killed 17 of their fellow classmates and teachers.. The reality, however, is that the Parkland kids being subjected to this kind of thing is nothing particularly new or novel, even if you think it’s gross. In fact, in America, we pretty regularly attack kids who are much more peripherally involved in politics and policy debates than Gonzales and Hogg have been.
Let’s jump back in time for a minute, to about nine-and-a-half years ago, when Sarah Palin entered the consciousness of 300 million Americans as Sen. John McCain’s Vice Presidential nominee. Palin immediately became the focus of a ton of poking and prodding into her political and personal life. But so too did her kids, who had made no decision to enter politics at all.
Remember the proliferation, immediately after McCain announced his running mate, of Trig Palin birtherism at prominent political blogs that had real standing and clout within the Democratic Party and mainstream media? I do, not least because I was one of the Republican campaign staffers tasked with attempting to quash it. Watching a baby forced into the media spotlight and become the focus of some fairly vicious rumor-mongering because people didn’t like his politician mom was not a highlight of 2008 for me, much as I imagine dealing with smears focused on Bridget McCain back in 2000 were no fun for McCain staffers at that time. Similarly, watching stories later pop about Willow Palin—who, like her little brother, also made no decision to become a political celebrity—was no treat.
A closer, and fairer, comparison to Hogg and Gonzalez might be Jonathan Krohn. In case you don’t remember, he’s the kid who spoke at CPAC in 2009— a then-13 year-old conservative Bill Bennett fan. Negative scrutiny of Krohn seems lightweight compared to that of Hogg. But there are still similarities. Suggestions that Krohn had been “brainwashed” by his parents drew into hints that he might be an unwitting vehicle for some Machiavellian, adult, nefarious political interest, similar to how some people have suggested that Hogg is being “used” as a messaging vehicle by George Soros. As it happens, it now seems that Hogg has long had it in him to become a political activist. He told Axios before last weekend’s march that his plan had always been “to go to college so I could do stuff like this and help change the future of America politically.”
A question some people are asking is whether we need a higher de facto “age of consent” before we can treat young people participating in political and policy debates as fair targets. Clearly, on both the left and the right, there’s a lot of discomfort when people as young as the Parkland students, or Krohn or the Palin kids or Bridget McCain, are attacked, and clearly, there’s a sense that the similar though less stringent rules need not apply to older kids actively involving themselves in politics, like, say, Meghan McCain or Chelsea Clinton in and after 2008.
Maybe that discomfort comes because attacking young people who are trying to improve their country, even if we think they’re wrong about how to go about it, runs counter to Americans’ basic democratic, optimistic, look-to-the-future instincts—that political participation by the younger generation is good and should be encouraged, because they’re beginning to take ownership of the country they will one day run.
Maybe it’s because some 45-year-olds have a hard time seeing an 18-year-old as anything other than an overgrown baby, still in need of protection by adults from the nasty, brutish real world.
Maybe it’s just a symptom of (some) people’s broader discomfort with what they see as an overall coarsening of political debate and people abandoning basic rules and norms in favor of clickbait and higher viewership. Of course, critics of Hogg and Gonzalez will accuse them of the same thing, but that doesn’t necessarily negate the argument that people behaving worse and worse to each other is a problem. In fact, it might signal that the problem is wider and deeper than we thought—yes, even in the era of President Trump and his Twitter and Kathy Griffin and her bad “jokes” involving Trump masks.
As a 2nd amendment maximalist, it’s hard for me to believe that Hogg and Gonzalez did not realize what would happen when they stepped up to the podium on this, perhaps America’s most divisive policy issue on which the two sides are the most entrenched and unmovable.
But maybe we have gotten a little too off-point, at a minimum, and crude and rude, at a maximum. Certainly that appears to be the case when we have TMZ doing features on teenage political activists’ college admission records that are picked up on cable news, or immediate speculation that someone wearing a Cuban flag badge signifies their support for communism as opposed to pride in their heritage. On some level, it appears we can do a little better, without taking a pass on criticism where it is genuinely warranted.