The most frightening element of the Covington Catholic affair is the adults versus kids aspect of it. Strip away all of the racial and cultural elements, and we are left with the one abiding lesson: children must, at all times and under all circumstances, make the adults in this society feel good.
When the first video clip was published on Twitter the day after the 2019 March for Life, our collective sensitivity reflexively rushed to protect the adult, the Boomer, in his time of great need defending his feelings and his self-worth against the assembled teenagers. These teenagers, devoid of life experience and therefore almost completely without prudence, are expected to be stoic and mature while surrounded by geriatric toddlers throwing public fits about the various things that make them feel bad.
If the teenagers show any signs of stress under the weight of their newfound responsibility, then the adults in their lives instantly declare them wanting, disappointing, and a symbol of cultural rot—an “American disgrace,” as Jay Nordlinger put it. As if anything some random group of teenagers does, at any time, is somehow indicative of our national moral conscience or the quality of our political discourse writ large!
Adults used to know better. Adults used to live comfortably in adult land, and did not need to venture into childhood realms to hunt for meaningful symbols to bolster their political views. Children used to be free to grow up before they merited serious political attention and commentary.
Commentators have been roundly condemned for jumping to conclusions and getting things wrong based on the viral, and as we now know, incomplete and misleading video that started this nationwide existential crisis. But suppose the first video had been an accurate depiction of what really happened? The reaction of the adults still would have been self-serving, self-congratulatory, self-centered. Childish. No one, including the Covington Catholic High School administration, the local Catholic bishop, our social and cultural talking heads, took responsibility for these kids. No one offered to be the old-fashioned, reassuring adult standing in front of the accused child, offering to take the punishment on himself because the child is too young to be totally culpable, and too young to be offered as a victim to an angry mob. Our legal system holds children to a different standard, but our public discourse does not.
The corrosion of politics from something we do with our heads to something we do with our gut reactions has enlisted children into our total political war. The reason for this is simple: when emoting is all that counts, children’s feelings are on par—equally felt, equally earnest—with those of the most sophisticated adults. And in such a total political war, showing the correct feelings isn’t a request—it’s a command.
Of course, for decades school kids have been used for political activism. In the main, however, this was done mostly in the form of student walkouts or teachers’ union protests, as a means of indoctrination in our public schools. The kids would hold up some signs and chant along with their adult chaperones. It was distasteful but it was obvious political theatre. “Do it for the children!” beats “Stick it to the children!” every time. In the first instance the children are used, but the substance of the agenda resided firmly in adult land. No more. The total dominance of politics-as-feeling and of venting as pure political act, has changed all of the rules.
The reason kids used to be spared entry into political life is that politics requires prudence, which, in turn, requires life experience: an actual knowledge of people, places, occupations, legal and cultural traditions, and economic realities. Ideally, enough exposure to different situations and people would produce a kind of greatness of soul in the observer, leaving them more likely genuinely to wish for the best possible outcome for each person involved in a given situation. In other words, their experience would temper their emotions towards equanimity. This kind of prudence, which is the result of a life’s worth of practice judging situations and interests, is no longer the goal. In its place we have substituted a kind of pure emotion most readily found in the very young, who feel things deeply and earnestly. A kid is now the perfect political tool: all he has is exquisite emotion, unclouded by experience and untainted by empathy.
And so we have the young, underage face of the anti-gun movement in David Hogg, who was chosen by the Left, not for his understanding of gun laws or his expertise in the politics surrounding the Second Amendment. Rather, he was chosen on the the merits of his perfect, unassailable, and pure emotion expressed after witnessing and surviving the tragic Parkland high school shooting last year. As the Covington kids learned this week, underage entry into political life allows teenagers to be taken up to the highest heights of our political discourse, and simultaneously dragged down to its lowest depths. Hogg is at once exalted by the Left and derided, mocked, and insulted by the Right.
This fall we went back in time to judge the intentions and behaviors of the underaged Brett Kavanaugh to determine whether or not he had the prescience to act according to 2018 standards way back in 1982. The Kavanaugh hearing introduced the idea that the actions of public figures in their underage or pre-political years are now fair game for the nation to adjudicate. Covington brings the realization that the actions of underage and private citizens are now admissible to the same court. Any private interaction at any time is now potentially filmable, and any film, no matter the age of the players, is material for public consumption. This is completely new and absolutely unacceptable. As Caitlin Flanagan wrote of an older understanding of journalistic ethics in The Atlantic on Wednesday, “Among other things, journalistic ethics held that if you didn’t have the reporting to support a story, and if that story had the potential to hurt its subjects, and if those subjects were private citizens, and if they were moreover minors, you didn’t run the story. You kept reporting it; you let yourself get scooped; and you accepted that speed is not the highest value. Otherwise, you were the trash press.”
That pang of sadness that we, the trash public, felt when all of this unfolded was the realization that we are no longer above scapegoating underaged children for the crime of insensitivity—for the crime of insufficient validation of an emoting adult. Children are now expected to take full membership in our national political circus. Say the right things. Have the right looks on their faces. Wear the right things. And if they don’t, the adults have the right to bring the full force and ugliness of the adult world down upon them. It isn’t the racial or cultural undertones at play that made us sick watching Covington unfold. It is the total politicization of our children, and the sight of adults cannibalizing the young in the service of our political ends.
Photo Credit: Saturn devouring his son, Museo del Prado, Madrid. (Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)