There’s something odd that left-wingers, lovers of the EU and global-warming believers have in common. They think something believed by 20-year-olds is probably truer than something believed by 40-year-olds or 60-year-olds.
Check that sobering red map of 2019 election preferences by age. Revealing over ¾ of the Commons would have gone to Corbyn-led Labour had only votes of 18-to-24-year-olds counted. No wonder Labour want suffrage lowered to age 16. Likewise pro-EU activists, after losing the 2016 referendum, proposed disenfranchising anyone over 70. The undead, vampiric Tony Blair recently cited the ‘beating pulse’ of the young as a reason to reverse Brexit.
These causes thrive on deference to (or lust for) youth: deference that is widespread in English-speaking countries.
Of course, respect for new science served Britain, the US and the Commonwealth well in the last 400 years. In fact, the real secret of English-speakers has been flexible political gradualism alongside hugely important discoveries in technology. Almost everyone overlooks the first part of that magic recipe. Even Continental Europeans are slightly more pro-tradition than English-speakers. That’s sometimes to their credit. The appalling Anglo-Saxon fad for sex-change surgery, for example, is making far less headway there. The stodgy EU cunningly packages itself as radically futuristic but also “technocratically” stable. Euro federalists shrewdly promote sclerotic committee-rule as safe, while their glossy marketing boasts youthful newness.
Meanwhile Britain and the US, at other times France, display exaggerated respect for the insights of the young. The US influences everyone, so to different degrees the whole world now admires the ‘energy’ of adolescents. 15-year-old Greta Thunberg is not the first schoolgirl to lecture the United Nations, for example. In 1992 Severn Cullis-Suzuki, a Canadian 12-year-old, ticked the UN off about global warming in strikingly similar tones. She’s 40 now. With both, it’s hard not to feel their principal qualification as modern-day Joans of Arc was to be teenage girls.
Today’s reverence for the wisdom of the underage takes odd forms. I noticed years ago that digital-book-reading devices Kindle & Nook were adopted eagerly by certain middle-aged folk. They talked about how useful the devices were. Squinting closely, I saw there was another motive they carefully kept quiet. Adopting a new device that promised to sweep stuffy old paper and ink out of the way made them feel young. Reading text off a tablet screen made them feel down with the kids, hip with da yoof, not quite as old as they really were.
Novelty has dominated western art for quite a time – certainly since Paris’s Salon des Refuses in 1863 established the central belief of modernism – that the good (“exciting”, “revolutionary”, “progressive”) artists are precisely those who go against convention. In contrast, until very recently, Oriental creatives copied an older artist’s approach. Only when they had painted well in his manner for some years was it deemed appropriate to deviate slightly, developing their own variation on the master’s style.
Modernist themes like abstraction, conceptualism, preference for installations over artworks are now themselves the established order. The young Quinlan Terry nearly got thrown out of architecture school in the 1970s for submitting a dissertation on the classical orders (Doric, Ionic, Corinthian…). Retro artists like the Stuckists (a hostile nickname created for them by impeccably mainstream installation artist Tracey Emin, she of the unmade bed) are still derided by orthodox modernists.
There have been exultant periods before when being young carried more authority than being old.
These were not just eras excited by the youthful vigour of some new Mozart or Alexander. Repeatedly there were snatches of a few decades when each time “wisdom” briefly became something you’re born with and lose over time. In the late 1960s hippies told each other: never trust anyone over 30. In the late 1970s, punks told each other: never trust a hippy. As Wordsworth wrote, looking back on himself at the age when France was being reshaped in the 1790s (never mind the bloodshed and destruction): “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven.”
We’re in another wave like that. While left-wing Victorians felt nostalgia for France’s thrilling 1790s revolutions, today many are wistfully haunted by a mirage of the 1960s. A few even look back longingly at the embarrassing excitement over Blair and Brown obtaining power in 1997, or Bill Clinton in 1992. The default view again is the young are wise, but the old are stiff and foolish.
This creates a logical need: movements like global warming, the reflexive leftist worldview, or the euro-project now fill an important role. They give topics the under-30s can smugly berate their elders with: something most older people can be considered indisputably wrong about, new Vietnam Wars.
The seething hatred for Margaret Thatcher – even hatred for this magazine – shows the spirit persists. People (now getting on a bit) who blame Maggie for problems that in fact started in the 1940s and 1960s still hate her. Why? Because they were robbed of their precious youthful right to patronise their parents. Outrageously, against all the trends of the late-20th century, 1980s yoof were cheated, denied their seniority.
Social-proofed projects like climate correction and European federalism neatly feed this indignation.
A friend once remarked to me that the special loathing by the left for Thatcher came from her “reminding them of their mothers”. Reaction against the June 2016 Brexit vote and now the December 2019 election victory for Boris Johnson has this same petulant rage. History is supposed to be on their side. Everyone said their ideas had won. How can things be moving “backwards”? It’s their turn to lay down the law. They’re the young generation.
Mark Griffith is a financial trader whose weblog, Other Languages follows news on artificial intelligence, economics, and other subjects. He is researching a book on how AI will change the way people live.
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