Beware Putting Political Power in the Hands of Children

History shows that children’s mass movements often don’t end well
January 13, 2020 Updated: February 12, 2020


If you go to your dictionary for a definition of the word “obscurity,” you might well find a picture of Andrew Bonar Law. Who? Despite being briefly the prime minister of Great Britain, Law is really known only for two things. He was the only British PM to be born in Canada, and to him is attributed the phrase “I am their leader. I must follow them.”

Law’s approach to leadership also seems to be the policy of many in Canada’s upper circles today who, rather than exercise mature judgment on difficult challenges, have let themselves be stampeded into trailing after adolescent activists.

Behold Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old Swedish prophetess with firm opinions on climate change and a record of mental health issues. There she is, at the United Nations with the cameras of the world upon her, spitting with rage and accusing older generations of robbing her of her childhood and her future. “Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you!”

There she is scowling at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, telling him he has not done enough to cut carbon emissions and criticizing his pipeline policy as hypocritical. And there she is later claiming that Canadian oil and gas production violates the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and demanding that our nation cancel all new oil and gas projects while we phase out current production. Ms. Thunberg and her teen allies gave Mr. Trudeau two weeks to reply.

Instead of pointing out that implementing these ideas is nigh impossible and that they would impoverish Canada and threaten the existence of modern civilization, our adult leaders nod in sympathy and vow they will do better. Instead of pointing out that being filled with youthful idealism is not a substitute for deep knowledge about hard choices, some of our leaders have reached the conclusion that simply because these protesters are young, we must follow them.

The Anglican bishop of Rupert’s Land, a diocese centred on Winnipeg, urged all of his parishes to support Greta’s climate strike (thus avowing that taking kids OUT of school is a virtuous act): “I cannot stand by while our young people, trusting what they are being taught in their science classes but unable to vote and without the means to hire lobbyists, protest alone in the streets.”

The idea that children are worthy of special political power has reached the halls of Cambridge University and its head of politics, Professor David Runciman. Runciman notes that with current birth rates, the young are greatly outnumbered by the elderly, and this, he says, tips the scales against governments that care about the future. But Runciman scorns such trifling reforms as reducing the voting age to 16—he wants to give the vote to 6-year-olds. “What’s the worst that could happen?” he asks. “At least it would be exciting, it would make elections more fun.”

More fun? As a historian, I’ve got news for Greta, my bishop, and Professor Runciman: Young people as a collective are not terribly bright. They are easily manipulated, and when they act in concert for what they believe are good causes, those causes very often end up in disaster and mass violence.

Take for example the Children’s Crusade. Early in the 1200s, mobs of young people in France and Germany became convinced that armed crusades by European princes had failed to liberate the Holy Land because they had corrupt motives. Only youth were deemed to be sufficiently pure of heart to undertake the task, and so long columns of tens of thousands of children and teens began to march toward the Mediterranean, attracting adults moved by this display of idealism. Thousands died from starvation or exposure and some were sold into slavery; few returned home.

Revolutionary movements of the modern period have always attracted the young in great numbers. The Komsomol, the Soviet youth movement, took the lead in the 1920s in trying to impose atheism on the Russian people, often with blasphemous performances and attacks on worshipers. They proved so thuggish and maladroit that Lenin had to call them off as being counterproductive.

German Nazism was enormously popular with young people who were attracted by Hitler’s call for building a new nation and people. Teens were eager participants in the street violence against political opponents and Jews, collected money for Nazi social welfare programs, and flocked to join the Hitler Jugend military formations during the Second World War.

The worst outbreak of youthful idealism occurred in China during the Cultural Revolution of the mid-1960s when Mao Zedong unleashed multitudes of young Red Guards on his enemies inside the Communist Party and against the “Four Olds”: old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas. Tens of thousands of teachers, “capitalist roaders,” officials, and those found insufficiently enthusiastic about the revolution were murdered or forced to commit suicide. These youths produced so much harm to their country that Mao had to send in the army to restore order. As millions of young were sent into rural exile “to learn from the peasants,” China found that its economy had been devastated and higher education was set back for decades.

Age cohorts have always looked askance at each other. In 1750 Samuel Johnson noted, “So different are the colours of life, as we look forward to the future, or backward to the past; and so different the opinions and sentiments which this contrariety of appearance naturally produces, that the conversation of the old and young ends generally with contempt or pity on either side.”

We should not ignore the idealism of those still struggling with acne, but neither should we accord inexperience any special privileges. The fact is that no one generation possesses a monopoly on wisdom, and the voices of all are necessary for a healthy democracy.

Gerry Bowler is a Canadian historian specializing in the intersection of popular culture and religion. His latest book is “Christmas in the Crosshairs: Two Thousand Years of Denouncing and Defending the World’s Most Celebrated Holiday.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.