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The righteous anger of youth

Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

February 14, 2019   4 mins

“We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.” So goes the first sentence of the Port Huron Statement, ‘Agenda for a Generation’, published on 15 June 1962 by the Students for a Democratic Society.

In truth, the Statement is one of the most boring manifestos ever published – 65 pages of self-important tosh written by students who knew a lot of big words but had no sense of melody, no clue how to inspire. That first sentence is nevertheless perfect because it describes something universal, namely the unease young people feel about the world their parents have bequeathed them.

The phrase – “looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit” – describes perfectly the anguish felt by activists in Parkland, Florida who turned their grief over the massacre of their fellow students a year ago today into a formidable protest movement. The Parkland student David Hogg titled his recent book #NeverAgain: A New Generation Draws the Line.

The phrase also encapsulates the unease felt by the 16-year-old climate change campaigner Greta Thunberg, whose solo protest outside the Swedish parliament last September is now a worldwide student strike. It also describes the fermenting discontent with Brexit among British youths. As John Major warned last week, the young “may neither forget nor forgive those responsible”.

‘Why Mummy? Why Daddy? Why?’ Every parent has heard that refrain repeated with the dependability of a dripping tap. Children find their world bewildering and look to parents for explanation. Three-year-olds ask why the sky is blue. Eight-year-olds ask why that man is sleeping on the pavement. Sixteen-year-olds ask why there’s no money for their education, why we’re destroying our planet, why it’s so easy for a lunatic to get a gun. For parents, providing credible answers gets harder as kids get older.

Most children accept their parents’ explanations, however flawed they might be. But some continue to question – and doubt. Their inquisitiveness morphs into righteous anger at groupthink, a refusal to accept the manifold imperfections of this world. We see this virtuous discontent in Hogg and Thunberg, or in 13-year-old Holly Gillibrand, who has spent the last five Fridays on strike outside Lochaber High School in Fort William, protesting inaction on climate change. For these youths, protest is an expression of hope.

The great strength of student protesters is their youth. They’re still young enough to have dogmatic ideals; their perfect vision of the world has yet to be crushed by the heavy weight of impossibility.

They see politics in its purest form, not as cynical compromise or corruption, but as a righteous tool of reform. They reject the status quo, insisting that there are alternatives. What is so striking about the Port Huron Statement is the confidence of its authors in their unique capacity to reshape the world. It’s easy for jaded adults to dismiss that youthful optimism as hopelessly naïve, but how lovely it would be to have that faith in possibility again.

Yet the great strength of student activists – their youth – is also their greatest weakness. They are naïve. The world is complex; it does not conform to the monochrome sensibilities of youth. Students are also prone to immaturity, to youthful excess and attention-seeking display. “We were f**king obnoxious”, wrote Jerry Rubin, a leading protester against the Vietnam War. “And we dug every moment of it.” A massive anti-war rally in October 1967 is remembered not for its 100,000 earnest protesters, but for the drugged-up antics of Rubin and Abby Hoffman, who tried to levitate the Pentagon.

An interesting trend was apparent during the Vietnam War: while mainstream support for the war steadily declined from 1965, so, too, did respect for students who protested. Suburban America hated the protesters as much as they hated the war. This was largely because the students had a peculiar talent for thumbing their noses at the masses.

That’s another weakness; students start from the assumption that they’re so much smarter than the hoi polloi. Their arrogance limits their effectiveness. It proves impossible to build a mass movement while shouting insults from the ivory tower.

Being smart makes them an elite. Elites are always a focus of suspicion among the masses. The Parkland protesters are formidable intellects capable of shredding any febrile gun nut’s argument. At Davos, Thunberg delivered a devastating critique of climate change policy – in English, her second language. Yet smart people make the masses uneasy, especially in periods of populist anti-intellectualism like today. The carefully reasoned arguments of Hogg or Thunberg seem suspicious in a world raised on soundbites and angry tweets.

Working people, many of whom have bitter memories of their schooldays, are often contemptuous of student protestors, who, in their eyes, live a comfortable life but still find cause to complain. They’re dismissed as freeloaders, spitting in the faces of the hard-working taxpayers who fund them.

Ronald Reagan exploited this anti-student feeling to good effect when he launched his political career in California in 1965. He successfully turned the protesters into an out-group worthy of scorn. On one occasion, he told how a protester was carrying a sign that read “Make Love not War”. “The only trouble”, Reagan quipped, “was that he didn’t look capable of doing either. His hair was cut like Tarzan, he acted like Jane and he smelled like Cheetah.” That two-line putdown had considerably more impact than the 65 pages of the Port Huron Statement.

Students aren’t students forever. It’s difficult to sustain activism after graduation, when real life beckons. Protest is safe on campus, but less so out in the real world. Sticking it to the Man doesn’t look very good on one’s CV. Sixties protesters at least had the advantage of a healthy economy with jobs aplenty. It’s so much more difficult for today’s youths, knowing that activism might jeopardise their chances in an already precarious world.

For all these reasons, student protest is seldom successful. The Sixties protesters did not bring the Vietnam War to an end, nor did they realise their utopian visions of peace and love. One year after Parkland, it’s difficult to see much progress on gun control. There’s something awe-inspiring about Thunberg’s speech in the snow at Davos, but inside the warm conference centre it was same old, same old.

Spiro Agnew once dismissed student protesters as “an impudent corps of effete snobs who consider themselves intellectuals”. There’s a lot of truth to that statement, yet it’s still unfair. Students should protest; they have a duty to serve as the nagging conscience of their parents. Yes, they’re idealistic, but every great movement has been founded on ideals.

I’m encouraged by the way young people today are questioning the world they’re forced to inherit, the world their parents have mangled. There’s a yeastiness in the air that I haven’t seen since the 1960s. Hogg, Thunberg and the rest are also a lot more savvy than Rubin and Hoffman ever were. They’re sober, careful, committed and not prone to childish antics. They’re also enormously brave. There’s a rough road ahead for them, but maybe, just maybe, they’ll prove me wrong about the futility of student activism.

Gerard DeGroot recently retired from the School of History at St Andrews. He has written books on various aspects of twentieth century history, including moon landings and the nuclear bomb.

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