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Peewee Political Activism Is Just Vacation Bible School For Unbelievers

What must it be like to believe you have a significant role to play in heading off environmental Armageddon years before you can legally drive your parents’ Prius?


Much of the ado about Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s face-off with children from the Sunrise Movement, a youth environmental advocacy group, focused on the senator’s pushback against their demand that she support proposed Green New Deal legislation. But more interesting than Feinstein’s response was the kids’ behavior.

These were mostly middle-school children––finger-wagging scolds not yet in their teens. They were 12-year-olds who had been coached in the kind of unyielding certainty and outsized sense of mission that shouts over differing opinions and elbows aside opposing points of view.

You see deeply indoctrinated kids like this under authoritarian regimes, but rarely in the United States. This is something new, unwelcome in the culture and often soul-sapping for the kids. What must it be like to believe you have a significant role to play in heading off environmental Armageddon years before you can legally drive your parents’ Prius? Will these kids ever know the goalless joy of the comedy of a Chris Rock, a Russell Peters, a Craig Ferguson? Will they ever be fun?

Not so long ago, the worlds of children and adults could be represented by a Venn diagram of sorts, two spheres that occasionally intersected, mostly at mealtimes. Kids were not involved in adult causes; kids were not taken seriously. I don’t remember minding.

I never noticed political issues until the late 1960s, when they became hard to miss. I was in high school at the time and marveled at the certainty and self-importance of the student activists in the news. They were suburban twenty-somethings mouthing revolutionary rhetoric and trying on gravitas like an ill-fitting overcoat. They weren’t much older than I was. How could they take themselves so seriously, I wondered. And why would anyone else?

Even in our late teens, adults rarely sought my peer group’s opinions, which made sense because our deeply held convictions ran mostly along the lines of Clapton versus Hendrix, regular or menthol, Bud or Coors. We didn’t want to stop the war or end inequality or save the planet. We wanted our parents to move out of state and leave us the house. We were shallow, unserious teenagers. We were jerks.

Our saving grace, though, was that on some level we knew it.

A generation or two ago, parents sent their kids to church or synagogue whether or not they had deeply held religious beliefs. Like voting and keeping up the lawn, providing your kids with at least token religious instruction was considered a component of good citizenship.

I remember sitting in the smooth wooden pew of a Presbyterian church as a kid and wondering about the concept of eternity. I couldn’t grasp it, and still can’t. But moments like that may have been the beginning of an understanding of my very insignificant place in the universe, the budding of a sense of appropriate humility. We were called to do right, but keeping the earth on its axis was Someone Else’s job.

Although the Sunrise Movement describes itself as an environmental and political organization, it’s really just Vacation Bible School for nonbelievers. The environmentalism it preaches is a religion without saving grace, where salvation must be earned by selfless submission to an all-encompassing System. A Shema for skeptics: Hear, O America.

The kids paraded into Feinstein’s office shouldn’t be props in a dystopian fearmongering campaign. They should be worrying about acne, developing unrequited crushes, trying out swear words. For the love of Gaia, relieve these kids of the burden of needing to be taken seriously.