Marching for Their Lives, the Kids Get Serious — More Serious Than the “Adults”
It’s been a cheering development, and totally unexpected: In response to a crisis — in this case, the crisis of gun violence — America’s young people are pointing the way to a New Day.
In the aftermath of the horrendous shooting which killed 17 of their classmates and teachers on Valentine’s Day, the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, rather than collapse or retreat, got to their feet, found their voices and each other, and came together to unite in protest against the nation’s gun laws, mounting a movement — March for Our Lives — that has ignited nationwide.
In the best of all possible responses, the Parkland students are uniting and marching to convert their individual trauma into collective change and repair, taking the path of political action.
Importantly, despite their trauma, this student-led movement is not calling for a gun-free utopia, which would be understandable, but for common-sense restrictions on the Second Amendment. Their demands — including comprehensive background checks and bans on high-capacity magazines and assault weapons — are in the best tradition of American pragmatism and compromise. And, savvily, they are also focused on getting out the vote — for candidates who support saner gun laws (also here).
Moreover, in their response to crisis, the March for Our Lives movement welcomes all races and genders to its ranks and its leadership — in salute to the American ideal (seldom achieved) of fair play and equal opportunity and in contrast to the racist and sexist trauma still being committed in the larger society, necessitating the rise of the movements Black Lives Matter and Me Too.
Measured, realistic, serious, the kids of March for Our Lives are an ethical-moral tonic for our troubled times. Would that the “adults” were, too.
This is not to say all adults are problematic, not at all. I have long written about “the conscientious public,” whose members have thrown themselves into repairing the nation’s wounds laid bare after 9/11 and, since Donald Trump’s election, have become constitutionalists, ethicists, and candidates for office. And there are the legions of conscientious adults lobbying for gun control on the kids’ behalf, including heartbroken parents lobbying in their slain children’s memory. But we are not the ones spotlighted. Rather, with the media tending to favor the bright, shiny — and crazy — object, it is the “adults” gone crazy who are granted center-stage and set the un-serious tone.
Where to start in a listing of current follies? There are the ghastly sagas, now going on for six months, of once-powerful men who abused their power and sexually abased women or young men in their workplaces. These notables were, once upon a time, some of the most honored in America (Charlie Rose, Bill Cosby, Kevin Spacey, James Levine). Their numbers include politicians (John Conyers) and officers of the law (New York’s Attorney General). This week the governor of Missouri resigned over alleged threats of revenge porn against a woman with whom he’d had an affair. So many “adult” men behaving so badly has left a stench in the air.
Other “adults” now feel freer to express their inner vileness, also their lack of seriousness. Just this week, two “comedians” struck new lows, both creating media firestorms (and lame apologies): On the right Roseanne Barr tweeted a truly shocking racist comment about an advisor to former president Barack Obama, while, on the left, Samantha Bee made an equally vile comment, sexual in nature, about one of the current president’s daughters. Grow up, people.
The only good thing in this cavalcade of bad behavior is that the protest coming from the conscientious public is sufficient to drive these miscreants from the scene or force their vow to reform altogether.
Of course the most egregious example of misbehaving adulthood is our president, Donald Trump, who lies and dissembles, who shows no awareness at all of a moral compass, who blames everybody but himself for failure, who has no sense of a cause larger than his ego. Who, as to sexism, is an admitted groper, and, as to racism, sees “very fine people” among the rabidly racist alt-right. Who, on the international stage, is steadily hacking away at America’s good name by showing himself to be un-serious about alliances and treaties and to be the most unreliable of negotiators.
And it was an angry base who put this angry man in office. Meanwhile, the kids marching for their lives, instead of losing themselves in anger at school shootings, have harnessed that anger to get focused, get a national organization up on its feet, and get political, all to press for greater sanity. Who are the true adults here?
Sadly, American culture is not much help in portraying intelligent adulthood. The anti-hero and the dystopian reign in TV, movies, books. In theatre, leading this year’s Tony awards in number of nominations are “Mean Girls” and “SpongeBob SquarePants” (Really, Tony?). How strange: At a time when kids in real life get serious about gun control, Broadway gets serious about high-school mean girls….
To be fair, the crises faced are not strictly analogous. The “adults” described above are enmeshed in cultural and political turmoil of several generations’ duration and polarization, while the kids, their minds and nervous systems freshly concentrated by bullets flying at them (or calculating the odds of being shot at), bring fresh energy to their cause. Still, all things put in the balance, this is the drama now playing out on our national stage: kids gone serious and, save for the conscientious public, “adults” gone crazy, oblivious to the fact that the nation is itself marching for its life.
And for their adult response, let’s stop calling them kids and call them young people.
These young people inspire. They are, at this historical moment, what serious looks like. You can see them not only finding their voice but their vocation, for a season if not for life. (Let’s hope we, with their help, achieve saner gun laws in this lifetime.) The most serious of their number have announced they will take a gap year (or two) to focus on lobbying for saner gun laws, before heading to college.
Of course, the leaders of March for Our Lives are drawing fire from the far right and the NRA, accused of being “crisis actors” and conspiracists. Welcome to the rough-and-tumble of politics! But note how the venom has not stopped them, neither the leaders nor the members. (We have not discussed how seriously insane are the policies of the “adults” at the NRA.) This movement defies research showing that in recent decades allegiance among young people to democracy itself has waned. Here’s hoping their activism reinforces their allegiance.
Finally, it remains to be seen if this movement’s common-sense demands will have any impact on reaction to school shootings in areas more identifiably “gun country”; early reporting indicates a resistance or pushback (also here).
Whatever. For now: Well done, young marchers! For your performance in Crisis Management in Real Life, you get an A-plus. You also get a place on the right side of History.