Go Ahead, Millennials, Destroy Us
High school students in Plantation, Fla., at a rally for gun control after the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., last month. CreditCarlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters.
By Tim Kreider March 2, 2018
As with all historic tipping points, it seems inevitable in retrospect: Of course it was the young people, the actual victims of the slaughter, who have finally begun to turn the tide against guns in this country. Kids don’t have money and can’t vote, and until now burying a few dozen a year has apparently been a price that lots of Americans were willing to pay to hold onto the props of their pathetic role-playing fantasies. But they forgot what adults always forget: that our children grow up, and remember everything, and forgive nothing.
Those kids have suddenly understood how little their lives were ever worth to the people in power. And they’ll soon begin to realize how efficient and endless are the mechanisms of governance intended to deflect their appeals, exhaust their energy, deplete their passion and defeat them. But anyone who has ever tried to argue with adolescents knows that in the end they will have a thousand times more energy for that fight than you and a bottomless reservoir of moral rage that you burned out long ago.
Like most people in middle age, I regard young people with suspicion. The young — and the young at mind — tend to be uncompromising absolutists. They haven’t yet faced life’s heartless compromises and forfeitures, its countless trials by boredom and ethical Kobayashi Marus, or glumly watched themselves do everything they ever disapproved of.
I am creeped out by the increasing dogmatism and intolerance of millennials on the left; I felt a generational divide open up under me last year when everyone under 40 seemed to agree that Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till in his coffin should be removed from the Whitney Biennial. When I was young it seemed the natural order of things that conservatives were the prudes and scolds who wanted books banned and exhibitions closed, while we liberals got to be the gadflies and iconoclasts. I know that whenever you disapprove of young people, you’re in the wrong, because you’re going to die and they’ll get to write history, but I just can’t help noticing that the liberal side isn’t much fun to be on anymore.
Yet this uprising of the young against the ossified, monolithic power of the National Rifle Association has reminded me that the flaws of youth — its ignorance, naïveté and passionate, Manichaean idealism — are also its strengths. Young people have only just learned that the world is an unfair hierarchy of cruelty and greed, and it still shocks and outrages them. They don’t understand how vast and intractable the forces that have shaped this world really are and still think they can change it. Revolutions have always been driven by the young.
Ever since Columbine, almost 20 years ago, I’ve absorbed the news of more mass shootings than I can count with an ulcerating rage that gradually scabbed over into deadened cynicism. To those of us who have lived with certain grim realities our whole adult lives — the widening moat between the rich and the rest of us, the sclerotic influence of money on politics, the N.R.A.’s unassailable coalition of greed and fear — they seem like facts of life as unalterable as death itself.
I’d come to the conclusion that America has always been a violent nation, from our founding genocide to the slave labor that built the country to the arsenal, unprecedented in human history, that maintains our empire. We spend $60 billion a year on pets but won’t go to any inconvenience to keep second graders from getting slaughtered. Despite all our competitive parenting and mommy machismo and trophy kids, we don’t really give a damn about our children — by which I mean, about one another’s. When a race stops caring for its young, its extinction is not only imminent but well deserved. But maybe my bitter complacence about our civilization’s irreversible decline is just a projection of my feelings about my own.
Power is like money: imaginary, entirely dependent upon belief. Most of the power of institutions lies in the faith people have in them. And cynicism is also a kind of faith: the faith that nothing can change, that those institutions are corrupt beyond all accountability, immune to intimidation or appeal. Harvey Weinstein ultimately wasn’t the one enforcing the code of silence around his predations: It was all the agents and managers and friends and colleagues who warned actresses that he was too powerful to accuse.
Once people stopped believing in his invulnerability, his destruction was as instantaneous as the middle school queen being made a pariah. Watch: As soon as the first N.R.A. A-rated congressman loses an election, other politicians’ deeply held convictions about Second Amendment rights will start rapidly evolving.
The students of Parkland are like veterans coming home from the bloody front of the N.R.A.’s de facto war on children. They’ve seen their friends, teachers and coaches gunned down in the halls. To them, powerful Washington lobbyists and United States senators suddenly look like what they are: cheesy TV spokesmodels for murder weapons. It has been inspiring and thrilling to watch furious, cleareyed teenagers shame and vilify gutless politicians and soul-dead lobbyists for their complicity in the murders of their friends. Last week Wayne LaPierre was reduced to gibbering like Gen. Jack D. Ripper in “Dr. Strangelove” about a “socialist” takeover and “hardening” our schools. You could see the whites all around his irises. That look is fear.
One of my students once asked me, when I was teaching the writing of political op-ed essays, why adults should listen to anything young people had to say about the world. My answer: because they’re afraid of you. They don’t understand you. And they know you’re going to replace them.
My message, as an aging Gen X-er to millennials and those coming after them, is: Go get us. Take us down — all those cringing provincials who still think climate change is a hoax, that being transgender is a fad or that “socialism” means purges and re-education camps. Rid the world of all our outmoded opinions, vestigial prejudices and rotten institutions. Gender roles as disfiguring as foot-binding, the moribund and vampiric two-party system, the savage theology of capitalism — rip it all to the ground. I for one can’t wait till we’re gone. I just wish I could live to see the world without us.
Tim Kreider is the author of the essay collections “I Wrote This Book Because I Love You” and “We Learn Nothing.”
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A version of this article appears in print on March 3, 2018, on Page A19 of the New York edition with the headline: Go Ahead, Millennials, Destroy Us. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe