The Weird Cynicism of Using Children to Back Up Your Political Opinions
Why are you questioning this cute kid whose opinions agree with mine? Why are you such a dick?
My beautiful five-year-old son Terrence, who is the most incredible and wonderful thing in my life, whom I love unreservedly, and who doesn't exist, asked me a question today. He turned his big dark eyes towards me, eyes full of wonder and curiosity and a wisdom far beyond his years, and spoke. "Father", he said – he always calls me "father", he's very precocious – "Father", he said, "why is it that middle-of-the-road media commentators are constantly trying to make political points by relaying cutesy outbursts from their infant children?" And I didn't know the answer. But because I love this child I cruelly invented just to make a political point, this child that will disappear and die as soon as I no longer have any use for him – because I love him more than anything, I was determined to find out.
Terrence was right; a lot of people look like they might be are constantly engaged in the faintly worrying act of inventing small children, or inventing comments said by children. There are the ones who do it for laughs, desperately miserable adults crouching alone in their mildewed single-occupancy apartments, writing left-handed as they create little birthday cards the kids they never had made for them, full of charming little errors and a child's cutting but uncomplicated view of the world, to be uploaded for exactly 18 retweets and 27 likes. "Daddy loves to go to the pub, I think it's because of me!" These people are basically harmless; we're all crafting deranged little fantasies for ourselves that make the world seem a little bit sweeter and nicer, and what's the difference between "didn't my child do the most adorable thing" and, say, "the people I work with like me and consider me to be a friend", or, for that matter, "human civilisation is viable in the long term"? The really strange and dangerous people are the ones who've decided that you should base your political opinions on the toothless, sugar-blitzed mumblings of an eight-year-old child.
And these people aren't just internet nobodies grasping for anonymous affirmation, but op-ed writers, the people who are trusted with shaping the public discourse through the example of their clear, perceptive, big grown-up thoughts. But when the time comes for them to really make their defences of an increasingly unpopular status quo, they seem to be constantly delegating responsibility to their children.
The New Statesman's Sarah Ditum, for instance – the other night, her 10-year-old child fell about laughing at the prospect of a Jeremy Corbyn premiership, a laughter that said more than a fleshed-out opinion column ever could.
The BBC's Chloe Tilley has a seven-year-old daughter who doesn't understand the parliamentary system but does tend instinctively towards popular sovereignty.
Across the Atlantic, it's worse. Take Mother Jones's Clara Jeffery, for instance. Her eight-year-old, Milo, made a naïve-sounding but actually very complex point about how left-wing purism only ends up enabling the political right.
Then there's Stephen Marche, a columnist for Esquire, whose four-year-old daughter can see right through Donald Trump's bluster and narcissism to perceive the tiny, scared, vulnerable man locked away in a fleshy orange prison.
And Sarah Kendzior's young daughter never stops. In one incident she was so enraged at Bernie Sanders actually debating Hillary Clinton during a debate, rather than weepingly prostrating himself before her (he even wagged his finger, the horror of it) that she was unable to contain her righteous liberal-feminist rage.
And in another, she effortlessly set up her mother for a simply brutal punchline, suggesting that the two of them having been running a chat-show double act for at least two decades.
If you read through the replies to any of these statements, you'll come across dozens of people calling bullshit, and it's not hard to see why. If we're to have any faith in the future of the planet, we have to believe that our children are not already turning into smug kiddie pricks that slyly repeat the conventional narrative as if this is somehow puckishly transgressive. For what it's worth, I have my suspicions; I'd be ready to stake a claim that not one of the incidents above ever happened. But I can't prove it. After all, these are deeply mainstream ideas, and the all-consuming fug of ideology wouldn't be doing its job if it weren't reaching even the youngest children. These are no ordinary children, too; they're being brought up by pundits, toddling along in their footsteps.
I lied; my son Terrence isn't five, he's much younger than that; in fact, he's a newborn. As soon as the doctors cut his umbilical cord he opened up his tiny little eyes, focused dimly at what must have been only the vaguest outline of my face, and instead of crying he said, "But father, even if these things did happen, why are they telling us? These parents aren't just proudly relaying clever things their children said; they're instrumentalising them, they want us to agree with them. Do they really believe that the thoughts of some impertinent milksop might have a credibility that the pundit classes are losing? Who could possibly think that?" And he was right; the child is always right.
Why would we be expected to give more credence to a child's opinions than those of their parent, who is actually paid to think about this stuff? There's a sense in which children are supposed to have a clearer view of the truth – their perception hasn't been clouded by ideological commitments or too many over-complicated books. In a child's mouth the platitudes of the media consensus can sound more like objective political reality. When your adorable six-year-old says that benefits reform is sadly necessary, or that we need to get the deficit down before we worry about anything else, or that Jeremy Corbyn or Bernie Sanders are bad men who did the bad thing, it can't possibly be because they have any vested interests. They're just calling it as they see it. And this is because the one thing children can never be is cynical.
Bringing children into the discussion is a near-foolproof way of making people feel guilty about their cynicism. You might not believe the story, but even so it tugs at your conscience: why are you being so mean about such a cute little fable? In her widely applauded speech to the Democratic national convention, Michelle Obama made this explicit. She spent almost her entire slot talking about children – her children, Hillary Clinton's children, the children that will grow up under the next President of the United States. "We cannot afford", she concluded, "to be tired or frustrated or cynical." This is something of a nonsense sentiment – if the children are at stake, shouldn't we be more cynical, to avoid handing their lives over to someone who works in nice-sounding phrases but might have – purely hypothetically – helped cause the deaths of thousands of actual children in Iraq and Libya and Syria? But that's not how these things work. We're talking about children here. No cynicism allowed, or you'll make the little angels upset.
It reminds me of something my unborn son Terrence said the other day. "Father", he said mashing his still-forming gums, "isn't the political deployment of children to guard against reasonable cynicism itself a deeply cynical move?" And you know what? I think he might be right.
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