On the off chance that gun control legislation of some kind passes in the wake of the Stoneman Douglas massacre, we’ll have the kids, and only the kids, to thank. The shooting’s teen survivors, beyond keeping gun control at the center of the national conversation for longer than might have been expected, seem to have started a real movement—a campaign that could take a place alongside Indivisible and the Women’s March as an example of liberal activism’s potency and power in the Trump era.
So, naturally, conservatives are trying to take it down. Various conspiracy theories are now circulating on the right about shadowy forces pulling the strings of survivors like David Hogg, whose father, the Gateway Pundit’s Lucian Wintrich told readers, is a retired FBI agent perhaps involved in the Deep State’s efforts to destroy Trump. On CNN, former congressman Jack Kingston warned that Stoneman Douglas’ teens could be a front for liberal groups funded, naturally, by George Soros. “Their sorrow can very easily be hijacked by left-wing groups who have an agenda,” he said. “Do we really think 17-year-olds on their own are going to plan a nationwide rally?”
One of the lengthier salvos against the teens came from Ben Shapiro in National Review. “Seemingly every major media outlet has featured commentary from children ranging from 14 to 17 years old who attended Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School,” he wrote. “What, pray tell, did these students do to earn their claim to expertise?”
Children and teenagers are not fully rational actors. They’re not capable of exercising supreme responsibilities. And we shouldn’t be treating innocence as a political asset used to push the agenda of more sophisticated players.
But the Left won’t stand for such line-drawing. That’s because for the Left, status as a rational actor, let alone as an expert, isn’t actually the chief qualification for political gravitas: It’s emotion. And children are as capable of emotional response as anyone else. So we should give children full leeway to express their emotions in any way they deem fit, and it should be our job to humor them so far as we can bear it — up to and including in policy considerations.
Shapiro went on to write that in young people, “the emotional centers of the brain are overdeveloped in comparison with the rational centers of the brain.” “It’s the job of those who think most rationally,” he continues, “to teach those whose rationality is still developing.”
Of course, Shapiro’s own rationality was presumably still developing when he became, according to a bio he evidently assumes his readers are too dense to dig up, the “youngest nationally syndicated columnist in the United States” at 17. David Hogg and activist classmates Jaclyn Corin and Cameron Kasky are 17 today. Emma González—whose viral speech was perhaps the most stirring bit of oratory yet given under the Trump administration—is a year older than Shapiro was when he started his column.
Shapiro spent his late teens claiming expertise on a wide variety of subjects, including the nefarious homosexual agenda (“English departments around the country have become brainwashing centers for the militant gay movement”), civilian casualties in the war on terror (“[W]hen I see in the newspapers that civilians in Afghanistan or the West Bank were killed by American or Israeli troops, I don’t really care”), residential segregation (“Minorities tend to live within defined districts—by choice”), and the need to “transfer” the Arabs from Israel and the greater region. (“If you believe that the Jewish state has a right to exist, then you must allow Israel to transfer the Palestinians and the Israeli-Arabs from Judea, Samaria, Gaza and Israel proper. It’s an ugly solution, but it is the only solution.”) If he’s sincere in his belief now that teens are ill-equipped for commentary on weighty topics, he ought to apologize to his readers for passing off the ramblings of a mush-headed kid as rational analysis for as long and as lucratively as he did.
It is doubtful he will. After all, young, supposedly precocious voices like his have proved deeply important to the modern conservative movement since at least 1960, when William F. Buckley gathered 100 young conservatives at his home in Sharon, Connecticut, to found Young Americans for Freedom. Since then, a vast infrastructure of organizations and clubs that train and cultivate young conservative activists, pundits, operatives, and politicians-to-be has blossomed. Young Americans for Freedom merged with the similar group Young America’s Foundation in 2011. The combined organization is one of the right’s most prominent farm teams and, with $65 million in assets, likely one of the most well-funded to boot. Last month, the Los Angeles Times reported on a YAF gathering for high schoolers at Ronald Reagan’s Rancho del Cielo that doubtlessly would’ve been called a leftist re-education camp if it had opposite politics:
The high school students here broke into small groups and scribbled lists of what they considered true conservative ideals on white boards. One circle made quick work of its task: a strong national defense, Christian values, limited government, anti-abortion, informed patriotism and capitalism.
When a few students suggested adding “constitutional rights,” the foundation’s Spencer Brown encouraged them to think more broadly.
“A lot of people, particularly liberals, think government is the one who gives them rights — as opposed to God-given rights,” Brown explained.
Afterward, when the groups gathered to compare their lists, foundation President Ron Robinson told the students that the words they use to express their conservative beliefs are essential. For instance, he said, instead of saying they support “capitalism,” it would be better to use the phrase “free enterprise” or “entrepreneurship.” “Capitalism,” Robinson said, is disparaged by leftists and does not poll well.
On Thursday, Shapiro will address hundreds of young student members of YAF and other organizations at the Conservative Political Action Conference, which is, at this point, a kind of Boy Scout jamboree for youngsters who spent puberty getting hot and bothered over the prospect of ending affirmative action. One of the newer and more influential groups in attendance will be Turning Point USA, founded by young conservative activist Charlie Kirk when he was 18. While the group is perhaps best known for its diaper play in protest of safe spaces at Kent State University, Turning Point also has chapters at high schools across the country and recently hosted a “leadership summit” specifically for high school students. Its ballooning funds have come from a constellation of right-wing donors including the foundations of Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, shipping magnate Richard Uihlein, and Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus, as well as the financial investor Foster Friess.
All of this begins to take on the whiff of the unethical if, as Shapiro says, we’re to recoil at young people being used to push the agendas of savvy adults. And indeed, every now and then, prominent young voices in the world of conservative activism exit queasily. Take Jonathan Krohn, who, at 13, addressed CPAC to high praise from the conservative press in 2009. “I want you to understand, I want the American people to understand, that conservatism is not an ideology of feelings—romanticism as some people like to say,” he told the audience. “It is an ideology of protecting the people and the people’s rights.” A barrage of guest appearances on Fox News and a New York Times profile shortly followed. “Young master Krohn is a conservative who clearly has a future,” Fox political correspondent Carl Cameron said in a segment about Krohn. “He is at this point working on more projects, and you’d better tell the Beltway boys to watch out.” By 2012, Krohn had abandoned the ideology of the people’s rights. That summer he told Politico he had “matured” and had gotten into both gay marriage and Wittgenstein. “It’s a 13-year-old kid saying stuff that he had heard for a long time,” he said. “Come on, I was thirteen. I was thirteen.”
Or take C.J. Pearson, a 12-year-old who taped a viral anti-Obama rant and endorsed Rand Paul for the presidency in 2015. Pearson’s switch to supporting Ted Cruz and subsequent criticisms of Paul were called an “abrupt betrayal” by a RedState blogger who presumably went into cardiac arrest following Pearson’s denunciation of the Republican Party that November. “I was tired of being a champion of a party that turned a blind eye to racial discrimination,” he told CNN. “Tired of being a champion of any cause that denies equal rights to every American. Tired of being a champion of a party that doesn’t care about the issues important to young people.” “What’s the real issue here are the many conservatives who decided it was a good idea to make Pearson a public face of the Right,” the Daily Caller’s Scott Greer wrote afterward. “Maybe conservatives have internalized the liberal line that they’re just a bunch of stuffy, old white men and they’ll take any voice that breaks the stereotype. Or maybe conservatives feel they need a silly gimmick to sell their ideas.”
One of the sillier gimmicks in this vein was the hilariously short-lived magazine Conservative Teen, aimed squarely at kids like Pearson and Krohn and those who might have wanted to become them. Not long after it was discovered and promptly mocked by the internet and shortly before its website vanished, it was reported that the publication was the project of staffers at organizations like the Family Research Council and the Heritage Foundation. The must-read of its first and only issue: “Ronald Reagan: Our First Black President?”
As Greer suggested, conservatives have an interest in recruiting the young and anointing heroes among them because they offer proof that the liberalism and leftism the young are so frustratingly susceptible to can be defeated early. Young people are susceptible in the first place, pundits like Shapiro tell their readers, because the ideology of the left is fundamentally immature. But this line of attack has been significantly complicated by the rise of Trump—a man frequently compared to a toddler who was elected, conservatives themselves suggest, in a stomping, bawling, thumb-sucking tantrum from voters in red-state America seeking attention and affection from political elites.
It has also been complicated by the conservative stance on gun control. “Good guys with guns” sounds inescapably like a solution a small child would propose—the product of jejune logic more suited to a make-believe world of cops, robbers, cowboys, and Indians than to lived reality. That ultimately may be what galls conservatives about Stoneman Douglas’ teens most of all: They suggest the notions underpinning our status quo gun policy are infantile, beneath even them despite their youth. They obviously have the right to say so. If Shapiro was entitled to an audience for his blubbering about being a mocked virgin, surely those whose friends and classmates were murdered last week ought to be allowed to offer their opinions on how we should address massacres that are now among the morbid routines of American life.
We are fortunate that Stoneman Douglas’ survivors have things to say, too, about the broader state of the politics governing the country they’re about to make their lives in. “They have always said the wrong thing at the wrong time,” survivor Alfonso Calderon said of America’s politicians recently, “and they’re still taken seriously, time and time again, instead of being disavowed or disqualified for even holding an office after saying ridiculous statements.” These teens are not only pro–gun control; they’re pro-consequences. They’ve as such aligned themselves against a state of affairs in which a disingenuous propagandist like Shapiro can be called a “philosopher” by the paper of record and respected pundits can straight-facedly claim that the gun debate’s real problem is that the views of red staters, who hold veto power over gun policy, are insufficiently respected. Enough’s enough, they’re saying. It is time to put away childish things. It is time for all of us to become adults.
One more thing
You depend on Slate for sharp, distinctive coverage of the latest developments in politics and culture. Now we need to ask for your support.
Our work is more urgent than ever and is reaching more readers—but online advertising revenues don’t fully cover our costs, and we don’t have print subscribers to help keep us afloat. So we need your help. If you think Slate’s work matters, become a Slate Plus member. You’ll get exclusive members-only content and a suite of great benefits—and you’ll help secure Slate’s future.Join Slate Plus