Since it’s very hard to hate child victims of school shootings, the best available critique that could be mustered for Saturday’s March for Our Lives was the familiar refrain that “these children are puppets.” What began in the days immediately after the shootings as a widespread internet claim that the victims were paid crisis actors morphed rapidly into the allegation that student leader David Hogg had been “coached” on what to say during his TV interviews. That was followed by former Rep. Jack Kingston demanding on CNN, “Do we really think 17-year-olds on their own are going to plan a nationwide rally?” CNN was accused, falsely as it turned out, of “scripting” student questions during a town hall. On Saturday, the NRA said on Facebook, “Today’s protests aren’t spontaneous. Gun-hating billionaires and Hollywood elites are manipulating and exploiting children as part of their plan to DESTROY the Second Amendment and strip us of our right to defend ourselves and our loved ones.”
The notion that the whole operation was choreographed by George Soros and Hollywood meant that if, as I did, you watched Saturday’s event on Facebook Live, you were barraged by comments that the entire event was “fake,” and that the sheep-like students had been unwittingly conscripted into a vicious liberal fake media stunt.
If this had been tightly scripted, made-for-TV viewing it’s unlikely Samantha Fuentes, one of the Parkland survivors— overcome with emotion and nerves—would have stopped halfway through her poem, titled “Enough,” to throw up behind the podium. She then managed to finish the poem and stick the landing by grinning into her microphone that “I just threw up on international television, and it feels great!”
Were it all made for TV, the unannounced and uncomfortable 4 minutes and 25 seconds of silence led by Emma González as tears dripped down her face would have been cut after a half-minute.* It took all those stretched-out moments of awkward silence for the crowd to even register what was happening.
And had it been scripted by Soros, these students wouldn’t have been onstage barefaced, scuffed, and in pain. “There might be musicians of this stage, but this is not Coachella. We might have movie stars in the crowd … but this is not the Oscars. … This is real life,” said Parkland survivor Ryan Deitsch. “People have said that I am too young to have these thoughts on my own,” added 11-year-old Naomi Wadler of Virginia. “People have said that I am a tool of some nameless adult. It is not true.”
We may now be living through a reality-show presidency, but American high schoolers don’t watch much TV. They Instagram and Snapchat, watch Netflix and YouTube. Fifty percent of American millennials don’t watch any television at all. Members of Generation Z—the kids who organized the rally Saturday in Washington D.C.—watch even less. One study shows only about 36 percent of them watch traditional programs. That means these kids aren’t influenced by standard reality television tropes and probably explains why they would not bother to perform them, as they’ve been accused of doing.
What we saw on Saturday afternoon in Washington, D.C., was stunningly original media, as far removed from the hackneyed conventions and archetypes of cable television as you could imagine. The irony is that great masses of adults who have been brainwashed by television believe that young people behaving like genuine young people can only have been scripted and staged. What seems “real” these days is a president with handwritten instructions telling him to remember to say “I hear you.” Spontaneous outpourings of grief or even uncomfortably long silences must be fake and staged, because the sort of emotional behavior that currently resonates as authentic is a person raving about the “WITCH HUNT!” against him.
If you want to understand the way TV flattens real people into angry and irrational caricatures, watch the NRA’s Dana Loesch.
Now contrast Loesch with Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School’s Sarah Chadwick and ask yourself who’s genuine and who’s reading hackneyed lines for a paycheck.
The irony of the not-made-for-TV nature of the March for Our Lives is that the president and Fox News and Conspiracy Television Incorporated would in fact like nothing better than to brainwash an entire generation of young people. Their entire future depends on ensuring that the generation that comes after Jeanine Pirro and Alex Jones consumes canned television narratives uncritically. The whole project of Trumpism demands that young people parrot received truths about the immutability of American exceptionalism and the fixed necessity of arming everyone, everywhere, always. The children who marched for their lives Saturday are only dismissed today as “sheeple” because they steadfastly refuse to sheeple along behind the desired shepherd.
Emma González’s extraordinary, uncomfortable, unexplained silence was one of the most transformational political moments of my lifetime precisely because it was impossible to understand in the moment what exactly was taking place. The TV script that’s narcotized us for decades tells us that women are all white and thin and paid for sex and children are silent and pure and built to deliver the punchline and the good guys with guns are expert marksmen who always save the day. For this generation of activists, all of that is as fake as the Love Boat was to their parents. And the script in which a “powerful” “sexually attractive” “billionaire” who is none of the above gets to make and destroy lives in 10-minute segments between commercials for stuff that nobody needs? That script is over, too. These children are awake. We can choose to meet them where they are or go back to sleep in front of the big screen.
Correction, March 24, 2018: An earlier version of this post misstated the length of Emma González’s silence. She stayed silent for 4 minutes and 25 seconds.