Fred Mills is the editor of Blurt. He may or may not be named Time’s Person of the Year some day.
On December 11, Time magazine named young Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg the publication’s 2019 Person of the Year. One cannot overstate the significance of the 16-year-old’s award, as over the past year and a half, Thunberg has become the proverbial “face of the youth climate movement,” inspiring sit-ins, protests, and marches among teens and young adults across the globe who, like her, refuse to put their blind trust in the adults of the world any longer.
You can find a huge trove of online coverage and videos of Thunberg, so I won’t worry about pushing out a bunch of easily-found links here, other than to share a clip from her iconic “How Dare You” speech at the United Nations this year in which she laid the blame/responsibility at the feet of word leaders and explicitly told them that they were guilty of stealing young people’s dreams and childhoods. It’s an incredibly powerful, riveting moment, and one cannot help but be caught up in the visceral, almost feral, emotion Thunberg is projecting.
Cue up the Time honor, and then, naturally, cue up President Trump’s jealous schoolyard response on Twitter, which we all knew would be coming since Trump himself was on the magazine’s shortlist this year. (Although that duly noted, a fun parlor game might be to guess whether Time would have categorized his award along the lines of how they characterized, say, Obama and Martin Luther King, Jr., or more like they did with Putin and the Ayatollah Khomeini. My money would have been on the latter “Fraternity of Dictators ’n’ Despots.” Recall that the award is simply “Person” of the year, as in “most impactful,” and not “Greatest Person.”)
So apparently in honor of Melania’s “Be Best” initiative, Trump decides to engage in some good old-fashioned cyberbullying of a teenager. He summarily tweets, “So ridiculous. Greta must work on her Anger Management problem, then go to a good old fashioned movie with a friend! Chill Greta, Chill!” What does the dutiful little 16-year old do? Yep – she claps back and changes her Twitter bio thusly: “A teenager working on her anger management problem. Currently chilling and watching a good old fashioned movie with a friend.”
I would call that one epic fucking burn. (I could die happy today if she would also recreate that UN address by interpolating Trump tweets and rhetoric with a call to arms.)
Greta Thunberg is MY person of the year for a lot of reasons, among them the fact that I believe it’s time to turn a lot of the heavy lifting over to the kids – the fact that I have chronic back trouble means that my heavy lifting days are done anyway – because she’s right: We ARE failing them, just like the generation that was in charge when I was her age back in the early ‘70s was failing ME and MY peers, leaving us no choice but to express our frustration via activism and, for many, grow that activism towards meaningful change.
See, I was 15, almost Greta’s age, in the spring of 1970 when the Vietnam War was fully raging, and when the Kent State Massacre occurred in which members of the Ohio National Guard descended upon Kent State University in response to a campus protest over the bombing of Cambodia, one of many Vietnam-related protests that took place that year on campuses across the US. When the dust cleared, four students had been shot dead by the Guardsmen and nine others were wounded. For some reason, this hit home for me; I wasn’t even in college yet, but I found myself identifying with the horror and the fear those students must have experienced. The subsequent alienation from the mainstream world I would experience was profound.
That horror and fear gradually gave way to anger, and then to action. I was living in a small Southern textile mill town, far away from Kent State (or, for that matter, pretty much any college campus), so the odds of a spontaneous protest march materializing over on nearby Main Street were pretty much nil. There were some fellow hippies like me and would-be activists in my hometown, but at that point in time you could literally count us all on two hands – something the local rednecks apparently relished doing when they decided to go on their weekend evening harassment cruises of the local teen hangout spots. (Ask me sometime about getting grabbed and held down and then having my hair chopped up by a couple of those rednecks, guys I had actually gone to elementary and middle school school with, was in the Cub Scouts and on the Little League team together, etc.)
But while something on the order of a march or takeover of my high school campus wasn’t in the cards, a protest was still doable, even if on a relatively small scale. A few of my friends and I put our heads together and decided to fashion some black armbands, as we had heard that these and other types of protest armbands (such as one adorned with a white peace dove) in the wake of Kent State were suddenly a “thing.” I was already predisposed to telegraphing my stance on various cultural issues of the day, so I was definitely ready to rumble. (Ask me sometime about when I got called up to the principal’s office, where they wanted to know about the marijuana leaf patch that I’d gotten my girlfriend to sew on my jean jacket for me. “It’s not marijuana, it’s a pin oak,” was my indignant response, and as I was one of the officers in my high school’s Friends Of The Earth ecology club, they decided to let the matter slide.)
We wore our black armbands prominently and proudly the next day at school, prompting a fair share of funny looks and bemused queries from our classmates, some of whom belonged to the aforementioned redneck strata and therefore were not exactly chomping at the bit to join our cause, so to speak. But it did lead to a number of really informed conversations among some of us, because cultural change was in the air – there’s a reason why Jefferson Airplane’s Volunteers album was a constant presence on tons of car cassette and 8-track players back then – and because, in 1970, the Vietnam War wasn’t goin’ nowhere… it seemed to be everywhere in one form or another. The fact that the military draft was still in effect and breathing down the neck of some of my older friends ensured just that.
My peer group, in fact, largely comprised older kids; you could say I was a bit of an “early adopter,” culturally speaking, at least compared to the teenagers in my same grade, and I was eager to sample as much of the culture as I could grab and hold on to, from literature and film, to music both contemporary and older, to esoteric philosophies and chemical enhancers of those philosophies. I still remember the names of several of the older guys who tolerated my relative inexperience and were willing to mentor me and turn me on to that literature, film, music, philosophies, and enhancers I was so hungry for. Guys like Warren Webb, Jimmy Smith, Steve Martin, Jim Wheeler, John Register, Jim and Bill Cameron, Rick Robinson, even Cotton Tollison, the acknowledged loose cannon of our group but who, time after time, would patiently pull me aside in order to shove into my hands a record by some artist I’d never heard of, secure in his assumption that I would immediately hear what he could hear in the record’s grooves.
In our group, my best friend at the time was actually a guy a couple of years younger than me named Fred Covington – yeah, we were sometimes referred to as “the two Freds” – and we both sensed we were privy to a unique education that a lot of the kids in our town were not getting. Compared to most of our classmates, in fact, we were almost living a parallel existence. I know we had frequent conversations about Nixon and Vietnam, no doubt fantasizing about what we would be doing if we were already in college and actually able to become activists. Well, we decided, we’ll just work with the cards already dealt us, and figure out how we can still express ourselves in small, doable ways even if we are stuck in this little town full of rednecks and cotton mills. (Ask me sometime about returning to high school in the Fall of ’72, not long after news broke of the Watergate break-in. That semester I would go up to anybody I could and start yapping about the burglary, about how Nixon and his reelection campaign were somehow involved, blah blah blah – and most of those folks I went up to just dismissed the whole notion out of hand, that this could never happen in the American government. I doubt anyone directed the term “fake news” at me, but I got the distinct impression that my so-called “activism” didn’t particularly impress them.)
So I see parts of my younger self – the outrage tempered by idealism, the bloody-minded go-for-broke attitude in which you don’t care about pissing off the adults, even a semi-naive sense that my very youth will keep me invulnerable – in Greta. I’ll never be able to turn back the clock and recapture my youth; both the misspent and well-spent parts of it are gone forever. But from afar, I sure can recapture my sense of hope and change through her and her peers – and of course through my son, still a teenager as I write this, and also very much one of my heroes.
So I would say to her, Greta, thank you for making me feel young again, if only for a moment, and I am sorry that we are failing you. You have my respect and my support. But promise me one thing: Please don’t fail YOUR children when they arrive on the stage.
Someone somewhere, in a generation far, far away, once proposed that “it takes a village to raise a child.” Nice bumper sticker and T-shirt slogan, but No K Boomer. Sometimes, instead, a takes a child to show a village the way it really needs to be done.