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Who's Next On the Right-Wing Media's Hitlist? Teenage Climate Activist Greta Thunberg

By Petr Knava | Politics | April 24, 2019 |

By Petr Knava | Politics | April 24, 2019 |


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Over the Bank Holiday weekend just gone, as the anomalously scorching April sun beat down upon the city, London was host to several Extinction Rebellion protests. Extinction Rebellion (‘XR’) is a movement that seeks to use non-violent civil disobedience and resistance to draw attention to the looming climate crisis that—barring urgent and wide-ranging action on behalf of governments and industry—will reshape the world order to a cataclysmic degree. XR activists blockaded several major thoroughfares and squares throughout the capital, setting up campsites and activity and education centres in an effort to reach out to citizens and to send a message to Parliament. There are some problematic figures within the XR movement, and it has faced justified criticism for some of its tactics—their often privileged, white-centric attitude to arrests and police interactions for a start—but for a mass movement built around urgent action and made up of a deceptively diverse group of people they have been making decent, if occasionally clumsy efforts at addressing some of these criticisms.

One of the things that marks out XR and their associated movements is the youth of many of its members. Protest movements have of course a rich history of being led—or perceived to be led—by young people, but what’s striking about the climate protests sweeping the world at the moment is just how young many of the people taking part are. In many cases climate protests are majority comprised of literal children. With slogans like ‘Save Our Planet!’ and ‘We Deserve a Future!’ being chanted regularly at these marches and sit-ins it is painfully clear why this is the case: Children will be the ones most affected by the incoming climate apocalypse. They are on the cusp of inheriting a world devastated by extreme weather events, desertification, and biomass depletion on an unimaginable scale. It is scarcely hyperbole to say that the very existence of humanity on this planet is now threatened. The billions of people of colour that make up the Global South, having already felt the brunt of the racist, exploitative web of global capitalism, will be at the frontline of the coming crisis. Industrial capitalism’s logical endpoint will hit them first, and it will hit them hardest, but in the end it will come for us all. So children are naturally rising up to demand a future that previous generations have stolen from them. Earlier this year England was host to a number of school strikes attempting to address that very issue. Children walked out of class en masse to ask for a chance to live as long as their parents.

What was the establishment’s response to the cries of a generation begging for a future?

An existential crisis such that our species has never seen before. Children forced to abandon their education in an effort to reach people who are not listening. And the response to that is that they are ‘wasting lesson time’. Putting aside the bone-aching irony of a government that has systematically and ruthlessly decimated the school system decrying the wasting of school resources, there’s something about that framing of the issue that reveals perfectly the brutal and callous technocratic tyranny at the heart of modern capitalism. Don’t inconvenience the elite. They are busy. Know your place. GDP must grow, never mind the cost to the earth or the people that inhabit it.

For a similar example, look no further than Boris Johnson. If you were given the task of trying to come up with a character that most represented the British establishment, you’d be hard pressed to find a better figure than Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson. The obscenely wealthy, ignorant, sexist, racist, opportunistic man who still seeks to lead the Tory party one day has bluffed and failed upward his way through the rarefied layers of high British society for decades. He brings no value, exhibits no moral or practical qualities whatsoever, constantly uses language that puts minorities and women in danger, and is continually given a free pass by an establishment composed primarily of similarly posh white men because they see themselves reflected in him. Here is his reaction to Extinction Rebellion in his £275,000 a year gig at the Daily Telegraph:

There are a lot of words in that article. Some attempt to placate the anger of the activists with empty platitudes. Most aim to divert attention to other ‘worse polluters’ abroad (conveniently ignoring the historical contribution that places like Britain have made to global pollution that still mark us out as amongst the culprits most responsible for our current crisis), and to silence them with the assumed superiority that people of Boris Johnson’s class are so practiced at projecting. It is a load of vacuous, damaging nonsense, and one of a hundred examples that show how any claims that British society might have to egalitarian meritocracy vanish like smoke in the face of the hot air emanating constantly from people like Boris Johnson.

You may be familiar with the person calling out Theresa May in that tweet further up. That’s Greta Thunberg, teenage climate activist from Sweden. Greta has Asperger’s. In the summer of 2018, she started a movement. Unable to continue with business as usual in a world caught fire, she skipped school one day and went to protest outside the Swedish parliament. Since then she has been thrust into the limelight, with the world’s media paying a great amount of attention to her as she shames various governing bodies around the world for their complicity in destroying the world her generation will inherit. She gave a speech in December at the United Nations plenary that remains one of the most powerful things I have ever seen.

Greta has also just visited London’s Extinction Rebellion protests, and she has been meeting with the country’s party leaders. Some of its party leaders.

There is an odd dynamic that exists around the media’s coverage of Greta, one that is incredibly at odds with the message that she is so desperately trying to convey. In outlets that are ostensibly sympathetic to her message, you will often find a strange, paternalistic, sometimes patronising tone in their coverage. Shades of, ‘Wow, look at her go!’ or ‘This is so inspiring, check out this girl shaming the world’s leaders!’ I may well be guilty of slipping into that tone too, though I hope that is not the case because Greta’s message is essentially: ‘No. No more self-flagellation. No more pep talks or inspiration. No more hope. We were sold hope for decades, and now we see how empty that promise was. Now, the only thing that’s needed is action. We don’t want your words, we need your deeds.’

Indeed with something around a decade left for the world to have implemented deep, radical, systemic changes to the institutions that govern it, lest it damn Greta’s generation to an inhospitable future, her tone is exactly the correct one. A revolution is needed. Capitalism has to go if salvation is to be found. And the liberal-centrist managerial class that has run the world for decades will not provide that salvation.

But if the odd, somewhat problematic tone that sometimes exists in relatively liberal publications’ coverage of Greta is emblematic of that class’ politely-worded and softly spoken complicity in our crises, then so too is the nakedly offensive, brash bent taken by more right-wing figures and publications. Where the liberals often talk nice but refuse to offer solutions, the right-wing actively seek to destroy. Here for example is British journalist Toby Young taking Greta to task:

More from Young:

Here is a Times columnist questioning her credentials, asking whether the future generations that Greta claims to speak for held a vote on electing her their spokesperson, and decrying the apparent cult that is ‘Radical Green religion’:

Here is Australian author, lawyer, and former political adviser Helen Dale salivating at the prospect of a teenage girl with Asperger’s getting savaged by the British establishment’s right-wing attack dog, Andrew Neil:

And here is an astonishingly bad take from noted right-wing troll, Brendan O’Neill (writing for the climate denying-Koch-brothers-funded Spiked):

Wow.

Just, wow.

How mind-blowingly ignorant do you have to be; how absurdly wedded to a destructive world order do you have to be; how pants-shittingly pathetic do you have to be, to look at a teenage girl who has been forced to enter the cruel and unforgiving spotlight of the world’s press, to give up her childhood because she has looked into her future and seen only fire and ash, and who has decided that enough is enough, that someone must speak out for the generations that will be destroyed by the actions and inaction of powerful men and women we call leaders; how terrible a human being do you have to be to look at her and to say in response: ‘Oh, look at the self-important one. Who elected you leader. Calm down, don’t be so dramatic. Grow up.’ The hypocrisy, sexism, ageism, ableism on display as the capitalist class rushes to protect its interests is simply staggering. There is something incredibly disturbing about all these pathetic, privileged, (mostly) male, (mostly) white defenders of a vile status quo, fighting over themselves to attack a teenage girl. There is no bottom to the horror here, yet Greta stands tall in the face of it, because she knows the horrors to come otherwise are far, far worse.



Petr is a staff contributor. You can follow him on Twitter.



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