Conservatives have had it up to here with these meddling kids.
As an entirely new movement for gun reform is being driven by a group of smart, passionate and media-savvy Florida teenagers who survived one of America’s frequent mass shootings, many on the right are more than a little put out. The problem, as conservatives see it, is that the mainstream media have given these young people more attention and more credulous coverage than they deserve, and because the teens are both young and victims, they aren’t subjected to the critical scrutiny they ought to be.
But what really ticks conservatives off is that they themselves are feeling constrained from criticizing the Parkland students, because they are worried they will be criticized for attacking such sympathetic spokespeople.
Not that some aren’t trying. Just in the last couple of days, we have seen two genuinely fake news stories about Parkland students go viral on the right, one in which involved a doctored photo of a student supposedly tearing up a copy of the Constitution, and another which falsely alleged that one of the students wasn’t on campus on the day of the shooting and had been lying about it.
But even in the nonloony corners, the Parkland students are making people frustrated. Head over to the National Review’s website today, and you can find a bunch of articles about guns. One is entitled “In Defense of ‘Gunsplaining’.” That term refers to the suggestion that if you are ignorant about firearms, then your opinions on the issue are of questionable value. Another is called “David Hogg: Oracle, or Useful Idiot?” This one says: “Hogg is basking in his 15 minutes of fame at an embarrassingly early age, and so we might avert our eyes from his much-viewed display of ingratitude, sanctimony, and profanity, except that we can’t, because manipulative adults in the media are deploying him as a useful idiot.”
A third, from the magazine’s editor Rich Lowry, is entitled “The Teenage Demagogues.” Lowry, after listing what he sees as rhetorical excesses from some of the students, gets to the heart of the matter:
Maybe all of this can be written off as the work of overenthusiastic, underinformed 17-year-olds. But the student activists aren’t acting alone. They are promoted and praised by adults who should know better. Since the kids serve a useful purpose in promoting gun control, though, it is practically forbidden in much of the media to dissent from anything they say.
“It is practically forbidden in much of the media to dissent from anything they say,” Lowry says, claiming for the right the status of noble victims, brutally silenced by a system that forbids them to speak their opinions out loud.
But is that true? Tell me: What opinion on the subject of guns has been declared verboten in the current American debate, never to pass the lips of a conservative lest he be banished from the media forever? The idea that we should be arming teachers, or the ludicrously false claim that more guns leads to less crime, or the belief that military-style rifles are awesome, or the notion that we have no gun problem that can’t be solved by bringing more guns into more places? Which of the policy changes advocated by the Parkland students — a ban on those military-style weapons, raising the age to purchase a rifle from 18 to 21, expanded background checks — may no one “dissent” from? Because I hear conservatives making all of these arguments on TV, on the radio, and online every single day.
So what exactly is this cruel form of oppression that has been imposed on conservatives by the Parkland students and their media enablers?
Here’s the real difficulty the Parkland students present. It’s not that they’re passionate and surprisingly articulate for their age, though they are. It’s not that they’ve widened the conversation on guns by refusing to accept things the adults have taken as given for years, such as the idea that the NRA is simply too powerful to bother opposing, though they have. It’s that they’re too sympathetic. And when a spokesperson is sympathetic, when you attack them personally, you look like a jerk.
Despite what conservatives say, no one is going to criticize them when they disagree with the Parkland students on any substantive matter. If Rich Lowry argues that the students are wrong and goes on to explain why the minimum age to buy a rifle should remain at 18, no one will respond, “How dare you disagree with those lovely teenagers?”
No, what conservatives are really mad about is that the tactic of demonizing those they disagree with — which is so common in contemporary political rhetoric (on both the right and left) — has, in this case, been taken away from them.
You can say the Parkland kids are wrong, but calling them names, trying to dig into their personal lives to find something embarrassing, encouraging your audience to not simply think they’re mistaken but to hate them with all the venomous fire they can muster — that’s what some on the right wish they could do, but can’t, at least without looking like soulless ghouls. Certain conservatives have been complaining about this from the beginning. Less than a week after the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Fox News host Tucker Carlson whined that the media were “using these kids in a kind of moral blackmail where you’re not allowed to disagree or you’re attacking a child.”
But here’s the reality: Everyone in politics, from parties to politicians to interest groups, constantly tries to elevate ordinary people who embody some critical part of an issue to become spokespeople; and the more sympathetic they are, the better. Republicans find small-business owners who will tell their tales of being beaten down by red tape as a way of arguing for deregulation, or the family of someone killed by an immigrant as a way of pushing a crackdown on immigration. Democrats promote fast-food workers who need a raise to argue for increases in the minimum wage, or families with sick children to highlight the need for strengthening health insurance protections. It isn’t some unfair tactic suddenly devised by the left.
So don’t worry, my conservative friends. You’re free to make all the arguments you want about how the current gun regime is just fine and we don’t need to do much of anything about the 30,000 or so Americans each year who die from gun violence. No one is going to stop you. Not even a bunch of kids.