On Monday, 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg — following a transatlantic journey in a zero-emissions yacht and days of protest in the name of her cause — addressed the United Nations on the desperate need for action amid an environmental crisis. The media described her brief remarks as “scathing,” and they pulled some of the more emotional lines as examples, mostly downplaying the fact that Thunberg also concisely summarized more hard numbers on rising global temperatures than you’re likely to hear in the entirety of a presidential debate.
Anyway, it was enough to get the attention of a White House staffer who expects us to believe that Trump knows how to quote-tweet (and would ever stop short of an insulting nickname):
Other ostensibly adult men struggled to veil their rage at a teen stating the plain truth. Seething from a potent admixture of misogyny and climate denialism, they threw everything they had at her (and us):
You’ll notice straight away that these attacks never address the substance of Thunberg’s platform or principles. It’s always “yeah, but I was in the army,” “she’s been brainwashed,” “that’s just some kid” or “what you’re hearing is the result of a sickness” — many textbook cases of the dreaded ad hominem fallacy that conservatives pretend to rise above whenever someone is making fun of them online. As to the mental illness smear: Thunberg has been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome and selective mutism (which she has respectively characterized as a “superpower” and choosing to speak “when I think it’s necessary”), as well as obsessive-compulsive disorder. These conditions seem to have no bearing on the content of her crusade, only its tenacity. “Some people can just let things go, but I can’t,” she said in a Guardian interview, “especially if there’s something that worries me or makes me sad.”
But, convinced that he could turn this neurology against her, Michael J. Knowles, a contributor to Ben Shapiro’s far-right Daily Wire whose claim to fame is kissing Trump’s ass on TV so the president would endorse his book of blank pages, tried it. Things didn’t go quite as he planned.
It’s fascinating that the foot soldiers of an ideology grown zealous on obsolete gender norms don’t understand how it plays for a man to go after a teenage girl like any other political opponent. Or that they’re expressing, in full public view, a total failure of the traditional and stoic masculinity they claim to represent. You can’t spend years calling leftist men cucks and betas and soy boys and then have an on-air emotional breakdown because someone born less than two decades ago is advocating for the survival of the human race.
Knowles isn’t alone in spuriously claiming that Thunberg suffers some terrible ailment — Australian climate change denier Andrew Bolt called her “deeply disturbed,” while the American Conservative’s Rod Dreher, a guy who believes in ritual exorcism, joked that she was “two tics away from a gran mal seizure” when speaking at the U.N. — but the fact that he lost his most lucrative pundit gig in the process and has yet to receive backup from his boss or place of employment does reveal a limit to this rhetoric.
The safer route for the very manly men who don’t like Thunberg is to pivot to faux compassion and argue she’s a casualty of “child abuse.” These concern-troll columns might read as vaguely earnest if they weren’t always paired with photos that frame Greta as unhinged rather than an innocent youth controlled by nefarious special interests. (Republicans have tried the same tactic on Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, to minimal effect.) And it’s difficult to argue the case for her general welfare when you support a state apparatus poisoning children’s tap water, caging them at the border and refusing to prevent their deaths in school shootings.
On the latter point, right-wingers have even suggested the gun reform activists who survived the Parkland massacre are likewise puppets of an anti-NRA movement. If some kids are challenging the Second Amendment, you have to assume they’re victims. The kids getting killed? They’re fine.
Best of all, though, are the Thunberg haters drawing a comparison to the Covington Catholic boys, who took heat for their viral mockery of a Native American man at the Lincoln Memorial. This parallel is supposed to prove the left’s hypocrisy, since we criticized those teens, and establish that anyone this age is fair game for the discourse. It’s a misguided parallel for a few reasons: The Covington lads were specifically bussed to Washington to serve the patriarchal agenda of protesting women’s reproductive rights — a far greater institutional pressure to toe the line, should you want to talk about “indoctrination” — and they were held accountable for their own disgraceful behavior as young adults, not written off as mentally ill to deflect from the attitude they personified. Thunberg, unlike that lot, doesn’t shy away from confrontation on a larger stage. She is fighting her enemies, up to and including the president of the United States, with a fearless warrior spirit. Nobody on her side has said you can’t challenge her position; it’s that the charlatans she opposes, always so thirsty for debate, really don’t know how to begin.
What you see in the men attempting to shout down Greta Thunberg on any grounds but her actual project is the powerlessness of grown-up bullshit in the face of teenage ire. They have no answer to her questions because the unraveling status quo they seek to protect hasn’t produced one. Therefore they have one option: Destroy the messenger. Trouble is, they can’t do that without looking incredibly weak, afraid and panicked. Plus, the message is already out there, in millions of ears, and spreading fast. Obstructing it must have been a whole lot easier when the spokesman was Al Gore.