’Tis the season when we celebrate a divine redeemer, Jesus Christ Greta Thunberg, descending to Earth to save fallen man. If the world gave Greta a Peloton instead of praise this Christmas, all would benefit.
In honoring Thunberg as the “Person of the Year,” Time magazine honors itself. She validated “The Heat Is On,” “Be Worried. Be Very Worried.,” “The Global Warming Survival Guide,” and other magazine headlines variably overlaying cover scenes of a penguin or a polar bear on an ice raft, fiery images out of The Divine Comedy, or portraits of a fragile planet.
Time once recognized truly important figures — Charles Lindbergh, Winston Churchill, Pope John Paul II, Jeff Bezos — at the close of the year. Now it chooses figures it truly wants you to recognize as important. Time casting Miss Thunberg as a person of enormous significance represents, in microcosm, the corruption that shifts journalistic purpose from reporting to influencing.
To the extent Time’s readers know Greta, they likely recall the stern 16-year-old lecturing the United Nations Climate Action Summit in September. “You stole my childhood,” she told them in a convincing imitation of Billy Mumy in The Twilight Zone’s “It’s a Good Life.” One hopes for the scolding Swede’s sake that she takes the path of Mumy, who, as one half of Barnes & Barnes, gave the world “Fish Heads” (jokes not jerks save the planet) as a wonderful encore to his life’s first act, and not the destructive path taken by so many other child celebrities. “Actually, she’s stealing her childhood,” The Who’s Pete Townshend observed to Rolling Stone. “That’s the thing, whether or not we steal our own childhoods by worrying too much about things that we can’t control.”
Neither Greta nor the Gretans can control the weather. By thinking they can, or at least thinking they can control the people who control the weather (n.b., the solarians, not the politicians, most influence temperature), they feel the weight of the world on their shoulders by imagining the fate of the world in their hands. It’s not. But seeing ourselves as world-saving superheroes and our political adversaries as diabolical villains proves a seductive, if psychologically burdensome, narrative.
Not even this acts as the greatest threat to the stability of one better suited for Tiger Beat than Time. The salaams and genuflections from adults toward the truant-prophet disorients her like the way the adult-child role-reversals experienced by Gary Coleman or Corey Feldman sent them spinning.
This bizarre fetish to look for wisdom in those least likely to possess it insults experience (the noxious “OK, boomer” taunt serving as a too-2019 example of life’s pupils instructing its teachers) and unsettles normal adults. Peter and Wendy from Ray Bradbury’s classic story “The Veldt” calling their parents by their first names (at least in the cable television version) and condescendingly rebuking them emitted a creepy vibe from page or pixel. “We’ve given the children everything they ever wanted,” jarred George explains to wife Lydia. “Is this our reward …disobedience? Who was it said, ‘Children are carpets, they should be stepped on occasionally’? We’ve never lifted a hand. They’re insufferable — let’s admit it. They come and go when they like; they treat us as if we were offspring. They’re spoiled and we’re spoiled.”
One thinks of the globe-trotting (though not by airplane!) Miss Thunberg, growing up with gadgets and gizmos imagined only by those in her parents’ generation who read Ray Bradbury and enjoying a life expectancy almost three decades greater than forebears born a century earlier, accusing adults of destroying the planet and telling the United Nations, through watery eyes and a breathy, cracking voice akin to all other brat fits that came before, that “we’ll be watching you,” informing that “change is coming, whether you like it or not,” and periodically exclaiming, “How dare you!” Adults who sat through a science lesson, cheering periodically, from a girl who skips science class have done her no favors. Cultivating a cult of personality in an adult, as recent examples from Cuba to China to North Korea demonstrate, unleashes great harm in society; doing so in a child does so in a soul.
Unlike in fiction, where Wendy and Peter engineer George and Lydia’s demise, the children suffer more greatly in real life from the ostensible veneration than the adults do. One moment the child admired by adults finds herself starring on The Mickey Mouse Club (or in the United Nations), and the next minute she shaves her head in front of the paparazzi. Greta’s adult well-wishers do not see her as a god or even a human being but instead as an especially useful use object. Cowardly puppeteers put their words into the mouth of child not to spark a debate but to end one; rebut a pigtailed Swedish saint at the risk of cries of “child abuse!” Like all use objects, Greta someday outlives her usefulness, and comes the great big discard. They adore her then ignore her. Who are the real child abusers?
One may toss, in the early weeks of 2 A.G., a Greta-on-the-cover Time magazine in the trash rather than the recycling bin without a pang of conscience. But turning a fragile teenager into yesterday’s news seems a sin far darker than those Greta lectures us about.