Though contemporary Western democracies are clearly marvels by any historical standard, they suffer from one clear, grievous flaw – children cannot vote.
Last December the head of politics at Cambridge University invited ridicule when he suggested that this wound required bandages. On his podcast Professor David Runciman mused:
‘I would lower the voting age to six, not 16… it would make elections more fun. It is never going to happen in a million years but as a way of capturing just how structurally unbalanced our democracies have become, seriously, why not? Why not six-year-olds?’
Why not indeed? Why not live in a world where the most effective retail politicians are not Obamas and Trumps, but Barney the Dinosaur and Kermit the Frog? Most political communications today probably would make more sense if they were performed by puppets made out of green felt. Six-year-olds would vote for them in droves.
Surely Vladimir Putin would finally meet his match if he were confronted by President Bert and Vice President Ernie at the next G20 summit. And who can really say if the Iranian leadership is more intimidated by John Bolton or Dora the Explorer?
Courting of the vital six-year-old demographic has already begun in earnest ahead of the 2020 Democratic primaries. Elizabeth Warren with Nevertheless She Persisted, Kamala Harris with Superheroes Are Everywhere and Kirsten Gillibrand with Bold & Brave have all launched books aimed at people who are still suspicious of solid foodstuffs. Andrew Yang’s Here’s How Many Nerf Guns $1000 a Month Will Buy You is presumably forthcoming.
Budding young ideologues are spoiled for choice these days.The twitchy revolutionists of the future need not wait for the arrival of Foucault, Gramsci and Adorno in some fevered college lecture hall. General notions of equality, pedantically expressed and colorfully illustrated, are available to all kindergarteners now. Who Are You? The Kid’s Guide To Gender Identity by Brook Pessin-Whedbee and A Is for Activist by Innosanto Nagara are two peaks in the great stretching range of partisan books aimed at toddlers.
As tempting as it is to imagine that youngsters are howlingly petitioning their parents to buy them books about gender fluidity, this new canon speaks more to the weary, wooden political passions of grown-ups than it does to the demands of children. The new style is didactic, as in Anastasia Higginbotham’s Ordinary Terrible Things series (topics: death, divorce, sex, whiteness), rather than allegorical, fantastical or whimsical.
Children’s books have always been exhaustingly silly and the new library is not so different on that score. The silliness of reading about wondrous chocolate factories and belching Gruffalos is equally matched by reading about perfectly tolerant, diverse communities where everybody gets along, nobody uses nasty words and open borders are unanimously celebrated.
When 60 percent of Democrats agree with the statement that ‘the opposing party is a serious threat to the United States and its people’ why risk contaminating the next generation with ideologically unsound content? Captain Underpants is not going to teach your children how to be a good allies, ergo we better buy I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark for little Noah and Abigail.
It is fatuous to long for a return to the vanished literary culture Alexis de Tocqueville described in Democracy in America (‘There is scarcely a pioneer’s hut where one does not encounter some odd volumes of Shakespeare’); the past is gone, there is no turning back. If conditions of intense partisan rancor are terrible news for politics, then they are even worse news for literature. The world of books becomes yet another stage for crankish piety to strut across, and the canon, so much of it written by (shudder) white men, deeply suspect.
Can we really trust that Sherlock Holmes was not a white supremacist? Did Charles Dickens say the right things during the Indian Mutiny? Was V.S. Naipaul a lousy husband? The literature of the past is rendered disgraceful by the political passions of the present. Approved ideas, social backgrounds and noble intentions are a uselessly gooey triumvirate to judge books by. They encourage us – contra Nabokov – to read with the skull, not the spine.
Politicizing children’s literature is unlikely create a generation of dedicated bibliophiles. It won’t even have the effect parents desire. A 2014 study in the British Journal of Political Science found, contrary to expectations, that:
‘…the children who are most likely to initially acquire the political views of their parents are also most likely to later abandon them as a result of their own engagement with the political world.’
If Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris wanted to inspire young people to become stock-response liberals, they might have started the process by writing long tributes to the current president.