As I write this, 16 year olds in Scotland are voting on whether to separate from Britain. I will not, with an over-simple sound bite, address the issue of adolescents voting. But I will write something essay length, starting with a metaphor:
If “Reaganomics,” the president’s “trickle down” theory, is that as the rich get “more” the rest of us will get “some” then “everyday life-enomics” is where the experts work through “more” abstract knowledge and ideals so that “some” facts and concepts trickle down, sometimes as oversimplified sound bites and slogans. “A citizen’s duty is to be informed—” yes, I know …I could do better.
Sixteen year olds voting? At their age I would guess all they have to go on is what has trickled down to them. At least they went to school in Britain. Schools seem to be worse in the U.S. I have read that in America “where you can’t underestimate the stupidity of the public” during all referendums and elections any issues, ideals or ideas must be communicated using only sound bites: “Too explain is to lose.” In Canada, where surprise one-month elections are called, a serving Prime Minister, Kim Campbell, said, “An election is no time to discuss issues.” Of course, a cynic would say Campbell’s Yankee cousins couldn’t discuss issues between elections, either.
Still, 16 year olds voting? I forget, mercifully, whether I still “knew it all” by that age. I suppose idealistic teenagers typically have a black and white view of the world until the dust of the streets greys them.
While mentioning young Scottish voters in passing, a Canadian shrugged and said, “I guess if they’re old enough to fight they’re old enough to vote.” I remember enlisting at age 17. I soon found myself with the eye of a frog and a curious double vision: Above the water line, a clear lookout for fearsome herons. Below: a serene yellow pond-scape. My military middle-aged superiors would make decisions that had me spitting bullets and red eyed with rage. Then my frog eye would click in: One day I too would be middle aged, and then I would be in perfect calm agreement with them.
I think street smarts and coping skills are gained at the personal level—either you learn or you don’t—while at the social level, “life-enomics,” a minority works to allow our society as a whole to grow. And so I depend on trickle-down.
I think the biggest abstractions, like democracy, age of enlightenment and rights of the common man required years and years of thinking and writing by lots and lots of people, albeit a minority in each generation. By now sound bites and summaries have trickled down so that, say, human rights seem obvious. Yet, compared to the past, or the Arab world of today—3,000 princes in Saudi Arabia alone—rights are very enlightened indeed. I don’t travel much, so I guess I can thank the war on terror for broadening my mind regarding Arabs. Broadening all of us, I guess.
It was one of the thinkers whom I have quoted on my blog, Neil Postman, who pointed out that literacy, for adults, teaches one to challenge each sentence upon arriving at the “full stop,” or period. It follows, I think, that Arabs may not reach “enlightenment” through fiber optics and screens; they may well need a class of folks who think with a pen. Hard to manage, I know, in a kingdom or a theocracy.
As for enlightenment, recently I have heard that “In modern times, no two democracies have ever gone to war against each other.” Now, there’s a comforting line to give to an angst-filled teenager. I remember lots of jokes about angst among university students, but I don’t remember anyone ever saying, “I have angst.” Back when I was an active optimistic teen soldier, serving “the body politic,” it was obvious to me that “body” included philosophers and readers: such folks would be part of committing us to war. Among my buddies was a feeling of an unspoken contract with “the older generation:” “I will do what you say (fight your war) but you must know what you are doing.” Hence the responsibility of citizens to grab on to what ever trickles down.
During Canada’s peace keeping, call it peace making, in the former Yugoslavia, writer Gwynne Dyer spoke to Canadian university students of voting age. I was present. While saying he is not against us defending Muslims by bombing Serbians, he would remind us “ten per cent of the bombs dropped were Canadian.” We gasped. He continued, “How does it feel to be a member of an aggressor nation?” We gasped again. Later I reasoned it out for a speech to the university toastmasters club. If it’s OK to use force to defend Muslims, then the guilt is collective. Certainly when the Serbians see the planes come over they don’t blame the liberal party, or the air force. They curse “the Canadians.” When the voting members of the “body politic” choose war, then, as my parents well remember, it is underage girls who roll bandages while underage boys haul scrap iron off to be recycled, and other boys too young to vote go off to enlist. We citizens better all know what we are doing.
The implication, for peace time and war time, is right in my face: If young sailor boys, air crew and soldiers are innocent, if many of them are too young to read anything, even trickle down writings, then the guilt is not just with society as a whole, but with those old enough to vote, those with years to think things through. The guilt, in general, is with civilians. And specifically? With me and you.
September 18, 2014