Posted by Amy Davidson
On the Island of Utoya, seven girls came to talk to Gro Harlem Brundtland, who, in 1981, when she was forty-two, had become Norway’s first female Prime Minister. This was last Friday, just before the shooting started; Brundtland had gone to the island’s camp, run by the youth wing of the Labor Party, to give a speech. “My impressions from the day were so joyful,” she told reporters. The seven girls, she said, wanted her advice on the next election campaign:
I told them: be yourself. Share yourself. Be open with people. Explain what you stand for. Use yourself. This is what counts. This is what conveys values in the political arena.
One of those seven girls is no more. That I know now.
One can’t help but remember that that was the same sort of question Christina-Taylor Green, a nine-year-old girl, had come to ask her congresswoman, Gabrielle Giffords, the day Jared Loughner shot both of them at a mall in Tucson, Arizona. (Giffords survived, barely; Green and five others did not.) Green had won a school election, and a neighbor wanted to encourage her. That the moment of her death was also one shaped by the sorts of values that keep a community alive—her interest in a career in public service, her neighbor’s in someone else’s child’s future—threw the pain into sharper relief. But nothing could diminish the value of those impulses for all of us.
It is strange, then, that, even among some of those utterly sympathetic to the victims of the Norway shootings, there is a discomfort at the idea that they were at a camp with a political theme. The extremist, in this case as in so many, was Glenn Beck, who said this:
As the thing started to unfold … and then there was a shooting at a political camp. Which sounds a little like, you know, the Hitler Youth or whatever. Who does a camp for kids that’s all about politics? Disturbing.
Beck himself, it turned out, has helped out a Tea Party camp. But his showy hypocrisy, in this case, masks a more serious question. Even Andrew Sullivan, while calling Beck on his callousness, wrote that “such a camp is certainly creepy to me.” Why the disdain for politics, and for children who want to be involved in governance? The camp had been on the island since 1950, and was mainly a project of the youth wing—thus about leadership rather than simply being led. Perhaps, to be generous, part of the discomfort really is a leftover wariness of fascist youth groups and Soviet-bloc ones. But the problem there was fascism and Soviet ideology, not young people going to camp that asks them, after some time in the woods, to be a true part of their cities and neighborhoods. Or is Beck against the Boy Scouts? The antipathy, perhaps, is not to Utoya but to an abstract idea of “government.” (Hendrik Hertzberg has a post on the weight of that word, which has been much abused in the debt-ceiling debate.) Distrust of excessive state power, and a vigilance about what people in authority do, are not anti-political impulses, however; they are highly political ones, that demand our involvement in the government.
Isn’t the inclination toward political participation a positive one, and something that should be fostered in a child, whether by giving her a chance to meet her congresswoman or to talk to a former prime minister? Ask that question in Washington today, and the answer might be no. And that would be an abandonment. Seeing a child who wants to help run the world should, as Brundtland said, be joyful.
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