James Heartfield thinks that adult society now hangs on every word from the young because it has nothing to say for itself
And a child shall lead them
You do not have to be a Christian to think that it is a good idea to celebrate the millennium. Two thousand years is a lot of civilisation to mark, and it is always good to look forward, too. The government should be congratulated for facing down the critics of the Millennium Dome.
It is a shame, then, that the contents of the Millennium Dome should be subjected to the 'Euan test'. That is the test proposed by prime minister Tony Blair when he said that exhibits should be the sort of thing that his son, eight-year old Euan Blair would appreciate. Peter Mandelson has since officially recruited a substitute eight-year old, appropriately named Christian, as a top adviser on the Dome project.
At the heart of Blair's proposal is the growing prejudice that the young have something to teach us, when the truth ought to be the other way round. Euan Blair has a lot to learn. There is no need to make the Millennium Dome into a museum, but it ought to reflect the highest points of our civilisation, rather than pandering to the lowest of all common denominators, the prejudices of a child.
The relationship between the adult world and youth is in turmoil. Our attitudes to the young are an inverting mirror for our view of ourselves. One aspect of the more tortuous relationship between the adults' and childrens' worlds is the growing tendency to criminalise the young. Like pensioners unsure on their feet, today's awkward politicians and policemen are readily frightened by young people. The trials of Jon Venables and Richard Thompson after the killing of Jamie Bulger five years ago began a trend of legal retribution against children for acts they could not understand. Last month a rape trial at the Old Bailey had to be supplied with crayons and colouring books so that the child defendants could sit through a day's business in court without getting bored.
On pages 14 and 15, Charlotte Reynolds and Brendan O'Neill look at some instances of the growing tendency to criminalise young people. Like King Herod's instruction to execute the first-born, the belief that the young are a threat is itself a sign of a loss of confidence in the adult world. And the perception that young people are out of control was almost bound to lead to the revelation that the home secretary's son could be tricked into selling marijuana to a journalist from the Mirror.
But the criminalisation of youth is not the only expression of society's difficult negotiation between childhood and maturity. A counterpart to the stereotype of the 'evil' youngsters is an equally problematic myth: the wisdom of youth. Young people are criminalised on the one hand, but they are now being sought out as oracles of the new on the other.
Institutions of all kinds are fixated by anxiety over their appeal to the young. Political parties look gloomily at the ageing profile of their membership and promise to do more to listen to the young. The major television companies are more and more anxious that they are missing out on a youth market, dumbing down serious broadcasting for fear that it is 'too boring'. Newspapers too are on the prowl for young columnists to spice up their pages, in the anxious belief that they are failing to be relevant. One Oxford undergraduate was recently handed a big six-figure advance for her first novel by a publisher desperate to find the 'authentic' voice of the late 1990s.
A hymn of praise goes up to youth for its supposed insight and relevance to the moment. The media descends hungrily on even the most modest signs of youthful rebellion, eagerly seeking out the spokesperson for the young. Consider some of those who have been singled out for the role of voice of a generation. Some years ago now a spasm of protest rang out over the Conservative government's Criminal Justice Bill. The youthful protestors were solicited by the media, which tried to make stars of a variety of characters - from the Exodus Collective to one media-friendly, if whey-faced figure in Camilla Behrens. Behrens was flavour of the month in that summer of 1994, featuring in managed TV debates about the future of the country, with establishment broadcaster Jonathan Dimbleby goading her on to denounce the establishment politicians.
Or what about Swampy, Daniel Hooper, who, along with his sidekick Animal, became the face of the anti-roads protests at Newbury? His wild-child appearance and audacity impressed the media which volunteered him for the role of latter-day rebel. Splashed across the tabloids in mock disapproval, Swampy was taken a lot more seriously by the broadsheets who cheered the announcement that he was to stand in the elections against Manchester Airport champion Graham Stringer. Swampy was a media star - at least he was until he got on Have I got News for You, and was revealed not as an idiot savant, but just a childlike idiot.
Where are they now? Camilla Behrens, the weedy voice of a weedy generation has disappeared into the undergrowth - not of a proposed road-scheme, but of European Union funded projects. Swampy, no longer homeless, was recently busted for drugs in Brighton, a shadow of his former self.
These angry rebels owed their authority more to the desire to find the authentic voice of youth than to any intrinsic abilities of their own. The process that engulfed them was more akin to the promotion of pop music than to political activism. They were built up and dropped as quickly when they failed to deliver the desired relevance to the studio bosses and news editors. Columnists like Emily Barr, who briefly caught the public imagination when she had an affair with the Conservative MP she was assistant to, were supposed to deliver excitement and vigour to the newspapers. Today Barr's anti-sports column in the Guardian sports pages is a one-joke repetition. Disabled rights campaigner Nicola Scott caught the headlines by publicly disagreeing with her father the minister with responsibility for the disabled. Now he's out of office, what impact has she made on her own merits?
Youthful pop stars, too, are granted extraordinary powers of public leadership that they are in no position to follow through. The Oasis brothers' songs have put them in the public eye - and the throwaway comments about drug use even more so. But you had to sympathise with Noel Gallagher's complaint about the furore over E, that they never wanted to be anybody's role model. The widespread belief that they had a duty to inform young people of anything at all is entirely misplaced.
At the heart of this neurotic need for youthful authority figures is a crisis that is to be found not among the young, but within adult society. Why would one become preoccupied with the need to be relevant? Why seek wisdom in youth? The answer is that the young are only the focal point of an anxiety whose origins are entirely adult in their nature. It is a crisis of confidence in which the adult world feels that the values it has to hand on to the next generation are worth less than the immature rebellions of pop stars and roads protestors.
Consider the irony. Every establishment institution is seeking to rejuvenate itself with the rebellious spirit of the young. So what is to rebel against? In other ages the rebellious young could expect to be dealt with harshly by their crusty old rulers. Not now. Nowadays the prime minister and his ministers can be seen debasing themselves before an array of terrible infants. At Downing Street the Gallagher boys hobnob with Alexander McQueen while hopeful cabinet ministers hang nervously on the edge of the conversation hoping that some of the glamour of youth will rub off. What a lot they have to teach us about Cool Britannia, is the message given out by the Blair government. No they don't. Not unless you yourself have nothing to say or offer.
An adult world that has no faith in its own values fêtes the young - not because it really values what they have to teach us, but because it has nothing to teach them. The political establishment seeks out the image of teenage rebellion as assiduously as Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party decorates its government offices with murals of the revolting masses. Like vampires, they suck the life out of the living to feed the dead. Give us young flesh, they say, aware that their own is sagging. Mutton dressed as lamb.
Some commentators, like the team at the Modern Review or the Red or Dead designer Wayne Hemingway have reacted against the sheer crawliness of the old folks. Hemingway makes the entirely reasonable point that too much official attention will choke off any creativity, by robbing youth culture of its rebellious streak. The Modern Review mercilessly satirises the conceit of 'Middle Youth'. That's late twenties/ early thirties 'adultescents' who just do not want to let go of the nightclubbing and the Adidas sportswear. Being young used to be a stage in your life, pretty much a natural event. Youth, said Oscar Wilde, is wasted on the young. Not any more. Now it's a lifestyle choice. And the effect of all this is that people who really are young cannot get a look-in for all the old-age swingers at the club, ('Middle Youth ate my culture', Modern Review, March 1998).
Fair enough. There is something creepy about the politicians hanging out at the Brit Awards, like the vicar letting his hair down at the disco. But just as ridiculous as the solicitous old-folk are the pretensions of those who play up to the stereotype by acting the part of 'young rebel' on cue - usually as a way to bargain their way into some well-paid media job. Such youth spokespersons generally turn out to be in an extended adolescence that carries them well past their twentieth year. The role demands that they act the part of enfant terrible to underscore the importance of what they say.
Such for example are the drunken late night television performances of Tracey Emin, who, in more discerning times would have never made the transition from art school to gallery. Today, however, Emin is sought not only to comment on the Turner Prize but also on the state of the nation. Marooned among such talking heads as Martin Amis, Michael Mansfield, Will Self and Roger Scruton, a tired and emotional Emin blurted out that they were all talking rubbish. Transfixed, her fellow guests patiently sought Emin's opinions on what to do. In vain - when put on the spot Emin's outrage was revealed as the drunkard's frustration at not having anything to say. But still the other guests treated her inarticulate rambling as good coin. Only the reactionary philosophy teacher Roger Scruton had the presence of mind to agree that he probably was not living in the same world as the drunken artist - and he was glad.
In a serious talking head TV piece Louise Weiner from Sleeper berated deputy prime minister John Prescott for attending the recent Brit Awards. Who do these politicians think they are hanging out with the youth, she said, what a pathetic attempt to suck up to the young, especially from a government that is imposing a whole raft of authoritarian measures against young people. It was a good point. But then she went on to congratulate Chumbawumba for dousing the unfortunate Prescott with water - a protest against the treatment of the dockworkers.
What Louise might have asked is, what qualification does Chumbawumba's Danbert Nobacon have to advise the deputy prime minister on industrial relations? Probably less than Prescott has for attending the Brits. In fact it is hard to know why Nobacon is any more out of place at the Brit awards than Prescott. At 36 years of age he is the exemplar of the 'adultescent' Peter Pans that the Modern Review complains of. A middle-aged tearaway today, he was, as a schoolboy Nobacon, a prefect, the sort of goody-two shoes who would rat you out for smoking behind the bike sheds.
The greatest expression of a defeated society is that it seeks its authority from the young. One thing that 2000 years of Christianity do have in common with the 'Euan test' is the cult of the uncorrupted, innocent child. Humility and naivety are the message of the cult of the child. A religion for defeated people, without the confidence to make the world in their own image, made its most potent symbol the innocence of the child, because it was childish, as its followers were childish. Now is the time to put away childish things.*
Reproduced from LM issue 109, April 1998