Howard Jacobson: Save us from the opinions of the young

Talk of the 'young' contributes to the idea that the 'budding rose' should supplant 'the rose full blown'

Saturday 26 February 2011 01:00

Bliss is it in this dawn to be alive, but to be young is very heaven.

Yes, a person of any age has to be cold of heart indeed not to be exhilarated by the spectacle of revolution spreading where, allowing for this or that qualm as to the consequence, the argument for revolution is compelling. Not much has changed since Wordsworth enlisted on the side of liberté, égalité, fraternité .

Revolution was then, as it is now, as it will always be, the most "pleasant exercise of hope and joy", the opportunity to change the times "in which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways of custom, law and statute" prevail, when the "budding rose" overcomes "the rose full blown", when the "inert" are "roused" and "lively natures rapt away", and the prospect beckons, almost to delirium – on second thoughts, drop the "almost" – of some new world, "not in Utopia" but here, right here, "the place where in the end /We find our happiness, or not at all".

Here, right here – and no fobbing us off with promises of what the after-life will bring. To the degree that revolutions seek changes in this life or not at all – not at all: the rejection of the hereafter could not be more complete – are they of the essence anti-religious. Which is why the smart clerics sit this part out and make their move a little later.

Let's not get too carried away by the secular nature of the revolutionary zeal engulfing the Middle East right now: the Godly are always there in the wings, waiting for the hour in which they can claim the victory as theirs and restore tyranny, only in their image. Maybe it won't happen this time – I doubt it, listening to protesters saying they don't mind what comes next, so long as the process is democratic, as though a democratically elected theocracy is somehow better than any other kind – but there's a chance. And until then, while everything is still to play for, the rapture is irresistible.

So why am I resisting it? What's wrong with me? Why aren't I stirred to "happiness unthought of"? Do I lack the fervid gene?

My precautionary scepticism has nothing to do with the whereabouts of this latest outbreak of revolutionary optimism. Egyptians and Libyans have as much right to breathe free air as Czechs and East Germans had in those heady days when we last thought it was bliss to be alive.

I was in Berlin myself when the wall came down, and listened with excitement through the night to the sound of chisels, like a million woodpeckers, finishing the job. It might not have been the beginning of the brand new world we all hoped for – it never is – but by and large things are better for the citizens of those countries than they were before. So why not for the people of the Middle East?

Why not indeed. All power to the revolution. But talk of the "people" always chills me to the bone. Who are the people? How are the people who seek change to be distinguished from the people who don't? Is there anything in their essential humanity that makes it allowable to call the oppressed "people", but their oppressors not?

If the history of revolutions teaches us anything it is that the people are volatile and forgetful and can turn from oppressed to oppressor in the blink of an eye. So at what point in the transition from beaten to beater is their peopleness considered forfeit? Are the people the people only so long as they are under the thumb of people not considered people? In which case, if it is for the fact of their being "the people" that we support them, should we not leave them where they are?

The best argument for revolution is that it's a whirligig that ensures that every man, however briefly, gets his turn. As in carnival, where for a day the king cedes power to the beggar, the fools become the wise and the boy becomes the man. It doesn't remove tyranny, it just gives everyone a go at it.

No wonder it appeals to the young. To be young is very heaven. But how it feels to you when you are young might not be how it feels to someone else. If talk of the "people" chills me, talk of the "young" chills me still more. It contributes importantly, of course, to the idea of change that the "budding rose" should supplant "the rose full blown". It suggests a seasonal imperative. A new wind of freedom blows through the musty offices of state. Move over old man, you've had your go.

Much has been made over the last weeks of the youthful passion of the demonstrators, tweeting for liberty. Here, two of the most terrible illusions of our time are yoked together. To the fallacy that the opinions of the young are worth attending to because they are not the opinions of the old is joined the fallacy that the the internet, because it is ungovernable, is bound to be a positive instrument for good.

Of all optimisms, microchip optimism is the most irrational and the least informed. The idea that we should welcome the coming of the digital millennium as we welcomed that spur to the Reformation, the Gutenberg printing press, is given short shrift in a recent New Yorker article by Adam Gopnik.

"If the printing press did propel the Reformation," he reminds us, "one of the biggest ideas it propelled was Luther's newly invented absolutist anti-Semitism. And what followed the Reformation wasn't the Enlightenment, a new era of openness and freely disseminated knowledge. What followed the Reformation was, actually, the Counter-Reformation, which used the same means – ie, printed books – to spread ideas about what jerks the reformers were, and unleashed a hundred years of religious warfare."

If we don't fear the same possible consequence of Facebook we are fools. No tool in the hands of people – the people or just people – was ever yet only benign.

As for anything else in the hands of the young, attend to the words of the Romanian writer E M Cioran, remembering his own youthful impetuosity. "Evil is the doing of young people.

They are the ones who advocate doctrines of intolerance and put them into practice; they're the ones who who have need of blood, shouting, turbulence, and barbarism."

Change needs such energies. But just as we don't want old men calling the shots, neither do we want the young, with their brittle certainties and their thumbs twitching on the keyboards of their million mobile phones, exchanging all they don't understand at speeds too terrible to contemplate.

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