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West Side Story, which debuted in 1958, remains a staple of high-school musical productions. The catchy songs and energetic dances disguise how dated is this “updated” version of Romeo and Juliet. But one scene will always be relevant. It comes in the second act, after hostility between Sharks and Jets has claimed two lives and threatens at least two more. “You kids!” exclaims Doc, the owner of the drug store where the Jets hang out. “You make the whole world lousy!” Action, the default leader of the gang, snaps back, “That’s the way we found it, Doc!”
And that’s the cry of disgruntled youth going back at least as far as Romeo and Juliet: Look at the world the grown-ups left us! Watch us do better! That sentiment made Billy Jack, an indie movie produced on a shoestring, a cult hit of the early 1970s. Youth showed the way of love and peace to their bigoted elders and were persecuted for it. Even shot and killed, man! If the geezers would only listen—or failing that, get out of the way—we could fix our racial problems and justice problems and violence problems. “All you need is love,” and as long as we’re at it, let’s solve war, too.
The grown-ups said, “It’s not that simple.” And of course they were right, as subsequent decades would show.
You may not remember those days. The Parkland high-school shooting survivors, or those now agitating for gun control, certainly don’t remember those days, and they’re too young to be close students of history. Also too young for wisdom or insight, and that’s no slam—those qualities come with age, if at all. When student activist David Hogg, in a flurry of F-bombs, condemns his elders for ruining democracy, his anger is understandable, but his judgment is, well, youthful.
When David Hogg, in a flurry of F-bombs, condemns his elders for ruining democracy, his anger is understandable, but his judgment is, well, youthful.
But grown-ups who idolize the kids’ passion and dedication (and even wisdom) should know better. I suspect many of them do, and they’re cynically shoving in front of TV cameras those eloquent young people who echo their talking points. Still, the March for Our Lives and related events draw observers who are sincerely impressed by the participation and passionate rhetoric of the young. And they’re not even voting yet! Why don’t we lower the voting age to 16? And in the meantime, let’s register as many 18-year-olds as we can so they’ll be ready to march to the polls in November. Let the children lead us.
“A little child shall lead them” is often seen as the initiation of a golden age. In context (Isaiah 11:6), it’s the result of a golden age. When little ones lead lions and lambs to God’s holy mountain, peace has already arrived—for them, not because of them. But when youth takes the lead in tumultuous times, it’s not a blessing. Just the opposite:
And I will make boys their princes [says the Lord], and infants shall rule over them (Isaiah 3:4).
That’s because youth never rules alone. They don’t have the power, and that deficit will be quickly filled by those who do, “wise” or otherwise.
Youth revolt can be a sign of failing confidence or excessive complacency. Today it looks like both: a generation surrounded by wealth and ease thrives on anger and dissatisfaction. This world isn’t their fault, any more than Vietnam or Jim Crow was the baby boomers’ fault. And in any age it’s the nature of youth to be dissatisfied, for reasons unrelated to politics. But politics, especially the emotional, antagonistic politics of our time, is a target for all the slings and arrows of outrage that youth is prone to.
It’s been a while since baby boomers could say, “That’s the way we found it, Doc.” We are Doc. And someday, impossible as it is for them to believe, our grandchildren will be Doc. Having made the world they live in, for better and for worse, we should listen to them, sympathize with them, teach them, and pray for them. And pray that they never rule over us.