There was something nauseating about the way Barack Obama surrounded himself with children as he unveiled his gun control plans. It looked like emotional blackmail. “Look these innocent babes in the face and tell them guns are good” – that was the implicit message of this cynical, innocence-exploiting press conference, which brought to mind one of the late Wacko Jacko’s weird child-centred peace concerts more than it did a serious Lincoln-style presidential address. What Obama and his advisers appear to have overlooked is that it doesn’t matter one jot what children think of guns, or anything else for that matter: politics is an adult business, and should be shaped by adult arguments, not childish fears.
Obama’s anti-gun stunt was a see-through attempt to circumvent the democratic realm of grown-up debate and competing interests by laying down the trump card marked, “But what about the children?!” In the wake of the horrific Newtown school massacre, Obama received numerous letters from upset children, and he cynically decided to scan and publish them on the White House website and then invite the letter-writers to attend his big gun-control announcement. “I just wanted to tell you that I feel really sad”, says one of the kiddie letters. “Can we stop using GUNS? I am really scared of guns and criminals around the world.” This is probably the first time in history (and let’s hope it’s the last) that a 200-year-old constitution fought for tooth-and-catapult might be rewritten on the basis of what a precocious eight-year-old felt as she watched the evening news.
Of course children don’t like guns (real guns, that is). They also don’t like kissing members of the opposite sex (yucky!) or watching terrifying, blood-spattered horror movies (aargh!). So should we also ban sex and edgy entertainment on the basis that it freaks out little ones? I bet you that if I put my mind to it, I could organise a press conference for this time next week at which six- and seven-year-old boys would line up to support an anti-kissing-girls campaign – but of course it wouldn’t, and shouldn’t, make any difference in the real world because these are just children, and children aren’t entirely rational beings, far less political ones. That’s why we don’t let them vote, because otherwise Angry Birds would be an Olympic sport and the PM would be required by law to skateboard to the Commons.
The use of children to front a potentially big overhaul of Americans’ constitutional rights is really about silencing dissent, exploiting the wide-eyed innocence of worried children to try to shame those adults who still dare to say: “But what about my constitutional rights?” Indeed, it is normally only the most censorious, authoritarian regimes or groups that use children to front or follow through political campaigns. Who can forget the Child Spies in George Orwell’s 1984, those “ungovernable little savages” whose simplistic moralism made them the perfect monitors of adult behaviour? Today, all sorts of fundamentally anti-democratic, anti-masses campaigns – from Green efforts to guilt-trip us over our carbon use to Mary Whitehouse-style demands to censor wicked art – exploit or evoke children to get their message across. And that message is: “It doesn’t matter what you adults believe or want or desire – the feelings of children are way more important.”
Children are perfect fodder for moralistic political campaigns because they are naturally and naively moralistic, seeing the world in brutally black-and-white terms. That the current campaign to overhaul the Second Amendment now uses children as some of its chief spokespeople is very revealing – it reveals just how cynical and unthinking this campaign is, and that it is driven more by childish fear and simplistic morality than by that old adult pursuit, politics.