There once was a boy, a very strange enchanted boy, who came to the West a century ago, to tell people that the way they were living was all wrong.
In the years before WWI, the crisis of traditional Christianity prompted a search for… anything else. Into a mess of seances, callisthenics and theosophy emerged Krishnamurti, born in India in 1895, adopted by the Theosophists and presented as a “World Teacher” — a semi-messianic figure embodying the divine human spirit.
Krishnamurti was a sensation, speaking/preaching to thousands before eventually rejecting his ordained role and becoming a humanist teacher, whose books were still a big thing through the hippie ’60s and into the ’80s. But for some, his rise was seen as a sign of weakness in the West, which now looked to its imperial possessions to supply depth and spirituality. They saw it as undermining Christian civilisation and firm purpose. In doing so, they gave Krishnamurti a profile and influence far beyond what the Theosophists had hoped for.
Greta Thunberg appears to be a “beneficiary” of this process in our era. The 16-year-old, whose physical slightness sometimes gives her a residual childlike appearance, drives the right to political conniptions. They throw torrents of abuse at her in their columns and TV shows, apologise a little when people protest them for abusing a teenager, then launch fresh attacks. They can’t help themselves. It’s grimly hilarious to watch. They rave about cult thinking, indoctrination, the misuse of the young, etc. Then start all over again.
As your correspondent has noted, the accusation that teenage climate strikers are being primed by leftie teachers is something straight out of a ’50s juvenile delinquent movie: “cut the coal, Daddyo”. Part of the right’s fantasy of “traditional values” is that society and subjectivity never changes, and that a teenager in the 2010s, will be the same as one in the 1910s when the term emerged.
The neoliberal, internet-based marketing to kids, and the sheer nature of the global crisis itself, put paid to that. Jokes about getting a teen — or a 10-year-old — to reset your laptop already sound archaic. Social subjectivity has changed to such a degree that the category of “teen” is becoming less useful than the relatively uniform thing it once was.
Undoubtedly, Thunberg has emerged as a figure because she has asserted herself, and because the invitations from adults — most recently US Congress — have flowed thick and fast. The process points to the dual character of her celebrity. It’s the product of a genuine desire to enfranchise teens — though finding someone other than Thunberg to speak might be a good idea for media and politicians — and a response to the charisma she now projects.
The right have latched on to the latter, assailing her Asperger’s, her serious manner, even her voice for Godsake. In an era which strives to total equality within diversity, they have simply added to her power, since we now accept that points along the autism spectrum are now part of human neurological diversity. It’s the right who are helping build the Greta “cult” by fixating on her — lending her the power to individually embody the “world spirit” of tens and hundreds of millions.
That Thunberg’s global role has developed cult-like aspects is both inevitable and not hugely important. Cults are worrying when they spring from simple myth — that humans are trillion-year-old spirits released from an exploding volcano, or that priests should get legal immunity because a God became his own son in human form 2000 years ago — but in this case the movement Thunberg represents is the rational side, based on science.
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Paradoxically, what draws people to Thunberg, and various comparable figures, from Martin Luther King Jr to Jesus, is that what she says is simple, rational and forensic in precisely the way that politicians should be.
Thus the full paradox. Thunberg gains a slight mystical aura because of her rationality, while a figure like Scott Morrison, paid to be rational, addresses the UN with a speech oozing the sub-Krishnamurtiesque psycho-religious fusion of positive thinking.
Hillsong have done their work well on Morrison; his version of Christianity perfectly expresses the degree to which it has become an adjunct to the narcissistic cult of the self, a device to support flagging spirits and instil self-belief by turning away from objective truth.
Morrison’s concern at teenagers feeling horror and despair at the future to come is quite likely genuine. But the solution — to address the thinking about reality with other thinking about non-reality — marks him, and others, as the true cultists, devotees of the childish belief that life is specially arranged in one’s own favour.
Attached to the other cult of our era, Prometheanism (the entangled, unproven beliefs that humans can wholly dominate nature and would achieve “full human being” if they did), such magical thinking is truly apocalyptic. If for the moment Greta Thunberg embodies a “world-spirit”, it is because that world-spirit is one of materialist rationality, against the clashing cults of the burning end times.