autism and the atlantic’s absurd reaction to greta thunberg

Greta Thunberg said a lot of true and important things in a few minutes before the UN.

Like this:

You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!

Or this:

For more than 30 years, the science has been crystal clear. How dare you continue to look away and come here saying that you’re doing enough, when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight.

You say you hear us and that you understand the urgency. But no matter how sad and angry I am, I do not want to believe that. Because if you really understood the situation and still kept on failing to act, then you would be evil. And that I refuse to believe.

They’re definitely evil.

Thunberg spoke the truth, bluntly, as autistics tend to do. What’s frustrating is watching normal people, who tell us that honesty is socially retarded instead of basic morality, utterly fail to break out of their bullshit and rise to the situation.

The Atlantic is the official journal of Serious Adults in American politics. Robinson Meyer was given the task of instructing the public’s Serious Adults on how to dismiss Thunberg instead of rising to the occasion whatsoever. He purports to explain “why she makes adults uncomfortable.” It’s not subtle.

In a very short time, Greta Thunberg—with her searing stare, Pippi Longstocking braids, and hand-painted sign reading SKOLSTREJK FÖR KLIMATET—has become a global icon. A year ago, the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist began striking from school each Friday to protest climate inaction; last Friday, she gave a speech to hundreds of thousands of people in New York, at the Global Climate Strike, which was inspired by her protest.

In the very first sentence he’s already going there with the insinuations. Normal people can’t read our facial expressions, and it creeps them out. News at 11. A lot of the real work in this paragraph is being done by saying “Pippi Longstocking” and activating associations like this:

It’s tedious to even point out that this is ad hominem nonsense, unworthy of a Serious Adult discussion of what to do now that we’ve completely fucked ourselves. That fact should actually be more uncomfortable than Greta Thunberg’s facial expressions, but no.

What’s going on is that Serious Adults are traumatizing the children through parentification.

That’s what Meyer is doing here, while protesting that he wouldn’t want to do such a thing:

It is always at least a little unfortunate to see a young person become an icon—it robs them of the privacy of growing up. But Thunberg is an especially flummoxing figure. She looks younger than her years, yet her speeches take a shaming, authoritative tone that is, at the very least, unusual for a child. “How dare you? You have stolen my dreams and my childhood,” she told world leaders at the United Nations today. She has also said that money and eternal economic growth are “fairy tales.” So she has inspired both public adoration and malign theorizing (mostly centered around the power of her parents).

Eternal economic growth is a fairy tale you’d have to be childish to believe. You have to willfully ignore the meaning of basic things: finite, exponential…It’s a mathematical certainty that there’s some limit.

He’s actually more concerned about the role reversal as a challenge to his own power as an adult. It shocks him that her tone is “authoritative.” She’s autistic. Once she decided to make global warming her special interest, it was near-inevitable she’d become an authority on the topic. He simply repeats her statements and moves on, eager to talk about what people are saying about her. He doesn’t stop and consider what she’s saying on the merits, which is what you’d do in a serious intellectual disagreement among peers.

Last week I had the chance to meet the girl behind the image. She is, thankfully, still a person. And she is even more than that: She’s a teenager.

In fact, I think her extreme teenager-ness may be key to her influence.

Thunberg and a handful of other young climate activists were receiving the Ambassador of Conscience Award from Amnesty International in Washington, D.C., last Monday. In the past 17 years, Amnesty has given the award to other icons: Nelson Mandela, Colin Kaepernick, and Ai Weiwei. Backstage, grizzled men in their 40s exchanged boisterous handclasps. Interns and assistants buzzed around: anxious, helpful, and attuned to hierarchy. Somewhere Maggie Gyllenhaal was in a dressing room.

Yet when I saw Thunberg—in jeans, sneakers, and a pink tank top—she seemed small, quiet, and somewhat overwhelmed. Thunberg has Asperger’s, which she calls her “superpower,” and which she says allows her to be more direct and straightforward about climate change.

What in the world does he mean by “she is, thankfully, still a person?” Of course, the personhood of autistic people is very much in dispute. But in what sense was there a danger of Thunberg losing her personhood? Why did he choose those words?

I’ll note that Meyer has a cheesy beard in his Twitter profile pic. “Grizzled men in their 40s exchanged boisterous handclasps.” This is totally a homoerotic celebration of Manhood. The Patriarchs, surrounded by the (implicitly female) helpful assistants, ever-so-attuned to the phallic power in their possession.

Meyer is clearly incapable of relating to any teenage girl like an equal human being.

I’m really curious if Meyer knows that disregarding hierarchy is an autism thing. We know it upsets his view of the world’s rightful hierarchy. It matters very much to him that she’s physically nonthreatening.

He has to put “superpower” in scare quotes, and she’s not an authority on her own mind. She only “says” autism makes her more direct, like he’s not sure he can trust a disordered person’s crazy talk about the good sides of being crazy. Even when he can see how an autistic communication style is making his own job easier, it somehow doesn’t connect to what she said about herself earlier. Why the rhetoric to distance himself, when he experienced it directly?

Her answers were direct but earnest. She sometimes searched for an English word. Unlike politicians and book-touring authors who have been brain-poisoned by media training, she answered the questions posed. When I asked whether there was a climate fact that caused her particular worry, she frowned and first said she could not think of any one fact in particular. Then she added that she was worried about what she’d heard would be in the upcoming UN Intergovernmental Panel report on sea-level rise. Same, Greta.

When you think about it, this entire paragraph doesn’t say anything that isn’t already implied by noting her age:

And this is the way to understand Thunberg that paints her as neither a saint nor a demon but that still captures her appeal. Thunberg epitomizes, in a person, the unique moral position of being a teenager. She can see the world through an “adult” moral lens, and so she knows that the world is a heartbreakingly flawed place. But unlike an actual adult, she bears almost no conscious blame for this dismal state. Thunberg seems to gesture at this when referring to herself as a “child,” which she does often in speeches.

Because The Atlantic is a white liberal space, there has to be sympathy for conservatives:

Perhaps that is why adults find her so unnerving. “This child—and she is a child—has been scared and her parents are letting her be controlled by that fear,” writes the right-wing commentator Erick Erickson, who blames her parents for “depriving her of a sound education so she can lecture grownups.” Jonathan Tobin, at The Federalist, worries that the shoe is on the other foot: Thunberg has “forced her parents to adopt a vegan diet” and “bullied her mother to give up her career because it involved air travel.”

These may seem like exaggerated concerns, but Erickson and Tobin are really just engaging in a great American tradition: In this country, even before we greet you, we ask whether you’re being parented wrong.

He’s in fundamental agreement with them. He quotes them without stopping to consider whether Thunberg is actually correct about things like veganism and air travel. Of course she is, when you look at the numbers like a rational adult. That’s exactly what Meyer doesn’t want to do.

He takes this next bit the most seriously, going on to devote the rest of the article to a story about feeling bad over climate change 20 years ago as a kid:

Other arguments against Thunberg’s rhetoric can and should be made; if she wants to participate as an adult citizen, she should be criticized like one. But in The New York Times, the journalist Christopher Caldwell takes maybe the oddest line of all, claiming that Thunberg’s message is antidemocratic. “Democracy often calls for waiting and seeing. Patience may be democracy’s cardinal virtue,” he wrote. “Climate change is a serious issue. But to say, ‘We can’t wait,’ is to invite a problem just as grave.”

…Caldwell is right that patience is a democratic virtue. But sloth is a cardinal sin. Perhaps only the young can tell the difference.

How writerly.

The big picture here is grotesque. Temple Grandin is relevant here:

“What would happen if the autism gene was eliminated from the gene pool?

You would have a bunch of people standing around in a cave, chatting and socializing and not getting anything done.”

Let’s try and look at the situation with basic assumptions we should all share. In general, it’s better not to commit mass suicide. If you’re doing something that will make you die, you should usually stop. The simplest assumptions.

An autistic teenage girl stands before the world and says, “OMGWTF we’re going to die of this bullshit and you’re fucking up so bad in such a pathetic way that the mind reels in horror.”

At this great historic crossroads, The Atlantic literally has nothing better to say than “LOL she’s an autistic teenage girl. Conservatives don’t like it.”

Fuck you, Robinson Meyer. You’re going to hell.

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