Peter Lynn Himself
May  2019
In 1212, so the story goes, young Stephen of Cloyes (France) and Nicholas of Cologne both had the visionary idea to take back the Holy Land, not by warfare but by peacefully converting Moslems to Christianity. To this end they collected youthful followers and headed south. Arriving at the Mediterranean they expected that the sea would part to facilitate their triumphant march on Jerusalem. Unfortunately, it didn't. Local merchants, claiming to be impressed by their piety and vision- and making allowances for youthful impracticality, then arranged for ships to carry them instead. They were then said to have been transported to Tunis and other Moorish places and sold as slaves. Historians cast doubts on parts of this account and unconnected events have probably been combined to make a racier story line. but there's plenty of source material supporting the main elements:
Fast forward to 1966: The founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949 ended centuries of increasingly corrupt and ineffectual rule by hereditary emperors. In 1966, Mao, sensing that control was slipping back into the hands of the Mandarin classes, enlisted the communist youth movement in a 'Cultural Revolution'. Children denounced their parents and teachers. Competent leaders were required to confess their 'wrong thinking' and sent away to hard labour camps- or just killed outright. 2000 years of art and history was smashed.
And then there was the hippy era: Sweeping the West from its start in San Fransisco's 1967 'summer of love', young people had this great world changing idea- 'make love not war'. A heady mix of drugs ("tune in, turn on, drop out") and pacifism- "what if they gave a war and nobody came?" This was the beginning of the drug culture that is still ravaging American society 50 years later. And as for pacifism; the fate of New Zealand's Moriori is an apposite lesson: Maori settled New Zealand's main islands about 850 years ago and, probably a little later, the small Chatham Islands group about 800 km to the East. Cut off from outside contact, Chatham Island's Maori (called Moriori) developed a pacifist social system based on what they called Nunuku's law. In 1835, elements of the decidedly non-pacifist Ngati Tama and Ngati Mutunga mainland tribes hijacked the Brigg Rodney and invaded. In response, the Moriori called a gathering at which they affirmed their pacifism, and chose not to resist- although they outnumbered the invaders 4/1. 200 of them were ritually slaughtered and eaten, the remainder enslaved and prohibited from having children. By 1862, just 101 of the original 2000 Moriori were still alive.

But I digress.

My youthful crusade (1970s and 80's) was to oppose apartheid in South Africa. It seemed to me to be neither right nor practical that a country of 20 millions should be ruled solely by the 4million who were white- still doesn't. I marched and organised, made enemies and friends, and learnt some things about the realities of politics- like that many of my fellow travellers were in this fight to promote a worldwide socialist revolution, or Maori sovereignty, and were only peripherally- or not at all- concerned with the plight of blacks in South Africa. Casting off the shackles of apartheid did not bring greater prosperity to South Africa- nor more equality. Since 1993 it has barely held its own even by the standards of Africa, and by global comparison is sinking fast. Some commentators see South Africa as being on the same trajectory as Zimbabwe- just taking longer because it was much more developed to start with.
Youth crusades have common characteristics:
  • Their leaders are often from privileged backgrounds.
  • They advance simplistic solutions to difficult problems.
  • They are sponsored by adults using them to further their own agendas.
  • They frequently get sympathetic support from the public during their early stages.
  • They eventually descend into failure, disillusionment and rancour.
No youthful crusades that I can think of have made the world a better place, most have made it worse. Can you think of any social movements driven by young people that have had a positive outcome? And even if there are one or two, the overwhelming evidence is that whenever young people get to decide policy, things soon go wrong- because they don't fully understand the complexities of the problems they want to solve. An example is pacifism. 'Making love not war' is a naïve idea; let's all be peaceful rather than warlike- which works until pacifists meet people with a different view- and get killed.
Why young people make bad decisions is no mystery: Firstly, adult brain architecture doesn't fully establish until age 25 or so, and until it does, we are more impulsive and less inclined to consider longer term consequences when making decisions. Secondly, young people have just not had enough time to acquire and organise all the information they need, to make workable decisions about complex things.
Neither of these factors is disputed or controversial. But why aren't young people, who's judgement is known to be undeveloped, not stopped from harming themselves and others by their various rash decisions? Partly it's 'Why not? "Give them a go.' 'They need to make their own mistakes'- until they start causing damage to themselves and others that is. And partly it's because adults also wish that some of the world's intractable problems had simple solutions- 'maybe this time it really is that easy'. More sinisterly, there are adults who exploit youth crusades for personal advantage or to advance some (generally extremist) agenda, Mao's Red Guards and the young suicide bombers of ISIS and other Islamist groups being examples.
There is one of these movements getting started right now: It's called Extinction Rebellion: "Taking action against the World's Governments for criminal Inaction on the Ecological Crisis".
This movement has all the markers of youthful crusades that have not worked out well in the past:
I don't see this ending well; Not for the children- who will either get radicalised, or at best, spend the rest of their lives downplaying their earlier extremism. Who now is comfortable with having been in Hitler Youth or the Red Guards? And not for the cause - which their naivety and extremism will surely discredit to an undeserved extent.

But maybe this time is different.