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On Activism for Toddlers

Toddlers love books. Especially board books, with titles such as The Dinosaur Who Didn’t Eat Pizza. So it was that I found myself in a Brighton & Hove library, browsing board books with a two-year-old. One was prominently displayed face-out: A is for Activist.


Intrigued, I investigated further. A is for Activist is by Indonesian-born writer and illustrator Innosanto Nagara. A Marxist, Nagara lives in a co-housing community in Oakland, California. The book is written in a familiar ABC format. The final entry gives a flavour:


Z is for Zapatista… of course.


Of course it is. In case anybody is less familiar with Zapatistas than the toddlers of Brighton & Hove seem to be, the reference is to the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, far-left militants in southern Mexico. When the author gets to P he is spoilt for choice:


Pea-Pea-Peace march!

Pro-Pro-Protest!

Pow-Pow-Power to the Pee-Pee-PEOPLE!


Illustrations include a Zapatista in full face-mask, children raising fists, a beatific Malcolm X, a trans butterfly, and lots of home-made banners.


I found the idea of a toddler activist board book strangely compelling. I’d recently been caught up in the big Gaza demonstrations in central London. I’d also found myself in a feminist meeting in Manchester, where activists with masks and megaphones tried to disrupt the meeting and silence the speakers.


The decline in traditional political parties and rise of issues-based activism is well documented. A is for Activist was first published in 2013. But against a backdrop of increasing activism, I was keen to see what a toddler-friendly take on social justice might look like.


Activism is defined as vigorous activity designed to bring about social or political change. Its methods include protest, demonstrations and civil disobedience. I’m all for social justice. But the more I browsed A is for Activist, the more uneasy I felt – for three reasons.


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1) H is for Hilariously Age Inappropriate 

Activist toddlers in Brighton & Hove may well own Zapatista-themed bibs. But I suspect most pre-schoolers will be a little baffled. Take the letter S:


S is for Sun, Sol, Solar!

Super Star! Stellar power!

Fuels all life, not just flowers.

Energised homes, cars and Showers.


Silly Selfish Scoundrels Sucking on dinosaur Sludge?

 Boo! Hiss!


The flow of the argument here goes something like this: the sun is a good thing > the sun is a star > the sun gives life > solar power is a great resource > fossil fuels are a bad thing.


For a toddler to grasp all this, a parent needs to explain the rudiments of astronomy, photosynthesis and photovoltaic power. Not to mention the process by which phytoplankton and zooplankton died and underwent anaerobic decomposition over millions of years, producing natural gas and oil. They then need to explain the processes of global warming produced by the burning of fossil fuels, and the release of CO2, and why this is a bad thing. That’s for starters. They then need to explain who silly selfish scoundrels are (possibly motorists and householders), and why they are sucking on dinosaur sludge (presumably extracting oil and gas for fuel).


But dinosaurs! Here a toddler will be on more familiar territory: they will know from other board books that dinosaurs wear party hats and don’t eat pizza. But good luck explaining to a toddler how fossil fuels are the remains of long-dead dinosaurs. Turns out that theory is untrue anyway. Oil and gas come from decayed plankton and marine organisms, laid down millions of years before dinosaurs appeared. Dinosaur sludge is a red herring. Boo! Hiss!


Similarly, letter four is ‘Little d democracy’, so as not to confuse the idea of democracy with the US Democratic party. The page pictures a donkey (symbol of the Democrats) and an elephant (Republicans) confronting each other, forehead to forehead. Good luck explaining capitalisation and the US political bestiary to a toddler still learning to scribble.


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2) P is for Protest Politics

A is for Activist offers pre-schoolers only one model for political engagement. It’s a model that makes some big assumptions:


• The powers-that-be are invariably greedy, parasitic and indifferent to the poor.


C is for Co-op.

Cooperating Cultures.

Creative Counter to Corporate vultures.


I’d personally find the idea of corporate vultures even harder to explain to a toddler than dinosaur sludge. Maybe that’s just me. The point is that the whole world of business and commerce is dismissed as predators, picking over carrion.


• The activist is the heroic rebel, fighting a corrupt system. The only model for social change is protest; the only politics is protest politics, because other approaches serve the interests of the powerful. Party politics is futile, or of limited value. The Democrat donkey and Republican elephant are shown locked in pointless head-to-head confrontation. True democracy is ‘More than voting’, and even centre-left ‘Donkeys don’t get it’.


• Protest means marching with billboards, shouting through a megaphone, wearing masks, disrupting traffic and arts events, and chanting slogans.


• Violence is redemptive. N is for NO shows an angry toddler holding a banner bearing the slogan ‘No Justice No Peace’. The implication is that violence is acceptable if you're fighting for what your side considers justice.


Conspicuously absent is any constructive, vocational model of social change – such as standing for political office, or working in local government, social work, law, medicine or the charity sector. What’s modelled is rhetorical dissent, social justice as street theatre.


Nor is there any hint that a toddler should aspire to facilitating change from a position of power. In the oppositional world of the book, P is for Protest – but not PPE at Pembroke.(a) But why not? In different circles, toddlers are told they could grow up to run the country.


Absent too is any critical self-awareness that familiar activist solutions may actually aggravate problems rather than solve them (Marxism may not be the best framework for alleviating poverty; identity politics may in practice inflame tensions around race and gender).


Activism encourages toddlers to believe their future, like their present, involves protesting in the street and throwing soup.


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3) P is for Partisan

The issues in A is for Activist include environmentalism, race, anti-capitalism and LGBTQI+ rights. These map closely onto the protests in cities around the globe. Whatever the virtues of each of these issues, the overall agenda shared by the book and the protests is consistently partial and partisan. It’s as if some sections of humanity are less deserving of compassion.


In 2021 David Baddiel published Jews Don’t Count, an unsettling account of the blind spot in today’s identity politics towards Jews. Despite millennia of suffering and persecution, and a resurgence of antisemitism echoing the excesses of Medieval Europe, Jews get little sympathy from Western activists.


A cloak of invisibility seems to cover other groups too:


Nigerian Christians. Since the turn of the millennium 42,000 Nigerian Christians have been killed by Fulani Islamists. The death toll continues at a rate of around 5,000 a year, and 2023 saw the abduction of nearly 2,000. Year on year, Christians are the most targeted group in the world, with around 200 million facing persecution.(b) Where are the marches about this?


Women and girls. Here is a breathtaking statistic: ‘More girls were killed in the last 50 years, precisely because they were girls, than men killed in all the wars in the 20th century.’(c) An estimated 107 million females are missing today, partly due to industrial-scale sex-selective abortion in China and India.


In the UK, the number of women killed by men averages one every three days. In Iran, the Woman Life Freedom movement arose in response to the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, killed by Iran’s morality police for not wearing a hijab properly. Hundreds of women and girls have died at the hands of the Iranian state since Woman Life Freedom started.


To be fair, in the book F is for Feminist. But on the day I saw 200,000 marching through central London against Israel, I saw 20 women in Piccadilly Circus protesting for women in Iran. That’s a heck of a ratio.


Uyghurs. The Uyghur Muslim minority in China are victims of the biggest forced internment since World War II. It’s estimated 1.8 million Uyghurs, plus other ethnic and faith groups, have been detained in camps in Xinjiang province. Western activists have been largely silent.


Yezidis. The arrival of ISIS militants in 2014 led to the displacement of almost the entire Yezidi population from Kurdistan. Large-scale massacres of Yezidi men and boys followed, with thousands of Yezidi women abducted into sexual slavery. Most of the Yezidis now live in camps. Those who escaped ISIS remain deeply traumatised. Again, silence from activists.


On the copyright page of A is for Activist, I discovered the book was printed in China.


So, that would be the same China that brutally suppressed student protests in Tiananmen Square, detains Uyghurs in camps, is clamping down on democracy in Hong Kong, is erasing the culture of Tibet, and has the worst press freedom in the world after North Korea?


It’s an interesting model of social justice that is silent on all this, and happy for China to produce your book, but describes failure to respect a student’s pronouns as a literal genocide.


Why this strange, truncated vision of human rights? Because activism is shaped by powerful narratives that act as a filter on whose human rights count, and whose don’t. These include the US culture wars and anti-Westernism.


US culture wars. Seen through the prism of the culture wars fermented in America and exported around the globe, issues such as race, environment and trans are part of a left-wing agenda, while Israel, family and church are concerns of the right. Each side in the culture wars tends to see the other as a threat to everything they hold dear. This is whipped up in an echo-chamber of polarised media and social media. The other side becomes the enemy within.


In the culture wars, your view on one issue is likely to predict your view on others. It’s relatively rare for people not to buy the full box set of issues from their own side. If Jewishness and Christianity have been linked to the American political right and to conservatism and privilege (the ‘wrong’ side of the culture wars), it’s no wonder the suffering of Jews and Christians evokes little pity among left-wing activists.


I recently wrote an article suggesting drag performance is ‘womanface’, a demeaning, sexualised parody of women. An activist on social media said this was a ‘dog whistle for the far right’. This bizarre accusation only makes sense in the light of the culture wars – where drag is seen as part of the progressive agenda, so being anti-drag must be reactionary and right-wing. In reality, the womanface argument comes from left-wing feminism, and draws on the progressive case against ‘blackface’.


Anti-Westernism. The murder of George Floyd in 2020 by a white policeman in Minneapolis provoked soul-searching across Western nations, particularly those with a colonial legacy. Floyd’s death accelerated a moral panic about Western history that led to statues being toppled, historical texts in galleries and stately homes rewritten, and university curricula ‘decolonised’. One day in 2020 I visited a Manchester art gallery. Almost overnight a profusion of penitent notes had been added to historic art exhibits, expressing regret for Britain’s colonial past.


The impulse to topple statues and apologise for art found academic support from anti-colonial theorists. Writing in the 1960s, Frantz Fanon said the success of the West was built on the suffering of the colonies it exploited. The history of the West is seen as a history of colonialism, with racism its original sin and slavery its defining expression. Western culture has come to be seen, especially in academia, as uniquely problematic.


Little surprise that any suspected link to Western history and alleged privilege discredits, while apparent victimhood confers credibility. So that’s Jews, Christians and middle-class feminists safely disregarded, then – if only on the basis of caricatures and stereotypes.


And here’s the most chilling part. Attacking such groups, or individuals from such groups, may even be commendable acts of resistance (Fanon described violence as ‘a cleansing force’ that ‘restores self-respect’).


Hence the odd sight of Western activists cheering on Houthi militants in Yemen. A third of a million Yemenis have died in a civil war waged by Houthis, and half the country’s 33 million population faces starvation. The Houthis execute sexual minorities by stoning, and have reintroduced slavery (that latter phrase bears re-reading). But when Houthis attacked trading ships in the Red Sea, Western activists hailed them as heroes and chanted, ‘Yemen, Yemen, make us proud; turn another ship around!’.


Western history is far more complex than a decolonising narrative allows for, but that’s a conversation for another day. Here it’s simply worth noting that those who’ve lived under repressive, autocratic regimes tell a different story. My own conversations with exiles from Iran and China give a very different take on Western culture and democracy.


Not even A is for Activist attempts to explain the culture wars and postcolonial theory to toddlers. But behind the scenes, these narratives shape an agenda that sets boundaries to compassion, labels entire groups as undeserving of respect, and even reframes brutality as social justice.


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Bedtime Stories


The activist toddler is tucked up with a bedtime story, in which corporate vultures and sludgy dinosaurs are magically slain by valiant revolutionaries with home-made banners and chanted slogans.


I’m less than convinced.


What do we want?


Toddler board books that are age-appropriate and empowering, that celebrate difference and say compassion has no boundaries!


When do we want them?


Now!


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(a) Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Pembroke College, Oxford (Oxford PPE is a common route to political office in the UK)

(b) Christianophobia, Rupert Shortt (Random House, 2013)

(c) Half the Sky, Nicholas D Kristoff & Sheryl WuDunn (Virago 2010)


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© Mike Starkey 2024



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