Youth still has its passions;Opinion

5th March 1999 at 00:00
The next generation of radicals is growing up in the world's marginalised communities, says Trevor Phillips.

NO MATTER how much you avoid looking in the mirror, you cannot escape certain turning points in your life. If, like me, you have had an activist student life, a critical moment comes when you open the newspaper and you are described as a "former firebrand and student leader".

You are now officially a middle-aged moderate, with no hope of return, until you become very elderly and can expect people to indulge your return to strident radicalism as a sort of second childhood.

What is puzzling is that even high profile issues which affect the young seem rarely to awaken widespread activism. The tragic case of Stephen Lawrence will have come as a confirmation of the fears of many who work with young people. Yet there seems little in the way of activism being generated, as it was in the 1970s by the Anti-Nazi League. For the best part of 25 years I have visited schools to talk about current affairs. For one reason and another, the pace has picked up in recent months.

Friends who also do this sort of thing and I sometimes compare notes gloomily: today's young people may be just as bright, but they don't seem to want to change the world. My impression is that many of today's teenagers suffer from being, if anything, too worldly.

They understand the complexity and difficulty of change, and see little point in dashing their heads against brick walls. Apart from the odd Comic Relief bonanza, and occasional flurry of ecological concern, teenage passion seems to be summoned up only for the widespread desire to "get into the media".

Yet this generation's public passions are not yet all reduced to talk-shows and tabloids. In fact, it was the shocking appearance of a new young firebrand - and I don't use the word accidentally - that suggested that we may not be looking in the right place for the next generation of radicals.

During the recent worldwide Kurdish demonstrations, the name of 15-year-old Nejla Kanteper was on the front page of every newspaper and headed most news bulletins, along with the shocking picture of her body alight in front of the Greek embassy in London. More surprising to me was the discovery that not only did Nejla live in the area in which I grew up; she goes to my former school, White Hart Lane in north London.

Curiously, Nejla's sister was reported as describing her as "not a particularly political person". Self-immolation for a cause seems pretty political to me. But among the increasing numbers of refugees in London, standards are different.

When your family has lost everything, including relatives; when you may have had a terrifying journey out of persecution and when you live with the fear that one day either of your parents or some other loved one may disappear, most local or domestic politics may seem rather small beer.

Interestingly, this larger world view is not confined to recent refugees. In a recent visit to a group of young London-born Jews, a perfectly amiable, but rather subdued discussion came to life with the subject - inevitably - of Israel.

Elsewhere, young black people, wearying of trailing over the same ground of racial bias among the police, become animated when discussing the failure of schools to incorporate a global black history in the curriculum.

Talking to young Muslims in east London and Bradford, it is the fate of Muslims in Bosnia, and the fallout from American and British policy in the Gulf which causes raised voices. One reason that all this can happen is the pace and reach of globalisation. The fact that a community with limited resources and no national base could organise a worldwide action which captured the attention of billions is a token of the way in which the globe has, effectively shrunk into a single community - if not a global village, at least a series of tribes.

Paradoxically, this next generation may not be less passionate or idealistic at all. I suspect that there are reservoirs of passion among the young, but because they are concentrated in supposedly marginal communities we may not notice or understand them.

I take comfort from the fact that, as ever, the young are likely to surprise us former firebrands with their passions.

Opinion 17

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