Answer to columnist’s query comes from Sweden

BY RANDALL RIGSBEE, News + Record Staff
Posted 12/27/19

In a “Randall Reflects” from March about what I called the “questionable influence of ‘Instagram influencers,’” and in which I bemoaned (and who, I ask, doesn’t like to bemoan?) the …

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Answer to columnist’s query comes from Sweden

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In a “Randall Reflects” from March about what I called the “questionable influence of ‘Instagram influencers,’” and in which I bemoaned (and who, I ask, doesn’t like to bemoan?) the online rise of a slate of superficial young product-pushing role models coming to my attention during the then-fresh college admissions scandal, I concluded the reflection with this: “Is there room in the vastness of the Internet for positive people who lead, who create, who contribute, and who inspire us to reach higher and do better, and not just to preen and purchase? Let’s hope so.”

It turns out the answer to my question is/was yes. There’s room and, though it took a few more news cycles — a period of elapsed time during which the United Nations Climate Summit convened (on September 23) and Time magazine announced its Person of the Year (on December 11) — for me to see it, there’s someone skillfully occupying one such positive spot.

Her name, as you know, is Greta Thunberg.

And it’s not dorm room furniture or make-up or, certainly not, her own newfound celebrity the teenager, whose Instagram profile with 9 million followers identifies her as a “16 year old climate and environmental activist with Asperger’s,” is endorsing.

Setting her sights much higher, the young Swede is instead focused with a laser-sharp intensity on the fate of the planet.

“Thunberg began a global movement by skipping school,” Time magazine writers Charlotte Alter, Suyin Hayntes and Justin Worland report in their compelling cover story, recounting the genesis of Thunberg’s activism in August 2018 when she launched her “School Strike for Climate” at the Swedish Parliament.

“In the 16 months since,” Time reports, Thunberg “has addressed heads of state at the U.N., met with the Pope, sparred with the President of the United States and inspired 4 million people to join the global climate strike on September 20, 2019, in what was the largest climate demonstration in human history.”

It’s an awesome achievement.

The very personal reason she embraced the climate cause, unknown to me until I read Time’s profile, is well-told in the magazine.

She’s inspiring.

Author Margaret Atwood compares her to Joan of Arc.

But no activist — not even a plain-talking Swedish teenager who happens to also be on the Autism spectrum — can escape backlash.

There was, naturally, backlash in the form of disapproving tweets from President Trump, who said after her U.N. speech in September that the teen has issues with “anger management.”

Last week there was backlash after Thunberg’s December 14 Instagram and Twitter post — she’s seen in the posts sitting on the floor of a train traveling through Germany — brought ire from Deutsche Bahn, the rail company, which responded with a defensive tweet: “It would have been even nicer if you had also reported how friendly and competently our team served you at your seat in first class.”

Thunberg (16 years old, remember), in a textbook example of taking the high road and staying on topic, responded: “This is no problem of course and I never said it was. Overcrowded trains is a great sign because it means the demand for train travel is high!”

And then I ran across a Facebook post last week in which the poster referred to the inspirational young activist (my words) as “that little b***h from Sweden” before using the public forum to present an ill-informed attack on Thunberg — for being “all talk, no action,” or something like that.

She’s inspired many people — especially young people, thank goodness, who need inspiring figures to help them reach their own grand potentials — and she’s touched many nerves, igniting a lot of new vitriolic content on social media platforms so already heavily-laden with vitriolic content as to induce numbness.

Disagree, as some do, with the whole climate issue, the politics of which “are as entrenched and complex as the phenomenon itself,” Time writes, but mean tweets and disparaging, rude comments on social media — especially those aimed at a kid who’s trying to do something about something — seem especially harsh, even in late 2019.

It’s shabby and undeserved treatment for the person who, as Time writes, “is an ordinary teenage girl who, in summoning the courage to speak truth to power, became the icon of a generation.”

To her naysayers, Greta Thunberg is an irritant, like a sand spur caught in the toe strap of a flip-flop.

For me, she’s a fresh — and sorely needed — signal of hope, not just for the future of our planet and the people who inhabit it now and later, but also for the principle that substance can trump superficiality.

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