Pro-Palestinian protesters at McGill University, replete with megaphone, keffiyeh, Palestinian flag, and, of course, their iPhones. Peter Stockland

From daycare to campus, God help us

  • April 30, 2024

After some purportedly pro-Palestinian protesters “occupied” the front lawn of Montreal’s McGill University, I showed up to take photos that would accompany a story for The Catholic Register.

The scene had a loopy, feckless, cosplay pathos about it: would-be precocious half-children dressed up in keffiyehs and left over COVID masks squatted on muddy grass as they imagined themselves in “solidarity” with some great struggle occurring in the safety of elsewhere. 

Aside from cringe-making cliches bellowed by predictable make-believe Marxists, and warnings from university administrators about anti-Semitism, it seemed at first a half-wistful rendition of “Down on Jollity Farm,” the Bonzo Doo Dah Dog Band’s great anthem spoofing the collective proletarian phoniness of the 1960s. Then I discerned the menace. I came face-to-face not with the dictatorship of the proletariat, but with the dictates of the phone-atariat. 

Everywhere eyes were downcast not from genuine sorrow at events of the world but from addiction to the hopeless little screens of Leonard Cohen lore. Each individual was sinecured in the personal podcast of his/her/their own consciousness. To borrow from Tennyson’s “The Lotus Eaters”:

And deep-asleep they seem’d, yet all awake,
And music in their ears their beating heart did make….

Of course, we’re all afflicted by phone bubble behaviour in other contexts: public transport, restaurants, waiting rooms, pick your spot. But there we were in the midst of a public political act of defiant trespass. It was ostensibly in response to the worst massacre of Jews since the Holocaust, and a war in Gaza that has killed an estimated 30,000 people while the Middle East tinderbox awaits the match. So, of course, one young woman thought to bring along her snuggly-wuggly Hello Kitty fuzzy wuzzy headphones in case something somehow slipped into her solipsism. 

Not even the Marx-streaming megaphones could intrude upon the ubiquitous iPhones that gave all assembled the blissed-out equanimity of androids. Until, that is, an ethereal tremor alerted all and sundry to the man with a camera who was clearly not from the CBC, and therefore clearly not authorized to capture images of phone-atarian trespass. 

Hey, ho, and over the muddy lawn came an energetically on-mission young woman. She had broken out of her generation’s scroll hypnosis long enough to put on a mask of belligerence and was aimed at him who was intruding upon the pro-Palestinian intrusion. Yes. Me. Confrontation was in her eye.

“People want to know what you’re doing,” she said, standing steadfast in my path. 

I demurred that I didn’t need to answer since it was obvious I was raising a camera with a largish lens on it to my eye. Her retort sounded like a thumb-thick branch snapped over a hard knee: “Why?”

“Because,” I said, struggling to keep the words effrontery and pipsqueak from trespassing on my tongue, “this is a public event and I’m a reporter covering a public event.”

For as long as I’ve had a pulse, I’ve rarely ever been non-plussed. Yet I briefly found it hard to keep breathing after the sheer temerity of her next question: “Who do you work for?”

I suggested we find common ground in logic. 1. She was engaged in a public political act of illegality. 2. My role as a reporter is to cover public events, political or otherwise, and acts, illegal or otherwise. 3. She had no business or authority to question me given that it was only by the generosity of the McGill authorities that she wasn’t in a hoosegow answering criminal inquires from the local constabulary. 4. Logic dictated we call it a draw and she get out of my way to let me work.

Then came her generational trademark: “You’re making people here feel unsafe.”

“Would that,” I enquired with sweetness learned at my mother’s knee, “be the same people here who are calling for global revolution?” 

Her attempt at a clincher: “What’s wrong with calling for global revolution?” 

I suggested, kindly I thought, this was a line of investigation she and her compatriots might want to pursue once they graduated from emotional and intellectual daycare. I regret the suggestion. It was unfair. Now I see what the famed social psychologist Jonathan Haidt gets at when he fears that the phone-atariat might never, as a generation, get out of their daycare mentality. 

As Haidt writes in The Anxious Generation, they have been dialled in virtually from infancy to life itself as something lived in front of and behind safety glass screens. In the immortal words of John Lennon: “Nothing is real.” Their internal illusions and external references are AI-generated slides of perpetually changing fashion and eternally varied cosplay: “Like, global revolution, whoooo-hooooo, oh, look, here’s me dancing on Tik-Tok….” 

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