Diehard teen republicans

Matt Kennard reports from the Republican convention where he's already met with Republicans young an

As I got into St. Paul airport at about 1pm also arriving were the 50-strong Junior Statesman contingent from all over the United States. A collection of diehard teen Republicans who had come to meet lawmakers and officials for a week of festivities, they were noticeable a mile off.

I spoke first to preppy looking Matthew Zubrow, a 17-year-old from Fast Hills, New Jersey. “I believe in McCain because he is a fiscal and social conservative and he is right for America,” he said, like an automaton. “He has more experience than Obama.”

At this moment his friend sitting next to him got involved. A diminutive 15-year-old called Brendan Zehner he reeled off a scary and perfectly delivered set of Republican shibboleths. “I’m not pro-McCain but I definitely don’t want Obama winning,” he said. “McCain is too liberal for me,” he continued, “his energy plan, his cap-and trade policy fails economically, and he doesn’t support drilling in Alaska, that would make us much less dependent on oil from the Middle East and Venezuela. But at least he doesn’t want to tax the people creating the jobs,” said the 15-year-old.

Zubrow agreed. “In some respects McCain is too liberal. Overall I feel he is excellent and despite what I disagree with he’s a good, honest person; I know because I interned for the campaign this summer.”

But what do they think about Bush, the mega-unpopular Republican now in the White House. “In theory Bush is not the problem, he hasn’t been a bad President. It’s the way he does things that makes his policies seem bad,” said Zehner.


I moved on to the Convention in a shuttle full of octogenarian Republicans. They talked variously in the back about how “Fox News is too liberal”. One of the older women said, “I have a horrible feeling that Obama and his wife hate America.” As her husband was getting out he said: “Tell those liberals in the UK if they think Obama is gonna make it you’re dead wrong.”

The shuttle driver Abdi Mohamous, 26, came from Somalia in 1991 and said he was supporting Obama. “These Republicans are scary,” he said. “I have to listen to all their bullshit in the back, these 80-year-olds talking about how they want to bomb Iran and how they are disappointed because the Vice President is a woman.”

He dropped me off at home, and I went down to the convention centre to check out what I thought would be the raucous protests. In the end it was one guy with a “9/11 was an inside job” placard.

There was a surfeit of cops hanging around though doing pre-programmed routines marching about the place. Dave Morris, 25, was from Minneapolis, Minnesota. “I think the government planned 9/11 for it’s own political gain,” he said. “They did it so they could invade the Middle East, set up a police state, control the world drug trade, and all the other stuff.”

He was getting a fair about of media attention. “I’m just here to get people to wake up, spread the word,” he said.

Morris was standing at the main entrance, and not much was happening so I moved around to the media entrance where there was one placard that read McBlood and “No more wars for Israel”, alongside, without any seeming animosity, a pro-Israel placard of another protester.

After talking idly for a minute the atmosphere suddenly turned febrile and out passed us walked George W. Bush’s brain, Karl Rove. I followed him with my camera asking him why he’s a war criminal and what he thought of torture in Guantanamo, which was the signature issue of the Amnesty protesters, who I’d just been talking to. He gave no response and was surrounded by four burly guards. He got in the car with three women all decked in Red.

I walked back up the path and got into a conversation with the Ron Paul fans, a perennial fixture at any American political event these days. John Kusske, 30, from St. Paul was a slow talking but intelligent guy who believes in bringing the Republican Party back to the principles on which it was founded. “We have to make our presence know to the delegates,” he said. “There are a lot of people in there with ideas sympathetic to Ron Paul.”

So what was wrong with the current Republicans in power? “Two things,” he said, “Number one, they spend far too much, the Federal Reserve prints too much money, it’s spending money we don’t have; we need sound finances and I would like us to go back to the gold standard.”

He paused now consumed with an evangelical zeal that was a little scary. “And number two,” he declared, “we should not be going around the world invading other countries; we need to get rid of troops around the world and not declare war around the world without even going to Congress.”


That was it for the daytime convention, which was all taking place in the stuffy surroundings of the Excel Center, a gargantuan edifice surrounded by reams of barricades and surly police and tooled up secret service.

The real action everyone knew was happening in the evening in Minneapolis ten miles away where the party season was getting under way. I went along with my friend Eugene Mulero, who works for the wonkish D.C. weekly National Journal. He had got me in free to a $75 party and we got down there about 9 pm.

It was at a club called 1st Avenue on the main Minneapolis strip, which was full of cops and sprightly Republicans – not everyone’s idea of fun, but worth a try. Inside there was to be a performance by the music titan, Sammy Hagar, also know as the Red Rocker, who used to perform in Van Halen.

Inside there was the usual Republican fabric; out of the probably 300 people there wasn’t one black face. It was an open bar and everyone got jollier as the event drew on. Then came the video show that would be the intro to Hagar. Up flashed pictures of Mexico and young Americans kissing and fondling each other in Cabo, a popular Mexican resort for young frat types. Snoop Dogg’s pimp classic “Gin and Juice” then came on and the crowd looked a bit bemused. Then, strangely, a Banksy style rendering of Bush’s visage. Then the line: “Right now youth equals violence.” Then this one: “Right now Christians and Muslims don’t pray together”. Then more pictures of Mexico and the beach. Everyone looked as confused as I was.

Then up came the video and on came the prophet, Sammy Hagar, himself. A shaggy haired blond man in sandals and beach shorts and a “Cabo Wabo” T-shirt. The definition of an aging rocker his enthusiasm contrasted farcically with the depleted crowd on the floor. Behind him were fake plastic palm trees and it all felt a bit David Brent.

I talked to Marina Hockenberg, 52, from Minneapolis, who was part of the Katrina Relief Fund and selling T-shirt’s behind a table. “I think it’s a crime and unconscionable what the Bush administration did in New Orleans,” he said, while I looked around to see if anyone could hear us. She was obviously not a True Red. “The Republicans don’t seem in the mood to purchase this stuff so far,” she said. “Maybe they feel a bit guilty!”

Meanwhile the rockster was still on stage singing away and the crowd was getting behind him now. People were hi-fiving him on the stage and he was talking about his mom’s back yard in between songs and how all she wanted was a place to grow tomatoes; the Republicans cheered. He then did a song about chasing your dreams. My notebook at this point reads: “Fake palm trees – End Of The World.”

I then spoke to Jordan Russell, 22, a student from the University of Mississippi, and a College Republican. “I’m here because we have a war to win,” he said. “Palin has electrified young conservatives.” He paused: “We don’t want to be socialists,” he declared swigging his drink. “We want to be Americans!”

Hagar stopped his infernal racket after about two hours and the crowds seeped out onto the street. There was speculation that Republicans didn’t want to be seen to have fun while the South was bracing itself for a new hurricane, but judging by this show it’s going to take more than a category 4 to stop them.

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit: monbiot.com/music/

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood