When it comes to precedents of an old man inspiring hysterical fanaticism amongst the young, the omens aren’t great. The Ayatollah Khomeini’s return to Iran from exile in 1979 was especially well-received by students, some of whom stormed the US Embassy in Tehran and took 52 American citizens hostage, keeping them there for 444 days in the name of the Revolution. Just over a decade earlier, Mao Tse-tung decided the best way to neutralise his rivals within the Communist Party of China was to instigate a ruthless purge made possible by the personality cult of Mao himself, something that particularly appealed to teenagers in the absence of pop stars.
The Red Guards were fanatical student groups given Mao’s blessing to essentially run amok on a campaign of chaos throughout the country, denouncing anyone they regarded as traitors to the true Communist cause and destroying ancient shrines, temples and books; anyone either old or in a position of authority (such as university lecturers) was fair game and labelled ‘counter-revolutionaries’. Possessing vitriolic and violent contempt for anything that contradicted their twisted take on Communism, the Red Guards’ disregard for their nation’s heritage was as illogical and destructive as that seen in recent years via the likes of the Taliban and ISIS. But it was the human cost of this grim period in China’s history that marks it out as a remarkably gruesome and shameful stain on the country; public humiliation, persecution and imprisonment were for the lucky ones. Estimates vary, but some claim as many as 3 million died as a consequence of the Cultural Revolution.
Obviously, this is the most extreme example of how youth’s natural energy, anger and appetite for destruction can be harnessed by outside forces and used to promote a political career; but none of it could have happened had not Mao projected himself as the adolescent messiah for a generation denied the outlet of football hooliganism or Beatlemania. When one looks at Mao, however, one doesn’t see George Best or John Lennon, so the ability to inspire a devoted following clearly doesn’t depend on physical charisma. But it is a crucial element to the grip Mao had over his teenage storm-troopers that Chinese youth under the system that then operated in their country were deprived of the pop culture experience so prevalent in the west at that time. It seems youth requires such an experience in order to get youth out of its system.
Right here, right now, there is no pop cultural divide that youth can claim as their own like they did from the 50s through to the 90s, let alone the figureheads that these divides revolve around. Who the hell have they got – Harry Styles? Ed Sheeran? Sure, there’s an abundance of leisure industry distractions previous generations didn’t have, but very little the young today can attach the same intense importance and meaning to as they did their tribe of choice in the past. This is a generation worse off in cultural terms than any of its predecessors over the last half-century; it is also one armed with degrees not worth the paper they’re written on, knowing it will be saddled with debt for life, probably unlikely to buy a house until youth is a dim and distant memory, and presented with little that offers hope or salvation from the long slog ahead of it. And then…along comes Jezza.
A couple of weeks ago, Jeremy Corbyn was on the cover of what passes for the NME today; those of us old enough will remember the same magazine featured Neil Kinnock as a cover star thirty years ago, something I greeted with similar cynicism then as I do the Jezza cover now, though I suspect there are fewer today who would react in such a way. The cult of Corbyn is a remarkable phenomenon that even the not-too dissimilar cult of Obama can’t compete with. It has a messianic quality to it way out of proportion to what the man himself actually represents, and Neil Kinnock was never invited to appear onstage at Glastonbury; the Welsh wonder preferred to hold his own festival in the environs of the Sheffield Arena. Aaaawright!
In a way, though, Jezza appearing at Glastonbury says a lot about him, about his audience, and about the festival itself. Glastonbury is a corporate shindig masquerading as a cutting-edge music event, albeit something it once was a very long time ago; even if I was seventeen in 2017, I’d instinctively detest it. I temporarily buried the hatchet to watch Radiohead on Friday night and was blown away by their performance; but I was able to buy their first hit on seven-inch single in my local Virgin Megastore at the time it charted; I didn’t download it. When they sang ‘Creep’, the camera kept focusing on faces who won’t have even been embryos when it reached No.7 in 1993; I was wondering why they were there to see a band whose members are the same age as me, and then I realised they don’t have a Radiohead of their own. They have Jezza.
Of course, Corbyn is old enough to be Thom Yorke’s dad, but this isn’t an impediment to his elevation to Che Guevara status in terms of the thinking teen’s pin-up. A generation too young to even have fallen for Blair’s con-trick in ’97 has only known the Cameron (public) school of politician, something Jezza is such an extreme contrast with that his enthusiastic embrace of traditional socialist rhetoric not only chimes with the standard lefty leanings of youth, but he’s an actual veteran of the ideological wars of the 80s; he was there, man. Respect!
Yes, the Corbyn cult may have utilised youth in a far more positive way than Mao or the Ayatollah did, but it still wasn’t enough to win the General Election. Unless Theresa May’s Queen’s Speech is voted down and Jezza is offered the crown, we’re going to have to wait a while until the Coronation; but this doesn’t matter to the Corbynistas under-21. As far as they’re concerned, he’s the People’s Prime Minister, conveniently free from the compromises that come with the actual job and sever the link between electorate and leader in the process. He can do no wrong in their eyes, but their adoration is also something some of their elders share, those I’d probably regard as old enough to know better. I can see his appeal as an alternative to the production-line politicians, but as a youth icon I would’ve hoped youth could do better.
© The Editor