The trouble with most conservatives who write cultural critiques is that invariably they get it only half right, or just backwards. Diana West’s The Death of the Grown-Up: How America’s Arrested Development is Bringing Down Western Civilization is not a salutary instance of that failing. West is not your typical “conservative.” She has analytical and observational skills that surpass those of the typical conservative. She is acutely intelligent and a superb writer. Most average “conservatives” I have dubbed “CINOs” – Conservatives in Name Only – because like many political conservatives, they invariably endorse or side with the liberal/left welfare statists, in spite of their religious bent or allegiance to “traditions.”
For example, Speaker of the House John Boehner is a CINO, because other than being well-dressed, and wearing an American flag pin on his lapel, he is a closet liberal. Being well-dressed and flaunting a flag pin are traditions, not principles.
By half right I mean that Boehner, for example, will make a trenchant observation with which one can agree, but then, either explicitly or implicitly, his observation will be grounded on a religious norm or premise, or on tradition, or custom, or just an established and wholly secondary, often arbitrary “social rule,” and not on any rational criterion. In short, on a non-fundamental. Boehner said, about the bill sent to the Senate that would delay implementation of Obamacare for one year:
“It’s time for the Senate to listen to the American people just like the House has listened to the American people and to pass a one-year delay of ObamaCare and a permanent repeal of the medical device tax.”
How about permanent repeal of Obamacare? Oh, no. That would entail establishing and invoking a principle. Boehner, who looks like a former movie action hero going to seed, would never stoop to acting on principle. Not that he would recognize one.
Let us turn now to Diana West, who does recognize a principle, and acts on it.
She opens The Death of the Grown-Up, Chapter One, “The Rise of the Teen,” with:
“Once, there was a world without teenagers. Literally. ‘Teenager,’ the word itself, doesn’t pop into the lexicon much before 1941. This speaks volumes about the last few millennia. In all those many centuries, nobody thought to mention ‘teenagers’ because there was nothing…to think of mentioning.”
Historically, the first recorded use of the term teen in reference to a person’s age, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was in 1673 (in a Restoration comedy by William Wycherley), and in all cited instances thereafter of its usage up until 1941, it denoted a person who was about to enter adulthood and who did not wish to remain a “teen.”
“In considering what I like to call ‘the death of the grown-up,’ it’s important to keep a fix on this fact: that for all but this most recent episode of human history, there were children and there were adults. Children in their teen years aspired to adulthood; significantly, they didn’t aspire to adolescence. Certainly, adults didn’t aspire to remain teenagers.
“That doesn’t mean that youth hasn’t always been a source of adult interest: Just think in five hundred years what Shakespeare, Dickens, the Brontës, Mark Twain, Booth Tarkington, and Leonard Bernstein have done with teen material. But something has changed. Actually, a lot of things have changed. For one thing, turning thirteen, instead of bringing children closer to an adult world, now launches them into a teen universe. For another, due to the permanent hold our culture has placed on the maturation process, that’s where they’re likely to find most adults.”
West’s central thesis is that our culture has ossified into a “perpetual adolescence,” even though the Baby Boomer generation is nearing or at the age of retirement. That generation was sired and raised by the “greatest generation,” one of adults and even adolescents who fought World War Two in combat overseas and in the factories at home.
The “greatest generation,” however, in turn raised a not-so-great generation many of whose members became the creators and proponents of or adherents to the rebellious “counterculture” of the 1960’s and 1970’s, with its pronounced leftist, collectivist and nihilist means and ends. If members of that generation did not actively take part in the assault on the status quo, then they passively accepted a besieged status quo as mere powerless spectators.
But the status quo was not so “static.” The government’s role in the economy and in everyone’s personal lives – through regulation, taxation, progressive education, a costly, irrational foreign policy, and even in the arts – grew and expanded and more or less co-opted the morally and intellectually disarmed, non-rebellious, productive members of that generation.
Throughout her book West cites numerous instances of adults abdicating or never discovering their responsibilities as thinking, reasoning adults. She defines two species of this state of purported adult “adolescence,” a condition she also claims is exacerbated by multiculturalism and diversity:
A reluctance to assert or champion “adult” values one knows are superior, or a fear to assert them, lest one be accused of something terrible (fascism, elitism, or racism) by the enemies of those values.
An indoctrinated ignorance of or hostility to any values that are demonstrably superior.
She devotes Chapter Two, “The Twist,” to describing the changes in popular music and dance from Swing to “rock ‘n roll,” cites Elvis Presley as the progenitor of rap and worse, and does a credible job of tracing the devolution of music from tonality and melody to rap and bass-based noise. In Chapter Three, “Clash,” she analyzes the antiwar movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s in terms of it being simply an anarcho-Marxist revolt for the sake of revolting against parental and establishment authority.
She quotes radical-activists-cum-neo-conservatives and describes how most university presidents and administrators simply caved into the demands of student demonstrators, surrendering their authority by sanctioning their behavior with silence or verbal agreement and often by granting them amnesty.
“Central to the surrender of the adult, then, was the collapse of the parent. As much as any political, demographic, or economic factors, this made the ascendancy of youth possible, and possibly inevitable, first on campus, and, later, in the wider culture. So much for the World War II-winning Greatest Generation, whose own offspring, spoiled ‘youths’ in the 1950s, became everyone’s spoiled youth movement in the 1960s. Life may have been tough for the men and women whose formative years were marred by Depression and war, but theirs was the spawn of Dr. Spock’s ‘permissive society.’”
In Chapter Five, “Sophisticated Babies,” West notes the rise of pornography and the exposure of teens and pre-teens to it. She prepares the reader for that phenomenon with the revelation that Morris Ernst, “a foe of censorship who had mounted a winning defense of [James Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness and expletive-laden novel] Ulysses in 1933,” publicly recanted in 1970 in The New York Times, saying that, after seeing how “licentious” the culture had become, he would “not choose to live in a society without limits to freedom.” West then comments,
“The arguments that destroyed the legal and moral bases for censorship of obscenity and pornography apply to trash as well as to art. By the time the courts, in effect, declared obscenity was dead, they had killed something vital to a healthy society: the faculty of judgment that attempts to distinguish between what is obscene and what is not obscene—the avowedly ‘grown-up’ sensibility of an outmoded authority figure who had long relied on a proven hierarchy of taste and knowledge until it was quite suddenly leveled.”
In Chapters Four and Six, “Parents Who Need Parents” and “Boundaries,” West describes parents and adults who either succumb to, tolerate, or encourage the whims of their children. Often, she notes, parents indulge in irrational “juvenile” behavior themselves. Among her instances are the parents who hired a stripper to entertain their son’s high school football team, the male members of a branch of Rotary International who posed nude for a fund-raising calendar, and the mother who, in opposition to her concerned husband, came to the defense of her alcoholic, promiscuous nanny.
In Chapter Seven, “Identity,” West tackles the perilous and destructive consequences of multiculturalism, cultural relativism, and diversity in education and in the news media. This is where she shines best, ascribing to adults the surrender of reality to political correctness and the suspension of reason and their cognitive faculties in deference to pragmatic policies of accommodation. On the multicultural indoctrination (it cannot be called “education”) so pervasive in especially public schools, from kindergarten on up to the university level, she notes that:
“It teaches children to sublimate the traditions and teachings of their own civilization – those that tend to regard buffalo-tongue brushes, for example, as being revolting or unsanitary. The repetition of this kind of instruction – who are we to say anything about anything? – impress upon young minds the crucial need to adopt an attitude of painstaking neutrality when regarding other (read: less developed) cultures. In other words, it teaches children to suspend their judgment.”
Later, West observes that:
“’That’s their culture’ becomes the mantra of accepting the Other [West’s reference to Islam, or any primitive, non-Western culture]. But it also becomes the mantra of denying the Self. And in learning to turn off the assessment process, in learning to stymie the gut reaction, we have learned to shut it down entirely….But what happens in the face of less benign cultural phenomena, from censorship and religious repression to female genital mutilation, forced marriage, so-called honor killing, and suicide bombings?”
Adults, no less than children, but especially adults who were subjected to progressive education, and not the full-scale indoctrination that their children must endure today, are also susceptible to the same indoctrination and “educated” repression, and very few of them attempt to “unlearn” the habit of sabotaging their own minds.
Moving from the classroom to the newsroom, West details how newspapers and wire services, manned largely by progressively educated adults, invest considerable energy to evade the fact that Islamic terrorists are not just “gunmen,” “militants,” “perpetrators,” or “activists,” but killers for a totalitarian cause who have declared war on civilization. Since modern editors and journalists have been taught, or have uncritically absorbed the policy, that Islam is not to be judged or condemned – it is, after all, a “religion of peace,” its horrible record of conquest, enslavement, and brutality to the contrary notwithstanding – the prohibition must be extended to anyone who acts in its name.
“…[T]he media’s studied nonjudgmentalism…gives jihadist terrorists a perpetual benefit of the doubt. Such doubts – raised in the language of ‘neutrality’ – reserve a crucial moral space for the possibility of sympathetic judgment, enforcing the notion that blamelessness for terrorism is just as possible as blame….Besides staving off condemnation and leaving room for approval, the act of suspending judgment – and this is what may be most significant – delivers terrorism and terrorists from the nether realm that all civilizations reserve for taboo, anathema, and abomination.”
Treating multiculturalism, diversity, and environmentalism as religions – since any one of these is now accepted on faith without thought as unassailable and as unquestionable as Islam is to Muslims and the Bible is to Christians – it would be apropos to quote a prominent atheist, A. C. Grayling, about the means and ends of any religion: “It is the business of all religious doctrine to keep their votaries in a scare of intellectual infancy.”* Infants, pre-teens, and most teens have not developed their cognitive powers nor accumulated a fund of knowledge that would together enable them to make rational judgments and to act on them. We now have an educational establishment wholly devoted to sabotaging children’s minds to ensure that they cannot make rational judgments.
In Chapter Eight, “The Real Culture War,” West writes fervently and convincingly about the steady encroachment of Islam in the West as a mortal threat to freedom and free speech. But, it should be noted the equally perilous resurgence of Christianity in America that threatens those same values, especially when discussing the censorial fatwahs of Islamic ideology and how they are being insinuated into Western culture. The Church’s history in regards to censorship is nothing to boast of. Had West been a contemporary of Hypatia in 5th century Alexandria, she would have shared that thinker’s fate at the hands of Christian clerics. (At the moment, West is being attacked by so-called allies for having questioned the received history of World War II and Soviet espionage in her book, American Betrayal: The Secret Assault on Our Nation’s Character.)
I wish West had devoted more discussion to the subject of how the welfare state contributes to the “death of the grown-up.” While the welfare state was originally intended to “help the poor,” it has metastasized into a monster from which even the wealthy insist on collecting the services and taxable pittance paid by Medicare and Social Security. It has suborned businessmen, parents, students, farmers and even writers and artists, sending them on hide-and-seek numbers games through the labyrinth of the tax code. The welfare state has compromised and made dependent anyone who claims an “entitlement” to be taken care of as protection against the cost of sustaining a “great” or “kinder, gentler” or “just” society, an entitlement which one either claims, or is claimed for one by others, as a reward for one’s “contribution” to society.
West inveighs against the multiculturalist agenda in education, and acknowledges the debilitating effects of what makes that agenda possible, the progressive educational philosophy, almost universally in place since at least World War One. The closest West comes to a philosophical explanation or cause is in Chapter Seven, “Identity.”
“Maybe it was French philosopher Claude Levi-Strauss who first sounded the call to arms to ‘fight against cultural differences hierarchically’ in the 1950s; by the 1980s, with a resounding multiculturalist victory in the so-called culture wars, this leveling mission was accomplished.”
Actually, that “call to arms” was sounded before Levi-Strauss’s brand of “textual analysis” and “deconstruction” became the ubiquitous and destructive methods of American literary studies. It began with the “New Criticism” that infested America and Europe after World War Two and with the “beat generation’s” literature of plotless novels and formless, often drug-induced prose. Ultimately, Levi-Strauss, his exponents, and his practitioners were the heirs of the 18th century Prussian philosopher, Immanuel Kant, who professed that we can’t know anything, so anything goes.
West missed a chance to tie her thesis of “adolescence worship” to the influence of J.D. Salinger’s 1951 novel, The Catcher in the Rye, a novel about teenage angst in confronting modern society and how Holden Caulfield, the anti-hero, was reluctant to take his place in a culture marked, claims Salinger, by phoniness, conformity and corruption. The novel has been required reading in American literature courses for decades and helped to prepare the Baby Boomer generation and its offspring for what later has become multiculturalism and anti-Americanism.
Two other “anti-establishment,” youth-young-adult angst novels, Charles Webb’s The Graduate (1963, faithfully produced by Hollywood in 1967), and Philip Roth’s Goodbye Columbus (1959, also faithfully transferred to the big screen in 1969), could have also been drafted by West to buttress her thesis, as well. They could have served as concrete instances that would illustrate her principal thesis. She might have easily contrasted these novels with one she holds up as an ideal story of a teenager who looks forward to being an adult, Booth Tarkington’s Seventeen (1916).
West ends Chapter Nine, “Men, Women…or Children?” with:
“Eternal youth is proving fatal; it is time to find our rebirth in adulthood.”
Overall, West’s thesis underscores the dangerous cracks, leaks and rot that characterize modern culture. But it is not enough to recommend anything more profound than for Americans to reclaim the role of thoughtful and responsible adulthood.
What accounts for America’s “arrested development” has been and continues to be the absence of a philosophy of reason as the dominant cultural attribute. We now have a country populated by physically mature adults too many of whom have “regressed” over the course of more than a generation to a state of helpless ignorance and the self-induced, institutionalized childishness of pretending that things are not what they are.
But, is “adolescent” the proper term to describe a culture that expresses and patronizes the irrational, the emotional, the whim, and the “pubescent”? Is “regression” a valid diagnosis of the condition of much of today’s adult population? It is possible that West’s “adolescence” is her substitute concept for “pre-maturity,” and not merely physical maturity, but mental maturity.
There was a time when reason was the dominant (though not exclusive) mover of men. And it is the gradual “death,” disparagement, or abandonment of reason in most fields or realms of values and action today that can account for any ostensive “juvenile” character of the culture. It is not so much an abdication of maturity or adulthood as it is a collapse into an eclectically-filled vacuum when reason is siphoned from men’s minds, regardless of their age.
The Death of the Grown-Up is an invaluable introduction to and diagnosis of the debilitating anti-value and anti-reason cultural illness that is suffocating the country.
* A.C. Grayling, “Can an atheist be a fundamentalist atheist?” in The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever, edited by Christopher Hitchens (Philadelphia: De Capo/Perseus Press, 2007), p. 474.
The Death of the Grown-Up: How America’s Arrested Development is Bringing Down Western Civilization, by Diana West. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2007. 256 pp.