The Official Blog Of Edward Cline

Maturity Deferred: The Death of the Grown-Up

This book review was originally written in 2008 for another
publication, some time after Diana West’s book debuted. The editor of
that publication – who shall remain nameless, as well as the publication itself
– had the hubris to edit my original review out of recognition. I withdrew the
submission and am belatedly publishing it now.
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.

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