Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Grow Up, America!

The Death of the Grown-Up. How America’s Arrested Development is Bringing Down Western Civilization. by Diana West (St. Martin’s Press, 2007, 217pp.). In any conflict, understanding ourselves is as important as understanding the enemy. The jihadists battling us all over the globe of course have their own motives rooted in Islamic doctrine, but they also are animated by certain American cultural dysfunctions that in their view can be corrected only by submission to Allah. While we agonize over our alleged historical crimes against Islam that have provoked jihadist violence, the jihadists themselves more frequently rail against the materialism, hedonism, and godlessness that way back in the 40’s, jihadist theorist Sayyid Qutb thought he saw at a dance in Greeley, Colorado.

Much of the jihadist picture of the West is distorted, a caricature based on superficial observation and selective evidence. Yet there remain troubling aspects of American culture that give traction to the Islamic critique. In her book The Death of the Grown-Up, Diana West, a syndicated columnist for the Washington Times, pulls together the various dysfunctions and discontents of American civilization by seeing them as the expression of a unique historical development, the “death of the grown-up.” The demise of the adult has led to the abandonment of adult virtues and mentalities, and their replacement by the instant gratification, impatience with the limits of reality, and the obsession with the self typical of the teen-ager.
West starts by explaining the historical conditions of the “rise of the teen age,” a time of life unknown before modernity. Rather than flog the 60’s, West correctly sees that decade’s cultural degeneracy as the “epilogue” of the 50’s and its post-war affluence, demographic explosion, and increased freedom for the young. Changes in family size, the advent of work-place skills that demanded longer education, the discrediting of authority spawned by fascism, the inevitable progress of liberalism towards radical individualism — all contributed to the shift from an adult-centered world to a child-centered one. Also important was the development of adolescents into the most coveted demographic for consumer capitalism, the group most prone to transient fashion and impulse buying — and now possessing the funds to gratify those ad-stoked desires for products like Princess telephones, portable record players (six million sold in 1952 alone), 45rpm records, hairspray, and movies like Rebel Without a Cause that flattered and glamorized teen-aged angst and petulance.

Most important was the pop-cultural institutionalizing of “rebellion” that would bear such bitter political fruit in the 60’s. This demonizing of all authority, from mom and dad to the government, legitimized the impatience with the limits to desire typical of children and teen-agers: “The rebel without a cause,” West writes, “ is the Everyman of our age, the pretend maverick against the imaginary machine — the individual against conformity, the free spirit against the bureaucracy.” West sees rock’n’roll as the quintessential expression of this new worldview, that of “the perpetual adolescent who sees constraint and definition as padlocks on self-fulfillment and self-expression.” And this worldview quickly became the default attitude of much of American culture, particularly after the sixties — “the biggest temper tantrum in the history of the world” — and the craven reaction of the adult world, which simply gave up and cheerfully adopted as revealed truths many of the childish desiderata of that decade.

West follows this historical analysis with chapters that examine its various effects: the shifts in parenting styles to “parenting by containment,” the managing of risky behavior with information, rather than inculcating the virtues that avoid it; the expansion of the adolescent sensibility into both childhood and adulthood, creating “sophisticated babies” as well as forty-year-old teenagers; and the abandonment of public standards and decorum — the “boundaries” on sexual behavior and sexual expression without which civilized life is not possible. Indeed, the discarding of these conventions have simply enshrined a new convention — "an adolescent-driven, take-it-all-off, rock culture, no boundaries convention,” one even more tyrannous than the traditional standards.

These chapters are fascinating and meticulously researched, combining the data of social science, anecdotes from the daily media, examples from popular culture, and the observations of social commentators and historians like de Tocqueville and Norbert Elias. Yet the last three chapters are the most important, for they analyze how these developments have impacted the current war against Islamic jihad.
One of West’s shrewdest ideas is to link multiculturalism’s self-loathing idealization of the “other” to the adolescent “identity crisis.” Our ignorance of the West’s unique goods enshrined in its history and traditions has led to a loss of cultural identity, which “would seem to be linked to the loss of maturity. At the very least, the easy retreat from history and tradition reveals the kind of callow inconstancy and lack of confidence that smacks of immaturity as much as anything else. It seems that just as we have stopped ‘growing up,’ we have forgotten ‘who’ it was we were supposed to grow up into.” At the same time, we give to non-Western cultures a groveling respect and timidly acquiesce in their dysfunctions. This bad habit, as West shows with numerous examples, is particularly dangerous for the struggle against Islamic jihad. That battle isn’t going to be won by calling Islamic terrorists “gunmen” or “activists,” or by ignoring the West’s long, unique tradition of tolerance for the “other” at the same time we indulge the myth of Islamic tolerance.

These bad habits — evident everywhere in the timidity, appeasement, and outright lies that many Western politicians and media display in dealing with Islamic jihad — are linked by West to the “culture war” that before 9/11 seemed to many to be much ado about nothing. But that “culture war” legitimized and mainstreamed the politically correct attitudes that now hinder the West as it fights the real culture war, the one between the West and Islam. Even politicians who should know better have caved in to multicultural political correctness whenever they spoke the truth about Islam and violence. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s comments about the superiority of the West and its tradition of freedom — one absent, as a point of historical fact, from Islamic civilization — drew down the wrath of the p.c. media, leading to a craven apology from Berlusconi. So too with President Bush, who backed off from a perfectly acceptable use of the word “crusade.” This retreat legitimized the anti-Western, multiculturalist interpretation of the Crusades — which were in fact a counterattack in the long European defense against Islamic imperialist jihad — as instead some sort of proto-imperialist land-grab at the expense of the peaceful, dark-skinned “other.” This “terminal tolerance,” as West calls it, bespeaks the loss of confidence that maturity brings.

West concludes with a sobering question — can a culture of children wage war against a culture of aggressive confidence? With the loss of the virtues typical of adults, such as courage, loyalty, and duty; with a childish preference for passive victims rather than active heroes, one evident in the media’s depiction of our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, what hope of success can we have? Our refusal to speak honestly about Islam, our self-loathing, our eager seeking of the enemy’s approval, our constant donning of the hair-shirt of historical guilt — all these immature behaviors hearten the enemy and weaken our own cause.

Diana West’s book — passionately written and clearly argued — is a much-needed shout to America to grow up. And we’d better listen, for as West concludes, “It should now be clear that the civilization that forever dodges maturity will never live to a ripe old age.”

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