- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 7, 2007


By Diana West

St. Martin’s Press, $23.95, 256 pages


“When I was a child I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man I put away childish things.”

These are the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the church at Corinth. Doubtless Paul would be appalled, as is Diana West, by contemporary Western culture, which allows, even encourages, people to stay children for a lifetime. Too many in our secular, multicultural, androgynous, non-judgmental, post-everything mush of a culture are choosing not to grow up. Ms. West says this is to our detriment and peril. Our very existence may depend on learning to produce full-service men and women again.

The matter isn’t only an aesthetic blight, though it’s certainly that. It’s a burden on the adult eye and ear to see middle-aged full-professors, tie-dyed and tenured, wearing unlaced sneakers and backpacks. It’s grating on the grownup ear to hear members of Congress or corporate executives prattling on about their favorite rock bands. How melancholy to learn of the large number of Americans in their 30s and 40s watching the Cartoon Network and “Seinfeld” re-runs. How dreary to see father and son slouching in the same baggy and rumpled shorts, dirty sneakers and T-shirt.

But beyond these aesthetic insults are the more important matters of the challenges and normal battles of adulthood that are not being joined because lifetime children in positions of political or cultural authority don’t want to do their duty, any more than they wanted to do their homework or clean up their rooms when they were actual children.

And here’s the peril. If it’s a bunch of adolescents up against determined Islamic jihadis who know what they believe and what they’re willing to kill you about if you won’t believe — whom do you bet on?

Ms. West’s book, her first, may be a bit of a jeremiad. But what she says is important, and her presentation is thorough, well-reasoned, and clearly written.

Ms. West acts as historian and diagnostician, outlining in critical detail how we’ve departed from all of human history, where adulthood was the fulfillment of youth’s promise, to arrive at a point where so many in America and the West are no longer willing to accept the responsibilities that come with adulthood. She shows how we’ve fashioned a culture with no edges or center, a culture that allows many Americans to be the slackers they obviously wish to be.

The inconvenient truth here is that slackers don’t build civilizations, or maintain and defend the ones they inherit. Survival in a hostile world requires confidence in one’s virtues. It takes discernment, ability to know right from wrong and willingness to oppose the wrong. It takes deferred gratification and self-sacrifice. Forbearance, patience, perspective, sobriety and decorum also help. These are adult virtues and modes of behavior. And they’ve been virtually leeched out of American culture.

Most of what Ms. West describes as a “profound civilizational shift” took place shortly after World War II. In that war, Americans, fully cognizant of and believing in both their virtues and their responsibilities, did themselves proud. They played major roles in preventing the tyranny that would have been the world’s lot had not free grownups prevailed. But barely two decades after the war ended, adult virtues had been replaced by watery adolescent “values,” and the very ideas of honor and heroism were being made fun of in elite circles.

Ms. West gives us an alternative, and I believe accurate, view of the so-called placid, conformist Fifties. Television, with its hip, anti-authority, youth-is-cool stance, entered our lives during the Fifties. Add Elvis, the beginning of rock and roll, kid movies such as “Rebel Without a Cause” and popular but puerile anti-grownup kid-lit like “Catcher in the Rye,” and it’s clear that much undermining had been done before the so-called “revolution” of the Sixties.

The peace and affluence of postwar America produced the Baby Boom — the most-indulged children in the history of the world. By the mid-Sixties, Boomers by the millions were idling in universities, from which privileged perches they instructed the world on what was wrong with it, and what they were willing to do, which wasn’t much. They launched a decade-long tantrum.

The shocking part of all of this is that grownups allowed the children to get away with it, accommodated every callow whim, even decided the kids were right and they, the grownups, were wrong about how things should be. Welcome to the post-adult world.

At 217 pages, “Death of the Grown-Up” isn’t long, but it’s dense with detail and with Ms. West’s ability to tie the threads together. She moves seamlessly from the teen culture with its endless kiddie products, to parents who forgot how to say “no.” She takes us through the craven responses to student violence and through the degeneration of music and movies and other pop culture. The underlying themes are the undermining of authority, the disappearance of limits and boundaries, and the refusal to face adult responsibilities.

Now America and the West face a determined enemy that we seem to be unwilling to oppose seriously, even to describe honestly. Instead of forcefully engaging jihad and those who wish to conquer us, we engage in a form of childish wishful thinking. We hope that with a little better “communication,” unending pleas to “universal values” (which, unfortunately, like Santa Claus, don’t exist) and a willingness to appease every time our enemy feels aggrieved (which is all the time), that everything will just work out somehow.

This childish dithering is a frail reed on which to risk our future and our children’s futures. Better to take Diana West’s prescription and begin to work very hard on figuring out how to start producing grownups again. We used to have lots of them. And they used to be in charge. That was when we built a civilization for the world to admire, and never failed in its defense.

Larry Thornberry is a writer living in Tampa.

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