Review: The Death of the Grown-Up

Article by   June 2008
death-of.jpg"The Death of the Grown-Up: How America's Arrested Development is Bringing Down Wester Civilization"
by Diana West
272 p.
St. Martin's Press
Reviewed by David Jones

"Forever Young" sang the ever-aging Rod Stewart (and - it should be noted - Bob Dylan in a much superior original version!). From the fabled search of Juan Ponce de Leon for the mythical Fountain of Youth in the early 16th century (located, oddly enough, in Florida, the archetypal retirement community!) to the freakish fascination with anti-aging creams, herbal remedies, diets, and conferences in the 21st century, Americans have grown increasingly obsessed with the avoidance of growing old. But what if "Forever Young" should prove fatal?
    Such is the question posed in Diana West's The Death of the Grown-Up: How America's Arrested Development is Bringing Down Western Civilization. More than the ubiquitous longing for youthful beauty and vitality is in view here. West insists that America has become a society that prizes and perpetuates immaturity. No less than the survival of Western civilization is at stake in our refusal to grow up and act as responsible adults in our parenting, citizenry, and foreign policies as a nation.
    This is admittedly a lot to swallow in one gulp. So how does she argue her case?
    Since West travels an interesting route to her destination, it is helpful to begin at the end where West most clearly describes the quintessential difference between adolescence and adulthood: the ability to say "No!" (215). The road signs guiding one to the province of maturity are marked with virtues, - the "unforgiving but inspirational essence of adulthood" (216) -  and virtues cannot survive or remain honest without corresponding stigmas. But there is a significant roadblock along the way. That roadblock preventing progress on the pathway of maturity is none other than the sacred cow of muliticulturalism (which West affectionately labels the source of a "multiculti monopoly" in American discourse). Multiculturalism is most prominently characterized by non-judgmentalism - a refusal to say no to anything - and is therefore "one of the leading factors of infantilization" (217). West's tome is first and foremost a diatribe directed at demolishing this barricade to maturity by exposing its incoherence and dangers.
    While multiculturalism is in large part the incubator of immaturity that West denounces, multiculturalism did not arise ex nihilo.  So West takes us on whirlwind tour of numerous key moments in the 20th and early 21st century as well as certain features of American society,    toppling tables in the American temple all along the way.
    West begins her "cultural detective work" with an archaeological excavation of the historical roots of the notion of adolescence, a modern invention constructed to explain the period of life between childhood and adulthood (noting that "Teenager" does not enter American vocabulary much before 1941!). (2) A plethora of journal articles, sociological works, and pop culture references are presented as artifacts demonstrating the rise of a youth culture largely non-existent before World War II.  As recently as 2002, adolescence has been extended to cover the period from the onset of puberty into an individual's early 30's, according to the National Academy of Sciences! (2) The extension of adolescence alone, however, is not what is most troubling. What is deeply troubling to West is that within this sub-culture, peer groups replaced parental influence as the fundamental factor shaping adolescent life. (15)
    What precipitated the rise of this social class almost entirely divorced from the guidance and wisdom of adults? Here West offers a stinging indictment of the so-called "Greatest Generation": it was during the peace and prosperity following World War II that adults began to "ape the adolescent" (6). Adults abdicated their role as guardians of a cultural tradition. Consequently, the decade long "temper-tantrum" of the 60's had its roots in the 50's (which was NOT the golden age it is so nostalgically interpreted to be). Her analysis is multi-faceted and sometimes difficult to follow, but one thing is clear. The fundamental cultural shift that West finds most dangerous is not the rise of adolescence but the fall of adulthood.  
    This is important to grasp if we are to properly track with West on her journey across our cultural landscape. While much attention is often given to analyze our "youth gone wild" culture - tirades which admittedly can become tiresome - what West is zeroing in on is the loss of conviction, outrage, and grown-up (re-)actions on the part of adults who have a responsibility to model and shepherd young people into maturity. In her words, adults have embraced "the worldview of the perpetual adolescent who sees constraint and definition as padlocks on self-fulfillment and self-expression, and not as keys to identity..." (34)
    The implications have been enormous. While some might fault West for her choice of the most sensationalistic examples of absentee parents in the face of teenage debauchery and violence (and believe me, she conveys some SHOCKING stories!), the overall impression she makes substantiates her assertion that we inhabit a culture where the goal is simply to keep kids safe, not help them become good. Being healthy has replaced being moral as the telos of human existence in our communities, which is quite understandable when schools are left to construct a moral compass for students: they only educate for safety! (87)
    The effects of our adult acquiescence to adolescent sensibilities extend beyond passive parenting - where parents are "there" but doing nothing because they see nothing for them to do -to a cultural ethos where virtues have been almost entirely replaced by values. No longer are there laws of common decency. Nothing is sacred. Nothing is shameful. All that is left is subjective preferences (values) which fill the void created by the banishment of objective moral standards (virtues). We have entered into what might be called the new new covenant: "I don't judge you, you don't judge me." (122)
    This covenant underscores the two virtues our culture still embraces: openness and acceptance. But here we find the fundamental force establishing and guarding the multiculti monopoly that West finds so despicable: the loss of Western identity. West insightfully writes,
"This makes boundaries and taboos, limits and definitions - anything that closes the door on anything else - the lowest possible sins." Judgment, no matter how judicious, is tarred as 'prejudice' and, therefore, a neobarbarous act to be repressed and ultimately warmongering...The overall effect has been to sap the culture's confidence in its own traditions, even - especially - in the classical liberal tradition that stiffened our spines against Hitler in the first place." (131)
This loss of identity is linked to a loss of maturity: since we no longer know who we are, we have no idea who we are to grow into - or how! We are stuck within the confines of immaturity because the "multiculti bear hug has left society in a state of moral, cultural, and political paralysis". (141)
    From this vantage point, West ventures into what is undoubtedly the most controversial - and potentially inflammatory - portion of her argument. In chapter 8 she begins to turn over the needlepoint she has been threading to reveal the picture she has labored so long to display.
    The picture looks like this. Multiculturalism was victorious in the classrooms of higher education (noting my own ministry location, Stanford University, as a pre-eminent example when in 1988 it excised its Western Civilization course from the curriculum). The result has been an almost complete loss of Western identity since what we are taught about our own history is no longer identifiably Western. We have surrendered our cultural ideals by surrendering our story. With the disparagement of Western points of view comes a whole-hearted embrace of non-Western points of view. Consequently, our core (Western) convictions - liberty, prosperity, and the pursuit of happiness - are in danger because any hint of superiority is automatically deemed heretical by the standards of the new orthodoxy: openness and acceptance.
The sum of the matter is that we no longer have any confidence in our own convictions as a culture. Our loss of confidence is a mark of immaturity. And it leaves us, West argues, in a precarious position. Quoting Arthur Koestler, West states, "The predicament of Western civilization is that it has ceased to be aware of the values it is in peril of losing." (187)
Here is where West turns up the heat and will certainly offend multicultural sensibilities most egregiously. What West finds most threatening to the survival of Western civilization is the spread of Islam into the Western world. The peril is created by our multicultural outlook which prevents any clashing of civilizations. Instead of "clash" there is only "mush" (blending) and "shush" (refusal to say anything negative about another culture or civilization). Tolerance is the heart of our politically correct discourse. Tolerance is inherently attractive to our new sensibilities because tolerance is regarded as an act of inclusion; conversely, drawing boundaries and making judgments is viewed as exclusive and mean-spirited. But by prizing tolerance - openness and acceptance - above all else, we leave our Western way of life undefined and undefended. We have embraced what West calls terminal tolerance, which is when "tolerance of the intolerant leads to the destruction of the tolerant." (152).
While trying to avoid our supposedly parochial Western ideals, we have attempted to replace them with so-called universalist ideals, which aren't really universal! As a case in point, she describes the incompatibility of Western and Islamic notions of freedom. But without any confidence in our core convictions, we are silent in the face of blatant violations of human freedom and dignity, and we end up abandoning freedom of speech and conscience in the name of freedom of religion.
West states that PC-life has become similar to dhimmitude, a term introduced by Islamic scholar Bat Ye'or into our vocabulary "to describe a mode of behavior or state of mind fostered by sharia-sanctioned religious inferiority." (182) Our public discourse and activity is shaped by the same social norms that shape non-Muslims living in Muslim ruled lands. As a result, we have a culture of silence, fear, and appeasement towards Islamic offences (184-185) and we constantly cater to the aggrieved by surrendering our ideals (166). We live "under siege" in America. And to add insult to injury, extrapolating from the work of Harvard psychiatrist Kenneth Levin, this "under siege" mentality of PC-life she likens to that of an abused child, who is infected with delusional thinking of two kinds: "One is delusional thinking about the intentions of the aggressor...; the other is delusional thinking about the victim's ability to change the aggressor's intentions...[T]hey see their own behavior as the cause of their own abuse" (207).
What we have is a society in denial of unpleasant facts. We have enshrined immaturity. Unless America, and the Western world in general, is able to break the spell of multiculturalism, we will remain unable - and perhaps unwilling - to survive the challenges of the 21st century in any sense continuous with our historical identity. What we need is to "grow up"!
Reviewing a work as dense and controversial as West's is difficult not only because of the challenge of carefully attending to the nuance of her argumentation but also because any criticism offered in a few simple paragraphs runs the risk of sounding cheap and picayune. Nevertheless a few words of response seem necessary.
First, mention must be made regarding the tone of the work as a whole. While engaging and enormously entertaining at times, the tenor of her tome will likely only persuade sympathetic readers. But if West is right, it is precisely those unsympathetic to her argument that most need to be persuaded if her work is to be a catalyst for cultural change. While not denying the need for honest, hard-hitting rhetoric at times, the old adage is worth heeding: "you attract a lot more bees with honey than with vinegar".
    Second, a word about the structure of her book is in order. One of the more frustrating features about this densely written work is that it really is not clear where West is heading until chapters 7 and 8. One who reads only the first few chapters might be tempted to dismiss her as a crank or a prude bemoaning the lifestyles of "young people today", even though her aim is to deliver a disciplinary spanking to wayward adults not children.    
    Third, and more significantly, West's insistence that multiculturalism has blinded us to the real nature of Islam is alarming to say the least. On numerous occasions, we are told that the very presence of qualifiers such as "extremist" or "radical" to Islam in public discourse is an undeniable indication that we are failing to wrestle with the true nature of this religion. Islam, West asserts, has historically advanced by the violence of the sword. We are naïve and immature if we do not open our eyes to this reality. I am far from qualified to judge the merits of her analysis. But what I do find interesting is that she seems to rely primarily upon a single source - the scholar Bat Ye'Or - for her views on Islam and its history. Perhaps Bat Ye'Or is correct. But on a matter so volatile and controversial as this it would seem vital to interact substantially with other voices regarding Islam in order to substantiate her claims.    
Finally, as a Christian I cannot help but register my discomfort with a naked call for saving Western civilization. At least as far back as Augustine (and definitely farther!), the Christian tradition has sounded the note that our hopes cannot be pinned to the City of Man. This is no lazy retort that would allow us not to care about our culture or civilization. Rather, it is a sober reminder that it was to the Church - the agent of the Kingdom of God - that Jesus made this promise: "the gates of Hell shall not prevail" against her! In the end, our hope is no more in Western culture than it is in multicultural visions of utopia. Our hope is in God's Kingdom, so what we labor for in the here and now must find its place beneath the reign of King Jesus.
Nevertheless Diana West's book is a challenging, insightful, provocative, and penetrating examination of our cultural moment in America. I recommend reading carefully and wrestling honestly with her thesis that what we have lost in the past few generations is the recognizable presence of grown-ups.  


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