A review of The Death of the Grown-Up: How America's Arrested Development Is Bringing Down Western Civilization, by Diana West
One day in the mid-1960s I opened an issue of one of the then supposedly "hot" literary magazines and came upon an article written by a young man who was either still in, or perhaps just out of, college. I no longer remember why that piece was included in the magazine—whether, say, as part of a symposium of some kind or whether solely by virtue of its alleged literary merit—but I have never forgotten what its author said, for it provided my somewhat premature introduction to what would nearly a decade further on come to be celebrated in song and story simply as The Sixties (though it would, of course, also include a goodly part of the '70s). To me the most memorable part of the article was taken up with a description of the daily life of its author's father, who, it was announced in a tone of horror, got up every day and dutifully went to work at the same old soul-killing job for no better reason than to provide his family with what seemed to be his idea of a good life, namely, a safe and comfortable house to live in, good food to eat, a good school for the children, and decent neighbors. The young man then concluded by saying that if he ever came to believe that he himself might some day be consigned to such a life, he would prefer to slit his throat.
Slit his throat—the young man's exact words. It would be gratifying to be able to say that in that moment I could foresee the full extent of the chaos that was about to settle on a generation of the country's most benignly bred and tenderly treated children, but in fact that would take some time (and as the parent of daughters then approaching their teens, no doubt some contribution to that chaos on my own oh-so-enlightened part). Although far from free myself of the sin of generational arrogance back in those years, the only word for what I felt about that young author was fury. Had it never occurred to him, I fumed, that maybe his father was living as he lived not by some socially perverted choice but out of love, precisely, for him?
In any case, and whatever my personal feelings toward him, there was no missing the significance of that privileged young man's belief that he would rather be dead than accept the responsibility of providing a safe and comfortable life for a child of his own. Such an idea would, indeed, be a not-so-hidden factor behind a good deal—if not indeed all—of the soon-to-explode student radicalism, not to speak of that other, literal form of declaring oneself non-responsible, namely, "dropping out" (which turned out to mean not much more than living on charity, whether from a government otherwise declared to be illegitimate or from one's as yet fortunately unsuicidal check-writing father).
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As things turned out, of course, there proved to be a whole lot of ruin in this nation—not to speak of in that ungrateful young man's generation. And since by the same token there was in the end minimal, if any, economic consequence—either to the famous "kids" or to the country—from what proved after all to be only a temporary refusal to get into proper harness, our young author very likely did in the end find himself a job—or better yet, a high-powered career—and perhaps even, throat intact, got himself dragged into making a reasonably comfortable home for a child or two.
But if the economic impact of those youthful disruptions that came so indulgently (and falsely) to be associated with the vicissitudes of the Vietnam War was in the end minimal, their cultural consequence was, of course, enormous. For not only were they tolerated, but in the eyes of significant numbers of the society's acknowledged educational, spiritual, psychiatric, and legal authorities they were to be accorded high—in some cases the very highest—moral and spiritual kudos. The "kids" took to the streets, trashed their schools, committed arson in university libraries…and were thereby declared the finest and brightest the world had yet seen. Even the ever more casual and commonplace use of illegal drugs, if not exactly honored, was at least brought into the zone of social comfort by being set on a moral par with the parental consumption of alcohol. And as for sex, what is there to say? A generation and more of seekers after psychoanalytic enlightenment had succeeded in "freeing" the children to float around adrift in the stuff, where the only safe course open to them—little men, little women—was to arrange for themselves an ever less satisfactory series of ersatz monogamies. (It is difficult to believe that the explosion of resentment against men on the part of ordinary young women that began sometime in the 1970s, and the answering, though perhaps more private, explosion of resentment against women on the part of ordinary young men, had nothing to do with the unnatural impositions they placed on one another in what should have been their dreaming and scheming teen years.)
Be that as it may, and whatever the scarring of its tissue that must inevitably have been involved in its ultimate surrender to the everyday, this was a generation whose formative experience was that of being praised to the skies by those in command of its future and being at the same time uniquely unreserved about praising itself.
As for the author of that offending article, the number of years that have passed since it was published would indicate that he is now, at least figuratively, a grandfather. His children, whatever the advantages or lack of same provided for their growing up, are now doing well—certainly by comparison with the overwhelming majority of mankind and even by comparison with society's only somewhat tardily realized expectations for them. And his grandchildren? They are growing up in a world whose possibilities for comfort and health and entertainment and enrichment would even only two generations earlier have seemed at the border of the unimaginable.
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Yet alas, says Diana West in her new book, these are not the luckiest children in the history of the world. On the contrary, they are the most neglected and abandoned. Moreover, their abandonment is not only proving to be dangerous, in some cases mortally so, for the children themselves but is, as the book's subtitle has it, having no less an effect than that of "bringing down Western civilization" itself.
Now, as we know, subtitles are often composed by publishers, or at least arrived at in cooperation with their books' authors, in order to provide a bit of easily visible provocation to the passing book buyer. And as we also know, Western civilization has survived—sometimes shakily and in much need of repair but also sometimes in what can only be called glory—such brutalities as, to mention only a few, war, slavery, bloody revolution, fratricide, and genocide. Still, there is no question that in certain relatively new respects the condition of Western culture is at this moment far, far from robust. Thus though it does, happily, seem way too extreme to do something as brash and bad tempered as sound the death knell of so long-lived and so various—and yes, so benign—a civilization as that responsible for the creation of the United States of America, there is without any question much reason to be concerned about the condition of the country's most privileged children and their parents. (Or perhaps one should say there is still, after more than 40 years, much reason to be concerned about the condition of the country's most privileged children and their parents.) And that, title and subtitle notwithstanding, is both the real subject of this book and the source of its author's sometimes almost palpable anxiety.
A columnist for the Washington Times, Diana West is a writer with a keen eye for the salient detail, an equally keen wit, a truly lively pen, and a hearty appetite for bad news. She is also, it seems, a mother, still young enough to find herself, or so the reader might surmise, moving through what might just be the thorniest of all the thickets of motherhood—that of bringing one's offspring ever closer to adulthood. This, though referred to somewhat obliquely here and there in the book, does at any rate seem to add something to the tone of urgency with which she levels her indictment at her contemporaries.
Her thesis, illustrated with a full range of anecdotes culled mainly from the heartland of the American upper middle class, is that the moral and social abandonment of America's offspring by their parents is leading not only to the children's own downfall but to the downfall of Western civilization itself. And given the evidence she has collected, not to speak of the mountain of similar evidence available to just about any observer who takes only a bit of trouble, there is more than enough reason to be worried. That girls and boys who are of an age to be shuffling around anxiously eyeing one another from opposite sides of the room, for instance, are now meeting in corners instead for a bit of ho-hum fellatio, while perhaps not technically criminal enough to send anyone to jail, is surely a crime against the nature of those girls and, I would say, against that of the boys as well. Or that children who are not old enough to vote are allowed by parents, whether absent or present, to throw themselves parties at which they drink the night away—again, while perhaps not a prosecutable offense—is surely to be accounted a crime against them. And that parents look away when their children give evidence of being zonked on drugs more than surely ranks as a crime against them. And as for the rest of the parental indulgences under which their children's minds and souls are being buried, these serve at once as the youngsters' training in the need to have a great deal of money and simultaneously as a deterrent to the ambition to learn how to earn it. All this and more, in carefully collected examples, constitutes the major part of Diana West's indictment.
And finally, if, as she so persuasively illustrates, the parents of these children cannot bear the image of themselves as people whose obligation is to exercise parental authority in the face of resistance, what can be said of school officials, who have long since abdicated just about every right to make a rule or impose a demand? It is ironic, and, of course, far, far worse than ironic, that America's once-undreamed of energy and the wealth it has produced should have turned out to be so fertile a ground for the intellectual and social (and sexual) enervation of the country's most advantaged children.
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Now, being a conscientious observer, Diana West provides an account of the generation on whose behalf she is so angry that is bound to leave a reader deeply worried about what the future can possibly hold in store for them. And there is even more to be said about their condition: for instance, that thanks to science and technology these children will now grow up virtually free of illness and pain and physical travail. This means not only that they will have had little experience of, and little or no tolerance for, difficulty but that they will almost certainly on average live longer than, say, their grandparents. Which in turn means, in effect, that they are at a point, socially as well as spiritually speaking, far less along in life than, say, the boys of the same age who once readied themselves to march off to fight in World War II and the girls who waited for them to return. How this will all play out one day we do not in fact know, but even if Diana West's reporting turns out to provide only a partial account, at this point there seems little question that many if not most members of the generation of today's children will be forced to grow up, socially and emotionally speaking, with one hand tied behind their backs.
But "downfall" and "death"? Granted, they may not make a pretty or ennobling sight when these children arrive at the point where they might be expected to take their place in the world. But then it was also a far from pretty sight when their parents, the fabled "kids" of the '60s, arrived there as well. The country paid a heavy cultural price for that, to be sure: among many other things, there was the startlingly rapid wreckage of the American university and all that it portended for the intellectual condition of its allegedly best and brightest. The point is, however, that this country and its culture, both of which are no longer nearly so young and tender and breakable as some of their despairing critics seem to think, have by now come through, and survived, a great deal. Some of it has been ugly in a way that we can hardly any longer imagine: the Civil War, to take the admittedly cruelest example, in which 620,000 people were killed at a time when the country's entire population was only a little more than 30 million and from whose deepest bitterness the country would not really emerge for nearly a century. Or, to take a far less cosmic but not altogether inconsequential example, there was the wave of crime, including murders in the street, and the political corruption it engendered—not to speak of the open flouting of the law on the part of hundreds of thousands of the country's most worldly-wise citizens—brought on by the 18th Amendment to the Constitution. (This phenomenon has in recent years been set in its place as a source of truly excellent cinematic entertainment, but surely a Diana West of the 1920s might have declared with what would have seemed full justice that the moral and cultural skies were falling.)
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The United States is both a large and various and—what is hardly unimportant—very, very lucky place. It is lucky in its great size, its location, its variety—whether geographic or economic or social—and above all in the genius of the men who undertook to secure its founding. It has perhaps, but only perhaps, seen better times, morally speaking, than the present. It has surely seen worse ones. And if those who should be its most fortunate children turn out to have been left unfitted for what a decent life requires, who is to say that that condition can never be altered? Maybe one day someone will actually ask something of America's privileged young. Maybe, for example, the spectacle of all those brave and sturdy young men and women voluntarily shouldering a responsibility to their country in some far-off place like Iraq will spark in them a feeling of envy, or even shame.
Or perhaps even reading a jeremiad by a certain clever and passionate woman might awaken them to the idea that it is time to get over their parents' abdication of responsibility and take their future into their own potentially competent, though so sadly untried, hands. That, too, is after all a time-honored American tradition. Were it not, we'd have been in the soup long, long ago.
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For Correspondence on this review, click here.