My reflexive response on reading Diana Wests The Death of the Grown-up has been to keep announcing magisterially to all and sundry that I am one. Pass the salt, because I said so, and I am a grown-up. We know , the children reply wearily, which is a relief. After all, Ive just been reading a book that argues that, in the wake of World War IIs Greatest Generation, successive generations have abandoned traditional notions of adult gravitas in favor of a presumably, and even desirably, terminal adolescence. The titular allusion to Patrick Buchanans The Death of the West cannot be accidental: This cultural development, West argues, marks a devolution of civilization as, well, we used to know it. Adult judgment¯the mysterious sixth sense, as it seemed, which enabled my mother to declare from outside my bedroom door that I was not going out wearing that ¯has been replaced by a gormless disinclination to discern the good from the not-so-good, or to venture even that such distinctions exist at all. The problem, as West views it, is not merely rejection of authority but rejection of the responsibility to assert authority on any level, wreaking havoc in the family and the local community and rendering the West as a whole all the more vulnerable to jihadist assault.
This is quite a leap, from sex-toy parties in the middle-class, middle-age American living room, to Sharia law worldwide. It would be easy to conclude, as other reviewers have, that the whole argument is an exercise in overreaction, if not downright distortion¯a social-conservative Sicko . Wests early chapters on the rise of teenager culture, the abdication of parental authority, and the increasing exposure of children to what is still rather quaintly known as mature content, on television and online, do read like News of the Clinically Insane .
Take the parents whose idea of good, safe teenage fun is to hire a stripper to cover herself in whipped cream, so that their son and his football teammates can lick it off, or the mother who sues the school district to protest her daughters suspension, because official policies do not spell out explicitly that oral sex on the school bus is against the rules. Take Cucumber Girl, teenage star of a sex-education video intended for California tenth-graders, who chirpily instruct[s] viewers, in modified Val-Gal-speak, on the proper way to don a condom, using a cucumber as a demonstration model. Take the middle-age Batavia, New York, Rotarians posing nude for a fund-raising calendar. Take them all, please, back to Central Casting.
At least, thats the tempting response. Its tempting to argue, But most of us arent like that . After all, most of us arent. We dont hire strippers to entertain our children. We dont, as in another case West cites, hire out hotel suites to give our children a safe place to experiment with alcohol and drugs. Some of us go so far as to keep our children home¯for the day, or for the next twelve years¯to limit the influence of the Cucumber Girls, at least in our own families. As William Grimes of the New York Times points out, In one case after another, the community reacts with outrage, or a judge throws the argument out of court. Common sense and local standards, it seems, do occasionally score a victory.
Its that occasionally , however, thats telling, and scarily so. Why does one case after another come up in the first place? Why do community standards only occasionally prevail over absurdity? And what happens when the community standards themselves verge on the absurd? Witness the pandemic spinelessness of parents of high-schoolers who ask to be allowed to¯or declare that they are going to¯travel unchaperoned to some distant seaside destination for a week of spring-break debauchery:
Im nervous. I dont like it, said Beverly Boyd, whose son Charles [was going to Cancun] . . . I dont want him to go, but hes 18. I dont have a choice.
Even parents of 17-year-olds, parents who paid for their kids to go, said that they felt powerless to stop them . . . .
Its a dilemma. One parent gives in and then youre all giving in because you thought the other ones did, so I should, too.
The parents collapse like dominoes, and their children jet off to bar-hop and copulate with strangers on the beach, because nobody can think of any compelling reason to say no . Id think this was far-fetched if I had not, in the course of my brief high-school teaching career, known more than one child who had appropriated the family car for an unsanctioned road trip. One boy picked up his girlfriend and made it to New Jersey from North Carolina before the police caught up with him, as he told me cheerfully in class the following week. I dont know what happened to the girlfriend, but he was manifestly no worse for the experience. In cases like this, when I met with parents to discuss, among other things, the amount of homework their children had managed not to do in the course of their peregrinations, the parents almost invariably responded in tones of deep dolor, I cant do anything about it .
Witness also the battle¯duration: one day¯of the public library system in Jackson, Mississippi, not to include America (The Book) , a mock textbook in mock civics by mock anchorman Jon Stewart, among its offerings to the taxpaying public. On page ninety-nine, West writes, the book features a photograph of the nine justices of the Supreme Court posed to reveal what the skin mags not so long ago taught us to call full frontal nudity. The photos are photo-shopped, each justices head superimposed on an anonymous naked body, with a caption instructing readers to restore their dignity by matching each justice with his or her respective robe. In the free-speech uproar that the banning of this book provoked, the library director asserted, not unreasonably, that the Jackson and George County library system was not an adult bookstore . . . . If they had published the book without that one page, that one page, wed have the book. But again, community standards prevailed. Predictably, the library system came off looking like the represso-fundo freedom-censoring fringe, the enemy of rational, educated, evolved civilization. Their resolve imploded, and the book ended up on the public shelf.
To give context to these contemporary events, West constructs a historical trajectory that arcs from the World War II“era entry of the word teenager into the popular lexicon, to a future of multicultural uncertainty. By her account, the rise of the student radical in the 1960¯and the accompanying acquiescence of sycophantic college administrators and parents who laud destruction of property and the hurling of mindless obscenities as acts of conscience¯begets, in an unbroken lineage, the Islamic terrorist threat of our own era, The Real Culture War. Of the 1960s campus protests, she writes, In place of a hierarchy based on accrued wisdom, there would emerge a power structure based on accrued grievance. And in this hour, she argues, the powers of the West¯like those 60s parents¯practice something more like supplication than statecraft in dealing with the militant Islamic world. Hence the proliferation of official Washington Ramadan celebrations, and airport security policies that shy away from profiling Middle Eastern men.
What, exactly, is everyone afraid of? Mainly, says West, they are afraid of defying the cultural narrative, also in development for the last thirty years or so, which asserts that no culture may claim to have advanced any further, or to have accrued any greater wisdom, than any other culture. West describes her own childrens elementary-school encounters with multicultural education:
They dont know who discovered the Hudson River . . . but they come home with plaudits for Kenyas health-care system . . . . This, I recognized, was par for the PC course, as were the stories that came home about cows blood cuisine and earlobe enhancement, which the kids found relishingly disgusting.
But the kids also came home with stories of how the teacher admonished them to modify their feelings about such barbarities; indeed, to coin a phrase, to shut up. Teacher says: Who are we to say that supping on cows blood is gross? Thats their culture.
On the geopolitical level, West claims, the same argument currently carries the day: Who are we to say that blowing people up is gross? Thats their culture , whether theyre Islamists or Sinn Fein. In other words, when community standards go global, were the spring-break parents of the civilized world, and this does not bode well for civilization.
Perhaps, ultimately, the analogy is overstated. Can a watertight argument really be made for a causal relationship between, say, Ted Forth, perpetually juvenile husband of the wisecracking, hard-working, but also juvenile title character in the Sally Forth cartoon strip, and Osama bin Laden? One likes to sneak into his neighbors backyard to lie on a raft in the neighbors swimming pool; the other one likes to incite other people to fly airplanes into tall buildings. A good bit of construction is required to uphold any connection between the two phenomena, and its in this formulation¯immaturity begets multiculturalism begets Sharia law¯that Wests argument is in danger of straining itself. At the same time, the truth is that what happens on the familial and societal level must ultimately have larger ramifications, and its to Wests credit that she pushes into that territory.
Mature individuals make up a mature society. Such a society, it would seem, stabilized by . . . fixed standards . . . would no longer founder in the shifting “values” of multiculturalism. How could it? A clear moral standard would serve to anchor a clear cultural standard as well.
While its true that saying no may do nothing to stop a childs tantrum, the alternative is to say¯to be the kind of mother who would say¯ Go ahead, keep kicking me. The mother who says no might get kicked again; the mother who doesnt almost certainly will. And only one child will begin to learn that objective virtue exists, and that it lies in not kicking his mother. At least, I say so. And I am a grown-up.
Sally Thomas is a poet and homeschooling mother in Tennessee.
The Death of the Grown-up by Diana West