America has gone childish on us, and not just America, by the way: The whole of the West has to some extent succumbed to a kind of adolescent mode of dealing with things, and there’s grave peril here, such as a lessened ability to stand up to Islamic radicals.
Such is the thesis of Diana West’s book, “The Death of the Grown-up,” which, as its subtitle begins to explain, sees this theorized, arrested development of so many in our culture as threatening a great, grand civilization that once stood unashamedly for liberty and opportunity and knew its self-pronounced virtues were in fact virtues but is now rebelling without cause.
Hers is a useful perspective, as the book’s multiple explorations demonstrate, and one I find congenial to my own way of thinking. As someone who grew up in the years immediately following World War II, I have long believed my generation was treated to an extraordinary indulgence our parents had never come close to knowing.
These sternly raised, notable, industrious, self-sacrificing souls had had their lives made terribly difficult by the Depression and then a massive worldwide conflict, and were determined circumstances would be easier for their children, or so it seems to me. One consequence, in my view, is that a large number of those children were in effect spoiled — they came of age more focused on what society owed them than on what they owed back, and with too little sense that they had something to learn from their elders or tradition.
West — a friend whose columns I once edited — believes things have gone from bad to worse, the bad being exemplified by the “temper tantrum” of the 1960s, a period in which anything-goes values that began to be inculcated in the 1950s made themselves felt in a rebellion that pretty much was against everything and anything that smacked of responsible adulthood and that met little to no resistance.
Where we’ve ended up is in an era in which teenagers are no longer seen as young people preparing themselves to be serious grown-ups, but as exemplifying an ideal of dress, behavior and uninformed understandings all should emulate. The society is one in which adults watch cable TV cartoons more than CNN. The instructing ethos is a multiculturalist tolerance that shrugs its shoulders at all kinds of deficiencies or even threats in other cultures — but draws the line at respect for Dead White Males, those Western masters of literature, science, philosophy, technology, politics and art who gave humankind riches virtually beyond description.
It’s at this point of failing to admire the extraordinary, unmatched accomplishments of our own civilization — fearing that thereby we might insult some way of things just as worthy if not far more so — that we should especially stop, look and listen, for the consequences could well be the loss of these accomplishments, a fearful fall. West gives a number of revelatory examples, not the least of which is her recounting of what happened to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi when he praised Western values after the 9/11 attacks in the United States.
He talked of the West’s reverence for liberty and political and religious rights, its fostering of prosperity, and said you don’t find these things in Islamic countries, which have no use for diversity. He spoke of Western civilization as thereby superior, and found himself widely, harshly criticized throughout Europe as offensive and wrong. He soon enough retreated — after all, it takes an unusually brave and confident man to stand up for the right when all about you are screaming their heads off that you are some kind of a beast stinking up the woods, and Berlusconi did not quite measure up.
But as West says, he was right in his remarks. “Berlusconi hadn’t said anything even remotely false,” she writes. “Liberty, prosperity and human rights are hallmarks of Western civilization; liberty, prosperity and human rights are not hallmarks of Islamic civilization.” Argue against that if you want, but you will be arguing without foundation, without logic, without any evidence whatsoever, and if you argue that liberty, prosperity and human rights are not superior values, you will be arguing fascistically, in a way that weakens us in our contest with other, endangering values, and something else: You will be arguing childishly.
(Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)aol.com.)