The Death of the Grown-Up: How America's Arrested Development Is Bringing Down Western Civilization

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9780312340483: The Death of the Grown-Up: How America's Arrested Development Is Bringing Down Western Civilization
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Diana West sees a US filled with middle-age guys playing air guitar and thinks "No wonder we can't stop Islamic terrorism."  She sees Moms Who Mosh and wonders "Is there a single adult left anywhere?"  But, the grown-ups are all gone.  The disease that killed them was incubated in the sixties to a rock-and-roll score, took hold in the seventies with the help of multicultralism and left us with a nation of eternal adolescents who can't decide between "good" and "bad", a generation who can't say "no".  From the inability to nix a sixteen year-old's request for Marilyn Manson concert tickets to offering adolescents parentally-funded motel rooms on prom night to rationalizing murderous acts of Islamic suicide bombers with platitudes of cultural equivalence, West sees us on a slippery slope that's lead to a time when America has forgotten its place in the world.  In The Death of the Grown-Up Diana West serves up a provocative critique of our dangerously indecisive world leavened with humor and shot through with insight.

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About the Author:

DIANA WEST is a Washington Times op-ed columnist, syndicated by United Media, who has contributed to many other publications including the Wall Street Journal, Weekly Standard, New Criterion, Public Interest, Women's Quarterly and Washington Post Magazine. She has also written fiction for Atlantic Monthly. She currently lives in Washington, D.C.

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Chapter One RISE OF THE TEEN AGE If a society is to preserve its stability and a degree of continuity, it must know how to keep its adolescents from imposing their tastes, attitudes, values, and fantasies on everyday life. —Eric Hoffer, 19731  Once, there was a world without teenagers. Literally. “Teenager,” the word itself, doesn’t pop into the lexicon much before 1941. This speaks volumes about the last few millennia. In all those many centuries, nobody thought to mention “teenagers” because there was nothing, apparently, to think of mentioning. In considering what I like to call “the death of the grown-up,” it’s important to keep a fix on this fact: that for all but this most recent episode of human history, there were children and there were adults. Children in their teen years aspired to adulthood; significantly, they didn’t aspire to adolescence. Certainly, adults didn’t aspire to remain teenagers. That doesn’t mean youth hasn’t always been a source of adult interest: Just think in five hundred years what Shakespeare, Dickens, the Brontës, Mark Twain, Booth Tarkington, Eugene O’Neill, and Leonard Bernstein have done with teen material. But something has changed. Actually, a lot of things have changed. For one thing, turning thirteen, instead of bringing children closer to an adult world, now launches them into a teen universe. For another, due to the permanent hold our culture has placed on the maturation process, that’s where they’re likely to find most adults. This generational intersection yields plenty of statistics. More adults, ages eighteen to forty-nine, watch the Cartoon Network than watch CNN.2 Readers as old as twenty-five are buying “young adult” fiction written expressly for teens.3 The average video gamester was eighteen in 1990; now he’s going on thirty.4 And no wonder: The National Academy of Sciences has, in 2002, redefined adolescence as the period extending from the onset of puberty, around twelve, to age thirty.5 The MacArthur Foundation has gone farther still, funding a major research project that argues that the “transition to adulthood” doesn’t end until age thirty-four.6 This long, drawn-out “transition” jibes perfectly with two British surveys showing that 27 percent of adult children striking out on their own return home to live at least once; and that 46 percent of adult couples regard their parents’ houses as their “real” homes.7 Over in Italy, nearly one in three thirty-somethings never leave that “real” home in the first place.8 Neither have 25 percent of American men, ages eighteen to thirty.9 Maybe this helps explain why about one-third of the fifty-six million Americans sitting down to watch SpongeBob SquarePants on Nickelodeon each month in 2002 were between the ages of eighteen and forty-nine.10 (Nickelodeon’s core demographic group is between the ages of six and eleven.) These are grown-ups who haven’t left childhood. Then again, why should they? As movie producer and former Universal marketing executive Kathy Jones put it, “There isn’t any clear demarcation of what’s for parents and what’s for kids. We like the same music, we dress similarly.”11 How did this happen? When did this happen? And why? More than a little cultural detective work is required to answer these questions. It’s one thing to sift through the decades looking for clues; it’s quite another to evaluate them from a distance that is more than merely temporal. We have changed. Our conceptions of life have changed. Just as we may read with a detached noncomprehension how man lived under the divine right of monarchs, for example, it may be that difficult to relate to a time when the adolescent wasn’t king. About a hundred years ago, Booth Tarkington wrote Seventeen, probably the first novel about adolescence. Set in small-town America, the plot hinges on seventeen-year-old William Baxter’s ability to borrow, on the sly, his father’s dinner jacket, which the teenager wants to wear to impress the new girl in town. In other words, it’s not a pierced tongue or a tattoo that wins the babe: it’s a tuxedo. William dons the ceremonial guise of adulthood to stand out—favorably—from the other boys. That was then. These days, of course, father and son dress more or less alike, from message-emblazoned T-shirts to chunky athletic shoes, both equally at ease in the baggy rumple of eternal summer camp. In the mature male, these trappings of adolescence have become more than a matter of comfort or style; they reveal a state of mind, a reflection of a personality that hasn’t fully developed, and doesn’t want to—or worse, doesn’t know how. By now, the ubiquity of the mind-set provides cover, making it unremarkable, indeed, the norm. But there is something jarring in the everyday, ordinary sight of adults, full-grown men and women both, outfitted in crop tops and flip-flops, spandex and fanny packs, T-shirts, hip-huggers, sweatpants, and running shoes. And what’s with the captain of industry (Bill Gates), the movie mogul (Steven Spielberg), the president (Bill Clinton), the financier (Warren Buffet), all being as likely to walk out the door in a baseball cap as the Beave? The leading man (Leonardo DiCaprio) even wears it backward. “Though he will leave the hotel later with a baseball cap turned backwards . . . he is not so much the boy anmore,” The Washington Post observes of the thirty-year-old actor. No, not so much.12 If you’ve grown up with—or just grown with—the perpetual adolescent, you see nothing amiss in these familiar images. It is the mature look of men from Joe DiMaggio to FDR—the camel hair coats, the double-breasted suits, the fedoras—that seems only slightly less fantastic to the modern eye than lace-collared Elizabethan dandies. The image of man, particularly as it has been made indelible on the movie screen, has changed from when Cary Grant starred in The Philadelphia Story, or William Powell starred in anything. In an essay called “The Children Who Won’t Grow Up,” British sociology professor Frank Furedi sums up the difference. John Travolta nearly bust a gut being cute in Look Who’s Talking, while Robin Williams demonstrated he was adorable as Peter Pan in Hook. Tom Hanks is always cute—a child trapped in a man’s body in Big, and then Forrest Gump, the child-man that personifies the new virtues of infantilism.13 Such virtues require little effort besides dodging maturity. “I’m not old enough to be a ‘mister,’” goes the middle-aged refrain, a reflexive denial of the difference between old and young. This plaintive little protest is no throwaway line. Rather, it’s a motto, even a prayer, that attests to our civilization’s near-religious devotion to perpetual adolescence. Such devotion is quickly caricatured in the adulation of the craggy rock star, age sixty-three, still singing “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” But the desiccated oldster cavorting like the restless youngster is hardly the end of the phenomenon. In a world where distinctions between child and adult have eroded, giving rise to a universal mode of behavior more infantile than mature, Old Micks are no more prevalent than Baby Britneys—which is as good a name as any for the artless five-  or six-year-olds taught to orgasmo-writhe (à la poppette du jour), belly bare and buttocks wrapped like sausages. At one time, so sexually charged a display by a child would have appalled the adults around her; now, Baby Britneys—and they are legion—delight their elders, winning from them praise, Halloween candy, even Girl Scout music badges. What caused the change? Even now, the Baby Boom figures into any explanation of our cultural mentality. But before the first Boomers came of age, a tectonic shift in sensibilities was already taking place that the multitudes of adolescents in the making would later magnify, accelerate, and institutionalize. To make a snapshot case, consider the respective images of two screen goddesses that took shape on either side of World War II: Jean Harlow, the archetypal platinum blonde of the 1930s, and Marilyn Monroe, the definitive 1950s sexpot. While both women’s lives ended prematurely, Harlow from illness, Monroe from suicide, it is Monroe who lives on as the “icon” everlasting, the symbol of an industry to which her contributions are surprisingly limited. The salient point is this: Prewar Harlow, who began her career at age nineteen (and died at age twenty-six), never played anything but womanly roles. Prostitute, stage star, executive secretary, or social climber, she always projected an adult sensibility. Postwar Monroe, on the other hand, made a career out of exuding a breathy, helpless sexuality that, in spite of her mature age (she died at thirty-five), was consistently and relentlessly childlike. There’s a reason movie audiences were willing to redirect their screen idolatry from the younger femme fatale (emphasis on “femme”) to the older sex kitten (emphasis on “kitten”). That is, the sequential popularity of such actresses reflects more than a simple variation on a theme of blonde loveliness. Rather, it reflects a changing paradigm of womanhood itself, a shift that signifies, to borrow a phrase from the late Senator Moynihan, the dumbing down of sexuality, a force at the crux of the infantilizing process—and the sexual revolution to come. It came. Instead of sifting through the rubble of the old social structure—blasted to bits, of course, as new sexual behaviors and attitudes volcanically emerged—let’s look at Baby Britney again. Some three decades after the sexual revolution, she rises from the ruins to symbolize the extent to which sexuality, particularly female sexuality, has been snatched from its traditional time and place in human development—as a rite of passage to adulthood, to marriage, to having children—and grafted onto girlhood, even toddlerhood, much to the regret of those among us who persist in costuming our wee ones on Halloween as cats, princesses, and cowgirls. Why the regret? Because not everyone has gone along with the new order. A sizable segment of the population still resists the pressure to transfer the milestones of maturity—including, besides sexuality, a large chunk of financial and other freedoms—to the very young. These are people who instinctively acknowledge differences between adults and children, and who harbor, maybe secretly, a nostalgic appreciation for the old-fashioned maturation process. Even as age has been eliminated from the aging process, they have a hunch that society has stamped out more than gray hair, smile lines, and cellulite. What has also disappeared is an appreciation for what goes along with maturity: forbearance and honor, patience and responsibility, perspective and wisdom, sobriety, decorum, and manners—and the wisdom to know what is “appropriate,” and when. This is not to say that gray lives and blue noses offer the only anchors against the hedonistic currents of the times. There is a wide and complex range of experience—emotional, aesthetic, physical, mental, and spiritual—for which only the maturing human being is even eligible. Of this, of course, the immortal bards were well aware; today’s artists are numb to it. Etched onto our consciousnesses, in the universal shorthand of Hollywood and Madison Avenue, is the notion that life is either wild or boring; cool or uncool; unzipped or straitlaced; at least secretly licentious or just plain dead. And framing these stark and paltry choices for us is the same kind of black-and-white sermonizing that once preached milk-and-honey visions of heaven and fire-and-brimstone visions of hell. Instead of eternal salvation, of course, we now seek instant fulfillment; instead of damnation, we do anything it takes to avoid the deep, dark rut of middle-class convention. Or so we claim. That’s why, between the Very Beginning and Journey’s End, an important aspect of Middle Age has gone missing—the prime of “making a life.” The phrase is Lionel Trilling’s, the esteemed critic and English professor, who, in the shank of the 1960s, saw that this work of making a life, “once salient in Western culture,” as he put it, was effectively over. This act of conceiving of human existence, one’s own or another’s, as if it were a work of art that could be judged by established criteria, he wrote, “was what virtually all novels used to be about; how you were born, reared, and shaped, and then how you took over and managed for yourself as best you could. And cognate with the idea of making a life, a nicely proportioned one, with a beginning, a middle, and an end, was the idea of making a self, a good self.”14 We still, of course, have the beginning, but the middle only stretches on in a graceless vector that stops, one day, at an endpoint. Such a life is not, in Trilling’s words, nicely proportioned, but it is, as he shrewdly thought, propelled by a new cultural taboo against admitting personal limitation—one of the tribal beliefs that sets Baby Boomers apart from their parents. As Trilling could see, “If you set yourself to shaping a self, a life, you limit yourself to that self and that life.” And “limitation,” particularly to the perpetual adolescent, is bad. Copyright © 2007 by Diana West. All rights reserved. 
 

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