"Death of the Grown-Up"

Jeffrey H. Norwitz. Review of The Death of the Grown-up: How America's Arrested Development Is Bringing Down Western Civilization, by Diana West. Naval War College Review, (Spring 2008): 138-39. 

                        Reviewed by | Jeffrey H. Norwitz, U.S. Naval War College

     “Stop, before you hurt yourself!  Why?  Because I said so” - a common diktat from a caring parent to child, about setting limits on behavior.  The historical role of grown-ups has been to nurture, protect, and teach fledglings about self-destructive behavior.  So how, then, is raising children the unifying theme of a book about the decline of Western civilization?

     The answer, as Diana West argues convincingly, is a direct correlation between decades of moribund moral norms, owing to vanishing societal maturity, and America’s inability to grasp the seriousness of emerging global dangers.  Like a child that keeps playing, unwilling to obey the call for bedtime, America is simply not paying attention to a world of growing challenges.  Worse yet, the author contends, there are no adults around to take away the toys.

     Of course, West, an esteemed syndicated columnist and writer, is not the first to observe the decline of adult influence or the erosion of individual responsibility, nor is she original in excoriating society and lamenting the erosion of the nu- clear family.  Nonetheless, West’s meticulous assemblage of tangible evidence, superb research, insightful analysis, and application of theory to national security issues make this book extraordinary.

     According to West, the gradual “death of the grown-up” began not with the revolutionary 1960s but rather directly following World War II.  Business visionaries saw the exploding generation of youth as future consumers with unparalleled financial potential.  Throughout the 1950s the magic of the anti-adult was personified, according to West, by the likes of music’s Elvis Presley, fiction’s Holden Caulfield, and Hollywood’s James Dean.  Fed by post-war consumerism and entertainment focused so exclusively on adolescents, adult influence rapidly declined.  West quips that by 1960, “American culture was no longer being driven by the adult behind the wheel; it was being taken for a ride by the kids in the back seat.”

     Indeed, West offers a point of view echoed by other thinkers of “second thoughts” that the entire antiwar movement of the 1960s was driven less by concern about American foreign aggression than by mere self-interest in avoiding military service.  Evidence the 1970 campus violence that forced this reviewer to carry an Army Reserve Officer Training Corps uniform in a paper bag.  One year later, the draft lottery quelled most opposition from college-aged adolescents who, like children, no longer “had to do” what they did not like.  The consequences of national immaturity became clear when a “Huey” helicopter lifted off from a besieged Saigon rooftop in 1975.  By then, however, Americans had been distracted by Jaws and dancing to “You Sexy Thing.”  In 1977, Jimmy Carter made good on his campaign promise to grant draft-dodgers amnesty, revealing that adult responsibility was dead in the White House as well. 

     Remaining ignorant as they aimed to understand “the other,” Americans lost their sense of themselves.  It therefore follows as no surprise, according to West, that when faced with terrorism on a global scale, America declared war on a tactic instead of the people and culture who used it.  West believes that our biggest handicap is “a perilous lack of cultural confidence ... our renunciation of cultural paternity [which is] a natural consequence of believing in our own illegitimacy.”

     A snapshot of popular news headlines suggests West is correct.  Frightened of and ignorant about Islam, Americans - 63 percent of whom, National Geographic says, cannot find Iraq on a world map, are like kids with no one to advise them.  So, they blissfully amuse themselves with self-absorbing distractions, such as Hollywood drama, reality television, and who gets voted off the island.  Meanwhile, modern-day religious fascists plot their destruction.

     This book is intense, no-nonsense, challenging, and clearly written with passion reflecting parent-like frustration.  Readers - most of whom, like the author herself, are products of post-World War II parents - may become uneasy, as I did, when West’s rapier finger pushes a personal button.  However, this book is a must, since eventually violent extremism will force America to shake off decades of immature behavior and grow up.  As West aptly concludes, “A civilization that forever dodges maturity will never live to a ripe old age.”


U.S. Naval War College

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