Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Diana West, a regular contributor to CNN's "Lou Dobbs Tonight" and "Lou Dobbs This Week." Her weekly column, which appears in numerous papers including the Washington Times every Friday, often examines the war and Islam through a cultural lens. She is the author of the new book, The Death of the Grown-up: How America's Arrested Development Is Bringing Down Western Civilization. George F. Will has called it "penetrating and witty," and Steven Emerson says it's "a must read for anyone who wants to understand...what we need to do to win the war on terror." She has a new blog at dianawest.net.
FP: Diana West, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
West: Thank you, Jamie. I am delighted to participate.
FP: What inspired you to write this book?
West: My first thought is to say what didn't inspire me to write this book, living, as I think we do, in the Era of the Perpetual Adolescent. But I can be more specific about several occurrences.
I first began thinking through the death of the grown-up theory in the mid-1990s, which seemed to be embodied by Bill Clinton, that presidential phenomenon whose tastes and behaviors, from fast food to quickie sex, seemed flash-frozen in a punky adolescence from which he never evolved.
Back then, I thought the theory offered a novel, possibly useful take on the cultural shifts that had brought us the Clinton years, and also a way to understand the era through its defining death of the grown-up moment. This, I submit, took place on the day the former president's lewd liaison with an intern was revealed--the day Bill Clinton thought he was a cooked goose. At least, if you recall his first filmed reaction to the breaking scandal, he looked as though he thought he was a cooked goose. More important, he acted like one, doing everything he could to cover up a scandal for which the American public, it turned out, had no intention of penalizing him. But Clinton didn't know that. He didn't know there would be no collective wrath--despite the best efforts of the "vast, right-wing conspiracy"--and not even a collective frown. The fact is, Bill Clinton thought the country was more grown-up than he was.
It wasn't. The United States slouched its way through the 1990s--the decade Charles Krauthammer dubbed "our holiday from history"--as if to prove the point. Rather than censuring Clinton (as Clinton had clearly expected), the electorate acted more like his posse, circling the wagons because we, as a nation, were no more grown-up than he was.
Well, how did that happen? I found this question quite intriguing, particularly because by that time my husband and I had young children, and were discovering first hand the extent to which social and cultural distinctions between children and adults--who dress the same, all say "cool," and even watch cartoons--had disappeared. I began to realize I was witnessing at a personal level the same displays of perpetual adolescence in reluctant adults around me ("I'm too young to be called 'mister' ") that I was observing in society at large. This led me to make all sorts of connections between the emergence of youth culture in the 1950s, its tantrums in the 1960s, the so-called culture wars that followed, the establishment of multiculturalism, the ascendance of non-judgmentalism and more, but, due to some twists and turns of life (my own), this initial attempt at the book was something of a false start.
Fast forward several years to September 11, 2001. We were living outside New York City, and, frankly, the thought of getting back to a more or less theoretical book on cultural decline when the world was almost literally falling apart seemed very much beside the point. But then it hit me: The death of the grown-up was quite suddenly much more than a theory to explain a largely academic culture war; it applied directly and, I thought, most urgently to what had shockingly become a real culture war between the West and Islam--a civilizational struggle that our society doesn't want to acknowledge precisely, I argue, because of society's extremely immature, in fact, downright childish, nature.
FP: What is your book’s main argument?
West: The organizing thesis is that the unprecedented transfer of cultural authority from adults to adolescents over the past half century or so has dire implications for the survival of the Western world. In other words, what I call the death of the grown-up is not just about sophomorically bad music or babyishly dopey movies (although it's about that as well). Having redirected our natural development away from adulthood and maturity in order to strike the pop-influenced pose of eternally cool youth--ever-open, non-judgmental, self-absorbed, searching for (or just plain lacking) identity--we have fostered a society marked by these same traits, which are usually associated with adolescence. This may not have seemed to matter much in a country at peace (when I began work on the concept), but it becomes potentially fatal to a country at war with a foe that is wholly intolerant, rigidly doctrinaire, and globally expansionist.
FP: What is unique and original about your book?
West: The book makes a connection between what seem to be superficial trappings of fashion and custom and what are the most significant challenges a civilization must contend with--war and survival. In linking the death of the grown-up with our failure to assess frankly, prosecute forthrightly and therefore win the (immaturely named) "war on terror," it also argues that we need to grow up and out of our childish fantasies about Islam being a religion of peace and other PC fairytales.
FP: Can you kindly expand a bit on the traits of an adolescent and of an adolescent culture? And why exactly has this shift occurred in our own society?
West: We often associate adolescence with a lack of confidence. I would say our adolescent culture suffers from a severe lack of cultural confidence. We think of adolescence as being a time to search for identity. Our adolescent culture is marked by a bona fide "identity crisis." I went back to the definition of "identity crisis," the term coined by Erik Erikson in 1970, and found that it describes an adolescent phase marked by "a loss of the sense of sameness and historical continuity of one's self." On a cultural level, we see that loss in spades.
Also, according to the definition, there may be "confusion over values." Well, such confusion is famously universal in our culture. Such confusion includes "an inability to accept the role the individual perceives as being expected of him by society." This last symptom is also familiar to us on a cultural level, given our split personality as both world policeman and, in many people’s eyes, world villain. Lacking what you might call "parental guidance," this infantile culture of ours could be doomed not only to perpetual adolescence, but to a perpetual identity crisis.
Of course, the glib pop terminology doesn't begin to capture the ravages of a culture that has lost its core. It is as if the openness of the adolescent, which can be a very winning trait, has been taken to a extreme on the cultural level. This has had the effect of making us, as a culture, open to everything and closed to nothing--even, when it comes to an ideology such as that propagated by Islam which is antithetical to Western-style liberty and openness. What we seem unable to grasp--and quite immaturely, I think--is that only by closing ourselves to intolerance, rejecting intolerance, will we be able to preserve the tolerance that has come to define our civilization.
FP: In many respects, the socialist faith is one that mandates adolescence, no? A real grown-up, ultimately, could never be a leftist or believe in the political faith. Your thoughts?
West: I would agree with you, although I didn't say it exactly that way in the book. In considering the strong links between an increasingly paternalistic nanny state and the death of the grown-up, I found that Tocqueville (of course) had long ago made the connections. He tried to imagine under what conditions despotism could come to the United States. He came up with a vision of the nation characterized, on the one hand, by an "innumerable multitude of men, alike and equal, constantly circling around in pursuit of the petty and banal pleasures with which they glut their souls," and, on the other, by the "immense protective power" of the state. "Banal pleasures" and "immense state power" might have sounded downright science-fictional in the middle of the 19th century; by the start of the 21st century, it begins to sound all too familiar. Indeed, speaking of the all-powerful state, he wrote:
"It would resemble parental authority if, fatherlike, it tried to prepare its charges for a man's life, but, on the contrary, it only tries to keep them in perpetual childhood."
Perhaps the extent to which we, liberals and conservatives alike, have acquiesced to our state's parental authority shows how far along we, as a culture, have reached Tocqueville's state of "perpetual childhood."
FP: Crystallize for us why a childish vision cannot absorb the civilization struggle between the West and Islam. If grown-ups had not died, and controlled the culture, why and how would the true nature of Islam be able to be more easily accepted?
West: One of the things we all enjoy about childhood is getting lost in the world of pretend. But such flights of fancy are not supposed to govern us as adults formulating geo-political strategy. I write at length in the book about how our understanding of the struggle underway between the West and Islam begins and ends in the world of pretend: the PC, multicultural, "non-judgmental" outlook on life that insists all cultures, religions, and peoples are equally benign and equally valuable, with the great exception being that of Western cultures, religions and peoples, which, according to multiculti cant, cause all evil in the world.
This is why our most important policies related to self-preservation are constrained by a rulebook more suited to regulating a school playground: be nice; be "inclusive"; don't be "judgmental"; never say anything that could possibly be construed as (horrors!) "mean-spirited" or "offensive." This, of course, puts a damper on discussing or even acknowledging the more "mean-spirited" or "offensive" traditions of Islam itself (jihad doctrine, kill the infidel, Jews are descended from apes and pigs, Islamic slavery, Islamic conquest, repression of women and non-Muslims, etc.). On the contrary, we stick to a PC script that consigns all dangerous aspects of jihad violence and the Islamization of the West to a nasty, sort of mythical "band of extremists" who have no connection to Islam's teachings, history and goals. This explanation, while comforting as a bedtime story, is demonstrably absurd, as I show in the book. But such is the prevailing wisdom in our 21st-century Age of Faith--multicultural faith.
What I finally realized was that growing up enough to reactivate our critical faculties regarding the differences between the West and Islam wouldn't only enable us to preserve our liberty-based civilization (and prevent us from becoming the Western territories of the new caliphate). Because the multiculturalism that dominates our PC times is one of the leading factors of our infantilization, growing up would not only mark the rebirth of the adult, but the end of multiculturalism as well.
FP: Diana West, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview.
West: Thank you, Jamie, for the opportunity.