May 2008 -- Diana West is the author of The Death of the Grown-Up: How America’s Arrested Development Is Bringing Down Western Civilization (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2007). She writes weekly column for the Washington Times that is syndicated in over 100 newspapers, and, as a CNN contributor, she appears regularly on Lou Dobbs This Week. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including the Wall Street Journal, the Weekly Standard, the New Criterion and the Atlantic Monthly. She also maintains a blog at DianaWest.net.West was interviewed recently by TNI business columnist Jack Criss.
The New Individualist: Why The Death of the Grown-Up? Was that your working title, or did the publisher suggest it?
Diana West: Yes, it was my idea and was the original working title. The subtitle we worked on together.
TNI: How does your book differ from those of so many other conservative social critics out there? One can think of Mark Steyn, Roger Kimball, Robert Bork, among many others.
West: The men you mention are three inspiring writers I happen to have quoted in my book—and Judge Bork even gave the book a very enthusiastic blurb—so obviously, we are in many ways sympatico. My book is different in that it takes in the period of social upheaval, which Kimball and Bork in particular have chronicled so vividly, and analyzes it in terms of its effect—first, on the American personality, which I describe as perpetually adolescent, and later, on the American polity, which may be described in similar terms. It is the infantilization of the culture that interests me, and how that infantilization process—which began as a cultural phenomenon, not a political one—has effectively stunted what may be thought of adult attitudes and behaviors, making way for such essentially childish notions as multiculturalism.
This has had a disastrous impact on our political process, and that goes across the political spectrum, from left to right. Just look at the world of pretend we revert to when it comes to having (or should I say, not having) a rational, mature conversation about the threat to liberty coming from Islam.
TNI: You focus on culture in your book. Usually, when a self-described conservative brings up cultural issues as it relates to the political realm, censorship is advocated or, at least, alluded to in some form. You don’t do that in your book. Why?
West: There are a couple of ways to look at that issue. I don’t have a problem with, for instance, the idea of the old Boston censor—which I discuss in my book: a gentleman who oversaw a locality, determining what could go on its public stages. It sounds antique today—and I’m sure it did at times even back then—but it worked according to the general wishes and sensibility of the people of the locality. If you were so inclined, you could get on a train, for example, and go to Quincy, Massachusetts to see a performance of Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude—which is what venturesome Bostonians had to do in 1929. Of course, that’s ancient history by now.
For those of us who have moral and aesthetic objections to trash and smut, how do we fight back?
But I think there is a way to work back—or, rather, forward—to a society something like what Walter Berns has described: a place where the effort is not to eliminate vice, but to make vice difficult, to keep it out of the public square. In other words, temperance, yes; abstemiousness, no. Decency, yes; piety, no. Brown-paper wrappers, yes; book-burnings, no. We used to live in a society where there was a mainstream and there were fringes. Today, thanks to the efforts of [Penthouse publisher] Bob Guccione and [Playboy publisher] Hugh Hefner, among many others, everything is all one big, great, messy mainstream.
[Conservative critic and author] Roger Kimball made a good point some years back when he was discussing the “Dung Virgin” art exhibit in New York, for which Rudy Giuliani tried to cut off public funding. Kimball noted that by the time you have to go to the courts to enforce decency, you’ve really lost, because it’s no longer a natural expression of the population.
Recognizing the validity of that view, the question then becomes: Well, what do we do? For those of us who have moral and aesthetic objections to trash and smut, how do we fight back? To me, it comes to having, or getting back, a grown-up sense of confidence to tell a museum you don’t want to see and support feces “art”; you won’t bring your school class to it; you don’t appreciate objectionable art or music being displayed. An activist population is required and, unfortunately, I think today many of us too often feel overwhelmed and defeated by the ubiquity of media culture.
TNI: But the genie is out of the bottle, really. For those who prefer the finer things, the higher and more sublime things, don’t you see such people insulating themselves? They can find the art they admire in so many more media today and, because of that, have just given up and exited the public debate concerning decency and values. Many are also embarrassed even to point out the crassness all around them—wouldn’t you agree?
West: Yes, exactly. Part of what you say is what motivated me to write the book and use the metaphor of the death of the grown-up. The authority figure, the Babbitt, has been eroded and made to feel “uncool” and outmoded. You can look at the last half-century of culture as one big assault on traditional hierarchy and authority, one big reeducation camp. Now, I don’t argue in my book so much for squeaky-clean, G-rated everything, as some conservatives do; I bemoan the lack of an adult sensibility in so much of our cultural product.
But why are we so cowed? Why are we so embarrassed? I think it has to do with the general message being pushed today by the media culture, the stars of the world—Britney Spears, and so forth. The irony is that they themselves are so isolated in the very culture they helped create. There is in the world today a demise of manhood, of manliness, and a concomitant rise of feminism, an erosion of traditional authority figures—which has led to a lack of confidence, so that people who generally have fairly decent and regular types of instincts do feel cowed. In school situations, for instance, if you say, “I really don’t feel my child should be reading X in class,” people will give you a strange look and then later come up and agree with what you said. I’ve had that happen to me.
TNI: You mentioned feminism. To me, one of the sad ironies of Women’s Lib is that it has succeeded in liberating women to act as boorish as men were always accused of having acted. You bring up feminism in the book, as you do the counterculture and the Sixties, as the usual bêtes noires; but, unlike most social critics, you point the biggest finger at the idyllic 1950s. Why?
West: I’m glad you asked because obviously a lot of readers and critics have missed that point. I honestly think sometimes that there’s not much book-reading in the book-reviewing business [laughs]. I wonder quite a lot about what we call the “Greatest Generation” and the culture of the Fifties. We saw such an explosion in births and affluence and the whole country was transformed radically. It was almost like a cultural perfect storm: Higher education became widely available for the masses for the first time; parental lore and authority were replaced by expert advice—for example, Dr. Spock’s; women entered the workplace in big numbers for the first time; wealth and the ability to spend more freely was much more common; all of this combined with the Depression– and World War II–era parents spoiling their children, giving them much more than they had ever dreamed of having. What interested me when I was researching the book was how all of these trends were really solidified in the Fifties, and that it was around this time the term “teenager” first appeared in our national lexicon. Suddenly, whole industries appeared, catering to this newly “discovered” and pampered demographic. There was a whole reorganization of life to make room for the teenager.
TNI: You mention the role of the new-found “experts” taking over parenting for the parents. Ayn Rand put a lot of the blame on the immaturity, or irrationality as she called it, of the Sixties radicals on the influence of philosophers such as Dewey and his progressive-education theories. You don’t touch on that in your book.
West: I do mention some changes made in education, such as the advent of the middle and high school in mid-century America. I’ve never read Ayn Rand , believe it or not, and I’m not sure really how I missed doing so. My teenage daughter just brought home Atlas Shrugged , so maybe I’ll get it around to it.
TNI: Well, Rand and others also note that government will always take on the role of authority figure or of Santa Claus by force or other means when responsibility is abdicated. If you give up your autonomy or maturity by default, as you say, you turn it over to the government.
West: Yes. Toqueville spoke to that, not incidentally. He wrote in Democracy in America that if authoritarianism ever came to this country, it would do so by default, by the citizenry becoming infantile.
TNI: Many conservatives tend to blame the market and capitalism for the types of ills you describe in your book. Do you share these criticisms of consumerism? Is it the fault of the record-company executives, for example, that so much garbage is out there in the music world?
West: I consider myself a capitalist. However, I do think a lot of our problems rest with the record-company executives of your example, and I try to get at that in my book. I discuss the sense of responsibility of movie executives in this country in the 1920s and the record executives in the 1950s, and it’s one of my favorite parts of the book, actually. Some executives and critics in the Fifties thought that their industry should be self-policing in reaction to the new rock’n’roll that was being promoted. The same thing happened in the Twenties in reaction to “talkies” that were just coming into being. The film executives cleaned up their own industry in reaction to all of these censorship bills that were popping up all across the nation at the time.
The people who run the markets today don’t have that sense of responsibility or even the economic inclination. Many movies today are losing money, but that doesn’t seem to faze the modern executives. Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM in its heyday, did not like to make movies in which a mother was portrayed unfavorably. This was important to him. We’ve come a long way, haven’t we? But I don’t blame the market; I look more at the individuals running the market.
TNI: Interestingly, you also didn’t fall back on the old religious argument made by the typical conservative in cultural criticism. Why not?
West: I’m not a religiously observant person and my theory in the book doesn’t stand or fall on religion. The churches have changed along with the culture. A recent article in the New York Times told how many churches, in order to keep up membership, are using the worst products of the culture, like these awful video games, so-called “Christian rap,” and so forth, just to get kids to show up. It’s extremely objectionable and represents the same lack of sensibility and maturity I decry. The cultural problems I try to address in the book exist independently of religion.
My whole point in writing The Death of the Grown-Up was this: Why have we become a nation of perpetual adolescents?
My whole point in writing The Death of the Grown-Up was this: Why have we become a nation of perpetual adolescents? I had been toying with the idea for some time but almost gave up on it after 9/11. However, I found an extra urgency upon reflecting on my whole theory when I began thinking about the politically incorrect facts about Islam. It is an immediate crisis facing all of us, and yet few of us will look. We have a presidential campaign going on, and nobody is talking about Islamization, Western values versus Islam, the threats to us—no one wants to talk about these things. The silence, I believe, is a product of what we’ve become in this nation: fearful adolescents.
TNI: We are so apologetic for our values and success in this country that we may end up capitulating in the face of politically correct pressure.
West: I write a weekly column and this issue is constantly on my mind. Is it too late? I don’t know. I mean, I recently wrote a column poking fun at an aging, air-guitar-playing audience at a Led Zeppelin concert, and I got piles of hate mail and indignant responses; yet I don’t receive the same type of fervor or interest about the threat of Islam. This proves my book’s point: Take away people’s toys and they get really upset. I wrestle with this every week. There’s a surreal aspect to it, honestly. The president talks about the progress being made in Iraq and Afghanistan, and yet people are still being sentenced to die for blasphemy in those countries! Islam is not being challenged, and that is a major danger.
TNI: You say you don’t know if it’s too late. Can a maturation process take place in our culture? Can we defend ourselves against militant Islam?
West: The cultural decay seems harder to reverse than the Islamic threat, in my opinion. The decay is so advanced and the problems are related, as my book demonstrates, yet no defense is being mounted in either situation. It can be done, but it will require quite an intellectual overhaul. I wonder if we have it in us.
For example, I’m shocked that so many conservatives, some of whom I know, have completely ignored the sections on Islam in my book. The silence is deafening and appalling. There are things we can do, and I write about them in my book. But will we do them? That’s the major question.
TNI: Will there be a follow-up to your book?
West: Well, The Death of the Grown-Up has been “doing very nicely,” as my publisher puts it; the paperback edition is coming out this fall. We have already settled on a direction for book two, which I am now energetically pursuing.
TNI: Thank you for your time and a fascinating book, Diana.
West: Thank you!