The Death of the Grown-Up by Diana West

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

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

Author: Diane West (not linking to her – if I created a link to her and her web stats increased even by one as a result, the terrorists have won)

Type of Book: Non-fiction, sociology, politics, utter pants

Why Did I Read This Book: This would be better entitled, “Why Did I Buy This Book” for reasons that will be clear below. I bought it knowing nothing about it because it was selling cheap, remaindered, at a local bookstore. I like a good political or sociological screed, even if I know I may disagree with it, so I got it.

Availability: You want to read this mess, you find a copy yourself. Not even the lure of being an Amazon Affiliate will make me be directly responsible for putting a dime in this author’s pocket.

Comments: I said in another review a few months ago that in the last decade, I have only encountered one book so bad that I had to stop reading it. I jinxed myself, because I then found The Death of the Grown-Up and encountered so many logical fallacies and uncited assertions that by page 20 I could not go on. The horror is, despite the fact that I knew I was going to disagree with the book’s main premise – that multiculturalism is destroying America – I still wanted to read this book after purchasing it. I like reading ideas contrary to mine. But I disagreed with the premise even more when I later understood that the author uses the term “multiculturalism” to mean “cultural relativism.” I think the technical term for all the problems in this book is “hot mess.”

I read in good faith so it may seem like dirty pool that I am reviewing a book I could not finish. So be it. I’ll take my lumps, if any come. But since I read in good faith, I expect people to write in good faith. When they don’t write in good faith, creating a book to bolster their pre-existing arguments instead of researching, thinking, and at least doing the most minimal due diligence to create a coherent thought, I get to take off my gloves as a polite reviewer. This is not going to be a polite review. My spouse refers to this form of writing as “killing gnats with a machine gun.” He may be right but I’m loading my critical gun right now.

This is not a book written in good faith or even using common sense. It makes illogical assertions, exists almost solely in the realm of post hoc ergo propter hoc, and West shows a complete inability to see that the world she grew up in is not the world I grew up in, or the world you grew up in, universalizing her experiences into a bizarre mish mash of fallacies wherein everything she experienced was good and any other perception of childhood and modern culture is bad.

Let’s start at the Preface. West, as a child, was uprooted from Los Angeles to live in Ireland for a year. This occurred in 1969, and in going to Ireland, West experienced a different world. Kids had to be polite in class. There was no television but her dad had made audio recordings of his favorite shows and she listened to her dad’s fare. She also listened to the music her parents preferred. She came home to a shocking, SHOCKING world where kids did not stand up to answer when teacher called on them in class, a place where kids did not wear uniforms and got to listen to pop music. As a child, and later an adult, this experience of reentering America left believing Americans are immature because they do not measure up to what she perceives as adult behavior.

But then she says:

But the mainstream was never my natural habitat. And it still isn’t.

My response is that West’s experience in Ireland was the mainstream in Ireland and perhaps she means the American mainstream is not her natural habitat. Her vision of what it means to be a child and an adult was altered by another culture, and if we are going to beat this horse until it is really dead, I wonder how West feels, culturally relatively, about the Ireland that shaped her world view, with the terrorism, unwed mothers forced to toil in brutal convents, complete prisoners whose children were taken from them by the Church, the influence of the Church and the turmoil that still exists in that uneasy land of my own ancestors. No idea. IRA doesn’t even make the index in the book. I assert West is a part of a mainstream, just not the one that she is critiquing.

The Death of the Grown-Up is about seeing currents and making connections that are difficult to see and make in the rush of the mainstream.

Again, West occupies a role in a mainstream, just not the American mainstream. And if the connections she thinks she is making are the ones where she asserts that Presidents who wear baseball caps are childish, then perhaps her connections are not so difficult to see from the mainstream, but rather non-existent and ridiculous.

On to Chapter One, where I ran down a pencil lead underlining and making notes.

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.

Okay, so linguistics and understanding the way word usage adapts is clearly not one of West’s strong points, but logically, this is some bad, bad analysis. Words do not equal existence. Loose women and prostitutes used to be called “slammerkins.” This word has not been used in my hearing in my entire life, though when I read British novels I read of “slatterns.” Does that mean the concept of loose women ended when the word “slammerkin” ended? No. Words change but the concept has always been there.

Teenagers have always existed. Even Shakespeare acknowledged they existed. Romeo and Juliet is not a play about adults. It is not a play about children. It is about young people who occupy the zone between adult and child. Melodramatic people who behave somewhat like adults, somewhat like children. The word did not exist but the concept did and to insist otherwise shows a complete misunderstanding of history and what it meant to be a child, an adult, and what it meant to be between. The ages of consent, the ages at which cultural achievements were marked show this fact to be true. Tiny children could not engage in rites to become men in tribal rituals. Teenagers could. The notion of the teen has always been with man even if the word did not exist.

Again, the inverse of this is the word “pro-active.” A weasel word to be sure, but does its invention in the last 10 years or so indicate there were no forward seeking, active people until the word came into existence?

Readers as old as twenty-five are buying “young adult” fiction written expressly for teens.

There is so much wrong with this. West cites a columnist who says adults reading fiction meant for teenagers is a bad thing, but at no point is there is a citation of a survey or psychological study that shows that if adults read fiction written for young adults, it indicates the level of infantiltization that West implies it must.

I read all the Harry Potter books in my 30s. I also read Hubert Selby when I was in my early teens (yes, TEENS). Reading Rowling does not make me a child any more than reading The Last Exit to Brooklyn made me an adult. As a person who is an avowed bibliophile and who does read everything, the fact is, quite a bit of young adult fiction is captivating, written for multiple levels of understanding. That is, the good fiction is on multiple levels. Just like good fiction for adults has different layers of meaning. Anyone who has read the books Charles de Lint writes for young adults would echo this sentiment.

But all of that aside, the point West makes in no way proves that reading young adult fiction means anything other than that some adults find the books entertaining.

…two British surveys show(ing) that 27% of adult children striking out on their own return home to live at least once; and that 46% of adult couples regard their parents’ homes as their real homes.

This is so exhausting. Okay, she cites the surveys that give this information but has no data that supports the idea that these phenomena are linked to immaturity. I can think of many reasons off the top of my head that would cause adults to return home that have nothing to do with maturity. In the worst economy in my lifetime, an economy that plagued Britain far longer than the USA, job loss or an inability to find jobs drive young adults home. Home prices are high, extremely high, as are rents. An inability to get a mortgage or pay for extremely high rents in urban areas force many adults home until they can save money.

As for the couples who regard their parents’ homes as their real homes? This sounds more like sentimentality, a sense that where parents are is where home is. And again, where is the citation that links thinking of home as the place where one’s parents live a sign of immaturity? West links to a source but there is no data that tells how old the people were who were surveyed. 45? 23? I know as a young woman, where my mother lived was my real home. That stopped as I got older and my relationship with my spouse deepened and became more permanent. Many think this way. It has nothing to do with immaturity, just a sense of linking parents to the idea of home, a common enough sentiment.

And how is it that British people returning home and their attitudes of home are being used in a book that proves how childish Americans are?

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?

West is deadly serious, guys. It never occurs to her that if Bill Gates, Steven Spielberg, Bill Clinton and Warren Buffet wear ball caps, then it means mores have changed – which happens, the horror, the horror – and the sign of a baseball cap has nothing to do with maturity, acumen, skill or AGE! She cites some snark about Leo DeCaprio being ridiculous in a cap (which he wears to shield him from the paparazzi but never mind), but no evidence from fashion experts, psychologists or sociologists that shows a more casual mode of dress equals infantilization. All of the men she mentioned wear clothes appropriate to their situations. Clinton never wore a cap during peace talks, Gates wears suits to business meetings. Owning casual wear does not strip you of adulthood.

And where does she live where people wear spandex, crop tops and fanny packs? I live in the most casual place in America, arguably, Austin, Texas. I never see spandex or crop tops. And frankly, not that West would know this, but fanny packs are the realm of the :ahem: older dresser. One seldom sees them on anyone under the age of 60, unless they are clueless tourists who need their wallet, map and GPS at hand’s reach.

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 seem slightly less fantastic to the modern eye than lace-collar Elizabethan dandies. The image of man, particularly as it has been made indelible on the movie screen has changed since Cary Grant starred in The Philadelphia Story

This is some stupid stuff right here, gentle reader. So… The garb of 50 years ago is where it’s at according to West. Well, why did we change style from the Elizabethan dandy to the suave Cary Grant? Could it be, oh god no, that again, customs change and what is fashionable changes? Why go back just 50 years to find the adult garb that will save us from eternal adolescence? Why not 100? Why not 500? Oh, I don’t know, could it be that West’s measure of what makes a man look mature is arbitrary to her own tastes?

Since she has no source cites allowing the reader to know how it is that she can justify this opinion aside from her own tastes, let me share my own anecdata. My grandfather was an age peer of Cary Grant and he never once wore a double-breasted suit or a fedora. He wore overalls on the farm, and cowboy hats. He had a dress Stetson he wore to church. He wore suits from Sears, buying whatever fabric he could afford. Everyone in that part of the country dressed that way and one could not make the argument that they were not adults. Cary Grant would have stood out like a sore thumb in rural West Texas even then. What you saw in the movies, how the President dressed, was not how most people dressed. Men did not wear suits all the time and most never had a camel hair coat. Women did not wear heels and pearls around the house, and West needs to stop clutching her own pearls, admit her tastes are arbitrary, and understand that clothes do not make the man.

She cites British sociologist Frank Furedi:

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.

This is so stupid I cannot believe I am refuting it but these are the words West decided to use to prove her point. Not mine.

In Look Who’s Talking, Travolta played a man who was willing to be the father to a baby whose bio-dad abandoned his mother. He hammed it up, but the ultimate theme, that there are real men, men who, forgive me for saying this, man up and behave well, was not lost to those who actually saw the stinker of a film, which had almost zero cultural impact.

Robin Williams played the aging Peter Pan. Peter Pan is by now a universal image for not growing up, an image that is over 100 years old (that damned Barrie – too bad he isn’t alive now so West can lay all this at his feet). It was a film aimed at young people. What was Williams supposed to do in the film? Act like Cary Grant in The Philadelphia Story? Oh no, he played a voice in Aladdin, another movie aimed for children. The end of civilization is nigh! Also, Hook was another film with no cultural impact.

Tom Hanks in Big and Forrest Gump is another story. Both films did have cultural impact, but if you pay attention to the plots, these films do not mean what Furedi thinks they do. In Big, a child literally enters an adult’s body. He isn’t a child trapped in a man’s body in the modern parlance of describing men who won’t grow up – he was literally a child in an adult’s body. I recall in the film that as he spent time as an adult, that boy also lost his boyishness, becoming “adult” in the manner West prefers, dressing properly and being somber. In Forrest Gump, a mentally and physically disabled man overcomes both disabilities, serves his country in a foreign war, saves lives, marries the mother of his child even though she is fatally ill, takes care of his mother until she dies, and his son after his wife dies. He was mentally slow, not a child, and while I didn’t enjoy the film, it was not a paean to childishness. It was a film that celebrated what people who seem limited compared to the norm can accomplish. Gump was an adult in every way that West thinks should matter, and it is bizarre that she does not see this. Also Hanks, who brought us the gay man dying of AIDS in Philadelphia and the gravitas we saw in Saving Private Ryan is a mainstay of the “adult” movie.

And that all the examples used to show how child-men are invading cinema are over a decade old, some two decades, says a lot. When West does deign to research or source cite, it seems she has a hard time finding anything current to back her up. (When my spouse read this part of the review before I posted it, he asked “When was this book written?” 2007, folks. 2007.)

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.

Even when West has a good point, she screws it up by failing to source cite. The overly sexualized child is something to be upset about, though I doubt Baby Britneys are legion. I see few of them in my daily life. None of the little girls in my neighborhood, riding their pink bikes, wear immodest clothing or act inappropriately, but I concede there are Baby Britneys and it is appalling. But Girl Scout badges. Who, where and when? West needed to source cite this one, because believe me, I’m not taking her word for it.

West then goes on to talk about how sexuality has been dumbed down, explaining how Jean Harlow was an actress who represented adult sexuality and Marilyn Monroe represents little girls and it was all downhill from there.

…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.

Let me refute this with some names: Rita Hayworth, Sophia Lauren, Catherine Deneuve, Helen Mirren, Gina Lollobrigida, Pam Grier, Madonna, Gillian Anderson, Penelope Cruz, Isabelle Huppert, and many, many more adult women who were or still are sex symbols without succumbing to the notion that they dumbed down sexuality.

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.

WHAT? What does this even mean? Again, an example of this, say pitting Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew against the latest romantic comedy would help her point, but West just hurls this stuff out there without any context. The fact is, we as a people like nuance. We like movies that are straitlaced. That’s why we flock to movies that are based on Shakespearean plays or the works of Jane Austen (or based on her life) or the works of E.M. Forster. Americans watch drek but we enjoy a good historical drama, an adult romance, a plot with intrigue. That media panders to the lowest common denominator (this book panders worse than any Rob Schneider movie but never mind) is not the fault of the average movie-goer and the increasingly low returns each year on blockbusters may be indicative of this idea. Who knows? She didn’t cite sources so at this point it is just an anecdata war. Who is to say mine is any less valid than hers?

There is a section where West claims that cultural insecurity did not create the death of the grown-up because if it did

…the Great Depression would have driven jobless, hungry Americans into a mass cultural second childhood.

Who’s to say it didn’t? We had a terrible war after the Depression and as soon as things got better, we were driving huge cars with insane fins, buying televisions, eating TV dinners, buying hula hoops and… oh, wait, that’s just prosperity. My bad. The Depression left deep cultural scars that affect some to this day. It drove otherwise sane people to stuff mattresses full of money, to save string, to be profoundly insecure. And insecurity is a hallmark of adolescence, no matter how it manifests. Some adolescents binge and purge, some hoard butter tubs just in case. Either way, West’s point makes no sense.

Caveats against trusting anyone over thirty aside, senior citizenship doesn’t invalidate the casual, anti-Establishment post of an old Jack Nicholson, or the stick-it-to-The-Man edge of an elderly Maya Angelou.

You mean Jack Nicholson, the elderly actor who portrays elderly men in movies like The Bucket List, where he plans what he wants to do before he dies, or About Schmidt, where he adopts a child overseas and writes letters to that child? Yeah, he’s real edgy, a frightening cultural force of rebellion. Maya Angelou, a Poet Laureate for the love of God, does not now, nor has she ever, represented sticking anything to the man, unless you mean Jim Crow or molesters or those who don’t like uppity women and their attempts to have a real, unfettered life. She is a symbol of cultural change wherein blacks and women now have a voice, not some childish attempt to rebel and that West cannot see that makes me wonder what her real point of view here is.

“Decency” has become a euphemism for narrowness and even bigotry, while “normal”… is more directly tied to a tally of one’s abnormal or indecent life experiences – outright vices that include destructive drug use, dicey sexual couplings, or prankishly criminal behavior.

Who says, other than West? What drug use does she consider destructive, and who considers it normal, other than the amorphous “they” she attributes all this nonsense to? I know no one who thinks drug use is normal. No one. In real life or in the blogosphere. I know people whose lives were leveled by drug abuse and who fight against it daily and this sort of “lalala, William Bennett is right, people embrace their vices as normal” bullshit annoys me. For every weirdo who thinks meth is awesome (and WHO THINKS THAT?), there are millions fighting against the toll of addiction. And what is a dicey sexual coupling? Because I kissed a girl, as the song goes. Does that count? Does it need to have three people? A goat? A knife? A complex system of pulleys? Is prankishly criminal behavior toilet papering the neighbor’s lawn? Or is it defrauding investors of millions of dollars and serving time at Club Fed when caught? Maybe West wouldn’t seem so ridiculous to me if she actually used specific examples, but dwelling in a land of vagueness serves her purpose so much better.

Quoting Irving Kristol from 1968:

The avant-garde has become a popular cultural militia.

This is pearl-clutching bullshit, the same nonsense that gets uttered every time a swear word comes up in a book or a boobie gets shown on screen. Times change, mores change, and you can stand gasping at it all, grasping the past with both hands, kicking and screaming, as the rest of us move on.

West then engages in an outright irrational, bizarre argument that asserts that Elvis’s attempt to meet with Nixon, which Nixon kept low-key, shows how Nixon was a grown up because he kept a wall between himself and the King of Rock and Roll. Except he didn’t. Nixon posed in a famous picture shaking Presley’s hand, giving legitimacy to Elvis and eeking out popularity associated with the King. It was a circle jerk and all participants, even those who denied at the time what was going on, knew the score. But then she goes on to criticize Clinton appearing on the Arsenio Hall show and playing the sax. The whole passage is bizarre and proves no point aside from the fact that TV happened and Clinton could play a musical instrument using a visual medium to prove it.

Just so you know, I am only on page 11. Page 11 and this is just what I chose to address. The first chapter is where West should have set up her case, that infantilization of adults is happening and it is destroying Western culture. This does not happen. She throws out assertions one after the other, seldom citing evidence other than her own bizarre opinions, relying on her position as an outsider, a seer from the sidelines, to give her credence. It doesn’t work that way. Strong claims require strong evidence. If West fails this miserably in just setting up her case in the first 11 pages, I cannot imagine what the rest of the book is like. Or rather I both have to imagine because I refuse to read it and I don’t want to imagine because I know it cannot be good.

But to address the premise, a premise that she outlines in the preface to the 2008 edition:

…there is indeed something juvenile about multiculturalism. Accepting the proposition that a culture that has brought freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, equal rights for women, and free enterprise to the world is of equal (or lesser) value than cultures that have done nothing of the kind (or worse), is accepting a fairy tale…. And to abide by such a suspension of disbelief – and we do, from left to right, across the political spectrum – requires us to suppress our faculties of logic and reason. This strikes me as the very definition of infantilization.

She keeps using that word. “Multiculturalism.” She does not seem to understand that multiculturalism is not the same as cultural relativism. Multiculturalism is simply a theory wherein different cultures can live together peaceably and respectfully, which has been the goal of the United States since the first settlers, slaves, indentured servants, religious heretics, rogue political ideologues and burgeoning merchants stepped foot on North American soil. We have fought, squabbled, had vicious wars, spied on one another, criminalized some behaviors, decriminalized others, but the ultimate goal of this country was not to strip anyone of an identity, but to offer a haven for misfits, the very rebels she derides in chapter one, a place where the other could come and live.

Cultural relativism is where one says that Uganda and Saudia Arabia have similar, relative virtues to the United States, where there is currently no ethnic genocide or laws forcing rape victims to be lashed as harlots.

They are two completely different concepts. Multiculturalism is hard to achieve, all the peaceable living, but it is the basis of this country and if West does not like it, if she finds it infantile, perhaps an ethnically or culturally homogeneous country would be more to her liking, more adult. Like maybe the Ireland she lived in as a youth. Perhaps Iceland. But America by the very notion of why this country exists has to remain multicultural.

It does not have to be culturally relativist. Did West confuse the terms? Did she substitute the ideas or see them as interchangeable? Given how unorganized and bizarre the ideas in the first few pages were, I can imagine, but I am unsure. But I think that the failure to make that distinction was the most infantile thing in this book.

If you get past page 11, let me know how it goes. I’ll be surfing the web, listening to pop music, wearing sneakers, and being the very best adult I know how to be.

10 thoughts on “The Death of the Grown-Up by Diana West

  1. You say that you read everything. I am a new author and I would love it if you read my book. “Family Secrets or Lies” by Debbie Steever. I am also in the publishing process of getting my second book out there. It is “Dead at 30 and thould be out this summer. PLEASE

  2. Debbie, if you want to send me a copy, I don’t have any problem with that. I’ve been getting some requests like this and will be setting up a post office box this week. I’ll post that information in my “contact me” section as soon as it happens and if you like, send me a copy of the book.

    I can’t make any guarantees as to when I will read it or if I like it, but since you posted this comment in one of the more scathing reviews I have written, I assume you know this already. Look for my post office box being online sometime this week and good luck to you on your publishing endeavors!

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