The Magazine

Mother Knows Best

While America wasn't looking, the adolescents took over.

Feb 4, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 20 • By JOHN O'SULLIVAN
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The Death of the Grown-up

How America's Arrested Development Is Bringing Down Western Civilization

by Diana West

St. Martin's, 272 pp., $23.95

Few experiences are as ultimately liberating as growing up in two worlds. In 1969, Diana West, then a precocious eight-year-old, was taken by her parents to live for a year in Brittas Bay south of Dublin in Ireland. She went to the local Irish school and, outside the home, lived the life of an Irish schoolgirl. Inside the home, her entertainment was restricted to the BBC radio, some audiotapes of Hollywood musicals brought along by her author-father, books, and family games of gin rummy before the fire.

I can guess pretty well what this experience must have been like, both because I spent six weeks every summer from 1948 to 1966 in my aunt's home 20 miles from Brittas Bay and because I joined RT (Irish radio and television) as a trainee reporter in 1971. Ireland, in those days, was deeply Catholic, morally conservative, family-centered, and socially authoritarian. It was also much more gentle and accommodating to outsiders, including internal "outsiders," than the current myth of its uniform puritan repression. The picture in John Ford's The Quiet Man, though painted in rosy hues, is not a complete distortion.

In any event, the young Miss West enjoyed her stay there and returned to the United States transformed into a polite, respectful child who automatically stood up when Teacher entered the room. But America, too, had been transformed in her absence. Adolescents now said rude words, did rude things, and showed no respect to Teacher--nor, indeed, to anyone in what had once been called "authority."

Growing up in this transformed home, West noticed that everyone else was growing down. She was a walking culture clash within herself. The mental distance given by her life in Brittas Bay enabled her to experience the revolutions of "the sixties" from inside and outside. And what others found simply "liberating" she felt to be unsettling at first and, eventually, sinister.

In fact, though West was too young to notice such things, the cultural change had gotten well under way in the 1950s before she was born. Teenagers, invented circa 1944, were already an important consumer market by then. Large numbers of young people with money meant that society and the economy set out to cater to their tastes.

The first convulsive effect was rock 'n' roll. No sooner had Bill Haley and Elvis hit the charts than they began to drive the older tradition of American standards out of them. Resistance was brief and easily overcome. One of the more touching proofs of America's social decline West unearths in her research is a gallant but now unthinkable effort to criticize blatant sexual references in song lyrics from a 1955 front-page editorial in the showbiz notice board, Variety:

Music leer-ics are touching new lows and if the fast-buck songsmiths and music-makers are incapable of social responsibility and self-restraint then regulation--policing, if you will--will have to come from more responsible sources.

Legislation backed by these more responsible sources was introduced in the mid-fifties. It went nowhere. Rock 'n' roll had become an instantly popular mass culture phenomenon. As Rosemary Clooney would later recollect, by the 1960s Frank Sinatra (in his mid-forties) was taking a six-year vacation from the music business, 55-year-old Bing Crosby had signed up with a British recording company because he couldn't find an American one, and Mel Tormé, younger than both, was considering a career as an airline pilot.

By the time the young Diana West returned from Brittas Bay in 1970, rock 'n' roll had, for 15 years, been acting as a battering ram for a mass of other social changes, almost all of which elevated drives over restraints, emotions over intellect, and sex over all. Some such loosening of social mores had been foreshadowed in the postwar middle-class popularity of psychoanalysis. But the drug culture, the Pill, feminism, the antiwar movement, the sexual revolution, and the campus rebellion took this loosening to a more elemental, vulgar, and even threatening, level. Finally, all these revolutions began to change the power relations in society.

West's first cultural shock, naturally enough for a teenager, was the transfer of authority from adult to adolescent, teacher to pupil, and parent to child. She arrived in an America whose sages and media were celebrating the greatest generation of young people in world history, even as these paragons trashed the colleges, burned books, imprisoned skeptical faculty members, and generally made the tantrum a mass cultural phenomenon rivaling rock 'n' roll itself. How could such things happen?