Diana West is a Washington Times columnist of strong opinions and forceful language. Indignation and a missionary zeal have fuelled this book, challengingly sub-titled “How America’s Arrested Development is bringing down Western Civilization.” Naturally she has her critics, who label her a conservative, indeed a reactionary, but to my mind she has simply added an eloquent -– if occasionally strident -– voice to the growing chorus of unease at the more glaring fault-lines of modern society.
To pen a Jeremiad is not difficult; it is always easier to curse the darkness than to light a candle. But prophets are still necessary to society, to act as its moral conscience and to warn of the consequences of reckless and impious behaviour. The original Jeremiah witnessed and lamented over the destruction of Jerusalem; Diana West reminds us that our Western civilisation is not a permanent plateau of achievement on which we can simply congratulate ourselves: it is fragile and must be defended with each generation. Otherwise, so history shows us, enemies are waiting at the gates.
“Once upon a time,” the author tells us, “childhood was a phase, adolescence did not exist and adulthood was the fulfilment of life’s promise.” The word “teenager” does not appear in the lexicon before 1941. Yet by 2002 the National Academy of Sciences had redefined adolescence as extending from around the age of 12 to 30. Within two generations there had been a seismic shift of perception. Now, she believes, society is in thrall to “youth”; indeed, the war generation, those who had to grow up fast in order to fight for their country or to keep the home fires burning, has become the youth generation, only interested in the satisfaction of their individual needs and indifferent to the requirements of the wider society.
I think of the Bright Young Things of the 1920s – another post-war generation – and the drunken antics of Evelyn Waugh and his fellows at Oxford, and begin to formulate the counter-argument that “it was ever thus.” But West has got here before me: it is true, she argues, that young people have often been hotheads and occasionally rebels. The difference between today’s youth and past generations is that then it was strictly a rite of passage that recognised the immutable authority of the adult world to which it would sooner or later conform; today there is no adult authority to lay down the law of civilised, mature behaviour. Then the Establishment was not at odds with the moral consensus; today the Establishment (ie, those who control the media) pursues a non-judgemental agenda that clashes with the old moral consensus, now seen as the preserve of the fuddy-duddy, bigoted religious Right.
If this thesis is correct, what has led to this state of affairs? West, like other analysts of the last half-century, thinks affluence is a large part of it. Young people today have a spending power quite foreign to their elders. As important is the subtle influence of Dr Spock on their parents’ generation, the Baby Boomers: children should be raised in a relaxed rather than a disciplined way; instead of being subservient to adult authority they should be listened to, consulted, their voice given weight. It is a short step from here to indulgence and an even shorter step from indulgence to the abdication of authority and the tyranny of the young.
For West the change is encapsulated by the two words “virtues” and “values”. For the pre-war generation, maturity consisted in learning virtuous behaviour: patience and responsibility, sobriety, decorum and good manners. Above all, it meant learning self-control, the ability to govern oneself. Now “values” dominate: each person is free to make up their own and the glue that binds them is non-judgmentalism, never appealing to an authority higher than one’s own private opinions. Openness and acceptance have become the highest possible values of modern Western society; boundaries, taboos and limits have become “the lowest possible sins.” The influence of Freud has joined that of Spock. The mantra is always the same: “Who is to say that we are right and they are wrong?”
The author quotes an English judge of the 1920s to bring home her point. Lord Moulton was able to pronounce, “Between ‘can do’ and ‘may do’ ought to exist the whole realm which recognises the sway of duties, fairness, sympathy, taste and all the other things that make life beautiful and society possible,” with the confidence of one speaking for society as a whole. Today such language seems obsolete to the point of being incomprehensible.
West makes large generalisations about American society. In summarising her book I wonder if, as an East Coast cosmopolitan, she underplays the religious influence of the Bible Belt. It is often observed that America, where Church and State are kept separate, is a much more religious society than the UK, where the monarch is head of the Church of England.
Yet here the situation seems depressingly similar. I do not seek to blame America for our ills, even though the cultural influence of the US is enormous; we have to take responsibility for the slow breakdown of our own society. One has only to open the daily newspapers to find endorsements of West’s caustic conclusions. In an article in The Daily Mail on the increased public drunkenness of the young, Ruth Dudley Edwards writes: “No child can become a responsible adult without learning about boundaries, but for many, boundaries are a foreign concept. Earlier generations learned from their parents, their teachers… the qualities of consideration, good manners, respect for others… But for so many of today’s children a parent is too often someone who lets you do what you like.”
Another columnist in The Sunday Telegraph, Michael Henderson, comments that “People in their 50s and even 60s are seen on our streets every day behaving like teenagers. In their eating and drinking habits, clothing, language and leisure pursuits they can be hard to distinguish from people young enough to be their grandchildren. No wonder those youngsters fail to grow up.” Yet another journalist, Janet Daley, an American who has lived in the UK for many years, attacks the fashionable doctrine of multiculturalism for undermining confidence in Britishness and appeals for the “restoration of that quiet pride and conviction that used to enable Britons to maintain the highest standards of civil behaviour in the world.”
Most serious of all, the moral weakness such articles point to becomes dereliction of the duty of a responsible society when it faces danger from without. A report in early February by the UK Royal United Services Institute, a body of the country’s leading military and diplomatic figures, states bluntly: “The country’s lack of self-confidence is in stark contrast to the implacability of its Islamist terrorist enemy, within and without. We look like a soft touch. We are indeed a soft touch…”
Such statements would be understood by West, who writes of “the gross incompatibility of Islam” with Western society. She cites the historian Jacques Barzun on the “loss of nerve typical of periods of decadence.” Another of her examples is the art historian Kenneth Clarke, whose televised series in the 1960s on “Civilization” was a high point of the BBC. As West notes, Clarke emphasised that a flourishing civilisation required confidence and energy. Clarke’s cultured accents -– the opposite of today’s “Estuary English” -– and his air of mandarin assurance are inconceivable among modern television pundits. Clarke wore impeccably tailored Savile Row suits.
In stark contrast, in 2004 the Rotary Club of Batavia, New York decided to pose naked for a calendar, with no sense that unwritten rules of self-respect had been flouted — any more than did the middle-aged but no longer sedate ladies of the Women’s Institute in Rhylstone, North Yorkshire (founded to foster family and local life, to make jam and do good) when they stripped to make a similar calendar a few years earlier. They raised a lot of money for leukaemia research, so who is to say their behaviour was inappropriate?
West says she often reads the obituaries of old soldiers in the London Daily Telegraph. I read them too, and like West I rejoice in the stories of these elderly men who, often from humble backgrounds, performed acts of great bravery during the last War and then returned to modest anonymity in later life. Only recently I entertained to tea three old gentlemen who had fought in those times; they were all horrified by the lack of control in young people today and they all wanted a return to some form of National Service. We speak of the “Dunkirk spirit” and doubtless the US has its equivalent: a spirit of selflessness, humour, self-deprecation and sacrifice. West’s book laments the loss of these virtues and what it bodes for the future of a society that hardly knows it has lost them.
Written in the staccato, rapid-fire way of a Washington journalist and deploying a wealth of research, she highlights disquieting features of Western society and their cause: a loss of authority, self-belief and self-governance in both the young and their elders of the post-war generation. What she does not ask is where do the virtues that we have allowed to atrophy come from in the first place? Philip Trower, an English writer who has studied the roots of modern secularism and relativism, believes they are part of our Christian heritage that we are busy squandering like prodigals: “People en masse will not automatically behave in a reasonable, orderly, co-operative way unless they have been trained from childhood to listen to reason and conscience,” he observes.
Yet it is not all bad news. A new initiative called Troops to Teachers aims to use armed forces veterans in schools where they could provide an answer to the problems of “youth knife crime, drugs and violence in our inner cities”. According to Lord Guthrie, former Chief of the Defence Staff, they could “provide youths with role models who understand discipline and self-restraint at the time in their lives when they need it most.” This initiative has been copied from America where more than 16,000 ex-soldiers have been recruited to positive effect since 1994. It is said that old soldiers never die and here is proof that the real grown-ups haven’t all died off; there are still some of them around, to pass on their wisdom and experience to the next generation.
Francis Phillips writes from Bucks, in the UK.