Much of the jihadist picture of the West is distorted, a caricature based on superficial observation and selective evidence. Yet there remain troubling aspects of American culture that give traction to the Islamic critique. In her book The Death of the Grown-Up, Diana West, a syndicated columnist for the Washington Times, pulls together the various dysfunctions and discontents of American civilization by seeing them as the expression of a unique historical development, the “death of the grown-up.” The demise of the adult has led to the abandonment of adult virtues and mentalities, and their replacement by the instant gratification, impatience with the limits of reality, and the obsession with the self typical of the teen-ager.
West starts by explaining the historical conditions of the “rise of the teen age,” a time of life unknown before modernity. Rather than flog the 60’s, West correctly sees that decade’s cultural degeneracy as the “epilogue” of the 50’s and its post-war affluence, demographic explosion, and increased freedom for the young. Changes in family size, the advent of work-place skills that demanded longer education, the discrediting of authority spawned by fascism, the inevitable progress of liberalism towards radical individualism – all contributed to the shift from an adult-centered world to a child-centered one. Also important was the development of adolescents into the most coveted demographic for consumer capitalism, the group most prone to transient fashion and impulse buying – and now possessing the funds to gratify those ad-stoked desires for products like Princess telephones, portable record players (six million sold in 1952 alone), 45rpm records, hairspray, and movies like Rebel Without a Cause that flattered and glamorized teen-aged angst and petulance. [...]
One of West’s shrewdest ideas is to link multiculturalism’s self-loathing idealization of the “other” to the adolescent “identity crisis.” Our ignorance of the West’s unique goods enshrined in its history and traditions has led to a loss of cultural identity, which “would seem to be linked to the loss of maturity. At the very least, the easy retreat from history and tradition reveals the kind of callow inconstancy and lack of confidence that smacks of immaturity as much as anything else. It seems that just as we have stopped ‘growing up,’ we have forgotten ‘who’ it was we were supposed to grow up into.” At the same time, we give to non-Western cultures a groveling respect and timidly acquiesce in their dysfunctions. This bad habit, as West shows with numerous examples, is particularly dangerous for the struggle against Islamic jihad. That battle isn’t going to be won by calling Islamic terrorists “gunmen” or “activists,” or by ignoring the West’s long, unique tradition of tolerance for the “other” at the same time we indulge the myth of Islamic tolerance.