The immaturity of America’s adults directly threatens the United States’ national security and historical traditions, Diana West ’73 said at a Branford College Master’s Tea on Monday.
West — a newspaper journalist and author of the book “The Death of the Grown-up” — discussed Islamic extremism with about 20 students at the tea, focusing on what she called Americans’ inability to take responsibility for the preservation of their own culture. While they enjoyed the talk, some students interviewed said they think West oversimplified the influences on Western civilization when she argued for a logical progression from immaturity to a Western crisis of faith.
West said Americans’ immaturity makes it harder for them to understand the uniqueness of Western civilization and to take responsibility for their civilization’s continued preservation. This inability can make it hard for Americans to determine the ethical value of their actions, she said.
“If you can never put Western civilization on a pedestal, if you are suddenly leveling everything, then it is hard to get a sense of what are right and what are wrong actions,” West said.
Americans’ failure to appreciate Western civilization is particularly problematic after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, West said, as “The West” is now under attack in unprecedented ways.
West said the informality and lack of pretension she noticed among American members of “the establishment” illustrates the crisis of adolescence in American society. To support her point, West told a story about an older man who asked her baby daughters to call him “Bob” rather than “Mr. Smith.”
“It suddenly struck me as I was researching [the book] that chronological adults — those who are by age adults — did not want to accept what had happened to them,” West said. “They pushed away authority even as they led lives of authority.”
She said her personal experiences led her to begin researching other instances of this rejection of social stature and some individuals’ inability to recognize what she and others term “the mainstream.”
She cited as examples various research organizations’ extension of the age of adolescence from 30 to 34, the failure of music group U2’s lead singer Bono to understand that he is a member of the mainstream music business and former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s apology after a remark about “the culture wars.”
Some students said West blamed Americans for censoring themselves in thought but ignored the censorship she employs in her own speech by concentrating only on the positive aspects of Western civilization.
“West fell victim to the same self-censorship that she calls others on,” Paul Lagunes GRD ’11 said. “It seems that she is in favor of certain means of self-censorship, yet she refused to say that.”
Bente Grinde ’09 said she agrees with Lagunes, but she thinks West had reasons for presenting only one side of the argument.
“She is trying to promote debate,” Grinde said. “She is trying to be heard. By combining statistics in research with personal anecdotes and choice words, she is best able to communicate with her audience.”
Branford College Master Steven Smith said he disagreed with West’s characterization of “The West,” as she conflated Western civilization with America and neglected to mention other influences that contribute to Americans’ interpretations of their own traditions.
“We live in a moment in Western civilization,” Smith said. “America is a product of that moment, and it’s been created by diverse forces.”
West has written for The Washington Times, The Washington Post, The Weekly Standard and The Atlantic Monthly, among other publications.