I was once challenged in these pages to name a characteristic of my father and men of his generation which I found sadly lacking in latter-day men. The assumption was that I wouldn't be able to do it. "He put his feet on the coffee-table?" I was sneeringly asked.
No-o, I said. Rather, he had "gravitas." That few today have even heard of it only confirms my point. The Latin word, of course, gives us the English words "gravity" and "grave." But its fuller signification is "weight, severity, importance, dignity, seriousness." Those last two above all.
Comes now a book that expands on the idea, that convincingly explains why today men with "gravitas" are few and far between: "The Death of the Grown-up: How America's Arrested Development is Bringing Down Western Civilization," by Diana West (St. Martin's Press, 2007).
An ominous subtitle! The kind of thing easily dismissed as just another crying of doom, that ancient genre that's lately become virtually a cottage industry.
But the changes in culture and society over the past century, and especially the past half-century, make such laments more cogent than in the past. Technological advances have come so thick-and-fast, society just can't adjust and retain its health and equilibrium.
And strikingly, most contemporary doom-cryings, while superficially different, actually boil down to more-or-less the same sober diagnosis.
Yes, the 1960s get much of the blame. While clearly trends were underway much earlier that only became obvious in the 1960s, this book unerringly calls the decade "the biggest temper tantrum in the history of the world." A rebellion, that is, of the immature against the obligations of adulthood. The qualities that faded in the '60s ("refinement, restraint, honor, forbearance, civility, decency," etc.) are the virtues, not of a social class, but simply of maturity.
It was in the '60s, for instance, that traditional popular music, built around harmony and melody, was totally supplanted by "rock" in its myriad forms, based on rhythm.
Now rhythm, or beat, is the most primitive attribute of music, its hypnotic and emotional aspect, that logically most appeals to primitive peoples. And to the immature.
And it was-in the '60s that legal barriers against perversions and pornography collapsed. Nothing any longer is deemed a perversion, and in print and speech anything goes.
The impulse to speak in mindless strings of obscenities, like some '60s campus, activists, again, is a sign of immaturity. Young folks can be forgiven their early use of newly-discovered dirty words, but to go on using them forever betrays arrested development.
And the 60s saw the culmination of the child-raising trends epitomized by Dr. Spock's permissiveness. Discipline in any form was denounced. Authority on any level was the enemy. Parents, instead of backing up the schools in attempts to impose order and responsibility, came down unconditionally on their children's side, to the point of lawsuits.
Nothing could be a surer sign of immaturity than such knee-jerk hostility to any attempt, however feeble, to bring structure and accountability into life.
The most striking thing is how the onetime adult "establishment" made so little effort to resist the society-wide childishness that took over in the '60s. Rather than encouraging children to grow up, adults seemed to choose not to grow up themselves.
One could go on forever citing ways in which the sea-change affected all areas of life. Diana West mentions, for example, Rotarians in Batavia, New York, who put out a fund-raising calendar featuring themselves posing nude. To get such a thing in perspective, I need only try to imagine what my father would have thought of it. No "gravitas" there!
One writer calls his particular doom-saying "The Death of Common Sense." It's an apt way of describing what happened to Batavia's Rotarians and their ilk.
It's as if people have somehow been deprived of an inner compass which all used to be born with, that automatically told them what was fit and proper and what wasn't.
More than once I've tried to form an idea of some man before I've met him. Not quite knowing it, I'd conceive him in my father's image, my standard of manhood. Alas! Inevitably meeting the man was a jarring letdown. He shared fully in his wife's shallow, sophomoric concerns, and was more like one of the children than the paterfamilias.
It's a phenomenon hard to sum up, but a ubiquitous trait of today's men is that they're immersed in the pop culture, the entertainment world, fads of all kinds, superficial things that earlier generations would have been aloof to, that would have bored them.
Diana West characterizes "the death of the grown-up" as an integral part of the overall evolution of Western society since World War II. Downplaying adulthood and patriarchy leads to denigrating the whole Western cultural canon. Radical individualism and radical equalitarianism, as predicted by Alexis de Tocqueville, militated toward the tyranny of the majority and, at the same time, the tyranny of the "nanny state." Such a state, Tocqueville predicted, "would resemble parental authority if, fatherlike, it tried to prepare its charges for a man's life, but on the contrary, it only tries to keep them in perpetual childhood .... It provides for [citizens'] security, forsees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns .... Why should it not entirely relieve them from the trouble of thinking and all the cares of living?" Sounds uncannily familiar. And undoubtedly some people, at least at first glance, will find such a prospect not unattractive. But a condition "without thinking" is hardly living. We should heed St. Paul's reminder that there are childish things unseemly for adults:
"When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things." Our "arrested development," Diana West maintains, is part of our overall bemusement with "diversity" and "multiculturalism" which lays us open to cultural death at the hands of an alien culture that shares none of our suicidal liberal fads and fancies.