In Prospect

Autumn 1998

CITY JOURNAL has written often in the past about children and young people, and we will be writing about them even more in the future. Not that they are missing from today’s political conversation: talk about kids is incessant. But so much of it is sheer humbug, especially the left’s claim that much of its program aims at improving the lot of the nation’s children. In fact, the welfare ideology at the core of left-wing politics for a generation has profoundly harmed precisely the children whose welfare it claims to advance. It has allowed welfare parents to become exploiters of their own offspring, extracting a living from children whom they can’t support and to whom they too often are emotionally and educationally unprepared to give the kind of nurture that produces adults who can succeed. While the it-takes-a-village school of child advocacy hatches a never-ending brood of programs that tinker at the edges of the gargantuan problem it has created, it never comes to grips with the central truth: that encouraging the formation of dysfunctional, single-mother households produces childhood misery on an industrial scale. Raising children takes not a village but a family.

When you move from the political left to the cultural left, the situation isn’t much brighter. A generation ago, just when America began overturning and replacing its deepest values and beliefs so completely as to amount to a cultural revolution, critic Leslie Fiedler remarked that young people were growing so different in worldview from their elders as to seem almost a race of "new mutants." He was prescient, especially since at first the new beliefs and values subsisted alongside the old, so that the young people of the 1960s had a double consciousness: they flirted with the new worldview, always with the comforting belief that underneath their experiments with tuning in, turning on, and dropping out was an invincible safety net of the old moral certitudes. The next generation of new mutants had no such double consciousness. A decade or so after Fiedler wrote, many old beliefs had lost their authority and slipped away from the young, along with much of the old knowledge. (One luminous example that stands out from the mid-seventies is a class at an elite liberal arts college, in which not one student could say who Abraham and Isaac were.)

What took the place of the old values? Attitudes like compassion, tolerance, nonjudgmentalism—some of them worthy enough, but as a total morality insipid and unsustaining compared with such old virtues as courage, duty, honor, manliness, sacrifice, and truthfulness. The new ethic of letting it all hang out soon leads to confusion and emptiness. It lacks the sustaining power the old values possess by virtue of their truth: they have behind them centuries of human experience and reflection on the question of what is the best—most fulfilling, most fully human—life for man. They can answer the urgent query that is the basis of the examined life: How shall I live?

Without the old values, today’s young, who have nothing but the new culture, suffer from an inner void that leaves them lonely and incomplete. This issue’s two cover stories examine what has filled that hole. Roger Scruton’s "Youth Culture’s Lament" on page 12 shows how so much of young people’s culture, especially pop music, is an attempt, doomed to failure, to create a satifactory substitute for the meaningful adult social affiliations that the cultural revolution has short- circuited. For preteens, as Kay S. Hymowitz shows in "Tweens: Ten Going On Sixteen" (page 26), parents not only are increasingly absent from the home but also, when they are there, have substituted for the clear rubric of traditional right and wrong the fuzzier cultural-revolution value of self-esteem. Result: into the vacuum where parents and their values used to be has rushed the peer group, which gets its values from an advertising and entertainment industry that well knows how to manipulate the naive longings of the young.

In a related article, Theodore Dalrymple shows in "Uncouth Chic" (page 110) how implacably the elites are making that vacuum even emptier—and how a cultural inheritance of the highest value is squandered in the attempt. The task confronting anyone who seeks the welfare of America’s children is to make sure they stop being disinherited of their birthright: families that nurture, values that sustain.