Perpetual Adolescence

I have been an inveterate fan of the Saint Louis Cardinals ever since their flashy team, long on power pitching, speed on the bases and pretty good glove work, won the World Series in 1967, and would probably have won it in 1968, too, except that Curt Flood, of all people, misjudged a long fly ball and slipped on the wet turf, turning a sure out into a two-run triple. Bob Gibson lost after seven straight complete-game World Series wins, and I knew, young as I was, that there was a tragedy in the world.

The Cardinals are now in the throes of a losing season, their first since 2007. They will probably play more meaningless games at the end of this year than they have in all other seasons since 2000. Some players are on the trading block, and the manager’s tenure is none too secure.

One of the dismaying features of this season, and perhaps, beneath the surface, the last several seasons also, is that the Cardinals, long considered a terrific organization for recruiting and developing young talent, have stalled at that. Players with tremendous promise and great natural skills have gotten stuck in neutral, and sometimes they have felt, and said it aloud, that confusion in the organization itself has been partly to blame. If it were just one or two players in that condition, I’d blame them. Still, when you see it happening consistently among players of very different temperaments and playing different field positions, you say that something in management isn’t working. And the Cardinals, a proud and usually lucrative ball club, aren’t likely to wait much longer to try to figure it out and make amends.

The players, essentially, are complaining that they are not being given the opportunity to grow up, if I may put it that way, and if they are correct, they are accusing management of being either incompetent or something more insidious and harder to identify; of seeking to control, by instilling and managing incapacity in their subordinates. If it is the latter, the Cardinals would be more like the world around them than I had thought possible.

It is a common observation that the bureaucratic aim of the Welfare State is to ensconce and perpetuate the Welfare State, to grow it and extend its reach. But that is at odds with the purported economic and social aim, which should accord with the Baptist’s statement, “He must increase, and I must decrease.” If the general effect of the Welfare State is to raise people reliably from poverty, the Welfare State must happily wither and die, having served its function, or if not die, at least retire into relative obscurity. But that is not the case.

Here it is not enough to say, with a modern Scrooge, that the Welfare State perpetuates dependency by removing a most effective incentive to such natural virtues as diligence, frugality, scrupulous honesty and self-restraint, namely, that you want to eat your supper. Other people eat their suppers, though they are by no means shining examples of those virtues. Rather, the vices of slovenly work, overspending, cheating of various sorts and self-indulgence show up in different forms in different sectors of American society. And I might go so far as to suggest that the purpose of American schooling, entertainment, social work, mass media and government is to produce such people, emotionally and intellectually stunted, stalled in adolescence, who do not have the resources within themselves to imagine life without the baubles that please the adolescent even as they flatter him into believing that he is brave and independent and such a creature as the earth has never seen before. I am suggesting here that there is more of a similarity than we all might feel comfortable confessing between a people who cannot imagine entertaining themselves without the vast and costly ministry of mass media and a people who cannot imagine marriage and solid family life without the assistance of agents of social help; between a people who are persuaded, they must depend upon the toils of the medical industry to live from day to day, and a people who take for granted the entire bureaucratic structure of schooling not as artificial and to be judged according to the results it produces, but as natural – because how else will children be supervised?

By no means am I suggesting that these groups are morally on the same level. It is wrong – uncharitable, socially destructive – to beget children out of wedlock; it is an offense against the nature of a human child, who ought by rights to be born into a solid family and a stable web of relationships and not to be dropped like a foal or, worse, tailored, engineered, turned into an object to be manufactured and purchased to gratify the lusts of its customers. It is not wrong, morally, to put too much trust in the arms of the government or the medical industry. It is foolish, I believe, to trust your local school in anything, but inattentiveness or wishful hoping can mitigate your moral fault in doing so. The point is that the school is for the spreading of a certain manageable form of stupidity and is all the more effective in spreading it insofar as teachers are unconscious of their complicity, as the medical industry is not so much oriented toward health as toward instilling a profitable sense of perpetual unease and neediness in the people, who are encouraged to become like teenagers who cannot imagine beginning a day unless mother makes breakfast for them; and so for other corporate peddlers of products that mature people may well do without, at least in the costly and usually ineffectual forms in which they are peddled, whether the corporations are private or public. For when it comes to the bureaucratic life and an instilled and perpetuated adolescence, Disney will do as well as the Department of Education, and Pfizer as well as the Department of Health and Human Services, and the local private school, deriving its teachers and its lessons and aims from the same stock, will usually do as well as the local public school, with an advantage in avarice and ambition, while ceding to the public school an advantage in lust and violence.

My analogy with the Cardinals and their current failure to spur players on to baseball maturity here breaks down, not just because, in the bureaucratic world, failure is a success, in that those who fail have more clients than before and thus can demand more funds and more authority, while in baseball there are still identifiable and countable wins and losses to contend with, not to mention the ticket receipts. I have not mentioned another factor, and I dearly wish it did not exist. The Cardinals play games against other teams, and the most successful among those teams will be developing their young talent. But America has no such opponent. Certainly, there is none in Western Europe, though the degree and the quality of the illnesses I have described will vary from nation to nation. China? I do not know enough about what it is like to grow up in that simultaneously totalitarian and virtue-urging society to venture a guess. In any case, I am not making predictions but noticing what is already in front of my eyes, describing it, noting the presumptions that underlie it and drawing out their logical implications.

One last word. The adolescent is necessarily scornful of what he cannot possess, a rich fund of human experience; that is why we should urge everyone, young and old, to study history to deepen and extend that fund. Literature imparts the same benefits and others that history cannot as well; it can direct the reader to the highest aspirations of the human soul, even bringing him into the vicinity of the divine. Childlike we may be when we study history and literature as they ought to be studied; mature, surely; but we can never do so as long as our leading characteristics are the priggish self-assurance and ignorance of the adolescent. We can guess then what the agents I have described will make of those areas of learning. And which nation will laugh at us? For they are mostly eager to do similar. Nobody wins in this game.

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About Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is a Distinguished Fellow of the Center for American Greatness, a senior editor for Touchstone Magazine, and a contributing editor for Chronicles. He is the author of well over 1,000 articles and of 28 books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) ; Life under Compulsion (ISI 2015). His verse translation of The Divine Comedy (Random House) is considered the standard edition of Dante. Professor Esolen's most recent books are Defending Manhood: Why Civilization Depends on the Strength of Men (Regnery, 2022); In the Beginning Was the Word (Ignatius, 2021); Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius, 2020); Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World (Regnery, 2018); and his beautiful book-length sacred poem, The Hundredfold (Ignatius, 2018). He is a Distinguished Professor at Thales College. Click here to subscribe to his substack Word and Song.

Photo: Welfare - the state of doing well especially in respect to good fortune, happiness, well-being, or prosperity, text concept on blackboard

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