Saturday, January 2, 2010

Maturing In A Purposely Driven Adoloscent Culture

David Brooks has written an important column about the Detroit terrorist attempt and our collective response. What's interesting to me is that my daughter and I were talking about this incident the other night and we made some similar observations. The most effective deterrent is normal people making the simple but courageous decision to intervene. Government security measures can only go so far, and too many of them seem to be based on the unfounded assumption that normal people will not intervene. We have a great deal of evidence to the contrary. Normal people will intervene. They do not childishly rely on Big Brother in all things at all times. It is the single most important lesson about terrorism we should have learned from 9/11. Normal people will do singularly courageous acts without thought for their own safety, whether that is a passenger on an airplane or a fire fighter on the ground. They can and do act like adults.

It's a lesson in maturation we are being purposely taught to ignore.

The God That Fails
By DAVID BROOKS New York Times December 31, 2009

During the middle third of the 20th century, Americans had impressive faith in their own institutions. It was not because these institutions always worked well. The Congress and the Federal Reserve exacerbated the Great Depression. The military made horrific mistakes during World War II, which led to American planes bombing American troops and American torpedoes sinking ships with American prisoners of war.
But there was a realistic sense that human institutions are necessarily flawed. History is not knowable or controllable. People should be grateful for whatever assistance that government can provide and had better do what they can to be responsible for their own fates.

That mature attitude seems to have largely vanished. Now we seem to expect perfection from government and then throw temper tantrums when it is not achieved. We seem to be in the position of young adolescents — who believe mommy and daddy can take care of everything, and then grow angry and cynical when it becomes clear they can’t.
After Sept. 11, we Americans indulged our faith in the god of technocracy. We expanded the country’s information-gathering capacities so that the National Security Agency alone now gathers four times more data each day than is contained in the Library of Congress.

We set up protocols to convert that information into a form that can be processed by computers and bureaucracies. We linked agencies and created new offices. We set up a centralized focal point, the National Counterterrorism Center.

All this money and technology seems to have reduced the risk of future attack. But, of course, the system is bound to fail sometimes. Reality is unpredictable, and no amount of computer technology is going to change that. Bureaucracies are always blind because they convert the rich flow of personalities and events into crude notations that can be filed and collated. Human institutions are always going to miss crucial clues because the information in the universe is infinite and events do not conform to algorithmic regularity.

Resilient societies have a level-headed understanding of the risks inherent in this kind of warfare. (A level headed understanding of risk is an adult response.)

But, of course, this is not how the country has reacted over the past week. There have been outraged calls for Secretary Janet Napolitano of the Department of Homeland Security to resign, as if changing the leader of the bureaucracy would fix the flaws inherent in the bureaucracy. There have been demands for systemic reform — for more protocols, more layers and more review systems.

Much of the criticism has been contemptuous and hysterical. Various experts have gathered bits of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s biography. Since they can string the facts together to accurately predict the past, they thunder, the intelligence services should have been able to connect the dots to predict the future.

Dick Cheney argues that the error was caused by some ideological choice. Arlen Specter screams for more technology — full-body examining devices. “We thought that had been remedied,” said Senator Kit Bond, as if omniscience could be accomplished with legislation. (Isn't this a shock, that Dick Cheney thinks this is the fault of ideology---except 9/11 of course.)

Many people seem to be in the middle of a religious crisis of faith. All the gods they believe in — technology, technocracy, centralized government control — have failed them in this instance.
In a mature nation, President Obama could go on TV and say, “Listen, we’re doing the best we can, but some terrorists are bound to get through.” But this is apparently a country that must be spoken to in childish ways. The original line out of the White House was that the system worked. Don’t worry, little Johnny.

When that didn’t work the official line went to the other extreme. “I consider that totally unacceptable,” Obama said. I’m really mad, Johnny. But don’t worry, I’ll make it all better.
Meanwhile, the Transportation Security Administration has to be seen doing something, so it added another layer to its stage play, “Security Theater” — more baggage regulations, more in-flight restrictions.

At some point, it’s worth pointing out that it wasn’t the centralized system that stopped terrorism in this instance. As with the shoe bomber, as with the plane that went down in Shanksville, Pa., it was decentralized citizen action. The plot was foiled by nonexpert civilians who had the advantage of the concrete information right in front of them — and the spirit to take the initiative.

For better or worse, over the past 50 years we have concentrated authority in centralized agencies and reduced the role of decentralized citizen action. We’ve done this in many spheres of life. Maybe that’s wise, maybe it’s not. But we shouldn’t imagine that these centralized institutions are going to work perfectly or even well most of the time. It would be nice if we reacted to their inevitable failures not with rabid denunciation and cynicism, but with a little resiliency, an awareness that human systems fail and bad things will happen and we don’t have to lose our heads every time they do.


David Brooks has a lot of meaningful lines in this op-ed piece, but the one that really struck me is this one: "We seem to be in the position of young adolescents..." I maintain this is because we have been purposely conditioned in general to act like adolescents. Any Madison Avenue ad exec will freely tell you how important that adolescent demographic--especially male--is in their plans. The preponderance of what passes for entertainment in this country is aimed at that actual age dynamic and/or the people whose maturation level has not passed beyond that dynamic. This happens because this age bracket has discretionary income and rarely any adult responsibilities tagged to that income.

This is the age in which the higher cognitive states come on line, the sexual hormones activate, and the adult identity is beginning to form. It is the stage in which we move from ego centrism to social awareness. It is a highly malleable stage, one in which the environment one is formed in can have huge impact on one's adult life. When the greater culture is aimed at providing for the whims of this age bracket, and enticing them to stay there, maturing beyond it is an iffy proposition.

There's very little about our culture that encourages people to move beyond adolescence and that is especially true for our cultural leaders. This certainly includes our religious leadership. Since loyalty and group identity is a big deal at this stage of maturity, it makes sense that religious leadership would keep yanking the loyalty and identity chains with constant appeals to the importance of this for our own security and salvation.
At the adolescent stage loyalty is given on the basis of perceived personal acceptance. A person is loyal to the group because they feel part of the group, irrespective of any other issues. The adult gives loyalty on the basis of the integrity inherent in the actual performance of the group or it's leadership and is willing to accept ostracism or reject membership as a consequence of perceived failure in the group or leadership. Given enough provocation adults will demand these organizations grow up, get accountable, and quit trying to snow people.

I hope 2010 is going to be rife with questions about the level of maturity for both American culture and Roman Catholicism in particular. Both cultures need to grow up-- and soon. The issues facing them and the consequences they engender for humanity demand mature responses. To religiously preach or politically speak or economically advertise almost exclusively to the adolescent mentality, especially male adolescent mentality, is not at all healthy for society. In fact most cultures have traditionally bent over backwards expressly to mature young adults through this stage. I suspect the reason it's stopped happening in the West is because keeping people dependent, free spending, and obsessed with identity issues is both highly lucrative and perpetually entrenching for our leadership.

I hope and pray that this coming year more Americans and Catholics find themselves acting like courageous adults because both our country and our church were hi jacked a long time ago by interests who have little interest in seeing we do.


  1. What I've noticed is that if there is any security breach such as in Detroit that the right wingers will pounce on it to try to discredit Obama and his administration. They are always banking that people will respond like adolescents and they know how to play it up, especially someone like Dick Cheney.

    What really got to me in seeing the reaction to the Detroit terrorist attempt was the idea that they will introduce the use of scanners to see through people's clothes at airports. Just what we need, legitimizing peeping Toms dressed as security guards. Shouldn't a metal detector pick up metal? Yet they used an example to find a knife hidden on someone and seeing it with the scanner. I'll bet the stock is going up on the company that makes such scanners. I wonder if Arlen Spector has a big supporter who also has a scanning company or interest and shares in it? That will cost more money, of course, and someone else will be richer making scanners for "homeland security", but will anybody truly be safer? Then they will complain that their taxes are too high, yet never question their own decision making for the reliance on military or Big Brother's expensive technology.

    While at the same time people scream of too much government, they keep screaming to their elected representatives for more intrusive government on its own citizens.

    So true Colleen - "To religiously preach or politically speak or economically advertise almost exclusively to the adolescent mentality, especially male adolescent mentality, is not at all healthy for society."

    Those who are for the most part running things are not very mature, but are power & money hungry.

  2. I don't have a lot of time and when that is the case, I usually don't leave a comment... but today I will.

    Bravo - this is a great post.

    We live in adolescent land - what an image. How sadly true.