During the second year of the Clinton administration, at a time when 30-year-olds seemed to be dominating the White House staff, a journalist from the Washington Post asked: “Aren’t there any adults at home in the White House?” Elizabeth Dole, according to an article in Time, recently turned to her husband over brunch and urged him to put some “adult supervision” into his chaotic campaign staff.
Enter Robert Bly, much revered author of the popular book on contemporary manhood, “Iron John,” who, in this new book, compellingly explains and exposes the forces that have so eviscerated authority in our culture that maturity has become an issue in the campaigns of the potential leaders of the Free World.
The “sibling society” is Bly’s metaphor for a world where “adults regress toward adolescence” and “adolescents . . . have no desire to become adults”; where admiration for elders has disappeared, tradition has eroded, ancestors have been forgotten; where the family is being destroyed everywhere, by everyone; where children’s brains are addled by day-care and TV; where adolescents, lost and self-destructive, dwell in bastions of boredom called high schools; where parents, particularly fathers, have abdicated their archetypal roles; where mass culture provides not elders but movies about infantile “grumpy old men”; and where respect for ancient myths and tribal ritual has been replaced by the cynical self-centeredness of “do your own thing.”
In other words, Bly views us as a bunch of squabbling siblings who tolerate no one above us and who have no concern for anyone below us. We must bring everyone to our own level, because we have lost the “vertical gaze,” i.e. the need to look up and admire someone, whether it be parent or president.
Bly deserves our respect for the courage and insight with which he faces the deeper, darker truths about American culture. His tough, unflinching denunciation of what is puerile and profane in our culture is much needed. But now that this distinguished poet has broadened his scope from men’s psychology to the entire course of Western civilization, his biases often overshadow his brilliance. Nowhere is this more obvious than when he closes Chapter One with the question: “How did we move from the optimistic, companionable, food-passing youngsters on that field in Woodstock to the self-doubting, dark-hearted, turned-in, death-praising, wised-up deconstructionist audience that now attends a grunge music concert?”
Building on this double cliche, Bly marshals a dazzling array of sources from Rumi to Ronald Reagan to prove that this bleak view is the gospel truth. Whatever subject he touches--from the passage of NAFTA to the behavior of Newt Gingrich, from corporate downsizing to the Internet--is cited as evidence of the chaos and confusion of a kingdom without a king.
By the time Bly reaches his epilogue, he seems to sense the one-sided quality of his argument. He allows himself to muse that perhaps there is “some good” or a “gift” buried in this flattening of hierarchy and questioning of authority. If so, he never finds it. Instead, he portrays everything through the same bitter, despairing lens.
He characterizes Generation X, the so-called “Day-Care Generation,” as utterly aimless. (Apparently he does not know that, according to a 1995 report by Independent Sector, the leading organization of charities in the United States, a record-setting 70% of 18- to 24-year-olds volunteer in community service.)
He asserts that computers “lead to a further drying up of conversation with adults.” (Does no one engage in intergenerational dialogue on the Net?)
He argues that in the “sibling society,” we have lost touch with sacred myths and stories. (Then who is reading Joseph Campbell’s “The Power of Myth,” Clarissa Pinkola-Estes’ “Women Who Run With the Wolves,” Jean Houston’s “The Mythic Life”?)
He states flatly that “television is the thalidomide of the 1990s.” (Does that include Bill Moyers’ celebrated PBS interview with Bly?)
Commenting on Americans’ ever-more-youthful appearance, he makes the puzzling argument that it is evidence of our inability to mature. (Must we now feel apologetic for looking young?)
A few pages before the end of the book, Bly finally tells us what he believes an adult is: “A person not governed by what we have called pre-Oedipal wishes, the demands for immediate pleasure, comfort and excitement. . . .”
This is a demanding, if hardly new, standard that many of us often fail to meet. But Bly imposes it with such self-righteousness that he inadvertently draws attention to the fact that his own writing does not meet this standard.
Frequently, for example, he resorts to cheap shots, putting down his favorite targets, among them Microsoft wizard Bill Gates. He believes that children parented by microchips will never truly mature, but he undercuts his whole argument by concluding, “Bill Gates will walk down the road singing, while men and women weep.” This may be poetic license, but it is not responsible social commentary.
Why does Bly need to vilify this leading inventor and businessman? Why doesn’t he invite him into a genuine dialogue rather than impugn his integrity? Why does he have to call people he doesn’t like “half-adults”? And why doesn’t he share with us the challenges he himself has faced to understand, as he puts it, “what it takes for an adult to become a genuine elder”? Now that would be a fascinating book.
Instead, protected in the armor of his own superiority, he wields his sword of judgment on greedy corporate executives, immature politicians, exploitative media stars and a host of other alleged villains. If we want opinions and biases, we can tune in a talk show. If we want to hear another “we’re right/they’re wrong” ideology, we can listen to political debates. But when we turn to those who are promoted to us as wise elders, we naturally hope for something more: genuine guidance, maturity and a wisdom that embraces human beings in all their complexity, even rich, high-tech tycoons like Bill Gates.
That’s asking a lot of Bly. But then, he asks a lot of everyone else.