Perspective: Remembering Midge Decter, who warned us about the dangers of progressivism
Even before the baby boomers grew up, the conservative thinker called out the mistakes of their parents
“My Dear Children.”
That’s how Midge Decter began her 1975 classic, “Liberal Parents, Radical Children.”
The book was ostensibly a letter to the “young,” but was also an excoriation of the old. The “young” she addressed are today’s baby boomers, and long before it became fashionable to criticize the boomers, Decter was on the case.
Who raised the boomers — the people who undermined the nuclear family, who normalized drug abuse, who destroyed academic standards in our universities, who made individual fulfillment the highest good? And what did these parents get wrong?
Decter, who died this past week at the age of 94, pulled no punches about telling us. At the end of the introduction to “Liberal Parents, Radical Children,” she offered a mea culpa on the part of her own Greatest Generation for raising one of the most destructive generations. She said the parents of today’s boomers refused to stand for themselves, that their parenting was based on “appeal, not authority.”
She wrote: “Believing you to be a new phenomenon among mankind — children raised exclusively on a principle of love, love unvaryingly acted out on our side and freely and voluntarily offered on yours — we enthroned you as such. We found our role more attractive this way, more suited to our self-image of enlightenment, and — though we would have died on the rack before confessing — far easier to play.
She and other parents of her generation, “failed to make ourselves the final authority on good and bad, right and wrong, and to take the consequences of what might turn out to be a lifelong battle.”
She went on to say the children who would grow up to be the boomers were the “most indulged generation” even while being left to their “own meager devices.”
“It might sound a paradoxical thing to say — for surely never has a generation of children occupied more sheer hours of parental time — but the truth is that we neglected you. We allowed you a charade of trivial freedoms in order to avoid making those impositions on you that are in the end both the training ground and proving ground for true independence. We pronounced you strong when you were still weak in order to avoid the struggles with you that would have fed your true strength. We proclaimed you sound when you were foolish in order to avoid taking part in the long, slow, slogging effort that is the only route to genuine maturity of mind and feeling.”
For those familiar with the Jewish service on Yom Kippur, the rhythm of the writing reminded me, when I reread it recently, of the Viddui prayer, in which worshippers gently beat their chests for each of the transgressions they have committed. And even if they have not committed every one individually, they say the prayer because they bear some responsibility for the sins of the community.
Midge, whom I was lucky enough to count as a friend and a mentor, seemed to feel that she bears some guilt for the collective sins of her generation.
If anything, though, she was the voice of sanity pushing back against this nonsense. Midge was many things — a writer, a thinker and an organizer. Without a college degree, she became one of the most prolific intellectuals of her generation. She worked as an editor at Harper’s and at Basic Books. She formed the anti-Soviet Committee for the Free World, with the idea that it was not only policy emanating from Washington that mattered in the Cold War, but it was also the cultural battles. She served on boards of almost every major conservative organization in the country and was, as one writer put it recently, “the den mother of the old-social science form of neoconservatism.”
Along with her husband, Norman Podhoretz and their friends Irving Kristol and Gertrude Himmelfarb, Midge nurtured a new political and intellectual movement in America.
But it was her experience and her observations as a wife and a mother (and eventually a grandmother and great-grandmother) that shaped some of her most important contributions — and shaped me. I was lucky enough to read her observations about the family on the printed page and to hear her talk about them over many lunches we shared.
She had a sense of what children needed in order to thrive, and she always worried that their parents and teachers, not to mention the culture more broadly, were not providing it. She saw how the absurd ideas of adults trickle down in the most destructive ways to children.
Whether it was drugs or socialism or libertinism, it was clear to her that parents had given up on the “lifelong battle.” They no longer wanted to be the final arbiters of “good and bad.” And those adults became persuaded that any unhappiness in their own lives could be avoided by letting their children do things differently, with fewer boundaries and less guidance.
The parents humored the decisions and behaviors of their children as youthful indiscretions, temporary experimentation or long-term attempts at self-discovery. But these pathways did not and do not end well — either financially or emotionally. And a half century later, young people still seem to struggle with these decisions, and parents seem even more reluctant to offer them guidance.
Midge was particularly astute on the subject of feminism, sounding the alarm about its extremes long before anyone else. She saw how feminism and the demands it was making on women were rarely making women any happier with their lot in life. And the extreme edges of feminism brought many harmful side effects to men and children as well. The broken families that litter the American landscape are one of its enduring legacies.
Midge was funny and kind and compassionate, but when it came to the dangerous ideas she saw in the world — particularly for children — she was clear-eyed in a way that could leave her readers feeling as if they had been gut-punched. May her memory be for a blessing.
Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Deseret News contributor and the author of “No Way to Treat a Child: How the Foster Care System, Family Courts, and Racial Activists Are Wrecking Young Lives,” among other books.