Monday, March 2, 2020

The Decadent Society (The Book)

New York Times op-ed columnist Ross Douthat, author of (among other books) Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics  (2012) and To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism (2018), has now given us The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success. Although not, like me, a "Boomer," he begins with an elegaic invocation of the 1969 moon landing and the technological and cultural confidence that era exuded. In contrast, he contends, "the end of the space age has coincided with a turning inward in the developed world, a crisis of confidence and an ebb of optimism and a loss of faith in institutions, a shift toward therapeutic philosophies and technologies of simulation, and abandonment of both ideological ambition and religious hope."

That is quite an indictment! Such stagnation and exhaustion is what he means by decadence. Referencing Jacques Barzun, Douthat defines decadence in terms of "economic stagnation, institutional decay, and a cultural and intellectual exhaustion at a high level of material prosperity and technological development." He highlights how this is evident in the diminished experience of change in recent decades. He notes, for example, apart from the Internet, not much that is comparable has happened since 1970 to compare with "the cascade of changes between 1870 and 1970." (Is the fact that both the incumbent president and his most likely opponents are all septuagenarians reflect this?)

Douthat's analysis ranges freely from stagnant technological innovation to repetitive pop culture. But the most dramatic - and probably most indicative - evidence of stagnation is our increasing failure to reproduce in sufficient numbers. "Aside from Israel, there is no rich country in the world whose population would not, absent immigration, be on track to shrink." He highlights P.D. James' The Children of Men (the 1992 book, not the movie), which incidentally is set in 2021, to emphasize the dramatic damage done to a society that ceases to reproduce. We are not quite at that point, of course, but below replacement-level birthrates in so many developed societies, with resulting aging populations, fewer workers to support the old, fewer young people to innovate and make progress, and the reduction in natural family networks and the social support they provide, leaving more and more people to grow old alone are already abundantly in evidence. 

This is a natural issue for social conservatives. "Religious practice correlates with higher fertility within most societies, and conservative religious practice correlates especially. But I think it ought to be recognized as more of a challenge as well by those social progressives, whose insensitive policies and uncompromising ideologies have contributed to this development, curiously conniving in different ways with economic, capitalism-affirming conservatives in creating this crisis. The price of the turn to individualism and away from social solidarity in culture as well as economics has been high indeed!

Douthat recognizes a peculiar - and perhaps unexpected - component of this crisis in how "men and women seem to be having more and more trouble successfully and permanently pairing off" apparently thanks in significant measure to "the rise of the Internet, the iPhone, and all the virtual alternatives to old-fashioned copulation."

Meanwhile, in politics, Douthat suggests that "interest group protection racket is the entire Republican agenda," while "the story of Trump's liberal opposition is one of transformation, half accomplished so far, into an ideological formation, woke progressivism, that mirrors the decadent phase of the conservative movement in its ideological demands and litmus tests, its airless certainties, and willful disdain for moderation." At the same time, Douthat also detects the now familiar pattern of stagnation in "our culture war debates" which reflect the same recurring cycle of hard-to-resolve arguments created by the genuine revolutions of fifty or sixty years ago."

Likewise with religion, Douthat detects a persistent "conflict between traditionalists and progressives" that "has been stalemated for forty years, with seemingly new developments ... swiftly bringing the same exact moral and theological debates to the surface, with the same predictable results." He sees a contemporary scene not unlike what Christopher Lasch and Robert Bellah described in the 1970s, but without the "ferment and experimentation of the kind that yields religious renewal within existing institutions ... and yields competitors as well."

One possible outcome might be what he calls "sustainable decadence.," already apparent in the numb safety of virtual reality and such sad phenomena as the opioid epidemic. There is also what he calls "the Pink Police State," already somewhat in evidence on some campuses, in which "private conduct is freer in the variety of acts that are allowed, but more closely regulated in any case where there is a possibility of not just physical but also psychological harm." Then there is the reality of climate change, "a crisis created unintentionally by Western industrial development," which "could, in one of history's cruel ironies, help a decadent West hold off challenges from its rivals because it imposes greater ecological costs on the formerly colonized, the formerly defeated, than on that led the first industrial wave and firsts began to warm the world."

Conceding that "human beings can still live vigorously amid a general stagnation," still, he recognizes, "the case for sustainability carries you only so far."

Douthat does have some hope, however. "Africa is the outlier: relatively poor in a world of affluence, still war-torn in a world more at peace than in the past, increasingly religious rather than secularizing, youthful in a graying world, and fertile in an age of sterility and demographic decline." In one particularly hopeful image, he invites us to "imagine a Eurafrica in which black Christians fill the Gothic churches of the Old Continent - something that happens already if you look in the right Parisian neighborhood - and then gain enough power and influence to build new ones, in new-old styles."

He concludes that he "would be a poor Christian if I did not conclude by noting that no civilization - not ours, not any, - has thrived without a confidence that there was more to the human story than just the material world as we understand it."

This is a creatively conservative book of the sort we have come to expect from its author, a challenge to so many common conventions and easy certainties on both sides of our seemingly hopelessly divided society.

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