Ross Douthat’s interesting but frustrating new book, The Decadent Society, puts me in mind of a famous Jewish joke. The scene opens with the wise and beloved old rabbi, lying on his deathbed. He is attended by a dozen or so of his students and disciples, all of whom are dutifully lined up in order of seniority, somberly awaiting the rabbi’s last words. Finally, the moment arrives. The rabbi opens his eyes, leans over to his side, and grants to his first and best student his parting declaration: “Life is…a river.” Quickly, the first student passes the word along to the next student in line. “The rabbi says life is a river.” And then it is passed to the next: “The rabbi says life is a river.” And so it goes on down the line, until the message reaches the youngest of the entourage. He receives the news, ponders it for a moment, then naively responds, “But what does the rabbi mean, life is a river?” And so back up the line his question comes, one by one, until it reaches the most senior student, who feels obliged to pose the question, on behalf of the others. “Rabbi,” he asks, his voice nervous with apprehension, “what do you mean, ‘Life is a river’?” The rabbi closes his eyes to think.
He opens them. He looks over at his beloved student, shrugs his shoulders, raises his palms, and admits:
“OK, so it’s not a river!”
The experience of reading The Decadent Society is a bit like that. It’s an engaging book by a smart and well-read journalist that ventures a considerable number of observations, generalizations, and predictions relating to our current condition and our civilizational prospects. It has moments of interpretive boldness. But it is also much too willing to back away from those assertions, and in fact often does so almost preemptively, even before we have a chance to challenge them. Like the rabbi in the joke, Douthat manages to do this with charm and a certain modesty. But what we’re left with is a book that, despite its many strengths, does not quite come off. The smart observations never expand into something broader. At almost every turn, where what one wants from a book of this kind are wise conclusions and plausible visions for the future, what one gets instead is a profusion of plausible scenarios and clever alternative plot outcomes.
The problem begins very early on. One comes to this book primed to read about our society’s decadence, a word that may be hard to define with precision, but that is forever associated with moral decay and falling apart (it derives from the Latin decadere). Since we are surrounded these days by clear signs of late-Roman moral decay, it seems reasonable to expect that Douthat would talk about them. That expectation is reinforced by the book’s jacket design, a grotesque depiction of Rabelais’s Gargantua, who is gorging himself on the various delicacies of a sumptuous table while being attended by a retinue of servants, including a smiling man who is merrily defecating into a bowl on the table’s corner.
But you can’t judge a book by its cover, and it turns out that “decadence” in this book is defined as something far tamer and more respectable than the lurid jacket art would suggest. Douthat defines it as a condition of slowing growth or stasis, a pause or interlude in the flow of material and cultural innovation and expansive energy that has hitherto characterized the history of the West in general and the United States in particular. He defines the term this way, he explains, partly so that he can point to quantitative measures of decline, such as economic or demographic data, rather than speaking only in glittering and impressionistic generalities or cherry-picked examples. But such an approach may have the effect of defining out of consideration the most interesting questions about our decadence.
The book is carried along by a large but loose interpretive framework. Douthat draws upon the historian Frederick Jackson Turner’s claim that the existence of an unbroken frontier called the American national character into being—and goes on to extend this logic, as John F. Kennedy did, to the new frontier of space, whose conquest would ensure the persistence of the classic American traits. But with the effective end of the American space program after the triumphant Apollo moon landing in July 1969, Douthat writes, there began a “closing of the frontier”—a shrinking of American horizons that would also entail a steady loss of inventiveness, creativity, productivity gains, population growth, and confidence in the future.
As an admirer of both Turner and the space program (in which my father worked, and through which my best friend from childhood became an astronaut), I’m drawn toward this framing of history. But I’m afraid that it is a bit too fanciful and forced, neglecting the inconvenient truth that much of the nation had other troubles on its mind in the summer of 1969 and was therefore not as enchanted with the moon landing as I was, partly because it had trouble envisioning the highly technocratic space program’s search for frontiers as something it could claim as its own. Many my age took the contrary view articulated by Lewis Mumford, who dismissed the moon landing as “the hasty exploration of a barren satellite.” They regarded the chief value of our space exploration as the photographic glimpses it had given us, for the first time in human history, of our fragile blue planet as a lonely and stunning exception to the vast and hollow impersonality of space, and an eloquent rebuke to the delusion that “modern technics would soon replace Mother Earth with a more perfect, scientifically organized, electronically controlled habitat.”
Moving to the present day, it is not always clear whether or not Douthat regards our current condition as something to be seriously concerned about. To be sure, he organizes the book around the “four horsemen” of stagnation, sterility, sclerosis, and repetition, which sounds pretty apocalyptic. But he does not want the book to be morally judgmental, or to fall victim to the excesses of either catastrophic doom-saying or Panglossian optimism. It’s not his style to get too hot under the collar. If there is a Jeremiah inside him struggling to get out, that fact is kept well concealed.
Perhaps our problems are merely the result of our success, and we are currently in a “pause that refreshes.” Or maybe not. Maybe we are in a state of “sustainable decadence,” something that could go on for years and years without serious interruption. Or maybe not. Maybe the election of Donald Trump has “revealed the underlying instability of our decadence” and opened the path to authoritarian doom. Or maybe Trump is “more farcical that threatening,” a feature of our decadence we can easily absorb. Whatever.
In his chapter entitled “Stagnation,” Douthat deals with the question of whether the Silicon Valley economy is “real.” Adducing examples like Elizabeth Holmes’s Theranos fraud and, a bit more speculatively, the lighter-than-air success of the universal but as yet unprofitable ride-sharing company Uber, the answer seems to be no. These two are prime examples of “economic decadence”—“what it looks like when an extraordinarily rich society can’t find enough new ideas that justify investing all its stockpiled wealth.” You might imagine from this description that Uber is in the pet-rock business, instead of a company providing complex, innovative, and immensely valuable services. But then we’re told that “despite the stories I’ve just told [about Theranos and Uber]…many Silicon Valley institutions deserve their success, many tech companies have real customers and real revenue and a solid structure underneath.” So which is it? Is the economy a river? Or not a river?
Some of the best parts of Douthat’s book come with his analysis of culture, and with the pattern of endless repetition that seems to characterize the world of ideas and the arts in recent years. About this, he is largely on target. In film, on Broadway, in popular music, in literature, in academia, and in a dozen other arenas, things seem to him to be stuck in what he calls “a pattern of recurrence.” We seem unable to imagine or produce fresh and innovative things, a fact that is surely connected, as is the chicken to the egg, to an inability of stodgy, incurious audiences to appreciate those fresh things when they come along—and also connected to the transformed economics of cultural production, which makes endless streaming of the same-old-same-old more attractive and profitable than the risk and expense of nurturing and embracing something new.
He’s also largely right that there seem to be very few new ideas in circulation, but instead a great deal of rehashing of the same-old intractable arguments about race, class, feminism, sexuality, poverty, environmentalism, socialism, capitalism, and so on, debates that were already running down well-worn tracks in the 1980s. He calls this “the eternal return to 1975,” and while there is some oversimplification involved, it is striking how often what he says turns out to be true. Those of us in academic life who look back to Yale’s Woodward Report—which happened to be issued in 1975—as one of the most enduring defenses of free speech and free inquiry in the academy, have forgotten that the report concludes with a “dissenting statement.” It was written by a student committee member who objected to all the arguments the historian C. Vann Woodward had adduced for free inquiry, and offered a clear statement of the very same justifications for suppressing unwanted speech and shouting down of disagreeable ideas that increasingly prevail today. Add a few new buzz words, such as “intersectionality,” “marginalization,” and “privilege,” and the document would be right up to date.
So all the arguments and counterarguments were already out there. What has changed, though, is that today it is our university presidents who mouth the dissenter’s lines to appease their student protesters, while Woodward’s ringing words, and the handful of faculty who still believe in them, are being ignored or forgotten. So plus ça change is not quite the right maxim to apply here. About such developments, Douthat is characteristically ambiguous. “Maybe,” he speculates, “woke progressivism will carry all before it in a way that the new left failed to do.” Maybe “the current recycling of New Age impulses…will deliver the West to some new post-Christian religious moment.” Or “maybe all these trends give an illusion of forward movement and momentum, when they’re actually bearing us ceaselessly back, back toward 1975.” Or maybe something else. If you don’t like these scenarios, he has others.
Douthat is insightful on the growing substitution of the virtual for the real, and how that substitution feeds a comfortable passivity, insulated from the requirements of action in the world. Hence the sense that we are polarized as never before coexists quite easily with the fact of our relative inactivity. He offers a withering passage that encompasses that paradox: “If you want to feel like Western society is convulsing, there’s an app for that, a convincing simulation waiting.” But in the real world, nothing much is actually happening. Western society is “really leaning back in an easy chair, hooked up to a drip of something soothing, playing and replaying an ideological greatest-hits tape from its wild and crazy youth, all riled up in its own imagination and yet, in reality, comfortably numb.”
It is hard not to see in his description of such a condition an accusation of decadence in the familiar, morally charged sense of the word. And Douthat comes close to issuing a charged warning, a rude intrusion of actual reality, when he asks, “How can a decadent society hope to avoid being challenged by more vigorous rivals, and ultimately…being subverted, dismantled, overthrown?” His answer: It can’t, and therefore we’re doomed, unless our enemies are even weaker and more decadent than we are. One wishes the book had more of that kind of realism.
The book’s concluding chapters, which explore possibilities of rebirth and renewal, continue to offer a multitude of possible avenues for us to follow. Perhaps the infusion of African cultural vitality into the moribund cultures of Europe will uplift and enliven them both, together. Perhaps some fabulous technological innovations, in energy, robotics, biotechnology, life extension, and of course space travel, Martian colonization, etc., will change everything. Perhaps there will be a revolution of localism, a disaggregation of the global grid. Perhaps there will be a worldwide religious revival, facilitated by a growing dissatisfaction with the limitations of secularism. Perhaps there will be a new paganism, or an unprecedented westernization of Islam. Perhaps there will be some hybridized version of some or all of these things, going on all at the same time!
In the end, Douthat seems to opt, albeit with his usual casualness, for a combination of scientific-technological advance and revitalized religious faith, concluding the book with, in its final sentence, what is probably its only command: “So down on your knees—and start working on that warp drive.” This is not a deliberately incoherent directive, since Douthat wants to insist that there can be a “mysterious alchemy” between science and religion, and he is not wrong to do so. The cultural power of that alchemy was well expressed when the three Apollo 8 astronauts read the text of Genesis 1:1–10 to the nation from space at Christmas of 1968. That such a crew would never be allowed to read such a thing today, and might not even want to do so, is surely a sign of our cultural decline, and in light of the space program’s subsequent demise, perhaps indirect evidence of Douthat’s alchemy, too.
But there are reasons to be cautious about combining kneeling with that warp drive. Earlier in the book, Douthat mentions in passing Henry Adams’s famous encounter with the great hall of dynamos, at the Paris Exposition of 1900. He reads Adams’s description as an example of the “technological sublime,” the tendency of Americans to invest divine properties in certain technological achievements, such as the construction of the transcontinental railroad, the Hoover Dam, and the Golden Gate Bridge. But the passage itself, in which Adams writes of himself in the third person, gave voice to a far darker view of technology’s religious claims:
To [an inventor of the day], the dynamo itself was but an ingenious channel for conveying somewhere the heat latent in a few tons of poor coal hidden in a dirty engine-house carefully kept out of sight; but to Adams the dynamo became a symbol of infinity. As he grew accustomed to the great gallery of machines, he began to feel the forty-foot dynamos as a moral force, much as the early Christians felt the Cross. The planet itself seemed less impressive, in its old-fashioned, deliberate, annual or daily revolution, than this huge wheel, revolving within arm’s-length at some vertiginous speed, and barely murmuring,— scarcely humming an audible warning to stand a hair’s-breadth further for respect of power,—while it would not wake the baby lying close against its frame. Before the end, one began to pray to it; inherited instinct taught the natural expression of man before silent and infinite force.
Adams struggled for years to understand the conflicting pull of these alternative “moral forces” and never succeeded. But he did come away with one insight that endures: “All the steam in the world could not, like the Virgin, build Chartres.” I suspect that the same could be said of all the rocketry in the world. Particularly if one were to begin to pray to it.
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