Ross Douthat is a writer, film critic and cultural observer I admire. He writes well on Catholic matters as well. Most recently he has written a book called, The Decadent Society: How We Became Victims of Our Own Success.
He is writing on the allegedly stagnant state of affairs in what we’ll call “Western Liberalism”. Economic stagnation, institutional decay, cultural and intellectual exhaustion at a high level of material prosperity and technological development.
The long shadow cast by many long narratives of Rome’s decline and fall once again falls over the pages of yet another volume. Douthat believes we must be aware that this is an insidiously gradual process. Rome lasted for centuries in a state of enervation and without any palpable hope of recovery. A slow death.
The indices Douthat cites might not seem obvious symptoms of decline. Productivity, he says, is slowing down and becoming less sustainable; richer people are having fewer kids leading to an older society. Space travel has been remarkable but is not likely to save us. Decadence on the ground is still decadence in space. “Forever wars” have drained and demoralized us, the very divisive culture wars, and pop culture amounts to endless recycling of material so seemingly bright and new but so very much the same old things.
And in a society seemingly so preoccupied with sex and its joys and agonies — according to Douthat, people aren’t having sex like they used to — if they ever used to as much as we’ve been led to believe. I’ve always had my doubts. As a character says somewhere in Graham Greene’s novel, The Burnt Out Case, there are only so many ways to drive a nail.
In fact, the Atlantic’s Kate Julian has identified what she calls a “sex recession.” But the reasoning here is that proliferating “virtual vices” available via Playstation and pronography, Tik Toks and Twitter distract and divert us from the angst to a point where we don’t entirely register the fact that we are standing still, i.e., not advancing in some vital areas — pandemic or no pandemic. There has grown up too much simulated stimuli, though apparently this is one area where we’ve kept advancing technologically. (I did a story about an absurd device allegedly in development — but perhaps long since abandoned — in which one could kiss a pair of artificial lips, thereby causing corresponding fake lips across the world to vibrate against the lips of your beloved. Haven’t heard anymore about the long distance kiss “innovation”.)
Douthat claims, in another real downside, that networks for propaganda and disinformation (and fake news?) and “soft” censorship abound across the world. (What’s this have to do with decadence? Well, it’s hard to be creative and original with Big Brother looking over your shoulder.)
Does any of this sound familiar or plausible? My summary is far from complete or, perhaps, entirely coherent or even accurate, for I’ve not read more than excerpts from the book. Suffice it to say ( I hate that phrase!) there is much to ponder here. I guess pondering is a way of forestalling the onset of decadence.
Someone may have been fiddling, but was anyone pondering while Rome burned?