fbpx

Stuck With Decadence

with Ross Douthat,
hosted by Richard M. Reinsch II

New York Times columnist and commentator extraordinaire Ross Douthat talks about our decadent age with Richard Reinsch.

Richard Reinsch:
Today we’re talking with Ross Douthat about his new book, The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success. Ross Douthat’s name will certainly not sound unfamiliar to our listeners and readers. He’s one of our most cogent cultural and political critics. He writes for the New York Times. He’s the author of a number of books, including most recently, To Change the Church, about the Pope Francis pontificate, which anticipates well, I think, many of the changes Pope Francis has brought. He’s also the author of the book Privilege and Grand New Party, which is a wonderful book that has held up well. Ross is also the film critic for National Review, which I read your pieces many times there. Welcome to the program.

Ross Douthat:
Thanks so much for having me, Richard. It’s great to be here.

Richard Reinsch:
Great. So Ross, you’re into decadence. Tell us about the Decadent Society.

Ross Douthat:
So the Decadent Society is an attempt to, in a certain way, put a name on the weird anxiety that pervades the developed world, the Western world and the United States of America, where we have this combination of tremendous wealth and technological proficiency, which makes some people argue that these are the best times in the history of the world, but at the same time a lot of discontent, anxiety and ennui, which gets manifested in everything from the sort of populist and socialist rebellions in our politics, to rising rate of depression and suicide, and deaths of despair as they get called and so on. And so the argument I make in the book, is basically that we have entered a very particular kind of civilizational state that I’m calling “decadence” and I’m using that term to mean not chocolate dipped strawberries and weekends in Vegas, though those might be part of it, but a kind of stagnation, repetition, and decay at a high level of civilizational development.

Richard Reinsch:
One of the definitions, to talk about the definition of decadence you give in the book, you build on Jacques Barzun’s book, From Dawn to Decadence, which I think came out in 2000. I remember reading it in 2001 and that book has stuck with me. It’s one of the reasons why I really enjoyed reading your book because building on Barzun’s definition of decadence, Barzun talks about moving in fits and starts, but not really getting anywhere. The Decadent Society sees no path forward and it’s institutions function painfully. Maybe talk more about that because you also dismiss a definition of decadence that on my worst days, I find myself sort of glomming onto which is weak, sort of hedonistic luxuriating, weak and unable to defend ourselves. Unwilling to see the purpose in defending ourselves and so we’ll go into the good night, but maybe talk about that.

Ross Douthat:
Right. So yeah, I am very directly borrowing from Barzun and you could see this book, in part, as a sequel both to his book and in certain ways to Francis Fukuyama’s famous book, The End of History, which came out 10 years earlier. And the combination of those two arguments basically makes the case that Fukuyama was right, in a sense, not permanently and forever, but right that Western civilization has sort of passed beyond some of its great ideological debates and entered into a period of stability, that was also in danger of becoming a period of boredom and disappointment and sterility. And then Barzun, in a somewhat similar way, made the case that this is something that happens generally to civilizations at a certain point.

That they enter into periods where their once vigorous institutions become sclerotic, where their ambitious explorations hit frontiers that they can’t necessarily explore. And for us, I think that’s the most obvious in the demise of the space age basically, that we went from a period where people imagined that the frontier was going to open further into space. And now that’s sort of left to Silicon Valley billionaires to pursue and maybe they’re getting somewhere. But there’s no cultural imagination around space travel the way there was in the 1960s. So frontiers are closed. Institutions don’t work that well anymore. There’s sort of a loss of both pride in the past and confidence in the future and it doesn’t go all the way to the definition that you suggest only because I think that people sometimes underestimate how long a decadence period can last. So there’s an assumption that because you have institutions that don’t work as well anymore because you have a loss of civilizational confidence, there must be a kind of iron logic to history where the barbarians are waiting at the frontier and they’re going to come in and put the palaces to the torch.

And of course sometimes that happens. But you can also have empires and cultures go on a long time in periods that are essentially stagnant. The Roman empire goes 400 years from its Caligulan stage to the actual demise of the empire in the West. And in our case, we’re in this sort of unusual, not sort of, this entirely unusual position of being the first true world civilization, even more so than ancient Rome. And we also have a situation where a lot of empires and countries and cultures that might be seen as our rivals maybe are actually converging with us in decadence in different ways. That they aren’t poised to leap past us. And if that’s the case, then you could imagine what I call sustainable decadence as something that lasts if not centuries, at least some generations past our present moment where I’m writing.

Richard Reinsch:
So you’re saying, American civilization spreads its corruption, it spreads its decadence to others that it touches?

Ross Douthat:
I’m saying that there isn’t … that’s the darkest way of putting it, I guess. You could also say that the modern world’s experiment has achieved things like near universal literacy and high school education for most people. It runs out of obvious sources of dynamic new growth. And once it achieves a certain level of technological proficiency, it becomes a lot harder to figure out new world changing inventions. It’s hard to come up with the equivalent of the light bulb or indoor plumbing. And so as other societies gain those things, they converge with us. So China gets richer and more educated. India gets richer and more educated, but they end up in the same place that we’ve ended up. There’s no clear line of advanced path, this particular combination of wealth, technology and a slowly aging slightly exhausted culture.

Richard Reinsch:
I want to go back, and you mentioned it earlier, your take on the end of the Space Age. You have this sentence and I’ll read it, “Since Apollo, we have entered into decadence.” Why do you pin so much on, I guess, the decline of American government’s involvement in space exploration?

Ross Douthat:
Well, so first because the timing is right, right? So I start the story in 1969, in part because that particular peak of achievement, the leap to the moon also coincided with the moment or the period when the trends that I’m describing as decadence really began in earnest. So it coincides with the slowdown of economic growth that began in the ’70s and has defined the American economy, with a few exceptional periods ever since. It coincides with the first great wave of public disillusionment with government that peaked with the Watergate scandal, but then has sort of defined the country’s relationship to its government ever since. It coincides with the beginning of the birth dearth, with the Baby Boom generation giving way to a period of the low replacement fertility that has again, extended itself across the developed world ever since.

So there’s a lot of the, at least somewhat measurable trends, I’m talking about, start in that period. So even if it isn’t directly connected, it’s a good place to start. But I do also argue that there is a direct connection that, and this is of course unprovable, but nonetheless I think it’s true that, the entire spirit of modern civilization and especially the American version of that spirit, has depended on an idea of exploration, going to the frontier as a primary or defining source of meaning. And sometimes this has strong religious overtones, sometimes it’s more secularized. But either way, there has been this sense that human beings have been given a world to explore and our societies thrive by actually exploring it. And so the moment … this is in certain ways a version of Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous frontier thesis about where he argued that the literal closing of the frontier was this signal moment in American history. And I’m suggesting that he was probably right, but in that case, the at least temporary closing of the stellar frontier was also really important.

And that the … at least some of the optimism of the post World War II era in the United States was conditioned on the belief that we were … that the frontier wasn’t actually closed that the language of John F. Kennedy, the new frontier, the language of Star Trek, the language of the 60s. The optimistic language assumed a human story that would continue beyond the earth and we haven’t found a way to do it. And then that means that we are stuck here with ourselves having fulfilled the admonition in Genesis, we have filled the earth and we don’t really know what to do next. And in that sense it’s not surprising that there is a sense of futility and stalemate in a lot of human endeavors since.

Richard Reinsch:
Do you think, when you think about that refusal, or, I say refusal, willingness to continue space exploration, do you attribute that to a failure of imagination, courage, hope, or big government? And one of the things, I was thinking of your book, and you just referenced Frederick Jackson Turner’s thesis, I mean the conservative critique of Turner is, what he’s really saying is “Yeah, the frontier is closed and now it’s government’s job to manage us. To make our society a better one, more orderly, more equal.” Those things. Is that what leads us away from the space age and that heroic rambunctious spirit that would have been true in a pre-progressive America?

Ross Douthat:
I mean, I would like to argue that it’s a failure of nerve and courage and imagination, but you also have to concede that it was just a response to the reality of this space. Which, the reason that Americans went to the frontier in the 19th century, or the reason that Spanish and European explorers crossed the Atlantic was that there were clear political and financial incentives for so doing. And it took the full flower of the Cold War and that spirit of competition to get us to the moon. And then we got there and basically discovered that, while our technology at that moment was equal to that particular task, it wasn’t equal to the kind of things that science fiction authors imagined. You know, mining on the moons of Jupiter, or terraforming Mars or anything like that.

So there are ways in which the people who said, “Well we don’t need to pursue the space program because there isn’t anything out there for us,” had a reasonable point. There clearly has to be some further leap of technological progress here on Earth to push us further into the stars. And some of that, I mean, we have made some progress. There’s the Elon Musk, those kinds of projects have improved our space life capacities in certain ways, but they haven’t been that transformational leap. So in that sense, I think it’s more the arrow probably runs the other way, where it’s first, the impediments to space travel become apparent and the view that we’ll be beyond Jupiter by 2001, to take Stanley Kubrick’s and Arthur C. Clarke’s example, once people realized that’s not going to happen, then in turn, diminishes the incentives for daring ambition, rambunctiousness.

And you know there was a lively argument, well into the late ’60s about whether the space program itself was a sensible use of resources. And if you watch the … I’m not sure if it’s in the Apollo 11, if it’s not in the Apollo 11 documentary, it might be in the Ryan Gosling movie about Neil Armstrong. They show protestors singing the song Whitey on the Moon. That’s sort of the view. Basically a Great Society view that, as you say, we need to make things equal here on earth before we go to the stars and that view then gets, in some sense, confirmed by the fact that we can’t get to Mars or build a moon base, or have a Mars colony.

Richard Reinsch:
Well, it seems to me too, supply creates demand in this sense that you give yourself a purpose. Or you give yourself a goal, an objective, a destination as a country, as to what you’re going to do and push for it. And that’s something in your book, resonated with me because I remember growing up in the ’80s and thinking, “Well, we really don’t take this stuff seriously anymore.” I remember going to visit NASA and looking inside a space shuttle and thinking, “This isn’t something we’re really going to do in a way that was true when my parents were growing up.” No one’s going to give Kennedy’s speech at Rice University now. That’s also the Cold War. I mean the Cold War is a part of this as well, but it just seems we did give up. And you know, the technological difficulties are well noted, but you know, as Peter Thiel might say, “Those are things that one could push for and try to solve if there was a will.”

Ross Douthat:
One could. Although he wrote a very kind review of my book, but he accused me of being too glib in saying that we need to start working on the warp drive because we have to recognize these immense impediments and possible impossibilities of that technology. Which is a fair point. But yeah, I think one of the arguments I try and make in the book, is that decadence as I describe it, is a very entangled phenomenon. So it’s very hard to say, “Here was the one thing that we needed to do differently to avoid ending up where we did.” So, right. Like you could imagine a president, a popular president-

Imagine a popular president, a figure like Ronald Reagan, who made a Mars mission as important or central to American government as Kennedy and his successors did with the Moon landing. But could that have succeeded given the greater technological impediments to getting to Mars, the clear absence of short term economic benefits to the mission, and the waning of the Cold War, the disappearance for a time at least of great power competition? I’m not sure. I mean, I think you can look at something like the Challenger explosion as a useful book end.

I basically say that the space age runs from Sputnik to the Challenger. I was four or five when the Challenger happened. I actually do remember it as one of my more vivid childhood memories.

Richard Reinsch:
Yeah, me too.

Ross Douthat:
But yeah, so you can imagine a counterfactual where the Challenger explosion, nothing happened. Reagan is more invested in the space program. Maybe the Cold War takes a different turn. You can spin those out, but at the same time, there are clearly powerful and sort of interlocking structural forces that have made it hard for us to just sort of go on to the stars as we imagined doing.

Richard Reinsch:
Returning to terra firma. And in your book, you then turn to the sociology, the economics, the politics of aging societies, which characterize every Western society except for, as you know, Israel. How does that factor in to decadence, the below level birth rates, replacement level birth rates, and in that factoring into who we are?

Ross Douthat:
So I mean, it’s another case of entanglement, right? Where, well, the birth rate part of it starts with a puzzle that I don’t have a definite solution for. And the puzzle is why have birth rates settled so low in the developed world, not only Europe and the United States, but even more so in the Pacific rim as well?

And if you go back 50 years to what demographers were talking about as the Baby Boom sort of ran out of steam, the view then was of course, birth rates will fall. We’re no longer an agrarian society. We have more reliable contraception. We’re seeing various professional advances for women. Child mortality rates are much lower, so you don’t have to have nine kids to have five or four survive to adulthood. But the expectation was that birth rates would settle at around what people said they wanted, which would mean slightly above replacement level of two to 2.5 kids at that sort of normal birth rate.

And instead people still say, women as well as men, that they want somewhere in that two to 2.5 kids range, but they aren’t having them. And the US was an outlier for a while. Still had replacement level fertility into George W. Bush’s presidency, but since the Great Recession, we’ve fallen off the cliff and joined Europe and East Asia.

So clearly, I mean, I’m a social conservative and a Roman Catholic, so I have certain suspicions about what the Sexual Revolution did to people’s capacities to successfully mate and marry and have kids. I think it’s reasonable to see that something has gone amiss in sexual and romantic culture that seeped into this. But there is this mystery of why the richest societies in the history of the world, where in certain ways it’s never been easier to have kids, and we have assisted reproduction to help people who are infertile and all the rest, why in these societies can’t we maintain even a replacement level of fertility?

Richard Reinsch:
I want to read a passage from your book on this point because I thought it was really well said. You say, “The facts themselves are indisputable. People reacted to the social revolutions of the 1960s first by marrying less and divorcing more and having fewer children, more of whom were born outside of wedlock. And then eventually by marrying much less, having many fewer children, and even in trends from the last two decades having less sex, period.” That is a damning indictment, I think, of our situation or searing indictment of our situation.

Ross Douthat:
Yes. And it’s interestingly different even from what the social conservatism of my own teenage years suspected. Probably the first real conservative jeremiad that I read as a teenager flirting with right wing politics was Robert Bork’s Slouching Towards Gomorrah.

Richard Reinsch:
We have that in common

Ross Douthat:
And that was a book that basically argued that the social revolutions of the ’60s were unleashing a kind of moral chaos, and the implication was that we should expect the abortion rate to stay high, the divorce rate to stay high, the teen birth rate, which had gone up in the early 1990s to keep climbing. That we should expect out of wedlock births to become the norm. That we should expect this kind of permanent 1970s New York kind of social chaos. And that isn’t exactly what we’ve gotten.

Instead, we’ve made that further turn that I tried to capture in the passage you read where we’ve stabilized things. The American society is more stable than it was when Bork wrote his book. The divorce rate has dipped. The abortion rate has dipped. The out of wedlock birth rate has finally leveled off. The teen birth rate has gone down. So in that sense, social conservatives should be celebrating except that what’s replaced that chaos is not a sort of renewal of the family. It’s not a sort of successful marriages and rising birth rates. It’s this age of a sort of retreat from sex itself in some cases. Certainly-

Richard Reinsch:
Japan.

Ross Douthat:
… from marriage, parenthood, and so on. Yeah, and it sort of we followed a trail that Japan, and to some extent South Korea, has seemed to blaze where virtual forms of intimacy substitute for the real thing, where men and women spend incredibly long periods of their lives single. And the internet has obviously entered in and interacted and driven some of it. It’s provided a kind of safe space for people to sort of enact fantasies that would be incredibly dangerous if enacted in the real world. But you can have sort of 1970s New York on your computer screen, and the real world is stable and safer, but it’s not clear that it’s happier.

Richard Reinsch:
You quote an economist I think at Clemson University, which I heard this critique when he first announced it, that the introduction of broadband correlates with the decline in sexual assaults and violence, meaning pornography itself seems to reduce sexual violence. You found that persuasive, I assume?

Ross Douthat:
I don’t want to express too much certainty because rape statistics are somewhat famously under-reported, and there’s a lot of argument and contest around their reliability. And then there are clearly a lot of ways in which the internet has enabled predation and human trafficking. But that broad trend does seem like it could be right. If you go back, as I do a bit in the book, and look at the arguments in the 1980s when you had this temporary alliance between religious conservatives and anti-porn feminists, the arguments then ran the other way. They were sort of versions of Bork’s arguments that basically porn unleashed passions, unleashed the libido in a way that would be tremendously dangerous for women especially, and would lead to this sort of looking for Mr. Goodbar, endless sort of predation in a freewheeling singles scene.

And that again, we run a generational experiment with hardcore pornography, sort of a wild diversity of pornography beyond even the imagination of the Hustler era is now sex education for tons and tons of Americans, especially American males. And you haven’t gotten that kind of epidemic of sexual violence, or you haven’t gotten a new epidemic. Instead, the evidence seems to be… My friend, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, wrote a piece recently, a long piece for the American Greatness website where he tried to go through the sort of psychological and medical literature on porn addiction. And most of it seemed to run in the direction of numbing and impotence as the fundamental consequences of pornography, not widespread aggression.

Richard Reinsch:
Yeah, that’s what I read. I mean, I take it, just thinking about your analysis here, and you say in the book in the late ’80s, early ’90s a lot of the things social conservatives said seemed to be coming true about the fallout from the sexual revolution, and then we found a way to manage it. Managing it, being the internet, smartphones later, drugs, various medications, and also the welfare state itself. And has been well known with the rise of this category of prime working age men who are jobless at alarming rates, the opioid deal, but also the ways in which government itself seems to support them.

And so I guess we’ve found a way to manage these problems, but yet if there is a human nature defined by love, relational capacities and needs, and these things don’t exactly go away either in the sense of what human beings need to thrive. But yet don’t find themselves in a culture supplying it, and certainly that’s true for certain populations.

Ross Douthat:
Yeah, I think that’s basically right. But I think we’re also sort of, in certain ways, the turn from the Bork era of social chaos to our era of numb social stability is relatively new. And so we don’t know what this will look like 20 years hence, whether there will be… You see among younger conservatives, for instance, much more hostility towards pornography than you saw 10 or 15 years ago. Sort of younger conservatives are less libertarian in certain ways on these issues in part because I think they’ve grown up in the world that porn has made. On the other hand, in most respects, American culture is trending in a more kind of pro medicate your troubles away direction, right?

I mean, I think the spread of legal marijuana, it may be the right move in policy terms. It may be that the costs of marijuana prohibition were just too great. I’m open to that argument. But we need to be, I think realistically, it’s another way of mainstreaming a kind of numbed, detached, chilled out approach that where people can sort of drift through what are, in certain ways, supposed to be the most, as you said earlier, rambunctious periods of their lives, just sort of hanging out and not actually getting to either the kind of entrepreneurial spirit in their professional lives or a kind of romantic and ultimately sort of literally fertile spirit in their relational lives.

Richard Reinsch:
Talk about the aging society. We were talking about one social, cultural side, but there’s also you have an economic critique as well. And I wanted to get to that and also the politics of an aging society. Because I really enjoyed your chapter on policymaking, the form it seems to be taking. So the politics of an aging society is different, much different, than Schumpeter’s creative destruction mentality.

Ross Douthat:
Right. I think that’s a reasonable assumption that older people are for entirely rational reasons, but also for reasons that I think relate literally to their brain chemistry, are more risk averse and cautious and more attached to existing institutions than are younger people. And so it stands to reason that as society gets older, it’s time horizons shrink. Its risk assessments change.

I quote the libertarian columnist, Megan McArdle, who was my colleague at The Atlantic a long time ago, and wrote a piece where she basically said, “Imagine two towns next to each other. We’ll call them Twilight City and Morningburg. And in Twilight City, the population skews towards people in their 60s, and in Morningburg it skews towards people in their 30s. And even if the two societies have exactly the same level of wealth, the same kind of technology, the Morningburg society is just going to be more dynamic, creative, more likely to take risks, more likely to make bets that can only pay off over the long haul. And the Twilight City society is going to be the reverse.”

Now that’s then I think complicated a little bit by I think some of the anxieties that older societies feel in eras where transformation seems to be happening amongst the younger generation that they can’t control.

Richard Reinsch:
You find that playing out now?

Ross Douthat:
Yeah. I think some of the politics of immigration in Europe and the US, you have older people, not always older people, it’s a little more complicated in Europe, but certainly in the US, you have a lot of older people who have voted for Donald Trump and who have been supportive of the kind of rambunctious populous conservatism because they look at the changes to American society, the fact that they didn’t have as many kids, and you have in effect immigrants often sort of as the inheritors of society seemingly instead of their own descendants.

All of that breeds a certain kind of anxiety about the future that can lead to support for at least a certain kind of disruptive populism. So it’s not as simple as old people always vote for the safest person, otherwise Donald Trump wouldn’t be president. But if Donald Trump set out to dramatically overhaul Medicare, those older voters would conspicuously not be in favor of it. And I think even the populism in Europe and the US is defined in part by its desire not to change the welfare state, right?

That’s sort of, whether it’s Marine Le Pen in France or Trump here, there’s a rejection of entitlement reform. There’s a sort of rejection of some of the more free market oriented aspects of conservatism, and that too I think reflects the age composition of the people supporting those movements.

Richard Reinsch:
Yeah, we can’t even have a conversation. I mean, the last national politician to try it was Paul Ryan around even just slightly retrenching the welfare state. I mean, that’s just a nonstarter even though we’re staring at the abyss right now. And the only thing working in our favor is that America seems to be able to borrow in an elastic capacity on world markets.

Ross Douthat:
Yes. I mean, I look at our deficits as maybe more sustainable than some conservatives do. But I think of them then in turn as sort of part of how a sustainable decadence works. That in effect, we pay ourselves to give up the illusion of continued growth, right? That we have the illusion of continued growth, because we’re rich and relatively stable, and in part because our society is older, and so interest rates are lower. There are various ways in which an aging society oddly makes deficits easier to carry. But what that then means is that we have 2% growth propped up by immense deficits. Whereas, in the 1950s, they had 5% growth with negligible deficits. And that’s a big difference, and not a sign of fundamental economic health, even if it’s something we can carry for the time being.

Richard Reinsch:
Yeah, and it’s interesting just thinking about capital, not just financial capital, but things being rebuilt, replaced, renewed, regenerated. That doesn’t seem to be happening either. In your critique, we just sort of, we’re living off preexisting lines of capital. And you also had this critique, it’s a very succinct critique, that the 60s counter culture became the culture, but built nothing. It moved, I was thinking of Gramsci, they did move through the institutions and capture them, but what did they do with them?

Ross Douthat:
Right. I mean, I think I offer a partial defense of the Baby Boomers, in the sense that I argue that they really were a dynamic and creative generation. And that we owe most of our current political ideas to sort of movements that the Baby Boomers invented, including movements of conservatism in certain ways. But, also environmentalist of the left, feminism and so on, all come out of the Baby Boomer transition to adulthood. And so do most of our cultural forms, including Rock & Roll and the Blockbuster movie and so on.

And these were real inventions. But, I think the problem is that the Boomer victory was too complete. As you said, that they, and in that sense, it’s really their parents and grandparents fault for not putting up enough resistance against this huge wave of youth culture that swept through America. So if you’d had more of a kind of creative tension between … just to take the universities, if you sort of maintained this sort of ongoing argument over what the canon should contain with the younger people arguing that it needed to change in various ways and older people defending sort of a traditional canonicity, that I think would have been much more healthy than the world we have where the idea of a canon sort of under Baby Boomer and post Boomer pressure just collapsed.

And so now universities, it’s not that universities teach Toni Morrison alongside Shakespeare. It’s that they don’t teach either. And that’s in certain ways one of the core problems with the Baby Boomer victory. But then because there were so many of them, I mean my parents included there. I mean, I obviously love and admire many Baby Boomers, but they did and do maintain this kind of weight on our society. That sort of makes it hard to do new things culturally, it’s hard as the Democrats are finding out in this campaign cycle, to nominate anyone to presidency who isn’t over 70-years-old. And we’re all still living in the Steven Spielberg and George Lucas’ imaginations even though those imaginations have run out of steam.

Richard Reinsch:
You mentioned Megan McArdle and I was thinking about when I was reading your book and you mentioned this, the Twilight City versus Morningburg, she had a great piece two years ago, where she went to Utah and she covered state government in Utah, the business climate in some of the larger cities in the state.

Ross Douthat:
Yep. I remember that.

Richard Reinsch:
And she said in talking about the families in Utah that she encountered, and she said, “This is America. This is the American dream. This is how I think America is supposed to work.” No Utah talk though from you in this book. Is Utah just too limited or is that something you don’t find convincing, or how might one extrapolate from that experience?

Ross Douthat:
No, I mean I think I mentioned Utah. I think my assumption is that there are two major spots in the rich developed world that I would say are not decadent by my definition. And those spots are the State of Israel and the Republic of Deseret, whatever you want to call greater Mormondom. And there… And some of this is just based on birth rates alone. Israel is the great outlier in terms of birth rates. It’s the only-

Richard Reinsch:
… 3.1-

Ross Douthat:
… only country with, yeah, with a birth rate, not over two, but over three. And that’s true for secular Israelis and not just the Orthodox, which is particularly striking. And then Utah represents a certain kind of religiously rooted, future oriented, large families, reasonably tech savvy kind of Americanism. Yeah. It looks like the pre-decadent America, which is why Mitt Romney, he seemed like a visitor from 1965, right? Or the year 1958, when he ran for president. You could imagine him not sort of in the control room at NASA, but as sort of a high level bureaucrat, running one of those mid-century programs.

So yeah, Mormondom is clearly an outlier. I think there are, and I think the role of the LDS Church in that culture is one reason among many why I talk a fair amount at the end about religious revivals as plausible or potentially plausible paths out of decadence. The challenge for the Mormons is that one reason they’re able to sort of maintain their culture is precisely its geographic concentration, right? There isn’t sort of a similar Catholic core or Presbyterian core in the US that reflects that kind of concentrated influence.

And there are some reasons why the Mormons have not grown at the rate that some people expected in the 1970s there. And this is true generally of right now … religious communities, especially traditional religious communities, have higher fertility rates than almost everybody else. But then they also lose a lot of people through attrition. So they sort of, they’re on the treadmill maintaining themselves without having the kind of dynamic growth that could transform their regions or the country, as yet.

Richard Reinsch:
So let’s think about how we might end and how we might renew. You kind of go through some things, global warming, socialism, this post liberal nationalist moment, and also Islam within Europe. And you sort of systematically considered each one. But I think ultimately you don’t really worry about each one. And I guess that’s consistent with your thesis, but maybe talk about that some.

Ross Douthat:
Yes. I mean, I think I spend a certain amount of time talking about possible forces that are sort of external to the world that I’m calling decadent. And that means mostly thinking about China and Islam. But the external force that I think is most likely to challenge decadence is the huge population imbalance between an aging sort of hyper decadent Western Europe and not the Islamic world particularly, but Sub-Saharan Africa, which is still growing at an extraordinary rate. And it’s totally possible that by the end of the century there will be 500 million Europeans and three and a half billion Africans. Whereas, 100 years ago there were probably more European than Africa. And that seems to me like the kind of unstable equilibrium that you should expect to lead to some kind of dramatic change, especially if climate change of some sort makes more of Africa or the Middle East less habitable and sort of drives migration.

But, I think that combination if sort of climate change and population imbalance is the most likely sort of way that a force from outside the decadent developed world could transform at least the European part of it. And then internally, my assumption is that you need something somewhat disjunctive. You can’t just incrementally go forward with the trends we have now and expect to escape from decadence. You need an unexpected great awakening. You need a dramatic political realignment of the time that Trump and Sanders are sort of imagining. But, I don’t think they’re likely to achieve.

And or you would need breakthroughs in inventions. I mean we were talking earlier about the space program. It is totally possible that in the spillover from Silicon Valley’s wealth, there could be innovations that would really change our capacities for space flight. It’s possible that in this sort of world of alternative energy and self driving cars and so on, you could get a real transportation transformation of the kind that we haven’t really had since the rise of the automobile. But I think you need something pretty dramatic to shift the trajectory that we’ve been on for the last 40 or 50 years just because there are so many different forces converging to make us decadent right now.

Richard Reinsch:
I suppose too, I mean I was thinking, you mentioned Peter Thiel’s review of your book. I once read something of his, something to the effect he rejected the etiology of mortality. So pointing towards AI or working towards a transhumanist future of some kind, could technology, maybe not transhumanism and that’s still, but something like that. Do you think that is too unpredictable to pontificate about on what could change the West?

Ross Douthat:
Well, there’s two things, right? One is that I’m … I suppose morally and theologically skeptical of those kinds of innovations than Thiel is. So I can imagine a world where you’ve got some dramatic genetic innovation, some dramatic genetic enhancement, that would not be decadent, right? If we suddenly had the superman from the wrath of Khan, or this sort of Star Trek imagination of the future walking among us and we were … it just was driving dramatic political conflict or maybe if they were, I think I say in the book, if China achieved some breakthrough where suddenly they were creating effectively in the race, that would not be decadent. I’m not sure it would be good, right?

Richard Reinsch:
No.

Ross Douthat:
I mean, so that, you can imagine things happening that would create dramatic, new moral and religious conflicts where Thiel and I, who are both critics of decadence right now could end up on in effect the opposite side. In the specifics of AI. I mean, I, without being a proficient expert in the study of consciousness, if such a thing is possible. I do think that the hard problem of consciousness is an even harder problem to solve in some way that makes brains malleable and replicable.

Richard Reinsch:
Uploadable.

Ross Douthat:
Right, then uploadable. Exactly. I suspect we will get to Mars before we upload our brain anywhere. But that could be my own bias. I would rather go to Mars than upload my brain. And I feel like some of those kind of imagined innovations have an ambiguity where it’s like the matrix, right? If you’re sort of uploading yourself fully to virtual reality, are you escaping decadence or are you making it permanent? And I’m not sure what the answer is, but I lean towards the making it permanent version.

Richard Reinsch:
Or what does technology really matter to us if it sort of obviates our personhood and our ability to use it well for our own thriving?

Ross Douthat:
Yes.

Richard Reinsch:
I think, just closing, my take on your book too is it’s really what you make of who is the human person and what is human nature? And in the condition of malaise and boredom, and there are no clear lines of advance. If man is fundamentally dangerous, then one could imagine all sorts of mischief breaking out, which would be maybe my challenge to your thesis. Who is man? If he is a dangerous animal, then maybe our end does come much sooner than you’re anticipating or writing about.

Ross Douthat:
Yes. And we’re … and then there’s also the unexpected variable, right? I think I mentioned pandemic scenarios in the book, but I obviously wasn’t expecting to literally be promoting the book during a global pandemic. So I think the interaction between the unexpected variable and the ever returning human nature, our mix of invention and perversity, it would not surprise me at all if in 20 years I look back and say, “Well, this book was a really accurate account of the world from 1970 to 2020, but 2020 to 2040 has been in fact quite different and not nearly as decadent at all.” I mean, I think the big unanswered question is basically, right now, is there’s a lot of discontent with decadence that exists on the internet. Like if you go to political debates on Twitter, people are exhuming ideologies from the 19th century and fantasizing about all kinds of new political arrangements and that’s sort of a new thing.

I mean relative to even when I started working on the book, I’ve been working on it for a while. There’s more discontent, there’s more ferment, I think, than there was five or seven years ago. The question is, can that escape the internet and really affect the real world? Or is the internet itself just a great machine for taking people’s creativity and perversity and making sure that neither of them have that much effect on the actual institutions of society? And the Trump presidency I think has somewhat suggested that it’s more that, and if we get a Sanders presidency, we’ll get another test of the hypothesis.

Richard Reinsch:
Most indeed.

Ross Douthat:
But, a Biden presidency will just be sustainable decadence all the way. I think that’s fair to say.

Richard Reinsch:
No, I think that’s right. Ross Douthat, thank you so much. We’ve been talking with the author of The Decadent Society. Thank you for your time.

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on March 17, 2020 at 23:02:49 pm

Thank you for one of the most interesting articles that I've read in a long time. Lots of food for thought...

read full comment
Image of Gonzalo Vergara
Gonzalo Vergara
on April 29, 2020 at 09:42:22 am

“Since Apollo, we have entered into decadence.”
I respectfully disagree. It is not Apollo, that brought decadence, it is the worshipping of false idols.

https://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/files/SEINSI.pdf

Technology can be used to serve The Common Good, or undermine The Common Good, No doubt, the fact that much of our communication technology is being run by those who desire to censure The Word Of God, and promote the worshipping of false idols, does not change the fact that technology that is rightly ordered can serve for The Common Good.

“To whom much has been given, much will be expected.”
This is True not only in regards to material goods, but also in regards to those who have been given the Gift Of Faith, and are generous in sharing The Good News about Salvational Love, God’s Gift Of Grace and Mercy.
Although time and time again, this cohesive part of the spirit of “The American Dream”, continues to be revealed, due to those who desire to affirm the sacrificial nature of Life-affirming, Life-sustaining authentic Love. When technology is used to deny the inherent Dignity of a beloved son or daughter, by condoning demeaning acts that regardless of the actors or the actor’s desires/inclinations, deny the inherent Dignity of the human person as a beloved son or daughter, that cohesive part of the spirit of “The American Dream”, slips away, and, so, too, does the cohesiveness of the family.

And that is why we find ourselves at a new frontier. The end game for the atheistic materialist globalist, who deny God, and desire to worship Pachamama, is the objectification of the human person, so that man is viewed merely as a means to an end. How else can you explain the desire for the atheist materialists to promote the equality of sexual acts and sexual relationships, while condoning abortion and euthanasia simultaneously?

At this hour it is late, but not too late. Love, which, on every point of Time and Space of God’s Created Expanding Universe, is always rightly ordered to the inherent personal and relational Dignity of the persons existing in a relationship of Love, and thus devoid of every form of lust, “Can Make All Things New Again”.

“Repent, and believe The Good News”, is just as true now, as it was during the founding of our Nation. In fact, every time, we as a Nation, have denied Divine Providence, individuals have suffered, individually, and in relationship, as their inherent Dignity as human persons was denied.

We are indeed at a Crossroads. “To Whom shall we go?”

read full comment
Image of Nancy
Nancy

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

Related