Books: Curing Decadence

Cultural revival can be boosted by personal giving

As a professional opinion slinger, Ross Douthat is an ambidextrous wonder. He can take an “idealet”—a word coined by master newspaper columnist Charles Krauthammer—and deftly spin it into a weekly squib of 750 words for the pleasure, or outrage, of his readers in the New York Times. And he is also able to produce serious cultural criticism at book length. Rarely do we find a commentator who can pitch it short and pitch it long, with the same level of liveliness and penetration. If his columns are finger food, his books are feasts—and in the case of The Decadent Society, almost impossibly rich.

This is Douthat’s fourth effort as a solo author, and his most ambitious and comprehensive. Though he finished writing before the coronavirus was even a gleam in the eye of a wet-market pangolin, The Decadent Society is his most timely work. His prophecies and observations have useful relevance during our present emergency. So let’s hope the fact that this book arrived in stores just as the stores closed won’t inhibit the reach of its ideas. 

The title, while accurate, is unfortunate. Given Douthat’s role as the token right-winger on the Times’ op-ed page (he is, among other admirable distinctions, the only regular columnist in the paper’s modern history to be pro-life) readers might assume The Decadent Society offers a screechy jeremiad against rutting, weed-whacked college kids and the bearded, beret-wearing, fair-trade-sipping professors who tote the handbasket now conveying them all to perdition. Douthat, however, has a tone and erudition that make him incapable of crude caricature. (That’s my job.) He’s not gung-ho about the undergraduate rutting and weed smoking, and he’s fully aware of the dangers of a uniformly leftish academy like ours. When he speaks of decadence, though, he draws on the more clinical, less moralistic meaning provided by the American historian Jacques Barzun. 

In his career-capping summa From Dawn to Decadence (published in 2000, at the age of 93!), Barzun denied that the term decadence was “a slur.” It was, he said, “a technical label.” A decadent culture, according to Barzun, “sees no clear lines of advance” for itself. The activities and forms of daily life “seem exhausted; the stages of development have been run through.”

In Douthat’s words, decadence combines “economic stagnation, institutional decay, and cultural and intellectual exhaustion at a high level of material prosperity and technological development.” It is the tension—not to say surface contradiction—between the West’s undoubted prosperity and its more arguable dissipation that gives Douthat’s argument its force and propels the book forward. 

Riches and advanced technology may actually be necessary conditions for slipping into decay. When a hungry society has visions of grand Alps just beyond the horizon, that tends to stir innovation, excitement, dreams of greatness, activity. Douthat asserts that those visions and energies are often missing in our society. Even innovation doesn’t inspire as it once did. Entrepreneur and philanthropist Peter Thiel comments that the digital revolution “promised flying cars. We got 140 characters.” The triviality of much Internet content, its failure to transform culture as the invention of electricity or air travel did, tells us that even the most complex codings of zeroes and ones will often sum to petty totals. 

Douthat notes that “American entrepreneurship has been declining fairly steadily since the 1970s.” The once churning waters of start-ups have consolidated into massive corporate consolidations like Google, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon. Dynamic work opportunities have slowed along with the pace of innovation: “Americans are less likely to switch employers than they were a generation ago.”

This economic stagnation is entangled with an even more disturbing development—what Douthat calls sterility. “Large-scale fertility decline looks like an inevitable corollary of liberal capitalist modernity,” he writes. Young people are less likely to have children, to connect themselves loyally to others, to step outside of their immediate self-interest. The individualism that was once the celebrated fruit of prosperity has now become a “seedbed of stagnation.” 

The book gathers energy as the author catalogs his evidence, and even achieves a kind of suspense when he weighs the possibilities of what comes next. More mediocrity? A genteel decline, misunderstood as equilibrium? Religious awakening? A populist-nationalist revolution? Other unfamiliar, and perhaps frightening, outcomes that scramble stagnant Western culture into some fresh synthesis?

Private philanthropy, carried on independent of government diktat, cuts straight to the heart of decadence—attacks it at its root.

Douthat turns his gaze south, to the globe’s developing countries. He raises the possibility of a fecund blending of their people potential with the richness of Western culture, in Europe particularly. Though mass migration from south to north creates instability, Douthat suggests “the global south also holds the key to many scenarios of renaissance.” 

At the close of the book a kind of hero unexpectedly emerges. He is Robert Sarah, 75, an African, and cardinal of the Catholic church. Like Douthat he has traditionalist, pro-Western views. He is fully aware of today’s cultural decadence, yet refuses to be pessimistic. 

Sarah envisions a melding of the strengths of today’s developed and developing countries. In a Christianized Eurafrica he sees “an opportunity for entirely new, pan-racial configurations that would reach back into Europe’s past to reshape both continents’ third-millennium future.” 

Is there a place for philanthropy in all this? In a decadent society that “sees no clear lines of advance,” where might one best funnel money and imagination to spark some renaissance? The possibilities sketched by Robert Sarah and Ross Douthat are shared by some religiously inclined givers today. They are funding initiatives by missionaries, educators, entrepreneurs, rule-of-law advocates, and charitable activists that aim to combine the West’s rational Judeo-Christian heritage with the family vigor, religious confidence, and traditional cultural wisdom of the South, resulting in surprising and appealing new social forms that could revivify modern nations.

Douthat doesn’t say so, but by his own analysis I think he’d agree that the mere act of targeted giving would be as important as the object, perhaps more so—honorable alike, to paraphrase Lincoln, in what we give and what we encourage. Private philanthropy, carried on independent of government direction or diktat, cuts straight to the heart of decadence, attacks it at its root. Such a campaign would reestablish community, enliven imaginations, become a seedbed for an exfoliation of civil institutions to ennoble the individualism that is at once the glory of the West and, left to itself, a danger to it too.

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