Ross Douthat’s Scattershot Speculations
The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success
By Ross Douthat
Publisher: Avid Reader Press/Simon & Schuster
Review Author: Preston R. Simpson
Ross Douthat is known as the token conservative columnist at The New York Times and a sometime Catholic commentator. With that limited knowledge in mind, I checked out his latest book. First off, its title is misleading. Most of us, on seeing the word decadent, think first of sex and gluttony, as Douthat acknowledges. He goes through a long, pedantic discussion of possible definitions, not necessary to rehearse here, drawing extensively on cultural historian Jacques Barzun. For those of us who like things simple, he summarizes it to mean “economic stagnation, institutional decay, and cultural and intellectual exhaustion at a high level of material prosperity and technological development.”
Cultural commentators like to propose specific events to demarcate the trends they describe, and Douthat is no exception. For his purposes, the current state of decadence is marked from the first moon landing in 1969. To oversimplify, he posits that the developed world lost its mojo after that event. The 1960s had been a time of great promise for space exploration. There were expectations that once we gained the moon, it would be a relatively short time before mankind would be traveling to Mars and Jupiter, establishing colonies in space and perhaps discovering new energy sources beyond our planet. Science-fiction entertainment held out this hope as well, manifested in the optimism of Star Trek and, more playfully, The Jetsons. But then something happened.
Space exploration ground to a halt. The adventure stories of Star Trek were superseded by dystopian fiction like Alien and The Terminator. Why? One reason may be that we are simply bumping up against the limits of technology: Our inventions are more incremental, helping us do the same things, only faster or more conveniently. Or were there political, cultural, and economic factors that made us lose interest and optimism? Douthat gives lots of possibilities — too many, one might say. He throws out countless scenarios with no unifying theme. Almost no aspect of human society is left unexplored, as the book ranges over investments, government financial policy, political philosophy, birth rates, religion (all kinds), medical and computer technology, movies, novels, and more. It spans the globe, examining North America (of course) but also the European Union, Eastern Europe, Japan, China, and sub-Saharan Africa. Douthat bombards readers with statistics even though he acknowledges that statistics can be interpreted in many ways.
The Decadent Society is exasperating to read for many reasons. For example, in discussing Donald Trump, Douthat worries whether the then-president would lead us “into authoritarianism or collapse into simple chaos.” What is “simple” chaos? I have no idea. It sounds like an oxymoron. And while I am not a huge fan of Trump, I worry a lot more about the authoritarianism of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who want to take away our choice of health care and wreck our economy with impossible environmental strictures, issues Douthat does not consider.
At one point, Douthat commits a drive-by assault on the U.S. Constitution by painting an allegedly outdated system of separation of powers and federalism as a problem. Yet, in the next section, he tells us that the European Union was a good idea — until it recreated American problems of diminished federalism. So, federalism is a problem, but moving away from federalism is another problem.
After this drive-by, Douthat goes around the block and returns for another shot. He notes that “certain coup-ridden Latin American countries” adopted “imitations of our Constitution,” and the systems’ incapacity for dealing with conflict “leads to attempted secession, civil strife, and eventually calls for strongman rule.” So, Madison, Hamilton, and Washington are to blame for the problems of Latin America? Needless to say, the ramifications of federalism is a topic that could fill several books.
The first half of The Decadent Society offers a mélange of events, anecdotes, and news clippings, jumbled together, presumably to support Douthat’s thesis of stagnation. Yet it is often difficult to see the connection between the circumstances he describes and his notion of societal decadence. Sometimes the conclusions he draws are simply off the wall, to the point where one wonders if he is serious. A few examples will suffice.
Douthat lists three events involving financial problems. The first is Billy McFarland’s Fyre music festival, which ended in disaster and landed him in jail. The next is Elizabeth Holmes’s Theranos startup. And the last is Uber. What do the first two have to do with the third? I don’t know, but they are somehow linked in Douthat’s mind. The first two are blatant frauds. The problem with Uber seems to be that, even though it provides real services that satisfy real customers, it has yet to turn a profit. Douthat claims that it is an example of decadence “when an extraordinarily rich society can’t find enough new ideas that justify investing all its stockpiled wealth, and ends up choosing between hoarding cash in mattresses or playing a kind of let’s pretend instead.” I guess he thinks all the venture capitalists who support Uber are stupid. Maybe they are, but it’s their money. What is Douthat investing in? Writing confusing books.
Douthat’s analysis of drug policy and prison reform leaves the reader shaking his head in disbelief and confusion. Douthat runs through the drugs we take to get away from our problems: marijuana, opioids, ADHD medication, and antidepressants for kids. In some way, these are less dangerous than alcohol, he says. They tend to produce contentment or sleep rather than irrational violence. They’re not generally associated with the gangland warfare of the crack epidemic. Douthat likens them to soma of Brave New World, but our drugs “aren’t so consciously designed; they’re more dangerous, more unevenly distributed, and less universally desired.” Then the bizarre statement: “They wreck lives, but they may also stabilize society; they cull unhappy people, via suicide or overdose or just numb unhealthiness, but it’s all a personal choice.” He agrees that the drugs “don’t solve social problems; indeed they worsen them…but at the same time, they prevent those problems from having the broader consequences that a society without so many drugs and distractions would expect to experience.” Is he serious about culling undesirables from society? And what does he mean by preventing “broader consequences”?
Douthat is equally puzzling on the issue of crime. He notes conservative predictions that rampant individualism and liberalism would lead to more crime, violence, and social breakdown. And, for a while, from about 1965 to 1990, it appeared that these predictions were coming true. But then crime rates fell and teen delinquency declined. Douthat seems to think this is related to his theory of stagnation and decadence, but he never considers the possibility that it could be due to putting career criminals in jail for longer periods or to “broken windows” and stop-and-frisk policing, or even to the aging of the population. He also doesn’t consider the fact that we may be seeing the beginnings of an upward trend in crime as those police tactics are increasingly rejected.
In fact, Douthat is critical of the more extensive incarceration of the 1970s-1990s, but his reasoning is peculiar. “To be maximally cynical, it was a way for affluent suburbanites to protect their right to get divorced and sleep in on Sunday morning and smoke a little weed,” he writes, “by making sure that the increasingly fatherless sons of the demoralized underclass were locked up for dealing crack.” And there is more: “Mass incarceration became less necessary once virtual entertainments were invented to keep kids from broken homes indoors and take the edge off their physical and sexual aggression — and also once a surveillance state developed that made crime less likely to pay, escape from law enforcement more difficult, the outlaw life much harder to sustain.” What does one have to do with the other?
And then another of his odd segues: “Just as we used mass incarceration as a strategy for managing crime, beginning in the 1970s we used abortion to manage teen pregnancy and out-of-wedlock births…. Tellingly, both incarceration and abortion are hidden forms of violence, one imposed through a distant archipelago of prisons and the other in the darkness of the womb.” Is incarcerating a criminal who has been convicted with all due process, including an attorney provided by his victims if he cannot afford one, an act of violence? The ominous word archipelago draws, deliberately I suspect, the unmistakable connection to the Stalinist gulag. If Douthat thinks this unfortunate but necessary part of keeping order in society is related to killing an inconvenient child, either his logic or his moral compass is askew.
At times, Douthat raises issues worth serious consideration, although he offers no specific answers, only various possibilities. He posits that our government has gradually become unworkable as Congress abdicated its role, punting critical decisions to the courts, to executive orders, or to the administrative bureaucracy. He cites political scientist Steven Teles, who has termed this a kludgeocracy, borrowing a term from computer science that Teles defines as “an inelegant patch put in place to solve an unexpected problem and designed to be backward-compatible with the rest of the system,” which then creates “a very complicated program that has no clear organizing principles, is exceedingly difficult to understand, and is subject to crashes.” Meanwhile, legislators, when they aren’t contributing to the problem, do nothing but complain because they don’t want to be blamed for a mess. Again, this problem of the uncontrollable administrative state has been the subject of entire books, and its relationship to the other elements of decadence is unclear.
Douthat throws a lot of seemingly disjointed thoughts at the reader. One gets the sense that, to some extent, he is showing off with a meandering, scattershot style that is meant more to showcase his erudition and wide knowledge of culture than to impart a clear message to his readers. The Decadent Society mentions so many movies, TV shows, novels, and sociological studies that it sounds like namedropping. Is Douthat so knowledgeable that the reader simply can’t follow him, or is he merely blowing smoke with no coherent message to convey?
The second half of the book is more interesting. Douthat speculates on what might follow our descent into decadent stagnation. Will we end with a whimper or a bang? He cites Francis Fukuyama’s book The End of History and the Last Man (1992). But Fukuyama did not mean literally the end. He wrote, as quoted by Douthat, “Perhaps this very prospect of boredom at the end of history will serve to get history started once again.” The idea of history starting again is nonsensical; I think he means there may be radical changes that we can’t anticipate.
Douthat speculates on whether communism is really dead or whether it will be revived in some kinder and gentler form. My guess is that despite the fact that socialism and Marxism have been shown by experience to be bad for people, even the poor (just look at Venezuela), there are plenty of people who are unhappy with capitalism because it doesn’t give them what they want. There will always be parties who want the power to take from productive people but who claim not to be creating the misery that Marxism invariably does. China makes an interesting study. Douthat points out that China claims to be a Marxist-Leninist state but is, in reality, something different. Because China seems to be able to get things done without the messiness of a multiparty system, it might attract admirers among Western intellectuals, as it already has among some African leaders.
All these possibilities and more too numerous to list are worth pondering and studying at greater length in other sources. Douthat concludes with a look back at Christian history, wondering, with the help of G.K. Chesterton and others, whether Christianity can make a comeback. Christianity has certainly survived severe existential challenges (Chesterton cites five) and persists. Might the Christian renaissance be led by Africans and Chinese, among whom the faith seems more vibrant than it does among Westerners? Douthat can only say perhaps.
Some writers with vast knowledge can make themselves clear. The late Charles Krauthammer comes to mind. He was brilliant and could penetrate to the essence of a problem. I didn’t always agree with him, but I understood him, and he put problems in sharp perspective. But vast knowledge isn’t helpful (to others) without clarity. Ross Douthat’s new book was meant to convince readers of America’s decadence, but his effort just doesn’t resonate with me.
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