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How To Fight Decadence in the Age of Pandemic

Will we find that this triggering event purged the rot from our system, or will something much darker be left behind?

(Credit: Digital collage: Poesis Creative / Photo: Getty Images)

I interviewed Ross Douthat about his new book, The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success, in late February, when COVID-19 had not yet become a full-fledged crisis in the United States. A month on, with the nation plunged into a public health and economic catastrophe without a clear end in sight, accelerationist pressures are putting Douthat’s theory of sustainable decadence to the test. The coronavirus crisis has been aptly described as a “tsunami” event, in which all our systems are overwhelmed at once. Once the tidal wave recedes, we may discover that the agonizing event purged the rot from the system, clearing the way for the renewal which Douthat hopes for in the comments below. Or, more darkly, if the decadence had reached the very roots of our civilization, we may be at the triggering event for a new Dark Age. Either way, the things Ross Douthat discusses below are urgently important in a way they were not mere weeks ago — Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher: When most of us hear the word “decadence,” we think of Sodom and Gomorrah, or the late Roman Empire, or Weimar Germany. But that’s not what you’re talking about. Would you clarify what you mean by decadence?

Ross Douthat: I’m following a definition proposed 20 years ago by the late cultural historian Jacques Barzun, who argued that we should understand “decadence” as referring to periods when wealthy and dynamic societies enter into stalemate, stagnation, and decay—when they lose a clear sense of both purpose and future possibility. Which doesn’t exclude scenarios like rapid moral decline or fascist or communist takeover: a decadent society is vulnerable to both. But under decadence you’re often more likely to get a kind of moral or cultural mediocrity than either radical villainy or sainthood. And our own decadence seems to fit that pattern: in certain ways we look more stable and less flagrantly debased than in the 1970s, when crime rates and abortion rates and divorce rates and drug abuse were much higher, and our vices have a more private, virtual, numbing style.

Likewise, a decadent society can collapse under the right circumstances, and our sclerotic institutions are certainly vulnerable to certain stresses—like the coronavirus! But decadence can also last a long time: Weimar fell to Hitler quickly, but the “late” Roman empire (or the Ottoman or Chinese empires later) lasted for centuries in a condition of decay. So I don’t think you can assume that our decadence is going to turn to crisis and collapse immediately; it might be a lot more sustainable than people think.

Rod Dreher: You and I are both religious conservatives, but I think it fair to say that I’m a lot more culturally pessimistic than you are. What are the greatest differences between your concerns about decadence and my own?

Ross Douthat: Well, as a faithful reader of your work, I would say that you see a Weimar replay as more likely, probably with an aggressive cultural Left playing the totalitarian role, and I see the forces that might bring liberalism crashing down—an authoritarian socialism on the Left, an authoritarian populism on the Right—as themselves too constrained and weakened by decadence to swiftly impose the kind of regime that their critics fear. I think as Donald Trump has been constrained and often impotent as president, so too would be President Bernie Sanders; I think that the activist Left seems somewhat more powerful on the internet than in the real world; I think a scenario where our shared Christian faith is pressured and cajoled is more likely than one where it ends up persecuted. And I think our wealth cushions us, at least somewhat, against shocks that in a different era might usher in a version of the 1930s.

More generally, I think that you see the current moment in terms of an onrushing wave—liquid modernity, carrying all before it—while I see a more cyclical pattern at work, and a lot more stasis over the last couple of generations especially. I think we lived through a real cultural revolution in the 1960s, and today’s disturbances are aftershocks—important, obviously, but less trajectory-altering than it sometimes seems.

Which doesn’t mean that we won’t arrive, eventually, at a soft despotism or a genuine Aldous Huxleyan dystopia. But I think any such process is happening more slowly, with a lot of ebbs and flows and many persistent stalemates and unresolved conflicts, than it sometimes feels just from reading the daily incident report on Twitter.

Rod Dreher: Let me press you on this a bit. You write about decadence as “economic stagnation, institutional decay, and cultural and intellectual exhaustion at a high level of material prosperity and technological development.” I accept the truth of this diagnosis, but it’s hard to muster a sense of urgency about it. I mean, I look at the collapse of the stable family, the demise of Christianity as the settled moral and metaphysical narrative of our civilization, and now the loss of the gender binary, for God’s sake, as indications of a more visceral decline—the kind of decadence that strikes me as much more directly affecting the life of my kids than the failure of Hollywood’s creativity, or the disappointment of the institutional church.

Ross Douthat: I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t feel the decline of Christianity or the collapse of the stable family viscerally; as a Catholic columnist for a secular newspaper and someone with divorced parents and divorced grandparents, I feel them as viscerally as anyone. But the worst collapse of the family happened between 1960 and 1990, with the divorce revolution and Roe v. Wade, and since then there’s been a certain stabilization: low divorce rates, less teen pregnancy, lower abortion rates, and even the rise of out-of-wedlock birth rates has lately leveled off. Which has left us with a different set of problems: the retreat from marriage and romance and sexual complementarianism rather than too many affairs and abortions or too much teenage promiscuity, the growth of P.D. Jamesian sterility rather than sexual chaos, the numbing effects of porn-induced impotence rather Hefnerian excess. These are problems of decadence, rather than indicators of looming social collapse.

And likewise with our shared faith’s decline: that’s a story that’s been going on for centuries, and in the United States accelerated dramatically in the 1960s—but what we’ve seen in the last 20 years is more of an after-effect, in which loosely affiliated people stop identifying with their parents’ churches, than it is sudden and dramatic secularization. The rise of the “Nones” may be leveling off, there’s a pretty resilient core of church attendance, and the theological tendency that you and I both like to lament—Moralistic Therapeutic Deism—won its greatest victories in the 1970s, not the 2010s. Whether it’s New Age spirituality or self-help religion or even astrology, I don’t think we’re necessarily hurtling into post-Christianity so much as making an eternal return to 1975. Which isn’t a great year to return to, but we should see the cycling at work.

Rod Dreher: To what extent do you think the myth of Progress, which is something we Americans of all political tribes absorb with our mother’s milk, blinds us to decadence?

Ross Douthat: In two ways. First, the assumption that technological progress is an inevitable feature of modernity makes it hard for people to recognize when it actually slows down—which it has, I think, outside of technologies of communication and simulation, since the 1960s. The assumption that the robots must be coming for our jobs, for instance, shows up in contemporary politics all the time, even though there’s little data to back it up: the big automation shocks are in the past, and productivity growth—the best measure of technology’s effect on work—has slowed down since the late 1990s, rather than speeding up, and projects like the self-driving car keep running up against pretty major limitations, like driving in the rain. Our computers and phones are genuinely amazing, but a lot of the innovations we expected in the ’60s or even the ’90s really haven’t yet showed up.

Then second, we tend to assume that the innovations we do have are worth more than less tangible but possibly more important goods—the forms of community and solidarity that you write about so often. Or, alternatively, we assume that even if there are costs to living our lives mediated by screens and phones, or inside McMansions or SUVs, the fact that people are choosing these things—as “free” consumers—means that we can’t resist or choose another way. I think it’s very clear that some basic forms of human flourishing require establishing more control over the role the internet plays in our lives—reducing our exposure to social media, keeping kids offline as long as possible, and censoring or restricting online porn. But it’s very hard for modern Americans to wrap their minds around the possibility that new technology can be managed or resisted; “you can’t fight technological change” is a very powerful social and cultural idea.

Rod Dreher: Walker Percy had this theory that people secretly loved hurricanes, because the prospect of impending disaster re-enchanted the world, in part by casting out the spirit of ennui. What would you say to people today who long for some sort of cleansing cataclysm to purge the rot from the system?

Ross Douthat: Be careful what you wish for! There are a lot of ways to exit decadence, and for every pathway to a renaissance there are several that just lead down to disaster. Percy is right, I think, that there are human gifts and graces that only emerge under stress, and that a sense of our own mortality is essential to being human and more palpably felt in the shadow of a natural disaster, or 9/11, or now the coronavirus. But it’s still wrong to wish for the disaster and foolish to make choices that might hasten it.

I think a lot about the way that September 11, which happened when I was in college, made a whole cohort of young people and intellectuals feel like this was the end of decadence that we’d been waiting for, that at last there would be some grand purpose to life, some civilizational struggle for our times. And what came of that? Not an American renewal, not a successful crusade for democracy and human rights: just a lot of dead people in the Middle East and a war that’s devolved into the droning of terrorists and the perpetual management of frozen conflicts. That’s an example of what in the book I call the perils of anti-decadence: we can and should be discontented with our situation, but we should recognize all the ways the revolutionary or crusading alternatives can end like the Iraq war, or for that matter World War I—in death and futility and grief.

Rod Dreher: I’ve been working for the past year on a book about lessons we should learn from Christians who endured Soviet totalitarianism. One thing I’ve gotten from my historical reading is how much our own decadent moment resembles the decadence of late Imperial Russia and Weimar Germany. With these relatively recent historical examples in mind, do you worry about where the inability of our political system to reform itself might take the country?

Ross Douthat: Absolutely, and that fear has been sharpened by watching the way that the coronavirus seems poised to hit us in all our stress points, from far-flung supply chains to incompetent bureaucracies to our polarized and gridlocked politics to the not-exactly-trustworthy presidency of Donald Trump.

But there are three differences between our situation and your past examples that I’d stress. First, we’re a much, much richer society than Tsarist Russia or even Weimar Germany, which both makes it easier to weather economic crises (the Great Depression gave us 30 percent unemployment but our various stabilizers meant the Great Recession wasn’t nearly that bad) and gives people a sense that they have more to lose from revolution than did people in the not-so-distant European past.

Second, we’re a much older society than the 20th century European (or, for that matter Asian) societies in which crises overturned everything and then totalitarianism took root. Age makes people more cautious and risk-averse; it also makes them much less inclined to take to the streets in mass protest or mass violence. I point out in the book, for instance, that the most enthusiastic participants in our virtual civil war, the Resistance types and the MAGA rallygoers, are often middle-aged suburban and retirees—not exactly the groups you’d expect to start brawling with one another in the streets. Meanwhile campuses and cities, the places where our 1960s tumults happened, are surprisingly calm and quiet in the Trump era.

Finally, we have the internet as a kind of safe playspace for revolutionaries—a zone where you can rebel against decadence by cosplaying 1917 or 1968, so that the impulses that lead to revolution in prior eras might end up channeled into virtual extremism instead. Occasionally online radicalism does leak into the real world, in terrible ways—as incel or white supremacist violence, or the Bernie Sanders supporter who tried to murder Republican politicians. But those figures seem to me more like outliers than forerunners; so long as the internet keeps getting more immersive, I think we’re more likely to respond to institutional and cultural decay by play-acting the Russian Revolution rather than actually enacting it.

Rod Dreher: For me, the most important sign of our decadence is the loss of faith in religion—specifically the Christian religion, but more generally, in metaphysics. You’ve written a couple of books about religion—Bad Religion, about American heresies, and a more recent one critical of Pope Francis. Is it possible to recover from decadence without religious revival? In what form might religious revival come to us?

Ross Douthat: Barzun writes of the decadent society that “the loss it faces is that of Possibility,” and clearly a failing faith in the transcendent is a big part of that: if you cease to believe that you are part of a story, that history is more than just one damn thing after another, then you are more likely to sink into repetitive cycles and be overtaken by futility.

Certainly, both the American heresies I wrote about in Bad Religion and the Francis-era Catholic Church are marked by decadence. In the case of Catholicism, you have a combination of slow decline, disillusioning scandals, and seemingly unresolvable liberal-conservative deadlocks—with Francis himself, strikingly, increasingly bringing us back to that deadlock (as in his recent refusal on married priests) after spending the first few years of his pontificate pushing in a more revolutionary direction. In the case of popular heresies, meanwhile, you have a striking failure to build new churches and institutions: the self-appointed religious visionaries of 19th century America gave us Mormondom and Christian Science and the Jehovah’s Witnesses and more; their heirs and heiresses today mostly just have lifestyle brands.

So yes, although I offer a lot of different ideas for how decadence might end, my assumption is that a religious revival, in some institutional and not just individualized form, seems likely. As for where it might come from—well, it might be that the atomization and isolation of post-religious and post-familial life, pushed further over the next generation and exacerbated by the internet, will create a renewed opportunity for Christian evangelization as people feel the loss of community more palpably. Or it might be that the obvious intellectual tensions and contradictions in elite secularism, which are already giving us a kind of religious rebellion in the form of the “Great Awokening,” will create opportunities for the Christian synthesis to be proposed anew. Or there might be some actual pagan or pantheist synthesis waiting to emerge. Or change might come from outside; who knows what the Chinese religious landscape will look like in 20 years, or the landscape of Europe in 50?

All that said, it’s easy to invent scenarios, but as someone once put it, we know not the day or the hour: the timing and nature of the next religious revival is known to God alone.

Rod Dreher: Finishing The Decadent Society made me even more confident in the Benedict Option as a kind of solution—that is, ceasing to care about rescuing an order that is beyond saving, and instead trying to focus on building up local forms of (religious) community within which people of faith can live out the decline and fall. If one were to read The Benedict Option and The Decadent Society in succession, and to ask himself, “What should I do now?”—what would be the most reasonable conclusion?

Ross Douthat: I think it depends on your position in life, your age and obligations, and your place within the various hierarchies of our society. My sense is that BenOp approaches, broadly defined, are a really important way to resist decadence at the local level, with families and churches and communities as seedbeds for growth and creativity and dynamism. At the same time, part of my argument is that renaissance comes from things happening at multiple levels all at once—so there’s a place for people working for political realignments, for artists and intellectuals embedded in ossified institutions and trying to transform them from within, and from people working in the one clear area of continuing dynamism, Silicon Valley, and trying to direct its wealth and power toward humane innovations and explorations rather than just simulation. So I think the Benedict Option offers a starting point or foundation for renewal to the extent that it remains somewhat outward-looking, not just defensive—and also the extent that it doesn’t just confine itself to pastoralist concerns (as important as those are) but also recognizes that ours is an urbanized and technological civilization and likely to remain one, and so a vocation to the city and the university and the laboratory and even the start-up incubator should not be disdained.

Rod Dreher: Last question: where do you find hope?

Ross Douthat: In the palpable desire of many people, right and left, populist and socialist and Catholic-integralist, for a different kind of politics—as risky as that different kind of politics might be!—than just the technocratic management of decadence. In the eagerness of Silicon Valley billionaires, whose power and influence I dislike in many ways, to spend at least some of their money on possibly-futile efforts to catapult us further into space. In the exceptions to film industry decadence like Paweł Pawlikowski and Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck and the Coen Brothers. In my own three-going-on-four children and the big families that make noise in our parish every Sunday Mass. In the fact that I spent the day after my book’s release, Ash Wednesday, walking the streets of oh-so-secular Manhattan, and there were ashed foreheads everywhere I looked—a sign that whatever may be wrong with American Christianity, there’s also life in those dry bones yet.

Rod Dreher is a Senior Editor at The American Conservative. Ross Douthat is an Opinion columnist for The New York Times.

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