Did you know that Fare Forward is publishing again? In its newest issue, there’s an interview with Ross Douthat. All of it is worth reading — Peter Blair asks good questions — but I want to focus on this part:
FF: Another idea that you’ve worked on is “decadence,” which refers to the state of repetition in which old concepts and ideas are recycled. How do you see America as decadent in this sense?
RD: Up until the last couple of years, my view was that not just America but the whole developed world was sustainably decadent, in a sense that we were likely to be stagnant at a high level of social and economic development for a substantial period of time without pitching into full-scale crisis or collapse. And that meant, I thought, that we were doomed to repeat and repeat hard to resolve arguments from the last really dynamic era in Western life, which was, for better or worse, the 1960s and 1970s.
But events of the last two years have called the sustainability of our decadence into question. I saw Donald Trump’s campaign as a kind of decadent response to decadence, that Trump himself is clearly a decadent figure in all kinds of ways but his campaign was premised on the idea that we need to escape stagnation and, as he said, make America great again. We need to get back to the America that goes into space and builds big buildings and so on.
And this had more appeal than I expected. It had enough appeal to win him the presidency. And you can see in different ways similar dynamics at work in Western Europe. You have the return of the extremes in politics in a way that nobody really expected five years ago. And then, from outside the West, you have at least hints of major world-historical movements of peoples, that, again, call into question the ability of the West to just keep on as it is. I think the scale of the migration crisis in Europe a couple of years ago was startling and suggested that the rest of the 21st century may put a lot more strain on European institutions than people were predicting ten years ago.
So both from inside the West and from outside—and, of course, the two are connected to each other—you can see hints of a return of history. But I’m honestly not sure how to read recent events. It’s possible that this is the beginning of a sustained crisis, that decadence is giving way to real chaos and turmoil and upheaval. It’s also possible that this a virtual 1930s, you might say, where people go online and pretend to be fascists and communists on Twitter, but they’re still too risk averse to leap to a more extreme politics in the real world.
FF: Do you see any moves towards a constructive approach to addressing decadence? Or is it increasingly looking like it’s just going to be alternatives of decadence and chaos?
RD: If you had to bet, you would bet on those alternatives. Not that something better couldn’t come out the other side of chaos, but I think it’s hard to turn a decadent civilization around without a period of crisis and disruption and general misery. This is one of the tensions of being anti-decadence. You may dislike decadence but it’s still immoral to wish for crisis in certain ways. You don’t want to say, “Oh, what we really need is to bring the 1930s back.”
That being said, the world is a big and complicated place. And I think you can certainly find places in Western society that offer examples of what a non-decadent future would look like. Within the general decline of religion there are revivals of monasticism, revivals of religious community, of religious life that look to both the past and the future in a constructive way, I think. Anyone who has a large family—and I say this as someone who only has three kids, so I’m not holding myself up as an example—is in a certain way working against decadence. Anyone who takes up a religious vocation is working against decadence.
Then in the secular realm, I think you can imagine out of the currents of right-wing populism in the West a more communitarian conservative politics that might get us out of the “Reagan versus McGovern” trap we’re stuck in. I’m pretty pessimistic about that coming to fruition, but it’s certainly not impossible. And the fact that people are willing to vote for Trump suggests that they are willing to consider very strange alternatives to the status quo. You have to find at least slivers of optimism in that.
Then on the technological front, my basic view is if Silicon Valley succeeds in extending our lifespans by twenty years and we spend those lifespans wearing a VR headset, then Silicon Valley is plunging us deeper into decadence. But if Elon Musk actually succeeds in kickstarting a transportation revolution or putting human beings on Mars, then Silicon Valley will have been the place that started us on the path out of decadence.
Read the whole thing. I had thought to write about Douthat’s complaint that Christians have not yet come up with a plausible post-liberal politics (which is true), but there’s so much in the interview that if I addressed everything that interested me, I would have cut-and-pasted the whole thing.
Now, about decadence. First, let’s talk about Silicon Valley. Emily Chang’s Vanity Fair piece on the culture of the place has just been published (it’s an adaptation from her forthcoming book on Silicon Valley). Take a look at this excerpt:
About once a month, on a Friday or Saturday night, the Silicon Valley Technorati gather for a drug-heavy, sex-heavy party. Sometimes the venue is an epic mansion in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights; sometimes it’s a lavish home in the foothills of Atherton or Hillsborough. On special occasions, the guests will travel north to someone’s château in Napa Valley or to a private beachfront property in Malibu or to a boat off the coast of Ibiza, and the bacchanal will last an entire weekend. The places change, but many of the players and the purpose remain the same.
The stories I’ve been told by nearly two dozen people who have attended these events or have intimate knowledge of them are remarkable in a number of ways. Many participants don’t seem the least bit embarrassed, much less ashamed. On the contrary, they speak proudly about how they’re overturning traditions and paradigms in their private lives, just as they do in the technology world they rule. Like Julian Assange denouncing the nation-state, industry hotshots speak of these activities in a tone that is at once self-congratulatory and dismissive of criticism. Their behavior at these high-end parties is an extension of the progressiveness and open-mindedness—the audacity, if you will—that make founders think they can change the world. And they believe that their entitlement to disrupt doesn’t stop at technology; it extends to society as well. Few participants, however, have been willing to describe these scenes to me without a guarantee of anonymity.
If this were just confined to personal lives it would be one thing. But what happens at these sex parties—and in open relationships—unfortunately, doesn’t stay there. The freewheeling sex lives pursued by men in tech—from the elite down to the rank and file—have consequences for how business gets done in Silicon Valley.
The piece is written from the point of view of how these sex parties — and they are all heterosexual parties — reinforce a sexist power dynamic in the Valley. The scenarios sound like like a nerd version of the Kubrick film Eyes Wide Shut, which was itself based on an Arthur Schnitzler story from Vienna’s fin-de-siècle decadent period. It’s not all that surprising that an elite rolling in money and divorced from restraint would fall into the hog trough of hedonistic excess. What’s troubling is the idea that these people see themselves as the vanguard of social progress, and that these ideals are guiding their disruptive work. We have to hope that Douthat’s optimistic alternative for Silicon Valley and its contribution to our future is correct, but I’d bet that it will be remembered in history for taking us further inside our heads — mostly, but not exclusively, with hyperrealistic porn — and turning us into Huxleyan slaves.
But you knew I’d say that.
As it happens, reading Stefan Zweig, and Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March, has gotten me interested in the Austrian period leading up to the Great War. I just started reading Robert Musil’s massive novel The Man Without Qualities, which is set in Vienna in that time period. I don’t have a lot of faith that I’ll stick with it, simply because I have a terrible track record with big novels. Still, this 1996 Roger Kimball essay on the novel — considered to be one of the great works of fiction of the 20th century — goads me on. Here’s a quote from it, cited by Kimball:
In love as in business, in science as in the long jump, one has to believe before one can win and score, so how can it be otherwise for life as a whole? However well founded an order may be, it always rests in part on a voluntary faith in it, a faith that, in fact, always marks the spot where the new growth begins, as in a plant; once this unaccountable and uninsurable faith is used up, the collapse soon follows; epochs and empires crumble no differently from business concerns when they lose their credit.
What happens when people lose faith in the system? Is that underway here, now? How could we tell?
How can we tell the difference between progress and decadence? After all, the decline of the French aristocracy in the late 18th century was not necessarily the French peasantry’s idea of decadence. From the point of view of the last generations of Roman pagans, the new religion of Christianity was decadent. And to be fair, it certainly was, insofar as it taught and formed Romans in a way of life contrary to some of the core values of Roman tradition. Still, I think we can agree that Roman civilization in the West had grown decadent, for a number of reasons, opening the way for the growth of Christianity.
Who will deny that Christianity has grown decadent in the West today? Who can say with confidence that any other alternative on offer is better, in the sense that it can provide stability and a sense of purpose and meaning to an atomized, demoralized post-Christian populace?
Do you really believe the future the Silicon Valley clerisy has planned for us is more humane or sustainable than what 19th century Catholic bishops (for example), for all their faults, would have prescribed?
Is Donald Trump’s presidency a positive response to decadence — that is, a valid attempt to rescue the country from decadence — or a manifestation of decadence? I believe the latter, of course — what else can you call a president who plays a public game of “my wang is bigger than yours” with a nuclear-armed dictator? — but in fairness to him and his supporters, had Donald Trump never run for president, we would still be in a state of stagnation declining into decadence. What Douthat’s response indicates is the fragility and even combustibility of this moment in our history. Nobody seems to be able to anticipate what’s coming next, but most people seem to have a sense that We Cannot Go On Like This. A few years ago, Douthat thought yes, as a matter of fact, we can go on like this. Now he’s changing his mind.
Last April, Peter Beinart wrote an essay talking about how America’s receding Christianity is leading to nastier politics, in part because the universalism of Christianity provided common ground to unite the various American tribes. It’s not news to most engaged white Christians that the alt-right movement is turning away from orthodox Christianity towards either a hyper-nationalistic version, or resurrecting a race-oriented paganism. What I didn’t fully grasp until I read Beinart’s piece is the extent to which this falling away from Christianity has affected African-American politics. Excerpt:
The decline of traditional religious authority is contributing to a more revolutionary mood within black politics as well. Although African Americans remain more likely than whites to attend church, religious disengagement is growing in the black community. African Americans under the age of 30 are three times as likely to eschew a religious affiliation as African Americans over 50. This shift is crucial to understanding Black Lives Matter, a Millennial-led protest movement whose activists often take a jaundiced view of established African American religious leaders. Brittney Cooper, who teaches women’s and gender studies as well as Africana studies at Rutgers, writes that the black Church “has been abandoned as the leadership model for this generation.” As Jamal Bryant, a minister at an AME church in Baltimore, told The Atlantic’s Emma Green, “The difference between the Black Lives Matter movement and the civil-rights movement is that the civil-rights movement, by and large, was first out of the Church.”
Black Lives Matter activists sometimes accuse the black Church of sexism, homophobia, and complacency in the face of racial injustice. For instance, Patrisse Cullors, one of the movement’s founders, grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness but says she became alienated by the fact that the elders were “all men.” In a move that faintly echoes the way some in the alt-right have traded Christianity for religious traditions rooted in pagan Europe, Cullors has embraced the Nigerian religion of Ifa. To be sure, her motivations are diametrically opposed to the alt-right’s. Cullors wants a spiritual foundation on which to challenge white, male supremacy; the pagans of the alt-right are looking for a spiritual basis on which to fortify it. But both are seeking religions rooted in racial ancestry and disengaging from Christianity—which, although profoundly implicated in America’s apartheid history, has provided some common vocabulary across the color line.Critics say Black Lives Matter’s failure to employ Christian idiom undermines its ability to persuade white Americans. “The 1960s movement … had an innate respectability because our leaders often were heads of the black church,” Barbara Reynolds, a civil-rights activist and former journalist, wrote in The Washington Post. “Unfortunately, church and spirituality are not high priorities for Black Lives Matter, and the ethics of love, forgiveness and reconciliation that empowered black leaders such as King and Nelson Mandela in their successful quests to win over their oppressors are missing from this movement.” As evidence of “the power of the spiritual approach,” she cited the way family members of the parishioners murdered at Charleston’s Emanuel AME church forgave Dylann Roof for the crime, and thus helped persuade local politicians to remove the Confederate flag from South Carolina’s Capitol grounds.Black Lives Matter’s defenders respond that they are not interested in making themselves “respectable” to white America, whether by talking about Jesus or wearing ties. (Of course, not everyone in the civil-rights movement was interested in respectability either.) That’s understandable. Reformists focus on persuading and forgiving those in power. Revolutionaries don’t.
Black Lives Matter activists may be justified in spurning an insufficiently militant Church. But when you combine their post-Christian perspective with the post-Christian perspective growing inside the GOP, it’s easy to imagine American politics becoming more and more vicious.
Yes, that’s right. The old order is fast decaying; you can see it everywhere. One of the things that kept the center holding was a shared religious sense, however tenuous. It’s gone. What’s going to replace it? What are the pillars holding up the roof?
I think it’s hard to turn a decadent civilization around without a period of crisis and disruption and general misery. This is one of the tensions of being anti-decadence. You may dislike decadence but it’s still immoral to wish for crisis in certain ways. You don’t want to say, “Oh, what we really need is to bring the 1930s back.”
No, you don’t want to say that. But you had better prepare for them. Things are at most times both getting better and getting worse, but if you think of cultural and civilizational decadence as a condition in which a society is losing touch with its moorings, moral and otherwise, and thus becoming unstable and unpredictable, then it seems to me that we are very clearly in a time of quickening decadence. Yes, it’s good that women and minorities are treated more justly today than in less decadent times, but how much does that matter in a culture that increasingly designates those who insist on the difference between male and female as hate criminals? How important is it in the sweep of history when you consider, for example, that within the next century, mass immigration from Africa stands to shake a Europe unwilling to defend itself to its foundations?
Douthat says that the revival of monasticism is a sign of what a non-decadent future might look like. This is why I bang on about The Benedict Option: it’s the only reasonable way I can think of that faithful orthodox Christians can ride out the decadence and chaos among us now, and yet to come, without being swamped. A future planned by elites in Silicon Valley, Wall Street, Davos, and Washington is not one that I’m looking forward to, but that’s probably what we’re going to get. Or worse. As Musil wrote, “Epochs and empires crumble no differently from business concerns when they lose their credit.” It’s hard to see how we haven’t badly overdrawn our civilizational account.
(Sorry for light posting, gang. I seem to be fighting off the flu.)