The July 20th, 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing, led by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, is perhaps the defining technological moment of the 20th century and the quintessence of American ingenuity and exceptionalism. No other country has successfully landed people on the moon and only the Red, White, and Blue flies there.
And yet it is worth noting that this celebrated accomplishment occurred over 50 years ago. While the youngsters watching Armstrong take his giant leap for mankind might have dreamt of a lunar or even martian colony by this time, the reality has been, in a word, unfulfilling.
As New York Times’ Op-Ed columnist Ross Douthat explains in his new book, The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success, the moon landing was “the most extraordinary endeavor of the American age in modern history.” However, since the days of Apollo 11, “we have entered into decadence.”
Out of Ideas
The technological stagnation that has plagued our society in the years following 1969 is the starting point for Douthat and his argument that our society has become thoroughly, painfully decadent. The decadence Douthat is referring to is not tied merely to a hedonistic quest for pleasure. For Douthat, decadence isn’t just sex and chocolate. Instead he borrows heavily from Jaques Barzun, who in his book, From Dawn to Decadence wrote,
All that is meant by Decadence is ‘falling off…’ it is a very active time full of deep concerns, but particularly restless, for it sees no lines of advance. The forms of art as of life seem exhausted…Institutions function painfully. Repetition and frustration are the intolerable result…When people accept futility and the absurd as normal, the culture is decadent.
Douthat largely works off of this definition and returns to it frequently. In the first section of The Decadent Society, Douthat is at his best and expertly critiques the forms our decadence has taken. In short, these include the aforementioned technological stagnation, familial sterility, institutional sclerosis, and cultural repetition.
In regards to technological stagnation, Douthat cites the moon landing, and the subsequent age of disappointing technological innovation, or lack thereof, as his case in point. We had been promised space colonies and flying cars. What we got was Facebook and Twitter.
To be sure, Douthat admits that the internet is the one exception where a workable technological innovation truly has transformed the way we live. Still, as Douthat writes, “the internet has mostly given us a bumper crop of hackish crap, of political pornography for the partisan mind, of news coverage whose problem isn’t its fakeness so much as its crushing mediocrity.”
Our society’s sterility has also spawned a host of undesirable and indeed decadent consequences. Below replacement level fertility rates infect almost every developed nation (the surprising outlier being Israel). An aging society slows GDP growth, and fewer children has given us the loneliness epidemic. Furthermore, postfamilialism and adultescence normalize the absurd: Picture people pushing dogs in strollers, and turning to simulation in order to escape.
Our sclerotic institutions hardly need an introduction. Douthat gives a nod to the futility Barzun described, explaining, “a consistent ineffectuality in American governance is just the way things are.” Part of this stalemate is almost certainly to be expected for a system, which Douthat notes, “grafts a twentieth-century administrative state onto an eighteenth century constitutional system.” Still, that provides little consolation for those who long for a Washington that once paved a nation, won world wars, and sent men to the moon.
Finally, Douthat, himself a film critic for Nation Review, rounds off his portrait of modern decadence by criticizing the repetitive nature of our art, most notably in Hollywood. With the serialization of movies and very little breakthrough in the way stories are told, Douthat sees a society that has run out of new ideas or ways to express them.
Decline and Fall
While each of these strains of decadence are terrifying enough on their own, it is the symbiotic relationship of these problems—how sclerotic institutions influence technological stagnation, and how technological stagnation begets cultural repetition, and how sterility impacts all of them—that is most threatening.
More frightening still is Douthat’s claim that decadence of this scope need not give way to disaster, but could be painfully sustainable. Douthat reminds us that “[i]t was 400 years from Nero’s reign to the actual fall of Rome.” W. H. Auden described this period of time as “four centuries without creativity, warmth, or hope.”
While there is no doubt that Douthat successfully mines our culture for evidence of decadence and persuasively articulates the most extreme manifestations of that decadence today, The Decadent Society repeatedly overstates the importance of technological innovation and at times even cuts against Douthat’s Catholic faith.
Douthat draws a straight line from the end of meaningful space exploration to the opioid criss, declining fertility rates, the proliferation of pornography, and a dozen other signs of decadence. While technological stagnation can be demoralizing, to suggest that it is one of the main causes of our culture’s restlessness seems to both overstate and oversimplify the problem. In reality, advances in technology, such as the automation of work, might be the source of our anxiety as much as anything else.
What’s more is that the entire book is built on a faulty premise. Douthat writes that there is a “cultural assumption that unexplored frontiers and fresh discoveries and new worlds to conquer are not just desirable but are the very point of life.” Time and again Douthat demonstrates his affirmation for this dubious claim.
Imbuing technological innovation with purpose-defining powers borders on the idolatrous. Furthermore, Douthat’s hope in technological innovation to save us from decadence makes the book appeal to a very narrow audience. If your last name isn’t Musk or Bezos you probably aren’t in a place to focus on inventing warp drive and thus initiate the renaissance Douthat longs for.
And while renaissance is among the more hopeful outcomes Douthat envisions for ending our age of decadence, it necessarily endows the technological elite with a kind of salvific power and subjugates the rest of us to a mindless waiting for a once-in-a-century mind to come and free us from our malaise.
Reclaiming Creativity, Warmth, and Hope
A more helpful book would have utilized Douthat’s expert cultural analysis to catalogue our decadence, and then explained how individuals and families could form enclaves of resistance. That might not be enough to turn an entire nation from decadence, but Christians and conservatives of every stripe should have an expectation of cultural decadence (e.g. “the love of many will grow cold,” Matthew 24:12).
Instead of sitting on our hands waiting for Bezos to take us to Mars, we could work to undermine decadence by rejecting the technologies of simulation Douthat so skillfully critiques, and by doing perhaps the most countercultural thing of all: Having more children.
This idea of meaningful resistance is something Douthat mentions in passing but essentially writes off. Nowhere is this as clear as in the Auden quote regarding the lack of creativity, warmth, and hope during the last 400 years of the Roman empire. Auden, and ultimately Douthat, seem to have forgotten the Christian subculture that lived in Rome during that time and the creativity, warmth, and hope they brought to the empire. Douthat could have devoted some of his undeniable brilliance to outlining the forms such a Christian resistance could take.
By claiming that technological innovation and exploration are the meaning of life, Douthat’s technological ambition cuts against his Catholic faith. We need not colonize Mars in order for our lives to have meaning. A simple life of loving God with one’s whole heart, neighbor as self, and working as unto the Lord ought to be enough. Indeed, God promised Abraham that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars, not that his descendants would inhabit them.