I read The Decadent Society while on a weeklong cruise from Miami to Miami, stopping at various sun-bleached points in between. Future historians may well classify such voyages back to the place where you first embarked as the very embodiment of early twenty-first-century bourgeois decadence, with food and drink, entertainment and diversions, all available in seemingly endless supply. With chapter titles such as “Sclerosis,” “Sterility,” “Repetition,” “Comfortably Numb,” and “Kindly Despotism” (“No jeans in the dining room after 6:00 p.m., please.”), Ross Douthat’s new book, The Decadent Society, seemed particularly apt as I considered whether or not to make another pass through the buffet line before heading to the bar for the extended happy hour.
It is not my intention to have fun at Douthat’s expense, however. He is, in my judgment, the only New York Times columnist regularly worth reading—this due in no small part to his sturdy refusal to succumb to Trump Derangement Syndrome. Indeed, his new book pays refreshingly little attention to our forty-fifth president. Donald R. Trump is “fundamentally more farcical than threatening,” he writes, a point with which I heartily agree.
The Decadent Society offers a fresh take on an old subject: the decline of Western civilization, with the United States leading the pack. Douthat writes from the perspective of a Catholic conservative Gen Xer at the top of his game. To this semi-senescent Catholic conservative Boomer, the resulting critique is original, insightful, and largely persuasive.
Decadence, as Douthat uses the term, consists of “economic stagnation, institutional decay, and cultural and intellectual exhaustion” combined with “a high level of material prosperity and technological development”—not bad as a broad description of our current situation. A vibrant society, Douthat believes, creates, discovers, and expands. Until well past the midpoint of the twentieth century, the West generally and the United States specifically exhibited these qualities. Around the time my fellow Boomers reached maturity, however, anomie and stasis set in, with the results now everywhere evident. “Resignation haunts our present civilization,” Douthat writes, with “therapeutic philosophies and technologies of simulation” having displaced passion, conviction, and faith. Overstated? Perhaps, but not wrong.
Yet apart from cruise ships that cater to a mostly white clientele searching for an escape from terminal malaise, what is the evidence of decadence? Douthat cites several factors, but I found most interesting his reflection on the declining birthrate in the United States and throughout most of the developed world. “Below-replacement fertility,” he writes, “is the fundamental fact of civilized life in the early twenty-first century.” It is also “an inevitable corollary of liberal capitalist modernity,” welcomed in some quarters as a predicate to personal liberation, especially for women, and as necessary to counter the threat of global overpopulation.
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