Decadence and American Renewal

I was eager to listen to Ross Douthat banter with Ezra Klein yesterday, though I found the conversation less enlightening than I had hoped. Douthat’s excerpt from his new book struck a few chords—most of them related to the kind of directionless malaise that I think does capture a significant chunk of American life. I too have worried about whether we’re heading towards a WALL-E-like future. My proposed solutions center less around space than climate change or required national service, and I would frame my worries less around decadence than an empty conception of the public good. Still, I can see the value in thinking about decadence as we make sense of screen warriors on twitter or reddit who most of the time are playing video games, making artisanal cocktails, and finding the best local burritos.

Via his New York Times excerpt, Douthat borrows a definition from Jacques Barzun:

we can say that decadence refers to economic stagnation, institutional decay and cultural and intellectual exhaustion at a high level of material prosperity and technological development.

I can see how the current American moment—well, at least the pre-COVID, pre-BLM protest wave still sweeping the world—fits this description. It captures a kind of weariness and fatigue that many of us feel. And I take his point that this could go on for a while—for a hundred years or more—rather than culminating in some more immediate disaster. In a way, it reflects the soullessness of liberalism that Yuval Harari fingers in his tomes.

And yet, listening to Douthat and Klein, I think of Admiral Hyman Rickover, whose claim to fame was overseeing the nation’s first atomic submarine. From the 1950s to the 1980s, Rickover captured the attention of a number of policymakers, a darling of congressional committees, someone you could always count on for a biting line about the many insufficiencies of America, from its military to its education system. He worried quite a lot about decadence: about American frittering away their time and money on innervating entertainment and flashy material goods—while the Russians toiled, studied, worked, advanced. He gave the Cold Warriors what they wanted, a view that the Commies could beat us, would beat us if we didn’t value knowledge over mindless distractions. And the elitists loved him too, for he focused on the need to nurture the best and the brightest rather than fussing over the mediocre middle.

Rickover thought America was decadent during the period that American policymakers today pine for, whether for its unionization rates and commitments to public welfare, or for its male breadwinner social structure and the low rates of immigration. It’s easy to mythologize the shared purpose that the fight against communism imparted on American life, and the milkshakes and fancy televisions struck the Rickovers as significant signs of decadent decay and numbing frivolity—even when we were putting a man on the moon.

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