Writing about decadence can be symptomatic of the condition. How many conservatives—this reviewer included—have eased out article-length moans about sclerotic institutions, falling birth rates and mindless popular culture without as much as a thought of having an effect on them. In our lazier moments we are not opposing decadence but merely providing a soundtrack.
I suspect that Ross Douthat knew this when he wrote The Decadent Society. Douthat has long been an outpost of conservatism at the New York Times. The Grey Lady specialises in bland liberal conservatives like David Brooks, Bill Kristol and Bret Stephens but Douthat is both more traditional and more incisive. A social conservative, he also has too much mischief and curiosity about him to succumb to the stuffiness of the stereotype.
Readers who might fear that a book bearing the name The Decadent Society would be humourless and cranky, then, need have no such fears. The prose is brisk and teems with interesting facts and observations. Douthat is more pithy than ponderous. European liberals assumed “that if some liberty is good, then more liberty must always be better.” Japan’s “combination of virtual extremes and a peaceful, sexless descent into societal old age may be a template rather than an outlier.”
What is decadence? The term inspires thoughts of the lazier explanations for the fall of the Roman Empire, where a decline in civic virtues and martial spirit is said to have made the Romans vulnerable to barbarian invasions. This account has thickened history with moralism—summoning to mind thoughts of mad emperors and wine-fuelled orgies—and Douthat wisely separates himself from it. Instead, he references the French-American historian Jacques Barzun, who wrote that in a decadent society:
The forms of art as of life seem exhausted, the stages of development have been run through. Institutions function painfully. Repetition and frustration are the intolerable result. Boredom and fatigue are great historical forces.
In neat and well-argued sections—“Stagnation,” “Sterility,” “Sclerosis” and “Repetition”—Douthat argues that Western societies have grown fat on materialism but have withered in spirit. Some of his targets, like porn and drugs, are predictable bugbears of traditional conservatism. But Douthat avoids crankier right-wing arguments—such as that Pornhub and pot smoking turn nice young men into killers—in favour of the Huxleyesque thesis that such pleasures offer soporific escapism from loneliness and despair in atomised societies….[ ]