Sunday, February 9, 2020

On Resisting Decadence

“America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between.” - Oscar Wilde

Ross Douthat explores our trajectory that has led us to decadence, which he defines as,
"cultural and intellectual exhaustion at a high level of material prosperity and technological development. Under decadence, Barzun wrote, '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.'"
The Fyre Festival, Theranos, and Uber's financial losses point to this "Age of Decadence." Climate change is strikingly absent from this lengthy article, though. The fact that we have this huge, looming problems, and we're wilfully ignoring it in order to continue living with our many conveniences, is the epitome of decadence! He also misses that there are cultures that haven't bought into this neo-liberal mess, and, here in Canada, our mounted police are trampling them to get them to stop blocking progress in the form of more oil and more growth. The CBC just had a piece on Timothy Ornelas documenting the traditional homelands of the Indigenous in Los Angeles, on land currently occupied by Universal Studios. That's not in here either, but it's still an interesting read, at least in brief:

"21st-century growth and innovation are not at all that we were promised they would be. . . . the people with the most experience starting businesses look around at their investment opportunities and see many more start-ups that resemble Theranos than resemble Amazon. . . . Behind this deceleration lurks the specter of technological stagnation . . . leaping advances in robotics aren’t about to throw everybody out of work. . . . But the trends reveal a slowdown, a mounting difficulty in achieving breakthroughs — a bottleneck if you’re optimistic, a ceiling if you aren’t. . . . Take a single one of the great breakthroughs of the industrial age — planes and trains and automobiles, antibiotics and indoor plumbing — and it still looms larger in our everyday existence than all of the contributions of the tech revolution combined. . . . For all the boosterish talk about retraining and self-employment, all the fears of a precarious job market, Americans are less likely to switch employers than they were a generation ago. . . . young people are more depressed than prior cohorts, less likely to drive drunk or get pregnant but more tempted toward self-harm. They are also the most medicated generation in history . . . comfortably numb, experiencing stagnation as a chill good time. . . . 
Western politics is now polarized between anti-establishment forces that are unprepared to competently govern and an establishment that’s too disliked to effectively rule. . . . The madness of online crowds, the way the internet has allowed the return of certain forms of political extremism and the proliferation of conspiracy theories — yes, if our decadence is to end in the return of grand ideological combat and street-brawl politics, this might be how that ending starts. . . . Internet-era political derangement is partially responsible for white supremacists goading one another into shooting sprees, or the Sanders supporter who tried to massacre Republicans at a congressional baseball game in 2017. But these episodes are terrible and also exceptional; they have not yet established a pattern that looks anything like the early 1970s, when there were more than 2,500 bombings across the continental United States in one 18-month period. . . . the virtual realm might make our battles more ferocious but also more performative and empty; and that online rage is a steam-venting technology for a society that is misgoverned, stagnant and yet, ultimately, far more stable than it looks on Twitter. . . . 
Complaining about decadence is a luxury good — a feature of societies where the mail is delivered, the crime rate is relatively low, and there is plenty of entertainment at your fingertips. Human beings can still live vigorously amid a general stagnation, be fruitful amid sterility, be creative amid repetition. . . . The unresisted drift of decadence can lead into a territory of darkness, whose sleekness covers over a sickness unto death. And true dystopias are distinguished, in part, by the fact that many people inside them don’t realize that they’re living in one, because human beings are adaptable enough to take even absurd and inhuman premises for granted. . . . So decadence must be critiqued and resisted . . . by the hope that where there’s stability, there also might eventually be renewal, that decadence need not give way to collapse to be escaped, that the renaissance can happen without the misery of an intervening dark age."

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