The truth of the first decades of the 21st century, a truth that helped give us the Trump presidency but will still be an important truth when he is gone, is that we probably aren’t entering a 1930-style crisis for Western liberalism or hurtling forward toward transhumanism or extinction. Instead, we are aging, comfortable and stuck, cut off from the past and no longer optimistic about the future, spurning both memory and ambition while we await some saving innovation or revelation, growing old unhappily together in the light of tiny screens.
The farther you get from that iPhone glow, the clearer it becomes: Our civilization has entered into decadence.
The italics are mine. It's something I've been wondering about. How success often seems to plant the seeds of it's own destruction.Following in the footsteps of the great cultural critic 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. 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.” He added, “When people accept futility and the absurd as normal, the culture is decadent.” And crucially, the stagnation is often a consequence of previous development: The decadent society is, by definition, a victim of its own success.
I really like this point.
This was put really well too. The idea from some that the internet makes everything worse or that it empowers people to do crazy things.But our battles mostly still reflect what Barzun called “the deadlocks of our time” — the Kavanaugh Affair replaying the Clarence Thomas hearings, the debates over political correctness cycling us backward to fights that were fresh and new in the 1970s and ’80s. The hysteria with which we’re experiencing them may represent nothing more than the way that a decadent society manages its political passions, by encouraging people to playact extremism, to re-enact the 1930s or 1968 on social media, to approach radical politics as a sport, a hobby, a kick to the body chemistry, that doesn’t put anything in their relatively comfortable late-modern lives at risk.
The terrorist in 21st-century America isn’t the guy who sees more deeply than the rest; he’s the guy who doesn’t get it, who takes the stuff he reads on the internet literally in a way that most of the people posting don’t, who confuses virtual entertainment with reality. The left-winger who tries to assassinate Republicans isn’t just a little deeper into the Resistance mind-set than the average activist; he’s the guy who totally misunderstands the Resistance, who listens to all the online talk about treason and Fascism and thinks that he’s really in 1940s France. The guy who parks his truck on the Hoover Dam and demands that certain imaginary indictments be unsealed isn’t just a little more action oriented than the typical QAnon conspiracy theorist; he fundamentally misunderstands those labyrinthine theories, taking them as literal claims about the world rather than as what they are for their creators (a sport, a grift, a hobby) and for most of their participants (an odd form of virtual community).