Some chapters in The Decadent Society had me extremely grateful Ross Douthat was finally putting front and center issues that I had cared about for a long time. I've spoken to people, many times, about my deep anxiety and sadness that Americans still want to have (on average) two and a half kids, but it's down to about 1.7. People weren't getting what they want... and family comes first. The family itself was falling apart in a direct and literal way, and I'm glad someone else thinks this is one of the most important things going on in America too. I'm reading this chapter and cheering, hopeful that people will find a solution for my dear friends in Taiwan, who suffer from this curse far worse than America, and who value family even more. It is a tragedy on a scale it's almost impossible to comprehend and no one is even looking at the problem, it felt like.
And other chapters, notably the first one, had me disagreeing so strongly I would rant at people about he was obviously confused about what's so great about technology and progress, and if he thinks the moon landing is the high water mark of the modern era, and not the elimination of smallpox, or finally having enough food that humanity wasn't bound to exist in states of recurrent starvation, then he and I wouldn't ever agree about anything and he's got no point in calling anything decadent. His own tastes seem to run towards the expensive luxury vacation to a boring rock, instead of being useful to people. The space shuttle is his luxury yacht, and it is a waste of ambition on a scale I cannot possibly comprehend to praise it.
I delighted in his surprisingly sane discussion of Trump and modern politics (he'd be amused to learn the RNC decided to stop even having a party platform), but found myself surprisingly frustrated with his discussion of the opioid epidemic (suffice it to say, the areas of America dealing with meth addiction confound his strange read on drug use). He makes a specific point to say Steve Bannon might be grifting about a year before being in trouble for his weird Build-a-Wall scam, and specifically mentions the possibility of Trump mishandling a pandemic – but seems to ignore the implications of both to his premise. The book shows tremendous promise, before returning to an intense wish for it to be different.
Having this reaction, of either strongly agreeing or disagreeing, probably means this is actually a really good book. I think more people should read it. It invites the dialogue more people should have with non-fiction.
Something I can't help but note, though, is how we have built the wisdom needed to deal with these issues, and it's not being used. Japan has a thriving sub-genre called 'shonen', which is essentially a hopeful story of young men not just coming of age, but coming into their power. The best examples all share important elements: in Hunter X Hunter, a young boy of 11, leaves home and engages on a journey to get a professional license, a process he knows is exceptionally dangerous and could plausibly kill him. In My Hero Academia, 15 year old students begin their occupational training with live-fire, dangerous lessons and tests. They work with adults who teach them the business, as well as how to be a decent person while doing the work. Independence, strength, charting your own course, these things are all simply demanded of them. If a teacher is bad, you're expected to learn what you can anyway. And when they reach the age of majority, their career will already be in full swing.
But, of course, Japanese schools do not begin occupational training early enough to complete it by age 18. They do not let children of 11 become licensed to take on work they've demonstrated they're qualified for, or even leave home (in some places, not even long enough to go to the park unsupervised). We understand maturity and growing up, but build systems where those events that might build character and maturity are made impossible. We build a system where, for some professions (like doctors), occupational training persists in your 30s, and there's insane-level difficulty in starting a family unless you begin before your career is settled. We build a system meant for children, and we stay children, and when we are old we are children again, hoping the government or children will take care of us, hoping for life's challenges to go away, and they do not, when you reach old age. Old age is when you harvest what you've sown in your life, and while there will be challenges, to hope only to be pulled along through life is a truly to have given up on any meaningful vision of what you wish to leave behind.
We've built a society with thick, dense, metal walls separating people from responsibility, from maturity, from coming into their strength, and so we have a whole society of people who have trouble with taking responsibility, even for themselves. We've become weak, and now we can't even get what we want when we want a family. This, of all things, must be a sign of something, and we can argue about whether it should be called decadence, but not whether it's resulting in a lot of people not getting what they want. People are failing to get what's most important to them, at unprecedented levels. It was not uncommon, a thousand years ago, to have to bury your own child. To have stumbled even earlier in the hope to raise a happy, healthy family, that is a tragedy too, but I don't see anyone else crying.
I think if there's one natural human impulse in adolescence, it is to do more, by your own strength. Let's build a world where that isn't suppressed at all, instead of one where it's made impossible. Let's build a culture where it's so deeply assumed you have the agency and ability to solve problems that anyone complaining about anything is seen as weak and pathetic, instead of lionized, 'for bringing an important issue to our attention'. Let's build a world where our preferences are strange and our cooperation is driven by the mutual benefit of commerce, instead of the tribal, zero-sum natural of politics, and where feeling like you're a part of a political group marks you for a complete sucker, in the same way shilling for a pyramid scheme would.
Let's have harder lives. Because that's the world worth living in. Because it's hard to express what we want, and it's hard to get it. It's hard to raise a family, it's hard to run your own business, it's hard to be a good neighbor and citizen. So let's do it anyway.
Personal civic responsibility isn't the major focus of the book, though. In the next section, we'll reflect on the book's strange engagement with the subject of government.