While The Decadent Society is a good book, it is not perfect, and if you'll allow, I'd like to talk about smaller things. My frustration at his love of the moon landing persists, for instance. I find myself thinking that disappearing cult movements are a sign of stronger cross-group social ties and savviness, and not a withering of religious intensity (as he notes, protestant church attendance hasn't gone down).
His claims along the lines of 'children following the advice of adults is weird or wrong' are bizarre, considering those adults have long since begun to scare and lie to those kids, to get them to obey. I was lied to by D.A.R.E., and have done no drugs. I was 'scared straight', and avoided prison and jail. I was made so terrified of even consensual sexual encounters that I've, more than once, probably ruined a relationship through overly obsessive caution. The advice adults have been giving out is, perhaps, bad. Maybe it produces depression, to lead a life made safe from underage pregnancy or drug use – although I'm skeptical of those claims. But if you see wisdom and find fault, for any reason, you've made an error of kind. And if you think there's something wrong with the kids in this scenario, you've completely lost your mind.
The issue (if I'm allowed a guess – and it's my blog, so I am) isn't kids substituting virtual titillation for in-person encounters. It's having it drilled into a whole generation how you're a monster if you merely make a mistake, and how you could ruin someone else's life and your own, and how the number one priority is to make sure not to push any boundaries, for fear of a communications issue. You must get explicit consent – but asking directly for sex pressures them, or implicitly makes your love seem conditional on sexual acts, like the rapist in that video! Pornography has so little to do with this that I can't even fathom his mistake. We just wanted something simpler – to be a decent person. Every grand goal or sexual ambition comes after that.
I think I even reject some of his larger suggestions about sclerotic governance – as much as I think our government could be better, if people have a government they want, it doesn't make sense to massively change it all the time. It's the logical issue with any call to permanent revolution: that, if you achieve success, perhaps the amount you change things ought to go down – or, conversely, if you're getting worse results, you should be open to changing things more. I think this is intuitive and his critiques largely side-step this because he (and I) think that modern government has some terrible problems. But as he points out, other people think it has the opposite problems, so there's a cultural stalemate. You can't really guess and check without starting new governments, so in the meantime I don't think it's a mistake to keep things relatively fixed.
I also think his knowledge of internet culture is so intensely weak it cripples his ability to talk about cultural innovation. If he had one paragraph about memes or Patreon I could have perhaps understood why he thought they were unimportant and why it deserved no further exploration.
I also think he's dead wrong about the importance of literary fiction and fine arts. Literary fiction got less popular because it's bad, and better authors moved to where the money was, which was always in genre fiction. The best of today's genre fiction is better literary fiction than old literary fiction was at its best, and I have a whole series (currently neglected but perhaps I should return to it) talking about how that's so.
And maybe you cry over the fall of ballet, but if you haven't taken time to seriously investigate whether TikTok dancers represent a legitimately fresh take on similar ideals, I think the claim "there's lots of stagnation and decadence and little originality, just look, less ballet" falls extremely flat. When on Earth did the success of ballet signify lack of decadence and cultural stagnation? His ideal world seems like it would include strange new art, like people tricking scammers into wasting their time, watching champion puzzle-solvers solving puzzles, watching art restoration, or discussing themes in works of art – all of which are successful subgenres of YouTube. Perhaps he has a clever explanation of why some art is real art and young people's vastly different art is wrong (or, it's very different and strange but still lacks some originality qualia he demands). I doubt he's given it any thought.
But my biggest critique, if I have any of merit, is that there is no space given to how well we satisfy the preferences of people. Is it decadence to work hard, and then buy something you want with your money? It seems almost incoherent to me that it would be, and yet many of Douthat's critiques seem to purposefully ignore whether people are being useful to each other.
"Social media is bad" – that's not a controversial statement. So wouldn't it be a sign of great innovation, of not being sated by a mediocre status quo, for silicon valley to dump money into more social networks, all of which working a slightly different way than anything that came before? Isn't dynamism supposed to be in service to something, and isn't it the work of professionals to perfect your own industry as much as is reasonable before just wandering off? Wouldn't taking low hanging fruit from other industries, but failing to address serious concerns people have be less dynamic? It'd just be more 4% improvements every year for some subset of industries, without the society-wide change he wants us to look for, in his time-travel examples. Would someone from the 1990's be startled to see the modern world? I think so – in a pandemic, most socializing is done through tools and devices they literally couldn't have imagined. And we still need to improve. When we get more social media that's actually good, imagine how different life would be?
Admittedly, his critique of Silicon Valley is slight and a bit of a drive-by. But saying a mistake can be excused because of how slapdash he was being seems pretty close to just calling him an idiot, which he is not. He does use 'online' as a noun in his critique, so he's... not particularly invested in the details of internet culture. Perhaps that's why he seems so concerned about Wikipedia being overly-consolidated. He's clearly never used a fandom wikia, or a humorous wikipedia-alike, or read or contributed to The SCP Foundation. He sees things as singular, consolidated, but in reality, it's simply a failure of research.
He mentions how mega-hits now seem to drive book publishing more than ever, but never mentions fanfiction, or web fiction more generally. You'd think that Hugo award winners being published on web forums would clue him in. You'd think web fiction being made into a massive major motion picture, when the best-selling book was given away for free online before it was ever published, would alert him to the emergence of new dynamics. There is plenty of success he seems content to ignore, and his book is weaker for it. At the very least he could acknowledge that there is change, that people are striving and sometimes they succeed. It isn't stagnant or decadent. It's scratching and clawing for progress, and trying novel ways of doing things.
I said eliminating smallpox has a better claim to humanity's greatest accomplishment than the moon landing. If Douthat agreed with me, if he even entertained the issue, he might notice that many great achievements can be invisible. His time traveler wouldn't see the absence of smallpox, or of mass famine. But those are important. Important tasks, vital to our present and future, are small or invisible. Why haven't things visibly changed lately? Because we set ourselves to smaller tasks. Not less important. Just harder to see.
It would be unfair to criticize the book as some weird boomer complaining about the world. But if the research was better, if he had a younger editor providing feedback, if the claims were geared around their strongest possible forms, instead of just the simplest phrasings, we might have a chance at a much-needed conversation.
Imagine a version of this book that would legitimately be amazing. He might spend a chapter admonishing 80-year-olds who haven't learned how to program! Actively assert that the future seems to be changing at least a little, and our culture of passivity isn't fit to meet it. Demand that the reader consider why they aren't starting a business, because without those reflections almost no point about decadence makes sense. Pour your fury into an educational system designed to defer credentials until fertility has dropped substantially, and excoriate a regulatory framework that changed housing in America to make it much, much harder to move across the country for work. Stop criticizing TV for not being good enough. Stop whining about fewer people enjoying opera. Stop complaining about other people wanting simple, honest things instead of grand (largely pointless) gestures – or at least, then, make bolder statements and wishes yourself.
The book is a work of decadence, a claim I think Douthat would not just support but has made himself. It deserves your attention, but perhaps not your respect. Go be useful.