Monday, August 20, 2007

Daily Deliberation # 5

Is America decadent?

46 Comments:

Blogger erp said...

What happened to my coment?

August 20, 2007 6:33 AM  
Blogger David said...

If we're not, who is?

August 20, 2007 6:53 AM  
Blogger Mike Beversluis said...

Well, it's part of our self-hatred to think so at least.

August 20, 2007 7:00 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

David, you get the gold medal for the perfect answer.

August 20, 2007 7:47 AM  
Blogger Bret said...

America's a big place. Some of it is, some of it's not.

August 20, 2007 9:37 AM  
Blogger monix said...

It's hard to follow the perfect answer but I'll try!

The America that I'm learning about from this blog and a number of others that I visit appears to be full of hard-working, high-principled and thoughtful people. This is very different from the image portrayed in popular films, television shows and fiction. The most hyped novel in our press for this summer is Jonathan Tropper's 'How to talk to a widower.' Anyone who thinks that it portrays real life in America would be justified in thinking you are all going to hell in a handcart.

I'm sure that America is like the rest of the world, with its fair share of morality and decadence.

August 20, 2007 9:52 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

This is very different from the image portrayed in popular films, television shows and fiction.

Part of that may be that most Americans would like to be well-heeled enough to be "decadent" by our cultural standards, so we in effect aspire to decadence. Hollywood answers the call by filming our fantasies and beaming them back at us.

American decadence mostly involves hedonism, and doesn't much include complete unconcern for the welfare of others, which is a bit different from classic decadence, I think.

August 20, 2007 11:49 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Some follow-on questions:

a. Are we able to afford a higher level of decadence due to our affluence than we could in the past?

b. Is decadence only about sexual morality & materialism, or is it also about ideas, art & such?

August 20, 2007 2:46 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Americans are not more decadent.

Americans are more self-actualized.

August 20, 2007 6:39 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Ascendant

August 20, 2007 8:13 PM  
Blogger monix said...

I would define decadence as total self-centredness. That is why decadent societies eventually collapse: no-one recognises or cares about the good of anyone else. When Margaret Thatcher told Britain that there was no such thing as 'society' she unleashed the monster of individualism. It isn't just about material wealth or sexual morality, it affects every aspect of life and relationships.

August 20, 2007 11:06 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

It derives from the Latin for 'to fall.' Which is why I choose the opposite, ascendance.

Materially, of course, everybody votes for now. It would be easy enough to live by the standards of, say, 1890, but except for a few hermits, no one does.

Thus, the favorite slur of the supercilious against Americans -- that we are materialistic -- rings hollow. Few of those have ever rejected a proffered greenback, except, curiously, the ideologically committed to materialism, like Castro. Go figure.

As to spiritual or moral values, chacun a son gout, but I don't hear Americans demanding that children get polio in the service of higher morality.

August 20, 2007 11:41 PM  
Blogger monix said...

"but I don't hear Americans demanding that children get polio in the service of higher morality."

At the risk of an anti-Catholic outburst, can I ask what this refers to, Harry?

August 21, 2007 12:10 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

As usual, we can't agree on what the word means. Clearly it conveys some sense of unrestrained hedonism and moral dissipation (which requires some consensus on what morality is) and there is plenty of that around. Harry might say we've always had lots of it, but I doubt even he would deny we've never been so accepting of it. It also implies a refusal to sacrifice one's safety or pleasure for others no matter what their plight, but it isn't the same as selfishness--you have to be having too good a time to qualify as decadent. I don't agree with monix at all that it equates with philosophical individualism nor even materialism--the classic parsimonious robber baron or Scottish merchant who dedicates his mean life to acquiring wealth may be a dicey ethical model for our children on several counts, but he isn't decadent and we all need him. (another feature of decadence--it has no upside beyond the sensual). Nor are the parents who sacrifice all to pay the absurd fees for their kids' education, but care about nobody else. To me, Europe is more decadent but there are plenty of Europeans who think they are not because of all that state welfare and those planned cities, which they foolishly equate with individual charity and community resilience. One can imagine their equivalent in the late Roman Empire denying they were decadent by pointing to all the bread and circus's they were buying with their taxes to take care of and amuse the poor.

An interesting question for our times is whether or how widespread individual decadence relates to collective strength and prosperity. Arguably, not as much (or directly) as social conservatives tend to think. In the 1950's it was assumed that dutiful family men were more useful to corporations, but today their obligations are often seen as a drag and dilution of committment. If you want to hit the swingers' clubs on your own time, nobody cares, but don't tell the boss in Silicon Valley you have to coach Little League when he calls. And who thinks a war between the States and China would be determined by the relative moral robustness of their populations?

Maybe the problem isn't so much decadence, but the significance Gibbon attached to it. Still, our fear of and preoccupation with decadence seems as ingrained as our quest for justice or impulse to reverence. There is plenty of evidence it sows the seeds of reaction (Islamism, come on down!). Why?

August 21, 2007 3:51 AM  
Blogger David said...

It's hard to follow up on the perfect answer, too, but I'll give an imperfect answer.

I couldn't care less that we're comfortable and like our comforts. I reject entirely the pernicious doctrine of the nobility of suffering. That our comfort results from a series of voluntary transactions takes it entirely out of the region of decadence.

There is, of course, the obvious coarsening of the culture and all the well-rehearsed examples of increased sexual immorality. I am, though, sufficiently a friend of liberty so as not to consider those a dead-weight loss and, in any event, the statistics seem to be improving.

To be conservative is, by definition, to believe that things are getting worse. To be American is to believe that things are getting better. That leaves American conservatives in an odd place when it comes to accusations of decadence, the bread and butter of foreign conservatives. Obviously, I find the politics of the Founders more congenial in many ways than our modern politics -- but: slavery. And painless dentistry. If forced to choose a time in which to live, from the beginning of the world until today, who wouldn't choose today, particularly from behind a Rawlesian curtain so that you don't know whether you might be, e.g., black or poor or female.

On the other hand, we're in the middle of a war and we've just given control of the legislature to a party that not only opposes the war and would like to surrender, but which denies its very existence. That is decadence on a Roman scale.

August 21, 2007 5:59 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

a. Are we able to afford a higher level of decadence due to our affluence than we could in the past?

Absolutely so. The average person in the U.S. no longer has to work 12 hours a day, 6 days a week. That leaves plenty of time for pursuing individual pleasures, many of which will be decadent.

For instance, in the U.S. and UK, the average adult watches 28 hours of television per week. (Cite, cite).
Considering that the average adult in the U.S. is awake only 120 hours or fewer per week, and that most people spend 50 hours a week at work and commuting, spending half of one's free time being passively entertained strikes me as quite decadent.

But Skipper is also right; for those that are so inclined, the massive amounts of free time that we now have mean that many more people can be self-actualized in a significant way. (Which is to say, there may have been just as many self-actualized people in the past as there are in the present, but working in the mines or fields for 80 hours a week left little time for them to express it).

b. Is decadence only about sexual morality & materialism, or is it also about ideas, art & such?

The latter, because decadence is a cultural phenomenon, and so will affect the products of society, e.g., ideas and art.

[Also not decadent] are the parents who sacrifice all to pay the absurd fees for their kids' education, but care about nobody else.

No, they're just stupid, or at least they are if they're Americans. There are many ways to feed a cat, and in the U.S., nobody has to send their kids to a formal school, so why pay absurd, back-breaking fees to educate your kids ?
It can be done for only a few thousand per year, assuming no special needs.

Still, our fear of and preoccupation with decadence seems as ingrained as our quest for justice or impulse to reverence. There is plenty of evidence it sows the seeds of reaction (Islamism, come on down!). Why?

Perhaps because decadence is tawdry, often repulsive to the goal-oriented observer, and often conveys a sense of weakness.

Paris Hilton is a good example. She's near-totally ignorant, routinely behaves obscenely, thinks nothing of imperiling others by driving while impaired, but has a psychotic break when sent to jail for three days - disgusting and weak.

The perception of weakness leads some outside observers to believe that changing the culture might be easy.

August 21, 2007 6:04 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

To be conservative is, by definition, to believe that things are getting worse.

I dunno. I think that one valid definition of "conservative" is Orrin's: The recognition that humans are fallen, i.e., imperfectible as a group.

I'm as optimistic as they come, (bar Kurzweil), I think that things are improving apace, and yet I'm conservative in the sense that I reject the notion that we can enact a Utopian agenda in a top-down manner. People will always adapt and corrupt the intent, unless they believe in the spirit of the agenda.

We need to sculpt with small strokes.

August 21, 2007 6:28 AM  
Blogger erp said...

Decadence, like most things, is in the eye of the beholder. There was an clever ad a while back for chocolate that implied their product was an acceptable decadence. We're still a puritan nation for all that we revel in our toys and leisure activities.

I resent the implication that because we are individuals, we are uncaring and if self-interest* is one's definition of decadence, then I guess we're guilty as charged and we'll continue to be castigated for our way of life even though our free society has brought prosperity to the many and collectivism has condemned much of the world's poor to continued poverty.

Paris Hilton is no more representative of our culture than a Carmelite nun.

*Individual Americans give far more to charities than citizens of any other country. This is in addition to the enormous cost of the social services American taxpayers provide for our citizens on every level from small towns to the federal government. Then there is the astronomical amount we fund for foreign aid, defense of the globe, and etc, etc.

August 21, 2007 7:00 AM  
Blogger Susan's Husband said...

To me, the essence of decadence is being unwilling to pay for one's pleasures. The decadence of the Democratic Congress is because they are unwilling to pay the price of defending the nation that provides their good life. Paris Hilton is decadent because she won't pay (in terms of good behavior, or enduring her deserved jail time). Decadence is thinking you're entitled to a free lunch, that your actions have no cost.

August 21, 2007 7:30 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

SH:

You libertarians really have to widen that ideological scope of vision. According to your definition, the family man who enrolls his kids in municipally subsidized sports programmes is more decadent than the fellow who insists on paying full freight for his orgies.

erp:

Thinking about it, I really can't recall any non-American of any stature who ever seriously made the argument that America was decadent. "The West", Europe, Hollywood, sure, but not America per se. Lots of other epithets, but isn't the charge of American decadence one that is usually made from within by American religious leaders? I guess they must keep you all on your toes, because no one else sees you that way. :-)

August 21, 2007 8:26 AM  
Blogger David said...

Peter made me curious, so I Googled decadent America". It does seem to be an American obsession (although such a large percentage of English language content on the web is American that it's hard to know for sure).

August 21, 2007 9:23 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Hmmm, I thought conservatives thought self-interest was a good. Adam Smith and all that.

monix, American do-gooders were just about to rid the world of polio, until mullahs in northern Nigeria declared it an infidel plot, chased the public health teams out and reintroduced polio to the world.

That was about five years ago. Just this year, mullahs in Sudan condemned immunization as a Zionist plot and are trying to put a halt to it.

OK, now for the gratuitous (but nevertheless historically accurate) slam at the Catholics, and closer to your home.

When ether was introduced for parturient women in England 150 years ago, the moralists condemned it on the grounds that the Bible said that woman was supposed to suffer in childbirth.

August 21, 2007 9:24 AM  
Blogger monix said...

Thanks for the clarification, Harry. Also, for the slam at the Catholics - I haven't seen one for a while and thought you were losing your edge!

August 21, 2007 9:35 AM  
Blogger erp said...

Peter, nor should they, but in fact, most of the criticism of the U.S. by our self-appointed moral betters, centers around our individualism aka selfishness and our lack of caring. That's why in my previous comment, I said, if self-interest is one's definition of decadence ....

My definition is giving up and not caring, where anything goes, as in Nero's Rome or the Germany so graphically depicted in the play/film, "Cabaret."

Shuttle just landed safely. Thank God.

August 21, 2007 9:35 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

According to your definition, the family man who enrolls his kids in municipally subsidized sports programmes is more decadent than the fellow who insists on paying full freight for his orgies.

If the family man's a taxpayer, then not so.

What would be decadent is insisting on more municipally-subsidized sports programmes while simultaneously voting down increases in municipal taxes.

August 21, 2007 9:52 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Shuttle just landed safely. Thank God.

Second that.

August 21, 2007 9:53 AM  
Blogger David said...

Harry: The modern American anti-immunizationists claim to be eminently rationalist. (Talk about decadence!) Also, were English Catholics really the leading moral scolds 150 years ago?

Back on topic: I take it that the question is "Is America decadent" rather than "Are there decadent Americans," the second question being trivial. I'm sure there were decadent Spartans, though Sparta wasn't decadent. It is, however, just as dead as Rome. Perhaps even deader. Decadence is not the only enemy.

August 21, 2007 9:55 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

monix, American do-gooders were just about to rid the world of polio, until mullahs in northern Nigeria declared it an infidel plot, chased the public health teams out and reintroduced polio to the world.

That dynamic is exactly why the advanced nations will end up running the third world by mid-century.

Obviously, the Nigerians are endangering the entire world with their irrationality. For now, the cost to spank them is too great.

But three decades in the future, when we just have to order our robot armies to take over all of the infrastructure and public facilities of Nigeria, we'll bear the financial cost of doing so without a second thought.

August 21, 2007 9:58 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Sparta didn't play well with others. If they'd been more accommodating and less inclined to conquer, the various Greek cultures might have been collectively stronger, and would have been less likely to have fallen under the sway of the Macedonians and Romans.

But hey, they lasted somewhere between 700 - 1,000 years...

August 21, 2007 10:28 AM  
Blogger Susan's Husband said...

Mr. Burnet;

You anti-liberatarians really have to widen your understanding of libertarian ideology just a bit. It's not the liberarians who can only think of "pay" in terms of money.

In your example, one pays for the benefits of a municipality by being a productive citizen of the municipality. Therefore the guy who has his kids in the local sports teams is less decadent than the guy paying for his own orgies because the former is contributing / paying more to the maintenance of the municipality via his participation in social activities.

August 21, 2007 10:40 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

SH:

As long as decent guys like you keep control over the meaning of "productive citizen" I'll listen respectfully, but without that very a-libertarian virtue called decency, I might expect the identical argument from Larry Flynt, no?

August 21, 2007 10:54 AM  
Blogger Susan's Husband said...

Libertarians who don't value decency are decadent libertarians who haven't thought through their ideology.

Where libertarians differ is that they believe decency arises from social interaction, not government fiat. Such libertarians are then accused of not favoring decency because they don't favor a specific mechanism (law) to create it. You may think that wrong headed means, but it's not at all the same thing as being unfavorable or indifferent to the ends.

August 21, 2007 1:03 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

No, my problem with libertarianism is not thst its adherents ignore or oppose decency but that it takes its rather admirable tenets as philosophical starting points and insists they be applied rigorously and uniformly irrespective of actual social or political conditions. Frankly, I'm tired of hearing: "Freedom comes at a price" or "Freedom isn't easy" or "Freedom costs" as a rote explanation of why punks are allowed to swear at the elderly in public parks or otherwise menace the streets. Nor do I believe untrammelled strip mall development or urban ghettos are the price we must pay for the exquisite beauty of rural New England.

David has often remarked on how limited government rests on private piety. The problem with the libertarian is he wants limited government irrespective of socio-economic conditions or the actions or beliefs of his neighbours. To put it another way, the problem with libertarianism is that it is an "ism".

August 21, 2007 3:40 PM  
Blogger erp said...

The popular vernacular is: "Freedom isn't free."

August 21, 2007 5:21 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

Wow, great discussion!

My definition is giving up and not caring, where anything goes, as in Nero's Rome or the Germany so graphically depicted in the play/film, "Cabaret."

Mine exactly. I think decadence is a combination of individualized pleasure seeking justified by political and philosophical ideas and trends in the arts and social mores. Material consumption is not the main indicator, it is consuming without replenishing. You see it when the second and third generations of wealthy families squander the wealth of the first generation. You see it when young people are no longer willing to fight and sacrifice for society. It is an "eating of the seed corn" of society, both materially and morally.

Decadence lies on one end of a spectrum, the other end of which you see collectivized totalitarian states like Nazi Germany. It's interesting to me that all of the worst tyrannical regimes of the 20th century used anti-decadence campaigns to keep people focused on a single, quasi-religious ideology.

To a lesser extent religious idealists in Europe and America have made the same mistake. The Puritans come to mind. So does Richard Weaver, who wrote "Ideas have Consequences", in which he denounced the moral decadence of postwar American society, but worshipped the antebellum South as the high water mark of American society. He thought that Western culture was doomed when William of Ockham overturned Platonic Realism in favor of Nominalism, and identified the decline of Western music with Beethoven. Talk about a reactionary!

August 21, 2007 7:10 PM  
Blogger Susan's Husband said...

Duck;

Sounds like the emerging concensus.

Mr. Burnet;

Those are libertines. How can you tell the difference? A libertine says "there's nothing that can be done, learn to live with it" while a libertarian says "there's nothing the government can do, we have to do it ourselves". Libertines are decadant (although there are a lot of libertines posing as libertarians the way Marxists pose as liberation theologists).

August 21, 2007 8:05 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

'The modern American anti-immunizationists claim to be eminently rationalist. (Talk about decadence!) Also, were English Catholics really the leading moral scolds 150 years ago?'

You can be as rational as you want, but if the premises that you reason from are wrong, your results will most likely also be wrong. Aquinas is the poster boy for that.

I don't know if English Catholics were the leading moral scolds 150 years ago, but Newman and his pals were among the noisiest.

August 21, 2007 8:45 PM  
Blogger monix said...

Harry, you must know how Newman dealt with those who made unsupported claims about his beliefs:

"There is no reference at the foot of the page to any words of mine, much less any quotation from my writings, in justifi-
cation of this statement.
I should not dream of expostulating with the writer of such a passage, nor with the editor who could insert it without appending evidence in proof of its allegations. Nor do I want any reparation from either of them. I neither complain of them for their act, nor should I thank them if they reversed it. Nor do I even write to you with any desire of troubling you to send me an answer. I do but wish to draw the attention of yourselves, as gentlemen, to a grave and gratuitous slander, with which I feel confident you will be sorry to find associated a name so eminent as yours."

August 22, 2007 3:02 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

SH:

Maybe I should get out more. The libertarians I've met tend to be rather intense, humourless young men with short hair who steer any conversation on whatever subject to taxation rates. They seem to have little to say about anything else. Seriously, can you recommend a good book by one who takes things deeper?

In passing, my other hang-up with them is they can be as universal and top-down about their principles as a doctrinaire marxist. Governing and ordering a modern city of ten million is not the same as, say, Wyoming or Vermont.

August 22, 2007 4:44 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

David:

Another thought on this question of the charge of decadence coming more from within than from abroad. We've talked before about parallels between the American experiment and Jewish history. If I recall, it wasn't the Canaanites or Philistines who thundered "Repent, O Ye Israel" from the mountain tops, was it?

August 22, 2007 5:05 AM  
Blogger David said...

Hey, let's start an argument over whether Hayak was a libertarian or an (American style) conservative.

Monix: Ouch.

Peter: Interesting. But still ambiguous as to whether we're the new Jerusalem or the new Rome: O tempora! O mores!

August 22, 2007 8:16 AM  
Blogger monix said...

David, it was meant to be tongue-in-cheek, not hurtful!

August 22, 2007 8:57 AM  
Blogger erp said...

Lower-case libertarians are liberals in the classic mode, who don't want to be known by the low-brow and misleading term, conservative nor the middle-brow term, Republican which has been so demeaned by the left over the years as to be totally unusable in describing us. Since I put myself in that category, I'd like to propose that we find a snappy new appellation.

It seems that paleoliberal has already been co-opted to mean the
exact opposite of what we might intuit, so we need to find another name that will attract those who know that modern liberalism has lost its way, but can't bring themselves to answer to those other names associated forever in their minds with greedy fat cats.

Classic liberal may be too high brow. How about a term from the new technology?

August 22, 2007 8:58 AM  
Blogger Susan's Husband said...

Well, you always end up with a lot of those types when you have a fringe movement.

As for books, I don't have any good suggestions except for "The Road to Serfdom", which is probably the work that most influenced me. "Bionomics" by Rothhschild was another big one, although the meat of it can be summed up in one sentence: "Human economic systems are like ecosystems, not factories". "Atlas Shrugged", of course, although you may find it too didactic.

Be warned, I don't treat any of these books as gospel, but more as raw ore to be processed in to my own belief system. That's probably due to my professional background, which I spend looking at other people's work and stealing the good parts.

I will also admit that OJ has had a significant impact on my thinking, oddly making me somewhat less doctrinaire, more appreciative of what sort of accomplishments are realistic.

August 22, 2007 10:02 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

BTW, all, Deep Blue appears to be back in the saddle. About time, too. We haven't tackled Esperanto in ages.

August 22, 2007 10:11 AM  
Blogger David said...

Road to Serfdom is a great conservative book.

August 22, 2007 10:28 AM  

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