Sunday, March 15, 2020

Victims of our own success. . .

I had just finished watching the movie Hidden Figures which is a testament to the brilliance of three Black women, the obstacles they faced, and their profound role in America's winning of the space wars after starting from second place.  It is an amazing story made all the more impressive by the fact that these are real people.  And then I read an op ed piece by Ross Douthat (too long to quote here except briefly).  It is worth your time to read.

From Ross Douthat:

The word “decadence” is used promiscuously but rarely precisely. In political debates, it’s associated with a lack of resolution in the face of threats — with Neville Chamberlain and W.B. Yeats’s line about the best lacking all conviction. In the popular imagination, it’s associated with sex and gluttony, with pornographic romances and chocolate strawberries. Aesthetically and intellectually it hints at exhaustion, finality — “the feeling, at once oppressive and exalting, of being the last in a series,” in the words of the Russian poet Vyacheslav Ivanov.

But it’s possible to distill a useful definition from all these associations. 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.
Douthat wonders if we are not victims of our own success.  We have grown lazy and adverse to risk.  We have basked in the glow of our iPhones not realizing what is happening in the world around us.  We are fifty years removed from achieving the impossible of landing a man on the moon and he wonders if we have any ideas left.  Like Hollywood, we are more into sequels and remakes than originality.  We have fewer entrepreneurs in business and our institutions command not only less loyalty but less trust. 

I saw a meme which showed Kennedy in 1961 urging us not to ask what our country can do for us but what we can do for our country and then Bernie Sanders promising the world to people who cannot or will not pay for any of it.  It was a joke, or at least it was meant to be, but it is clear we are a different people than we were fifty years ago.  And it is not an improvement.  We may have invented our dystopia but it is clear from the emails I get that many Christians believe it -- they insist we live in post-Christian, secular, and post-enlightenment times.  Who am I to argue?  But is this what we have chosen or allowed?

What is there to complain about?  The mail is being delivered (especially email), we have ample opportunities for entertainment choices, we seem to have an abundance of funds not obligated to essentials, and we have created at least the illusion of living safe and secure lives.  But the reality is that we are isolated, divided, and, worse, mostly disinterested in others.  Are we victims of our own success?  Will that be the cause of our decline?  You tell me.  It is hard, however, to argue with Douthat.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I read Barzun back in the 1990s, when Foucault and Derrida were the fashionable academic alternatives. Barzun’s gloomy conservatism traces a simplistic, triumphalist rise in Western culture from Greece and Rome to its denouement in Picasso and Stravinsky. Order and tradition are absolutes. Barzun’s taste in art motivates him to state such absurdities as “the forms of art are exhausted.” The only art that is exhausted is the art that Barzun likes. Western society has since moved on to pluralism, the postmodern reaction against modernist egoism that Barzun laments the loss of.

As for iPhones, are our grandparents happier communicating via text, Facebook, and reading news on phones versus “the good old days” of silence and isolation?

How many more people read the Bible (and even the Book of Concord) now that it is on our phones!