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Is the United States divided and thriving, split yet splendid?: James Miller

Posted 1/17/18

The word “decadence” is bandied about often these days, and with just cause.

It is well accepted that we live in decadent times. Those on the left fret about income inequality, as it, …

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Is the United States divided and thriving, split yet splendid?: James Miller


The word “decadence” is bandied about often these days, and with just cause.

It is well accepted that we live in decadent times. Those on the left fret about income inequality, as it, among other offenses, accentuates the increasingly visible affluence of the wealthy. On the right, specifically among the faithful, the softening of public morals is worrisome. Social libertinism is becoming increasingly acceptable, as lifestyles different from the patriarchal nuclear family lose their eccentricity.

Not everyone finds our current position horrendously iridescent and Fitzgerald-esque. The men and women who run our newsrooms, who own property in major cities, who are financially connected to the federal largesse, who refer to themselves as “world citizens,” and who work with fluidity between big industry and big government sense nothing is wrong, outside of the gauche reality-TV star in the White House. For these comfortable elites, times have never been more profitable or prosperous.

That view isn’t all wrong. As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently wrote, “2017 was probably the very best year in the long history of humanity.” Not only are people living longer, healthier lives, but many are rising out of extreme poverty — at a clip of over 200,000 a day.

No question, we, especially those who live in the West, live better today than the kings of centuries ago. But that doesn’t mean we’ve escaped the alluring trap of decadence. The paradox of prosperity is that it encourages indolence; when your needs are met, you cease to struggle too much for more.

Intellectually, this poses risks. Just as muscles need exercise to not atrophy, the mind needs stimulation to sharpen.

In a recent interview with the Christian publication Fare Forward, columnist Ross Douthat expressed concern that our decadence is leaving us lackadaisical and unprepared for a 1930s-style challenge to liberal democracy, the very system that fostered our unprecedented wealth creation.

“Up until the last couple of years, my view was that not just America but the whole developed world was sustainably decadent, in a sense that we were likely to be stagnant at a high level of social and economic development for a substantial period of time without pitching into full-scale crisis or collapse,” Douthat explained.

Everything changed with Donald Trump. The real-estate mogul was, Douthat said, “a kind of decadent response to decadence.”

The fissures a divisive figure such as Trump is sowing into our politics, combined with globalism’s relentless homogenization of thought and action and a Third World migration crisis that grows out of hand by the day, puts pressure on our decadent selves and how we view our way of life. We’re divided and thriving; split yet splendid.

The divide creates an epistemological crisis that still, even now, isn’t fully explainable. Why does our collective life feel on edge when so many things are going right?

There is a growing sense that we’ve reached peak decadence, that our confused politics mixed with rank opulence is creating a self-destructive streak within us.

A few examples come to mind. In her new book “Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley,” Emily Chang documents the kind of excessive drugs-and-drinking parties that go on in Silicon Valley among the uber-rich. Like the liquor-soaked soirees of Wall Street bankers depicted in so many popular films, these gatherings are male-dominated sordid messes. Yet these aren’t just occasions for the lustful to experiment with ecstasy and get their rocks off in the comfort of familiar company.

Chang writes that the binge behavior at these parties “is an extension of the progressiveness and open-mindedness — the audacity, if you will — that make founders think they can change the world.” More importantly, these tech gods “believe that their entitlement to disrupt doesn’t stop at technology; it extends to society as well.”

A society that enriches a few to the point where they plot against its basic underpinnings is a suffering society. The masochism isn’t limited to The Valley, either. The broader culture, especially among the young, is affected.

In the pages of The New Yorker, I came across a review of a new sub-genre of music that defines the decadent adolescence of 21st century America. So-called “emo rap” is an online hit, with “artists” (a term used very loosely in this context) garnering millions of hits over YouTube and SoundCloud postings.

These rappers are all young white men with face tattoos, mindlessly repeating lines about death and suicide over ethereal noises. Their production is lo-fi; their video budgets are penurious. Yet they dress in $500 jeans and $300 sneakers while bragging about inhaling a surplus of hard drugs.

One of the genre’s rising stars, Lil Peep, died last November from an overdose of opiates, including Tramadol, hydrocodone and oxymorphone. No alcohol was found in his body at the time of death — a clear cut away from the boozy rock stars of the past.

Peep — baptismal name Gustav Elijah Åhr — is a martyr of the genre, and has given its performers even more of a reason to embrace the nihilistic ethos of a short life burned out as quick as possible.

Any analysis of modern decadence would be incomplete without mentioning the quintessential sign of delirious self-regard: identity politics. Conservatives wrongly dismiss many tenets of the identity-driven worldview, specifically how experience can be attached to a person’s skin color or sexual orientation. But the identity politic phenomenon has extended well past the point of coherence, becoming a religion dedicated to the self.

In a recent article in The Atlantic focusing on Muslim assimilation into the United States, a lesbian couple interviewed listed off the various adjectives they wish to identity as, including “artist,” “black,” “queer,” “Southerner,” “musician,” “gender-non-conforming,” “human” and “Muslim.”

This is pure vanity, not a recognition of the infinite complexity of being human.

Identity is inherently a personal subject — it’s emphasized by those with the capacity for inflated self-absorption. That narcissism, in turn, is fed by material abundance.

Our decadent times, strange as they may be, will not last. The status quo is under attack by the discontent on both sides of the political aisle.

Russell Kirk, the great conservative thinker, described all political problems as spiritual at their heart. Paul tells us that in the last day, men will be “lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderous,without self-control, brutal, without love of good.”

Our last days haven’t arrived yet, but we’re due for a course correction, both materially and spiritually. To head off a crisis, we must pull back and take a real look at ourselves and those around to us to determine what’s really important. When the gilding of our lifestyle wears off, what truly matters will be all that’s left.

James E. Miller, a native of Middletown, works as a digital marketer in Northern Virginia.