Mourning in America: The Decadence of Technological Civilization Lies in Its Worship of Quantity over Quality

By McDougall, Walter | The American Conservative, May-June 2020 | Go to article overview

Mourning in America: The Decadence of Technological Civilization Lies in Its Worship of Quantity over Quality


McDougall, Walter, The American Conservative


As I type these words the whole of Italy is under lockdown and thousands of northern Italians are perishing from the novel coronavirus. (I pray such a die-off will not have occurred in the United States by the time this is published.) But in happier times, in fact the year 2014, I finally agreed to take a long break from teaching and research and accompany my wife on a tour of Italy. I write "accompany" because she did all the logistics and planning and I just followed her lead like an eager puppy on a bye in a park full of new sniffs. To call the experience sublime does not do it justice. Italy's history, art, architecture, scenery, culture, and cuisine repeatedly moved me to tears. But another, more mundane contretemps also lodged in my memory. We were dining alfresco at a seaside trattoria in the picturesque Cinque Terre, chatting with the retired English couple at the next table, when there suddenly fell upon me a peace, a release, a sense of being unburdened that was new to my frenetic American soul. I realized what it meant for Italians, Britons, indeed all Europeans, to be retired from Great Power politics and steeped in la dolce vita. I couldn't help thinking, if this is decadence please give me more. Thus was I prepared to appreciate one of the principal messages in Ross Douthat's new book, The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success.

The message is that decadence need not connote debauchery or an impending doom of some kind, but instead may connote a blissful and remarkably sustainable state of mind. "Perhaps the task of sustaining decadence," writes Douthat, "is the task that we--we the fortunate--we the long-lived, we the spoiled--should want our leaders to pursue." As the perceptive political scientist James Kurth once taught me, it is a blessed privilege to bask in the Alpenglow of a fading civilization. Yes, but only so long as one does not too often ask: what follows the evening?

It is not my intention to review The Decadent Society, since the preceding conversation between the author and Rod Dreher pithily describes its central themes. Second, I am disqualified from reviewing an author of whom (full disclosure) I have long been an admiring fan. Third, I feel a certain kinship with him inasmuch as we are both Christian conservatives in progressive institutions. Fourth, I can scarcely claim objectivity since Douthat writes, on page two of his book: "In The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age, his magisterial narrative of the period, Walter McDougall...." So my intention here is simply to add my own observations regarding American decadence.

Discourses about decadence are familiar to historians and are as old as Thucydides. I myself first encountered the term in a work by Pierre Renouvin, the dean of French diplomatic historians in the mid-20th century, who simply titled his book on the collapse of the Third Republic La Decadence, 1932-1939. His argument was that the polarization, decay, failure of nerve, and stagnation of French domestic society and culture paralleled the paralysis of French foreign policy. As late as 1936, the French still possessed the power to call Hitler's bluffs. But their republic suffered from a political palsy even more severe than that of Britain or the United States. French leftists launched waves of bitter strikes and brawled in the streets against the right-wing Action Francaise. Cabinets rose and fell in a dizzy succession. When Nazi Germany remilitarized and reoccupied the Rhineland, France was frozen in place. In any event, almost no civil or military leader believed it necessary to resist, because the French War Ministry had spent millions of francs constructing the notorious (because presumably impregnable) Maginot Line of fortresses on the German frontier.

Indeed, France in the 1930s displayed many of the characteristics which Jacques Barzun would describe in his 2000 book From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present and which Douthat now spies in the United States. …

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