After the second World War, life for the average white middle-class American was better than it had ever been before. Technology was advancing at a breakneck speed, giving the average American access to inventions like the refrigerator, washing machine, and television. Nearly every average standard of living metric was at an all-time high, from diet and physical health to the strength of family and community networks. Life was good. However, much has changed since then.
Today, I believe we live in a culture of decadence, and I know I am not alone in feeling this sentiment. Many people, including New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, now believe we live in a time characterized by “economic stagnation, institutional decay, and cultural and intellectual exhaustion”. I believe a few core assumptions spawned during the so-called “good times” have invaded our cultural psyche and led us down a path to our current age of decadence.
Technological Advancement and a Cultural Decline
As previously mentioned, technology was advancing at a record pace in the post WW2 boom era. This brought many goods to the world. Life spans advanced greatly due to the advancements in modern medicine and food technology. Time spent doing household chores was greatly reduced by the dishwasher and washing machine, freeing up women to do less menial activities and jobs. However, with these benefits come some negative side-effects.
When technology advances so rapidly, our culture often has a hard time keeping pace. For example, take the case of television. Until 1973, a town in Canada codenamed “Notel” did not have access to television due to its isolated mountainous geography. Right before television was introduced to the town, Dr. Tannis MacBeth conducted a study comparing it to analogous nearby towns that did have television, with Notel as the best possible control group on the effects of television. The results speak for themselves; Notel residents showed higher IQs, less aggression, and more self control and empathy.
Two years after television was introduced to the town, MacBeth returned to Notel. The change was apparent. Before the introduction of TV, the town had a strong sense of community, with regular sports matches and community dinners. After TV was introduced, the number of and demand for these events had diminished, as the new default norm after work was to go home and watch TV.
The Rise of the Pursuit of Pleasure
The trend towards television is just one part of a general societal shift towards the emphasis on, and glorifying of, pleasure. This can be easily seen in the content made for the youth and teens. Before this period of decadence, the youth loved stories and magazines about great feats, ingenuity, and exploration, shown in the popularity of the western genre in America, and publications like Boys of the Empire abroad in the old British Empire. However, these traits of valor and bravery are no longer seen as what is desirable by the younger generations, with the new end-all-be-all being more along the lines of Dazed and Confused; sex, drugs, and just having a good time. After all, “if we’re all going to die anyways, shouldn’t we enjoy ourselves now?”
This feeling of nihilism and self-pleasure is in part driven by the decline of organized religion in the USA and the west as a whole. However, that does not keep the now churchless people from using and corrupting parts of Christianity’s teachings in pursuit of a new meaning in life. One of the most famous teachings of Jesus is “do not judge, or you too will be judged” (Matthew 7:1 NIV). So famous is this teaching that it persists in the minds of people even after they stop practicing their faith, who then interpret it as a decree against judgment of all kinds. We therefore act in a laissez-faire manner towards others, treating doing such as love and judgment as hate. All actions are good besides those seen as uniquely evil; Nazism, racism, and the like.
However, doing this ignores the rest of, and original meaning of, the passage, which says “how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:4-5). This advice holds true not just to the faithful, but to all. Anyone honorable and just should look for the flaws they hate in others, then look for those same flaws in themselves. This allows us to improve ourselves and gives us greater empathy for the plights of others. However, people trend towards one of two extremes. Some refuse to judge others, citing a supposed lack of objective morality. Others easily judge others but refuse to judge themselves, believing themselves to be superior to those without any sense of objective morality, leading to nothing but vitriol and anger.
This lack of healthy judgment does not just cause a stain on the behavior and mannerisms of an individual, but a negative impact on society at large. Postmodernism largely can be derived from this dismissal of objective fact and casting judgment, instead favoring subjectivity and skepticism. This intellectual stance is inherently meaningless and illogical, as it believes that multiple truths are possible, which is easily disprovable by allowing the ideology to interact with the real world; relativism in the fields of science, engineering, and technology would make the world unlivable. Because of our lack of ability as a society to judge, we find it hard to reject this very flawed stance, and thus it continues to be prominent in intellectual spheres. This results in the promotion of obscurantism, the decline of art and culture, and difficulty in the expansion of analytical or empirical knowledge.
One may read all this and be quick to place the blame on the generation that first went through these changes, the Baby Boomers. However, we have not done anything to change since then, only going further into these negative practices. Instead of watching television for many hours a day, we now spend hours each day on social media, isolating ourselves even more from others and the outside world. The media we consume is depicting more degenerate scenes than ever, such as in the hit show Euphoria. We still lack the ability to judge others and to improve ourselves. We are still a part of the same “macro generation”.
In order to break this cycle, we must strive to improve ourselves. Instead of scrolling social media today, go for a walk, call up a friend, or read a good book. Don’t seek leisure or pleasure as an end of itself, strive to be the best man or woman you can be. Only then will you have taken the plank out of your own eye. Only then can we end this culture of decadence.
One thought on “A Culture of Decadence”
On the other hand, the decline of religion has been a wonderful development for the intellectual lives of citizens, exposing the inherent stupidity of writers like Douthat, and young people are better seeing the inherent corruption and marketing fraudulence of existing institutions like organized religion, the academy, and corporations.
Were the 70s some type of halcyon wonder world? No, the fissures and contradictions were apparent then and growing: racism, ultra-extreme economic inequality, bellicose imperialism, moribund education, fractured families. “Decadence” really applies to the powerful of society, like the moronic Republicans of that time and ours.