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Decadence and the End of Days
Why have so many people gone crazy?
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Tom Nichols is writing a newsletter and I hate him for not doing it for The Bulwark. But you should read it anyway because it’s very good. Here’s an entry on the mass psychosis we’ve seen in America recently:
I do not mean that these are people whose politics are different from mine. I mean that these are people who took off from Spaceport Earth and then ripped up their return visa. It’s bad enough to support a coup against the U.S. government. It’s even worse to do it because you believe (as Powell did) that the CIA director is being held in secret custody in Germany or because you think (as Flynn did) that so many ballots were falsified that the military should impound them.
Remember, for a hot minute Flynn was the national security adviser, the guy who wakes up the president if there’s a sign of an incoming nuclear attack. You probably should worry if a person in that position is a member of a whacked-out cult and thinks maybe the government is sneaking vaccines into your salad dressing. . . .
Unfortunately, we’ve become a nation, to steal a line from Peggy Noonan, of “sullen paranoids,” in which millions of us have embraced a toxic combination of fantasy and stupidity. This is more than just the revival of conspiracy theories, which always lurk just beneath the surface of every society. This is far worse. From “microchips in the vaccines” to QAnon, from Venezuelan voting machines to Russian-hacked voting machines, from faked moon landings to “January 6 was antifa or the FBI or maybe both,” too many of our fellow citizens are adrift, lost, freaked-out, and willing to believe almost anything, especially if it helps to support their preexisting political narratives and tribal loyalties.
Sure, some of this can be written off to ignorance. (When a quarter of us believe the sun revolves around the Earth, that’s just depleted-uranium dumbness.) But there’s a huge difference between being confused about which way the Earth turns and going to Dallas because you think a resurrected John F. Kennedy Jr. is going to lead you to a new era of government by revenant.
This is a social sickness, a chronic and growing problem in a society that is searching for meaning and connection. This search once led us to family or faith or community involvement. But that was before we chose a life of narcissistic, consumer-driven isolation. Even before the pandemic, modern humans spent way too much time inside our own heads, inside our own homes, and away from our fellow citizens.
As the kids say: #Endorse.
Even in the mass market intellectual space, people have been worrying about this modern search for meaning at least since Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone and no one has figured out why Americans lost their connections. Here is a partial list of possible contributions:
A free market system which cannot assign value to anything other than production and consumption.
Technology which acts as a mediating influence between human connections.
The waning influence of organized religion.
Increased geographic mobility.
The atomization of the family.
No one is even sure whether this disconnect is purely pernicious, or whether it’s the side-effect of some development that we’d otherwise regard as good. (For instance, a rising standard of living.)
Concern about the search for meaning runs the political spectrum, though you will be shocked to learn that liberals often blame the trends conservatives like, and conservatives mostly blame the trends liberals like.
I have my own theory about why our society is lost in its search for meaning and connection. And that theory is: All of it.
All of those bullet points above and many other factors, too. Which creates a melange so murky that the only real term that does much to describe it is “decadence.”
So far, so bad.
If you had asked me a decade ago what some remedies for decadence might be, I would have given you a 🤷♂️🤷♂️🤷♂️ and then mumbled something about helping families economically; trying to find ways to use technology to make geographic mobility less necessary; and reorienting our culture around people and not corporations.
Basically, I would have sounded like Josh Hawley.
What worries me is that when our political system tried to grapple with our decadence problem, it created an entire movement of little Josh Hawleys. Which is to say: anti-democratic demagogues.
None of whom are helping with our decadence problem. In fact, they’re making it worse.
In the end, this is all probably fruit of the poison tree. If we are a decadent people, then why wouldn’t our responses to decadence be, themselves, decadent and useless? Why would we think that the same culture which got us stuck in the first place, would be capable of finding a way out?
2. Money Stuff
Matt Levine’s daily newsletter from Bloomberg is free, but honestly, I’d probably pay $300 a year for it. It’s that good.
And this week he had an item about Zillow abandoning its homebuying program that fits nicely with our decadence talk.
In case you missed it: Zillow briefly believed that it could make money algorithmically flipping houses. Which is to say:
Zillow would figure out a value for a house.
Zillow would offer the owner some price below that value.
Zillow would buy houses from owners who accepted this price.
Zillow would then sell the houses for the value that their formula said they were worth.
Zillow gets fat on the vigorish.
Then Zillow shut down this program. Why? Here’s Levine:
On the one hand, sure, I can see why someone might consider this a problem:
When executives at Zillow Group Inc. pored over the company’s earnings in the spring, they saw a problem: The real-estate firm was making too much money.
On the other hand, it does feel like a problem that I would happily take off Zillow’s hands? There are worse problems than making too much money! . . .
The problem was that “the company’s algorithm, which was supposed to predict housing prices, didn’t seem to understand the market,” and was generating prices that were too low.
This had two effects. First, most people declined its offers, which were too low: “Only 10% of people who asked for a Zillow offer and eventually sold their home ended up selling it to Zillow,” and “Zillow was also behind on its target for home purchases” in the first quarter.
Second, when people did accept Zillow’s offers — because they were in a hurry, or didn’t have a good sense of the market — Zillow made a ton of money . . .
A lot of people would like to have a business like that! Sure it would be better if we could do more trades like that, but you’re realistically not going to find tens of thousands of people who will sell you their homes for below market value. But we have found thousands! That’s pretty good!
I don’t know, it’s a weird story about technology and scale, about how many businesses — in particular, many public companies — aim to maximize not profit but size.
So, in the modern tech economy:
Profits < Scale
It’s not just the culture that’s decadent.
3. Letters from an American
Recommending that people read Heather Cox Richardson is like telling people they should listen to U2. Everyone already reads Heather Cox Richardson.
But even so, she’s pretty great. If you’ve never listened to The Joshua Tree, you should. And if you don’t subscribe to Heather Cox Richardson, you should do that, too:
Michael Flynn spoke at the “Reawaken America” conference in San Antonio, Texas, designed to whip up supporters to believe the 2020 election was stolen and that coronavirus vaccines are an infringement on their liberty. Flynn told the audience: “If we are going to have one nation under God, which we must, we have to have one religion. One nation under God, and one religion under God.”
This statement flies in the face of our Constitution, whose First Amendment reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….” James Madison of Virginia, the key thinker behind the Constitution, had quite a lot to say about why it was fundamentally important to make sure the government kept away from religion.
In 1772, when he was 21, Madison watched as Virginia arrested itinerant preachers for attacking the established church in the state. He was no foe of religion, but by the next year, he had begun to question whether established religion, which was common in the colonies, was good for society. By 1776, many of his broad-thinking neighbors had come to believe that society should “tolerate” different religious practices; he had moved past tolerance to the belief that men had a right of conscience.
In that year, he was instrumental in putting Section 16 into the Virginia Declaration of Rights on which our own Bill of Rights—the first ten amendments to the Constitution—would be based. It reads, “That religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity toward each other.”
In 1785, in a “Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments,” he explained that what was at stake was not just religion, but also representative government itself. The establishment of one religion over others attacked a fundamental human right—an unalienable right—of conscience. If lawmakers could destroy the right of freedom of conscience, they could destroy all other unalienable rights. Those in charge of government could throw representative government out the window and make themselves tyrants.
Madison believed that a variety of religious sects would balance each other out, keeping the new nation free of the religious violence of Europe. He drew on that vision explicitly when he envisioned a new political system, expecting that a variety of political expressions would protect the new government. In Federalist #51, he said: “In a free government the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights. It consists in the one case in the multiplicity of interests, and in the other in the multiplicity of sects.”
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