Lots of people seem to be pondering what COVID has done to us and what shape it will leave us in. I read something this week that got me thinking about it in a ‘big picture’ way.
Greg Sheridan wrote a piece in the Weekend Australian that was a summary of a new book. The book is written by a guy named Ross Douthat. It is called, The Decadent Society, How we became victims of our own success.
His opinion goes like this:
The West, is caught in the slowly suffocating grip of a decadence we do not understand. We have been in this grip for 50 years.
By ‘decadent’ he doesn’t mean too much drugs, sex and rock ‘n’ roll. Decadence is sort of being at a dead end. It is “economic stagnation, institutional decay, and cultural and intellectual exhaustion at a high level of material prosperity and technological development”.
That is us. We live in a very high level of material prosperity and technological development. Are we stagnated, decaying and exhausted? Maybe.
Douthat says that the huge changes in post WWII society, then the massive shifts in the 1960s have never been resolved. We have been left with a certain aimlessness even though we have never had it so good. In the 60’s we got fired up about being on the moon, but that in the end has not amounted to much. Neither has all the advances in technology. Politics has declined into permanent gridlock.
Douthat quotes the French writer, Jacques Barzun, who says that this decadence: “Sees no clear lines of advance. Life seem exhausted; the stages of development have been run through. Institutions function painfully. Repetition and frustration are the intolerable result. Boredom and fatigue are great historical forces … When people accept futility and the absurd as normal, the culture is decadent.”
I do wonder whether we do indeed accept futility and the absurd as normal. News seems so trivial. Why do I listen to a story about someone in Poland who I will never know getting a pet cat out of the tree and then the number of people who died today from coronavirus in my country and just receive this so called ‘news’ as of the same weight, or even worse, of no particular meaning? Social media is worse when it comes to totally disconnected stories that makes everything trivial – both the trivial things themselves but also the really important things.
What about all our technology. Has it really done much good? Douthat reckons the one great technological innovation of our age is the internet; the digital universe. The biggest effect of the digital world has been on our minds and personalities. It might not rule our lives as much as past inventions like the light bulb and the steam train and car have ruled, but in entertainment and addiction digital technology reigns supreme. It has had negative effects on the human personality.
For EG, Douthat is a critic and opponent of pornography. It is de-humanising in every way. This and other aspects of digital technology have ended up having a tranquillizing effect on the human psyche.
EG. Sheridan says that this industrial-level porn has produced alienation and depression. Younger people are linking up and forming long term partnerships, whether marriages or stable de facto relationships, less than ever before. And they are having less sex. The sexual revolution of the 1960s, and the accompanying spread of porn, has apparently resulted in less sex and fewer marriages.
This is one of the factors contributing to very low birth rates. Suicides, social isolation, drug overdoses, alcoholism and obesity have been on the rise. Apparently, young people today are the most medicated generation in human history. And disproportionately they are alone and unhappy. In 2018 the highest proportion ever of prime-age American males — 11 per cent — were not in the work force, not deriving the self-respect that comes from systematic, gainful employment. And of course not becoming very attractive marriage partners.
In the West the birthrate has collapsed in recent years, The only Western nation that still has a replacement level or above birthrate is Israel. Douthat says that Israel is the one Western nation that is not decadent, because it is still fired by a nation-building and people-building project and strives mightily to make the impossible not only possible but real.
Is that still us Aussies? Are we willing to build and forge new things and grab hold of the gifts we have been given and use them for the good of all? Or are we just bored, unsure, struggling to find meaning and something to pursue that is worthwhile in life – worthwhile not just for self, but more for others I love and our country and the world?
Sheridan agrees with Douthat when he says that ‘…decadence won’t last forever. One of two things replace it: Either it can collapse or be replaced within one’s own country, or it can be destroyed by a more vigorous external enemy, or by some external challenge, a plague or an environmental collapse, which it cannot deal with.
What is COVID doing for us? Is it finally bringing our end as we sleep our way to a death we hardly notice because we are so bored by the trivial, or it is firing us up to forge ahead as we have done after two world wars, depression, pandemic and living in this land of fire and flood, drought and driving rain?
I hope we are firing up and waking up to what we have been given. I hope we are being shoved out of our boredom and inspired to build and work and live together for each other.
Maybe a new appreciation of the giver of all we have might raise us up to truly live post-COVID…..