2016 -- A New Age of Decadence?

I don't like what happening to me lately - happening to my soul that is. The presidential race is emblematic for my worry and distress and the recent tragic manifestation of violence in Orlando seems to reinforce a sense of hopelessness with regard to the public non-conversation about the "culture war". I think my distress has something to do with the undertow of nihilism in our culture. It's the disease of decadence. As long ago as 1945 Cyril Connolly, (in the The Unquiet Grave), wrote, "The god of all cultures is to decay through over-civilization; the factors of decadence -- luxury, skepticism, weariness and superstition - are constant." All the ingredients of decadence are glaringly present in our culture. The historian Jacques Barzun puts it well, "When people accept futility and the absurd as normal, the culture is decadent." In a decadent society, scream anything long and loudly enough and it will be accepted as true. Language itself is corrupted.
Lewis Carroll's Humpty Dumpty comes to mind. "When I use a word . . . it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less." "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things." "The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master - that's all." Who gets to determine what's real? Who is master of the narrative? Who shouts the loudest? Who has the money? Who has the power?
In these parlous times, we need to rediscover the disciplines of freedom. In 1950 Hannah Arendt wrote, "It is as though mankind had divided itself between those who believe in human omnipotence (who think that everything is possible if one knows how to organize the masses for it) and those for whom powerlessness has become the major experience of their lives." (The Origins of Totalitarianism). I wonder how much has changed? It seems to echo much of the rhetoric in the current political climate. The question of the nature of freedom is always front and center when it comes to our thinking about what it is to be truly human. It seems that we cannot handle freedom.
David Brooks wrote recently in the NYT: "We understand that a free society requires individuals who are capable of handling . . . freedom -- people who can be counted on to play their social roles as caring parents, responsible workers and dependable neighbors. . . . It depends on some common assumptions about what's right and wrong, admired and not admired -- a common moral ecosystem." He goes on: "[In short] we need a new traditionalism . . . that is fueled by love and contact with the transcendent. [This would mean educating] "young people to have vocations and not just careers."
Let's be clear. The problem isn't so much that we disagree and often disagree violently. It's rather that we live on different planets, inhabit different universes, play different words games, which make conversation and debate not so much contentious as impossible. There is assertion rather than argument, no appreciation of complexity, merely the wielding of power. Decadence? We find it difficult simply "to entertain an idea"! I like that expression - to be so secure in one's being as to be able to live with an alien idea for a while, to see if it fits, to bring about a change of mind and heart - to entertain an idea.
We talk a lot about freedom but seem to know little of its cost and the absence of true debate is manifested in our temples of higher education. Some Yale students want to dump Shakespeare, Chaucer and Milton because they are "oppressive" and there's a cautionary tale recently coming out of Oberlin college. The story goes that recently more than 1300 students signed a petition asking that midterms and all grades below a C be abolished to accommodate their busy protest schedules. Attending demonstrations against social injustice leave little time for study. How deep and informed is a protest without a vision of justice? There's no appeal to a shared reality or a common humanity. Just the insistence on identity education as well as identity politics. Let's repeat the 60s without learning from them.
This reminds me of the story of the idealist left-wing students in Paris who in 1968, drunk with the possibility of a new political beginning went to the old Marxist philosopher Alexandre Kojève to ask his advice. "what should we do?" "Learn Greek!" he told them. They were confused and dumbfounded. This was the last thing they expected. They were hoping for something like, "Demonstrate! Occupy a building! Overturn and burn a few automobiles! Start the revolution." But, learn Greek? What the hell for?" The response! You want to be free? All right! Learn Greek. Be grounded in a tradition. Embrace its disciplines! If you do, you might bump into a different vision of freedom from the one where you get a high from following your appetites and instincts.
Or what about this? Imagine a young boy, sixteen years old, in prison for resisting the Nazis. He asked himself the question, "How should I demonstrate my freedom?" This is what he did. He tore off a piece of brown paper from under his mattress and wrote down, with a blunt pencil he had cadged from a guard, all the Latin verbs he could remember. This was the way he demonstrated his free spirit. He was Ralf, Baron Dahrendorf, known as a defender of liberty. Writing down Latin verbs was his way of expressing his freedom. "In the preservation of liberty," he wrote later, "we have the weapons we need, our minds.'" He presumed that we have well-furnished ones in the first place.
It's hard to imagine any contemporary American giving such an example of the free spirit. It all sounds too esoteric and elitist. Learn Greek! Master a few Latin verbs. - you can't get more elitist than that? But don't let's be put off by this apparently snobbish advice. Underneath is the assumption that freedom is a complex matter not only requiring disciplines, but also realizing what it means to stand in a tradition. To be truly free is to be a citizen with obligations and responsibilities. This is the clarion call at this present time. "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity"? Is this true about us? I hope not.