In the City of the Decadents
Civilizations go through three stages; Barbaric, Vigorous and Decadent.
We can find all the barbaric civilizations to suit an entire faculty’s worth of anthropologists in the Middle East. And then back home we can see the decadent civilization that employs their kind to bemoan the West. Vigorous civilizations are a rarer breed. They change the world. But don’t last.
America used to be vigorous when it was moving west, producing at record rates and becoming a world power. It is growing decadent. And decadent civilizations fall to barbarians.
The barbaric civilization is purely crude. It runs on kinship. It is pre-rational and its guiding ethos is self-esteem often misspelled as honor. It has no notion of enduring facts or objective reasoning. It is incapable of recognizing inconsistencies in its code because truth is whatever it feels at a given time.
The barbarian has no morals. He obeys tribal codes that he does not understand, but accepts. Fairness exists only relative to his own interests. Empathy is foreign to him. He holds life cheaply and kills casually. He loathes outsiders and obeys no universal laws. His tribe is ruled by hierarchies which gain their position through brutality and trickery. And he assumes the world works the same way.
He cannot and will not interact with a more advanced civilization on any terms other than these. Cunning barbarians may learn the languages of more advanced civilizations and even ape their values for their own purposes, but they never adopt them. When a barbarian speaks of democracy, he means power. When he talks of religion, he means the worship of his own power. When he prattles of morality, he does not mean universal laws, but anything that impinges on his own power.
To the barbarian, all values are reducible to power. They are his gods, his religions and his laws.
The decadents are obsessed with filtering hierarchies of ideas and people. Their societies have grown too complex, too full of ideas, cultures and interest groups. The management of this unmanageable plenitude occupies all the energies of their fading civilization. They are the miser with the fading memory still struggling to count his gold. Decadents have too much of everything and no idea what to do with it except to squander it in fits of misguided and destructive impulses.
The decadent civilization has a million laws which it applies selectively. Its universal laws, inherited from a vigorous civilization, are buried between equivocation. Decadents don’t believe in objective truths and so they cannot have universal laws. Instead they mire them in so many legalisms as to be meaningless. The laws must be interpreted by a specialized caste. Everyone is always in violation of some obscure law. Life depends on a lawless dispensation from the law. Justice is impossible. Corruption is mandatory. The only way for the decadent civilization to function is to bypass its own safeguards through corruption, black markets and lobbying. This is true in all things.
The crucial task of the law is interpretation that keeps everyone from constantly being punished. This task is accomplished by lawyers, lobbyists and the politicians who are constantly adding more laws to fix the interpretations in the old laws creating a complex mass of contradictory information.
This holds true in every other area of decadent life.
Interpretation is what the decadent civilization does best. While vigorous civilizations discover new things, decadent civilizations endlessly categorize and re-categorize them to accommodate intellectual fads. Decadents compulsively seek new systems of organization. The computer age is the glorious final era of the decadents who finally have infinite ways to manage infinite information.
What they lack is any way of distinguishing what is worthwhile in both information and systems.
The decadents are great categorizers. They know where everything should belong. They employ armies of bureaucrats to operate vast filing systems which never quite work as planned. They spend fortunes on intricate information systems and yet the more speed and storage space they have, the less they seem able to filter worthwhile information from the morass of junk clogging up their time.
The decadent civilization is convinced that if it can amass enough information, its interpretations will be superior, but its information gathering techniques and its interpretative techniques are both fatally flawed by an inability to focus, by ideological obsessions and structural corruption. Scientists may have more rapid access to more information, but their community is more intellectually contaminated leading to worse results. Similarly, corruption undermines information gathering efforts from the start.
Vigorous civilizations understand that a process must be kept clean by open debate. Decadent civilizations operate corrupt closed processes while convinced of their own innate superiority. Decadents and barbarians both believe that they are always right and that the outcome will reflect that. They learn to forget setbacks or blame them on others. This is why they frequently fail.
The vigorous civilization is confident and skeptical. It understands the importance of mistakes in getting the right result. Decadents and barbarians don’t acknowledge mistakes. For barbarians, it is a matter of honor. For decadents, mistakes violate their confidence in their cultlike baseless theories. Unlike vigorous civilizations, their path to truth is constricted by their own intellectual corruption.
But decadent civilizations are also less interested in discovering new things than in disproving old things. The middling talents at the helm rewrite history while justifying their misrule by denouncing the achievements of their vigorous ancestors. Instead of standing on the shoulders of giants, they point out their flaws to obscure their own worthlessness.
Where the vigorous civilization disproves the old through its achievements, the decadent civilization considers the disproving of the old civilization to be an achievement in and of itself. Where the vigorous civilization outside its parent, the decadent civilization is still stuck fighting “Daddy”.
If you examine our achievements today, they have much to do with the supposed social progress we have made since the fifties. Much of this progress is a matter of outlook, rather than in reality. We are better because we are morally superior. Not because we actually do more.
Despite the disdain for the past, decadent civilizations struggle to do more than deconstruct and then helplessly imitate the past. Chaotic deconstruction of past creative arts is followed by retro copying of them, first ironically and then earnestly. Nostalgia becomes the central industry of a dying civilization mired in irony and incapable of mining its own culture for creative energies.
The central cultural critique becomes updating older works to more politically correct forms. A classic character is remade black or gay. Problems with diversity or sexism are tackled. The critic becomes a commissar whose job is to sanctify the transformation of an old politically incorrect work as politically correct. That is the role of the social justice warrior.
All this energy makes it appear as if there is cultural ferment when nothing is actually being produced. Instead older works are being “cleaned up” in keeping with new social values by a civilization that frantically chews up the past in a desire to forget the problems of the present.
People living in decadent civilization have a greater need for entertainment due to leisure time, extended adolescence and the breakup of the family. But their lack of meaningful work, family engagement and adult responsibilities leaves them less able to produce it. Instead they become children putting together pieces of stories that “Daddy” once told them while taking the credit.
Decadents confuse criticism and curation with creativity. They develop great sensitivity to everything from literary styles to foods. In a decadent society, everyone is a cultivated critic, but these critics value style over substance. Their criticism is a cultural signal rather than a mastery of technique.
The decadent civilization is obsessed with taste as brand. It is sensitive to subtleties, but fails to see the large flaws in a work. Its creativity is microscopically innovative and macroscopically a failure. Its subtle refinements cannot compensate for the lack of vision. It has style, but no substance.
In a decadent civilization, everyone can be a critic or a collector of something, even as no one actually produces anything new until there are more critics and collectors than creators.
The decadent civilization spends much of its time and effort in a battle against apathy. It is forever “raising awareness” about something or other. Its sophisticated messaging however creates apathy as quickly as it erases it. Its messaging becomes more short term and more hysterical. Everything is a crisis and every message is pitched at the shrillest possible level. And the worst crime is not paying attention to its noise.
The outrage of today is quickly forgotten by the outrage of tomorrow. The organizers dream of sustaining awareness for real change only to dive into the next round of short-term messaging.
In a decadent civilization, life becomes a constant political battle. Everything is politicized and nothing is personal. The individual is constantly being trampled by mobs in the forum.
Barbaric and decadent civilizations are both so dishonest that they are incapable of seeing their own lies.
The barbaric civilization simply does not understand the concept of a fixed truth. The minds of its people are capable of understanding it as an abstract notion, but not of holding it in their minds on a specific subjective matter of interest to them. A barbarian can understand that stealing is wrong, but not that robbing you is wrong.
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