What is your definition of “decadence”? In the popular imagination, I would guess, it’s something like ancient Rome under the Caesars or the Ancien Régime in France before the Revolution of 1789. That is, rich people lying around, having orgies, eating honey cakes and larks tongues, and still drunk at midmorning from binging the night before. That is, everybody who counts in society—especially the nomenklatura—allowing themselves free rein to be lustful, slothful, and generally good for nothing.
Human beings, both as individuals and in societies, have a hard time with satiety, with being fed to the point of mere capacity. We have difficulty with the concept of “enough.” This goes back to a hundred thousand years or more of our hunter-gatherer heritage. When you live by picking up whatever you can find in the bush or kill on foot with a spear and a sharp stone, life is either feast or famine. Berries and tender shoots are not always in season. Game migrates out of the area or goes into hibernation. So when you make a big killing or stumble onto an acre-wide bramble laden with ripe fruits, you chow down. You eat to the point of bursting, rest a while, and start over again. You put on fat because the lean times, the hunger times, are just around the corner.
Self-regulation is a learned art, a form of self-discipline, as anyone who has tried to follow a diet knows. It takes will power to stop when you are full—sometimes to even hear the “I’m full now” message that your stomach and your endocrine system may be sending.
We see this in America today: too many fat people waddling around, suffering the slow death of obesity and diabetes, or dying quickly with heart attacks and intestinal cancers. The problem you hear about—too much corn syrup in our processed foods, too much sugar in our soft drinks—may be right but it’s also simplistic. That solution smacks, too, of a conspiracy theory where the food and beverage industries are systematically trying to kill us for profit.
I put a different interpretation on this problem. In the last sixty or seventy years, as the richest nation to come out of World War II, we Americans have undergone an economic and cultural change. When I was growing up, fresh fruits still tended to be seasonal. You bought apples, berries, and oranges at certain times of the year, and for the rest you ate apple sauce, spread jam on your toast, and drank processed orange juice. My grandmother still put up preserves in the summer and fall, and she had basement shelves full of Mason jars filled with green beans, corn, and other products of her garden. Del Monte and other companies also packed the grocery stores with the products of orchard and field that had been cooked, canned, and sealed.
Today, we still eat industrially processed foods but we also have gardens and orchards that extend around the world. We get apples from Washington State in the fall and from Chile in the winter and spring. You can get fresh pineapple, avocados, and other delicacies the year round. Thanks to refrigeration and mechanized delivery, you can eat Maine lobster anywhere in the United States, and you can get good sushi—which depends on absolute freshness—in the center of the continent in Kansas City. These are the benefits of being a capitalist empire in the middle of a world willing to deliver its harvest to your door.
Something else that has changed is our culture during the last sixty years or so. When I was growing up, we mostly ate dinner at home. And while we ate well, the food was mostly sustenance: pork chops, chicken livers, franks and beans, stews and casseroles, with the occasional steak and French fries. We might go out to a restaurant once or twice a month, usually in connection with a birthday or other family celebration. Good restaurants were still few and far between in most towns, or an hour distant in the nearby city, and fast-food franchises like McDonald’s were just getting under way and still a novelty.
We ate sensibly because my mother understood nutrition and had to keep a budget. But with the erosion of the nuclear family and people no longer sitting down together to a home-cooked meal six or seven nights a week, our culture has changed. Every suburb and small town has a dozen competing franchises where you can get delicious, rich and tasty, fatty, salty, party-style food in ten minutes or less. You can have ice cream and pastries with every meal. You can chow down every day of your life.
I don’t mean to say this is necessarily a bad thing. Our system of exchange dictates that if people want to eat party foods exclusively, where once they had to wait for a holiday to indulge, then someone, somewhere will figure out how to make a fortune giving them exactly what they want. I am not such a churl as to blame the caterer and the franchise operator for supplying what people’s endocrine system should be telling them, “Whoa, stop, you’ll be able to get more of this tomorrow,” and their stomachs are telling them, “Hey, mouth, I’m groaning here!”
We live in a country where everyone is rich, compared to historical standards, and temptation is all around us. And what I wrote above for food applies equally to liquor, drugs, entertainments, recreational opportunities, personal freedom, and the leisure time to enjoy all of them. Our tribe is sitting in the middle of the world’s berry patch, with plump partridges just walking up and begging to be eaten, while the finest minstrels play their lyres and sing pleasing songs in our ears. And I am not such a churl as to suggest that this is a bad thing. But I don’t wonder that we’re all growing fat, a bit lazy, and just a tad careless.
But that’s only one definition of decadence. Another kind is when things are going so well in society that people—especially in the upper and supposedly knowledgeable and sophisticated classes, the nomenklatura—can afford to break the rules, flout social conventions, and disparage the founding principles on which their society was founded. Along with eating too many rich, party-style foods, too many of our best people seem to assume that the rules don’t apply to them. They act as if their position of privilege in the world, or at least in their part of it, implies an opportunity to scoff at the rules the rest of us follow and the institutions the rest of us respect.
I saw the start of this in the late 1960s at the university, where bright children from good homes, who were admittedly allowed out into the wider world for the first time, became users of banned substances—mostly marijuana—and acquired false identities—usually a driver’s license—so that they could drink below the statutory age. Yes, these were minor infractions to most people, but these young adults were knowingly breaking the law. And when a larger law with more life-threatening consequences, the Selective Service Act, dictated that the government could forcibly recruit them to fight and perhaps die in a war they didn’t agree with, many of them assumed false lifestyles or fled the country to avoid what most other people considered a sacred duty. The sense that they were bound by the conventions and laws—however justified—of the society that gave them special privileges just was not there.
You can see the same sense of lawlessness today in politicians, sports figures, and celebrities who appear to think their place in society allows them to mock what the rest of us may think important and hold dear. They believe the rules the rest of us follow are not made for them.1 Some of our most prominent politicians have recently characterized the part of the population in the “flyover states,” those less sophisticated and progressive in their views, as “deplorables” and “bitter clingers to guns and religion.” This is to disrespect people who otherwise continue in their decent, law-abiding lives.
When your life is easy, when rewards and riches are all around and available for the taking, when the winds of change are blowing in your direction, it becomes easy to imagine that you are special, that the rules don’t apply to you, that the institutions and social conventions that put you in your current position really aren’t so important. And if you were not fortunate enough to have a mother and father who told you, as most of us did, that you aren’t special or more deserving than anyone else, that you have to wait your turn, that you must mind your p’s and q’s—then you might forget that most important aspect of a democratically run republic. And you might be lulled into forgetting that reality, if not karma, has a way of snapping back hard.
This, too, is a kind of decadence, born of being too rich for too long in a normal world. And this kind is worse for the soul—and the nation—than anything having to do with sex, drugs, and rich foods.
1. Without drawing my readers into a political fight, I remember finishing James B. Stewart’s Blood Sport: The President and His Adversaries, about the political harassment that President Clinton and his wife were experiencing in the mid-1990s. What struck me at the time of reading was the catalog of activities that the family was charged with—profiting from delayed orders on cattle futures, attempting to buy a country bank so that they could make themselves favorable real-estate loans, claiming a full tax deduction on losses they shared equally with a partner—and how Stewart dismissed these actions as trivial. But they were indeed infractions of established law. If other, more normal people had done these things, they would have risked prosecution. What made it worse, to me, was that both of the Clintons were trained and admitted to the bar as attorneys, yet nobody in their circle lifted their heads to say, “Gee, you know, this is against the law.”