The federal health care dictate known as Obamacare contains not one but three regulatory codes relating to burns from flaming water-skis.
In his 2000 masterpiece (seriously, you should get a copy) From Dawn to Decadence: 500 years of Western Cultural Life, Jacques Barzun defines the state of decadence as “when people accept futility and the absurd as normal.” Barzun’s use of the term is a clear application of the traditional definition of a state of moral and/of cultural decay. It takes no daring to aver that our culture is decadent.
For a long time I kept a file of the most ridiculous pieces of legislation introduced in New York State. I abandoned the practice a few years ago because it was simply too time consuming. It also stopped being funny.
There are, and have always been dumb laws. Surely for every dumb law there must be a score of ideas so dumb that they fail to reach the low bar of dumb laws. Yet before we blame our politicians for their decadence, we should not absolve our own complicity. The popularity of MTV or the E cable television network is a shining testament to wholesale decadence.
Rather than describe the problem, let us think for a moment of a solution.
Decadence does not have good antonym. It is tempting to cite morality as the opposite of moral decay, but this does not seem correct. Morality, lacking an adjective, can change over time, and is open to interpretation. To suggest that a specific morality, such as Judeo-Christian, presupposes such decay therein; a fallacy history dispels. Even if a defined morality were acceptable to all, we are talking about erosion, the slow softening and disintegration of something larger. Building, or imposing something new, is not the opposite of erosion, it is revolution. Decadence is a gradual process that needs an organic counter growth.
Barzun offers no clear remedy. Rather he suggests that the comfort of decadence can be quite pleasant. Aside from “repetition and frustration,” characteristic of institutions in decline, there is plenty of activity: entertainments for the slothful and irresolvable debates for the restless. Going further, Barzun intimates that the institutions which have fallen decadent can not restore what was lost, though politicians will “promise to reinvent this or that institution.”
If Barzun has no solution, surely anything I offer must immediately be called into doubt. Undeterred by long odds, here are two almost child-like suggestions. They apply equally to our private lives, and professional undertakings.
First, eradicate boredom, for Barzun himself notes that boredom is a powerful historical force. This does not mean to eschew leisure and entertainment, but limit it and put it in its proper place. Recreation should be at worst a diversion, something that relieves the stress of more meaningful undertakings thus refreshing us. At its best recreation is but another way to add to our knowledge and understanding. If you are not clear on the distinction call to mind the difference between watching the Kardashians and viewing art.
Second, we should strive toward simplicity. In our own lives this means avoiding excess and frivolity, and professionally it means to assiduously labor against ever sprawling complexities of more rules, more regulations, and so forth.
Short of a revolution, something Barzun admits changes the “cultural face” though it also necessarily involves the “violent transfer of power and property in the name of an idea,” these Quixotic ideas may be the only hope.
Yes we can live with the idiocy of a flaming water-ski bureaucracy, but only for a while. Decay may be pleasant (something Mark Steyn discusses in detail), but that does not change the fact that it signifies an end of something better.