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The Decadent Civilization and the Crisis of Confidence

The situation on the border so disturbs the American public because it serves as a discomfiting reminder that civilization involves some measure of violence. Every society must reckon with this bleak truth. Those that are vigorous and ascendant reconcile themselves to the brutal necessities of securing peace, prosperity, and sovereignty. Those that are lethargic and decadent experience a loss of nerve and eventually collapse.

It is now evident that a large segment of the American public, quite likely the majority, is unable to stomach the awful cost of civilization. Thus the border crisis really represents a vivid manifestation of the existential crisis haunting American civilization.

A living substance has an ineradicable appetite for being: it thrusts itself into the world, driven by a hidden energy, overcoming obstacles in a relentless pursuit of perfection. Because of the diversity of life, the good of one substance is often the evil of another, if only accidentally: the lion survives by consuming the lamb, not because it hates the lamb, but because it loves, and wishes to perpetuate, itself.

A civilization is animated by an analogous force, a mysterious spirit that imparts a shared sense of identity and destiny. It is an ebullient and dynamic impulse that spurs a society to evolve, expand, and overflow its bounds. This spirit is conceited, imperious, and self-assured; desirous of dominion and respect; jealous of the rights and prerogatives of the people; ever ready to engage in a brutal struggle for the cohesion and independence of the commonwealth. It emerges from competition and thrives in contention.

However, just as organisms cease at some point to desire the advance of their being, resigning themselves to entropy and suffering disintegration, so whole societies can experience a loss of thymos, a dwindling of the enthusiasm for existence. But whereas the death of an organism is an unavoidable determination of biology, the death of a nation is often voluntary. This collective suicide is prompted by a crisis of confidence, which occurs when a civilization is no longer convinced of its own virtue.

Such self-loathing is characteristic of a culture’s decadent phase, a moment consumed by a crippling mixture of critical introspection, iconoclasm, historical revisionism, extravagant transgression, and absorbing spectacle. The decadent stage arises when a civilization has abandoned any aspiration to glory and renounced any claim to superiority, preferring instead to scrutinize itself, and seeking relief in queer combinations of pleasure and abasement.

The crisis of confidence is usually induced by the combination of three distinct but related factors. First, pseudo-religious preoccupation with primordial crimes or “original sins,” which engenders an atmosphere of shame and inspires a craving for atonement through sacrifice and mortification. Second, the triumph of a “scientific” approach to history, which casts suspicion upon foundational myths and destabilizes the populace’s symbolic universe, precipitating the collapse of meaning. Third, the sudden, unexpected need to reckon with limitations and weaknesses, which casts doubt about the will to power while cultivating a morbid fatalism among the populace and heightening the need for escapist catharsis.

Currently, all three factors are operative in American life: (1) interminable altercations about race, especially under the aspect of slavery and Jim Crow; (2) extensive problematization and interrogation of once-sacrosanct themes and figures of American history; and (3) humiliating military debacles abroad and spectacular institutional failures at home.

The crisis of confidence leads to immersion in obsessive scrutiny, therapeutic regimens, neurotic projects of self-improvement, spasmodic social movements built around victim-cults, and vulgar diversion. This is a period of gloaming and ambiguity, neither day nor night, when an aging civilization, at once distracted and anxious, coasts on the fumes of old passions and avoids hard decisions. It is a phase dominated by administrators, entertainers, researchers, lawyers, journalists, financiers, merchants, and technocrats: manipulators of information whose loyalties are primarily to money or ideas, or at best “institutions,” rather than concrete people and places. This luxuriant and therapeutic society is devoted to satisfying the cravings, and soothing the anxieties, that afflict the self-consciously “privileged.”

When finally reality intrudes, as it always does, the decadent society is hindered from responding decisively by an enervating suspicion that it no longer deserves to act in its own interests. Of course, the true motives for its dithering are obscured by self-flattering appeals to philanthropy and other high-minded principles.

It appears that we currently find ourselves sojourners in a decadent realm. It was not ever so: America once set the world afire to warm itself. Our civilization was forged by the shrewd application of ruthlessness. This is an undeniable fact of history: we are an empire built on blood.

Our ancestors were capable of awesome savagery in the pursuit of glory, wealth, vengeance, and justice. They brought forth a continent-spanning, world-dominating republic under the glamor of an eschatological vision and the irresistible allure of wealth. Neither pursuit permitted much concern for what we now call, in an amusing bourgeois circumlocution, “human costs.”

Theirs was the spirit of heroism, destiny, and honor; a spirit of vitality and the will to greatness. It was alternately beautiful and ugly. Indeed, its influence might be cause for lamentation had it not conduced to immense peace and prosperity for its beneficiaries, who are exceedingly numerous, even in our own day.

Whether we should mourn or celebrate this era is an irrelevant question. The animating spirit is gone, or nearly so. It has been exorcised from the body politic. Who can say for better or for worse? In the grand course of things, it hardly matters, really.

What is certain is that we are now an exhausted and disturbed society, a decadent civilization fearful of the grim burdens of greatness and increasingly bereft of the confidence required for audacious self-assertion. We lack the steel to be our own master, and so increasingly fall prey to the manipulations of the weak, as well as the ambitions of the strong.

We wither at the spectacle on the border because we perceive our tremulousness before the cruelty of the world, which we can no longer stomach, and spy therein the future source of our undoing: to some, cause for gladness; to others, reason for sorrow.

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