The decadent apocalypse

Opinion

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By Michael Romain

Staff Reporter

On May 30, SpaceX, a private rocket company founded by the eccentric and egocentric billionaire Elon Musk, propelled two NASA astronauts into space. 

"Meteorologists had forecast only a 50:50 chance of favourable conditions around Florida's Kennedy Space Center at lift-off, but, as luck would have it, the weather window stayed open and the SpaceX controllers grabbed their opportunity," the BBC reported. 

"The Falcon soared off the spaceport's famous 39A pad to head northeast out over the Atlantic. After two-and-a-half minutes, the lower-stage of the vehicle had separated to return to a drone ship at sea. And after a further six minutes, the crew were safely inserted into orbit."

Meanwhile, back on Earth, another black man — this time George Floyd — was dead, the victim of very ancient prejudices. And protesters were taking to the streets. 

And in a few days, people would march to the White House. And the President of the United States, wanting to appear strong on TV and on Twitter, would tear-gas the marchers in order to clear the scene for a photo opp. 

"Accompanied by a small cadre of top advisers — including his daughter Ivanka Trump, clad in dark coronavirus mask — the president then made his way over to the church," the Washington Post reported. 

On Monday afternoon, I headed to Oak Brook Shopping Center to take in the sight of stores like Apple and Macy's and Gucci boarded up, as masked shoppers strolled by their humbled facades. The Barnes & Noble here was finally open for in-person shopping after some two months closed. The threat of vandalism, such a clear and present threat a week ago, had receded.  

On the disinfected shelves, The Decadent Society, a book by conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, caught my eye. Reading the book on Monday evening, I found myself disagreeing with some of Douthat's points but rather persuaded by his overarching prognosis.

Decadence, it seems, does rule this current moment. For Douthat's purposes, decadence refers to "economic stagnation, institutional decay, and cultural and intellectual exhaustion at a high level of material prosperity and technological development."  

In a decadent society, prowess masks impotence and institutional decay. 

Decadence is the richest country in the world outsourcing its national galactic ambitions to a billionaire cryogenics enthusiast who wants to bring the gig economy to space with the help of private equity funds. 

Decadence is Alexis Ohanian Sr.'s decision last week to resign as a board member of Reddit, the social media company he co-founded. Ohanian urged the board to fill his seat with someone black and announced he would pledge $1 million to Colin Kaepernick's Know Your Rights Camp. 

I hope that no white person (or any person for that matter) genuinely committed to bringing about racial justice follows Ohanian's lead, which is the SpaceX equivalent of taking social responsibility.

That Ohanian would renounce his board seat, in exchange for what I can only see as racial tokenism, and guilt-giving is both absurd and futile. The cause of racial justice would have been better served if, while he was still on the company's board, Ohanian Sr. had worked harder to keep Reddit from being hijacked by white supremacist groups that have used it to sow the kind of hate and racial division that played into last week's events and that, alas, led to Ohanian's personal reckoning, which is probably trending. 

I understand what's keeping companies like Reddit and Facebook from policing their platforms more responsibly. Their platforms depend on harvesting information about human behavior that is then sold for profit. Currently, those companies get all of the upside (they profit from the harvest) with none of the downside of having to deal with the consequence (the headache of regulating content). That's what makes them so attractive to investors, who are always hungry for even more profit. 

Tech overlords like Ohanian and Mark Zuckerberg are afraid that if they got serious about reforming their platforms, then the profits would decrease and the whole house of cards would fall. 

A more robust federal government would have found the power to force companies like Reddit, Facebook and YouTube to be more responsible for the toxic content that is pumped onto their platforms. But even the government is hollowed out. 

As George Packer, writing in the Atlantic last week, pointed out, after the riots in the late 1960s, the federal government responded with the Kerner Commission, which "called for policy reforms in housing, employment, education, and policing, to stop the country from becoming 'two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.'" The report was basically shelved, but at least the decade ended with the Civil Rights Act of 1968. And the existence of the commission itself demonstrated at least the semblance of a functioning federal government. 

Today, the federal response consists of Donald Trump's antics and stunts, and Nancy Pelosi, wearing Kente cloth, taking a knee for nine minutes in honor of George Floyd. Perhaps the U.S. House will take some measure of action to address the deep causes of Floyd's death, but they will inevitably confront a Senate that cannot pass even a symbolic anti-lynching bill without a spastic demonstration of its institutional atrophy. 

"The private objections of one Republican, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, have succeeded for months in preventing it from becoming law," the New York Times reports. 

"A responsible establishment doesn't exist," Packer writes. "Our president is one of the rioters."

And Mitt Romney, of all people, is one of the protestors. Nowadays, in fact, we're all among the protestors, which does not inspire optimism. 

Last Thursday, at least 1,500 people, mostly well-meaning whites, marched from Oak Park to Austin. The march was unlike any I've witnessed in my years of covering them. That march was civil society protesting against itself. White professionals (lawyers, accountants, financial analysts, software engineers, etc.) whose skills administer this racist society had become fed up with the very beast their professions feed. 

But if that unrest is to translate beyond the merely performative, if it's to become more than prowess masking impotence, we must recognize the void we're in. 

"After half a century of social dissolution, of polarization by class and race and region and politics, there are no functioning institutions or leaders to fail us with their inadequate response to the moment's urgency," Packer writes. "Levers of influence no longer connect to sources of power. Democratic protections — the eyes of a free press, the impartiality of the law, elected officials acting out of conscience or self-interest — have lost public trust. The protesters are railing against a society that isn't cohesive enough to summon a response. They're hammering on a hollowed-out structure, and it very well may collapse." 

But that collapse, as Douthat mentions, may not necessarily mean apocalypse. It could be worse.

"'There was nothing left that could conquer Rome,'" G.K. Chesterton wrote … "but there was also nothing left that could improve it. … It was the end of the world, and the worst of it was that it need never end."

Hey, we're in a pickle. And the only way out of it is by first acknowledging that we're in it.


MORE FROM MICHAEL ROMAIN

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Contact:
Email: michael@oakpark.com

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