A few years back Ross Douthat published an interesting book titled The Decadent Society: How We Became Victims of Our Own Success. The thesis of Douthat’s book is simple: American society is stagnant. Our blockbusters and our books are remakes from the ’80s; our political coalitions and political programs all date back to the 1970s; even the technological progress we have seen over the last three decades pales in comparison to the revolutions that occurred in the decades before. We may celebrate “change agents” but we no longer have any. America is stuck in what Douthat cleverly labels an “eternal recursion to 1975.”
My essay “On Life in the Shadow of the Boomers” was written in response to The Decadent Society. It was mostly focused on the cultural angle of Douthat’s thesis. Douthat’s claims of technology are downstream the arguments of the Thielites. I assessed their arguments in the essay “Has Technological Progress Stalled?” Between these two pieces you see my general take on Douthat’s thesis: his assessment of American cultural and political stasis is broadly correct, but he overstates how unusual stasis is in American history. Political and cultural transformation occurs via a sort of punctuated equilibrium (see also my essay “Culture Wars are Long Wars”) and we just happen to be living at the tail end of an equilibrium phase.
On the other hand, Douthat understates the true scope of technological stagnation. Nothing the internet has delivered remotely compares with the transformation of human civilization that occurred during the second industrial revolution. In 1975 technological change was the most important facet of American life. It is no longer.
Were Wang Huning to read Douthat’s book, I suspect he might agree with me.
Can strategic sense be found in “senseless” violence?
This is the question I attempt to answer in a column I have out this week for Mosaic, tilted “The Extremist’s Gambit Helps Explain Why Hamas Attacked Now.” The piece was prompted by the many expressions of shock and puzzlement I read on social media when news of Hamas’ desert massacres spread across the internet. “There is a temptation to explain away heinous violence as a product of irrational emotions or beliefs,” I write. “Hamas terrorists, under this schema, murder Israeli children and partygoers under the influence of unquenchable ethnic hatreds, fanatical religious doctrines, or simply a perverse taste for cruelty itself.”θ All such explanations have an element of truth to them. Violence cannot be divorced from the primordial passions. But the more one studies violent action—both at the level of the state and at the level of the individual—the more instrumental it will appear.
Two years ago I ran a small reading group that met over zoom. Our reading topic: Leninism. Curious about the claims that modern Chinese politics are an outgrowth of Marxist ideas and practice yet feeling insufficiently familiar with the Leninist political tradition to properly judge its influence on contemporary Chinese politics, I organized a group of China-watching politicos to read both classic Marxist texts and historical studies of the Soviet Union and Maoist China.
Readers of the Scholar’s Stage will be familiar with a thesis I have pursued in multiple essays and posts over the last half decade: America was once a place where institutional capacity was very high. Americans were a people with an extraordinary sense of agency. This is one of the central reasons they transformed the material, cultural, institutional, and political framework of not only the North American continent, but the entire world. That people is gone. The social conditions that gave the Americans their competence and confidence have passed away. Where Americans once asked “how do we solve this?” they now query “how do we get management on my side?”
Different pieces have investigated different aspects of this thesis.
Xi Jinping’s decision to openly label the United States the source of China’s ills rolled through the newsletters, wire services, and commentators on China this week. Much has been written about this already; I have nothing to add. Here I call attention to something else that occurred at the National People’s Congress, an incident whose significance is perhaps not properly appreciated. Here is Nikkei’s description of the incident in question:
In an essay published in 2018, Geramie Barme recommends observers of US-China relations read through five pieces that Hu Qiaomu and Mao Zedong published in 1949 under the latter’s name. The five pieces were Mao’s response to Dean Acheson’s China White Paper, a compendium of State Department documents intended to clear the Truman administration from the charge of “losing China.” Neither Mao nor Hu slogged through the hundreds of documents there compiled, but they did pay close attention to the prefatory “Letter of Transmittal” that Acheson released along with the White Paper. In this statement Acheson famously argued that “the ominous result of the civil war in China was beyond the control of the government of the United States” and expressed his hope that “ultimately the profound civilization and the democratic individualism of China will reassert themselves and she will throw off the foreign [i.e. communist] yoke.”
Japan’s 2022 National Security Strategy concludes with a dramatic pronouncement:
At this time of an inflection point in history, Japan is finding itself in the midst of the most severe and complex security environment since the end of WWII. In no way can we be optimistic about what the future of the international community will hold
I find myself strangely affected by this document.
My annual list of books arrives a bit later than usual. However, this delay is in some ways fortunate. Now my list will not be seen as an extended comment on the Lex Friedman reading list discourse. Those not on Twitter will have heard little about this. I envy you: we would all be better off if none of us had seen Friedman tweet out a proposed list of books to read in 2023—some as simple as The Little Prince, others as long and complex as Brothers Karazamov—and the avalanche of snobbery that followed. The entire brouhaha strikes me as a strange upper middle class status game. It seems that an attachment to books normally assigned in 10th grade English is the literary equivalent of glitter mascara or an overcooked steak. All three belong on that select list of items the commentariat can gleefully make fun without fear of “being the asshole.”
On January 16th the friends of Cao Zhixin, a 27 year old book editor residing in Beijing, posted a video of Cao onto Youtube. The video spread quickly spread across Chinese language Twitter, and from there into newspaper reports in Great Britain, the United States, and Taiwan…. Had Cao’s video ended on that note of triumph little attention would have been paid to it. But Cao concluded on a very different note: she was about to disappear. One by one her fellow vigil-organizers had gone dark. Where they were taken, and on what charges, she did not know. She knew only this: she was next.
Over at Foreign Affairs, Ryan Haas and Jude Blanchette have published an interesting argument. Hass and Blanchette are worried that the United States and China are needlessly inching towards armed conflict over Taiwan because of the two powers’ shared belief that “the hard questions at the root of the confrontation” can only be solved by a military settlement. In contrast, Hass and Blanchette argue that “sometimes the best policy is to avoid bringing intractable challenges to a head and kick the can down the road instead.” Implicit in Hass and Blanchette’s framing is the belief the United States controls the pace of the can-kicking. Decision makers in Washington, not Beijing or Taipei, will determine the character of their triangular tango. The reasons for this conclusion are laid out plainly: the United States has the power to constrain Taiwanese behavior, while the Chinese, who understand that the costs of a conflict will prove ruinous even in victory, will stage no campaign unless backed into a corner. It is America that will choose whether the can is kicked into that corner or whether it is kicked further down the road.
Haas and Blanchette’s case is cogent and clearly argued. Some of its particulars—such as their warning to avoid symbolics “that would aggravate Beijing without improving security in the Taiwan Strait” (e.g. Pelosi’s recent stunt)—are especially persuasive. But Haas and Blanchette’s larger argument only is compelling if we think crisis can be kicked down the road—and kicked down it ad infinitum. It is not clear to me that this is possible.