"Decadent" is the worst negative shibboleth
When "Anonymous", a "senior Trump Administration official", published the book "A Warning" in late 2019, there was a rush to try to unmask the author. It was an understandable rush -- the nameless official had previously submitted an opinion to the New York Times saying that the President was "erratic", "chaotic", unstable, and amoral. Just how high did the self-identified member of "a quiet resistance within the administration" rank?
■ While Anonymous was later revealed to be Miles Taylor, there were those who thought it might have been a Cabinet official, or perhaps even the Vice President. Certain tell-tale words were used to try to pinpoint the author's identity, with some people arguing that the frequent use of the uncommon word "lodestar" pointed to Mike Pence.
■ To be sure, stylometry is a fascinating way to try to read between the lines to find out who might have authored a document. Computers make the statistical analysis easier: People give themselves away through their choice of words. Just ask a teacher reading an essay that has been plagiarized, in whole or in part, by a student who doesn't take care to cover their tracks. The writer's "voice" is distinctive.
■ While shibboleths are typically used to signal in-group membership (and, sometimes, to sort out double agents), they can also inadvertently reveal an author's adherence to a way of thinking that needs to be held at arm's length.
■ One of those negative shibboleths is the word "decadence". If someone is using the word "decadence" -- especially when talking about their own country -- there's a very good chance they're on a completely wrong track.
■ The word "decadence", unless the author is talking about a particularly rich piece of chocolate cake, is a dead giveaway that the author thinks other people are enjoying themselves too much, in large numbers. While it is entirely possible for people to engage in behavior that takes fun too far, one of the basic premises of American civilization, at least, is that we have the "unalienable" right to pursue happiness. That's one of the basic purposes for having formed this country in the first place.
■ Thus when someone like an editor at the New York Post declares that "America is too dumb and decadent to last as a superpower", he's not passing a sound judgment on his fellow Americans -- he's declaring that he cares not for the American experiment in self-government itself. Sohrab Ahmari is, of course, entirely free to hold an opinion like that, as untethered to reality as it might be. But the rest of us are not obligated to pay such an opinion any serious respect.
■ In fact, when someone pulls out "decadence" as their linguistic weapon of choice, they're joining in a habit engaged by murderous, evil political regimes. The accusation of "decadence" is a value judgment with no objective standard. Thus it can mean "anything I do not like". In an authoritarian regime, that means the state can use the subjectivity as a tool of oppression. In a freer society, it screams of illiberalism.
■ If one holds an objective belief that a society has gotten soft around the edges and needs toughening up, then one ought to make a specific, fact-based case about what behaviors, rules, or practices need reform. That's how a democratic republic finds its way to the right path.
■ As it has been said, America isn't good at being right, but we're pretty good at getting it right. We get it right by engaging in a process of course correction over time. Merely disclaiming the zeitgeist as "decadent" does nothing of the sort: It's a sneer in the direction of thoughtful debate.