Decadence, decadence! All is decadence.
Ross Douthat’s Solomonic cry rings throughout his recent book, The Decadent Society. Growth, economic and otherwise, has flattened, and we have lost our vitality and innovative vigor in all but a few sectors of society, he claims. The cracks are beginning to widen, and the best our institutions can do is mine our own foundations for ever-diminishing nuggets of recursive experience, for those glinting and highly commodified short-term distractions packaged as individual empowerment.
Decadence by Douthat’s definition refers to economic stagnation, institutional decay, and cultural and intellectual exhaustion, all despite a high level of material prosperity and technological development. From our entertainment to our politics to our technology, Douthat argues that the developed world has lapsed into a spiral of decadent decline. This is caused by our relative prosperity—stagnation and decay are often a direct consequence of significant previous development and progress. Our decadent society is, by definition, a victim of its own significant material success.
Before total disillusionment comes the long decay, the foul rot masked by the too-sweet fragrance of decadence. Such was the state of empires long past, and such is the case of our society present, stilted and unable to muster the innovation and optimism necessary to imagine a properly vibrant, worthy future. So much displays this decay, from our stunted intellectual climate with its teapot tempests relitigating the animating arguments of the past, to our failure to tell new stories to ourselves, to our increasingly tech-integrated existence that demands and swallows our attention and hollows out our sense of a meaningful life.
Douthat’s book is an attempt to weave the social sciences together with observations on our intellectual climate, our popular culture, our religious moment, and our technological pastimes. We are a people in decline, which is made all the worse for the fact that we hardly even realize it.
The Decadent Society opens with a contention: The optimism and innovation that powered our past selves, that carried us through the World Wars and enabled a Space Age that energized and inspired our society, has vanished. Once, we put men on the moon. Now, boot prints on Jupiter is not even seen as an absurd notion; it is, worse still, an unconsidered one. Our ancestors looked up and saw the stars and we look down to see ourselves reflected in our screens. Impossibly capable screens, but ones not quite fulfilling the promise of our once-imagined future, and ones that seem to leave us feeling worse off, whether or not we actually are. Expanding our physical horizons has been abandoned; space left unexplored for the sake of cyberspace. That one is real and the other, while not unreal, certainly feels so, goes a long way to informing the discontentment of our age.
Douthat examines a representative example from Hollywood, one of our few remaining cultural tentpoles: the first Star Wars films were revolutionary, the latest reboots are stilted yet profitable nostalgia ploys that “give up on originality entirely and just make not a pastiche of classic films but pastiches of the original pastiche.” Even in our stories of vast and unending universes we are stuck exploring the same rutted terrain as our fathers, but with none of the animating originality or imagination. In too many ways we are not building upon our foundations, we are cannibalizing them. Can you not feel us teetering?
Douthat contends that “From the academic heights to popular bestsellers, from Christian theology to secular fashion, from political theory to pop music, a range of cultural forms and intellectual pursuits have been stuck for decades in a pattern of recurrence—of [cultural critic Jacques] Barzun’s ‘repetition and frustration’ and ‘boredom and fatigue.’”
Repetition and frustration, boredom and fatigue.
Familiar feelings for a basketball fan of the past few years. Because if Douthat had extended his proofs beyond and into the world of sports, if he were to train his lens of decadence on the NBA, he could not have come up with a more fitting example of this paradigm in action than the 2017-2019 Golden State Warriors. Unwittingly embodying Douthat’s thesis, Ethan Sherwood Strauss’s The Victory Machine details the decadence and decline of the most modern, most dominant, and most disparaged of all NBA superteams.
The Victory Machine
“There are no rules, but you break them at your own peril.”
The Victory Machine opens with a coup. The year is 2010. Strauss relates the above quote from Peter Guber, now co-governor of the Golden State Warriors, as he describes the circumstances of how he and fellow co-governor Joe Lacob came to control the team. Through a cunning and risky bit of negotiating that disregarded all convention, two business titans managed to outwit their much-richer competition to buy the franchise, based at the time in Oakland, California. This was before the Warriors had truly lived up to their gilded name, back when they were still one of the league’s lesser teams.
The next decade brought them three championships and perhaps the greatest collection of NBA talent ever assembled; brought the Warriors from scrappy underdogs to respected champions to an undisputed, yet despised, superteam as they piled hubris atop of dominance.
Fittingly, this team is located in the geographic heart of American decadence itself: Silicon Valley, where the tech bros and entrepreneurial optimists live large. It was they who built this modern, analytics-focused team. Smart drafting, savvy hires, lots of luck, and the Warriors became a young, fun, exuberant team on the rise. And key to this story of transformation, from a perpetual loser to an undisputed winner to an all-time great team, was the addition of MVP small forward Kevin Durant.
Douthat begins his book describing the moon landing—“The peak of human accomplishment and daring”—but he could as easily be talking about the Warrior’s point guard Stephen Curry on the break: pulling up from deep, inconceivably, galactically deep, pushing analytics to its outer limits. Douthat writes that the Apollo Landing proved that, “the efficiency and techno-optimism of Eisenhower-era America. . . represented a kind of mystical, dizzy, Age of Aquarius moment in its own right.” Efficient, mystical, and dizzying describes the ascendant Warriors just as well. Their 2014-2016 supernova squad pressed frontiers and shattered old-head assumptions. Who remembers “Jump-shooting teams don’t win championships?”
The space age was “the culmination of the [1960’s] revolutionary promise”, but did it ever elicit not one but two BANGS! from Mike Breen? This was when the Warriors were fun and ascendant, haughty and graceless, preening and electric. And, in 2015, led by the revolutionary troika of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green, the Warriors won the NBA title. In 2016 they broke the NBA single season wins record, which was previously held by Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, by going 73-9 in the regular season.
Improbably, though, they promptly lost to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2016 NBA Finals. So, licking their wounds and their pride they retooled that offseason: the best regular season team in basketball signed Durant, arguably a top-two player in the game (and one they had bested in an excruciatingly tight Western Conference finals that postseason), away from the Oklahoma City Thunder to form an unparalleled collection of talent.
Durant is one of the most talented scorers the world has ever seen: all skin and bone and length and lethality—pure, silky, deadly ability. From the outside looking in, though, the Warriors had hoarded more than an embarrassment of riches. It seemed unfair. Fans, media, and other players alike excoriated the move. Durant had lost to this team in the playoffs, and instead of taking them on as a challenge to overcome, he jumped on board to fight by his rival’s side.
The Warriors were rightfully ecstatic. As an organization they had taken to seeing themselves as “light-years ahead” of their competition, and they were living up to their own stratospheric self-regard. By most estimations they were untouchable, an unreachably superior foe. On the reaction to the move, Strauss relates, “the idea of Kevin Durant joining the Warriors, though financially possible, was so inconceivable to so many. It was just too much, too decadent.”
All is decadence.
In fact, much of Strauss’s writings for The Athletic are cozy correlates to Douthat’s. Outlining the extraordinary yet ultimately unreal paper tigers of Silicon Valley success, Douthat writes that “Twenty-first century growth and innovation are not at all what we were promised they would be,” and, “In a decadent economy, the supposed cutting edge of capitalism is increasingly defined by lets-pretendism—by technologies that have almost arrived, business models that are on their way to profitability, by runways that go on and go on without ever achieving liftoff”—analysis that strongly echoes Strauss’s own assessment of what’s wrong with the NBA.
“It might sound like sacrilege,” Strauss wrote in an October 2019 column, “but it’s more than likely that the NBA is losing domestic popularity now and in the near term, despite its ever-sold narrative of a perpetual ascendance. Yes, the NBA is young, steeped in the social media zeitgeist and theoretically primed to take over when those other dusty sports die out. No, this dynamic isn’t yet resulting in demonstrable viewership growth in America.”
Douthat and Strauss’s sacrilegious ire is aimed at these “ever-sold narratives of perpetual ascendance” that, while comforting to the teller, are ultimately misleading, furthering our wandering descent while we smile and walk on, all the while unaware.
Strauss consistently critiques the NBA by drawing attention to its particular faults, from persistent ratings decline to its obeisance to threatening superpowers. Shift the focus slightly, broaden the reach of each, and these assertions could easily be repurposed in service of Douthat’s larger critique. It doesn’t take a Durant-sized stretch to say then that the NBA, with its appeasement-focused leadership, its post-Michael Jordan stagnation and declining American relevance, and its penchant for sacrificing tangible local market gains for global and cyber-based ephemera, is just another sclerotic institution. The NBA, like so many other institutions, is entranced by globalism and algorithmically-mediated customer engagement. Ultimately, the NBA, too, is stunted by decadence.
From this perspective, the move of Durant to the Warriors was an emblematic one, just another symptom hastening the decline of a faltering league, a totemic outgrowth of decadence in our broader world. The Golden State Warriors, the most important team of their era, encapsulate the dynastic rise and fall of empires themselves. In this manner, they are a warning for our own society at large. If the 2014-2016 Warriors were the height of American ingenuity, the 2017-2019 team was the manifestation of American greed.
Douthat quotes G.K. Chesterton in saying that while there was no enemy who could conquer Rome from beyond its well, there was nothing left to improve inside them. Following the addition of Durant, the Warriors became nearly untouchable, ripping off back-to-back titles in 2017 and 2018. There was no reason the Golden State Romans’ run of success had to end. They had conquered the known world. As an organization they had won three championships over five years, with unprecedented achievements that few athletic organizations had ever matched. They would be forever memorialized in the sports pantheon.
But the dynasty had to come to an end. Following a drama-riddled regular season and an injury-ravaged 2019 post-season, the Warriors fell to the Toronto Raptors, Durant left the most charmed situation in basketball for the inferior Brooklyn Nets.
Echoing Chesterton, Strauss writes of the Warriors’ fall: “In the story of a dynasty, there are only two modes: rise and fall,” and then again saying, “The dynasty was over, but life had to continue. It was [General Manager] Bob Myer’s job to build a new civilization out of Rome’s rubble.”
The Victory Machine outlines the puzzling circumstances of that destruction. Specifically, it provides an insider account—littered with fascinating anecdotes and behind the scenes interviews and insights—of the disintegration of perhaps the most dominant team in the NBA’s history. However, this lesson deserves to be understood by more than just Warriors fans: their story serves as an incisive rebuke to the notion that success can sustain itself, and that winning in life is an essential ingredient to lasting happiness.
Happiness is a fickle concept. Strauss quotes a phrase from the television show Mad Men that succinctly captures the heart of his book: “Happiness” says Don Draper, “is the moment before you need more happiness.”
It seems then that the Warriors’ slide was a result of their greatest success. They glimpsed a truth only the most successful attain because, as Strauss puts it, they were shown the lie of winning. That is, the best things in life don’t last; as high as the highest highs are, there is always another moment waiting to be fulfilled. Once you learn that what has been your ultimate goal, what you were banking on to sustain that feeling of accomplishment and fill your yearnings, is not up to such a task, then what do you do? Strive again? To what end? The thing about pinnacles is there is nowhere else to go but down.
Durant, who had risked his reputation more than anyone else in seeking success, seemingly became the most disillusioned by that revelation, leading to his eventual departure. Strauss notes what Steve Nash, former NBA superstar, two-time MVP, and a player development consultant for the Warriors at the time, said of Durant’s discordant response the summer following his first championship: “He was searching for what it all meant. He thought a championship would change everything, and found out it doesn’t. He was not fulfilled. He didn’t work out as much as he normally does.”
Durant found happiness and then found he needed still more happiness and even more after that, and then the greatest team in NBA history broke up before they needed to.
Individual malcontent is no strong argument for social disarray, however. Maybe Durant is just a singularly unhappy man. For his part, Durant resents this kind of analysis, criticizing Strauss’s reporting: “You don’t know me! You don’t know what makes me happy!” Neither, it seems, does Durant. When Strauss reports that Durant “wanted to be feted and was highly sensitive to the praise or lack of criticism that teammates received,” the superstar comes off as a man who is uncertain, insecure, petty, and searching, even after everything gained, for something elusive.
Strauss ventures his own guesses at what makes him (and each of us in turn) increasingly unhappy in this age. He echoes NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s assessment of the role social media plays in our collective dissatisfaction, writing that “following your reputation is a path to madness.”
Unprecedented access to others’ opinions of us are ever more abundant and accessible. This allure has proven an unhappy one. Social media has flooded every moment with feedback. We—and even more so ultra-famous, ultra-rich athletes and celebrities—are deluged with praise, compliments, insults, and invective available at an instantaneous click. And—given our proclivity to weigh insults more heavily than compliments, bad news more than good—this panopticon has an increasingly distortive effect on our reality; being perpetually plugged in can only pervert our perspective. We are addicted to and diminished by the dopamine high of always being on display.
Even more cutting, though, is that the lie of winning reveals that while you gain something in victory, you lose something as well. The ultra-bright but temporary illumination of success’s glow fades into an ever-dimmer force until you are left to realize that the hope found in striving has flickered its last too. Those who are still seeking after their ambitions are free to believe that their goals are synonymous with whatever salvation they seek. Those who win and are still unfulfilled know, devastatingly so, that it is so often not. Strauss contrasts the petulant Durant with the beaming, booming, beloved, “perpetually in his prime” Charles Barkley. Strauss describes the great—and happy—power forward: “Barkley never won a ring, but he won retirement. That latter might have something to do with the former. Life never ended up revealing the lie of winning to Chuck.”
The ever-aware Durant, on the other hand, stokes the fires of public fury, regularly beefing with writers, media, fans, players, and social media trolls alike. His game remains universally respected and feared among opposing teams and fans alike. But it is hard to say that he is an exceptionally beloved figure; his career so far and his time with the Warriors engenders the simultaneous reactions of being both undoubtedly dominant and yet somehow still unfulfilling.
This is because, for the sake of their own ambition, the Warriors took a great, fun thing fans enjoyed and made it less so. Upon their coalition, Curry and Durant, the superstars of that superteam, diminished the sense of each other’s need with their close proximity. The overlap reduced their brightness and tempered the excitement that each would have generated on their own.
We never got to see Durant fight for his redemption as the leader of his own squad, a much more compelling narrative arc to those basketball fans outside of Oakland. He so wanted to be loved that he robbed us of the easy circumstances necessary for general fans to love him. Durant was not wrong for making his own decision to suit his own interests. And if that choice led to Golden State and eventual championships, then that was his by hard-earned right. He was wrong to expect adulation for doing so, though. The fan’s right to cheer as they choose is equally sacrosanct.
The Warriors were so dominant they became uninteresting, and fans responded likewise: they were frustrated and fatigued with the unchallenged repetition, and, worst of all for the NBA, bored. That didn’t mean a total collapse of interest, but it did mean a reluctance to celebrate the team’s seemingly pre-ordained victories. Inevitability poisons drama. Fans’ attention began to drift off-court, to free agency, offseason rumours, and other socially consumable but tangential scaffolding. Trends that had been set in motion before the Warriors’ rise, but ones certainly accelerated by their dominance.
Durant’s mistake was in believing there was a formula to follow that would deliver him everything he craved. Win a ring or two and become beloved. But the way you win is as important as if you win. Boldness and self-assurance are easy qualities to applaud in our idols. Sulky discontentment is not.
Still, it seems too reductive to be true. The Golden State Warriors’ dynasty fell apart because, ultimately, one of their key players was living an unfulfilled life, and this culminated in continued disruption of team dynamics at an unsustainable level. The greatest collection of basketball talent ever assembled in the NBA couldn’t stay together, because even as they were achieving more success than almost anyone ever they were still unhappy. In-fighting resulted, and then injuries intervened, and suddenly it was all over.
The Inner Ring
Winners like to hang with winners.
Listen to Strauss’s podcast House of Strauss and you will frequently hear him imitate sports radio titan Colin Cowherd. Strauss, with an exaggeratedly assured impression, likes to paraphrase Cowherd’s take on why Durant decided to leave Oklahoma City for Golden State, belting that “winners like to hang with winners. Stars like to hang with stars.” The Thunder were a small-market club that kept falling short; the Warriors were the fun, flashy, bigger-than-basketball, bigger-than-life team full of opportunity and inconceivable amounts of winning. He saw himself as a winner, so he went to where it was impossible to lose.
A pithy, oversimplified explanation? Surely. But it rings true. Everyone wants to feel included—especially in elite circles. We all want to breathe the rarified air that others aspire to, that others merely wish they could whiff. And for Durant, the world-famous Warriors were in a purely oxygenated atmosphere of their own.
C. S. Lewis elucidated upon the dangers of this type of pursuit in his 1944 talk-turned-essay entitled “The Inner Ring.” Everyone all their life, unless they actively avoid it, he says, will spend their resources and their strength seeking validation in an Inner Ring. Club, social circle, group, class, or occupation, it doesn’t matter which Ring you aspire to, each serves as a way to mark us as separate, better, more enlightened or exceptional. This longing to be one of the “insiders” drives so much of our ambition and action. It is an almost unavoidable temptation, and it is what ends up destroying us. The destination will not be worth the pursuit, and the things we seek are better gained in other, more surprising ways.
Lewis writes: “To a young person, just entering on adult life, the world seems full of ‘insides,’ full of delightful intimacies and confidentialities, and he desires to enter them. But if he follows that desire he will reach no ‘inside’ that is worth reaching.”
He continues, “A thing may be morally neutral and yet the desire for that thing may be dangerous.” This is because:
“It is the very mark of a perverse desire that it seeks what is not to be had. The desire to be inside the invisible line illustrates this rule. As long as you are governed by that desire you will never get what you want. You are trying to peel an onion; if you succeed there will be nothing left. Until you conquer the fear of being an outsider, an outsider you will remain.”
Durant wanted in to what he saw from afar—the free flowing play of the Warriors, the adoration due to those in that winner’s circle—and when he got it he found a happiness that did not last. Durant’s desire implicates all of us who prioritize this happiness to the exclusion of fulfillment, because what we seek necessarily determines the course of our lives and the society we build.
Wanting to win is fine. Wanting to better your life is a great goal. Longing to be fulfilled is the most common, natural, appropriate thing. But making these our ultimate ends upon which we sacrifice all else leads to our inability to appreciate them when we get them.
Lewis explains that this satisfaction is destined to be short-lived; the magic of your success is lost the moment you meet it, because the pleasure of being “in” amongst the winners quickly stales once a new ring, a new goal, a new prize emerges. And one always will.
Oklahoma becomes Oakland becomes Brooklyn. The rainbow’s end ever-beckons from ever-far away. Rings, championship or otherwise, lose their luster. To grasp happiness we must loosen our attachment to it. The only action worth enacting in this pursuit, then, is to live in the present, to focus on worthwhile work and make its accomplishment an end in and of itself. Break the desire for an Inner Ring before it breaks you, and eventually one day you will wake up as a “sound craftsman,” a fulfilled person who has built something worth keeping and become someone worth admiring.
Micah Meadowcroft elaborates on this theme in his essay “Lost on Mars,” where he examines humanity’s interplanetary ambitions:
“To resituate man where he belongs, so that he is no longer lost and alienated, is to situate his power, where it comes from and for whom it has been given. Man can discover his true self in the world when he finds what and how he ought to do, for ‘the doer is constantly becoming what he does—every doer, from the responsible head of state to office manager or housewife, from scholar to technician, artist to farmer.’ In doing right—by exercising whatever power he has with responsibility for others—he can embrace his identity as doer. . . Until we can count on this kind of humanity on Earth, our efforts into space will fail to elevate us.”
Dream for the stars, sure. Plan for the future, lightyears ahead, even. But if we do not address the fundamental rot at the heart of ourselves, if we do not solve our insecurities that can both power our ambitions and taint our successes, then we will find not a grand new frontier, an unexplored age, a fulfilled life, or a vigorous society, but rather a conquest that does not last, does not diminish all that is still wrong in our world and in ourselves. Did Icarus notice, at the height of his triumph, that his wings were already dripping away? Durant wanted to be mythologized, and he’s become a cautionary tale instead.
Understand what remains in victory and what does not. The championship, whatever that is for each of us, that coveted Inner Ring, yes—trophies on a dusty mantle. The longing in our souls stays too, though. Maybe you’re lucky/blessed/talented enough to Win It All. The celebration has happened. The champagne, that joy ejaculate, has been sprayed. Now it pools on the floor and its residue clings and rots, and, sticky as it may be, it cannot root us or the world to that glorious moment. And so we need more, ever more. Happiness was here, and then another moment came; we desire decadence, and it is our undoing.
What then to do? Eschew adoration and seek to be sound craftsmen, and, in so doing, improbably find satisfaction anyways.
I do not know how to fix our society, to arrest our collective decline, to solve any individual unhappiness. But inculcating a spirit of self-confidence, resilience, quiet hard work, and delayed gratification can’t but enable the rejuvenation of our hearts, upon which all else follows. If decadence in society is selfishness at scale, then selflessness multiplied is a cure worth trying.
So subordinate yourself and your desires to the worthy causes of this world. Achieve great things, but for the sake of great things and not for superficial boasting or consensus or enrichment or other paper tiger pursuits. Sacrifice your self-indulgence and find sanity, if not your life, because sacrifice is essential to fulfilment and anathema to decadence. These are not ironclad rules for life, but we break them at our peril.
L. Graeme Smith is a freelance writer living in Alberta, Canada.