Decline and Fall

I grew up learning that the Roman Empire fell because of decadence. This was intertwined with Christianity as interpreted in Texas small towns. I don’t actually know much about Rome and my father, who was fascinated by Roman history, is no longer around to ask.

A quick Google search indicates that, as with many things, the collapse of the empire was the result of many things and decadence is unlikely to have been a major factor. And of course, these days cries of “decadence” come from right wing extremist talking points about drag queens and the idea that women control their own bodies.

So it’s a word one should use with caution.

But I read this Lyz Lenz Substack piece and felt so horrified that my first response was that the world was decaying around me.

What shocked me wasn’t the bros coming out to defend their rapist friend – I knew that happened. It was that there was a TV show called Punk’d over 20 years ago that was a nasty version of Candid Camera on steroids.

The show did appalling things to people for a joke. The one that really got me was the one that set up the pop star Mýa to go on a date with a guy who pretended he was obsessed with her in a very creepy way.

The people who did this had to know about the real problems famous people have with that kind of stalker, not to mention that this kind of obsession is one of the terrible things that happens to many women. But they put it on anyway and then called it a joke.

They got rich making “jokes” like this. And lots of people apparently watched this on television.

Now I think that’s decadent: making entertainment out of people’s very real fears.

This week I also read some reviews of the new biography of Elon Musk by Walter Isaacson, in particular the one by Jill Lepore in The New Yorker. (You can check your library and see if they have digital downloads of that magazine; mine does, which is how I read it.)

Of course, the big news from that biography is that Musk, who controls a large satellite system (Starlink) used (and partially funded by) the federal government, cut off Ukrainian access to that communication system and foiled some of their efforts to defend themselves from Russia.

That is, one very rich man who has not been elected to any office and is not associated with any government except as a contractor and someone who gets federal funding for his businesses ended up making foreign policy and affecting a war.

I think that’s a definite sign of real decay.

Further, reading the rest of Lepore’s review one starts to understand that this man, who has a great deal of power, functions at the emotional level of a toddler. And he has an obsession with having children.

We will note that he was raised in apartheid South Africa by racists. He apparently had an awful childhood, despite being a child of extreme white privilege in an appalling place.

We should also note that he loves The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and apparently uses is as a role model. The man does not comprehend satire.

This very fucked up man is making policy for the rest of the world and nobody appears to be ready to rein him in.

After four years of Donald Trump and the torturous effort to bring him to justice, you’d think we would have learned something about letting rich people (even fake rich people, given that Trump is a grifter) run things.

But apparently we’re still obsessed with them.

Now neither entertainment decadence or allowing unqualified rich people to run things are new problems in the United States. (I may not know much about Rome, but I do know a fair amount about our country.) But the extent to which we’re doing this now does not bode well for our future.

The world is a complicated place and these days a very interconnected one. Plus we have the real problem of climate change, something that is very unlikely to be solved by bozos who think having made money makes them the right person to set policy.

I mean, going to Mars is not a solution to climate change. I like space exploration, but humans and the other life on this planet evolved with Earth. This is the place best suited for us.

I also noticed some business guy on social media advocating for high unemployment so people would work for him for peanuts and be grateful. He was being ratioed pretty ferociously, but the point is people like him who do not care about others have power and money.

I don’t know if this is the decline and fall of the United States or capitalism or the entire world. I’d really prefer it if things didn’t collapse big time.

But if we’re going to avoid collapse, we really have to take the decisions out of the hands of overgrown toddlers and make sure the power really is in the people.

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