Politics & Policy

What Do Our Movies Say about Our Decadent Civilization?

Back to the Future (Universal Studios)

Last fall, American pop culture celebrated “Back to the Future Day” — marking the date, 10/21/2015, to which Marty McFly leaps forward from the Reagan ’80s in Back to the Future Part II.

It was a slightly daft commemoration of a pleasant but hardly memorable sequel, and it felt almost like a way for people not to come to grips with the most striking thing about Back to the Future’s 30th anniversary: that we’re now as far from the Reagan 1980s as the teenage Marty was from his parents’ 1950s, and yet the gulf of years separating us from 1985 feels far narrower than the distance from the Eisenhower era that the original film used to such great effect.

The power of the first Back to the Future depended not just on an arbitrary 30-year period, that is, but on how radically America had changed across those decades: Marty’s adolescence and his parents’ courtship lay on opposite sides of (among many other things) rock ’n’ roll, civil rights, Vietnam, the sexual revolution, drug culture, the moon landing, feminism, the apocalyptic ’70s, and, finally, the conservative turn that made this magazine’s 30th anniversary a happy one.

Whereas if you remade Back to the Future now and sent Martina McFly back to ’85, you would have a lot of jokes about life without the iPhone, some shocking shoulder pads, and some sort of “comic” critique of Reagan-era unenlightenment on same-sex marriage. But you wouldn’t have the sense of visiting a past that’s actually another country.

Since National Review spans the same 60 years as the McFly-family saga, Back to the Future offers a useful prism through which to view our situation as the magazine turns (a youthful) 60. For NR’s first 30 years, the history that William F. Buckley Jr. wanted to stand athwart often proceeded at a breakneck pace. But during its second 30, and especially since Communism’s fall, there has been a general slowing, a sense of drift and repetition, a feeling that American society is somehow stuck in place.

In the economic realm, what Tyler Cowen has called our “great stagnation” can be quantified — in slow wage growth, slow productivity growth, below-replacement fertility rates, slowing rates of innovation in non–Silicon Valley sectors.

But it’s readily apparent in non-quantifiable areas as well. In our politics, where gridlock and dysfunction are the order of the day, and the battle lines established by Reagan’s revolution still define the partisan divide. In our social arguments, where we’re still having wrestling matches — over abortion, romance and casual sex, feminism and work–life balance, race and crime — that the revolutions of the 1960s ushered in. (Only on homosexuality has there been dramatic change.) In our religious controversies, where the bold, fresh, exciting pontificate of Francis has revealed that Western Christians are ready . . . to have exactly the same theological debates we had in 1975.

#share#And then there’s pop culture itself. In the original Back to the Future, Marty McFly invaded his father’s sleep dressed as “Darth Vader from the planet Vulcan.” Thirty years later, the biggest blockbuster of 2015 was about . . . Darth Vader’s grandchildren. It is directed by a filmmaker who’s coming off rebooting . . . Star Trek. And the wider cinematic landscape is defined by . . . the recycling of comic-book properties developed between the 1940s and the 1970s.

Even fashion shows a similar repetition, as Kurt Anderson pointed out in Vanity Fair several years ago:

Not long ago . . . I came across an archival photograph of Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell with a dozen of their young staff at Morgans, the Ur-boutique hotel, in 1985. It was an epiphany. Schrager’s dress shirt had no collar and some of the hair on his male employees was a bit unfashionably fluffy, but no one in the picture looks obviously, laughably dated by today’s standards. . . . Yet if, in 1990 or 1980 or 1970, you’d examined a comparable picture from 27 years earlier — from 1963 and 1953 and 1943, respectively — it would be a glimpse back into an unmistakably different world.

Global politics since the Cold War feels stagnant as well. We might have expected that by now we’d be locked in a race with China or Japan to colonize Mars — if, that is, we weren’t recovering from the Eugenics Wars that the original Star Trek expected to arrive sometime in the 1990s. Instead, we’re dealing with issues (from an aggressive Russia to, yes, Libyan-linked terrorist groups) that Marty and “Doc” Brown would recognize immediately. (Though in fairness, we do make movies about colonizing Mars, and the special effects are excellent.)

The word for this kind of civilizational situation is “decadence.” Not the decadence of pure debauchery — there’s some of that available today, but public morals in the West probably hit bottom in the 1970s, not in our own era of stagnation.

Rather it’s decadence as defined by Jacques Barzun:

All that is meant by Decadence is “falling off.” . . . The forms of art as of life seem exhausted, the stages of development have been run through. Institutions function painfully. Repetition and frustration are the intolerable result.

Barzun wrote these words in the late 1990s; today it’s hard to imagine a better distillation of our situation. And pace the doomsayers, decadent periods need not give way swiftly to declines and falls: They can last — especially in a society protected by oceans from the mass migrations presently yanking a decadent Europe back into history — for generations, until some external threat or internal revival finally ushers in a different, more dynamic age.

Which suggests an irony for Western and particularly for American conservatives. In a less decadent era, our forefathers hoped to stop the march of history, to redirect its rushing course. In our era, history seems to have slowed to a depressing, repetitious crawl, and it might be our mission to start it moving once again.

— Ross Douthat is a contributing editor at National Review. A version of this article originally appeared in National Review’s November 19, 2015, 60th-anniversary issue.

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