They're fun to have around? They're an expression of love between two people?
Folks have been calling modernity decadent since there's been a modernity. One of the hallmarks of modernity's decadence is its compulsive need to condemn itself for same. Be that as it may, Ross Douthat's recent, already-infamous column about America's declining birthrate in the New York Times does indeed make an unusually cogent case for our society's irredeemable corruption—though not exactly in the way that Douthat intended.
The column is titled "More Babies, Please," and in it, Douthat—an avowed conservative and Catholic—presents what he appears to believe is a conservative argument consonant (at least implicitly) with Christianity.
Douthat begins by asserting that America's preeminence in the world is the result of our high birth rate. Therefore, he says, our world leadership may be threatened if our birth rate drops. He notes that birth rates are influenced by economic circumstances and by government policy, and he suggests we could improve both in order to make raising children less of a burden. But, he concludes, the real problem is not this policy or that economic downturn, but rather our cultural "exhaustion." Specifically, he says, we are ailing from
a spirit that privileges the present over the future, chooses stagnation over innovation, prefers what already exists over what might be. It embraces the comforts and pleasures of modernity, while shrugging off the basic sacrifices that built our civilization in the first place.
Again, Douthat seems to think that this is a conservative argument, and that his column is some sort of rebuke to modernity. He is deeply confused on both counts. Specifically, there is nothing particularly conservative (and certainly nothing particularly Christian) about viewing the issue of child-rearing through the lens of economic growth. On the contrary, if modernity has a fetish, it is not selfishness or pleasure, but progress. That is why decadence is modernity's shadow—lust for improvement and fear of backsliding go hand in hand. Douthat criticizes modernity—but, like Marx, that other denouncer of modern decadence, his criticism is that modernity is not productive enough. Or, to put it another way, Douthat prays for a modernity more modern than modernity—a future where we are even more future-oriented than we are now. He wants Americans to sacrifice not only the present use of working lives, but also the present use of our most intimate body parts, to a grand vision of an ever-more-glorious tomorrow. It's Weber on steroids.
Douthat's column, then, is not conservative at all. It's uber-modernist. As such, he does not critique modernity's decadence; he embodies it. His article frames children solely in turns of productivity. According to his way of thinking in this piece, a child is not a charge to care for or to love; not a friend, or a blessing. No, for Douthat a child is a productivity input whose sole function is to provide maximum future utility for American national greatness. He is so thoroughly caught up in the machinery of modernity that he actually sees child-bearing as a "sacrifice"—as if it's some sort of tragic act of self-denial to have a kid. Note to Ross: Like lots of parents, my wife and I have a child because we wanted a child. And we wanted a child because we love each other and that's where our love took us, not because we decided to throw ourselves on our swords in order to preserve US hegemony. For pity's sake.
It seems to me that an actual conservative argument would be less obsessed with growth, and more interested in figuring out how we as a nation can make our society and our homes a worthy place to receive the gift of children. And it would value children not as numbers in some grand scheme of American global domination, but as souls who have something to teach us. Changing our lives in this way would require trade-offs—higher taxes to create a better safety net, for example, or a willingness by women, and even more so by men, to prioritize child-rearing over career success. But these would be trade-offs for our children, not sacrifices on the altar of some gleaming, transcendent, crushing cult of the future.
Douthat's column, then, which is putatively intended to show an alternative to modernity, instead demonstrates just how thoroughly there is no alternative to modernity in our public discourse. Even attacks on modernity, apparently, must be framed in brute economic and utilitarian terms. Even self-identified Christians can find morality only in the crass calculus of great power politics and national self-vaunting. Perhaps that's why we so often see children not as people, but as potential adults—or worse, as widgets to be placed in some machine in order to maximize something or other.
If Douthat's is the best case that our culture can make for having children, then it's hard to escape the conclusion that we don't deserve children at all. And yet, despite Douthat and all his predecessors back to Gradgrind, children will find us anyway. One of them is beside me now, in fact, reading and sniffling a little and every so often thrashing his legs under the covers like a fish on a hook. He's not the future, but the present. May we be worthy of him.
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