A. The Charge. History has clearly and consistently shown that fatuous toleration of homosexual misconduct weakens a society’s moral fabric. Once this process of decay begins it is, all too often, inexorable. The histories of ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, and modern France were all blighted in this way.
Sally Kern, a Republican lawmaker in Oklahoma, put it this way in March 2008: “Studies show that no society that has totally embraced homosexuality has lasted more than, you know, a few decades. So it's the death knell of this country. I honestly think it's the biggest threat our nation has, even more so than terrorism or Islam – which I think is a big threat. . [Because] what's happening now is they are going after, in schools, two-year olds. . . And this stuff is deadly, and it's spreading, and it will destroy our young people; it will destroy this nation.”
In America today the social media - led by the Internet - have greatly increased access to pornography which has become a fact of daily life. These electronic media also facilitate lewd “sexting” messages and promote hookups - casual short-term arrangements where commitment, quite simply put, ranks as a bizarre anachronism.
Degenerates of all kinds thrive in this permissive setting. For their part, movies and television relentlessly promote the homosexual lifestyle. The abomination of “gay marriage” is not only accepted, but celebrated. Sapping unit cohesion, open gay men and lesbians are now welcome in the military. This misplaced tolerance places our national security is in peril.
Andrew Sullivan, an openly gay political commentator, cheekily proclaims that homosexuality has become “virtually normal.”
In this way we are teaching future generations that there is no merit in conforming to the rules of virtuous living. Supplanting the dedication that decency requires, we have the cult of instant gratification, a sure road to perdition.
Similar (often identical) problems are plaguing Europe as well. In fact the situation there is even worse owing primarily to demographics. The great disaster - and worse still, sad fate - in combining homosexuality and hedonism is that Europeans are simply not reproducing.
B. Historical Background. Fears of historical decline are long-standing and recurrent. This propensity is probably rooted in the psychological fact that, in growing older, we human beings tend to view earlier phases of our lives through rose-colored glasses, deprecating the present moment in favor of our idealized salad days.
Projected onto peoples and societies, this perspective suggests that the "good old days" were better than the present, while the future is likely to be still worse.
In some conservative thinking this comparison enjoys the status of an archetypal pattern. Woe is us!
The sources of this mode of complaining lie far in the past. As has often occurred in the history of ideas, classical thought is foundational.
The Greeks and Romans entertained two chief models of epochal decline. According to the first, as outlined by the seventh-century poet Hesiod, human society began in an Edenic time of harmony and abundance, termed the Golden Age. In due course, however, this utopia yielded in turn to Silver and Bronze Ages of increasing barbarism - until society sank into the bleakness of the final Iron Age.
This pessimistic historical scheme paints a grim picture. The pattern is much like the seasons changing on their relentless passage to winter, and the human body’s successive stages of decline, The only consolation lies the happy memories associated with the Golden Age.
All was not lost, though, at least not necessarily. According to some poets like Vergil and Horace, who flourished in the entourage of the emperor Augustus (ruled 27 BCE-14 CE), this age of bliss could return, starting the cycle anew.
The other model of decline idealizes a rural past with a low level of technology, when society was happy precisely because of scarcity. Since there was little to steal, theft was rare for there was little to steal. Besides, those who had afforded themselves and their family members some scanty prized possessions guarded them carefully. Hardship caused people to work together instead of against each other. "Sweet are the uses of adversity," as Shakespeare was later to put it.
A variation was the ploy of locating primitive virtue not in the remote past but in contemporary tribal societies. Tacitus lauded German uprightness, condemning in contrast Roman decadence, luxury, covetousness, and self-indulgence. Revealingly, not until the Christian Salvian, who wrote during the collapse of the Empire in the fifth century, does homosexual conduct per se figure in the catalog of vices.
With the adoption of Christianity in the fourth century, Eusebius and other Patristic writers elaborated a new concept of progress, that of advancing states of moral perfection. Thus in ancient Israel polygamy and even under certain circumstances incest (Lot and his daughters) had been permissible.
A great signpost on this road of human moral advance was the Incarnation of Christ, which would lead in due course to the Second Coming and the restoration of all things. Before the longed-for consummation could be secured, however, there would be a period of frightful apocalyptic turmoil. Even though the Christian vision was on the whole more optimistic than previous ones, ironically the looming danger of sudden reversal - of decline after progress - was to prove a haunting, prophetic vision.
The victory of the Moderns in their quarrel with the Ancients in late seventeenth-century France, as well as the scientific revolution consummated at the same time in the work of Sir Isaac Newton, prepared the way for the Enlightenment belief in human progress through science and institutional reform for a mankind that was basically good. “Decline” seemed to be in decline.
The publication of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species in 1859 set the doctrine of evolution on its triumphant march, seeming to demonstrate scientifically and conclusively that in the larger scheme of things progress was inevitable. Even here, however, there were dark patches. Yet some evolutionists recognized a regressive potential in organisms, the so-called atavisms. Thus the Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso lumped homosexuals together with criminals as throwbacks to a more primitive phase of human existence. Still humanity could maintain progress by blocking these atavisms and accelerate its course by eugenics.
The overall atmosphere of optimism and uplift notwithstanding, nineteenth-century realities led to a more somber view in some quarters. The countries of southern Europe were compelled to recognize that the pacesetters of material progress were found in northwestern Europe, and that they seemed to be falling inexorably further and further behind.
And here we find a major turning point.
It was in France that the theory of decadence emerged most fully and influentially. The word décadence had figured in the title of Montesquieu's Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadence (1747), and then of the French translation of Edward Gibbon's masterwork, and was thus redolent of the perennial problem of the reasons for Rome's decline. Gradually it came to indicate not simply a historical phase, but also a qualitative judgment on the state of civilization.
The word décadence was given a new twist by the French critic Desiré Nisard in 1834 as a pejorative term for certain literary trends of his own day. Nisard, whose professional interest was Latin literature, compared the mannerism and affectation of the Silver Age with certain aspects of the romanticism of his own day.
The defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian war (1870) induced an orgy of national self-examination, yielding in some quarters to a mood of resignation. In the 1880s the label decadence was actively embraced by the bisexual poet Paul Verlaine ("Langueur"), the novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans [A Rebours], and their followers. Joséphin Péladan, an advocate of androgyny, wrote a series of novels under the umbrella title La Décadence latine, implying that the whole of the Romance world was on the downward path. Others were fascinated by the regressive history of the Byzantine Empire and the perverse figure of Salome. While the "decadent" writers and artists soon found that it was more expedient to march under the banner of Symbolism, the association of their work with hot-house sophistication and rarified excess - in short the fin-de-siècle - had more staying power than the naysayers expected.
England, much influenced by nineteenth-century French cultural exports, had her own decadent writers and poets. The disgrace of the most notable of them, Oscar Wilde, in the three trials of 1895, sending repercussions throughout Europe, served for many to link the literary concept of decadence with the tactile immediacy (physical/visual images) of the perverted lifestyle.
In Germany Friedrich Nietzsche castigated the nineteenth century for its pervasive decadence, which he likened to the biological decline of an organism, but saw a possibility of renewal through the cultivation of Dionysiac art. Hitler was later to assert that homosexuality had destroyed ancient Greece - in which Sparta represented for National Socialism the ideal "Aryan civilization" - and that his Reich must avoid this fate.
As early as the 1920s leaders of Western Communist parties began to float the idea that the public discussion of homosexuality, and the seeming increase in homosexual activity, resulted from the decadence of capitalism, a system soon destined to disappear. In 1934 this approach resulted in new legal restrictions in the USSR. These measures were to remain in place throughout its existence, as seen in an article in the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, third edition of 1971. "Homosexuality (from gomo...and Lat. sexus--sex), a sexual perversion consisting in unnatural attraction to persons of the same sex. It occurs in persons of both sexes. The penal statutes of the USSR, the socialist countries and even some bourgeois states, provide for the punishment of homosexuality (muzhelozhestvo--sodomy between males)."
A recent variation on the decadence concept is the notion circulating in some quarters of African American opinion that sub-Saharan Africa was originally exempt from homosexuality, this perversion being forced on its inhabitants and their descendants in the New World as an instrument of colonial subjugation. In this perspective, homosexuality figures as part of the supposed pathology of the white race.
The ultimate origin of the meme of the sexual exceptionalism of Black Africa is probably Chapter XLIV of Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1781): "I believe, and hope, that the negroes [sic], in their own country, were exempt from this moral pestilence." More recently, some observers from the Arab world have claimed, somewhat oddly, that there was no homosexuality in their lands before Western imperialists introduced it.
In any event, there is a growing body of evidence documenting homosexual behavior in Black Africa, both before and after colonization. Ironically it is the fear of homosexuality as a purported obstacle to progress and modernity that was forced on Africans by "enlightened" western opinion, not the practice itself.
In the United States anxiety about the prospect of national decline has been chronic ever since the 1950s. This concern has been lively, sometimes even alarmist. Yet a closer look shows that attention has focused chiefly on economic and political themes, not sexual ones.
In the 1950s, the Soviet space satellite Sputnik and the spread of Communism and Socialism through the postcolonial world were supposed proof of the economic efficiency and dedication to social justice characteristic of those systems and the rot of capitalism. By the 1970s and 1980s, Japan Inc. emerged as the next new paradigm of the post-American world. As Japan faded, the next great hope followed in the 1990s, when the European Union seduced the American Left.
Yet something funny happened on this twisted path: Communism imploded; Japan is aging and shrinking; and the European Union is crumbling. But, of course, there is China, which, we are told, is the new replacement for America. Yet it is a country with serious demographic problems, a reputation for crude diplomacy, a muscular approach to international commercial agreements, censored media, vast inequality, environmental abuse, and a rigid political system seeking to manage the transition from a rural peasant society into postindustrial affluence.
Other explanations are more general. The historian Mancur Olson maintained that nations decline because their aging institutions become bloated and sclerotic, retarding national dynamism. The popular writer Charles Murray holds that America is coming apart, dividing into two nations - one with high levels of education, stable families, and good opportunities, vs. the other with low levels of education, unstable families, and poor opportunities.
Singly and in combination, all these issues pose a serious economic challenge to which the United States must respond. But the problem has no connection with a supposed decadence fostered by toleration of homosexuality. As LGBT individuals marry and build families the old explanation that they are simply selfish and unstable has become unviable. Moreover, as Richard Florida’s studies of the creative class have shown, it is the most innovative sections of our nation, from Silicon Valley in California to the Boston region in Massachusetts, that are the most accepting of homosexuality. Sexual tolerance is not the problem, but part of the solution.
We conclude on a lighter note. The term “decadence” has been detoxified, as it were, by a New Orleans event that has become an institution. Southern Decadence is an annual six-day jamboree that occurs over Labor Day Weekend, climaxing with a parade through the French Quarter. The event traces its beginnings to a party of a group of 40 or 50 friends that was held in August 1972. They billed it the "Southern Decadence Party: Come As Your Favorite Southern Decadent."
“Decadence,” as the observance is commonly dubbed by participants, is marked by street processions, bead tossing, and revelers promenading (often until the wee hours of the next morning) from one endless dance party to another. In these ways it resembles New Orleans’ Mardi Gras. Yet Southern Decadence tends to be more sexual in tone and is generally geared towards more upscale and mature revelers. Decadence crowds in the Quarter remain true to their name, typically matching and sometimes exceeding Mardi Gras crowds.
Now That Is Decadent!
C. Response. Overall, the conventional wisdom goes something like this. The symptoms of social decadence are economic recession and dislocation; population decline; corruption; excessive luxury; widespread neurasthenia; social alienation and unrest; moral license; collapse of trust; and lack of honesty. Homosexuality often joins this list. Specifically, it has been claimed that the homosexual person, by withdrawing from the procreative pool, contributes to population decline. This is a demographic situation which now (for example, in Western Europe) provokes anxiety. Similar sentiments occurred in the old Soviet Union.
Let us try to penetrate somewhat further into the mindset that sustains such thinking.
Are the factors cited in the above indictment mere symptoms or actual causes? To the extent that homosexuality, say, is merely a sign of an underlying malaise, would it make sense to combat it? It might seem that anti-homosexual measures are the equivalent of arbitrarily slaying the messengers, merely for doing their job in bringing focus (of a sort) to the issues.
As these questions show, thinking about decadence tends to be complex and emotionally fraught, so that symptoms and causes are thrown together helter-skelter.
These varied aspects notwithstanding, the popular mind still seeks to blame homosexuality for the fate of Greece and Rome.
Can this charge be sustained? The expansive age of Greece from the seventh through the third century BCE was, according to our documentation, their age of idealized pederasty. Far from causing a decline in population, this flowering of same-sex love accompanied an almost explosive increase in population, requiring the foundation of colonies throughout much of the Mediterranean world and later the conquests of Alexander the Great in western Asia. Conversely, the period of Greek decline - the second and first centuries BCE - corresponded to an incipient sexual puritanism and a glorification of heterosexual married life.
As for Rome, most of the homosexual scandals reported by such writers as Suetonius and Tacitus belong to the great age of the first and second century; according to Gibbon the latter century ranks as one of the greatest ages of human happiness. Only in the fourth century, under the Christian emperors, did the Roman state take legal action against consensual male same-sex conduct. It was then that the Empire entered on its final downward glide, a process that had begun earlier.
In any event, the contemporary perspective is far different from the picture suggested by those old bogies.
Currently, the United States is facing a serious economic challenge. The gravity of this situation is undeniable. But the answer is better technology, not sexual repression. Today a billion adolescents worldwide are growing up with Apple iPhones, iPods, and iPads; with Facebook accounts, Twitter, Instant Text, Google searches; and with Amazon online ordering, and megastore discount purchasing. These are the reasons for America’s strength and, as Richard Florida has shown, gay-friendly regions of the country tend to be more creative in these types of innovation than those that the regions that cling to traditional prejudices.
BIBLIOGRAPHY. J. Edward Chamberlain and Sander L. Gilman, eds., Degeneration: The Dark Side of Progress, New York: Columbia University Press, 1985; Louis Crompton, "What Do You Say to Someone Who Claims That Homosexuality Caused the Fall of Greece and Rome?" Christopher Street (March 1978), 49-52; Alexander Demandt, Der Fall Roms: Die Auflösung des Römischen Reiches im Urteil der Nachwelt, Munich: Beck, 1984; Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict From 1500 to 2000, New York: Random House, 1987; Andrew Sullivan, Virtually Normal: An Argument about Homosexuality, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995; Richard L. Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class, and How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life, New York: Basic Books, 2002.