Or is it metaphysical drift? Or is it a kind of spiritual decay that leads to cultural decadence? Drift is what the cultural right is revolting against, and that drift is a problem that the cultural left just doesn't get or care about? Should it? How far can the culture go in de-linking itself from its cultural and religious heritage before it just loses its identity and sense of purpose in some global mall of values and lifestyles? For the cosmopolitan left this isn't a problem; it embraces this movement into global diversity. But the right resists it, and I think its concerns are legitimate, even if at the same time I think its solutions wrong-headed.
Unless we bomb ourselves back into the middle ages where our lives will be dominated by local warlords, it's inevitable that we will all in the long run merge into some kind of global fusion culture. Samuel Huntington's thesis in his Clash of Civilizations has some short-term utility in describing current conditions, but is wrong over the long term. Everything that rises must converge. The question is whether the human species is still rising or whether it has hit a dead-end. Right now it feels more like the latter, but I don't really believe that's our real situation.
Jacques Barzun in his book a From Dawn to Decadence makes clear that for him 'decadence' is not a pejorative term, it's a technical or clinical term: “When people accept futility and the absurd as normal,“ he writes, “the culture is decadent. The term is not a slur, it is a technical label.” Decadence, he says, “. . . implies in those who live in such a time no loss of energy or talent or moral sense. On the contrary, it is a very active time, full of deep concerns but peculiarly restless for it sees no clear lines of advance. The loss it faces is that of Possibility.”
The point here is that while individuals may still have their personal dreams and ambitions, there is no longer any culture-wide aspiration toward some transcendent ideal. Medieval Christianity had it. Enlightenment Humanism had it. Even Marxism had it. But the West has lost any such sense of future transcendent possibility, and whether or not this is a temporary loss I don't know for sure, but I tend to think not. Something new is always a possibility even if we have no imagination for it yet.
And it's because we are no longer moderns and not yet whatever's next, we are in this mode of cultural drift, neither here nor there. We're in a state of decadence as Barzun describes it, restless and seeing no clear lines of advance. So we drift. We let the tail wag the dog. The tail being mainly our individual concerns about money, concerns about our physical well being, our entertainments. We are, if what's on TV or in the magazine racks is any indication, a people preoccupied with our looks, our wellness, our economic security, our personal ambitions and careers, our sexual performance, our personal happiness. We don't really care about the big picture, and we have no way that seems legitimate to talk about it without getting all scare quotey and ironic.
But if the culture is agnostic about questions of larger meaning and purpose, the result is our having drifted into this decadent, bread-and-circuses mode. And I sympathize with those on the thoughtful right in their rejection of this drift into cultural decadence and the narcissism that comes with it. Drift, if it goes on long enough, leads eventually to wreckage on the rocks. I think conservative intellectuals are right about this. Values matter. And there has to be some basic consensus on the meaning and purpose of our life together if we have any hope of avoiding the inevitable shipwreck that awaits us otherwise.
But the cultural right's response to decadence is a nostalgic "restorationism." If we have no future, let's bring back what worked from the past. Ronald Reagan was the great symbol for a restorationist America. What else is there to do when the only other choice seems to be to just drift into the future being driven by the most primitive human impulses. But there is no future in nostalgia.
I understand the concerns of the right, but the restorationist solution is just another symptom of decadence in Baruzun's sense--our loss of the sense of collective Possibility. As such it is not a solution. The solution lies elsewhere, and while I don't know what it is, I think it's about having a good nose and that we have to sniff our way into the future. This is a challenge for practical wisdom, or what the Greeks called phronesis and the Catholics call 'discernment of spirits'--in this instance, the spirit of the times. There is no program; there is no leader to follow. There is only an emerging community of people with good noses who discover one another and report by whatever means at their disposal what they are sniffing out.