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Go West, Old Man 

John Sexton

Do we want decline?

May you live in interesting times” may be a fake Chinese proverb, but, like many fakes, it has acquired a kind of reality over time, and its meaning is instantly grasped by most people who hear it. As much as the soul reaches out for the new, the dangerous, and the unknown, it hankers after the old, the safe, and the repetitive. And why wouldn’t it? The interesting is often painful and sometimes fatal. The Italian Renaissance was interesting. It was also, notes Harry Lime, the charming rogue and purveyor of adulterated medicines played by Orson Welles in the 1949 film of Graham Greene’s The Third Man, a time of “warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed” — a time, we get the sense, that to Lime seemed fun.

My impression is that Ross Douthat, a conservative op-ed columnist for the New York Times, is — despite what posters to the comments section on his columns might say — no Harry Lime. His latest book, The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success is, however, somewhat Limean in its application of the Frontier thesis to humanity at large, and in its insistence on the connection between struggle, expansion, and progress....

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John Sexton is a graduate student in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago.