The Ambiguities of Ross Douthat

Ross Douthat’s interesting but frustrating new book, The Decadent Society, puts me in mind of a famous Jewish joke. The scene opens with the wise and beloved old rabbi, lying on his deathbed. He is attended by a dozen or so of his students and disciples, all of whom are dutifully lined up in order of seniority, somberly awaiting the rabbi’s last words. Finally, the moment arrives. The rabbi opens his eyes, leans over to his side, and grants to his first and best student his parting declaration: “Life is…a river.” Quickly, the first student passes the word along to the next student in line. “The rabbi says life is a river.” And then it is passed to the next: “The rabbi says life is a river.” And so it goes on down the line, until the message reaches the youngest of the entourage. He receives the news, ponders it for a moment, then naively responds, “But what does the rabbi mean, life is a river?” And so back up the line his question comes, one by one, until it reaches the most senior student, who feels obliged to pose the question, on behalf of the others. “Rabbi,” he asks, his voice nervous with apprehension, “what do you mean, ‘Life is a river’?” The rabbi closes his eyes to think.

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