DNA sequencing has totally changed the understanding that we have of our genetic makeup and is consequently changing our understanding of early human migration. In an article in the NY Times Science section, human DNA has been found in Neanderthals from Siberia that is 100,000 years old. This upsets the accepted theory that humans of European and Asian ancestry left Africa 50-60,000 years ago. It was a good theory.

Theory is a marvelous invention. It clearly separates humans from other animal forms allowing us to make hypotheses that can lead us to discovery. But theory also has a way of embedding itself into our consciousness in a way that can be obstructive. The DNA discovery has altered a view that anthropologists have long accepted. In my field of English furniture history there are many gray areas where theory has been accepted as fact, something I have written about in the past.

In a recent post, I wrote about Mary Beard’s, “SPQR, A History of Rome” and how she intertwined myth and history as representing factual history. Of course, Romulus and Remus were not nurtured by a wolf, if they even existed, but their story was essential to later Romans. It is a little like believing the myth about George Washington and the cherry tree. It isn’t true, but it serves as a kind of aggrandizement of one’s origins and every family, town and country has them.

The problem is when myth, history and theory are lumped into bad behavior. The takeover of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge is a case in point. The logic of the occupiers was that they, not the Government, should the arbiters of how the land is used. In the eyes of many, the Government is constantly conspiring to undermine our freedoms. Such hogwash! Unfortunately, the result was destruction of property and historical artifacts, a guaranteed byproduct of lawlessness. It is also a story that does not have an end, and so more history and myth will be written. Alas!

Ross Douthat’s editorial in the NY Times on Sunday called the current climate of our country as one of decadence. Is he really talking about decadence or is he talking about decay? Decadence, as I see it, is a satiation of sensation and would be epitomized by an era such as the Belle Epoque of the 1890’s. The one area of our country that might be considered decadent at the moment is Silicon Valley where money has truly lost its value simply because there is so much of it there. But for the rest of the country, decadence is not really in evidence.

Decadence in the decorative arts usually means the larding of form with exuberant, and not necessarily cohesive, decoration. Gilded putti come to mind immediately. But it must be remembered that the rococo style in the first quarter of the 18th century was thought to be decadent, but it turned out to be quite extraordinarily abstract and could be considered the forebear of all abstract art for its freedom of form and style. Of course, as the style echoed through the centuries, there are interpretations that range from ugly to kitsch to amazingly beautiful. Decadence in the decorative arts has its uses.

I would argue that there is decay in America at this particular time. The decay lies in the balkanization of individual interests. There does not seem to be a common goal. Health care, the bête noire of any number of Presidents since Theodore Roosevelt, is still roiling our politics. The right does not want a “socialist” solution and the left sees it as the only answer. Obamacare lies uncomfortably in the middle, better than nothing but flawed. This issue is one of many that are substantive and the American ability to compromise and come up with a way that satisfies both sides seems remote.

So where does the decay come from? After all, Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill were famous for their entente and were able to do things together without partisan rancor. The only answer I can think of is money. If this is where Mr. Douthat sees decadence, I would agree with him. There is too much money in political life. From lobbyists to Political Action Committees, our Congress dances to the tunes of various minorities whose whims may or may not conform to the best interests of our nation. To that end, I would agree that we are indeed in an era of decadence.