Suicide of the West and Its Critics

The first part of my review of Suicide of the West by Jonah Goldberg sought to outline the book’s argument (1900 word outline, I know).  In this post I want to address some of the critics of the book and thus explore the tensions noted at the start of my review.

Many of Goldberg’s critics charge that he ruled out the answer that must underlie any true restoration or rehabilitation of our society: God.  I think this is an unfair criticism in a couple of ways; tactical and philosophical.

From a tactical standpoint, they ignore the fact that Goldberg removes God for the sake of argument not because he is an atheist or thinks religion plays no role.  He is aiming at persuasion in a democratic public square where reason and decency are the highest form of argument. To argue from the perspective of faith would be to lose a sizable chunk of his audience from the very beginning.

Philosophically, Goldberg is arguing from a position of pluralism and common ground because he believes it is the best way to defend and shore up the blessings of the Miracle.  The book is full of calls for strengthening and restoring civil society, for creating space for institutional pluralism, for refusing to ground meaning in national political symbols and language.  The place for religious values and faith to flourish is in this system, not in a hoped for near universal faith-based worldview or culture.

Two critiques/reviews are worth noting.  Let’s start with Jonah Goldberg’s Soulless Case for Liberty by Richard M. Reinsch II.  Allow me to quote a section that represents the heart of this critique:

Does the Enlightenment Miracle provide the best understanding of America? And if it doesn’t—if in fact there are better tributaries that nourished the American Founding—does that mean that Goldberg’s diagnosis of what ails America will be similarly off-target?

This is not to affirm Rousseau’s political project, but it is to say that you have to take the rough with the smooth. If you are going to set the Enlightenment Miracle as the standard of human excellence, one that we are losing, you must also clearly state the dialectic it introduces of an exaltation of reason, power, and science that can become something rather illiberal. If man’s mind constitutes reality, then truly how far are you from arriving at Marx’s famous admonition that “philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.

Frankly, I do not have the philosophical or historical chops to untangle the arguments Reinsch makes regarding Locke, et al.  But there are two basic points worth highlighting. One is the argument that the excesses of the Enlightenment are part and parcel of the Enlightenment.  In this view if you are going to celebrate the good, you must include the bad in the accounting; if you accept the blessing of the Miracle you must also accept Marxism, Communism, Scientism and a host of other extremes.

John Daniel Davidson’s review follows similar lines:

The fundamental problem with his argument is that it rests on an incomplete account of the Enlightenment and the liberal order. Yes, the Miracle gave us capitalism and democracy, but it also gave us hyper-individualism, scientism, and communism. It gave us liberty and universal suffrage, but it also gave us abortion, euthanasia, and transgenderism. The abolition of man was written into the Enlightenment, in other words, and the suicide of the West that Goldberg warns us about isn’t really a suicide at all, because it isn’t really a choice: we aren’t committing suicide, we’re dying of natural causes.

[…]

If Goldberg wants to preserve the Miracle, he’s going to have to do a better job of explaining how it happened. To do that, he’s going to have to look back further than 300 years and rediscover the old morals and virtues that informed the pursuit of happiness, that gave shape to human flourishing and gave people something greater than themselves to belong to. Western civilization depends on sturdier stuff than material wealth, or individualism, or even democracy.

First, I think this is a little unfair.  Goldberg is describing the ingredients that led to the Miracle not trying to define and argue the strengths and weaknesses of something broadly termed the Enlightenment.

Second, if you accept what Goldberg calls the Lockean Revolution (the individual is sovereign, our rights come from God not governments, the fruits of our labors belong to us, and no man should be less equal before the law because of his faith or class) as the basis for politics must you then accept any and all of the extremes of individualism, reason and science?  Does an appreciation for liberal democratic capitalism require accepting Marxism, Communism, and Socialism not too mention the extremes of the Progressive Era?

I think Goldberg makes a compelling, if limited, case that the extremes were more outgrowths of romantic and reactionary impulses than simply natural outgrowths of the foundational ideas.  But he understands that history is messy and that ideas are not teleological but interactive and contingent.

Look closely and you will see that both Davidson and Reinsch are putting a greater burden on Goldberg than he seeks to take up.  Goldberg sought not to offer the best explanation for America nor the whole of Western Civilization but rather the explosion of wealth and flourishing he calls the Miracle.  

As was noted in my review, civilization alone is not sufficient to create the Miracle.  The ancient roots of Western Civilization are important but they did not lead directly to the change Goldberg seeks to explore .  The “old morals and virtues that informed the pursuit of happiness, that gave shape to human flourishing and gave people something greater than themselves to belong to” can and did exist without the economic explosion that is at the heart of the book.

The irony of many of these critics, in my opinion, is that they are guilty of the very reactionary or romantic nostalgia-based impulse that Goldberg decries.  They seek a return to Christendom or at least a worldview based on Christian infused values. They seek a return to a civilization based on the values of Athens and Jerusalem via Rome.  This may be understandable and even preferable in theory, but, in my opinion, that world is not coming back. Can we use ancient wisdom to chart a better course forward and restrain the excesses of our culture?  Yes, but we can’t return to a pre-enlightenment West or rebuild Christendom.

Goldberg doesn’t deny the role Christianity played in the West and discusses and debates the role it played in the Miracle, but he rightly understands that Christendom alone did not create the prosperous West.  Liberal democratic capitalism did. Discussion of where we go from here must acknowledge where we are, how we got here, and plot a path forward not seek a return to a mythical past.

Other critics have questioned whether Goldberg’s argument can really be called conservative (see Davidson).  Before I get to this larger issue, this Trumpian comment at the end of Reinsch’s review I think it points to something:

Trump’s victory, along with the victory of the Brexiteers in June of 2016, led me to the following conclusion: when something like 90 percent of the smart, rich, pretty people throw it all at you and you still win, then a reassessment of politics in your democracy is surely called for. I’m a conservative after all, there are no formulas or templates. For those, I look to the libertarians.

This is what you might call paleoconservative virtue signalling.  It is an attempt to paint Goldberg with the brush of an out of touch and mistaken liberal elite (and the comments use this as an excuse to dismiss the book and author). Put aside Goldberg’s critique of Trump through the lens of romantic and reactionary ideas, and Trump’s clear lack of philosophical conservatism or knowledge of any of the history Reinsch covers, does the fact that Trump took advantage of Hillary Clinton’s historic weakness to win roughly 40k votes in three states, and thus the presidency, really call for a reassessment of politics in our democracy?  Maybe Trump is not sui generis but part of a larger pattern that Goldberg highlights; maybe he is a symptom rather than a cause.

Again, I think attempts to write Goldberg/SOTW out of conservatism is off for both tactical and philosophical reasons.  Tactically Goldberg is seeking common ground within the broad range of American political history. This might be called “classical liberalism” for lack of a better term.  For Goldberg, American conservatives seek to conserve the genius of the American founding. And he believes it is important, and possible, to find common ground on the values and principles contained therein with those who don’t see themselves as explicitly conservative.

I understand that there are strains of conservatism (paleo or traditionalist) that reject classical liberalism, roughly what Goldberg calls the Lockean Revolution, as a philosophical or political foundation.  But in my opinion this is not the dominant perspective of modern American conservatism and Goldberg is solidly within the confines of that group; fusionism rightly understood.

Goldberg acknowledges that the ingredients of the Miracle contain within themselves the possibility to undermine the larger project.  Capitalism and innovation are a threat to tradition and stability. Individualism and rationalism can lead to family and cultural breakdown and loneliness and isolation which leads to reactionary and romantic alternatives.  He spends time outlining Schumpeter’s and others arguments on these tensions.

Equally clear, is Goldberg’s rejection of progressivism and its heirs today; those who would overturn the Miracle.  He is seeking, again for lack of a better term, the vital center; a group who may disagree on specific policies and approaches but who share a commitment to liberal democratic capitalism.

While he rejects the romantic/reactionary element of both left and right, he is also deeply conservative and even traditionalist.  Again, he passionately advocates for the rebuilding of civil society, for pushing power down rather than up, and for the institutional pluralism that allows faith, family and community to flourish.  There is a whole chapter on the attack on the family.

The problem is that so many want to nationalize and universalize these battles as part of American politics.  The result is polarizing culture wars that don’t end up strengthening civil society, families or communities.

The challenge is twofold. One is that the mental division of labor critical to the success is unnatural and feels foreign.  Two is that applying these ideas work for the macrocosm but not for the microcosm; they work for the large society and world but not for our families, neighborhoods, and churches.

Goldberg’s answer is not a re-founding of Western thought on Judeo-Christian or pre-enlightenment philosophy  but rather a sort of localist pluralism.  Acknowledging and being grateful for the ideas and principles that allowed for the unprecedented economic growth and human flourishing of the last 300 years while recognizing the constant human temptation to tribalism and romanticism that undermines these values.  But at the same time defending, and at times rebuilding, civil society at the local level. Tending the gardens of family, civic organizations, religious communities, and local institutions.

Goldberg does not deny the tensions involved in this conservative project within a liberal democratic capitalist system but rather accepts it as the challenge we face.  

The question is whether we are up to it.

 

Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy Book Cover Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy
Jonah Goldberg
Crown Forum
April 24, 2018
Hardcover
464

Only once in the last 250,000 years have humans stumbled upon a way to lift ourselves out of the endless cycle of poverty, hunger, and war that defines most of history—in 18th century England when we accidentally discovered the miracle of liberal democratic capitalism.

As Americans we are doubly blessed that those radical ideas were written into the Constitution, laying the groundwork for our uniquely prosperous society:
·         Our rights come from God not from the government.
·         The government belongs to us; we do not belong to the government.
·         The individual is sovereign. We are all captains of our own souls.
·         The fruits of our labors belong to us.

In the last few decades, these political virtues have been turned into vices. As we are increasingly taught to view our traditions as a system of oppression, exploitation and “white privilege,” the principles of liberty and the rule of law are under attack from left and right.

At a moment when authoritarianism, tribalism, identity politics, nationalism, and cults of personality are rotting our democracy from within, Goldberg exposes the West’s suicidal tendencies on both sides of the ideological aisle. For the West to survive, we must renew our sense of gratitude for what our civilization has given us and rediscover the ideals that led us out of the bloody muck of the past – or back to the muck we will go.

Suicide is painless, liberty takes work.

About the author

Kevin Holtsberry

I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season - oh, and watching golf too).

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