A review of Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics Is Destroying American Democracy by Jonah J. Goldberg, Crown Forum, 2018, 442 pp., $28.
Suicide of the West is intended as a “serious” work, which it is indeed. But in my opinion it rests snugly on the shelf with Goldberg’s two previous books, Liberal Fascism and Tyranny of Clichés. All three present serious topics in a thoughtful and well-researched manner, but his most recent is generally lacking Goldberg’s signature rhetorical flourishes, pop culture references and jokey material.
Suicide of the West is super-serious, and self-consciously borrows its title from James Burnham’s 1964 book, which was subtitled “An Essay on the Meaning and Destiny of Liberalism,” Since Burnham and Goldberg are both inextricably linked with the conservative National Review magazine, such intentional theft makes sense in light of social and political changes of the past five decades that have more or less proven Burnham correct. True conservatism has beaten a retreat while the liberal urge – described by Burnham as good intentions overruling common sense practices and laws – has co-opted many on the Right. Echoing Burnham, Goldberg depicts the indifference with which the intelligentsia treats our country’s shared cultural and political heritage. Such indifference has trickled down, percolated upward and permeated nearly every aspect of today’s society – aided and abetted by the octopus of an ever-growing administrative state unbeholden to voters; Jacobin educators bent on politicizing students; identity politics; fractious social media; and a host of other social maladies.
Is it any wonder Goldberg’s tone has become more somber? For Goldberg, the West has passed already the sweet spot of a democratic republic, although he doesn’t precisely note when such a sweet spot actually occurred – however, it might safely be said he believes it was before the presidency of Woodrow Wilson. The 1920s promised a return to normalcy under presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge, but this was but a brief remission before big government metastasized under the New Deal programs of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
According to Goldberg, our suicide-in-the-making manifests itself in the symptoms listed in the book’s subtitle. The method by which we’re committing cultural hara-kiri is a mixture of ignorance of, entitlement to and, most of all, ingratitude for what Goldberg terms the Miracle. The Miracle, of course, isn’t just one or two isolated events that transpired since 1700, the author asserts, but a wide variety of cultural shifts, ideas and writings – and no small amount of unidentifiable butterfly effects that helped propel them.
Into this primordial soup was sprinkled Enlightenment thought and more than a smidgen of trial-and-error. By the time the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were drafted, it didn’t seem necessary to thank God for the favors of liberty. Nor, for that matter, was it deemed important to credit John Locke, Montesquieu and a host of others. By the end of the 18th century, the truths they espoused were considered self-evident. It seemed we in the West had it all figured out – until the French Revolution, that is, wherein Swiss political theorist Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “noble savages” behaved far less than nobly and well beyond savage.
In fact, it is Rousseau’s ideas that are depicted by Goldberg as the bête noire of the past 200-some years, which isn’t terribly surprising as there exist few conservative thinkers who would disagree. “Man is born free, and everywhere he lives in chains” became the bumptious refrain of reformers and revolutionaries for whom egalitarian outcomes and other utopian schemes were the false promises masking power grabs. If not for Rousseau laying the groundwork, one wonders if the dialectical machinations of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel or the statism of Karl Marx and a host of others would have gained purchase.
For that matter, the foremost cultural movement immediately following Rousseau was Romanticism, which to this day continues to butt heads with conservative high-mindedness. Goldberg goes to great lengths to describe this cultural standoff as necessary if not completely desirable. Much good can be said regarding Romantic composers and poets, for example, including the staunchly anti-Locke poet and illustrator William Blake. Readers also may recall the ease and admiration thereof by which Russell Kirk included Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his pantheon of conservative thinkers that followed Edmund Burke. Goldberg notes the prominence of monsters in Romantic fiction and popular culture (Frankenstein’s creation and Godzilla, for example) as perfect subjects for a variety of allegorical purposes both conservative and liberal. As for contemporary pop music, much if not most of it fits under the rubric of Romanticism.
Leaving aside modernism and postmodernism for the sake of this discussion, our culture continues to swoon Romantic. Again, Goldberg doesn’t perceive this an issue until Romanticism becomes the prevailing and predominant prism by which all our culture is created and judged. I tend to agree. Populism, nationalism, tribalism and identity politics all stem from a lower-case “r” romanticism, declares the author, which turns its back on the gains humanity experienced from the Miracle. Goldberg’s coverage of the history behind the Miracle is well-tread ground, but a worthwhile endeavor when commenting on our current situation.
A Never-Trump conservative, Goldberg is able to defend his position without denigrating those who voted for our current president. Instead, he goes to great lengths to display his agreement with many of the goals he shares with Trump voters: small government and, by extension, less government intrusion in the daily lives of its citizens. These admirable and worthy goals were expressed by the Tea Party before status quo politicians and pundits labeled its members “kooks,” which eventually sidelined the movement. Unlike many of his conservative and classical liberal Never Trump fellows, Goldberg can even discern good emanating from the current administration despite his loathing of the president’s character.
Summoning his inner Talking Head, Goldberg ponders, well, how did we get here? On this, we very much agree – the perception that government is the desired answer to all of humanity’s spiritual, emotional and material needs. This romantic concept spread like wildfire over the course of the past century despite ample empirical evidence of its negative repercussions. It doesn’t take a village to raise a child, after all; it takes at least one parent and preferably two to nurture that child to maturity as an adult individual. That young woman who was the imagined subject of the Democratic campaign slideshow “The Life of Julia” was another chilling example of statist puffery or, to borrow a word from Goldberg: “codswallop.”
Concomitant with a reliance on government for cradle to grave sustenance, writes Goldberg, is our ingratitude for the Miracle; that it happened in the first place and was so effective at lifting so many lives from drudgery, poverty, illness and early death. That we’ve grown soft and forgetful for all things wrought by the Miracle is a point well-taken, as is Goldberg’s assertion many of us now feel entitled to the bounties provided by our freedoms however relative those freedoms might seem to followers of Rousseau. Goldberg hesitates to credit God for this miracle, but God and religious faith both play large supporting roles in the story he relates. For as much as Enlightenment thinkers attempted to move God and religious faith from the equation of humanity’s purpose, both are inherent to the truly Conservative Mind as enumerated by Russell Kirk in the first of his Ten Conservative Principles, beginning with:
First, the conservative believes that there exists an enduring moral order. That order is made for man, and man is made for it: human nature is a constant, and moral truths are permanent.
Goldberg book serves as proof he understands this whether he’s familiar with any of Kirk’s writings or not.
Suicide of the West, for all its serious intent and ominous title, is a necessary read for today’s intellectual drought. By refreshing readers’ knowledge of the origins of the Miracle and how it helped spread freedom, increased wealth and alleviated poverty and associated miseries over the course of the past two centuries, Goldberg irrigates the nearly parched roots of conservatism and its branches of small government, lightly regulated markets and virtuous living. One hopes he’s not too late.