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Jonah Goldberg terms a “miracle” the great wealth that has been produced by the West since the middle of the eighteenth century. But will the miracle that is the West give way to the suicide of the West? Ah, that is the question he attempts to answer in his new book…

Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy by Jonah Goldberg (464 pages, Crown Forum, 2018)

Jonah Goldberg is one sneaky devil. He opens his introduction of Suicide of the West (subtitled “Stumbling upon a Miracle”) by assuring his readers that “there is no God in this book.” However, his conclusion (subtitled “Decline is a Choice”) does give God a cameo role. That would be God, as opposed to the idea of God.

Actually, the idea of God is baked into the entire book. Mr. Goldberg makes that quite clear at both the outset and right near the end, especially with these words written in the context of clinching his “decline is a choice” theme: “The notion that God is watching you even when others are not is probably the most powerful civilizing force in all of human history.”

Right from the get-go Mr. Goldberg assures us that he is a believer (in God), but he wants his argument to proceed as if He does not exist; hence Mr. Goldberg advises non-believers not to “discount the importance of God as a human invention.”

Mr. Goldberg contends that we are where we are because of God as a “sociological entity” and not because of either divine providence or divine intervention.

And just where are we? The miracle, which was stumbled into and achieved, might be in the process of being squandered. In a very real sense we may have reached the end of history. Mr. Goldberg certainly thinks it is a possibility: “We are at the summit, and at this altitude left and right lose most of their meaning.”

Or, more accurately, we may have reached the end of the miracle. Mr. Goldberg certainly worries so: “When you are at the top of a mountain, any direction you turn—be it left toward socialism or right toward nationalism,… the result is the same. You must go down, back whence you came.”

The miracle that Mr. Goldberg has in mind is, of course, the great wealth that has been produced by and in the West since the middle of the eighteenth century. Will the miracle that is the West give way to the suicide of the West? Ah, that is the question, just as it was for James Burnham better than half a century ago.

But if there was more than a tinge of inevitability to Burnham’s thinking, whether in his magisterial Managerial Revolution or his pessimistic Suicide of the West, there is little to none of that in Mr. Goldberg’s treatise of the same name. Just as the miracle was the result of a series of choices, so our spurning of the miracle will be a choice as well. After all, God, and not just the idea of God, gave us free will (as opposed to the idea of free will). And Jonah Goldberg does believe in the reality and power of all three: God, the idea of God, and the free will of those who occupy His (or even his) creation.

Whether enough of Mr. Goldberg’s fellow Westerners will continue to believe—and believe fervently—in all three is anything but assured. Mr. Goldberg has written this book as his contribution to the continuation of these beliefs. It is his correct contention that words and ideas matter. They mattered to those who initiated the miracle; they have mattered to its maintenance; and they matter to its survival.

The same might be said for character, effort, ingenuity, and a sense of gratitude (both to those who have come before us and to God, and not necessarily in that order).

According to Mr. Goldberg, the goal of both miracle-workers and miracle-sustainers has never been to create a heaven on earth. If anything, that has always been the desired end of those who would destroy the miracle. Romantics all—Rousseau and his devotees, Marx and his fellow travelers, socialists and communists, populists of the Left and Right, and tribalists of all varieties—have been determined to destroy the civilization built by the God-fearing who were convinced that the God in heaven was watching them.

Mr. Goldberg has obviously cast a very wide net here. Landing in it, among many others, is one Donald J. Trump. An outspoken Never Trumper, Mr. Goldberg accuses both candidate Trump and President Trump of engaging in irresponsible populist demagoguery, of playing to the mob, of stirring up the tribalist passions that reside in all of us and of hijacking the conservative movement. Despite all of this, Mr. Goldberg does admit that had he been required to cast the ultimate tie-breaking ballot in November 2016, that he would have voted for Mr. Trump.

As a conservative, he is worried about the future of conservatism in the age of President Trump. But what worries him more are the romantic urges of the left, not to mention the unrelenting efforts of the left to repeal human nature. The appeal is real; the temptation is there.

But the future that worries him is less Orwellian than it is (Aldous) Huxleyan. Borrowing from Neil Postman’s wonderful (though very worrisome) Amusing Ourselves to Death, Mr. Goldberg agrees that Orwell’s worry that we will become a “captive culture” is dwarfed by Huxley’s fear that we will become a “trivial culture.” Postman—and Mr. Goldberg—do not stop there. In Orwell’s 1984 “people are controlled by inflicting pain.” In Huxley’s Brave New World they are “controlled by inflicting pleasure.” In sum, while Orwell mistakenly worried that “what we fear will ruin us,” Huxley more accurately predicted that “what we love will ruin us.”

From the vantage point of the Jonah-Goldberg-defined end of history (otherwise projected to be the impending demise of the miracle), it does appear that Western suicide is well underway. But is this suicide inevitable? Not to Jonah (“Decline is a Choice”) Goldberg.

Of course, decline and suicide are not necessarily the same thing. True, decline may prove to be a kind of assisted suicide. Alternatively, it may serve as the wake-up call that will lead to a revitalization of the West. No man knows the future, but Jonah Goldberg does know a good deal about the past and present: Based on the observation of the history of human actions, one can predict the failure of the Left’s war on human nature, human nature being what it is.

That failure alone will not inoculate the West against suicide. After all, some elements of our all-too-human nature are consistent with the Romanticism of the Left. Among those elements would be the primacy of feelings and the twin desires to be cared for and entertained.

There is one more element that cannot be ignored—namely our desire to worship. That brings us back to God, which is Jonah Goldberg’s point: “We are becoming what we worship, and what we worship is ourselves.” Not God, not even the idea of God, but ourselves. Self-worship is surely a recipe for suicide.

And yet Mr. Goldberg refuses to succumb to pessimism. At the same time, he also refuses to embrace a facile optimism. The stakes are too high for pessimism, and the task is too huge for optimism. All he can do is lay out the stakes and make a case for recovery in this highly personal, endlessly stimulating, and eminently readable book. It is a page turner, even if we never learn, here or elsewhere, how it all turns out. We only know that once again we must somehow learn to make men with chests.

Mr. Goldberg wisely calls upon C.S. Lewis to remind us that it is “by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal.” He adds, “The Chest is where reason and passion merge to form decency, civility, probity, and honor, rightly understood.”

By invoking C.S. Lewis in the context of his concerns about the eventual impact of a misplaced sense of worship, Jonah Goldberg is likely doing something else—and more. Sneaky devil that he truly is, he cannot keep either God or the idea of God out of his head or out of this book.

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2 replies to this post
  1. Though the subtitle of Goldberg’s book looks very promising, according to the above review, it would seem that Goldberg could be charged with a bait-and-switch move where only populism and tribalism that doesn’t include his own ideology is scapegoated for America’s coming fall. If that is a correct assessment, then we must ask if Goldberg realizes that tribalism can extend to ideologies as well as other centers of identity such as national identity, race, religion, native language, and so forth.

    In addition, using prosperity as the sole measurement for the success of a nation or civilization invites some of the same kind of thinking that supports tribalism–an enemy of democracy according to Goldberg. In addition, there is no mystery as to the financial success of the West. The West’s financial success was largely built on colonialism and race-based and ethnically-based slavery. In other words, the West’s financial success has been predominantly based on human exploitation. And the reason why many of us in the West have a difficult time in seeing that is because many of those who have been exploited have become invisible people to those of us who live privileged lives.

  2. In Democracy in America, Alexis de Toqueville writes of two towns separated by a river. On one side, bustling activity and prosperity; on the other, something approaching agrarian somnolence. Why such a large difference between two towns so similarly situated? The prosperous town is located in a free state; the somnolent town in a slave state. What de Toqueville illustrates is that slavery, far from being an engine of financial success, actually acts as a brake on the prosperity of the state. As far as colonialism is concerned, it appears to me that although the European powers attempted to run their colonies as profit centers, they generally failed. The colonies may have been given their independence after WWII in the name of freedom and equality, but the fact was maintaining empires cost more than it was bringing in.

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