May 11, 2018

Culture

Is the West Committing Suicide? A Review of Jonah Goldberg’s New Book

By: Jon Staab

I believe that, conceptually, we have reached the end of history. We are at the summit, and at this altitude left and right lose most of their meaning. Because when you are at the top of a mountain, any direction you turn—be it left toward socialism or right toward nationalism or in some other clever direction—the result is the same: You must go down, back whence you came.

This isn’t 1989, and the source of this quote isn’t Francis Fukuyama’s (in)famous essay “The End of History?” Found in the conclusion of Jonah Goldberg’s newest book, Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy, these words serve as a warning to readers, one reminiscent of Ronald Reagan’s warning just 57 years ago today, that “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.”

Goldberg believes that the advent of Western liberalism was nothing short of a miracle—in fact, he refers to it as “the Miracle” throughout the book. A natural extension of Enlightenment thought, Goldberg argues that the institutions of Western liberalism, i.e. capitalism and democracy, were mere accidents, that the very cooperation required to produce such institutions is antithetical to human nature itself.

He argues that prior to and in the absence of these institutions, humans devolve and embrace their primal urge to form or join tribes in the interest of survival. It’s this us-versus-them mentality that now dominates contemporary political discourse, wherein individuals have become more concerned with “winning” than with upholding the values of life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and “earned success,” a foundational element of American exceptionalism that was coined by Arthur Brooks. This, above all else, places Western liberalism perilously close to permanent decay, Goldberg posits.

To hear him tell it, the title of his new book was purposefully chosen— but not because of some long-standing reverence for the ideas of James Burnham, author of Suicide of the West: An Essay on the Meaning and Destiny of Liberalism. Instead, Goldberg deliberately chose the title of his new book because suicide is a choice—we’re doing this to ourselves, by taking “the Miracle” for granted.

Australian scientist David Goodall died Thursday at the age of 104. It’s always sad to learn of someone’s death, but the passing of a 104-year-old rarely warrants international headlines. Goodall’s death, however, was atypical. An outspoken advocate of assisted suicide, Goodall took his own life, with the assistance of doctors in Switzerland. While euthanasia is a topic better suited for another forum, the fact that some humans are now complicit in the promotion of death (and even celebrate it because it seemingly represents an ill-defined notion of “dignity”) strikes at the heart of Goldberg’s powerful monograph.

James Madison wrote in “Federalist No. 55” that, “Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates; every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.” I couldn’t help but think of these words as I read stories of David Goodall’s life this morning. Despite his myriad accomplishments as an ecologist, the story of his life is now framed by the story of his death, one contextualized by widespread social acceptance. It’s this complicity in our self-imposed decline, our unwillingness to accept culpability in hastening its effects, that readers of Goldberg’s book should take to heart. We chose this, but we can stop it before it’s too late. The first step is to be grateful for everything “the Miracle” has provided. Otherwise, like Goldberg, I fear that Western liberalism’s fate may mirror that of Goodall as we descend from our perch atop the mountain of history, back whence we came.


Photo: amazon.com, Cover: Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy, by Jonah Goldberg

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