July 26, 2018


Jonah Goldberg's Burkean Turn: His latest book is a flawed but valuable warning not to forsake our national inheritance. (MATT PURPLE, July 26, 2018, American Conservative)

Reading Goldberg's Suicide of the West, one is struck by its similarities to another book: Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now. Both Goldberg and Pinker--the former occasionally cites the latter--defend the fruits of modernity against what they see as an epidemic of ingratitude. We live in the wealthiest, freest country in the wealthiest, freest time in the history of the world, yet we're nonetheless restless, unthankful. But whereas Pinker's view of the modern West is durable and determinist--a thundering wave of progress that scatters objectors like so much chum--Goldberg sees it as delicate and precarious, easily shattered by a sudden move in the wrong direction. It is also unnatural, a contrast to "the natural state of mankind" that Goldberg characterizes as "grinding poverty punctuated by horrific violence terminating with an early death." We escaped that muddy prison almost by accident, thanks to the triumph of liberal ideas evolved tortuously over centuries until they came to full blossom in Great Britain. And our return to incarceration is still very much a possibility.

It should be obvious that Goldberg, one of the Right's most sulphurous Donald Trump critics, sees the president as on the wrong side of this battle. But it is in all of our mirrors, not just Trump's gold-framed one, that he spots the agent of our destruction. Human nature itself is forever beckoning us out of the modern world, back into our primordial state. The Christians call it the Fall, Kant lamented the "crooked timber of humanity," Madison more innocently observed that men aren't angels. However you characterize our innate potential for evil, Goldberg worries it might yet tear down all that we've accomplished. He's particularly bothered over tribalism, our tendency to fracture into antagonistic identity groups, which he sees as a deeply embedded feature in man's nature. Classical liberalism requires a suspension of this tribal instinct so that man is governed as an individual, not a member of a group or class. Today, though, tribalism is reasserting itself. Goldberg sees this both on the Right with the Trump phenomenon and the Left with its unbending creed of identity politics.

The battle lines, then, don't so much track between Trump and social justice warriors, opposite sides of the same coin so far as Goldberg is concerned. They run between those who seek to defend our liberal traditions and those who yearn to tear them down in pursuit of an Atlantis mirage masking a barbarian past. This divide is chronological: the greatest change ever in political affairs came at the end of the 17th century, when the Glorious Revolution affirmed the primacy of Britain's parliament, John Locke published his Second Treatise on Government, and man began a rapid ascent out of poverty. Goldberg refers to this unbelievable stroke of good fortune as "the Miracle." The divide also manifests itself in modern philosophy. Goldberg's historical villains are the Romantics, inspired by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whom he pits against Locke and figures of the Enlightenment. Whereas Rousseauians believe that "man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains," Lockeans contend that society keeps man free by protecting his rights; whereas Rousseauians demand that man conform to a collectivized "general will," Lockeans see the individual as the necessary political unit.

It is from Rousseau that we get Marxist utopias and reactionary theocracies--excuses, really, for the brutal rule of one tribe over another, while the Lockeans find their paramount expression in the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Suicide of the West, then, is at its heart an apologetic for the American project against those who view it as incurably diseased. That and Goldberg's contention that the United States can be ruined only from within, not by a foreign enemy such as the Soviet Union, distinguish this Suicide from its Cold War-era namesake. Goldberg doesn't get around to mentioning Burnham until page 115, whereupon he quickly (and correctly) dismisses him as too enamored with the politics of power rather than the power of ideas. Ideas, Goldberg counters, can change the world, just as Enlightenment insights did three centuries ago. This intellectual tradition is our supreme inheritance, the best political arrangement we will ever have, and in need of preservation lest it be displaced.

To his credit, Mr. Goldberg dislikes the title.

Posted by at July 26, 2018 4:28 AM