Awaiting the Prophet: On Jonah Goldberg’s “Suicide of the West”

Goldberg thinks we are in danger of losing many of the benefits we have painstakingly accrued, that we have gone seriously off the ideological rails. Government does increasingly reach into every corner of our lives. His prescription, however, seems inadequate to the complexity of the problem. Recall that Plato wanted to ban poets from the Republic, and William Blake acutely commented that Milton, having made Satan by far the most vivid character in Paradise Lost, “was of the devil’s party without knowing it.” Diversions of the young have always seemed pernicious to the old. John Locke in particular receives a long encomium. His most recent book is David: The Divided Heart (Yale University Press). We must return to our traditional roots. Sure, Breaking Bad may have us falling in love with an increasingly savage Walter White, but Goldberg’s is a very old complaint, and hardly unique to new media. Unlike Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011), however, Goldberg’s is a jeremiad, a genre with a very old history, as the name indicates. Therefore, how we train ourselves and our children, how we learn to discipline our emotions, how we esteem the individual even when different from us, is critical to the democratic experiment. This way, argues Goldberg, lies balkanized chaos. What’s the alternative? Goldberg explains why he, and not Rousseau, is America’s guiding spirit: “Locke believed in the sovereignty of the individual and that we are ‘captains of ourselves.’ Rousseau argues that the group was more important than the individual and the ‘general will’ was superior to the solitary conscience.”
It is dangerous to enlist intellectual history in service of modern agendas. Now we await the prophet who can explain how technology can aid our solidarity more than it destroys it. In a techno-geeking world, individualism easily slides into solipsism. That said, the details add up to a powerful inducement. One can nitpick about the potted histories (for example, I believe he doesn’t acknowledge the enormous contribution of Hebrew Scriptures and Jewish thought to the founding of America or of capitalism), and there is some assassination by anecdote. Granted, his wry retelling of campus blaming, shaming, and victim claiming would shock all but the most ideologically besotted. But underneath all of that are two bedrock assumptions upon which all of these commitments stand: the belief that ideas matter and that character matters. But is the atmosphere better outside of the college campus? The same tsunami of data that has revolutionized medicine has, with a twist and a tweet, given us 24-hour news with its howling stridencies. Perhaps no one can rise to the challenge of offering a prescription, but there is great value in diagnosis. Goldberg covers a lot of ground, and the weight of his argument sometimes sags under the ancillary. Suicide of the West has pointed to genuine problems: Jeremiah’s doom has been pronounced. A call for discipline and appreciation in the midst of such a maelstrom reminds one of St. Tolerance is painless to the indifferent and wrenching to the passionate. The history of the West is far too often seen only through the prism of its crimes (which are, of course, heinous), rather than its unprecedented achievements. One can almost hear Goldberg shaking his head and muttering, pipe in hand, “Kids today…”
Indeed, there is much to dispute in this crowded book, but Goldberg is an expert shot and modern America is a target-rich environment. As family and voluntary associations crumble, political divisions take on the coloration of religious commitments, passionate and exclusionary. ¤
“Modern American conservatism,” Goldberg writes,
is a bundle of ideological commitments: limited government, natural rights, the importance of traditional values, patriotism, gratitude, etc. He complains of the ability of mass entertainment, music, movies, and TV to seduce us into immorality. But to prove that a militant tribalism is essentially a problem of romantic ideology would require a much longer book than this already long one. But a mild assent is not enough. And we are trivializing and emoting our way to chaos. ¤
David Wolpe is rabbi of Sinai Temple in Westwood. As good as things are, he suggests, they are also tenuous. In other words, we are in the midst of a tidal wave of change. Polarization is greater than at any time in recent memory (and most of the book was written before the election of Donald Trump). On all these issues, Goldberg’s analysis is acute, informative, and important. Can we really turn on a dime? Youth specializes in passion. Goldberg attributes our ailment to a combination of causes: exhilarated with our identities and experiences, we slight the rationalism and individualism upon which America — and the West — was founded. The only solution to our woes is for the West to re-embrace the core ideas that made the Miracle possible, not just as a set of policies, but as a tribal attachment, a dogmatic commitment.” Assent is anodyne; we need devotion. The same technological warp drive that has given us iPhones and streaming services has cut extreme global poverty in half. One could as easily point to the transcendentalists as America’s guiding spirits, and surely Whitman, Thoreau, and Emerson (and Lincoln, for that matter) could justly be described as romantics, or at least romantic adjacent. Are communities left or right more tolerant than students? Reason is general; feelings are individual. JUNE 3, 2018
WHEN I TAUGHT ancient and medieval Western civilization, at the end of the class I used to tell my undergraduate students that, for all the genius we had surveyed, if someone were to approach them with a time machine and ask what year they would like to live in, they should say, “This one, please.”
The slightest engagement with history teaches us that life is better for (almost) everyone today than it was for even the most privileged in the past. He offers quick summaries of the birth of capitalism, the English and American revolutions, the foundations of liberty, and everything from the explosion of government regulation to current speech codes on campus, trends in film and music, and the economic woes of Venezuela. ¤
Goldberg certainly has a bone to pick with new technology. And if the attitudes there are more extreme, is that a surprise? Reasoned discourse falls before “as a (fill in the blank), I feel”; the subgroup you belong to has come to matter more than what you think. “[T]he cure for what ails us is dogma. The story of mind is capacious, and condemnations should be specific. The romantic hero was a solitary one. All the talk of feelings and identity, the exaltation of emotion over reason, corrodes the healthy body politic with a toxic species of group-solidarity. Augustine’s encounter with the child who was trying to empty the sea with a spoon. Having attended my share of conferences, rallies, conventions, religious services, and public events, I am not at all convinced that campuses are unique in this regard. And while Goldberg continually extols the individual over the group, and identifies the group with romantic ideology, it is hardly clear that romanticism cannot be as individualistic a doctrine as reason. Furthermore, Goldberg seems to be aware of the baleful social effects of the headphone-wearing, Netflix-binging, food-delivery-ordering loner whose needs are increasingly fulfilled by a series of screens. Is it really enough for us to become more appreciative and disciplined? “Self-reliance” was Emerson’s essay, not Locke’s. At first glance, the assertion that ideas and character matter is denied by no one. Is that any more desirable than romantic tribalism? Public depredations that would once seem unthinkable are routinely overlooked. That romanticism has lent itself to totalitarian ideologies is inarguable. He wants to explain “the miracle” — the astonishing increase in living standards and freedom in the past few centuries. Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West joins a growing library of modernity boosterism by Matt Ridley, Steven Pinker, and others, which seeks to convince us of our own good fortune. A return to core, conservative values. Goldberg’s larger argument runs roughly as follows: human nature is not an overflow of goodness, but a mix of selfishness, altruism, distrust of the other, and the capacity to be civilized. The Western world has been captured by a tribal romanticism and is neither grateful for its blessings nor concerned with how to sustain them. And we are undoubtedly victims of the skill with which we entertain ourselves. We spit and get our genetic history, press a button and access all human knowledge, navigate the globe on a six-inch screen.