Suicide of the West by Jonah Goldberg
Influential conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg’s new book, Suicide of the West, was released this week, and his sober essay in National Review, adapted from the book, can be found here. His main point is that our “suicide” is not accidental or happenstance, it is a deliberate choice we are making. Here is a summary of his important points:
He says poverty is man’s natural environment, and, somehow, about 300 years ago, “we stumbled into a different world,” one that was unnatural and accidental, that he calls “the Miracle.”
Today “Western civilization generally, and America particularly, is on a suicidal path. The threats are many, but beneath them all is one constant, eternal seducer: human nature.”
“The Founders closely studied human nature,” and “established our system of separated powers and enumerated rights so that no faction, including a passionate majority, could use the state’s power against other factions.”
But the Founders’ vision assumed many preconditions, the two most important of which were the people’s virtue and the role of civil society. “The general government . . . can never be in danger of degenerating into a monarchy, an oligarchy, an aristocracy, or any despotic or oppressive form so long as there is any virtue in the body of the people,” George Washington argued.
People learn virtue first and most importantly from family, and then from the myriad institutions family introduces them to: churches, schools, associations, etc. Every generation, Western civilization is invaded by barbarians, Hannah Arendt observed: “We call them children.” Civil society, starting with the family, civilizes barbarians, providing meaning, belonging, and virtue.
But here’s the hitch. When that ecosystem breaks down, people still seek meaning and belonging. And it is breaking down. Its corruption comes from reasons too numerous and complex to detail here, but they include family breakdown, mass immigration, the war on assimilation, and the rise of virtual communities pretending to replace real ones.
First, the market, as Joseph Schumpeter argued, maximizes efficiency with relentless rationality, tending to break down the sinews of tradition and the foundations of civil society that enable and instill virtue. Yet those pre-rational virtues make capitalism possible in the first place.
Second, capitalism also creates a mass class of resentful intellectuals, artists, journalists, and bureaucrats who are professionally, psychologically, and ideologically committed to undermining capitalism’s legitimacy (as noted by Schumpeter and James Burnham, the author of another book titled “Suicide of the West”). This adversarial elite is its own coalition.
Thus, people increasingly look to Washington and national politics for meaning and belonging they can’t find at home. As Mary Eberstadt recently argued, the rise in identity politics coincided with family breakdown, as alienated youth looked to the artificial tribes of racial or sexual solidarity for meaning. Populism, which always wants the national government to solve local problems, is in vogue on left and right precisely because local institutions and civil society generally no longer do their jobs.
Death of the Goose that Lays the Golden Egg
[W]hatever words can create, they can destroy. And ingratitude is the destroyer’s form. We teach children that the moral of the Goose that Lays the Golden Egg is the danger of greed. But the real moral of the story is ingratitude. A farmer finds an animal, which promises to make him richer than he ever imagined. But rather than nurture and protect this miracle, he resents it for not doing more. In one version, the farmer demands two golden eggs per day. When the goose politely demurs, he kills it out of a sense of entitlement — the opposite of gratitude.
The Miracle is our goose. And rather than be grateful for it, our schools, our culture, and many of our politicians say we should resent it for not doing more. Conservatism is a form of gratitude, because we conserve only what we are grateful for. Our society is talking itself out of gratitude for the Miracle and teaching our children resentment. Our culture affirms our feelings as the most authentic sources of truth when they are merely the expressions of instincts, and considers the Miracle a code word for white privilege, greed, and oppression.
This is corruption. And it is a choice. Collectively, we are embracing entitlement over gratitude. That is suicidal. I did not call my book “Decline of the West” or “Death of the West,” because suicide is a choice. We are not victims of cold immutable forces, or suffering from the loss of God’s favor. Nothing is foreordained. There’s no excuse for coasting on the right side of history, because there’s no such thing. Our words alone can save us. When a loved one is suicidal, what do you say to him? You tell him how much he has to live for, how much he should be grateful for. We are choosing to do otherwise.
Peter Zeller is Director of Operations at Center of the American Experiment.