Books

Jonah Goldberg’s Good Medicine — and Great Book

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Gratitude can save civilization, if only we believe.

It is difficult to decide what is more encouraging: Jonah Goldberg’s new book, with its extraordinary gratitude for the miracle of civilization, markets, and the American experiment, or the incredible success the book is achieving — a reception that gives reason to hope that a Western suicide is less imminent than his ominous title suggests. Not only is the book’s success a prima facie sign that a good portion of our society is open to his exhortations, but it also reinforces Goldberg’s continuing relevance as arguably the most significant voice in conservative thought (Trumpian noise notwithstanding). We believe Suicide of the West reveals where Jonah Goldberg sits in the current conservative movement: in a pivotal seat. He is without peer in his ability to reinforce the deepest and most significant truths embedded in American democracy. His command of history, culture, and political philosophy — not to mention his delightfully engaging prose — is on full display in this masterpiece. We say this despite a weighty concern that we will soon address. But first, let us highlight some of its indispensable contributions.

Goldberg’s contrast between John Locke’s contribution to post-Enlightenment political philosophy with that of Jean-Jacques Rousseau is the most helpful discussion of its kind. Parsing this distinction and demonstrating its relevance in the formation of the American experiment is key to understanding “the two main currents in Western civilization and, increasingly, in modernity itself.” Rousseau’s romanticism is inherently totalitarian, Goldberg demonstrates clearly, laying down the most important building block for his real agenda: laying wood to the tribalism, populism, and identity politics he sees corroding, hollowing out — or, literally, corrupting — American political and cultural life today. Not only does Goldberg draw readers toward his key conclusions — that human nature is unchangeable, that the Founders knew this and went about setting up a political system in light of that fact, and that we must never take its perpetuity for granted — but he also provides a memorable history and philosophy lesson along the way.

The book’s unique value is that it takes a great deal of conservative dogma and puts ideological meat on the bone. At a time when our political conversation is often emotive, impulsive, and tribal, Jonah forces us to remember the real-world value of our liberties. His journey from 1650 through 2016 is not merely a history lesson but an infusion of ideology — because ideas matter, and how we talk about ideas matters. He lays bare the dangerous utopian promises of progressivism and reminds 21st-century conservatives of their Lockean heritage and of the specific vision of the American Founders. With breathtaking logic and clarity, he connects the dots between romanticism and statism, between statism and nationalism, and between human nature and the quest for meaning and belonging that defines the present moment.

Perhaps we should not have said we had a weighty “concern” in our opening paragraph; it is more of a confusion. We take exception to one thread in the book that, while it did not damage his fundamental objective, nonetheless failed to clarify it. Sensitive readers may be distracted or bothered by Jonah’s awkward wrestling with metaphysical truth in the book. His first sentence signals that he intends to avoid wrestling with metaphysical questions (“There is no God in this book”). But he does not make good on that promise. Thank God. Careful readers will notice that the rule he sets at the opening — maybe there’s a God, maybe there isn’t, but “we have no choice but to live by the assumption” that there is no purpose or plan to the universe — is mirrored by the exact opposite sentiment at the end.

The book’s introduction insists that we are adapted (ergo, adaptable) products of blind, purposeless evolution. Chapter 1 then asks us to believe that human nature is immutable. That’s a jarring contradiction, and one totally unhelpful to his purpose, not least because every one of the hated mass utopian delusions of the past century was built on the idea of the perfectibility of human nature. And the utopians based that idea on, well, the materialist philosophy Goldberg pretends to embrace for the sake of his argument.

A widespread effort to pretend to believe in God will not stave off suicide. Mind tricks or figments of the imagination are not sustainable foundations for individual belief, much less a thriving, virtuous culture.

The standards by which we make the judgments that Jonah rightly makes (that the American experiment has been good, that the “miracle” has aided civilization, that a better life has come as a result of Locke’s and Burke’s contributions to modern political thought) must be objective. But those cannot be accounted for in the framework of a blind and purposeless cosmos, and we confess to feeling dismay that Goldberg more than once flirts with the idea that meaning and significance are merely ideas we project onto the world. His dismissal of transcendent purpose ironically forces him into a pragmatic box: The miracle works; therefore, it is good. Goldberg is, of course, one of our most gifted decimators of pragmatism as a school of thought, and he surely knows that “the miracle” is not good just because it worked. It worked because it is good, and it cannot be good if devoid of transcendent purpose.

Goldberg will no doubt admit that he walks it all back in the concluding chapter (a chapter so masterful that it left one of us in tears). He explicitly acknowledges that the miracle will not be preserved without God, or at least “acting like” there is a God. But a widespread effort to pretend to believe in God will not stave off suicide. Mind tricks or figments of the imagination are not sustainable foundations for individual belief, much less a thriving, virtuous culture. Goldberg essentially admits that defending the Western miracle cannot be done without belief in God. But our beliefs are not based on mere rhetoric; it is not all “talk, talk, talk” or “stories we tell ourselves” or playacting. It is because God is real, and in him is the real providence and the real purpose by which the miracle can be sustained. Our civilization cannot be defended without telos, and our belief in that telos must be real, not a ponzi-like imitation of belief.

This tactic of pretending there is no God so that he may lay out the premises of the book, only to kick the ladder away once he arrives at the conclusion, is epistemologically unsound and an unnecessary, unhelpful drag on an excellent book. Goldberg’s argument is that “nature” inexorably drags civilization back to its base origins, and something similar happens in his very own pages. All of the lofty rhetoric about a “miracle,” meaning, significance, the good, the true, and the beautiful is rather sullied (Neil deGrasse Tyson–style) by the reminder that, actually, the “miracle” is probably just a random, meaningless accident, and that our gratitude must remain sadly bereft of its much-needed indirect object: grateful to whom?

Setting aside our theological and philosophical quibbles, we find that Suicide of the West is a marvelous work of political and cultural thought. It makes use of Goldberg’s vast portfolio of writerly and scholarly gifts. Fittingly, he has used them all for the ultimate purpose of gratitude — which is, of course, the proper response to gifts. He is rightly petrified of those “so ignorant of their own civilization that they have no response to those who insist with righteous passion that our civilization is not worth defending.” Goldberg has given all defenders of our civilization a gift of his own with this book.

The mediating institutions necessary for good civic life need rebuilding in our society, lest the parasites of identity politics and populism corrupt and destroy us. One day we will see the miracle sustained, and we will be grateful, and we will thank God for it and for Goldberg’s contribution to that end. And we hope — if he will indulge our modest proselytizing — that Goldberg’s own gratitude finds its worthy recipient.

— David L. Bahnsen is the managing partner of a bicoastal wealth management form, a trustee of the National Review Institute, and the author of Crisis of Responsibility. Brian G. Mattson is Senior Scholar of Public Theology at the Center for Cultural Leadership; he writes at drbrianmattson.com.

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