The Suicide of the West – a book arguing that Western civilization, led by the United States, is killing itself – is a familiar title written by a familiar name to followers of conservative politics. James Burnham, co-founding editor of the National Review, wrote this essay “on the meaning and destiny of liberalism,” (Hint: It’s grim) in 1964.
Now, Jonah Goldberg, a senior editor and syndicated columnist at the National Review and author of the 2008 bestseller Liberal Fascism, has a new book with the same title and a similar mood of impending doom.
But there’s a critical difference between Burham vision and Goldberg’s book, “The Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy” (Crown Forum, April). Burnham saw liberalism and power concentrated in the state ringing a death knell for capitalist prosperity and personal liberty. Goldberg says, “I see the danger as fatalism – a failure to recognize and be grateful for the ‘Miracle,’ we have in the West.”
He writes that Miracle (always capitalized as a unique event) is the once-in-human-history confluence of specific ideas: “That the individual is sovereign; that our rights come from God, not government; that the fruits of our labor belong to us, and that no man should be less equal before the law because of his faith or class.”
Goldberg explains the religious vocabulary of his book in a conversation with PW. (The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)
Your book’s first sentence is: “There is no God in this book.” So why are there references to God and a “Miracle” throughout your discussion of politics, economics, and society?
Even secular rational human beings are still deeply “religious” – influenced by an idea of God. It is, in many ways, the word that gets the closest to how you conceive of yourself in the world and it affects us in all sorts of ways. I begin by saying there is no God in this book to make the point that everything became measurably better over the last 300 years because of capitalism. There are people on the right who say it’s the best way of living because God says so. However, I want to make a sustained argument that doesn’t appeal to a deus ex machina but still conveys the idea that the Miracle is an unexplained blessing, an amazingly good thing for which we should have some gratitude.
You wrote, “Cultures that do not cherish their best selves die by their own hand.” Why is “gratitude” so urgent?
We make the world we live in with our words and actions, the way we see things and the stories we tell about ourselves. I’m done with smash mouth. I want to talk more about what we should be grateful for. So many conservatives — and leftists, too — are angry. Flip that. Talk about, “What do I have to be grateful about today?” Rather than argue about the right theology or ideology, we can talk about what a moral consensus can look like.
You say we are “instinctively tribal creatures” who were inexplicably blessed with a Miracle. What are the warning signs that we could fall back and lose hold of this blessing?
In every society up to about 1700 all politics was about power and doing whatever you could get away with. Modernity and capitalism, the Miracle, was made possible by removing arbitrariness and creating fair rules for a free society. What disturbs me is what (President) Trump reveals about a conservative movement I thought had made settled commitments to two things: The importance of character and the importance of ideas. I am shocked by how easily so many people dogmatically committed to one set of ideas moved to another, opposite set under the lure of a charismatic personality and the power of tribalism.
You’re very suspicious of crowds. What’s the problem with mass enthusiasm?
The left and the right all like their crowds. I get that. But crowds are ultimately amoral. The symbolism of a crowd is simply force – a demonstration of strength in numbers. The hero in the American political tradition is the individual, not the mob. Martin Luther King, Jr. understood that simple numbers are amoral. What he did with the March on Washington was raise the moral temperature of the country by appealing to American ideals in his speech.
We’re back to words again and the vocabulary of ideas.
Words are the essential fictions we used to talk ourselves out of the natural world. The Suicide of the West warns that we can talk our way backward. Suicide is a choice. Anything that can be created by words can be destroyed by words.