As I have said on more than one occasion, Jonah Goldberg is one of my favorite writers and commentators. This book (Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy) has done nothing to diminish that sentiment. At the same time, it really is time for an intervention on the metaphysics of this thing.
Whenever he makes a particular observation, I almost always concur with it. When he recounts the history of how we got here, I am almost always on board. When he ladles scorn over the heads of the likes of Rousseau and Woodrow Wilson, I am in the front row of the grandstands, waving my hat. That’s how much I like Jonah Goldberg. His earlier book, Liberal Fascism, is to this day one of the best cultural commentaries I have ever read. This book is in many ways similar, except that in this one, Goldberg decided for some reason to write quite a few metaphysical checks, with a lot of zeros in the amount, and absolutely all of them bounce.
So before beginning I hope I have made it apparent that I really like Jonah Goldberg. And I really liked this book. But honestly.
Locke and Rousseau:
One of the central themes in this book is that the history of the West, from the Enlightenment down to the present, is characterized by two distinct approaches to social organization—the approach of Jean-Jacques Rousseau on the one hand, and John Locke on the other. The approach of Rousseau emphasized the collective, which is the reason that C.S. Lewis accurately called him the “father of the totalitarians.” John Locke emphasized the rights of the individual over against the collective. The American founding took an understanding of those rights, and memorialized that understanding by writing them into our foundational law. This respect accorded to individual liberty has resulted in an unprecedented explosion of material prosperity, what Goldberg identifies as an unintended and accidental result—“the Miracle.” Goldberg writes as a stout defender of the Lockean approach, and as an undying foe of the totalitarian gush that characterizes the likes of Rousseau. But there is, as we bilingual people sometimes like to say, an el problemo.
Goldberg says, in the first line of the book he says, “There is no God in this book” (Loc. 70). Not only does he think there is no God in his book, he tells us out loud that there is no God in his book. Right at the outset, he is removing something from the discussion that he thinks unessential, but here is Thomas Jefferson to the contrary:
“Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God?” (Notes on Virginia)
And John Adams, to go to the other political party back then, said that our Constitution presupposes a moral and a religious people. It is wholly unfit, he said, for any other.
So the answer to Jefferson’s question, and not incidentally, is no. In the Lockean world, the individual has rights only because he is endowed by his Creator with such rights. Now Goldberg does recognize this as a feature of the Lockean history.
“It held that the individual is sovereign; that our rights come from God, not government” (Loc. 169).
What Goldberg does not see is the philosophical necessity of maintaining this. Without securing our rights with an anchor outside the world, beyond the reach of all aspiring congressmen, presidents, and judges, there can be no Lockean approach. If there is no authoritative God over the collective, then the collective becomes that authoritative God. If God has no relation to our political process, and has no opinion about our rights, then this means that there is—in this world—some highest authority in the lives of those governed, a highest authority over the rights of those so governed. And the name for that highest authority would be god.
If there is no transcendental God in the picture, we are just moist robots. We are just the end product of so many idiotic accidents occurring over millennia, made up of meat, bones, and protoplasm. So if for purposes of political and cultural discourse, we may treat mindless evolution as a public fact and belief in God as a private opinion, as Goldberg does throughout this book, the end result will necessarily be the triumph of Rousseau and all his minions. And this means that, despite his complaints about the direction that all of this is going, Goldberg is simply a right-wing Rousseauian.
Goldberg is insistent that belief in God needs to be treated as private. It may not be considered as a civic dogma. It occupies no position of right in the public square.
“In Enlightenment-based democracies, claims that something is true because God says so are inherently suspect” (Loc. 78).
Things like “every person should be treated as having inherent dignity because he or she is created in the image of God?” Things like God forbids genocide? Things like “among them are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”? Such things weren’t suspect at our Founding. They became suspect in the course of our history, and Goldberg really ought to know better than to listen to the wormtongues who were the means of making such claims suspect.
“God is not in the picture. Well, He is in the picture in the sense that the idea of God—and gods—play a very large role in human affairs” (Loc. 74).
“But my assumption is that God is in our heads and hearts, not in the heavens above” (Loc. 75)
In other words, God doesn’t matter in all this, while certain people’s opinions about God do need to be taken into account, but only as a practical matter, of some concern to pollsters.
“Around the year 1700, in a corner of the Eurasian landmass, humanity stumbled into a new way of organizing society and thinking about the world. It didn’t seem obvious, but it was as if the great parade of humanity had started walking through a portal to a different world” (Loc. 148).
“I call this different world ‘the Miracle.’ And we made it, even if we didn’t really know what we were doing” (Loc. 150).
This was not the result of anyone’s plan. It just happened. You know.
“The Miracle works on the assumption that the individual is the moral center of our system, and the individual armed with reason, facts, the law, or simply morality (and hopefully all four) on his side should win any contest with an angry throng shouting with tribal passion. As I argue in Part Two, the genius of the Constitution lay in enshrining that principle into law” (Loc. 302).
Sure. That’s what God teaches us. I can find that principle in my Bible. But we banished Him. Remember?
“Should win” any contest? What do you mean by should? When are the votes to be tallied—you know, in the showdown between the one man of courage and the angry throng? I believe this will happen at the Last Assizes, when earth and sky shall flee away. When does Goldberg believe all the shoulds of history will be made manifest and fully vindicated?
Enlightenment-informed democracies view such questions with suspicion. Let us turn to hear what our true master—evolution—says about this. What does evolution say about a match-up between an angry throng shouting with tribal passion over against one individual armed with what he calls (ho, ho, ho) reason, facts, the law, and simple morality? The triumph of the individual is certainly not what evolution would lead us to expect.
“The reason I raise the issue of teleology is to illuminate the fact that if there is a purpose to economic and political evolution, we can no more prove its existence than we can prove God’s. It requires a leap of faith. Maybe this is all God’s plan. Or maybe the universe has a purpose. Or, maybe, history, like life, is just one damn thing after another.” (Loc. 1797).
But if you can’t know there is a God, one who settles the teleology of all things, then it follows—for a real Lockean—that you can’t know that human beings ought to have any rights whatever.
“The Founding Fathers were wrong. It is not self-evident that man is endowed by his Creator with certain unalienable rights” (Loc. 2615).
“Meanwhile, how does one demonstrate that we are endowed by our Creator with unalienable rights? People have been trying to demonstrate that our Creator exists for thousands of years. If that cannot be done to everyone’s satisfaction, it seems a daunting task to prove He created unalienable rights” (Loc. 2618).
The way you demonstrate that we are endowed by our Creator with inalienable rights is through preaching the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. If you want inalienable rights in the 1770s, you needed to have had a Great Awakening in the 1740s. Just like we desperately need an awakening now.
But Goldberg still weaves back and forth on this:
“Once you say that all men are created equal and that we are endowed by our Creator with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, it becomes ever more difficult to say, “Well, except for those people.’ Once you insist that the only legitimate form of government is government by consent of the people, it’s very difficult to walk that back” (Loc. 5115).
Exactly so. It is very difficult to walk back. If you want to walk it back, you would have to begin by eroding the foundations—say, the idea of a Creator. You have to spend long decades questioning the very idea of a Creator and, falling short of that, you have to start questioning, if there is a Creator, whether or not He gives a damn about human rights. You have to question the relevance of a Creator, the way Goldberg does.
If you want to destroy human rights, you need to detach them from their only possible foundation—which is what Goldberg does. The fact that he praises individual human rights while doing so does not demonstrate that he is insincere. He manifestly is most sincere. But it does demonstrate that he is not really following the argument.
If you can’t know that the Creator wants men and women to be free, and that His will is why they should be free, then you need to cut to the chase and go join the Rousseauians. If you detest the idea of joining up with them—as I am sure Goldberg does—then you need to agree with your adversary quickly.
If we get our rights from a blind and mindless evolutionary process, the one thing that can be asserted about those rights—by definition—is that they are not inalienable. There was a time in our evolutionary past (say, when we were mollusks) when we did not have the rights we have now. This being in the case, there is no reason not to assume that we might evolve in the future to the point where we also have no rights, just like our mollusk ancestors. There will be no right to keep and bear arms, for example, in the singularity.
On top of that, it won’t be long before some bright johnny in the employ of Jean-Jacques starts questioning whether we have any rights now. After all, wasn’t that the big Lockean mistake—thinking that our mythical Creator was in a position to bestow inalienable anythings?
“Liberalism, meanwhile, by refusing to give people direction and meaning from above—as every ancient system did, and every modern totalitarianism does—depends on a healthy civil society to provide the sense of meaning and belonging we all crave” (Loc. 227).
And this worked for a while, in the same way that the prodigal son did not run out of his father’s capital after the first weekend of partying. But he ran out of funds eventually, as our liberal societies have now done. He was staring at the pig food with envy eventually, as we are now doing. Meaning, by definition, must come from above. If it comes from below, it is arbitrary and cannot be understood as meaning at all. The belief that we can stamp our own meaning on the face of an absurd cosmos is existentialism, not conservatism. The only distinctive contribution made by the conservatives who do this would be the fact that, unlike Sartre, they have no idea what they are going on about.
Sartre was the one who said that without an infinite reference point, every finite point is absurd. This is true. He saw the implications of what he was doing, and Goldberg does not. Sartre attempted the (absurd) consistency of embracing that (accurate) conclusion. To see the principled conservatives of our day (as opposed to the populist conservatives) say that the question of God-given rights is an optional add-on extra tells you how far the downgrade has gone.
The lone individual can have rights bestowed on him from above, or he can reach down into his gut and haul something up from below. But whatever he brings up will not be the rights of man, but rather some splagchnonistical and etiolated cave fish, some chthonic and bug-eyed set of lusts. For those who from time to time have objected to my metaphors, I would like to extend a most cordial apology. These things just happen to me sometimes.
In short, an individual can receive a gift of rights from God. In the Lockean tradition that is exactly what is asserted. When that happens, no intervening human authority has the right to threaten them. They are inalienable. But the individual is absolutely impotent when it comes to generating or originating rights for himself. The individual is the pool at the bottom of the mountain stream, receiving what comes to him. He is not the headwaters of that stream.
“When we fail to properly civilize people, human nature rushes in. Absent a higher alternative, human nature drives us to make sense of the world on its own instinctual terms: That’s tribalism” (Loc. 234).
But if rights come from the individual as the point of origin, then the tribe outranks the individual, and the state outranks the tribe. However, if rights are bestowed on the individual, as I maintain, and as Goldberg would like to maintain if he could, then God in His glorious sovereignty by-passes all the mighty ones of their earth, tips over their thrones, not to mention all the desks in all their bureaucratic offices. Our rights are insecure if they rest on anything less than a thus saith the Lord.
Free Range Gratitude:
You can tell that Goldberg was brought up well. He is the kind of guy who, while in high school, if invited to dinner at a friend’s house, would write a thank you note to his friend’s mother the next day. He is well-mannered and is obviously a decent human being, and he knows down in his bones that gratitude is a big part of what this generation needs. It follows that a big part of our cultural discontent is all tied up with our ingratitude. The impudence of this ingratitude is something that comes up in this book again and again. It is one of his great sub-themes. The emphases below are mine:
“Specifically, we are shot through with ingratitude for the Miracle” (Loc. 306).
“But a majority of Americans, I believe, are ungrateful for what the Miracle has brought us. Sometimes this ingratitude manifests itself as simply taking one’s good fortune for granted” (Loc. 326).
“But what really unites them is ingratitude” (Loc. 347).
“All we can do is defend the principles and ideals that the Miracle made possible in our lifetimes and hand off the project to our children. When we fail to do that, when we do not fill our children with gratitude for their inheritance, they will remain childish in their expectations of what politics and economics can accomplish” (Loc. 2168).
“Ingratitude is the spirit that inebriates us with despair and, in our dark moments, makes suicide seem heroic” (Loc. 2173).
“They are also learning, as we shall see, a profound and sophisticated ingratitude toward the country they grew up in” (Loc. 3815).
“And more than faith and belief, more than reason and data, the indispensable ingredient for that work to be successful is gratitude. Webster’s Dictionary defines ‘ingratitude’ as: ‘forgetfulness of, or poor return for, kindness received.’ The key word is ‘forgetfulness.’ Gratitude is impossible without memory. How can we repay a kindness we do not remember?” (Loc. 6458).
Allow me to interrupt this chain of quotations to point out that not only is gratitude impossible without memory, it is also impossible without someone to thank. That someone needs to be the one who was responsible for the kindness we have received. It cannot be, and pardon me for pointing this out, a concatenation of atoms. It cannot be something that nobody did. You never thank anybody for the stuff that nobody did.
“Parents must cultivate their barbarian children into citizens, and the rest of us must endeavor to keep the principles of our civilization alive by showing our gratitude for it” (Loc. 6474).
“Give up fighting for it, give up holding human nature at bay, abandon our principles for any reason—selfishness, sloth, forgetfulness, ambition, ingratitude, whatever—and you choose to give in to decay” (Loc. 6479).
“They are a reserve army of ingratitude uninterested in defending the very soapboxes they stand on” (Loc. 6235).
I would like to pause for another moment, in order to acknowledge that I am in fact applying repeated blows with a stick to a deceased and now-recumbent equine. That’s as may be.
“It all boils down to conversation, gratitude, and remembering. People tend to value what societies celebrate” (Loc. 5058).
“Our problems today can be traced to the fact that we no longer have gratitude for the Miracle and for the institutions and customs that made it possible. Where there is no gratitude—and the effort that gratitude demands—all manner of resentments and hostilities flood back in (Loc. 5086-7).
“To be forgotten is to feel disrespected, left out, left behind. It breeds a soul-poisoning sense of ingratitude for the status quo and a burning sense that things were better in the past” (Loc. 5410).
“The rising tide of protectionism in this country and across the West is merely the most obvious symptom of the larger malady. We live in a moment of ingratitude. Thankfulness is wanting, not just in regard to capitalism, but in regard to democracy itself” (Loc. 4336)
Goldberg really is a brilliant guy, and so it leaves me gobsmacked that he cannot see what he is doing here. Or, rather, what he is not doing. The Miracle just happened, all by accident. Nobody did it. This was not a gift from Heaven, and we should not think it was. If you do think God did it, that is an acceptable personal opinion, provided you keep it quarantined and cordoned off from all public discourse. Don’t put it into our laws the way the Founders did. Enlightenment democracies view gifts from Heaven with suspicion.
We in the West landed on our feet, and no mistake, but this happened by sheer, unlooked for, blind, unmixed, unmitigated, unadulterated, stark LUCK. Fortune is a bitch, as the ancients well knew, and so there is no sense in cultivating a feeling of gratitude to those inscrutable and inexorable forces that caused your bread to land with the buttered side up. “We were lucky” is a sentiment that could be defensible here. But gratitude is simply incoherent.
Teach your children gratitude? “Go say thank you, Billy . . .” Where? How? To whom? Billy, if he is thinking at all, might ask for a direct object. Thank is a transitive verb, and an avalanche of freak-show accidents is hardly a suitable direct object for something like that.
Evolution as Public Fact
The point I want to make about evolution here is not that Goldberg believes in it (and I don’t), but rather that Goldberg believes in it as a public fact, and he argues for a certain approach to public policy from that public fact. Evolution is a premise from which conclusions (for all of us) may be drawn. But the fact of a Creator must not be treated in that way at all.
“There is reason to believe that religion itself is an evolutionary adaptation. Group cooperation is the key to human survival, and religion can be an incredibly powerful source of social cohesion, fostering sacrifice for the greater good of the community” (Loc. 1527).
Goldberg is extraordinarily friendly to religion throughout this book, but the friendliness is extended to religions as mediating institutions. These institutions provide people with meaning, and when there are many such institutions, they also provide people with a place to go if they are discontented with their old mediating institutions.
“More broadly, groups that have a coherent vision of group meaning—religious, political, social, etc.—will likely be more successful at cooperating, and cooperation is the core evolutionary adaptation of humanity” (Loc. 4435).
People need meaning in their lives, and so if the ham radio club, or the quilting circle, or the Roman Catholic Church, or the Boy Scouts, or the Sierra Club help to provide that meaning, they should be free to operate on their own terms, without the government butting in.
“Instead, let us move on to a final, crucial facet of human nature: meaning. We are creators of meaning. What do I mean by “meaning”? Simply that we have a natural tendency to imbue things, practices, people, events, ideas, and everything else around us with significance beyond the rational and material” (Loc. 812-3).
Speaking as a minister in a mediating institution, this laissez-faire sentiment of Goldberg’s is one I wish were more widely shared. But we need to take it a step further.
Not only do individuals require meaning, but so do entire societies. Individuals require meaning, and every group of individuals requires the same. And when a society seeks to derive meaning, they will do it from what they believe ultimate reality to be like. They will draw their conclusions from the premises that are allowed in public discourse in the public square.
And if that ultimate reality is evolution, then they will draw their governing conclusions from that. Goldberg even identifies how this worked out during the progressive era.
“Indeed, the most vital ingredient in this German intellectual cocktail was Darwinism. Darwin’s theory of evolution injected a new scientific credibility into the old anti-Enlightenment philosophies of nationalism and identity. Darwinism not only made biological racism possible. It also dealt a devastating blow to notions of natural rights while breathing new life into the idea that the state was not just an expression of the people but should also guide the continued ‘evolution’ of society” (Loc. 3227-8).
But given his overall thesis, I am astonished that an editor didn’t flag this one for him. Yes, Darwinism is toxic to natural rights. The progressives who applied Darwin in this Rousseauian fashion were being consistent, unlike Goldberg, who wants to derive inalienable rights from a long chain of flukes and accidents.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all life, men included, evolved blindly and with no purpose and at different rates of speed, and so are endowed through this blinkered process with whatever they can manage to hang onto. The Department of Life, Liberty, and the Licensing of the Pursuit of Happiness is pleased to announce that man, in his current stage of development, has been granted certain provisional “rights,” to be reviewed semi-annually. Terms and conditions may apply.”
Trump and Doing What Works:
My penultimate point is almost certainly the most ironic. Goldberg has a long section where he details the problems with the near-horizon pragmatic populism of Donald Trump. He is not a principled conservative; he is not applying a thought-out approach to the world; he is a bottom line kind of guy, interested only in “winning.” His lodestars have never been “limited government, the Constitution, individual liberty,” and so on.
“Rather, his watchwords have always been ‘winning’ and ‘strength.’ His key promise to voters was that America will ‘win again’ and that, if elected, our leaders will no longer be ‘weak.’ ‘Winning solves a lot of problems,’ Trump said in an interview with the Washington Post. It should go without saying—but doesn’t today—that winning and strength are entirely amoral values. Successful cheaters and murderers ‘win’” (p. 288).
But what is Goldberg’s argument for the Miracle? Why should we want to preserve it? The answer is that we should fight to sustain the Miracle because it works.
“But whether it is natural or not misses the more salient point: The nuclear family works” (Loc. 4822, emphasis mine).
“Now, back to the more important point. Monogamous marriage of the sort that defines the nuclear family works better for society (although I can’t speak to whether it works better for every individual). Societies where monogamy is the norm tend to be much more economically productive, politically democratic, socially stable, and friendlier to women’s rights” (Loc. 4854, emphasis mine).
Goldberg is also appealing to pragmatism. He has a longer horizon than Trump does, and can see farther and more accurately. This means that his pragmatic proposals are more likely to actually work, but neither Trump nor Goldberg care what God might think about it. Neither of them are interested in advancing theological, metaphysical or transcendental arguments in defense of what works. And that means that working is its own defense. Or, to quote a modern sage, winning solves a lot of problems.
Men like Goldberg can layer their utilitarianism under layers of Kantian nuance, or perhaps some other kind of nuance, and someone like Trump is more likely to simply brag about what he just did the way an old style ring giver might do. But they are both doing the same thing. The difference between them is therefore simply a matter of class and taste. The boasting of the nouveau-riche makes well-bred people look at such a fellow with a jaundiced eye of suspicion. But when you are talking about ill-mannered and well-mannered, uncouth and couth, you are talking about differences of degree, not differences in kind.
For some reason this reminds me of a story about the time when the Boston Brahmins were still at the top of their game, and there was an event where a grand dame of that tradition was hosting a reception at which a lady from Chicago had somehow been invited. Chicago at that time was a place that was still almost on the frontier, but people were making their fortunes there, and so this visiting lady did have a pile of money. The grand dame looked at the newcomer through her lorgnette, in a manner calculated to wither, and said, “Here in Boston, we think breeding is everything.” The lady from Chicago laughed and said, “Well, out in Chicago, we do think it is a lot of fun. But we don’t think it is everything.”
Where was I?
The problem with Trump is that he is embarrassing. It is not that he is pursuing a political agenda on the basis of pragmatism, ignoring transcendental realities. Everybody does that. Goldberg does that through this entire book. But he isn’t embarrassing, he isn’t thin-skinned, and he doesn’t wear his ties too long.
And so the thing that Goldberg needs to take in is that when he sees Trumpian pragmatism floating in mid-air like that, and accurately describes the rootless and aimless pointlessness of it, this is the exactly the same way rooted believers in Jesus Christ react to his arguments. Goldberg is always willing to say where he agrees with Trump, but then he feels free to go on and say, about the whole project, something like, “but jeepers.” And that is just how I feel reading this book.
Ideas Do Have Consequences:
I want to conclude this (lengthy) response by trying to agree with Goldberg. And if we are considering this quote in isolation, I do agree with him.
“Modern American conservatism is a bundle of ideological commitments: limited government, natural rights, the importance of traditional values, patriotism, gratitude, etc. But underneath all of that are two bedrock assumptions upon which all of these commitments stand: the beliefs that ideas matter and that character matters. We can have debates about what ideas are important and what good character means. Indeed, the reason we can have debates is that we believe that ideas matter” (Loc. 6373).
Yes. Ideas matter. Character matters. And both are far too important to try to bolt them to the sky like that. It cannot work, even if you use extra bolts. You cannot have a book that concludes with ideas mattering and character mattering when that same book began with the sentence “there is no God in this book.”
If there is no God (who matters), then why on earth should an idea matter? If there is not God who speaks His will to us, then why on earth should character matter? What is an idea, anyway? What is character?
You cannot start with the premises of Rousseau and wind up with the conclusions of Locke. And the premises of Locke start farther upstream than the mere fact of individual liberty. It starts with the only possible source of individual liberty—that is to say, God.
We were created in the image of God, and we did not evolve from the primordial slime. This is why we should all be treated with dignity and respect. This is why the ruling elites should respect the common man—who will live forever while the political arrangement that the elites control will not. And I am not being rude to a series of cosmic accidents if I refuse to say thank you to them.
This quote from C.S. Lewis is one of those evergreen items.
“In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”
Goldberg, to his credit, is not the kind of person who would ever laugh at honor. He praises it, and wants more of it. But he is most certainly dismissive of the only kind of tree that honor can successfully grow on.