“The problem of liberalism…is essentially the problem of a surviving rhetoric and a crumbling philosophy.”
Those words were written in this magazine in 1952 by Irving Kristol. “This,” he added, “is also the problem of conservatism.” Kristol’s assertions 65 years ago suggest that the crises afflicting both tendencies have been a recurring feature in American politics and Western democracies in general. Their eternal recurrence should be a comforting thought—it suggests there is nothing new under the sun and that we can cope with our problems. But Jonah Goldberg believes their return in our day threatens the endurance of the 300-year explosion of prosperity and freedom in the West that he terms “the Miracle.” That is the argument he makes in his ambitious, engrossing, and provocative new volume, Suicide of the West.
In Goldberg’s telling, “the Miracle” dates to the revolution in thought engendered by the 17th-century English philosopher John Locke, who “held that the individual is sovereign; that our rights come from God, not government [and] that the fruits of our labors belong to us.” Locke believed that the best in human nature could be encouraged and the worst outsmarted through a new type of government. This was a massive break from previous ideas about governance. Indeed, Goldberg believes that Locke’s ideas, and the Miracle in general, are in a deep sense “unnatural.” In Goldberg’s view, other regimes—monarchy, tyranny, and authoritarianism generally—were and are more natural to humans, which is why they’ve dominated mankind for most of history.
But with the advent of Locke’s ideas and their textual and intentional incorporation in America’s Founding, “the mental switch had been flipped.” Individual liberty became the desideratum. The Founding Fathers took the path Locke had charted and domesticated Hobbesian natural man. This flipping, which accompanied the Industrial Revolution and the rise of capitalism, provided fertile ground for America’s great advancement, one unparalleled in human history. Goldberg’s fear is that pre-Lockean tribalism in its current form, identity politics, challenges this advancement and American liberal democracy one fracture at a time. So too does populism, which aims to seduce through the airing of grievances rather than the replacement of bad policy by smart policy.
What made American democracy so successful was not just capitalism, due process, or the checks and balances of the Constitution, but our collective belief in them and the Lockean values that undergird this conviction, Goldberg tells us. And now we’ve begun to forget our Constitution—not just the parchment (that, too), but our actual, physical makeup. “If we don’t teach people to hold what they have precious,” Goldberg says, “they simply won’t bother defending it against those who think that what we have is evil. Just as the spoiled children of the wealthy are ungrateful for the opportunities provided by their parents, we as a society are ungrateful for our collective inheritance.”
This ingratitude isn’t merely skepticism of the American project. It’s most often the result of rejecting its history and values. And those doing the rejecting have (often unconsciously) adopted the view of man promulgated half a century after Locke by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau held that man is at liberty until he enters the entanglements of human society: “Man was born free, but everywhere is in chains.”
The way to reassert the primacy of pre-social man, he who is “uncorrupted,” is to bring him back to his natural tribal state. At this moment, the purest expression of this drive in America is the push for identity politics, which pervades the halls of our universities and the centers of our culture. But not all identities are created equal. There are, Goldberg points out, academic departments devoted to “Whiteness Studies.” While disciplines like Black Studies or Women’s Studies are “dedicated to the project of building up an identity, celebrating its uniqueness, and cultivating, essentially, a sense of nationhood,” the opposite is the case with “Whiteness Studies.” It is “dedicated to cataloging the illegitimacy and even the evil of whiteness.” It’s this cauldron of didactic despair that leads prominent thinkers to claim, as Georgetown University’s Preston D. Mitchum does, “Yes, ALL white people are racist. Yes, ALL men are sexist. Yes, ALL cis people are transphobic. We have to unpack that. That’s the work!” To Mitchum, we are no longer individuals with sovereignty over our minds and souls, as Locke would have it; rather, we are the products of the prejudicial convictions of others.
These views are not open to disagreement or dissent. In the minds of their proponents, they are unassailable truths. The assault on their untruths, however, is one of the things that makes Goldberg’s book so thrilling. He writes fluidly about these modern encumbrances. Take for example: “When activists say ‘if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem,’ they are saying there’s no haven in the culture, no rights of exit from the agenda of ‘social justice.’” This line of thinking, apart from its totalitarian circularity, basically presupposes its own conclusions. It insists that there is a problem, that one must agree that the problem is indeed worthy of a solution, and that the solution that’s been devised is incontrovertibly right; otherwise, “you’re part of the problem.” It’s like the “no justice, no peace” slogan. If you presuppose an injustice, you are within your brief to hold peace hostage until the perceived injustice is rectified in the eyes of the self-appointed victim. Indeed, the liberal order itself is held hostage. Forget truth and a reciprocal understanding of natural rights. Muscle and coercion are what matter most—a clear reversion to pre-social man. Heaven forfend the expression of a different view, even from a member of a group that the left privileges.
The practitioners of identity politics—and their alt-right counterparts on the other side—exploit liberalism for their own will to power. And it’s easy for them do to so, especially in a liberal system. Identity politics, among other forms of resentments of the American system, finds such a strong voice in a liberal democracy because it is liberal and tolerant of dissent. And so, as Goldberg writes, those who challenge the liberal system can “get away with a lot of illiberal theatrics and demands.” The challenge for us is “to figure out how much [we] can tolerate before the forces of illiberalism corrode the liberal order.”
Liberalism’s weakness, its openness, is also its strength. It has created the wealthiest and freest country in the history of mankind. But there are those who have lost faith—and those who are, whether by intention or accident, destroying it. Goldberg concludes that the Miracle “happened in America by choice.” It was created by choice and so it can die by choice all the same. That is a path to suicide, and we had better change course. The splendid Suicide of the West charts a course to save us from this unnecessary self-destruction.
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