Book Review: Suicide of the West
Jonah Goldberg is one of conservatism’s brightest minds. His book Liberal Fascism is required reading. And his podcast The Remnant is essential listening for conservatives, especially us nerdy ones. His latest book The Suicide of the West does not exactly reach the perilous heights of LF but it is a good popular level touchstone for the key issues of our day from a classically liberal perspective.
To better explain what the book is about and why it is important I need to briefly tell my own conservative awakening. Because Goldberg’s idiosyncratic and frenetic muse causes him to jump around to so many topics that it’s hard to always see the portrait he is painting. through the delirious paint fumes. This is not meant as a criticism because it’s one of the things that makes Jonah a fun and accessible intellectual. In one breath he makes a Godfather reference and with the next he discusses ecstatic schadenfreude. Those are my kind of shenanigans.
The Night I found Conservative Jesus
I became a conservative sitting in Biola’s Myers auditorium almost a decade ago. The university had hosted a conference on Francis Schaefer and Os Guinness was giving the final plenary address. Guinness spoke on the topic of sustainable freedom. In 2012 he would write “A free people’s suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American future.”
Guinness’ presentation that night focused on what he calls the golden triangle of freedom. These are faith, freedom, and virtue. Together they form a symbiotic cycle of perpetual democratic motion. Virtue requires faith, freedom requires virtue, and faith requires freedom. This is why most people haven’t been free and all revolutions fail. You need all three at the same time in order to have a truely free society. And ironically The only thing that interrupts the perpetual motion here is freedom itself. Freedom can undermine the whole thing simply by choosing to erode the other sides of the triangle.
But this golden triangle basically is the founding vision of America. The finding of this triangle is what Goldberg repeatedly calls “The Miracle” throughout Suicide of the West. It is also more than this but certainly not less. The Suicide he envisions is essentially based in our ingratitude for the miracle of western liberalism. The term suicide being used by both Goldberg and Guinness is no accident, nor is it a devious incendiary clickbait. I seriously doubt either author would have used this word if not for a speech Abraham Lincoln gave to the young men’s Lyceum. This speech is much less famous today which is unfortunate because it is one of our most important pieces of political rhetoric. And both Guinness and Goldberg make use of it:
“At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”
The miracle once found cannot be taken from us nor can it be accidentally misplaced. The only way for the miracle to cease is if we willingly let go of the golden triangle. If we follow freedom away from Faith and virtue. As Goldberg eloquently puts it later in the book there is no right or wrong side of history. The golden triangle is the end of human history. Not the eschatological end but the best that can be accomplished prior to that. We no place to progress to. The miracle was the mountain summit. Any step away regardless of the direction leads to regression. He does not mean to say that things cannot get better or there is no room for progress. He means that there is no better society possible this side of heaven than that he one based in the miracle.
An uncontroversial Suicide
There has been surprising little controversy over this book given that it is essentially about the demise of everything we hold dear. A big part of that is Goldberg himself. Jonah is winsome and self deprecating. He knows when to push and when to pull back. The calm productive interviews of his media tour to support the book are a radical departure from the tenor of our times. Some of this has to do with the fact that Goldberg has consistently and passionately criticized Trump from a conservative perspective. But of course Goldberg has nothing in common with the resistance, and shows that what makes Trump awful is basically what makes the resistance awful as well.
But it’s really beautiful to see serious discussions take place with folks like Trevor Noah. Because people are willing to listen to Jonah. His credibility with some people on the right may be shot but he’s gaining credibility on the left which means this book could lead to a reform among media elites. I’m doubtful that it will but it’s possible. It is more likely that it will be pillaged for its anti trump rhetoric as a boon for leftists and used to fuel animosity between alt whiters and the true conservatives. But regardless of what does happen Jonah has provided a kind of model here for how to write books the could help the left change will also strengthen conservative convictions rationally.
Of what little criticism there has been the most baffling comes from David Brooks:
“Goldberg is right to fight tribalism on the left and the right. But you can’t reweave a fragmented nation by appealing just to Lockean individualism. Gratitude is too weak a glue to hold a diverse nation together. Renewal will come through the communitarians on the right and the left, who seek ways to improve relationships on a household, local and national level.”
Brooks simply didn’t understand the book. Goldberg is not providing an answer to a problem. It’s not as if we have this formula x + y = z and Goldberg is trying to figure out all the variables so we can reinvigorate the alchemy of freedom. If there is a solution here it is essentially don’t commit suicide. It’s not lockian individualism + lockian individualism = a free and prosperous society. We already had the solution in the miracle itself. We do need communitarian renewal that begins with family. Goldberg basically argues that in the book. Because that was a fundamental part of the miracle.
In fact the greatest benefit of the book for conservatives is Goldberg’s explanation of the inherent problems of capitalism. Capitalism undermines the very institutions that make free markets possible. Remember freedom is the one side of the golden triangle that can erode the others. And capitalism is highly social. It involves millions of people working together freely. And if those people aren’t willing to see strangers as potential customers and clients then capitalism devolves. But the solution is of course not to get ride of free markets. It is to restore our social fabric. Not through big government but through extremely local government. This means communitarianism. It’s almost as Goldberg anticipated Brooks’ objection. Almost as if Goldberg actually put some thought and energy into this book. #sarcasm
This wondeful book covers just about every imaginable topic at some point. Literally from Godzilla to Frankenstein, almost anything you can think of are found within the pages. That kind of bizarre energy is something deeply needed right now. But the most bizarre and valuable contribution is Goldberg’s ability to stand above tribe. In a world made of red and blue swans, a black Swan might be the only thing that can teach us how to fly again. If you’re a conservative you should read this at some point. If you’re of the left or the alt right then you need to read this as soon as possible.