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Suicide of the West: A Deceptively Important Book
Jonah Goldberg's Suicide of the West is a modern addition to the conservative canon.
All quotations in this review are from Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West, unless otherwise cited. Page numbers for most quotations are provided.
“There are no permanent victories. The only victory worth fighting for—because it is the only victory that is achievable—is to hand off this civilization to the next generation and to equip that generation to carry on the fight….We cannot get rid of human nature and humanity’s natural tribal tendencies. But we know that, under the right circumstances, our tribal nature can be grafted to a commitment to liberty, individualism, property rights, innovation, etc. It happened in England, accidentally but organically. It happened in American by choice.”
-Jonah Goldberg, Suicide of the West (p. 351).
Suicide of the West is a deceptively important book. That is, at times, it will feel to the reader like a simple story, or even a familiar one. After all, Jonah Goldberg has written and spoken about the themes in the book for years, and it articulates arguments advanced by conservatives throughout the decades.
But the cumulative effect of the book across nearly four hundred pages is powerful. Taken together, the stories and arguments develop a thesis for the ages—a conservative defense of civilization against the forces of barbarism inherent in human nature, a defense of liberalism (properly understood) against the tribalism of socialism and nationalism, and a defense of America as “the last best hope of man on earth.”
Some readers may find the historical accounts in the early chapters a little simple. Goldberg writes that his editor received a manuscript “two-and-a-half times” longer than contractually specified, meaning that the final version has been shortened substantially. Some of the research that went into those early chapters can be found in the appendix, which is unfortunate because most readers don’t read appendices and will, therefore, miss important context.
One of the most important arguments advanced in Suicide of the West is about romanticism. Some readers may find they learn the most here, not least about themselves.
“The core of Romanticism, for Rousseau and those who followed, is the primacy of feelings. Specifically, the feeling that the world we live in is not right, that it is unsatisfying and devoid of authenticity and meaning (or simply requires too much of us and there must be an easier way)…because our feelings tell us that the world is out of balance, rigged, artificial, unfair, or—most often—oppressive and exploitative, our natural wiring drives us to the belief that someone must be responsible.”
Jonah Goldberg, Suicide of the West (pp. 13-14).
In a chapter entitled “Pop Culture Politics,” Goldberg manages to tease out the romantic link joining disparate movies, books, and television shows (going back several decades), which all deal with trusting feelings or rejecting some aspect of modern life. He explains what it is that these stories tell us about ourselves, why they cause us to notice something uncanny or unsatisfying about our lives—which isn’t the “alienation” of capitalism, or the unreality of technology, or the atomization of our social lives, although there is a kernel of truth to each of those.
Modern life, Goldberg tells us, feels unnatural because it is. Our brains evolved to keep us alive in the jungle, and anything removed from that will seem off or wrong. When we experience something that pulls us back towards that, it will “feel right,” and our gut will tell us it is what we are supposed to do. Thus, everything from a long hike in the wilderness to the allure of a tribe can provide a powerful feeling of authenticity. Civilization, especially bourgeois commercial society premised on the rule of law, can profoundly disconcert us. We long for something else—although we can’t always say what that something else is.
Nationalism, socialism, the romanticization of poverty (or of farming, or of working with one’s hands, or of the past in general), and the allure of tribal communities are all manifestations of this rebellion within our brains. Today, we know our evolutionary programming makes us susceptible to simple fallacies, and that what seems obviously true may not be true in real life. But it is easy to know that truth doesn’t always feel true, and hard to remember this in the moment.
The things which are good for us don’t always feel good for us. Capitalism, for instance, has improved the lot of the human race enormously. But that cold fact won’t relieve the natural mistrust our brains have for commerce with strangers.
It is this feeling that the world isn’t right that various dark ideologies exploit. Nationalism, fascism, communism, socialism, and racial identity politics all attempt to reenchant the world. They lure us in with calls to a higher purpose, a community of belonging, and promises of something more real than our boring lives.
This romanticism can lead us to corruption. But fascism and socialism do not corrupt us. We corrupt ourselves. Tribalism leads us only where our feelings already point us. By telling us to trust our emotions, these ideologies give us permission to indulge the darkness within our own hearts.
Goldberg evokes Calvin Coolidge in arguing that Western Civilization—especially the American Founding—represents the pinnacle of human society. Free enterprise, the rule of law, property rights, individualism, reason—there is nothing higher to which we can aspire in this world. From here, we have nowhere to go but down. Therefore, each tribal ideology—nationalism, socialism, or anything else—can only pull us back into the barbarism we endured for most of history.
Our danger today stems from the ingratitude so many Americans (and Westerners) have for the gifts we have inherited. Too many of us take for granted the relative peace, prosperity, and freedom we enjoy today. Worse, we want to throw it all away. Nearly four in five Americans mistrust capitalism. And on both right and left, we see contempt for the American Founding. “The American Experiment is at risk” because too few of us appreciate “the American Miracle.”
The dust jacket of Suicide of the West reads, “For the West to survive, we must renew our sense of gratitude for what our civilization has given us and rediscover the ideals that led us out of the bloody muck of the past—or back to the muck we will go.” In recruiting us for that task of preservation, Goldberg cleverly appeals not just to our brains, but to our hearts. For just as there is romanticism in vitalism and class solidarity, there is romanticism in upholding the cause of civilization. The greatest nobility in human life comes when human beings transcend their circumstances. The most deeply inspiring story in human history is that of our slow, painful, yet successful attempt to scrabble our way out of the muck.
This theme—of gratitude for the work of our ancestors, humility before the gifts they have bequeathed to us, and duty to “carry the fire” for the generations to come after us—is a familiar one to conservatives. It lies, after all, at the heart of the conservative sensibility. Our task is to honor and remember. But more than that, it is to preserve.
That task for which Goldberg recruits us is a noble task, and a worthy one. But it is not one that comes naturally to most of us. Even those of us on the right, who shouldn’t need to be told not to trust our feelings, are still susceptible to the emotional call of our primal nature. If Suicide of the West represents an evolution in Goldberg’s thinking since he published Liberal Fascism in 2008, it is on this question. In 2008, Goldberg argued that the American right was uniquely immune to romanticist, collectivist ideologies because of its commitments to individual liberty and the American Founding. In 2017, with populism on the rise and new right-wing thought leaders rejecting “the dead consensus” of fusionist conservatism, Goldberg recognized that even Reaganites could become vitalists.
A good portion of Suicide of the West is a reflection on nationalism and right-wing populism, a reflection which has only grown more relevant in the past six years. But this isn’t a Never-Trump book. Goldberg writes as much about Marx and Rousseau and progressivism as he does about any right-winger, and he is clear that he sees the right’s newfound populism as a deviation from true conservatism, rather than an outgrowth of it. Indeed, he blames the tribalism of the right on corruption coming from the identity politics of the left. The progressive project of smashing the ideals of classical liberalism “is the prologue to the story of Donald Trump’s victory and the rise of the ‘alt right’” (p. 236).
He goes further. “Trump’s anti-political political rhetoric is a clear echo of the language of the 1930s….FDR, Mussolini, Hitler, and countless other leaders all tried to tap into the widespread belief that decadent Western capitalism and ‘Manchester liberalism’ were too inadequate to the challenges of the day.” (p. 289)
Moreover, “populist movements in America have tended to be cast on the left side of the political spectrum—except when they’ve been avowedly racist or anti-Semitic, in which case [leftist] historians and political analysts go to great lengths to dissociate and exonerate progressivism from any such associations.” (p. 294)
Donald Trump may have little more than “a thumbless grasp” on any ideology (including nationalism), but “he has demonstrated that conservatism, at least as expressed in the Republican Party and its more loyally allied media outlets, is not immune to the tribal desire for strongmen” (298).
Goldberg contends that he hasn’t changed in his commitment to conservatism. The right changed. He wasn’t wrong when he wrote in Liberal Fascism that the ideals of the American conservative movement were antithetical to fascism. He was wrong that those ideals could be enough to guard every conservative heart from the temptation of our tribal hearts.
The conservative warning for decades against the progressive project is that you can’t tear at the guardrails of civilization—the traditional family, the Constitution, a moral code, ideals of honor and courage and virtue, limitations on the use of power, etc.—for too long without letting barbarism come rushing back in. If Goldberg’s message to conservatives in Suicide of the West is that our task is never finished, only passed on to the next generation, his message to progressives is that all of the things they hate about the Trump era are the direct fruits of a decades-long campaign to undermine the very things (capitalism, the Founding, the rule of law) that have brought human beings out of the muck we endured for so long.
Our feelings tell us to revolt against the unnaturalness of bourgeoise society, but it is folly to obey them. Rather than having nothing to lose but our chains, we have everything to lose.
Yuval Levin called Suicide of the West “a conservative classic,” but in some ways, it is written for progressives. Or rather, it is written for an era such as the one in which we find ourselves, an era when the terms of debate have been thoroughly defined by progressivism.
Many books on conservatism are written exclusively for a right-wing audience. For all their virtues, they make no attempt to appeal outside the tent. Suicide of the West is the book you give to your curious friend, the one who still thinks your constrained view of the world makes you strange, but who nonetheless wants to know why he or she should take conservative arguments seriously. It is also the book you give to your conservative friend, just in case he or she needs a reminder not to trust that gut instinct when it makes its dark and seductive call.
And we all need that reminder.
Ben Connelly is a writer, long-distance runner, former engineer, and author of “Grit: A Practical Guide to Developing Physical and Mental Toughness.” He publishes short stories and essays at Hardihood Books. @benconnelly6712