Writers created “Western” civilization out of a looming sense that it was in peril. This is as true today as it was a century ago, when Oswald Spengler published the first volume of The Decline of the West. The chest-thumpers of our times carried the Right to power in Washington, Rome, London, Brasília, and beyond in order to rescue the West from a calamitous fate. It’s a paradox of current conservatism, however, that in its moment of political triumph it frets more than ever about the coming danger.
What we get is a scattershot of blame and bile. Liberals, radicals, technocrats, and tree huggers, they all have civilization’s needs mixed up with their own personal ones. But the true believers in tradition? They are guilt-free—despite their power. That’s the crux of, and problem with, Jonah Goldberg’s recent Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics Is Destroying American Democracy. His are doomsday thoughts from the right when it’s in control. Slumping civilization coincides with ascendant nativism from his own ideological corner. But if the alliance of radicals and technocrats were really such a menace, then why couldn’t these powerful “elitists” turn their handiwork to political advantage? Instead it was lip-snarling nativists who seized the reins. Goldberg’s blind spot is his failure to see how his own habits—and those of his tribe—helped bring down the ideals he feels are in peril.
This blindness casts doubt over what David Brooks calls an intellectual revival on the right. The book, which Brooks heralds as an example of the conservative renaissance, demands we value tradition and venerate history even as it draws on a mess of clichés and bewildering evidence to buttress its arguments.
Shortly after graduating from college, Goldberg joined the American Enterprise Institute, working his way up to senior editor of National Review, and, eventually, a Fox News contributor and Los Angeles Times writer. His early career catapulted when his mother, Lucianne Goldberg, advised Linda Tripp to record conversations with her friend Monica Lewinsky. In the ensuing uproar, he authored a confessional about what it was like to be under a media siege of the family’s making. By this means he launched a writerly career out of creating a problem that summoned a personal drama.
Goldberg’s blind spot is his failure to see how his own habits—and those of his tribe—helped bring down the ideals he feels are in peril.
That career culminated with a barn burner. Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left (2008) took a blowtorch to Hillary Clinton and other “progressives” for wanting, he claims, to fill the world with patronizing advice about communal solutions to all problems, beamed, in Orwellian fashion, from screens in every room. These liberals were the heirs to early 20th-century Progressives who believed in big government and had a thing for the real fascism. Some did. The American current of liberal fascism, Goldberg thus claimed, was distinct from its European variant because it favored equality over hierarchy. Fascists on both sides of the Atlantic shared love of government.
Liberal Fascism was headline-grabbing intellectual history as exposé. It was also absurd. When Jon Stewart asked Goldberg on Comedy Central, “How is organic food fascist?” the audience howled in laughter.
Ten years later, Goldberg has grown up. His clothes are tweedier; his goatee has given way to a greying beard; his glasses are a little heavier. Suicide of the West is a more serious book, and certainly more learned, than its predecessors. As a conservative effort to reach across the divide, it deserves engagement.
The rise of Trump and the spread of nativism around the “West” has Goldberg seeing a wider pattern. What worries him is a pincer of populist hordes from the right and left. But hewing to this pattern also allows him to blame the left for creating this new tribalism—a staple, one might say, of the David Brooksian intellectual revival from the right. The thoughtful right can thereby absolve itself of any responsibility and crusade against academic political correctness while writing HBO-brand history. If this represents an intellectual renaissance among those who wield power, we are in deep trouble.
For Goldberg, the key to understanding tribalism (those populist hordes from the right and left) is that it panders to something basic in us all. He starts with human nature—the urge to survive by rallying around friends and kin in a nasty, brutish world. For millennia, he states, humans lived by the sword in clans ruled by priestly classes, monarchs, or fusions of both in extended protected webs of familial ties. They gave us our social DNA. We were—and are—not natural individualists. We were collectivists, herding into close-knit groups and hostile to strangers. This was not our history, but our nature.
It’s this human nature, Goldberg claims, that explains the danger of nativism. Nativism appeals to something lurking deep inside us all. Trump, Putin, Erdoğan, Le Pen, Orban, Bolsonaro, they all reach inside and release the ignoble savage.
Populism, Right and Left
But then came what Goldberg calls “the Miracle.” Born with the Enlightenment, the Miracle sprawled from Hugo Grotius to the American founders. Its makers developed the idea, a useful myth, that humans concocted a “social contract” for men to leave behind the tribal state of nature and create and enter society to become individualists capable of reasoning, of agreeing to set aside some personal liberties (like the right to smite a rival) in exchange for security, markets, and governments created to serve the cause of enlightened self-interest. The Miracle was miraculous because it was unnatural, accidental, a shock to primordial defaults of predatory empires, kingdoms, guilds, and priesthoods. It was a gift, Goldberg says, which became an especially American creed (one presumes because there were fewer feudal-tribal structures to choke it off in the New World). The Miracle created history because, for the first time, strangers went from being enemies to becoming potential trading partners. What the Miracle did was to teach—a key word in Goldberg’s refrain—tribalists to stop hating strangers and to cherish virtue, pluralism, and the rule of law.
For three hundred years, the Miracle bore its fruit. The marketplace spread. With it, liberty, democracy, and human rights folded more and more Resterners into the camp of the Westerners.
Goldberg’s story isn’t a clash of civilizations. He believes that the clash is within civilization. The Miracle was never more than a conditional agreement that restrained our basic character without transforming it. The tribal self still lived in the core of our beings, waiting for the opportunity to break the shackles of civility. Humans remain locked in a struggle between the inner tribal and acquired civilized. The danger is that one aspect is natural, and the other is not; one is always yearning for release, while the other is subject to entropy, decay, fatigue, and forgetting. The Miracle is therefore fragile, in need of nurture to fend off nature.
This is why teaching is crucial in Goldberg’s view, and why he vents against the failures of teachers. In particular, teachers like me. My tribe of academics, sheltered in tenured fortresses, infatuated with romantic beliefs and leeching off taxpayers and tuitions, has turned its back on the Miracle and taken to professing the virtues of neo-tribalism—known loosely and relentlessly as “identity politics.” Even more damning: we have thrown in our lot with another tribe, technocratic globalists and above-it-all progressives who believe the larger the state the better.
Thus was born a nasty alliance of the righteous and the rulers under a banner of liberalism. Cosmopolitan intellectuals gave tribalism some high-minded cred and championed feelings and instincts over reason and science. Technocrats built a global regime that rewarded plutocrats and ignored the commonwealth of citizens who had once learned to welcome strangers, even fight for them, but who now worried that these strangers were taking jobs and milking the system. To make matters worse, this alliance of engineering do-gooders accelerated a “cultural trend” that undermined “the family” (which Goldberg defines in the customary, nuclear way, with no-fault divorce), subsidizing child-rearing out of wedlock and promoting the cult of “romantic notions of personal fulfillment” (as opposed to the joys of marital duty that Goldberg espouses).
Goldberg’s story isn’t a clash of civilizations. He believes that the clash is within civilization.
Yet despite his railings against identity politics and praise of the traditional family, Goldberg differs from many a pundit. As he sees it, demise isn’t inevitable; it’s suicide. It’s self-inflicted. There is no inescapable reason why the West should slump. Nor is there a demise because the Rest is on a rampage against the West—Goldberg does not blame China, Islam, Mexico, or homeless refugees; in fact, a message of the book, and why Goldberg has run afoul of some nativist ranks of the right, is that we should not presume that strangers are enemies. They may be competitors or rivals, but they are not despicable. They are also capable of seeing the virtues of the Miracle. Goldberg sees the current predicament as the work of Westerners themselves, especially those who have forsaken or forgotten the lessons of the Miracle. They have given in to Natural Man’s tribal instincts.
One solution: stop being so rude to each other. One of the Miracle’s bequests is democracy, and democracy requires argument and respectful discord, if for no other reason than to replay the reasons why the Miracle is such a constitutive idea, a foundation. Sustaining arguments requires civility, an ability to make conversation among adversaries.
The other solution: gratitude. It’s a keyword in Suicide of the West. To get back to the cooperative, mutually regarding, stranger-tolerating ways of the Miracle, we have to appreciate that we are not coded for democracy, that we would prefer to be predators rather than traders. The Miracle needs protecting. To be protected, its mythic properties need to be retold and relearned precisely because they are so unnatural. We have to learn to be grateful.
Therein lies a problem. Calling for gratitude in a choleric age that Goldberg and his political mates helped create is not just an anemic prescription for what ails the body politic. It is also ludicrous alongside the blaming and shaming that litter this book. But most of all, like all arguments that require straw men to make them plausible, it’s cheap. To switch metaphors, it’s like playing tennis with the net down only for one side.
The reason the prescription is poor is because the diagnosis is too. If Goldberg read a bit more history, for instance, he would learn that humans didn’t all live in a state of nature until about three hundred years ago, when it dawned on a few men to come up with a Big Idea. Goldberg might even reckon—though this might be too much to ask—with some of the ambiguities within the Miracle itself, not to mention his idea of the West, as if enlightened Western men were innocent of any modern barbarities.
Then there’s the evidence used to support the diagnosis he does offer. For a book devoted to taking ideas seriously, it’s incurious about them. One clue is the scholarship behind the Miracle: there is very little of it. For example, Goldberg relies on Steven Pinker to examine the 18th-century notion of the noble savage (Rousseau is one of the great evil geniuses in this story). That’s like preparing for an archaeology final exam by watching Tomb Raider.
Goldberg doesn’t appear to know the difference between the history, psychology, and anthropology of groups and the history of the myth of groups, including the invention of the category “tribe.” He takes myth as history and then papers it over with a mishmash of quotes and random anecdotes.
A sign of the trouble is the reliance on pop references to help the reader understand. Game of Thrones is a go-to. Tywin Lannister lectures to his son about the importance of family above all; Lord Stark summons his bannermen to defend the northern tribe from southern avarice. The obsession with rule from thrones lends color to Goldberg’s narrative, but none of this is evidence, which is how he winds up in culs-de-sac of ridiculous claims. “English weirdness” gave us the Enlightenment? Development expertise has become a “cult of authoritarianism”? The more one reads Goldberg on the Big Idea, the more it looks like an assembly of Little Insights pumped up by rambling, undisciplined prose.
At times, it degenerates into ranting or oddball sidebars. There’s a hysterical passage of national essentialism, for instance, that compares French gardens—geometric, ornate, nature-bending, utopian—with English gardens, in which “each bush, tree, and vegetable [is allowed to] achieve its own ideal.” The French impose a vision on nature; the English protect the individual plants from weeds and predators. Goldberg, of course, aims to lead us to the American heirs to the Miracle, who picked up where the English left off: “The American founders were gardeners, not engineers.” Tending the garden—protecting basic liberties—is what Madison advocated in Federalist No. 10. But if Goldberg had done a little bit of digging, he would know his history of gardening is all wrong. He doesn’t even get the metaphor right. No wonder: he cites Yuval Levin (another National Review pundit and fellow crusader to get the right back on track) from his book about the debate between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine over the French Revolution as an authority on landscape design.
Some of Goldberg’s arguments are important to consider. Civic discourse has degenerated. This is bad for democracy. Basic principles like the rule of law and pluralism were important. This is good for equality. The case for civil society is encouraging. And the case for respect for strangers is vital in these fanged days.
But if Goldberg wants a dialogue across the aisles perfumed with gratitude and politesse, it would help if he practiced some of what he preaches. He can’t resist slinging insults at the people he believes have given up on American ideals. It does not seem to have occurred to him that it is hard to have a conversation with someone who spits at you intentionally. Beneath his surface rational demeanor, the author of Suicide of the West is barely able to contain his own pugilism. That belligerence comes out over and over as bad sarcasm, mixed metaphors, and, as the book moves on, a river of increasingly shrill and intemperate insults. When discussing early social reformers, for instance, he calls them “autocrats.” Reformers, and “countless intellectuals,” behave the same way now as they did a century ago. They act “like a dog returning to its vomit.”
Inevitably, his quarry is the university, a favored target of the American right now (perhaps because it can’t point to welfare anymore, because it no longer exists). The American way—let’s ramp this up and call it “the West”—is in trouble not because banks have fleeced the economy, not because powerful men have been raping women who want their share of the Miracle, not even because the almighty political Left is on a roll, because it’s not. The curse of the West is the modern university campus and its priesthood of “tenured radicals.” “One could go on not just for pages,” Goldberg assures readers, “but at book length documenting these bonfires of asininity at various elite universities.”
Beneath his surface rational demeanor, the author of “Suicide of the West” is barely able to contain his own pugilism.
Instead of getting back to basics and preaching the gospel of the Miracle, the university has become a den of diversity-mongers, elitists, affirmative action babies, and free-speech haters. It’s all identity politics, and all identity politics is tribalism. And the hearth of identity politics is the modern university. It has exported and authorized the spread of recognitional talk and “safe spaces” to the tribe of white, Christian, identity-seeking underclasses that spurned the good kind of conservative (Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio) and flocked to the polls to vote for Donald Trump, who played the identity card with abandon.
Some of what is happening on campuses in “the West” is debatable. But guess what? It is debated. One would never know that in Goldberg’s telling. He imagines the university to be a sanctuary for what’s threatening civilization. It shelters, like guilds, coddled groupies of Miracle-bashers, spaces like women’s studies departments, which “are not particularly popular.” This is a wincing choice in the wake of the Access Hollywood tapes, Harvey Weinstein—not to mention the allegations surrounding Judge Kavanaugh. (Wait, wasn’t he a legacy admittee to Yale?) Astrophysics isn’t particularly popular either. Does Goldberg want to take his purifying crusade there too?
Goldberg should hang around with the natives a little more instead of waiting for invitations from right-wing groups to give guest lectures to crowds that confirm all of his biases. What’s disingenuous about Suicide of the West is that Goldberg never examines his—or his political tribe’s—role in the unwinding of the public sphere he claims to cherish. First, there’s the relentless disdain for others with no reckoning with his own place in the demonization of those he claims he wants to engage. Goldberg’s previous, exuberant use of the label “fascism” to describe liberals is whitewashed from this work, but the gist is the same. The result: he poisons his born-again civics lessons. Insulting others while celebrating his own kind comes too naturally. After 25 years making a career in the us-versus-them style of punditry, it’s his reflex to stab when he thinks he’s reaching out a hand.
“Rivers of Blood” @50
The style reflects a deeper problem: the urge to tribalize history itself—placing ideas and people into cartoonish camps of good and bad, light and dark, one side or the other—in order to place himself unabashedly and always on the side of the good, the light, the right. This astonishing work of self-congratulation is not just selective; it’s twisted. For a book about the changing regard for strangers to omit the deep history of right-wing tribalism, not to mention the card-carrying type of fascism, is not an oversight. What kind of story is it that spills so much ink on prosecuting identity politics as if the Dreyfus affair, the Sacco and Vanzetti trial, and concentration camps—then and now—were not part of the chronicle of right-wing nativism? The omission is deliberate and intended to put history and ideas at the service of blaming and disdaining that have become the currency of conservative argumentation.
As an index of intellectual renaissance, it is hard to decide whether to laugh or to get even more worried about this kind of punditry. Perhaps it’s an occupational hazard of spinmeisters that they don’t know the difference between spin and evidence. Goldberg has to recycle a tired trope and to outsize the source of the problem because he is so determined to skirt bigger threats to democracy that have nothing to do with the West or declinist fables—and everything to do with the way Fox News pundits, their Big Ideas, and their backers have destroyed the public sphere they now mourn while peddling themselves as the victims of history.
This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom.