Jonah Goldberg's Suicide of the West

Jonah Goldberg has a new book coming out next week and today National Review published a lengthy piece adapted from the book. There’s a tremendous amount to unpack in this piece so I won’t even try to do it justice in a single blog post, but there is an idea here that really struck me as insightful and worthwhile: Conservatism is a form of gratitude.

There’s a foundation to this idea. According to Goldberg, we’re living through a historical “miracle” brought about by the triumph of liberal-Democratic capitalism. On any longer time scale, Goldberg points out, our current lives are a recent invention and almost indescribably different from most of human experience.  The important thing about the “miracle” is that there is no sense in which it had to happen, nor any guarantee that it must continue. In fact, Goldberg writes that there are forces at work which are already intent on bringing it to a swift end.

Why stress that the Miracle was both unnatural and accidental? Because Western civilization generally, and America particularly, is on a suicidal path. The threats are many, but beneath them all is one constant, eternal seducer: human nature. Modernity often assumes that we’ve conquered human nature as much as we’ve conquered the natural world. The truth is we’ve done neither. We simply restrain each from generation to generation. If you’ve ever owned a boat, car, or house, you know that nature needs only time and opportunity to reclaim everything. Rust doesn’t sleep. Termites respect a grandfather clock no more than an outhouse. Abandon a car in a field, and all nature requires to turn it back to the soil is time. Preventing decay and entropy from reclaiming everything built by human hands requires vigilant upkeep. As Horace said, “You may drive nature out with a pitchfork, but she will keep coming back.”…

Nearly all of our laws and customs, from marriage and prohibition of murder to the concept of merit, restrain human nature. For instance, nepotism and favoritism are natural. People prefer family and friends in every society that has ever existed. Westerners often consider developing countries such as Afghanistan corrupt because their political systems proceed from tribal reciprocity. But Afghans and others argue that their ways are ancient and natural. And they’re right. Our system of merit, contracts, blind bidding, etc. is what’s unnatural.

The story of Western civilization, and really civilization itself, is the story of productively sublimating human nature.

Goldberg doesn’t use this metaphor but the idea he’s presenting is that the modern world is really dancing on the head of a pin and always in danger of going over one edge or the other simply because our current environment is so far from our natural state. The force most likely to send us over the edge is tribalism, our tendency to seek group identity. If we’re no longer getting that identity from home, from church, from the local community, most people will seek it in something else.

People learn virtue first and most importantly from family, and then from the myriad institutions family introduces them to: churches, schools, associations, etc. Every generation, Western civilization is invaded by barbarians, Hannah Arendt observed: “We call them children.” Civil society, starting with the family, civilizes barbarians, providing meaning, belonging, and virtue…

Because the Miracle is unnatural, unless we’re properly civilized to understand and appreciate it, we look to restore what instinctively feels natural. As individualism feels more atomizing and alienating, the siren song of the group, the tribe, or the gang becomes increasingly seductive. We evolved to hate inequality because group survival required sharing resources. But envy is a deadly sin for a reason, and when a civilization surrenders to it, the Miracle dies.

And it’s with this understanding that the future of liberal-Democratic capitalism is not guaranteed that Goldberg comes to his point about the importance of gratitude in keeping it going.

It seems axiomatic to me that whatever words can create, they can destroy. And ingratitude is the destroyer’s form. We teach children that the moral of the Goose that Lays the Golden Egg is the danger of greed. But the real moral of the story is ingratitude. A farmer finds an animal, which promises to make him richer than he ever imagined. But rather than nurture and protect this miracle, he resents it for not doing more. In one version, the farmer demands two golden eggs per day. When the goose politely demurs, he kills it out of a sense of entitlement — the opposite of gratitude.

The Miracle is our goose. And rather than be grateful for it, our schools, our culture, and many of our politicians say we should resent it for not doing more. Conservatism is a form of gratitude, because we conserve only what we are grateful for. Our society is talking itself out of gratitude for the Miracle and teaching our children resentment. Our culture affirms our feelings as the most authentic sources of truth when they are merely the expressions of instincts, and considers the Miracle a code word for white privilege, greed, and oppression.

I like this image of conservativism as gratitude. This seems like a good way to frame the fundamental nature of the outlook animating various conservative views. The image of the conservative standing athwart history yelling “Stop!” is one we’re all familiar with, but this outlook suggests a reason for doing so: When you’re entire society is dancing on the head of a pin, it makes sense to urge a bit of caution and keep in mind that the way forward (as the left is fond of claiming they represent) is not always the way up. Sometimes it’s just a quicker way over the edge.

You can see a pretty good example of how all of these things are connected (individualism, democracy, capitalism) in the ongoing collapse of Venezuela. A populist leader transformed himself into a socialist and not even two decades later one of the richest nations in South America is full of people starving to death. As socialism took hold, capitalism was the first victim, but democracy soon followed. Now the nation is a dictatorship run by a gang of revolutionary thugs. The miracle is dead.

And you can see it happening on America’s college campuses where a minority of far left students have embraced silencing their opponents and demanding conformity to their group identity. They’re still a small minority at the moment but the same impulses, identity politics over individualism, is at work.

I haven’t read Goldberg’s book (it comes out next week) but this preview of the themes certainly has me interested in seeing more.