(Dear reader—Fair warning: this is a long post, so best to settle in on the couch and make sure your dogs have completed their morning walks . . .)
Okay class, everyone settle in for today’s seminar and get out your textbook, Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West. Turn to page 316, and circle this sentence: “Indeed, as much as I hold Trump in contempt, I am still compelled to admit that, if my vote would have decided the election, I probably would have voted for him.”
I begin with this admission against Jonah’s supposed interest to point out to his many detractors on the right that he is actually on our side. A lot of my friends are on a hair trigger with everything Jonah says or writes these days because of his relentless criticism of Trump. (For some reason most of my critical friends seem to be named Julie. A statistician will probably tell me this can’t be chance—it must be a conspiracy! Though actually it is the pseudonymous “Tom Doniphon” who is working overtime at American Greatness to smack Jonah’s book around.) The ongoing divisions over Trump are provoking complaints that, among other sins, Jonah has committed a literary appropriation (heh) of James Burnham’s famous 1962 title. This is a silly charge, as Harry Jaffa first explained to me about why he wasn’t bothered by the many other authors who also titled their Lincoln books A New Birth of Freedom.
Now, I have my own specific criticisms of Jonah’s book; in fact I have enough nits that I can probably knit a small sweater. Yes, he has some details of Michael Anton’s biography wrong; yes, his handling of the Declaration of Independence is sloppy in a couple of respects (but correct on the essentials); yes, Lockeans in every corner of the ring will want to dispute his summary accounts of Lockeanism as incomplete. (The irony of the long-running disputes about Locke is that they resemble an intellectual state of nature out of which no civil society seems ever likely to arise. But that’s a subject for another day—and 500 more books.) At the end of the day, as I shall try to explain, all of these nits will yield a sweater barely suitable to cover up an anorexic Barbie doll.
My chief overall complaint about Jonah—aside from not coughing up those old blackmail photos of me from Vegas he keeps in a safe deposit box—is that for all of his copious pop culture references, there is a conspicuous absence of references to Blazing Saddles. Which absence, as any East Coast Straussian will tell you, obviously means that he screens Saddles every Saturday morning. As I’ve paraphrased to him many times, adopting his own self-description, “What’s a dazzling Upper West Side demi-Jew like you doing in a rustic setting like Washington DC?”
Anyway, rather than embark on an undoubtedly frustrating and unproductive disputation over specific criticisms of Jonah and Jonah’s book from my friends (or enemies), I want to set out instead by disputing a positive review of the book that I think starts out wrongheaded, out of which I think a robust general defense can be constructed that does not require frowning at my friends. Adam Keiper opens his review of Suicide of the West in the Weekly Standard in the following way:
Goldberg’s book is a big, baggy, sometimes frustrating, often brilliant combination of intellectual history and political essay. He says that the original manuscript was twice as long as the final product; it certainly should have been much further pruned.
Wrong, and wrong. It’s not the book that’s baggy. Jonah’s pants are baggy, and perhaps Keiper is coming closer to explaining Trump’s famously inscrutable dig at Jonah’s supposed inability to buy trousers. It’s the last sentence—“it certainly should have been much further pruned”—that is the wrongest part of Keiper’s evaluation.
As Jonah has explained, the original manuscript of the book was more than twice as long as the final product, and was reduced at the request of his editors at CrownForum books (my publisher, I’ll add; they were very indulgent of my preposterous notion of writing a huge two-volume political biography of the life and times of Reagan, for which extraordinary latitude I’ll always be grateful). I understand why the publisher would want the book, or any book, to be shorter, and I’m sure the shorter length aids overall sales, but I think the book is in fact too short. I would like to have had the longer version. Too bad we can’t do books after the fashion of movies, with a “writer’s original edition” like we have a “director’s cut” of so many movies.
Okay, yes, I’m weird. For example, I much prefer the complete, unabridged four-volume version of Churchill’s Marlborough to the dreadful one-volume edition edited by Henry Steele Commager, who managed to be unerring in cutting out the best parts of Churchill’s account. (I have a theory about why Commager edited Churchill as atrociously as he did, but that’s for another day, too.)
Another way of getting at the inherent defect—but necessity—of short books is to ask for a show of hands for the following question: how many of you have read even one volume of Deirdre McCloskey’s magisterial trilogy consisting of Bourgeois Dignity, Bourgeois Virtues, and Bourgeois Equality? Confession: I have only read a little of McCloskey’s triptych, but have long been a huge fan of all of McCloskey’s remarkable body of work, and agree with Jonah about McCloskey’s originality and deep cross-disciplinary perception. McCloskey is one of the very few senior academics who can rightly be called a polymath of the old school. Just have a look at McCloskey’s author description in her books: “Distinguished Professor of Economics, History, English, and Communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago.” She really is an Erasmus for our time.
And in fact McCloskey is one of the inspirations and sources for some of the main themes in Suicide. McCloskey set out to get at a surprising mystery: there is no consensus about what causes economic growth, or an explanation for why the “industrial revolution” began to take off like a rocket roughly 300 years ago after centuries of essentially no economic growth at all. (The subtitle of Bourgeois Dignity is Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World.) The standard factors we learned in Econ 101 way back when—land, labor and capital—aren’t the driver, nor is technological progress. Institutions matter, yes, as does most crucially classical liberalism. But our picture of the prosperity and success of the West is getting more out of focus as time goes on.
McCloskey offers some provocative and well-argued ideas, but Jonah’s shorter work casts an even wider net, and attempts to return fire against the contemporary attacks on democratic capitalism, which, in case you haven’t noticed, have been gaining strength lately. One large part of the reason for this is the willful nihilism of the modern left, or what Malcolm Muggeridge way back in the 1970s called “The Great Liberal Death Wish.” Yes, Jonah perhaps owes one of his main themes—that suicide is a choice—more to Muggeridge than Burnham, but in any case he actually explains it with explicit reference to Lincoln’s warning in his Lyceum Address that if America ever fails it will be on account of self-willed causes—suicide—rather than foreign military invasion. Lincoln underestimated the potential for the invasion of bad foreign ideas—this is a major theme of both this book and Jonah’s previous exploration, Liberal Fascism, but in any case this reference alone earns some chits with this Claremonster. (One thinks immediately of Leo Strauss’s remark about German ideology in Natural Right and History that “It would not be the first time that a nation, defeated on the battlefield, and, as it were, annihilated as a political being, has deprived its conquerors of the most sublime fruit of victory by imposing on them the yoke of its own thought.”)
But our confusion over the nature and causes of the success of the West also owes to the increasing specialization of intellectual life. As I plan to explore in either a long article or short book some time soon, the proliferation of academic specializations over the last century, while generating finer and finer slices of advanced insight, has deprived us of our appreciation and perception of the whole. History and politics, for example, were once studied together in universities. Now they are completely separate disciplines, which entails great loss of depth accruing to both. Sociology is really just a branch of political science (ditto anthropology), while social psychology, which is a distinct and separate branch of psychology now, is a bastard recombination of psychology and sociology. Economics is in the process of subdividing into several distinct fields, with the main portion of the discipline looking more like just a wing of the math department, and with one new branch—behavioral economics—ironically casting an imperial reach into psychology. And academic philosophy is almost wholly sidelined and isolated from the public mind in ways and for reasons that take too long to explain. (All of this intellectual subdivision, incidentally, creates a void into which the radicalized “disciplines” of the politicized “studies” departments rush in to exploit. As I say, more on this another time, though I did talk about this some in Power Line Show podcast #69, in case you missed it.)
The result is a situation in which the ambition to write broad-gauge synoptic accounts of the social order of democratic capitalism is nearly extinct. There are a few notable and partial exceptions, such as Steven Pinker’s new book Enlightenment Now, offering a robust defense of Enlightenment liberalism. (And the left is fiercely attacking Pinker, who is otherwise an orthodox modern liberal, for this sin.) Jonah’s book is another, except that it is much more ambitious and wide-ranging than anything else on offer today.
Samuel Johnson argued that “Men more frequently require to be reminded than informed,” and as such Suicide of the West is an attempt to remind us with fresh language and up-to-date cultural analysis of the reasons our democratic order is under attack—a state of things that just a couple decades ago seemed impossible to conceive. The central idea of Suicideis the centrality of human nature, which the left today must fundamentally attack because it is the chief obstacle to their authoritarian dreams. Jonah frequently quotes Horace: “Naturam expelles furca, tamen usque recurret.” Actually, Jonah quotes Horace in English: “You can expel nature with a pitchfork, but it will always came back.”
One might try to make something of a contradiction out of Jonah’s embrace of human nature with his parallel argument that what we today deplore as selfish tribalism is in fact the natural state of humanity, and that liberal notions of equal rights—and democratic capitalism—are in fact unnatural, and are undermined precisely by its very success. Here perhaps he is restating some of the ideas worked out a generation ago by Daniel Bell, but Joseph Schumpeter is the acknowledged larger inspiration for his argument. The point is, uncivilized human nature makes our social order always prone to the same law of entropy as our physical order, and as such is the chief refutation of the easygoing historicism behind the favorite modern liberal cliché about “the side of history.” Civilization takes work, as much to maintain it as to create it in the first place. Or as John Stuart Mill suggested, the chief defect of Hegelian liberalism is the assumption that the progress of humanity from barbarism to civilization is an irreversible process.
By coincidence, as I was reading Jonah’s book I was also brushing up on my early Churchill, and ran across a letter from 1895 in which Churchill observed of the dynamism and material bounty of American capitalism:
When we reflect that such benefits have been secured to the people not by confiscation of the property of the rich or by arbitrary taxation but simply by business enterprise—out of which the promoters themselves have made colossal fortunes, one cannot fail to be impressed with the excellence of the active system.
But, Churchill added, in terms close to Jonah’s point, that American capitalism is “not pretty or romantic, but great and utilitarian.” And understanding the romantic rebellion against liberal democracy and capitalism is one of the major themes of Suicide of the West. Sure, this may not be exactly new, but to adapt Dr. Johnson, reminding is informing.
The resolution of the tension between our liberal institutions and the undertow of untutored human nature can be derived from the pages of Aristotle’s Politics (along with a large side order of the Nicomachean Ethics), but believe me, if you try to explain it this way to students, you can hear the heads dropping on desktops before you get to the second paragraph of Book I. Even Burke’s resolution of this difficulty is a hard slog with students today. Better to start with the halfway house of Locke, whose individualism and defense of natural rights is easier for the modern mind to recall because there is enough residual understanding and sympathy to work with. We can have the larger argument over Locke’s liberalism some other time, after we halt the advance of the left. (Though for an accessible outline of the arguments, see chapter 6 of my Patriotism Is Not Enough, “Equality as a Principle and a Problem”; for a deep-dive treatment, see Thomas G. West’s recent book The Political Theory of the American Founding.)
Hence the real argument Jonah has with people on the right is not primarily with Trump supporters (and here one suspects that the publisher wanted to highlight the Trump parts of the book precisely because controversy sells books—and lo, here we are!), but rather with two opposing factions of the right who unwittingly and unintentionally align themselves with the left: the “side of history” historicists, and anti-liberal cultural historians. If you want to reduce it to two authors, you could even say that Jonah’s primary antagonists on the right are Francis Fukuyama (The End of History and the Last Man) and Patrick Deneen (Why Liberalism Failed), though we should quickly note that Fukuyama has more or less repudiated the popular understanding of his famous argument from those palmy post-Cold War days of 1991, and Deneen, while thinking that the Enlightenment liberal tradition carried the seeds of its own destruction, is no friend of either nihilism or the cultural left. Ironically Jonah cites both thinkers approvingly, and in any case his book is not the place to carry out a full disputation with either person. (Indeed, Deneen’s argument—I’ll take it up at length some other time—overlaps with Jonah’s argument in places, while differing markedly in others.)
The reason I set it up this way is best explained by a long memo I wrote to the leadership of AEI way back in 2011, which attempted to explain why were in the fix we found ourselves under Obama, a part of which ran this way:
In the early- to mid-1990s we thought we had won on the major premises of politics and policy—Francis Fukuyama told us so!—such that what was needed from the likes of us was the technical work of unraveling piece-by-piece the architecture of the administrative-welfare state. The reasons for thinking this way were all around us, from the spectacular fall of the Berlin Wall to the market liberalizations proceeding apace in nearly every corner of the world to the spectacular rout of Hillarycare and the noticeable acceptance of market logic within Clintonite & Blairist liberalism. These encouraging signs were profoundly misleading. The problem with thinking you are riding a “wave of history” is that the wave might leave you stranded on a sandbar far from shore. Just ask Newt. . .
How did the Left get the drop on us? I have a field theory for this that is simple but hopefully not simplistic. We should not repair behind exogenous excuses about the surprise of the housing bubble/financial collapse and the extraordinary phenomenon of Obamamania. The seeds of decay and regress should have been evident long before these events. We should be honest: we—our cause, our movement—became complacent. We became too narrowly focused on policy studies to the exclusion of the sustained public argument about the principles and practices of a free society that were the predicate of policy reforms. We forgot the “public” part of “public policy” studies. . .
Who ever thought, after NAFTA for example, that the principles and arguments for free trade would require re-articulation? . . .
I don’t think we ever fully appreciated, as Hayek did as far back as the 1960s, that the nature of the challenge from the Left would change profoundly going forward from that point, and become much more difficult. . . Consider, for example, this lapidary passage that I think is right on target:
The current situation has greatly altered the task of the defender of liberty and made it much more difficult. So long as the danger came from socialism of the frankly collectivist kind, it was possible to argue that the tenets of the socialists were simply false: that socialism would not achieve what the socialists wanted and that it would produce other consequences which they would not like. We cannot argue similarly against the welfare state, for this term does not designate a definite system. What goes under that name is a conglomerate of so many diverse and even contradictory elements that, while some of them may make a free society more attractive, others are incompatible with it or may at least constitute potential threats to existence.
Hence we need books—and a lot more books—like Suicide of the West that reach a mass public with original and unconventional popular language and cross-cutting arguments. All that Trump stuff is a sideshow. . .