Suicide of the West? image

Suicide of the West?

I don't really buy one of the central premises of Jonah Goldberg's Suicide of the West. I don't think liberal, democratic capitalism caused increased technology, prosperity, and freedom, so much as increased technology, prosperity and freedom caused liberal, democratic capitalism. I think the language and description of "the Miracle" funks causality, continuity and chronology when it comes to medieval Europe, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the rise of science, the industrial revolution, the growth of capital and the emergence of democracy. I think the role of Christianity is dramatically understated in the narrative he offers (stemming from his striking opening line, "There is no God in this book"), and that the liberal values he champions have more to do with the teachings of Jesus than the teachings of John Locke. But Goldberg's key argument—that we are naturally tribal, that liberal democracy is the only system that has had much success at suppressing that tribalism, and that it is currently unravelling on both right and left—seems to me to be fairly convincing. On top of which, the book is brightly written, clear in its argument, and full of thought-provoking and insightful ideas. Here are seven of them:

1. On the natural bias towards group unity, and the morally neutral nature of it: “Given time and incentives, any group of humans will start to see themselves as a cohesive group, a cast or aristocratic class. Just as any random group of dogs—strays and purebreds alike—will, if put together, quickly form a pack with a collective identity, humans will do the same thing given time and the right inducements. The children in Lord of the Flies, contestants on Survivor, college students in the Stanford prison experiments, members of the Seattle Seahawks, police, firemen, marines, Copts, Sunnis, teachers’ unions, street gangs, college professors—the list is as endless as the subdivision of labor and identity in any society. This natural human tendency is neither bad nor good. It’s simply a fact. The capacity to trick our coalitional and tribal instincts to self-organise around identities other than race and kin can be the source of both wonderful things and horrible ones. Unity is a neutral value. Unity’s moral status is derived entirely from what a group does. Whatever label you ascribe to the group—class, faction, sect, etc—the only time self-interested groups or coalitions become a real threat to the larger society is when they claim the power of the state for their own agenda.”

2. On the unintended consequences of the bureaucratic state: “Complexity is a subsidy. The more complex government makes society, the more it rewards those with the resources to deal with that complexity, and the more it punishes those who do not.”

3. On the important difference between the civil rights movement and some forms of contemporary identity politics: “They are not merely arguing that the system needs to live up to its own ideals, which was the argument of the suffragettes and the civil rights movement. They are arguing that the ideals themselves are illegitimate. The tragedy here is that liberalism—in the classic Enlightenment sense—is the only system ever created to help people break out of the oppression of identity politics.” (I don’t think this gives Christian thought its due, but I’ll leave that point for now.)

4. On the uniformity of diversity: “Universities subscribe to a very narrow definition of diversity. Intellectual, ideological, and religious diversity take a backseat—sometimes a very distant backseat—to a very specific kind of bean counting.” This has been a constant refrain of Jonathan Haidt (whose new book on this subject, The Coddling of the American Mind, has just arrived) and the Heterodox Academy, among many others.

5. On the true lesson of the Dead Poets Society: “Throughout the film, we are always supposed to take Mr Keating’s side in every dispute… But the headmaster is right, or at least less wrong than Mr Keating. To be sure, Mr Keating has something to teach the fogeys about how to make education interesting and entertaining. But what he is not doing is teaching the boys to think for themselves. He is teaching them to embrace the romantic imperative of finding truth—or at least the only truth that matters—within themselves. In other words, he is not teaching them to think for themselves; he is teaching them not to think at all. Dead Poets Society is a rock-and-roll song minus the rock and roll.”

6. On our essentially tribal nature. “We are rightly taught not to hit, steal or torture. These rules, and ones like them, form the bedrock of virtually every halfway decent civilisation. And yet, almost every time we go see an action movie, we cheer people who violate these rules… We use the more primitive parts of our brains, which understand right and wrong as questions of “us” and “them.” Our myths are still with us on the silver screen, and they appeal to our sense of tribal justice. We enter the movie theater a citizen of this world, but when we sit down, we become denizens of the spiritual jungle, where our morality becomes tribal the moment the lights go out.”

7. On the family as the foundation of civilisation: “Family lays all the crucial groundwork for the kind of person you will become. When I say that the family is the gateway to civilisation, I mean that literally. The family civilises barbarians. It imprints them with language, customs, mores, values and expectations for how society should work. If culture is a conversation, then the family is where all conversation begins … Hannah Arendt once observed that, in every generation, Western civilisation is invaded by barbarians: We call them “children.” The family is the first line of defence against this barbarian invasion. The metaphor is inapt, because parents aren’t at war with babies themselves. But parents are at war with the darker side of human nature, which we all work to trim away from our children by inscribing in their hearts notions of decency, fair play and self-restraint.”

Interesting times.

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