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Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy Hardcover – April 24, 2018
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“An absolutely magnificent book! Jonah Goldberg is brilliant – both in his intellect and in his writing. Amusing, terrifying, informative and thought-provoking, Suicide of the West is an intellectual oasis of hope in a desert of self-destructive ignorance.”
—Brad Thor, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Spymaster
“Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West is a tour de force. As ever, Goldberg wears his extraordinary erudition lightly as he demonstrates how the ideas that have animated free societies for the past 250 years are the greatest creations of humankind—and how we are imperiling our posterity by the way we mishandle, ignore, and belittle them. This is a very important book.”
—John Podhoretz, Editor, Commentary Magazine
“When future archeologists are digging through our ruins and asking, as they will ask, ‘What the hell were they thinking?’ I hope they come upon a copy of Suicide of the West, and that it is only slightly charred from the bonfire into which the mad idiot ideologues of our time are sure to cast it.”
—Kevin Williamson, National Review correspondent
“Populism and identity politics are not just unpleasant; they are an existential threat to the American way of life. With characteristic wit and erudition, Jonah Goldberg argues that if you value democracy and a free society, you must stand against ideological tribalism, no matter what your politics. Suicide of the West raises an alarm everyone needs to hear, and makes clear the path we need to take.”
—Arthur C. Brooks, President of the American Enterprise Institute
“Understanding where America stands calls for someone with an intellectual lens that can integrate Schumpeter and Fight Club, Karl Marx and Walter White. In Suicide of the West, Jonah Goldberg begins with a compelling thesis, expounds it with massive evidence, and led me to a new and deeper understanding of our predicament. And yet I found myself reading the book for fun. How is it possible with a book this serious? Jonah Goldberg is that good.”
—Charles Murray, author of Coming Apart
“No book better explains this perilous American moment than Jonah Goldberg's Suicide of the West. Deeply researched, beautifully written and brilliantly argued, Goldberg uses trademark logic and humor to explain how the 'miracle' of liberal democracy and capitalism created the conditions for Western thriving and how complacence about the system could hasten its collapse. Equal parts history and polemic, Suicide of the West is a bracing and necessary reminder that the success of the West is neither accidental nor inevitable. It will be one of the most important books of the year.”
—Steve Hayes, Editor-in-Chief of The Weekly Standard and a Fox News Contributor
“That’s what I appreciate about the book…it makes me think, it engages in ideas, and fundamentally what the book is saying is: Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
—Trevor Noah, “The Daily Show”
“This is the book of the year.”
—New York Post
“It is indeed a serious book with perhaps the rarest of things: the potential to change your mind on any number of subjects. That it is written with great good humor and some laugh out loud moments should not disguise that it is very serious and very important.”
“…an important exploration of why we’re giving up the philosophy that built the modern West.”
“Progressives and conservatives will have their disputes with this book, but the conversations are well worth having.”
—Library Journal (starred review)
"[Suicide of the West] makes a simple, vitally important argument about gratitude and perpetuation. And it synthesizes the research and theories of dozens of sociologists, historians, and economists in a new and helpful way. If Suicide of the West—like Goldberg’s first book, the bestseller Liberal Fascism—comes to be so widely read and debated that it shapes the public understanding of its subject, we will be much better off for it.
—The Weekly Standard
“…ambitious, engrossing, and provocative…splendid.”
About the Author
Jonah Goldberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor at National Review, and his nationally syndicated column appears in over 100 newspapers across the United States. He is a weekly columnist for the Los Angeles Times, a member of the board of contributors to USA Today, a Fox News contributor, and a member of the "Fox News All-Stars.”
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Goldberg is a conservative Enlightenment-liberal capitalist. Neither an admirer of Trump and the alt-right or the progressive left, some will think of him as a traditional conservative and, as such, a rather devout constitutionalist. He rejects both tribal populism and progressive identity politics, although he sees tribalism and the need for identity as hard-wired into our DNA.
It is always dangerous to summarize another person’s thoughts, but that’s what a book review is. Goldberg argues that true human progress only began with the Enlightenment and that it flowed from the adoption of considered thought that runs contrary to all of our natural instincts. It began, organically, with John Locke and the Glorious English Revolution of 1688, and continued, by choice, with the Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution, and the founding of the US.
The challenge facing every student of life, but particularly acute among historians, is the fact that reality is complex. It can be sliced into a large number—some believe infinite—number of dimensions and interconnected variables. (Historians, as Goldberg points out, fall prey to only connecting the dots they expect to see.)
Science and empiricism both help and hinder the process. They help because they provide an objective methodology for isolating variables. They hinder because they require the successful isolation of variables that are causal and not superficially contributory or coincidental.
The key to understanding anything, therefore, is context. Is it truly knowable? Or are we destined to scratch away at the surface? And the answer, of course, depends on whom you ask what.
I don’t refute Goldberg arguments but I do refute some of his conclusions. And the difference in our two views is, in my words, one of context. Ultimately, Goldberg’s arguments, while powerful, strike me as unnecessarily binary. He divides the world of political economy into Locke and Rousseau and, as a result, you are either an empiricist (him) or a romantic (admittedly, me). And he doesn’t mince his words on how he feels about each.
That’s a bit unfair and I am falling into the same trap, although to no more degree than he does, created by the limitations of language. Language is a human convention, after all, and tends, in the interest of efficiency, toward binary expression. Something to always keep in mind when reading any book.
Goldberg makes several key points that seem unassailable, including the importance of “earned success” to human fulfillment. It is also indisputable that we have witnessed a decline in what he calls “mediating institutions” (e.g. family), those formal and informal institutions that have historically provided a buffer between the individual and the state, and that this has contributed to our political and social decay. And his repeated contention that maintaining the benefits of liberal democracy takes constant care and attention. (He uses the gardener metaphor frequently.)
I would also agree with Goldberg that neither political party has defined a productive way forward. I must take exception, however, perhaps out of wishful thinking, with his conclusion: “Because when you are at the top of a mountain, any direction you turn—be it left toward socialism or right toward nationalism or in some other clever direction—the result is the same: You must go down, back whence you came.”
I’d like to believe that there is a third way other than the conservative bare-knuckle Locke-ism that he seems to favor or the progressive politics of identity alone. To me the problem is not the celebration of the individual as much as it is the current emphasis on “me.” Me-ism is much more selfish than individualism and flows, as Goldberg points out, from the ignorance of data overload served up through closed loops and a certain ingratitude, or “forgetfulness”, for what we do have.
One of the omissions that I believe contributes to Goldberg’s ultimately binary way forward is his perceived lack of the impact of the rise of the corpocracy. He fully acknowledges that capitalism is impartially disruptive, but he never really takes exception with the asymmetric power currently assigned to the elite multi-national banks, hedge funds, and corporations that have taken over the political process due to the latter’s reliance on funding for its power.
He devotes an entire chapter to lamenting the lack of accountability in “The Administrative State”, the so-called shadow state, but gives virtually no space to demanding the same accountability among our corporate nobles who have gone to far as to give our private information away, let the Russians reach into the electoral process, and incentivize their employees to forge fake accounts without our consent, much less to collapse the global economy (2008), all without anyone ever being held accountable. It is not that capitalism or free markets are bad, but they are perverse when power is applied asymmetrically because of a lack of regulation or an over concentration of monopoly powers.
There has to be a way forward the draws the best from both Locke and Rousseau—and Marx and Smith, among others. And to me it has more to do with overcoming the ultimately irrational lust of “me” with some acceptance of the value of “we.”
Having said that, yes, this is a very serious book, superbly written. And it deserves to be read by all.
As for content: The author asks us to take a figurative step back from the continually-heated debates of current political news and think about our politics and society from the viewpoint of first principles. He shows how America has now divided into two large factions--those promoting the values of tribalism on one hand versus those pushing for a worldwide community for the "good of all".
Yet the so-called "worldwide community" group turns out to be just another push for tribe--a national-level tribe, even a global tribe--with all the problems of tribal society but few of the benefits.
The real answers, Suicide of the West shows, are found outside both main groups--away from from both tribalism and globalism--in the combination of powerful principles found in classical liberalism and free enterprise capitalism. It is by showing how both major sides of our current politics fall short, and how the true freedom principles are largely forgotten but are really the answers we need to deal with our current national and societal problems, that this book really shines. If you liked the writings of Francis Fukayama, Samuel P. Huntington, Philip Bobbitt, Paul Kennedy, and others like them, you'll likely enjoy wrestling with this book.
Finally, it's no secret that Jonah Goldberg and Donald Trump have some history, including the famous "no-pants" incident. Suicide of the West is a particularly important book in the Trump era, not so much on politics, surprisingly, but on the great need for a lot more people to see past politics and focus much more on core principles.
Sadly, the author does fall into a long political diatribe in the book's Conclusion, making me go back to a 5 Star rating, not 6 Stars. Still, this book is a fabulous read, regardless of whether you agree or disagree with the author's conclusions. The book is a warning that principles matter, that by moving away from them we're choosing decline, and that serious decline CAN happen, even to America--unless we re-emphasize and re-implement the right principles.