I do not say this morbidly, but the older I get (next month I’ll be 60!), the more attuned I become to what is really important. More than any other thing, the dust of death (Psalm 22:15) seems to focus our attention. Perhaps that is what drew my attention to the reasons that prompted Jonah Goldberg to title his newest book The Suicide of the West and the debate it generated over whether Western civilization, and the United States which it birthed, is really committing suicide or just dying of natural causes. It’s really been enlightening.
I say “enlightening” because the debate has focused on Goldberg’s assertion that “[a]round the year 1700, in a corner of the Eurasian landmass, humanity stumbled into a new way of organizing society and thinking about the world,” which we call the birth of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment, he says, produced a “miracle” we know as “liberal democratic capitalism.” However, don’t be confused by the word “liberal.” It does not mean what we would today call a political liberal, but it means putting confidence in our humanity and ability to reason and a belief that such confidence would allow us to build a better world.
Goldberg posits that the group-type forces of today—identity politics, populism, and nationalism—are now threatening to undermine the liberal order of the Enlightenment that brought unprecedented prosperity to the world, and that by giving into those forces, we are committing suicide—rejecting that which gave us the life we enjoy.
Other political conservatives have responded to Goldberg by arguing that these forces are more a natural product of the Enlightenment’s liberalism and, to the extent that they bring death, it is a death by “natural causes.” John Daniel Davidson, a senior correspondent at The Federalist, put it this way:
Perhaps [the death Goldberg sees] has something to do with the liberal order itself, and not just tribalism or nationalism gone awry. Perhaps the Miracle, wondrous as it is, needs more than just our gratitude to sustain it. Perhaps the only thing that can sustain it is an older order, one that predates liberal democratic capitalism and gave it its vitality in the first place. Maybe the only way forward is to go back and rediscover the things we left behind at the dawn of the Enlightenment.
Goldberg . . . does not ask whether there might be some contradictions at the heart of the liberal order, whether it might contain within it the seeds of its undoing. . . .
That forces him to treat the various illiberal ideologies that came out of Enlightenment thought (like communism) as nothing more than a kind of tribalism rather than a natural consequence of the hyper-rational scientism embedded in the liberal order itself. As Richard M. Reinsch II noted last week in an excellent review of Goldberg’s book over at Law and Liberty, “If you are going to set the Enlightenment Miracle as the standard of human excellence, one that we are losing, you must also clearly state the dialectic it introduces of an exaltation of reason, power, and science that can become something rather illiberal.”
The bottom line, however, is that both sides of the debate seem to agree that something vital is dying about the Western culture into which America was born and has prospered. And most Americans bear witness to it when they consistently tell pollsters that America is “off track.” We sense that something is not right.
Goldberg and his conservative critics are, I believe, correct that we are witnessing the death throes of Western Civilization and the United States we have known and that did bring about many positive results.
Unfortunately, in my view, neither side seems willing to acknowledge one particular possible cause of death and, if we don’t get the diagnosis right, then there is no possibility of a cure and a return to health. That’s what I will address next week.
David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006. Read David’s complete bio.
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