It might seem odd to say a book with the alarming title of “Suicide of the West” is an exhilarating call to arms in defense of what is highest and best in our civilization, but Jonah Goldberg’s extraordinary new bestseller is exactly that.
Goldberg says if we don’t veer from the cultural glide path we’re on, with both left and right committed to factually misleading and emotionally suppurating narratives about the innate cruelty and inborn injustice of this country, the greatest force for prosperity and freedom the world has ever known is likely to die. That is the “suicide” of Goldberg’s title.
But since this is something we’re doing to ourselves — a perverse effort to set fire to our own cultural patrimony — it’s also something we can correct.
The key factoid animating “Suicide of the West” is this: For 2,000 years, everywhere on earth, the large mass of humanity lived on the equivalent of $1.90 a day. “Near subsistence living,” Goldberg writes, “defined human habitats for almost all of human history.”
Then something happened. In the 18th century. In Great Britain. It was a complex phenomenon Goldberg calls the Miracle — a new way of thinking about humanity and human achievement and personal liberty that unlocked a hidden door in the possibilities of the species.
The results of the Miracle are astounding. Where once 94 percent of the people on earth survived on less than $2 a day, today only 9.6 percent does. “Around the world, the number of people considered poor has decreased both relatively and absolutely — an incredible feat, given massive increases in population,” Goldberg writes.
We have come to take most of this for granted, so much so that many of us believe the benefits of material prosperity are of little meaning because they’re not shared equally across all societies. We lament our failings rather than dwell on the astonishing fact that, as Goldberg puts it, “If the 200,000-year life span of homo sapiens were a single year, the vast majority of human economic progress would have transpired in roughly the last fourteen hours.”
We do this, as Goldberg observes in the most original observation in his very original book, because the Miracle is unnatural. It’s a human construct. It’s a new thing, and it remains a radical thing, even though we call its loudest expostulants today “conservative.”
Meanwhile, though we tend to think of those who reject the democratic capitalism at the heart of the Miracle as being “progressives,” they are in fact reactionaries seeking to restore a lost way of life and return humanity to a more natural path.
The political liberty we were granted by the Miracle has freed humankind to pursue individual achievement — and it’s a series of unbroken individual achievements that have led the world to unprecedented bounty. But these achievements involve harnessing nature and improving on it. And it’s this aspect of the Miracle that creates a cognitive dissonance in us. It’s not so easy to transcend humanity’s hard-wired pre-modern drives.
As Goldberg says, we’re tribal creatures, intensely social and innately hierarchical, and we find greater meaning within groups. The great ideological fight in the Age of the Miracle is between those who see the rise of the West as a fulfillment of humankind’s potential and those who cannot reconcile themselves to the ways it seems to go against what they think is natural.
The problem is that the rejecters are themselves creating unnatural constructs to try and restore the existence that seems most real to them. They’re building fake tribes through the vehicle of what we now call “identity politics.” And these fake tribes and the demand that we adhere to the arbitrary rules they establish for who is in and who is out are the true drivers of the West’s suicidal impulses.
Goldberg’s answer is so simple it seems too easy, and yet so difficult it seems unachievable. We need to teach and experience gratitude for what we have been given, which means reacquainting ourselves with the philosophical and scientific roots of the Miracle and then passing them on to our posterity. So much is arrayed against this effort, and yet we Americans, we tribal Americans, do long to belong to the American tribe.
In his pathbreaking book, Goldberg makes it clear all we need do to find our place is to understand that we are the beneficiaries of a great tradition that not only speaks the truth about us, but has rewarded us with gifts once beyond imagining. This is the book of the year.
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