Monday, September 03, 2018

Initial Thoughts and Reflections: Suicide of the West by Jonah Goldberg

Regardless of political affiliation or inclination, I sincerely wish that we could have a national book club where everyone was encouraged to read Jonah Goldberg's Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy.

It took me the better part of the summer to get through it. This is not because of any flaw in the book, nor is it difficult to get through on any level. It's actively engaging and entertaining, in fact, despite the serious subject matter. No, the delay is entirely on me. First, I am busy. Second, and probably more importantly, the book was one that I definitely wanted to deeply engage with. Therefore, rather than getting the book on Audible and listening to it, I actually wanted to read the book, with a notebook near me for writing down quotes or thoughts and observations as I went.

Aside: This is definitely not a slam on audiobooks. I dearly love the format, and find it a great way to engage with a lot of my information intake these days ... but since I specifically listen to audiobooks when doing other things, it does not facilitate careful notetaking and reflection on the subject matter in the way that reading can. Reflection while reading is automatic, because you must consciously proceed to follow the author's flow of words, and the internal voice takes precedent. Reflection while listening, on the other hand, requires the active step of pausing the flow of the author's words (or ignoring their continued flow, at least) in order to reflect on your reaction to them. For comparison, while I very interested to read James Comey's Higher Loyalty, I felt no need to take careful notes on it, so an audiobook was a perfectly appropriate format ... and I finished it in a couple of days of listening, as I drove around town, did laundry, etc. Nor, for that matter, did I find 
I imagine that there is a world in which I would have read Suicide of the West and been very convinced that the biases and assumptions with which President Hillary Clinton is running America are probably dangerous and troubling. I dearly wish that we lived in such a world.

Goldberg's central thesis is focused on portraying admiration for something he refers to as "the Miracle" - which is, generally speaking, the Enlightenment and the subsequent growth of plurality, secular society, democracy, and capitalism - and expressing the concern that the tribalism, populism, nationalism, and identity politics of the title put those features of our society at risk.

Goldberg began work on the book prior to the 2016 election, so the transformation in his understanding of the thesis as he watched his own conservative party get taken over by a form of rampant nationalist populism is intriguing to witness. The book is a coherent, well-edited whole, so you don't see the gradual transformation take place as you move from page 1 to the final page, while Goldberg realizes that his own house is far from in order. No, instead, the tone throughout consistently recognizes that everyone is subject to these foibles of human nature.

Despite the fact that I no doubt am much more willing to give the state a free hand in trying to help people out than Goldberg is inclined to, I found very little in his criticism of this approach - or, indeed, in most of the arguments in his book - to take issue with. For the issues he brings up, if our concerns were placed a scale of 1 to 10, I'd imagine that in general we'd be off by a point or two here or there.

Intriguingly, one of the claims that he makes that I most took issue with was the following quote:
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 am certainly not disagreeing that this is how Goldberg would have felt compelled, but given his own arguments, I am definitely disagreeing that this is how he should have felt compelled.  Even given all of his concerns about the statism and over-reliance on regulation embodied by the Obama administration, which would certainly have continued under a Clinton administration, by his own metrics there should not have been no contest that Clinton was the better choice.

There are a ton of arguments that I could make why Clinton wasn't as big a danger to America's values and "the Miracle" as Trump is, but let's focus on Goldberg's own points here.

At one point, he quotes some of Clinton's comments, such saying that Islam has "nothing whatsoever to do with terrorism," pointing out that she "painted with a broad brush in a single color and so did Trump." But there are two differences here, and both are ones that Goldberg is trying to highlight and then ignoring in the case of Clinton.

First is the nature of the "broad brush in a single color" being used. Clinton's comment is made in an attempt to demonstrate respect to good Muslim people, and to re-affirm (if incorrectly) that American society has a place for them and that Americans would to well to welcome and embrace them as a whole. This is 100% in accord with the arguments that Goldberg himself makes throughout the book.

Trump's comments about Mexico sending us their rapists and banning all Muslims, on the other hand, paints "with a broad brush in a single color" that is specifically at odds with the very American values that Goldberg is admirably defending.

Second is what this rhetoric covers up. Here, admittedly, Goldberg may well disagree with me, but I see absolutely no reason to believe that Clinton doesn't know that she was painting with a broad brush in a single color. Yes, she was making a rhetorically excessive statement in support of a higher principle (inclusiveness for peaceful Muslims), but in practice is there any reason to believe that this would inhibit her ability to implement security procedures when acting as President of the United States? Is Goldberg suggesting that she does not actually understand that there is a connection between Islam and terrorism that has to be considered by the intelligence and security communities?

Trump, on the other hand, seems to believe his rhetorical excesses about Muslims to quite a significant degree ... both in the moment he's making them, and when called out on them. There's nothing in his subsequent comments to really make it clear that he understands the differences between Islam and terrorism, or between dangerous and peaceful illegal immigrants for that matter.

Toward the end of the book Goldberg identifies the key elements of conservatism as twofold: Ideas matter and character matters. As flawed as Hillary's ideas and character may have been, on both of these accounts that Goldberg clearly values, she has to be held up as superior to Trump. Indeed, of the two candidates, by this metric (and many others) she was actually more fundamentally conservative than Trump actually was (or is).

All of this, of course, is to parse hairs over inconsequential differences. Goldberg's book, even when I disagreed with it, forced me to be far more critical of my assumptions and how different rhetoric that sounds good resonates through our society. Hell, he even convinced me that if I were to watch one of my favorite movies as a teenager, Dead Poet's Society, I would probably find that it is no longer appealing to my adult sensibilities.

And being forced to confront the flaws of one's own assumptions is, I think, the best that one can ever expect to get from a book.
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