"Suicide of the West" by Jonah Goldberg

Brian Gongol

Thorough review: "Suicide of the West" is an ambitious book that undertakes a huge portfolio: To document the mighty damage Western civilization does to itself through an array of bad choices, more often via neglect than through bad faith.

The first half of the book is eminently quotable; it is a durable documentation of what Goldberg calls "The Miracle" of liberal capitalism. And a miracle is certainly is: Today's rich and vibrant world of arts, science, culture, and material wealth, created out of the same raw materials that have existed since humans first emerged as a species. Much of the work of the "Miracle" has been lasting and accretive -- each generation leapfrogging off the work of the one before it. The story, as Goldberg tells it, is largely a factual account of history.

The latter half of the book is skewed toward the contemporary. Whereas it is less durable as a result, it's also more interesting. Even where Goldberg reaches a wrong conclusion or two, he does so with a clear train of thought and an evident hopefulness that things will turn out well. (Though, to be fair, he is more often right than wrong.)

What Goldberg generally does best in this book is what he also does well in his opinion columns: Tackling issues from a perspective that is popularly called "conservative", more accurately (but sometimes misleadingly) called "classically liberal", but that ultimately deserves a better name untainted by the left-right vicissitudes of the day. His perspective is not that "left" or "right" should win, but rather that the Enlightenment should. And he's right about that, including when he says:

The image at the heart of the Enlightenment is light -- the idea being that science and reason banished the shadows of ignorance. But that metaphor is misleading when it comes to the human mind. The Enlightenment was really more like the Unbundling. In the medieval and primitive mind, science, magic, religion, superstition, and reason were all more or less fused together.

That refreshing observation, buried deep inside the book, is probably the most insightful observation in the entire work.

Relegated unfairly to an appendix is a deep documentation of the results of this "Miracle" -- all of the tangible, measurable ways in which the world is eminently better than it used to be. It's compelling and supplies quantifiable evidence of the results of a good system (that is, the "Miracle").

Should the reader conclude that the liberal-capitalist system, which is deserving of so much gratitude for so many good things, is committing suicide? Whether it's a reality or just a warning, it's a concern worth heeding. All human systems are perfectly designed to produce the results that come from them. And if we value the results that have come from the system that has underpinned the idea of Western Civilization since the Enlightenment, then we ought to be quick to the defense of that system against both direct attack and ordinary neglect.

What hobbles civilization today probably is less a commission of suicide than a sort of willful and defiant neglect (like openly defying a doctor's orders to eat right and exercise), but the result, if uncorrected, will be the same.

Verdict: We have the Enlightenment to thank for much (or even most) of what's good in our world today; Goldberg's book is a rousing reminder of that good