Sunday, May 20, 2018

Suicide of the West: Ideas Are Not Enough

This is also posted at

Jonah Goldberg summarizes the argument of his recent book this way:
It is my argument that capitalism and liberal democracy are unnatural. We stumbled into them in a process of trial and error but also blind luck, contingency, and happenstance a blink of an eye ago. The market system depends on bourgeois values, i.e. principles, ideas, habits, and sentiments that it did not create and cannot restore once lost. These values can only be transmitted two ways: showing and telling... Our problems today can be traced to the fact that we no longer have gratitude for the Miracle and for the institutions and customs that made it possible. Where there is no gratitude - and the effort that gratitude demands -- all manner of resentments and hostilities flood back in. (p. 277)
Jonah wants to stay away from arguments about God -- the very first sentence of the book is "There is no God in this book." But he doesspend considerable time acknowledging the extent to which Christianity is responsible for putting the circumstances in place that allowed the Miracle to occur. ("The Miracle" for Jonah is our modern systems of constitutional democracy and capitalism that have unleashed prosperity since the 18th century.) He even allows that Christianity was a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for the Miracle to happen:
Despite all this, the case is often made that Christianity gets the credit for the Miracle. And, in broad strokes, I am open to the idea that without Christianity, the Miracle may never have happened. But that is not quite the same argument as Christianity caused the Miracle (and it certainly did not intend it). However, the lesser claim, that Christianity was a necessary ingredient, certainly seems likely. (p. 109)
For Jonah, it is far more important thatthe Miracle happened than whyit happened. But this inclination to avoid drawing conclusions concerning the causal origins of the Miracle has implications for his prescription for sustaining the Miracle. For then the only thing we can do is maintain those circumstances as best we can, as we have no way of knowing what other circumstances might also support the Miracle. That is the price of an ignorance of causal origins. (There is irony here insofar as the hallmark of Western civilization, and perhaps necessary to the Miracle itself, is the Western determination to not remain satisfied with material circumstance but seek and find the causal origins of those circumstances.)
Jonah's solution for what ails us is:
Just as any civilization that was created by ideas can be destroyed by ideas, so can the conservative movement. That is why the cure for what ails us is dogma. The only solution to our woes is for the West to re-embrace the core ideas that made the Miracle possible, not just as a set of policies, but as a tribal attachment, a dogmatic commitment. (p. 344)
The problem is that, unlike our forebears, Jonah is a fideist with respect to liberal principles:
We tell ourselves that humans have natural or God-given rights. Where is the proof -- the physical, tangible, visible proof? Don't tell me a story; show me the evidence. The fact is we have rights because some believe they are in fact God-given, but far more people believe we should act as ifthey are God-given or in some other way "real." (p. 83)
The simple fact is that the existence of natural rights, like the existence of God Himself, requires a leap of faith. (p. 142)
The Founders did not hold the existence of rights as a matter of faith. They either offered arguments for their existence (that's the whole point of Locke's exploration of the state of nature), or took those rights to be self-evidently true (as in the Declaration of Independence). To hold something self-evidently is not to hold it on faith; quite the opposite. It is to hold it as so obviously true that it is in no need of argumentation.
Jonah misunderstands the role of dogma. The object of dogma is not ideasbutfacts. "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights..." are not proposed as useful ideas to support a liberal dispensation, but as significant facts about the world that must be respected - and from which various ideas about the proper relationship of man to his government may be drawn, among other ideas.
The point is that Jonah's prescription does not recreate the circumstances under which the Miracle was born: Those circumstances involved holding things like natural rights as facts, not as the useful fictions Jonah proposes. Since Jonah denies knowledge of the causal origins of the Miracle, he owes us an explanation of why the circumstances he proposes will support the Miracle as well as did the original circumstances under which it occurred.
This question extends to the cultural background of the Miracle. Jonah lists many of the cultural legacies of Christianity that contributed to the Miracle:
I have tried to keep God out of this book, but, as a sociological entity, God can't be removed from it. I start the story of the Miracle in the 1700s, because that is where prosperity started to take off like a rocket. But a rocket doesn't materialize from thin air on a launchpad. The liftoff is actually the climax of a very long story. (p. 331)
Christianity, in other words, introduced the idea that we are born into a state of natural equality (p. 332)
Christianity performed another vital service. It created the idea of the secular. (p. 332)
But Christians do not hold natural equality and the division of the sacred from the secular on the grounds that they are really good ideas. They hold them because God Himself walked this Earth and showed that He is no respecter of persons, and this same God ordered us to give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's. How will those ideas be sustained absent the convictions that made them historically relevant? Jonah recounts the famous account of Henry IV and his penitential trek to Canossa, but would Henry have submitted if he thought the secular/sacred division merely an historically useful fiction rather than the command of the living God? Jonah calls on us to close our eyes, grit our teeth, and simply believe really hard in liberal principles. It's unlikely such a will to believe can successfully replace historic Christian faith (or the Deistic faith of the Founders).
There is evidence of this in Suicide of the Westitself. Jonah recognizes the benefits of the traditional family:
Our problems today can be traced to the fact that we no longer have gratitude for the Miracle and for the institutions and customs that made it possible. Where there is no gratitude - and the effort that gratitude demands - all manner of resentments and hostilities flood back in. Few actually hatethe traditional nuclear family or the role it plays. But many are indifferent to it. And indifference alone is enough to invite the rust of human nature back in. (p. 277)
But of what use is Jonah's gratitude for the traditional nuclear family? His support for gay marriage -- "marriage equality" -- is well known. But if two mommies are as good as a mommy and a daddy, then fathers are dispensable to the family. And if they are, indifference to the traditional family structure seems entirely appropriate. Jonah's gratitude for the traditional family offers no resistance to the most basic attacks on that family. How different it is for those who hold that the family, composed of a mother, father, and children, is an institution ordained by God, one that is prior to the state and that does not depend on the fickle will to believe of man for its existence.
Jonah ends the book with a declaration of the choice before us:
Decline is a choice. Principles, like gods, die when no one believes in them anymore. p. 351
I prefer: Principles die when no one believes anymore in the God who sustains them.

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