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First published April 24, 2018
Suicide of the West is an excellent diagnosis for the issues facing the foundations of Western civilization, but it stops short of providing much direction for the way forward. Goldberg endorses the idea of “earned success,” or finding fulfillment because an individual’s contributions to civil society are valued by civil society. Civil society, too — that web of institutions between the individual and the state — is also endorsed as a way to reinforce underlying first principles. But as Goldberg notes, civil society is itself in a frayed state and will need to be resuscitated if it is to serve its purpose. The conclusion that ingratitude is at the heart of the “suicide of the West” is also not entirely convincing, although not entirely wrong either. Gratitude does not guarantee stability, as he argues, but it does make the defense of civilization an easier task.
Ultimately, the liberal democratic capitalist order only works if the people are virtuous, because virtue more than any other factor can stave off the entropy inherent in human nature. This is a point that Goldberg largely skips but also (implicitly) rejects with his ingratitude-based conclusion.
“There is no God in this book,” he declares on page one, and for the most part that holds true. Organized religion, the engine of most virtues, is mentioned in passing, as he writes much, much later: “If you believe that man has a strong religious instinct, if I’ve convinced you that nature — including human nature — abhors a vacuum, then you have to believe that God’s absence creates an opening for all manner of ideas to flood in.”
This point, that the absence of widespread belief in God creates chaos, seems to explain more of the decline of the West than ingratitude does. The hollowing out of institutional values is one of the worst self-inflicted wounds that could have been committed, and one of the most difficult to reverse. Rebuilding civil society and creating a process that helps people earn success are goals with difficult but clear-cut methods of achieving. But how does the Catholic Church, for example, get people back into the pews? How does it rebuild its credibility after almost 20 years of sexual abuse scandals? And what are the consequences if it can’t find the answers? Because fixing that is not quite as clear-cut, and yet the ramifications will be just as large.
Contra Goldberg’s points about civil society and earned success, organizations like bowling leagues, Meals on Wheels, and fraternal clubs don’t create virtue. They can reinforce it, but creating virtue takes two institutions: the family, and organized religion. Goldberg goes into detail on the role of the family and how it is under attack by certain political and cultural forces. But organized religion is just as important at forming values that will create a healthy, even grateful, society, and it deserved more space than it received in the book.