American Identity ─ Reading #1

Jonah Goldberg

Suicide of the West  (2018)

Introduction: Stumbling upon a Miracle [excerpts]

There is no God in this book.

The humans in this story are animals who evolved from other animals who in turn evolved from ever more embarrassing animals and before that from a humiliating sea of ooze, slime, meats, and vegetables in the primordial stew. We pulled ourselves out of the muck, not some Garden of Eden. Indeed, if the Garden of Eden ever existed, it was a slum. We created the Miracle of modernity all on our own, and if we lose it, that will be our fault too.


[2] This book assumes that the Almighty does not guide human affairs and does not intercede on our behalf. God is not in the picture. Well, He is in the picture in the sense that the idea of God— and gods— play a very large role in human affairs. But my assumption is that God is in our heads and hearts, not in the heavens above. The only concession to my own beliefs lies in the word “assumes” just above. I am making this assumption for the purposes of an argument. I am not an atheist, but I think it is useful to play one for the argument I want to make, as a means of guiding the reader through a way of thinking about the world.


[3] In Enlightenment-based democracies, claims that something is true because God says so are inherently suspect because part of the point of the Enlightenment was to create a space where people can disagree about what God wants from us— if He wants anything at all. That’s why the highest form of argument in a democracy is one based on facts grounded in reason and decency. I won’t deny I’m passionate in parts of this book, but I try not to let the passion get ahead of the facts or the argument. That is because I think persuasion matters, though you wouldn’t know it from the last few years in American life. On the right and the left, persuading your opponents is out of fashion, replaced by the mandate to rile up your supporters. I am weary of that, particularly on my own “side.” So I’m taking a gamble and doing this the old-fashioned way.


[4] For the purposes of this book, I assume that nearly all the important truths about good and evil or freedom and tyranny are not self-evident. But they can be discovered. The truths we know we have figured out for ourselves— over a really, really, really long time. After thousands of generations of trial and error, we discovered “best practices” out there in the world, like prizes in some eternal scavenger hunt. If the concepts of right and wrong were as universally obvious to everyone as, say, hot and cold, the library shelves groaning under the weight of tomes chronicling war and barbarity would instead lie empty. And for those who can’t suspend their faith in God and believe He revealed to us all we need to know, that’s fine. All I ask is you bear in mind that He took His time revealing it all. The Jews, never mind Jesus, show up very late in the story of humanity. And long after the Ten Commandments and the Bible appeared, most of humanity still spent thousands of years ignoring divine instruction.


[5] But just as God can’t get credit, neither can any of His more popular substitutes. There is no dialectic, inevitability, teleology, or hidden algorithm that made human success a foregone conclusion. What happened happened, but it didn’t have to happen that way. There is no “right side of history.” Nothing is foreordained.


[6] If you cannot let go of the idea that there is a great plan to the universe— that we as individuals, a nation, or a species have some inevitable destiny— that’s fine too. All I ask of you is to consider a secondary proposition: We have no choice but to live by the assumption that this is the case. For instance, many philosophers, physicists, and neuroscientists have depressingly compelling arguments that there is no such thing as free will. Brain scans reveal that many of our conscious decisions were already made subconsciously before they popped into our heads. It looks free will is a story our brains tell us.


[7] But here’s the problem: Even if you believe there is no such thing as free will, it is impossible to live any kind of decent life based on that belief. Even if our personal choices are some deep fiction, we still have to convince ourselves to get out of bed in the morning. We are still obligated as a society to judge people as if they make their own choices.


[8] The same goes for every nation and civilization. You can believe that cold, impersonal forces drive humanity to a certain destiny like wind drives a leaf, but we still have to argue about whom to elect president, what Congress should do, and what schools should teach. Prattle on about how free will is a delusion to your friends at the bar all you like; you’re still going to have to choose to go to work in the morning. We all understand in our bones that choices matter— paradoxically because we have no choice but to think that way.


[9] Just to be clear, I am not arguing for some kind of nihilism or moral relativism. The philosopher Richard Rorty famously wrote in Consequences of Pragmatism:

Suppose that Socrates was wrong, that we have not once seen the Truth, and so will not, intuitively, recognise it when we see it again. This means that when the secret police come, when the torturers violate the innocent, there is nothing to be said to them of the form “There is something within you which you are betraying. Though you embody the practices of a totalitarian society which will endure forever, there is something beyond those practices which condemns you.”


[10] . . . I think there is much truth to this. What societies decide is right or wrong becomes what is right and wrong for most of the people who live in them. But I think the lessons of history show that societies can choose poorly— and that this can be proved empirically through facts and reason. Some cultures are better than others, not because of some gauzy metaphysical claim, but because they allow more people to live happy, prosperous, meaningful lives without harming other people in the process. Because this is true, it is incumbent upon all of us to fight for a better society, to defend the hard-learned lessons of human history, and to be grateful for what we have accomplished. This book begins and ends with that simple idea.


[11] My argument begins with some assertions: Capitalism is unnatural. Democracy is unnatural. Human rights are unnatural. The world we live in today is unnatural, and we stumbled into it more or less by accident. The natural state of mankind is grinding poverty punctuated by horrific violence terminating with an early death. It was like this for a very, very long time . . .


[12] Imagine you’re an alien assigned with keeping tabs on Homo sapiens over the last 250,000 years. Every 10,000 years you check in. In your notebook . . . Eagerly returning [this time to the present], our alien visitor’s ship would doubtless get spotted by NORAD. . . . In other words, nearly all of humanity’s progress has taken place in the last 10,000 years. But this is misleading. It’s like saying between Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, and me, our combined net worth is more than $ 150 billion. Because for most of that 10,000 years, the bulk of humanity lived in squalor. Indeed, there are many who argue— plausibly— that the agricultural revolution made things worse for most of humanity. Our diet got less diverse, and, for the vast majority of us, our days were now defined by tedious, backbreaking labor.


[13] The startling truth is that nearly all of human progress has taken place in the last three hundred years (and for many of the billions of non-Westerners lifted out of crushing poverty thanks to capitalism, it’s happened in the last thirty years). Around the year 1700, in a corner of the Eurasian landmass, humanity stumbled into a new way of organizing society and thinking about the world. It didn’t seem obvious, but it was as if the great parade of humanity had started walking through a portal to a different world.


[14] Following sociologist Robin Fox and historian Ernest Gellner, I call this different world “the Miracle.” And we made it, even if we didn’t really know what we were doing. “Unique among species,” Fox writes, “we created the novel environment, and the super-novel environment that followed on the Miracle, by ourselves and for ourselves.”  The Miracle is about more than economics, but economics is the best way to tell the story of humanity’s quantum leap out of its natural environment of poverty. Until the 1700s, humans everywhere— Europe, North and South America, Asia, Africa, Australia, and Oceania— lived on the equivalent of one to three dollars a day. Since then, human prosperity has been exploding across the world, starting in England and Holland with the rest of Western Europe and North America close behind. Debate climate change all you like. This is the most important “hockey stick” chart in all of human history . . .


[15] As I discuss at length, the Miracle was the product of a profound and unprecedented transformation in the way humans thought about the world and their place in it. The prosperity of the Miracle didn’t happen because of the scientific revolution or from accumulating private property or conducting trade. All of those things played important roles, but science, technology, trade, and property existed in countless civilizations prior to the Miracle, and yet we could not achieve escape velocity from the status quo of one to three dollars per day. Ideas changed everything. This new thinking, which I call the Lockean Revolution, was a wide and deep change in popular attitudes. It held that the individual is sovereign; that our rights come from God, not government; that the fruits of our labors belong to us; and that no man should be less equal before the law because of his faith or class. Of course, such a revolutionary way of viewing the world wasn’t universally accepted or implemented overnight, but the mental switch had been flipped.


[16] For the first time in human history, the state itself was more than a glorified criminal enterprise. The emergence of the state thousands of years ago was a beneficial precondition for the emergence of the Miracle, but that doesn’t change the fact that the state begins as a means of exploitation. All states prior to the Miracle were designed for the betterment of the tiny slice of humans at the top. Everywhere around the world, rulers saw the masses as little more than instruments of their will. To be sure, humans invented all sorts of theologies and ideologies, such as the divine right of kings, that rationalized these systems as something more noble (and some were better than others), but when put to the test, the interests of rulers always came first.


[17] And yet, these systems endured for thousands of years. In fact, most humans live in societies where the old rules still largely apply. Why? Because there is something about tyranny, monarchy, and authoritarianism that “works,” by which I mean there is something in our wiring that finds such systems natural. Which brings us to human nature. The first primates with the Latin prefix Homo appear in the fossil record just under six million years ago. Homo sapiens has been around for between 200,000 and 300,000 years. The Miracle began three hundred years ago. That’s a half dozen human lifetimes. 


[18] Evolutionary change does not work on this short a time line. The needle barely moves over 10,000-year increments. In other words, everyone reading this book carries the same basic programming of the humans who toiled in the wheat fields of Mesopotamia or carried spears through the forests of Africa, Germany, or Vietnam. And even if you account for the view that certain populations have distinct traits that have evolved in shorter periods of time than the last ten or twenty millennia, such differences would be trivial against the backdrop of the innate programming we acquired over the last 200,000 to 300,000 years, never mind the last five to six million.


[19] For all intents and purposes, human nature holds constant as the world changes around us. This is a truth better comprehended from literature than from science. When we read about characters in the distant past or the distant future, what makes them recognizable to us is that they are still us: human beings with all of the normal joys, desires, and fears we all experience. Stated plainly, from the perspective of our genes, we weren’t meant to live like we do today, with wealth, rights, and freedom, and all their fruits. As I describe in the chapter on human nature, our natural condition isn’t merely poor, it’s tribal.


[20] For all of human— and most of primate— history until the dawn of the agricultural revolution, humans lived in small, often wandering, groups. This means that all of human politics, religion, and economics— to the extent we can use such words— was personal. Tribes and bands do have internal politics. We are imbued with a very strong “coalition instinct” that helps us forge alliances based on loyalty and reciprocity. But, again, these are personal, face-to-face interactions. Our understanding of our place in the universe, our sense of self in relation to others, was defined by a small handful of people who had to work cooperatively to survive.


[21] In short, all meaning was tribal. And as the great economist and philosopher Friedrich Hayek observed, humans are still programmed to understand the world in personal and tribal terms. The secret of the Miracle— and of modernity itself— stems from our ability to hold this tendency in check. It is natural to give preferences to family and friends— members of the tribe— and to see strangers as the Enemy, the dangerous Other. Nearly all higher forms of social organization expand the definition of “us” to permit larger forms of cooperation. Religion teaches that coreligionists are allies, even when they are strangers. The nation-state tells us that fellow citizens are part of the glorious us. Even modern racism plays this role, as does communism, fascism, and nearly every other modernism.


[22] We will get into all of these -isms soon enough. But the two most important ones for now are liberalism— by which I mean not partisan Democrats or progressives but the original Enlightenment-based understanding of natural rights and limited government— and capitalism. Rightly understood, capitalism isn’t a separate ideology or system from liberalism. But separating them out here might be helpful. In later chapters, I spell out how liberalism and capitalism created the Miracle and how the United States of America is the fruit of the Miracle. But the key point to understand for the arc of this book is that both are unnatural. The idea that we should presume strangers are not only inherently trustworthy but also have innate dignity and rights does not come naturally to us. We have to be taught that— carefully taught. The free market is even more unnatural, because it doesn’t just encourage us to see strangers to be tolerated; it encourages us to see strangers as customers.


[23] The invention of money was one of the greatest advances in human liberation in all of recorded history because it lowers the barriers to beneficial human interaction. It reduces the natural tendency to acquire things from strangers through violence by offering the opportunity for commerce. A grocer may be bigoted toward Catholics, Jews, blacks, whites, gays, or some other group. But his self-interest encourages him to overlook such things. Likewise, the customer may not like the grocer, but the customer’s self-interest encourages her to put such feelings aside if she wants to buy dinner. In a free market, money corrodes caste and class and lubricates social interaction.


[24] Violence, the natural way to get what you want from strangers, is zero-sum. I hit you with a rock and take your apple. There is one apple-eating winner and there is one apple-less loser with a lump on his head. Trade is mutually beneficial, because the apple buyer needs an apple and the apple seller needs the buyer’s money for something else. Trade builds trust and encourages strangers to see each other as equals in a transaction. Labor and commerce in a market order create objective metrics to judge people by. “I don’t care if so-and-so is [black, Jewish, gay, Catholic], he does a good job and shows up on time.” Liberalism, by enforcing the rule of law and recognizing the rights of everybody, especially property rights, makes trade easier, and trade makes liberalism more desirable.


[25] The Miracle comes out of this worldview. It is the product of a bourgeois revolution, an eighteenth-century middle-class ideology of merit, industriousness, innovation, contracts, and rights. Capitalism is the most cooperative system ever created for the peaceful improvement of peoples’ lives. It has only a single fatal flaw: It doesn’t feel like it.


[26] The market system is so good at getting people— from all over the world— to work together that we barely notice how much we’re cooperating. Liberalism, meanwhile, by refusing to give people direction and meaning from above— as every ancient system did, and every modern totalitarianism does— depends on a healthy civil society to provide the sense of meaning and belonging we all crave. Civil society, as I explain later, is that vast social ecosystem— family, schools, churches, associations, sports, business, local communities, etc.— that mediates life between the state and the individual. It is a healthy civil society, not the state, that civilizes people. We come into this world no different than any caveman, Viking, Aztec, or Roman came into this world: humans in the raw, literally and figuratively. Starting with the family, civil society introduces us to the conversation about the world and our place in it.


[27] When civil society fails, people fall through the cracks. The causes of failure can take many forms, as can the consequences. But one thing holds fairly constant: When we fail to properly civilize people, human nature rushes in. Absent a higher alternative, human nature drives us to make sense of the world on its own instinctual terms: That’s tribalism. The easiest illustration of this is the way young men from dysfunctional homes and atomized communities have fallen in with street gangs for thousands of years in every corner of the globe. The gangs offer meaning and a sense of belonging and operate according to the us-versus-them logic of tribalism. Heroic community leaders understand this far better than the rest of us. That is why virtually every intervention with at-risk youth involves getting young men and women to find healthier attachments in civil society, often through sports, but also through voluntarism, vocational training, music, art, and other productive pursuits.


[28] The same dynamic repeats itself with terrorists, the Klan, the Mafia, and cults of every stripe. Getting these modern tribalists to find meaning elsewhere— in family, work, faith— is the only way to civilize them. This is not a new problem. It is a problem that begins with modernity itself.


[29] In his book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, Sebastian Junger recounts how the English colonies in North America were vexed by a bizarre problem: Thousands of white European colonists desperately wanted to be Indians, but virtually no Indians wanted to be Europeans. “When an Indian child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our customs,” Benjamin Franklin explained in a letter to a friend in 1753, “if he goes to see his relations and make one Indian ramble with them, there is no persuading him ever to return.” However, Franklin added, when whites were taken prisoner by the Indians, they’d go native and want to stay Indians, even after being returned to their families. “Tho’ ransomed by their friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a short time they become disgusted with our manner of life… and take the first good opportunity of escaping again into the woods.” As Junger observes, this phenomenon seemed to run against all of the assumptions of civilizational advance. And yet it kept happening, thousands of times over. Why? Because there is something deeply seductive about the tribal life. The Western way takes a lot of work.


[30] But this is not just a phenomenon of the poor and poorly educated or of strangers in the New World. The pull of the tribe is inscribed on every human heart, and it can take highly intellectual and sophisticated forms. . .  the sense of alienation we feel toward liberal democratic capitalism should rightly be understood as romanticism . . . Specifically, the feeling that the world we live in is not right, that it is unsatisfying and devoid of authenticity and meaning (or simply requires too much of us and there must be an easier way). Secondarily, because our feelings tell us that the world is out of balance, rigged, artificial, unfair, or— most often— oppressive and exploitative, our natural wiring drives us to the belief that someone must be responsible. The evil string pullers take different forms depending on the flavor of tribalism. But the most common include: the Jews, the capitalists, and— these days on the right— the globalists and cultural Marxists.


[31] Thus romanticism has never gone away, even if the period we call the romantic era has been consigned to stodgy library books. Liberal democratic capitalism does not give us much by way of meaning; it merely gives us the freedom to find it in civil society and the marketplace. And for some— many!— that is not enough. And so we seek out new theories, causes, and ideologies that have all the answers and promise to take us out of this place to some imagined better world of harmony, equality— for the right people, at least— authenticity, and meaning . . .


[32] It is my contention that all rebellions against the liberal order of the Miracle are not only fundamentally romantic in nature but reactionary. They seek not some futuristic modern conception of social organization. Rather, they seek to return to some form of tribal solidarity where we’re all in it together. Romanticism is the voice through which our inner primitive cries out “There must be a better way!” But— spoiler alert!— there isn’t one. This is it.


[33] Look around, everybody: You’re standing at the end of history. In terms of economics, no other system creates wealth. We can get richer, and we can solve many of the problems that still plague modern society. The remedies for those problems might require more intervention by government or less. But, in the final analysis, we cannot improve upon the core assumptions of the Miracle. Every other kind of economics— if there even is any other kind of economics— concerns itself not with creating wealth but with how to redistribute it. That is not economics; that is politics.


[34] This brings us to the second main theme of this book: corruption. This desire to return to our authentic selves cannot be eradicated (nor should we try). But it can be channeled. Just as we have an innate need and desire to eat, that desire has to be cultivated in the right way if we are to live healthy lives. I argue that political ideas and movements based upon the romantic idea of following our feelings and instincts can best be understood as corruption. To the modern ear, “corruption” suggests petty criminality, particularly among politicians. But this is a pinched and narrow understanding of what corruption really is. “Corruption” literally means decay, rot, and putrefaction.


[35] In other words, corruption is the natural process of entropy by which nature takes back what is hers. Rust will eat away at iron until it rejoins the soil. Termites will eat any wood home given the only two ingredients they need: opportunity and time. The only way to fight off nature’s greedy claws is through human care. Any boat owner knows that there is no substitute for upkeep and vigilance. And so it is with the Miracle. Because every generation enters this world with its natural wiring intact, every generation must be convinced anew that the world they have been blessed to be born into is the best one. Corruption isn’t about giving in to the seduction of bribery; it is about giving in to the seduction of human nature, the angry drumbeats of our primitive brains and the inner whispers of our feelings.


[36] No one thought Donald Trump would run for president, never mind become president, including Trump himself . . . But his emergence proved beneficial for my larger thesis, even if it wasn’t necessarily beneficial for our society. I argue that the right’s embrace of Donald Trump’s brand of politics represents a potentially catastrophic surrender of conservative principles, and a sign of how deeply the corruption has set in. But Trump’s rise is a symptom of our larger problems, not the cause of them. It must be understood, at least in part, as a backlash against the left’s turn to identity politics, which is just another form of tribalism. Tragically, that backlash has yielded or at least solidified a new identity politics all its own. The Miracle ushered in a philosophy that says each person is to be judged and respected on account of their own merits, not the class or caste of their ancestors. Identity politics says each group is an immutable category, a permanent tribe. Worse, it works from the assumption that what benefits one group must come at the expense of another.


[37] The rise of the populisms and nationalisms of the left and the right that have come to define so much of our politics today are manifestations of corruption. The Miracle works on the assumption that the individual is the moral center of our system, and the individual armed with reason, facts, the law, or simply morality (and hopefully all four) on his side should win any contest with an angry throng shouting with tribal passion.


[38] And finally, there is the last theme of this book . . Specifically, we are shot through with ingratitude for the Miracle. Our schools and universities, to the extent they teach the Western tradition at all, do so from a perspective of resentful hostility toward our accomplishments. It is not that the story they tell is pure fiction— though that happens— but that it is, at best, half-true. Consider Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States. Published in 1980, it has sold millions of copies and remains one of the mostly widely used texts in America. At the beginning of A People’s History, Zinn confesses that he only wants to tell the story of America from the perspective of the oppressed:

[39] Thus, in that inevitable taking of sides which comes from selection and emphasis in history, I prefer to try to tell the story of the discovery of America from the viewpoint of the Arawaks, of the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, of Andrew Jackson as seen by the Cherokees, of the Civil War as seen by the New York Irish, of the Mexican war as seen by the deserting soldiers of Scott’s army, of the rise of industrialism as seen by the young women in the Lowell textile mills, of the Spanish-American war as seen by the Cubans, the conquest of the Philippines as seen by black soldiers on Luzon, the Gilded Age as seen by southern farmers, the First World War as seen by socialists, the Second World War as seen by pacifists, the New Deal as seen by blacks in Harlem, the postwar American empire as seen by peons in Latin America.


[40] All of these things should be taught. But the idea now is that knowing this story is the only story worth knowing. That this and only this is the story of America. By turning the Founders into nothing more than greedy white racists, by decrying Columbus as nothing more than a genocidal murderer, by arguing that slavery is a uniquely Western and American sin, by claiming that “Western civilization” and “American exceptionalism” are nothing more than euphemisms for “racism” and “imperialism,” the ressentiment-drenched intellectuals at the commanding heights of our culture seek to make the story of the Miracle into a Curse, leaving them as the only legitimate storytellers of our civilization.


[41] By no means do the majority of Americans subscribe to the Zinn view of America. But a majority of Americans, I believe, are ungrateful for what the Miracle has brought us. Sometimes this ingratitude manifests itself as simply taking one’s good fortune for granted. And that is enough to destroy a civilization. Because maintaining a civilization, fighting off corruption, takes work. If we don’t teach people to hold what they have precious, they simply won’t bother defending it against those who think what we have is evil. Just as the spoiled children of the wealthy are often ungrateful for the opportunities provided by their parents, we as a society are ungrateful for our collective inheritance.