When I read Jonah Goldberg’s book Liberal Fascism, I was a bit surprised that it was popular. I think the main reason for people liking it was the claim that the liberals were the real fascists. The book itself was a bit of a slog and as David Gordon noted, it was riddled with factual errors. I’m not an expert on historical fascism, so I did not take the fast and loose treatment of the facts personally, but the people who were knowledgeable on the subject treated the book as an insult. Paul Gottfried has never forgiven Goldberg.
When I saw that Jonah Goldberg’s next book was titled “Suicide of the West” I was reminded of that reaction by the old paleocons. The title is, of course, a deliberate reference to James Burnham’s classic text. Then there is Patrick Buchanan’s classic book, Suicide of a Superpower. Of course, it is also hints at Oswald Spengler’s classic The Decline of the West. For a neocon lightweight to pick such a title and topic, well, it suggests it is another deliberate swipe, by Goldberg, at an ideological enemy.
To make matters worse, the entire tribe of neocon grifters have tumbled out of their clown car to promote the book. David Brooks calls it “Epic and debate-shifting.” Yuval Levin says, “More than any book published so far in this century, it deserves to be called a conservative classic.” The Weekly Standard treats it like a newly discovered part of the Torah. I get how the commentary rackets work, but this degree of rumpswabbery is unseemly. This is why the old paleocons were angry at Goldberg the last time.
That said, I decided to give the book a read and write a review, fully expecting to use it as a segue into some points about Burnham, Buchanan and the state of the Right. The rest of the book’s title sums up the entire neocon argument since Trump came down the escalator.The rather mild push-back against cosmopolitan globalism we have seen the last two years has been treated like the end of the world. My assumption going in was that it was going to be the long play version of every Weekly Standard editorial since 2016.
I was wrong. This book is terrible in ways that I did not expect. The terribleness starts in the introduction, which is written in the jocular style you would expect from a short blog post about a television show or a movie. In fact, he relies on quotes from movies to make his points. When you pick up a book with the pretentious title “Suicide of the West” it better read like a serious book. I was reminded of the German word fremdschämen, which loosely means the shame you feel when seeing someone humiliated or embarrassed.
Added to that is a superficiality that you see when someone is uncomfortable with the material. The introduction is a rambling and shallow discussion of religion and human nature, which somehow veers into a discussion of the movie The Godfather. When he gets into his discussion of human nature, it’s obvious that he is way out of his depth and he knows it. Frankly, it reads like something submitted by a freshman coed. If he had dotted his i’s with little hearts, it would have been more authentic.
The book is really three books. The first part is just rambling nonsense about human nature that would embarrass anyone on our side of the great divide. The second part is a grammar school social studies book. The third part feels like it was written by a committee of people not on speaking terms with one another. Big chunks of it undermine his claim that the revolt against cosmopolitan globalism is the end of the world. Even accounting for my own deep skepticism about his motives, it is a surprisingly weak argument.
Goldberg is a good example of the defects of the American commentariat. There is an army of mediocrities, hired to sing the praises of the managerial state, perched on media platforms in New York and Washington. They are close to being an inherited class. Many of them are handed titles like “senior fellow” or “scholar” by think tanks, so they start thinking they are academics. Instead of relying on people who know the material, they pick up a few things and start thinking they are the experts. That’s how this book reads.
The other odd thing about the book is he tries to frame current events as a war between populism and capitalism, nationalism and democracy. He makes no effort to explain how un-elected supranational organizations are democratic or how global oligopolies are capitalistic. What it reveals is the neocon ideology, whatever it was, is now just a defense of soulless transactionalism and materialistic score keeping. American society is just a deracinated collection of economic units, who exist to keep the machine running.
In all candor, I found myself skimming about midway through it. I kept wondering why he picked the title, given that his product falls far short of his ambitions. Then I remembered the old paleocons and how they responded to his first book. My hunch is he picked the title out of spite and then started writing the book. At some point, he either got lazy or realized he was in way over his head, so he reverted to goofy pop culture references and superficial banter. The result is a dull book by an equally dull writer.