Goldberg's 'Suicide Of The West' Tackles Ills Of Identity Politics
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The writer Jonah Goldberg heard a notion from a scholar that got him thinking. Suppose you were an alien assigned to check in on human progress throughout human existence from the beginning. You visit planet Earth each 10,000 years.
JONAH GOLDBERG: The first time you show up, you would write, semihairless apes foraging and fighting for food. Come back in another 10,000 years, you would write, semihairless apes foraging and fighting for food; no change. So on your 25th visit, you would come back, and your ship would be spotted by NORAD, and you would maybe get here just in time to see Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction at the Super Bowl.
INSKEEP: Nearly all human progress has come just since the 1700s.
So why is it important to you to tell us that the overwhelming majority of human progress has been in the last few hundred years? What's your point?
GOLDBERG: I start from a bunch of premises. Democracy is unnatural. Rights are unnatural. Markets are unnatural. Capitalism is unnatural.
INSKEEP: He says it's been hard to build a world of technology, and longer lives, and libraries and literacy - and for many people, security - and we could lose it. Goldberg fears we are retreating to an older, more natural form of society - tribalism. His critics suggest Goldberg was part of the problem. He's a political conservative who once wrote a book called "Liberal Fascism." Yet his dismay over tribalism and many conservatives' embrace of President Trump led him to a different approach. His new book avoids partisan labels and explores how many people abandoned their faith in civil society - families, churches, governments and more. The book is called "Suicide Of The West."
GOLDBERG: People are retreating to their little cocoons. They're retreating to social media. And what they're retreating to are things like identity politics. Our colleges teach people that they should simply think of themselves in racial categories or gender categories. You've now got this whole - what I would consider asinine - cottage industry on the right that says that we need, essentially, an identity politics for white people. But that's the real problem with identity politics, is that it reduces people's identity - people's true identity - their character, their personality, their lived experiences - to these really thin abstractions.
INSKEEP: It's tribalism.
GOLDBERG: It's tribalism, but it's a really cheap form of tribalism because at least the authentic, evolutionary form of tribalism, which says, the people I grew up with, the people I go hunting with, the people who protect me when I sleep - right? - I know these faces. These are humans to me. Now we are - have a tribalism of abstractions where people a thousand miles apart have more fellow feeling for someone because they have the same color skin or they vote the same party than they do for their neighbor, who might, you know, share so much more real, lived experience with them, but they don't fit into one of these categories.
INSKEEP: Are you telling me that people on the left caused Donald Trump?
GOLDBERG: I'm saying people on the left have their share of responsibility for it. You know, it is amazing. The white, working-class voters that gave Donald Trump his margin of victory - and again, I'm a big critic of Donald Trump's. But those voters who gave Donald Trump his victory are the same voters that Democrats have been bragging as being the heart of their coalition since FDR. And how, all of a sudden, all of those people who have been safely ensconced as part of the Democratic coalition for all this time only become racists when they start voting Republican I think is something that a lot of people on the left need to think through a bit more.
INSKEEP: OK, so you are essentially saying that there is a reverse racism, if you want to call it that, of the left, that African-Americans clump together, and some will judge other people on the outside - that other people on the left will judge other people based on their skin color.
GOLDBERG: Yeah, I don't like the term reverse racism.
INSKEEP: But this is where you're going. This is the essence of...
GOLDBERG: Well, no. Well, let me put it this way. I think there're a lot of people who voted for Donald Trump who perceive it.
INSKEEP: But I think that if there were an African-American sitting here, it's entirely possible that that person might say the reason that African-Americans seem to you to be in this tribe and trying to hold together is because white society put us there. An African-American walks down the street and statistically is liable to be treated differently, statistically is more likely to be shot by a police officer. We could go on.
GOLDBERG: Yeah, no, and I think all of that is repugnant. You know, I think discrimination is repugnant. My whole point is you're supposed to take people as you find them. I am not saying we don't have racial problems in this country. I - what I'm saying is, is that, if it's bad to reduce two black guys in a Starbucks to a - just simply a - they're members of a category, and therefore, I distrust them...
INSKEEP: Call the police.
GOLDBERG: Yeah - that bad.
INSKEEP: As happened in a recent incident, yeah.
GOLDBERG: Yeah, that's bad. It's also bad to say that I'm responsible for the stupid mistake or the stupid, you know, misjudgment of a Starbucks manager in Philadelphia.
INSKEEP: You don't like being blamed for that as a white person. That's what you're saying.
GOLDBERG: But I also don't like thinking of myself as a white person.
INSKEEP: I think we could summarize your view of the left - that some well-intentioned efforts have gone too far and that people have become too tribal.
GOLDBERG: Yeah, or...
INSKEEP: That's your summary of the left. On the right - what's your problem with tribalism or identity politics on the right?
GOLDBERG: So first of all, it's grotesquely hypocritical. For a very long time, conservatives have been arguing for a policy of colorblindness - right? - have been arguing against the idea of sort of the Balkanization of the culture. Now all of a sudden, whether rightly or wrongly or understandably or not, they feel threatened. They're saying, well, let's just give it all up. We've got to have our own identity politics. If conservatives aren't going to defend the best version of what this country and what this civilization was founded on, who will? And, you know, the whole point of conservatism is to conserve those things worth keeping.
INSKEEP: So is this what you're telling me? Is this the suicide of the West of your book title? You're telling me that we are either tribal or more civilized, and we are tearing down elements of civilization and becoming more tribal. No matter what our particular politics might be, that's what we're all doing.
GOLDBERG: I would certainly say that we are all giving in to the siren of human nature too much. The essence of every civilization is to hold off the worst aspects - chiefly, violence - of human nature - because violence is natural to humans - and channel the good parts of human nature towards productive ends. And what I think we're missing is that because of the institutions that help us channel and focus human nature in productive ends, starting with the family, are breaking down, we are giving into worst parts of our nature. And we're listening to the lesser angels, as it were, of our nature, if not the demons. And I think that it's very easy for people within their coalition to see the hypocrisy, and cruelty, and nastiness and intellectual dishonesty of the other coalition. But they will make remarkable allowances for the members of their own coalition.
INSKEEP: Jonah Goldberg is the author of "Suicide Of The West." Thanks for coming by.
GOLDBERG: Great to be here. Thanks very much.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.