The Confusion of Jonah Goldberg, Part VI

Richard Reinsch, the editor of the Law and Liberty blog, has just published his review of Jonah Goldberg’s new book. Please read it. It will make you think and, unlike whatever the hell this is, it is well worth your time—even if you might disagree with his arguments (I, for one, think Reinsch wrong about John Locke).

He notes that Goldberg’s evolutionary account of human life—Goldberg writes in the book’s introduction, “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”—is far too thin to support his thesis of man as a creature capable of impressive feats of reason. As Reinsch puts it:

Goldberg assumes too much when he argues that a purely naturalistic account of humans as just clever animals, gifted with speech—a miracle in its own right—can actually account for the Miracle of the Enlightenment, what with its rights, autonomy, reason, and science . . . Left unnoticed is that those who tell us that we are nothing but highly intelligent chimps, usually stated with passing contempt for religious Americans, then breathlessly assert their autonomous individualism, usually stated with passing contempt for the communal, familial, and patriotic traditions of America. Emancipated chimps all the way down. How’s that?

This truly is, as the title of Reinsch’s review makes clear, “Jonah Goldberg’s Soulless Case for Liberty.”

He agrees with Goldberg on the problem of gratitude (which I agree with as well):

The part I appreciated the most about Goldberg’s book is his nod to gratitude for what we’ve been given as Americans and the need to sustain our precious freedoms. We don’t have enough of that anymore, at least a good portion of our converged elites find it difficult to be unself-consciously patriotic and to have a lowercase piety for our nation’s Founding. The sinners and the sins of that period are rejected root and branch. In its place, we get the grievances industry, America as a nearly demonic tale told by Howard Zinn, and the infinite profusion of racial and sexual identities as the summation of who each of us really is.

But he parts ways (to put it mildly) with Goldberg on how to understand Donald Trump:

I didn’t support Trump’s candidacy, and I found myself both cringing and in wonder at this man since he emerged in the 2016 Republican primaries. But the better part of wisdom, which I should have arrived at sooner, would be for me to me to ask what had I missed about my country and about the voters of my political party. Trump is tough to accept, but he also recalled something to conservatives that they never should have forgotten: the priority of politics and the priority of the nation. The conservative movement was awash in its own abstractions and Trump made very political moves that galvanized his party’s voters and then extended those gains into states Republicans had not been victorious in at the presidential level in decades.

If all anti-Trumpers were more like Reinsch, the country would be in a far better place.

Ultimately, Reinsch argues Goldberg has succumbed to the “America is an idea” trope that, in my view, stems from the tendency of Cold War neoconservatives and their progeny to think far too like the Trotskyites they fought against. Goldberg forgets that for natural rights and equality under the law to work, a people must have the requisite virtues and be self-governing beings. They must, as Aristotle said, participate in ruling and being ruled in turn.

The U.S. Constitution was built on preexisting colonies whose interests, affections, and loyalties could help to forge “a more perfect Union.” As the English writer Roger Scruton remarks on our charter document, the Constitution begins with the words “We, the people.” Who? “Why, us. We who already belong, whose historic tie is now to be transcribed into law.” Political membership is the essence of both territorial jurisdiction and loyalty that creates a shared political identity.

America is a particular place founded upon universal truths. As David Azerrad has argued at American Greatness:

America, in other words, is both particular and universal. We are particular in our own way, just as Lesotho, Lithuania, and Laos are particular in their own ways. But we are exceptional in making certain universal ideals a constitutive component of our national identity (many countries today affirm these ideals too, but only we make them an inextricable part of who we are).

It will be interesting—but probably not enlightening—to read Goldberg’s promised response to Reinsch’s very good review.

About Tom Doniphon

Tom Doniphon is not, as you may imagine, an iconic character from John Ford's greatest western. He is, rather, a writer in the Midwest. The moniker, suffice to say, is a pseudonym.

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