Sometimes a Bang, Sometimes a Whimper

David Goldman calls How Civilizations Die “an apology for conventional thinking,” and it is easy to see why—if one understands “conventional” to mean conservative. A religious Jew and strong supporter of Israel, Goldman is hawkish on U.S. foreign policy and believes in the centrality of religious faith to the health of cultures. In other respects, however, he departs from mainstream conservative opinion. He tends to stress the weakness rather than triumphalist strength of Islamic societies, while acknowledging that this fact makes them more rather than less dangerous. He is dismissive of the widely-held conservative belief that exporting democracy is the best way for the United States to build stability in the Middle East; we won the Cold War, he asserts, by ruining the Soviet Union, not by persuading the Soviets to emulate us. And he provides a surprising history of anti-Semitism in Europe, which he reads as a form of neo-pagan national idolatry.

With a myriad of such fascinating and sometimes counter-intuitive arguments, How Civilizations Die explores the unconscious death wish that has infected most of Europe and, with different manifestations, the Islamic world. Goldman asks if America’s unique experiment in freedom can survive the coming collapse of the Western world, or if the election of Barack Obama, with all the socialist-leaning somnolence his administration has delivered, signaled an unstoppable suicidal spiral. And if America can escape the fate of Europe, how can it protect itself against the enmity of its dying enemies? At this turning point in history, with America facing four more years of leadership by an anti-American president, Goldman’s predictions and warnings deserve a wide hearing.

Goldman’s main subject is demographic collapse, the dramatically decreasing birthrate and consequent aging populations not only of Europe but also, in contrast to received opinion, of much of the Muslim world. He points to the astounding fact that “Iran’s fertility has fallen by almost six children per woman, Turkey’s has fallen by five children per woman, Pakistan’s by more than three children per woman, and Egypt’s and Indonesia’s by four.” As a result, he argues, many of the largest Muslim countries “may well catch up with Europe’s geriatric crisis in a generation and a half.”

A shrinking population is not, as some analysts have led us to expect, good news. On the contrary, without enough young people to maintain production levels and support the burgeoning elderly population, the decreasing birthrate poses a threat to world stability worse even than the apocalyptic scenarios of dire environmentalists. As radicalized Muslims witness the decay of their societies, as is occurring now in Iran, Turkey, Tunisia, and Algeria, they will turn to violence with ever-greater frequency. Social collapse is already abundantly evident in Iran, for example, where levels of drug abuse and prostitution exceed levels anywhere in the West despite the harsh crackdowns of the Iranian regime, and where a scapegoating rage at Jews and America is on the upsurge. Former great powers such as Spain and Italy are dying too, but more resignedly and calmly, with only occasional eruptions of protest.

Calling population decline “the decisive issue of the 21st century,” Goldman is most interested in the question of why some societies—like some individuals—give up on reproduction, essentially losing the will to live. The malaise affecting both Europe and the Muslim Middle East is ultimately, he argues, a spiritual one, and only a “theopolitics” that recognizes the need for meaning is equipped to diagnose it. People survive when their lives are buttressed by a “meaning that transcends death,” whether through a religious belief in personal immortality or through the confident longevity of their culture. When sources of meaning wither, people “embrace death through infertility, concupiscence, and war … they cease to have children, dull their senses with alcohol and drugs, become despondent, and too frequently do away with themselves. Or they may make war on the perceived source of their humiliation.” Religious faith is widely known to correlate with fertility, but not all faiths have the same impact. Some survive and even thrive amidst the challenges of modernity while others are destroyed by it.

Goldman’s argument about the relative strengths of different forms of religious faith and their role in the maintenance of population and democratic vitality is the most provocative aspect of his book, a subject not particularly amenable to proofs or logical argument, but deeply evocative as Goldman handles it. Hopeful that America’s fate may be different from the rest of Europe—at present it has avoided the demographic illness affecting nearly every other industrialized democracy—Goldman stresses that “Only its unique religious history and culture explains America’s apparent exemption from the life and death cycle of nations and only Islam’s very different theology explains the Muslim world’s extreme vulnerability to the demographic effects of modernization.”

In the Judeo-Christian understanding, God is a being who loves humanity—even sinful and erring humanity—and creates an ordered world that we can know and harness for productive ends. This is a very different conception from the capricious and transcendent God of Islam, who cannot love because such would imply weakness or incompleteness. Muslims can be sure of heavenly reward only through dying to protect Islam from its enemies. Under Islam, human beings submit as a collectivity to Allah’s absolute power; in the Judeo-Christian tradition, in contrast, individuals have inalienable rights granted by a God who limits His own power in covenants with them. The latter emphasis tends to produce, as it has in both Israel and America, societies valuing individual initiative, curiosity, self-determination, and rational endeavor. Both Judaism and American evangelicalism are well suited to political freedom because of their understanding of the individual worth of each person. Goldman believes that those who downplay the exceptional nature of American democracy fail to understand the degree to which it was nourished by its Judeo-Christian foundation.

The uniqueness of the American situation does not mean that other nations cannot similarly thrive, but it does mean, in Goldman’s view, that the truism that all peoples desire freedom may well be mistaken. Freedom brings with it, among many difficulties, abuses such as blasphemy, sexual impurity, and pornography that traditional societies often do not wish to tolerate. Additionally, the ideal of serving the good of the whole society rather than one’s clan or tribe is unimaginable in many of these cultures. Perhaps it is a form of chauvinism, Goldman proposes, to think that the American model can or will be eagerly implemented by all peoples; such has been a costly misapprehension fueling the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Goldman proposes that America’s legitimate self-interest demands it form alliances primarily with those who share its “common loves.” Those nations committed to the sanctity of the individual are the ones that have a chance of flourishing and with whom the U.S. should make common cause: Christians in the global south and Israel are good examples of peoples with a “moral claim on American friendship.”

But America under President Barack Obama has made the mistake of thinking it good to liquidate American power and influence—astounding for a President to propose—and to placate and appease, rather than contain or defeat, hostile Islamist powers. The Obama administration’s policy of “reset” has had the effect, Goldman argues, of “encouraging some of America’s worst enemies” while rebuking Israel, its one stalwart and like-minded democratic friend in the Middle East. Why would a President be prepared to risk American security in such a manner? Only a misguided man identifying deeply with Islam, the religion of his father, and against the Jewish state. In the final section on America’s role in the world, Goldman’s conservative bona fides are on full display in his conviction that it is better to be respected than liked, and that some issues cannot be negotiated. America must deter Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, by force if necessary. Although America may need to compromise on many issues, it must not “abandon alliances with nations founded on the principles that define [its] unique character as a people.” Most of all, it must not follow Europe into its twilight through a debilitating loss of will.

It is difficult to summarize or assess this book adequately because it covers so much territory: broadscale social theory, demographic analysis, sweeping historical argument, and foreign policy recommendations. Such remarkable breadth is its strength and, occasionally, its weakness. It is a strength for the sheer interest and provocativeness of Goldman’s many arguments, a weakness only because many are asserted rather than patiently developed as they deserve. His chapter explaining “Why Christianity Died in Europe,” for example, covers a subject big enough to be a book in itself. It seems—to this non-expert reader—fresh and bold, but a more detailed marshalling of facts and authorities would be required to convince the serious reader. Some readers will undoubtedly want a more comprehensive accounting of Muslim population trends and perhaps a fuller acknowledgement of the vagaries of prediction. Others may find the foreign policy blueprint too impressionistic. In these respects, How Civilizations Die is like the proverbial dinner guest one suspects Goldman himself might be: engaging minute by minute, brilliant, well informed, full of arresting anecdotes and memorable turns of phrase, but perhaps too quick and confident to be entirely convincing, too often assuming a reader who thinks like he does and knows as much. Regardless, one would certainly invite him back, and one looks forward eagerly to further books by Goldman in the near future.

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  • Chezwick

    Hard to be optimistic after last month's election. I'm a realist….and the prognosis isn't good.

  • Mary Sue

    The only think I can be optimistic about now is Canada. Isn't that sad?

  • pierce

    The west is in decline and it started in 2009 with the ascendancy to power of Barack Obama and the Democrats, and we have 4 more years of the same s__t. Fill in the blanks.

  • poohbum

    The seeds of the West's decline where planted far before 2009 (and includes both the left and the right, the left has just been more involved with the decline, the right did nothing about it… who is more to blame?), history is organic, what we see now is a result of the last hundred years, if not two hundred. The early 1900s are just as important as the rebels of the 1960s. Whether from Universal Suffrage to the Immigration laws of the 60s, whether we think something is good or bad, it all added/adds up.

    • Matt

      Right on. The US decline probably started in the 1960's and the two decisive factors are: 1) 1965 Immigration Law (which led to massive importation of 3rd world peasants) and 2) Universal Suffrage

      • Chezwick

        Johnson's 'Great Society' and the welfare culture that it created is as responsible for our decline as any other factor. And 'Poobhum' is right, blame for the structural deficit produced by social welfare spending over the decades can be laid at both parties.

  • clarespark

    Another "Spengler" had a huge readership during the interwar period. Not even Eric Hobsbawm, the communist historian, believed that the future was so dire. He left it open, reminding us what a traumatic century of mass death had wrought on the psyche of everyone in the global scene. We have choices, and a renewed commitment to religion rather than to a material analysis of our situation will not fix "Western civilization." I suggest that Frontpage readers consult John Dos Passos's prognosis, reproduced here:…. "Index to Orwell blogs." We have made mistakes and committed crimes, but these are errors that are instructive. No defeatism and no religious renaissance will save us.

  • Western Spirit

    Hitler used music to his advantage. He sent young men out to places like beer gardens to sing about a romantic view of Germany to capture the imaginations of the German people and catch them up in Hitler's vision of Germany.

    Just so Elvis, heaven help me I hate to say this I liked him, and the Beatles I liked them too, started the decline in these United States. Music calms the savage beast and also stirs the emotions of people, sets them on their way to change for better or worse.

    So that's where I think our decline started, rather innocently, yet, they were powerful forces set in play by music.

    • stevef

      The Nazi's would never attained power in Germany if the Weimer Republic had not turned to Hitler's Brown Shirts to oppose the Stalinist street gangs who were on the verge of creating a civil war and likely Bolshevick take over (Hitler was appointed Chancellor in January, 1933 to make sure the Communists did not take over Germany via their Red street armies).

    • tarleton

      Music calms the savage beast ? ? ? …….is that why every army has a music band ; music is inspirationial, it can bring out the angel AND THE BEAST IN MANKIND ….rock music and RAP clearly bring out the primal atavistic impulses …even ''highbrow '' music like Wagner can incite the romantic demon within us

    • Western Spirit

      Just because there were other factors involved in Hitler's takeover doesn't negate the role of music.

      And by the powerful forces set in play by music I meant the primal atavistic impulses, the demonic forces. Certainly not the soothing calming effect of music on the savage beast part. By that I meant music moves emotions for good or evil.

  • chhelo

    Removal of Prayer from Schools, Roe vs Wade, Pornography, Welfare for the Able Bodied Men just to name a few reasons for the decline. Destroy the family destroy the nation.

    • Mary Sue

      and abolishing "the strap" in the schools!

  • Ghostwriter

    I can't see how giving women the right to vote could be considered anti-family. It's ridiculous.

    • Jim_C

      Someone is actually voting you down, but lacks the courage to answer your statement.

  • Ghostwriter

    I can't see how giving women the right to vote could be considered anti-family. It's ridiculous.

  • JayB

    Why do we have to rely on the GOP then…why not start finding a way to get rid of this insane two-party system, and start getting more parties with more ideas involved?

    In my opinion, we either do that, or this country will fall.

    • Mary Sue

      because Multi-Party systems aren't necessarily "better" (though occasionally via vote-splitting it can work out in our favor).

    • Sam

      We can't get consensus with two parties and we will form a coalition with three parties? No way. GOP has to be redone to up conservative values. That is for the next generation not in my lifetime thanks to Obama, the communist, and his liberals.

  • Jossi

    David Goldman is simply brilliant, I still didn't read his book, though I'm planning to read it. Meantime I'm waiting for his articles, here at FPM, at PJ Media, or at Asia Times Online under his pen name Spengler.

  • tarleton

    The peak of British civilisation happened just before the First World War ; it's been slowly downhill from then
    America ''peaked '' just after WW2 in the 50's

  • Western Spirit

    Jesus, as the philosopher, said "man cannot live by bread alone." This is what Goldman is also saying. Europe is dying because it has tried to live by bread alone.

  • broken arrow

    You can't export democracy . Especially where islam is concerned . All you will do is unintentionally encourage Sharia , since democracy is anti-thetical to islam Iraq and Afghanistan are propof positive. America is not in decline , it is transitioning from a manufacturing nation to a service and information nation , and now slowly back to a manufacturing nation . The US is second to none in technology and ingenuity . With China , economy is treated as a form of warfare ….we should take notes .