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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