I am reading the real Suicide of the West (1964), by James Burnham — as opposed to Jonah Goldberg’s ersatz (2018) version. I will in due course publish a review of Burnham’s book. It will be a long review because the book if chock-full of wisdom and spot-on observations.
Burnham’s book is subtitled An Essay on the Meaning and Destiny of Liberalism, though it is far more than an essay. By “liberalism” Burnham means the modern kind that gradually replaced the “classical” kind in the 19th and 20th centuries. (See my post, “Inventing Liberalism“.) Burnham’s explanation of the change is one of the topics I will take up in my review.
In the meantime, I can’t resist quoting Burnham on the subject of virtue-signaling. He doesn’t use that term, which seems to be of recent vintage, but he describes the phenomenon perfectly:
Let us consider the situation of a member of our affluent society, and let us assume him to be from the more rather than less affluent half, who is no longer deeply committed in spirit to the interlocked Christian doctrines of Original Sin, the Incarnation and Redemption, which constitute the Christian solution. His guilt nevertheless exists; he is conscious of it, and feels the anxiety that it generates. What is he going to do about it, and think about it?
Liberalism permits him to translate his guilt into the egalitarian, anti-discrimination, democratist, peace-seeking liberal principles, and to transform his guilty feeling into that “passion for reform” of which Professor [J. Salwyn] Schapiro speaks [in Liberalism: Its Meaning and History]. If he is an activist, he can actually sign on as a slum clearer, Freedom Rider, Ban the Bomber or Peace Corpsman, or join a Dr. Schweitzer or Dr. Dooley in the jungle. But activists of that literal sort are always a minority. The more significant achievement of liberalism, by which it confirms its claim to being considered a major ideology, is its ability to handle the problem of guilt for large numbers of persons without costing them undue personal inconvenience. This it does by elevating the problem to representational, symbolic and institutional levels. It is not necessary for me to go in person to the slum, jungle, prison, Southern restaurant, state house or voting precinct and there take a direct hand in accomplishing the reform that will unblock the road to peace, justice and well-being. Thanks to the reassuring provisions of the liberal ideology, I can go about my ordinary business and meanwhile take sufficient account of my moral duties by affirming my loyalty to the correct egalitarian principles, voting for the correct candidates, praising the activists and contributing to their defense funds when they get into trouble, and joining promptly in the outcry against reactionaries who pop up now and then in a desperate effort to preserve power and privilege.
“Liberalism”, as Burnham defines it in Suicide of the West, has changed in some particulars since 1964, particulars that I will address in my review. But, in the main, Burnham has nailed it, as “they” say nowadays. If you are in the market for a sound analysis of “liberalism”, skip Goldberg and go with Burnham.
3 thoughts on ““Liberalism” and Virtue-Signaling”
Thank you for this book recommendation. The only issue that put me off from reading Goldberg is that I’ve found him to be repetitive even if he writes persuasively.
In other news, I’ll soon be publishing, on various parts of the Internet. why I don’t engage in social justice advocacy. I’ve run this through others and it’s a major bombshell. Wish me luck and stay tuned!
Great news about you upcoming publications. Please let me know when and where I can find them.
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i read Suicide of the West when I was in graduate school, 1972-3. I still remember a lot of it, and look forward to your review. (I also read Goldberg–it “pales” in comparison.
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