Reproductive journalism

A collection of David Goldman’s ‘Spengler’ columns argues that civilizations exist because people wish to overcome death.

A crisis of faith with demographic consequences 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
A crisis of faith with demographic consequences 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Since 1999, David Goldman has been enlightening, dazzling (and infuriating) readers of the online edition of the Asia Times with his “Spengler” column.
The column is named after Oswald Spengler, whose seminal work was the two-volume Decline of the West, published in the early 20th century. As the name would suggest, Goldman’s columns focus on the political, economic and spiritual malaises of the contemporary world, in its Western, Islamic and Asian incarnations. His conclusions are bracing, and exist outside of the usual tidy categorizations into conservative, liberal, neo-conservative and so on.
This book is an attempt to redact these columns into a coherent presentation of Goldman’s thinking.
Collections of newspaper columns rarely work as books. One usually has the feeling after reading them of having consumed a whole meal consisting entirely of first courses. This is not the case with David Goldman’s book. That is both because of the skillful, thematic redaction of the essays, and because of the clear, common threads running through the writing, though the author covers a broad variety of subjects.
In approaching this book (and it should be approached), it is first of all important to know something about the author.
Goldman, an American-born, relatively newly observant Jew, has pursued a range of careers. He has been a successful financier, a music theorist, an economist, and now, as he calls it, a “geopolitical strategist.”
This book makes ample use of all these skills. Goldman, however, in addition to knowing many things, also knows (or asserts) one big thing.
This book’s central argument is that civilizations exist because men wish to “overcome death.” To achieve this, “we create culture, a dialogue among generations that links the dead with the yet unborn.” Goldman contends, however, that the successful transcending of the ear of mortality is a “daunting task at which most civilizations ultimately fail.” Here is the central theme of his book. Goldman observes the demographic evidence – above all, low fertility rates in certain parts of the world – and concludes that large areas of the planet have effectively lost the will to live as cultures and civilizations.
He links the failure of cultures to maintain the will to live with the decline in religious belief, and hence the “hope of immortality.”
“Without the hope of immortality,” he declares, “we cannot bear mortality.”
Thus, Goldman identifies the decline of Christian belief in Europe as the root cause of that continent’s demographic woes and broader cultural crisis. He is not the first, of course, to make this argument. But Goldman issues a bolder claim when he argues that the Islamic world too is experiencing a “crisis of faith that will bring about a demographic catastrophe in the middle of the present century.” He identifies a rapid decline in Muslim birthrates where the “modern world” encroaches, in contrast to high rates where traditional conditions still prevail.
Goldman’s conclusion is that where Muslim women acquire the right to choose whether to have families, they tend to choose not to do so. That is, Islam fails to sustain itself in the face of the encroachment of modernity. Rather, like many other religious and ethnic cultures noted by Goldman, it crumbles. He cites the steep drop in birthrates in Iran, where civil society is largely secular despite the rule of the mullahs, to support his case.
He notes, however, that uniquely among the threatened civilizations crumbling in the face of modernity, Islam will fight to prevent its collapse. This rearguard action is doomed, but there will be blood before it goes down to defeat.
Which civilizations, however, are able to adapt to and thrive in the context of modernity? Goldman contends that the US and Israel are uniquely well-equipped in this regard, because they are “the only two industrial countries in which religious faith still occupies the public square.” That is because “Israel and the United States, uniquely in the world, were created by immigrants motivated in large measure by religious faith.”
Goldman’s message is not all sweetness and light for the US. He argues that radical change is necessary for the US to return from its current doldrums, economic and increasingly demographic. But he believes that the core cultural and civilizational strength is present in the US to make this revival of fortunes possible, if not inevitable.
These ideas are presented in a curious and unique style that combines moral seriousness with a twinkling delight in puncturing pomposities.
There are highly entertaining diversions into literature and history, with Dashiel Hammett’s Continental Op and General William Tecumseh Sherman receiving Goldman’s nod of approval, even as the author delights in excoriating the self-pitying “freebooters” of the Confederate South, among other victims.
Goldman is a sort of Harpo Marx of geopolitical strategists, proceeding in faux innocence while leaving a chaos of outraged sensibilities around him.
Of course, one need not agree with every aspect of David Goldman’s thesis in order to endorse his book. With regard to Israel, for example, I would have liked to have heard more discussion and acknowledgment of the very problematic relation of at least some strands of Israeli religiosity with modernity. The nature of the religious faith that occupies and will occupy the Israeli public square is a not yet settled question.
And there are strands of belief in some of the most demographically vigorous, ultra- Orthodox communities which very evidently do not have a happy and comfortable relationship with the 21st century.
I would also have liked a sense of greater awareness that the immigrants to Israel who led the movements that piloted the way to Jewish sovereignty in the first half of the 20th century were largely not motivated by religious faith, but rather by the secular ideologies of socialist Zionism (or liberal nationalist Zionism, in the case of the Revisionist movement). There is a discussion to be had here regarding the nature of Jewishness as ethnic national identity, and Judaism as belief system.
Goldman perhaps does not allow sufficient space here for it.
But these points should not detract from the value of this book.
David Goldman has written a bracing, entertaining and often brilliant thesis which seeks to locate the key dynamics underlying the chaos of the early 21st century.
The essays here are a rare combination of deep knowledge, sometimes mordant wit, and a fearless willingness to go where the logic of the author’s thought takes him. The results are sometimes startling, always worth reading. It’s Not the End of the World: It’s Just the End of You deserves to annoy, shake up and enlighten a very wide audience.