Paul Tuns, Review:

Where Next? Western Civilization at the Crossroads: Essays from The New Criterion

Edited by Roger Kimball (Encounter, $28, 234 pages)

The New Criterion is an essential conservative review of the culture today, focused on the visual arts, music, books, and the goings-on in academia. Every few years they have a year-long series in their monthly journal dedicated to a particular topic and sometimes collected in a volume for publication in book form. Where Next? Western Civilization at the Crossroads: Essays from The New Criterion was one such series, published in The New Criterion’s 40th anniversary year, 2021-2022. The contributors, who range from the psychiatrist Anthony Daniels to the historians Andrew Roberts and Victor Davis Hanson to essayists Michael Anton and Conrad Black, survey the decline of the West.

The 11 authors (ten essays, one is co-written) dig into what ails the West, from whence these ailments came, how far civilization has fallen, and what, if anything, can be done to arrest the decline and perhaps even revive the West. There is a lot of ground covered – two millennia and counting – and there is both a great deal of depth and breadth. There are two essays comparing the current decline of the West with the decline of the Roman Empire, although Conrad Black says that the 600-year empire has practically nothing to teach the West today and “all of the many flippant comparisons to the decline of the Roman Empire are nonsense.”

The collection’s high notes are the opening and concluding essays. The opening essay by Allen C. Guelzo and James Hankins, condemns the “malicious form of humility indistinguishable from self-hatred” that “humiliates, that seeks to blind Westerners to their magnificent traditions.” The West has lost its confidence, a point often made by Mark Steyn (a former theatre critic of TNC, but alas no longer a contributor). Guelzo and Hankins note that civilization is fragile – much more fragile than most people believe – and most of the contributors diagnose the ways in which that fragility is repeatedly tested by cultural and destructive ideologies, not just fascism and communism, but more recently identity politics and tranhumanism. As Anthony Daniels says in his essay, “A Popular Form of Monomania,” “The disasters of Nazism and Communism did not halt the search for transcendence by means of ideology.” (If there is a fault in Where Next? it is light consideration of the decline of religion in the West, with the various authors instead focusing on intellectual developments in the West.)

Kimball in his concluding essay notes that it is “a mistake to think that Marxism has a monopoly on the project of self-deification,” noting that mankind has fallen prey to its temptations since the beginning of time. The hubris of every new generation of intellectuals who believe that their fanciful ideas can deliver utopia (literally meaning “no place”) endangers both individuals and society. Kimball quotes Irving Kristol who said in 1994 that “Sexual liberation is always near the top of any countercultural agenda.” But regardless of the form this liberation takes, mankind’s unshackling of the restraints of traditional wisdom and religious edicts ends up enslaving people. You would think that thought leaders and policymakers would eventually learn, but they never do.

The latest hubris can be seen in transhumanists (such as Yuval Noah Harari) who think that mankind’s time is about up, and that’s okay. The new technological man will be better, stronger, smarter. At least that’s the latest promise. As Kimball concludes, “modern technology has upped the ante on hubris.”