Where Next? Western Civilization at the Crossroads
Edited by Roger Kimball.
Encounter Books, 2022.
Hardcover, 232 pages, $27.99.
Reviewed by Mark G. Brennan.
The smart money would bet that many of The University Bookman’s omnilegent devotees have already read The New Criterion’s fortieth anniversary essay series published over the course of 2022. But just in case they are wrong, Encounter Books has hedged their wager by reprinting the pieces in Where Next? Western Civilization at the Crossroads. And who better than The New Criterion’s bench of deep thinkers to mull over James Burnham’s hypothesis—“Suicide is probably more frequent than murder as the end phase of a civilization”—with respect to Christendom’s funereal prospects. This timely collection explains the West’s historical path to self-destruction as well as its dreary prospects. Importantly, it dispenses with the despair that all too often vitiates conservative predictions of doom even if, as contributor Michael Anton predicts, “Going long on Wokemerica seems a sucker bet.”
Since 1982, founder Hilton Kramer’s critical journal has aimed to uphold “what is best and most humanely vital in our cultural inheritance” while at the same time “exposing what is mendacious, corrosive, and spurious,” according to its website. In other words, more Dürer and less Duchamp, more Rembrandt and less Rothko, more Schumann and less Schoenberg. The New Criterion works like a suicide hotline for conservatives dismayed by modernism’s destruction of the arts and culture. Its fortieth anniversary’s timing could not have been more apt coming after the existential maelstrom that the stultifying COVID lockdowns and George Floyd revolution kicked off.
Yet conservatives still have reason to fret about their grandchildren’s future. Allen Guelzo and James Hankins’s lead essay recalls the obligation generations owe each other when they remind us of Edmund Burke’s prophecy, “People will not look forward to posterity who never look backwards to their ancestors.” Unfortunately, Westerners did “look backwards to their ancestors” during the summer of 2021 as they tore down statues of Columbus, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and others. And they hated what they saw. Guelzo and Hankins show how such attacks on our patrimony highlight the weak link that undermines civilized societies’ chains, their “fragility.” One hopes their long-term solution—“We must learn to be proud of the right things in the right way”—takes hold before the remaining statues come down.
Angelo Codevilla advises us to also look East in one of his final works before his untimely September 2021 death. While he did not live long enough to see China’s recent draconian COVID lockdowns, Codevilla did live long enough to deem the West’s pandemic response, and its cultural trajectory, as arguably worse. In contrast to current Western regimes, China’s communist leaders “offer a calm, orderly tyranny in exchange for obedience by all alike.” Meanwhile here in the West, the non-elite suffer a direr fate. Our self-anointed, condescending clerisy demands “one class of people obey ever-evolving and unpredictable orders, while submitting to insult and injury.” Mask on! Mask off! Get triple-boosted to show you care! The Prius drivers who watch MSNBC know—and are—better than the NASCAR fans who watch Fox.
Thanks to the protection of death, Codevilla will escape cancellation for defying the Deep State’s reach and the foreign policy blob’s orthodoxy with his startling conclusion, “China is not what America should fear.” Just don’t mention that viewpoint to President Biden, who prefers national suicide to an America-centric, realist modus vivendi with China. Asked last fall if the U.S. would defend Taiwan against Chinese attack, Biden replied, “Yes, that’s the commitment we made.” Joe Biden values the protection of Taiwan’s semiconductor factories more than he values the American lives he is willing to squander in their defense. Where Next? Let’s hope it’s not to Taiwan.
Executive editor James Panero, who reviews art galleries and shows in each monthly issue, expands his scope to skewer the establishment in “Going Under with the Overclass.” Panero shows how today’s monopolistic elite decide “what we see, what we read, what we say, and what we hear” unlike the less imperious elites of yore. His dissection of the elites’ manipulation of university education to lock in their supposed birthright advantages hit home for this writer in December after submitting my final grades.
Forget about “decolonizing the curriculum,” mandatory diversity statements, or the other fads sabotaging the academy. Like a renegade archeologist digging off-limits in sacred burial grounds, Panero has unearthed the “subterranean pipelines” elites use to guarantee their middling progeny entry into what their shallow cocktail party friends consider the “best” schools. I brace myself against relentless attack from Panero’s “delta force of tutors, psychologists, strategists, and trainers” each time I give anything less than a B+. Frustrated cultural conservatives can pound their chests in agreement with his declaration that “[t]he time is right for a revolt for the masses.” Unfortunately, Panero’s impatient enthusiasm carries him a step too far when he invites “free speech leftists” and “traditional feminists” to join the rebellion.
If Aristotle’s fear of “regime-ending ethnic conflict” still holds, then Michael Anton’s warning about the United States failure to assimilate record levels of immigration needs much wider dissemination, and soon. Henry Ford’s “Melting Pot Ceremonies” seem as quaint as an “I Like Ike” button compared to Anton’s assessment of twenty-first century America’s ethnic smorgasbord. The United States, to Anton’s disgust, has “utterly repudiated the traditional understanding of assimilation.” Our elite institutions tell immigrants to “embrace their native cultures” while desecrating their new homeland as “the worst in the world.” But how would assimilation even work today without the common culture, English language, or little platoons of America’s past? It won’t. Victor Davis Hanson calculates the damage this demographic and cultural diffusion has already done to citizenship, which likewise can’t exist without a unifying identity “that transcends our particular tribes.”
Roger Kimball, The New Criterion’s editor, showcases both his wit and erudition in the closing essay, “Highways to Utopia.” No one on today’s Right turns a phrase better than Kimball. Case in point: his jeremiad against prestigious universities’ decadence. “Their leafy walks, imposing libraries, and impressive buildings” resemble modern day Potemkin villages with Stakhanovite credentialists, both professors and students, scurrying about. Ignore the climbing walls, food courts, and administrative armies. As Kimball describes modern universities, behind their scholarly facades “most of the activities they sponsor are inimical to real education, inciting thousands of puny Cyruses to divert and stymie the waters of tradition in order to polish the mirror of their narcissism.”
Kimball uses “Highways” to unify the collected essays around Winston Churchill’s foreboding conviction that modern man’s “changed attitude toward humanity itself” poses more danger than “the new instruments of destruction and enslavement.” Like guns, industrial-era weapons’ lethality mattered most only after their users had dehumanized the enemy. And now “modern technology,” per Kimball, “has upped the ante on hubris” as he proves with Yuval Harari’s absurd remark, “We are really upgrading humans into gods.” Where Next? presents ten perceptive essays that Harari, open immigration fanatics, and Sinophobes, among others, would profit from reading.
Those looking to delve deeper into the history, literature, and philosophy cited in Where Next? will come up short. Only Andrew Roberts’ contribution, “The West That Wasn’t,” includes footnotes, probably to ensure readers don’t confuse his humorous counterfactual history—in the body of his essay—with actual history—the corrected version in his footnotes. The omission of scholarly apparatus, in this case footnotes and a bibliography, limits the instruction Where Next? might otherwise provide. Without these simple accessories, lost souls wondering how to navigate what Kimball identifies as the “crossroads at which the West finds itself today” will have to ask Waze for directions. But if they have a slow Wi-Fi connection, they can busy themselves deciphering Anthony Daniels’s all too frequent paragraphs-posing-as-sentences like this one,
When J.K. Rowling, a feminist once in good odor with the morally self-anointed, delivered herself of an opinion couched in moderate terms stating something so obvious that it will one day (I hope) astonish future social or cultural historians that it needed saying at all, namely that a transsexual woman is not a woman simpliciter, she was turned upon viciously, including by those who owed their great fortunes to her—or at least to her work.
Siri, get me an eraser.
Wall Street prognosticators make themselves look prescient with a simple trick: “Give a number or a date, but not both.” A forecaster looks foolish if he predicts the Dow will hit 40,000 next July but it doesn’t. Yet if he predicts the Dow will hit 40,000 without specifying the date, then he can take a victory lap when it eventually does, whenever that may be. Unlike financial mountebanks—and to Roger Kimball’s credit—What Next?’s prescience derives from its rigorous historical analysis, philosophical wisdom, and logical precision. Here’s a modest suggestion for the title of The New Criterion’s 2032 fiftieth anniversary essay collection: Hate to Say We Told You So...
Mark G. Brennan is an Adjunct Associate Professor of Business Ethics in the Business & Society Program at the Stern School of Business at New York University and books editor for Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.
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