Editor's essay: Change and the West

The Triumph of the West, by J.M. Roberts. Boston: Little, Brown & Co. 324 pp. $17.95. The Tears of the White Man: Compassion as Contempt, by Pascal Bruckner. New York: The Free Press. 288 pp. $17.95. The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot, by Russell Kirk. Chicago: Regnery Books. 535 pp. $19.95. SOME dread social change; others invite it. Recently, three book-length essays deal with change as a topic in history, particularly Western history. They come from J.M. Roberts, a British historian, Pascal Bruckner, a French hunger activist, and Russell Kirk, an American conservative. They share a common theme: that the West will survive only if it handles the inevitable fact of change through its innate capacity for the self-criticism that has produced ever more rapid change in the West. That's one way of putting it. For J.M. Roberts, it's not quite that simple. A world historian (author of the popular ``History of the World''), Roberts thinks that the notion of ``the West,'' though useful to historians, is outdated. It's become outdated because the basic ``myths'' that have driven the West have, in modern times, become public property: China and Japan, for example, have appropriated them. The ``myths'' in question are: that men can, in some sense, take charge of their destinies, and that history is meaningful because it has direction.

Roberts traces these ideas back to the Judeo-Christian heritage of the West but notes how they are now being used by non-Western peoples as they try to define themselves over against Europe and the United States. Roberts considers Marx's version of these ideas ``heretical'' but potent nonetheless, given the power of the originals.

``Triumph of the West'' is studiously detached. Roberts believes that ``trivial facts are often the best hints to what is going on,'' and his book bristles with observations. Sweeping in scope (from the Greeks to yesterday's headlines), it focuses on objective change.

But Roberts is alive to the ironies of the situation. Writing about contemporary Islamic movements, he notes that ``Islamic fundamentalists concede that Christianity was once a healthy, undebased creed. ... [T]he best means of successful ethical and political resistance to Western power have so far proved to be Western.'' The means turn out to be the ideas of Newton, Marx, Mazzini, Tolstoy, Rousseau.

If history is not the story of freedom, as the Marxists believe, history is at least the story of change, and Roberts has done a convincing job of tracing the rate of change throughout Western history to the acceptance of the ideas that men can and should change themselves and their environments. Yet he writes as a European. Early in the book he notes: ``What Horace said about the defeated Greeks taking their fierce Roman captors captive might now be said of Western civilization and the world which has so eagerly borrowed its ideas....''

While Roberts's book is a classy job of objective reporting of history, Bruckner's book is plangent, confessional, a ``j'accuse'' - and it's himself he's accusing. Bruckner is a leftist and an activist in International Action Against Hunger. His book is a ringing - and stinging - indictment of the narcissism prevalent in liberal circles. He blames this on the news media - or rather on those who get their sense of identity from the media. ``The same people who support Poland in December support the [Palestine Liberation Organization] in July with similar arguments, and six months later will support some other guerrilla movement. Details are minimized in all cases.''

Some of his best analyses come from his own cause, hunger. It's what he sardonically calls ``celluloid famine.''

``The result of all this consciousness raising,'' he writes, ``is that one knows more and more about something without being able to do anything about it.'' We sit down to dinner and TV news, he notes, only to be presented with the gaunt faces and spindly bodies of starving Africans.

What's at work here as elsewhere is guilt, the West's talent for self-criticism run amok. Of his fellow liberals he writes, ``They have no sooner dried their tears when a new subject for lamentation makes them start weeping again. Failures and distress are collected because they serve as a clear warning - you have enjoyed yourselves too much, you have wasted too much.''

Bruckner urges a simple remedy: travel. Get to know the ``other'' concretely, in detail, in his own tongue, not in yours.

``Tears of the White Man'' is an important example of a Western intellectual's innate capacity to correct himself - that is, change himself - through self-criticism. There's nothing flip about this book: It's an honest, and brilliantly written, expos'e of a strain of decadence in the West.

It's an expos'e that would please Russell Kirk, whose ``The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot'' is now in its seventh revised edition. First published in 1953, the book works through the major figures in the history of modern conservatism. The arrangement is chronological, with themes. The scope is generous, the presentation of ideas clear, subtle, fair, witty, and powerful.

Kirk's point of view is unrelentingly moral, so when he speaks of the self-criticism needed among conservatives, he calls it ``self-chastisement.''

Interestingly, there is no mention of Ronald Reagan in this new edition.

First and foremost among Kirk's conservatives is Edmund Burke. The book opens with a moving description of a visit to Burke's place of birth in modern Dublin.

Reflecting on Burke's ``Reflections on the Revolution in France,'' Kirk writes: ``Burke has no expectation that men can be kept from social change; neither is rigidity of form desirable. Change is inevitable, he says, and is designed providentially for the larger conservation of society; properly guided, change is a process of renewal. But let change come as the consequence of a need generally felt, not inspired by fine-spun abstractions.'' (Today, of course, as Bruckner points out, we have the abstraction of TV to deal with.)

Kirk adds: ``Conservatism is never more admirable than when it accepts changes that it disapproves, with good grace, for the sake of a general conciliation; and the impetuous Burke, of all men, did most to establish the principle.''

From John Adams to T.S. Eliot, Kirk gives voice to his conservative tradition, impressing us again, as in the first edition, with his faith in the capacity of conservativism for the self-criticism that allows it to ``accept change that it disapproves, with good grace.''

Western men and women have proved interested in change, sometimes for its own sake, as these three books document. What Roberts calls the ``self-corrective bias'' in Western thought is well served by each. Of the three, Kirk's book seems to offer, paradoxically, the greatest hope. However brilliant, Roberts's ``The Triumph of the West'' is strictly an essay - an attempt to explain a host of appararently unrelated details in a single concept. And Bruckner's book, as hot as Roberts's is cool, matters most as a window on an elite - the liberal activist. On the other hand, ``The Conservative Mind'' has proved itself over the years to be immensely readable and rereadable. Through its careful readings of exceptionally vital texts, it should continue to act as an agent for still further self-criticism, still further change.

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