We must defend Western Civilisation so all of humanity can continue to be enriched, argues author and former intelligence analyst Paul Monk.
Douglas Murray is a wonderfully free spirit who lucidly tackles the manias of political correctness with erudition, panache and limpid reasoning. At just 43 years of age, he is a ‘conservative’ and courageous author in the era of cancellations and deplatformings motivated by various phobiaphobias—which is to say, fears of alleged fears—such as ‘Islamophobia’, ‘Transphobia’, and what-have-you. Murray writes without fear or favour.
Fifteen years ago, aged only 28, he founded the Centre for Social Cohesion. It became part of the Henry Jackson Society, of which he became associate director from 2011, for seven years. He is associate editor of The Spectator and has written columns for Standpoint, National Review, and The Wall Street Journal. He is a regular columnist for UnHerd magazine. He calls himself a conservative. Yet in many ways he is a John Stuart Mill kind of liberal. The radical nihilism of the Left is what makes this look like a conservative position.
The War on the West: How to Prevail in the Age of Unreason, his latest book, is a cry from the heart about the vandalism and desecration he sees being heaped upon Western Civilisation. In the midst of trends which disturb him, he is outspoken. In this precise sense, he embodies a crucial and precious aspect of the Western tradition: freedom of speech and the public exercise of critical reason. Quite as much as any art, music or literature, this is a foundational aspect of Western Civilisation. Of necessity it lies at the heart of the IPA’s Foundations of Western Civilisation project, to which this review is a modest contribution.
Given this project, Murray’s book is of the greatest significance. He argues Western Civilisation is under sustained assault, from without and from within, and makes a systematic case in defence of it, while setting out a vision for how the rest of us can lucidly and discursively defend it—less at the barricades than in the public square, for as long as the public square is not itself converted into barricaded territory, as it was in certain American cities during the riots of recent years. He opens his book with a ringing declaration:
In recent years it has become clear that there is a war going on: a war on the West. This is not like earlier wars, where armies clash and victors are declared. It is a cultural war, and it is being waged remorselessly against all the roots of the Western tradition and against everything good that the Western tradition has produced.
It is clear that—like English philosopher Roger Scruton (1944-2020)—Murray stands in the tradition of conservatives such as Edmund Burke, who cheered on the American Revolution in the 1770s while deploring the French Revolution in the 1790s. Murray is not a ‘reactionary’, but what might be called a ‘cautionary’. His concerns have deep antecedents, even though he exclaims the war against the West is of recent provenance. The Protestant Reformation struck conservative Catholics as a threat to the foundations of Western Civilisation. The Enlightenment struck conservatives such as Savoyard philosopher Joseph de Maistre and Austrian statesman Klemens von Metternich as threatening the foundations of Western Civilisation. Industrialisation and scientific rationalism struck Romantics in the 19th century as threatening the very soul of Western Civilisation. Bolshevism seemed to very many to threaten the very existence of Western Civilisation. Frankfurt School philosophers Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, in The Dialectic of Enlightenment, written during World War II, declared scientific rationalism had reduced Western Civilisation to a consumerist cultural desert. When we read Murray’s expressions of concern about contemporary rebellions against the Western tradition, we need to bear this long history in mind. In order to bear it in mind, we must first be acquainted with it. The problem Murray has with those whose actions and opinions he challenges is that they assail the past in demonstrable ignorance of it, and with scant regard for the consequences of their behaviour.
He himself exhibits impressive erudition and aesthetic sophistication. One might almost evoke in his case the remark attributed to Bloomsbury aesthete and essayist Lytton Strachey (1880–1932), when he was challenged at the height of the Great War as to why he was not at the front defending Western Civilisation: “I am the civilisation you are fighting for”.
The war against the West has a long history.
He sets out a view of our predicament similar to that espoused by French writer Pascal Bruckner, in The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism (2006). The West, Murray complains, is expected to seek pardon and make atonement for its past and to abolish its sense of pride and tradition, even its claims to economic and scientific pre-eminence, while other cultures are expected and encouraged to accuse the West and to glory in their pasts. Why? The short answer is colonialism, slavery and racism—as if these had been uniquely Western transgressions. His concern is to ask whether the charges are altogether warranted, and whether the guilt is being attributed where it actually belongs.
In The Strange Death of Europe, he asked this kind of tempering question about Europe’s immigration policies—for which, naturally, he was denounced as an ‘Islamophobe’. In The Madness of Crowds, he challenged the intolerance and cancel culture that have come to characterise sexual politics. In this new book, he is asking that we draw the line at the wholesale denunciation of Western Civilisation and attempts to discredit and even demolish its cultural and philosophical traditions in the name of post-colonialism, anti-racism, and egalitarian radicalism. Indicative of the situation, he writes, is that:
In spite of all the unimaginable abuses perpetrated in our own time by the Communist Party of China, almost nobody speaks of China with an iota of the rage and disgust poured out daily against the West from inside the West … Authors who refuse to allow their books to be translated into Hebrew are thrilled to see them appear in China …
Race is now an issue in all Western countries in a way it has not been for decades. In place of colour blindness, we have been pushed into racial ultra-awareness. A deeply warped picture has now been painted. How did this happen, he asks? It did not happen by chance. It was brought about by radical movements in the name of emancipation. As he writes:
It is now over thirty years since the Reverend Jesse Jackson led a crowd of protestors at Stanford University with the chant “Hey ho, ho ho, Western Civ has got to go.” Back then, Rev. Jackson and his followers were protesting against Stanford University’s introductory program ‘Western Culture’ … What happened at Stanford in 1987 was a sign of everything to come.
He is attempting to reckon with that ‘everything’. We all need to do so. He begins with race, drawing attention to the disturbing emergence in the past few decades of anti-white racism, just as anti-black racism was receding. He describes it as part of an integrated strategy to denigrate the West. Such are the sensitivities around language now that the very word ‘denigrate’ might be deemed inappropriate, since it comes from the Latin for ‘blackened’.
The new race politics, Murray points out, derives from Critical Race Theory (CRT), which rejects empiricism and rationalism in favour of explicitly racial and racist ‘narratives’. It targets Western Civilisation and ‘whiteness’ for alleged ‘systemic’ and unforgiveable racism. His first chapter is a primer on how this baneful ideology got started in academia and then spread like a weed throughout Western societies. He introduces us to its primary theoreticians, their work and the consequences that have flowed from it.
A single passage crystallises how this ideology has taken root in America and elsewhere in the West. Murray writes, with reference to the fury that arose over the killing of George Floyd by Derek Chauvin (who has since been arrested, tried, convicted and imprisoned for it):
… much of the venom and fury that exists today in America, and in the West as a whole, now comes down to this one specific problem: that people have been shown a version of their society that is exaggerated at best and wildly off at worst …
Twenty-two percent of people who identified as ‘very liberal’ said they thought the police shot at least 10,000 unarmed black men in a year. Among self-identified liberals, fully 40 per cent thought the figure was between 1,000 and 10,000. The actual figure was somewhere around 10.
Anti-racism, was, in reality, rampant anti-whiteism.
By proportion of the population, unarmed black Americans were slightly more likely to be shot by police than unarmed white Americans. But as figures compiled by the Washington Post’s police shootings database confirm, in the years before the death of George Floyd, more police officers were killed by black Americans than unarmed black Americans were killed by the police.
This takes some absorbing. Especially when you consider that the Floyd killing led to waves of mass protest across not only America but the Western world and to suddenly mandatory pieties such as sporting teams ‘taking the knee’ before matches. Mass expressions of collective guilt and corporate reformism broke out—all based on a chimera.
Lest one think Murray is blind to a reality that transcends the data, or that he grossly misrepresents it, John McWhorter (pictured right), a brilliant scholar at Columbia University, where he teaches American studies, linguistics, and music history, has just published a book making the same case. Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black Americans is exclusively about race and woke agitation. It is a devastating indictment of a racist ideology running amok, not least among white Americans, in their moral and epistemological confusion.
Murray documents the riots and abuses committed in US cities by woke activists (Antifa and BLM chiefly) in the name of anti-racism, which was, in reality, rampant anti-whiteism. The vandalism and looting in cities such as Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington, which he describes in detail, and which he witnessed first hand, were reminiscent of the race riots of the 1960s, except that then there were things to riot about. What is surreal about the current movement is that it is so oblivious to empirical realities and so disdainful of rational discourse. This extended to calls to ‘defund the police’, which would be a seriously bad idea, unless you are a delusional anarchist.
There is a great deal more about how the woke ideology has been spreading and about its truly strange and openly racist anti-whiteness ideology. But I want to keep moving through his book, to convey something of the flavour of it, in the hope of encouraging many others to read it for themselves. Murray segues from race to history via a riff on China and the challenges with which it is now confronting the West. Here he centres on the ‘1619 Project’, espoused by, of all institutions, New York Times, in the late northern summer of 2019.
The 1619 Project, kick-started by a journalist called Nikole Hannah-Jones, asserted that 1619, the settlement by Puritans at Plymouth, rather than 1776, the Declaration of Independence from the British Crown, was the true founding date of America and that it was irredeemably tainted by slavery and racism. For this bald assertion, she was awarded a Pulitzer Prize.
As might be expected, this claim caused a certain amount of pushback. And in response, a number of strange things happened. Within a year of the project’s launch, Hannah-Jones herself claimed that she had never said what she had been saying since the launch. “The 1619 Project does not argue that 1619 is our true founding,” she claimed. Though it might be noted that her Twitter banner still had a picture of 1776 with that date crossed out and replaced by 1619. Still, she insisted that the only people who had made this claim about her project’s aims were “the right”. Yet there it was. Or there it had been. For as the controversy grew, the New York Times silently edited the web pages in question so that this especially inflammatory claim no longer appeared on them.
This leads into a long discussion of the teaching of history in a context in which those determined to uproot American and Western ‘whiteness’ seem all too often to have only the flimsiest grasp on the history that supposedly riles them.
Interested readers should also refer to Professor Bradley Bowden’s debunking of the 1619 Project’s historical and economic analysis—particularly the role of slavery— in his essay, ‘Abolition Was Exceptional’, in the Winter 2021 edition of the IPA Review.
Murray’s discussions, in his ‘History’ chapter, of American history, Frantz Fanon (The Wretched of the Earth, Black Skin, White Masks), Jean-Paul Sartre, and Edward Said (Orientalism), Cecil Rhodes, and Winston Churchill, as well as the treatment of Bruce Gilley and Nigel Biggar in recent years, are not to be missed. But his piece de resistance is his unpicking, in the following interlude, ‘Reparations’, of Ta-Nahisi Coates’s 15,000-word cover essay, in 2014, for The Atlantic, ‘The Case for Reparations’. As he cogently argues, the idea is intrinsically unworkable and a recipe for tearing apart any society that attempted it.
In his third chapter, ‘Religion’, Murray makes the point that, as Christianity has ebbed in the West as a belief system or way of life, it has come under unrelenting attack, while other religions have been accorded special protections. He asks why. In this context he draws explicitly on John McWhorter’s critique of woke anti-white racism as a new religion—complete with its doctrines of original sin (whiteness), judgement day (coming to terms with race), and persecution of heretics (social media shamings and cancellations).
Not only religion is under attack. Western philosophers—from Aristotle to Locke and Voltaire, Hume and Kant, even John Stuart Mill—are accused, on specious grounds, of being racists. Kant’s espousal of universal human rights is denounced by the woke crowd, Murray points out, as “deeply racist”.
Murray then makes one of his most deft and telling moves. He asks, what, then, about Marx and Engels? Their statues are not being toppled. On the contrary. Yet, as he shows in excoriating detail, Marx and Engels were far more explicitly and volubly racist than Aristotle, Locke, Voltaire, Hume, Kant, or Mill. He quotes Marx making derogatory remarks about negroes and Jews, Indians and Slavs. He cites him from his newspaper pieces and from his letters. He quotes him writing, in 1853, that the Balkans had “the misfortune to be inhabited by a conglomerate of different races and nationalities, of which it is hard to say which is the least fit for progress and Civilisation”.
Marx wrote of British rule in India:
The question is not whether the English had a right to conquer India, but whether we are to prefer India conquered by the Turk, by the Persian, by the Russian, to India conquered by the Briton.
Marx was clear that British conquest was the best, since the British laid “the material foundations of Western society in Asia” and that they were better than earlier conquerors, because they were “the first conquerors superior, and therefore, inaccessible to Hindoo Civilisation”. Moreover, Marx went so far (in 1847, well before the American Civil War) as to compare what he described as the good side of slavery with the bad side and defended it as vital to the development of North America:
Without slavery North America, the most progressive of countries, would be transformed into a patriarchal country. Wipe North America off the map of the world and you will have anarchy—the complete decay of modern commerce and Civilisation. Cause slavery to disappear and you will have wiped America off the map of nations.
Marx was in error in his economic analysis here, quite apart from his social and moral judgements. But he has never been hauled over the coals for any of this by those who denounce the theoreticians of universal human rights and freedom of speech, from Locke to Mill.
Why, asks Murray, have Marx and Engels not been roundly denounced and their statues toppled across the Western world? Because they are deemed part of the ‘resistance’—the empirical facts be damned. This is his core argument: not that the famous figures of Western history should somehow be immune from critical assessment, but that the standards of critique surely must be consistent, rational, and grounded in empirically verifiable evidence.
Another, more recent figure who is a founder of the ideological animus that drives the radical Left in our time is French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926–1984). Murray’s critique of him is damning, not least because at a time when so many people are being outed for real or alleged moral infractions, Foucault has somehow been allowed to get away with monstrous abuses that almost defy belief.
George Orwell would have laughed aloud in wonderment.
Murray goes on to catalogue the caving in of mainstream churches and even the scientific community in the face of woke racism. The reductio ad absurdum is the push to get ‘whiteness’ out of mathematics and to replace “Eurocentric mathematical knowledges” with “a decolonial, antiracist approach to mathematics education”. This includes ideologues actually asserting that 2+2=4 is merely part of a “hegemonic narrative”. Mathematics, in other words, is being targeted as a product of ‘white supremacy’. Orwell would have laughed aloud in wonderment.
In his second interlude, ‘Gratitude’, Murray makes use of Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of ressentiment—vengeful resentment—as a way of making sense of the sheer nihilistic destructiveness of this counter-cultural movement. Ressentiment seeks to bring down the higher, the nobler, the happier, the more successful, for no other reason than to assuage the pain of being inferior, unsuccessful, miserable, meaningless. It is the sick infecting the healthy. Murray sees the West as being at the apogee of its wealth, scientific discovery, peacefulness, compassion, and curation of a wonderful heritage—only to be assaulted from within by rancorous rebels. In his last chapter, ‘Culture’, he asks how it can be that Shakespeare is under attack, even within the Globe Theatre (the reconstruction of the original, in London), as somehow flawed because he was a “white cis-gender, heterosexual” Western male. Homer has started to get the same treatment.
The British Library compiled a list of authors suspected of alleged links with colonialism and slavery. Its first draft contained the names of 300 authors, including Oscar Wilde, Lord Byron, and George Orwell. One is reminded of the Vatican’s notorious Index Librorum Prohibitorum (Index of Prohibited Books), only abolished at the Second Vatican Council, in 1965.
All this is akin to Mao’s catastrophic Cultural Revolution in China. It is rooted in the nihilistic philosophical writings of mostly French thinkers such as Foucault and Louis Althusser, since the 1960s. Mao’s Cultural Revolution was an all-out assault on classical and bourgeois Chinese civilisation. Murray’s concern is that we are now facing a similar assault on Western Civilisation. It is not clear that he is wrong. His book is a modest contribution to pushing back against all this. So is John McWhorter’s Woke Racism.
We need to push back firmly, consistently, and constructively. We do not want civil strife. We want Western Civilisation—in its finest, modern flowering—and as the leaven in a global humanism.
Paul Monk’s first degree was a BA in European History. His PhD, 30 years ago, was in International Relations. He worked as an intelligence analyst for six years and as an applied cognitive science consultant for 17 years. His most recent book is Dictators and Dangerous Ideas (2018).