The War on the West: How to Prevail in the Age of Unreason by Douglas Murray
This author makes, in his introduction, a number of preposterous claims. Here is his opening paragraph:
“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.”
How can Douglas Murray suggest that this “war”, as he terms it, has only “in recent years” become apparent?
At pretty much any time one cares to name in recent centuries, conservatives have feared that tradition is in danger both from barbarian invaders, and from reformers within the gates who wish to sweep away all we have built, and erect a glittering new edifice in which their reign of virtue can begin.
The French Revolutionaries promised this. Various varieties of Communist promised it. In the 1960s, rebellious students and satirists set out to subvert every traditional source of authority.
In order to justify his hysterical tone, Murray goes in search of enemies who today pose a mortal threat. By page four he has found the Communist Party of China, and complains:
“almost nobody speaks of China with an iota of the rage and disgust poured out daily against the West from inside the West.”
That is true, and this reviewer would not wish for one moment to downplay the horrors perpetrated by China. But the same double standard was applied by many in the West to the Soviet Union.
The problem is not new, and working out what to do about it, or how to contain it, is the work of decades, perhaps of centuries.
But Murray’s fiercest argument is with those inside the West who wish to debilitate the West. In 2017, he recalls, he brought out The Strange Death of Europe, in which (as he says in the volume under review) he asked why the Europeans have allowed mass migration, “and why they were expected to abolish themselves in order to survive”.
According to Murray, only Western countries “were told constantly that in order to have any legitimacy at all…they should swiftly and fundamentally alter their demographic makeup”.
That is a gross over-simplification. In pretty much every Western country, there have been big arguments about immigration. In Australia, the United States, Britain, Germany, Italy, pretty much anywhere one cares to name, politicians have come to realise they will only possess legitimacy if they avert unrestricted immigration.
Africans are at this moment suffering in abominable camps in Libya because the European Union has devised ways to stop them crossing the Mediterranean.
A further paradox, untouched on by Murray, is that many British politicians of immigrant descent – one thinks of such figures as Kwasi Kwarteng, Rishi Sunak, Suella Braverman, Priti Patel and Kemi Badenoch – express conservative opinions with wonderful gusto.
If Enoch Powell were still alive, he would perhaps concede that the British nation and British political tradition have proved more adaptable, and durable, than he had feared.
Where does Brexit fit in Murray’s narrative of a war on the West? He ignores that question and is instead indignant that “we have been pushed into racial hyper-awareness”:
“In recent years, I have come to think of racial issues in the West as being like a pendulum that has swung past the point of correction and into overcorrection.”
“Racism is not the sole lens through which our societies can be understood, and yet it is increasingly the only lens used. Everything in the past is seen as racist, and so everything in the past is tainted.”
Is this really true, or is the pendulum already swinging back against such a simplistic reading of history? On one of my regular walks I pass a house, on a leafy slope on the Highgate side of Hampstead Heath, in the window of which for some months I was faintly irritated to see a hand-written sign which said “SILENCE IS VIOLENCE”.
The sign has now been taken down. I accept that this does not amount to conclusive proof that the moral panic which swept at hurricane force across Britain as well as America after the murder of George Floyd has blown itself out.
But things have died down a bit. No more statues have been thrown into Bristol harbour. Churchill still stands in Parliament Square, his plinth at present unsullied by accusations that he was a racist.
On page 126 of his book, Murray alludes to a Policy Exchange pamphlet in which Andrew Roberts and Zewditu Gebreyohanes rebutted the slurs cast at Churchill in February 2021 during a panel discussion at Churchill College, Cambridge.
So the pendulum does still swing, and contentions which for a short time have held sway are exposed to criticism, and cease to be quite so fashionable. It turns out to be possible to disapprove in the strongest terms of racism, without supposing it offers a complete interpretation of the past.
Gebreyohanes has just become Director of Restore Trust, an organisation set up, as she explained in a piece for The Times, to return the National Trust to its founding values and objectives.
Murray is in grave need of opponents, and inclined to magnify their importance. Many of those he finds are in the United States. He digs up Noam Chomsky and Naomi Klein, both of whom used to be more influential than they are now, and various other figures who may or may not become influential.
Karl Marx is dug up too, and we are reminded of some of that thinker’s today unacceptable views on race. Murray remarks ruefully that although the bust of Marx in Highgate Cemetery has from time to time been daubed in red paint, there have been “no online petitions or crowd efforts to pull it down and kick it into a nearby river”.
There is actually no river nearby, and to kick this colossal bust anywhere would be a difficult task, liable to end in many stubbed toes.
Marx, however, suffers what is in some ways a greater humiliation. He is ridiculed, or treated as a mere curiosity. If one does not wish to pay to enter the cemetery, one can see him through the railings on the southern edge of Waterlow Park, at a distance which reduces the bust to an acceptable size.
That is how the British public has long been inclined to deal with intellectuals who take themselves too seriously: it peers through the railings and laughs at them.
It seldom occurs to Murray that the best way to deal with fashionable absurdities is to laugh at them, and to trust to the good sense and conservatism of the wider public. Edmund Burke (absent from this book) put the point with genius in his Reflections on the Revolution in France:
“Because half a dozen grasshoppers under a fern make the field ring with their importunate chink, whilst thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak, chew the cud and are silent, pray do not imagine that those who make the noise are the only inhabitants of the field; that, of course, they are many in number; or that, after all, they are other than the little, shrivelled, meagre, hopping, though loud and troublesome, insects of the hour.”
Murray has flattered the loud and troublesome insects of the hour by writing a whole book about them.
Since this ill-titled volume went to press, Vladimir Putin has ordered the invasion of Ukraine. There the true war on the West is being waged. The Ukrainians’ fight for freedom reminds us how trivial most of the pseudo-war recounted in this book really is.