By Jonathon Van Maren
In The War on the West, Douglas Murray continues the analysis of the scleroses that grips our civilization that he began in The Strange Death of Europe (2017) and The Madness of Crowds (I interviewed him about that book here). The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated many of the trends he grappled with in his previous two books, and The War on the West tackles the same subjects—race, gender, identity—but through the lens of the culture wars that have convulsed both campuses and cities over the past three years. Watching all of this unfold in real time can be bewildering—like watching a loud, flickering TV screen with pictures flashing by. The War on the West snaps everything into focus.
The key strength of this book—and why it is worth reading—is that it pulls together all the insanity of the past several years and assembles it into a narrative that makes it all understandable. As Andrew Sullivan noted, reading it made him feel more sane. We’ve been treated to near-daily stories of the latest attack on “whiteness,” or classical music, or Shakespeare, or some other founding figure of the Western tradition—eventually, it all gets exhausting and most of us just tune it out. Murray connects the dots, lays out the patterns, and gives coherence to what has become the dull background roar of the culture wars.
That said, it is a bit staggering to have so much of our recent collective insanity in one place. Murray examines, in painful detail, the “new racism”—as academics, Black Lives Matter activists, and a laundry list of other revolutionary sorts ascribe every possible negative characteristic to “whiteness.” It is not that white people (like people of every race and ethnic background) have done nothing wrong. It is that white people are now being portrayed as incapable of doing anything right—that their identity is, somehow, a congenital defect that requires lifelong and public repentance. Many of Murray’s citations are actually shocking—the “new racists” often sound identical to the old racists.
Murray’s chapter on history is particularly interesting. He dismantles the 1619 Project—largely reviewing the work of historians who have consistently shredded the ahistorical ideological hit job on the American project and highlighting the running series of retractions and about-faces done by the project’s architects—but also makes an essential point about historical ignorance. Because so many people know so little about their own history, he notes, this ignorance has created a vacuum that allows bad faith actors to get very far, very fast. A majority of millennials don’t even know about the Holocaust. Imagine what ideologues attempting to recast the history of Western civilization could do in that environment?
We don’t have to imagine it. Murray highlights many egregious examples of Western figures being torn down, and some of them are genuinely rage-inducing, like the artist Rex Whistler who died in the Second World War fighting Nazism now being damned as a racist by hucksters getting in on the lucrative race wars. One in particular stood out to me. Murray writes that Edward Said—the academic who coined the term “Orientalism” and became famous for making the painfully obvious observation that Westerners viewed other peoples through Western eyes—once theorized that Jane Austen supported the slave trade. Said based this attack on a single reference in Mansfield Park that actually indicates a sympathy with abolitionism (as, it must be noted, does another mention in Emma.)
In fact, it was recently discovered that the Austens had a connection to the abolitionist movement. Her brother, Henry Austen, was one of two delegates to the famed 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention from Colchester. Another brother, Francis Austen, noted in his diary that it was regrettable that slavery “should be found to exist in countries dependent on England or colonized by her subjects.” Jane Austen herself noted in private letters that she loved the work of Thomas Clarkson, one of Great Britain’s greatest abolitionists whose involvement in the cause predated William Wilberforce. To infer from a single quote in Mansfield Park that Austen was a supporter of the slave trade is not just to fail at literary criticism—it is to sloppily (and one suspects intentionally) slander someone who believed precisely the opposite for personal gain. These grifters built a reputation by smearing others.
When it comes to history, context is key. It is true that great injustices have been perpetrated. It is also true that great goods have been done. How can we discuss Britain’s crimes in the slave trade without also discussing the fact that they committed to enormous economic sacrifice to purge this crime not only from their territories, but everywhere? Britain’s navies pursued slavers across the high seas, but to listen to the new racists, we are only permitted to remember the Middle Passage—but not the West Africa Squadron, which tracked down slave ships and freed their captives. We must remember the crimes of the Confederacy, but not the hundreds of thousands who died to end the evil plaguing the United States. Only guilt is permitted—no celebration.
What we are witnessing, Murray writes, is an attack on the twin pillars of the West—Jerusalem and Athens. Christianity is particularly despised although, as Tom Holland noted in his magisterial history Dominion, the very concepts underlying wokeness would not be possible without it. We are seeing the formation of a new religion in which there is no forgiveness or redemption, only a never-ending public purgatory. The truth is that for the new racists (who call themselves “anti-racist,” of course) and Marxists and Antifa (there’s a lot of overlap there), the old order must be burned down. Murray supplies a laundry list of quotations to highlight this prevailing belief. Those making demands of the West are not asking for reform, because they do not believe the West is simply flawed—it is fatally flawed, and thus cannot be reformed.
I’ll confess that after several chapters detailing the sheer stupidity and incoherence of the iconoclasts, I found myself exhausted by it all. Really? Shakespeare? Just as I was wondering if these folks were simply morons who could safely be ignored, Murray addressed the point directly. These things start on campus, he noted, and then spill out—and eventually swamp—the culture. That’s how fringe ideologies from obscure departments end up conquering everything from corporate boards to nearly every left-of-centre political party—not to mention mainline Protestantism and an unhealthy segment of the Catholic clergy. When I attended Simon Fraser University, I remember radical student groups hosting a transgender display on campus. Even pro-gay students were sniggering at the cross-dressing. Nobody is sniggering anymore, and the eunuchs are running the show. Campuses aren’t contained, and thus we must care.
The attacks of Marxist types are more egregious in context. Hume, Kant, John Locke, Voltaire—all have been damned for the most dubious connections to the sins of slavery or empire. Aristotle was condemned two and a half thousand years after his death because Charles Murray cited him as his favorite philosopher. But Karl Marx himself—who used the n-word in letters to Engels, exhibited a vile anti-Semitism both privately and publicly, and was on the wrong side of the slavery question—gets a pass, despite being consistently and egregiously wrong. He was a racist and anti-Semite, but despite what he might have thought of the leaders of Black Lives Matter, the “anti-racists” aren’t trying to cancel him. There’s also Michel Foucault, one of the most cited academics of our time and one of the founders of critical theory and “wokeness.” The recent discovery that he had a habit of raping non-white boys on the gravestones of a Tunisian cemetery came and went without damaging his reputation.
That is how we know that those attacking the West are bad faith actors—because those who are useful in undermining and destroying it get a pass, even for racism and pedophilia. It is hard to stomach the statue-smashing and demands of past perfection from revolutionaries and moral midgets while they butcher the unborn and advocate sex changes to children. We know what sort of world they want us to inhabit, and we are half in it already. That should be enough to terrify us into action.
In the gutsiest section of The War on the West, Murray simply abandons caution. After recounting the slanders leveled against the West for scores of pages, he decides to answer the question: What’s so great about being “white”? And so he defends the West: the glories of her great men and women, her artists and poets, the advances in medicine (which have come primarily from the West), of democracy, and on and on. After so many pages of small-minded sniping from progressives attempting to saw off the branch they are sitting on, Murray’s defence is pure catharsis. If the West is as awful as her critics claim, he asks, then what do we make of the great, resounding roar of footfalls—all heading in one direction as men, women, and children of all cultures walk, run, float and flee towards the West seeking a new and better life?
They are seeking, Murray declares, a better civilization. This is not machismo on his part. It is a badly-needed rejection of masochism.
Murray ends with the same warning he laid out in The Strange Death of Europe. If you insist on telling people that “whiteness” is toxic; if you persist in telling them that they are irredeemable; in mocking their culture; in berating them for who they are—you may eventually provoke a backlash. If you insist on despising a people’s entire ancestry and inheritance, you run the risk that, once they realize that no apology or recognition of historical wrongdoing or right-speak will make any difference, that they will tire of masochism and decide that the only way out of this game is to return the favor and to despise your inheritance and ancestors, too. If the New Testament’s call for forgiveness is rejected, the Old Testament’s “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” will be embraced. In that direction lies blood and grief.
Murray concludes with a call for both détente and defence. But here we are left with a question. Beyond a robust defence of the West’s accomplishments, how can we defend her Christian foundation? Increasingly, as I’ve noted before, agnostics such as Murray are grappling with the tension between their admiration of the fruits of Christendom and their disbelief. But I believe that Paul Kingsnorth is correct—that believing Christianity is good will not be enough. In order to defend civilization, we must believe that it is true. The war on the West is, in many ways, a religious war, and we will need a muscular faith to rebuild the civilization that the new pagans have already nearly destroyed.