The War on the West
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.
At first, this was hard to discern. Many of us sensed that something was wrong. We wondered why one-sided arguments kept being made and why unfair claims kept being leveled. But we did not realize the full scale of what was being attempted. Not least because even the language of ideas was corrupted. Words no longer meant what they had until recently meant.
People began to talk of “equality,” but they did not seem to care about equal rights. They talked of “anti-racism,” but they sounded deeply racist. They spoke of “justice,” but they seemed to mean “revenge.”
It is only in recent years, when the fruits of this movement have come into plain sight, that its scale has become clear. There is an assault going on against everything to do with the Western world—its past, present, and future. Part of that process is that we have become locked in a cycle of unending punishment. With no serious effort at (or even consideration for) its alleviation.
In the last decade, I grappled my own way toward understanding this. In 2017, with The Strange Death of Europe, I addressed one aspect of it, which was the changes brought about in the West by mass migration. It had seemed to me in the years when I covered the immigration question that something deeper was going on. As I stood on the shores of the Greek and Italian islands, watching the boats come in and mingling in the migrant camps that sprang up in major cities, I saw up close the consequences of the developing world moving into the developed world. I never blamed any migrant for wanting to make that journey. I had been to many of the countries from which the migrants were fleeing. Whether the migrants were fleeing war or (as in the majority of cases) economic deprivation, they were doing something that was very understandable. What I had a problem with was why the Europeans were allowing this to happen and why they were expected to abolish themselves in order to survive. People talked of Europe’s having a historic debt that legitimized this movement. But even those who argued this failed to address where the limit to this movement was.
Would there ever be a moment when this Western “debt” would be repaid? Because it seemed that every year the debt was not being paid down but was increasing.
I also began to notice that the same story was playing out across every country that counted as Western. In each of them, the justifications given for allowing this movement of people were the same, despite their very different geographical positions. The United States has for years had its own migration challenge, principally at its southern border. As I traveled throughout America, I heard the same arguments there as I heard back home in Britain and in Europe. A similar type of politician and other public figures kept explaining to the American people why their borders should be lax or entirely porous. As in Europe, there were powerful individuals and entities claiming that the only countries that were civilized were those that let the world in. It was the same in Canada. And it was the same on the other side of the world in Australia. Everywhere, societies that counted as “Western” (that is, European countries or countries descended from European civilization) experienced the same pattern of arguments. Nowhere that wasn’t Western got any such treatment.
Only the Western countries, spread across three continents, were told constantly that in order to have any legitimacy at all—to be even considered decent—they should swiftly and fundamentally alter their demographic makeup. The vision of the twenty-first century appeared to be that China would be allowed to remain China, the various countries of the Far and Middle East and Africa should be allowed—indeed expected—to remain as they were, or even return to something they may have once been. But the countries identifiable as the countries of “The West” were expected to become something else or lose all legitimacy. Of course, countries and states have the right to change. Over time a certain amount of change is inevitable. But there seemed something loaded in what was going on: something unbalanced and off-kilter. The arguments were being made not out of love for the countries in question but out of a barely disguised loathing for them. In the eyes of many people, not least within their own populations, these countries appeared to have done something wrong. Something for which they must atone. The West was the problem. The dissolving of the West was a solution.
There were other signs that something was amiss. In 2019, I tackled some of these in The Madness of Crowds. I addressed the challenge raised by “identity politics”—specifically the attempt to break down Western societies along lines of sex, sexuality, and race. After the twentieth century, national identity had become a shameful form of belonging, and all these other forms of belonging suddenly appeared in its place. Now people were being told to consider themselves as members of other specific groupings. They were gay or straight, men or women, black or white. These forms of belonging were also loaded to lean in an anti-Western direction. Gays were celebrated so long as they were “queer” and wanted to pull down all existing institutions. Gays who just wanted to get on with life or actually liked the Western world were sidelined. Likewise, so long as feminists were attacking “male structures,” Western capitalism, and much more, they were useful. Feminists who didn’t toe that line or thought they were comparatively well off in the West were treated as sellouts at best, enemies at worst.
The discourse on race grew even worse. Racial minorities who had integrated well in the West, contributed to the West, and were even admiring of the West were increasingly treated as though they were race traitors. As though another allegiance were expected of them. Radicals who wanted to tear everything down were venerated. Black Americans and others who wanted to celebrate the West and add to it were talked to and about as though they were apostates. Increasingly, they were the ones called all the worst names. Love of the society they were in was treated as a point against them.
At the same time, it had become unacceptable to talk about any other society in a remotely similar way. 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. Western consumers still buy their clothes cheap from China. There is no widespread attempt at a boycott. “Made in China” is not a badge of shame. Terrible things go on in that country right now, and still it is treated as normal. Authors who refuse to allow their books to be translated into Hebrew are thrilled to see them appear in China. While Chic-fil-A gets more heat for making its sandwiches at home than Nike does for making its sneakers in Chinese sweatshops.
Because in the developed West some different standard applies. With regard to women’s rights and sexual-minority rights, and, of course, in particular when it came to the issue of racism, everything was presented as though it had never been worse at the point at which it had never been better. Nobody could deny the scourge of racism—a scourge that is to be found in some form throughout recorded history. In-group–out-group trends are exceptionally strong in our species. We are not as developed as we might like to imagine we are. Yet, in recent decades, the situation in Western countries in regard to racial equality has been better than ever. Our societies have made an effort to get “beyond race,” led by the example of some remarkable men and women of every racial background, but most notably by some extraordinary black Americans. It was not inevitable that Western societies would develop, or even aspire to, the tradition of racial tolerance that we have.
It was not inevitable that we would end up living in societies that justly regard racism as among the most abhorrent sins. It happened because many brave men and women made the case, fought for that situation, and claimed their rights.
In recent years, it has come to sound as though that fight never happened. As though it was a mirage. 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. As though if the pendulum stays in a slight overcorrection for long enough, then equality can be more firmly established. By now, it is clear that however well intentioned such a belief may have been, it was wildly misguided. Race is now an issue in all Western countries in a way it has not been for decades. In the place of color blindness, we have been pushed into racial ultra-awareness. A deeply warped picture has now been painted.
Like all societies in history, all Western nations have racism in their histories. But that is not the only history of our countries. 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.
Though, once again, only in the Western past, thanks to the radical racial lenses that have been laid over everything. Terrible racism exists at present across Africa, expressed by black Africans against other black Africans. The Middle East and the Indian subcontinent are rife with racism. Travel anywhere in the Middle East—even to the “progressive” Gulf States—and you will see a modern caste system at work. There are the “higher class” racial groups who run these societies and benefit from them. And then there are the unprotected foreign workers flown in to work for them as an imported labor class. These people are looked down upon, mistreated, and even disposed of as though their lives were worthless. And in the world’s second most populated country, as anyone who has traveled through India will know, a caste system remains in vivid and appalling operation. This still goes all the way to regarding certain groups of people as “untouchable” for no reason but an accident of birth. It is a sickening system of prejudice, and it is very much alive.
Yet we hear very little about this. Instead, the world gets only a daily report on how the countries in the world that by any measure have the least racism, and where racism is most abhorred, are the homes of racism. This warped claim even has a final extension, which is that if other countries do have any racism, it must be because the West exported the vice to them. As though the non-Western world is always made up of Edenic innocents.
Here again, it is clear that some unfair ledger has been created. A ledger in which the West is treated by one set of standards and the rest of the world by another. A ledger in which it seems that the West can do no right and the rest of the world can do no wrong. Or do wrong only because we in the West made them do it.
These are just some of the symptoms that can be discerned in our time. Symptoms that I have tried to take one by one in recent years. But the more I have considered them and the further across our world that I have traveled, the clearer it has become that this era is defined by one thing above all—a civilizational shift that has been underway throughout our lifetimes. A shift that has been rocking the deep underpinnings of our societies because it is a war on everything in those societies.
A war on everything that has marked our societies out as unusual—even remarkable. A war on everything that the people who live in the West had, until very recently, taken for granted. If this war is to prove unsuccessful, then it will need to be exposed and pushed back against.
The War on the West is a book about what happens when one side in a cold war—the side of democracy, reason, rights, and universal principles—prematurely surrenders. Too often, we frame this fight all wrong. We allow it to be called temporary or on the fringe or merely dismiss it as a culture war. We misinterpret the aims of the participants or downplay the role it will have in the lives of future generations. Yet the stakes here are as high as any fight in the twentieth century, with many of the same principles involved—even with many of the same bad actors.
We have gone from appreciating and weighing up what is good about Western culture to saying that every part of it must be dismantled.
It is now over thirty years since the Reverend Jesse Jackson led a crowd of protestors at Stanford University with the chant “Hey hey, 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.” They proposed that there was something wrong with teaching the Western canon and the Western tradition. But it was what happened next that was so striking. The university swiftly gave in, replacing the study of “Western culture” with the study of many cultures. What happened at Stanford in 1987 was a sign of everything to come.
In the decades that followed, nearly all of academia in the Western world followed Stanford’s lead. The history of Western thought, art, philosophy, and culture became an ever less communicable subject. Indeed, it became something of an embarrassment: the product of a bunch of “dead white males,” to use just one of the charming monikers that entered the language.
Since then, every effort to keep alive, let alone revive, the teaching of Western civilization has met with sustained hostility, ridicule, and even violence. Academics who have sought to study Western nations in a neutral light have been prevented from doing their work and subjected to intimidation and defamation, including from colleagues. In Australia, the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, whose board is chaired by former prime minister John Howard, has tried to find universities to partner with so that students can study Western civilization. They have had great trouble finding any universities willing to work with them. And that tells us something about the speed of this great shift. Just a couple of decades ago, a course in the history of Western civilization was commonplace. Today it is so disreputable that you can’t pay universities to do it.
In 1969, the BBC ran Sir Kenneth Clark’s extraordinary thirteen-part documentary series Civilisation. It aimed to give a unified history of Western civilization, and it did so, informing the understanding of millions of viewers around the world. Almost fifty years later, in 2018, the BBC tried to follow this up. Civilisations (with an emphasis on the s) was a hodgepodge creation of three different historians, trying desperately to make sure that they didn’t sound as if they were saying the West was better than anywhere else and giving a sort of world history that made nothing very clear.
In a few short decades, the Western tradition has moved from being celebrated to being embarrassing and anachronistic and, finally, to being something shameful. It turned from a story meant to inspire people and nurture them in their lives into a story meant to shame people. And it wasn’t just the term “Western” that critics objected to. It was everything connected with it. Even “civilization” itself. As one of the gurus of modern racist “anti-racism,” Ibram X. Kendi, put it, “‘Civilization’ itself is often a polite euphemism for cultural racism.”1
Of course, some swing of the pendulum is inevitable and may even be desirable. There certainly have been times in the past when the history of the West has been taught as though it is a story of unabashed good. Historical criticism and rethinking are never a bad idea. However, the hunt for visible, tangible problems shouldn’t become a hunt for invisible, intangible problems. Especially not if they are carried out by dishonest people with the most extreme answers. If we allow malicious critics to misrepresent and hijack our past, then the future they plan off the back of this will not be harmonious. It will be hell.
Over the course of the book, I’m going to be exploring two key ideas. The first is that critics of Western civilization do provide alternatives. They venerate every culture so long as it is not Western. For instance, all native thought and cultural expression are to be celebrated, just so long as that native culture is not Western. This is the comparison they want us to make, so we will make it.
Two major problems come from celebrating all non-Western cultures. The first is that non-Western countries are able to get away with contemporary crimes as monstrous as anything that has happened in the Western past. A habit that some foreign powers encourage. After all, if the West is so preoccupied with denigrating itself, what time could it find to look at the rest of the world? But the other major problem is that it leads to a form of parochial internationalism, where Westerners mistakenly presume that aspects of the Western inheritance are common aspirations across the rest of the globe.
From Australia to Canada and America and throughout Europe, a new generation has imbibed the idea that aspects of the Western tradition (such as “human rights”) are a historical and global norm that have been rolled out everywhere. In time, it has come to seem that the Western tradition that evolved these norms has uniquely failed to live up to them and that non-Western “Indigenous” cultures are (among much else) purer and more enlightened than Western culture can ever be. These are not fringe views; nor are they new. They stretch back to the eighteenth century, at least. Today they permeate the work of best-selling authors such as Naomi Klein and Noam Chomsky. These views are taught in universities and schools across the Western world. And their results can be seen in almost every major cultural and political institution. They crop up in the most surprising places.
For instance, the “National Trust” in Britain is meant to exist to keep open many of the country’s most beautiful and expensive country houses. The Trust’s 5.6 million members tend to enjoy wandering around a stately mansion and then having a spot of afternoon tea. But in recent years, the Trust has decided it has another job: to educate its visitors about the horrors of the past. And not just connections to empire and the slave trade, homophobia, and the crimes of primogeniture. It has recently chosen to push the idea that the English countryside itself is racist and is (as the Trust’s program director calls it) a “Green Unpleasant Land.”
I select that one example, but you can select almost any area of life and find that it has been similarly denounced. Everything from art, mathematics, and music to gardening, sport, and food has been put through the same spin cycle. There are many curiosities in all this. Not the least of them is that while the West is assaulted for everything it has done wrong, it now gets no credit for having got anything right. In fact, these things—including the development of individual rights, religious liberty, and pluralism—are held against it.
This leads us to a second, deeper puzzle. Why open everything in the West to assault?
The culture that gave the world lifesaving advances in science, medicine, and a free market that has raised billions of people around the world out of poverty and offered the greatest flowering of thought anywhere in the world is interrogated through a lens of the deepest hostility and simplicity. The culture that produced Michelangelo, Leonardo, Bernini, and Bach is portrayed as if it has nothing relevant to say. New generations are taught this ignorant view of history. They are offered a story of the West’s failings without spending anything like a corresponding time on its glories.
Every schoolchild now knows about slavery. How many can describe without irony, cringing, or caveat the great gifts that the Western tradition has given to the world?
All aspects of the Western tradition now suffer the same attack. The Judeo-Christian tradition that formed a cornerstone of the Western tradition finds itself under particular assault and denigration. But so does the tradition of secularism and the Enlightenment, which produced a flourishing in politics, sciences, and the arts. And this has consequences. A new generation does not appear to understand even the most basic principles of free thought and free expression. Indeed, these are themselves portrayed as products of European Enlightenment and attacked by people who don’t understand how or why the West came to the settlements that it did over religion. Nor how the prioritizing of the scientific method allowed people around the world untold improvements in their lives. Instead, these inheritances are criticized as examples of Western arrogance, elitism, and undeserved superiority. As a result, everything connected with the Western tradition is being jettisoned. At education colleges in America, aspiring teachers have been given training seminars where they are taught that even the term “diversity of opinion” is “white supremacist bullshit.”2
This is not a history of the West and does not aim to be. Such a work would have to be many times this length. Nor do I wish to shut down the considerable debate that is going on at the moment. I enjoy that debate and think it helpful. But to date, it has been riotously one-sided. As we will see, it has involved politicians, academics, historians, and activists getting away with saying things that are not simply incorrect or injudicious but flat-out false. They have got away with it for far too long.
There are many facets to this war on the West. It is carried out across the media and airwaves, throughout the education system, from as early as preschool. It is rife within the wider culture, where all major cultural institutions are either coming under pressure or actually volunteering to distance themselves from their own past. And it now exists at the very top of the American government, where one of the first acts of the new administration was to issue an executive order calling for “equity” and the dismantling of what it called “systemic racism.”3 We appear to be in the process of killing the goose that has laid some very golden eggs.
Chapter 1: Race
Chapter 2: History
Chapter 3: Religion
Chapter 4: Culture
About the Author
Also by Douglas Murray
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|Epub||May 13, 2022|