Review: The War on the West by Douglas Murray
Review by Martin Earnshaw
Douglas Murray’s latest book The War on the West: How to Prevail in the Age of Unreason may seem like yet another intervention in the Culture Wars; characterised by some as an interminable merry-go-round of confected outrage over vandalised statues and cancelled anthems. A review by Andrew Gimson at Conservative Home accuses Murray of exaggerating the impact of groups such as Black Lives Matter or the proponents of Critical Race Theory, suggesting that he is ‘flattering the loud and troublesome insects of the hour by writing a book about them’.
But even if you don’t agree with Murray’s underlying pessimism about mass immigration – even if you’ve been numbed into submission by the overabundant examples of cancelled art works, demonisation of white people, and attempts at reducing American or British history to slavery – what Murry’s book, polemical though it may be, amply demonstrates is that this topic really matters.
Murray thinks that talk about “woke” trivialises what he considers to be a no holds barred attack on the West itself; Western people, Western history and Western culture. This is illustrated by the problematisation of “Whiteness” which he documents extensively in his book. For Murray, since most of
the population of Europe and North America are white, an attack on “whiteness” is implicitly an attack on the West itself.
Further evidence of this is provided in his discussion of the 1619 project, an attempt by the New York Times to argue that the foundation of the USA can be traced back to the first black slave to arrive on North American shores rather than the Declaration of Independence. When challenged by historians the New York Times had to hastily backtrack, but evidence was not the point; it was to establish a kind of Original Sin of the West.
The murder of George Floyd was also rapidly framed in the terms of this Original Sin with all white people being framed as responsible. At its worst this kind of rhetoric can shade into the murderous. Murray cites a speech at Yale’s Child Study Centre called ‘The Psychopathic Problem of the White Mind’ in which the (black) speaker expressed their desire to shoot white people in the head as a response to microaggressions. Or it leads to perverse policy decisions that could lead to unnecessary loss of life.
For example, he discusses the case of the US CDC (Centre for Disease Control), which when deciding how to allocate Covid vaccines at the end of 2020, initially elected to vaccinate health workers first rather than elderly people, partly in the name of eliminating health inequalities, though it was pointed out that older people were more likely to be white. Underpinning Murray’s book is a sense that the racial divisions stirred up by the ‘cultural revolutionaries’ could result in serious and bloody conflict in decades to come.
In terms of attacks on Western history or culture, the method of the West’s critics is the same. Whether it be a statue of famous figures, a work of art or classical music; associate it with slavery or colonialism and then get it cancelled. Murray points out that a lot of the critics of Western works, educated though they may be, don’t know very much about culture, a point he illustrated in an interview when he related how the late Roger Scruton found that, in his later years, a lot of politicised work was being parachuted into undergraduate studies to teach basic philosophy.
However, if Murray is thorough in documenting a War on the West, he is less clear on who is waging it or why it is being waged. He mentions some prominent proponents of Critical Race Theory (CRT), and there is a general sense that universities are hotbeds of anti-westernism, but there is little attempt to place any of it in historical context.
He seems to prefer to frame it in terms of the well-worn trope of ‘Cultural Marxism’, evidenced by an obligatory attack on Marx himself, but none of this explains why everyone from CEOs to museum curators would go along with it. As he himself points out, those who castigate the West for colonialism and slavery are profoundly ignorant of both Western and non-Western history, so it is extraordinary that such flimsy arguments would be so influential.
In fact, the speed with which the cultural revolutionaries backtrack when caught out (as with the 1619 project) would indicate that it is the lack of conviction among the West’s cultural guardians that is the real problem.
He can also be a bit crude when assessing historical events such as slavery. He defends the Euro-American record on the slave trade by pointing out that the Arabs as well as the Africans themselves carried out slavery. But while this might be a corrective to the ignorant, the reason why American slavery is worth discussing is because, for better or worse, it played an important role in the development of the modern world as well as the struggle for rights that was necessary for its abolition. Arab slavery did neither of these things and therefore we generally don’t talk about it. By talking about the Arab slave trade, it reduces the question of slavery to one about who’s slavery was “worse”, rather than any broader historical issues.
Murray’s treatment of race as also controversial. Left wing critics of Murray have accused him of racism, in the case of this book because of his apparent defence of whiteness. It is easy to sympathise with his basic point that an attack on whiteness is an attack on Western culture when “whiteness” is lumped in with things like liberalism and capitalism, but Murray goes a step further.
When imagining how he would have responded to a question asked of a critic of Critical Race Theory on the Black News Channel “what do you like about being white” he rejects the ‘soft’ option given by the interviewee of rejecting the premises of the question and saying that we are part of a universal culture, in favour of listing all the things that “white western people” can be proud of. A review of The War on the West on currentaffairs.org cites this as final proof of Murray’s racism.
The issue here though, is less about Murray’s alleged racism but that his thought experiment, far from being the ‘hard’ option, as unsayable as it might be, betrays a certain defensiveness about the West and its universalism.
In his earlier book The Strange Death of Europe, Murray took issue with Bonnie Greer stating that the unique genius of Britain was to be able to absorb cultures. Murray took offense at this, suggesting that it means that Britain has no culture, but one could equally argue that it is a sign of strength not to have to signpost your customs. For example, as David Starkey once pointed out, England alone among European nations has no official national dress, precisely because England, through Britain, dominated the world and that was validation enough. There was no need to circle the wagons around English culture in the same way that conservatives do to the Western tradition today.
While Murray’s hypothetical defence of “white European peoples” is more of a warning about how some people might respond to attacks on “whiteness”, and so it’s wrong for the left to characterise him as a racist, he seems to be issuing a demand for minorities to “respect my culture”. This demand is articulated in his line, again issued as a hypothetical barb issued by some fictional white person fed up with professional race hustlers, “if you don’t respect my culture why should I respect yours?” Except that this is Murray’s own view. While it is wrong to characterise this as “Full Fash” like Novara Media does, it doesn’t speak to a confident outgoing belief in the West either.
In “The Strange Death of Europe” Murray was profoundly pessimistic about the future direction of the West. In contrast in this book, he is optimistic about the prospects of winning this current culture war.
The example Murray notes is the reaction against Critical Race Theory in American schools and the substantial backlash, which forced proponents to deny that CRT was being taught or that it was too complex for ordinary people to understand, betraying that the CRT proponents don’t believe they can win an argument with the pubic.
The real problem, however, is not winning arguments but the fact that bread and butter issues like the cost-of-living crisis can seem more immediate than Culture War issues that, being impacted by education and upbringing, can take at least a generation to work out. This situation will be exacerbated as our economic problems worsen. This indicates that the discussion of the culture war needs to be broadened out, for example drawing out how green criticisms of industrial society and economic growth are part of the attack on the West as well as the issues that preoccupy Murray.
It is also entirely possible that a particular manifestation of cultural extremism might be banished but that the underlying sense that the West is problematic will remain. Murray’s framing of “woke” as a systematic attack on the West is useful in underlining the importance of the culture war, but its diagnosis of how we got to this point is lacking.
Martin Earnshaw runs the Future Cities Project Readers Group
Douglas Murray’s “The War on the West: How to Prevail in the Age of Unreason” is available here.