Douglas Murray’s war on the west

The biggest threat to our values comes from militant nostalgists who want to impose a uniform narrative on history

May 24, 2022
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Chilling: Douglas Murray. Credit: Alamy
The War on the West
Douglas Murray (HarperCollins, £20)
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According to Douglas Murray, western history and culture are under threat from within. There is a new urge to revise our past with a focus on the more unpleasant details. Slavery, empire and their legacies, he says, are getting too much attention and this is creating a skewed version of who we are. Murray writes, somewhat startlingly, “when white people have to be ashamed of the culture that has produced them, almost anything can happen. And that is the situation into which we have slipped.”

The aim of this war on the west, Murray says, is to create a new story about the west—and because new, false. This distorted re-telling is designed to invert the glories of Europe and the US, turning civilisational triumphs, such as the advances of science and the enlightenment, into matters of shame. The shaming is, Murray writes, driven by a new cohort of writers and thinkers, most of them American, many of them obscure, who are under the influence of Critical Race Theory. Black Lives Matter has amplified both their message and impact.

In Murray’s view, these individuals, all of them left wing, “hold a pathological desire for destruction.” Their anti-western influence is spreading across religious, cultural and business institutions—even the National Trust—imbuing them with a crushing sense of guilt. As a result, “all major cultural institutions are either coming under pressure or actually volunteering to distance themselves from their own past.”

Murray sees “a strange pattern,” which he describes as “a willingness to celebrate and sanctify anything so long as it is not part of the western tradition, and to venerate anything else in the world, so long as it is not part of your own heritage.” As evidence, he points to the young Americans and Europeans who “travel the world to find the temples of the Far East, while failing to spend any time in the cathedrals on their own doorsteps.”

Murray succeeds in combining this somewhat high-temperature argument with a looming sense of racial threat. Take, for example, his remark that: “Demonisation of the west and of western people is now the only acceptable form of bigotry at international forums such as the United Nations.” See also: “To delegitimise the west, it appears to be necessary first to demonise the people who still make up the racial majority in the west. It is necessary to demonise white people.”

One of several possible objections to this argument is that if there is a war on western culture and white people, it doesn’t seem to have worked. Britain, for example, is still run by the same sort of people who’ve governed it for several hundred years—the prime minister being the latest example of that unbroken trend. We live in a liberal, free (-ish) market democracy and the electorate has rejected politicians who have proposed any significant changes to that set-up. And so it seems that the culture war that so terrifies Murray has had no effect of any significant kind.

That has not stopped the government from coming down firmly on Murray’s side. In 2021, Oliver Dowden, then secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport, “summoned” the heads of Britain’s largest heritage bodies for a telling off over their attitude to history. Dowden was especially displeased with the National Trust for research it had carried out into the life of Winston Churchill, which appeared to link him to the Bengal Famine of 1943. To associate Churchill with anything other than heroism is, it seems, beyond the pale. “It will surprise and disappoint people,” Dowden had previously said in the Telegraph, that the Trust had made Churchill “a subject of criticism and controversy.”

When, in 2020, the statue of Edward Colston was pulled down and thrown into Bristol harbour, Robert Jenrick, then the communities secretary, introduced legislation to protect historic monuments. Edward Colston, a 17th-century trader, had been involved in the enslavement of 80,000 African people. In a comment piece in the Sunday Telegraph, written in the aftermath of Colston’s toppling, Jenrick said he wanted to defend Britain from what he called “town hall militants and woke worthies,” who seemed to hold a “single, often negative narrative” about Britain and its past.

Britain’s cultural heritage is defended by powerful people including members of the government. The defence is formidable. So where is this threat coming from?

Murray’s answer is heavily slanted towards the US—and when you notice spellings in the book such as “color” and “labor” alongside dismissive references to someone as a “whack-job,” you begin to sense the target readership. He cites Michael Moore’s 2001 book Stupid White Men, and a work by the “obscure academic” Robin DiAngelo, titled White Fragility, as the originators of the drive to re-write the story of the west. Other culprits include Ibram X Kendi and Ta-Nehisi Coates. All of these writers are American. They are also the intellectual descendants of Derrick Bell, the legal theorist, Civil Rights campaigner and originator of Critical Race Theory, a body of thought that emerged in the 1970s. Bell’s central idea was that the law was incapable of delivering justice due to its structural racial unfairness.

In Murray’s view, Critical Race Theory amounts to an attack on “the principles of the enlightenment, the law, neutralism, rationalism, and the very foundations of the liberal order.” Well, he could be right—there may be people out there who want to do away with these things. Vladimir Putin, for instance. But again, if such subversive people do exist within western society itself, then they have failed completely. They seem to have had no effect whatsoever in even promoting their arguments, let alone winning them. If you were to ask one hundred people picked at random to define Critical Race Theory, most would never even have heard of it.

These arguments have bounced off British society leaving almost no trace, so that the fundamental character of Britain has hardly changed in a generation. British people wear poppies, enjoy films about Churchill and still broadly speaking like the country they live in, which is why they didn’t vote for Jeremy Corbyn. The left-wing culture warriors Murray identifies have fought, and lost.

What remains of the culture war then, is an empty shouting match that gives only the illusion of conflict. In one revealing moment, Murray worries that the reader might regard the war he describes as little more than a “set of culture warriors battling each other in the public square without much in the way of real-world repercussions.” In that moment, and for the only time in this book, Murray accurately describes his war on the west.

Which is not to say that there are no cultural disagreements or debates over history in Britain or the west. But the question is whether they are a sign of cultural weakness or strength. It is worth noting that the west has created a culture so vibrant and fruitful that millions of migrants are willing to risk their lives to get a piece of it. As Murray himself points out, there are no comparable flows of people into China. Or into Russia, for that matter. They all want to go west.

Such an attractive and successful culture has no reason to worry about disagreements or debates and certainly doesn’t need the extravagant and often overstated case that Murray makes on its behalf. So when, for example, he writes that the west is responsible for “almost every scientific advancement that the world now benefits from,” it is not culturally subversive to disagree and hand him all seven volumes of Ibn al-Haytham’s Book of Optics, an 11th-century work on the character of light that preceded Newton’s work by half a millennium.

Similarly, it does not denigrate our history to point out that Euclid’s Elements—the most influential mathematical work in history—only entered western civilisation because Adelard of Bath translated it from the Arabic in the 12th century, or to point out that Adelard’s translation introduced Arabic numerals into the west, the numerals that form our current number system. Or to point out that neither the 1 nor the 0 are western inventions and that without them, computer science would be a little different. It is not an act of cultural abasement to point these things out and nor should it be regarded as an act of cultural warfare. Simple honesty requires us to acknowledge such formative, non-western intellectual achievements. We can appreciate both “temples of the Far East” and “cathedrals” on our own doorstep at the same time.

Murray’s argument is based on the assumption that “the west” is a culturally discrete entity. But it isn’t. During the Cold War, the notion of “east vs west” made sense as a statement of geographic fact, and Putin’s war in Ukraine has reanimated the idea of “the west” as a unified military bloc. But trying to draw a cultural line around it is impossible. A common description of the west is that it is a set of moral beliefs and cultural norms that arose in Europe from Judeo-Christian roots and spread to the US and other European colonies during the age of discovery. That might even come close to a definition that Murray could accept. But the “Judeo-Christian” element reveals a deeper truth—that the foundations of western culture are densely entwined with forms of Asiatic mysticism that emerged from the Middle East. And so the notion of a clearly defined, culturally distinct, “west” begins to dissolve.

Along the way, Murray does make some good points—in an age when historic figures are being reappraised, one individual surely ripe for cancellation is Karl Marx, whose correspondence reveals him as a truly foul racist. Murray’s description of the Tate’s decision to close a restaurant due to a Rex Whistler mural that includes an enslaved boy also makes for uncomfortable reading. Future generations will perhaps not look so kindly on the Tate’s decision.

But none of Murray’s examples can be said to constitute a war. And despite the lack of any real cultural upheaval, the culture wars rage on, in government, and in the pages of books such as this, arguing the case for what Simon Schama has called “militant nostalgia.” In this view, the past is not up for debate. The west has won and will write a winning history for itself. To raise any objection is to be anti-western and therefore anti-white and therefore the enemy.

So how can such a culture war end? The logic of Murray’s argument pushes us towards an unsettling conclusion. The end can only arrive when everyone has accepted a single, authorised version of history. The implications of that are chilling—and counter to pretty much every western value there is. Murray’s book rages and seethes as it hunts for the culprits who are weakening the west, unaware that the most dangerous and divisive argument of all is his own.