Bruce Bawer is a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
The West is going to hell in a handbasket, but Douglas Murray – who excels at anatomizing the whole sad situation – is definitely on a roll. In The Strange Death of Europe (2017), he powerfully indicted the political, cultural, and media elites who bear responsibility for the ongoing Islamization of Europe; in The Madness of Crowds (2019), he brilliantly dissected the left’s increasing – and toxic – fixation on identity groups. Now, in The War on the West, he steps back and takes in the big picture of this “age of unreason” (as he calls it in his subtitle), devoting the book’s seven sections – four chapters and three “interludes” – to the topics that, in recent years, have been most resistant to rational public discussion.
Heading the list of topics, of course, is race. Murray recalls a 2016 debate at which General John Allen, the former NATO commander in Afghanistan, gave a deeply informed and technically sophisticated presentation about military strategy only to have his input dismissed wholesale by his opposite number, a Palestinian activist, on the grounds that he was white. Allen admitted to being stunned: he’d never before taken part in a public exchange with someone who patently felt that, in order to discredit his remarks, it was not necessary to challenge his facts or his logic but sufficient simply to point out his skin color.
Alas, such rhetorical moves have become ubiquitous – and far more vicious. (Murray quotes Priyamvada Gopal, a Cambridge University fellow who confesses that she has to “resist urges to kneecap white men every day.”) Indeed, the very idea of vigorous debate between people with different points of view has fallen into disfavor among more and more young people who’ve been indoctrinated into a set of far-left ideologies – the first among them being Critical Race Theory – that will not brook dissent. In this era of totalitarian-minded mediocrities like Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo, whiteness is an offense for which one can never apologize enough, blackness a sign of virtue and victimhood that can excuse anything, race a subject that we are all morally obliged to place at the center of absolutely every discussion, and CRT a new gospel whose preachers seek nothing less than to reorder our very understanding of human nature, society, truth, and justice.
At the root of CRT is a blanket demonization of white people, whereby a way must always be found to blame every atrocity in human history (no matter who actually committed it) on white people, and, by the same token, to deny the responsibility of non-white actors for their own offenses, however egregious. Facts are scattered to the winds: murders of black Americans by other black Americans may vastly outnumber the unjustified killings of innocent blacks by white police officers, and the black-on-white crime statistics may dwarf the white-on-black stats, but in the post-George Floyd world of CRT the only acceptable way of approaching these phenomena is to turn a blind eye to black crimes (or to find some roundabout way to blame them on whites) while pretending that white cops, and white Americans generally, are on the warpath against blacks.
Part and parcel of CRT is the notion that all whites – from John Brown and Helen Keller to Anne Frank and Barack Obama’s Kansas grandparents – are and ever have been motivated by a mindset called “white supremacy,” which, we are told, infects even white babies as well as blacks like Larry Elder who, because they reject CRT, can only be reckoned as the “black faces of white supremacy.” CRT requires that every corner of Western society be probed for racism, and every Western cultural artifact – from hundred-year-old murals to Shakespearean plays – be put to the test and, if found wanting by the standards of woke America, canceled. It’s CRT, moreover, that made possible a crime whose consequences Murray witnessed in 2020 in Portland, Oregon. In that city, where young white people rioted for months in the name of racial justice, “someone…fired live rounds of ammunition” through the windows of a restaurant owned by “a proud black American patriot” who’d decorated its walls with posters of first responders – his crime, obviously, being that he refused to reduce himself to a racial category or consider himself a helpless victim.
Why demonize whites? Because whites are the native peoples of Europe, the cradle of the West – and thus, in the view of today’s woke left, the fount of all earthly evil. As Murray proceeds through the other sections of his book and discusses topics other than race on which the woke left has established new orthodoxies from the ground up, the unifying fact throughout is an intense, irrational hatred of the West. He examines, for instance, the leftist refusal “to see the whole of history through a single lens,” which enables them, in defiance of all reality, to regard “America as uniquely racist and China as uniquely virtuous.” (Murray even dares, to his great credit, to question the now-reflexive view of the British Empire as completely evil by noting that, among much else, decolonization cut the life expectancy in Zimbabwe almost in half and turned Uganda from a net food exporter into a country unable to feed itself.)
A major reason why young people can so easily be talked into hating the West, underscores Murray, is that they’re fed highly selective and distorted pictures of the past. Claptrap like the New York Times’s 1619 Project tells them that racism and slavery were at the very root of the founding of America and that America is unexampled in this regard, and renders this argument plausible by stripping the history of slavery in America of any context – such as the millions of Africans enslaved by Arabs over many centuries, the roughly one million Europeans enslaved by Barbary pirates between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the countless slaves held to this day in countries like Ghana. Murray notes a 2016 study showing that 70% of young Brits didn’t know who Mao was – which must mean that they’re unaware that Mao’s death toll is in the tens of millions.
Then again, there are people who do know their history but who, for ideological reasons, inflate the offenses of Westerners while whitewashing those of non-Westerners. Murray cites Professor Kehinde Andrews, a Black Studies scholar who has said that the British Empire was “far worse than the Nazis,” and Labour politician John McDonnell, who has praised Mao (despite his eight-digit death toll) while condemning Churchill as a “villain” (because of one Welsh miner killed in a clash with the police while Churchill was home secretary). In one of the most arresting parts of his book, Murray cogently establishes that the Western practice of praising other cultures while vilifying one’s own has a long and impressive pedigree that includes such worthies as Voltaire, Montaigne, and Rousseau.
“[T]he West,” writes Murray, “is now willing to protect and revere almost any holy places, so long as they are not its own.” He notes the Western media’s very different treatment of Koran burnings and Bible burnings, and the eagerness of young Western backpackers to seek out “the temples of the Far East, while failing to spend any time in the cathedrals on their own doorsteps.” And then there are the contemporary Christian leaders who are pathetically eager to blast their own churches as racist while pretending that Islam, say, is without stain. Take the groveling post-Floyd apology by Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby (the sniveling worm who puts the prick in archbishopric) for the “institutional racism” of the Anglican Church: “I am sorry and ashamed,” simpered Welby. “I’m ashamed of our history and I’m ashamed of our failure.”
For insight into the psychology of those who respond with contempt to the great unearned gift of life in the West, Murray turns to Nietzsche’s description of the ressentiment (resentment) that, flourishing in his time, Nietzsche said, especially “among anarchists and anti-Semites,” sanctified “revenge with the term justice” and sought, in Murray’s words, “to turn happy people into unhappy people like themselves” in order (Nietzsche again) to “anesthetize pain through emotion.” It’s almost as if Nietzsche had traveled in time to Portland in the summer of 2020 and beheld the mobs of free, prosperous young Americans who whipped themselves night after night into a meaningless frenzy against imagined enemies. As Murray puts it, underlying all the grand rhetoric about equality, equity, and social justice is “a pathological desire for destruction” on the part of people who are chronically incapable of showing gratitude for the civilizational glories they’ve inherited.
In his conclusion, Murray mentions a May 2021 interview in which academic race hustler Marc Lamont Hill tried to get CRT critic Christopher Rufo to say something positive about being white. Rufo replied that he prefers to think of himself as an individual and not a member of a race group. But Murray, quite bravely, takes up the challenge, stating that white people are lucky to have been “born into a tradition that has given the world a disproportionate number, if not most, of the things that the world currently benefits from,” including nearly every medical and scientific advancement, free-market capitalism, international commerce, representative government, civil rights, and Western art and culture. No other civilization is as interested as the West is in investigating, reviving, and learning from other civilizations; no other civilization encourages criticism of itself. There’s a reason, he emphasizes, why today’s immigration flows in one direction: toward the West. One good thing you can say about non-Westerners is that they, at least, get why the West is best – whereas in the woke West such talk is verboten. As Douglas Murray makes clear by the end of this gripping jeremiad, that had better change, or we won’t stay best for long.