There are few more trenchant, fearless, and necessary cultural critics than Melanie Phillips. A columnist for London’s Daily Mail and winner of the 1996 Orwell Prize for journalism, she is the author of a number of books, most notably the brilliant _Londonistan_ (2006), which chronicled the cultural decay that paved the way for England to become the epicenter of “Eurabia.”
Now her wide-ranging new book, _The World Turned Upside Down_, provocatively subtitled “The Global Battle Over God, Truth, and Power,” chronicles how the West has moved from the Enlightenment to the Age of Unreason, when rationality and truth have given way to ideology and propaganda. “Power,” she writes, “has now hijacked truth and made it subservient to its own ends. The result is a world turned upside down.”
I was honored to meet Melanie Phillips at her speaking engagement Monday at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons Hotel, and she graciously agreed to an interview.
MT: Ms. Phillips, you begin your new book by saying that on diverse issues ranging from Princess Diana to the war in Iraq to global warming, “society seems to be in the grip of a mass derangement.” What made you suspect that these random issues might be connected, and what explanation did you find for this phenomenon?
MP: Over many years, I wrote about a number of controversial issues which appeared to be all different from each other – ‘child-centered’ education theory, the consequences of divorce and lone parenthood, immigration, multiculturalism, minority rights, man-made global warming, the war in Iraq, Israel and the origin of the universe. Because they were all so disparate, it took me some time to realize that they had a couple of big things in common. They were fundamentally anti-west (yes, even the militant atheists who were after all gunning for the core beliefs of western civilization). And they were all issues on which, in the progressive circles that controlled public discourse, only one point of view was permitted. All dissent was mocked, vilified, and treated as totally beyond the pale. But since that dissent very often consisted of stating the facts in the face of ideology, prejudice or even – as with the deranged and obsessional hysteria against Israel – genocidal bigotry, reason itself along with the defense of life and liberty seemed to be turning into truths that dared not speak their name.
Please don’t mistake me – I’m not saying that there aren’t legitimate differences of opinion on such issues. But what I’m talking about goes beyond genuine disagreement. I’m talking about the sheer impossibility of bringing facts and evidence to the table, as it were, because the ‘progressives’ hold that there simply cannot be any alternative to their ‘received truth’. They are in short impervious to reason, so that those who try to inject some evidence or alternative ways of thinking into the debate are demonized as evil or insane. These ideologies rest very often upon distortions, fabrications and lies, and yet intimidate opposition into silence. And that’s very frightening. It’s a totalitarian mindset.
At the same time, I also noticed that society seemed to be becoming generally more and more irrational. Emotion was increasingly taking the place of reason. There were displays of mass hysteria, as seen on the streets of Britain with the death of Princess Diana when epidemic ‘grief’ over someone no one knew other than through her carefully manipulated (and distorted) media image created an ugly mood that even threatened the monarchy itself. A very similar mass irrationality around a cult of personality onto whom people projected their hopes and fears took hold in America, when Barack Obama gained the Presidency having been portrayed, literally, as a second Jesus Christ – and during a campaign in which the copious evidence of his extremist background and associations was simply air-brushed out of the picture.
In addition, more and more people were subscribing to a range of weird and wacky beliefs, superstitions and cults, ranging from parapsychology, séances and ‘healing’ crystals to bizarre conspiracy theories involving the US government, UFOs and – almost invariably – the Jews.
I came to the conclusion that these apparently disparate issues and phenomena were intimately connected. Western society – particularly in Britain, but many of these trends were also on display in the US and other western countries – was just losing the plot wholesale. It seemed to be experiencing a wholesale repudiation of reason and progress, and was moving backwards into a darker, pre-modern pattern of anti-enlightenment and bigotry.
This was particularly striking, since western society tells itself that it is the very acme of reason – so much so that, particularly in Britain, progressives dismiss organized religion as just so much irrational mumbo-jumbo which stands in opposition to science, human rights and modernity. Yet these very people want to return the west to some pre-industrial nirvana of mud huts and communal living in order to ‘save the planet’, take the side of jihadists who want to destroy human rights, and mount a kind of secular inquisition to destroy the careers and reputations of those who dare assert scientific evidence against ideological dogma.
I came eventually to the conclusion that, far from ushering in an age of perfect reason, equality and human rights, the secular onslaught against the Judeo-Christian heritage had seriously undermined rationality, the equal dignity of all human beings and their human rights. And indeed – curious as this may seem – at the very core of all these civilization-busting ideologies lies an animus against Jews, the religious codes of Judaism or the right to national self-realization of the Jewish people.
MT: You write that ordinary people seem to be more connected to reality, and that it is the intelligentsia who seem to be taking the most irrational and intolerant positions. What do you think accounts for this divide?
MP: On the issues of the day, it is the intelligentsia that sets the tone and content of the debate – and it’s the intelligentsia where the most irrational and bigoted views on these issues are to be found. That’s because the core of this phenomenon is the replacement of truth by ideology. Rather than following the evidence to arrive at a conclusion, ideology wrenches facts to fit a prior governing idea. Ideology is thus intrinsically inimical to both truth and reason.
It is the intelligentsia which is attracted to ideology – or the dogma of a governing idea. Non-intellectual people have little time for the rarefied world of theorizing, being generally too preoccupied with the daily grind of making a living. It is the universities where the ideologies of moral and cultural relativism and post modernism took an axe to the concepts of morality and objective truth; and so it is the intellectual classes – the supposed custodians of reason – who have turned into the destroyers of reason.
Moreover, the most highly educated are often the most high-minded. They therefore tend to be drawn towards theories promising utopia. But utopia never arrives. So frustrated utopians invariably create scapegoats upon whom to take out their anger. Hence the various secular inquisitions.
So the failure of the environmental vision of spiritual one-ness between man and nature has seen mankind blamed for despoiling the planet and imperiling the survival of life on earth. The failure to arrive at a perfect state of reason in which all injustice and suffering are ended has been blamed on religious believers. The failure of the apparatus of international law and human rights to prevent war and tyranny has been blamed on America. And the failure of the existence of Israel to bring about the end of ‘the Jewish problem’ has been blamed on those same Jews for its continuation.
MT: Speaking of “the Jewish problem,” you write at length about Jew-hatred in the book. Why is that so central to your argument?
MP: It’s important for two main reasons. First, because in our supposed ‘age of reason’ it is dismaying, to say the least, that open Jew-hatred has now become an apparently unexceptionable part of respectable discourse. Second, because the extraordinary conclusion I came to was that ideologies which would seem to have no connection at all to the Israel issue – such as environmentalism, moral relativism or scientism, for heaven’s sake – all turn out, when you scratch the surface, to have at their core a hatred of Judaism, Jewish moral precepts or Jewish peoplehood.
In other words, you can’t really understand the suicidal culture wars the west is waging against itself unless you understand the current eruption of Jew-hatred; and you can’t understand the current eruption of Jew-hatred unless you understand the suicidal culture wars the west is waging against itself.
MT: You note that the Enlightenment, which sought to sweep away all the problems of the world by freeing the intellect from religious suppression, has proven to be a failed utopian experiment. Where did the Enlightenment go wrong?
MP: It’s a mistake, I think, to assume that the Enlightenment was a homogeneous movement of thought. As Gertrude Himmelfarb has written, there were actually three Enlightenments – the English/Scottish, the French, and the American, and they were all different. While the English/Scottish Enlightenment thinkers were merely against clerical abuses but assumed the Judeo-Christian moral framework continued to set the ethical guidelines for society, French thinkers were against all religion.
What we are seeing today is the dominance of that French atheist position but also, even more important, the dominance of counter-Enlightenment thinking. This was embodied in the German Romantic movement which represented an onslaught against reason – and foreshadowed the totalitarian movements of the last century of which our current deformation of thinking, cultural totalitarianism, is but a mutant manifestation.
MT: Toynbee famously said that civilizations die by suicide, not murder. Are you optimistic or pessimistic that Western civilization can reverse its slide into unreason, re-embrace its Judeo-Christian values, and defend itself against the enemies of modernity and truth?
MP: Um… pass! Look, there are two historical examples that I have constantly in my mind. One is 18th century England, when people like me were sitting around in coffee-houses predicting the end of Britain because of the general culture of debauchery and moral collapse. Yet this turned into the 19th century, one of the greatest periods of British power in the whole of its history. So that’s one historical example. The other is ancient Rome – which collapsed.
So which will it be? Who can tell? Prediction is a mug’s game, is it not? The fact is that the ordinary people are beside themselves with anxiety and fury about the undermining and willed collapse by the intelligentsia of the culture to which they belong. Will they pull the west back from the edge of the cultural cliff? Who knows? All we can do is sound the alarm as loudly as we can.