In recent years, Douglas Murray has established himself as arguably the most important conservative political commentator in the English-speaking world.
Given the rise of Black Lives Matter, the racial riots of 2020 and the upsurge in hostility towards Western history – exemplified by the determination of leftist activists to tear down statues of major historical figures – the focus of his new book is of little surprise.
‘The War on the West’ provides a thorough examination of the charges now levelled against Western (and for the most part, European and Christian) civilisation, along with a full-throated defence of what Murray argues is the positive cultural, social, religious and political inheritance of all those who belong to it.
The book’s structure is admirably straight-forward, being divided into four main chapters with the titles of Race, History, Reparations and Culture.
Separate interludes also feature, each of which is devoted to a key topic which helps clarify the importance of the subject under discussion.
In his usual engaging and provocative style, the author sets out his stall early on in stark terms. A highly-important cultural war, he writes, “is being waged remorselessly against all the roots of the Western tradition and against everything good that the Western tradition has produced.”
Academic courses dealing with Western civilisation are frowned upon, influential figures from history are being ‘cancelled’ due to allegations that they held intolerable views by today’s standards, and demands for radical measures to counteract ‘systemic racism’ in all sorts of areas are now routinely made, with dire social consequences for any who dare object to this in public.
The chorus of criticism for the past – for imperialism, colonialism, slavery any much else besides – leaves little room for any acknowledgement of the positive contributions of Europe, the United States and other outposts of a civilisation which has been responsible for such an extraordinarily disproportionate amount of man’s achievements.
The word ‘civilisation’ is important here. Murray notes how the BBC recently sought to emulate the success of Kenneth Clark’s glorious Civilisation series from 1969 by creating a far more self-consciously inclusive show titled Civilisations, in which the presenters had to try desperately hard “to make sure that they didn’t sound as if they were saying the West was better than anywhere else.”
Murray maintains that both the West’s Judaeo-Christian heritage (what he calls its Jerusalem pillar) and the secular Enlightenment (referred to as the Athens pillar) are under attack, and he goes to considerable lengths to defend both.
Considering recent unrest sparked by the killing of several unarmed African-Americans by police in the United States, it is unsurprising that race occupies so much of this book.
Many of the cultural flashpoints in recent times have related to the slave trade and America’s difficult history.
In placing these issues in a broader context, Murray observes that limited historical education or awareness means that most people are unaware of the widespread racism which still exists in most societies, notably China.
China’s monoethnic leadership class – like similar tyrants elsewhere – are quick to denounce Western countries, while rejecting any criticism of historical or current abuses taking place in their own countries – such as the vicious persecution of China’s Uighir minority.
Western self-criticism – Murray uses the example of President Biden’s ambassador to the United Nations, who has spoken at length before the General Assembly about racism in her homeland – does not encourage other countries to adopt a similar approach.
Furthermore, there is a particularly glaring double-standard when it comes to topics like slavery.
While millions of Africans were sold to rapacious Europeans for use in their colonies, far more Africans were transported east as part of the Arab Muslim slave trade. The reason for this being widely unknown is particularly eye-opening: black slaves were routinely castrated by their Arab owners, and so no African population survived there long-term.
The liberal nature of Western countries, born of a political philosophy which first developed in Europe before being exported elsewhere, makes them naturally more vulnerable to this kind of attack.
Historically, this relative openness has also meant that Westerners have spent more time studying the cultures of others and incorporating aspects of them: which in turn can lead to risible charges of cultural appropriation.
In the past, Murray – a British atheist who was raised as an Anglican, and educated in a Catholic school – has frequently pointed to the role of Christianity in shaping Western culture and values.
Here, he quotes the Columbia University Professor John McWhorter when describing how the decline of Christianity in the Western world has left a vacuum which is being filled by the ‘anti-racism’ movement, which sees white privilege as the original sin.
Murray also describes how moribund religious institutions like the Church of England and America’s Episcopalian Church have adopted an increasingly self-flagellating tone when condemning their own historical records.
Unfortunately, the chapter titled ‘Religion’ falls short on some counts.
Rather than being exclusively focused on the issue of the relationship between Christianity and the unique Western culture which it helped create, the discussion wanders on to how charges of racism are now being levelled against secular philosophers, coupled with an undeniably interesting critique of how the flaws and outright crimes of left-wing thinkers such as Marx and Foucault are being deliberately ignored by those who insist on deconstructing every other historical figure of note.
When pondering the willingness of those in today’s West to celebrate other traditions while ignoring their own, Murray points to “the trend that leads young Americans and Europeans to travel the world to find the temples of the Far East, while failing to spend any time in the cathedrals on their own doorsteps.”
Concluding the book and emphasising one of his core points on gratitude, he again refers to Europe’s most aesthetically striking churches as an example of something important which we have inherited from those who went before us and laboured to build them.
It is a point he also made in ‘The Strange Death of Europe,’ when considering what future lay in store for our continent. He wrote then that he could not “help feeling that much of the future of Europe will be decided on what our attitude is towards the church buildings and other great cultural buildings of our heritage standing in our midst. Around the questions of whether we hate them, ignore them, engage with them or revere them, a huge amount will depend.”
As an unbeliever, his discomfort in expanding on this point appears obvious – as was shown in his recent interview with Jordan Peterson, where he spoke of his “deeply complex, conflicted and inadequate answers,” while also describing how undeniably “God haunted, and Christ haunted” the West’s cultural memory is.
It is difficult in the long-run for any society to engage with a cathedral or a great work of art focused on a religion which that society’s members no longer believe to be true.
Going further, we can also say that it is difficult for a faithless generation to relate to the ancestors who sacrificed so much to raise great churches in the very centre of each and every city and town.
When the shared bond of religious feeling between generations is ripped asunder, it becomes far easier to dismiss most or even all of what was achieved by our predecessors, while also making it easier to condemn them in unequivocal and needlessly dismissive terms for what are failings by today’s standards.
The collapse of religious belief is not just one of many factors responsible for the collapse in cultural self-confidence in the West, it is surely the pre-eminent factor, and it deserved more than the incomplete acknowledgement which is provided here.
At the same time, this book is an absorbing account of what we who are part of the Western world can be thankful for, while also being a clarion call for why the ongoing assault against our civilisation must be resisted.
“[W]hen it comes to what we in the West have inherited all around us, this must count as one of the greatest gifts, if not the greatest gift, that any civilisation has left for those who came after. A gift not just in liberal order and beautiful cities and landscapes but in artistic achievement, cultural inheritance, and a wealth of examples of how to live,” Murray writes.
This theme of gratitude is keenly felt throughout this book, and anyone who believes in the Western tradition should be grateful that it has Douglas Murray as one of its most able and eloquent defenders.