The 18th Century Swiss philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau was a strange person. Avoiding political persecution, he settled in Britain with the help of his friend, the philosopher David Hume. Shortly afterwards, Rousseau had a fallout with his benefactor because he believed that Hume was conspiring against him.
This paranoid man had multiple tirades against civilisation, infamously writing in 1755 that “it was iron and corn which first civilised men and ruined humanity.” One would think that with all our skyscrapers and astronauts, such views would be thrown into the dustbin of history.
Yet, Rousseau has ultimately persuaded our generation to hate civilisation. Well, not quite. We have come to hate only one civilisation in particular and romanticise everything else. Almost two and a half centuries after Rousseau, in 1987 Jesse Jackson was leading Stanford University’s students in the chant, “Hey hey, ho ho, Western civ has got to go!” Ever since, the discontent with anything Western has only grown larger.
Critical appraisal is always a sane enterprise. But when criticism turns into absurdity, intellectual pushback is needed. We have long crossed the line into absurdity, and yet, few dare to speak truth to power.
Douglas Murray is one of those few authors with the required courage. The War on the West (Broadside, 2022) does a very fine job in persuading the reader to value many of the positive unique aspects of Western civilisation and exposes the many hypocrisies of those who relentlessly criticise it.
Murray shies away from overly triumphalist accounts of Western history. But he does not throw the baby out with the bathwater. In his words, “there certainly have been times in the past when the history of the West has been taught as though it is a story of unabashed good. Historical criticism and rethinking are never a bad idea. However, the hunt for visible, tangible problems shouldn’t become a hunt for invisible, intangible problems.”
Murray reclaims much of Western history. Yes, there was slavery in the West. But hearing the claims of today’s post-colonial activists, one would think that slavery only happened in Western societies. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. As Murray explains, “slavery has been a constant in almost every society since the dawn of recorded history.” What is uniquely Western, though, is the abolitionist impetus that ultimately led to the almost total eradication of this horrendous evil.
I write “almost” because, sadly, slavery remains in some pockets of the world. What are Uighur forced labour camps, if not slavery? And yet, fashionable intellectuals —such as the promoters of the 1619 project — prefer to focus on the alleged legacies of an institution that ceased to exist in Western societies more than one hundred and fifty years ago.
In this world of double standards, China gets a free pass. But Murray puts his finger on the multiple abuses that take place there. As he explains, “at the same time that the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] has been actively engaging in the most appalling human rights abuses, it is clearly delighted that the West has distracted itself with a set of self-abasements of its own.”
Murray takes the reader through a tour of all the inconsistencies and disingenuousness of woke counterculture. Statue-toppling, racism in the name of antiracism, antisemitism under the guise of antizionism, and a host of other politically correct tendencies, are exposed as intellectual dishonesty.
After completing this tour, the reader cannot help but feel depressed at the hypocrisy of people who, very much as Rousseau, enjoy the perks of Western civilisation, yet are resolutely not willing to express any gratitude.
Nevertheless, this is an optimistic book. Murray believes that people in the West —especially younger generations— ought to be made aware “that the culture, history, and people they have been taught to disdain and deplore have handed them riches that are enough for a whole lifetime… they should be encouraged to look at what is all around them and just beneath their feet. If they look properly, and with some forgotten humility, they might recognise that what they have is more than luck. It is all that they will ever need.”
Although he realises that this in an uphill battle, Murray understands that he is not alone in defending the West. Whereas wokesters such as Ibram Kendi will insist that “civilisation” is a euphemism for racism, plenty of authors with differing skin colours are not having any of that nonsense and are fully prepared to defend Western civilisation.
Murray pays homage to them: Thomas Chatterton Williams, Glenn Loury, Adrian Piper, Henry Louis Gates Jr, and many others. Ultimately, Western civilisation is not about skin colour, but about the cultural values that have provided us with liberty and prosperity. I, for one, am grateful for that, and so should you.