Nationalism itself encloses a secret hope of rebirth which would, properly thought through, go beyond politics.
In the summer of 2020, between the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers in May and the presidential election in November, protests, riots, looting, and violence swept through major cities in the United States. Statues of historically important and widely esteemed figures were toppled, defaced, or spray-painted, beginning with Confederate generals but eventually including Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant. Even the Col. Robert Gould Shaw Memorial in Boston, honoring the heroism in the Civil War of the African American soldiers of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, was defaced. Buildings and institutions were renamed with the avowed intent of purging any references to figures who could be associated with slavery, racial segregation, or colonialism (even if in their lifetimes they had opposed these things). Demonstrators in Britain behaved similarly, vandalizing memorials to Winston Churchill and even Mahatma Gandhi.
A previously little-known doctrine called Critical Race Theory (CRT) emerged from the sidelines and became the basis for public policies, including school curricula. Large corporations and wealthy private donors subsidized these developments generously. Prominent politicians defended the rioters. Prosecutors refused to press charges against them. In Minneapolis itself, where Floyd’s death had occurred, the Mayor ordered a police precinct station to be evacuated and permitted a mob to burn it to the ground. There was, in short, something not unlike the Chinese Cultural Revolution taking place in the United States, albeit in milder and briefer form. As with Mao’s revolution, it may have been manned from below, but it was driven from the top.
The War on Western Civilization
None of this was really new, except for its pervasiveness and intensity: there had been plenty of progressivist political agitation, some of it violent, from the very start of the Trump Administration. And political violence has continued (e.g., by pro-abortionists after the leak of the Supreme Court’s draft Dobbs opinion) since Joe Biden took office. Indeed, one might even say that an ongoing cultural revolution is now being institutionalized by government, the Academy, the bureaucracy, the media, and the “woke” corporate sector.
But, as happened in China around 1979, there are signs of a recoil at both the popular and intellectual level. Resistance to the agenda of “woke” progressivism is growing deeper and broader, and has already achieved several notable political successes. Douglas Murray’s The War on the West may well be a portent of the shape of things to come.
Murray has been a stalwart conservative warrior throughout these events. In this new book, he subjects the intellectual forces behind them to a withering, stylish, and often witty critique. Originality is not one of the hallmarks of the book, nor is it likely to persuade many on the opposing side. But it is a useful record of, and commentary on, the attempted cultural revolution.
Murray conceives of the events in question as a kind of “war” on Western civilization—and, by necessary extension, of the predominantly white population of Europe and the settler nations of the Americas and the Antipodes. There are four main chapters in the book, dealing, successively, with Race (which primarily concerns the US), History (which is largely about the British colonial past), Religion (the weakest chapter, in part because it subsumes a miscellany of topics) and Culture (including illuminating discussions of painting and music). Sandwiched between these chapters are shorter “Interludes,” dealing respectively with China, Reparations, and Gratitude. The connection between each “Interlude” and the chapter that precedes it is more (or less) apparent: the Interlude on China, e.g., is intended to underscore that the racism of which Western civilization stands accused was (and is) still commonplace in Chinese civilization. (This was demonstrated at length in Frank Dikotter’s valuable 1992 book, The Discourse of Race in Modern China). The moving “Interlude” on gratitude is a kind of homage to the late Sir Roger Scruton, one of Murray’s models and mentors.
Murray is an accomplished dialectician. He wields the arts of logic in order to skewer his adversaries. If racism is really encoded in the DNA of whites—if it truly is a “can’t help” for them—then what is the point of condemning white people for racism? And how can it be possible for whites like Robin DiAngelo to be “antiracists”? If it is not possible, might not the “antiracism” they proclaim be in fact a subtle and concealed form of white racism? (John McWhorter’s Woke Racism gives grounds to suspect as much.) And why should it be possible for conservative-minded black thinkers and politicians in effect to “become” white (as their critics often charge), but not for whites to “become” black? Or again: if all civilizations stand on an equal plane and none is “superior” from some trans-civilizational viewpoint, then how can Western civilization be worse than the others? If the West is so implacably hostile to non-whites, then why are so many non-whites from Africa and South America trying to enter it?
While this kind of dialectic is useful in engaging with the enemy, however, Murray does not truly come to grips with the sources of the trends he deplores. The book is strong on description and debate, but weak in diagnosis. It lacks the analytical and explanatory structure that would give its polemics the requisite perspective and depth. As a review of current events, it is penetrating, but to be truly successful, it would need more heft.
Grievances and Resentments
Murray does indeed take a diagnostic turn when he introduces Nietzsche’s concept of ressentiment (resentment) as a source for the fashionable hatred of the West. Resentment at first may take the form of a demand for justice, but it is rooted in “a yearning for revenge” and, over time, reveals itself as such. The Western world is utterly awash with resentment, and Murray deserves credit for calling attention to that fact.
But resentment cannot be a full diagnosis for at least two main reasons.
First, legitimate grievances accompany and are interwoven with mere resentment. Racially motivated police brutality is by no means as widespread as is popularly perceived; but to the extent that still exists, simple justice requires an end to it.
Less obviously, claims about “structural” or “systemic” racism may also be rooted in legitimate grievances. It is vital neither to exaggerate nor to disregard such claims.
The racially disparate impact of particular practices, procedures, and policies does not prove that those structures are discriminatory, let alone that our society as a whole is ”systemically” racist. Indeed, many such practices are vital to general well-being (such as basing lending decisions on credit-worthiness or admission to colleges on aptitude and achievement). A racially linked disparity need not be due to racism. Deficits in young Black students’ reading skills have long-term effects that could explain disparate racial outcomes in many dimensions in later life more powerfully than discrimination.
But even seemingly race-neutral policies may need to be examined to determine whether their differential racial impact is truly justified. For example: should anyone with a felony conviction be barred from voting? The Supreme Court has held such disqualification to be constitutional, but that holding does not answer the question whether, in view of its adverse impact on African Americans, it would be better to remove this legal structure. Another example: Should the primary source of funding for elementary public schools be local property taxes, given that predominantly minority residential districts on average have lower property values? The Supreme Court has held that this common method of school financing is constitutional, and its merits are obvious. But again, it can be argued that this system unfairly handicaps children in minority school districts. None of these policies show that American society is comprehensively and irremediably racist. Still, it is sometimes appropriate to criticize social practices that have sharply different impacts along racial lines.
Second, resentment can hardly explain the behavior of the highly privileged elites who seek to align themselves with the resentful. Wealthy, powerful Americans and the institutions they own or control (the New York Times, Walt Disney, BlackRock, Yale Law School) are the tip of the spear of the forces of resentment. But how could they truly be resentful of privilege themselves? Isn’t their attack on “privilege” in fact an effort to legitimate their own privileges? In the Jim Crow period, the “Big Whites” of the South sought to maintain their privileges by splitting the “Little Whites” and Blacks of the region, taking the side of the former. Now the Big Whites do the opposite, but the strategic objective is the same. The ongoing cultural revolution in the West is largely a Revolt of the Elites.
If, then, Murray’s War on the West cannot be diagnosed solely in terms of resentment, how should we understand its origins?
The Fourth Wave
It is useful to compare Murray’s work with that of another conservative thinker and author, Charles Kesler. Murray focuses mainly on current events; Kesler is more concerned with background conditions and longer-term trends. Bringing the two authors into a kind of conversation with one another is, I think, illuminating: it situates Murray’s account of our current circumstances within a deeper perspective.
In his recent Crisis of the Two Constitutions, Kesler identifies three “waves” of American Progressivism, extending back to the late 19th century. In summary, the first was essentially a political and constitutional wave, associated with Woodrow Wilson’s New Democracy; the second, primarily an economic wave that crested in Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal; and the third, primarily a social and cultural wave that swept through Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. We may now be living through a Fourth Wave, the period that is the focus of Murray’s attention.
But are we living through another wave? Or is Progressivism a spent or dying force?
Progressivism may well be spent. The successful first, second and third waves had certain characteristics in common—characteristics that are not apparent in the potential fourth wave. For one thing, they all professed their faith in the fundamental virtue of the American people (though this began to change in the third wave), in the integrity of the American constitutional founding in 1787, and in its re-founding in the Reconstruction. They all affirmed that their political objectives were congruent with the noblest ideals inherent in the Declaration of Independence, and they specified what those objectives were. Thus, Martin Luther King could say, after the 1965 Voting Rights Act was passed, that the civil rights movement was over.
As Murray demonstrates, the fourth wave is essentially different. It denounces the majority of the American people as degraded and vile. It condemns their Constitution and laws as rooted in evil. It relocates their Founding from 1787 to the introduction of slavery in 1619. And it offers no intelligible account of the end-state at which it aims. It seems to envisage instead a continuing process in which guilt is incessantly charged and confessed, atonement is offered but rejected as inadequate, resistance becomes ever more furtive, bias goes deeper underground, and final justice always remains elusive. It is, at once, utopian but nihilistic.
Conservatives therefore have reason to be confident that the fourth wave will be rolled back. A movement so antagonistic to America’s institutions and traditions, and even to most of the American people themselves, should eventually self-destruct. Certainly, it cannot hope to achieve the kind of broad national consensus that enacted the program of the New Deal or that sustained the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Of course, the American cultural revolutionaries may succeed, for a period, in maintaining themselves in power through force and fraud. They may manipulate vote counts, keep their political opponents under FBI and DHS surveillance, practice censorship in social media or through the government, mob conservative speakers on college campuses, attempt to brainwash school children, exhibit unashamed bias and mendacity in their media coverage, block financial transactions, fund rioting and violence in the streets, use their prosecutorial powers to target their enemies, try to intimidate Supreme Court Justices in their homes, and so on. We are becoming habituated to these techniques. But we are also learning how to expose, denounce, and counter them.
History is shot through with contingencies. The progressive Barack Obama was mistaken to say that it bends inexorably in a particular (leftwards) arc; but equally, it may by now be too late to “make America great again.” Nonetheless, path-dependency is the general rule: the direction that a people takes is usually rooted in its tradition and history. And so it is much more likely that the American people—of all races—will continue to date their founding to 1787, not 1619.