Ever since I saw the montage of Fox News clips decrying a million wars on every conceivable facet of life, I’ve been a bit weary of the “this is a war on x!” framing. My favourite was the supposed war on cows, those docile beasts of burden which enrich our lives in countless ways. How tragic to hear there is a war on bovinity. This kind of framing smacks of catastrophizing; amplifying an issue beyond the merits of the case. So I was a bit wary of Douglas Murray’s new book when I saw it was titled The War on the West. Murray is a journalist and an interesting conservative thinker who, if nothing else, asks good questions. I appreciated his previous books, The Strange Death of Europe and The Madness of Crowds.
Having read the book – or listened to it, rather – I think the title is fitting, and unfortunate only because overuse of the “war on x” trope has devalued it. It is a worthwhile book that offers some clarifying moments for those making sense of the world in the 2020’s. Above all it reveals the stunning intellectual dishonesty and double standards of those radicals and revolutionaries who do desire above all to bring down the West.
The book shows how institution after institution, in almost every sphere of society imaginable, found itself utterly incapable of standing up to the self-inflicted neo-Marxist criticism of its members, or leaders, or both.
In fact, the most striking example in this long cavalcade was the church: denominations falling all over themselves in self-recriminations that are both unprovable and unfalsifiable. They are statements of faith. “We are systemically racist,” they cry. “We must do better.” But no evidence is offered, and no criteria established for measuring progress, except for the bankrupt idea of the equality of outcomes. In a real sense, it is a con, and one has to say that few have seen it for what it is.
And I can understand why – Christians are taught to consider the truth of a criticism even when it is offered in bad faith. Is there any truth to this? We are introspective, and rightly so. We say with the Psalmist, “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me” (Psalm 139:23-24). But this humble posture can be weaponized and used not to cleanse our hearts further but to muddle our minds with nonsense. This is especially true of denominations that have loosened their grip on the changeless and authoritative truth of Scripture. Having made themselves soft and malleable at precisely the points where they should be firm in their convictions, they make themselves easy targets for woke nonsense, which is really a kind of cancerous mutation of the Biblical ethos of compassion divorced from the other virtues which balance and complete it.
What Murray really succeeds in showing is how dishonest the “war on the West” is. It is not a good faith argument, but a hypocritical double standard that is only applied to the West, and never to any other culture. No one spends time waxing eloquent about the systemic racism in Saudi Arabia, in China, or in Sub-Saharan Africa. The withering criticism is always leveled only against the West.
It is a merciless criticism, a relentless tearing down, a kind of blind rage. It is immune to facts, to wisdom, to context, and above all to the kind of humility that would temper criticism of the past with gratitude. The kind of humility that would say “but for the grace of God go I.” The kind of humility that acknowledges that if I had been alive then I would almost certainly have been on the wrong side of key questions.
The West of course does need criticism. It needs clear-eyed, objective criticism. And those who love the West must above all hear and heed that criticism. But criticism devoid of gratitude is a universal solvent, a super-acid. It leaves nothing to build with. One of the best parts of the book is Murray’s reflection on the goodness of gratitude.
I’m left also with questions about what the Christian’s role is to be in the preservation and building of civilization. A part of me says that the Kingdom is not of this earth, so leave all that aside and focus strictly on the church. And indeed the salvation of individuals is more fundamental than civilization. Lewis has a great quote about this in The Weight of Glory:
There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.
And yet Lewis labored mightily in his life to foster not only the salvation of individuals but the restoration and rebuilding of culture. Alan Jacobs lays this out in his The Year of Our Lord 1943. There is a tension here that I don’t think needs to be completely resolved. And we do not all have the same vocations. I am deeply grateful both for those who labor exclusively in the church and also for those who labor for the flourishing of a healthy, humane, grace-besotted culture.
So as a critique of this amorphous meta-critiquing movement – wokeness, critical theories, neo-Marxism, whatever you want to call it – it is a valuable contribution which I’m thankful for. But as a Christian I am left feeling like it suffers from a lack of positive vision for culture-building. It laments the tearing down of something that was good, but it does not risk offering an ideal that could inspire a new generation to build again. For this we shall have to look elsewhere.