More than 50 years have gone by since the BBC ran Lord (Kenneth) Clark’s extraordinary 13-part documentary series Civilisation.
It aimed to give a unified history of Western civilisation, and it did so, informing the understanding of millions of viewers around the world.
In 2018, the BBC tried to follow this up. Civilisations (note the plural this time) was a hodgepodge creation of three different historians, trying desperately to make sure that they didn’t sound as if they were saying the West was better than anywhere else and giving a sort of world history that made nothing very clear.
In a few short decades, the Western tradition has moved from being celebrated to being embarrassing and anachronistic and, finally, to being something shameful. It turned from a story meant to inspire people and nurture them in their lives into a story meant to shame them.
I have come to the conclusion that the era we live in is defined by one thing above all — a civilisational shift that is rocking the deep underpinnings of our societies because it is a war on everything in those societies
Here was just one example of the cultural war going on in our country, a remorseless assault on everything to do with the Western world, past, present and future. Those waging it rail against all the roots of that tradition and everything good it has produced.
They constantly make one-sided arguments and level unfair claims. They corrupt the language of ideas with the result that words no longer mean what they once did.
They talk of ‘equality’ but do not care about equal rights. They talk of ‘anti-racism’ but sound deeply racist. They speak of ‘justice’ but seem to mean ‘revenge’.
In a demented discourse of their own invention, they have pulled us into a zero-sum discussion that insists the history of the West is a history of patriarchal oppression, sexism, racism, transphobia, homophobia, larceny and much more. They try to lock us into a cycle of unending punishment, with no serious effort at (or even consideration for) its alleviation.
An unfair ledger has been created, one in which the West is treated by one set of standards and the rest of the world by another. A ledger in which it seems that the West can do no right and the rest of the world can do no wrong. Or do wrong only because we in the West made them do it.
I have come to the conclusion that the era we live in is defined by one thing above all — a civilisational shift that is rocking the deep underpinnings of our societies because it is a war on everything in those societies.
A war on everything that has marked our societies out as unusual — even remarkable. A war on everything that the people who live in the West have, until recently, taken for granted.
There are many curiosities in all this. Not the least of them is that while the West is assaulted for everything it has done wrong, it now gets no credit for having got anything right. In fact, these things — including the development of individual rights, religious liberty and pluralism — are held against it.
The culture that gave the world life-saving advances in science, medicine, and a free market that has raised billions of people around the world out of poverty and offered the greatest flowering of thought anywhere is interrogated through a lens of the deepest hostility and simplicity.
The culture that produced Michelangelo, Leonardo, Bernini and Bach is portrayed as if it has nothing relevant to say.
New generations are taught this ignorant view of history. They are offered a story of the West’s failings without spending anything like a corresponding time on its glories. Every schoolchild now knows about slavery. But how many can describe — without irony, cringeing, or caveat — the great gifts that the Western tradition has given to the world?
IF THIS war on the West is to prove unsuccessful, then it will need to be exposed and pushed back against. The trouble is, however, that one side — the side of democracy, reason, rights, and universal principles — has prematurely surrendered.
It is now more than 30 years since student protesters at California’s Stanford University demonstrated against an introductory part of the curriculum called ‘Western culture’. They claimed there was something wrong with teaching the Western canon and the Western tradition.
But what was striking was that the university swiftly gave in, replacing the study of Western culture with the study of many cultures. In the decades that followed, nearly all of academia in the Western world followed Stanford’s lead.
The history of Western thought, art, philosophy, and culture became an ever less communicable subject. Indeed, it became something of an embarrassment: the product of a bunch of ‘dead white males’, to use just one of the charming monikers that entered the language. Since then, every effort to keep alive, let alone revive, the teaching of Western civilisation has met with sustained hostility, ridicule and even violence. Academics who have sought to study Western nations in a neutral light have been prevented from doing their work and subjected to intimidation and defamation, including from colleagues.
Just a couple of decades ago, a course in the history of Western civilisation was commonplace. Today, it is so disreputable that you can’t pay universities to do it.
Of course, some swing of the pendulum is inevitable and may even be desirable. 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. Especially not if they are carried out by dishonest people with the most extreme answers.
If we allow malicious critics to misrepresent and hijack our past, then the future they plan off the back of this will not be harmonious. It will be hell.
That’s why this culture war should not be downplayed by those tempted to think it is just a passing phase. Its outcome will impact the lives of future generations. The stakes here are as high as any fight in the 20th century.
In Britain, as in America, this kicking at the foundations has taken on a special fury in recent years. Just as the Floyd protests in America began with debatable figures and then roared right toward the centre of the nation’s history, so in Britain it burned from the outside in at a record pace.
In the days immediately after the death of George Floyd, a crowd in Bristol attacked a statue of Edward Colston (1636-1721), a local merchant and philanthropist who had been involved in the slave trade.
As the police looked on, the crowd pulled the statue from its plinth, rolled it down the street, and hurled it into the harbour.
As in America, there was a clear elation in the air, a feeling that here — in this permissible vandalism — was something to do. A way to right something. One major problem is that critics of Western civilisation venerate every culture — so long as it is not Western. For instance, all native thought and cultural expression are to be celebrated, just so long as that native culture is not Western. The idea that non-Western ‘indigenous’ cultures are purer and more enlightened than Western culture has not only taken root in our universities but in other institutions, too.
Britain’s National Trust is meant to exist to keep open many of the country’s most beautiful and expensive country houses. Its 5.6 million members tend to enjoy wandering around a stately mansion and then having a spot of afternoon tea.
But in recent years, the Trust has decided it has another job: to educate its visitors about the horrors of the past. And not just connections to empire and the slave trade, homophobia, and the crimes of primogeniture. It has recently chosen to push the idea that the English countryside itself is racist and is (as an academic who is part of the Trust’s Colonial Countryside project calls it) a ‘Green Unpleasant Land’.
I select that one example, but you can look at almost any area of life and find that it has been similarly denounced. Everything — from art, mathematics and music to gardening, sport and food — has been put through the same spin cycle.
This drift towards seeing other cultures as, by definition, better than ours also means that non-Western countries are able to get away with contemporary crimes as monstrous as anything that has happened in the Western past.
This is a habit that some foreign powers encourage. Today, we need look no further than Putin and his casual assumption that what he saw as the degenerate West would simply look the other way when he invaded Ukraine.
After all, if the West is so preoccupied with denigrating itself, what time could it find to look at the rest of the world?
IN THIS anti-West culture, racism is presented as though it has never been worse — at the very point at which it has never been better. Nobody can deny the scourge of racism — a scourge that is to be found in some form throughout recorded history.
Yet, in recent decades, the situation in Western countries has been better than ever. Our societies have made an effort to get ‘beyond race’, led by the example of some remarkable men and women of every racial background, but most notably by some extraordinary black Americans, such as Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and author and civil rights activist James Baldwin.
It was not inevitable that Western societies would develop, or even aspire to, the tradition of racial tolerance that we have.
It was not inevitable that we would end up living in societies that justly regard racism as among the most abhorrent sins. It happened because many brave men and women made the case, fought for that situation, and claimed their rights.
But in recent years, it has come to sound as though that fight never happened. As though it was a mirage. Race is now an issue in all Western countries in a way it has not been for decades.
In fact, the discourse has worsened to the extent that racial minorities who have integrated well, contributed to the West and are even admiring of it are increasingly treated as though they are race traitors. As though another allegiance were expected of them.
Black people and others who want to celebrate the West and add to it are talked to and about as though they were apostates. Love of the society they are in is treated as a point against them.
At the same time, it has become unacceptable to talk about any other society in a remotely similar way. In spite of all the unimaginable abuses perpetrated in our own time by the Communist Party of China, almost nobody speaks of China with an iota of the rage and disgust poured out daily against the West from inside the West.
Western consumers still buy their clothes cheap from China. There is no widespread attempt at a boycott. ‘Made in China’ is not a badge of shame.
Terrible things go on in that country right now, and still it is treated as normal. Authors who refuse to allow their books to be translated into Hebrew are thrilled to see them appear in China.
Because in the developed West some different standard applies.
In the place of colour blindness, we have been pushed into racial ultra-awareness. A deeply warped picture has now been painted.
Like all societies through the ages, all Western nations have racism in their histories. But that is not the only history of our countries. Racism is not the sole lens through which our societies can be understood, and yet it is increasingly the only lens used.
Everything in the past is seen as racist, and so everything in the past is tainted. Though, once again, only in the Western past, thanks to the radical racial lenses that have been laid over everything.
Terrible racism exists at present across Africa, expressed by black Africans against other black Africans. The Middle East and the Indian subcontinent are rife with racism. Travel anywhere in the Middle East — even to the ‘progressive’ Gulf States — and you will see a modern caste system at work.
There are the ‘higher class’ racial groups who run these societies and benefit from them. And then there are the unprotected foreign workers flown in to work for them as an imported labour class.
These people are looked down upon, mistreated, and even disposed of as though their lives were worthless. And in the world’s second most populated country, as anyone who has travelled through India will know, a caste system remains in vivid and appalling operation. This still goes all the way to regarding certain groups of people as ‘untouchable’ for no reason but an accident of birth.
It is a sickening system of prejudice, and it is very much alive. Yet we hear very little about this. Instead, the world gets only a daily report on how the countries in the world that by any measure have the least racism, and where racism is most abhorred, are the homes of racism.
This warped claim even has a final extension, which is that if other countries do have any racism, it must be because the West exported the vice to them.
As though the non-Western world is always made up of innocents from the Garden of Eden.
Why open everything in the West to assault? All aspects of the Western tradition now suffer the same attack. The Judeo-Christian tradition that formed a cornerstone of the Western tradition finds itself under particular assault and denigration.
But so, too, does the tradition of secularism and the Enlightenment, which produced a flourishing in politics, sciences and the arts. And this has consequences. A new generation does not appear to understand even the most basic principles of free thought and free expression.
Indeed, these are themselves attacked by people who don’t understand how or why the West came to the settlements that it did over religion. Nor how the prioritising of science allowed people around the world untold improvements in their lives.
Instead, these inheritances are criticised as examples of Western arrogance, elitism and undeserved superiority. As a result, everything connected with the Western tradition is jettisoned. At education colleges in America, aspiring teachers have been given seminars where they are taught that even the term ‘diversity of opinion’ is ‘white supremacist bulls**t’. Similar pernicious attitudes have already arrived here.
Let me make it clear: I do not want to shut down the considerable debate that is going on at the moment. I enjoy that debate and think it helpful. But to date, it has been riotously one-sided.
Politicians, academics, historians and activists are getting away with saying things that are not simply incorrect or injudicious, but flat-out false. They have got away with it for far too long.
There are many facets to this war on the West. It is carried out across the media and airwaves, and throughout the education system, from as early as preschool.
It is rife within the wider culture, where all major cultural institutions are either coming under pressure or actually volunteering to distance themselves from their own past.
We appear to be in the process of killing the goose that has laid some very golden eggs.
n Extracted from The War On The West: How To Prevail In The Age Of Unreason by Douglas Murray, published by HarperCollins on April 28 at £20. © Douglas Murray 2022. To order a copy for £18 (offer valid to 30/04/22; UK P&P free on orders over £20), visit www.mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937.