Douglas Murray’s The War on the West is the latest entry in the “leftists are destroying our great Western culture” subgenre of polemical conservative nonfiction, to be placed alongside books like Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West and Pat Buchanan’s The Death of the West, which made the same argument four years ago and 21 years ago, respectively. Murray is a hugely popular conservative writer—YouTube videos of him routinely receive millions of views, and his books are bestsellers. His arguments tend to be standard-issue right-wing fare: immigration is destabilizing Europe, cancel culture is the enemy of reason, and social justice warriors complain too much about bigotry and oppression. (His 2006 book Neoconservatism: Why We Need It also makes a firm defense of the Iraq war, which others consider one of the most horrific foreign policy blunders of the 21st century.) But while Murray may not say anything particularly original, he is a skilled presenter of right-wing arguments, and is disturbingly effective at presenting extreme positions as “common sense” opposition to “madness.” He is also gifted at presenting xenophobic and ethnochauvinistic views in a tone of powdery aloofness which makes them appear acceptable.
Murray is not a rigorous thinker. On page 80 of The War of the West, while lamenting the decline in education standards, Murray muses that the “only thing modern Western populations are more ignorant about than their own history is the history of other peoples outside the West.” Just four pages later Murray responds to woke critics who claim that Western schoolchildren are oblivious to the historical legacy of the British empire and other globe-spanning systems of oppression, saying that these critics “believe that people in the West are uniquely ignorant of their own history and uniquely ignorant of other people’s too. … Yet nothing could be further from the truth.”
His arguments are often bizarre and sloppy. For instance, in response to some high-profile instances in which the police were called on Black people doing innocuous things (the latest instance, from a few days ago, was a Black pastor arrested while watering his neighbor’s flowers), San Francisco passed a law providing criminal penalties for anyone who calls the police on someone for racially discriminatory reasons. Murray says the law was an “explicit departure from the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of ‘equal protection of the laws’” and constitutes “explicitly unequal treatment on the basis of race.” It would be hard for anyone who reads the text of the law to see how that is the case. It in fact explicitly mandates equal treatment on the basis of race.
It’s useful to demonstrate how those who purport to base their arguments against the left on facts and reason are actually using sophistry and distortion. But Murray’s work is worth examining not just because it is bad, but because, as earlier critics of his work have noted, he packages white supremacist and xenophobic ideas in a way that makes them more palatable to the mainstream. His work has been called “gentrified xenophobia” because it shows fear and disgust toward immigrants, but tries to make the position seem like common sense and fit for discussion in polite society. Indeed, The War on the West concludes with a full-throated defense of “white culture” and a case that non-white people are in various ways inferior. But Murray’s book is published by HarperCollins, not a neo-Nazi group, and he publishes in mainstream outlets like The Wall Street Journal and The Spectator. Despite the laziness of his thinking, Murray insidiously spreads views that should be consigned to the fringes of public discourse.
Douglas Murray Gets an “F” On His Freshman-Year Paper About Edward Said
Before we get to the racist parts, let us establish that Douglas Murray’s work shows a lack of intellectual seriousness throughout. Murray has not spent much time reading the writings of those he criticizes. For instance, in The War on the West he discusses the work of Edward Said, author of Orientalism, the seminal text in post-colonial theory. Murray says that Said’s “central claim is singularly anti-Western” and that Said “believe[d] that every aspect of the West—even or especially its intellectual and cultural curiosity—is to be not just condemned but derided.” Murray reveals here that he simply knows nothing about Edward Said. Said was, in fact, deeply knowledgeable of Western arts and culture. A classically-trained pianist and lover of Mozart, Beethoven, and Mendelssohn, Said is the namesake of Palestine’s Edward Said National Conservatory of Music, and is the reason that today you can hear the Palestine Youth Orchestra playing Beethoven while wearing keffiyehs.
Murray makes the error of assuming that by critiquing the way Western culture has portrayed the “Orient,” Said was dismissing the value of Western culture. Consider how Murray represents Said’s famous analysis of Jane Austen:
“[T]here was always in Said a tendency to single out Western man and woman for a unique form of attack. This included extraordinarily hostile and ungenerous attacks on two of the great female writers of the nineteenth century: George Eliot and Jane Austen. Said’s attack on Jane Austen in one of his later books is a classic of anti-Westernism. For there Said tries to smear Austen as a supporter of the slave trade. He does so through a solitary reference to slavery that appears in Mansfield Park during a conversation between Edmund and Fanny… Said believes that this single reference means that Austen is praising the slave trade.”
In fact, Said’s discussion of Jane Austen is nuanced. He points out that even though the society depicted by Austen depended for its wealth on the brutal exploitation of colonized peoples, Austen does not show this unsavory truth. He discusses the way that the reality of the British empire was left out of literature by those who should have known better. Said says that what he is trying to do is understand the “paradox” that while “even the most routine aspects of holding slaves on a West Indian plantation were cruel stuff,” and “everything we know about Austen and her values is at odds with the cruelty of slavery,” Austen could nevertheless depict a country that was building wealth from slavery without going near the facts of that cruelty. Said was emphatic, however, that this does not mean we must reject Jane Austen’s novels, and he actually criticizes those who would “attack” her and “jettison” her novels:
“It would be silly to expect Jane Austen to treat slavery with anything like the passion of an abolitionist or a newly liberated slave. Yet what I have called the rhetoric of blame, so often now employed by subaltern, minority, or disadvantaged voices, attacks her, and others like her, retrospectively, for being white, privileged, insensitive, complicit. Yes, Austen belonged to a slave-owning society, but do we therefore jettison her novels as so many trivial exercises in aesthetic frumpery? Not at all, I would argue…”
Said argues that it is precisely because Austen’s writing is “brilliant,” and so rich and well-observed in what it does depict, that the question of what subjects Austen falls silent on is so interesting. He makes the case for understanding the historical context without losing our “enjoyment and appreciation.” In fact, Said directly criticized those whose reaction to Orientalism was to treat “the West” as “monolithically the same, opposed to us, degraded, materialist, bad, etc.,” calling this a “reactive Occidentalism,” and “a repetition of the old sort of Orientalist model where you say that all Orientals are the same.” This “Occidentosis,” he said—the claim that “all the evils in the world come from the West”—is “tiresome and boring” because it too flattens the world into false binaries. But Murray nevertheless insists that Said “interpret[ed] everything in the West—including the most delicate and perfect works of art—through a lens that was not just interrogative and hostile but amazingly ungenerous.” Because Said had the audacity to suggest that these “perfect works” were in fact decidedly imperfect, Murray dismisses him as “anti-Western” no matter how much more he may have known about European classical music than Murray himself.
Said was a cosmopolitan, and what he argued against was placing human beings into reductive categories and seeing them in accordance with stereotypes. His critique of Orientalism is about the way that the idea of “the Orient,” a “mysterious place full of secrets and monsters,” was used to rationalize imperialism. Said was deeply concerned with the way that non-Westerners were dehumanized and stereotyped in Western culture and the harmful consequences of these distorted perceptions.
Murray does not take Said’s intellectual project seriously. Instead, he reads Said as trying to “prove that when Westerners encountered other societies, they did so through the lens of societies they came from,” a point Murray calls “wholly unremarkable” because “what other lens might Western travelers and scholars have been expected to look at the Orient?” Once again, Murray shows here that he hasn’t read the book. Said never said we shouldn’t look at “the Orient” at all. The alternative was to see non-Western societies in all of their diversity rather than as one crude, violent, and mysterious place known as “the Orient.”
Murray believes Said is unfair to Orientalist scholars, many of whom have been “remarkable men and women” who often “admired non-Western culture more than the culture they were from.” But once again, Said constantly makes exactly this point in his book. Said takes care to distinguish between the “awesome” efforts made by foundational Orientalist researchers like Silvestre de Sacy, who were actually interested in learning about the different cultures and languages they wrote about, and vicious racists like Arthur de Gobineau. Orientalism isn’t fundamentally concerned with weighing the merits and demerits of centuries-dead European authors, and Said mocks the idea that Orientalism is “representative and expressive of some nefarious ‘Western’ imperialist plot to hold down the ‘Oriental’ world.” Said is very clear that what he’s talking about is the way knowledge is framed within systems of power, or “rather, a distribution of geopolitical awareness into aesthetic, scholarly, economic, sociological, historical, and philological texts.”
Remarkably, Murray never even bothers to tackle Said’s most provocative and interesting argument. Said held that the conception of a distinctly “Western” world depended in part on being able imaginatively conceive and contrast it with an opposite, the “Orient.” Such a conception depended, in part, on ignoring or blurring the extraordinary interconnections between different peoples of the world, often in complicated ways. The effect was to stabilize a contrast between the enlightened West and the mysterious east that bore little resemblance to the historical record. One example is Said’s treatment of Dante. Said traces how Dante followed Medieval custom in showing a (grudging) respect for the originality of Muslim philosophers and their impact on their Christian counterparts like Thomas Aquinas while still insisting they suffer honorably in Hell for apparently being “fundamentally ignorant of Christianity” (despite Jesus being a major prophet in Islam). Said isn’t taking a dig at Dante, who is one of the treasures of world literature, but showcases how people in the 14th century conceived of Islam, and how the distinctions between the West and the Orient were constructed.
Of course Said isn’t beyond criticism, and Murray is right to point out that he sometimes uses language that comes dangerously close to “essentializing” the “West” in the same way that he wants to criticize the essentialization of the “East.” But Said was more careful about this than Murray himself, who seems to have never met an ethnic cliche he wasn’t ready to gluttonously swallow.
Because Murray has written a critique of a leading postcolonial scholar without having read Said’s work, we can already conclude that Murray’s work is intellectually shoddy. Once again, a defender of the values of reason and enlightenment has shown disregard for the basic obligation of trying to fair-mindedly and accurately represent opposing positions. But what about the more substantive claims of the book?
Murray adopts a hysterical tone from the beginning of the book, arguing that everything good is being destroyed. “Some people are deliberately trying to completely clear the cultural landscape of our past in order to say there’s nothing good, nothing you can hold on to, no one you should revere, you’ve got no heroes.” (Note that Murray is implicitly speaking to a white audience about white history, since, as he would surely admit, the Social Justice Warriors he is speaking about have never said there’s nothing good in Black history, Native history, the history of labor struggles, queer history, etc.) As Murray puts it early on:
“The culture that gave the world lifesaving 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 in the world is interrogated through a lens of 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 failing without spending anything like a corresponding time on its glories.”
Murray’s conceived “War on the West” is being “waged remorselessly against all the roots of the Western tradition and against everything good that the Western tradition has produced.” This remorseless war is waged through means ranging from the New York Times’ 1619 project (which argues that slavery is central to the history of the United States) to the campaign to remove a statue of white supremacist Cecil Rhodes from a university in South Africa. (Murray says that in 2003, “the Rhodes scholarships officially became known as the Mandela Rhodes scholarships,” but says that this concession “seemed to have done nothing to placate a new generation of students.” This is a straightforward factual error. The Mandela Rhodes scholarship is a particular scholarship for African students studying in South Africa that is separate from the Rhodes Scholarship where scholars study at the University of Oxford. Rhodes Scholarships are not “officially called” Mandela Rhodes scholarships. Murray misrepresents the facts in order to present student activists as ungrateful complainers.)
In order to support his thesis that there is an unfair and remorseless war against the West being conducted by the partisans of social justice, Murray relies frequently on two tactics:
- Finding the most ridiculous anecdotes about social justice activism and presenting them as representative, then hyperbolically presenting the results as a war on all of civilization
- Omitting information that would make the activists’ charges seem more reasonable, and downplaying Western crimes (like imperialism and aggressive war) by using the same rhetorical tactic that was used by defenders of the Soviet Union (Of course, some mistakes were made, but who among us is perfect?)
At every turn, Murray massages the truth to make “woke” critics look unreasonable and “the West” look good. For instance, Murray is indignant at recent criticism of Winston Churchill, saying Churchill’s critics are “historically ignorant” and peddle “outright lies.” “For instance,” he writes, “Noam Chomsky, among others, has claimed that Churchill advocated the gassing of Iraqi civilians in 1919. What such critics fail to realize is that Churchill was advocating the use of tear gas, not mustard gas.” Murray is wrong, however. Even the Churchill Project at Hillsdale University (a staunchly pro-Churchill site) says that in Iraq Churchill urged “experimental work on gas bombs, especially mustard gas, which would inflict punishment upon recalcitrant natives without inflicting grave injury upon them.” Churchill said he was “strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes,” though he stressed that it was “not necessary to use only the most deadly gasses” and that the goal should be to “spread a lively terror” and that use be “calculated to cause disablement of some kind.” Murray does not deal with the substantial evidence that Churchill was an ardent racist who believed the Uncivilized Tribes of the world should be ruled over by their betters. The most Murray will say is that Churchill “occasionally expressed views which were nineteenth-century in their attitudes.” (What does it mean to be “nineteenth-century,” though?) Instead of pondering why writers like Tariq Ali, Shashi Tharoor, and Madhusree Mukerjee have a less favorable view of Churchill than those for whom he is a symbol of wartime British patriotism, Murray concludes that the haters simply picked Churchill for attack because they want to destroy the West and know Churchill is revered:
“[Churchill’s] story is a heroic story, demonstrating the greatness that mankind can aspire to and the heroism that men can achieve. This, then, is the reason why Churchill must be particularly assaulted. Because as long as his reputation stands, the West still has a hero. As long as his reputation remains intact, we still have figures to emulate. But if Churchill can be made to fall? Why then one of the great gods, perhaps the greatest of the West, falls. And then? Well, anything might be forced upon a people so subjected and demoralized. The academics and others who assail Churchill know what a holy being he is. They know how much he is revered. And it is for precisely this reason that they assault him. Because they want to kick the “white men,” they want to kick at the great man view of history. They want to kick at the holiest beings and places of the West. They choose their targets well.”
Those who point out that Churchill wanted to gas the Uncivilized Tribes, then, are simply trying to destroy the “holy beings” of the West so that they can oppress white men. (Murray, who has warned that white Britons are becoming a minority in “their capital city,” would probably be pleased that Churchill once floated using “Keep England White” as a political slogan.)
It should be unnecessary to say that the theory Murray presents is paranoid and baseless. In fact, Murray seems throughout the book to live in a fantasy world. Underneath his thin efforts to appear reasonable, Murray expresses apocalyptic worries that “everything connected with the Western tradition is being jettisoned.” He cites, for instance, the “erasure of almost all Western philosophers.” How have Western philosophers been erased? Are they no longer taught in philosophy courses? Well, no, but Murray does report that a college student once told him Kant was a racist during a Q&A session. He laments that greats like Aristotle, John Locke, John Stuart Mill, David Hume, and Thomas Jefferson have been publicly condemned merely because they (respectively) defended human slavery, owned stock in a slave-trading company, defended imperialism, wrote that Black people were inferior, or (in Jefferson’s case) personally enslaved and raped Black people. Murray says these figures have been “assailed,” as indeed they have, but produces no evidence that they have been removed from the curriculum.
Here, as with Murray’s discussion of Edward Said, he makes a mistake by assuming that excavating racist assumptions and arguments from major thinkers means that one is necessarily “erasing” or “portraying them as if they had nothing relevant to say.” That was not the case in Said’s discussion of Austen, and it is not the case with many recent critiques of figures that have long been revered. They are still taught in school, and the current debate is about how to adjust the way we talk about them to account for the fact that many of them either perpetrated or justified horrific crimes. The great political theorist Charles Mills is far more nuanced than Murray when he highlights the ugly and racist things philosophers like Kant said, while still highlighting how important it is to read them and even incorporating key insights into his “black radical liberalism.”
To call these critiques a war on the West is to suggest that the West depends for its survival on downplaying the ugly facts about British rule in India, the colonial conquest of Africa, the wiping out of Native Americans, and hundreds of years of outright chattel slavery followed by systematic deprivation and segregation. Indeed, Murray’s deepest anxiety seems to be around insulating the West from serious criticism, admitting only criticisms of the “yes, the Soviet Union made an error here and there” variety. Remarkably, Murray doesn’t even seem to treat “Western” authors he claims to respect all that respectfully. In a long section on “gratitude” Murray references Friedrich Nietzsche’s theory of ressentiment to criticize leftists who demand higher levels of equality, while elsewhere waxing poetic about the dangers of declining respect for Christian morality. He doesn’t even acknowledge that for Nietzsche, a self described “Anti-Christ,” Christianity was in fact the ultimate catalyst of modern radical progressivism. Nietzsche’s shorthand definition of socialism was “the residue of Christianity and Rousseau,” and in The Anti-Christ he lamented that “the aristocratic outlook had been undermined by the lie of equality of souls” that manifested itself in calls for liberalism and democracy. Murray would make a more convincing case for respecting and understanding European philosophers if he showed that he himself had read and understood their work.
What Is The West, Anyway?
Murray wishes to counter criticism that the West is racist or dominated by Western supremacism. And yet when he gets close to a workable definition of Western civilization, it is race, rather than aesthetics, culture, or politics, that he foregrounds. Murray opens Chapter One by stating an “obvious, observable truth about people in the West,” namely that “historically the citizens of Europe and their offspring societies in the Americas and Australasia have been white. Not absolutely everybody has been. But the majority have. The definition is tautological—white means mostly having ancestors from Europe.” Beyond the fact that this is not a tautology, what’s interesting about leading with race when defining Western civilization is how closely Murray actually winds up hewing to the critical narratives he wants to reject.
Western civilization, when deployed by conservatives like Murray, almost always comes down to whiteness, in spite of efforts to define it terms of something more palatable like values and religion. This is why one rarely hears countries like Mexico and Botswana spoken of as part of the “West.” Both are predominantly Christian democracies with market economies and count as long-standing “offspring societies” of European imperialism. But Murray has written anxiously about the “flood” of Mexican migrants entering the United States and compared it to the “suicide” Europe inflicted on itself by accepting Middle Eastern refugees. Sometimes defenders of the idea of the West will point to level of development instead, with richer countries hitting the threshold for belonging to the “West.” But then why do comparatively rich countries like Argentina or Chile, which are about as developed as Poland or Hungary (an illiberal quasi-authoritarian state conservatives have recently fallen over themselves praising), not make the cut? Or for that matter the petro-states of the Middle East, which enjoy some of the highest standards of living in the world and produce so much of the oil and gas that conservatives get mushy about in other contexts?
In fact, there’s something refreshing about the way that Murray cuts away a lot of the bullshit and leans into an understanding of “the West” that just means white people. While different parts of the book occasionally run in the other direction, especially when Murray wants to mute critics of European imperialism by highlighting how many colonial subjects benefited by having their native cultures and practices transformed by European contact, he often can’t seem to help himself when it comes to giving into xenophobia and transparent ethno-chauvinism. The most extraordinary example of this comes at the end of the book, where Murray fantasizes about what he would say if Marc Lamont Hill had asked him (as Hill asked Christopher Rufo) “What do you like about being white?” Murray admits that any answer he could give “remains at the very edges of permissible sayability” but then spends five pages waxing poetic about the superiority of “white Western peoples.” He gives what he calls a “truthful” tribute to the white race, explaining various ways in which white people are better (accomplish more, are more generous, have better governments) than non-white people. Forgive the long quote, but it is an important summation of Murray’s perspective:
“The good things about being white include being born into a tradition that has given the world a disproportionate number, if not most, of the things that the world currently benefits from. The list of things that white people have done may include many bad things, as with all peoples. But the good things are not small in number. They include almost every medical advancement that the world now enjoys. They include almost every scientific advancement that the world now benefits from. No meaningful breakthrough in either of these areas has come for many centuries from anywhere in Africa or from any Native American tribe. No First Nation wisdom ever delivered a vaccine or a cure for cancer. [Note: white people have evidently cured cancer.] White people founded most of the world’s oldest and longest-established educational institutions. They led the world in the invention and promotion of the written word. Almost alone among any peoples it was white people who—for good and for ill—took an interest in other cultures beyond their own, and not only learned from these cultures but revived some of them… This is not the case with most other peoples. No Aboriginal tribe helped make any advance in understanding the lost languages of the Indian subcontinent, Babylon, or ancient Egypt. The curiosity appears to have gone almost entirely one way… White Western peoples happen to have also developed all the world’s most successful means of commerce, including the free flow of capital. This system of free market capitalism has lifted more than one billion people out of extreme poverty just in the twenty-first century thus far. It did not originate in Africa or China, although people in those places benefited from it. So did numerous other things that make the lives of people around the world immeasurably better. It is Western people who developed the principle of representative government, of the people, by the people, for the people. It is the Western world that developed the principles and practice of political liberty, of freedom of thought and conscience, of freedom of speech and expression. It evolved the principles of what we now call ‘civil rights,’ rights that do not exist in much of the world, whether their peoples yearn for them or not. They were developed and are sustained in the West, which though it may often fail in its aspirations, nevertheless tends to them. All this is before you even get onto the cultural achievements that the West has gifted the world. The Mathura sculptures excavated at Jamalpur Tila are works of exceptional refinement, but no sculptor ever surpassed Bernini or Michelangelo. Baghdad in the eighth century produced scholars of note, but no one ever produced another Leonardo da Vinci. There have been artistic flourishings around the world, but none so intense or productive as that which emerged around just a few square miles of Florence from the fourteenth century onward. Of course, there have been great music and culture produced from many civilizations, but it is the music of the West as well as its philosophy, art, literature, poetry, and drama that have reached such heights that the world wants to participate in them. Outside China, Chinese culture is a matter for scholars and aficionados of Chinese culture. Whereas the culture created by white people in the West belongs to the world, and a disproportionate swath of the world wants to be a part of it. [W]hat cannot be disputed is the most devastating proof of all, which is the simple matter of footfall: a footfall that is entirely one-directional. For there is, even today, no serious movement of peoples in the world struggling to get into modern China. For all its financial prowess, the world does not wish to move to that country. It does want to move to America and will go to extraordinary lengths—even the risk of life—to reach that goal. Similarly, there is no serious global effort to break into any of the countries of Africa. Indeed, a third of sub-Saharan Africans polled in the last decade said that they wanted to move. Where they want to move is clear… The migrant ships across the Mediterranean go only in one direction—north. The people-smuggling gangs’ boats do not—halfway across the Mediterranean—meet white Europeans heading south, desperate to escape France, Spain, or Italy in order to enjoy the freedoms and opportunities of Africa. No significant number of people wishes to participate in life among the tribes of Africa or the Middle East. There is no mass movement of people wishing to live with the social norms of the Aboriginals or assimilate into the lifestyle of the Inuit, whether those groups would allow them in or not. Despite everything that is said against it, America is still the world’s number one destination for migrants worldwide… So if you ask me what is good about being white, what white people have brought to the world, or what white people might be proud of, this might constitute the mere beginnings of a list of accomplishments from which to start.”
Where does one start with this kind of outright white supremacist bloviating? We could point out how fast and loose Muray is with the facts about the enormous contributions of non-white peoples to everything from vaccines to cancer research and policy. Or we could observe that it does not occur to Murray that much of what he says here is consistent with a theory that predominantly white countries are simply the richest countries and have amassed fortunes through imperial warfare. In a hypothetical world where a small group of people had ruthlessly exploited and conquered others, amassing a great deal of wealth in the process and leaving others impoverished, it might well be the case that the society of the conquerors was the most prosperous and desirable to live in.
Before he treats Middle Eastern refugees’ desire to enter the West as a sign of Western superiority, Murray might want to reflect on the fact that U.S. wars in the region since 9/11 have displaced 37 million people, the largest mass displacement of human beings since World War II. These displaced people have, as Brown University’s Costs of War project explains, “fled air strikes, bombings, artillery fire, drone attacks, gun battles, and rape. People have fled the destruction of their homes, neighborhoods, hospitals, schools, jobs, and local food and water sources. They have escaped forced evictions, death threats, and large-scale ethnic cleansing set off by the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in particular.” (These were wars that Murray was an aggressively vocal supporter of in his early work.)
But one could go back a little further to the early 20th century, when imperial powers like Britain and France reneged on their promise to support independence for the subject states of the defeated Ottoman Empire and carved up the region for themselves with minimal respect for religion, language or culture. When countries like Syria did obtain independence in the aftermath of the Second World War, they inherited the fragile institutions Europeans had imposed from above and which often set peoples against one another as part of a “divide and rule” strategy. This bore dark fruit just a few decades later when, facilitated by imperialist destabilization, Syria descended into a horrifying civil war that included everything from torture and mass rape to the use of chemical weapons against children. The refugees fleeing this situation were the “immigrants” apparently bringing about the slow death of Europe Murray still rants on about.
One reason Murray makes the case that white people are morally and culturally superior is that he does not wish for Western countries to have to pay for their crimes. When he discusses slavery, Murray emphasizes repeatedly that slavery was not an exclusively Western phenomenon, to the point of making the extraordinary statement that “the forgotten history of slavery, like colonialism, is not the history of what the West got wrong but the history of what the West got right.” Astonishingly, one piece of evidence Murray cites to support this claim is the fact that until 2015, Britain was still paying compensation to the descendants of slaveholders for the loss of their property. For Murray, this is not proof of a hideously topsy-turvy set of moral priorities, in which the enslavers rather than the enslaved were treated as the ones who deserved compensation. Instead it is proof that Britain was willing to pay a very high price to abolish slavery, and Murray favorably quotes a judgment that the “‘suppression of the Atlantic slave trade, it has been claimed, constituted ‘the most expensive example’ of international moral action ‘recorded in modern history.’” Because abolishing slavery was already costly (due to huge payments to former slaveholders) there is no need for Britain to consider further action to make up for the crime. Nor does Murray mention that Haiti, a former slave-colony that won its independence from France in 1804, was isolated by Thomas Jefferson and other countries for being a dangerous precedent. The French then used the threat of military intervention to demand that the newly freed Haitians pay former slaveholders the equivalent of $20-30 billion in today’s money. When activists demanded France pay the extorted money back in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake—which killed hundreds of thousands and left countless more starving—the response of successive governments has been to shrug their shoulders.
In dismissing the need for reparations, Murray resorts to quite literal “whataboutism,” saying that “independent Brazil continued to encourage the slave trade right up to the 1880s” and “today in Saudi Arabia and across the Middle East, black people are referred to as Abid’… which literally means ‘slave.’” When it comes to assessing the actual case for reparations in the United States in particular, Murray says that it’s unfair and couldn’t be done, because it would be “people who look like the people to whom a wrong was done in history receiving money from people who look like the people who may have done the wrong.” The idea is that reparations would be impractical and in of themselves racist. But this ignores the simple facts of the issue: the demand for reparations is best seen as a demand for the fulfillment of a property right that should have been passed down. Slavery illegitimately moved wealth from one group to another, and the lingering effects of that wealth transfer are clear. When the descendants of white enslavers passed wealth down through the generations, the point is that that wealth was not theirs to transfer, and so we have a resulting situation where many Black people are legally deprived of their rightful inheritance. It is true that the process of deciding who in particular deserves reparations and how much is not an easy one, but what we should be able to agree on is that the Black-white wealth gap (a gap that existed continuously since the time of slavery) is the product of an illegitimate expropriation that needs to be corrected for, because it is still causing injustice in the present day. Instead of dealing with this point, and the serious work that has been produced on the subject of reparations, Murray warns that identifying the descendants of slaves would require a “genetic database” which would be “intrusive.”
Let us conclude by remembering that someone honestly committed to Enlightenment principles of rational inquiry, of the kind Murray defends, must be willing to do a few things. They must be willing to face unpleasant facts and not downplay or wave them away. They must represent their critics fairly and not make hyperbolic allegations. Murray, on the other hand, fudges the facts and concocts a deranged fantasy-world in which critics of Western culture and politics (even such friendly ones as Edward Said) are pathological and insane. His work is of low quality intellectually, but it is insidious because it tells a mainstream audience that it is reasonable to have an arrogant belief in white superiority. In the catastrophe of the Iraq war, we saw what the devastating human consequences of Murray’s clash-of-civilizations worldview could be. Instead of reckoning with how badly the war he advocated turned out, Murray has doubled down on a toxic set of views. The more people are persuaded by them, the more likely we are to face future terrible wars fueled by the kind of paranoia, delusion, overconfidence, self-satisfaction, imperial superiority, and bigotry that drip from the pages of Murray’s work.