Redeeming Our Asymmetric Culture War

A toppled Christopher Columbus statue outside the Minnesota State Capitol in June 2020.

Carl von Clausewitz, the Prussian general and military theorist, once defined war as the “continuous interaction of opposites.” This is also an accurate description of our present culture, as a belligerent brigade of ‘woke’ activists launch a continuous assault on the fabric of Western civilization. A decade ago, these resentful loons would not have stood a chance. Today, the cultural warfare is nothing if not asymmetric. Douglas Murray’s latest book, The War on the West, seeks to rebalance this unfair fight. History and culture are important enough to merit a lively debate, but the one-sided onslaught on everything from Western art to our national heroes, thunders Murray, should not be indulged for a moment longer.

Universities have been captured to become left-wing strongholds and the institutions in which conservatives might once have sought refuge are now ruinous battlegrounds. Social media is the main theatre of the culture war—a zone monopolized by the Left, at least until Elon Musk’s deus ex machina acquisition of Twitter. But that was an anomalous victory for freedom of speech. Recent events have otherwise been grim for conservatives, classical liberals, and anyone else with at least some gratitude for the Western inheritance. As Murray explains, “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 the deepest hostility and simplicity.”

If anyone should wish to downplay this simplistic hatred as the antics of fringe activists, they will have to explain why so many of our institutions—galleries, museums, universities, churches, school boards, sporting associations, charities, corporations, publishers, newspapers—routinely surrender to its twisted demands. In recent years, especially after George Floyd’s death in May of 2020, these bodies have been bullied by a moral panic into rejecting their own histories, shaming themselves as ‘institutionally racist,’ and cancelling anyone who objects to the ‘woke’ firestorm through everything that we used to value until yesterday. The vengeful activism has migrated from the childish atmosphere of modern-day university campuses into adult society, infecting everywhere from the New York Times to the National Trust, from the CDC to the corporate world.

As Murray establishes beyond reasonable doubt, most of these institutions have shown no immune response. He details the nature of this war against the West in captivating detail, drawing endless examples from every corner of contemporary culture and exposing the intellectual origins of those behind the attack with tremendous precision, style, and good humour.

The “civilizational shift,” as Murray describes it, is well illustrated by the conduct of our universities. These were founded to preserve, transmit, and build upon the traditions and knowledge of the culture from which they drew life. But today, the West’s seats of higher learning have all but universally ditched their courses on Western culture, philosophy, and thought: “Just a couple of decades ago, a course in the history of Western civilization was commonplace. Today it is so disreputable that you can’t pay universities to do it.” The self-loathing has even risen to the top of the U.S. government: “one of the first acts of the new [Biden] administration,” Murray reminds us, “was to issue an executive order calling for ‘equity’ and the dismantling of what it called ‘systemic racism.’” Any civilization that is ashamed of its roots will not survive long in a hostile world.

Moreover, these stratospheric standards, set so high that no civilization, country, or heroic individual could pass them, are only applied in one direction—that is, against the Western countries that have done most to transcend the prejudiced aspects of their past. Running in the background is the spurious assumption, as Murray writes, that the non-Western world is “always made up of Edenic innocents.”

Among other things, this serves as a useful distraction tactic for non-Western thugs and despots. “After all,” writes Murray, “if the West is so occupied with denigrating itself, what time could it find to look at the rest of the world?” This produces a lop-sided international order: the UN will launch a probe into British systemic racism while hosting China on its human rights council. The Chinese Communist Party not only laughs its head off, but does what it can to sustain the wretched comedy. As Murray shows, the CCP often plays back the feed of Western anti-Westernism at the UN in order to deflect from their own atrocities.

The ‘woke’ promise of a purer world also becomes an excuse for racism at home, at least if directed at the right targets. In White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo boasts about revelling in generalisations against white people. Murray has spared the rest of us by going through this masterwork on our behalf. He finds a series of preposterous, unsubstantiated claims, such as, “There is a kind of glee in the White collective when Black bodies are punished.” And presumably, the guilt of collective sadism must be atoned by collective punishment. People like DiAngelo are not kind-hearted seekers of justice, but racist gurus hellbent on revenge. Murray writes with comic panache about the self-satirising absurdity which follows from her denial of our individual moral agency: “It became DiAngelo’s contention not only that white people were all racist but that white people who disliked being told that they were racist, or objected to being called racist, were simply providing further evidence of their racism.”

Crucially, the wildfire of ‘woke’ rage against the West destroys the self-worth that gives countries a reason to survive. In particular, Murray writes of the effort to reframe Western history, beginning with the voguish urge to revise the past of the American top-dog: “if the land you are on is simply stolen, the Founding Fathers were simply “slave owners,” the Constitution needs to be rewritten, and no figure in your history deserves respect, then what exactly holds this grand quarter-millennial-long project together?” It is also somewhat suspicious to teach American history as a uniquely poisonous tale of conquest, rape, and genocide, as though the temptation to commit such atrocities has only ever afflicted white settlers. Implicitly fuelling this slanted attack is the false notion that, prior to all of this European mischief, the various American Indian tribes lived in perfect harmony with one another under the Geneva Convention. (See this for why I use ‘American Indian’ instead of ‘Native American.’)

The novelist Kingsley Amis used to complain about the British adoption of American slang, but those were simpler, more innocent times. Today the British, along with Europe more generally, have chosen instead to imitate America’s self-destructive hatred for everything Western. Murray sets out the pattern of one-sided critique: “It is to zoom in on Western behaviour, remove it from the context of the time, set aside any non-Western parallels, and then exaggerate what the West actually did.” The history of slavery is distorted and comes to be seen as an especially Western sin, as if the Arab-run slave trade, not to mention the African practice of ‘man-stealing’ from rival tribes and selling those captured to the highest bidder, never existed. But Murray never allows these anti-Western revisionists to escape scrutiny for their sweeping, decontextualized claims. He subjects them to detailed analysis, drawing upon the historical record to prove at every turn that their hostile retelling of the Western story, from Columbus to Churchill, melts at any mention of the relevant facts.

The irony of the Western origins of anti-Westernism is not lost on Murray. He gives the example of post-colonial thinkers who, intent in shrugging off the legacy of Western colonialism, “find an answer for every non-Western society in Western Marxism.” Indeed, European countries, ashamed of their former empires, must now contend with aggressive demands to “decolonise” the curriculum. But in practice, this does not mean replacing the Italian Dante with some African equivalent, but forcing students to view empire through the lens of Critical Theory—a school of thought founded, awkwardly enough, by dead, white, European men (see if you can find a pastier face than Herbert Marcuse’s). This sleight-of-hand was brought to my attention by a former history professor, since retired. It should be pointed out more often.

But it also raises problems for Murray. The difficulty with The War on the West is less the word ‘war’ than the word ‘West.’ Even admirers of the West can admit that the word ‘Western’ is easier to use in a casual sense than it is to define precisely. Nietzsche disliked Plato, yet both belong to the West. Tolstoy could get nowhere with Shakespeare, yet both belong to the West. Western countries share a civilizational inheritance, yet no less than everywhere else, for centuries they have continually warred with one another. How can the notion of ‘a war on the West’ make any more sense than ‘a war on sport,’ which includes everything from snooker to lesbian dance? Murray acknowledges the problem and seeks to resolve it by defining ‘Western’ in its broadest sense: “European countries or countries descended from European civilization.” To say that European countries share a common culture is not to say that this culture has been perfectly harmonious, still, inoffensive, and unchanging. Murray would be the first to accept that at least since Socrates, Western civilization has been engaged in an endless, often violent dialogue with itself. This gift for relentless self-criticism is part of what makes the West unique. But can there be too much of a good thing? Can a culture be so introspective as to become fanatically self-absorbed and indulgently single-minded? Is it possible for a civilization to be so sophisticated that it can convince itself to commit suicide?

Indeed, the West seems to give rise to a particularly destructive variety of relentless self-criticism. Classical Marxism, postcolonialism, Critical Race Theory—these are Western products, often appropriated by the West’s enemies to attack Europe or North America. But they do not hail from Africa or the Far East. Murray appreciates this uncomfortable fact, describing the urge to wage war on the West, paradoxically enough, as “a very Western disease.”

This partly cashes out in the form of veneration for all that is non-Western, other societies providing a blank slate onto which might be written “all the habits, manners, and virtues that [are] seen as lacking in the West.” There is a religious urge, Murray explains, “to think of a place that is unspoiled.” But whereas our forebears viewed the loss of that prelapsarian state as redeemable only through Christ’s sacrifice, secular man in search of a soul believes that he must perform the act of redemption himself. The problem is that if the unspoiled place does not exist now, and it did not exist in the past, it can only belong to the future. Getting there requires all manner of sacrifices, propitiations, and rituals. Thus, modern Westerners, who think of themselves as nothing if not enlightened, continue to dance around the golden calf, except that the animal has a new and improved logo—‘#BLM,’ ‘#OurNHS,’ or ‘#TransVisibility’—emblazoned upon its hide every week. This is not the sign of a post-religious culture, but one seeking hastily to build new temples, devoted to some modern re-enchantment creed, out of the ruins of the old faith. Nietzsche believed that Christianity, by calling upon its adherents to pursue truth, had some share in the death of God—the most terrifying truth of all. It may also be that the West’s love of self-criticism, in the absence of an eternal divinity that can provide a forgiving moral standard by which to conduct such a critique, descends into hatred of the past, suspicion of the present, and an unbridled hankering after new gods in the promise of a future paradise on earth.

For those of us who lack faith in God but appreciate the world that Christianity has made, gratitude can fill the spiritual hole left gaping by disenchantment. Murray pens a beautiful chapter on this theme. As he writes, “just as the line between civilization and barbarism is paper-thin, so it is a miracle that anything at all survives, given the fragility of all things plus the evil and carelessness of which men are capable.” Gratitude is an essential human feeling that can avert such chaos—but it is one that we have forgotten to teach. 

Instead of gratitude, modern Westerners are schooled in the art of ressentiment, an emotion that Murray dissects with the help of Nietzsche. Murray correctly summarises what Nietzsche meant by ressentiment, an idea which is developed in Zur Genealogie der Moral. In this polemic, Nietzsche uses ressentiment to describe the psychological sleight-of-hand played by ostensible victims, who as a ploy to disguise their own failure, cunningly transfer their sense of pain onto an external scapegoat. Ressentiment, writes Murray, is “at its heart a yearning for revenge” identifying as “justice.” 

Murray’s discussion of ressentiment, however, is somewhat stripped from the context in which Nietzsche originally expressed the idea. After all, the German philosopher applied the word ressentiment to what he saw as the Christian “slave revolt in morals” that occurred in late antiquity and vanquished the superior “master morality” of pagan Rome. It was Nietzsche’s belief that the pagan glorification of strength, power, and conquest was eclipsed by the slavish humility of Christ. By glorifying caritas and mercy, the growing dominance of Christian values directed mankind towards meeker ends. Nietzsche viewed this process as regressive and “born of weakness.” His argument was that slave morality, being founded on the virtue of pity, amounted to an unhealthy obsession with vulnerability and lowliness. In a Christianized moral universe, according to Nietzsche, the full possibilities of human flourishing, as epitomized by great heroes like Caesar, were closed off in favour of a universal mediocrity. For Nietzsche, therefore, the opposite of ressentiment is not “gratitude,” but “powerful physical development, a richness and even superabundance of health, together with what is necessary for maintaining life, on war, adventure, the chase, the dance, the tourney—on everything, in fact, which involves strong, free and joyous action.” It is, in short, those qualities which enable the will to power.

Indeed, while Nietzsche was no fluffy egalitarian, he did share an important quality with the activists now waging war on the West: the desire for a new man. This creature, he believed, would have to create his own values and then fight for them resolutely to fill the space left vacant by the dying of gods. Still, despite Nietzsche’s potentially distracting presence, Murray’s hymn to gratitude is no less stirring to readers who are more appreciative than Nietzsche was of the Judeo-Christian ancestry of the West’s spiritual DNA: “a life lived without gratitude is not a life properly lived. It is a life that is lived off-kilter: one in which, incapable of realizing what you have to be thankful for, you are left with nothing but your resentments and can be contented by nothing but revenge.”

Gratitude is therefore central, but can it live alongside the self-criticism that is integral to the West? The common conceit of the atheist humanists, from Marx to Nietzsche, has been to regard their own philosophies as the culmination of that process whereby relentless self-criticism removes dead weight from the Western inheritance. These dramatic, forward-looking schemes to win ultimate human flourishing have no time for gratitude—a fetishization of the past that leads to inaction in the present and stands in the way of any philosophy of the future. The war on the West is being waged by people who, though they might be critics of Marx and Nietzsche in certain respects, have answered this call to invite new gods into a culture that has lost its Father. But the god of gratitude is not among them. Without restoring Christian piety to the centre of our culture, is it possible for us to live gratefully in the fullest sense?

Murray seems to think so, saying that modern Westerners “should be encouraged to look at what is all around them and just beneath their feet.” But what reigns above us? It is in our nature to stare at the heavens. When our ancestors did so, they found a God in whom both gratitude and judgement, along with the potential for forgiveness, were reconciled. To love God was to be grateful for His goodness, to be grateful for God’s goodness was to submit oneself to His law, and to submit oneself to His law was to be forgiven and cleansed. This Christian ethic was attacked by Nietzsche because it stemmed, as he saw it, from the ressentiment of the weak against those stronger men of excellence who, after all, make civilization what it is. But what is “strength” in a lasting way? In contrast to Nietzsche’s desire to equate it with the power to dominate others and to become a master of destiny, only a civilization that counts itself grateful for the triad of love, judgement, and ultimate forgiveness can remain strong through time. Unmoored from God, the Western knack for relentless self-criticism degenerates into pure, directionless judgement, with gratitude and forgiveness thrown into exile.

Of course, we can always invite these virtues home. But does God also come attached? It is not yet clear whether gratitude will be enough to save Western civilization if the people born into it no longer know whom to thank.

Harrison Pitt is a writer for The European Conservative. Based in the UK, he has also been published in The Spectator, Quillette, Spiked-Online, The Critic, and others.