A Conversation With Douglas Murray
The War On The West and other matters
My interview with Douglas Murray, author most recently of The War on the West, should drop shortly on the Fox podcast feed — in advance, here’s a transcript of a portion of our conversation, which touches on Bill Maher, Jon Stewart, China, Russia, and American conservatives fed up with western decadence.
Ben Domenech: My sister texted me yesterday a picture of one of these “little libraries” that someone had in front of their house. On the side of it is a note: “Fill me up with authors who are: of color, neurodiverse, differing abilities, LGBTQ.” So I responded “well, I would just bring Frederick Douglass, Thomas Sowell, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Camille Paglia, Deirdre McCloskey, and Clarence Thomas’s autobiography”.
Douglas, they're using these elements now to drive out the “old dead white men” who still offend us despite not walking around anymore. When you talk about someone like Thomas Jefferson, obviously he's someone who is full of conflicts, but he is one of the most important Americans who ever lived. How can we restore someone like him that used to be at the center of American life? We had Jefferson-Jackson dinners among the Democratic Party for decades upon decades upon decades, gathering to fundraise, citing two of the greatest presidents they would claim. But they do not claim them anymore.
Douglas Murray: Well, this is a big problem, because you cannot unify a country or a culture if you are totally divided on the nature of what you have been.
A people who have fallen out, as it's undoubtedly the case in America’s political sides have, very rabidly, must find things they agree on.
Now, I would say that there are two big things in the 20th century that Americans agreed on. One was that they have been a force for good in the world, particularly in intervening in the Second World War. In helping to win the Second World War, America was able to live off that. Jonathan Haidt and others that wrote about this were able to live off the virtuous fumes of that success. And that was good. That was absolutely right. America had something to be deeply proud of because she had sent her sons across the world to fight for freedom. This was something about which Americans could be very, very proud, and only people on the furthest fringes of American political thought that it wasn't something to be proud of.
The second bit of it was moral fumes that Americans were able to live off was the civil rights movement — the recognition that there had been a largely peaceful reckoning with a historic injustice, and that the civil rights movement was the apex of this, led by extraordinary people who were American, who helped to rectify a terrible wrong at home, and that this had not been rectified as other countries have rectified their problems by mass violence and so on. But that had been litigated politically and morally.
You can see that this united people because until very recently as I would say when Dr. Martin Luther King's moral vision was completely inverted, everybody still wanted a piece of that action. We still admired people in the West who had been involved in civil rights struggles. We admired the people who had patriotically and decently course-corrected their nation — so much so that, long after that battle to be won, people still wanted to have a part of it.
Now, I would argue even that is exhausted, as is the moral victory abroad in the 20th century. Exhausted in the sense Americans can't agree even on that recent past. So, of course, they can't agree on the 19th century or the Founding Fathers, let alone when there are activists in the country — like the 1619 Project, like Robin D'Angelo, people who lie about American history. And I catch them out on the lies again and again. These are people deliberately trying to tear America apart. And the way to try to rectify that is to try to do the opposite and to try to find things that were agreed upon.
For instance, yes, the Founding Fathers lived in a time of slavery and some of them were involved in slavery. Well, at that time, everybody in the world was involved in slavery to some extent. Every civilization in the world had slavery. The thing that was remarkable about the West, was that the West was the civilization that abolished slavery itself, and then sought to abolish it everywhere else as well. Now, that would seem to me to be a perfectly plausible and indeed admirable position, as well as a truthful one about the American past.
One of my other bugbears about this is the rewriting of the Columbus story, which has obviously been going on for many years now. Can you agree that it was a good thing that Columbus discovered the Americas? It was a good thing that the Americas are as they are. It's a good thing. I'm glad that he didn't didn't take a wrong turn. I'm glad that Columbus didn't return home and say, “actually, there's nothing much to see out there.” I'm glad that Columbus didn't see it as a large piece of real estate we should leave to itself. I'm glad that people from Europe arrived. I'm glad that this country has been built up by people of all sorts of different backgrounds.
I think the American success story relies on these things existing as part of the story of America. And to see everything about it from the beginning to the present day solely in this negative light, I'm afraid if that continues, America will continue to be torn apart. So as you say, it's not like this belongs to one political side or should belong to one political side. The story of America, the story of the West, belongs to everybody who wants to be a part of it.
Ben Domenech: In March, right after the election of Joe Biden, there was a meeting of officials from the Chinese government with our top State Department officials in Alaska, where the Chinese and Yang Xi, their foreign representative, the equivalent of our State Department head, lectured all of our people. They said essentially: “we believe it is important for the United States to change its own image and to stop advancing its own democracy in the rest of the world. Many people within the United States actually have little confidence in the democracy of the United States.” And they cited as reasons for this. You know, “you accuse us of being racist and discriminatory and even genocide of the of the Uyghur Muslims. Well, there's a genocide on your streets and it's a black Americans and you're murdering them with your police forces. And you say that we are meddling in the affairs of nations around the world. Well you meddle in the affairs of nations around the world too.”
They essentially were approaching this meeting with the aim of utterly degrading our moral authority and using language that, frankly, to me sounded like it sounded like Nicole Hannah-Jones. To what degree, when we confront the war on the West, are we confronting not just the local school board, the local official or bureaucrat or person who has been infected with the mind virus of the 1619 Project, but are we confronting our actual enemies? Enemies who would like to see the degradation of the West, who have invaded and who have invaded us in a way that the Soviet Union never could achieve?
Douglas Murray: That's right. The example I give as well as the one you just cited, that the Chinese taking advantage of our own self-harm, which is factually what is going on, is what happened in the United Nations last year, around the same time. The American ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, on one of these U.N. International Racism Awareness days, which obviously it's one of those days, it always doesn't look massively practically helpful in preventing racism.
Ben Domenech: And then we had lunch.
Douglas Murray: We had the one-day conference to end it. And you know, this U.N. conference was addressed by the U.N. through the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., who denounced her own country as having been guilty of racism and it being its original sin from the beginning, and said that America was still a very racist society. She talked about George Floyd's murder killing. She talked about the Asian fire incident that had recently happened, which actually turned out to have nothing to do with race. And she presented this just then, very fresh crime as evidence of further racism in America. So she she not only said things that had happened, but she said and cited things that hadn't happened for racist reasons as being yet more evidence of America's ongoing racism.
What did she say at the end of her remarks after attacking America throughout most of her speech? She says that it's true that there is racism going on elsewhere in the world today, such as the events in the Xinjiang province of China, where a million Muslims are held in concentration camps. Well, guess who is up on the floor next? The Chinese Communist Party's ambassador to the United Nations, who says: “America has done something exceptional. Today, their representative has come to the floor of the United Nations and confessed to their nation's guilt. So America is in no position to lecture us.”
Well, what self-harm is there. What a shot in both of America's feet. First of all, America’s representative at the United Nations lies about America, lies that, for instance, the killing of George Floyd is in some way typical of America rather than highly atypical and unusual. And then, after having done so, is amazed to discover that the countries that have a million people in concentration camps at the same moment don't want to listen to America.
Why? Because America has just handed them a very easy opt-out. If the American representatives like Blinken, like Thomas-Greenfield, seem to find it very hard to realize that even taking a good and reasonable attitude towards ourselves in the West, anything we have done historically which is bad will be used against us by our competitors and advocacies. Always, always. But to invent new reasons to give them is something quite exceptional.
Just last week, the China Daily News, which is one of the organs of the Chinese Communist Party, put out a cartoon online of Uncle Sam behind the Oval Office desk, surrounded by corpses and said, “this has always been America.” And of course, they do this because, again, a new generation of people in the West believe this stuff. People at the Chinese Communist Party, and to a lesser extent Vladimir Putin's Kremlin, tried to take advantage of this narrative of the West, within the West. And as a result, a lot of people follow this.
Of course, we need to push back against this very straightforwardly. The Chinese Communist Party is not sincerely concerned about racist deaths. It is not remotely concerned about the separation of families. Anyone who thinks otherwise speaks of the Muslims, Shanghai, the citizens of Hong Kong — which used to be such a terrific and thriving place and now under the grip of the Chinese Communist Party, has become a hellhole.
Ben Domenech: I like your invocation of that Greenfield event, which I banish from my memory, bring brings to mind the old Daniel Patrick Moynihan the late, great response to the Soviet Union. “Am I embarrassed to speak for less than a perfect democracy? Not one bit. Find me its equal.”
Douglas Murray: Which is quite a contrast.
Ben Domenech: There is this thread that I find so fascinating of modern liberals. One of these people is Bill Maher, who has managed to basically rile up everybody by simply expressing the same views of your average ACLU donor in 1990. And contrast that for a moment with Jon Stewart, who has come back from a time away from television and now seems to be prostrating himself in front of the people who've become powerful in the time since. They were both liberals back in 1999, but also people who believed in the American project and in the project of free speech and Enlightenment values. Yet now they seem to be on opposite ends of the spectrum, certainly politically, in terms of the way that they approach things. Jon Stewart was basically reduced to trying to lecture Cory Booker on one of his episodes, claiming he wasn't fully informed on racism. Tell me about the contrast there. Why did these liberals kind of shoot off in different directions?
Douglas Murray: It's a very good point and a very interesting question, because, you see, I completely agree with you. Obviously, these two guys started from a similar place and have now ended up in wildly divergent ones.
Jon Stewart in his current Apple series, which is very little watched, as it turns out — and surprise surprise, why would it be? I mean, given that one of the recent episodes was called ‘The Problem With White People’, I mean, “tune in for a whole hour of masochism, tune in for an entire hour where Jon Stewart will tell you you're scum.” Fantastic. What's not to like?
Look, the problem that's happened is like the problem has happened in all of this other sort of social movements of our time in The Madness of Crowds. For all of the trends that came rocketing toward everyone in recent years, there were people who held their ground and there were people who didn't. And the people who held their ground, you couldn't always predict who they would be. But for instance, you would have left-wing women who said “no, I fought all my life for women's based rights, and I'm not going to give them up now. Even if you come at me with, you know, the big bearded man, once he slips into the pool, becomes a woman. Even if you do that, I'm not giving in.”
You could predict with some accuracy who they would be, but not with complete accuracy, because other people just decided, “I want a quiet life. I'll go along with it.” There's something complex going on. “I don't really have the time to look at it. Sure, whatever.”
Now, the interesting thing is that clearly Bill Maher continues to think about these things, look very closely at the culture. He has a very good radar and a sense of it. I don't think he would agree with either of our politics in the round. No, no. But he recognizes that.
Bill Maher has held on to a particular position. And as you say, it's not even it's not as if it's a dogmatic position. It's what I would regard as being a classical liberal, open-minded position. He's certainly not a conservative, but he's certainly not a radical leftist.
Jon Stewart appears to have gone into the wilderness and come back completely lost. He looks lost to me, his whole appearance. Look, this man who's been badly deflated now, I'm afraid.
Ben Domenech: This is a forty days in the desert kind of look.
Douglas Murray: Yes, exactly. Doesn't he just? And I'm afraid the people like that there is there are some people who, you know, literally the sort of cultural revolution comes at them. They're tired or they're beleaguered or they just don't have the energy. And they just say, “yeah, okay, whatever I need to say. Sure.” And it seems to me very sad, because there was a time when he was a very good comedian, a very good host.
Ben Domenech: He was at the apex. Yeah. For a moment.
Douglas Murray: And he seems to have gone away, come back, lost his mojo, and just agreed to go along with the current claims. And of course, there are lots of reasons to feel sadness about that, one of which is, you know, that was a good person who's just become another automaton.
But another is that, you know, I think it shows something about your character that you would change like that. You see, if somebody comes along that makes a set of claims, you should have the self-respect to interrogate those claims. You know, “is what I'm being told actually true?”
So, for instance, on this recent show, supposing one about white people, as I mentioned. Recently, I was in Washington over the weekend and saw Andrew Sullivan, who Jon Stewart and the rest of his panel tried to put through a public struggle session like something from Cambodia during the Cultural Revolution.
Ben Domenech: I've been recommending Frank Dikotter’s The Cultural Revolution to everyone who will listen to me in the last two years, it’s absolutely reminiscent.
Douglas Murray: Absolutely. But, you know, Jon Stewart would desire clearly to show up Andrew Sullivan as racist, which is ridiculous. The other people on the panel were saying things that were so ridiculous. For instance, there was a woman on the panel who said she's the woman who does these fantastical dinners where white women pay thousands of dollars to go to dinner and be told about their racism. Anyway, the woman who runs this racket says at one point, I don't want to listen to any more white men talking, because if white men could solve racism, you've had 400 years to do that and you haven't.
Now a self-respecting person, a self-respecting thinker, as Jon Stewart was once, would have said, “What do you mean by that? What do you mean that white people had 400 years? The white man had 400 years to solve racism and haven't. And therefore, all white men should shut up. Now, what is it that white women, for instance, can solve today that white men can't help and solve? What is it? What is it that is so bad about white men and what they've done?”
You would ask very basic questions like that before you allowed somebody to so smugly and dogmatically just whisk away the population. And Jon Stewart did none of that. And I'm afraid it just demonstrates in my mind he's lost his critical mind. He's lost his critical faculties. He's decided to bow to the moment. And in the process, we've probably lost him.
Ben Domenech: So you have written a book that includes much about the left's assault on the West, which I think my listeners are probably quite familiar with. But there is a pincer action here, which you have to acknowledge. There is a strain, they might call themselves common good conservatives, they might describe themselves in different ways. Sohrab Amari is a good friend of mine. We are close. I disagree with many of his positions. He has not taken, to my mind a position as disgusting as something like Adrian Vermeule, who has essentially become a pro-China interlocutor extraordinaire.
Douglas Murray: Yeah, it's really quite depressing for me to see.
Ben Domenech: There is this faction of the right that basically says, “say what you will about the Chinese Communist Party, but they do not have trans twerking library hour.” To which I would respond: “Well, they do have genocide.”
How do we adjudicate that? Because many of these people are people who are intellectuals, they're academics, they're not dumb people. Yet they seem to be taken in by this idea that the West has become decadent, and that Enlightenment values have turned out to be a failure, dominated by globalists and neoliberalism. And we ought to reject it in favor of either a Putinesque rediscovery of orthodoxy, which is a sham, or that we ought to have some kind of new, more authoritarian “common good constitutionalism” as opposed to originalism.
Douglas Murray: Yes. Well, I'm afraid I think these are people who are advocating that we take strychnine to cure us of a cold. And I cannot go along with that cure.
I see this on parts of the right and I very much am I recognize that it does have a historic strain. There has always been a part of the right that laments decadence and sometimes with understandable reasons it can whip itself up into a fever, which is, I think, what some of the people are describing here are doing. They're whipping themselves up into a fever and as a result, they make that fatal mistake that things cannot be worse than they are.
Ben Domenech: But “The worst is not, so long as we can say, ‘This is the worst.’”
Douglas Murray: Exactly. I mean, I am put in mind of — frankly, I don't mean this in a personal sense in any way against Sohrab, but it puts me in mind of the people in the last days of the Shah, who thought "you could not have worse. It puts me in mind of the people who thought that there was nothing worse than the Court of Paris and had yet to experience the Terror.
It is always the case that there are criticisms to be made within a liberal democracy, because liberal democracies are messy, we are necessarily noisy, and we have to permit things that we do not want to take part in. That's just the nature of tolerance that the West has gone through. It is understood since John Locke at least. We should be able to understand that. We should be able to address the excesses of liberalism and all of that without for a moment thinking that an authoritarian system is therefore the answer.
There have been conservatives who've said in recent months and certainly in recent years, and I think this is a complete crock: “You know, Vladimir Putin knows which bathroom to use.” Well, sure. That's not the only thing of interest. Not invading countries and shelling civilian populations is also an important thing.
I think there is a form of conservative pessimism that always exists. They're not always wrong. But where they go wrong is when they think that because liberalism has excesses, the answer is totalitarianism, particularly Chinese totalitarianism. I always say if you dislike the era of American hedgemony, you're going to love the era of Chinese Communist hegemony.
Ben Domenech: If you didn't like an era in which we were in charge, try the era in which they are in charge.
Douglas Murray: Yes. And Ben, as you note, younger people in particular, which I'm thinking college age students, don't have the perspective on that.
Ben Domenech: No, they assume that this existence is the natural order of things.
Douglas Murray: Exactly. And you see it. And in this situation, that needs rectifying by adults.
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