Neither the Right nor the Left is doing a good job of defending, representing or embodying the values of our civilisation. Meanwhile, our public opinion is seduced by the dream of a world without enemies, by the pathologies of relativism—cultural, moral and epistemological
The future of Western civilisation will depend on how well the present can mobilise the intellectual resources of the past to meet the challenges of the future. Today, we are threatened by an unprecedented array of external adversaries and dangers, ranging from Islamist terror and Russian or Chinese aggression to the fall-out from failed states. We also face internal threats—above all the collapse of confidence in Judeo-Christian values and democratic capitalism. Can either the Left or the Right rise to the challenge of the present crisis? Or are both political traditions mired in self-destructive mind-sets that prevent them from grasping the scale of the task, let alone reversing the decline?
I want to begin with the Right, because the crisis of conservatism in Europe, America and here in Australia seems too deep to be explained by the vagaries of individual personalities or parties. Most leaders of the centre-Right in the Western democracies appear to be the prisoners of their own anxieties: the fear of proscription by the self-appointed guardians of self-righteousness; the fear of humiliation for failure to flatter those who parade their status as victims; and the fear of oblivion for simply ignoring the clamour to do something when there is nothing useful to be done. The watchword of many a conservative statesman used to be masterly inactivity; now it is miserly depravity. There seems no place for the old-fashioned conservative who steers a steady course, is frugal and firm yet decent and honest; who, rather than pick people’s pockets, leaves their money to fructify there—in short, the John Howards of this world. When Theresa May, a strong prime minister in this tradition, took office two months ago after the vote for Brexit, she felt the need to make gestures to the nanny state: an “industrial policy” and an “equality audit”. Why does she think the British state, whose record of central planning and social engineering is lamentable, should repeat the follies of the past? Could it be that Mrs May still feels the need to appease the gods of socialism, in which nobody, least of all she, still believes? It seems scarcely credible. Yet the same phenomenon is observable everywhere. Conservatism as a living tradition, a coherent conceptual framework for freedom under the law, has been hollowed out and filled with the detritus of defunct ideologies.
Much of what is popular in so-called “populism” is drawn from the discarded stock of conservative thought, dressed up in revolutionary rhetoric. A good example is patriotism, which has always been at the heart of conservative theory and practice, but is now expressed by politicians of the centre-Right only gingerly, accompanied by apologies and caveats, leaving the demagogues with their cynical appeals to xenophobia to exploit the natural pride that people feel in their country. Two centuries ago, Samuel Johnson already made the distinction between true and false patriotism when he famously remarked: “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” He probably had in mind William Pitt the Elder, the Earl of Chatham, known as the “Patriot Minister”, who was by no means a scoundrel; but we have plenty of false patriots who are. What has made them plausible, however, is the feeble expression of true patriotic pride by mainstream conservatives.
The nation-state is nothing to be ashamed of, especially those of the Anglosphere, and there is no virtue in politicians making apologies for historical events that took place before they or the putative victims were born. There is a phoniness about the way some liberal conservatives now talk about the past: for them society is no longer, in Burke’s immortal formulation, “a partnership between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born”. Instead, it is a perpetual conflict between the old and the young, the not yet past and the only just present, in which right is invariably on the side of the latter, the newcomers. It is a society in which the sagacity and generosity of age are not only denied their due, but positively excluded from consideration, in favour of the principle that the youngest are wisest. The Left is now less inclined than the Right to worship youth; the Bernie Sanders phenomenon is by no means unusual. What makes this pursuit of the ignis fatuus of novelty so counter-intuitive is that we live in ageing societies, the older members of which are both more prosperous and more likely to vote.
This may not be unconnected to another phenomenon: most Western democracies are moving slowly but steadily to the Right. Social democratic parties are shrinking everywhere; parties of the centre-Right are dominant. No longer do electorates feel intimidated by liberal elites, however much these elites scold them for rejecting their own liberalism, which ordinary people have noticed is often quite illiberal. The conservative problem, then, is not that the voters do not share conservative values; it is that the voters intuitively sense that the established representatives of the Right are themselves dismissive of those values. Conservative politicians for the most part just aren’t conservative enough. Corrupted by power, they have become inauthentic and duplicitous. Voters just don’t trust them to defend their own back yards, let alone Western civilisation.
If the Right is struggling to appeal to voters who doubt the good faith of its conventional politicians, the Left has the opposite problem. The same electorate that doubts whether slick conservatives mean what they say, also fears that bearded socialists might indeed say what they mean. My example here comes from Britain: Jeremy Corbyn, the Che Guevara of North London, now Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. In comparison with his Brooklyn-born counterpart Bernie Sanders, Corbyn comes off emphatically second-best. Corbyn lacks the natural eloquence of Sanders that enabled the Vermont senator to run Hillary Clinton so close in the Democratic primaries. But Corbyn is no less popular than Sanders with a privileged and vociferous section of the young, by promoting their interests, such as free university tuition, combined with much talk of inequality and injustice at home and abroad. The basic repertoire has not changed in nearly half a century, but the old tunes have found new audiences in both hemispheres—not large enough to win elections, but quite enough to recommence the long march through the institutions that has carried the Corbyns and Sanderses further than Gramsci ever imagined.
The anti-Western ideology that New Left academics such as Noam Chomsky were peddling in the 1960s is still being peddled by none other than … Noam Chomsky. The Cold War may have ended more than quarter of a century ago, but a war of ideas against the West is still being waged by the Marxists and their fellow travellers with undiminished ferocity. Corbyn, whose public utterances are scripted for him by the former Guardian columnist Seumas Milne (an unrepentant Stalinist), appears to be untroubled by the genocidal role of the ideology he espouses during the last century. Like Robespierre, the “sea-green incorruptible” as Carlyle called him, Corbyn believes that he himself is the people. Anyone who doubts that is a traitor.
But the cadaverous Corbyn is already being eclipsed by the new Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, who also hails from the far-Left, but is well aware of what is needed to woo middle-class voters who have much to lose by penal taxation and are deterred by socialist slogans. The fact that Khan has associated himself with fifty-seven varieties of Islamist extremist does not preclude him from following Tony Blair’s electoral playbook. It may be hard to imagine Jeremy Corbyn entering Downing Street as Britain’s first Marxist Prime Minister; it is not at all hard to imagine Sadiq Khan there as our first Muslim one.
Khan has successfully rewritten the narrative of how he won the mayoralty: by a broad appeal to Londoners of all ethnic and religious stripes, defeating a vicious Islamophobic campaign by the Conservative candidate Zac Goldsmith, who highlighted Khan’s Islamist links. The truth is rather different. The Conservative vote held up well, falling by only 60,000 from Boris Johnson’s winning total of 970,000 in 2012. But Sadiq Khan’s vote hugely increased by more than a quarter of a million to 1,150,000. Given the high turnout in certain districts, it is reasonable to conclude that Khan won mainly because London’s Muslims voted en bloc to elect their first mayor in any Western capital. Evidently Muslim voters were not deterred from supporting Khan by the fact that he had shared platforms with radical Islamists, represented them in court or otherwise associated himself with them and their views. Once elected, Khan reassured his core supporters by picking a fight over Islam with Donald Trump—who hasn’t even held office yet. Whatever one thinks of Trump, should alienating a potential US president really be the top priority for a new Mayor of London? I don’t have a problem with the Mayor of London being a Muslim—Rotterdam, for example, has a Muslim mayor who used a robust Anglo-Saxon word to tell Islamists who didn’t like life in the Netherlands what they could do with themselves. But Citizen Khan would never say such a thing. Islamists, after all, are among his core voters.
More worrying still, the mayoral election coincided with the anti-Semitism scandal in the Labour Party. It was set off by the former London mayor and Labour national executive member Ken Livingstone who, by claiming that Hitler had colluded with Zionists and shared their goal of a Jewish state, deliberately stoked up hatred of Israel and smeared Jews by extension. The resulting outcry put pressure on Corbyn, whose views on Zionism are indistinguishable from Livingstone’s and who has shared platforms with Hamas and Hezbollah. The Labour Party announced an “independent” inquiry into anti-Semitism within its ranks, but Corbyn made sure that it was chaired by a human rights activist, Shami Chakrabarti, who is not only a party member but has no expertise in anti-Semitism. She broadened the scope of the inquiry to include Islamophobia, delivered the required whitewash, and was rewarded with a peerage. The only Jew involved was an anti-Zionist academic.
Sadiq Khan distanced himself from Livingstone’s incendiary remarks, but given that polls suggest that up to half the Muslim community holds anti-Semitic views, the row may well have helped to get him elected. Once Citizen Khan was home and dry, he had himself photographed with the Chief Rabbi and attended a Holocaust memorial ceremony. The truth is, though, that Corbyn, Livingstone and Khan—like the rest of the Left—are all implacably hostile to Israel. Given that for the overwhelming majority of Jews, Zionism is part of their identity, the denial of Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state inevitably puts the Left on a collision course not only with Israelis but also with the Diaspora.
If the moral basis of the democratic Right since 1945 was to preserve the free world from communism, that of the democratic Left was to preserve it from a revival of Nazism. Anti-Semitism was the common factor in both forms of totalitarianism, in practice if not in theory, and so both Right and Left have a particular duty to expose and defeat it whenever and wherever it emerges. At least since the era of Reagan and Thatcher, support for Israel and opposition to anti-Semitism in all its manifestations have been articles of faith for the great majority of conservatives in the Anglosphere. Not so on the Left: there the demonisation of Israel—and, by extension, of the “Israel lobby”—has tempted the liberal conscience into adopting the vocabulary and agenda of anti-Semitism, from the Stop the War Coalition after 9/11 to the Occupy and BDS movements more recently.
Above all, the Left has—thanks to its long-standing aversion to such slippery notions as imperialism, orientalism and of course capitalism—made common cause with radical Islam, which often presents itself in a revolutionary guise, as it did during the Arab Spring. The proposition that the West is responsible for most, if not all, of the misfortunes of the world has a perennial appeal to the liberal imagination. Once, it meant turning a blind eye to crimes committed by communist regimes and their proxies; now it has translated itself into an uncannily similar attitude to oppression in the Islamic world. This betrayal of the West goes far beyond a fringe phenomenon.
As we have seen, neither the Right nor the Left is doing a good job of defending, representing or embodying the values of our civilisation. Those values come into play if, for example, the state treats human beings merely as a means rather than an end, or if executive authority is elevated above the law, or if the rights of conscience are subordinated to the sensibilities of groups or the imperatives of society. Conservatives are on guard against big government, while being alert to any abdication of its proper responsibilities to individuals and families; liberals have an overriding duty to protect the most vulnerable, at home and abroad, without allowing the entitlements of the living to burden generations as yet unborn. Our politics would still be recognisable to citizens of the Greco-Roman polis; we have not improved on the Enlightenment’s injunction to be ready to make the supreme sacrifice for the sake of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, just as we still divine the moral law encoded in our hearts and enshrined in the Bible. The story of the West is the exegesis of this incomparable, inexhaustible diamond mine of the intellect.
The disjunction between Left and Right only enters this story during the French Revolution, when the seating arrangements of the Estates General proved more memorable than the deputies to be seated. Yet the party antagonisms of liberals and conservatives, populists and elitists, progressives and traditionalists, seem to have usurped the political stage to the detriment of the defence of civilisation itself. This has historically been less true in time of war or other emergencies. During the Second World War, the bitter and destructive hostilities between communist and “bourgeois” parties were temporarily suspended, at least in some of the Allies, in order to defeat Germany and Japan. Similarly, during the Cold War, adversarial politics between anti-communists of Left and Right was kept within bounds because of the common enemy in Moscow. That came to an end after 1989, since when the polarisation of politics in America and Europe has only intensified. It has become commonplace not only for activists, but even for ordinary voters, to exclude anybody of the opposite persuasion from their circle of acquaintance. We saw this happen over Brexit in my country. I hope Australia is spared such extreme partisanship but it could happen here too. Ask Tony Abbott about his treatment by the media.
How very different, how utterly dismaying is such an uncharitable schism from the magnanimous spirit which once animated our great democracies! Today we find an almost total absence of solidarity across the democratic political spectrum against the threats that confront the West. Such magazines as Quadrant here in Sydney, Standpoint in London, the Weekly Standard in Washington, or Commentary in New York, can do something to rebuild the alliance against anti-Western ideologies that the Cold Warrior generation sustained from the 1950s to the 1980s. Yet the enemies of the open society are far more subversive now than in those days. They invade our space, physical and virtual, with ease. They saturate us with propaganda, deploying traditional media such as broadcasting stations, social media and every conceivable form of cyber-warfare directed at the West. With terrifying rapidity, hostile foreign powers are buying into our institutions and corporations, our universities and cities, literally and metaphorically; they are thereby buying influence on our policies and our silence about their atrocities. Let there be no illusions about the malign intentions of our antagonists, external and internal. China, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and other authoritarian regimes are out to undermine the intellectual pillars of democratic capitalism. Meanwhile, our public opinion is seduced by the dream of a world without enemies, by the pathologies of relativism—cultural, moral and epistemological—and by the need to fill the void created by ignorance of or hostility to the Judeo-Christian core of our civilisation.
The diagnosis, surprisingly, is more complex than the cure. There are numerous viruses attacking the Western body politic, but only one medicine. To face the future unflinchingly, we must return to the past: listen to the patriarchs and prophets, the ancestral voices of our literature, break open the arsenal of our intellectual history, and mobilise the resources of righteous indignation against the dominions, principalities and powers of darkness that threaten to overwhelm us. The great books, from Homer to Shakespeare, from Plato to Pascal, from Dante to Bellow, must once again not only be assigned to every student, but learned where possible by heart. The music of the masters, from Gregorian chant to George Gershwin, from Sebastian Bach to James MacMillan, from Palestrina to Arvo Pärt, must not only float across the courts and quads of our colleges, but fill our airwaves and headsets. The art and architecture of the West must not only fill our galleries and screens, but be protected from the vandals who threaten antiquities from Leptis Magna to Palmyra.
In short, we must celebrate Western civilisation as the living, breathing, flourishing organism that it is. Unless the coming generations embrace its treasures and make them their own, we will forfeit all that has ennobled the West and enabled the rest of humanity to be more humane. But a robust, self-confident culture alone is not enough: there must also be foreign and defence policies muscular enough, not only to support the democratic, liberating and civilising mission of Western civilisation, but also to keep that civilisation safe from predators. Just as the Chinese communists and others have embraced the market, not to dismantle their totalitarian power structures, but only to reinforce them, so they are now adopting the cultural habits and artistic tastes of the West, while ignoring (or persecuting) the religious roots of the laws and liberties that made such a civilisation possible.
And while the Islamists in general fear and abominate Western culture, or even wish to extirpate it, because they sense its power, there is always a danger that our political will may be insufficient to resist the demographic pressures now being brought to bear in Europe. I am speaking of France, in which a quarter of teenagers are already Muslims, or England, which within a generation may have followed the example of its capital. Europe’s “migration crisis” is not a crisis; it is the new normal. One does not need to have an iota of sympathy for Donald Trump’s crude discrimination against Muslims, or even advocate the mass repatriation of illegal migrants—by the time he leaves office Barack Obama will have deported nearly three million of them, more than all other presidents since 1892 combined—to see that the numbers now entering Europe and America are impossible to integrate.
If Western civilisation is to survive the mobilisation of mankind in pursuit of prosperity on a scale that dwarfs anything seen before, we shall have to restore the borders we have been striving to abolish for decades. It is not illiberal to make secure borders the quid pro quo for generous treatment of refugees. Australia, which has no choice but to keep its borders secure, is a nation built by immigrants. You have a points-based set of criteria for entry that enables you to deal fairly with all those who come here to work or settle, but which is also fair to those who already live here. And your system of processing asylum-seekers at centres outside Australia, though controversial in some quarters, has been highly successful in bringing mass migration from Asia under control. It is a model that Europe is belatedly beginning to emulate.
Will Western civilisation, which has endured the vicissitudes of millennia, survive this century? If those of us who care enough resolve to make that civilisational survival our highest goal, dedicating the best efforts of our free peoples to renewing that sense of moral purpose and intellectual curiosity we have lost over the past generation, then the inner strength that enabled us to win the Cold War will carry us through again. There is a bright future for us: given peace and security, a new golden age of science, philosophy and the arts could dawn, combining a renaissance of the West with a global enlightenment. A generation from now, it is possible to envisage a world in which, thanks to the spread of Western ideas and technology, not only tens of millions but billions of people are able to enjoy with Matthew Arnold and the rest of the West “the best that is known and thought in the world”—without the interference of their politburos and potentates, their warlords and guardians.
Here in Sydney, on my first visit to this country, I am particularly conscious of the precarious yet astonishing nature of Western civilisation. Having created this metropolis—one of the most magnificent in the southern hemisphere, indeed the world—and built a great nation, Australians know better than most that in this life we must forge our own destinies. It is no small achievement to have upheld the highest principles of humanity in a region where these have largely been lacking, as you have; to have maintained a stability and prosperity that is the envy of many older and more numerous peoples, as you have; and to have made a unique contribution across the whole breadth of the cultural landscape, from science and philosophy to comedy and cricket, as you have. The fact of Australia’s remoteness from Europe and America underlines the irrelevance of geography to what we now mean by Western civilisation. This continental Commonwealth has never shrunk from playing its part in defending the open society against its enemies.
Yet even here, in this paradise of the Antipodes, the defence of civilisation is never plain sailing. Here, as elsewhere in the West, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between those who are resolute in that defence and those who would rather compromise when the going gets rough. Though Australia has a prime minister from the more conservative of the two main parties, it was difficult to identify clear differences between Labor and the Liberals in the recent federal election. The voters returned Malcolm Turnbull to office with the slimmest majority possible. Maybe Australians found it hard to choose between two versions of social democracy. If the Liberals are not prepared to stand up for liberal—in other words, conservative—values because they are too worried about saving the planet from everyone who isn’t Australian while simultaneously apologising for Australia’s existence, then it is not surprising that they arouse only tepid reactions from voters.
If Australians have indeed ceased to be proud of their past, as is sometimes suggested, it implies that conservatives haven’t been doing their job properly. Perhaps John Howard had it right when he defined a conservative as “someone who does not think he is morally superior to his grandfather”. The Australian grandfathers who fought Nazi Germany in the Mediterranean and Atlantic, and Imperial Japan in the Pacific—a million of them, out of a population of just seven million—were if anything morally superior to us. That greatest generation, as Americans like to call them, bequeathed this rugged nation of pioneers a nobility of which it can be just as proud as those who trace their ancient lineage back to kings or emperors.
As a mere Pom, I hesitate to tell you how to think about your people and its place in Western civilisation. But you may forgive me quoting an expatriate Aussie, the poet and critic Clive James. Seven years ago we published a poem of his in Standpoint, “Nefertiti in the Flak Tower”, that subsequently became the title of his 2012 collection. It evokes the famous bust of the eponymous ancient Egyptian queen, miraculously preserved in a massive tower during the wartime air raids that devastated Berlin:
For five long years the flak towers stood
Fighting the enemy armies in the sky
Whose flying chariots were as the locusts:
An age, but less than no time to Nefertiti,
Who looks as if she never heard a thing.
I see Clive James’s Nefertiti as a metaphor for the survival of Western civilisation: even the most terrible destruction, such as we have seen in Syria and Iraq in recent years, cannot erase the treasures of the past. Yet that Nazi flak tower, like the pyramids and temples of Egypt, was built by slaves. The ambiguities of civilisation are as inescapable as its glories. The West must not allow these ambiguities to poison our collective memory, without which our civilisation cannot survive. What destroys a civilisation is not war—for it is possible to survive defeat—but the betrayal of the past by the present. Unless we cherish our past, we have no future.
Daniel Johnson is the Editor of the British monthly magazine Standpoint. This article was his contribution to the Quadrant symposium “The Future of Civilisation” held in Sydney on September 18