There are many ways to fracture a people. But one of the best is to destroy all the remaining ties that bind them. To persuade them that to the extent they have anything of their own, it is not very special, and in the final analysis, hardly worth preserving. This is a process that has gone on across the western world for over a generation: a remorseless, daily assault on everything that most of us were brought up to believe was good about ourselves.
Take Britain’s national heroes — the people who used to form the epicenter of my country’s feelings of national pride. Twenty years ago, Winston Churchill easily topped the BBC’s national survey identifying who the nation thought the Greatest Briton. Today whenever the BBC runs a piece about Churchill it includes the “case for the prosecution”: a set of tendentious and fallacious arguments now frequently made against him. This has consequences. When the outburst of iconoclasm crossed the Atlantic in the summer 2020, after the murder of George Floyd, Churchill statues were among the first to be assaulted. Indeed they were attacked so often that the statue in Parliament Square was boxed up, and only got unboxed when the French president arrived in London for the day.
It isn’t just Churchill who gets this treatment. Almost everyone in British history does. Again and again, largely due to our importing some of the worst ideas in modern American life, we are told that we need to scour our past and purge whatever fails to satisfy our current urges.
Two years ago the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, set up a Robespierrean “Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm,” made up of people who all seem to share a wholly negative view of the United Kingdom, one of whom is known for having once shouted at Her Majesty the Queen. And yet that commission is meant to decide what we are allowed to keep of our history. And not only what should come down, but what should go up in its place.
Where once Britain’s national story was one of pride and heroism, it has come to be looked at solely through the reductive, simplistic lens of racism, slavery and colonialism. Our civil servants and public appointees must demonstrate commitment to “Diversity, Inclusion and Equity” in order even to be allowed to work. Every political institution, including the House of Lords, is suffused with the same new dogma. Every major cultural institution has decided to “decolonize” — which means stripping us of our history or reframing it in an implacably negative light.
All of this has swept across our culture like a tsunami set off by America’s upheavals. There a cultural revolution is under way which consists of an assault on the foundations of the country. This includes a project of the New York Times which seeks to move the “founding date” of the American republic from 1776 to 1619, the year when slaves were first brought into the country. The nonhistorian who led this sloppy effort has been awarded a Pulitzer and chairs at American universities for her efforts. And it’s not just a matter of re-founding one country: the “1619 Project,” like its offspring in Britain, pretends that our nations were born in sin, everyone else’s into Edenic innocence.
Anybody found guilty of having lived in American history is torn down in a similarly remorseless way, from Christopher Columbus to Theodore Roosevelt. Absolutely no one is safe. The Founding Fathers have been rewritten. A couple of generations back, few Americans gave much thought to Thomas Jefferson’s ownership of slaves. Today it is almost the only thing anyone knows about him. Again, this has consequences. Last fall the statue of Jefferson that had stood in New York City Hall since 1833 was ignominiously removed, boxed up and wheeled out the back door. According to one city council member Jefferson no longer represents US “values.”
It is hard to think of anyone from two centuries ago who would. But in the relentless war on everything to do with western history at least the tactics are now clear. Aristotle and Plato have been denounced for not having 2022’s views on race. Similarly all the Enlightenment philosophers, so that David Hume’s name has come off buildings in Scotland. The charges are always the same: having views not exactly in line with those of the twenty-first century, being complicit in the slave trade, being complicit in colonialism. Or just being alive while these things were going on. When the evidence isn’t there, the anti-western “scholars” of our day have shown themselves perfectly willing simply to invent it.
What are the effects of this? Among much else, it is not remotely clear why societies which have such terrible pasts should ever rouse themselves to do anything in the present. Last year the US ambassador to the United Nations used the occasion of the UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination to denounce America for its “original sin.” She talked about the killing of George Floyd and presented a recent shooting at an Atlanta spa (which had nothing to do with race) as an example of ongoing racism. Toward the end of her speech, in passing, she remembered to mention the internment of around one million Uighur Muslims by the Chinese Communist Party. Funnily enough, China’s representative was up next. “In an exceptional case,” the Chinese Communist representative said furiously, the American had actually “admitted to her country’s ignoble human rights record,” and so had no right “to get on a high horse and tell other countries what to do.”
Until Russia invaded Ukraine in February this had become the default presumption of the competitors and opponents of the western powers: that our countries had so deracinated themselves, so scourged themselves for historic sins and so denuded them- selves of any decent approach toward their own history that they were unlikely to summon up the courage to stand up for themselves, let alone for their allies.
In fact Vladimir Putin’s war has done something to revive a sense of purpose and solidarity in the West. In one swoop the thirty-year-old question about the point of NATO has been answered. When Sweden and other countries join the alliance later this year it will be cemented further. Even countries such as Germany have shown themselves willing to do highly unusual things, like actually spend money on defense now that a real threat has re-emerged in their neighborhood.
But the idea that Russian tanks rolling into Ukraine will solve the West’s problems or clarify our minds already looks like a forlorn hope. In a March poll almost half of Americans said that if their country was invaded as Ukraine’s has been they would flee, not stay around and fight. Worst was that among eighteen- to thirty-four-year-olds only 45 percent said they would stand and fight, while 48 percent said they would flee.
But why would they not? Who would stay and fight for a country he has been told is rotten from the start, has no legitimate heroes and is riddled through even in the present by “white supremacy” and “institutional racism”? It is the same in other countries. The Europeans may have remembered that you have to spend money if you want to be able to defend yourselves. But more important still is to have a sense that you have something that is worth defending.
Putin, the CCP and others have looked at the West in recent years and seen increasingly fractious, riven and self-lacerating societies. Each has done what it can, online and off, to exacerbate this tendency. They think we are awful and irredeemable, and they are delighted if large swaths of our populations and hordes of political and cultural figures agree. In April one of the CCP’s propaganda papers tweeted an image of Uncle Sam behind the Oval Office desk, surrounded by corpses. The caption accused America of racism and family separations at the border. Perhaps the people of Xinjiang have something to say about the sincerity of that attack.
Of course, unity is not the only thing a nation needs, as Putin has demonstrated. But it’s not nothing either, as President Volodymyr Zelensky and the Ukrainian people have shown. The key question any country, any culture, has to answer is whether it wants to keep going. Most of the western powers have been told in recent years that they should keep going in order to find their way to greater equity, equality and a whole pile of other meaningless guff, including “diversity”: an entirely anti-western concept from its foundations.
The war in Ukraine may be just the first test of the western alliance. It is clear that in the near term the CCP is going to present a much more substantial challenge than Putin ever could. Will the West be willing to rise to that challenge? Only if we regain the sense that we have something worth preserving. And the knowledge we had in the Cold War that free western societies deserve to win out, not because it is in our interests to do so, but because we are better than the alternatives.
How some people will shudder at the idea of saying that aloud. But it is true. It is why the countries that most beat themselves up about their pasts are the countries that the world most wants to come to. We must be doing something right today, which means we must have done something right in our past. The rest of the world recognizes that fact by its footfall. It is time we started to recognize that truth ourselves.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s June 2022 World edition.