Immigration and European self-confidence
An answer to Douglas Murray
Brexit, mass immigration and a refugee emergency have caused a crisis of confidence among European nations. In this review of Douglas Murray's The Strange Death Of Europe, a new proposal is offered to re-establish common values in Europe, based on a shared tradition of liberty, art and the Romantic ideal of human progress.
‘Here is a place of disaffection’, writes TS Eliot in Four Quartets (1943). The passage from which this line is taken depicts a world that we can all too easily recognise today:
‘Neither plenitude nor vacancy. Only a flicker
Over the strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration
Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind
That blows before and after time,
Wind in and out of unwholesome lungs
Time before and time after.’
‘Disaffection’ does not just mean feeling alienated or without meaningful purpose, it refers to a feeling of disillusionment with the powers that be, a loss of faith in the legitimacy and authority of a system. The poet sees only a crowd ‘distracted from distraction by distraction’, walking around in the frittering, littered streets in a state of apathy and meaninglessness. ‘Not here/Not here the darkness, in this twittering world.’
Eliot describes a sense of being lost from tradition, and all that tradition brings: a sense of quiet worship, a direction for the soul, the marriage of the sacred and worldly, a healthy knowledge of our own impermanence, which paradoxically connects us to the eternal.
In Four Quartets, Eliot describes modern spirituality as an internal and lonely journey. Whatever holiness we experience is confined to the privacy of isolated minds. Whatever transcendence exists, is nowhere to be found in civic or public life.
The strange death of Europe
A professed fan of TS Eliot, Douglas Murray must have turned to this poem more than once during his writing of The Strange Death of Europe. Douglas Murray’s argument is that two forces or ‘chains of events’ are destroying modern Europe. Firstly, mass immigration is placing far too much stress on the resources of nations, and putting the already fragile structures of sovereignty and identity at risk.
The second ‘concatenation’ of events that Murray examines is the tendency to devalue European identity and culture, to view every other culture as unique and sacred, except for our own. In Murray’s view, the emphasis on ‘tolerance’ and ‘diversity’ is really just an ersatz liberalism. These are weak words, used to gloss over awkward truths of immigration by appeal to common decency. For Murray though, such words do more harm than good. Behind these platitudes, says Murray, lies a sloppy nihilism, a political agenda which has more to do with cheap labour and globalist economics than preserving the rights of citizenship.
Murray’s arguments for caution and concern are common sense enough, but too often he seems to assume his conclusion rather than proving it - that Europe cannot take the strain, or that Britain has been ‘altered beyond recognition.’ He is right to issue a warning, and critique the way immigration has been glossed over as nothing but the brilliance of ‘diversity’. However, his claims that mass immigration threaten the stability and welfare of UK are extreme conclusions to draw, even if we acknowledge the challenges he describes. Part of Murray’s problem here is that he is not presenting an economic argument. His book is not concerned with the wealth generated by immigration. His argument is about the cultural impact of mass immigration and its corresponding erosion of European self-confidence. This is not an argument that can be made through a rigorous citation of statistics, although he backs up his arguments with plenty of research. Murray’s project is essentially an argument of narrative, whereby he presents a horribly alternative way to interpret recent history, compared to the story we are typically fed by the globalist consensus.
In a brilliant chapter on Europe’s ‘tiredness’ with history, Murray traces the beginnings of the continent’s ‘disaffection’ back to the scholarship of Johann Godfried Eichhorn in the nineteenth century, whose treatment of biblical texts as literary artefacts rather than sacred scriptures, dislodged Christianity from its pride of place in European culture. The bible became merely another academic curiosity, like the texts of Ovid, Virgil and Plato. Carrying on into the twentieth century, Europe becomes further disillusioned with any notion of a universal ideal of transcendence, as its people watch both Fascism and Communism fail violently in their attempt to impose a global ideal, in place of Christianity. The result, says Murray, is not only a loss of religion, but a loss of faith in the power of ideas. Along with the usurpation of Christianity, comes a modern nihilism, a suspicion in any creed offering a universal system of transcendent value. The humanist tradition - the belief that human beings can become better through the power of ideas - is as much a casualty of recent history, says Murray, as faith and religion have been. The result is the state we are in now, where Europe suffers from a sickness of meaning, having first lost its God, then tried to replace it with philosophy and culture, only to find those replacements severely wanting, if not dangerous when taken to their logical conclusion. When the humanist tradition tried to replace God with man and the glorious possibilities of man’s potential, it unwittingly unleashed the crimes of Fascism and Communism, both of which were carried out in the name of man’s exaltation. The result of these twin ideological disasters, is a broad-sweeping suspicion of ideas. In a dispiriting observation about an experience at an academic conference in Germany, where he says, ‘nothing could be learned, because nothing could be said’, Murray diagnoses the academic class with a fearful paranoia about ideas. The whole operation of academia is now devoted to the minutiae of method, in the hope of avoiding any ideas of moral or civic consequence.
Murray writes: ‘If there remains any overriding idea, it is that ideas are a problem. If there is any remaining commonly held value judgement, it is that value judgements are wrong. If there remains any remaining certainty it is a distrust of certainty. And if this does not add up to a philosophy, it certainly adds up to an attitude: shallow, unlikely to survive any sustained onslaught, but easy enough to adopt.’
Beauty and Christianity
In a chapter named ‘The Feeling That The Story Has Run out’ Murray again picks up the question of meaninglessness, this time with direct reference to Islam and Christianity. He talks about a recent Pew poll that shows Christianity is becoming less popular in Britain, faster than in any other country. The poll projects that affiliation to Christianity will fall away by a third by 2050. In 2010 affiliation to Christianity was still about two-thirds.
As an atheist himself, Murray’s concerns about this are not sentimental. He is convinced that rule of law, equality, free speech and a protective constitution are uniquely Christian, and it is for this reason that western Europe and America have been the most successful in consistently guaranteeing human rights. Though there is a move to employ the language of secularism to enforce human rights, Murray thinks we are kidding ourselves if we don’t at least draw a historic connection between the development of Christianity and the ever widening scope of individual rights. Murray adds that consumerist culture and the shallow gossiping feedback loop of social media and mass communication have divorced us from the central questions that make life meaningful: ‘who am I?’, ‘what is my purpose?’.
He writes: ‘Addressing or even acknowledging questions of meaning has become so uncommon that the absence seems at least partly deliberate, as though our problems have fuelled a habit for distraction as well as ennui.’
In the tradition of Romantic writers such as Keats and Shelley, and later aesthetes such as Ruskin and Wilde, there was a general view that art and beauty could replace the transcendent values of Christianity. As science made it increasingly difficult to marry Christian heritage with modernity, such thinkers sought to maintain a connection to the sublime through a belief in art and its numinous power to help uplift the human soul.
Given a bad name with the likes of Wagner, Murray is pessimistic that any such faith and creed based on beauty and truth can be revived. He also blames contemporary art and artists for this. Modern artists, says Murray, appear to scorn grand displays of meaning, or any attempt to link a work to something eternal. If a work deals with death or love, it has nothing to say about these things, and the presence of God is almost wholly absent. Modern artists, like everyone else, are suspicious of far-reaching or ambitious truths.
Murray cites the work of Gerhard Richter and Anselm Kiefer, whose works tackle the traumas of Europe’s recent history. In both bodies of work, argues Murray, there is a sense of shame and guilt clouding the subjects and the mediums presented. The best modern art, then, cannot get past a sense of a ‘full stop’ in European culture, as if the horrors of Nazi Germany and other cultural disasters cannot be transcended. All that is left to say for an artist, is to point out how ephemeral and fragmented everything else is. Murray thinks that the suspicions of making grand and ambitious art remain in Europe because there is an embedded belief in the cultural subconscious that ‘the politics went wrong because the art went wrong’. We know that figures like Nietzsche, Wagner and Heidegger - all of whom sought a kind of refuge from scientific nihilism in some kind of poetic transcendence - were instrumental in laying the ground for fascist ideas, though their intentions may have varied. (Nietzsche’s last works were edited and published by his sister who was a right wing loon whom he despised. To draw a connection between humanist ideas and fascism is not place blame on that tradition, nor can it be called a cause of later ideological crimes). On the left, we look back on the naivete of writers and artists like George Bernard Shaw, whose idealism about Soviet utopianism blinded them to the massacres taking place in its name.
As a result, says Murray, there are two ways in which we can interpret the fragmentation of the culture. Either we accept that the artistic tradition that emerged out of the European and Christian tradition was in some way part of the problem that led to the catastrophes of Fascism and ideology; or we simply conclude that this tradition existed despite those evils. The first leaves us where we are: merely picking through the debris of a collapsed tradition, and desperately avoiding any attempt to resuscitate it. The second, leaves us with the view that art 'gets nothing done', and therefore culture is not important in the first place. Both views can be found among modern European elites, often side by side.
Shame about the past
The problem then, is that the very idea of a transcendent and universal value system has been discredited. Whether it is religion, ideology or a general commitment to constitutional values, it is all a source of suspicion and anxiety. It appears that people now actively prefer consumerism and Eliot’s ‘twittering world’, to any transcendent ideal. To seek a connection with the past, is to seek a connection with something morally bankrupted by Empire, two world wars and the ideological threats of the Cold War.
Modern humanism itself turned into a religious doctrine which sought to replace God with man’s supposed perfectibility. If the twentieth century proved anything, it was that no idea is immune from the tendency towards dogma and dangerous political fundamentalism.
In Eliot’s Four Quartets, the poet seems to be saying that any chance of making the world holy, or marrying the sacred and profane, the worldly and the transcendent, has been lost. The only alternative is for individuals to go within themselves, to find spiritual release in an escape from the temporal world.
Murray doesn’t even try to salvage the secular tradition. He merely surveys the ruins of civilisation. Some critics have attacked him for this, dismissing his arguments on the basis that he is doom-mongering from the sidelines, without any attempt to solve the problems he describes.
However, the strength of Murray’s book is in the brutal accuracy of his diagnosis. His chapters on immigration policy have been well scrutinised. Murray argues that the policies have failed because the values that inform them are vacuous. Behind appeals to ‘diversity’ and ‘multicultural tolerance’, lie nothing but globalist interests. Short term gains for European technocrats have been propagandised through an appeal to the better angels of each citizen’s nature. If there is to be a backlash against immigration it will come from a sense of betrayal at the lies and doublespeak, not because Europeans are hateful or prejudiced by nature.
The issue of what Murray calls Europe’s ‘lost moorings’, have received less attention. Even if one wants to dismiss Murray’s view of immigration, one cannot ignore his conclusions about Europe’s loss of meaning. Everything from Brexit to the rise of the far right and even the epidemic of depression, speaks to the very problem Murray carefully outlines in his book.
Whether we want to defend current immigration policies or not, it is clear that the loss of transcendent value-systems and shared sense of civic meaning in public life, need to be salvaged. A failure to engage with Murray’s arguments on this, is tantamount to capitulation, either to the fate he warns against, or simply to living life in a state of unresolved crisis.
A way forward
In his essay A Defence Of Poetry, Percy Bysshe Shelley writes that the ‘creative faculty’ at the heart of great western achievements delivers a higher, transcendent pleasure, than the one that drives us to satisfaction of our desires. For Shelley, there are two types of utility, grounded in two types of pleasure. One is merely material pleasure, the satisfaction of basic wants and needs, and we owe progress in this field to the engineers and political economists. However, another type of pleasure, argues Shelley, is at the heart of the greatest achievements in western culture. That is, a poetic pleasure, which does not free us from darkness, evil and tragedy, but allows us to look such terrors squarely in the eye, and often to transcend them. In fact, for Shelley, a sense of the tragic is what sets apart a truly refined age, as opposed to a merely materialistic one.
Shelley writes: ‘At such [materialistic] periods the calculating principle pervades all forms of dramatic exhibition, and poetry ceases to be expressed upon them. Comedy loses its ideal universality: wit succeeds to humour; we laugh from self-complacency and triumph, instead of pleasure; malignity, sarcasm and contempt, succeed to sympathetic merriment; we hardly laugh, but we smile. Obscenity, which is ever a blasphemy against the divine beauty of life, becomes, from the very veil which it assumes, more active if less disgusting: it is a monster for which the corruption of society for ever brings forth new food, which it devours in secret.’
To reduce beauty and art, which are transcendent qualities, to ways of furthering our merely mechanistic pursuit of material needs, is a sign that the culture is corrupt. Shelley insists that poetry and dramatic vision must never be subordinate to propaganda or moralising, or to the advancement of political ends. Rather, the quest for social justice and human progress emerges from poetic vision. Without that visionary capacity, we have no ideal or transcendent goal to pursue. Douglas Murray is right to be sceptical that art and beauty can replace the unitive qualities of religion. Where were beauty and art when Hitler was rampaging through Europe? What use was an idea of transcendent poetic vision, when Stalin was murdering millions in the gulags? However, the idea that we are stuck between admitting that the western artistic tradition was nothing more than a pretty, extraneous result of civilisation on the one hand; or that it was part of the problem that led to empire and despotism on the other, misses the essential quality of Shelley’s concept of poetic vision.
For Shelley, the thrust of his defence of the poetic faculty and its necessity for civilisation, comes from a view of human nature that was foreign to the likes of Hitler and Stalin and most twentieth century ideologues. Art, beauty and transcendent vision are reduced to clumsy propaganda when subordinate to an ideology. However, when ideas emerge from and in the service of the poetic faculty, civilisation flourishes. The failure of art, culture and beauty to do what the Romantics proposed they could do and replace religion as a unifying, transcendent force, was because what became the dominant ideologies of the nineteenth and twentieth century, emerged from a very limited conception of human nature.
For Shelley, all moral action must come from a leap in the imagination, an ability for human beings to jump out of their own environments and their own egos, and to sympathise with others. It is this that defines us a species.
Poetic vision, beauty and all great art, strengthen this muscle of the soul. Just as we lift weights to become physically stronger, it is only through a sophisticated exercise of the imagination that the soul (or psyche, if you prefer) becomes stronger and more capable of self-transcendence. The follies of western art in losing a sense of the tragic, or becoming subject to nihilism or propaganda, are not faults in the great tradition of western art and beauty. They come down to a conflation of the two pleasures Shelley defined in his essay. You cannot use transcendent pleasure to satisfy your worldly pleasures. However, you need poetic imagination, in order to create a society that can facilitate a common ‘pursuit of happiness’.
Murray’s great achievement is to whittle a complex discussion down to the very essence of the challenge we face. Namely, how to add a sense of unifying meaning and transcendent value to a society that is driven by consumerism, and whose demographics are shifting too fast for the culture to keep up. Only those who do not see the importance of transcendent value, and the ways which culture helps to maintain common ideals, will dismiss Murray’s challenge as thinly disguised bigotry. For Murray, the culture - not the politics - is what matters, and when economic needs and short-sighted policies start to damage something which took centuries to evolve and perfect, it is right that he sounds such a terrifying alarm. The decline of religion in Europe marks a decline in transcendent, common values. As a result, our civilisation faces a crisis of resilience. Conservatives answer the mass immigration problem by calling for Trump-like restrictions. They demand that we act decisively, even if we have to sacrifice our humanitarian instincts in the short term. Liberals seem oblivious to the cultural impact of mass shifts in demographic, branding any deep discussion of these issues as necessarily racist. Surely, there is a middle ground? There is no easy policy solution to such an unprecedented crisis like the one Murray lays out in his book. However, as European citizens, it is within our powers to rebuild the foundations of civic values.
The issue here is the conception of human nature in operation. Although both Stalin and Hitler appealed to the cultural heritage of European humanism when it suited them, the chief ideal of human nature that dominated their evil leadership was not the Shelleyan view in which the imagination is king, but rather one in which technology and material progress are king. Peter Hitchens in his brilliant book The Rage Against God, quotes Aleksandr Zinovyev in calling this dangerous and technological view of human nature, ‘homo sovieticus’. This is the ideal of progress that sees man as re-makable in the image of science and industry. Whether it was the barbaric eugenics of the Nazis, or the top-down social engineering of the Soviets, both regimes operated under a view of human nature as perfectible in the crudest sense, and hence descended into propaganda and political manipulation to necessitate their ends. It is also important to note that free speech and free expression were seen as the enemies of the regime in both cases, suggesting that the imagination was not seen as the root of moral flourishing, but the enemy of it. In Shelley’s view, and we see it mirrored in the values implicit in the poetry of Keats, Blake, Wordsworth and Coleridge, the imagination can be relied upon to foster the ethical solidarity and ironic complexity necessary for a shared moral foundation to civilisation. What is more, the Romantics based their view of human nature on a long-standing Judeo-Christian and classical tradition. The advantage of the Romantics was that they held to a complex view of human nature that was both progressive and connected to the past. The ideological views of Hitler and Stalin viewed human nature as perfectible through wholesale changes in social and political environments. The Romantics, however, viewed the imagination, with all its complexities and mysteries, as the source of a moral and fulfilling life, thus placing the individual’s free expression, free speech and personal evolution at the core of any political ideal of progress. As Shelley points out, a society that fails to value the imagination in this way will still have art and drama and culture, but the creative faculty will exist to serve political ends only. A society that places its core value on the imagination, however, is a society whose moral progress emerges from the individual psyche. Political progress grows out of psychological progress, not the other way round.
Romantic artists like Shelley, were trying to maintain continuity with the spiritual values of civilisation, in the face of scientific progress and the industrial revolution. Today, it is easy to dismiss the Romantics, and to find refuge only in the TS Eliot brand of desperately personal spirituality. However, a proper understanding of the role of the imagination in our psychological and moral integrity can revive the ideal of beauty and art as a proper, secular alternative to religion. The advantage being that we have centuries of genius and exultant achievement to draw upon.
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