How many timbers can one replace and still have the same ship?

Theseus’s Ship has Sailed: Book Review of “The Strange Death of Europe”

Douglas Murray urges readers to take notice of the fatal blow Europe’s politicians have already dealt the European civilization.

The other teenagers at the birthday party cheered. Why were they celebrating?, I wondered. Looking over to the television I found the now universally recognizable face of Osama Bin Laden. The news report shifted and our birthday party carried on. There was cake to eat before we moved on to watch A Knight’s Tale. In that Jakarta, Indonesia movie theatre in late 2001, I was 14 years old, and I found the episode very strange.

I also found it strange reading Douglas Murray’s latest written work on how immigration, identity, and Islam have decidedly and definitively changed Europe. And not for the better.

Education in international schools between Jakarta and Beijing showed me multiculturalism at its best: sports teams rarely had less than 10 nationalities represented, the classes no less than 50, and my best friends were from Taiwan, Germany, France, Australia, Malaysia, and China. United Nations Day, a chance to dress up in national dress and eat food and listen to music from my classmates’ countries was pretty great. Who doesn’t like foreign food?

Cuisine is a focus of one of Murray’s examples: additional migrants from a specific country do not make the food already prepared by existing and settled migrants better. If each migrant from a given country adds cultural flavor to the host country, there are diminishing returns to each migrant.

Multiculturalism is nice, if what you actually want is multiculturalism (definitions vary). For Murray, it’s clear that some people considering themselves natives of European countries think very little of their fellow countrymen and women. Murray cites a recorded meeting in Germany where a representative informs the people that they are free to leave if they don’t like the ongoing immigration.

Clear questions

Murray’s writing is fair but firm. He wants to make clear how problematic the facts are and further how worried he is that few people wish to discuss them, whether from guilt or a desire to change the frame, among more nefarious reasons.

Here are only a few of Murray’s questions:

  • Why can’t Europeans discuss the difference between asylum seekers, refugees, and opportunistic migrants?
  • Why does Europe continue to take in migrants when so many other countries have decided for good reasons not to?
  • Why can’t Europeans discuss the facts suggesting a failure of integration of migrants, particularly those of muslim backgrounds (by failed integration I do mean violence)?
  • Why are Europeans committing self-sabotage by silencing and self-censorship?
  • Why are Europeans not allowed to make noises in disgust about Charlie Hebdo or Theo van Gogh?
  • Why must Europeans who express displeasure with the status quo or with the threat to human rights be at risk to their lives?

The book has received the predictable response from the left and right (including some who probably knew what they thought about the arguments before reading Murray’s points), including this rather brief interview from NPR’s Robert Siegel, who pondered at one point,

Do you accept, though, that there’s something odd and almost comical about a Brit saying, we never asked for Pakistanis to come to our country en masse when, in fact, no one on the Indian subcontinent, to my knowledge, ever asked Britain to come and set up an empire there and decide that it was fit to rule over hundreds of millions of people in that part of the world?

Fortunately, Murray counters by establishing that on the whole people agree that colonialism was wrong, and that if what is occurring now is somehow a kind of reverse-colonialism, at what juncture ought it to end? In the book, Murray illuminates people who have come very close or who have stated that this reverse-colonialism ought to go on for quite a while longer.

This argument is correct but shallow in a non-critical way — Murray is happy to swim to much deeper depths.

Murray doesn’t pull any punches, because it is by pulling punches that Europe has gotten in this mess.

Cl(ash) of civilizations and what to do after nihilism

Murray does not mention a clash of civilizations, but he does remark on the incompatibility of what Europe used to be with one culture in particular, the culture of Islam.

Here, the biggest problem is Islam, but a secondary one is how weak and soft Europe has become, lacking a central story of its own. Here are the ashes, but where is the burn?

Murray lucidly describes another condition rife in Europe, where aging churches are downtrodden and diminished.

The attempt to pretend that what has been believed and practised in modern Europe is normal has taken repeated blows. Across some rather surprising learning moments — a terrorist attack here, an ‘honour’ killing there, a few cartoons somewhere else — the awareness grew that not everybody who had come to our societies shared our views. They did not share our views about equality between the sexes. They did not share our views on the primacy of reason over revelation. And they did not share our views on freedom and liberty. To put it another way, the unusual European settlement, drawn up from ancient Greece and Rome, catalysed by the Christian religion and refined through the fire of the Enlightenments, turned out to be a highly particular inheritance.

Murray goes on to investigate the lack of a central story to provide collective meaning to a population, and calls into question whether universal human rights has provided what many Europeans thought could act as a unifying replacement to Christianity. Murray, not unconvincingly, suggests something like human rights has a seed in Judeo-Christian traditions. This philosophical point gets more coverage in his chapter entitled ‘The Feeling that the Story has Run Out’, where Murray describes post-secularism’s floundering in cousins of nihilism, unable to find something new for guidance.

Asking what story matters is a question Yuval Noah Harari also asks in Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. There, Harari wonders if growth will be enough to sustain society, or if such a unified language dooms the human species to usurpation by algorithms (and algorithm nations) better at achieving growth on their own without homo sapiens.

Harari wondered if a single human government might be an answer to resolving imminent and future conflicts over a shared story. Murray, spending several pages with Michel Houellebecq’s Soumission (Submission, in English), might refer you to his speculative view of near-term France for an answer on where we might find such a world government. (Hint: The Muslim Brotherhood could via democratic elections in France forge a coalition and ascend to power, put forward a soft version of Shari’a while simultaneously offering meaning to many and multiple wives to French university professors.)

Maybe Harari’s questions won’t effect us in this decade. But Murray’s certainly will, and they already have.

Look closely and see the EU hanging by a rope.

Theseus’s Ship

Murray doesn’t worry that Europe might change — he is arguing that it has already changed, and beyond the sense apparent in the Ship of Theseus, whereby changing timbers on a ship the ship itself remains a recognizable version of the original: Murray is making the claim that Europe is quite different from what it once was even a short decade ago, and in ways well beyond what even shunned cultural and political and literary commentaries predicted.

Structurally, Murray’s writing is appropriately topic-focused as opposed to chronological. This way, the reader accumulates arguments in the sense of Theseus’s ship, all the while testing Murray’s ideas, arguments, and counter-arguments against his own. One may not be the same person after reading it. For my part, this book was an easy 5-star rating for rhetoric, reason, irony, and clarity.

A friend remarked that this estrangement effect pattern-matched with the teleportation problem. If you teleport and your atoms are reconstructed, are you the same person upon arrival as when you departed?

In part what matters, to Murray, is if the values and virtues survive the journey.

In conversations with newcomers to Europe, the author claims “good luck” was often his most honest goodbye. But one quickly feels Murray doesn’t believe luck, in a different sense, will help right Europe’s rapidly changing ship. From the beginning of large movements of people to Europe after World War II through the peak year in 2015, leaders have made misstep after misstep. Murray wants European leaders to start doing something.

Guilt, and why Europe has more (but should abandon it)

Like almost every society surviving to this moment in human history, Europe has something to feel guilty for. And for Murray, Europe is too quick to embrace guilt (or too afflicted to notice).

This guilt affects policy decisions and, even worse for Murray, a heightened constriction of language.

Several times, Murray returns to Merkel’s speeches, addresses, and appearances.

Merkel gives her New Year’s address only days after the Christmas market terrorist attacks

Murray’s point is not necessarily that Germany shouldn’t bear guilt (although his argument is poignant: when should guilt end, if ever?), but a question regarding non-European states’ non-acceptance of refugees.

Murray asks if it is not true that Turkey’s Armenian massacre should give Turk’s pause today. Then, if it should, then why should Turkey not also open its arms to hundreds of thousands of refugees arriving from the world over?

Turkey isn’t the only country that could be singled out as guilty of some atrocity or another for which retribution through a sense of guilt, if not an apology, has yet to be paid, nor is it the only country with reasons for not taking in significant refugees, migrants, or asylum seekers for various good reasons. Yet the focus, Murray argues, remains on Europe continuing to take in more and more. But why?

Murray rightfully questions the affliction of guilt. He notes, to take the psychological lens, that for some people guilt feels good: one may speak for both the long-dead and and the living (beyond one’s individual responsibilities) and become a redeemer of sins.

Original sin, Murray concludes, is a dangerous mindset. Problems can be addressed and solved without it. As has dominated the decision tree thus far, mercy should not always win out over justice (and when does too much mercy result in an injustice to current inhabitants of a country?). Europe might have looked to Aristotle for an explanation as to why.

Debate equal to the level of concern

What drew me into this book was how carefully and boldly Murray made his arguments for a reduced flow of migrants, attention to policies and support for integration, and the search for something to guide Europe in its present post-secular ennui.

How hadn’t I heard of Murray yet? His writing is clear and poignant and ironic.

Day by day the continent of Europe is not only changing but is losing any possibility of a soft landing in response to such change. An entire political class have failed to appreciate that many of us who live in Europe love the Europe that was ours. We do not want our politicians, through weakness, self-hatred, malice, tiredness or abandonment to change our home into an utterly different place. And while Europeans may be almost endlessly compassionate, we may not be boundlessly so. The public may want many contradictory things, but they will not forgive politicians if — whether by accident or design — they change our continent completely. If they do so change it then many of us will regret this quietly. Others will regret it less quietly. Prisoners of the past and of the present, for Europeans there seem finally to be no decent answers to the future. Which is how the fatal blow will finally land.

Douglas Murray’s “The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam” effectively raises dampened yet clear trends in European opinion and events. Concern, despite its ubiquity, is not receiving an equivalent share of public debate. I am curious to see what positive ideas emerge from fresh and diligent argument. My guess, though, is that most people across political spectrums won’t desire to entertain the discussion honestly or productively. Myself included, we’ve grown collectively soft in productive argument.

Across the pond, in this ‘nation of immigrants’, we too will have to decide what to believe in, which stories to guide us, and whether ultimately we retain the progress we’ve achieved and build upon it or relinquish the rudder to more decisive captains.


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