What is great about ourselves

Pankaj Mishra writes: Is it finally closing time in the gardens of the West? The wails that have rent the air since the Brexit vote and Trump’s victory rise from the same parts of Anglo-America that hosted, post-1989, the noisiest celebrations of liberalism, democracy, free markets and globalisation. Edward Luce, a Financial Times columnist based in Washington DC, isn’t sure ‘whether the Western way of life, and our liberal democratic systems, can survive’. Many commentators now share the view of Bill Emmott, the former editor of the Economist, who writes in his new book that we are ‘present at the destruction’ of ‘the West’, the ‘world’s most successful political idea’. Donald Trump has also chimed in, asking ‘whether the West has the will to survive’. These apocalyptic Westernists long to turn things around, to make their shattered world whole again. David Goodhart, the founding editor of Prospect, told the New York Times just before the general election that he believed Theresa May could dominate British politics for a generation. Mark Lilla, a professor at Columbia and a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books, wants the Democratic Party, which under Bill Clinton captured ‘Americans’ imaginations about our shared destiny’, to abandon identity politics and help liberalism become once more a ‘unifying force’ for the ‘common good’. Douglas Murray, associate editor of the Spectator, thinks that Trump might just save Western civilisation.

The ideas and commitments of the new prophets of decline do not emerge from any personal experience of it, let alone adversity of the kind suffered by many voters of Brexit and Trump. These men were ideologically formed during the reign of Reagan and Thatcher, and their influence and prestige have grown in step with the expansion of Anglo-America’s intellectual and cultural capital. Lilla, a self-declared ‘centrist liberal’, arrived at his present position by way of working-class Detroit, evangelical Christianity and an early flirtation with neoconservatism. The British writers belong to a traditional elite; shared privilege transcends ideological discrepancies between centrist liberalism and nativism, the Financial Times and the Spectator. Murray and Goodhart were educated at Eton; the fathers of both Luce and Goodhart were Conservative MPs; and all three went to Oxford. Inhabitants of a transatlantic ecosystem of corporate philanthropy, think-tanks and high-altitude conclaves, they can also be found backslapping in the review pages and on Twitter: Murray calls Goodhart’s writing ‘superb’ and Luce’s ‘beautiful’; Emmott thanks Murray for his ‘nice’ review in the Times. [Continue reading…]

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