Date Finished: August 9th 2017
This year I discovered the glory of podcasts and YouTube lectures, and have immersed myself in various online, free content that is both informative and entertaining. Starting with The Joe Rogan Experience, I’ve discovered many podcasters and YouTubers including the lectures of Jordan Peterson, Waking Up with Sam Harris, Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History and, I hope, more to come, who have, and will continue to expand my intellectual horizons.
Meanwhile, Jon Ronson released The Butterfly Effect: a free, exclusive-to-Audible podcast which I sought to download. Audible offer two free audiobooks to new users (one for joining and one for trying to leave) so I sought to find a couple of books to entertain me. I first heard of Douglas Murray on Sam Harris’ podcast and, though I disagreed with a lot of his views, I found him an interesting source who wasn’t intent on towing the Conservative party line that many conservative commentators in England do. I decided to take a chance on his book – it was, after all, free.
But this presented a new and strange challenge for me: to listen to a book. A podcast is all very well, but an audiobook is a different beast altogether. One is no longer looking at the page, and must open their ears instead – this adds a realm of visual distraction while reducing the dimension of being able to refer back and forth through a book, i.e. to sources. It’s also somewhat disconcerting to look at a “book” and discover that it’s 12 hours, 17 minutes and 47 seconds long, and even stranger that someone is going to read it to you at their own pace, leaving you subject to their voice and reading style for better or worse. And to boot, I was going to start with a man who I profoundly disagree with on many issues. This could turn out to be a terrible decision.
Murray opens with his concern that Europe has lost it’s sense of identity at the same time as inviting mass migration, predominantly from Muslims nations, into its borders. He argues that, whether or not this is a good or bad thing – and clearly he believes it’s bad – open debate about this subject has been stifled, as evidenced, in one case, by Angela Merkel asking Mark Zuckerberg to find a way to stifle online criticism of her migration policies. He charts migration to the UK and to Europe throughout history, noting the vast increase after World War II that grew at an almost exponential rate; through the rhetoric of Enoch Powell, to public opinion polls, and culminating in the policies, promises and failures of the New Labour, Conservative coalition and Conservative governments from 1997 to 2016, as well as the arguments surrounding the economic and cultural benefits and costs of immigration.
The 4th and 5th chapters are spent exploring the Mediterranean frontlines of the migrant crisis, such as the Italian island of Lampedusa. Murray successfully and sympathetically shows horrors that many of these people have suffered, from extortion and drownings in-transit, to the overstretched systems and poor quality camps straining under the numbers of people they need to process, to the hardships that these people have escaped from. It’s a sobering and comprehensive look at both the reasons for migration and the pressure Europe is under in trying to respond to this crisis and one has to praise Murray for acknowledging and elucidating this aspect to the crisis where other authors broadly against immigration would turn a blind eye.
Murray raises some pressing points in regard to unsustainable mass migration, the public opposition to immigration, and the inevitable criminal elements that will come from any clash of cultures or fast change in society. But, as with most neoconservatives, he goes too far on these points whilst willfully ignoring others. There is no mention of the continued gentrification of London, with rising rents pricing out the poorest in society (who are overwhelmingly ethnic minorities), no acknowledgement that overstretched public services, though obviously affected by the population increase that comes from immigration, have been subject to nearly a decade of cuts under dogmatic neoliberal ideology. Murray has fallen into the trap that has felled so many commentators: a failure to acknowledge the external complexities in this situation.
Murray explores the changing situation in Italy, France, Scandinavia, England and, most fascinatingly, the Netherlands, in which Murray recounts the rise of Pim Fortuijn – an openly gay, Marxist professor who was very outspoken against Islam, particularly it’s attitudes to sexual minorities and its failure to separate church and state. Fortuijn founded an anti-Muslim party labelled as a far-right populist party (in reality, the party was generally liberal apart from in its controversial views on Islam) and he was ultimately assassinated.
Murray also turns his hand to some of the European ideas that have inveigled their way into the wider situation, including the sense of guilt that seemingly underlies the migrant crisis, the death of Christianity and its potential replacements, and what European culture entails. These chapters, more philosophical and nuanced in thought, are the books highlights, with Murray’s analysis of the failure of ideologies post-Christianity standing out as the book’s highlight. The dichotomy between this and the somewhat aggressive anti-Islam chapters is striking, and almost seems like two different books: one on the decline of Europe, the other on the rise of Islam. It’s possible to enjoy and agree with one whilst having qualms with the other.
I wouldn’t characterise Murray as a racist or a Eurosceptic per se. Indeed, those epithets have become too commonplace. Murray does due diligence to Europe’s melting pot history and amorphous culture. His primary concern seems to be that Europe’s loss of identity at the time of a migration crisis is likely to make it impossible for these migrants to integrate, as they have nothing to integrate into, and therefore European culture, such as it is, will end and be taken over by people with a very different culture to our own. In this argument, I can see where Murray is coming from, but in his wider arguments there are elements of fear-of-the-other, Europhobia and strawman arguments. For example, he says that areas of the UK which experience an influx of Muslims often see their pubs close, but if these Muslims were truly integrated as claimed, then the pubs would remain open and Muslims would “drink lukewarm beer like everybody else”. Undoubtedly there are problems with integration in some areas, but drinking alcohol seems an unfair bar to achieve – would Murray assert that migrant Jews would have to buy pork scratchings in these same pubs in order to be truly integrated? In any case, true integration would mean that ghettos with a high population of one particular ethnic background would be rare, and so pub attendance wouldn’t suffer.
And that’s not to ignore Murray’s point – there are issues with integration, and politicians and commentators do often ignore these issues, but Murray falls into the trap of much of the right by making silly assertions to back-up what were reasonable arguments worth debating. Murray makes many valid points that need to be discussed, not least that debate about immigration is often shutdown as being racist or Islamophobic, when other considerations have to be made: overpopulation, integration, a clash of faith/culture in some places.
Towards the end, Murray turns his sights on the decline of art and culture in Europe, and the new nihilistic aesthetic that has replaced it – again, these are among the most engaging chapters and, although I don’t entirely agree with him, there is some truth to his assertions.
As for the audiobook experience, Robert Davies, the narrator of this particular volume, is, for the most part, a good speaker with a clear and engaging delivery, which put me in mind of Kenneth Brannagh’s narration on Walking with Dinosaurs. In order to differentiate quotes from the text, Davies performs impressions of the people Murray has quoted, a technique which took some getting used to, and lead to some rather cringeworthy impersonations of Charles de Gaul and Bonnie Greer, but ultimately his recital of the book was superb, and made for an almost-soothing listen. I even began to hear his voice in my mind’s ear when reading other things.
Immigration is a huge and important issue in modern Europe. Immigration cannot be 100% positive – nothing ever is, and it’s true that debate about the subject has, to some extent, been shutdown by political correctness that conflates ordinary concerns with racism. There are questions to be asked about integration, European culture, modern ideologies, overpopulation, rapid change in demographics, terrorism, cultural values that are incompatible with Europe and many more. Murray does a good job in raising all these questions and discussing them and, most of the time, he does so in a comprehensive and respectful way. But he nonetheless falls into the trap of taking things too far, twisting truth to suit his narrative. That said, one can hardly accuse Murray of not doing what he set out to do: The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam is a compellingly written narrative of the decline of Europe, which explores the subtitled topics comprehensively. To read about these issues from the perspective of a neoconservative, was an enlightening experience, as I’ve vowed to read more broadly on political issues to avoid echo chambers. Murray hasn’t talked me round, but I can respect this book as an important addition to the body of the literature in this issue, and one which deserves to be discussed and debated in the wider mainstream.