The terror attack in Manchester had any number of new disturbing elements. The choice of target, a concert full of young girls and their parents was especially heinous. There was the sophistication of the bomb and the subsequent investigation, which suggest an active terror network that may strike again. But what’s most troubling is that the public reaction to the attack was one of such passivity, and resignation. It expressed itself in the thousands of faux-serious commentators who counseled people that there was nothing that could be done to stop soft-target terror attacks. It expressed itself in the way that people reached for dumb clichés about responding with “hope, not hate.” Or in the way the British chattering class redirected their anger at right-wing provocateurs such as Katie Hopkins, who gamely played the role of opportunistic demagogue when her countrymen needed someone safe to hate.
This frighteningly passive, and frightfully boring, set of responses contrasts with the presence of Douglas Murray’s lively new book, The Strange Death of Europe, on the bestseller charts in the U.K. At first blush it looks like the latest in a long series of books with “Islam and immigration” figuring in the subtitle. But Murray’s book is informed by actual reporting across the Continent, and a quality of writing that manages to be spritely and elegiac at the same time. Murray’s is also a truly liberal intellect, in that he is free from the power that taboo exerts over the European problem, but he doesn’t betray the slightest hint of atavism or meanspiritedness.
Yes, Murray is quite good at piling up the numbers that outline the collapse of European populations and the explosion of migration in the past decades and especially over the past two years. He’s also quite good at batting down the facile arguments for allowing migration on this scale. Why must Germany turn to Eritrea for a work force when youth unemployment around the European Mediterranean is between 25 and 30 percent? But he distinguishes his book from others on precisely the deformed spirit and mind of Europe.
In a chapter on “Tiredness,” Murray jumps from different attempts to diagnose European exhaustion. It is partly found in the frenzy of activity urged on us by modern capitalism. “If the burden of working for little reward in an isolating society stripped of any overriding purpose can be recognised to have an effect on individuals, how could it not also be said to have an effect on society as a whole?” Murray asks, “Or to put it the other way around, if enough people in a society are suffering from a form of exhaustion, might it not be that the society they are living in has become exhausted?”
But it is also found in the loss of faith in the Christian religion and the decomposition of all national myths before revisionist scholarship. Europe suffers from “an exhaustion caused by a loss of meaning, an awareness that the civilisation was ‘no longer accumulating’ but living off a dwindling cultural capital.” Substitute faiths, whether in the high cultural visions of Wagner or the political theories of Marx, have also failed and been discarded.
Murray is especially pungent when he looks at the doubt-plagued, death-haunted, and deconstructed edifice of contemporary European philosophy. He recalls a conference in which the “full catastrophe of German thought” dawned on him:
A group of academics and others had gathered to discuss the history of Europe’s relations with the Middle East and North Africa. It soon became clear that nothing would be learned because nothing could be said. A succession of philosophers and historians spent their time studiously attempting to say nothing as successfully as possible. The less that was successfully said, the greater the relief and acclaim. No attempt to address any idea, history or fact was able to pass without first being put through the pit-stop of the modern academy. No generality could be attempted and no specific could be uttered. It was not only history and politics that were under suspicion. Philosophy, ideas and language itself had been cordoned off as though around the scene of a crime.
It may seem like a long way from a conference of German academicians to the morning chat shows on the BBC, but the sentimentality and emptiness of the bubbly TV anchor after the Manchester bombing are directly related to the pseudo-sophisticated nullity of the former. Nothing of substance can be said, because nothing should be known, because to know anything is to become dangerous to oneself and the world. And thus Europe’s story is to enthrone all of its opposite values, where there was national self-assertion, now there is national abasement. Where there were dons who guarded the West’s knowledge, now there are professors who guard against the possibility of knowing anything, where religiosity meant the reign of peace and looking forward to the life to come, now it means a reign of terror and the death of civilization itself. Europe is in a bad way, and I fear that if terror cannot wake it from sleep, neither will elegant books.
— Michael Brendan Dougherty is a senior writer at National Review.