‘Absolutely heartbreaking. A magnificent monument to western civilisation collapsing.” Thus wrote the mercurial young conservative Ben Shapiro last Monday before it was clear that Notre Dame, although burning, was not wholly collapsing. The great Parisian cathedral was, he added, “a central monument to western civilisation, which was built on the Judaeo-Christian heritage”.
There was a time when such an observation would have been open to criticism only for its lack of originality. After all, Kenneth Clark began his hugely influential television series Civilisation against the backdrop of Notre Dame — “not perhaps the most lovable of cathedrals, but the most rigorously intellectual facade in the whole of gothic art”.
Fifty years ago you could say (as Clark did) that the Graeco-Roman statue known to us as the Apollo of the Belvedere “embodies a higher state of civilisation” than an African mask because it expressed “an ideal of perfection — reason, justice, physical beauty, all of them in equilibrium”.
But this is 2019, not 1969, so Shapiro was swiftly denounced. According to an article in The Washington Post, he had “evoked the spectre of a war between Islam and the West that is already part of numerous far-right narratives”, including the manifesto of Brenton Tarrant, the man accused of the mass shooting in Christchurch.
Shapiro is often misrepresented this way. Even The Economist quite wrongly described him as an “alt-right sage” in a profile last month, later correcting that to “radical conservative”. True, for four years he worked as editor-at-large for the Breitbart News website, but he left Breitbart early in the 2016 presidential campaign. Far from being alt-right, he became the target of anti-semitic abuse from precisely that quarter for repeatedly criticising Donald Trump (Shapiro is an Orthodox Jew).
The argument of his book The Right Side of History is not in the least bit “alt”.
“Freedom,” he contends, “is built upon the twin notions that God created every human in His image and that human beings are capable of investigating and exploring God’s world. Those notions were born in Jerusalem and Athens, respectively. [They] built science . . . built human rights. They built prosperity, peace and artistic beauty.” Not much there that Clark would have disagreed with.
What is remarkable about Shapiro is, first, the popularity of these quite old-right views (the book is a bestseller, and his online following is huge) and, second, the hatred with which he is regarded on the left. No campus speaker attracts audiences, protesters and security quite like Shapiro.
The tendency for the “progressive” left to equate western civilisation with white supremacy is not new. From the 1930s until the 1960s, Stanford, where I am based, had a course called Western Civilisation (renamed Western Culture in 1980). Undergraduates were expected to read the canon, including Homer, Plato, the Bible and St Augustine.
However, in 1985 Stanford’s Black Student Union complained the course was “racist”. Similar complaints were made by Hispanic students and feminists. So Western Culture was replaced by Cultures, Ideas, Values, which required that professors also assign “works by women, minorities and persons of colour” and that undergraduates study “at least one of the non-European cultures”.
An attempt to revive western civilisation through a student ballot in 2016 was roundly defeated. In the words of one opponent of the idea: “Western values put millions in shackles in the first place. A brief and not-at-all encompassing list of historical examples includes genocide of indigenous populations, the transatlantic slave trade, Japanese internment camps, sex trafficking in the Vietnam and Korean wars.”
This kind of historically lopsided reasoning was not difficult to find in the week of the Notre Dame fire. There were the tweets that I hope came from Russian bots rather than genuine ignoramuses (“I dont feel bad about notre dame because it was built on the backs of slaves” was one gem).
There was Rolling Stone magazine’s bold suggestion that “any rebuilding should be a reflection not of an old France, or the France that never was [sic] — a non-secular, white European France — but a reflection of the France of today”. And there was the Harvard professor Patricio del Real’s lunatic observation: “The building was so overburdened with meaning that its burning feels like an act of liberation.”
Most people who would call themselves liberal appeared upset that Notre Dame was ablaze and the majority seemed to favour its reconstruction rather than, say, its conversion into an interfaith safe space.
In a week marred by yet more disinvitations of conservative academics in America, I have been struggling to reconcile the left’s repudiation of western civilisation with the widespread grief over the damage to Notre Dame. The only conclusion I can reach is that people simply like such big, ornate buildings as backdrops for their holiday selfies and Instagram posts.
I take a slightly different view of western civilisation from Shapiro and Clark, as readers of my book Civilization: The West and the Rest may recall. For me, a civilisation is defined more by its institutions than the buildings where they are housed or indeed the faith or ideology that inspires them.
The other burning edifice in the news last week was the Trump presidency, which the president himself certainly thought had caught fire (“I’m f*****”) when Robert Mueller was appointed special counsel in May 2017. The redacted Mueller report was finally published on Thursday. It confirmed that the fire is under control and the Trump presidency remains largely intact.
No, Mueller did not “establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or co-ordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities”. (The Russians, by contrast, were guilty as hell.) Yes, Trump committed “multiple acts . . . capable of exerting undue influence over law enforcement investigations”, but his “efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful . . . because the persons who surrounded the president declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests”.
It is all very disappointing for the many people who since 2016 have been claiming a) that Trump is plotting to overthrow the constitution and establish a tyranny, or b) that he is the reincarnation of Richard Nixon. But for those who believe that the strength of the United States lies in the rule of law rather than the personality of the president, it was a good week.
It is Easter Day, so let us give thanks that Notre Dame was saved. As the historian Tom Holland said last week, “The debt of the contemporary West to Christianity is more deeply rooted than many . . . might presume.” Let’s also give thanks for the very different ideals of the Enlightenment, which bequeathed to us that other great monument to western civilisation, the US constitution. May it endure as long as Notre Dame.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
Americans believe in meritocracy in principle. Polls show that significant majorities — between 67% and 70% since Gallup began asking the question in 2003 — believe that, when it comes to university admissions, “applicants should be admitted solely on the basis of merit”.
The most successful Broadway show in living memory, Hamilton, is an exuberant celebration of a self-made man — the first US Treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton, who was born into poverty (“a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman”) but indefatigably read, wrote and fought his way to the top.
Unlike his wealthy rival Aaron Burr, Hamilton isn’t admitted to Princeton and has to settle for King’s College (now Columbia University). It doesn’t matter. Hamilton gets “a lot farther by working a lot harder / By being a lot smarter / By being a self-starter”. Nothing can stop this young, scrappy, hungry prodigy from “rising up”.
Yet in practice Americans don’t believe in meritocracy at all. Plenty of wealthy Americans have no problem with the idea of hereditary privilege, as long as they are spared the social obligations of traditional aristocracy. At the same time many educated Americans support and practise systematic racial discrimination — even if they justify today’s “affirmative action” as a form of redress for past discrimination. The result is the corrupt and inequitable system of undergraduate admissions at the elite universities.
Last week the Department of Justice accused 50 people in six states of a “racketeering conspiracy” to get patently undeserving candidates into colleges including Yale, Stanford, the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Southern California (USC). Among the parents charged were the actress Lori Loughlin and her husband, the fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli.
At the heart of the racket was William Singer, the founder of the “Edge College & Career Network”, also known as “the Key”. Wealthy parents paid Singer to help their talentless and/or idle offspring cheat on standardised tests or fake athletic prowess. He bribed test administrators and college coaches. He also falsified students’ family histories and biographies to take advantage of quotas for racial minorities.
“There is a front door of getting in [to college] where a student just does it on their own,” Singer explained in court last Tuesday, “and then there’s a back door where people go to institutional advancement and make large donations, but they’re not guaranteed in . . . I created a side door that guaranteed families to get in.”
Loughlin and her husband allegedly paid $500,000 (£380,000) to get their two daughters, Olivia and Isabella, accepted as recruits for the USC rowing team, even though neither had ever knowingly held an oar. If shamelessness were a varsity sport, Olivia would have deserved a full scholarship. A well-known social media “influencer”, who plugs fancy footwear and dental aligners on Instagram and YouTube, she had the gall to admit in a video that she was going to college solely for “game days, partying”, because “I don’t really care about school, as you guys all know”.
Welcome to the fake-it-ocracy. Remember, this side door came into existence because the back door of a fat donation — like the $2.5m paid by Jared Kushner’s father to Harvard — just isn’t 100% reliable.
It took me a while to figure the system out after I moved from British to American academia. At Cambridge and Oxford I had been directly involved in undergraduate admissions. I and my colleagues read the application forms, the sample essays and the answers to what remained of the old entrance examination. We spent long days interviewing the candidates.
The Oxbridge system has long been criticised for admitting too few pupils from state schools or ethnic minorities, but I did not regard my role as that of a social engineer. My goal was to pick the cleverest students, regardless of all other criteria, and my main preoccupation was to separate the truly bright from the well coached. I did not care if they could row or tap-dance. I wanted intelligence, because I would have to teach these people for three years and the last thing I wanted was to spend hours of my life with dunderheads.
Harvard was different. At first, naively, I couldn’t understand why a substantial proportion of my new students were there, as — to judge by their mid-term exam papers — they wouldn’t have stood a chance of an interview at Oxford, never mind a place. It was explained to me that a substantial chunk of undergraduates were “legacies” — there because their parents were alumni, especially generous alumni — and another chunk were the beneficiaries of affirmative action or athletics programmes. The admissions system was managed by professional administrators, not professors.
Later, when I saw evidence that Harvard and other colleges were discriminating against Asian applicants — whose share of the total undergraduate body ought to have been rising on the basis of their numbers and superior performance in standardised tests — I wrote an essay lamenting the decline of meritocracy in America.
This, too, was naive. For the reality is that meritocracy as an ideal is fatally flawed. Nepotism will always find a way through, no matter how tough the tests. There have been times when even I have been tempted to pull a string or improve an essay for my own children. Admirably, they have spurned such offers.
The social scientist Charles Murray has argued that a cognitive elite has emerged in America because smart women meet smart men at places such as Harvard, get married and have smart children. But if not everyone at Harvard is smart, the theory is weakened. There’s also the biological reality that smart parents don’t necessarily have smart children. Even if they do, parental wealth corrupts offspring, eroding their work ethic. Sooner or later, money starts to override merit. Outright racketeering is remarkable only because there are so many legal ways to get mediocre students into the Ivy League.
The law of unintended consequences is history’s only law. The more the admissions criteria to elite colleges have been distorted, the faster the ideology of “intersectionality” has spread across campuses, with highly disruptive results. Last week students at Sarah Lawrence College held an occupation to demand (among other things) that a professor, Samuel Abrams, have his position “reviewed” — by them. His crime? He wrote an article in The New York Times pointing out that university administrators are overwhelmingly liberal or progressive in their politics.
This is not to predict that Olivia Giannulli will go from fake to woke. But she would do well to consider it. The best form of protection from the social justice warriors is to become one. And, guys, just imagine all those new followers on Instagram!
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
Hate crimes happen. I don’t much like the term, but let’s accept it as modern shorthand for criminal acts, usually of violence, motivated by some form of prejudice, be it racial, religious, sexual or otherwise. Last Monday evening my friend Maajid Nawaz — founder of the anti-extremist organisation Quilliam and a presenter on LBC radio — was the victim of such a crime. As he stood outside the Soho Theatre in Dean Street, central London, a white man shouted abuse at him and punched him in the face.
In Maajid’s words: “The white male assailant called me a ‘f****** P***’ as he hit me in the face with maybe a signet ring & ran away like a coward. He took nothing. He was just a racist.” The attacker’s ring (or it may have been a key) left an ugly gash in my friend’s forehead. The assault occurred after Maajid challenged the man for mocking an Asian family because “they weren’t English”. There were several witnesses.
I am sure more than one politician must have condemned the attack. However, the only quotation I have found is from the shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, who described it as “shocking”.
At the end of last month another hate crime was reported. The victim was the gay African-American actor Justin (“Jussie”) Smollett, who claimed that he had been attacked in Chicago’s Streeterville area by two white men in balaclavas, who told him, “This is Maga [Make America great again] country.” They poured bleach on him and put a noose around his neck. The actor told police that he had fought them off.
This being America, rather more politicians were ready to express their outrage over this abhorrent hate crime. The Democratic senators and would-be presidential candidates Cory Booker and Kamala Harris denounced it as an “attempted modern-day lynching”. Harris tweeted that Smollett was “one of the kindest, most gentle human beings I know. I’m praying for his quick recovery . . . No one should have to fear for their life because of their sexuality or the colour of their skin. We must confront this hate.”
Even Donald Trump felt obliged to condemn the attack. “I can tell you that it’s horrible,” he told reporters. “It doesn’t get worse.”
The only hitch is that this particular hate crime appears to have been staged by Smollett with the help of two brothers of Nigerian descent, one of whom appeared as an extra in Empire, the television series in which Smollett appears. Last week Chicago police sources said they had evidence that Smollett had paid the brothers $3,500 (£2,700) to stage the attack and that they had bought the rope found around Smollett’s neck at a hardware shop the weekend before the “attack”. On Wednesday Smollett was charged with filing a false police report.
It is certainly tempting to ridicule Jussie Smollett and the politicians and media folk who too readily swallowed his story. The best line came from Titania McGrath, a spoof social justice warrior whose Twitter account mercilessly mocks “woke” culture: “It is absolutely *essential* that we believe Jussie Smollett,” she tweeted. “If we don’t, other people who haven’t been attacked might not have the courage to come forward.”
Yet there is something more serious going on here. Smollett’s fraud on the public might have gone undetected had it not been for the tireless work of the Portland-based journalist Andy Ngo, who smelt a rat from the outset. In a mindblowing Twitter thread, Ngo has listed more than 30 fake hate crimes from the past two years.
For example, at about the time of the 2016 election, a Muslim student at Louisiana University claimed that two white Trump supporters, one wearing a Trump hat, had assaulted her, ripped off her hijab and robbed her. It was later revealed that she had made the episode up.
A month later a Muslim student at Baruch College alleged that she had been attacked by three white Trump supporters on the New York subway. According to her testimony they had called her a terrorist and, when she tried to move to the other end of the train carriage, had followed and tried to pull off her headscarf. She was subsequently charged with filing a false report and obstructing governmental administration.
What motivates someone to bear false witness in this way? As I said, there is no lack of real hate crime. According to the FBI more than 7,000 hate crime incidents were reported in the United States in 2017. In England and Wales, you may be surprised to learn, 94,000 offences were identified as hate crimes in the year starting April 2017. That doesn’t mean there is 13 times more violent bigotry in the UK than in America, any more than the lower figures for 2016 mean that there has been a “surge” in hate crime. The statistics reflect the reclassification of perennial acts of violence or vandalism as hate crimes — and the ways the public and police are encouraged to report them as such.
The problem is that there is not enough of the right kind of hate crime to validate the narrative, so cherished by the left, that Trump’s election unleashed a wave of white supremacist violence. Only half the known offenders in US hate crimes in 2017 were in fact white. Anti-semitic acts often turn out to be by non-white perpetrators, though you would need to read between the lines of The New York Times to work that out.
Under these awkward circumstances there is clearly an immense demand for tales of murderous Maga-hat-wearing rednecks roaming the streets of, er, Chicago and New York, conurbations not exactly famed for their large populations of such people. On Thursday Harris said she was “sad, frustrated and disappointed” by the news of Smollett’s arrest. “Disappointed” says it all.
This is the same senator who refused even to address a question to my wife, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, when she testified about Islamic extremism before the Senate committee on homeland security and governmental affairs in June 2017. Why? Because Islamic extremism is the wrong sort of extremism.
Democrats such as Harris want to talk only about white extremism — rather in the way that the phoney civil rights organisation the Southern Poverty Law Centre used to publish a list of “anti-Muslim extremists” but never a list of Muslim extremists. Ironically, Nawaz and my wife both appeared on that list — until he sued them.
Like the case of the Covington Catholic schoolboys — who were falsely accused of having insulted a Native American activist during a visit to Washington — the case of Jussie Smollett serves only to validate Trump’s insistence that it is liberals who propagate fake news. This is going to matter in 2020.
But the more profound effect of fake hate crimes is to impede us from facing the complex realities of hatred itself.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford. His most recent book, The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power, is published in paperback by Penguin
You really know your political career is in trouble when people start comparing you to Gollum. Poor Theresa May was on the wrong end of some Tolkien-inspired satire last week, when the actor Andy Serkis released a spoof video with the title “LEAKED: Footage from Inside No 10 Downing Street!” Serkis, who played Gollum in Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings, had the inspired idea of combining the characters of the prime minister and Tolkien’s cadaverous, covetous, conflicted villain.
“Our precious, our agreement, our deal,” hisses Mayllum to herself. “Yes, yes, we takes back control, borders, laws, blue passportses . . .”
Just as in The Hobbit, the novel that introduced Gollum to the world, Mayllum has a split personality. Part of her craves the draft withdrawal agreement as obsessively as Gollum craves the magical golden ring. But part of her — the remnant of the person who 2½ years ago half-heartedly campaigned to keep Britain in the EU — resists.
“No!” she moans. “It hurts the people, makes them poorer . . .” Yet the allure of the agreement is as irresistible as the allure of the ring. “But I finds it,” she hisses back at herself. “I negotiates it, we wants it, we has to do it.”
Serkis’s spoof struck a chord in our household not because we are diehard remainers (as all actors appear to be). Brexit has divided our family in unexpected ways. My wife is a committed leaver; a majority of the children are, like most of their generation, remainers.
Having campaigned against Brexit and lost, I came to terms with the referendum result, but I confess to having my own Gollum-like moments of inner struggle, which is probably why the Serkis video didn’t make me laugh.
The funny thing is that our family is equally divided over Tolkien. As a boy, I read and re-read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. My daughter is just as addicted to the films. My third son is a fellow hobbit. At the tender age of two, he responded with complete fascination when I first read him The Hobbit. Now six, he is immersed (as am I) in the spellbinding audio version recorded in the 1990s by the Australian-born actor Rob Inglis.
The scientists in the family remain baffled by our Tolkien mania. My mother and my sister — both physicists — have long regarded any book containing either elves or dwarfs as unfit for consumption by rational beings. They have been mocking me on this subject for close to half a century.
They and their ilk, however, are losing the argument. Leaving aside the great monotheistic scriptures, the Bible and the Koran, The Lord of the Rings is the most popular book in the history of publishing, having sold more than 150m copies since its publication in 1954.
Its influence is ubiquitous from Oxford, where JRR Tolkien spent most of his life, to Silicon Valley, which is full of Tolkien enthusiasts. The tech investor Peter Thiel named one of his funds after mithril, a fictional metal dreamt up by Tolkien. A palantir is a kind of crystal ball in The Lord of the Rings; it’s also the name of Alex Karp’s pioneering big data company, which hands out “Save the Shire” T-shirts to visitors. I could go on.
There is, nevertheless, a puzzle that has only just struck me. Why, if his books are so immensely popular, has Tolkien’s deep-rooted conservatism had such a tiny influence? For nearly all Tolkien’s millions of readers seem somehow to have missed the fact that the great edifice of his fiction stands on a foundation of profoundly Tory philosophy.
A devout Roman Catholic who preferred the mass in Latin and looked down on his friend CS Lewis’s Protestantism, a tweed-clad Oxford don who despised central heating and abhorred the advance of the automobile, a pipe-smoking reactionary who refused to touch French cuisine or visit the United States, Tolkien was a little Englander to the point of self-parody. In prosperous old age, he crossed a cheque to the Inland Revenue with the words “Not a penny for Concorde”. Even the Norman Conquest struck him as a contamination of his country’s Anglo-Saxon essence.
Though Tolkien himself dismissed all attempts to find contemporary meaning in The Lord of the Rings (“I dislike allegory wherever I smell it,” he once said), it is hardly accidental that his diminutive heroes inhabit an idyllic Shire, while “the enemy” is based in industrial-totalitarian Mordor, located in the east of Middle-earth.
Tolkien hit on the title The Lord of the Rings in 1938, about the time of the Munich agreement. He was contemptuous of Hitler — “that ruddy little ignoramus” — but much more suspicious of Stalin. As war drew near, Tolkien reflected that he had “a loathing of being on any side that includes Russia” and believed that Stalin was “probably ultimately far more responsible for the present crisis and choice of moment than Hitler”.
“People in this land,” he wrote in 1941, “seem not even yet to realise that in the Germans we have enemies whose virtues (and they are virtues) of obedience and patriotism are greater than ours in the mass. I have in this War a burning private grudge against . . . Hitler for ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to present in its true light.”
Tolkien was first and foremost a linguist and philologist of exceptional ability. But the spirit that infused his work was so conservative that, if he were still alive today, he would be no-platformed on every campus in the land. “I am not a ‘democrat’,” he once wrote, “if only because ‘humility’ and equality are spiritual principles corrupted by the attempt to mechanise and formalise them, with the result that we get not universal smallness and humility, but universal greatness and pride, till some Orc gets hold of a ring of power — and then we get and are getting slavery.”
A veteran of the Great War who modelled the character of Sam Gamgee on his batman, Tolkien even defended deference. “Touching your cap to the squire may be damn bad for the squire,” he once remarked, “but it’s damn good for you.” The central storyline of both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings is of a pilgrimage, full of trials, tribulations and temptation, not to mention self-sacrifice. The books are only multiracial in the sense that there are hobbits, elves and dwarfs as well as men. Yes, men. In Middle-earth women are occasionally seen, rarely heard.
We are left with a profound paradox. The most popular author of modern times filled our imaginations with unforgettable characters such as Gollum — and yet failed completely to instil in us an iota of his Tory principles. The bitter irony that remainers now use Gollum to mock Brexit would not have been lost on Tolkien. Never in the field of English literature was so much misunderstood by so many.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford