‘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