Reasonable Radicals Down Under: Dr. Cornel West vs. Douglas Murray

The walk to Enmore Theatre across Newtown is a cultural labyrinth. Franchised convenience stores and take-away places still proudly display “Yes!” signs a year after the marriage equality plebiscite—almost like a supernatural ritual to ward away an imagined horde of bigots. The local government facilities had replaced their usual clichéd signs promising “innovation” and “community” with new commitments to “inclusiveness” and “diversity.” And in the central square a group of feel-good Samaritans sets up their regular mobile soup kitchen. (I suppose the prospect of driving to an actually disadvantaged suburb for their charity lacked the ego-stroking visibility they so craved.)

This suburb was dominated by the University of Sydney. And every aspect of the local habitat was coloured by this academic connection. A natural den for the young and socially liberal.

It was hard to imagine a more difficult crowd for Douglas Murray to confront; it was as oxymoronic as Gore Vidal overseeing a baptism, or Peter Hitchens eagerly organising an orgy. The milquetoast wannabe radicals, champagne socialists and identity obsessed ideologues had gathered for their Two Minutes Hate toward the unassuming British conservative, but were in for a surprisingly sharp rebuke. Not just from Murray, but from his opposite on the debate stage, Dr. Cornel West.

And that was the tone of the whole night: It was actually Dr. West, not Murray, who had the most consistently harsh words for much of the crowd. West rebuked “white liberals” for their focus on image and false radicalism over meaningful action. He mused, with remarkable insight, that it was liberals’ narcissistic attempts to spread the Enlightenment which led to the subjugation of Africa and Asia under European empires, not racist conservatives.

But Murray, not to be outdone, shamed the left for their shortsightedness and moral vanity. He questioned the value of severe critiques of capitalism and the West in a world with the alternatives of reactionary Islam, Chinese Communism and Russian chauvinism all too ready to dominate the world order in our absence. He posed a succinct defence of conservative instincts with the truism that “things can always be worse,” necessitating some conservation of the remarkable improvements made to civilisation under the current paradigms of power.

They contended with one another on a number of issues, having entirely divorced perspectives on religion, the importance of race in politics, and the moral guilt faced by the West in response to its days of empire. However, they both shared a contrarian instinct which forces them to both antagonise an often placid, morally inconsistent cultural establishment.

Douglas Murray is unique in among those who stand in opposition to the politics of the establishment in that he lacks a radical instinct. He clearly respects traditional modes of thought, and often leans toward a mostly centrist policy outlook. In another world he might have easily found himself as a natural ally of the status quo. He, however, has been forced into the position of a kind of “neoconservative radical” by the mounting collapse of his home of Europe, which he documented in his lengthy book on the subject. He sees how impotent policy and lack of conviction can indict a nation to a slow but certain demise.

The debate was compelling and presented a template for how even quite radical intellectuals can disagree and still find mutual respect. They shared a deep care for music and literature, both amicably quoting T.S. Elliot with shared affection. The only downer on the night was a Q&A where the crowd showed its real colours. On two separate occasions they hissed and jeered at right-wing questioners asking mundane queries about freedom of speech in the modern age. The irony of attempting to silence a free speech advocate with a loud “shut up” and “get him off” seemed lost on them until Douglas Murray highlighted their hypocrisy with classically sharp wit.

Even the questions that were not met with contention and offence were often dull or marked by unthinking virtue signalling. This is not, mind you, finger waving at those who felt brave enough to get up and ask a question. This is, in the end, a problem with Q&A formats in general, and why they are increasingly being skipped entirely. There were a handful of interesting questions which justified the whole endeavour by the end, so I would not recommend skipping the whole Q&A when the event is released online. In one particularly memorable moment, a question about euthanasia provoked a heartfelt and emotional appeal from Douglas Murray about the importance and value of life.

Additionally, I learned that Newtown has an excellent bar and restaurant called Mary’s, you guys are the real MVPs. It was a microcosmic event. One that showed both the best and the worst of politics. And I cannot wait for the rest of the events from Murray and Dr. West’s tour across Australia and New Zealand to be published.

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