On the Brink

British journalist Melanie Phillips discusses the west’s civilizational crisis.

Melanie Phillips is an award-winning columnist for London’s Daily Mail. Educated at Oxford, she won the Orwell Prize for journalism in 1996. She is the author of Londonistan and All Must Have Prizes, among other books. Phillips spoke with CWR in April about her new book, The World Turned Upside Down: The Global Battle Over God, Truth, and Power (Encounter Books).

How did you select the title of your book?

Melanie Phillips: It arose in my mind because that’s how I think about the situation in the West. So often I’m writing about all manner of things happening, where everything’s been turned backwards and inside out. Right has turned into wrong, justice into injustice, victim into victimizer and so on. And I know from the response I get from my readers that on very many issues they think that too. But they are perplexed by the fact that what they think of as clearly demonstrable reality is represented in a way that makes white black and black white. They feel absolutely perplexed and bewildered, and that’s why I called the book The World Turned Upside Down.

Could you explain the “Princess Obama” syndrome?

Phillips: Yes, it comes from the fact that I look at two phenomena, the cult that surrounded Princess Diana in Britain and the cult that surrounded Barack Obama when he was running for president. Of course the shine has come off Barack Obama, but I was looking at this extraordinary hype that surrounded him when he was running for president.

In both cases it seemed to me that the reason for the hysteria and the hype was that the public was projecting onto both of these personalities its hopes and fears…and they thought that both of these characters would transcend these difficulties.

For example, Princess Diana was perceived as one of life’s victims. She was the product of a broken home, she had an eating disorder—she had a lot of problems. She was unhappily married to a man who was perceived to be cold and unfeeling. And yet she transcended all of this because she was beautiful, she was a fairy-tale princess. She was the “Queen of Hearts” and all that sort of nonsense. And so it was a kind of psychological projection and transcendence, and that’s why she was so important to people, and that’s why there was so much hysteria when she died.

Similarly, Barack Obama seemed to me to have achieved near-divine status because he was seen, I think, as someone who—by virtue of what he was and where he came from—would transcend some of the more traumatic problems that America felt it had, in particular its terrible history of slavery, its history of discrimination against black people, and the current situation in which America was fighting against the Islamic world. Obama, who himself fused black and white, Muslim and Christian, seemed to represent a kind of promise of global harmony.

[Obama] became a kind of mythic figure just as Princess Diana had been a mythic figure. So in order to illustrate this phenomenon of psychological projection, I called it the Princess Obama syndrome.

You talk about how science and religion were not always regarded as being at odds with one other, but that “scientism” (the belief that scientific materialism alone can answer all the questions in the world) has taken over. How did it happen that religion became the enemy of science?

Phillips: I think the explanation is that science became identified with materialism. When Western science led the way there was no problem—religion and science were held to be completely compatible with each other. They were simply exploring different things. Science was the attempt to explore and explain the world that could be seen. Religion was the attempt to explain reasons behind the world, and these were considered separate spheres which could co-exist very happily.

Some of the most distinguished scientists from that time onwards have been religious believers. Now for various reasons this doctrine of materialism grew up that made no room for religion. One can trace this way of thinking to the Enlightenment, to Francis Bacon and other thinkers who tried to make science basically take over from God. And for various reasons this strain of thought took root particularly in the 20th century and thus caused science, in my view, to overreach itself.

So science became scientism, which is this argument that says explicitly that there can be no explanation for anything in the universe or in the whole of experience that is not a materialist explanation. This is absolutely ludicrous, because there are all kinds of things that go on, like love and law and philosophy, which don’t have a materialist explanation. And they’re not irrational. But scientists have said there’s no room for anything that isn’t explained by science, which has caused those scientists who take that view to become irrational in, say, their attempts to explain the origins of the universe. They would have us believe that live matter evolved from inanimate matter, which is a kind of magic. That is a species of superstitious belief.

So you have people who purport to be the most rational in our world actually saying extremely silly and irrational things. And that is because they’ve been led into this terrible trap by the doctrine of materialism, which has resulted in this forced polarity, this forced opposition of science and religion.

And you argue that Western science depends on religion?

Phillips: Yes, most people just assume that science and religion are in opposite, hostile camps. And that the age of reason displaced religion completely and that religion was consigned thereafter, and should be consigned, to the realm of superstitious mumbo jumbo, whereas science is based on rationality, the exercise of reason, empirical observation and evidence.

But history shows us that that’s not the case at all, and that Western science depended entirely on the understanding that the universe was rational, and that man was rational and that therefore a rational universe could be comprehended by rational man. And the reason that the West thought this was that it was given the idea of the rational universe by the Hebrew Bible, upon which, of course, Christianity was built.

And it was the Hebrew Bible that gave the world the revolutionary idea that the entire world was created by a rational intelligence that was capable of being rationally interrogated. Otherwise, if the universe is, as the militant atheists would have us believe, just a brutal and pitiless collection of chance encounters, then it’s not rational. And therefore there is no way in which it could be rationally interrogated.

The idea of a rational world and universe was given to us by the Bible and it launched Western science. In my view, and I’m not alone in thinking this, that’s why Western science has developed the way it has. Other civilizations pursued scientific areas of inquiry, but they got so far and no further.

You discuss the ways in which the left manipulates science, politicizes it. And you talk about the persecution of those who are skeptical of what’s become the conventional wisdom on evolution, man-made global warming, stem-cell research and more. Why does the left get away with politicizing science?

Phillips: It’s because the left is ideological and the right is anti-ideological. The left is an ideology, it’s a way of looking at the world that attempts to fit the world into a prior idea. That idea takes various forms, but the central idea of so-called progressives is that you can bring about utopia.

For example, the anti-Israel utopia is to say, “If only the Jewish State didn’t exist, there would be peace in the world.” The anti-America utopia is to say, “If only America didn’t exist or were muted as a great power, there would be no oppression anywhere.” The environmental utopia: “If only we didn’t have modernity and capitalist industrial modernity, the planet would be healthy.” The utopia of scientism is, “If only we didn’t have religion, there would be no evil in the world and everybody would be entirely rational and everyone would be happy and there would be no wars and no prejudice because all bad things come from religion.” These are all forms of utopia. The left wishes to re-fashion the world, one way or another, in order to bring about heaven on earth.

Now what they call “the right” isn’t necessarily the right at all, in that what they call “the right” is basically a category that includes anyone who opposes this ideology of utopia. People on “the right”…are anti-ideology by definition. They are trying to free humankind from the pernicious, totalitarian, and cruel effects of ideology.

How will what you call “the myth of environmental Armageddon” be resolved? Will people like Al Gore, who have invested so much in the theory of man-made global warming, ever be convinced that perhaps they are wrong, that perhaps the threat isn’t what they thought it was?

Phillips: No. I don’t think they will ever openly admit that they were wrong, even though the evidence is obvious. You have to be really blinkered not to see that the evidence to support their theory not only isn’t there but in many cases has been fabricated. But they will never admit it, because as you know the intelligentsia of the West has signed up to this, and it has influenced the public policy positions of governments across Britain, Europe, and, increasingly, America.

A very large number of very, very high-ranking scientists have basically said, “There is no argument, global warming is a fact.” Fellows of the Royal Society have said that the science is settled and all that sort of nonsense. These are people who are the leaders of their fields. In the intellectual sphere, your reputation is everything. And they can’t possibly admit that they got it completely wrong, because why should anyone believe them ever again?

My guess is that it will be a bit like Stalinism. A whole bunch of people in the progressive circles of Britain and America signed up to Stalinism, and they shut their eyes to the demonstrable reality of Stalin. And they supported that regime.

And when it became apparent that [Stalinism] was the opposite of the truth, a few people of principle publicly renounced their position. But the vast majority basically stopped talking about it and hoped it would all go away. And a few of them even kept faith until they died.

And my guess is that it’s going to be the same with global warming. We will find that the debate suddenly shifts. We are already finding that the new horror is the acidification of the seas and suddenly attention is moving from the atmosphere to the seas. Why? Because the atmosphere is not heating up, it’s actually cooling. We’ll see that sort of attempt to shift the debate in order to pretend, in order to mask the fact that these people’s reputations are shot, that these people with enormously stellar academic reputations have shown themselves to be intellectual charlatans, frauds, and suckers, and very few people are going to admit to that.

Could you say a few words about the “cultural totalitarianism” that has taken over since the fall of fascism and communism?

Phillips: Communism and fascism were both totalitarian thought-systems in that they attempted to control how people thought and behaved. Those regimes were of course defeated in the forms of Nazism and the Soviet Union. But after the fall of the Soviet Union, the progressives on the left did not give up their desire to overthrow the social, cultural, and moral structures of the West.

After the overthrow of communism, they chose a new way of achieving their aims, which was to work through the culture, to capture the citadels of the culture, the educated classes, the intelligentsia, the media, the universities, the law, the churches—all the institutions of society—and to capture them for a way of thinking that would turn the West upside down. This new world would treat what had been described previously as marginalized attitudes as the norm, and to treat what had previously been considered the norm as transgressive attitudes.

In Britain, they’ve achieved this absolutely to the letter. That’s why we’re in the state we are in, with, for example, the structure of our families. To promote the idea that children are best served by being brought up by their own mothers and fathers whenever possible is a kind of prejudice. Consequently, anyone who does not support this set of attitudes—life-style choice, multi-culturalism, all these sorts of things—must be stamped out. And there can be no debate. And those people must be treated as social, professional, and political pariahs.

Very similar to what was done in the communist regime, you have an attempt to stamp out dissent, which of course harkens back to religious inquisition of the Middle Ages, and it’s this belief that there’s only one truth, and that there can be no discussion, there can be no argument, and that anyone who challenges that one truth is a heretic and must be destroyed. We see that in all totalitarian systems. And in my view this is a cultural totalitarianism.

If the West is being overtaken by a departure from reason and logic and Judeo-Christian values and by an embrace of ideology, where are we headed? Where will we be in a generation?

Phillips: If we carry on as we are at the moment, then we almost by definition are not going to be able to continue with the principles that we hold most dear, like freedom of thought and the ability to defend ourselves.

Britain is already destroying itself. Family life has fallen apart. We have geographic deserts of fatherlessness. We have an education system that is de-educating so that young people are coming out of school literally unable to read and write in some cases, and even when they go to university everything is being dumbed down. To a certain extent they end up knowing less and less, and are less able to think for themselves.

So in Britain we’re becoming much more sheep-like, much less independent. If you don’t have the emotional resilience that comes from a stable family background, if you don’t have the intellectual equipment to enable you to progress through the world, then you become less independent and much more dependent upon the state and much more susceptible to state control and state interference. And that’s the way we in Britain are going. It’s a society in deep, deep, deep decline.

Now the great question is whether a society like this can and will repair itself. I say Britain because Britain is a kind of leader in this—where Britain goes today other societies in the English-speaking world will follow. You can see these trends throughout the West, but they are most pronounced in Britain.

Now there are two examples before us of societies that are in this kind of trouble. Britain in the 18th century was a kind of society marked by great licentiousness and disorder in which people like me were sitting around saying, “It’s all over, we can’t survive.” But that society did actually stop at the brink, looked over the edge and said, “We have to repair ourselves.” And that turned into the 19th century—the great period of Victorian England in which, led by the churches, Britain did repair itself. It went in for moral and intellectual repair and ended the century tremendously strong, with a great deal of order where there was disorder. So it’s possible that we can do that again.

Or you also have from history the examples of societies and cultures like ancient Rome, which did in fact collapse. I can’t say which one this will be. Certainly we would have to do something quite drastic as a society and culture to pull back from the brink.

Why are Western progressives so inclined to defend Islam—you call it a “love affair”—given that progressive values are so often at odds with Islamic values?

Phillips: Well, it’s a puzzle because it is extraordinary to find the left—which is so committed to equal rights, minority rights, gay rights—literally marching arm-in-arm with people who would kill gays and treat women as half the value of men and for whom there is no such thing as religious liberty. There are a number of reasons. First, one shouldn’t underestimate the effect of simple fear. It is human nature to appease and cozy up to the people you fear. [Progressives] think that by reaching out they will kind of neutralize the really bad stuff. Of course that doesn’t happen. What happens is they basically surrender.

Another factor is the terrible moral confusion on the left, which can no longer distinguish between wrong and right, justice and injustice, and inverts it so that it becomes the opposite. And then they can’t deal with the inversion that the Islamic world goes in for, in which the wrong deeds, the bad deeds done by the Islamic world are always someone else’s fault and where the Islamic world is always the victim.

The third factor is a continuity between Western leftists and radical Islamists—they’re all basically in the business of overturning Western values. They don’t see it like that, but that is exactly what it is. So it’s not really surprising that they are drawn to each other.

And the fourth factor is that the progressive left, going back at least to the French Revolution, has always been drawn to nihilism and violence. The reasons why are complicated, but it is drawn to tyranny, to suppression, to violence, and to death cults. Far from being truly progressive, the left has often been on the side of darkness rather than light, historically, when you look at the causes with which they have aligned themselves. And here we are again.

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Daniel Allott 0 Articles
Daniel Allott is senior writer at American Values and a Washington Fellow at the National Review Institute.