Outside it is cold and dusky, crusts of week-old snow still hug the sidewalks, and clutches of Montrealers are rushing to the Metro, their shoulders hunched in the familiar but futile Quebec stance against the winds of winter. Inside the conversation is of the hot topics of the day: Immigration. Islam. Trump. Climate change.
There, teacup at hand – Earl Grey, with a spot of skim – in the Queen Elizabeth Hotel is Douglas Murray, variously the enfant terrible of British conservatism and, as his sometime sparring partner, the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, once put it, “one of the most important public intellectuals today.” He is so outspoken on the contentions of contemporary life that his manner – quiet, contemplative, in gesture and sometimes in his very words seeming more the persuader than the pugilist – seems discordant with his image. The wind blows outside. The conversation whispers inside.
He’s no more congenial to Islam, no more open to immigration, no more embracing of the certitudes of the left, no more a servant of political correctness than an eavesdropper might expect. But that eavesdropper would have to strain to catch Murray’s words, which come like gentle puffs of a pipe, not that a Meerschaum would be permitted in this setting, where every prospect pleases and caviar and blinis come at $95 a plate.
And though most Montrealers might be forgiven for thinking that the name Douglas Murray refers to a onetime (2013-2014) Canadiens defenceman of almost exactly the same age, this particular Douglas Murray was educated at Oxford (and not Cornell) and possesses an athleticism of the mind (and not the hockey stick). He is, however, a formidable fighter.
This particular Mr. Murray, 40 years old, is both a man who is read (his newly released book is The Madness of the Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity) and one who reads, and so the conversation this late afternoon almost inevitably begins with an inquiry about what is on his night table these days. It turns out that he’s dipping back into The Mandibles by Lionel Shriver (‘’I thought I finished it weeks ago but I hadn’t’’) and is deep into The Faber Book of Utopias (edited by John Carey, the Oxford literary critic and sworn enemy of elitism).
His journalistic inquisitor and tablemate this late afternoon has been making his way through the massive biography of Napoleon by Andrew Roberts, a British historian and – who knew? – a friend of Murray’s. “I pretended to him that I’ve read it, but I haven’t,” he said. “I bluffed.”
Ordinarily Murray is no bluffer, though he prefers not to talk about Donald J. Trump. But like everyone else in Great Britain and Canada, he can’t help himself, and in this case he is talking about why he doesn’t want to talk about Trump.
“I never talk about Trump because everyone does,” he begins. “I never talk about Brexit either. I don’t think they’re as interesting as everybody thinks they are. I’m sad everyone is shouting hopelessly into the wind about these topics. I just don’t think it is useful for everyone to devote themselves to these two subjects. No one’s opinion on either of them is all that interesting, and basically no one can change anyone’s views on either.”
So much for that. Murray – here in Montreal on a flying visit, just two days, in part to promote his latest book, at this moment understated in a cranberry sweater with a metal zipper at the neck – would rather talk about Canada. (You’d perhaps rather hear what he says about that anyway.)
“You’ve become one of those nations where you had one story and are moving to another story,” he says, and his listener (and perhaps you readers) begins to sense that maybe we are onto an interesting riff. “The sense of what Canada was is different from the sense of what Canada is....The interesting way to get through this is to say that Canada [now wants] to be a welcoming, pluralistic, multicultural place, open and tolerant, while you talk up LGBTQ and women and ethnic minorities.”
There’s no way this conversation can go in any direction but...immigration.
So here we go. “People know immigration has different consequences depending on the numbers, the speed and the identity of the immigrants. Any one of these is explosive. All three together is dangerous. Everyone knows this.”
We are not remotely finished with this topic.
“The interesting question is: Who don’t we want,” he goes on. “We’re very bad at this question. We should be able to answer it. The problem with immigration that makes it very difficult – and I’ve gone to a lot more refugee camps than my critics have – is that it is very hard for first-world countries to say why we have such luck and others don’t.”
“Such luck” meaning the bon chance to live in Canada, or America, or any one of the industrial countries with freedoms and prosperity.
Do we dare bring up climate change? Do we dare not? (It’s not his “thing,” as he puts it, which is the thing that could make this so interesting.)
“I have only one thought,” he says, and suddenly his inquisitor breathes a sigh of relief. “It’s the obvious, undisguisable way that it has become clear that this is a replacement in the West for religion for fairly well-off, white, educated people. I don’t know the science, but it has all the manifestations of a new religion.”
What can he possibly mean by that?
“It has every single component of religion – original sin, guilt, the need for atonement. But it also has the mechanism for getting out of the [problem]. The answer is to never drive or fly again, to never buy new clothes and to live your life carefully so that you’ll save this planet, having harmed nothing. Tell your children to seek to be harmless! If it weren’t for them the moss and the trees would be getting on fine!”
Murray is an atheist, though one who did not come by that creed – the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal ruled in 2013 that the term “creed” applies to it – naturally. It was (and here we go) Islam that made him an atheist, not that that was his religion to start with. Now he’s talking a bit about the subject that has put him into perhaps the most trouble: “Canada and America were not founded by Muslims. If they had been, we’d have a better way of understanding where the crazies emerge from. We are less literate in that religion. The second problem is that there are problems in Islam that we haven’t seen in Christianity in a long time: There’s a church/state problem. There’s a problem with extremist groups. ...Where exactly is [Islam’s] cutoff line on extremism? Do the fanatics become fanatics from absolutely nowhere? It’s a very lively debate about where it comes from.”
Then this, and likely his critics will agree with at least the first sentence: “My stupidity is to tell what I think on this. I can’t pretend the Koran is a social-justice document.”
Murray has been flayed for saying that Hungarian tyrant Viktor Orban was a better representative of European values than the financier George Soros. He may be the only person outside the cabinet room in Budapest with that view. A New York Times reviewer scorched Mr. Murray’s lament for the Europe of the past for being “as fundamentally incoherent as its late-19th-century originals,” adding, “It never strikes him, or other secondhand vendors of fixed and singular identities, that nowhere in the world have individuals been the exclusive heirs of a single culture or civilization.”
Back to books before we close. What should Canadians be reading?
“My own books, obviously.”’ Well, of course. But what else should be on the Canadian bookshelf?
“People should read as widely as possible in authors they know they will disagree with,” he says, surely hoping to widen his own book sales among readers – you know who you are – who find his views contemptible. “I hate people who read by tribe. In America both political parties have their own libraries. The aim of this is to prove that your political party is always right, to say that your party got anti-Nazism, the Civil War and civil rights correct and the other side had got it wrong. That’s a danger. History is a mess for everyone.”
Just one more. Murray is a persistent and peripatetic traveler. Where should we mere middlebrows visit? “Any place in the world you haven’t visited is interesting,” he says, “even if nothing happens there.” He is not, he wants to assure you, talking about Canada.
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