Rivkah Fishman-Duker on The World Turned Upside Down: The Global Battle over God, Truth, and Power, by Melanie Phillips

, October 29, 2010

Jewish Political Studies Review 22:3-4 (Fall 2010)

This book by Melanie Phillips, the well-known British columnist and author, is a major contribution to the increasing number of analyses of the difficulties confronting contemporary Western societies. While her columns in the Spectator, her blog, and her bestseller Londonistan[1] have treated many of the topics covered in this substantial work, The World Turned Upside Down presents a more comprehensive and in-depth critique of the issues treated in Londonistan and includes additional subjects, such as the lies about man-made climate change, intelligent design theory, and the rise of neopagan cults.

According to Phillips, Western countries are unable to deal with current existential challenges that they face and the threat of radical Islamic groups in particular because the West has abandoned its faith in Christianity and the Hebrew Bible. Phillips correctly views these as the sources of Western concepts of reason, progress, and an orderly society.

Many intellectual figures and experts, whose opinions have filtered down to the general public, have castigated as reactionaries those who adhere to traditional religious beliefs and lifestyles and those who insist on scientific inquiry based on objective principles and do not succumb to politicized constraints. For example, scientists who have proved that much of the data on climate change is fabricated in order to suit special interests have been hounded in the manner of the medieval Inquisition. Phillips argues that because of the assault on reason, order, and real science, the West is unable to resist, and indeed, ready to accept the totalitarian dictates of radical Islam. The prevailing mindset has literally turned the world upside down.

Recently, French author Pascal Bruckner and the American Lee Harris[2] have warned that repressive, radical Islam cannot be overcome because of Western guilt feelings, misguided liberalism, and multiculturalism, which have replaced Enlightenment and reason. Phillips also emphasizes this point but goes much further by demonstrating that widespread mindless environmentalism, militant atheism, and bizarre New Age religions also have weakened science, reason, and the core values of Western civilization. She also devotes several pages to the destructive effect of fraudulent postmodern theories on academia and education in the West.

Moving from the general to the particular, Phillips focuses on Great Britain in the first decade of the twenty-first century. For example, she deplores the moral and cultural relativism that have led to the idea of accepting shari’a law for British Muslims, rather than isonomia, one law for all. Similarly, the “defining down” of what were once considered deviant types of behavior has changed British society, which has rejected the traditional nuclear family and ceased attending church. The Church of England, according to Phillips, preaches the latest leftist political views and stands for pallid liberalism and New Age philosophy.

 For the American reader, such observations are reminiscent of the “cultural revolution” of the 1960s in the United States, which rejected the middle-class American way of life and politics. The legacy of the sixties has influenced current cultural norms and finds expression in lower educational standards, the use of drugs, permissive sex, cults, and coarseness of language. Politically, the sixties gave rise to increased economic dependence on the government and affirmative action in hiring.[3]

The degradation of Western culture was part and parcel of the message of the sixties. Its proponents in the universities have deprived a generation of the study of the classics of Western thought and played an important role in creating an atmosphere where political correctness reigns and the curriculum has been watered down.[4]  Although Phillips mentions the sixties, she could have paid somewhat more attention to the American influence of that era on Britain today.

Where Phillips breaks new ground is her emphasis on anti-Semitism in all its recent permutations. The World Turned Upside Down demonstrates that the resurgence of anti-Semitism cannot be identified simply as attacks on Jews and the demonization of Israel. In fact, it is a major force in the assault on reason, Western culture, and modernity. Of the 408 pages of text, nearly two hundred are devoted to anti-Semitism, both in specific chapters and as parts of chapters on other topics. Phillips discusses the toleration and propagation of Islamic, Western secular, and revived Christian Jew-hatred, not only as an attack on Israel and its supporters but mainly as part of the campaign against the Bible, Christianity, reason, and orderly society. While Muslims in Britain and elsewhere often express virulent anti-Western attitudes, in Phillips’s view they direct their real animus toward the Jews and Judaism as the source of all evil.

Phillips shows how the current Islamic strain of Jew-hatred goes hand in hand with the so-called scientific attacks on biblical ideas of human dignity and Judeo-Christian morality. Radical Muslims and certain scientists and thinkers frequently target Christianity because of its Jewish component. Interestingly, leading British Christian clergymen are among the most vocal detractors of the Jewish state of Israel. Phillips traces the revival of Replacement Theology and other anti-Jewish ideas that had been dormant for several decades.

Indeed, just as Hannah Arendt argued that anti-Semitism was vital to twentieth-century totalitarian movements such as Nazism and Bolshevism,[5] Phillips demonstrates that anti-Semitism is the glue that holds together disparate groups such as Islamists, avid promoters of stem-cell research, members of the Anglican clergy, leftist professors and politicians, and radical environmentalists. Each chapter on the various anti-Semitic strains in Britain is replete with repugnant quotations that Phillips thoroughly analyzes. If certain parts of this book evoke the 1960s, the sections on anti-Semitism unfortunately remind the reader of the 1930s.

For the most part Phillips presents her case intelligently and cogently, giving abundant examples and copious quotations from speeches, Internet articles, newspapers, learned journals, and surveys. Her writing is lucid and elegant in the tradition of great British political essayists such as George Orwell. That said, The World Turned Upside Down is somewhat overwhelming and cannot be read in one go. There are occasional repetitions, and perhaps the chapters could have been arranged differently. Indeed, the above-noted core theme of “The Secular Inquisition” appears at length and in detail only in Chapter 6 and should have appeared either in the first or second chapter.

On the whole, The World Turned Upside Down is a disturbing and thought-provoking work. Phillips’s state-of-the-art treatment of anti-Semitism should be required reading for Jews and others concerned with the continuity of Western civilization and the preservation of the state of Israel.

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Notes

[1] Melanie Phillips, Londonistan: How Britain Has Created a Terror State Within (London: Gibson Square, 2006).

[2] Pascal Bruckner, The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism, trans. Steven Rendall (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010); Lee Harris, The Suicide of Reason: Radical Islam’s Threat to the West (New York: Basic Books, 2007).

[3] Roger Kimball, The Long March: How the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s Changed America (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2000).

[4] Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987).

[5] Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Meridian Books, 1959), 1-120. .

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RIVKAH FISHMAN-DUKER is lecturer in Jewish history at the Rothberg International School of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Rivkah Fishman-Duker

Rivkah Fishman-Duker is a Lecturer Emerita in Ancient Jewish History at the Rothberg International School of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem.