Not So Polarised: Douglas Murray & Dr Cornel West in NZ

John Black

Polarised – the title of Sunday night's public discussion between the academic Dr Cornel West and the writer Douglas Murray, was something of a misnomer. While the differences in their political outlooks were evident – Murray the English Ox-bridge educated small "c" conservative, Dr West the black American preacher of radical leftism – what they had in common resonated more strongly.

Dr West, while veering into word-salad territory at times, speaks with the cadences of the Baptist pulpit and the effect is mesmerising. Much has been said about the destruction of the Black American family, but this guy has brothers and sisters everywhere. He even called the KKK his "brothers" at one point. His erudition and wit were obvious ("let the phones be smart, let the people be wise", quoting passages from little-known intellectuals) and he only disappointed when he lapsed into left-wing cliché (the American "Empire", white supremacy, the military-industrial complex, immoral capitalism, etc). So vociferous were his criticisms of the last of these I was tempted to test his sincerity by asking for the price of my ticket back.

Murray, more measured and lower key, held his own with Dr West by insightful subtle commentary. The madness of social media, mass immigration, the question of how to tell when the left goes too far, and the value of tradition and civil society all got his careful intelligent treatment. He was bleakly honest too, announcing "journalism is screwed" to a journalism student. If there was a fault, it was that it all seemed a little lacking in the passion that many of us have watched him display on Youtube clips. Although these were often debate situations not a sit down "discussion" such as this. Perhaps it was the locale – Murray was dressed down, in jeans and a sweater, looking like he was in holiday mode. Some fire did arrive in his defence of free speech for all opinions no matter how transgressive, something Dr West appeared to concur with.

Common too was their respect for the Christian tradition although Dr West is a believing Christian (a son of a preacher man) and Murray an atheist "cultural" Christian. Their valuing of western civil society, that grew out of this tradition and indeed civil discussion of political differences was also clear. After the nonsense that prevented a pair of Canadians speaking with views on multiculturalism, not very different from Murray’s, this was welcome to hear.

Perhaps the mistake the hapless Canucks made was not to deliver their message in cultured Ox-bridge tones sitting next to a man the left adores.