Nicholas J. Kaster
The British writer Douglas Murray is one of those rare public intellectuals who writes cogently, with wit and erudition, but also with a sharp dose of common sense and humanity. His latest book, The Madness of Crowds, is an extended meditation on identity politics and specifically how sexuality and race have intersected with technology to create today's toxic culture.
Murray’s book is a follow-up to his international bestseller The Strange Death of Europe, in which he describes the malaise of Western Europe as it navigates Islamic immigration and declining birthrates. The Madness of Crowds might well have been titled “The Strange Death of Political Discourse,” as Murray illustrates how the weaponization of identity and victimhood has poisoned the political culture.
Murray argues that the decline of religion in the 19th century and the decline of secular ideologies in the last quarter of a century have led to a vacuum that was filled by postmodernism. That worldview, which began at the universities, functions as a religion-substitute. Its holy trinity is “social justice,” “identity group politics,” and “intersectionalism.”
Murray’s book is divided into four main chapters corresponding to the four main social justice identities: Gay, Women, Race, and Trans. Between each chapter he has brief interludes on the Marxist foundations of intersectional theory, the impact of technology and social media, and the important of forgiveness in the age of the internet.
Intersectionalism is the theory that race, “gender,” and sexuality overlap to create systemic oppression. The theory, Murray notes, “is an invitation to spend the rest of our lives attempting to work out each and every identity and vulnerability claim in ourselves and others and then organize along whatever system of justice emerges from the perpetually moving hierarchy which we uncover.”
The foundation of this demented theory is Marxist – except that now whites, males, and heterosexuals are at the top of hierarchy of oppression (in addition to that old standby, capitalism). Beneath the white patriarchy are all the minorities: non-whites, gays, women, and (most recently) the transgendered.
What unites these various disparate groups who have entirely different histories and interests is the perception of the white patriarchy as the common enemy. Indeed, if white heterosexual “cisgender” males didn’t exist, intersectional theoreticians would need to invent them in order to cement the alliance of oppressed victim groups who otherwise have little in common.
This has all led to a toxic culture, characterized by increasing conflict. “In public and private,” Murray writes, “both online and off, people are behaving in ways that are irrational, feverish, and herd-like, and simply unpleasant. The daily news cycle is filled with the consequences.”
We see this most prominently at universities, where free speech has been crushed beneath stultifying political correctness and where any point of view at odds with the prevailing PC narrative is dismissed as “racist”, “sexist”, “homophobic”, or similar epithets designed to end debate. But, as Murray details, this toxic culture has now spread from the university-educated elite out to government and corporations. The wrong word at the wrong time can end a career. Just ask James Damore, formerly of Google.
Identity politics has found a home in the modern Democratic Party where candidates feverishly compete for intersectional points. Elizabeth Warren, who has arguably benefitted the most from identity politics, recently made the startling announcement that, “Black trans and cis women, gender-nonconforming, and nonbinary people are the backbone of our democracy.”
Decades after the successful civil rights movement of the 60s, the relations between blacks and whites are deteriorating. Murray notes that “the number of Americans who view racism as a ‘big problem’ doubled between 2011 and 2017.” These dates almost perfectly bookend the presidency of Barack Obama.
In his discussion of women, Murray notes that there is “a presumption that almost all relationships in the workplace and elsewhere are centered around the exercise of power.” The relationship between men and women, crucial to a stable society, are thus viewed through a Marxist prism, as if we are discussing labor and capital. Science tells us that male and female natures are rooted in biology, but identity politics requires us to believe they are not. “We have begun trying to reorder our societies not in line with facts we know from science but based on political falsehoods pushed by activists in the social sciences,” Murray concludes.
Conversely, the moral case for gay rights rests on the notion that gay people are “born that way” -- that it is rooted in biology when in fact scientific findings are inconclusive. Nonetheless, Murray notes, “being gay has become one of the central building blocks of identity, politics, and ‘identity politics.’” Yet, as Murray points out, “LGBT” hardly exists as a cohesive community. “Gay men and gay women have almost nothing in common” and neither group thinks much of “bisexuals.”
In his chapter on transgenderism, Murray notes that no other issue has so swiftly moved to the fore. It took decades for homosexuality to be accepted. “By contrast,” he notes, “trans has become something close to a dogma in record time.” The demands go beyond requiring new pronouns and imposing gender-neutral bathrooms. “Far more serious,” Murray says, “is the demand that children be encouraged toward medical interventions over a matter that is so incredibly unclear,” referring to prescribing puberty blockers, sex hormones, and surgery to children as young as 12.
Murray’s prose is measured throughout and his book means to persuade, not to hector. He wants to lower the volume of the conversation. Unfortunately, his tone has not been reciprocated by the Progressive Left. The leftist Guardian, for instance, has dismissed The Madness of Crowds as a “rightwing diatribe.”
Murray calls for approaching the cultural issues in a spirit of love and forgiveness rather than “the endless register of resentment and greed.” One way to start, he suggests, is to ask more regularly “Compared to what?” when faced with charges that our society is racist, sexist, homophobic and the like.
“The aim of identity politics would appear to be to politicize absolutely everything,” Murray writes, something to which anyone who watches football or listens to late night TV can attest. “In an era without purpose, and in a universe without clear meaning, this call to politicize everything and then fight for it has an undoubted attraction. It fills life with meaning of a kind.”
But politics is a poor substitute for religion. “One of the ways to distance ourselves from the madness of our times is to retain an interest in politics but not to rely on it as a source of meaning,” he advises.
It’s a dose of sane advice in an insane age.