Book Review: "The Madness of Crowds" by Douglas Murray
The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race, and Identity begins with a quote from G.K Chesterton: “The special mark of the modern world is not that it is sceptical [sic], but that it is dogmatic without knowing it.” As epigraphs go, it’s a fine choice. Yet perhaps a better one would be this one: “A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed.” The Madness of Crowds faithfully and forcefully documents the chaos that reigns when an entire generation of elites embraces this inversion.
Douglas Murray dives headlong into the contemporary “social justice” orthodoxy that already seemingly owns the whole of Western higher education and much of our politics. Though not a conservative — he’s an irreligious English journalist who also happens to be gay — Murray looks into progressive ideology in the areas of feminism, homosexuality, race, and transgenderism, and reports back a dogmatic orthodoxy punishing enough to make Nathaniel Hawthorne tremble. Murray’s curation of social justice culture’s alarming character is an extraordinarily valuable work of journalism, even if, unlike Mr. Chesterton, his secularist commitments keep him from connecting the most crucial dots.
Murray warns early on that the spectacles of outrage, cancellation, and ideological persecution that are now epidemic in Western life threaten not just manners but civilization itself. “We face not just a future of ever-greater atomization, rage, and violence,” Murray writes in the introduction, “but a future in which the possibility of a backlash against all rights advances — including the good ones — grows more likely” (9). The “madness” Murray has in mind is that of a mob. According to Murray, the fuel powering the steamrolling machine of madness is identity. Once it is politically weaponized, identity becomes a powerful means to shut down truth-seeking and impose dogmatism.
One example is the conflation of what Murray terms “hardware” — innate, objective, biologically-determined facts about people — with “software,” i.e., social conditioning, preferences, and psychology. Calling hardware what is actually software empowers a multitude of intellectual dishonesties and political strong-arming.
As a gay man, Murray has no qualms with LGBT equality. But he does sharply criticize the social and political weaponization of homosexuality (“Gay”), as evidenced by the cynical way the gay left rejects any suggestion that experiences or upbringing may cultivate homoerotic feeling — even when such suggestions come from gays. Murray bemoans the way the contemporary gay rights movement reduces sexuality to sexual politics, and thus only values gay people who leverage their identity toward progressive ideology.
This is an important theme running throughout The Madness of Crowds. Identity politics, Murray observes, bottoms out in irony: tThe gradual erasure of personality and reduction of individuals to their politics. Murray recounts how technology entrepreneur Peter Thiel, who is gay, was relentlessly attacked by LGBT activists for endorsing Donald Trump. Murray cites one journalist who asked, “When you abandon numerous aspects of queer identity, are you still LGBT?” (44). Had The Madness of Crowds gone to press a little bit later, Murray would almost certainly have cited similar attacks from progressives toward mayor Pete Buttigieg.
Failure to toe the ideological line is the unforgivable sin throughout contemporary liberalism. In “Race,” Murray observes the disorienting spectacle of progressives who question Clarence Thomas’s authentic blackness on account of his judicial opinions, but defend Rachel Dolezal from criticism over her (ethnically baseless) claim to be black. What’s the difference? Answer: politics. In the current climate of progressive social justice, membership in the right in-group only matters if it is accompanied with orthodox politics.
Murray also discusses how this plays out within contemporary feminism (“Women”), which, in his view, encourages females to see themselves as a permanent underclass of the patriarchy, while simultaneously denying that any inherent sexual differences exist between men and women. Murray draws on dozens of examples from media, business, and politics that illustrate the abandonment of nuance and evidence in favor of omnipotent social categories: oppressed and oppressor, victim and guilty, deserving and privileged.
As smoothly as this worldview might go down in left-wing media outlets and Ivy League classrooms, it alienates most ordinary, working-class people. Progressive ideology, Murray writes, has set itself in opposition to basic intuition and experience, a point that swells to a crescendo in the book’s concluding chapter on transgenderism. He summarizes the madness: “All the rage — including the wild, destructive misandry, the double-think, and the self-delusion — stem from this fact: that we are being not just asked, but expected, to radically alter our lives and societies on the basis of claims that our instincts all tell us cannot possibly be true” (106). In other words, the spirit of the age is one doubtful about the truth, undoubtful about ourselves (as long as we ourselves are politically correct).
The Madness of Crowds is a unique work. Rather than advancing an idea or an argument, Murray’s strategy is to let the excesses of social justice culture — often outrageous offenses against common sense, humility, and neighborliness — review themselves. It’s an effective approach. After all, how does one agree or disagree with the plight of university professors, hounded out of their jobs and reputations by student activists who shouted them down with obscenity? What possible rebuttal is there to the absurd spectacle of a millionaire who describes middle- or even low-class citizens as “privileged” merely because of their color or gender? Murray has titled his book correctly; this is madness.
But that effective strategy leaves the book’s flaws and weaknesses apparent as well. The weakest chapter is the chapter on race, not because the progressive silliness on display is not actually silly, but because merely laughing or decrying it is a dead end for left and right alike. Murray fails to appreciate how the American history of chattel slavery, reconstruction, Jim Crow, and other injustices radically shape contemporary racial discourse.
Of course, such considerations are not the point of the book. Murray is single-mindedly focused on crowd madness, and this usually restricts his vision to elite media outlets. With such a limited purview, the book’s helpfulness is mostly relative. If readers want relief from the stultifying air of PC culture, this is an excellent way of getting it. Yet in terms of understanding issues better, merely stoking aversion to journalistic groupthink may help perpetuate the kind of unthinking aversion to the out-group that Murray opposes.
Evangelicals will have much to appreciate about Murray’s work. Most of us will find the book self-recommending and friendly to our priors. But this means that it’s all the more important to be distinctly Christian in these conversations. Christians are not content merely to pop politically correct bubbles (though we often must). We are obligated to speak the truth in love — an obligation that secular critics of progressivism like Murray won’t necessarily share.
We are also obligated to offer a robust anthropology, one rooted in revealed truth and confirmed by the givenness of the natural world. The doctrine of original sin causes bipartisan offense, since it contradicts both neo-Marxist theories and regressive traditionalism. Evangelicals committed to the truthfulness of the whole gospel shouldn’t expect to feel totally at home among non-Christian critics of PC culture. Ours is an identity of strangers and aliens: a pan-ethnic, pro-man and pro-woman kingdom not of this world or any of this world’s tribes. We owe gratitude to Douglas Murray for sounding alarms where they need to sound. Let the madness of crowds be silenced by the “foolishness” that shames the wise and saves the lost.
Originally published in Eikon Spring 2020.