A long time ago, I happened upon a cartoon in some publication or other. A single frame—in the vein of Gary Larson—depicted thousands of sheep rushing headlong off a cliff. In the middle of this great multitude, one particular sheep moved in the opposite direction. “Excuse me…excuse me…excuse me,” it bleated. That scene came to mind recently as I read Douglas Murray’s latest book. He takes his title and inspiration from Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1841), that oddly compelling 19th-century miscellany by Charles Mackay, a book that is still in print and widely read today. This is because it concerns the most bestial part of human nature: the herd mentality.
“Men,” Mackay writes, “…think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.” This may be overly optimistic. It isn’t that men recover their senses so much as they move on to some new madness. He admits as much elsewhere in the book:
We find that whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object, and go mad in its pursuit; that millions of people become simultaneously impressed with one delusion, and run after it, till their attention is caught by some new folly more captivating than the first.
Advances in science and technology have done little to check this impulse. In many cases, the consequences are worse because of them. We snicker at the Dutch for losing their minds—and their money—over tulips. We sneer at the French falling for the Mississippi Scheme of John Law. Yet how many of us were taken in by Enron, or WorldCom, or The Beanie Baby Bubble? Names and schemes change, but the psychology is much the same. We see it in crazes of all kinds—diets, dances, diseases—and, quite often, in blind devotion to political candidates.
None of these phenomena, devastating though they may be in particular, culminate in anything like universal impact. Limited by time and scope, they remain artifacts of human folly, examples of the herd mentality that we roll out in conversation or condemnation. But something is afoot these days, something sinister, and Murray has got his finger on its pulse.
Of recent developments, he writes, “In public and in private, both online and off, people are behaving in ways that are increasingly irrational, feverish, herd-like and simply unpleasant.” This comes as no surprise to anyone who pays any attention to the news. But then he strikes right at the postmodern heart of things by declaring that “all our grand narratives have collapsed.” Our way of situating ourselves—at least in the West—was ordered for centuries around a Judeo-Christian understanding. We shared common assumptions rooted in a metaphysics that viewed man as created in the image and likeness of God. It was a recognizable moral landscape that, even in darkness and disagreement, had discernible features.
It is no more.
Murray argues that new ideologies of gender, race, and identity are rushing to fill the void. “The purpose,” he says, “…is to embed a new metaphysics into our societies: a new religion, if you will.” The philosophical foundations having been laid over preceding centuries, particular manifestations of the new metaphysics—at least since the 1960s—have been burrowing deeper and deeper into our public and private lives. He applauds the improved lots of women, gays, and minorities in Britain and the United States. But he is deeply troubled by the concerted efforts of advocacy groups to go beyond such gains and to radically refashion not merely sexual identity, but the culture at large. It is not about acceptance. It is not about advantage. It is a naked play for power. And it is madness.
Murray identifies three methods to the madness: social justice, identity politics, and intersectionality. This unholy trinity is familiar enough to most of us by now. But Murray is adept at showing how each works, how they work together, and what they are working toward. The identitarians and social justice ideologues are engaged in the deconstruction of the old order and anyone associated with it. Aided by social media and the internet, their tactics have yielded such corrosive effects as “cancel culture,” grievance collecting, offense archaeology, and a host of speech-stifling techniques that set tripwires everywhere for the uninitiated. Chaos, paradoxically, may appear to be the new order of things. It is not. It is the storm before the calm of a newly constructed and more coercive order based on gender, race, and identity.
The book is divided into four chapters: Gay, Women, Race, and Trans. Three interludes—thoughtful meditations in their own right—bring the chapters together under broader considerations of cultural Marxism, the impact of technology, and forgiveness. Murray approaches these subjects largely through a classical liberal lens. In this way, he joins penetrating liberal observers such as Lionel Shriver, in her dystopian novel The Mandibles (2016), and Mark Lilla, in his The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics (2017).
The Madness of Crowds was published only a few weeks after a major study appeared in the journal Science on Aug. 29, 2019. It found that a gay gene does not exist. Murray, perhaps anticipating such a finding, asks “whether being gay means you are attracted to members of your own sex, or whether it means that you are part of a grand political project?” He argues that gays are not a monolithic group. For example, he marks a difference between gays as homosexuals desiring social acceptance, and queers, who desire the overthrow of the existing social order. It is a division that leads to bizarre results like the gay Silicon Valley venture capitalist Peter Thiel being condemned and ostracized for his support of Donald Trump. According to queer logic, Thiel has sex with men but he is not truly gay. The reader can only conclude that “gay” and “queer” mean whatever the high priests of progressivism say they mean, whenever they say it, subject to change.
We are experiencing the effects of such progressive dogmatism across the West. Murray senses “something strange and vaguely retributive in the air.” He highlights numerous examples of gay special interest stories in mainstream media in which factual information takes a backseat to political agendas. It is as if editors are “making up for lost time, or perhaps just rubbing things in the faces of those not yet up to speed with the changed mores of the age.” He is likewise alarmed at how rapidly these changes have occurred. Murray observes that, from the broad acceptance of gays to demands for the overthrow of the existing order, only a short time has passed. Society can neither be built nor maintained on such instability—at least not a free society.
He makes similar observations about the current state of feminism. It is riven with disagreement over the nature of sex, or whether there is a difference between men and women. Science tells us there is, but political activists tell us otherwise. This is why convicted male sex offenders who identify as females are now able to use women’s bathrooms. To add to the confusion, we are now witnessing an asymmetric war between intersectional elites. Trans activists (and their fourth-wave feminist allies), who promote gender-fluid and nonbinary identifications, have taken aim at less enlightened feminists who maintain that women are, well, women. That is, they are born that way and no amount of makeup or sex-change operations can alter that fact.
It is all enough to make one’s head spin. As Murray diagnoses the problem, Western societies “have arrived at a stage of seemingly industrial-strength denial.” The verities of yesteryear, or just last week, have disappeared down the progressive memory hole. He writes:
And we seem to have decided that the individual complexities which actually exist not just between women and men but within men and within women can simply be pushed to one side with the assumption that they have all been overcome.
Those of us who harbor doubts about the new order are forced to suspend our disbelief—risking our reputations, jobs, or worse if we do not—and enter the theatre of the absurd.
On the subject of race Murray takes us from Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech to the “problem of whiteness,” to “vacations from white people,” and to “white privilege.” Now it is the color of one’s skin that dictates how much freedom of speech one possesses. “What matters above everything,” Murray writes, “is the racial and other identity of the speaker.” This is precisely how Benedict Cumberbatch can be pilloried for referring to blacks as “colored people” rather than “people of color,” while New York Times writer Sarah Jeong can tweet “White men are bullshit” and “Cancel White People” and suffer no consequences. The progressive anti-racists want us to believe—despite massive improvements in opportunities for minorities—that the situation has never been worse. Murray demonstrates how these so-called anti-racists are in fact virulent anti-white racists who have plunged Britain and the U.S. into deplorable states of race relations.
“Among the subjects in this book,” Murray laments, “none is so radical in the confusion and assumptions it elicits, and so virulent in the demands it makes, as the subject of trans.” He explains how activists have exploited gender dysphoria—especially in prepubescent children—to push a political agenda that is revolutionary, all while neglecting legitimate medical and scientific concerns over intersex individuals (those born with both male and female body parts). Here, as elsewhere, Murray is deeply troubled by the dogmatism that not only refuses to ask the necessary questions, but denounces those that do.
One significant case involves feminist thinker Germaine Greer, who had the audacity to challenge the trans orthodoxy regarding female identity. Greer believes on very good evidence that only a biological woman is, in fact, a woman. She was viciously attacked by trans activists, as well as some other feminists, and declared anathema to feminism (at least the trans-approved version). It is a series of events that Murray sums up nicely when he says, “Among the crowd madnesses we are going through at the moment, trans has become like a battering ram—as though it [were] the last thing needed to break down some great patriarchal wall.”
Murray argues that somewhere along the line, “in the language of human rights and the practice of liberalism,” things got off track; that the liberalism infused with Enlightenment inquiry was hijacked by a vengeful dogmatism. It is a deranged endeavor, seeking to restructure society around progressive shibboleths regardless of the truth and, worse, attempting to force the rest of us to play make believe. He prescribes a much needed dose of humility for our political discussions and a spirit of forgiveness. Both would go a long way toward making our relationships with those whom we disagree less nasty. But they are severely limited insofar as they ignore the root of the problem.
Mackay, in the ornate language of his 19th-century exploration of crowd madness, suggests that sometimes our delusions are not entirely about tulips or witches or financial schemes. Things go deeper:
So deeply rooted are some errors, that ages cannot remove them. The poisonous tree that once overshadowed the land may be cut down by the sturdy efforts of sages and philosophers; the sun may shine clearly upon spots where venomous things once nestled in security and shade; but still the entangled roots are stretched beneath the surface, and may be found by those who dig.
Patrick Deneen, in his 2018 book Why Liberalism Failed, argues that “Liberalism’s success today is most visible in the gathering signs of its failure.” The very nature of liberal ideology contains the seeds of its destruction. Liberalism is provisional; it is not an end in itself. What is needed, then, is not a purer version of liberalism, or, as Murray argues, a less vengeful liberalism. What is needed is the restoration of the Christian metaphysics and morality which underpinned kingdoms and countries for centuries.
Murray would no doubt endorse Deneen’s point about the destructive turn in liberal ideology. Much of this destructive threat is embodied in the “language of human rights.” Such rights are wispy things, unmoored from any kind of transcendent morality, discovered and discarded at the will of whomever wields power. It is not simply that trans activists, for example, have co-opted the language of human rights to assert their right to be whatever they want. It is that the language of rights no longer expresses a shared morality governing human relations.
Likewise, Murray’s call for humility and forgiveness trades on coin that is no longer in public circulation. Both virtues find their fullest expression in a Christian theological understanding. If they are not so anchored then their meaning is subject to revision and, in the case of progressive dogmatism, outright rejection.
Murray, nevertheless, has written a fine book, and a necessary one.
[The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity by Douglas Murray (Bloomsbury Continuum) 288 pp., $28.00]