Into the breach—or onto the deserted ground—has marched a new metaphysics in the form of a new religion. In “The Madness of Crowds,” Douglas Murray explains this “religion” of identity politics.
The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity, by Douglas Murray (304 pages, Bloomsbury Continuum, 2021)
A better title for this book might have been “deserted ground.” The term, in fact, is author Douglas Murray’s own, and the reference is to the postmodern era in which we now live. And the ground in question? Mr. Murray is not referring to territory lost, squandered, or abandoned. Rather, he is zeroing in on past explanations for our existence on this earth.
As Mr. Murray sizes things up, religious explanations have been “falling away from the nineteenth century onwards.” And in the last century secular political ideologies have followed “in religion’s wake.”
What to do—and think—now? Mr. Murray puts the problem this way: “People in wealthy western democracies could not simply remain the first people in recorded history to have absolutely no explanation for what we are doing here,” not to mention “no story to give life purpose.”
Into the breach—or onto the deserted ground—has marched a new metaphysics in the form of a new religion. That would be the “religion” of identity politics.
Is Mr. Murray making too much of not enough? He doesn’t think so, and he’s likely right. Is he equating the madness of identity politics with everything from traditional Roman Catholicism to Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia? Well, no—and yes.
The new religion under his microscope is not nearly as historically grounded and entrenched as the Catholic Church. Nor at this historical moment is it as powerful and militaristic as Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Russia. But it is just as dogmatic as any religion worth its incense could ever be, and it is as aggressively totalitarian as any would-be Big Brother might become.
Of course, these postmodern totalitarian wannabes do not see themselves as either dogmatic or totalitarian. Mr. Murray disagrees. In doing so, he gives himself an ally by borrowing from G.K. Chesterton, who thought that the “special mark” of modern man was not his skepticism but his being “dogmatic without knowing it.”
Here Chesterton—and Mr. Murray—might be accused of being too kind to postmodern man without intending to be. The pre-postmodern man of Chesterton’s day might be excused for being a dogmatist without realizing as much. But in all likelihood the postmodern man of today either does realize this or simply doesn’t care one way or the other. As things stand, they certainly protest too much whenever charges of dogmatism are tossed in their direction.
In these pages Douglas Murray is on hand to do the tossing while he assumes the role of a postmodern George Orwell. Like his fellow Englishman, Mr. Murray is preoccupied with the decline and fall of traditional religion in the modern world. (Unlike Orwell, who was open about his unbelief, Murray remains suspiciously mum about his own orthodoxy or lack thereof.) Like Orwell, Mr. Murray is also aware of a rising totalitarian threat in his own day and beyond.
And like Orwell, Mr. Murray wishes—or perhaps expects—little more than that people behave decently toward one another (which is something that true totalitarians of all stripes neither wish for nor care about—nor expect).
To be sure, there are important differences between the two. Orwell always saw himself as a man of the left. Mr. Murray, on the other hand, is openly, even unabashedly, conservative. He is also openly, even matter-of-factly, gay.
Which brings us to the “madnesses” that comprise the heart of this book. Four issues/types of identity politics are under discussion here in chapters sparingly titled “gay,” “women,” “race,” and “trans.”
In between are brief “interludes.” Two seek to account for the spreading of the madnesses while the third (“On Forgiveness”) tries to suggest a way out of the madness.
Is a gay Douglas Murray declaring gayness to be a kind of madness? Not at all. Or blackness? Or feminism? No and no again. That leaves transgenderism. One might be tempted to attach such a label here, but Mr. Murray is not among them. He has clearly stated sympathy for those honestly struggling with their sexual identity. Witness here his careful re-telling of the tale of the transition of travel writer James Morris to Jan Morris.
The “madness” that Mr. Murray has in mind is not the plight of James Morris. Nor is Mr. Murray about the political or intellectual business of denigrating the past grievances of countless gays, women, and racial minorities. He has little to no quarrel with many a past battle that has been fought and won. He also assumes that many past victories have been fairly fought and legitimately earned.
So what’s the problem? It’s not that these battles shouldn’t have been fought. It’s certainly not that important battles have been lost. It’s not even that the vanquished among xenophobic, homophobic, anti-trans misogynists are on the verge of staging a successful comeback.
So what is the problem? For starters, it’s a lack of forgiveness, accompanied by the inability to forget, on the part of the victors. But for Mr. Murray the matter most deserving of criticism is the behavior of the victors “at the point of victory”—and beyond.
Which brings us back to the dogmatic and totalitarian implications of The Madness of Crowds. Its first “interlude” examines the “Marxist Foundations” underlying identity politics, as well as the usefulness that each of the four social movements brings to the “socialist struggle.” The second “interlude” then details the “Impact of Tech,” particularly “social bullying” via social media. Mr. Murray is convinced that the impact of these new technologies, while overestimated “in the short term,” is in the process of being “underestimated over the long term.”
It’s the present and especially the future that are Mr. Murray’s major concerns. The same goes for the truth all the time. Mr. Murray repeatedly asked the same question of each of his four identity issues: Is your grievance a hardware or software issue? And if it is a hardware issue, what changes are in store for society at large?
On the one of the four that hits closest to home, Mr. Murray thinks that whether anyone, male or female, is “born gay” is “still uncertain.” More than that, any honest jury on this question is likely to remain out indefinitely. Nonetheless, gay rights victors have long since decided that gayness is a hardware issue, and something called “society” has proved to be all too willing to go along.
Mr. Murray concludes his own ruminations by wondering what might happen if those most desirous of discovering a “gay gene” actually got their wish. His puckish answer is that “not all of the signs are good.”
While the conservative Mr. Murray is certain that differences between male and female are profoundly a hardware matter, the notion of “gender as software,” meaning there are no important differences between males and females, is rapidly on its way to capturing the culture at large. Mr. Murray, however, remains unpersuaded. More than that, he believes that postmodern attempts to turn hardware into software is “causing pain” to both men and women alike.
On the matter of race, he is again at odds with the conventional wisdom of the new religion. Of course, skin color itself is a matter of hardware. But thinking on the basis of skin color is not. If anything, the presumption that one must think a certain way because of one’s skin color (or gender or sexual orientation) is a form of madness. It is also a kind of sadness.
The same can be said of young people, especially young girls, who become convinced that their bodies do not match the gender they think they desire to be. This desire is then matched by adults, especially self-styled “experts,” who encourage, celebrate, and ultimately seek to realize these aforementioned desires.
As a result, transgenderism has become “something close to a dogma in record time.” The additional result is a postmodern world bent on “doing some morally stupefying things,” not to mention some morally confusing things.
Of course, there is nothing stupefying or confusing in the dogmatic minds of those who have “convinced themselves that transgenderism is a hardware issue” when nothing could be further from any truth that Douglas Murray knows anything about.
To be sure, there are those who are born intersex. Estimates are that in the United States perhaps one of every 2,000 children is born with indeterminate sexual organs. This clearly is a hardware condition. Everything else on the transgender continuum is a mystery, notwithstanding the certainties of its dogmatic adherents.
Is being born female really a matter of software? These same dogmatists would say “yes.” Old-fashioned feminists would say “no.” Here the madness of identity politics leads Mr. Murray to identify just one of many differences, even battles, within the identity politics movement. Not all of the letters of the LGBQT agenda comfortably fit together.
This particular alphabet soup certainly doesn’t blend very well. Here the feminists are at war with the T’s. Mr. Murray also tells us that the L’s and G’s don’t really get along. (Once again there are differences over hardware v. software with the G’s saying that gayness is a matter of hardware, while the L’s tend to disagree.) For that matter, the G’s and the Q’s are often at odds. And so it goes.
Only one question remains: Which will collapse first? Will it be the entire identity politics regime, beset as it is by its internal contradictions and its external madnesses? Or will it be Western society itself? That would be the same society that has been home to great advances for gays, women, and minorities. Just ask a gay Douglas Murray. Or either James or Jan Morris, for that matter.
All of this might be a reason to celebrate Western society. But it most assuredly is not—at least not in the dogmatic minds of the victors and their ideological successors. Having captured the deserted ground, they are now determined to destroy it.
Ultimately, the hatred of the victors for their own society dominates their worldview. How else would one explain their seemingly permanent sense of victimhood? How else to account for their lack of gratitude? How else to give meaning to their refusal to forgive and forget?
So, which will collapse first? Will it be the societies under siege on the deserted ground that is the West? Or will the humorless, dogmatic victors become victims of a different sort before the West is destroyed? Will the entire identity politics movement first and finally collapse by its own madness and internal differences and contradictions?
Douglas Murray does not pretend to suggest an answer. That stipulated, he’s also not placing any bets on the West recovering its senses any time soon, as he wonders whether this might be a good time to laugh or a good time to cry.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.