In Pascal’s Pensées, the great polymath refers to a void that man “tries in vain to fill with everything around him . . . though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words, by God himself.”
Douglas Murray’s new book, The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race, and Identity, is, at its essence, about the things that the Left has used in vain to attempt fill that God-shaped hole of Pascal’s imagining, and in particular how the postmodern Left has given birth to an identity politics that serves as a quasi-religion.
Referring to the current culture wars sometimes known as The Great Awokening, Murray writes:
These wars are not being fought aimlessly. They are consistently being fought in a particular direction. And that direction has a purpose that is vast. The purpose — unknowing in some people, deliberate in others — is to embed a new metaphysics into our societies: a new religion, if you will.
And as he notes, the pace of this radical transformation is accelerating: “What had been barely disputed until yesterday became a cause to destroy someone’s life today.”
Murray himself is an unlikely participant on the right wing of those wars. A gay British man, a former practicing Anglican who now refers to himself as a “Christian atheist,” Murray first came to public prominence in America with his book The Strange Death of Europe, a devastating portrait of European cultural collapse that focused in particular on the role of Islam and uncontrolled immigration in European decline.
Blunt and clear-sighted, it predictably caused both outrage and admiration on both sides of the Atlantic. What made that book particularly noteworthy was that Murray didn’t just attack the predictable litany of problems — open borders and lack of cultural confidence. He also attempted to get to the root causes of European decline, producing a book that was as critical of Europeans and their spiritual malaise as it was of outsiders.
Murray’s latest book takes on the similarly controversial territory of identity politics, examining Western society’s descent into madness on issues of race, gender, and sexuality. While much of what he reveals will be eye-opening to a general audience, it will be sadly familiar to anyone who has been involved in wars online or in person against leftist hegemony. Nonetheless, he has performed a substantial service in collecting so much leftist insanity in one place and attempting to tie the forces that generated that insanity into a broader theoretical framework.
Murray is particularly insightful in understanding how Big Tech plays a substantial role in degrading modern discourse insofar as it amplifies the worst tendencies of modern debate and because it is attempting to control online content. “If we are already running in the wrong direction, tech allows us to get there exponentially faster,” Murray observes. He is acute when discussing the pernicious nature of modern online outrage mobs, elucidating in detail how social media have eliminated distinctions between what used to be public and private spheres.
“We have had to try to learn how to live in a world where at any moment we may be speaking to one other person or to millions around the world. The notion of private and public space has eroded. What we say in one place may be posted in another, not just for the whole world but for all time,” he writes.
Another strength of The Madness of Crowds is its dissection of the intellectual weakness of so-called intersectionality, the fashionable notion among the Left that the inherent “oppression” in being one kind of “victim,” such as a woman, is amplified greatly by also being another kind of “victim,” such as a black person. The sum total of an individual’s many victim identities is greater than the parts. Murray observes that, contrary to the claims of intersectionality’s proponents, “interlocking oppressions do not all lock neatly together, but grind hideously and noisily both against each other and within themselves.” He provides numerous examples of places where “hierarchies of oppression” collide, creating hopeless intellectual confusion for identity-politics point-scorers.
One surprising omission from Murray’s account is the critical role of demographics in driving this social revolution — doubly odd since demographic change was a core topic in The Strange Death of Europe. The ratio of men and women in Western societies has not meaningfully changed, so social change there cannot explain the rise of radical feminist politics. But we have seen an explosion in homosexuality and so-called fluid sexuality and gender identity among younger people in the West. According to one recent survey, a staggering 43 percent of 18- to 24-year-old British youth described themselves as something other than exclusively heterosexual, compared with just 7 percent of those Brits 60 or older. Contrary to the “born this way” explanation of homosexuality, it is hard to see this growth in identification as a biological phenomenon, rather than a sociological one.
Similarly, the rise of identity politics centered around color and religion has been turbocharged by the mass immigration that Murray rightly decried in The Strange Death of Europe. In 1960, the United States was about 85 percent white and 10 percent African American, with all other minorities (Hispanic, Native American, and Asian American) accounting for scarcely 5 percent of the population. In a society such as that, the nature of racial politics is inherently very different from what it is today, when four in ten Americans are minorities, as are a majority of those 15 and under. Yet the word “immigrant” (or its variants) appears just twice in Murray’s book. As demographics have changed, the acceptable discourse in the political sphere has inevitably changed with it. Demography may not be political destiny, but you can see political destiny from demography’s house.
Despite this curious omission, Murray is unafraid to touch numerous third rails of contemporary discourse. He addresses sexual harassment in the workplace, for instance, in a way that takes sexuality seriously while blasting through the simplicities of #MeToo. And in his discussion of Pulse nightclub shooter Omar Mateen, he shows how activists continually served up a false image of Mateen as a frustrated closeted homosexual rather than a warrior for ISIS, since the latter characterization, while true, was not politically useful to gay activists. He even wades into the thorniest issues of racial discourse, having some kind words for Charles Murray, whose Bell Curve has long made him a bête noire on the left.
Douglas Murray understands the long-term dangers of letting the Left’s new and dangerous rhetoric dominate the public square. “At some stage of humiliation,” he writes, “there is simply no reason for majority groups not to play games back that have worked so well on themselves.”
Toward the end of the book, as he examines the intellectual and moral wreckage left behind by the Great Awokening, Murray notes that there’s something “demeaning and soul-destroying about being forced to parrot absurdities that you know are not true.” It is a comment that recalls Vaclav Havel’s anecdote, in his essay “The Power of the Powerless,” about living under Communist dictatorship. Havel, then a Czech dissident and playwright, noted that the real purpose of having a greengrocer hang a sign in his store celebrating workers’ solidarity was that in forcing him to repeat something obviously untrue, the Communist regime revealed its power and co-opted him. “For by this very fact, individuals confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, are the system.”
The moral alternative, according to Havel, is to “live in truth,” and that is the choice facing conservatives now as they seek to dissent from the crazed identity politics of the left. That is, implicitly, the challenge that Murray’s book lays out for us. If we shrink from that responsibility, no matter the consequences, we have ultimately become the very system that we wish to overthrow.