One of the great pleasures of journalism is that your heroes (the living ones, at least) become accessible. That might be an unorthodox way to begin: a warning that I am biased in this author’s favor. But actually, no. Two years ago, I admired Douglas Murray’s The Strange Death of Europe from afar. Today, after having come to know him, I can say that Mr. Murray (a senior fellow at National Review Institute) is just as incisive, my appreciation is (deservedly) unwavering — and in any case, his most recent book, The Madness of Crowds, demands serious attention from friend and foe alike.
The book wades into four thorny issues — “gay,” “women,” “race,” and “trans” — marking new territory for the author, whose last book was about Islam and immigration. No tidy resolutions are found in its pages. Rather there are questions — precisely the right questions — giving the reader permission to think, without telling her what to think. “I hope that this book will help clear some terrain across which afterwards other people may more safely pass,” he explains in his introduction, invoking as a metaphor the Great Viper, a mine-clearing device used by the British army during the Second World War.
Our culture is a much longer, more sprawling river than is often imagined. Murray treks upstream to the polluted waters of contemporary philosophy, before heading back down to pop culture’s shallower pools. Near the source of these waters, Murray discovers Foucault’s “perverse” and “dishonest” obsession with power, as well as his disregard for charity and forgiveness. He finds latent Marxism, its anti-capitalist formula applied to new structures of “privilege,” ones that relate to identity. The new formula insists that “the power of the patriarchal white males must be taken away and shared around more fairly with the relevant minority groups.”
In the academy, Murray encounters deconstructionists — perhaps more accurately labeled destructionists — and, nearby, social constructionists and others who have breathed life into some staggeringly mad ideas (e.g., that gender is entirely a “performance” untethered to biology). The new “disciplines” are fool’s gold. Queer studies, black studies, gender studies, whiteness studies — all explore new “interlocking oppressions.” Murray observes wryly that no accompanying “map of utopia” has ever been (or, presumably, ever will be) provided. So what do we nourish ourselves with in the meantime, while awaiting salvation? Shame, anger, confusion, and despair — all force-fed to the young, whom the author advises us to pity.
The absurd cannot be explained, only exposed. And what can be said about the gender theorist Judith Butler that her own 100-word sentence (employing such phrases as “relatively homologous,” “structural tonalities,” and, of course, “power relations”) does not more immediately demonstrate? How better can the contradictions of modern feminism be summoned than by describing the pop singer Nicki Minaj’s music video “Anaconda,” in which the invitation to “look at her butt” is made rather difficult to refuse, especially for the young man who, “as her butt is being waved right in front of his face for the umpteenth time,” makes the mistake of “placing one hand gently over her buttocks,” at which point — consent! consent! — the music stops, the man is thumped, and his head is left hanging, “mortified at his inexcusable behavior”?
Homosexuality is another area of silently desperate confusion in today’s discourse. Developing an idea from the writer Daniel Mendelsohn — who described having sex with other men as “falling through a reflection back into my desire, into . . . my self” — Murray considers whether, in addition to homosexuality’s being “an unstable” foundation for individual identity and a “hideously unstable” basis for collective identity, “gays will always present a challenge to something innate in the group that make up the majority in society,” since their desire is potentially more self-regarding than it is other-orientated. (Though, of course, all sexual acts have the potential to become self-regarding — irrespective of the sex of the partakers.) It’s a fascinating, important consideration — and, naturally, a troubling one. But wrestle with this publicly and the likely result will be humiliation and loss of employment. Is it worth it? For most people, probably not.
But what happens when we are prevented from discussing tricky subjects such as race, sex, and sexuality? Far more than mere discomfort. There are victims. Dr. Johanna Olson-Kennedy, the medical director at the largest transgender youth clinic in the United States, is one of four doctors in the country overseeing experimental treatments, sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, on children as young as eight (for which there are no control groups). Such recklessness is funded by millions of dollars from the American taxpayer, who is left largely in the dark by the complicity and cowardice of the mainstream press.
Once, while discussing the removal of healthy breasts from teenage girls who identify as members of the opposite sex, Olson-Kennedy told a cooing, clapping audience: “If you want breasts at a later point in your life you can go and get them.” “Really?” Murray wonders. “Where? How? Are people like blocks of Lego onto which new pieces can be stuck, taken off and replaced again at will? Is surgery so painless, bloodless, seamless and scarless today that anyone can just have breasts stuck on them at any point and live happily ever after, enjoying their new acquisitions?” It gets worse. Olson-Kennedy’s husband, a female-to-male transsexual and a social worker at her clinic, called for funds to be raised for the double mastectomy of a girl with Down syndrome, whose mother had only recently claimed her child was transgender.
Despite plenty more depressing and enraging examples, in many ways Madness is a more hopeful book than its predecessor. The Strange Death of Europe began with the statement “Europe is committing suicide” and ended with the suggestion that there are “no decent answers to the future.” Death spoke of death — of a culture poisoned by politics, having lost its religion. But Madness focuses on culture primarily as it relates to the individual. And perhaps that’s why Murray thinks something can be done to save it.
“What is wrong with the world,” wrote G. K. Chesterton in a book by that name, “is that we do not ask what is right.” Murray’s hope is articulated in similar terms. His great esteem is for the human spirit. Its resilience as well as its capacity for reason and generosity are our best shot at putting odious ideologies behind us and establishing the kind of culture “of which Martin Luther King was dreaming in 1963.” Such a project will take immense personal effort, naturally. A willingness to think out loud and risk being wrong, a readiness to forgive — and, in turn, be forgiven. Is the public square ready for such sanity? Perhaps not. But where telling the truth becomes impractical for the many, it becomes a moral duty for the few — those who are not answerable to compromised hierarchies. Writers, for instance.
Murray has neither the tone nor the message of one crying in the wilderness. Rather, his is a voice singing freely in a tuneless land. A voice soaring high above the shrieking, wailing, and babble. It’s an invitation — both delightfully and devastatingly clear. And who knows? Perhaps more voices — in welcome, glorious tension — will form a whole chorus, rising up into the ether toward a worthier aim. Toward harmony, instead of uniformity. Toward order, instead of utopia. And toward truth, instead of false gods and clanging dogma.
This article appears as “Hope amid the Madness” in the November 11, 2019, print edition of National Review.