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The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity
by Douglas Murray
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One afternoon more than a century ago, Douglas Murray tells us, a man in Ohio who was late for an appointment began to run. Spotting the runner, a young boy in high spirits chased after him. Spotting the pair, someone else started to run. Rumours began to swirl that they were running because a local dam had burst, though nobody had checked. Within 10 minutes, the streets were filled with residents fleeing the town. When, eventually, some of them realised that the dam had not burst, the embarrassed residents returned home. They never spoke of the 'Great Run' again.
Today, western societies are embroiled in the equivalent of the Great Run but on a much larger scale. Their populations are more educated than ever before but the mobs are still running wild, destroying reputations, careers and lives on a daily basis and rarely stopping to think about why they are running, or for what purpose.
It is this “great crowd derangement” that is the subject of Murray’s fascinating new book The Madness of Crowds. A conservative and vocal critic of immigration and Islam, Murray won notoriety for his international bestseller The Strange Death of Europe. This time around it is a new strand of left-wing thought, not immigration, that is his target.
Murray’s thesis is straightforward. With religion and political ideology in retreat, it has become ever harder for us to locate a story that gives our lives meaning. Into this vacuum has stepped postmodernism and a mishmash of contradictory, poorly thought-out explanations that used to be confined to academic seminars: “social justice”, “identity politics” and “intersectionality”. Now, ideas that were shaped by the likes of Gramsci, Foucault and Deleuze are going mainstream.
This transformation, warns Murray, should worry us all. Nuance and ambiguity are the first victims of this new creed, which, he says, views life not in its full complexity but as a zero-sum game between groups that are each vying for oppressed status. You are either a victim or an oppressor. Human relationships are not defined by love but crude, cold, calculating power. What unites us is downplayed in favour of what pulls us apart. Individuals find status not through their own achievements but their group membership and, ideally, whether that group suffered historical injustice. White privilege, toxic masculinity and the patriarchy must all be uprooted, though it’s not clear what should replace them or what comes next.
All of this, argues Murray, points to a profound cultural shift. Whereas in centuries past our cultures prioritised bravery and stoicism, today they prioritise victimhood. Signs of progress such as rising public support for same-sex marriage, or falling prejudice, are ignored in favour of framing our societies as cesspits of bigotry, homophobia, Islamophobia or any other social ill that can entrench the new marker of social status: being a victim. Silicon Valley, through social media and algorithms, has now turned this into a viable business model, recruiting us all into the Offensive Olympics. Worryingly, nobody seems to know where the crash barriers are, or if they even exist.
Where is this taking us, asks Murray. One key problem, he argues, is that advocates of this new creed come across not as critics who are genuinely interested in improving society but as “an enemy eager to destroy”. Another is that they are asking us to believe that it is the very countries that have worked hardest on the rights agenda that are supposedly the worst perpetrators. The failure of the radical left to recognise this reality may yet be its own undoing. Once you leave university campuses or the Twitter bubble, you find few people who believe that their society is riddled with white privilege, toxic masculinity and hatred, and who want to spend their days tearing down statues or “decolonising” university reading lists.
Next year, with the 2020 presidential election, we might get the first chance to see how working-class Americans respond to the idea, endorsed by senator Elizabeth Warren, that perhaps in the future they should pay higher taxes to fund “reparations” to the descendants of slaves. I suspect the reaction will not be positive. Indeed, Murray warns that majority populations will not “continue to accept the claims they are being told to accept and continue to be cowed by the names that are thrown at them if they do not”. Though he does not mention them, studies have found that Americans who feel anxious about political correctness were significantly more likely to vote for Donald Trump. It is not hard to see how this dogma ends up eating itself while putting the populist wave on steroids.
Much of what Murray writes is pertinent and hard to disagree with. Those who like to argue that we do not have a problem with this creed tend not to work in the crucibles where it is most active, such as universities, media and culture.
But the book does have a few frustrating gaps. Murray calls for a return to evidence and falsifiability, but provides scant evidence for the scale of the problem, which some will argue he exaggerates. How widely held, really, are views about things such as white privilege? Even if the diagnosis is accurate, there is not much in the way of a prognosis. There is vague talk about the need for forgiveness but few concrete proposals. Furthermore, one implication of all this, which is never explored, is that perhaps the most consequential political battle of the next few decades will not be between “left and right”, or liberals and conservatives, but rather internecine warfare within the left.
On one side stands the social-justice-activist left, anchored in identity politics and now regularly reaching beyond the initial objective of equality. On the other stands its more moderate cousin, what we might call the “reasonable left”, which still understands the need to carry the majority if it is to achieve economic rather than identity redistribution.
Those of us who value compromise, and worry about rising polarisation, should do all that we can to support the reasonable left against its more radical cousin. Murray says little about how this might happen but his diagnosis of the wider problem should be read by all.
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