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TCW’s Book of the Year: Douglas Murray’s The Madness of Crowds


Douglas Murray, The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity. London: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2019.

HAVING in The Strange Death of Europe (2017) braved opprobrium by contemplating the implications of mass immigration and the expansion of Islam, Douglas Murray now tackles the dangers from within western democracies posed by certain divisive philosophies and policies concerning sex, race and gender. Those intellectuals, writers and satirists who challenge the heated orthodoxies from which many commentators and institutions run scared, display physical courage which I salute, in part because I’m unsure whether I possess it myself. Murray is a vulnerably public intellectual, willing like Jordan Peterson to speak everywhere and anywhere, and I expect he has received many threats. Though he does not say so, the need in an intellectual for physical courage is a symptom of the current madness Murray diagnoses in the West, particularly in North America and the United Kingdom, between which he moves for evidence with easy familiarity.

Reading The Madness of Crowds with its broad array of case-studies has confirmed me in my suspicion that in the West we are between dispensations, by which I mean political and cultural systems. We know our past (though there are forces that would erase it or change it out of all countenance) but discern only the outline of the new slouching towards us. The following observation about another time (and which Murray might well have quoted) has been ascribed to Antonio Gramsci: ‘The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum, a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.’ Murray’s is an elementary and reader-friendly but acute epidemiology of our current situation.  Yeats, of course, was the laureate of dangerous between-times and his metaphors of predicament are unforgettable: the falcon soaring beyond the falconer’s control; the gyre, with its centrifugal force perning from a stable centre (the falconer’s gauntlet in the previous metaphor), in hazardous suspension, and about to pivot and reverse, moving between hatred and desire and conceiving the world as catastrophic. Murray identifies ‘catastrophism’ in the sentiments of the social justice warriors and the Grievance Studies that nowadays dominates the ‘Humanities’ schools, at least in North American universities. To point this out is to run the risk of practising one’s own catastrophism, but it is almost orthodoxy now that constitutional democracy is under strain in the United States and the United Kingdom, with Brexit in the latter nation putting its parliamentary form to the test.         

Murray has enough on his plate to expose the demands and dogma concerning, in their current guise, the four vexing issues of gay rights and gay identity, women in society, race relations, and transsexuality, and he is acutely aware of the larger political and geopolitical surround, some of which he accounted for in The Strange Death of Europe. The premise that connects both works is the collapse of our grand cultural narratives with nothing to replace them with as yet. The western literary canon is only one grand narrative, unmentioned by Murray, that is being superseded in North American departments of English by courses designed in content and tendency to redress the sins of patriarchy and colonialism.The curriculum spirals outwardly, culturally and geographically, F R Leavis’s ‘common pursuit’ splintering. Academic merit grows less competitive by individual expertise than by occupation of a reparative field of speciality; the curriculum is now the exposure through literature of contemporary and historical injustice.

To the extent that the literary canon carried authority and forged tradition, its rejection is a component of the broader picture of iconoclasm or toppling, be it of institutions, traditions, received wisdom, the old stories, culture heroes of the past, or reason itself. In a dismissive review of Murray in the Guardian, William Davies calls Murray’s opinions ‘bizarre fantasies’ yet it took me almost half as long again to read The Madness of Crowds because I could frequently move from page to screen to check his evidence. To see authority and liberal reason mocked with the frenzy of social media, Google ‘Bret Weinstein’ and ‘Evergreen College’ in order to fact-check via YouTube one of Murray’s case-studies. In the 1970s while I was teaching in Vancouver, Evergreen College down the coast in Washington State was a byword for third-level educational liberalism, but the post-liberal event at the college in 2017 is a troubling watch. I was a part-time instructor and doctoral candidate at the University of Oregon between 1965 and 1970 when anti-Vietnam and counter-culture demonstrations were at their most intense, but the Evergreen protests bring to mind not so much the Sixties as Mao’s cultural revolution with its professor-baiting and worse, and are very much of our here and now.

Murray, for his part, is more concerned with how in the wake of the departing grand narratives and the aftermath of actual religion we have what he calls ‘this new religion of social justice’. This crusade is not content with uncovering injustice but must actively pursue it, either by vengefully ransacking history or creatively manufacturing kinds of grievances which, as Murray remarks, were unknown twenty minutes ago. In explanation, he borrows Kenneth Minogue’s ‘St George in retirement syndrome’, a condition that compels the warrior, having slain the dragon, to scour the land looking for still more glorious combat when the need has in fact largely passed. Twenty years ago in his brilliant anatomy apparently unknown to Murray, Humanism Betrayed: Theory, Ideology, and Culture in the Contemporary University (2001), Graham Good noted how in the universities ‘a Soviet-style gap opens up between an ideology of continuing struggle against “oppression”, and the reality of rapidly diminishing prejudice and growing tolerance’. Murray notes the exaggerated affront and ‘performative rage’ that characterises our era (encouraged and perhaps manufactured by social media), cause and response becoming grossly asymmetrical, and lending a heated melodrama to political and ideological disagreement.    

Good and others had before Murray identified in university politics what Good called then ‘the new sectarianism’, ‘the divisive categorization of people by race, gender, and sexual preference’, before this practice went from gown to town, before it became known as identity politics (the exercise of group power), and before the categories proliferated beyond what obtained in Good’s day when transsexuality, for example, was a barely known phenomenon. When Murray claims that ‘The aim of identity politics would appear to be to politicise absolutely everything’, this is confirmed by Chelsea Kwakye and Ore Ogunbiyi who tell their readers: ‘Your identity is inherently political, meaning at most times, so are your actions’. (Taking Up Space: The Black Girl’s Manifesto for Change, quoted in a TLS review of November 1, 2019). Political identity means group membership (ethnic, racial, sexual, gender-defined), which then in one direction eclipses individuality and in another direction trumps citizenship (with its required loyalty and responsibilities as well as rights) in favour of what Murray calls, perhaps too casually, ‘niche demands’. Interestingly, though, individuality is reborn not as unique personality or irreplaceable existence, but exclusively as the ‘self’ which under certain circumstances, when it is not being offended, can choose with which correct subset of each of the above groups to identify; the self is not perceived to have an identity or existence outside a group. The only freedom here is the choice of category membership which is mandatory. Propositions and claims are judged not on their own rational merits or truth-value but on the acceptability or unacceptability of the proposer’s or claimant’s group-membership. It is the speaker who is judged, not the speech. Indeed, in the ailing world Murray is diagnosing, only the manifestly or self-identifying oppressed are allowed to speak at all. The others must be no-platformed.

Murray reminds us of the intricate hierarchy of power and privilege (the alleged drivers of all human endeavour according to the now prevailing orthodoxy) that has been constructed, with white heterosexual males at the top. Murray is white, male and cissexual but he is also gay, and by challenging the use of gay identity needlessly to further group identification, he is admirably practising his own stated rejection of identity politics. In ‘Gay’ and the chapters devoted to the other three categories, he insists that the issues are more complex than the identity-fanatics realise or admit. ‘We still don’t have much or any idea as to why some people are gay’ is a typical reminder from him. He also reminds us how people and careers can be destroyed through the stupid or vengeful application of identity politics, with Sir Tim Hunt, Nobel laureate, as merely one of several disturbing examples.

He is especially dismissive of intersectionalism, the theory and agenda emanating from the university social sciences: the conviction that the prominent special-interest groups share an interlocking history of oppression, meaning that the dogmas now pronounced operate on an ever-broadening social front. Murray has some compensatory fun pointing out the contradictions and invidious distinctions that arise along that intersectionalist front and the jostling for power and privilege that goes on in the ongoing formation of the new counter-hierarchy. Given the vice of fat-shaming, for example, ‘Is a fat white person equal to a skinny person of colour?’ William Davies labels The Madness of Crowds ‘a rightwing diatribe’ (diatribe: ‘A piece of bitter criticism’, Concise Oxford Dictionary) but this is rhetorically nonsense. Murray can be mischievously witty but he is always aware of the complexity and nuances of our lives (that, indeed, is his central thesis) and is a devoted anti-essentialist. He also acknowledges the deplorable discrimination that certain groups, including homosexuals and black Americans, have historically endured. Davies, who avoids the inflammable issues, is incensed chiefly because Murray sees today’s campus Marxism behind some of our identity politics, which I agree he overeggs. 

When the groups establish bulkheads to protect their cultural identity inside society’s hull, then we get allegations of cultural appropriation when artists and others raid other compartments. Murray quotes the black MP Dawn Butler’s denunciation of Jamie Oliver for publishing a recipe for punchy jerk rice. ‘Your jerk Rice is not ok’, she tweeted, ‘This appropriation from Jamaica needs to stop’ (p. 147). (Murray remarks that she is apparently uninterested in Jamie’s Italian restaurants.)       But cultural appropriation is a charge with immense artistic implications. In an unpublished piece of 1993 on multiculturalism, I drew attention to the Director of the powerful Canada Council who proposed the year before that no funds would be available for any literary or artistic project that depicted a culture (read ethnic group or female gender) of which the applicant was not himself a member. The Council’s Advisory Committee for Racial Equality in the Arts had decided that ‘cultural appropriation is a serious issue’.  To the great credit of the (gay) novelist Timothy Findley (‘Stop. Now.’) and other Canadian writers, including the (Trinidad-born) Neil Bissoondath (‘I reject the idea of cultural appropriation completely’), the idea was murdered in its cradle before it matured into a fiat. (Bissoondath, nephew of V.S. Naipaul, then published an attack on multiculturalism: Selling Illusions: The Cult of Multiculturalism in Canada, 1994. He was opposing what he saw as the applied race-consciousness of Canadian multiculturalism.)

Actually, its death was greatly exaggerated and cultural appropriation has returned alive and well in Canada, possibly via feedback from elsewhere in Britain and the United States. The Quebecois theatrical genius Robert Lepage had one production, SLĀV, cancelled by the Montreal Jazz Festival in 2018 after protests (it featured African-American slave songs sung by a mostly white cast), while later the same year he himself under duress cancelled Kanata which tells the story of Canada through the prism of relations between whites and the indigenous people but which, though developed in consultation with First Nation representatives, did not have indigenous performers. Allegations of cultural appropriation can vary greatly in their legitimacy and can involve incredibly complex cultural and even political dynamics. I’m inclined to agree with Lepage when he said that he made a judgment error in his Kanata production, and I have been tempted myself to accuse the KSR production Titanic Dance (2014), ‘the all new Irish dance show’, of cultural appropriation, with British officers, mostly British crew, and Ulster, mostly unionist, shipyard workers depicted by Irish dancers performing to traditional native Irish music: Riverdance nationalism appropriating an Ulster-Scots cultural achievement of genius? At the same time, I applaud Lepage for not surrendering entirely. This astonishing playwright and performer is gay and he said that he is ‘the opposite of offended’ when he sees a straight man playing a gay man onstage. But ‘appropriation’ is not nowadays regarded as homage or benign impersonation but as theft.

The issues on inspection are usually complex, but the unacknowledged simple ground rule is that white male culture can be appropriated by anyone. (This includes crossing class and national lines: no one accused me of cultural appropriation when as a hippie grad student I sang American dustbowl ballads on stage.) I do not recall Hamilton, for example, being accused of cultural appropriation. But white males must not in turn appropriate. Women may take white male roles (but not male roles of colour?), but not vice versa unless the appropriation is to demonstrate approved transgressive gender-bending. The appropriation is permitted only when it reverses what is perceived to be the simplistic power structure in society.  Yet this is not spelled out so that most of us are confused overall, despite the cast-iron micro-certainties in appropriation charges. Even those individuals such as Lepage who have promoted the interests of the historically discriminated against, are deemed complicit, by simple virtue of group identity, irrespective of their beneficence and sympathy.

Alleging cultural appropriation is a binary response (‘You are not us!’) to what is regarded as a white power binary and in pursuit of a non-binary society. The binary response can invert even the best of intentions. Murray cites a Duke University professor who believes that to be racially colour-blind is to be racist. He also cites the American multicultural educationalist, Professor Robin DiAngelo, who told her Boston audience that white people who see people as individuals rather than as people of one colour or another are ‘dangerous’. White people who are not expressly racist are just covering their own ‘white fragility’, a phrase of DiAngelo’s introduced in a 2011 paper we must look for outside Murray. DiAngelo specialises in Whiteness Studies, and Murray reminds us that whereas Black Studies promotes black culture, Whiteness Studies exists to investigate what has been called in one university course ‘The Problem of Whiteness’. This has its judicial dimension. Evidence or defence is neither here nor there. Indeed, the sympathetic gathering of evidence from those who are, or believe themselves to be, oppressed can itself be oppression, a form of ‘epistemic exploitation’ in Nora Berenstain’s bizarre coinage in a 2016 paper of that title.

It may be that absurdity emerges almost out of desperation from the complex, fraught, even incendiary history of race relations in the United States, which Murray is very brave to don light protective gear and venture into. We should perhaps keep in mind the differences between the US and the UK when it comes to race (this is not to minimise any race problem in the UK). But much of what passes as progressive thought on US campuses can still strike one as out of Catch-22. The reader will find some of Murray’s chapter ‘Trans’ utterly bewildering. Much of it can be checked online, including on YouTube. There is the eminent professor and MD of Brown University and Rhode Island Hospital who promotes best practice for transgender youth (among other group identities) and who replied to the worry that three- or four-year-olds surely could not understand their own gender and thus were not candidates for medical intervention: ‘To say three- and four-year-olds don’t understand gender doesn’t give our kids a lot of credit’! There is a leader in the field of gender dysphoria in Los Angeles who has steered 1,100 children into medical care for their dysphoria. She believes that the child’s opinion is worth more than psychiatric testing and that children thinking about their own gender based on their body is proof of our fallacious notion of the body’s importance to gender; the body, in one of her self-admiring metaphors, is just like the foil packet around a pop tart. 

What lies behind such thought is groupthink, the refusal to countenance the unique. But those groups defined by sex or race, say – identities we previously thought of as essential, incontrovertible, a matter of hardware in Murray’s term – are, it is claimed, merely social constructs or cultural artefacts, a matter (like the body itself) of software. Much of the ‘Theory’ in departments of English in the 1980s was devoted to the painstaking demonstration that language was writing the author (who had died in any case, according to Barthes), not the other way round, and whose works concealed discreditable meanings of which he was unaware but still culpable. The author was no longer a free agent but a captive wrongdoer. In this interpretation, Theory could ally itself with anti-colonialism and anti-patriarchy, agendas that now rule the academic roost, Theory having been discarded as too complex to serve as admissible incriminating evidence. Culture in control of everything (upending the previous idea that human beings created culture), including our bodies, has underpinned the Trans activist movement. This has resulted in a war between activist Trans people and the Trans exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs), ‘radical’ because they deny that males who have transitioned to females are women. This at the moment is a trial of strength about ownership and definition but also about the willing occupation of the category ‘Woman’ since both believe that it is a category worth fighting for, it in turn being an exclusionary category that defines its individual inhabitants. Again, Murray is courageous for stepping in his chapter ‘Trans’ into this minefield, a governing metaphor in his account of our agonistic and unhappy culture.

The battle is a battle over choice of captivity. The ‘carceral vision’ of culture – culture as constraint, culture as submission to control, a definition that Good attributes to Michel Foucault – is being applied before our eyes and might explain both ‘the strange retributive instinct of our time’, as Murray terms it, and the growing urge in society to police our culture and its expressions, at its crudest shutting down by shouting down, as in the experience of Bret Weinstein. Money doesn’t talk, it swears, sang Bob Dylan many years ago, and just so Twitter and other social media which are doing nothing if not policing by ill-mannered and aggressive vigilantism, dogma’s law-enforcement agency of choice. Murray notes how the wall between private and public space has fallen, which is having a censoring effect. But even the mainstream media have begun to police our affairs, BBC news interviews, for example, becoming interrogations, the interviewers not wishing to listen and hear but instead ‘voice-over’ their own (actually, the BBC’s) ‘woke’ W1 opinions. When during a recent interview Andrew Marr accused the listening Home Secretary Priti Patel of laughing – he was obviously misreading her customary sunny demeanour – it reminded me of Orwell’s face-crime. The policing of our culture is well under way on our campuses which are increasingly seen by administration as ‘communities’ that require endless data collection and reports, perpetual oversight (which is rapidly becoming surveillance), administrative intervention, and faculty re-education. Bret Weinstein revealed to Congress the Evergreen President’s solution to faculty who wouldn’t toe the PC line (‘the new order’, as Weinstein calls it): ‘We bring ’em in, train ’em and if it doesn’t take, sanction ’em.’

And if we are not at the point of face-crime yet, we are certainly already in the world of thought-crime. A Humberside docker was recently contacted by police about a tweeted limerick making fun of transgendered women; a woman was the author and the docker had merely re-tweeted it; however, the police had tracked down the docker through his workplace, fingered thirty of his tweets and decided that re-tweeting the limerick constituted a hate incident. When the docker protested that there was no victim here (though the police bizarrely described the complainant as such), the officer replied: ‘We need to check your thinking’ (Daily Telegraph, 24 January, 2019).  We need to check your thinking!  A single complaint constitutes proof that a hate incident has occurred, only one step away from a hate crime and court appearance.

Murray rightly makes much of the dizzying speed with which our culture has changed. I checked my copy of Arthur Marwick’s Culture in Britain since 1945 (1991): it has no entries for immigration, political correctness, multiculturalism, transsexuality or Islam. The overheated metabolism of our culture has caused vertigo in many of us. Murray takes his title from Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1841) by Charles Mackay, and all five of the adjectives and nouns in that Victorian title are applicable to our own day. Murray was obviously attracted not by the trivial fads in Mackay’s book but by the bigger harmful delusions underpinning the South Sea Bubble, the Crusades or witch mania. Murray does wonder if historians of the future will look back to 2019 and wonder ‘What were they thinking?’ One reading of Mackay would suggest that our cultural predicament is no cause for despair, that it is a case of plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. But the effect of the Crusades in England are closer to the kind of effects were are now experiencing, if less systemic.

What are the origins of Murray’s diagnosed ‘madness’? I wish to suggest a few. Among the wellsprings and tributaries is certainly the government-imposed cultural revolution called multiculturalism that was conceived and implemented for internal reasons in Canada in the 1970s and 1980s, and championed by Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Like so much of what Murray discusses, no apparent knowledge of culture and cultural dynamics drove the revolutionary policy of hastily welcoming a high volume of untraditional and unfamiliar cultures. Many Canadians, forcefully discouraged from discussing, much less complaining about, the changes wrought in their neighbourhoods, country and society, grew proportionally estranged from their own governing. According to their government, difference was to be celebrated and was more important than social cohesion, which in fact was never mentioned as a social virtue or desideratum. Before long, what we might call the Diversity Paradox kicked in. Multiculturalism was to enrich the country but in fact culture as Geertz understood it in The Interpretation of Cultures (1973), inviting ethnographic ‘thick description’ of the whole, became compartmentalised. The Canadian culture shared foundationally through history, communal memory, and values has become noticeably thinner. When Trudeau fils chants ‘Diversity is our strength!’ he is disguising reality by a self-mesmerising rallying cry. (The American political scientist Robert Putnam has analysed the circumstances under which shared social capital is depleted among strangers and unfamiliar neighbours, and has been attacked for doing so.) All this was later repeated in Europe, and this estrangement from government is now visible in the US and UK where populism – at one level the people’s attempt, surely, to retrieve cohesion – is the recent reaction. Multiculturalism’s imperative of diversity became the model for the other walks of life that Murray is here dissecting.

Murray also identifies postmodernism in the universities as either wellspring of, or tributary to, our unhappiness, though Good’s is a more informed and acute analysis of this movement’s assault on liberalism, humanism, individualism, realism and science – and to which one could add history itself – all of which are at present disabled from curing our society of its illness.

A possible third tributary: I remember a Canadian colleague remarking to me in the early 1990s with some puzzlement how some forms of Soviet social control had been imported into the West, now that the Evil Empire had crumbled. I recently astonished myself by listing examples of what he referred to, several of which occur in Murray. One of the master ideas is that of political correctness, an early Marxist-Leninist term, used now by its enemies in the West but without a doubt identifying a present reality. The social and cultural engineering which seems more blatant and unapologetic in our time was also essential practice under communism. The public apologies that are increasingly demanded for words, actions or policies of the past or present, and the public shaming that is now commonplace, resemble such events in the Soviet Union, and we may not be far from that system’s show trials. Then we might think of no-platforming, censorship, and re-writing of the past, the airbrushing of individuals out of history so that they become unpersons, the proscription of free speech, propaganda masquerading as news, mandatory cultural re-education, and science corrupted less by propaganda than by denial or dismissal. I don’t know if our current pale imitation of Soviet or Maoist society is a case of inheritance or correlative evolution. But we do seem to be candidates for some Yeatsian anxiety about a collapsing centre and a dark awakening, to which Douglas Murray has fearlessly contributed some provocative case-studies in justification.

An earlier version of this essay appeared in the Dublin Review of Books.    

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John Wilson Foster
John Wilson Foster
Among John Wilson Foster's books are Pilgrims of the Air: The Passing of the Passenger Pigeons (Notting Hill Editions, 2014, New York Review Books, 2017) and The Idea of the Union: Great Britain and Northern Ireland (co-ed, 2021).

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