The challenge in criticizing left-wing hysteria is not to sound like a right-wing hysteric. It’s hard to be calm about crazy things—crazy things on campuses, crazy things in books, crazy things on small and large screens, crazy things piped into homes by various media. Left-wing activism almost seems designed to make the conservative critic into a textbook paranoid.
And yet, Douglas Murray manages to discuss all of it, detail upon absurd detail, and come off as the sanest man on the planet. In The Madness of Crowds, Murray analyzes, among many other things, the case of Peter Thiel, a gay man whom the gay press deemed not gay after he supported Donald Trump; a paradigm shift in human resources based on a shoddily designed test to tease out people’s hidden prejudices; an American academic who claims that white people who don’t see others according to race are “dangerous”; and the case of a child with Down syndrome who was deemed trans and therefore urged by medical professionals to have a double mastectomy.
From the silly to the tragic, Murray, a longtime writer in London and associate editor at the Spectator, covers the range of identititarian pathology without ever losing his cool. The result is a book that is less a political war cry than a map and compass to a strange world of shifting topographies and endless inconsistencies.
He accomplishes this in several ways: As the above partially demonstrates, Murray draws on an abundance of real-world cases in which leftist identitarians make their baffling demands in their own words. And instead of condemning those with whom he disagrees, he notes the incongruities in their claims and follows up with logical questions that few seem to have asked. When Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau scolds a female audience member for using the word “mankind” instead of “humankind,” for example, Murray asks if this is not, by the lights of feminism, a case of very public mansplaining?
Murray also evinces a profound sympathy for those who have suffered the most at the hands of identity politics (particularly among the trans community) and employs the lightest touch of dry, deadpan humor to tease the most histrionic complainants. “There followed a fascinating, drawn-out account of what it feels like to stand up and leave a room,” he writes of someone’s first-person description of walking out on a “problematic” lecturer.
The book is divided into four main chapters, entitled simply “Gay,” “Women,” “Race,” and “Trans,” that delve into the state of affairs for each of these central identity groups. There are also “interludes” on the Marxist foundations of identity politics, the aggravating effects of Internet technology, and the possibility of forgiveness.
Murray’s large claim is this: In recent decades, the West’s “grand narratives” have crumbled. The explanations, insights, and guidance that we once got from religion have lost their purchase. The political institutions in which we once invested our hope and trust are similarly regarded with skepticism and disdain. Identity politics is now filling the vacuums left by religion and traditional politics, and “the purpose—unknowing in some people, deliberate in others—is to embed a new metaphysics into our societies: a new religion, if you will.” He goes on: “The interpretation of the world through the lens of ‘social justice,’ ‘identity-group politics,’ and ‘intersectionalism’ is probably the most audacious and comprehensive effort since the end of the Cold War at creating a new ideology.”
The problem, or one massive problem, with this campaign is that the faithful are attempting to root their enterprise in the products of rights that were fought for in the old system—while discounting that system and its understanding of rights. This makes for contradictions everywhere one turns. And Murray points out these contradictions as they manifest within each of the main identity groups. It is the accumulation of these contradictions, often amplified by social media, that animates our “crowd madness.”
There is, for example, what Murray calls the “gays versus queers” matter. “Whereas gays may just want to be accepted like everyone else,” he writes, “queers want to be recognized as fundamentally different to everyone else and to use that difference to tear down the kind of order that gays are working to get into.” This has led to ongoing internal disagreement within the LGBTQ community and to confusion among its political allies.
Such tensions arise in similar form within the other identity groups, as well. Are feminists interested in equality among the sexes or something slightly more lopsided? It depends on who you ask and when. The first waves of feminism largely regarded equality as a watchword. But, as Murray notes, the claim that a female-led order would produce a more peaceful and just world than the “patriarchal” one we inhabit is a common mantra among feminists. He quotes Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, on the financial crash of 2008: “As I have said many times, if it had been Lehman Sisters rather than Lehman Brothers, the world might well look a lot different today.” So, are women equal to men, better than men, or—for the sake of speeding toward “justice”—somehow both? It’s a question no one really bothers to ask.
In the politics of race, Murray points out another impossible contradiction, this one having to do with message and messenger. Sometimes, the thing being done or said trumps the person saying it. This was the case with Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who disguised herself as black and headed up a local chapter of the NAACP. In 2015, when it was discovered that she was white, Dolezal found some curious defenders among African Americans. One of them was Michael Eric Dyson, who said, “She’s taking on the ideas, the identities, the struggles. She’s identified with them. I bet a lot more black people would support Rachel Dolezal than would support, say, Clarence Thomas.” In another words, she got a pass because she said the right things. It didn’t matter that she was a white person pretending to be black.
But sometimes the speaker’s racial identity is more important than what’s being said. In 2018, when the New York Times’ newly hired tech writer, Sarah Jeong, was found to have tweeted racist statements such as “Oh man, it’s kind of sick how much joy I get out of being cruel to old white men,” the Times and the entire left stood by her not on the grounds of what she wrote but because she was writing it as an ethnic minority. As the Times noted, “her journalism and the fact that she was a young Asian woman have made her a subject of frequent online harassment.” She was merely “imitating the rhetoric of her harassers.”
Perhaps the greatest contradiction on the identity left has to do with what Murray refers to as “hardware” and “software.” Are group identities something people are born with, or are they learned or even “performed”? This question gives rise to tensions not only within identity groups but between them. For example, it has long been a staple of the gay-rights movement that homosexuality is hardwired—that is, biologically informed. Yet, for trans activists, it is writ that biology does not determine gender. This is an unresolvable contradiction, and so it is mostly swept under the rug. But, as Murray details, a good many prominent feminists are less than happy to be told that a man can know the essence and experience of womanhood via hormone treatments and surgery. And when those feminists have dared to give voice to their discomfort, they’ve been nearly written out of the movement.
One way to tell a serious book of political argumentation from a frivolous one is that the latter may conclude with a chapter detailing ambitious and wholly unrealistic solutions to large-scale problems. Murray goes nowhere near this. He notes that it’s particularly hard to disabuse identity activists of their metaphysics. For one thing, the Marxist foundations of identity politics dictate that the appearance of contradictions is good, not bad. Such is the nature of the Marxist dialectic. For another, many identitarians are not interested in correcting the injustices they claim to abhor. Rather, they want to undermine every remaining vestige of the old system. Murray sums up such thinking:
In a society that is alive to its faults, and though imperfect remains a better option than anything else on offer, you sow doubt, division, animosity, and fear. Most effectively you can try to make people doubt absolutely everything. Make them doubt that people really are treated fairly. Make them doubt whether there are any such groupings as men and women. Make them doubt almost everything. And then present yourself as having the answers.
Perhaps, then, left-wing activism is designed to make you crazy. To pull the floor out from beneath your feet—and the floor below it and the floor below that. To leave you with nothing to hold you up except for a fading memory of the way things were only a few years ago. Such treatment is enough to make anyone sound hysterical.