The “madness” of the title points to the way radical progressivism weaponises norms that allow for civilised societies. Norms are the control mechanism in systems like herds: if a few activist sheep command, everyone follows out of fear. Disrupting the herding taking place in cultural institutions is one of our great challenges. At its heart, the problem is how to moderate cultural egalitarianism, balancing it against competing aims like liberty, reason and community. We accept limits on economic levelling but have yet to reject the misguided idea that all race and gender groups must have equal outcomes.
Murray’s book performs a great service in exposing the excesses of the left-modernist faith. Let’s hope we find a way to slay this dragon.
Even the crowd mentality Murray writes about tends to be virtual, the effect of thousands of people broadcasting their maddest thoughts to the world without stopping to think. Murray himself apparently believes, despite the harrowing testimony of young women who have been exploited by men twice their age, that girls in their late teens have the power ‘to take a man with everything in the world, at the height of his achievements, torment him, make him behave like a fool and wreck his life utterly for just a few moments of almost nothing’.
It’s all very funny: Murray, like the very best conservative philosophers, is a satirist. There’s the feminist actress who showed her credentials by exposing her breasts not just once but twice to Piers Morgan live on TV; a review of a book that condemned its author’s white privilege, apparently unaware that the author was black; and a New York Times piece on ballerinas that tried to suggest that gay men are only just beginning to find their voice in ballet...Putting aside the controversy this book will generate, Murray’s most compelling, and sensitive, point is that there’s a lot about life – sex, gender, identity – that we don’t entirely understand, and the mistake of so many activists is to try to build clear-cut moral causes out of things that defy definition. Murray prefers mystery, experiment, risk and forgiveness. He’s an old-fashioned liberal at heart.
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.
Murray made his mark with his 2017 bestseller The Strange Death of Europe, by far the most courageous and articulate book I have read about mass immigration. The Madness of Crowds is not in the same league. Alas, an author’s greatest enemy is his or her own best work. This volume is well argued, well supported and well observed, but it’s not as inspired. I blame the fact that this time his thematic ground has been heavily trod. The pushback against this creepy, reductive, poisonous ideology has amassed a considerable library, which would explain the slight dutifulness of Murray’s tone. Our author has a taste for intellectual pioneering, and multiple flags have already been planted on this topic.
Murray’s stock in trade is a tone of genteel civility. He writes gracefully and wittily, in keeping with his demeanour as a clubbable conservative, who simply wishes we could all just muddle through a little better. While never over-egging it, he proffers a kindly Christian gospel of love and forgiveness, which he believes might rid us of the political and cultural toxins that have so polluted our lives. Scratch beneath the surface, though, and his account of recent history is clear: authorised by leftwing academics, minority groups have been concocting conflict and hatred out of thin air, polluting an otherwise harmonious society, for their own gratification... And there are plenty of well-known cases of people being shamed and sacked for things they’ve said, many of which are unfair and sadistic. One critique of this would be that the logic of public relations and credit rating has now infiltrated every corner of our lives, such that we are constantly having to consider the effects of our words on our reputations. Another is that a global “Marxist” conspiracy has duped people into a fantasy of their own oppression. I know which I find more plausible.
The most entertaining, perhaps light-hearted chapter, is on women. I enjoyed reading about camel toe underwear — the “push-up bra for your labia” — and nipple erectors, as well as about the consequences of women’s perilous attempts to reprogramme men. Murray relies heavily on news stories, interviews and tweets, and is always careful to quote his sources. While it may lack the single-minded focus of his previous book, he has here tackled another necessary and provocative subject with wit and bravery, which will surely win him legions of new enemies, as well as fans.