Douglas Murray, The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity (2019; 2020)
Douglas Murray’s The Madness of Crowds, a critique of hot-button political and cultural issues published in 2019 (and now updated in a new edition to mid-2020), begins, “We are going through a great crowd derangement. In public and in private, both online and off, people are behaving in ways that are increasingly irrational, feverish, herd-like and simply unpleasant.”
The unsuspecting reader might be forgiven for wrongly anticipating what the instances of “irrational, feverish, herd-like and simply unpleasant” mob behaviour will include. Probably the prime example, one might think, is going to be those gatherings of thousands of rabid “Make America Great Again” supporters attending then-President Trump’s re-election campaign rallies in 2020. The events featured cult-like adulation of the candidate and, more important, given that the gatherings occurred in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the rally-goers, taking a cue from their leader, aggressively eschewed all medically-advised protective measures, such as wearing masks, social distancing, and avoiding large indoor assemblies.
Or another easily identifiable “mad crowd” might be those angry, fully-armed, camo-garbed mobs crowding into the state of Michigan’s capitol building to protest and defy public health measures meant to mitigate the pandemic, and to vaguely (or not so vaguely, as it turned out) threaten the physical safety of the governor of Michigan. And while we’re thinking of deranged crowds, don’t forget those couple-hundred-thousand fun-loving motorcycle riders who rolled into otherwise sleepy Sturgis, South Dakota in mid-August 2020 for their annual motorcycle rally.
I haven’t even mentioned the “extraordinary popular delusions” of the virtual online crowds, either supporting the lurid fantasies of QAnon conspiracy theories (involving “deep state” apparatuses and alleged pedophilic satanists), or the more run-of-the-mill climate change deniers and anti-vaxxers.
There are probably a score of other candidates available for the “crowd derangement” category in the era of Covid, from virus “superspreader” ceremonies at the White House, to merely social but reckless beach party holiday weekends and, I suppose I should also note, those enormous mostly peaceful political demos across the U.S. during the summer of 2020 protesting police killings of unarmed black citizens, and the concomitant persistence of systemic racism. Oddly, none of those crowds, irrational or (in the last example above) perfectly sane, makes an appearance in Douglas Murray’s survey. Why they don’t is part of the puzzle that we’ll have to figure out with respect to this rather curious would-be jeremiad.
Murray borrows the title of his book from a classic 19th century study, Scottish journalist Charles Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1841). Apparently, the delusions and other mental disorders of the past – from feverish waves of religious enthusiasm to improbable economic schemes producing soon-to-burst fiscal “bubbles” to the 17th century Dutch “mania” for tulip bulbs – also apply to a range of contemporary issues. Murray, for those unfamiliar with his work, is an editor and writer at the conservative, Brexit-supporting, British magazine The Spectator. Among his bona fides are that he is the author of a previous provocative book, The Strange Death of Europe (2017), and he happens to be a 41-year-old gay man.
The latter is relevant because Murray chooses to focus his attention almost exclusively on issues involving homosexuals, “Me Too” feminists, people subject to racism, and transgender persons. He sees the “social justice movement” (and its so-called SJWs, or Social Justice Warriors), “identity politics,” “intersectionalism,” “cancel culture,” and even the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) “community” – the panoply of “woke” culture — as providing the through-a-glass-darkly lens with which to view a floundering society. Rightwing conspiracy theorists planning to kipnap and execute the governor of Michigan (a dozen of these would-be “domestic terrorists” were arrested in autumn 2020), armed white supremacist mobs “protecting” Confederate statues, and brutal police actions don’t get so much as a look-in, to say nothing of more ordinary problems about authoritarian U.S. presidents, pandemics, climate change denial, healthcare rights, jobs, pensions, childcare and all the rest. It’s the sound of one fist banging on the podium.
To be fair, some of the maddened crowds I’ve cited above hadn’t yet come into being at the time (in 2018-19) Murray was working on his main text, nonetheless the phenomena of faux-populist politicians (like Trump) and protectionist xenophobic movements (like Brexit), to say nothing of the climate emergency and its deniers, were certainly well underway. Nor does Murray’s 2020 “afterword” indicate any alteration of view.
Already, the clear and present cultural dangers that Murray tries to get us to worry about – namely, feminists, gays, transgender people, and civil-rights-seeking groups and ethnicities — seem, barely a year or two later, a bit quaint in the face of pandemics, environmental catastrophe, the resurgence of systemic racism and illiberal assaults on democracy. The political and cultural activists as occasional annoyances… well, maybe, but “enemies of the people”? Doubtful. I’m certainly not saying that the issues Murray raises aren’t interesting in themselves, both politically and philosophically, but the concerns that he wants us to share are skewed with respect to the real political landscape. The map of the territory that he provides is littered with vast terra incognita-labelled gaps and deserts.
So, just before examining Murray’s text in more detail, let me make sure that the big picture is not lost in the minutiae. My objections to Murray’s arguments are to what I regard as the distortions of the issues he presents and, equally important, the sheer absence of the pressing political concerns that I believe ought to engage us.
A lot of our differences, I suspect, have to do with divergent political perspectives. The excesses of gays, women, Black Lives Matter advocates and male-to-female transgender people appear to Murray’s conservative sensibilities as the issues most in need of urgent remedy.
People like me – roughly, those on the political spectrum found in the range running from liberals to left social democrats – are, by contrast, equal opportunity critics. We’re sympathetic to some conservative concerns about leftist radicals (particularly, their infringements of other people’s free speech), but at the same time we’re able and willing to criticise the right in all its guises — from vulgar Trump boosters and white supremacist extremists to genteel reactionaries like Murray. What’s more, we also think the left’s obsessions and fetishes merit critical scrutiny, including the far left’s strange insistance that “liberals” (who are often indiscriminately labelled “neoliberals”) are as much the enemy as more obvious alt-right and proto-fascist opponents.
2. “Born-this-way” Gay
Murray’s opening chapter, “Gay,” which begins with the lengthy recounting of an anecdote about going to a film showing organized by a group of “recovered” homosexuals, is one of the oddest discussions of same-sex attraction that I’ve read… and re-read, because I found the author’s message so opaque.
In February 2018, Murray attended a documentary film presentation in London put on by a group called Core Issues Trust, headed by one Dr. Michael Davidson who, Murray wryly notes, is not a doctor of medicine, but enjoys having his doctorate in education saluted with an honorific. Davidson’s “core” issue involves voluntary “conversion therapy” for unhappy homosexuals, and his group consists of ex-homosexuals who have struggled – should we say “manfully”? – to live heterosexual lives, with the standard accoutrement of spouses and children.
Murray apparently first became aware of Davidson and his cause when he appeared on a prominent television interviewer’s program some months before the movie screening. Davidson, despite being mild-mannered and polite, was mercilessly attacked by the host (a TV personality named Piers Morgan), who called his guest “a horrible little bigot.” This was because Davidson had described homosexuality as an “aberration” and a “learned behaviour,” which he thought “in some cases is reversible” (presumably offering himself and his several-decade heterosexual marriage as a case in point). The host wasn’t having any of it, denouncing Davidson’s views as “complete claptrap.” “What’s the matter with you? How can you think that nobody’s born gay..?” Morgan demanded, before unceremoniously bringing the interview to a close with, “Shut up, you old bigot!”
Now, several months later, outside a cinema just off Piccadilly Circus, Davidson was having a similar silencing problem. The local online gay paper, Pink News, had found out about the group’s planned screening and promptly called for its cancellation, on the grounds of its presumed anti-gay intentions. The movie theater that had rented its space for the event quickly caved in to the pressure, suddenly discovering that the film was in direct contradiction to the theater’s “values” (thus providing a contractual out). While the film-goers briefly held a demo with handmade “Silenced” signs, Davidson managed to secure another nearby venue. Eventually, Murray ended up, glass of prosecco and bag of popcorn in hand, with a hundred or so other cineastes at the showing.
Well, it turns out that the film, Voices of the Silenced, isn’t very good. It’s a kind of mishmash of obscure historical religious ramblings (Davidson’s group apparently endorses some brand of Christian fundamentalism) and a series of testimonies by people who have overcome their gay tendencies and become successful heterosexuals, apart from suffering and resisting sporadic “urges” of SSA (same-sex attraction). Several of them were among the film’s attendees and prepared to offer further testimony. Murray is quick to admit that it’s “easy to snigger at all this” or even to work up some outrage, if you’re so inclined.
I’m tempted to do neither. The group, by Murray’s account, is pathetic, and relatively harmless – after all, they are not credentialled authorities togged out in medical gear and armed with electro-charged devices threatening to impose forced therapy on hapless patients. Nor does it appear that their views are likely to result in triumphant vindication anytime soon. Murray’s slightly sad-sack story ends with an anodyne thumbnail sketch of the virtues of 19th century thinker John Stuart Mill’s defense of free speech and truth in his On Liberty (a book published the same year, 1859, as Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species).
No, far from being moved to scorn or anger, I’m mainly puzzled by why Murray is telling us this story, or what it has to do with gay, or where the eponymous maddened crowd is to be found. If Murray’s message is simply that TV host Piers Morgan is rude, or that Pink News is wrong to try to cancel the film showing, or that the movie theater (and its nearly-violated “values”) is cowardly… well, sure. Even if the aim is merely to get us to more fully appreciate the right to free speech, I’m civil libertarian enough to happily endorse that message in these barbarous days of anti-social media behaviour. The voluntary hetero conversos hardly pose a major danger to civilisation, but nor do their opponents, pace Murray’s apprehensions. However unpleasant, self-righteous or tempted by minor authoritarianism those opponents are, the defenders of newly-established pro-gay othodoxies seem not much more than irritating (except, of course, on the occasions when they are more than irritating).
Or is it possible that Murray is really interested in the unlikely prospects of gays turning into straights? Well, it turns out he is in fact interested in whether gays are “Born This Way” (that’s the name of an LGBT anthem sung by Lady Gaga), as well as the aetiology of homosexuality, and whether sexual preference provides a basis for identity and/or a politics. Admittedly, these topics sound a little anachronistic in 2020, given that they’ve received a fairly thorough airing in the half-century since gay became a public phenomenon, circa 1970, and I’m still not sure what the “madness of crowds” has to do with all this, unless perhaps Murray is referring to those tourist-bureau-like annual Pride Parades held in cities across North America, Europe, and parts of Asia. Surely, he’s not suggesting that the Pride Parades are more outre or objectionable than Mardi Gras festivities, Bastille Day military displays, or the Macy’s seasonal holiday pageants in New York.
Before plunging into these deeper waters, Murray pauses briefly to complain that “Everything is gay.” One of Murray’s recurring emotions is pique, a feeling of irritation or resentment. Here, he’s piqued because there is too much irrelevant coverage of gays in the media. “There are days when you wonder how heterosexuals feel about the growing insistence with which gay stories are crow-barred into any and all areas of news,” Murray says. Actually, I seldom find myself wondering about how hets feel about seeing too many gay stories in the news. Then Murray cites a couple of New York Times stories that are meant to be examples of unnecessary reportage of gay this-or-that.
“It sometimes feels as though there is something else going on in all this,” an irritated Murray continues. “Perhaps just rubbing things in the faces of those not yet up to speed with the changed mores of the age.” This is mostly nonsense. It may be true of newer social movements aggressively seeking a bit more attention (trans groups, say), but the now venerable gay movement is not really in need of more mere notice, and its status as an object of regular news coverage seems thoroughly uncontroversial.
As a survey of NYTimes content, the claim is simply false. Having charted the paper’s content for the last year or so (in connection with another project on which I’m working), I can say that gay stories have hardly been unnecessarily prominent in the pages of the Old Gray Lady in recent months. I can recall only a couple that even caught my eye, and both were perfectly relevant to expanding my understanding of the universe.
One was a lighthearted story of how late adolescent allegedly straight boys are making Tik Tok videos in which they hint at homosexual encounters with each other, as a means of upping their social status among Tik Tok devotees (the boys in the accompanying graphics were, I can duly report, noticeably cute). This cultural Zeitgeist feature had something to do with increased “sexual fluidity” among young people, a topic that Murray himself notices elsewhere in his book.
The other notable gay item, a much more serious tale, was about how the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) in Poland, abetted by the country’s conservative Catholic Church, was openly campaigning against LGBT people and groups as a primary social danger to Polish society.
Various Polish towns and areas were proclaiming themselves “LGBT-free zones,” exactly in the manner in which the Nazis had boasted that various places were “Judenrein” (“cleansed of Jews”) in the 1930s. Neither of these stories struck me as an “everything is gay” imposition, unless you happen to be a person who shares Murray’s fits of pique.
Murray belatedly shifts over to the more interesting matters of whether people are “born gay,” and the origins or causes of homosexuality, in a sub-section headed “A One-Way Street?” Even here, Murray spends what seems an inordinate amount of time banging on about gays who long to be straight. He notes that those who come out as gay “are celebrated for having arrived at their natural end-point. For most people this is a decent recognition by society that there is no problem with them being who they are.” However, Murray notes, the one “oddity” of this approved view is that “anybody who is gay and then subsequently decides they are straight will be the subject not just of a degree of ostracism and suspicion, but widespread doubt that they are being honest about their true selves.”
I agree with Murray that people who decide they want to switch over to heterosexuality should not be subject to undue disapprobation, but then I’m one of those people in favour of people having the right to express themselves, even if they think gay sex is an “aberration” or a “learned behaviour.” Some people, to the politically more severe left of me, don’t share my “wet” liberalism and want to shut up or “deplatform” ideological deviants as proto-fascists (a contemporary echo of the old Communist slogan, “Fascists have no right to speak” – now, as then, the problem is who gets to decide who the fascists are). Since I think the arguments against homosexuality are weak and easily refutable, I tend to be insoucient in the presence of such opponents.
I get Murray’s point – and understand his irritation with the politically over-righteous — but given the paucity of evidence of hordes of gay men seeking to become heterosexuals, or their subsequent mistreatment (by gays), his focus on this minuscule demographic seems a bit obsessive. The reality is that there just aren’t a lot of gays who are trying to metamorphize into straights, at least as far as I know. The political problem of the last 50 or so years for gays – something Murray tends to lose track of – was gay men a) trying to understand who they were (in terms of self), b) securing civil rights (and an end to criminalization and/or medicalization) and c) winning something like acceptance of their sexual preferences (although gaining mere “tolerance” often had to do).
So, let’s abandon the pursuit of phantom conversos for a moment, and see what we do and don’t know about whether gay “is a wholly inbuilt and immovable state of being.” First, back when I (and a couple of hundred thousand other guys) invented “coming out,” or publicly-declared sexual preference a half-century ago, it was an inter-subjectively shared view that most gay men experienced their erotic desires as a natural fact, like left-handedness, rather than as a “learned behaviour.” For most gays, it felt like “born that way,” even if the feeling was retrospective or belated. Second, claiming that gay was a natural feature, one that didn’t cause harm to others, proved to be a sound political strategy for securing civil rights. (By the way, that not-causing-harm-to-others proviso is key to John Stuart Mill’s notion of which speech and behaviour ought to be protected from interference by the state or other people, something Murray forgets to mention.)
It’s also true, historically, that the early versions of “gay liberation,” coming directly off the energies and fumes of the turbulent, even utopian, decade of the 1960s, was not simply a demand for rights equality, but also proposed a romantic critique of existing sexuality and relationships. “Gay lib” suggested not merely identity recognition, but an investigation (and restructuring) of extent human arrangements. In due course, and after a devastating decade-long Aids pandemic, these erotic social dreams subsided. What gays wanted, it turned out, was indeed civil and human rights, up to and including same-sex marriage, not revolution. Characteristically, Murray tends to ignore such historic trajectories, even in the truncated thumbnail sketch form I’m providing here.
In any case, there was plenty of variation and malleability within gay life itself, which generated a milieu that extended from drag queens to “macho men” (and much in between), and whose personal sexual preferences yielded “tops,” “bottoms,” and “versatile” types. What’s more, as most gays were aware, there was a good deal more ambiguity about preference than was generally acknowledged (partly because recognition of ambiguity undercut the advantages of the “born that way” political strategy). But, in fact, there were lots of guys whose sexual orientation was not fully determined, and who were sufficiently interested in trying out gay sex, depending on circumstances (and, claimed some, sobriety). Here, the mid-20th century sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, who posited sexual orientation as something better measured in terms of a scale or spectrum rather than viewed as a gay-straight binary category, was more helpful than those who ascribed to more rigid typologies.
Murray notes the gradual decriminalization, and then de-medicalization of homosexuality (U.S. psychologists dropped the notion of gay as a mental disorder in the 1970s; international health bodies did likewise by the early 1990s). Murray then cites an extended passage from the Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCP –U.K.) 2014 statement on sexual orientation that strikes me as a fair and reasonable summary of our current state of understanding.
The doctors, says Murray, “were commendably adamant in their condemnation of anything that seeks to stigmatize people who say they are gay.” The RCP added that it doesn’t believe that therapies to alter anyone’s sexual orientation (in whatever direction) actually work. Further, the psychatrists “consider that sexual orientation is determined by a combination of biological and postnatal environment factors.” Finally, the RCP declares, “There is no evidence to go beyond this and impute any kind of choice into the origins of sexual orientation.”
Given that our knowledge of these matters is shaky, the RCP allows that sexual orientation is probably not “immutable” and that it might “vary to some extent in a person’s life.” And for people who are unhappy about their sexual orientation,whatever it is, the RCP thinks there may be grounds “for exploring therapeutic options to help them live more comfortably.” All of this seems level-headed, restrained, and in accord with the facts as we have them. Murray cites other professional health organizations that say similar things. So, the American Psychological Association is content to admit that there’s no scientific consensus “about the exact reasons” that an individual develops one sexual orientation or another, and though there’s been a lot of poking around with respect to genetic, hormonal, and cultural influences on sexual orientation, “no findings have emerged” to clarify the issues.
The only puzzling thing here is Murray himself, who finds the kind of non-discriminatory talk cited above socially admirable, but is left frustrated “that the whole question of what makes someone gay remains unanswered.” It’s not clear why this provisional status-of-gay isn’t satisfactory to Murray, unless it has something to do with his stubborn concern about gays who want to become straight. It’s a topic he has trouble letting go of.
Eventually Murray moves on to Kinsey’s findings, however his interest is not in the sexologist’s notion about variable sexual practices, but is instead primarily connected to figuring out how many gays there are. Again, we don’t know. After rummaging around in various surveys and taking a look in Big Data’s dustbins, researchers think that 5 per cent of the population seems like a possible figure. That would mean, for the U.S., about seven-and-a-half million men out of 150 million males are gay. Of course, given generational variation and those boys on Tik Tok interested in “sexual fluidity,” the number may fluctuate. As for wannabe straights among the gays, again we don’t know, but I’d be surprised if it turned out to be more than 0-point-something per cent of the 7 million-plus.
The mystery of the origins or causes of homosexuality continues to nag at Murray. He thinks this lacuna in our knowledge poses “a huge and potentially destabilizing” question about identity. Others of us are less bothered by aetiological questions, and perfectly willing to live with a reasonable amount of uncertainty. A poet friend of mine was once bluntly asked, What is the cause of homosexuality?, and without missing a beat, he replied, “Beautiful boys.” It’s a quip worthy of Aristophanes, and often seems to me about as good as answer as any on offer, despite the current unfashionableness of beauty as a source of causality.
Rather than obsess about the origins or evolutionary functions of homosexuality, it’s probably more useful to recognize that it exists as an asymmetric minority sexual practice and to see what sorts of meaning, if any, we think we need to construct for it. It may turn out to simply be an asymmetric practice, like lefthandedness, which was once surrounded by threatening superstitions and disapproval – the devilish sinistra (“left” in Italian) that elides into a cognate for “sinister.”
Identity is a big issue for Murray, given his opposition to “identity politics” as part of the scourge of post-modernism, post-Marxism and other “posties” (as some philosophers used to refer to such contemporary ideologies). Murray appears to believe that most people who are homosexual tend to regard gayness as the foundation stone of their individual identity, and at the same time he thinks that sexual preference is a silly basis for either individual or collective identity. Unfortunately, Murray is particularly shallow on the concept of identity, whether talking about individual selves or self-identified “communities” of people.
Rather than assuming that most people who are gay regard their identity as founded upon their sexual preference, it might be helpful to think a bit more about what identity is. As a first approximation, how about regarding identity as a self-reflexive mental entity that consists of all your identifications (in some ranked order) plus the vast collection of your biographical experiences? Identifications include such possible items as writer, intellectual, teacher, political activist, gay, spouse, athlete or sports fan, old person, Canadian, Jew, music-lover, left-hander, eater of madeleines, and so on. Other lists might start with plumber, dog-owner, evangelical Christian, gamer, gay… you get the idea.
Since your multiple identifications occur within a historical context, the ranked order and/or intensity of given identifications likely vary over the course of a lifetime, and are partially dependent on the political or spiritual temper of the times. For example, in the early days of “gay liberation” (c. 1969) “gay” might well be a priority in terms of your list of identifications. Decades later, after the legal and social successes of the gay movement, and a correspondingly reduced need for intensive identification (simply for survival purposes), gay is likely to move down the list of priority features of one’s self. Maybe accountant, book-lover, or senior citizen move up a notch or two in terms of how you conceive of yourself.
Further, given the “uneven development” of gay, a lot will depend on history and politics. Just to use a simple tripartite schema as illustration, those Polish gays referred to above, who are in the midst of a condition of “gay struggle” (to avoid being “disappeared”), are more likely to prioritize gay in terms of identity than, say, gays who live in quasi “post-gay” societies, such as those you find in parts of Western Europe or Canada (where issues of self, legality, and social acceptance have been significantly resolved). And then there are people who live in “pre-gay” societies, in the sense that while plenty of homosexual acts regularly occur, the activities are so disapproved and/or proscribed, that the culture doesn’t even permit a concept of gay within public discourse. What all this adds up to is that while “gay” may have an important role in the composition of one’s identity, it won’t necessarily be the foundation stone or main feature of a sense of self.
Almost none of the above considerations are touched upon in Murray’s discussion, which is why I’ve gone on at such length to examine them here. Instead, we end up with Murray’s fairly one-dimensional notion of identity itself and the mere assertion that “sexual identity is probably not a wise basis on which to build any formal identity.” Murray is equally suspicious of LBGTQ as a collective identity. Instead, he dwells on the notion that gays and lesbians don’t much like each other (forgetting the role lesbians played during the Aids crisis of the 1980s), that bisexual is a particularly wobbly category, and that trans is potentially at odds with both male and female homosexuals (the latter claim is part of an intramural debate between trans people and self-described “gender critical” feminists). Murray tends to be oblivious to the possibility that people engaged in minority sexual practices and gender identity may well ally with each other precisely for political purposes, such as securing civil rights.
Murray has various other sheep trails to follow, from same-sex marriage and gay couples adopting children to the gay movement reading out of its ranks right-wing, conservative-supporting gays (the example trotted out is billionaire PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, who appeared at the 2016 Republican Convention in order to endorse Donald Trump), but the lengthy exegesis above is more than enough to indicate why I find much of Murray’s discussion of gay to be blinkered or wrong-headed. National groupings of oppressed homosexuals (whether in Russia, Poland, or broad swathes of the Middle East) simply don’t make an appearance in this text, which tends to confirm my earlier criticism thatMurray is far from the real madding crowds, apart from a few flash mobs that happen to engage his conservative sensibilities.
Murray concludes his gay chapter with a subsection headed “What Are the Plausible Causes of ‘Homophobia’?” (and yes, note those skeptic’s quotes aound the notion of homophobia). The passage begins with a pro forma condemnation of justifications of “hatred or violence towards individuals, let alone whole groups of people,” but Murray quickly pivots to the observation that there are “plenty of stages between absolute equinimity and ease around people, and a desire to violently attack them.” He adds, “The fact is that some heterosexuals are genuinely unnerved by gay people. Perhaps many, most or even all heterosexuals feel something like this, very far away from dislike, but something unnerving.” Note the sleight-of-hand reductionism that shrinks hatred of homosexuals down to feelings of unease in the blink of a couple of sentences.
Heterosexual men who are “genuinely unnerved” by gays? Really? Fifty years of gays later? Still “genuinely unnerved?” No doubt there are white supremacists genuinely unnerved by Blacks. And don’t forget those misogynist males genuinely unnerved by women. Maybe even a few misandrist women unnerved by hetero men. Thanks, but I think I’ll pass on those “plausible causes” for homophobia or genuine unnervings or whatever. Obviously, we’re a gentrified long way from dudes driving into the big city from suburban hovels on a Friday night to do a little gay-bashing while cruising in their pickup trucks up and down the main drag of the metropolitan gay district.
Murray’s discussion of homosexuality is one of the most peculiar I’ve encountered. Given the almost-but-not-quite diametrical differences of our temperaments and politics, I find most of his approaches to gay questions wrong, off-kilter, or just plain missing the point. Still, despite his mysterious preoccupation with unhappy gays wanting to convert to hetero-happiness, Murray raises enough standard, if slightly stale, questions about gay that it’s possible to talk it over with him.
I’m sorry to report that most of the rest of Crowds doesn’t meet even that low bar, and thus can be dealt with more economically than the preceding section. Murray successively addresses “Women,” “Race” and “Trans,” in full-length chapters, plus offering some interleaved briefer “interludes,” the most important of which is one where he seeks to ground his opposition to the “social justice movement” in some weightier macrothinking about the present human condition. I don’t mean to ruin the suspense with “spoilers,” but you won’t be surprised to learn that Marxism dunnit. Yes, all of this misplaced social justice outrage finds its source in malevolent academics of four and more decades ago who promoted postmodernism, relativism, theories of power, and updated, but ever-evil Marxism.
Since Murray so often points to the leftist groves of academe as the source of policies (“diversity,” “sexual harassment codes,” “safe spaces,”) that make their way into the larger society, eventually finding perches in corporate human resources departments, fiscal boardrooms, and in ideological mission statements, just one remark on the current university in ruins (to recall the title of Bill Readings’ prescient 1997 book about that institution’s impending fate):
For all the attention Murray bestows on post-secondary education’s Marxist tendencies, it should be remembered that the largest percentage of degrees (over 20%) conferred by the university these days comes from the business faculty, while the faculties most in decline are the Marxist-harboring social sciences and humanities. I don’t think there’s much social justice anger-stoking to be found in the faculties devoted to teaching students how to sell pizza, but it looks like (at least to Murray) that the diminishing marxisant departments (and special interest “studies”) are punching well above their weight.
Murray wrote his chapter about women as the Harvey Weinstein sexual assault scandal (among many others) was unfolding, and as the “Me, Too” movement in the U.S. was revealing the extent, modes and variety of physical sexual harassment against women rampant in a range of workplace settings from the entertainment industry to news organizations to corporate capitalist venues in finance, manufacturing, and the like. Weinstein, the now jailed former movie producer, gets a passing mention or two, but there’s almost no discussion of his crimes or their broader context at all. Murray would have done himself a favour if he had read and discussed Ronan Farrow’s Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators (2020), which addresses not only the Weinstein case, but the much larger network that perpetuates systemic sexism.
Instead, Murray begins his account of “Women” with a description of a few female celebrities behaving badly on late night talkshow TV by revealing portions of their anatomy to their hosts or other guests, in order to titillate studio audiences and get them to whoop and cheer (which they’re happy to do). Apart from us learning that Murray watches a considerable amount of talkshow TV, these examples of lascivious bad behaviour among celebs is intended as a demonstration of female hypocrisy about sexual provocation. See, it’s not just Weinstein, or Bill Cosby, or Jeffrey Epstein engaged in minor trespasses, but everyone! And wasn’t it all okay just the other day? Why such a big deal now?
Speaking of lascivious, Murray then moves on to a detailed description of a series of sexual enhancement products – including prosthetic nipples and vulvas – marketed under the heading of “Make Men Drool” – that proves, at least to Murray, the aggressive sexuality of the female of the species. As I read, with increasingly jaw-dropping wonder, I began to think, is Murray really going to do this? Is he going to respond to horrific, serial sexual predator crimes, already proven in court and resulting in jail sentences, with a counterattack on the sexually predatory nature of women? Wait, this is parody, no? Actually, no, Murray means it.
He next invokes the spirit of University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson who, apparently in an interview, non-plussed his host by posing the Zen-like question, “Can men and women work together?” Peterson’s point was about the constant sexual provocativeness of women in the office. Peterson himself didn’t propose, but merely hypothesized about the possibility of the workplace bosses banning make-up and high-heeled shoes as a means of reducing workplace erotic temperature. Okay, enough. We’re in command of sufficient details to appreciate the, uh, thrust of Murray’s attack.
Murray finally gets to an explicit conclusion, lamenting “the impossible demand that cannot be met but which has been written into contemporary mores. It is that a woman must be allowed to be as sexy and sexual as she pleases, but that does not mean she can be sexualized. Sexy, but not sexualized. It is an impossible demand.” Murray illustrates his thesis with a lengthy riff on singer Nicki Minaj and a video of her song “Anaconda” (I’ll skip the fine points, okay? And I won’t invoke Miley Cyrus, or her “Wrecking Ball” or her experiments in “twerking.”) No, it’s not Weinstein et al raping women that’s the problem, it’s women in one way or another “asking for it,” “acceding to it,” causing it. As an exercise in “blame the victim,” Murray’s lurid fantasies are about as bad as it gets.
There’s more to Murray’s discourse on women, including a potted history of feminism, and a visit to an upscale “Women Mean Business” entrepreneurial conference. Not everything he says is as nutty as the first half of “Women” and its theory of female sexual provocation-without-responsibility. Obviously, feminism is not a monolith, and there’s plenty to argue about, excesses to point to, deep theoretical disagreements and all the rest – from initial insights about “mansplaining” turning into clichés, and declarations of “I believe women” devolving into murky metaphysics. But for Murray, feminism (and it will turn out, racial oppression) refers to long ago inequalities that have been rendered benign in the present, so what’s all the shouting about?
Murray begins his chapter on “Race” by invoking Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “dream” of a nation where his and others’ children “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Instead, says Murray, an “insidious current has developed” that has rejected King’s dream and has decided “that skin color is everything.”
As for the rightwing dangers posed by racism, Murray is dismissive. Ever since the 2016 U.S. presidential election that brought Trump to office, he says, there has been “intense media attention focused on the remnants of white supremacism and white nationalism” which has “lingered” in the U.S. and parts of Europe. Fortunately, there is a consensus against such people, Murray claims, and “little widespread support for the games they are playing with history’s darkest materials.” Predictably, Murray ignores Trump’s notorious 2017 remark, when commenting on violent racial clashes between neo-Nazis and racial equality protesters in Charlottesville, Va., that there “were very fine people on both sides.”
Murray’s key thesis quickly follows: “At the very moment when the issue of race might at long last have been put to rest, they have decided once again to make it the most important issue of all.”
What follows that is a potpourri of observations that range from considerations of “special studies” programs in academia, to a weird defense of actor Armie Hammer who had been criticised for not actually being gay in a film where he plays a man engaged in a homosexual affair, to descriptions of a series of ugly campus incidents in which mostly white conservative intellectuals had been silenced or “deplatformed” by groups of radical students. There’s even a guest cameo by black entertainer Kanye West simultaneously championing and lecturing Donald Trump in the U.S. president’s Oval Office, in what can only be politely described as a bi-polar moment. Murray himsef concedes that this “summit” meeting “was strange even by relative standards.” So is Murray’s chapter on race.
If there’s a throughline connected to race here, it’s a critique of racism directed at, of all people, Caucasians. Yes, the problem we should worry about is anti-white racism, which is apparently ubiquitous these days. Even apart from the chapter’s scattershot anecdotes — subsections that rove from “cultural appropriation,” to various people wrongly caught up in litmus tests for ideological purity, to discrimination against brainy students of Asian descent seeking admission to elite universities — if this discussion has a coherence problem, it’s easy to see why.
There’s a huge and constant gaping absence in Murray’s account of race. How do you write a substantial essay purportedly about racial issues and somehow manage to leave out most black people in the U.S.? There’s no discussion of the conditions of ordinary black life that, during the coronavirus pandemic, have produced signficantly disproportionate death and illness among black people. The chapter is equally haunted by black ghosts – the murdered, unarmed, mostly young black men and women who have died at the hands of police, and whose deaths inspired massive protest marches across the country for racial equity and police reform in the pandemic summer of 2020. Even when they are mentioned in passing in Murray’s “afterword,” they are, for the most part, shrugged off.
Oddly enough, I find myself otherwise agreeing with much of the material Murray cites. Yes, the deplatforming incidents that silenced various conservative speakers were scandalous. But the silencings were also denounced by all sorts of people, particularly pro- free speech liberals, negatively publicized in the mainstream press and, after a year-long spate of such episodes, were eventually quelled. Yes, the “cultural appropriation” battle reached the heights of absurdity when white women “foodistas” were forced, on political grounds, to stop making and selling Mexican burritos from a foodtruck in Portland, Oregon.
And yes, author Lionel Shriver was perfectly right to deliver a speech at an Australian literary fest denouncing ideological limits on the imagination as pernicious censorship. Gee, I even wanted to come to the defense of poor Armie Hammer and his performance in director Luca Guadagnino’s 2017 gay film Call Me By Your Name. Although actor Hammer was chastised for not being a “real life” gay, Murray unaccountably misses the relevant literary point in bringing up the anecdote. The character that Hammer portrays — a 20-something grad student, working as a summer assistant to an American archeology professor in Italy, who has an affair with the prof’s son, a late adolescent boy (played by Timothee Chamalet) – is not, in fact, gay. So, blaming Hammer for not being gay to match the character he was playing was itself a mistake. Indeed, the film ends (spoiler alert!) with the grad student, now back home in the U.S., phoning the boy months later to announce his forthcoming marriage to his girlfriend. Cut to closing extended several minute close-up shot of teary Timothee, brimming eyes staring through… holiday decorations? .… as the credits roll. No, no, I’ve given up wondering what this moment of teen desolation has to do with mad crowds.
At the end of the chapter, Murray reiterates his thesis once more, in case we’ve forgotten: “Today there appears to be a return to a heightened level of rhetoric on race, and a great crescendo of claims about racial differences – just when most of us hoped that any such differences might be fading away.” For Murray, racism against blacks in the U.S. ended in the mid-1960s when then President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965.
The idea that such major advances in civil rights ended the problem of racial inequity in the U.S. reveals Murray’s uncertain grasp of the history and centrality of racial issues in American political and cultural life. Any decent U.S. history – Jill Lepore’s These Truths (2018), Heather Cox Richardson’s How the South Won the Civil War (2020), Ira Katznelson’s Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time (2013), or, for more recent issues, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010; 2020) – will highlight the unavoidable conundrum that makes the battle for “the soul of America” something more than a mere political slogan.
Probably the best stretch of writing in Murray’s book is the opening of his chapter on “Trans.” That’s odd, given that transgender is the issue that Murray finds most irksome. Nonetheless, he opens the discussion by noting that “not only is some type of gender-ambiguity or gender-fluidity common across most cultures, it is hard to think of a culture in the world that does not include – and allow for – some variety of gender-ambiguity. It is not an invention of late modernity.”
Murray goes on to cite cultures in India, Thailand, Samoa and elsewhere that provide for categories of people who are “neither male nor female” or who are men “who live and dress as women.” Further, this widespread “blurring between the sexes” manifests itself in terms of a spectrum that “ranges from transvestitism (people dressing up as members of the opposite sex) all the way through to transsexualism (going through with a range of procedures in order to ‘become’ the opposite sex.” (The century-old recognition of this gender variability by Western anthropologists is charted in a recent book, Charles King’s Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex and Gender (2019), which discusses the work of Franz Boas, Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict in the 1920s and 30s.)
After pausing for a brief discussion of “intersex” (which has to do with people born with biologically ambiguous genitalia), Murray moves on to “transsexualism,” and offers a sympathetic account of the late British travel writer Jan Morris, who transitioned from male to trans woman via a sex-change operation in the early 1970s. Morris’ memoir of that transition, Conundrum (1974), says Murray, “remains one of the most persuasive and certainly the best-written accounts to date of why some people feel a need to transition across the sexes.” It’s hard to read Morris’ book, Murray adds, “and come away thinking that something like trans doesn’t exist or is ‘merely’ a trick of the imagination.”
As far as I’m concerned, Murray could have stopped right there. Already, his introduction to the contemporary trans debate is an improvement on most of what’s presented by “gender critical” feminists, who tend to leave out anthropological diversity and the testimony of people like Jan Morris, and instead opt for some form of biological realism (objective sex differences are what’s really “real,” and “socially constructed” notions of “gender” are at best, untrue, and at worst, a form of mental illness).
The realism argument is then linked to a slew of sociological controversies that range from debates about transwomen using women’s washrooms, to the problem of trans prisoners declaring a gender change in order to assault women prisoners, to questions about trans people’s unfair advantages in sporting activities, to concerns about premature gender transitions by children under 16. Add to all of this a host of political claims, including assertions about whether transwomen are ontologically women, accompanied by aggressive rhetoric and attempts at forms of social “cancelling,” not to mention actual physical threats, and you’ve got the makings of an ugly contemporary debate. Which is what we have.
Murray takes readers through this and more, but I think it’s unnecessary to reprise the whole tour. In fact, the discussion really doesn’t go anywhere. Murray offers lots of anecdotes – about feminists unfairly silenced for not endorsing pro-trans dogmas, about individuals who ended up with trans remorse for transitioning, about children being stampeded into gender meandering, and about questionable experts in the field. But his conclusions are murky, apart from justly objecting to excesses of certainty and dogmatism.
I’m generally on the pro-trans side of the argument. My sense is that there really is quite a bit of gender variation in many cultures. It usually doesn’t involve large segments of the population, but insofar as it does not cause harm to others, I think it ought to be socially accomodated and accorded rights protection. Interestingly, the over-technological parts of the world, with easy access to transitioning drugs and surgery, may have a more complicated relationship to trans than societies that have a traditional space for people who don’t fit the standard categories.
I find a lot of trans rhetoric as well as “gender critical” anti-trans discourse in need of some sort of regulation. First, attempts at preventing people from speaking (especially gender critical feminists) ought to be overriden. Claims by trans people that anti-trans public discussion represents an “existential threat” to the very being of trans people and therefore ought to be silenced, should be regarded as political rhetoric designed to improve trans status rather than as some sort of truth claim. We already have provisions to limit speech that constitutes a “threat” or that incites imminent violence.
As for other specific issues, solutions ought to be negotiated among relevant “stakeholders” and even the state apparatus, where legislative regulation is required. Until someone demonstrates that the use of women’s bathroons by trans women constitutes a tangible harm to women, it’s not obvious why trans women shouldn’t be accomodated. (Ditto for trans men and men’s bathrooms.) Conversely, if trans women have unfair advantages in sports competitions, the appropriate athletic bodies ought to enforce rules restricting trans participation. Similarly, prison facilities ought to be able to prevent male prisoners declaring gender changes solely for the purpose of gaining access to women prisoners in order to assault them. And yes, there ought to be cautions about children seeking gender transitions too early, and prematurely taking various drugs and hormones that irrevocably alter their bodies. (It’s why we prefer “color transfer” decals for children to permitting them tattoos.)
As for philosophical questions about whether trans women should be regarded as women, that will take longer. Obviously, there are physiological and experiential differences between women and trans women; there is also a spectrum here involving the particulars of gender transition that render some trans women more “women-like” than others. I’m not sure what’s wrong with the category “trans women” for people who are trans women. More important than settling the ontological question is the matter of political and social status. There ought to be recognition of and space for trans people, given their cultural ubiquitousness globally, and protection for them against discrimination. Murray could have said all the things I’ve just said. For some reason, he doesn’t.
By the time Murray staggers across the finish line, he appears exhausted, and his official “conclusions” tend to be vapid, vague, and slightly tired all at once. “The spirit of accusation, claim and grudge has spread with a swiftness that is remarkable,” complains Murray about the social justice movement. At no point does he really take seriously the possibility that there are conditions that call for social justice. He finds most “intersectionality” claims not to intersect, but to derange; they don’t heal, they divide. He briefly flirts with the notion, “What if People Aren’t Oppressed?”, selects anecdotes that point to inconsistencies in the social justice program, and laments the campaigners’ tendency to pile up grievances and present them in their most inflammatory form. And expectedly, he glimpses the spectre of Marxism seeking to “make people doubt absolutely everything.”
Admittedly, I was reading Murray while an American president, who had just lost a fairly-conducted election by 7 million popular votes and by a significant majority in the country’s Electoral College, was engaged in something resembling a coup attempt. While 200,000 people per day were being infected by the coronavirus, and 3,000 people were daily dying of it, the soon-to-be ex-president Donald Trump was almost exclusively focused on getting the U.S. Supreme Court to invalidate millions of legally cast ballots and to unprecedentedly overturn the election results. Meanwhile, small mobs (Murray’s maddened crowds?) of Trump-supporting citizens were milling about on streetcorners, wearing their “Make America Great Again” baseball caps, and waving Trump flags (…and often guns). Perhaps I might be forgiven for thinking those assaults on democratic institutions to be more significant than Murray’s admirable efforts to mitigate dogmatism and improve civility.
Amid the afterword and acknowledgements to The Madness of Crowds, there’s a self-congratulatory passage in which Murray takes a bit of a victory lap, as he expresses understandable delight with the critical and sales success of his book. He marvels at the infrequency of unpleasant criticism (like the above). The metaphor Murray invokes is of traversing an ideological field filled with landmines and criss-crossed with tripwires, practically all of which he artfully dodged. He ascribes his unscathed passage to a combination of felicity of expression and to his refusal to be cowed by bullies.
I’m more inclined to attribute his success to the sympathetic ideological predisposition of his readers and to reviewers who were relatively incompetent. Still, at least one of his critics, the Guardian’s William Davies, asked the pertinent question, “Do racism and sexism really exist, or are they just the creation of angry lefties?” Davies regarded Murray’s efforts at denial “the bizarre fantasies of a rightwing provocateur, blind to oppression.” (Cf., William Davies, “The Madness of Crowds by Douglas Murray review – a rightwing diatribe,” The Guardian, Sept. 19, 2019.) The image of Murray deftly avoiding the tripwires suddenly put me in mind of a 1970s novelty entertainer named Tiny Tim – I hadn’t thought of him in years — who strummed a ukulele and sang in a falsetto voice his hit song, “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.”
Berlin, Dec. 11, 2020.