Book Review: “The Madness of Crowds” by Douglas Murray

… Just as the train appeared to be reaching its desired destination it suddenly picked up steam and went crashing off down the tracks and into the distance. What had been barely disputed until yesterday became a cause to destroy someone’s life today. Whole careers were scattered and strewn as the train careened along its path. ~Douglas Murray

In recent years, a particular cadence has arisen among a number of prominent intellectuals that laments the decline of Christianity here in the West. They are concerned about the ideologies that are rushing into the resulting vacuum, noting that many are woefully inept when it comes to navigating the complex moral terrain of human existence. What is astounding is that many of the thinkers are not professing believers. Case in point: the English journalist and author, Douglas Murray. 

In his book The Madness of Crowds, Murray asks several sets of questions related to this situtation:

1. In any particular fight for justice, what do we do when the fight has been won? Are we willing to acknowledge when the justice train has arrived, and, more importantly, are we able to disembark?

2. Are we aware of the fine line between victory and vengeance and how easily it can be traversed? What might blind us to the fact that we are crossing it – that we are moving from fighting for the oppressed to actually becoming oppressors ourselves? When does success turn into excess?

And finally, most importantly,

3. What are some of the dangers that can arise in a culture in which there is no longer a grand narrative that provides cohesion and meaning – a commonly shared and coherent interpretative lens through which we understand the world and tackle its problems? What destructive ideas might rush into the vacuum that is left when such a unifying vision is lost?

Murray joins a growing number of public intellectuals that are asking these questions. They note that without a unifying narrative, such as what was once provided by Christianity, people tend to grasp for any ideology that promises to provide meaning. Unfortunately, most ideologies fail to deliver. One such ideology is Marxism and its many off-shoots, such as identity politics. Murray writes,

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.[2]

In The Madness of Crowds, Murray offers a cogent analysis of how these new narratives are creating a kind of society-wide derangement in their mission to erase every inequity under the sun. Because they reduce the moral terrain into oversimplified categories of oppressors and oppressed, they are destined to fail. Murray writes that to build society on such a flimsy foundation “is like turning a bar stool upside down and then trying to balance on top of it.”[3] The result is instability and social fragmentation.

Indeed, what is striking is that in seeking to dismantle what they perceive as unjust hierarchies, these ideologues are creating their own oppressive hierarchies on the basis of gender, race, and sexuality. Why? Because these narratives do not have the metaphysical tools to answer the sets of questions listed above, their trains do not have brakes – something that Murray documents in case after case. “Our public life is now dense with people desperate to man the barricades long after the revolution is over,” he writes, “Either because they mistake the barricades for home, or because they have no other home to go to. In each case a demonstration of virtue demands an overstating of the problem, which then causes an amplification of the problem.”[4]

Murray warns that without brakes, these ideologies are in danger of creating a terrible backlash against the original causes that gave them life.

If we fail, then the direction of travel is already clear. We face not just a future of ever-greater atomization, rage and violence, but a future in which the possibility of a backlash against all rights advances – including the good ones – grows more likely.[5]

In reading this book, I was continually reminded of an astute observation from G.K. Chesterton from over one-hundred years ago. He also warned that when a unifying narrative such as Christianity is shattered,

…It is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless. Thus some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful.[6]

What is remarkable is that in the process of cataloguing all of this, Murray finds the antidote to the madness – the brakes for the runaway justice train, if you will – in the Christian understanding of the other virtues that must inform and temper our fights against injustice: humility, mercy, forgiveness, and redemption.

This review is just a small taste of what is an excellent and insightful book. Murray’s is an important analysis for all Christians to read – not only to add to our understanding of the current cultural moment, but to appreciate how Christianity holds the keys to the way out of the chaos.

[1] Douglas Murray, The Madness of Crowds (Bloomsbury Publishing, Kindle Edition), 10.

[2] Ibid., 7.

[3] Ibid,. 13.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 14.

[6] G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Christian Classics, 2006), 26.

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