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U.S. POLITICS

Hoping for an Unwoke Backlash.

With the right balance of reason and outrage, popular critiques of wokeness can break into the mainstream—and make a difference.

Douglas Murray is no word mincer. Though visibly jetlagged and overworked from an ongoing book tour, he still managed to give me an interview a fortnight ago from his Manhattan hotel room about the new paperback edition of The Madness of Crowds (2019). He even mustered the spine to sound off about the enraging media clip from the day before he’d just woken up to.

If there’s a single way to capture what Murray calls “racism disguised as anti-racism,” Baker’s comment was it.

On Jo Coburn’s Politics Live BBC broadcast, conservative MP Steve Baker had bent over backward to reconcile the indignation felt by those accused of having “white privilege” while coming from a working-class background with the logic and ideology of those leveling the charge. Evidently, the only way through was to peddle the most lunatic understanding of what “white privilege” means. 

“The privilege of being white,” according to Baker, “is the privilege of being able to say, and still believe, that we’re all equal.” In his warped, subliminally racist mind, belief in innate human equality is a mark of white privilege—a fig leaf to cover racial domination. According to Baker’s thinking, blacks cannot be expected to embrace that most basic, humanistic conviction. If there’s a single way to capture what Murray calls “racism disguised as anti-racism,” Baker’s comment was it.

The author had zero patience for the MP’s bigoted premise. “How dare he erode our common humanity with his cheaply learned half-hour absorption of a crooked lie?” he lambasted over Zoom. Even as he handles the bestselling acclaim of his new broadside against “wokeness,” Murray is not out to make friends, even among the powerful. To Murray, Steve Baker is “a pathetic, cringing Tory wet, the sort that Mrs. Thatcher would have loathed […] He knows not what he is bowing to, this man.”

Murray’s tirade against Steve Baker is actually atypical, in stark contrast to his reputation for affability or his soberly argued and deeply researched monograph. (The Madness of Crowds is “well marshalled” and “superbly perceptive,” according to The Times and The Daily Telegraph, respectively.) As the woke revolution leaves entire swathes of the right willowing in sterile anger, those like Murray who are genuinely concerned with restoring sanity to mainstream culture should not be faulted for choosing sober rationality over vitriol—they should be praised. 

“How dare he erode our common humanity with his cheaply learned half-hour absorption of a crooked lie?”

Perhaps Murray’s instinct for self-preservation leaves him with little choice if he hopes to achieve a broad public audience. After all, one of the unreasonable demands of our time is that you’re supposed to stay cool, calm, and collected, even in the face of racism disguised as anti-racism (à la Steve Baker MP). His erudite charm and affable character may, in part, explain why mainstream Britain still gives him a platform. (Only so-called LGBT legacy publications have ceded to the call to cancel one of the country’s brightest gay writers for being inconveniently unwoke. These institutionalized voices in the gay community refuse to entertain opposing viewpoints—and Murray is no exception.)

Or perhaps it is precisely his enraged-cum-reasoned plea itself—to halt woke insanity—that explains why The Madness of Crowds became an instant bestseller, a Sunday Times book of the year, and even recently, put the publisher in the (somewhat un-COVID-like) predicament of running out of paperback copies. The book’s shrewd balance of passion and argument seems to have struck a nerve, and not just with the usual audience. Among Murray’s millions of readers, those conservatively predisposed to reject identity politics may be only a tiny share.

Murray’s argumentative prowess has forced many a newspaper reviewer (William Davies of The Guardian notwithstanding) to reckon with their own careless playacting of woke sensibilities. “Douglas Murray is saying what others are afraid to say,” per a review from The Times. “A liberal dose of outrage,” reads another in The Telegraph. This reckoning suggests a deeper yearning to understand the profound cultural distortions brought about wokeness. In The Madness of Crowds, the harangues of Murray-the-polemicist blend effortlessly with the objective attempts by many to unpack a revolutionary change in public mores.

The crusading Douglas Murray remains a conservative bastion amidst a Western cultural mainstream, washed over by wokeness. The astronomical success of The Madness of Crowds exposes the rage vs. reason dichotomy as a false choice. To contend with the cultural power of the left today, we will need both.

The mob.

The mob.

RAGE CUM REASON À LA DOUGLAS MURRAY

Through four chapters, each dedicated to different loci of woke identity—sexual orientation, gender, race, and adopted gender—Murray does the arduous work of deconstructing the deconstructors, while still refusing to silence the rage brewing within him. Instead, he laces with that rage every step of his reasoning, to an admirably persuasive effect. 

“The contemporary world has begun to settle on a morality rooted in the hardware vs. software question.”

In the book, Murray clearly documents, for each of these defining identities, views that were considered mainstream merely a decade ago, but are now deemed sexist, racist, homophobic or transphobic—and therefore taboo. This non-stop shifting of standards by opinion-makers and journalistic gatekeepers can only be sustained through illiberal purges. Things that are politically correct today need to be rendered politically incorrect tomorrow for wokeness to hold its grip.

Take the issue of gay rights: Murray describes how, in a short span of time, what were otherwise respectful debates about the’ right to marry have turned into a metaphysical disquisition over what it even means to be gay. The sizable portion of opinion leaders arguing against gay marriage just a few years ago are now dismissed as somehow infected with homophobic bigotry. “The contemporary world has begun to settle on a morality rooted in the hardware vs. software question,” Murray writes, pointing to the endless arguing over whether one is born gay or not—an issue pertinent to only a tiny fraction of LGTB radicals, and not the majority of the gay community looking to get on with their lives.

With the suburban vote in the US presidential race still very much in the air, Americans may be in for yet another electoral backlash against this self-destructive cultural elitism in November—this time in the form of the so-called “shy Trump voter” phenomenon. But as an intellectual who understands his work as holding cultural elites accountable to the broader public, Murray can’t be content with this unwoke backlash taking place at the ballot box alone. “If the claims of the radical left aren’t countered,” Murray told me, “it’s no surprise that they then run straight through the culture.”

The Madness of Crowds, then, is a call to stand up to the mob, instead of bowing and following along. It is a call to tell those hordes of cowardly face-covered totalitarians shouting you down for not raising your first and chanting anti-police slurs while out for dinner with your partner to f*** off

As it happens, reason alone is worth very little when people are cowered into keeping it to themselves. For reason to assert itself in the real world, it sometimes needs courage—and yes, rage too.

That need for courage grows proportionally to the prevailing insanity. Murray hoped COVID-19 would temper the woke urges to anathematize social groups along the lines of race and gender, but he was in for some sour disillusion. In a new post-pandemic afterword to the second edition, The Madness of Crowds remarks that our descent into woke insanity couldn’t even be stopped by COVID-19—the very definition of an uncontrollable outside event that equalized all of the human race in shared vulnerability. 

Perhaps the near-total grip of wokeness on the culture craved a sort of proxy rebuttal, and Murray’s merit may lie in skillfully elevating a popular work to that pre-existing slot.

Before that infamous Minnesota cop sent 2020 into a whirlwind by killing George Floyd, and  before the Churchill statue and the Cenotaph memorial in London had to be boarded up to protect it from mob attacks, mainstream British media were already peddling woke stupidity about the virus. “The gendered impacts” of COVID-19 was the title of a widely covered study from early March by Lancet, a reputable British medical journal, even though men were already known by then to die at higher rates from it. Yes, but “women bear the emotional brunt of the COVID-19 turmoil,” rebutted a report in The Guardian, citing research by Ipsos Mori and the Fawcett Society. And that’s to say nothing of all those reputable MDs who rushed to sacrifice their professional ethos to curry favor with the mob by giving a green-light to mass un-socially distanced and unmasked protests—epitomized by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s fallacy that “racism is deadlier than COVID-19.”

In a way, anyone with an eye on the outward expansion of woke ideology—from obscure academic journals into prime-time TV and multinational HR departments—could have seen The Madness of Crowds coming. Murray forebodes much worse, however, if the guardrails that were lowered by the spread of neo-Marxism remain down.

His indictment (and warning for the future) concerns the right too, in particular, the “smug conservatives” who have underestimated this cultural revolution from the get-go by choosing to handle it as a marginal electoral issue instead of tackling its fundamental assumptions head-on. There are some societal preconditions about which little can be done—interspersed between the book’s chapters are interludes dealing with the viral power of social media and the massive vacuum of meaning left by the retreat of religion. But when it comes to policing our own side, Murray cuts the right no slack for mob tolerance, as others tempted to follow the clueless Steve Baker MP in peddling woke nonsense may soon attest.

Perhaps the near-total grip of wokeness on the culture craved a sort of proxy rebuttal, and Murray’s merit may lie in skillfully elevating a popular work to that pre-existing slot. Still, there is no question that a few years from now, The Madness of Crowds will be looked back upon as a fearless and brilliant work of moral dissent.

Jorge González-Gallarza Hernández (@JorgeGGallarza) is the co-host of the Uncommon Decency podcast (@UnDecencyPod) and an associate researcher at Fundación Civismo.

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