I’ve reduced my time on social media, and I’ve been experiencing some profound side effects of this detox: I’m more willing to engage people I would have previously dismissed, and my knee-jerk disgust response is down. This means that I am now engaging a great many more thinkers and writers who I would have previously dismissed as gross and/or anti-woke.
I recently picked up The Madness of Crowds by Douglas Murray, which attempts to argue how worthy minority and progressive causes have ripened into full blown mania and societal insanity. He sums this up with his description of “St George in Retirement Syndrome.”
After slaying the dragon the brave warrior finds himself stalking the land looking for still more glorious fights. He needs his dragons. Eventually, after tiring himself out in pursuit of ever-smaller dragons he may eventually even be found swinging his sword at thin air, imagining it to contain dragons. If that is a temptation for an actual St George, imagine what a person might do who is no saint, owns no horse or lance and is being noticed by nobody. How might they try to persuade people that, given the historic chance, they too would without question have slain that dragon?Murray, Douglas. The Madness of Crowds (p. 15). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.
All of this suggests that he thinks that minority causes have basically won and are now obsessing over smaller and smaller infractions. The rest of the book is a long exposé of all the ways he thinks society might be losing its mind due to this St. George In Retirement Syndrome.
(A digression: why is it worth reading the work of a gay conservative who is widely loathed? Because, as I saw on twitter today, the new edition of The Madness of Crowds completely sold out on Amazon. He was also recently on the Joe Rogan Experience – the largest podcast on the planet. A huge number of people are taking his words to heart, which means I should probably see what exactly it is he’s saying.)
While I agree with some of his complaints, and that the St. George Syndrome might in some cases be a correct diagnosis, I’m troubled by the omissions. For example, he offers no insight into whether gay activism is still necessary. I don’t know if he thinks there are still any minority causes needing to be won. I won’t claim to read his mind, so I won’t speculate about what he actually believes. But this omission is glaring to me, and it seems to set up a false dichotomy: the only two options for activists now is to stop being activists, or to suffer St. George syndrome. This isn’t explicitly stated in the book so far, but I think it is a natural conclusion. I think this conclusion is false.
I can think of a few areas of gay equality that still need ardent attention:
- Lgbt suicide rates
- Gay teen homelessness, particularly from religious homes
- The transporting of Christian nationalist ideology to countries like Uganda, where anti-gay hysteria is being whipped into a fever pitch
- The outright abuse and murder of gay people in other parts of the world, like Chechnya, and fundamentalist religious regimes like radical Islamic states
All of these significant points aside, though, there might even be a form of activism necessary to protect the gains we have already made in Western democracies.
At the end of the chapter “Gay” he offers this quote from gay writer Daniel Mendelsohn. This quote is interesting to me, because it points to a sort of gay activism that is still necessary.
In a way, it is like the experience of Tiresias; this is the real reason why gay men are uncanny, why the idea of gay men is disruptive and uncomfortable. All straight men who have engaged in the physical act of love know what it is like to penetrate a partner during intercourse, to be inside the other; all women who have had intercourse know what it is like to be penetrated, to have the other be inside oneself. But the gay man, in the very moment that he is either penetrating his partner or being penetrated by him, knows exactly what his partner is feeling and experiencing even as he himself has his own experience of exactly the opposite, the complementary act. Sex between men dissolves otherness into sameness, men into de, in a perfect suspension: there is nothing that either party doesn’t know about the other. If the emotional aim of intercourse is a total knowing of the other, gay sex may be, in its way, perfect, because in it, a total knowledge of the other’s experience is, finally, possible. But since the object of that knowledge is already wholly known to each of the parties, the act is also, in a way, redundant. Perhaps it is for this reason that so many of us keep seeking repetition, as if depth were impossible.
Expounding on this, Murray continues:
This is a remarkable insight, and also a disturbing one. Because it suggests that there will always be something strange and potentially threatening about gay people – most especially gay men. Not just because being gay is an unstable component on which to base an individual identity and a hideously unstable way to try to base any form of group identity, but because gays will always present a challenge to something innate in the group that make up the majority in society.
All women have something that heterosexual men want. They are holders, and wielders, of a kind of magic. But here is the thing: gays appear in some way to be in on the secret. That may be liberating for some people. Some women will always enjoy talking with gay men about the problems – including the sexual problems – of men. Just as some straight men will always enjoy having this vaguely bilingual friend who might help them learn the other language. But there are other people for whom it will always be unnerving. Because for them gays will always be the people – especially the men – who know too much. Murray, Douglas.The Madness of Crowds (pp. 62-63). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.
I have a few quibbles with this, like the assumption that all gay sex is anal sex, and that all gay men engage in it. But the underlying point is clear: there might be some natural unease that straight people initially feel around gay men. Murray tells us this as if he is letting us in on a salacious secret – something that no one is willing to talk about or address. But I think that, on a deeper level, it reveals why norms and institutions of liberalism that protect minorities must be viciously protected, and why the vigilance for gay rights must never end.
Humanity has base, ugly instincts. Xenophobia, sexism, hatred, and perhaps even homophobia might be natural impulses deep in the tribal human species. I think the unease he articulates here probably does exist, and probably won’t just magically go away. It might reappear, generation after generation, and need to be tamed by our humanizing norms. The miracle of our enlightenment, liberal principles is that it elevates humanity above these base instincts so that we can judge our fellow human beings based on the content of their character and not arbitrary and unchosen differences like race or sexual orientation.
As Murray is quick to point out in interviews, it is hard – very, very hard – to build something. Norms and institutions that protect human dignity are fragile and hard-won, and it is all too easy to tear them down. Lurking behind the barges of modern enlightenment are horrific impulses of violence, bigotry, and fear. In a flash, those institutions can be destroyed, and that unease some straight people feel around gay people could explode into full-blown homophobia. This is an eminent threat, as Christian nationalists around the world are working to undermine progressive values and take advantage of these dark human impulses. (For more on this, please read The Power Worshipers by Katherine Stewart.)
This is why we still need gay activists. This is why we still need individuals and groups dedicated to defending human flourishing. Just like free speech, religious freedom, and the division of church and state, gay rights are a triumph of modern civilization and need ongoing protection. These triumphs are hard won, and easily destroyed.
I agree with Murray that some leftists and minority activists have become cruel, petty, and deranged. But I don’t think that’s the only option for gay activism. His book never offers an alternative, suggesting that the only path for minority activists is senile derangement, and I think that’s a failure of his book. (It’s entirely possible he addresses this later in the book, but I’m not holding my breath.) By only pointing out the negatives of leftist causes without suggesting noble alternatives, he lies by omission.
It is perfectly possible to say that many activists have lost their minds, and to maintain that we still need gay activists to protect the fragile gains we have made and keep the darker impulses of human bigotry at bay.
Have you read this book? Do you have thoughts on this article? Please share your thoughts in the comments below or write me an email. If your response is excellent, I will feature it in my monthly Best Comments series.
P.S. I am now at the end of the book, and this article feels almost arbitrary compared to the other complaints I now have with Murray’s writing. If I have the energy I might right more reflections on this book.
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