J.K. Rowling & Havel’s Greengrocer
I wonder now if I’ll be able to separate the author from the text, if and when I decide to read the books again — a decision I’ve yet to come to a conclusion on. It’s certainly not the first time I’ve had to consider this: It was disappointing to see the appropriation of Navajo culture in Ms. Rowling’s digital story collection, “History of Magic in North America” and the original books have been rightly criticized for promoting fatphobia, racial stereotyping and more.
Rightly criticized for promoting fatphobia! Well, my goodness, what a monster J.K. Rowling must be.
Let me remind you all that Rowling is a social liberal, a feminist, a backer of gay rights and a public supporter of the Labour Party. And now, she’s cancelled. I wonder if the NYT op-ed page will invite a column from a liberal feminist who agrees with Rowling. I hope so, but I doubt it. On the left today, pseudo-women are more important than actual women. I see Rowling as a kind of Havel’s Greengrocer figure: a person who refuses to go along to get along, no matter what comes — and in so doing, shows that one doesn’t have to surrender to tyranny. Here’s what I wrote about Havel’s greengrocer in The Benedict Option:
Havel, who died in 2011, preached what he called “antipolitical politics,” the essence of which he described as “living in truth.” His most famous and thorough statement of this was a long 1978 essay titled “The Power of the Powerless,” which electrified the Eastern European resistance movements when it first appeared. It is a remarkable document, one that bears careful study and reflection by orthodox Christians in the West today.
Consider, says Havel, the greengrocer living under Communism, who puts a sign in his shop window saying, “Workers of the World, Unite!” He does it not because he believes it, necessarily. He simply doesn’t want trouble. And if he doesn’t really believe it, he hides the humiliation of his coercion by telling himself, “What’s wrong with the workers of the world uniting?” Fear allows the official ideology to retain power—and eventually changes the greengrocer’s beliefs. Those who “live within a lie,” says Havel, collaborate with the system and compromise their full humanity.
Every act that contradicts the official ideology is a denial of the system. What if the greengrocer stops putting the sign up in his window? What if he refuses to go along to get along? “His revolt is an attempt to live within the truth”— and it’s going to cost him plenty.
He will lose his job and his position in society. His kids may not be allowed to go to the college they want to, or to any college at all. People will bully him or ostracize him. But by bearing witness to the truth, he has accomplished something potentially powerful:
He has said that the emperor is naked. And because the emperor is in fact naked, something extremely dangerous has happened: by his action, the greengrocer has addressed the world. He has enabled everyone to peer behind the curtain. He has shown everyone that it is possible to live within the truth.
Because they are public, the greengrocer’s deeds are inescapably political. He bears witness to the truth of his convictions by being willing to suffer for them. He becomes a threat to the system—but he has preserved his humanity. And that, says Havel, is a far more important accomplishment than whether this party or that politician holds power (a fact that became painfully clear during the debasing 2016 U.S. presidential campaign).
“A better system will not automatically ensure a better life,” Havel goes on. “In fact the opposite is true: only by creating a better life can a better system be developed.” (emphasis mine).
Of course in Vaclav Havel’s fable, the greengrocer is powerless. J.K. Rowling has a fortune estimated between $650 million and $1 billion. Nevertheless, as anybody who has paid attention to social media and the news media coverage since Rowling stood up for feminist Maya Forstater, whose opinion that males cannot become female was denounced by a British judge as unfit for democratic society, the woke tyrants will do what they can to inflict damage. Note well that the media coverage of the event has almost entirely been framed as a famous writer causing pain to her trans and trans-supportive fans. The encouragement Rowling’s stance has given to feminists and others who do not accept gender ideology has been ignored by the media. Naturally, because “bigots” are not to be allowed to think that anybody supports them.
If you think that the Rowling row is something you can safely ignore, you are mistaken. This morning I received the following from a reader who grew up in a communist country, and who emigrated to the US as a young person. The writes about an exchange yesterday with a genial woman merchant. I altered this slightly to protect the reader’s identity, and slightly rewrote it for easier reading. I publish this with the reader’s approval:
“J. K. Rowling pissed off all her fans,” said the shopkeeper.
“Not all,” the reader replied.
The shopkeeper paused.
“I suppose you can still love someone’s work even if you hate the author.”
“What did she do?”
“She supported a transphobe, a hater.”
“Maya Forstater is not a transphobe. She’s a feminist. She stated, very politely, a fact. You cannot fire people for stating opinions, let alone irrefutable facts.”
“Depends on their jobs.”
“Hmm. Did you read what Maya Forstater wrote?”
“No, but a woman with a penis is still a woman”
The reader goes on:
She is a well-educated, very intelligent, and very nice woman. I have known her for quite a while. In the book you are writing, it is very important to state clearly that nearly all the horrors of the 20th century were perpetrated by nice people in the name of common good.
The audience you are writing for is the nice people among us, the compassionate ones. It’s not me, and it’s not the ideologues and puppeteers. It’s the people who will act or submit out of compassion; the nice little old ladies who will petition the government to give the death penalty to dissidents. It is your job to convince them that compassion has to have a context. Without that context it will kill us all.
This is not soft totalitarianism. It is made of concrete, and it is setting fast.
Maya Forstater must be unemployed, and the works of J.K. Rowling entered onto the Woke Index Of Forbidden Books, so that transgendered people and their allies may never, ever confront a thought that troubles them. Silencing and punishing dissenters is the nice, compassionate thing to do. Father Smith, the prophetic Catholic priest in Walker Percy’s The Thanatos Syndrome:
“Beware, tender hearts! Don’t you know where tenderness leads? To the gas chambers. Never in the history of the world have there been so many civilized tenderhearted souls as have lived in this century. Never in the history of the world have so many people been killed. More people have been killed in this century by tenderhearted souls than by cruel barbarians in all other centuries put together. My brothers, let me tell you where tenderness leads. To the gas chambers! On with the jets!”
The Rowling/Forstater case goes to the very heart of the struggle upon us now. A couple of years ago, Maggie Gallagher wrote:
In 2002, the sociologist James Davison Hunter gave an extraordinary talk to Church leaders. Most Christians, he said, think of culture as the values in individual hearts and minds, and imagine therefore that changing culture is the task of evangelising individual hearts and minds. Hunter called this view of culture “pervasive” and completely wrong. “If one is serious about changing the world,” he said, “the first step is to discard this view of culture and how cultures change, for every strategy based upon it will fail – not most strategies, but all strategies.”
Culture, instead, is a form of capital, a kind of power. But what sort of power? “It starts as credibility, an authority one possesses which puts one in a position to be taken seriously,” Hunter said. “It ends as the power to define reality itself. It is the power to name things.”
A culture war is a struggle over who has the power to name what is real.
Is a woman with a penis really a woman? Who decides? What is a woman anyway? This is the power to define reality. The answer to these questions is being worked out right now, in the trenches of the culture war. Neutrality is impossible. Silence means consent.
(Speaking of the power to define reality, if you haven’t read my piece about the phony “epidemic” of trans murder, a pseudo-narrative propagated by LGBT activists and the media, you really need to.)