The Myopia Of Liberal Elites
From the front page of The New York Times‘s website this past weekend:
It’s not that this is a bad story idea. It’s not. Rather, it’s that the Times is so obsessed with transgenderism that it has been reduced to mining the vaults of stock images to come up with a story of trans oppression. If three transgenders living in the East Village see mice in the kitchen in the same week, the Times sees a trend (probably one about unwoke rodents).
I was driving back from East Texas this weekend, and got a little bit lost trying to find I-20. I went down a country road, past so many Baptist churches, more than a few of them only a couple of tics away from ramshackle. Some of them had hand-lettered signs out front reading Iglesia Bautista in one form or another — this in northeast Texas. I thought, where are all these people in our conversation? They don’t exist. Those people who live along State Highway 14 might as well be ghosts.
It is fascinating to watch the stories the media and academic elites tell themselves. Some years ago, before Obergefell, I used to characterize the media’s framing of the discussion like this:
MEDIA: “Gay, gay, gay, gay, gay, gay, gay. Gay. GAY!”
MEDIA: “BIGOTS! Why are you so obsessed with homosexuality?!”
Substitute “transgender” for “gay,” and you understand post-Obergefell mainstream media framing.
A particularly obnoxious example showed up in my social media feed the other day. It’s a column by Mark Silk, an aging Baby Boomer academic who writes for Religion News Service. Check this lead out:
Over the past few years, conservative blogger Rod Dreher has made a name for himself advancing the idea that Christians in the West should set themselves apart from mainstream culture by establishing their own communities and institutions. He calls this the “Benedict Option,” because it is supposed to safeguard old-time Christian values in much the same way that Benedictine monasteries preserved Latin Christian culture from the barbarians of the early Middle Ages.
Our latter-day barbarism, in Dreher’s view, is all about gender norms. The “progress of gay civil rights” has put religious liberty “at grave risk,” he writes, even as individual Christians “face increased pressure to turn from the truth about sex, marriage, and the family, for the sake of participating in American cultural and economic life.”
“All about gender norms,” eh? Here is a photograph of the contents page of The Benedict Option:
This book has chapters on the philosophical and theological genealogy of the current crisis of Christianity (Ch. 2), on key principles of the Rule of St. Benedict (Ch. 3), on the insufficiency of pure politics to solve the Church’s internal crisis, and a suggestion for how Christians should think differently about politics in a post-Christian age (Ch. 4), on Christian worship and ecclesiology (Ch. 5), on community (Ch. 6), on education (Ch. 7), on faith in the workplace (Ch. 8), on sex and sexuality (Ch. 9), and on technology (Ch. 10).
Naturally transgenderism comes up in Chapter 9. Sexuality in general comes up in the politics chapter (talking about why Christians should stay involved in politics, if only to protect religious liberty, which is under greatest assault from LGBT activists and allies), and in the work chapter, where I talk about traditional Christian losing their jobs and businesses because they won’t affirm LGBT dogma.
Most of the book, though, defines “barbarism” as a condition of having lost all cultural memory, and a sense of ourselves as rooted in the past, and in a narrative that transcends our subjective emotions and desires. The loss of the traditional family, and of sex and gender norms, are part of that, but by no means the whole of it, as even a cursory read of my book (or just its contents page) would demonstrate. I would be quite surprised if Mark Silk had even read the book.
I bring up his absurd column as an example of the obsession of elite liberals, and their compulsion to project that onto everybody else. If you read the column, it becomes clear that Silk is aggrieved by the prospect that traditional Christians might not be driven out of the public square. Religious liberty protections are there precisely to defend religious minorities from bullies like Mark Silk. Silk is a man so narrow-minded in his imagination and understanding that he can only see traditional Christians as anti-LGBT bigots, and characterizes a book that is about a wide array of modern phenomena disintegrating the Christian faith and the Western philosophical and moral tradition as about nothing more than gay-bashing.
See what I mean? People like Silk — and the editors of The New York Times — are so obsessed with sexual politics that they regard failure to get on board with an orthodoxy that arrived the day before yesterday as evidence that one is an irremediable bigot. I don’t know where Silk stands on Harvard Law professor Mark Tushnet’s 2016 claim that liberals ought to treat the conservatives they have defeated in the culture war as if they were Nazis … but I think I can make a reasonably informed guess.
In any case, my broader point here is that Silk’s column is an example of the obsessive myopia of the media and academia on questions of sex and gender politics. Some liberals who read my blog say from time to time that they never hear about this stuff except on this blog. Well, I am a subscriber to The New York Times, and I read the mainstream media daily, and I am in touch with people who live in the world of academia and national media. It’s perfectly clear where all of this is going.
I just gave a couple of talks in Tyler, Texas, and heard from several folks who spoke to me afterward that so many folks in Tyler don’t see what’s coming over the horizon, because it’s not there in front of them. This is understandable to a certain extent — but that doesn’t mean that those who can see what’s happening in the cultural capitals, among the cultural elite, are mistaken in our predictions and warnings.
The obsessions of editors of The New York Times and academics like Mark Silk may not matter to the people living along State Highway 14 in rural East Texas. But the people who form the elite leadership cadres in this country — legal, academic, media, entertainment — are far more shaped by what the Times and Silk believe and say than by most anything that crosses the mind of rural East Texans. The Times is more interested in spending its resources combing through stock photo archives looking for trans photos than in trying to understand the lives of the Baptists, Anglo and Hispanic alike, of State Highway 14. To men like Mark Silk, those Baptists and their liberties are a malign abstraction, an obstacle in the Grand March to Utopia.
Note well: the children and grandchildren of State Highway 14 residents are formed by that anti-culture that comes to them through mass media and social media. Geography, and cultural geography, offers far less protection than it used to. I wrote earlier this year about a liberal friend who works in a public school in the rural South — basically, along State Highway 14 — where gay couples are now going to prom, and more and more teenagers are coming out as transgender. My friend thinks this is wonderful, and laughs that the parents in this conservative place have no idea how radical their kids are on sex and gender.
This is how propaganda works, especially in a rootless society driven by technological imperatives, radical individualism, market logic applied to all areas of life, the cultivation of both hatred and indifference to the past, and a belief that freedom is the absence of anything standing in the way of individual will.
UPDATE: A reader at the University of Kansas writes:
To follow up on your post about elite obsession with sexuality and identity, here’s a dispatch from KU. Note how it explicitly links the latest acts of violence to the potential change to sex and gender definitions. The obvious implication: if we “weaken” transgender protections (otherwise known as “returning to the policies of Obama’s first term”), then we create the conditions for, say, shootings at synagogues. This is sophistry of the first degree. But don’t worry, because they’re going to host that old standby: the “tunnel of oppression.”
People are crazy if they think this stuff isn’t the breath and bread of contemporary academia. Virtually every communication we get from administration has something to do with identity and sexuality.
Here’s the email that went out to students, faculty, and staff, from Clarence Lang, the interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences:
Dear College Faculty, Staff and Students:
Below is a message that the campus Office of Diversity and Equity sent via social media on Friday. I am sharing it (in italics immediately below).
Dear KU Community:
Recent reports have indicated that there may be changes to federal policies designed to protect against discrimination based on gender identity.
The University of Kansas is committed to providing an inclusive and supportive environment for all Jayhawks, including our transgender and gender non-conforming students, staff, and faculty. Regardless of political discourse and possible changes in federal policy, KU will continue to enforce our non-discrimination policy, which you can find here: https://policy.ku.edu/IOA/nondiscrimination. A community of care means we remain dedicated to our Jayhawk values, which will guide us as we work to ensure the dignity and promote the safety of every member of our community, regardless of gender expression or identity.
The Office of Sexuality and Gender Diversity will continue to provide support for the LGBTQ community and their allies. You can learn more by signing up for the SGD newsletter here. In the past year, we have expanded resources, including adding staff, scholarships, and budget for the SGD; and we intend to continue supporting our transgender and gender non-conforming students, faculty and staff. However, we cannot rely on this office alone; all of us must do our part to ensure inclusive classrooms, workplaces, and social and living spaces.
As always, we strongly encourage our community to report incidents of bias or discrimination to our Office of Institutional Opportunity and Access at email@example.com or 785-864-6414.
These developments at the federal level have occurred in the midst of other recent national events, which include mounting anti-immigrant rhetoric and policy measures, an environment permissive of sexual harassment and violence, Saturday’s mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, and the killing of two people in a Louisville, Kentucky, suburb by a gunman who minutes earlier had tried to enter a predominantly black church. Please keep in your thoughts those who were targeted in the recent attacks in Pittsburgh and Louisville, the lives that were taken, and the communities affected by these losses.
Considered as a whole, these developments make evident that we have much to do in promoting critically informed leadership, ethically driven decision-making, and collective safety and welfare. I encourage you to take advantage of two forthcoming learning opportunities geared toward helping us foster a climate more conducive to equity, empathy, and care:
· At noon on Friday, November 2 at 135 Budig Hall, the Center for Teaching Excellence and the Office of Diversity and Equity are sponsoring a session for classroom instructors (inclusive of faculty, lecturers, and GTAs), “Navigating Difficult Classroom Dialogues: The Election Edition.”
· On November 7-9 at the Sabatini Multicultural Resource Center, the Office of Multicultural Affairs is hosting its annual “Tunnel of Oppression,” an immersive exploration of identities, inequalities, and social justice.
You can expect a more comprehensive document from the Office of the Provost discussing the current moment and recommending other immediate ways that you can respond.
Finally, I want to make sure that you are aware of two additional resources for students, faculty and staff experiencing emotional strain in these difficult times: Counseling and Psychological Services, or CAPS (https://caps.ku.edu), and the Employee Assistance Program under Faculty and Staff Wellness (https://wellness.ku.edu).
Ah. So if the White House does not recognize that women can have penises, then blacks, Jews, and immigrants will die. Thank you, University of Kansas. You Social Justice Warriors never miss an opportunity.
UPDATE.2: Reader Du Bartas writes:
Certainly emblematic of the times, transgenderism questions widely accepted suppositions of how we define reality. At base, transgenderism forces upon society a debate that is metaphysical in nature. The stakes are quite high. To get some insight on what transgenderism may be, there is perhaps no better place to look than in the thought of Judith Butler whose works have given it such prominence starting in the 1980s.
To start with, when talking about gender and gender identity in Butler and other gender theory writers, we are not in the realm of biological sex or anatomy. The epistemology that undergirds Butler assertions in her works like “Gender Trouble” is not that of biology. It is difficult to identify her underlying epistemology. What she does do is pose the existence of power relations from the outset of her book: everything is to be understood in light of power relations. Sex, gender and desire are mere affects of power relations. It is these, power relations, that require a form of critical inquiry called “genealogy” (from Foucault) whose goal is to investigate identities (e.g., gender) and the institutions (e.g., phallocentrism) that create them. Again, this has nothing to do with biology or anatomy. All that matters is discourse, ie what we say of things such as gender.
There are two aspects to Butler’s definition of gender that stand out:
First, her definition of gender is a tautology. Gender is a thing forever in the making, it is no more than the performative speech acts that are meant to express it. There is no gender identity hidden behind the expressions of gender. The expressions that constitute gender identity are those which are supposed to result from this identity. (“Gender is as gender does”?)
Second, gender identity is declarative. For Butler, gender identity can have no reference to body or to an objective corporal indicator. How can we know what our identity is once gender identity is completely disconnected from any and all corporal substratum? The answer lies in other people’s view and opinion of you – this explains the tendency of transgenders to want other people to confirm them in their identity. The gaze and opinion of others is absolutely necessary in order to have the sentiment of an objective existence. (“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, becomes “Gender identity is in the eye of the beholder”).
As mentioned above, Butler does not refer to biology or anatomy. There is no scientific method to refer to or with which we could scrutinize her assertions. She later goes so far as to deny the existence of sex and body. According to her, the materiality, or material quality, of body is not a given; rather it, too, is a construction: “to be material means to materialize”. Even Foucault, to Butler’s chagrin, recognized that body has a materiality which is ontologically distinct from power relations. According to Jean-François Braunstein, in his recently published “La philosophie devenue folle”, admitting that sex and body have an objective existence would put an end to Butler’s theory.
Yet before we dismiss Butler’s theory outright, a few points she makes merit reflection:
“…Gender is, thus, a construction that regularly conceals its genesis; the tacit collective agreement to perform, produce, and sustain discrete and polar genders as cultural fictions is obscured by the credibility of those productions – and the punishments that attend not agreeing to believe in them; the construction “compels” our belief in its necessity and naturalness….” (Gender Trouble, p.140)
Let’s read the above quote through today’s lens. The transgender issue seemingly comes out of nowhere expanding in a host culture who hardly knows or understands this phenomenon’s provenance: the new gender issue conceals its genesis. The credibility of new productions in the cultural sphere (media, film, academia, etc.) conceals a new tacit collective agreement to sustain new gender identities. Gender identity is dependent not only on the person saying he is who he says he is, but also on everybody else’s recognition and acceptation of that person’s declaration. Punishments attend those who do not agree to believe in them. This new gender construction “compels” our belief in its necessity and naturalness.
When she wrote those lines quoted above for her book, I don’t think Butler thought of them as a prescriptive program so much as she thought of them as a descriptive take on the dynamics at play in society when it deals with sex and identity. Whatever they were meant to be, these lines are very prescient when read today.