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The Real Reason for the Caitlyn Jenner Freakout

What Damon Linker misses about social conservative reaction

My friend Damon Linker has a theory about why we religious and social conservatives are so unnerved by the Caitlyn Jenner freakshow. Excerpts:

Given all of this, panic and even a dose of anger on the right are perfectly understandable. Still, I worry that thoughtful conservatives are moving a little too rashly to denunciation, resorting to language about the triumph of “Autonomous Eroticized Individualism,” and writing about the advent of a new “diabolic age.” (Both phrases come from my friend Rod Dreher.)

Yes, something important in America’s moral culture has changed (with the change accelerating in recent years), but that change isn’t simply a triumph of “postmodern freedom.” (Also Dreher.) What we’re witnessing is the withering away of the morality of ends — including a vision of human flourishing rooted in Protestant Christianity — that once prevailed in American public and private life. This comprehensive moral vision is being supplanted by a much more minimalist (but no less absolutist) morality of rights that aims above all to protect individuals from various forms of harm.

Before I go further, it’s important to point readers to the essay in which I elaborated on what I meant by a “diabolic age.” I’m deliberately playing off the conventional meaning of “diabolic,” but deepening and broadening it by discussing that etymologically, “diabolic” is the antonym of “symbolic,” meaning that what is diabolic separates, tears in two, rather than unites and harmonizes. In that post to which I link, I talk about how modern globalized economics tears communities to bits, as well as how modern sexual ethics, built as they are on an ideology of the supremacy of individualism and eroticism. As a Christian, I see the hand of el Diablo in all of this, but you do not have to be any sort of believer to recognize the rapid and ongoing atomization of human solidarity with the past, with tradition, with each other, and with anything outside of the willed, chosen Self.

A bit more from Damon:

If you’re committed to an overarching (religious or philosophical) vision of human flourishing that precludes gender reassignment surgery, then an expression of disapproval and perhaps even disgust at the Vanity Fair cover would seem to be in order. But if you’ve left behind any such comprehensive morality of ends in favor of a morality of rights, then it’s hard to see what’s wrong with Jenner’s actions, or with the magazine in promoting them publicly on its cover. No one is harmed as a result, and the harm Bruce Jenner felt as a woman trapped in a man’s body has (one hopes) been alleviated by undergoing the surgical transformation into Caitlyn.

I’m not following Damon’s point. He seems to be conceding that the reaction of people like me is appropriate, given our moral commitments. If he’s saying that most of America no longer shares our antique Christian morality, he’ll get not argument from me. But then what’s wrong about our strong reaction to the Jenner circus?

Here’s why I think our reaction is so strong. There are several reasons.

1. It’s a reaction to media propaganda. It is hard to think of any crusade adopted by the culture creators — the news and entertainment media — as pervasive, as militant, and as consequential as their two decades-long march through the institution of marriage in the name of not only normalizing, but valorizing, minority sexual expression and identity. The cheerleading and propagandizing has reached its apex in the mad celebration of Bruce Jenner’s transformation. If Bruce Jenner felt he had to do this to his body, I would consider that a tragedy, but something to be mourned privately. But that’s not his way. He has made a media spectacle out of his pathology, and the media have turned it into a holy cause. Imagine how an atheist would feel if Christopher Hitchens had become a born-again Christian, and media coverage consisted of nothing but a hundred thousand video, print, and online versions of what appeared about it on “The 700 Club.” The strong pushback probably has more to do with disgust over our propagandistic media than it does with Jenner’s actual acts.

2. Jenner and the media are harming the body politic. People think that the only person harmed (if he is harmed at all, which they deny) is Jenner. Not true. What we celebrate, we encourage. In 2013, writer Margaret Talbot, in the New Yorker — not a notably conservative magazine — wrote a long, searching piece about what it means to seek transgender surgery as a teenager. Excerpt:

Walter Meyer, a child psychiatrist and pediatric endocrinologist in Galveston, Texas, has prescribed puberty blockers and considers them worthwhile as a way to buy time for some kids. But, in an editorial that ran in Pediatrics last March, Meyer urged families not to jump to the conclusion that their fierce little tomboy of a daughter, or doll-loving son, must be transgender. “Many of the presentations in the public media . . . give the impression that a child with cross-gender behavior needs to change to the new gender or at least should be evaluated for such a change,” he wrote. “Very little information in the public domain talks about the normality of gender questioning and gender role exploration, and the rarity of an actual change.” When I called Meyer, he said, “What if people learn from the media and think, Hey, I have a five-year-old boy who wants to play with dolls, and I saw this program on TV last night. Now I see: my boy wants to be a girl! So I wanted to say in that article that, with kids, gender variance is an important issue, but it’s also a common issue. I’m saying to parents, ‘It may be hard to live with the ambiguity, but just watch and wait. Most of the time, they’re not going to want to change their gender.’ ”

Eli Coleman, a psychologist who heads the human-sexuality program at the University of Minnesota Medical School, chaired the committee that, in November, 2011, drafted the latest guidelines of the World Professional Association for Transgender Health, the leading organization of doctors and other health-care workers who assist trans patients. The committee endorsed the use of puberty blockers for some children, but Coleman told me that caution was warranted: “We still don’t know the subtle or potential long-term effects on brain function or bone development. Many people recognize it’s not a benign treatment.”

Alice Dreger, the bioethicist, said, of cross-gender hormones and surgery, “These are not trivial medical interventions. You’re taking away fertility, in most cases. And how do you really know who you are before you’re sexual? No child, with gender dysphoria or not, should have to decide who they are that early in life.” She continued, “I don’t mean to offend people who are truly transgender, but maybe a kid expresses a sense of being the opposite gender because cultural signals say girls don’t shoot arrows, or play rough, or wear boxers, or whatever. I’m concerned that we’re creating feedback loops in an attempt to be sympathetic. There was a child at my son’s preschool who, at the age of three, believed he was a train. Not that he liked trains—he was a train. None of us said, ‘Yes, you’re a train.’ We’d play along, but it was clear we were humoring him. After a couple of years, he decided that what he wanted to be was an engineer.”

We can never wholly quantify the harm that may yet come to individuals and their families from a social movement that has not only celebrated transgenderism and all its manifestations, but has demonized anyone who questions the transgenderist ideology. Are there really no hard questions to be put to Bruce Jenner about what he has done, or no hard questions raised by this entire spectacle? We are rapidly deconstructing the whole idea of male and female, with unknown and unknowable consequences (“I’m the new normal,” says Jenner, in the new reality series). But to object to it is to set oneself up as a hater.

3. “Caitlyn” Jenner requires us to lie about reality. The man who calls himself a woman named Caitlyn is still a man. He still has a penis, and male chromosomes. That is reality. That is the essential truth, despite the Orwellian campaign by Right Thinkers to intimidate people into thinking otherwise. Speaking of Orwell, this from 1984:

In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it. It was inevitable that they should make that claim sooner or later: the logic of their position demanded it. Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality, was tacitly denied by their philosophy. The heresy of heresies was common sense. And what was terrifying was not that they would kill you for thinking otherwise, but that they might be right. For, after all, how do we know that two and two make four? Or that the force of gravity works? Or that the past is unchangeable? If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable – what then?

For “the Party,” think “the Media” and “the Progressives”. Two plus two will never be five, and Caitlyn Jenner will never be a woman. Social conservatives feel that the whole Jenner offensive is a culture-war blitzkrieg intended to alienate us from biological reality. Hence the conservative “freaking out,” in Linker’s phrase. One last bit from Damon’s column:

Conservatives deserve better than to have their comprehensive vision of the human good treated with contempt. But liberals deserve to have their own moral commitments recognized as what they are — expressions of an absolute (if less-than-comprehensive) moral outlook — rather than dismissed as a diabolical drive toward infinite erotic liberation.

I think liberal commitments on this issue are expressions of an absolute moral outlook that contains within it a diabolical (in the sense of atomizing, separating) drive toward infinite erotic liberation. That most progressives do not see it that way does not make it any less true to people who share my moral beliefs. How could it be otherwise? When you ask the progressive “how far is too far?”, he has nothing hard and fast to tell you, because he doesn’t know himself, and hey, who is he to judge?

This is another part of the socon freakout: there is no bottom to this. They’re making it up as they go along, and won’t be satisfied until there is nothing left but the fully atomized individual and his or her desires.

This is personal to me. I am acquainted with the case of a Millennial who is going through a lot of turmoil right now. N. was not raised with strong moral commitments, and so now does not have clear and firm ideas about what is right, what is wrong, or how to behave across a range of areas. What N. knows is that N.’s sexual desires are real, and powerful, and N. is building a life around satisfying those desires whenever they arise, and with whoever is handy — and N. doesn’t see why anybody should care, because who’s being harmed? What’s wrong with pleasure?

A wise and discerning friend of mine who knows N. can already see the cost of this ethic within N.’s character, but there is very little in our culture to tell N. that this is wrong, and there is no one in N.’s life with the authority or the will to say, “Stop, this is destructive, and you must not do this.”

UPDATE: What Brendan O’Neill says, especially this:

The worship of Caitlyn, and the hectoring of anyone who refuses to scrape before her icon, has graphically exposed the intolerant edge to trans thinking. The insistence that we not only refer to Bruce/Caitlyn as ‘she’ but also project this backwards – recognising, in the words of the Guardian, that she has ‘always been a woman’ – is borderline Orwellian. It’s a rewriting of history, a memory-holing of old inconvenient facts. Strikingly, the Guardian writer says people like Bruce/Caitlyn have ‘always been women… even when they were “fathering” children’. Notice it’s the ‘fathering’ bit that is in scare quotes, suggesting it wasn’t real, while the description of Bruce as a woman is treated as an incontestable truth. War is peace, freedom is slavery, man is woman.

This trans Orwellianism is increasingly finding expression in the law itself. In Ireland last year, a trans woman won the right to have her sex changed to female on her actual birth certificate. This is alarming. The midwife who said ‘This is a boy’ when this trans woman was born was telling the truth, and that truth was recorded on a public document. No matter — truth and history are putty in the hands of the trans lobby. Just as Big Brother thinks it can force people to accept that 2 + 2 = 5, so trans activists want us to chant: ‘Bruce Jenner is a woman and has always been a woman, even when she was producing sperm, impregnating women, and winning gold medals in men’s sports.’ And the small matter of Bruce’s birth certificate, his proven paternity of children? Forget all that; shove it down the memory hole.

What the Cult of Caitlyn confirms, beyond a doubt, is that there is nothing progressive in trans politics. It is shrill, censorious, unreal, demanding compliance, punishing dissent. Progressives should reject it. Jesus was not the Son of God, Bruce Jenner is not a woman, and, I’m sorry, but 2 + 2 = 4, and it always will.

UPDATE.2: A fascinating comment by Sheldon, one of this blog’s liberal readers:

I’m very glad you posted Brendan O’Neill’s comments, because the notion that only “religious and social conservatives are so unnerved by the Caitlyn Jenner freakshow” is quite wrong – as O’Neill himself demonstrates. I’m quite liberal and non-religious, as are most of my friends, and I can tell you we’ve all been sickened and angered by this event – not because of what Jenner has done to himself, because that’s his private business (though it appears from all available scientific evidence that he is deluded if he thinks his physical transformation will have any positive long term effect); no, what has appalled about this event is the centrality and publicity it has been given in the news cycle, at a time when much more serious events are unfolding everywhere around the planet. The Middle East is in flames, China is getting belligerent in the South China Sea, countries are being inundated with refugees, global weather is increasingly freakish, our own Presidential campaigns are underway, inequality continues it rise, there’s an uptick in the crime rate – one can easily go on in this vein – yet one individual’s sex change has become the new cause celebre. splattered on every newsstand and dominating our airwaves. It is proof positive that our press is no longer even remotely serious and that large segments of our society have lost any sense of priorities, propriety, and proportion. And you don’t have to be religious or conservative – just a moral human being – to feel that way and to make that judgment.

And there are still people who believe that social conservatives are the ones who are obsessed by sex and sexuality. If conservatives were running TV and print newsrooms, Bruce Jenner’s sex change would have been a tiny blip in the news.