Last night I was reading a short book by the French historian Alain Besançon in which he takes stock of the meaning of Nazism and Communism, in part by comparing the two totalitarianisms. This paragraph jumped out at me:
The psychological state of the militant is distinguished by his fanatical investment in the system. This central vision reorganizes his entire intellectual and perceptual field, all the way to the periphery. Language is transformed: it is no longer used to communicate or express, but to conceal a contrived continuity between the system and reality. Ideological language is charged with the magical role of forcing reality to conform to a particular vision of the world. It is a liturgical language for which every utterance points to its speaker’s adherence to the system, and it summons the interlocutor to adhere as well. Code words thus constitute threats and figures of power.
The “liturgical language” of intersectionality and Social Justice is familiar to many of us. I was thinking in particular about federal judge Kyle Duncan’s ruling the other day in which he refused a request by a trans prisoner to call him by his preferred female pronoun. The judge noted several problems with the request, and ended by saying he would not involve the federal courts in causing the kind of legal and procedural mess that would logically follow from adopting this practice. Among yappy others, the WaPo’s Ruth Marcus whined about the ruling in print, (tl;dr: “Kyle Duncan is MEAN!”), but the caravan rolls on.
Anyway, I thought about the ruling in light of Besançon’s paragraph. Marcus et al. frame this as merely a matter of courtesy, but as Duncan shows, it is not that at all. He doesn’t get into the morals or the metaphysics of the matter — he’s a federal judge, and that wouldn’t be appropriate — but rather relies on arguments based in legal procedure to deny the request. But of course there is a moral, and a metaphysical, dimension to this thing, and Besançon touches on it.
The trans movement and its allies — most especially in the news media — are changing language for the sake of concealing a contrived continuity between the trans person’s self-perception and reality. “Ideological language is charged with the magical role of forcing reality to conform to a particular vision of the world” — that is precisely what is happening here, in the pronoun war. Marcus faults the judge for being discourteous, but most people understand that questions of law cannot turn on sentimentality. What Marcus really hates is the judge’s refusal adopt the discourse that would signal his adherence to the system that she has already accepted. Pronouns, as she uses them, are threats, and figures of power.
Ask Jon Caldara. The popular libertarian Denver Post columnist was fired recently; he believes that it’s for refusing to get woke on pronouns. From an interview he did with an alternative Denver paper:
In retrospect, Caldara thinks the seeds for his sacking were sown by a January 3 offering in which he argued that the AP Stylebook — the Associated Press guide used by many media outlets to determine which words and phrases are appropriate or to be avoided — promotes a progressive bias.
“The AP has updated its style to say that gender is no longer binary and thus declared a winner in this divisive debate,” he wrote. “They ruled that, ‘Not all people fall under one of two categories for sex and gender.’ It’s admirable that reporters want to be compassionate to transgender individuals and those transitioning, as we all should be. But AP reporters first have a duty to the truth, or so they say. There are only two sexes, identified by an XX or XY chromosome. That is the very definition of binary. The AP ruling it isn’t so doesn’t change science. It’s a premeditative attempt to change culture and policy. It’s activism.”
These assertions shouldn’t be interpreted as anti-trans, Caldara insists: “I’m not a moralist in any way, shape or form. I’m very libertarian. I want people to do their own thing. I don’t care what bathroom you use, and I think people’s lives should be respected. But in the same way, I believe there are two genders that are two sexes. You can identify in as many ways as you like, but when I say that, it seems to cause a problem.”
The editorial page editor who fired him has not specified why she let him go. Caldara claims that she told him his column was the most popular one at the paper. I am confident that Caldara’s guess about the reason for his dismissal is accurate. It is hard for people who do not or who have not worked in the mainstream media to understand how militant they are about such things. I loved working for newspapers, but I know that I will never again be hired at a newspaper, owing to my lack of wokeness on certain issues. I have been out of newsrooms for a decade now, so perhaps I’m mistaken — I welcome correction from readers who are still working in newsrooms — but I would doubt that any journalism school graduate could get a journalism job if he or she did not adopt the liturgical language of gender theory. In other words, unless he or she was willing to be in some sense a propagandist, and participate in the lie.
Besançon judges Communism more insidious than Nazism because unlike Nazism, which is entirely about power, communism appeals to justice and virtue. It therefore deceived many more, and therefore spread farther, and wrought more destruction. Unlike Nazism, communism had a moral core, but it embraced and glorified immoral means to achieve what it claimed was a moral end. It used familiar moral language, but hollowed it out to make the words refer to something very different. It disguises evil as good. Besançon:
The majority of mankind honors the idea that certain behaviors are true and good because they correspond to what we know of the structure of the universe. Communism, which conceived of another universe, derived its morality from that. This is why communism challenged not only the precepts, but also their foundation: the natural world. Although I said previously that communist morality was based on nature and history, this in fact was not true: it was baed on a super-nature that never existed and on a history devoid of truth.
Communism brought nothing but ruin. Besançon again:
Violent action against nature fails and soon transforms itself into the destruction of nature, and with it, humanity.
Destroying the gender binary is destroying perhaps the most fundamental fact of human biology — a fact upon which the future of our species depends. This violence against language is more deeply violence against nature — and we will all pay the price someday. The worst sufferers will be those poor souls who have mutilated their bodies and ruined their lives by giving themselves over to this ideology. You know who really won’t suffer, though? Those most responsible for advocating and mainstreaming this pathology. Ask yourself: was there ever a reckoning for the communists who destroyed Russia and the countries of Eastern and Central Europe? No, because as a properly resentful Besançon notes, They Meant Well. When it comes to the Left, good intentions excuse everything, the result being that we learn nothing. Besançon writes, “Each communist experience begins anew in innocence.”
What about younger people of a Marxist temper? I ask Jaswinder Blackwell-Pal, a 22 year-old English and drama student at Goldsmiths College, London, who has just finished her BA course in English and Drama, why she considers Marxist thought still relevant. “The point is that younger people weren’t around when Thatcher was in power or when Marxism was associated with the Soviet Union,” she says. “We tend to see it more as a way of understanding what we’re going through now. Think of what’s happening in Egypt. When Mubarak fell it was so inspiring. It broke so many stereotypes – democracy wasn’t supposed to be something that people would fight for in the Muslim world. It vindicates revolution as a process, not as an event. So there was a revolution in Egypt, and a counter-revolution and a counter-counter revolution. What we learned from it was the importance of organisation.”
This, surely is the key to understanding Marxism’s renaissance in the west: for younger people, it is untainted by association with Stalinist gulags. For younger people too, Francis Fukuyama’s triumphalism in his 1992 book The End of History – in which capitalism seemed incontrovertible, its overthrow impossible to imagine – exercises less of a choke-hold on their imaginations than it does on those of their elders.
They have forgotten. They have forgotten because we in the older generations have allowed them to forget. And because we too have forgotten the terrible danger of committing radical violence against nature in the name of ideological idealism. This time, we tell ourselves, it will be different.