Andrew Sullivan has left the room, meaning New York Magazine (NYM), and good for him—and woe to them. He’s back at the Weekly Dish, a reincarnation of his previous website, complete with his trademarked beagle. You can subscribe for for only $50 a year (here), though for a limited time the content is free (click on screenshot below). After looking at his first “issue,” I think I’ll probably subscribe. It’s the same price as the New York Times (if you threaten to unsubscribe and then take their counteroffer), but a lot more fun—and unpredictable. It also includes the famous “view from my window” feature, in which you have to guess where a locale is that was photographed by a reader from their window.
As with his NYM columns, this week’s offering is tripartite: a mini-essay on the connection between the pandemic and the demonstrators, a defense of J. K. Rowling, and a nostalgic look back at a past that had dial telephones and open restaurants. There’s also a postscript in which Sullivan recounts some pushback he’s gotten from readers, to which he responds. I like that feature, and may do something like it here, though I don’t want to ape my betters.
The pandemic/demonstration connection may be a variant of the essay that NYM refused to publish, which likely prompted Sullivan to leave the magazine. It’s not that incendiary, though it does blame the pandemic for some of the political unrest pervading the country. That said, Sullivan still pins most of the blame on Trump, though he worries that the violent nature of some of the demonstrations may better Trump’s chances in the fall. Two short extracts:
We are, mercifully, in a much better place [than in 1918]. But it strikes me that this medical achievement doesn’t resolve the psychological trauma, the suspension of normality, the anxiety of an invisible enemy. It merely diverts it away from the illness itself toward broader social and political grievances. I don’t think you can fully explain the sudden increase in intensity of the social justice cult, for example, and its explosion in our streets and in our media in the last couple of months, without taking account of this. I don’t just mean the pent-up plague-driven frustration of young people, who, often forced to live at home with their parents, took the opportunity to finally get out, get together and do something, after the horrifying murder of George Floyd. I mean the more general frustration and despair of a generation with a gloomy and unknowable economic future—suddenly finding shape and voice in a simple, clarion call to reshape all of society.
I suspect that if this was part of Sullivan’s “canceled” essay, the mere suggestion that people made restive by the pandemic could throw their boredom into demonstrations would be likely deemed unpublishable by a woke rag like NYM, even if it be true. After all, it’s not only demonstrations that were probably invigorated by the pandemic: there’s also an epidemic of civilian shootings, especially in Chicago. This goes beyond our normal summer violence, and I think a good hypothesis is inactivity, pent-up emotions, and the absence of regular outlets for activity.
Sullivan on Trump:
All of which is a highly combustible situation, bristling with menace. What Trump has been doing since the Mount Rushmore speech—stupidly dismissed by woke media—is to try and cast this election as a battle between anarchy and the forces of law and order, between a radical dystopia laced with violence and the America we know. He’s trying to jujitsu the plague-fueled revolt into a winning campaign issue. He can’t exactly run on his record of double digit unemployment and an epidemic raging out of control. So this is his instinct. And politically, it’s not a bad one. In an environment where people are afraid and uncertain, authoritarianism has an edge. The more some cities descend into lawlessness and violence this summer, the edgier, and more popular, that performative authoritarianism could get.
. . . I may be worrying too much about the effect of this on the election, as Trump’s abject failure to control the virus remains front and center. He’s still likely to lose, absent a major surprise. But plagues are highly divisive and highly unpredictable.
But I want to talk a bit more about Sullivan’s defense of J. K. Rowling, who has been demonized and called a “transphobe” for issuing these tweets:
‘People who menstruate.’ I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?
Opinion: Creating a more equal post-COVID-19 world for people who menstruate https://t.co/cVpZxG7gaA
— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) June 6, 2020
If sex isn’t real, there’s no same-sex attraction. If sex isn’t real, the lived reality of women globally is erased. I know and love trans people, but erasing the concept of sex removes the ability of many to meaningfully discuss their lives. It isn’t hate to speak the truth.
— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) June 6, 2020
Indeed, while I agree that gender is a “social construct” (though I’d prefer a better word), biological sex is real and almost completely bimodal. If there are transsexual people, then, are they simply moving from one gender role to another, or are they moving beyond their biological sex, which is what “transsexual” literally means. And how can you move beyond your sex if sex isn’t something that’s real?
While the first tweet above was perhaps unwise (I wouldn’t have said it, though I think the use of these euphemisms for “women” is ludicrous), the second tweet is pretty much accurate. But of course it is hateful to speak some truths these days, and that’s what angers Sullivan. People like him, me, and Rowling all agree that we will accept whatever gender role people adopt; we insist on their equality in law and morality (with a few small exceptions, see below); and we’re glad to use whatever pronouns people choose. We abhor and excoriate those who demonize transsexuals, and insist that their identities be treated with respect. The rest is commentary, but what commentary! It’s led to many outlets insisting that Rowling is transphobic (she isn’t), and that her books are now verboten.
If you read her open letter about her views, it’s hard to construe her as a transphobe; but read it for yourself. She’s concerned with the distinction between biological women and trans women, and that is a matter worth discussing on some fronts, like sports, rape counseling, who goes to prison, and so on. But she also issued the tweet below, explaining it in her open letter;
For people who don’t know: last December I tweeted my support for Maya Forstater, a tax specialist who’d lost her job for what were deemed ‘transphobic’ tweets. She took her case to an employment tribunal, asking the judge to rule on whether a philosophical belief that sex is determined by biology is protected in law. Judge Tayler ruled that it wasn’t. Ergo this:
Dress however you please.
Call yourself whatever you like.
Sleep with any consenting adult who’ll have you.
Live your best life in peace and security.
But force women out of their jobs for stating that sex is real? #IStandWithMaya #ThisIsNotADrill
— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) December 19, 2019
And yes, biological sex is real. And no, transwomen aren’t biological women, but they assume that gender role; and it would be wrong to denigrate them or deny them rights for doing so.
At any rate, Sullivan, who is of course gay, has an eloquent defense of Rowling, and here’s some of it:
[Rowling] became interested in the question after a consultant, Maya Forsteter, lost a contract in the UK for believing and saying that sex is a biological reality. When Forsteter took her case to an employment tribunal, the judge ruled against her, arguing that such a view was a form of bigotry, in so far as it seemed to deny the gender of trans people (which, of course, it doesn’t). Rowling was perturbed by this. And I can see why: in order either to defend or oppose transgender rights, you need to be able to discuss what being transgender means. That will necessarily require an understanding of the human mind and body, the architectonic role of biology in the creation of two sexes, and the nature of the small minority whose genital and biological sex differs from the sex of their brain.
This is not an easy question. It requires some thinking through. And in a liberal democracy, we should be able to debate the subject freely and openly. I’ve done my best to do that in this column, and have come to many of the conclusions Rowling has. She does not question the existence of trans people, or the imperative to respect their dignity and equality as fully-formed human beings. She believes they should be protected from discrimination in every field, and given the same opportunities as anyone else. She would address any trans person as the gender they present, as would I. Of course. That those of us who hold these views are now deemed bigots is, quite simply, preposterous.
Where Rowling and I draw the line is saying that a trans woman is in every single respect indistinguishable from a natal woman. We believe that a natal man who is a transwoman, for example, cannot have a vagina exactly as a natal woman does. That’s all. And that is objectively true. Note also that this has no impact whatever on how someone should be treated by society or under the law. A transwoman can and should be treated exactly as a woman, even if she isn’t in every single respect a woman.
There are a few areas where this becomes a problem for some: a) restrooms, b) sports, and c) shelters for abused women. On a), I have zero issues with trans women with penises using the women’s room. I know some worry that creeps simply posing as transwomen could exploit this in order to gain access to children. But I have yet to see such a case in reality. It should be simple: just use a stall and mind your own business. On b), sports is different, because the physiology of male and female bodies is, by virtue of our species’ reproductive strategy, bimodal, and in sports reliant on strength and size and speed, no co-ed contest can be fair. And the last issue c) is about whether women who are in shelters for those who have been abused by men should be allowed spaces where no actual penises, even if attached to women, are around. On this difficult third area, I defer to abused women on the question of shelters. And here’s the thing: Rowling is one such woman. She told her own story of marital abuse in her letter, with a disarming honesty that surely should evoke engagement, rather than vilification.
JAC: I agree with the Sullivan’s take on the three “exceptions” above. He ends with some common sense: demonization is not a response to an argument, it is avoidance of an argument. Sullivan:
It pains me to see where this debate has gone. There’s so much common ground. And I do not doubt that taking into account the lived experiences of trans people is important. But if we cannot state an objective fact without being deemed a bigot, and if we cannot debate a subject because debating itself is a form of hate, we have all but abandoned any pretense of liberal democracy. And if a woman as sophisticated and eloquent and humane as J K Rowling is now deemed a foul bigot for having a different opinion, then the word bigotry has ceased to have any meaning at all.
I’ve quoted more extensively than I wanted, for Sullivan’s website will become a subscription-only site, soon, and my quotes after that will fall within “fair usage.” But I urge you to subscribe, as it looks like a good place to visit.