Monday, December 28, 2015


In one of his novels, Solzhenitsyn has a character who believes that the meaning of existence is to:
preserve unspoiled, undisturbed and undistorted the image of eternity with which each person is born

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

What makes a woman?

Most readers will be aware that there has been a scuffle on the left between some of the older radical feminists and the transsexual movement - with the transsexuals winning hands down.

Elinor Burkett recently wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times defending the older feminist position. It's interesting how closely she follows typical liberal ideas in her argument.

The basic liberal idea is that society should be based on a principle of "equal freedom," meaning that the individual is to be equally free to choose for themselves who they are and what they do. This means that unchosen, predetermined qualities, such as our biological sex or our race, are thought of in negative terms as oppressive restrictions from which the individual is to be liberated.

This explains Elinor Burkett's first argument. She observes that when a transsexual man says that he has a female brain that many on the left applaud him, even though this suggests that there are real, hardwired differences between men and women that aren't self-determined:
Suddenly, I find that many of the people I think of as being on my side — people who proudly call themselves progressive and fervently support the human need for self-determination — are buying into the notion that minor differences in male and female brains lead to major forks in the road and that some sort of gendered destiny is encoded in us.

That’s the kind of nonsense that was used to repress women for centuries.

...By defining womanhood the way he did to Ms. Sawyer, Mr. Jenner and the many advocates for transgender rights who take a similar tack...undermine almost a century of hard-fought arguments that the very definition of female is a social construct that has subordinated us.

Elinor Burkett fears that if our biological sex - the fact of being male or female - is found to matter in some way, that there will be a limitation on how we as individuals chart our own individual destiny. It might mean, for instance, that a woman might not become a combat fighter in the army, because she was born a woman and not a man - something she cannot determine for herself.

It is difficult, though, to live by the liberal principle consistently. Our sex is important to our identity: it's not easy to see yourself as an "it". And it is clearly the case that being a woman does still matter for Elinor Burkett, no matter how feminist she is. And so her second argument is that transsexual men are undermining female identity.

She makes a good argument that this is so, and I will quote her on this shortly. But the point to be made here is that it is this very fact, that transsexualism undermines female identity, which makes it such a radically liberal force and which explains why it has so much traction in a liberal society. So this may not have been the best argument for Elinor Burkett to focus on if she wishes to win support from a liberal establishment.

How does transsexualism undermine a female identity? Well, if a man in his fifties is suddenly considered to be a woman, then all the things that women uniquely experience in life don't matter so much when it comes to what it means to be a woman:
People who haven’t lived their whole lives as women, whether Ms. Jenner or Mr. Summers, shouldn’t get to define us. That’s something men have been doing for much too long. And as much as I recognize and endorse the right of men to throw off the mantle of maleness, they cannot stake their claim to dignity as transgender people by trampling on mine as a woman.

Their truth is not my truth. Their female identities are not my female identity. They haven’t traveled through the world as women and been shaped by all that this entails...

Elinor Burkett is running a fine line argument here. She is arguing that it is bad for women to be defined by hard-wired biological characteristics, such as differences between the male and female brain, but good for women to be defined collectively by shared life experiences, both negative and positive (on the positive side she writes that she has "relished certain courtesies" that she has received due to her sex). Again, I can't see this as being persuasive within a liberal framework when the liberal goal is to sever the connection between our biological sex and what happens in our life.

Elinor Burkett then lists a series of very strange outcomes of supporting transsexualism. They are strange to me and perhaps to older feminists, but no doubt they seem radically chic to younger liberals and will become part of the liberal mainstream over time.

For instance, if men can be considered women, then it becomes non-inclusive to link womanhood to having a vagina. Therefore, this:
In January 2014, the actress Martha Plimpton, an abortion-rights advocate, sent out a tweet about a benefit for Texas abortion funding called “A Night of a Thousand Vaginas.” Suddenly, she was swamped by criticism for using the word “vagina.” “Given the constant genital policing, you can’t expect trans folks to feel included by an event title focused on a policed, binary genital,” responded @DrJaneChi.

WHEN Ms. Plimpton explained that she would continue to say “vagina” — and why shouldn’t she, given that without a vagina, there is no pregnancy or abortion? — her feed overflowed anew with indignation, Michelle Goldberg reported in The Nation. “So you’re really committed to doubling down on using a term that you’ve been told many times is exclusionary & harmful?” asked one blogger. Ms. Plimpton became, to use the new trans insult, a terf, which stands for “trans exclusionary radical feminist.”

In January, Project: Theatre at Mount Holyoke College, a self-described liberal arts college for women, canceled a performance of Eve Ensler’s iconic feminist play “The Vagina Monologues” because it offered an “extremely narrow perspective on what it means to be a woman,” explained Erin Murphy, the student group’s chairwoman.

Let me get this right: The word “vagina” is exclusionary and offers an extremely narrow perspective on womanhood, so the 3.5 billion of us who have vaginas, along with the trans people who want them, should describe ours with the politically correct terminology trans activists are pushing on us: “front hole” or “internal genitalia”?

Similarly, there are transsexual women who identify as men but who still have functioning female genitalia. Therefore, to be inclusive means that abortion and contraceptive services can't be marketed to women alone:
Even the word “woman” has come under assault by some of the very people who claim the right to be considered women. The hashtags #StandWithTexasWomen, popularized after Wendy Davis, then a state senator, attempted to filibuster the Texas Legislature to prevent passage of a draconian anti-abortion law, and #WeTrustWomen, are also under attack since they, too, are exclusionary.

“Abortion rights and reproductive justice is not a women’s issue,” wrote Emmett Stoffer, one of many self-described transgender persons to blog on the topic. It is “a uterus owner’s issue.” Mr. Stoffer was referring to the possibility that a woman who is taking hormones or undergoing surgery to become a man, or who does not identify as a woman, can still have a uterus, become pregnant and need an abortion.

Accordingly, abortion rights groups are under pressure to modify their mission statements to omit the word woman, as Katha Pollitt recently reported in The Nation. Those who have given in, like the New York Abortion Access Fund, now offer their services to “people” and to “callers.” Fund Texas Women, which covers the travel and hotel expenses of abortion seekers with no nearby clinic, recently changed its name to Fund Texas Choice. “With a name like Fund Texas Women, we were publicly excluding trans people who needed to get an abortion but were not women,” the group explains on its website.

And what about those who are legally women but who consider themselves men? They can use female services but they don't want to be referred to as women:
Women’s colleges are contorting themselves into knots to accommodate female students who consider themselves men, but usually not men who are living as women. Now these institutions, whose core mission is to cultivate female leaders, have student government and dormitory presidents who identify as males.

As Ruth Padawer reported in The New York Times Magazine last fall, Wellesley students are increasingly replacing the word “sisterhood” with “siblinghood,” and faculty members are confronted with complaints from trans students about their universal use of the pronoun she — although Wellesley rightly brags about its long history as the “world’s pre-eminent college for women.”

Elinor Burkett shares the same underlying liberal theory as the transsexuals, but she is facing some unexpected loss of control in how the theory is played out. She liked the old way in which she got to be part of a movement in which women were defined as an oppressed group smashing apart oppressive social constructs to live liberated lives, in which women like herself could keep older privileges of womanhood but also have access to things they wanted in a more androgynous social setting.

But the theory has now reached a more radical moment, so that there is no longer a comfortable "women's movement," not when the notion of womanhood itself is in such flux. What now does it mean to be a woman? In our liberal society a woman's body doesn't make a woman, nor her distinct life experiences. Transsexuals reach back to traditional markers of femininity to make their womanhood distinct, but this isn't acceptable to feminists. Can you have a women's movement when there is confusion about what actually makes a woman?

Sunday, December 20, 2015

De Mella

This is an important part of the traditionalist response to liberal modernity (hat tip: Traditional Britain Group):

Liberals imagine that they are liberating individuals by making them self-defining. But this diminishes the individual by removing important parts of our identity, our belonging, and our sense of connection to people and place; to culture and heritage; and to a continuity between the generations.

The individual comes into his own when he is richly encultured, not when he is stripped down and abstracted to allow for self-definition

College dissenters

I've written a few pieces on the protests by left-wing students at various campuses in the U.S. The general pattern was that a group of these students claimed that they were so harmed by a "microaggression" that they could no longer function in life; they then demonstrated rowdily attacking anyone who did not actively join in; before successfully getting college administrators to resign and demanding that everyone on campus undertake various re-education courses.

The most adult response to this I've read is an editorial from a student newspaper at Claremont McKenna College. Titled "We dissent" it criticises both the student activists and the craven campus administrators. It's worth reading in full, but here are some highlights:
...First, former Dean Mary Spellman...we are disappointed in you as well. We are disappointed that you allowed a group of angry students to bully you into resignation.

Second, President Chodosh. We were disappointed to see you idly stand by and watch students berate, curse at, and attack Dean Spellman for being a “racist.” For someone who preaches about “leadership” and “personal and social responsibility,” your actions are particularly disappointing. You let your colleague, someone who has been helping your administration for the past three years and the college for six years, be publicly mocked and humiliated. Why? Because you were afraid. You were afraid that students would also mock and humiliate you if you defended Dean Spellman, so you let her be thrown under the bus

To our fellow Claremont students, we are disappointed in you as well. We are ashamed of you for trying to end someone’s career over a poorly worded email. This is not a political statement—this is a person’s livelihood that you so carelessly sought to destroy. We are disappointed that you chose to scream and swear at your administrators. That is not how adults solve problems, and your behavior reflects poorly on all of us here in Claremont. This is not who we are and this is not how we conduct ourselves, but this is the image of us that has now reached the national stage.

We are disappointed in your demands. If you want to take a class in “ethnic, racial, and sexuality theory,” feel free to take one, but don’t force such an ideologically driven course on all CMC students. If the dearth of such courses at CMC bothers you, maybe you should have chosen a different school.

We are disappointed in the fact that your movement has successfully managed to convince its members that anyone who dissents does so not for intelligent reasons, but due to moral failure or maliciousness. We are disappointed that you’ve used phrases like “silence is violence” to not only demonize those who oppose you, but all who are not actively supporting you.

We are adults, and we need to be mature enough to take ownership of and responsibility for our feelings, rather than demanding that those around us cater to our individual needs. The hypocrisy of advocating for “safe spaces” while creating an incredibly unsafe space for President Chodosh, former Dean Spellman, the student who was “derailing,” and the news media representatives who were verbally abused unfortunately seemed to soar over many of your heads.

Lastly, we are disappointed in students like ourselves, who were scared into silence. We are not racist for having different opinions. We are not immoral because we don’t buy the flawed rhetoric of a spiteful movement. We are not evil because we don’t want this movement to tear across our campuses completely unchecked.

We are no longer afraid to be voices of dissent.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

These are the dreaded microaggressions?

I've written some posts lately on events at American campuses, where left-wing activists have claimed that they are the victims of "microaggressions" that leave them unable to function, except to angrily band together to get campus administrators fired.

I was curious about what these microaggressions might actually be, so I did a search and came up with a project about microaggressions from Fordham University in New York City. Various students were photographed with little placards explaining the microaggressions that they have personally experienced.

I was gobsmacked by just how petty these microaggressions are. Mostly they just involve students being asked where they are from or what ethnicity they are. If that's a microaggression, then most of us are both victims and perpetrators, as people commonly ask this question, both out of curiosity and as a conversation starter.

So, here is a sample of the microaggression complaints:

A bit precious? I get the exact same question in the classroom, it's an abrupt way of asking for your ancestry.

The only real offense here is the lack of geographical knowledge of her classmates

I can imagine it being tiresome to field a question like this, but she really ought to just suck it up

In other words, people are guessing that she is of Chinese descent. I don't know if she's a bit tired of the assumption because she is American born or because she is of some other East Asian origin. But this stuff happens: Australians in Japan are often called "Amerikajin" because it is assumed that people with Anglo looks are from America. Not the hardest thing in life to deal with.

Someone got his name wrong. He is now a member of a club several billion strong.

Someone thought that a person who looked Chinese might possibly be able to read a kanji that looks like Chinese script. Little did they know they were committing a microaggression.

It's interesting that Asian students are jumping on the microaggression bandwagon. They are, after all, members of the most privileged group in America when it comes to career, education and income. Perhaps they realise instinctively that in a liberal system you become vulnerable if you don't strongly assert your right to be a member of a victim class. Or perhaps it is too tempting, even for intelligent people, to externalise their problems, i.e. to blame external "oppression" for your unhappiness, rather than to try to set things right in your own life.

At any rate, it's difficult to take microaggressions seriously. It seems to be more the case of people searching desperately for reasons to feel put out.

Monday, December 07, 2015

Le Choc! FN triumph in French elections

Good to be able to report some positive developments. On Sunday the French went to the polls to elect their regional governments. The National Front, led by Marine Le Pen, is the one major party campaigning against open borders. It made large gains, being voted in first place in six of the thirteen regions. Two of the FN candidates scored over 40% of the vote. The FN candidates will still have to battle it out in the second round of voting - for more on the situation on France please visit Gallia Watch.

Saturday, December 05, 2015

The unfolding of modernity

The following is only a quick sketch and is not meant to capture everything. I hope though that it helps some readers get a handle on the steps by which the liberal worldview unfolds.

In brief, the modern liberal mindset gets to where it is through these steps:

Step 1: A denial that there is a stable, objective, external truth that exists or can be known to us.

Step 2: Therefore, the good in life is the act of choosing for ourselves; this is what generates the value that gives human life its dignity. The core value is a freedom understood to mean a right to determine our own self and being (self-determination and individual autonomy).

(A variant on this: the good is not in a community disciplining itself to a truth that resides eternally outside of itself but in the assertion of its own will or in its collective ability to shape its own reality.)

Step 3: If human dignity rests on a freedom to determine our own self, then the unchosen aspects of self should be made not to matter, including our biological sex, race and sexuality and the social roles flowing from these.

So, although for liberals there is no moral order existing objectively outside the individual, there is a new morality in which we must accept the right of others to self-determine. Therefore, we must be non-discriminatory, open to the other, tolerant, inclusive, accepting of diversity and so on.

Step 4: Therefore, there does exist a kind of moral order generated by liberalism, which does then restrict what the individual may or may not do or believe (despite the starting point of a belief in a freedom to self-determine). Individuals in a liberal order may not have beliefs that would make the unchosen aspects of self (biological sex, race, sexuality) or the social roles flowing from these matter in a public context. An individual may be judged guilty, in thought or deed, of discrimination, intolerance, exclusion, prejudice, sexism and so on.

Step 5: If there is no objective, external layer of reality by which we might come to know moral truths or ideals, then the informal, traditional ordering of societies will appear "opaque," irrational or baseless. Instead, it will seem more efficient and scientific to order society along technical lines, according to what is required by markets (i.e. society is organised around the tangible and measurable criteria of what helps an economy to be profitable) or along bureaucratic lines, in which the individual stands in a direct line to the state, with the goals being again the measurable and tangible ones of health, education, housing, welfare and so on.

Step 6: In practice modern societies are ordered along both market and bureaucratic lines. However, some moderns (right-liberals) prefer the market option (the economy) and others (left-liberals) the bureaucracy (the social option). The concept of liberty for right-liberals will emphasise a deregulated freedom to act in the market; left-liberals will prefer a more interventionist state guaranteeing an equality in those conditions of life which help individuals to act autonomously (i.e. they want to overcome disadvantage, understood to mean access to resources for a self-determining life, particularly disadvantage that correlates to those unchosen qualities that are not meant to matter such as our biological sex or race).

Step 7: Happiness and equality don't arrive as they're supposed to. Why? Some liberal moderns assert that it is because some groups of people have a self-interest in preventing it happening. Some groups of people get together and construct a false identity (e.g. maleness or whiteness) which then allows them an unearned privilege at the expense of other groups who are positioned as "the other" (the non-privileged groups). The whole of society is set up to uphold this unearned privilege, meaning that the privileged groups and the society they inhabit must be deconstructed before the promised society of equality and freedom can finally arrive.

So those are the basic steps. There are plenty of people who are at least dimly aware that there is something wrong with the liberal modernity that results from this way of thinking about the world. For instance, liberal societies aren't able to maintain borders - they are porous. In liberal societies, men and white people are attacked as oppressors. In liberal societies, politics is reduced to the management of the economy and certain social goods such as education and housing. In liberal societies there is no encouragement toward positive character goals or virtues, there are only the passive goals of tolerating or not discriminating. In liberal societies, important aspects of identity, such as those relating to manhood and womanhood, or to ancestry and ethny, are gradually dissolved.

But people feel overwhelmed by what appears to be a monolith. How can you possibly take on something that seems to have entrenched itself so deeply into Western society?

Those who do try to resist usually choose the wrong step. Last century most social conservatives, for instance, chose step 6. They opposed the left-liberal wing of modernity by supporting the right-liberal one. Predictably, it had little effect.

There have also been alternative forms of modernity which took the more collectivist path as described briefly in step 2 (possibly under the influence of German idealist philosophy). But this did not challenge modernity itself: it was a different face of modernity rather than a rejection of it.

It is possible as well to challenge liberal modernity at step 7 by objecting to the vilification of white people and men. This is a useful thing to do (a matter of self-defence), but it won't stop the juggernaut of modernity as it doesn't challenge it at its source.

Finally, there have also been those who have challenged modernity by asking what led to step 1. Was it the nominalist victory over philosophical realism? The influence of Gnosticism amongst influential intellectuals? This is an interesting and useful discussion but I don't think it's the best entry point for resisting liberal modernity.

My opinion is that an effective challenge will include two things. First, stating as clearly as possible what liberalism is and where it leads (as a means of clearing people's minds of it as thoroughly as possible). Second, reasserting what was lost from step 1 (so that we shunt aside centuries of liberal development in one decisive move).

The second step will require some scaffolding, as it is now difficult for people to readily give voice to pre-liberal thought. We can start a discussion about character and virtue; about ideals of manliness or womanliness; of natural forms of identity and attachment, and of the loves, loyalties and duties associated with them; of what makes for a good life, or of what some of our life purposes might be; of how the human personality comes to fruition or to its higher purposes; of how different sides of the human personality might be harmonised or ordered.

Thursday, December 03, 2015


I'm reading more and more about the crybully student movement in America. The term "crybully" is a good one, as the movement has two very different sides. On the one hand, there is much talk about racial minority students suffering poor mental health to the point that if anything doesn't go their way that they will be crushed and unable to function. On the other hand, the same students then go about in mobs fiercely intimidating those who don't cravenly fall into line, and they seek (usually successfully) to kick people out of their jobs. They cry and then they bully: they are crybullies.

I wrote a bit about this in my last post on events at Yale and the University of Missouri. A reader alerted me to an even more troubling event at the prestigious Dartmouth College, where white students studying in the library were surrounded by a mob and had racial insults screamed at them.

Then there is Claremont McKenna College. The Dean of Students, Mary Spellman, resigned there because she sought to support minority students but used a phrase they didn't like (word crime?). It didn't matter how pro-diversity she was, she was swallowed up by the movement regardless. Oddly, the minority students claim to be "marginalised" but are confidently demanding the right to remake the place according to their own wishes:
Their demands include a permanent resource center; the immediate creation of two diversity positions for student affairs and faculty; and a general education requirement for ethnic, racial, and sexuality theory; along with over a dozen other demands.

“To the administration as a whole, we require greater diversity in our faculty and staff,” stated the protest leader. “The need for such programs to educate the student body is eminent [sic] by the numerous microaggressions felt by students of color.” Students of color called out racially-insensitive professors for making them feel unsafe. “We want mandatory and periodic racial sensitivity trainings for all professors,” one protestor stated. “How are students supposed to learn in the classroom when they don’t even feel safe? When their own professors, someone who is supposed to be a mentor to them, a teacher, doesn’t even respect their identities? We want more diverse course offerings for critical race theory, community engagement, and social justice issues.”

They want white professors sacked and replaced; they want courses (critical race theory) which make white people the oppressors; and they want a kind of Stalinist style "mandatory and periodic racial sensitivity training for all professors".

Such is life in the modern liberal West.