Dear Reader (particularly whichever one of the Gateses gets custody of the tracking chips coursing through my veins),
Here’s some good news: The CIA has a proud Latina woman, who can change diapers with one hand, who proudly tells the world, “I’m a cisgender millennial who’s been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder. I am intersectional, but my existence is not a box-checking exercise,” because “I refuse to internalize misguided patriarchal ideas of what a woman can or should be.”
I have many thoughts about this, most of them critical. Indeed, on another day, I could bang out a couple thousand harsh words on this with ease. But while I wouldn’t say I’m in a look-on-the-bright-side mood, I think it might be worthwhile to look at this from another perspective.
Historically, one of the great things about America is that our culture is remarkably good at bourgeoise-ifying radicals and radicalism. I wrote about one example of this after I visited the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Rock ‘n’ roll, punk rock, heavy metal, and hip hop all entered the culture like Viking pillagers sacking a seaside English village. And in a relatively short period of time, rock anthems are used to sell sneakers or soap or self-lubricating catheters. Gangster rappers go from talking about cop killing and busting caps in the nether-regions of their enemies to starring in sitcoms and game shows, or to cooking frittatas with Martha Stewart when they’re not complaining about their taxes.
People on the fringes and margins of society enter mainstream culture as stereotypes—usually negative ones. But soon enough they become normalized. Will & Grace was hardly the first TV show with a gay character, but it was an important part of the assimilation of gay people into mainstream culture. It featured two gay characters: Jack (played by Sean Hayes) was basically the gay equivalent of a minstrel character, leaning heavily into all of the stereotypes of gay promiscuity. But Will (Erick McCormack), the title character, was a defiant rejection of those stereotypes. He was interested in monogamous relationships, even as he played the field the way any conventional heterosexual character would. He was the gay straight man, as it were, to Jack. Fast forward to Modern Family, and you’ve got a gay couple that spends much of their time arguing about work-life balance and figuring out how to get their kid into a good preschool.
David Brooks identified this dynamic in his brilliant but flawed book, Bobos in Paradise. Everything “transgressive” gets “digested by the mainstream bourgeois order, and all the cultural weapons that once were used to undermine middle-class morality … are drained of their subversive content.”
This isn’t just a point about popular culture. Popular culture is merely an illustration, reflector, and catalyzer of the dynamic. Which brings me back to the CIA recruitment video. Yes, I could do without the strange psychological cocktail that has intoxicated so many elites these days that simultaneously invokes categorical victimhood while celebrating it as a form of identity and self-esteem: “I’m a member of an oppressed class and damn proud of it!”
But if you want to take the bite out of concepts like intersectionality, patriarchy, and the inherent illegitimacy of the imperialist, late-capitalist, cis-heteronormative military-industrial complex—or whatever the right word salad is in woke lingo—having the CIA brag about how they’re cool with your leftist-lifestyle intifada isn’t a bad way to go.
To be sure, I have all sorts of ideological and practical objections if this woman is injecting ridiculous concepts into the decision-making process at the CIA. If she’s saying we can’t drone terrorists if they’re people of color, or we can’t use various forms of spycraft on foreign agents if doing so perpetuates modalities of oppression, that would be bad. But there’s no evidence for that, and odds are that if the CIA is using her as a poster-womyn for the agency, she’s probably not doing that. The institution is almost surely bending her to its mission more than she is bending it to hers (if she even has one).
Consider Mormons, America’s Nicest Minority®.
In the 19th century, Americans were against Utah becoming a state because Mormons practiced polygamy. Then, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints got rid of polygamy and Americans were like, “Yeah, okay, come on in.” The minority bent to the majority and the majority bent to the minority. Today, by the way, Mormons are wildly overrepresented in the ranks of the FBI and CIA. From my casual observation, this has not led to any enduring concerns of Mormon hegemony in the national security apparatus.
This process of minorities bending to the majority culture and the majority culture bending back has been central to the American experiment from the beginning. From George Washington’s letter to the Jews of Newport, to the election of Barack Obama, to Donald Trump’s rhetorical outreach to the LGBTQ community, to Trump world’s flirtations with Caitlyn Jenner, majority America is in constant dialogue with minority America. (Even as the definitions of majority and minority swirl and change hypnotically like blobs in a lava lamp.)
I’m not necessarily celebrating every compromise and evolution in that process—I can offer a long list of specific complaints and criticisms on that front—but what I am celebrating is the process itself. It’s often messy. It’s often scary, for minorities and majorities alike. It can go too far, or not far enough, which is one of the reasons why it is constantly unfolding, often in dialectic fashion. But that process is one of the things that makes America, and the West generally, so much better than the historical and present-day alternatives.
Grievance is the birthing person of invention.
I’m also not saying the majority should always give in—or give too much—to the minority. Take the recent algae plume of stupidity on Twitter. Rep. Cori Bush referred to mothers as “birthing people.” This elicited immediate, and deserved, mockery from many folks on the right, including yours truly. NARAL—or, at least, NARAL’s Twitter person—rallied to her cause.
Birthing-person-of-pearl! (Or for those of a certain faith, Holy Birthing Person of God!) This is a seamless disco ball of absurdity, radiating inanity from every angle. If one of the core tenets of the new Great Awokening is that the term “mother” is divisive or bigoted, then the Great Awokening is doomed (and deservedly so). Don’t tell me conservatives are too obsessed with silly and divisive culture war “distractions,” if in the next breath you’re going to lecture me on the need to erase the term “mother” from the English language.
One of the most interesting divides on the left is between socialists and critical race theorists. Some of the best pushback on the execrable 1619 Project came from socialists who think making race, as opposed to class, the focal point of the progressive project is counterproductive. It’s a fresh opening of a fascinating old divide that had once been central to the left when Marxism was taken more seriously by serious people. Anything that distracts from the class struggle is a gift to what Randi Weingarten calls the “ownership class.” This argument was applied to everything from Mickey Mouse to the welfare state to slavery reparations.
My point isn’t that mom-erasure sets back the class struggle, my point is that mom-erasure sets back the transgender cause, and virtually every other left-wing cause as well. People aren’t going to stop calling their mothers “mother” or “mom” or anything of the sort. Kids aren’t going to fall off a swing at the playground and shout, “Birthing person! I have an ouchie!” (And before you accuse me of perpetuating gender stereotypes, if dad is at the playground, they’re not going to shout, “Non-birthing person! I have an ouchie!” either.) And it’s absurd to ask them to, not just because it’s wrong on the merits, but because it’s an utterly doomed project that will invite 100 times more backlash against their cause.
Rep. Bush discovered this the hard way. She’s very mad that conservatives pounced (yes, I’m using that term ironically) on her birthing person comment while ignoring her larger point about the very real problems faced by pregnant black women.
I testified in front of Congress about nearly losing both of my children during childbirth because doctors didn’t believe my pain. Republicans got more upset about me using gender-inclusive language in my testimony than my babies nearly dying. Racism and transphobia in America.
This is bunk. Sure, transphobes and racists no doubt object to replacing “mothers” with “birthing people.” But you know who else does? Almost everybody. If Bush were more interested in communicating her actual message, she might have pondered that for a moment and used language that didn’t turn people off.
I mean, do you think Mothers Against Drunk Driving or the organizers of the Million Mom March would have been more successful if they called themselves Birth Persons Against Drunk Driving or the Million Birthing Person March instead? At least the women who founded those organizations understood that there’s enormous moral power in the word “mother,” and utilized it to great effect.
Think of it this way: If I wanted to rally popular support for improving handicap access to public transportation, I wouldn’t use words like “gimp” or “cripples” in my prepared remarks. You’re free to say that’s a ridiculous hypothetical because I’m using negative terms for a discriminated group. And you’d be right. But just because a category of people are in the majority, or the majority uses a term you don’t like, doesn’t change the obligation to show respect and deference.
Sure, if the majority of people use the n-word, then it’s right and just to push back against that. But I shouldn’t have to tell people that the word “mother” isn’t the n-word. There’s no credible claim that it is—or ever was—intended as an exclusionary term save in the sense that it refers to women who have babies and not to women — or men — who don’t. And trying to turn it into such a term is not just Orwellian nonsense, it’s counterproductive Orwellian nonsense on the transgender movement’s own terms.
If you want to morally bully Americans (of all stripes, mind you—white, black, Hispanic, Asian, liberal, conservative, etc.) into throwing away the term “mother” to accommodate the feelings of (at most) 0.5 percent of the population, then you won’t just lose that battle; you’ll invite more animosity toward that very small slice of the population you’re trying to support.
Similarly, if you want to convince all of white America that the term “white” is synonymous with the term “racist,” you are far more likely to make more racists.
Mutually assured dickishness.
One of the things that makes the current moment so craptacular is that ideological minorities are great at talking about how they and their chosen allies are victims, but terrible at respecting other ideological minorities or majorities. You must agree 100 percent with us, or you are on the side of them.
The Jews of Newport understood—thanks to millennia of lived experience and cultural memory—that minorities have the same obligations of tolerance and respect that they expect or hope for from majorities. It would be ludicrous of Newport’s Jews to demand that every ale house and tavern be kosher and that failure to comply would be anti-Semitic, just as it would be absurd for the Amish to demand I get rid of my car or air conditioning. Part of the wonderful implicit bargain of a liberal order is that everyone cuts everyone else some slack.
That means the majority shouldn’t force nuns to buy birth control and minorities shouldn’t try to bully majorities into purging the word—or concept—“mother” from the culture. That means atheists, Muslims, and Jews should roll with it when someone says, “Merry Christmas,” and Christians shouldn’t set their heads on fire when someone says, “Happy holidays.” Very few things are worth being a dick over, and it’s never worth being a dick about everything.
But because we live in a time where elites are more willing to chastise other elites than the crazies on their own side, the people who are supposed to be showing moral and political leadership opt to pounce on the enemy pouncers than point out that the pouncers have a point. I do not believe for a moment that MSNBC’s female anchors, who are also mothers, will start referring to themselves as “birthing persons”—at least away from the cameras. Nor do I believe they will tell their kids to give their “grand-birthing-persons” a kiss when they see them. But I am entirely sure that none of them will take a moment of airtime to admonish Rep. Bush or NARAL for their absurd foray into lexicological social engineering.
And yes, the same goes for folks on the right, including at Fox News, who would rather pounce on the overreactions of the left than chastise their own side for its excesses.
Again, one of the greatest things about America is its ability to make Americans. But if your business model depends on claiming that America stinks—either because it’s racist, transphobic, or sexist, or because it has let “them” steal the country from “us”—then your business model is the problem, because to some extent it’s literally anti-American.
Various & Sundry
Canine update: The girls are all doing great. I’m going to be alone with them for a few days starting Sunday, as the Fair Jessica and Lucy go on a mother-daughter (you’re damn right I said it) adventure. We’ve pretty much given up on the new treat dispenser for Gracie. She’s figured it out once or twice, but she’s decided it’s beneath her. Meanwhile, Zoë loves it. She comes from a long line of American dingoes that enjoy discovering treats with their shnozzles. At least these treats are shrieking in terror.
And now, the weird stuff