How Satanism conquered America

Proverbially, the Devil has all the best tunes. Does he have the best books too? Apparently so, at least where soft porn is concerned: last week, it was reported that Xavier Nobell, a prominent Catholic exorcist and bishop, has resigned from the Church in order to be with his lover, a writer of “erotic-satanic” fiction.

The whole story evoked The Exorcist, which came out a few years before I was born and was considered the ne plus ultra of shocking content into my tween years in the nineties. But even setting aside the fact that the other “side” seems to have won, Nobell’s story evoked less shock than nostalgia.

In 2021, even the idea of a priest as the main protagonist in a battle between good and evil feels, well, very 1973. These days, while there’s plenty of Satanist imagery about, overtly anti-Christian symbols seem either banal (Lil Nas selling Satan trainers) or just naff (WitchTok).

But if devilish imagery mostly feels a bit cringe, the Devil himself has gone mainstream. If being deliberately anti-Christian pour épater la bourgeoisie feels exhausted, for the new, post-Christian bourgeoisie Satan now reads like the good guy. And in the hands of this class, the Devil’s proverbial pride, self-regard and refusal to yield isn’t just celebrated — it’s on its way to becoming the established religion of the United States of America.

America’s Satanic Temple, founded in 2012, is still small in terms of absolute membership. But it hit the headlines last week when it announced plans to sue the government of Texas for restricting women’s ability to abort a pregnancy. In response, Salon magazine declared it the “last, best hope” for protecting abortion rights in the state. The Satanic Temple has an impressive track record in self-promotion via outrage, such as founding a Satanist after-school club. It goes without saying that in our febrile online political climate, the convergence of “abortion”, “ritual”, “lawsuit” and “Satan” resulted in a lot of publicity for the group.

But how did we get to a point where an online magazine with 10 million monthly readers is hailing Satanists as last-ditch heroes? The truth is that our modern sympathy for the devil has deep roots. And Americans in particular are highly susceptible.

Perhaps Milton is to blame; Cromwell’s chief propagandist is famous for creating the most sympathetic Satan in literary history. In Milton’s 1663 Biblical epic Paradise Lost, Satan both longs for the Heaven he’s renounced, but stubbornly refuses to be ruled, declaring: “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven”.

This matters, because Milton wrestled with core questions of law, authority and personal freedom that roiled at the heart of the Protestant Reformation. And the Reformation was foundational to the modern West (and especially to America). And tracing the history of that rebellion brings us, today, to the startling conclusion that post-Christian America is an increasingly Satanist regime.

Paradise Lost was written against a backdrop of religious ferment. Following Martin Luther’s 1517 rejection of the constraining, legalistic force of Catholic law, Civil War England was a chaos of competing sects. For in seeking to free Christians from a Church reformers claimed was rigid and corrupt, the Protestants opened themselves up to the possibility that all laws, rules and constraints might be replaced by faith. A great deal of early Protestant turmoil was driven by people arguing over what, if any, limits there should be to the rebellion against doctrine.

Some took it to extremes. One of Luther’s colleagues, Johann Agricola, preached in 1525 that even the Ten Commandments belong “in the courthouse, not the pulpit”. “To the gallows with Moses!” he declared. Luther was having none of it, dubbing this extreme rejection of legalism as “antinomian” heresy, meaning opposition to “nomos”, or law.

Laurence Clarkson, an antinomian contemporary of Milton, even wrote in one 1640 pamphlet that sin is fake news: “sin hath its conception only in the imagination; therefore; so long as the act was in God, or nakedly produced by God, it was as holy as God”.

As they say today: believe in yourself, and you can do anything. Though Milton painted such extreme rejections of authority and rules as — literally — Satanic, the appealingly anti-heroic nature of his Satan suggests he had mixed feelings. He wasn’t the last writer to be thus ambivalent. A century on, the antinomian celebration of self-expression accelerated in the Romantic era.

The engraver and poet William Blake declared in his 1790 The Marriage of Heaven and Hell that “no virtue can exist without breaking these ten commandments… Jesus was all virtue, and acted from impulse, not from rules”. Meanwhile, of course, across the pond Milton’s republicanism was a key influence in shaping the American rebellion against government from the Old World.

Fast forward another century on, and it’s not such a big step from thinking God’s grace gives you the freedom to do what you want, to dispensing with the God bit. The occultist Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) pursued a doctrine of individual will unconstrained by law or stuffy morality. He called himself “The Beast 666”, experimented with sex and drugs and in 1923 was expelled from Sicily after an associate died in mysterious circumstances, reportedly after drinking the blood of a sacrificed cat.

We tend to think of such deliberately shocking behaviour as the essence of “Satanism”. But Crowley’s core legacy was stripping the last remnants of Christianity from antinomian rebellion. His most famous dictum, written in The Book of the Law (1909), was: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.”

He wasn’t the only one. Already in 1882, Friedrich Nietszche declared God dead and the human will to power as the only real source of good. In America, meanwhile, the individualist celebration of mankind became ever less Christian. Though she disavowed him later, the American writer Ayn Rand (1905-1982), called Nietzsche her “favourite philosopher” in the 1930s. Rand’s doctrine, Objectivism, argues selfishness is both noble and good: “It’s the hardest thing in the world – to do what we want,” argues one character in Rand’s 1943 The Fountainhead, “And it takes the greatest kind of courage”.

Both Crowley and Rand pursued the liberation of individual will from taboo, custom, law and even (as practitioners of ceremonial magic hoped) reality itself. These influences fused again in 1966 California, with Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan. Lavey drew on both Rand and Crowley to reject all collectivist constraints on individual behaviour and emphasise the primacy of individual desire. “There is a beast in man,” he declared, “that should be exercised, not exorcised.”

LaVey, a former carnival worker, took a highly theatrical approach to exercising that beast, incorporating dark ceremonies and all the props you’d expect to find in a horror-movie depiction of Satanism (or indeed in quite a lot of heavy metal). But if he was still rebelling against Christianity, the core Satanist philosophy of radical, godless freedom took less provocative form elsewhere in 1966 California in, for example, the “self-actualisation” promoted by Abraham Maslow, at the Esalen Institute.

So perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that individual autonomy and self-empowerment is the central aim of the Satanic Temple’s abortion ritual, the “ceremonial affirmation of self-worth and bodily autonomy” at the heart of the group’s current Texas court case.

But this doesn’t mean you need to become a devout Satanist to embrace the belief that self-empowerment is our real purpose in life, and that guilt is an unwarranted intrusion. Aleister Crowley wrote in The Book of the Law that “Every man and woman is a star”. And from Rand to Maslow to a trillion “empowering” Pinterest memes today, a variant of this dictum is a core message of the self-help industry.

Self-help writer Julia Cameron, for example, closely echoes Ayn Rand in her 1992 bestseller The Artist’s Way when she declares: “What we really want to do is what we are really meant to do”. Elsewhere, if you want a bit more ritual with your individualism, but the heavy-metal Church of Satan vibe isn’t your thing, there’s the occultism-meets-pamper-day aesthetic of Arin Murphy-Hiscock’s 2019 The Witch’s Guide To Self-Care.

Echoing Crowley, Murphy-Hiscock tells us: “Living as your authentic self means following a very individual path”. If, for instance, you find yourself plagued by inconvenient feelings of guilt as a consequence of doing exactly what you want, Murphy-Hiscock suggests a ritual for “releasing” those feelings.

No wonder the modern Satanic Temple is now (as the Guardian suggested in 2019) hard to distinguish from the liberal “good guys”. At its core Satanism is simply the doctrine of untrammelled individualism, shorn of any link to the divine. To put it another way: Satanists are just very, very liberal.

Milton saw Satan’s refusal to submit to any law (however ambivalently) as the sin of pride. Now, in our post-Christian world of self-actualisation, pride is no longer a sin. Rather, it’s a vital part of becoming fully yourself. As body modification micro-celebrity Farrah Flawless put it: “I do not believe in God, I don’t worship the Devil, but yes I am a Satanist which means I am my own god. I worship myself’.

Indeed, it’s so far from being a sin that sacralised self-worship now has an annual religious festival. This new, increasingly pseudo-religious summer event, simply known as “Pride Month”, may have started out as a twentieth-century campaign for gay and lesbian equality. But what began as a justified and (at root deeply Christian) campaign for equal treatment for gay and lesbian people has long since morphed into a corporate-sponsored celebration of individualism that today horrifies many gay and lesbian people.

Pinterest, the internet’s motherlode of self-help platitudes, succinctly summed up the new faith in an official post this year. As a religious holiday, Pride isn’t about gay rights; it’s where we “celebrate identity and self-expression in all its forms”. Inasmuch as Milton’s ambivalence about rebellion lives on, it’s in the now-traditional argument about whether there are any forms of individual desire still off-limits for proud celebration.

At least on the now majority post-Christian East and West coasts of America, this sacralisation of individual freedom and desire is increasingly assertive in its efforts to expunge Christianity as America’s official faith.

A less overt challenge than those posed by Aleister Crowley or Anton LaVey, but a continuation of the same argument. This time, though, the boot is on the other foot. The side with imperial institutional and military backing is the faith of self-expression, individual will and indomitable pride.

Originally published at UnHerd

The Three Laws of Pornodynamics

Though I’m not personally a consumer of porn (and would not be telling you if I was) it’s impossible to avoid the subject altogether when our Very Online discourse has a habit of disintegrating, at the fringes, into a kaleidoscopic array of weird sex things – whether that’s cartoon rabbits with big knockers or whatever else floats your boat. The key factor is that if someone can think of it, someone has thought of it – and as night follows day, there’s almost certainly porn of it.

Some anonymous internet wag once joked that the actual content on the internet is only about 5% while the other 95% of the internet is pictures of cats, and pornography. The numbers themselves might be a bit exaggerated, but two of the top ten most visited websites in the world – and the only two which aren’t big-brand social media sites – are XVideos and Pornhub, clocking up a total 6.7bn monthly visitors between them.

But pornography isn’t a static thing, any more than desire is a static thing. Pornography is more like a force field, that affects the content it represents. While I was thinking about this, it struck me that the three fundamental laws of thermodynamics ofer an almost perfect heuristic for the dynamics of this force field. So the three laws of pornodynamics are as follows:

  1. The First Law of Pornodynamics: the law of conservation of libido

Both liberals and conservatives are fond of wanging on about the sexualisation of culture, and how the pervasiveness of pornography and porn-inspired imagery, whether in marketing or just the culture in general, means we’re all saturated with sex and really just can’t get away from it. But at the same time it’s often noted that young people are having less sex. The connection between these two phenomena is obvious when considered in the light of the First Law of Pornodynamics, which argues that the sum total of human libido is a constant, and the more of it we expend on wanking the less will be available for actual interpersonal encounters.

Continue reading “The Three Laws of Pornodynamics”

On why we’re all post-liberal now, with Simeon Burke

I thoroughly enjoyed this challenging but very interesting chat with Simeon Burke on faith, motherhood, feminism, why I don’t believe in progress and why the term ‘post-liberal’ doesn’t really make sense because all politics is post-liberal now.

On surviving postmodernism, with Benjamin Boyce

Had the most wonderful epic chat with the delightful Benjamin Boyce, where we roamed across such terrain as the psychotic side-effects of postmodernism, why nihilism isn’t the answer, why I don’t believe in progress and what’s left out of the internet’s parody of the social. It’s on YouTube:

What the modern mermaid leaves out

Scuba diving is both magical and terrifying. Put on your gear, slip under the surface, and find yourself freed from gravity. In the glory days Before Coronavirus, I remember diving through the clear waters of coastal Turkey, drifting on warm currents and rolling to stare at the sunshine playing on the surface, from underneath.

But even as I rippled through the deep, marvelling at flashing schools of fish, there was a trade-off: constant self-control. Don’t breathe out through your nose. Don’t sneeze. Never, ever panic. For a short while it’s possible to pretend that you have the freedom of such an alien world, but in truth you’re only ever a tourist, granted safe passage thanks to technology, training and self-discipline.

Something about this sense of crossing an uncrossable threshold surely also powers our obsession with mermaids. And it is an obsession: mermaids are everywhere. Monique Roffey’s novel The Mermaid of Black Conch: A Love Story recently won the Costa Book Prize, while “mermaiding” — swimming in the sea wearing a “mermaid tail” — has gained a cult following in Australia. And you only need to browse the girls’ clothing selection in a high-street shop to find countless cartoon girls with fish-tails, sequinned and sparkly, smiling at you from t-shirts, dresses, wellies, duvet sets, pencil cases and the like.

As a parent of a four-year-old, I’m more familiar than I’d like with mermaid content, and Disney is a rich source. Sofia the FirstA Mermaid Tale is a favourite with my daughter, who is entranced by the moment when Sofia is magically transformed into a mermaid and dives underwater. There, she swims in circles exclaiming: “This is incredible!”. And it is. The rest of the story is almost an afterthought, with the whole narrative punch condensed into that moment of metamorphosis, and the dive into a new and mysterious realm.

If mermaids offer an enchanting dream of transformation, perhaps it’s no surprise that the transgender movement enthuses about the special place mermaids have in their iconography. Activist Janet Mock links this to Ariel, heroine of the 1989 Disney film The Little Mermaid, who chafes at her underwater life and longs to visit the world beyond.

Continue reading “What the modern mermaid leaves out”

The Herne Hill Hunt

The airhorn blows. A cry goes up. The field, scattered across streets from Brixton Water Lane to Poets’ Corner, converges toward the sound. The hounds are in full cry. A triumphant ululating from the lead riders, thin tracksuits flapping as they pedal toward Mayall Road. The quarry has been sighted. On bikes, skateboards, scooters or just on foot, the field streams after the leaders.

Overhead on grey terraced rooftops, a scatter of parkour scouts scampers across the sloping tiles, whooping and gesturing. Below them, the quarry flashes in and out of the cover of back-garden bike storage, patio furniture and shrubbery. A few scouts are down from the rooftops now, vaulting fences between gardens. Close pursuit. A delivery van honks. Residents peer out of windows as the hunt streams up the Saturday morning street. 

Moments later it’s flushed out: a glimpse of red-brown, the hunt stampeding after it down the tarmac. Then it’s cornered in a newsagent doorway, the hounds swarming. The inevitable end. A Brixton schoolboy, eyes shining with the joy of exertion and bloodshed, is gifted the brush. He holds it aloft in one blood-smeared hand, russet against Herne Hill’s leaden sky.

When the ban was repealed, there were demonstrations throughout the English countryside. It was grossly unjust, the Telegraph howled, yet another sign of government bias toward the cities, that foxhunting was now legal in urban areas but not the countryside. The Johnson government replied serenely that foxes were a predominantly urban pest in 21st-century Britain. Also, as county lines operations had spread city-style drug-dealing throughout rural England, it was only fair in return to encourage outdoor rural pursuits to flourish in the city.

Horrified Guardian editorials inveighed against the education in brutality that would now be coming to London’s already violent youth. But the columnists fell silent when the season started, and knife crime abruptly dropped. United against the mangy pests that raided bins, terrorised domestic cats and occasionally mauled a baby, a critical mass of Londoners embraced the hunt. 

Hunts formed along postcode lines, and initially when a hunt crossed multiple postcodes there were stabbings. But the gangs’ youthful energy, physical fitness and fondness for casual violence catapulted them to the heart of London’s great pest control project. Finding themselves suddenly lionised instead of stopped-and-searched, a newfound sense of civic participation put a spring and swagger in their step, and inter-gang rivalry waned.

There was a minor furore shortly after the Repeal Bill passed when, having voted against the Bill, Dr Rosena Allin-Khan MP (Labour) was photographed at the Boxing Day Tooting meet. Polly Toynbee accused her of ‘cheap populism’, while one snarky Spectator columnist noted how clean her Nikes remained even after a gruelling back-garden chase. 

The issue split the Labour Party down the middle. On one side stood those who saw the benefits in terms of public health, pest control, crime reduction, race relations, and young males having a healthy outlet for their aggression. On the other stood those appalled by the cruelty meted out to the fox. Innocent animals should not be hunted for fun, they protested. The repeal was emblematic of a culture that had turned its back on progress and was disintegrating into barbarism. 

Their opponents replied that the riotous pursuit and bloody death of the odd manky fox was a small price to pay for a reduction in youth knife crime, and that objectors were white middle-class snobs who want to keep London’s multicultural youth in a state of dependence and misery. Would they rather see machete-wielding gangs pursuing foxes or teenagers? The statistics showed it was a straight swap.

The antis retorted that this revolting weaponisation of tragic deaths among troubled urban youth was the first move in a base and bloodthirsty effort to take modern Britain back to the Dark Ages. The next step in the Tories’ grim plan would be tagging further vulnerable groups for torture and sacrifice. Ken Livingstone popped up from somewhere to remind us who else murdered vulnerable groups in order to create a sense of belonging forged in bloodshed. 

Jolyon Maugham became, unexpectedly, an anti-hunt sensation, when after months of silence he prioritised his Lib Dem sympathies over past association with urban pest control and wrote a heartfelt op-ed for The New European, explaining why he should have called the RSPCA on that hungover New Year’s Day. Floral kimonos became, briefly and surreally, a symbol for militant veganism.

But with Labour now a rump party of urban liberals, and city hunting wildly popular, the electoral calculus was inexorable. Pollsters nodded sagely when Allin-Khan’s popularity rocketed. The #KillerKhan tweetstorm never got off the starting blocks. 

As the wind picks up on Dulwich Road, hunt followers are still milling, elated. The crowd passes hip flasks, relives highlights. Young people mix across culture, ethnicity and caste. Paleo-and-Crossfit machos swap hunt stories with Asian wideboys. Shaven-headed teenagers in tracksuits laugh uproariously with a knot of tweed-wearing neo-trads, the men extravagantly moustachio’d. Locals sidle uncertainly past the panting hounds. 

The parkour crew are all here now. The hunt’s athletic elite. Stripped to the waist, defined even in dull autumn daylight, they draw admiring glances but talk mainly to each other. A chill rain begins to spatter. It’s still early; the fitness hardcore moves on toward Parkrun. Knots of people disperse in pursuit of brunch, showers or the visceral pleasures of a post-hunt shag. 

In an apartment window above the vintage furniture shop, someone spots a sign hand-stencilled on a sheet. FOR FOX SAKE BAN THE HUNT. Scattered jeers. No one performs compassion for status points these days: that generation is sliding into middle-aged irrelevance. Vandalising monuments is so last year. All of bleeding-edge young London is here, at its most energised and diverse, to thumb their noses at public displays of empathy. 

Veganism is tired. Bloodsport is a human instinct. Better to hunt foxes than each other. 

Originally published by The Fence

The world according to LARP

Who would have guessed that a weekend hobby for outdoorsy nerds could spawn an era-defining political metaphor?

LARP, or live action role-playing, is an offshoot of the fantasy roleplaying subculture. It involves dressing up in costume and acting out a fantasy-fiction game narrative in real time and space, sometimes over several days. A witty friend once characterised the experience as something akin to ‘cross-country pantomime’.

Thanks to lockdown, no one’s LARPing this year — at least not in the cross-country pantomime sense. But the word ‘LARP’ has escaped into the wild: far from being the preserve of fantasy fans, I’ve noticed it appearing with increasing frequency in political discourse.

When riot police finally pushed activists out of the Chapel Hill Autonomous Zone following the murder of one joyriding teenager and serious wounding of another by CHAZ ‘security’, resistance to the advancing riot shields was so paltry it prompted contemptuous accusations of ‘revolutionary larping’. Weird Christian Twitter (it’s a thing) hosts arguments where people are accused of larping more traditionalist theologies than they truly espouse. Still further out on the fringes, the QAnon conspiracy rabbit hole (don’t go there) is fiercely defended by its True Believers against accusations that it is, in fact, a bunch of people LARPing.

Around the time my friends were discovering LARP, I got into LARP’s Very Online cousin, Alternate Reality Gaming (ARGs). An artefact of the age before Facebook and Twitter colonised most of the internet, ARGs are a hybrid of online treasure hunt, mystery story, and live-action immersive theatre. The first mass-participation ARG was a promotional stunt for the 2001 film AI, and featured a series of fiendish clues for participants to crack and follow, which unlocked further elements of story including live-action segments.

For a moment in the mid-Noughties, ARGs looked like the future of storytelling. The idea of internet communities over-writing stable systems of meaning with playful new narratives that danced back and forth between the web and real world felt refreshing and subversive. With hindsight, though, the phenomenon was just a more-than-usually-creative moment in a widespread unmooring of reality that’s been under way for decades.

It’s not all the fault of the internet. In 1955, the philosopher J L Austin developed a theory of ‘performative’ language: that is, language that does something to reality in the act of being spoken. ‘I pronounce you man and wife’ is an example of performative speech — words that effect change through the act of being spoken.

Then, in 1993, the queer theorist Judith Butler borrowed the concept of ‘performative’ language wholesale and applied it to sex and gender, arguing that the identities ‘man’ and ‘woman’ — along with the bodies and biologies associated with those identities — are performative. In taking these roles on, Butler claimed, we make them real.

While these ideas pre-date mass adoption of the internet, the notion that we participate in creating our own realities has been wildly accelerated by social media. Online, it’s easy to get the impression that we can reinvent ourselves entirely, independent of our bodies or other dull ‘meatspace’ constraints. Unsurprisingly, Butler’s conception of sex and gender as performance has long since escaped the petri dish of academia and, like the concept of LARPing, is evolving rapidly in the wild.

Strikingly, the word ‘performative’ has also mutated. Today, it isn’t used as Butler did, to mean “a performance that shapes reality”, but the opposite: an insincere performance for social kudos. So, for example, celebrity endorsements of social justice orthodoxies are often accused of being ‘performative’. It means much the same as ‘larping’, but with an added payload of cynicism. So where ‘LARPing’ means “playacting at something you wish you were”, ‘performative’ means “playacting at something you don’t really believe”.

Meanwhile, the LARP is no longer confined to cheery camping trips accessorised with pretend armour. Back in the noughties, online communities refactoring reality to fit a fantasy storyline felt like a fun game, but as I stare into the sucking void of the QAnon conspiracy, that perspective now seems hopelessly naïve. It’s not a game today: it’s how we do politics.

Liberal commentators spend a great deal of energy trying to explain why this is bad. Countless writers ‘fact-check’ Trump’s bloviations, seemingly unaware that from the perspective of reality-as-ARG, the fact that Trump is lying doesn’t matter. Nor does it really matter whether QAnon is real or not. Reality is, to a great extent, beside the point.

Laurie Penny got closer to the truth in this 2018 piece, where she characterises the very notion of a ‘marketplace of ideas’ as being a kind of LARP: “a Classical fever-dream of a society where pedigreed intellectuals freely exchange ideas in front of a respectful audience”. The reality, she argues, is that this ‘marketplace of ideas’ is less free, rational exchange than dick-swinging theatre.

Those who like to imagine this pessimistic perspective is new, wholly the fault of the Orange Man (or perhaps Facebook), should recall the words of an unnamed aide to George W Bush, quoted in 2004 on the relationship between facts, reality and the military invasion of Iraq:

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works any more,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Ron Suskind, New York Times

Though his approach was less overtly hubristic, Tony Blair’s embrace of spin reflected a similar belief in his own ability to manipulate public narratives. ‘Political communications’ has only grown in significance since those days, and taken a self-referential turn. Today it’s as common for commentators to criticise a politician for performing badly at a presser — for poor-quality larping, or bad theatre in Penny’s formulation — as for saying things that are immoral or factually wrong.

Donald Trump is distinct from George W Bush not so much in disdaining facts as in lacking the religious conviction Bush deployed to fill in the gaps left behind by their disregard. But both, in different ways, embodied or embody the idea that what you believe is what is. If you LARP hard enough, this view says, your larp will come true.

Boris Johnson’s administration has something of the same cavalier attitude to the relationship between facts and rhetoric. To date, the handling of coronavirus has routinely over-promised and under-delivered, while seeming indifferent to the disorienting effect on public life of a string of announcements only very loosely tethered to everyday experience.

It’s not a coincidence that this larpification of politics has evolved in tandem with a public fixation on ‘evidence-based policy’. The political polarity of absolute LARP — blatant political lying — and absolute insistence on evidence are two sides of the same loss of faith in a common understanding of reality.

If you’re not convinced, consider SAGE, the government’s scientific advisory committee. Then consider ‘Independent SAGE’, a kind of counter-SAGE comprising scientists every bit as eminent as those on SAGE. This august body produces its own carefully evidence-based reports, which are then used as a foundation from which to disagree with whatever positions the Tories choose to adopt from official SAGE.

Who do we believe? That’s politics. If the Brexit debate hadn’t already killed your faith in ‘the evidence’, the competing claims of SAGE and counter-SAGE should be the death-blow. There is no dispassionate foundation of facts we can deploy to take the politics out of political decisions. The original LARPers might have a fun weekend, then pack up and go back to their normal lives; but in its political sense, there’s no outside to the game. It’s larping all the way down.

Some parts of our culture are coping better with this shift than others. Among the worst performers, to my eye, are mainstream liberals of both left and right. Many have responded to the larpification of everything by concluding that in losing objectivity we’ve lost reality. Some then imagine they can make reality whatever they want it to be by sheer force of will (the Trump/Bush approach). Others suggest we can fix things by supplying enough facts to prove whatever we already believed (the SAGE/counter-SAGE approach). Others, such as Laurie Penny, try to refuse to play.

But we haven’t lost reality, just the fixed vantage point we pretended we had from which to evaluate it. What we have instead is a kind of reality-shaping free-for-all, and there’s no opting out.

As most of us flounder, disoriented, we’re starting to see subcultures adapting. The old story about the Inuit having 50 words for snow is (appropriately) itself probably fake news. But much as a snow-dwelling people might be expected to develop specialist terminology for different types of frozen precipitation, we should understand the emergence of words like ‘larp’ and ‘performative’ as analogous. We’re developing a specialist vocabulary for types of unreality.

We’re also having to find new ways to talk about the reality that, inconveniently, refuses to go away completely. The grim story of the Iraq invasion and its destructive and bloody aftermath gave the lie to Bush’s messianic faith in his capacity to create a new reality to order. Humans still can’t really change sex. And no amount of fiddling the statistics can bring back those people who’ve already died of coronavirus.

The political future turns on our being able to get used to parsing our new Babel for what’s actually happening, and what actually matters. We have to get used to doing this without trying to eliminate the element of LARP (spoiler: can’t be done) or pretending we can abolish reality (ditto).

But there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle. If the ground is moving under all our feet now, the way forward is learning how to dance.

This article was originally published at Unherd

On sexed bodies and mind over matter

As activists campaign to cancel Britain’s best-loved children’s author for stating her belief that biological sex exists, transgender rights has become one of today’s most toxic cultural flashpoints. Even most cautious approach to the topic feels like walking on eggshells.  

My own journey on the subject has taken me some distance from my 00s social life, that for a while revolved around the (then embryonic) London female-to-male trans ‘scene’. There, I explored my own gender identity and presentation, while evangelising queer theory to all and sundry. But as time went on I felt a growing disquiet at the direction the movement was taking.

Back then, transgender identities felt like a progressive challenge to restrictive sex roles. But as such identities have become more mainstream, and normative sex roles ever less relevant to how we work and live our lives in the modern world, it has increasingly felt to me like the cutting edge of the movement is morphing into something less liberatory than hubristic: a radical assertion of the primacy of mind over matter.

Humans are a sexually dimorphic species. Sex roles (commonly referred to as ‘gender’) can’t be wholly separated from biological sex. In asserting that sex roles have no relationship to sex, but are in fact free-floating identities, the trans movement in effect declares that sex is unimportant. Some even question its objective existence.  Thus severed from any material grounding, the social roles ‘man’ or ‘woman’ become costumes or attitudes, no more objectively definable than (say) ‘goth’.

This can feel liberating to those who find the social norms associated with the sexes uncomfortable. But for females in particular, biological sex is far from a trivial detail.

I still remember the first time my brother defeated me in an arm wrestle, when I was 10 and he was 12. I was furious that something as unasked-for as a biological difference between us had now permanently rendered us unequal in a playfight, where previously we’d been evenly matched.

On a more serious note, crime and violence are sexed: males commit some 96% of all murders, 99% of all sex crimes and 100% of all rapes (because you need a penis to rape). Meanwhile females are less physically strong, and our anatomy and reproductive capacity makes us vulnerable to assault, rape and the many risks associated with pregnancy.

Inner identity does nothing to mitigate the threats women face due to being female. It’s physiological femaleness that marks girls out for FGM; physiological femaleness that gets women kidnapped for bride trafficking into China; physiological femaleness that got 14-year-old Rose Kalemba raped at knifepoint to create a porn video monetised by PornHub for years while she was still at school.

Even if we pretend it isn’t there, or is subordinate to our identities, the sexed nature of our bodies continue to exist and shape women’s interactions. So a movement that asserts the absolute primacy of mind over matter, identity over biological sex, is bound to feel jarring to women – because experience tells us it’s not true. And claiming it is disadvantages us at a fundamental level: if we’re all just free-floating minds, women no longer have any basis for talking about the ways our bodies make us vulnerable.

This of course doesn’t mean that we’re nothing but the sum of our biology. Humans are thinking, feeling, social and visionary creatures as much as we are evolved animals. All these aspects of us exist in tension.

Acknowledging the role of our bodies in shaping who and what we are as humans isn’t to reduce humans to the status of mere flesh. Nor is it a claim, as some activists suggest, that male and female humans alike should stuff our personalities into narrow masculine or feminine boxes to match our physiology.

Rather, it’s a recognition that the human condition is a mess of competing urges, aims and longings, and sometimes we can’t have what we want. Sometimes the world outside us refuses to be reshaped according to our innermost desires. That this is true is more distressing for some than others, but it’s still true.

For that subset of people who experience an inner identity that feels at odds with their physiology, that tension between psychic and embodied reality is painfully acute. We should meet this obvious distress with compassion and courtesy, not stigma or discrimination. We should as a society shield transgender people from unjust treatment. But that doesn’t mean we must accept the idea that bodies don’t matter.