I wrote at American Affairs about how what we think of as ‘feminism’ today can also be read as women’s campaign to enter the market on the same terms as men; how that was justified under the circumstances but is failing us now; and how entry to the market by no means exhausts the potential of feminism. Link
When I was about 12, I discovered The Belgariad, perhaps the high point of 1980s fantasy fiction in the po-faced medieval style. David Eddings’ shepherd-boy-discovers-hidden-magic-and-saves-the-world format may seem hackneyed now, but my tween self was entranced: siblings would try and fail to get my attention before shouting “Fire! Death! Mary!” into my ear to wrest me from that world of infinite possibility and high adventure.
Back then, fantasy was a nerd hobby. Today, though, both fantasy and the moral policing of fantasy seems increasingly mainstream. Fantasy novels can be pulled for wrongthink and even wildly successful fantasy authors such as JK Rowling get dogpiled. Not even actors representing fantasy characters are safe: witness the treatment meted out to Mandalorian actress Gina Carano after being judged by the court of social media to be guilty of heresy.
To those uninterested in fantasy “fandoms”, these may seem absurd dramas. After all, when we’re talking about imaginary worlds populated by imaginary people, who cares about the private opinions of those who create the stories, or represent them on TV?
This dismissive attitude is a mistake. The truth is that a culture’s ideals are always delivered via stories, and in most cultures telling and re-telling these has been taken very seriously indeed. It’s only in our modern world that tales of gods and monsters, rather than taking centre stage in our shared cultural life, have been shoved off into a box called “fantasy fiction” and treated as a mezzobrow hobby for the incorrigibly childish.
It should be clear by now that I have a personal stake here: I’m a full-bore fantasy fiction nerd. Whether it’s solemn sword-and-sorcery, the comic adventures of Terry Pratchett, or the weird worlds of China Miéville or Josiah Banks, if it’s even half-decently written and concerns fantastic kingdoms and impossible adventures I’m there. But I’m also, to a modest extent, interested in literary history. And it’s striking how fantasy fiction popped into existence as a Western genre more or less at the exact point where epic poetry in the classical style stopped being taken seriously.
Rewind a few hundred years, and everyone writing in English sprinkled references to the Greek and Roman gods into their stories and poems, while the Homeric myths occupied a place in the Western imagination almost as central as the Bible. It’s difficult to imagine today but figures such as Athena, goddess of war and wisdom, Circe the sorceress and snake-headed Medusa were common cultural reference points for the educated class.
And it wasn’t just the mythic memes of antiquity that larded our literature — it was the forms as well. The hero’s quest, as set out in The Iliad and The Odyssey, and later in Virgil’s Aeneid, formed a template for heroic narrative that continued almost unchanged into the 18th and early 19th centuries.
Countless authors borrowed, imitated, translated and ironically reworked the epic mode, from Spenser’s hallucinatory Faerie Queene (1590) to Milton’s barnstorming retelling of the Christian story, Paradise Lost (1667), to arguably the last effort at epic poetry, Byron’s Don Juan (1819). But it couldn’t last. In Don Juan, Byron captured something sad but unmistakably true: the classical epics were losing their aura, leaving behind only a sense of lost grandeur. As Byron’s hero laments, while trapped on a Greek island (with only a nubile pirate princess for company):
THE isles of Greece! the isles of Greece
Where burning Sappho loved and sung,
Where grew the arts of war and peace,
Where Delos rose, and Phoebus sprung!
Eternal summer gilds them yet,
But all, except their sun, is set.
Byron’s 16,000 lines of satire, sex and mourning for the vanished glories of classical antiquity put paid to epic as a usable form for anyone with a desire to be taken seriously as a writer. Or was it science? Imagine a looming form that by candlelight seems a shadowy, terrible monster — then turns out, with the lights switched on, to be just a coat-stand. With scientists explaining away ever more of the world’s mysteries by the light of reason, maybe the old gods just started to look a bit silly.
So a few short decades later, the epic style migrated into the first fantasy novels: George MacDonald’s Phantastes: A Faerie Romance for Men and Women (1858), and the children’s adventure The Princess and the Goblin (1871). Even as epic poetry died off, modern fantasy fiction was born.
The high point for our rational world — Peak Reason, if you will — was probably the end of the Cold War, when it seemed all the grand battles between good and evil had been won. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it was in the 1980s that the fantasy market went supernova.
Remembering my adolescence in the 1990s, the everyday world seemed flat, dull and stripped of all enchantment. But fantasy blossomed: after my baptism-by-Belgariad, I fell feet-first into the then freshly-published greats of modern fantasy, by now-classic authors such as Robin Hobb, Tad Williams and of course JK Rowling. Epic imagination scaled new heights, even as geopolitics sought perpetual peace under the “liberal international order”, the Communist threat evaporated, and the scope for heroic achievement in the “real” world seemed as vanished as Byron’s vision of classical Greece.
Those who went on dreaming of earth-shattering battles or heroes plucked from obscurity to save the universe have spent the Age of Reason with their heads down. Tolkien’s classic of 20th-century fantasy, The Lord of the Rings, is one of the best-selling books of all time; but one 1955 letter to WH Auden, Tolkien ruefully describes being “scourged with such terms as ‘pubescent’ and ‘infantilism’”. And everyone loves dragging millennials about the Harry Potter thing.
But while science has plenty to say about the “what” and “how” of our world, it has far less to offer on “why”. We may laugh at the tweeness of being a Harry Potter obsessive in your thirties, or someone with a mortgage and two kids cosplaying at a Star Wars convention. But we’re not so different from our fireside-storytelling ancestors, in craving stories that help us get at the dark, strange questions — or the big ones about power, empire, good and evil.
And while mythology seemed temporarily defeated by the End of History, today successive crises of finance, terrorism and pandemic have shown our world to be far more dangerous and unpredictable than we once imagined. So even as history has come roaring back, we shouldn’t be surprised to see gods and monsters doing the same. They might take the form of Baby Yoda memes or emetic Gryffindor avatars, but they’re playing the same role as the Greek and Roman pantheon centuries ago: providing a common narrative language for debates about the big questions.
From this perspective it’s easier to see how quarrels over whether or not an actress thinks you should wear a mask, or what JK Rowling thinks about transgender women, aren’t ludicrous culture war sideshows at all. Rather, they’re border skirmishes over the content of our moral operating system. The woke grasp this fact instinctively, which is why they reserve a special fury for policing heresy in our emerging new mythologies.
But the new would-be guardians of our epic mythologies are likely to find in time that their subject has a habit of escaping their control. The long history of stories that survive and replicate tells us it’s not the morally correct ones that make the cut, but the ones that ring true. No one today reads that classic of 17th-century woke literature, John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, unless they absolutely have to. Meanwhile, it’s a testament to the continued power of the old pantheons, that having disappeared from highbrow literature, they’ve since reappeared in (among other things) PlayStation games and the Marvel universe.
And the power of such gods lies partly in their refusal to be domesticated: they’re two-faced, ambivalent, bloody, capricious and awe-inspiring. They’re not at all inclusive. They carry a payload of intuitions about — for example — the persistence of power, violence and hierarchy, the often-untidy dynamics between the sexes, and the obnoxiousness of heroic personalities, that don’t sit comfortably with the sanitised modern imagination. Stories are too unruly to be easily contained by moral correctness.
It was the pursuit of Reason that chased the old gods into the shadows of children’s literature. But today, our faith in Reason is well on its way to collapsing. David Goodhart wrote recently about how, as media control has decentralised in the internet age, what looked like a consensus on “objective” discourse has been upended by a tidal wave of emotionally inflected personal testimony. Even the New York Times, which has for decades styled itself as the objective ‘paper of record’, has been convulsed by civil war over whether it should instead embrace more polemical, politicised stances.
As the lights go out and we see the world by firelight again, expect to discover the old gods striding, full-sized, across our imaginations again. We may find their return a mixed blessing.
While very high immigration has some economic benefits, at a cultural level it also tends to encourage a society where people draw their identity more from a sense of belonging to particular groups – ethnic subgroups, religions, sexualities etc – rather than identifying with the nation as something worth belonging to. It proposes to replace a democracy’s largest and most vital unit of belonging – the sense of a cohesive national community – with multiple communities united by not a great deal more than geography and happenstance.
You might say ‘so what?’ (after all this is what London is like nowadays and it works okay) but without an overarching sense of community, political solidarity is thin on the ground. Unless people picture their country and feel instinctively that they have a bond with its other citizens, that others are part of the same ‘us’, a group with shared interests within which compromises are desirable to ensure everyone can thrive, political solidarity and compromise is hard to come by. Witness the outpouring of venom from London against others in the nation who disagrees with them about the virtues of the European Union.
I’m on dangerous territory here, as this line of thinking slides into ‘blood and soil’ nutterdom if you’re not careful. Some migration is good and healthy, this must go without saying. But the core sense a demos has of itself: can that survive the addition of (say) 25% more people with entirely different traditions and histories? Certainly over time it can adapt to the new inputs, sure, but only if given time. If a city the size of Hull is added every year, the culture cannot possibly hope to keep up. I wonder if this has contributed into the degraded sense of politics-as-auction-to-interest-groups that has pervaded the national discourse since Blair: that increasingly no-one feels able to speak to the national interest, to the demos as a whole, because the demos’ own sense of itself has been steadily weakening.
I think this is reversible. Not by deporting people or closing the borders. But by a political leader who has the courage to speak to our country as an ‘us’, and to slow the pace of demographic change so that the culture and demos can catch up with what we are now. And who can do this while speaking to the new, nascent ‘us’ of 21st century Britain, to tease out a new sense of solidarity, while taking on the vested interests who undermine it: the gangmasters, property speculators, advocates for Sharia enclaves, policemen who wink at racist sexual exploitation and those in the gutter press who whip up xenophobia. The sweat shop capitalists recruiting overseas for their semi-indentured workforce. The twats who live in digital and geographic echo chambers and think the whole country should be like London. Everyone who tries to sell you identity politics as a substitute for a sense of broad community: the nativists and leftists both. The politicians who flog stale, selfish retail politics when the country is gasping for the cool water of honest debate about real issues.
All these people will tell you a cohesive national culture is a Bad Thing, because they instinctively grasp that it runs counter to their interests; but beware if they also tell you they’re for democracy; because they are against having a demos, without which democracy is just some rituals.
The Guardian reports on the first advertisements to fall foul of June’s Advertising Standards Authority rule change on ‘sexist stereotypes’ in advertising. One ad was banned because it depicted a woman sitting on a bench next to a pram. The advertiser claimed that the ad was about ‘adaptation’, and that adjusting to the arrival of a newborn baby is a situation where people must adjust. It was no use. The ASA “concluded that the ad presented gender stereotypes in a way that was likely to cause harm”.
Depictions of motherhood, then, are harmful to women, because they are sexist. Really? Hold on a minute. It is also polite received opinion, among the same class of our Progressive Betters who spend their time complaining about sexism in advertising, that mothers should be encouraged to breastfeed. And in this, our Progressive Betters are not thinking their position through. Because unless a mother is willing to spend hours a day hooked up to a milking machine, breastfeeding obliges her to be near her baby. How else are we to be present, boob at the ready, when our infant is hungry?
How are we to make sense of this muddled message? The only reasonable interpretation is that, in truth, our Progressive Betters do want mothers to breastfeed, to be available to our babies. But they want us to do it brim-full of miserable ambivalence. We are to breastfeed while editing science journals, answering emails from the CEO, or possibly skydiving or in space. We are to keep no more than one foot in motherhood at any time, and feed our babies knowing that this can never be a source of pride. Because to commit fully to motherhood as an occupation (even for a few short years) is to show – at best – a lack of imagination and ambition, if not a fully-fledged identification with patriarchal oppression and concomitant hatred of the rest of our sex.
The notion that depictions of motherhood are ‘harmful stereotypes’ is a rejection of the reality that a majority of mothers want to care for their children, generally a great deal more than they want to spend all day staring at spreadsheets, trading stocks or cleaning offices. But it is worse than that: by depicting motherhood as a ‘harmful’ stereotype, this value system encodes in the public sphere the notion that motherhood is a kind of failure.
In these rulings, in the name of social progress, the ASA has institutionalised contempt for traditionally feminine values. Women, it is implied, only throw off our oppression to the extent that we succeed in dissociating ourselves from any of the qualities traditionally (that is to say stereotypically) associated with motherhood. Values such as kindness, patience, empathy, self-sacrifice, placing others’ interests before our own. These values are ‘harmful’ and could (in the words of the ASA) result in women ‘limiting how [they] see themselves and how others see them and the life decisions they take’.
Instead, we should embrace stereotypically masculine virtues: courage, activity, adventurousness, leadership. Never mind that most women want to play the lead role in caring for their children, and that kindness, patience and a willingness to put others first are considerably more useful when dealing with a howling preschooler than two doctorates or experience leading a blue-chip corporation. Or is that just my identification with my own oppression?
Most women do a solid job of combining work interests and caring for children. More power to every single one of us, however we make it work. But it really does not help to be told that half of our useful skill set – which we know perfectly well is useful – is in fact ‘harmful’ and encouraging us to limit ourselves. Has the ASA and the rest of our Progressive Betters considered that those of us who are mothers, and who do not prioritise work above all else, just have a different idea of what constitutes ‘limitation’, and what constitutes success?
Perhaps our Progressive Betters should step back from their attempts at social engineering and think about the message they are actually conveying. Perhaps they might consider that using institutional power to enforce public valorisation only of women performing stereotypically ‘masculine’ activities, and censoring any association of women with stereotypically ‘feminine’ ones, in truth does real women with real children no favours. That they are in fact liberating women from nothing but our confidence that the skills we use in caring for our children are valuable, and that caring is itself valuable. Perhaps then they might see that their efforts to censor any public representation of motherhood, or valorisation of the traits that help mothers succeed, represents not feminist progress but a profound hatred of motherhood: the deepest and most vindictive misogyny of the lot.
This article first appeared in The Conservative Woman
Ever since Thatcher introduced Right to Buy, and then Blair super-heated the housing market with a combination of cheap loans and mass immigration, home ownership has become ever more of a sticky wicket for the Tories. On the one hand, Tory voting has historically been associated with home ownership: people with something to lose are typically more conservative. On the other hand though, in order to sustain the pleasantly rising house prices that keep the core Tory base contented (and the cheap money flowing, as people remortgage to pay for extensions, kids’ university fees or whatever) it becomes ever harder for younger generations to join the home-owning ranks of the putatively Tory.
Mulling this over, it struck me that there’s a second, more profound way that the late twentieth-century transformation of homes into part loan collateral, part asset class, part status symbol has left conservatism with a dilemma. A couple of years ago I wrote a piece about the way Brexit was functioning as a proxy war within the Tory Party over which the party valued more: free market dogma or social conservatism. I think my analysis still holds, and indeed that the only thing that has changed is that social conservatives are now losing, and leaving the Tory Party in droves. The housing issue, it seems to me, encapsulates the nature of this conflict in a nutshell.
Here’s why: if you see your house purchase primarily as an asset class, you’re not buying with the intent to settle and make a home there. You’ll do the place up, sell it on and move. No need to get to know the neighbours, form networks, get involved in community activities. Probably best if your kids don’t put down too many local roots or it’ll be a wrench for them to leave their friends. Homes-as-asset-class is the quintessential Anywhere (Goodhart) mindset, that treats a place as a set of resources to be consumed, developed, improved, but which are ultimately that: resources. Not networks, not reciprocal obligations, not really a home. Conversely, if you buy somewhere as a Somewhere, with the intent to put down roots and make a home there – to be there for the rest of your life or at least the foreseeable future – you can’t really treat your home as an asset class because it’s about the least liquid asset imaginable. OK, if house prices rise you’ll benefit a bit in theory, because maybe you can take out a loan against the imagined gain in value of your house but again, that’s only really meaningful if you’re planning to sell.
Now, I’m being a bit reductive but returning to the Conservatives, your Anywheres are all for free market liberalism – and your Somewheres are all for social conservatism. For many years, the two managed to coexist well enough within the same party, united – perhaps – by a broad consensus (for different reasons) that taxation and public spending should be restrained. But if the issue of European Union membership has been the most visible evidence of that truce collapsing, the breakdown both predates and is more profound than ‘banging on about Europe’ would suggest.
We’ve reached a point now where the demands of the free market are becoming ever more inimical to the needs of the kind of settled community that nurtures and values social conservatism. The kind of worldview that values the free market understands a house as primarily an investment, and invests him or herself in the local community in proportion to that understanding – ie lightly if at all. This is profoundly at odds with the kind of worldview that places value on continuity, community, a sense of place and tradition. Thus while both these groups may place a value on home ownership, it is for radically different reasons: and these two strands of conservatism are increasingly at odds.
Fundamentally, the Conservative Party has acted for some decades as though free market ideology were compatible with a belief in patriotism, conservative social values and a healthy civic society. It is becoming increasingly apparent that this is no longer the case. The profound sociocultural conflict and difference in outlook – and hence spending behaviour, political assumptions and fundamental approach to life – emblematic in the difference between a Somewhere who wishes to buy a house as a home, to live in and care for within the context of a rooted and socially-engaged local existence, and an Anywhere who wishes to buy a house as an investment, with the aim of moving on once it is financially viable, encapsulates this irreducible fracture. It is increasingly apparent that the Conservative Party cannot serve both. It is also increasingly apparent that, if one group has to go, it will not be the Anywheres. So the question is: who will speak for lower middle class Somewheres, when – as is now inevitable – they begin to flex their political muscles somewhere other than the Tory Party?
Most people who spend any time on the internets will by now be familiar with the strange spectacle of a vocal minority of transgender activists – usually male to female – seeking to further public acceptance of transgender people by shouting at feminists.
At the root of the argument is the feminists’ contention that many of the things that make being a woman a bit crap as compared to the average man are specifically contingent on 1) being born and raised with female primary and secondary sex characteristics and 2) having been raised in a way that recognises that fact and as a result assigns the bearer a load of societally-defined expectations clustered under the banner ‘being a woman’. Thus, to put it simply, you need to have had a cunt from the beginning to be on the team.
The transwomen’s contention, on the other hand, is that in fact being a woman has nothing to do either with how you are formed physically or how you were treated during your childhood, but is instead a state-independent condition experienced inwardly in a ‘gender identity’. No-one really seems to have a clear explanation for how or why people obtain their ‘gender identity’ or how it may evolve separately from physiological sex in some cases. But the notion that gender is experienced inwardly, independently of physiology, is then supported by studies that purport to show differences between men’s and women’s brains, which claim that the brains of transgendered people are more like those of the opposite sex.
The brain scan studies are of dubious value. The argument fundamentally rests on a philosophical stance that privileges subjective experience over observable reality. Originating in a Marxian critique of Enlightenment universalism, post-modern critiques of such a concept as ‘observable reality’ contend that there is no such thing, as certain powerful groups get to decide what counts as ‘observable reality’ and shape the consensus on its nature to further their own interests. Observable reality is, thus, less of an agreed platform for social interaction than a suffocating fug of false consciousness imposed upon us all in order to perpetuate the status quo and all its oppressions. In that context, the only testimonies that matter are personal, individual ones; and the greater the payload of oppression the testifier has suffered, the more weight his or her testimony should have.
This, then, is the context in which the Great Tranny Vs Feminazi Deathmatch is taking place. Paradoxically, feminists were one of the many groups who argued that for oppressed groups to make headway, the concept of ‘observable reality’ needed to be challenged. How, else, could one question the ‘observable reality’ that women are better at unpaid caretaking, while men are better at running the world? So it has been in women’s interests to question the concept of realities that just are, unaffected by the operations of power or ideology.
This has, as they say, come back to bite the feminists on the bum. Among devotees of these theories, all reality is now tainted by the operations of power and ideology, none of it is consensual: reality is stolen from those weaker than us. And nowhere is this more so than our material, sexed bodies. And because no consensus can be formed any more about what a woman is, suddenly a woman is anyone who says they are one.
The trouble with this stance, in the context of transgendered people and women, is that their interests are mutually exclusive. I won’t rehash in detail the feminist critique of transgender arguments as a quick Google should tell you everything you need to know (if you can bear it); but Sheila Jeffries’ testimony to the Transgender Equality Enquiry sums it up. Briefly, feminists argue that gender (as opposed to sex) is a socially-created construct whatever your genitals and as such we should be working to get rid of it, while biological sex is the only reality we can stick to and hence this should form the basis of discussions about who ‘is’ or ‘is not’ a ‘woman’. Transgender activists, conversely, argue that gender is a socially-created performance whatever your genitals, and therefore it is the only reality. And so we should stop talking about biological differences or we’re being oppressive.
Now, whether or not you think women are sufficiently oppressed, in this day and age, to need a feminist movement, this is madness. Because I have always been a woman, my penis is a woman’s penis? No it isn’t, you fool. Observable reality says there is such a thing as a male sex and a female sex. But wait, observable reality is a politically suspect concept, and wasn’t it you who said that the pain and suffering of those marginalised by such universalist notions should be foregrounded? So stick that in your pipe and smoke it, feminists. And so it goes on.
My hope is that the experience of being hoist with their own Oppression Olympics petard will force at least one type of social-justice warrior (feminists) to see the logic of identity politics for what it is: a whining, corrosive and fundamentally politically useless doctrine that sets all against all in a competition for the mantle of Most Oppressed, while shooting any hope of common discursive ground out from under us in the process. The depressing alternative is the one exemplified by the frankly crackers online whinge-fest Everyday Feminism, whose USP is clickbait-style checklists of ways in which you and I can offend micro-subsets of different grievance categories through thoughtless actions such as showing photos of our children to colleagues in the workplace. In that world no solidarity is possible; all conversations take place on eggshells; the world is, for each of us, what we say it is and each of these worldviews is valid, beautiful and insulated from critique or indeed any burden of proof. Conflicts between personal realities are settled through reference to a pre-determined hierarchy of oppressions in which the more intersections you have on the Venn diagram the more people you are permitted to silence.
Much more is at stake here than the ability to have meaningful conversations about ways in which owning a vagina has downsides. This is about whether humans are able to have any kind of conversation that takes some real-world referents for granted, or whether the notion of ‘real world’ is considered so politically loaded that each of us is left isolated in a kind of miasmic solipsism disrupted only by the nudges and shoves of other ideological attempts to rain on our personal parade.
Arguably the hyper-individualist style of ‘social justice’ exemplified above is a luxury afforded us by a relatively affluent, peaceful and equal society. My hope is that the very cultural specificity of the social-justice movement as enacted by Tumblr proves to be its downfall, and that the practical obviousness of the continued need for a global women’s rights movement succeeds in challenging our collective descent into ideologically atomised madness. But don’t be fooled: this is more than a trivial spat between competing grievance-mongers.
- rape culture
- protecting women
- sexual segregation
- consent education
- 60s liberalism threw the door open to ‘do what thou wilt’ and we are seeing the backlash now that people have begun to take that injunction at face value
As I start drafting this I note glumly that, though I support a Leave vote in the forthcoming EU referendum, I don’t think the British will vote that way. The UK electorate is, on the whole, small-c conservative and most of us are quite used to EU interference and perhaps even enjoy being able to grumble about it. Not enough of us get agitated enough about issues of national sovereignty to swing it.
But I also think the EU is going to implode, possibly catastrophically. Not because of its poor performance as a customs union, the disastrous effects of the single currency on the eurozone southern states or even its appalling democratic deficit. These are all symptoms, rather than causes.
The reason the EU will implode is because it is run by people who not only don’t understand ordinary voters with ordinary lives, they actively fear and despise them. In EU circles, ‘populism’ is code for ‘democracy’ and seen as a bad thing. Electorates should be kept in the dark as much as possible, fed simple stories and coaxed along with a mixture of bribes, fearmongering and good old-fashioned obfuscation.
This is all very well in times of peace and plenty. Everyone rubs along and no-one really notices that the ruling elites don’t give a stuff what the electorate want, or indeed that this elite has put in place a system that ensures they don’t have to give a stuff what the electorate wants as they don’t need a popular mandate of any kind to implement it.
But what happens when things start getting a bit hairy? When, for example, contractionary eurozone policies result in 50% youth unemployment in Spain? Or democratically elected governments in Italy, Greece and (arguably) Portugal are deposed for not agreeing with the EU? Or when Juncker decides it wants to force quotas of migrants onto EU countries against the wills of their electorates? (As it happens, this last plan more or less fell apart because numerous EU countries simply refused to go along with the plan; but the technocratic indifference to popular opinion was clear.)
Eurosceptic parties are on the rise across the continent. A significant contributor to this phenomenon is a growing, and in my view well-founded suspicion on the part of electorates across the EU that they are not being listened to. Worse still, even if they are being listened to by their elected leaders, the power to make changes has been taken away from these leaders and is now above their pay grade.