Monday, 29 December 2008
"Disinformation, secrecy and lies: How the Gaza offensive came about"
"Delusions of victory in Gaza"
("Six months ago Israel asked and received a cease-fire from Hamas. It unilaterally violated it when it blew up a tunnel, while still asking Egypt to get the Islamic group to hold its fire.")
"Little Baghdad in Gaza - bombs, fear and rage"
"The Neighborhood Bully Strikes Again"
("Within the span of a few hours on a Saturday afternoon, the IDF sowed death and destruction on a scale that the Qassam rockets never approached in all their years, and Operation "Cast Lead" is only in its infancy."; "Once again, Israel's violent responses, even if there is justification for them, exceed all proportion and cross every red line of humaneness, morality, international law and wisdom.")
Sunday, 28 December 2008
Despite the ongoing threat from Hamas, Israel has demonstrated ample willingness to help avoid a humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Over the past several months Israel has risked the opening of key border crossings – which have often come under attack – to allow shipments of food and medical supplies to the residents of Gaza.
The reader is left to infer what the JCRC prefers to omit: namely, that Israel has, with few and minor exceptions, systematically blocked the entry of food and medicine to Gaza, thus creating the humanitarian crisis that Israel is supposedly “ampl[y] willing” to help avoid. Likewise, the JCRC wastes no words on the widespread condemnation of Israel’s economic strangulation of Gaza, including by the United Nations, to which Israel has responded by imprisoning and expelling UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Prof. Richard Falk in order to prevent him visiting Gaza in order to be able to report in detail on the conditions there. The UNRWA, the UN agency in charge of ensuring that the population of Gaza and the rest of the Occupied Palestinian Territories, has been forced by the Israeli blockade to stop providing food and medicine to Gaza, but, again, not a word from the JCRC.
The JCRC does, however, see fit to boast that Israel’s attacks have received the seal of approval of the Bush Administration. As Boston Legal’s Alan Shore once quipped: “When such an obvious straight line is lobbed at me, I cannot be held responsible for my actions.”
Much of the remainder of the JCRC statement is a litany of the standard, long-discredited clichés. No such litany would be complete without a few bars of Hamas’ avowed goal of Israel’s destruction, or that oldie-but-a-goodie: Whenever Israel’s military is called into action, it consistently seeks to minimize civilian casualties. Those of us who prefer a sentimental tune will be happy to hear Israel is still committed to peace, but there can be no peace while an entire population is subject to terrorist attacks. For the grand finale, we are treated to Israel’s right to exist.
This charming medley is not spoiled by pointing out such inconvenient facts as Hamas’s formal recognition of the two-state settlement based on the international consensus as the basis for negotiations. Similarly, the authors of the statement do not point out that even Alan Dershowitz has tacitly admitted that the only way one can speak with a straight face of the IDF’s efforts to minimize civilian casualties is to redefine the term civilian (by concocting a “continuum of civilianality [sic]”). The invocation of “Israel’s commitment to peace” could stand to be qualified by reference to Israel’s consistent record of rejecting diplomatic settlements in favour of expanding illegal settlements in the Occupied Territories, or its consistent use of violence to avoid the danger of serious negotiations. And when even Ehud Olmert is forced to describe settler violence (with near-complete impunity) against Palestinian civilians as a “pogrom”, one might be forgiven for asking which “entire population” is subject to terrorist attacks (at least if we accept standard legal definitions of terrorism). Furthermore, it just wouldn’t do to point out that no state has a right to exist, apart from the right to exist in peace within recognised borders, a right that also applies to the Palestinians, who have repeatedly offered over the past few decades to recognise just that right for Israel.
One wonders why the JCRC bothered to issue such a statement at all when the virtually identical press releases of the Israeli government would fully suffice!
In a time when Jewish opinion is increasingly moving in the direction of disgust at the behaviour of the Israeli government, statements like these by mainstream Jewish organisations raise an uncomfortable, but urgent, question: Do these organisations see themselves as representatives of the interests of our Jewish community in the US, or those of the Israeli government? Some might think that those interests are one and the same. Certainly, this is what we are led to believe by such groups as the Antidefamation League.
However, if there ever was a time in which the interests of Jews here coincided with those of the Israeli government, that time is long since past. By issuing uncritical statements of support for criminal Israeli policies whilst claiming to represent the Jewish community, groups like the JCRC paint us all as advocates of and accessories to criminal actions that more and more of us condemn. It cannot be in our interest for Jews to be portrayed in the media as unquestioning supporters of some of the worst international thuggery of our time.
This certainly is in the interest of the Israeli government, which depends on the appearance of international (and especially US) Jewish support to insulate its conduct from criticism. However, it is most certainly not in the interests of the Jewish community as a whole. As long as mainstream Jewish organisations such as the JCRC seek to create the impression of unity between Jews in the US and the Israeli government, they virtually guarantee that Israel’s crimes will result in an increase in anti-Semitic sentiment (which Israel then uses to encourage immigration in order to solve the “demographic problem”).
As long as “our” organisations continue to blur the line between Israeli conduct and Jewish opinion, it is incumbent upon us to make it clear that these organisations do not represent us. If groups like the ADL and JCRC will not clearly and unmistakably draw the line, it is up to us to draw it ourselves by unequivocally and publicly stating that we do not condone the crimes that Israel commits in our name.
Sunday, 2 November 2008
The Single Issue: Shutting Up the Fundamentalists
We are getting ready to vote in what will hopefully be the first unsuccessfully manipulated presidential election this century, and it’s important to do so without illusions.
We hear that Obama is a socialist. If only! He’s not, and he in fact agrees with McCain on most issues. Let’s not deceive ourselves about what’s at stake here.
There is one issue – and one alone – that makes it worthwhile, perhaps even vital, to ensure that John McCain and his witchcraft-vaccinated sidekick do not make it into the White House: It is high time that we finally kicked these fundamentalist clerics out of the White House.
Domestically, the last eight years have been an all-out war on women, gays, lesbians, transpeople, non-fundamentalists, and anyone who fits in more than one of these categories. We have seen a rapist put in charge of reproductive health at the FDA, seen a judge appointed to the Supreme Court who believes that a man should have the same power over his wife that the law gives him over his minor children, seen the beginning of an offensive against birth control, and we have heard the words “homosexual agenda” so often that we GLBT folks have to wonder whether it isn’t time to actually create one. We have seen the forces of ignorance, superstition, and bigotry attack every facet of our national life, while trying to convince us that it’s the Muslims (the Jews of our time) we should be afraid of.
Is there a single honest, self-respecting person in this country who isn’t sick of this shit? Is there any woman in this country who doesn’t look with dread on the possibility that Justice Stevens’ replacement may be chosen based on the jurisprudential philosophy of Ms “Pay for your own rape kit” Palin? Is there anyone who thinks of the chance that foreign policy will continue to be determined by people seeking to fulfil the prophesy of exterminating Jews and Muslims without being overcome by nausea?
Obama won’t end the murderous wars against Iraq and Afghanistan, but at least he’ll give us some respite from the fundamentalist Christian war against the people of this country. We’ll have four years in which the White House isn’t issuing the press releases of clinic bombers and Christian Dominionist militias.
Those of us who are distracted from fighting against the war and insurance industries will have four years in which we don’t be fully consumed by defending shit we thought we already had. Four years in which women’s chief worry doesn’t have to be whether we’re headed for the 1950s or the 1850s. Obama won’t be handing us what we want, but his election will allow us to focus our energies on our ultimate goals.
As the late Georgie Carlin said 20 years ago, “I have just about had it with these fucking church people!” After eight ears of watching them define the domestic agenda, haven’t we all? Who among us doesn’t feel just a little joy at the thought of the crestfallen faces of our homegrown Taliban? Who doesn’t want to see Ted Haggard, James Dobson, and the Southern Baptist Conference shitting themselves with rage rather than coming in their pants with glee?
Let’s deal these fundamentalist motherfuckers a blow that doesn’t come from their teenage meth connections!
Monday, 22 September 2008
Ein Gutes hatte der sog. Antiislamisierungskongreß vergangener Woche: Die Herren Entislamisierer haben nämlich unmißverständlich deutlich gemacht, was jeder halbwegs vernünftige Betrachter bereits seit Langem weiß. Seit 1945 hat sich freilich vieles geändert. Das Land, in dem es einst alles zu „arisieren“ galt, hat jetzt eine erstaunlich vielfältige und multikulturelle Gesellschaft vorzuweisen. Selbst der braune Restbestand holt sich erst mal Döner oder Schawarma vor dem allnächtlichen Klatschgang. In einem Land, in dem einst der häßlichste Antisemitismus der Geschichte zum Vorschein kam, blüht jüdisches Leben allmählich wieder auf (in manchen Germanistikstudiengängen kann man inzwischen sogar Jiddischkurse belegen).
Doch eins ist im euroamerikanischen Kulturkreis beim Alten geblieben: die ethnisch-kulturell-religiös definierte Zielscheibe. Gestern hat man gegen die „Verjudung“ Europas gewittert; heute hetzt man gegen eine erfundene „Islamisierung“ (daß Juden hierbei nicht mehr als Zielscheibe, sondern als politisches Schutzschild, verwendet werden, ist ein weiteres Zeichen gesellschaftlichen Wandels). Die Rechte ist dieselbe geblieben; nur das Feindbild hat sie gegen ein neues ausgetauscht.
Interessant ist hierbei zu bemerken, daß eigentlich nur die Namen ausgetauscht worden sind. Sogar die Stereotypen, sowie die Ängste, die es zu schüren gilt, sind 2008 dieselben wie 1930. Damals galt die gesellschaftlich-politische Ausgrenzung vor allem den sog. Ostjuden (auch „Galizier“ genannt). Die Ostjuden kamen v.a. aus Polen und Rußland, lebten erst in der 1. oder 2. Generation in Deutschland, waren größtenteils arm, und hingen sehr an ihren heimischen Bräuchen und Traditionen. Sie sprachen eher Jiddisch als Deutsch, und blieben – nicht zuletzt wegen der sozialen Ausgrenzung – lieber unter sich. Nach dem heutigen Sprachgebrauch würde man ihnen „mangelnden Integrationswillen“ bescheinigen. Häufig wurden sie den heimischen, assimilierten, eher gutbürgerlichen deutschen Juden gegenübergestellt, die sich ebenfalls von ihnen distanzierten. Eine der ersten großangelegten antisemitischen Maßnahmen nach der sog. „Machtergreifung“ war die Massenabschiebung sämtlicher Ostjuden. Die Ostjuden galten als dreckig, hinterlistig und kriminell, sowie als die Träger fremder Einflüsse. Sie waren, so die gängigen rechten Parolen, an allem schuld, woran man nur schuld sein konnte: Arbeitslosigkeit, Armut, gesellschaftlichen Unruhen, usw.
So hat z.B. ein preußischer Polizeipräsident 1920 geschrieben: „Die Ostjudenplage wird, da es sich hier nicht nur um lästige, sondern um höchst gefährliche Ausländer handelt, in ihrer jetzigen Duldung und wohlwollenden Behandlung künftig politisch, wirtschaftlich und gesundheitlich die furchtbarsten Gefahren zeitigen“. Ihnen wurde in antisemitischen Postkarten eine „Freifahrkarte nach Jerusalem… hin und nicht wieder zurück“ angeboten.
„Die Physiognomie des jüdischen ‚Schmarotzers’, der als dunkelhaariger Mann mit langem Haar und Bart, mit hagerem Gesicht, Schirmmütze und Peies dargestellt wurde, diente zur Visualisierung des unmaskierten ‚wahren’ Juden, der allerdings aufgrund seiner Assimilationsfähigkeit in die Rolle des zivilisierten Westeuropäers schlüpfen könne; doch ‚die äußerliche Erscheinung ändere nichts an der rassischen Andersartigkeit und ihrem parasitären Charakter’.“
Ein Grundzug der Propaganda war also, daß (Ost-)Juden absolut, unnahbar anders seien, so daß eine rationale Auseinandersetzung oder ein friedliches Zusammenleben mit ihnen schlichtweg undenkbar sei. Nur als Gegner könne man sie verstehen.
Der Vergleich zum heutigen Zustand liegt wohl auf der Hand. Nur das Feindbild hat sich geändert. Ostjuden sind kein geeignetes Feindbild mehr, und zwar nicht zuletzt deshalb, weil sie größtenteils ermordet worden sind. Der nationalsozialistische Massenmord hat such die Einstellungen im euroamerikanischen Kulturkreis zum Judentum, und deshalb auch zum traditionellen Antisemitismus, grundlegend geändert. Heute werden alte NS-Sprüche wie „Juden raus“ nicht nur allgemein verachtet, sondern auch noch strafrechtlich geahndet (anders aber „Türken raus“ o.ä.). An die Stelle des traditionellen, wie auch des nationalsozialistisch verschärften Antisemitismus ist ein Philosemitismus getreten, der aber in manchen Hinsichten – wie z.B. die häufig unkritische Einstellung zur israelischen Politik – den Juden eher schadet als nützt. An die Stelle der Ostjuden als Gegenstand nationalistischer Hetze – das bestätigt erneut der „Antiislamisierungskongreß“ – sind die Muslime getreten.
Schon am Sprachgebrauch ist das zu erkennen. Nicht umsonst nennt die Rechte das Zusammenleben mit Menschen islamischen Glaubens und nahöstlicher Kultur „Islamisierung“. Damit soll nämlich zum Ausdruck gebracht werden, daß es sich nicht um Menschen wie dich und mich handele, sondern um gefährliche Unterwanderer, vor denen die „abendländisch-christliche“ Kultur hermetisch abzuriegeln sei. Daß die heutigen Inhaber der Ostjudenrolle sich nicht nur sprachlich, kulturell und religiös, sondern auch noch häufig aufgrund der Hautfarbe, von „uns“ unterscheiden, ist hierbei ein kleiner Pluspunkt (die Herstellungskosten gelber Halbmonde o.ä. kann man sich nämlich sparen).
Wenden wir uns den heutigen Propagandisten einer vermeintlichen „Islamisierung“ zu, sehen wir einen Umgang mit dem „Gegnervolk“, der dem damaligen politischen Umgang mit den (Ost-)Juden verblüffend ähnlich sieht. Der Bau von Moscheen – wie einst der Bau von Synagogen – wird als „Drohung“ bezeichnet, der man sich entgegensetzen müsse. Als typische Beispiele der islamischen Ausländer, die die deutsche Gesellschaft bevölkern, und die die Mehrheitsverhältnisse in der Bundesrepublik „[u]m[zu]kippen“ drohen, führt ein sog. Minority Report über die „Islamisierung“ an:
„Muslime, die ihren deutschen Hausfrauen drohen, ihnen ‚die Hand abzuhacken’, wenn sie einen anderen Mann auch nur anschauen (...). Oder analphabetische Patriarchen, die ihre Familienangelegenheiten mitten in Berlin nach dem Hausbrauch afghanischer Bergvölker regeln. Die Symptome (!) sind so unterschiedlich wie auch die Ansichten darüber, was schon eine Parallelgesellschaft ist und was noch nicht.“
Derselbe Report betont eine vermeintliche muslimische „Geheimniskrämerei“, und fragt rhetorisch, „Was denken diese Leute wirklich von uns, wenn sie unter sich sind?“ „Hoffentlich sind wir diesen Verbreiter von Haß und Gewalt bald los! Doch wenn Staat beziehungsweise Land schon einmal Härte zeigen, folgt gleich die Beschwichtigung, er sei ja nur eine Ausnahme, alle anderen seien doch lieb und nett. Sind sie das wirklich? Was wissen wir denn, was in den Moscheen gesprochen und verkündigt wird?“ (Hervorhebung von mir) heißt es in einem von demselben Report zitierten Leserbrief im Berliner Morgenpost. Einzelheiten zur angedeuteten „muslimischen Weltverschwörung“ werden wir sicherlich demnächst in den Protokollen der Weisen von Arabien erfahren.
Gewalt, Kriminalität, Verschwörungen und Frauenschändung gehören also schon zum neuen Feindbild (wie auch in etwas anderer Form zur alten). Es bleibt dann nur noch das unnahbare Anderssein übrig. Doch auch das stellt uns der Verfasser des Report gern zur Verfügung. „Hinzu kommt,“ zitiert der Report einen Artikel des rechtsradikalen Blatts Junge Freiheit, „daß die Zuwanderung statt aus modernen und bildungsorientierten aus archaischen Gesellschaften erfolgt, und zwar aus deren Unterschichten. So weisen die migrantischen Jugendlichen in Kreuzberg einen durchschnittlichen Intelligenzquotienten von 86 auf, ein alarmierendes Unterschichtenindiz, denn erst ab 105 beginnt die höhere Gesellschaftsfähigkeit.“ Ein Dialog sei also undenkbar, weil die „gesellschaftsunfähigen“ Muslime rein geistig nicht in der Lage seien, einen zu führen.
In beiden Fällen werden also völkisch, sprachlich, religiös und kulturell definierte Feindbilder heraufbeschworen, die Europa angeblich unterwandern und erobern werden. Wie die Ostjuden wegen ihrer jiddisch- und hebräischsprachigen Gottesdienste werden die Muslime wegen der Führung von Gottesdiensten in ihren jeweiligen Muttersprachen verdächtigt. Die Gebetsstätten selbst werden als geheimnisvolle Verschwörungsstandorte beschrieben, in denen „die“ alles mögliche über „uns“ sagen, ohne daß „wir“ es mitbekommen.
Der im Titel dieses Aufsatzes verwendete Begriff des „neuen Antisemitismus“ ist freilich ein unpräziser. Zwar sind viele Muslime Araber, und damit auch semitischer Herkunft; dies trifft jedoch nicht z.B. auf Türken und Afghanen zu. Vielmehr soll mit dem Begriff zweierlei verdeutlicht werden. Zum einen soll dem als Schimpfwort für (auch jüdische) Israelkritiker verwendeten „neuen Antisemitismus“ eine weniger realtitätsfremde Bedeutung entgegengesetzt werden. Zum anderen soll durch die Verwendung des Antisemitismusbegriffs betont werden, daß beide Feindbilder dieselbe gesellschaftliche Funktion ausüben. So wie der Antisemitismus als „Sozialismus der dummen Kerle“ die Angst und Wut der weniger begüterten Schichten auf eine Zielscheibe lenkte, die eine Fundamentalkritik am Kapitalismus verhinderte, lenkt der heutige Islamisierungswahn von den ökonomisch-politischen Prozessen ab, denen man Massenarbeitslosigkeit, sozialen Abstieg und Hoffnungslosigkeit wirklich zu verdanken hat.
 Zit. n. http://www.ruhr-uni-bochum.de/bsz/516/516lager.htm
 Zit. n. Judith Kessler, Ausstellung: „Gruß aus Bad Kissingen“: Eine Ausstellung im Kommunikationsmuseum befaßt sich mit judenfeindlichen Postkarten, http://www.berlin-judentum.de/news/2004/01/postkarten.htm
 Zit. n. Diana Carmen Albu, „Der ewige Jude“ – Geschichte und Hintergründe eines NS-Propagandafilmes, http://david.juden.at/kulturzeitschrift/50-54/Main%20frame_Artikel54_Albu.htm
 Minority Report, S. 20, erhältlich unter: http://www.islamisierung.info/file/Minority_Report.pdf
 Ebenda, S. 22
 Ebenda, S. 30, Hervorhebung im zit. Werk.
 An diesem Zitat erkennt man auch einen der wichtigsten Unterschiede zwischen dem traditionellen europäischen Antisemitismus und dem heutigen Islamisierungswahn. Den (weißen) europäischen Juden bescheinigte man nämlich meist eine überdurchschnittliche Intelligenz und eine vermeintlich damit einhergehende „Gerissenheit“, die einen ehrlichen Dialog unmöglich machte. Den größtenteils nichtweißen Muslimen hingegen spricht man die Dialogfähigkeit wegen ihrer vermeintlich unterdurchschnittlichen Intelligenz ab.
Post Scriptum: Seit dem gescheiterten Antiislamisierungskongreß werden von rechter Seite die Antifa- und sonstigen Gegendemonstranten als "Nazis" und "Faschisten" beschimpft. Das ist an und für sich nicht überraschend. Aber es drängt sich da eine Frage auf: Was wäre eigentlich gewesen, wenn den Gesinnungsgenossen der heutigen Herren Entislamisierer 1932 eine ähnliche Begrüßung begegnet wäre wie letzte Woche in Köln?
Sunday, 21 September 2008
In seinen Bemühungen, den gescheiterten Anti-"Islamisierungs"kongreß in Köln zu entnazifizieren, hat das Blog "PI-News" behauptet, linke Demonstranten hätten einen jüdischen "Mitbürger" angegriffen. Durch ihre wohlgeschminkt zur Schau getragene Empörung über die zu "SA-Horden" und "Nazis" verkommenen "Linksfaschisten" sollte bewiesen werden, daß diese Entislamisierer zu einer "neuen" Rechten gehören, die keinerlei faschistische Altlasten mit sich herumschleppe.
(Es ist natürlich gut möglich, daß die PI-Blogger das ganze erfunden haben. Das wäre ihnen schon zuzutrauen.)
Auf dem Hintergrund habe ich mir folgenden Kommentar erlaubt. Leider ist die Datei, in der ich den Kommentar gespeichert hatte, verlorengegangen, also könnte der Wortlaut in einigen Einzelheiten vom Inhalt des ursprünglichen Kommentars abweichen.
Wozu brauchen wir Juden eigentlich Feinde, wenn wir solche "Freunde" wie euch haben?
Lassen wir einmal beiseite, daß ihr einen jüdischen BÜRGER zum "Mitbürger" degradiert habt (der Begriff stammt nämlich aus dem römischen Recht und heißt "Staatsbürger zweiter Klasse").
Dem Artikel liegt die Annahme zugrunde, man könne Juden einfach so erkennen. Das ist natürlich völkisch-antisemitischer Schwachsinn. Antisemitische Beweggründe für den angebl. Angriff können jedoch nur dann unterstellt werden, wenn man davon ausgeht, daß nicht nur rein zufällig, sondern vorsätzlich ein jüdischer "Mitbürger" angegriffen worden sei. Ohne die Annahme, Juden seien sichtlich zu erkennen, macht der ganze Artikel also gar keinen Sinn.
Wenn ihr aber nicht davon ausgeht, daß Juden alle gleich aussähen, gibt es nur eine andere Möglichkeit: Die angebl. jüdische Herkunft dieser Person wird als Schutzschild gegen die Vorwürfe, mit denen eine Organisation, die sich gegen Menschen einer bestimmten ethnisch-kulturell-religiösen Herkunft richtet, üblicherweise rechnen muß.
Ihr mißbraucht also Juden zu euren eigenen Zwecken.
Da sehnt man sich geradezu nach den Zeiten, als wir euch noch bestenfalls völlig egal waren!
Früher hat man gegen die "Judaisierung" Europas gewittert. Heute ist das eben passé; man hat inzwischen andere Semiten gefunden.
Dieser Zweck-Philosemitismus ist der schlimmste Antisemitismus überhaupt.
Die PI-Blogger haben sich entschieden, den Kommentar zu unterdrücken. Etwas anderes habe ich aber nicht erwartet. Bei der Rechten dürfen Juden entweder als menschliches Schutzschild oder als Sündenbock fungieren. Wer da nicht mitmacht, wird eben mundtot gehalten.
Monday, 23 June 2008
The Discourse of Academic Freedom as Defence of Hierarchy in the Aftermath of J. Michael Bailey's The Man Who Would Be Queen
Élise R. Hendrick
Focus and Limits
For the purposes of these remarks, I will assume that Alice Dreger and J. Michael Bailey, along with David Horowitz, Lynne Cheney, and many others over the past several years, are quite sincere in their vociferous defence of what they call "academic freedom". I make this assumption not because I believe it to be the only reasonable interpretation of the relevant facts, but because their sincerity, or lack thereof, is ultimately irrelevant to the question at hand, specifically:
What is the nature of the "academic freedom" that Bailey, Dreger, et al. are so forcefully defending?;
Because of the narrow question presented, there will be no detailed discussion of such interesting subjects as the scientific status of J. Michael Bailey's The Man Who Would Be Queen (TMWWBQ) or the underlying work by Blanchard et al. on which that book was almost exclusively based. These matters have been discussed exhaustively elsewhere by myself and others. Nor do I intend to discuss the veracity of allegations that Bailey had sexual relations with at least one of his research subjects; to the extent that this matter is discussed at all, it is for the purpose of situating Bailey's public remarks on the propriety of such conduct within the overall framework of the "academic freedom" at issue.
In examining the nature of the freedom so vigorously defended by Bailey et al., I will not make assumptions based on common usage or dictionary definitions. Instead, I will ascertain the contours of "academic freedom" ?la Bailey, Dreger et al. based on the specific conduct they claim violates it. Only by taking them at their word and looking in the directions in which they point us can we truly begin to comprehend their understanding of the concept and situate this understanding within its proper historical and political context.
II. Freedom and its Defenders
"Academic Freedom": Content and Boundaries
In order to determine the contours of the academic freedom defended by Bailey, Dreger, et al., it is initially instructive to ask what conduct, in their view, falls within its scope, either as an exercise or a permissible defence of academic freedom. As strident defenders of academic freedom, it is reasonable to assume that they would not engage in any conduct that they themselves considered to be violative of it.
It should be noted here that we are concerned with the minimum scope of Bailey-Dreger academic freedom (BDAF). Given the limited data available, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to locate the outer limits of BDAF; however, based on the conduct of Bailey and Dreger themselves, and the conduct assailed by them as violative of academic freedom, we can determine what, at a bare minimum, it includes, and how, at a minimum, it can be violated.
In examining the right of academic freedom asserted by Bailey and Dreger, it is useful to start by asking who are the beneficiaries and addressees of the right, i.e., who can assert the right, and against whom.
The second prong of the question is also the simpler of the two. Bailey-Dreger academic freedom may be asserted against anyone. There is no limitation - as is customary in legal definitions of academic freedom - to state and quasi-state actors. Here, for example, Bailey and Dreger have asserted that their academic freedom has been violated by fellow academics, a graduate student, and persons entirely outside of the academic establishment.
At first glance, it may seem obvious who can claim the protection of Bailey-Dreger academic freedom. Based on the cases in which Bailey and Dreger have asserted that his or their academic freedom has been violated, it might appear that BDAF is a purely status-based right: a person holding an academic position may assert the right with regard to conduct of any kind, even when, as in the case of
the asserting party expressly disavows any intention of engaging in scholarly activities.
However, this picture omits an important aspect: Bailey and Dreger assert that their academic freedom has been violated by conduct - including conduct by persons holding academic positions - that is virtually indistinguishable from the conduct they assert is protected by academic freedom when engaged in by them. Indeed, the only meaningful difference between the conduct that Bailey and Dreger consider to be protected by their version of academic freedom and the conduct they consider to be a violation of their version of academic freedom is that the protected conduct is their own, whereas the (virtually indistinguishable) violative conduct is that of their critics.
Thus, as we will see, Bailey-Dreger academic freedom accords heightened protection to their right as academics to engage in whatever conduct they wish, while prohibiting any criticism of that conduct by anyone. There is no requirement that their conduct be scholarly in nature, nor that those against whom the right is asserted be state actors.
Let us turn, then, to the most peculiar feature of Bailey-Dreger academic freedom, namely, the lack of any requirement that the underlying conduct be scholarly in nature. It should be noted that, with regard to TMWWBQ, there are two paths by which this conclusion can be reached: either, as Bailey now claims, he had no intention of engaging in scientific research, but rather merely wished to create the impression that he had done so by means of the book's title ("The Science of Gender Bending and Transsexualism"), marketing materials ("based on his original research"), and numerous allusions to "our study" and the like in the book itself; or, as the book itself indicates, Bailey did in fact intend TMWWBQ to be a work of science, but did so poorly. Whether one chooses to credit the version offered by Bailey in his book, or the version offered in response to criticisms of the book, the conduct in question need not be scholarly or scientific; anything written by a professor will do.
Case Study I: "Sympathetic" is in the eye of the beholder
For the most part, the criticism of TMWWBQ, unlike the book itself, has been a fairly decorous affair, conducted at the level of fact, research, science, and ethics. Thus, there has only been one case in which the criticism can be considered to have even approached the edge of the minimum scope of the conduct protected by Bailey-Dreger academic freedom: the captions placed by Andrea James on publicly available photographs of Bailey's children.
However, before we conclude that this conduct is analogous to Bailey's, certain distinguishing factors must be taken into account. Of these, the most important distinction is the intent. Unlike Bailey's portrayal of transsexual women as inherently deceptive beings who transition either to enhance their masturbatory activities or to bed as many heterosexual men as possible (the latter group being "especially suited to prostitution" and "especially motivated" to commit theft), Andrea James was by no means seeking to convince her audience of the truth of her captions. To my knowledge, not even Bailey and Dreger claim that James' captions were intended as factual assertions, nor has James at any time asserted that there was a scientific or other factual basis for the content of those captions.
Rather, James' purpose was to point out to those who saw the captions how they would feel if the labels Bailey calls "sympathetic" when aimed at trans women were instead directed at their own children. Furthermore, in response to the entirely predictable outrage, James - who, whatever one may think of the method, had already proved her point - issued an apology and removed the offending pictures from her website.
This indisputably (and intentionally) offensive act, of which much has been made by Bailey & Co., stands in stark contrast to Bailey's own conduct, conduct that clearly falls within the heightened protection of Bailey-Dreger academic freedom. It is uncontroversial that the epithets Bailey directed at trans women as a group were meant to be taken as fact. Indeed, they are printed in a book that proclaims itself "the science" on the subject, a book based on Bailey's "original research".
While Bailey has not always been entirely consistent on whether the book is to be treated as a scientific work (depending on whether he wishes to claim the authority of science or duck the responsibility that comes with it), he has never suggested that TMWWBQ was intended as a satire or parody of certain fields of science; indeed, the one matter on which he has not wavered is the fundamental scientific accuracy of his proclamation that all trans women are liars seeking to live out sexual fantasies. Any clinician or researcher who begs to differ is "squeamish" or "not scholarly enough", and, accordingly, does not even deserve to be mentioned by name.
Page after page, he asserts that his characterisations of trans women are "scientific" and "the truth", regardless of what those notoriously deceptive trans women might have you believe. Bailey has issued no apology, retraction, or qualification, and TMWWBQ continues to be touted as "The Science of Gender Bending and Transsexualism" and marketed as "based on his original research".
With those caveats in mind, we are left with two instances of virtually identical conduct, in one case, that of J. Michael Bailey, in the other, that of Andrea James, one of Bailey's most vocal trans critics. Alice Dreger, in her lengthy defence of Bailey, describes James' conduct as a "disgust[ing]", "unethical" "intimidation tactic", rendering James "not the sort of person who [is] good for a scholarly institution nor the sort who [is] good for trans rights." Interested readers will search in vain for such harsh terms to be used to describe what Dreger calls "Bailey's alleged treatment of transsexuals in his book" (Dreger, p. 4)
It is important to reiterate here that the question is not whose conduct deserves what degree of condemnation. Unless one believes that trans women, as a class, deserve less dignity and respect than professors' children, that question is easily disposed of. Rather, the question is: what do these two substantially similar cases tell us about the nature of the "academic freedom" Bailey and Dreger are committed to defending? This is a particularly instructive case because Bailey's conduct is treated as a protected exercise of academic freedom, whereas James' "parody" (to use Dreger's own term) is a violation of that same freedom.
Clearly, there must be some crucial distinction that leads these two examples to fall on completely opposite ends of the spectrum of Bailey-Dreger academic freedom. Certainly, it cannot be the fact that James' conduct was not scholarly in nature and did not seek to assert or establish a matter of scientific fact. Neither James nor anyone else has claimed that her conduct was intended as an assertion of scientific fact, and Bailey has been at great pains to disavow any attempt to create a work of scholarship on his part. Nor can it be the content of James' captions or Bailey's book. If anything, if the judgment were based on content alone, James' captions - which make no factual assertions, were retracted and taken out of circulation, and were intended as a parody - would be trivial in comparison to a work that makes, as categorical, scientific fact, similar assertions about an entire class of people. Similarly, it cannot be a question of the relative "innocence" of the victim; trans women, as a class, were not "asking for" this sort of treatment any more than were Bailey's children. Nor can the crucial distinction be a matter of choice of words. If anything, James' use of slang and expletives makes it clear that the assertions are not to be taken seriously as a matter of fact, whereas Bailey's prose further seeks to lend the authority of science to his labels.
Yet, the one - to return to Dreger's description - is a disgusting, unethical intimidation tactic unbefitting a scholarly institution and damaging to trans rights and academic freedom, while the other is merely a permissible, protected exercise of academic freedom.
Having exhausted all content- and style-based possibilities, we are left with matters of status. Bailey is a tenured academic at a respected institution, who is thus accorded the privilege to define and categorise. James is a trans woman, worthy only of being the object of the definitions and categorisations bestowed upon her by the guardians of received knowledge. James' conduct upsets the order of things, whereas Bailey's is the order of things.
Case Study II: "Not that there's anything wrong with it."
This order of things becomes clearer as we move on to another instructive episode for our analysis of Bailey-Dreger academic freedom. In the course of the investigation by Lynn Conway et al. into TMWWBQ and its making, Bailey was accused by one of his research subjects, who has come to be known as "Juanita", of having had sexual relations with her. It bears repeating at this point that we are not concerned here with the accusation itself - which Bailey has, albeit equivocally, denied - but with what the Bailey-Dreger treatment of the accusations tells us about the nature of Bailey-Dreger academic freedom.
In his search for material to include in TMWWBQ, Bailey posed as a clinical psychologist evaluating trans women for sex-reassignment surgery (SRS) approval letters. While he was not, at any relevant time, licensed to practice as a clinical psychologist in the state of Illinois, he was able to avoid legal sanction for practicing without a license because he did not receive payment in exchange for his services, as required by the relevant Illinois statute3. In this context, he became acquainted with "Juanita", who has since accused him of having had sexual relations with her.
Bailey addresses this accusation in his Academic McCarthyism4. Because it is so instructive, his response is reproduced in its entirety below:
Sex With a "Research Subject." This charge was clearly intended to embarrass me rather than to protect a research subject. The complainant was, after all, a prostitute. I offer two responses.
First, there is nothing intrinsically wrong or forbidden about having sex with a research subject (and I insist that Juanita was not a research subject). Some of my colleagues have had sex with their research subjects, because it is not unusual to ask one's romantic partner to be a subject.
Even if Juanita's complaint were true, there is nothing wrong with what she claims. But her "complaint" is not true. The alleged event never happened. If I ever needed to do so, I could prove this, but there is no reason why I should5.
Of the 125 words Bailey dedicates to "Juanita's" charge, only 30 are dedicated to actually denying that he had sexual relations with her, with an additional 10 dedicated to denying that "Juanita" was in fact a research subject. We need not tarry on this material. Ultimately, whether to credit the accusation or the denial is a credibility judgment, and Bailey has provided more than enough material for interested individuals to reach their own conclusions on his credibility.
What is, however, of interest in Bailey's response to "Juanita's" charges are his more general assertions on the propriety of the conduct of which he is accused. We begin by noting that "the complainant was, after all, a prostitute", and therefore, apparently, is forever estopped from objecting to, or claiming to have been harmed by, any sexual encounter. Having reminded readers of the complainant's all-important status, he proceeds to inform us that, even were "Juanita" a full-fledged human being with the attendant rights of sexual autonomy, it is perfectly right and proper to have sex with one's research subjects. Indeed, he informs us, he knows people who have had sex with their research subjects "because it is not unusual to ask one's romantic partner to be a subject."
Thus, for the purposes of determining what conduct is protected by Bailey-Dreger academic freedom, there is no difference between asking one's romantic partner to participate, say, in a memory study, and posing as a clinical psychologist, providing unlicensed evaluation services in that guise in order to glean intimate details about one's "patient's" sex life, and then, having established the relationship thusly, having sexual relations with one's unwitting research subject. Nor does it make any difference that one is posing as a person with the power to grant or deny access to a treatment the unwitting research subject/"patient" desperately needs. Indeed, the overall context of the relationship - of whatever sort it may have been - with "Juanita" is so irrelevant to the question of the propriety of Bailey's conduct that he does not even address it.
Nor does he address the propriety of having sex with a person with whom one has a clinical psychologist-client relationship, though it seems reasonable to take his silence on the issue as an indication that this conduct, too, is protected by Bailey-Dreger academic freedom and therefore immune from criticism6. And if the complainant is a sex worker, the matter is clearly not worthy of even that cursory treatment.
That is not to say that there is nothing objectionable or harmful about such matters. However, as Dreger points out in her defence of Bailey, perhaps we should keep things in perspective. The public criticism of TMWWBQ and Bailey's conduct in producing and marketing the book "came remarkably close to effectively destroying J. Michael Bailey뭩 reputation and life" (Dreger, p. 52). Whether the publication of a purportedly scientific book branding all trans women as lying erotomaniacs might have had psychological, personal, legal, and professional consequences for trans women, on the other hand, is irrelevant. Under the Bailey-Dreger doctrine, consequences matter only to the extent that they harm worthy victims.
Thus, it appears that whether trans women, as a group, are entitled to the same level of dignity and respect as professors and their children is a matter of some controversy, after all.
Case Study III: Holding the line
One of the most interesting case studies in the Bailey-Dreger doctrine arose in response to the call for proposals that led to the present panel discussion. In her CFP, which was posted on the Women's Studies listserv WMST-L, Joelle Ruby Ryan gave the following accurate summary of the TMWWBQ controversy:
While Bailey's book The Man Who Would be Queen was released in 2003 to overwhelmingly negative reviews, the book caused a stir for its assertion that trans women can be split into two groupings: "homosexual transsexuals" and 밶utogynephilics." Trans activists and allies mobilized and took Bailey to task for his bogus claims and helped to document a compelling case against him. Many considered it an open-and-shut case until the 2007 appearance of an article by Bailey colleague and intersex researcher Alice Dreger, who published a lengthy apologia for Bailey in the Archives of Sexual Behavior and castigated trans women activists for their attempts at "ruining" Bailey.
In her CFP, Ryan raised a number of issues as potential topics for discussion, including the accusations of research misconduct, the propagation of "master narratives" harmful to trans women, and Bailey's advocacy of a "parental right" to test for a supposed "gay gene" in utero for the purpose of selective abortion (described by many, including Ryan, as "eugenics").
Dreger immediately attacked Ryan's CFP, claiming that it was "laden with factual errors and misrepresentations about the history of the Bailey controversy and [Dreger's] work7." Of particular interest to our discussion is that Dreger frames Ryan's CFP - though not in so many words - as a threat to (Bailey-Dreger) academic freedom:
In this work, I trace what happened to Bailey, a sex researcher who said some politically unpopular things.. What happened to Bailey was shocking and important enough that my findings were covered in the New York Times a few weeks ago[...] I encourage scholars in Women's Studies to read my paper because I think they are in danger of similar things happening to them, since they often say politically unpopular things8.
It is worth noting that Dreger did not provide any examples of the alleged factual errors or misrepresentations.
Indeed, on the following day, in an exchange on the same listserv with Emi Koyama, Dreger still does not supply any specifics,
though she does add an adjective. The alleged misrepresentations are now "profound
though they remain unspecified. Nor do Dreger's accusations increase in specificity on the following day, though they do increase in intensity:
I also appreciate your advising Joelle Ruby Ryan " that she was putting herself at risk as a
scholar working within a controversial field (trans issues) by tolerating tactics that breed fear and stifle academic freedom."
I would add that one is not acting like a scholar when one repeatedly misrepresents facts and the work of other scholars,
as Ms. Ryan did in her CFP
A month later, little has changed. The unspecified alleged misrepresentations in Ryan's CFP have now been
upgraded to "defam[ation]
11". Dreger now asks: "Should I sit around and let someone say false, harmful things about me and my
work, just because I'm not as oppressed as them? (Would you?)
After the unspecified accusations against Ryan have hung in the air on WMST-L for over a month, Koyama
suggests that Dreger might wish to provide something in the way of actual substantiation of her repeated claims of misrepresentations,
profound misrepresentations, and defamation. "No problem," Dreger responds
Why it apparently had been a problem for over a month prior to Dreger's e-mail of 23 October, 2007 is, of course, beyond
the scope of this work.
Ultimately, it turns out that Dreger's accusations refer to Ryan's characterisation of Dreger's 62-page defence of
Bailey as "a lengthy apologia", Ryan's reference to Bailey's advocacy of what could reasonably be called "eugenics" and what is euphemistically called "reparative therapy", Ryan's statement that Bailey was accused of having sex with a research subject, and Ryan's reference to "master narratives" harmful to trans people15. The first of these "profound", "libelous" "misrepresentations" is a statement of opinion, a characterisation of Dreger's "scholarly history" with which Dreger does not agree. The "eugenics" comment is a matter of interpretation; reasonable people can differ on whether it constitutes eugenics to put the power to eliminate gay people from the gene pool in the hands of individual prospective parents. As for the "reparative therapy" reference, anyone familiar with the "Danny" narrative in Bailey's TMWWBQ is aware that the claim is accurate.
What constitutes a harmful "master narrative", on the other hand, is another matter of opinion.
Having thus outlined her casus belli, Dreger announces that:
A lot of scholars (including several ethicists I saw at ASBH this past weekend) have outright begged me to move on to
lawsuits, not so much for myself as to protect other scholars from similar future smear campaigns like the one I document
in my article
That Dreger's list of "profound", "libelous" "misrepresentations" does not include a single item that would give rise to a
cause of action for libel or defamation is a matter for a symposium on New York Times v. Sullivan
and its progeny. Nor need we tarry on the question of whether Dreger was aware of the rudiments of libel and defamation law when she
made this threat, or whether she simply hoped that Ryan would not be. Instead, we are concerned here with what constitutes a
permissible defence of Bailey-Dreger academic freedom, and this episode is quite instructive in that regard.
At this point, it is worth reiterating that we are dealing with a quintessentially scholarly activity: a call for submissions
for an academic panel discussion. From Dreger's response to Ryan's CFP, however, it is clear that this scholarly activity -
unlike TMWWBQ or Dreger's apologia - is well outside of the protection of Bailey-Dreger
academic freedom. Indeed, not only is it not protected by the Bailey-Dreger doctrine, it is, in itself, a violation of it.
From Dreger's response, it appears that there are few limits - if any - to the means to which a beneficiary of Bailey-Dreger
academic freedom may resort. Surprisingly, even threats of potentially devastating defamation litigation - the ultimate in
state-supplied coercive mechanisms - may be employed in order to bring miscreants to heel. Even short of employing the coercive
measures of the state, it is permissible to defend one's Bailey-Dreger academic freedom by issuing vague, unspecified accusations,
and allowing them to hang in the air for extended periods, in order to undermine the reputation and credibility of a violator
of Bailey-Dreger academic freedom.
Here, again, we see the Bailey-Dreger doctrine's interesting treatment of consequences. The consequences of a violation of
Bailey-Dreger academic freedom for its beneficiaries are all-important, more important than the substance of the protected
activity or the nature of the violation. The consequences that the exercise of Bailey-Dreger academic freedom might bring for
others, on the other hand, are irrelevancies, trivial matters not worthy of any serious time or attention.
If, for example, someone takes TMWWBQ and its production seriously enough to research
its making and publicly critique its content, the validity of their critique is of no consequence; the only matter of importance
is the damage that such attention might cause to Bailey's reputation. The logic is akin to that of Justice Antonin Scalia's order
enjoining further vote counting in Florida on the grounds that, if the count revealed that Bush had lost, this would cause
irreparable harm to his legitimacy as President.
If, on the other hand, Dreger decides to damage a graduate student's career with vague, unspecified (and ultimately false)
accusations in order to forestall an academic discussion that is violative of Bailey-Dreger academic freedom, the consequences
for the graduate student are no concern of ours. She was asking for it.
From these case studies, it is clear that Bailey-Dreger academic freedom is fundamentally status-based. Unscholarly conduct
may be protected, and scholarly conduct unprotected, based on the status of the person engaging in that conduct. However, it
is clear that the relevant status is not a position within the academic establishment. While the two known beneficiaries of
Bailey-Dreger academic freedom both hold faculty positions at a leading university, Lynn Conway and Deirdre McCloskey, both
respected academics at other institutions, clearly do not merit the protection of the Bailey-Dreger doctrine.
What, then, is the key status attribute that distinguishes those who benefit from the virtually absolute right of Bailey-Dreger
academic freedom from those who are subject to the corresponding duty to applaud or remain silent? It would be cynical to suggest
that the only beneficiaries of the doctrine of Bailey-Dreger academic freedom are Bailey and Dreger, and no evidence suggests that
the doctrine would never apply to anyone other than themselves. Thus, the necessary status attribute must be something more than
merely belonging to the academic establishment.
Judging from the case studies above, it would appear that the key criterion is not membership in the academic hierarchy,
but one's attitude toward hierarchy itself. This is the one clear distinguishing characteristic between the conduct of Bailey
and Dreger and that of Conway et al. Bailey and Dreger, above all, defend the hierarchical position of "experts", their right
to define and categorise the lower orders, without regard to the lived experiences or insights that the latter might provide.
By demanding to be heard on the question of "who and what are trans women," and even daring to contradict a J. Michael Bailey,
Conway et al. challenged one of the most entrenched hierarchies in our society: the right of Thorstein Veblen's "substantial
people" to define the discourse on any given subject. It is not the butterfly's place to lecture the entomologist; it may feel
pain whilst being pinned to a corkboard, but it had best keep that to itself.
Freelance writer and translator, Cincinnati, OH, elise.hendrick gmail com. For other articles on the Bailey controversy and
other subjects, see http://lifeaftergonzales.blogspot.com.
2References to "Dreger" refer to Dreger, A.D., The Controversy Surrounding The Man Who Would Be Queen: A Case History of the Politics of Science, Identity, and Sex in the Internet Age, Archives of Sexual Behavior, 2007.
3See 225 ILCS 15 ?(6) (providing that a person only "represents himself to be a clincial psychologist" within the meaning of the Illinois Clinical Psychologist Licensing Act when he offers relevant services "for remuneration".)
4Bailey, J.M., Academic McCarthyism, Northwestern Chronicle, 10/09/2005, http://www.chron.org/tools/viewart.php?artid=1248, last accessed on 19 June 2008.
5Id, (emphasis supplied)
6It is, however, worthwhile to note that the Illinois legislature has been less reticent on the subject, and, in 740 ILCS 140 ?2 et seq., has declared such conduct tortious, expressly extending the cause of action to "unlicensed mental health professionals" such as Bailey.
7Dreger, A.D., p.e.c. on WMST-L, 19 Sept. 2007
8Id., URL omitted.
9Dreger, A.D., p.e.c. on WMST-L, 20 Sept. 2007
10Dreger, A.D., p.e.c. on WMST-L, 21 Sept. 2007 (emphasis supplied)
11Dreger, A.D., p.e.c. on WMST-L, 19 Oct. 2007
12Dreger, A.D., p.e.c. on WMST-L, 22 Oct. 2007
13Koyama, E., p.e.c. on WMST-L, 22 Oct. 2007
14Dreger, A.D., p.e.c. on WMST-L, 23 Oct. 2007
17376 U.S. 254 (1964) (in order to state a claim for defamation, a public figure must show that allegedly defamatory statements are false and published knowingly, or with reckless disregard for the truth).
Wednesday, 2 April 2008
Imagine: You go to the store. When you attempt to ring up your purchases, you find that your card keeps being declined with a cryptic "invalid number" message, even though you know there's more than enough on your account. The man at the till - who has without comment replaced the woman who worked there just yesterday - seems to know a bit more about your debit card woes than he's letting on. After you, and all your female colleagues, are sent home from your office on the orders of rather inhospitable-looking gentlemen with automatic weapons, you find out that all of your assets have been frozen and can only be released to your husband or closest male relative.
And that's just the start...
Even two weeks after finishing Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale in a 24-hour flurry of pages, I find that the profound sense of dread I have felt creeping into the back door of my consciousness is making it quite hard to approach the book with any semblance of analytical distance. In part, this is due to Atwood's beautiful writing, which creates such a powerful empathic bond with the narrator that I felt as if, instead of reading the memoirs of Offred, I lived them. And like an all-too-plausible nightmare, part of me remains stubbornly unwilling to partake in the profound relief I should be feeling that the world of THT is in fact not (yet?) a reality.
But: Even before opening THT, I was acutely aware of the beating that the rights of women have taken over my lifetime. In 2008, women have already lost the right to sue for pay discrimination (rendered a practical impossibility by Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire Co.). In 2008, the state has already been given a green light to dictate what medical care we may receive without regard to any attendant risks to our health (thanks to Gonzales v. Carhart), and the same decision, reached by an all-male majority, spends about as much time on the "feminine mind", deemed too emotionally immature and indecisive to make important medical decisions, as it does on actual constitutional issues. In 2008, we have a Supreme Court Justice who believes a man should have as much power over his (adult) wife as he does over his (minor) daughter.
The fundamentalist clerics who had just begun their ascent to power in the mid-80s, when Atwood wrote The Handmaid's Tale, far from being thankfully raptured out of existence on 1 January 2000, have had plenty of reason to celebrate. From the grip they now have over our Air Force to the indoctrination centres featured in the documentary Jesus Camp, from the pressure they now exert over our educational system (getting science out of our schools and taking the sex and the ed out of Sex-Ed), the dream shared by the likes of Ralph Reed, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Tim LaHaye of becoming one of the most powerful reactionary forces in our society has come frighteningly true.
Thus, in reading The Handmaid's Tale, I found that I perceived the fundamentalist Christian theocracy it described (which came to power by suspending the Constitution after an alleged Islamic terrorist attack) not as speculative fiction, but as a warning of an entirely possible future.
The Handmaid's Tale is the story of Offred ("of Fred"), told as a first-person, oral memoir. In "the time before", Offred was a university-educated IT professional who worked at a local library, and was married with a 5-year-old daughter. What we hear of her life in "the time before" (as she always calls it) is told in brief, disconnected flashbacks, distant recollections of a time that hardly seems real to her anymore. And understandably so. In the time in which the principal story is set, she has lost all she once had. First, she lost her bank account (transferred to her husband, Luke). Then, she lost her job (it is now illegal for women to work outside the home). Then, she lost her home, her husband, and her daughter (Luke was previously divorced, rendering the marriage adulterous and thus criminal in the new order). Not only that, she has lost the mystery novels she used to enjoy reading (women are forbidden access to reading or writing materials in an effort to eliminate female literacy), and every last vestige of control over her body.
Offred's new status, which brought with it her new name, is a great honour. Or so she is constantly told. She is a Handmaid, a fertile woman assigned to a member of the élite of the new regime, a Commander of the Faithful, so that he might use her uterus to conceive a child. If she fails to conceive - by definition her failure, as official doctrine holds that there is no such thing as male infertility - she will be sent to the Colonies, the slave-labour camps of the new regime, as an Unwoman. If she does conceive and give birth to a healthy child, she will be spared this fate. Her posting in the household of Commander Fred is her last chance.
She is not the only woman-in-captivity in Fred's house. Together with her are two Marthas, infertile women used for domestic services, and Fred's wife, whom she calls Serena Joy. To the Marthas, she is a pariah, though fraternisation with them is illegal, anyway. To Serena Joy, she is the object of resentment, though Serena Joy has plenty of resentment to go around. In "the time before", Offred remembers seeing her on television, copiously made up, evangelising to women about the joys of staying home and being submissive to one's husband, joys in which she did not herself partake. Now, she - like all women - has been completely banished from the public sphere, and divides her days between knitting the same scarf over and over again, smoking, and making Offred - with whom she must now share her husband - feel as unwelcome as possible.
Offred's days are spent in mind-crushing boredom. Most of the time, she stays in her room, which has been carefully rid of any potential instrument of suicide, with the only reading material she has left: a pillow embroidered with the word FAITH and a hidden inscription in the closet reading Nolite te bastardes carbondonum, a message she surmises was left by her predecessor, who was found hanging from a light fixture that has since been removed. She wears the same thing every day: a blood-red ankle-length dress designed to obscure every contour of her body below the neck and a bonnet designed to cover her hair and eliminate her peripheral vision. Once a day, she is allowed to leave the house to do the day's shopping, accompanied by another Handmaid to ensure mutual surveillance.
Her partner on these daily shopping excusions is Ofglen. After enduring multiple painstakingly orthodox conversations about safe topics ("Blessed be the fruit", "May the Lord open," amongst other gibberish), Ofglen begins outing herself as a member of a resistance group known as Mayday, thus becoming the only person with whom Offred can speak with anything approaching candour. From Ofglen, she learns that Mayday is bringing women to safety in Canada (or "removing our precious national resources from the country" in official regime parlance). On their excursions, they always pass by the Wall, where the recently executed are hanged, allowing Offred to ascertain whether any of them is her husband.
Gradually, the situation in the household of Commander Fred becomes somewhat more complicated. Fred, it seems, would like to see Offred privately, outside of the officially sanctioned context of the "Ceremony" (the bizarre monthly ritualised rape in which the Commander attempts to inseminate his Handmaid). While this is strictly forbidden, Offred has no real option and acquiesces, uncertain what she is to expect. As it turns out, she is to expect a game of Scrabble and the opportunity to read an assortment of magazines so banal that she could barely tolerate them in "the time before", but which now are like a bottle of Perrier in the intellectual desert of her life. In exchange for this, Fred wants her to kiss him "like you mean it". She must also endure his lectures on what a lovely idea this new order was. From him, she discovers that the inscription in her closet is dog Latin for "Don't let the bastards grind you down", an enterprise in which her predecessor met with rather limited success.
To make matters even more uncomfortable, Serena Joy begins speaking increasingly candidly with Offred, and even offers her one of her cigarettes (nicotine, alcohol, and caffeine are all illegal for Handmaids, and Offred spends many a paragraph talking about how much she's dying for a smoke). As it turns out, Serena Joy is convinced that her husband is sterile, as appears to be the case with many of the Commanders. In order to secure a child for Serena Joy and safety from the Colonies for Offred, Serena Joy proposes that she sleep with Fred's driver, Nick, a rather enigmatic character who is either affiliated with the Mayday Resistance or with the secret police ("the Eyes"), a proposal to which Offred agrees.
There are too many facets to The Handmaid's Tale to attempt a full synopsis without it becoming a mediocre retelling of a brilliant story; thus, I will leave the remainder to the interested reader, and move on.
Margaret Atwood's prose is a tour de force. Her style beautifully reproduces the feeling of oral recollections retold without the aid of anything but the teller's memory. The descriptions of Offred's daily life are laden with free associations of words, puns, and other verbal tics that can often be heard from a person trying to force vague or difficult memories to the surface. Her writing gives Offred's story an immediacy and an urgency that break down any analytical walls that may separate the content of the book from the mind of the reader. It is all too easy to see and feel oneself in Offred's position, to feel what she feels, to see the world and her life as she sees them. It is, indeed, like an all-too-real nightmare that leads one to spend the entire day not entirely certain whether the events in the dream actually happened or not.
I am no stranger to heavy reading material. For years, atrocities and dystopias, historical and fictitious, have been a major staple of my library. It is exceedingly rare for me to be shaken by something I have read. I was shaken by The Handmaid's Tale, and, to a certain extent, still am. One of the most peculiar side-effects of reading THT has been a heightened awareness of things that I normally take for granted (as I should be able to do).
In particular, it has made me extremely conscious of the very act of reading, even in trivial instances. Normally, unless I am reading a language I cannot yet read well, reading for me feels like a purely sensory act. I see a word. The underlying interpretive act that connects the symbolic data in front of me to the phonetic and conceptual representations and associations I have in my mind is normally reflexive and unconscious. Since I began THT, I have become remarkably aware of this process. The day I started reading it, I had to go to the supermarket to buy a bottle of red wine, where I found that I was extremely aware (and somehow rather surprised) to find myself reading the words on the wine labels. I have the same feeling, the same vague fascination and relief now any time I read something and don't need to be clandestine about it, the things one feels about something to which one is not entirely accustomed.
Perhaps, though, the greatest threat to the rights that allow us, as women, to live our lives is the fact that we have grown accustomed to them, to the extent that we often give little or no thought to our exercise of them. Even less do we think about how recent, how utterly new those hard-fought victories are. It was not until the early 1970s that the Supreme Court decided - parting with about a century of precedent and the entire enactment history - to interpret the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution as even a limited prohibition on sex discrimination. The right to self-determination over our reproductive systems, now in great danger, was not officially recognised until 1973. A late-1950s business law hornbook I bought years ago at a used-books store includes a footnote in its section on "Contractual Capacity and Disability" (essentially who is legally capable of concluding a binding contract) listing the states in which as of the date of publication a married woman could not sign a contract without the written consent of her husband, even if he was in no way bound by it. In the decade that saw the publication of that hornbook, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor graduated at the top of her class at Stanford - an achievement that would cause every major institutional law firm to roll out the red carpet for a male graduate - and could not find a firm that would offer her a position as more than a legal secretary. Last but not least, there are still people living today who remember our first major victory, suffrage (which we have had for all of 88 years).
Put briefly, our social and legal victories are nowhere near sufficiently settled or indisputed to be taken as a matter of course. A small, but powerful and well-funded, minority has been working tirelessly for decades now to reverse every single one of them, and their every success is thanks in part to our complacent assumption that what we have so recently won can safely go undefended. In reading The Handmaid's Tale, it is worth keeping in mind that every major feature of the society Atwood describes has been actively advocated in one form or another by the people who rejoiced at the nomination of the men who gave us Gonzales v. Carhart. It seems to me that we need a reminder of how vulnerable our rights really are (and if there's anything I felt whilst reading the book, it was vulnerable), and Margaret Atwood's excellent book is a very powerful reminder.