Series Introduction: Huge waves of intellectual change are sweeping the Western world at an astonishing speed. Liberal democratic societies are being transformed by Postmodernism, Gender Identity Ideology, Critical Race Theory, ’Whiteness Studies’ ‘Postcolonial Theory’, ‘Intersectionality’, and related upheavals in the realm of ideas. Some see in these changes an exciting new Critical Theory and a necessary and welcome extension of the liberation struggles of recent decades. Others see a new ‘Cynical Theory’ – as a recent book by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsey dubbed it – a dangerous new irrationalism, polarizing anti-racist racism, woke homophobia, and Wars on Women and the West. Whatever position one takes, it is inconceivable that this intellectual revolution will leave untouched the form taken by the ‘oldest hatred’ because, as David Nirenberg’s monumental study Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition showed us in exhaustive detail, no intellectual revolution ever has. Radically new paradigms of thought have always seen antisemitism shape-shift again, new notions of Jewish malignity and new anathemas emerging out of the ferment. Over the next two years Fathom will explore the ramifications of the intellectual revolution of our time for the shapes taken by antisemitism and for global perceptions of Zionism and Israel, so often understood within the emerging intellectual orthodoxies as ‘White’, ‘Western’, and ‘Racist’, and so marked down for ‘cancellation’. We anticipate the series will provoke debate, but here is one old idea that we hope still has some life in it: rather than seek to cancel the debate, why not join it? We begin the series with this critical reflection on Gender Identity ideology by Kathleen Hayes. (Alan Johnson)
Essay Introduction: Misogyny and antisemitism are very different things, with different aetiologies and histories, but there is an interplay between the two in the contemporary Western progressive left, argues Kathleen Hayes. Today’s bien pensant is permitted to hate both women and Jews with a deliciously clear conscience. Jews are fine people, some of my best friends, the leftist will declare—it’s the Zionists who are racists and must be driven from the planet. I love women, he’ll say; of course they deserve equality and dignity—it’s the TERFs who are fascists and must be cancelled and assaulted. Even as he congratulates himself on his lack of prejudice, progressive and identity politics allow him to indulge in a socially sanctioned variety of … antisemitism and misogyny. Hayes warns that ‘once truth is up for grabs, all truths are up for grabs’ and ‘a mind that rejects the reality of biological sex is one unlikely to recognise basic facts about the Holocaust, or about living Jews.’
A few decades back, without a vote being taken, a handful of intellectuals decided to roll back the Enlightenment. Holding hands and chanting ‘Down with grand narratives,’ they dismissed as hubris the paradigmatic Western belief that it was possible to know anything approximating truth. Equating the Enlightenment with slavery, colonialism and women’s subjugation, they declared positivism the greatest sin and announced they were post everything. They burned an effigy of Universal Man and amid the ashes erected an elaborate new scaffolding comprised of everyone he was not. Because Universal Man had been an oppressive lie—a white, able-bodied heterosexual man who was far from being universal—they deemed that henceforth, history’s unrepresented would cohere around, and fixate on, their isolated individual identities. The universal is dead; long live the particular.
As these specific identities were arrayed against one another in practice, it was necessary to differentiate between them on the basis of their respective victimhoods. By tacit agreement, a points system was created in which some were deemed worthy of respect as victims while others were not. With the advent of ‘intersectionality’ the points system became ever more elaborate, determined by layer upon layer of victimhood. Those who failed to rack up the requisite points were declared privileged and told to accept their places on the bottom of the pyramid. This was done in the name of historical justice. What unfolded was a grotesque parody of it.
This essay seeks to explain how ideas so absurd that—as Orwell put it—only an intellectual could believe them became the basis for a seismic shift in public policy around the world, with devastating consequences most immediately for women; lesbians, gays and bisexuals; and distressed children and their parents. It describes how the flagrantly anti-materialist, ostensibly progressive but actually deeply retrograde set of ideas called ‘gender ideology’ took root far outside academia, and how it became an unchallengeable cult. Because social and intellectual turmoil inevitably means increased targeting of Jews (who are often labelled ‘white’ and ‘privileged’ and ‘powerful’ in this new intellectual orthodoxy), I will draw attention to how these ideas impact Jews, even though they may seem at first to have little or nothing to do with us. Finally, I will gratefully invoke the Frankfurt School’s writings about authoritarianism to argue that if today’s madness cannot easily be fought, it can at least be better understood.
Part 1: Gender Woo
Judith Butlerism: Hamas is progressive and so is the erasure of biological sex
Like so many grand ideas in history that proved utterly ruinous in practice, for most people it began with what sounded like decent commonsense. Trusted LGBT organisations like Stonewall called to broaden legal rights for the tiny number of vulnerable people who identify as transgender, and good people readily agreed. Expanding rights for ‘transgender’ people seemed like the natural next step in the progressive movement that recently secured rights for gays, lesbians and bisexuals. What could be wrong with making life easier for such a minuscule, maligned sector of society as transgender people?
Answering this question requires delving, reluctantly, into the thinking driving trans activism: gender ideology, or—to use the clinical term—gender woo. In criticising gender woo, I don’t mean in any way to denigrate people who consider themselves transgender, or to deny their right to legal equality and lives free of stigma. Trans activists have, however, consistently obscured or denied the fact that many of the rights they demand can only be granted at the expense of women and girls as a sex class, as well as gays; and trans activists have been terrifyingly successful at pillorying as ‘transphobes’, particularly, women who object to the erasure of their rights. Nothing less than fervent universal embrace of the mantra ‘transwomen are women’ is deemed acceptable. From this cardinal tenet flows the full, ostensibly liberating programme. So it’s necessary to think about how a large number of people came to agree that ‘transwomen are women,’ and the implications for society going along with something which is manifestly untrue.
Let’s go back to that cluster of intellectuals chanting their disdain for the Enlightenment. At the centre of this huddle, pontificating something incomprehensible, we will find high priestess Judith Butler. It’s maybe significant that this is the same Judith Butler who has expressed her appreciation of Hamas as ‘part of a global Left’ and presides over the grotesquely misnamed Jewish Voice for Peace. It is Butler who, more than any other ivory tower luminary, is credited with gender woo.
Beginning in the mid to late 1980s, Butler hit on the bright idea of defeating biological determinism—the traditional argument that biology dooms women to subordinate status—by decree. Butler argued that not only is gender (culturally variable beliefs about ‘proper’ roles for men and women) socially determined, but so is biological sex. The claim that ‘anatomy is destiny’ would thereby be vanquished. Kathleen Stock describes this as a bold argumentative gambit, ‘a bit like arguing that an asteroid isn’t about to hit Earth by redefining the word “Earth” as “thing incapable of being hit by an asteroid.’’’
Nevertheless, the idea was a hit. Seemingly overnight, Women’s Studies Departments disappeared, to be replaced by Gender Studies and Queer Studies. Women’s historic predicament having been solved, at least on paper, it was time to move on to more marginalised—not to mention transgressive and groovy—sectors: ‘queer’ and ‘transgender’ people.
The new ‘gender identity’ theory insisted that every person has a ‘gender identity’: an ostensibly innate and immutable sense of oneself as man, woman, nonbinary or, eventually, a seemingly infinite variety of flavours from agender to polygender. Sex was reduced to a thing ‘assigned at birth’. Women whose ‘assigned’ sex matched their ‘gender identity’ were made to understand that they were ‘ciswomen’ and benefited from ‘cisprivilege’. Of all the forms of oppression in the world, it seemed, none compared to that of being a transwoman.
Gender dysphoria—a potentially excruciating sense of being born in the ‘wrong body’—does exist, and my heart goes out to those who experience it. There also exist an extremely tiny percentage of people with Differences (or Disorders) of Sexual Development, whose chromosomes don’t conform to the standard XX/XY pattern. However, the twenty-first century explosion in people, particularly adolescents, suddenly declaring themselves transgender is not about either of these conditions. I don’t doubt the sense of dysphoria is real in the minds of those experiencing it; but when a rare medical condition skyrockets seemingly overnight (the NHS has reported a more than 4000 per cent increase in girls seeking gender reassignment services), one must wonder what is going on. When every single child in a social group ‘comes out’ as trans—as is happening in countries around the world—any reasonable person must suspect social contagion. But why? What makes so many young people today believe they must change absolutely everything about something so essential to them—their bodies—in order to become their ‘true selves’?
Misogyny, male entitlement and female erasure
The explosion in ‘trans’ is fuelled by misogyny. ‘Transwomen are women’ is its hallmark: the battle cry of male entitlement. In demanding obeisance to their mantra, trans activists insist that society disregards what it knows perfectly well—that dresses, makeup, ‘feminine’ behaviour or even the most extensive surgery in the world cannot actually turn a man into a woman—in order to erode gains women have fought for over many years. ‘Gender self-ID’, now law in many countries, grants men access to spaces women successfully instituted—rape crisis centres, bathrooms, domestic violence shelters, sport, same-sex prisons, changing rooms—as a protection against male violence and supremacy. Women who object, however mildly and respectfully, to granting any man who claims to identify as a woman access to these spaces are routinely denounced as bigots: ‘TERFs’.
Feminists, including many lesbians, pointed to their longstanding solidarity with the gay, lesbian and bisexual community. They supported rights and acceptance for people who identify as transgender, they explained; they simply didn’t want them to come at the expense of women. Their concerns about ‘transwomen’ were not that they were ‘trans’, but that they were biologically stronger, potentially threatening men. The only response these feminists received was an exponentially growing roar: ‘Kill TERFs.’
Trans activists insisted TERFs and other transphobes were engaging in hurtful, prurient fearmongering. ‘We just need to pee,’ they cried with the requisite hashtag and videos of attractive, smiling, clearly harmless ‘transgender’ people, patiently debunking the lurid claims made about them. The things transphobes warned of would never happen.
But the things that ‘would never happen’ have happened, and there are few signs governments will reverse course to stop them continuing to happen. A patient in a female-only NHS hospital ward was raped by a ‘transgender woman’ and was disbelieved by police—despite CCTV footage—because there was ‘no male in the hospital’. A woman prisoner of Rikers Island in New York was raped by a trans-identified male inmate held at the same facility. A trans-identified male prison inmate in the UK sexually assaulted female fellow inmates and raped two women outside prison. And on and on and on.
A High Court decision last year acknowledged evidence that the proportion of ‘transgender’ people committing sexual offenses was ‘substantially higher’ than that of non-‘transgender’ people; and that women prisoners ‘may suffer fear and acute anxiety’ if housed with a ‘transgender woman’ with male genitalia. However, the judge dismissed the female prisoner’s lawsuit on the grounds that the rights of ‘transgender women prisoners’ must also be ‘considered’. In other words, the demands of biological men to be welcomed into women’s spaces must prevail despite women’s ‘fear and acute anxiety’, and even when those men have criminal histories of brutally attacking women.
Few people are aware of the nightmare inflicted on women behind bars. They can see, however, the effects of ‘trans inclusivity’ on women in a more public sphere: women’s sport. Around the world, female athletes are losing competitions, recognition, prizes and opportunities to men who declare themselves ‘transgender’ and undergo brief regimens of hormone therapy. The poster child for male entitlement must be Lia Thomas, the trans-identified male University of Pennsylvania student smashing records in women’s swimming. It is declared ‘transphobic’ to protest that it’s unfair to allow larger, stronger biological men to compete against women; Twitter penalises as ‘hateful’ even assertions that Thomas is a man. The women forced to compete against and, almost inevitably, lose to Thomas are ordered to keep quiet and cheer as he scoops prizes and opportunities in a sphere specifically designed to give them a chance to excel. It’s disingenuous to argue that this is not a real issue because there are (so far) relatively few trans-identified men in women’s sport. If it’s fair for one man to compete in women’s sport, it’s fair for any number. We might as well eliminate women’s sport—and by the same logic every other same-sex women’s space—now. Or we could question, at risk of being incinerated at the stake by a woke mob, the veracity, justice and wisdom of the mantra ‘transwomen are women.’
The erasure of sex and the new ‘progressive’ homophobia
‘Are you proud of your homophobia?’ legal analyst Dennis Noel Kavanagh, a gay man, asked ‘the gender borg’ at the beginning of Pride Month. ‘Proud of teaching little children they have the wrong bodies?’ ‘Proud of vilifying gay people, charities or organisations that don’t go along with this?’ ‘Proud of your misogyny?’ In a searing indictment, Kavanagh decries the abandonment of gay, lesbian and bisexual rights to ‘an authoritarian bourgeois gender cult’ that promotes ‘woke conversion therapy for gays’.
As Kavanagh and countless others note, a high percentage of young people who come to embrace trans activists’ message that they are ‘trans’ are, in fact, gay or lesbian. If not bombarded with gender woo, they would almost certainly not believe they were the ‘wrong gender’, but they would have to grapple with the turmoil that comes in puberty to those realising they’re same-sex attracted. ‘Transitioning’ suppresses that natural process, holding out the promise to would-be gays and lesbians that they can maintain ‘heterosexual’ relationships with people who are actually the same sex as they are. This is why many gays and lesbians call it ‘transing away the gay’— with trans ideologues carrying out implicitly homophobic conversion therapy. Rather than helping youth accept their homosexuality, trans activists teach them to reject it along with their bodies.
Trans activists’ venom against ‘TERFs’ is matched by their vitriol against gays and lesbians who insist on their right to be same-sex attracted. Stonewall accuses lesbians of ‘sexual racism’ and bigotry for not being attracted to ‘transwomen’ (i.e., men); gay men are called ‘transphobes’ and ‘genital fetishists’ for pursuing relationships with gay men rather than ‘trans men’ (i.e., women). This creates a toxic, coercive environment in which saying ‘no’ to sex is stigmatised and guilt about sexuality prevails. The unrelenting pressure on lesbians and gays to essentially become heterosexual comes these days not only from the right but, grotesquely, the distinguished organisations that once fought for them.
While many LGB call to ‘divorce the toxic T’, they’re acutely aware that far-right forces threaten anybody who deviates from gender conformity. Pride marches have been violently attacked or threatened around the world by white supremacist and other reactionary groups, and one may expect that the attackers hate ‘trans’ and gay people—all ‘deviants’—about equally. Especially in the US since the Supreme Court overturned women’s constitutional right to abortion, there is good reason to worry about the future of gay marriage.
Trans activists argue that the many ‘anti-LGBTQ’ laws passed or proposed in the past couple of years are all part of this bigoted offensive. The reality is more complicated. In the US, for instance, many bills aim to prevent ‘transwomen’ from participating in women’s sport (while allowing them in other categories); some seek to end the teaching of gender woo to young children in public schools. These are legitimate goals although the devil, as always, is in the details. Other legislation—such as a Texas law that could prosecute parents for heeding professional advice to help their children ‘transition’—is deeply wrong-headed. But for trans activists every criticism, every mild act of resistance to their programme, is part of a ‘fascist’ offensive that must be destroyed.
‘Affirmation only’, ‘progressive’ breast binders and lifelong medicalisation
In this febrile climate, young people and their parents are paying a particularly devastating price for gender woo. Future generations—and future court rooms—will, I hope, recognise the rush to unilaterally ‘affirm’ trans-identifying youth for what it is: a reckless psychological and medical experiment on distressed and indoctrinated young (and not-so-young) people, which is destroying bodies and lives.
Adolescents struggling with puberty and sometimes histories of trauma—often gay, a disproportionate percentage of whom are on the autism spectrum—encounter trans activist gurus and peers on social media and gender ideology in the classroom and embrace the explanation that their anguish is due to being ‘trans’. This sets off a cascade of interventions, all of which must be enthusiastically ‘affirmed’: a new name and pronouns; painful breast binders for girls; little-researched puberty blockers followed almost inevitably by cross-sex hormones, causing sterility, loss of bone density, sexual dysfunction and greatly increased risk of heart disease and other conditions; perhaps surgical removal of breasts, ovaries, uteruses, genitals, in procedures having a high rate of complications. Clinicians who question the appropriateness of these ‘treatments’ or act as whistle-blowers (such as at Tavistock, the NHS’s gender clinic), have been silenced, disciplined or dismissed and branded as ‘transphobes’.
Exposing the shocking medical malpractice that is ‘gender affirmative care’ has been largely left to the growing ranks of detransitioners: young people like Keira Bell, who was diagnosed by Tavistock with gender dysphoria aged 16; prescribed puberty blockers and testosterone after superficial meetings with social workers; and given a double mastectomy aged 20. She then painfully recognised that her gender dysphoria was a symptom of her troubles, not its cause. She is now suing Tavistock because—as she puts it—‘I was an unhappy girl who needed help. Instead, I was treated like an experiment.’
‘Fleeing womanhood like a house on fire’
It is the explosion of girls like Bell ‘fleeing womanhood like a house on fire’ (as an excellent documentary puts it) that’s perhaps the most troubling sign of internalised misogyny running rampant. When around the world, young girls’ ‘top surgeries’ (less euphemistically, elective double mastectomies) are celebrated with ‘yeet the teet’ parties and merchandise, it’s hard to escape the sense that womanhood is reviled.
Or maybe the clearest sign of misogyny is the degrading, dehumanising language trans activists have succeeded in getting reputable institutions and politicians to use when referring to women: people who menstruate, people with a cervix, bodies with vaginas, birthing people and, in the words of Verso Press, the self-described ‘largest, independent radical publishing house in the English-speaking world’, ‘womb carriers’. The eerie disappearance of the word ‘woman’ from much progressive media, medical institutions, charities, political parties, politicians and elsewhere means that when women’s rights are directly targeted (such as in the dire threat to abortion rights in the States), progressives intent on not excluding ‘trans’ people are deliberately refraining from using the word ‘woman’: surreally dissolving women as a sex class precisely when it’s most necessary to recognise it, and not-so-subtly suggesting their priorities are elsewhere.
Or maybe misogyny is most evident in the rewriting of history so that women honoured for their toughness, intelligence, courage and independence of spirit—Boudicca, Joan of Arc, George Sand, Louisa May Alcott, Sally Ride—are posthumously declared to have been ‘trans men’. Such qualities apparently cannot be associated with a woman.
Or the depiction of women as a collection of body parts that permeates the pornography-tinged obsessions of prominent trans-identified men.
Or the tsunami of rape threats, death threats, violent pornographic fantasies, calls to attack, punch, kill and dismember ‘TERFs’ that proliferate freely on the internet. For anyone unconvinced that trans activism has ushered in a carnival of misogyny, open this link.
Part 2: The Interplay of Misogyny and Antisemitism in the Contemporary Western Left
Misogyny and antisemitism are very different things, with different aetiologies and histories, but there is an interplay between the two in the contemporary Western progressive left. Women and Jews are both groups it’s not only okay but righteous to hate.
Only a small mental sleight of hand is necessary for today’s bien pensant to hate Jews and women with a deliciously clear conscience. Jews are fine people, some of my best friends, the leftist will declare—it’s the Zionists who are racists and must be driven from the planet. I love women, he’ll say; of course they deserve equality and dignity—it’s the TERFs who are fascists and must be annihilated. He knows antisemitism and misogyny must be repudiated, but even as he congratulates himself on his lack of prejudice, progressive and identity politics allow him to indulge in a socially sanctioned variety of… antisemitism and misogyny.
These politics tell him Jews and ‘cisgender’ women are both ‘privileged’. Jews—er, ‘Zionists’—are not a homeland people trying to negotiate a resolution to an unresolved national question with another homeland people, but simply (and the ground tone of the intellectual revolution of our time is unrelentingly simplistic and sloganeering from ‘Some Women have Penises’ to ‘Smash the Zionist State’) White European imperialists oppressing the Native Palestinians; therefore any action or vitriol directed against them is justified: ‘punching up’. ‘Biological women’ lord their ‘cisgender privilege’—‘dinosaurs hoarding rights’ said the Labour party’s David Lammy—over super-oppressed ‘transwomen’, and ‘TERFs’ have the gall to defend women’s interests against men’s (pardon me, ‘transwomen’s’) unlimited rights; therefore every kind of hate speech or threat against them becomes righteous social justice activism. You might say the left views ‘transgender’ people as the Palestinians, women as the Jews. In the social code that follows from this worldview, anything goes.
Identity politics and its corollary, intersectionality, have always effectively excluded antisemitism from the lengthy list of ‘isms’ that must be fought. As Karin Stögner notes in her perceptive essay, those hewing to the intersectional framework generally see antisemitism as merely ‘a form of racism’ rather than a distinctive ideology characterised by conspiracy myths and other distorted beliefs. Leftists in the intersectional tradition—for whom it is the combination of facing prejudice and being (defined as a group as) powerless that makes a group oppressed—almost inevitably determine that Jews, defined as ‘White’ and powerful, Don’t Count as victims, a phenomenon explored so well in David Baddiel’s recent book.
Stögner lists some of the many ways ‘intersectionality actually functions today to underpin some of the assumptions of contemporary antisemitism.’ Of particular interest to this essay, she cites the ‘Queer International’, an organisation comprised of some feminist and ‘queer’ activists, who deploy ‘a great deal of ingenuity in interpreting Israel as a depravity for doing what activists are actually advocating elsewhere: respecting women’s and LGBTIQ rights’ (otherwise known as the charge of ‘pinkwashing’). Jews have been excluded from countless LGBT groups (and Women’s Marches, Black Lives Matter, environmental groups and other progressive Western causes), generally after failing or refusing to show enough hatred for Israel. A similar fate now befalls women (and occasionally, although seldom, men) believed to be ‘TERFs’.
Consider the following description of an academic webinar held at Stanford University, ‘Three scholars examine the Zionist Industrial Complex’:
Marquis Bey, assistant professor at Northwestern University, considered the power of Zionists. ‘I think the power Zionists have or deploy or subject themselves to comes from their… ability to manoeuver through normative ways of thinking, which then gives them a little bit of clout and power by virtue of their proximity to things that are sanctioned by imperialism. … Zionists seem to have the power to renaturalise and reinstall or to further solidify the stranglehold of the imperialist system, which is in and of itself a mode of violence and violation.’
If this convoluted passage sounds familiar to scholars of antisemitism, think again. The Stanford webinar actually addressed ‘the TERF Industrial Complex.’ The word ‘Zionist’ has here been substituted for ‘TERF’; ‘imperialism’ for ‘cis male supremacy’; ‘the imperialist system’ for ‘the gender binary’. The contemporary progressive’s enemy is determined by its alleged proximity to, if not total association with, whatever power is deemed most evil: whether imperialism or ‘the gender binary’. (‘Cis male supremacy’ here makes no sense at all, even from a hostile perspective, but intellectual coherence is not a trait associated with gender woo.) The mood pervading the Stanford webinar is not unlike one of David Miller’s lectures on the ‘Zionist lobby’: righteous, ‘learned’, indignant, foreboding—railing (from the platform of a prestigious institution) about the sinister machinations of a hostile ‘power’.
Power is always key to determining who is ‘bad’, who the good leftist may hate. Andrea Dworkin has argued that for women to be seen as good, they must be powerless; ‘bad’ women are women who not only have power of some kind, but use it to resist male control. Antisemitism has long flourished by depicting Jews as rich, tricksy, conniving: in one word, powerful. For today’s leftist, Israel’s greatest crime is the fact that it has mobilised enough power to survive.
‘White Jews’ and ‘Karens’
To make Jews and women hateworthy exemplars of ‘power’, you have to manipulate perceptions of their race and class. Although both groups come, of course, in all colours and social classes, when self-styled progressives take aim at them, explicitly or implicitly the target is white and well-fed. Anti-Zionists seldom acknowledge the existence of Mizrahi Jews; in their rendition, the enemy is ever the affluent ‘white’ Ashkenazi Jew. There are no poor or working-class Jews in their world; no Ethiopian Jews; no Jews who struggle to pay the rent. Instead, as Stögner observes, the ’Whiteness frame’, which aims to make structural racism visible, is wielded to confirm antisemitic stereotypes about the ‘excessive influence’ of Jews in business, politics and the media: ‘Jews appear as the super-Whites.’ A theory and social justice movement avowedly aimed at better understanding and fighting on behalf of one marginalised minority reinforces harmful stereotypes against another deemed to be ‘privileged’.
A complex interplay of attitudes involving race also shapes the left’s prevailing attitude towards women. This partly stems from Western academia’s reliance on an American framework, in which progressives have long viewed white women in deeply ambivalent terms. Particularly with regard to the American South, anti-racist leftists often argue that white women helped maintain white supremacy by ‘weaponising’ their femininity, appealing to white men to protect them against black ones. It’s this history that animates trans activists’ depiction of the transphobic enemy as a ‘Karen’: an implicitly middle-class, middle-aged, shrill, racist white woman. There are no female grocery store workers or hotel cleaners in the trans activist’s jeers about ‘ciswomen’; no trafficked prostitutes; no victims of domestic violence; no women of colour. It is as if a huge chunk of the population were poured into a funnel, emerging at the other end as one homogeneous smug, obscenely fortunate creature. Implicitly white and well-off, giddy with her ‘cisprivilege’: by the standards of today’s progressivism, ‘ciswomen’ are very privileged indeed.
In this way Jews and women both become—to subvert a Cole Porter title—so easy to hate. By turning both groups into exemplars of power and privilege, today’s leftists enable a delirious outpouring of righteous, foam-flecked, communal rage. It only needs to be the ‘right’ women and Jews who are hated, but this is no great feat. As philosopher Kate Manne observes, ‘Misogyny will typically differentiate between good women and bad ones, and punishes the latter. … Sexism wears a lab coat; misogyny goes on witch hunts.’ Similarly, everyday antisemitism comes wreathed in a university lecturer’s smirk; left activist antisemitism screams about smashing Zionism.
A toxic revolt against guilt
In theory, something along the lines of ‘identity politics’—recognition of a group’s particular interests in tension with the universal—is right and necessary. Certainly blinkered, one-sided universalism has a terrible history when it comes to Jews. In the decades before the Holocaust, the Marxist movement’s standard approach to ‘The Jewish Question’ was to insist that Jews reject all Jewish ‘particularism’, including Zionism, and strive to assimilate. (‘Why do you come to me with your special Jewish sorrows?’ Rosa Luxemburg demanded. ‘The poor victims of the rubber plantations in Putumayo, the Negroes of Africa with whose bodies the Europeans play a game of catch, are just as near to me. … I have no separate corner in my heart reserved for the ghetto: I am at home wherever there are clouds and birds and human tears.’) The admonition for Jews to reject Zionism, remain in Europe and fight for socialist revolution ended in horrific ‘special Jewish sorrows’. That the Marxist movement’s dogmatic universalism left a terrible legacy has never been acknowledged by subsequent generations of leftists—and has left a deep reservoir of unexamined guilt.
Second-wave feminism in the liberal Enlightenment tradition, in tandem with other forms of feminism, were able to secure significant gains for women’s particular interests. This held for a decade or two, until the triumph of applied postmodernism in the late twentieth century. Third- and fourth-wave feminism, drawing on queer theory, critical race theory and postcolonial theory, has ushered in a byzantine ideology postulating that truth is unknowable, material reality is irrelevant and society is structured into elaborate systems of power and privilege, interpreted through obsessive focus on ‘discourse’. Some of this new framework has been beneficial. It challenged simplistic theories about patriarchy and established that power often asserts itself in subtle, unconscious ways. It amplified the voices of women of colour and ‘subaltern’ women. But it also put in place a powder keg.
As Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay write in Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender, and Identity—and Why This Harms Everybody: ‘The “increasingly sophisticated” new Theory is actually overly simplistic—everything is problematic somehow, because of power dynamics based on identity. It is also functionally impossible…’
The result has been the Oppression Olympics—what Pluckrose and Lindsay call a ‘caste system of social justice’ that can only foster resentment and guilt. The concept of ‘white privilege’ resonates with many well-off liberal white people but rankles deeply with many poor ones, who feel, reasonably, that their suffering isn’t even seen. As noted above it also disregards Jewish suffering, and tends to exclude Asians. Gay men may be considered ‘privileged’ by virtue of not being ‘trans’; ‘trans men’ are supposed to have gained ‘male privilege’ despite actually being female; ‘transwomen’ are supposed to be doubly oppressed as ‘trans’ and ‘women’, despite actually being men. Who is oppressed and who is oppressor, who deserves solidarity and who deserves scorn—the absolutist, moralising, guilt-inducing miasma surrounding these questions is the gas enabling the present-day explosion.
Trans activism is a golden opportunity for men to rid themselves of the sense of guilt that burdens them—their seemingly inescapable association with patriarchy, rape and male violence. By declaring themselves ‘transwomen’, men exclude themselves from the category of bad people who do such terrible things, even as they tweet graphic death threats against ‘TERFs’ or rampage outside a public library to stop a lesbian from speaking about women’s rights. Not only are they entirely innocent of male crimes, we are told: they are the super oppressed victims of hateful harpies. Guilt is offloaded from the beneficiaries of male supremacy onto its victims.
The same perverse psychological process is wielded against Jews. In his brilliant essay When Will Jews Be Forgiven the Holocaust? Howard Jacobson suggests the answer to his bitter title is ‘Never’. ‘Those we harm,’ he observes, ‘we blame—mobilising dislike and even hatred in order to justify, after the event, the harm we did. From which it must follow that those we harm the most—we blame the most.’ Secondary antisemitism—antisemitism that ‘doesn’t flourish in spite of Auschwitz or somehow alongside Auschwitz, but because of Auschwitz’—is the term the Frankfurt School used to describe the antisemitism of Germans confronted after the war with the suggestion of national guilt. Acknowledging what had been done to the Jews would undermine their precious sense of belonging as loyal German citizens. So they didn’t. To a man or woman, the Frankfurt School’s subjects denied or minimised what had been done to the Jews, inverted victims and oppressors, provided excuses, or made ‘astonishingly affirmative comments about Nazism.’ To the long list of crimes held against Jews, a particularly perverse one was added after the Holocaust: making the rest of the world feel guilty. By the same token, as Jacobson suggests, Jews also ‘cannot be forgiven that other challenge to humanity’s conscience: anti-Semitism’. The guilt victims evoke is hurled back at them, in an apparently never-ending cycle of hatred.
Eve Garrard has perhaps said everything there is to say about the pleasures of antisemitism. She observes that it has three, sometimes overlapping components. The first, the pleasure of hatred, provides the thrill of condemnation, a surge of self-righteousness, and intense bonding with like-minded haters. The second, the pleasure of tradition, makes it ‘feel comfortable, perhaps even natural, to fit living Jews into the space created for them by so many centuries of hostility’. The third, the pleasure of displaying moral purity, is the positive ‘emotional dividend’ a person gains by seeing himself as champion of weak against strong, colonised against colonisers. Garrard notes that while sometimes the components may seem to pair naturally (hatred and tradition, for instance), at other times (such as hatred and moral purity) they may seem to exist in a certain tension. Yet where such tension arises, the hater is able to resolve it by convincing himself his hate is justified, leaving the underlying antisemitism intact.
With only slight adjustments, trans activist misogyny shares all three of Garrard’s components. Hating ‘TERFs’ is fun in very much the same way that Garrard notes antisemitism is fun. You can see the glee of trans activists when they rampage outside gender critical feminist public meetings chanting ‘Fuck TERFs’. Or on the grin of the man in a social media post, brandishing a knife alongside the message, ‘I’m coming for your throats, TERFs.’ You can taste the euphoria, the thrill of transgression. Threatening women used to be frowned upon—something that might potentially get a lefty into trouble. Now it is celebrated.
License to hate, loving to hate: Jews, women and the new Authoritarian Personality
The illiberal, draconian ‘progressive’ who howls one day against ‘Zionists,’ the next against ‘TERFs’ is a specimen I think the Frankfurt School would have recognised. At any rate, I don’t know of any writing as useful for understanding today’s hellscape as their output on authoritarianism. Critical theory has its weaknesses, for sure (internally contradictory passages; Marxist dogmatism; a failure to apply their analysis to left as well as right), but its practitioners described eloquently how alienated ‘man’ had become from nature and from other people, and how this atomisation led him to surrender individuality and freedom for an illusory sense of greater power and meaning.
Nestled in his authoritarian ‘beloved in-group’, critical theory’s subject gains a transcendent sense of purpose, comradeship, belonging… and a precious license to hate. Whatever hostility he harbours towards the authorities he’s obligated to respect is deftly turned against permissible targets. Thus, the love he feels for his group inevitably has a corollary measure of hate; as Lars Rensmann puts it in his wonderful book on the Frankfurt School, he ‘loves to hate’. And as Adorno and colleagues wrote in The Authoritarian Personality: ‘[The] authoritarian must, out of an inner necessity, turn his aggression against out-groups.´ Jews were the preeminent ‘hated out group’ of their research, but they noted that their rightwing ‘authoritarian personality’ typically also hated predictable clusters of other groups such as immigrants and ‘homosexuals’. Hate is endlessly versatile.
This twenty-first century toxic eruption against ‘privilege’ has an uncomfortably familiar feel of the past but it’s also uniquely postmodern. And yes, I’m aware the Frankfurt School played its own role, however ambivalently, in indicting the Enlightenment itself as leading inexorably to Auschwitz: a deeply pessimistic conclusion that paved the way for postmodernism, with its extreme scepticism towards material reality and truth. In a sense, reality and truth are ‘all’ that’s at issue here: the ability to recognise—and the right to say—that two plus two make four; the Earth is not flat; and a man is not a woman, no matter how artful his eyeliner.
Once truth is up for grabs, all truths are up for grabs. A mind persuaded to reject the reality of biological sex is one unlikely to recognise basic facts about the Holocaust, or about living Jews. That’s one reason to be extremely concerned about a movement which demands people ignore the evidence of their eyes and ears—and that really should be enough. But it goes beyond that. Jews and women are both in the forefront of an assault coming from left and right. We either fight it together—or go down separately.