If you saw last year’s Academy Award darling picture “Birdman,” you might get the reference in this blog post’s title. If not, well, here goes…
At least in the U.S., one of the biggest stories of the past few weeks has been the announcement by Bruce Jenner, who won the gold medal in the 1976 Olympic decathlon, that he will now adopt the name “Caitlyn” as part of his “transformation” into a woman. To mark this world-changing moment, Bruce/Caitlyn has posed for cheesecake photos and given an exclusive interview to Vanity Fair magazine. (An interview conducted, interestingly enough, by Buzz Bissinger — who has had his own issues with sexual identity, but who is also the author of what is arguably the greatest work of sports journalism of all time — the book “Friday Night Lights.” If you haven’t read it, you need to go out right this second and buy it and read it from cover to cover — it’s really that good, even if you’re someone who hates sports. In coming generations, it will be placed alongside “War and Peace” and “Pride and Prejudice” as a historical and cultural touchstone.)
As silly as it may seem, you really shouldn’t make light of Jenner’s transformation. In the ancient Greek culture of which we are the beneficiaries, great athletes were a very, very big deal. And not much has changed today — we still worship athletes.
To recap: In 1976, Bruce Jenner won the gold medal in the Olympic decathlon.
The decathlon is, as its name indicates, a series of ten different track and field competitions. Thus, the individual who achieves first place in this gauntlet of trials every four years is generally acclaimed as “the world’s greatest athlete.”
So “Bruce Jenner” is not just some random dude. In fact, he’s one of the extremely small number of men who can legitimately boast of having reached the supreme heights of masculine achievement. No matter what else you might say about him, in the summer of 1976, Bruce Jenner had a very strong claim to being the most perfect physical specimen of the human male alive on planet Earth.
That’s why — despite the folks who are writing this whole thing off as tabloid trash — this is kind of a big deal. It’s a big deal when a man who has scaled the absolute summit of masculinity announces he’d be happier as a chick.
For the rest of this piece, I’ll be referring to Bruce as “Caitlyn Jenner,” and I’ll be adopting her preferred pronouns, for reasons that will become obvious later.
First off, I should probably mention that Caitlyn managed to shift my thinking somewhat. I watched part of her interview with Diane Sawyer, and I’ll admit, the fact that she seemed to identify as a conservative Republican was a major — and pleasant — surprise. Anyone who proudly admits to being a right-winger while living in the weird toxic stew of Hollywood celebrity culture has got to be reckoned as a serious individual. Trust me, it takes a LOT of grit and gumption to swim against the political tide out in Hollyweird. Whether you agree with her apparent views or not, this is a major clue about Caitlyn Jenner’s essential character: She’s clearly made of tough stuff.
Furthermore, in her interview with Sawyer, she really came across as someone who had her head on straight. That was interesting — I’ve had very little direct experience with transgender people, but the few I’ve known left me with the impression that these are deeply disturbed folks in need of heavy psychiatric care. Caitlyn Jenner seems the polar opposite of that — she seems like a very bright, lucid, stable, well-adjusted individual. So in that respect, she really has succeeded in changing my mind, albeit slightly. I am — pardon the phrase — man enough to admit when I’m wrong, and Caitlyn Jenner has forced me to concede that this is an issue where my judgment might have been too hasty. Maybe I really have been too harshly dismissive of this transgender stuff.
Assuming you’re not a committed bigot, it seems to me there are two ways one can approach the issue of Caitlyn Jenner. Problem is, both of these approaches pose significant issues for militant liberals.
The best way to illustrate this dilemma is to consider the question of Caitlyn Jenner’s Olympic records from 1976, when she was still known as Bruce.
This is not a matter of light concern. There’s been a minor dust-up on Wikipedia about this. See, if you accept the idea that Caitlyn is a full woman, and that she has always been and always will be a true woman, then Caitlyn Jenner is far and away the greatest female athlete who has ever lived. Apparently, she still holds at least one all-time world record for women, and she set a whole slew of other world records for women back in 1976 which have only been broken in the past five years or so. That’s absolutely stunning longevity for track and field records.
If Caitlyn Jenner is a 100 percent woman, she is incontestably the greatest female athlete ever, full stop. I feel reasonably certain that no woman has ever or will ever match her overall performance without resorting to steroids, or without a freak change in the course of human evolution…unless, of course, a subsequent male Olympic decathlon champion should ALSO go the transgender route.
But if it’s true that Caitlyn Jenner has always been a woman, even when she went by the name “Bruce Jenner,” then wasn’t she competing in the 1976 Olympics under false pretenses? Shouldn’t she be stripped of her medals for her deception?
And there’s the rub: How are we to understand the transition of Bruce Jenner into Caitlyn Jenner? As I said before, it seems to me that there are two ways:
Option #1: The polite fiction. In this approach, everybody just admits upfront that Caitlyn Jenner is a normal man suffering from some sort of mental delusion, and we all agree that the best approach is simply to humor her and play along with her fantasies for the sake of her mental well-being.
This view of Caitlyn conveniently dispenses with a lot of the silly “but…but…wait a second…” questions that wise-ass conservatives keep throwing out there to troll earnest liberals. Of course it’s ridiculous to talk about “Caitlyn Jenner” as the world’s greatest female athlete. Of course it’s stupid to ask how this female “Caitlyn Jenner” miraculously managed to father five children. Every rational person understands that “Caitlyn Jenner” is a biological male, has always been a biological male, and will always be a biological male.
Transgenderism, in this view, is nothing more than an adjunct to traditional polite standards of conduct.
Occasionally, polite social behavior obliges us to refrain from pointing out uncomfortable truths, and even humor people about their harmless delusions. People who insist on an absolute commitment to the truth in all situations are generally viewed as weird, antisocial cranks and extremists. I don’t know about you, but if I were putting together a dinner party, I’d rather have this guy or this guy than this guy.
Yeah, I’m goofing on this idea a little bit with those links. But it’s true: Civil behavior often requires us to avoid going about loudly proclaiming the truth as we understand it. We are free, of course, to go about constantly shouting the truth at the top of our lungs, but there is a price to be paid for that, and the price frequently includes being shunned by normal society. If we’re to extend polite social convention to transgenderism, then “normal society” will requires us to pretend that Caitlyn Jenner is a woman, even if we all know that’s not actually true.
But there are two problems with that approach. The first, of course, is that it’s condescending to the person whose delusions are being indulged.
Now, stripped of context, condescension is a morally neutral act, assuming one is willing to accept the proposition that all people are not presently “equal,” regardless of the reasons for that inequality. Hint to ambitious writers at Salon and The New Republic: There is room out there for an exceptionally brave liberal thinker to pen a vigorous defense of condescension towards less-enlightened members of the left-wing coalition.
But for better or worse, America is a nation with an extremely robust egalitarian ethos, so “condescension” here is seen as a serious breach of civility (for an idea of how odd that can seem to the rest of the world, have a long conversation with a person who immigrated here from some third-world hellhole). Telling Caitlyn Jenner that, “yes, dear, of course you’re a woman” when you actually believe Caitlyn is a man suffering from an unfortunate mental disorder is, by American standards, insulting. Heaven forbid.
Since I’m an awful conservative who is quite happy with condescension, this doesn’t pose a problem for me. I’m happy to indulge Caitlyn Jenner’s fantasies as a matter of social propriety while refraining to acknowledge they are based in anything like reality. There are plenty of modern social conventions which are objectively stupid, but I happily abide by them; what’s one more? This causes me no mental anguish at all, but then again, I’m a nasty right-winger.
For liberals, the second problem with the “polite fiction” approach is that it raises the question of what other “delusions” we are prepared to humor in modern America. Let’s take an example that will set liberals’ hair on fire: Biblical Creationism.
The account of creation given in the Biblical book of Genesis is, according to the most up-to-date scientific theory, a lot of bunk.
Liberals often have little problem mocking Creationism, as in their minds, it’s primarily associated with stump-toothed white hillbillies — except that a whole lot of black people subscribe to this idea as well. Oh, it’s not just nice black church ladies who believe it, either: Let extremely-not-safe-for-work black comedian Katt Williams explain the truth of Creationism to you, complete with ample deployment of f-bombs. Creationism is also a popular stance for Muslims as well.
So here we’ve got what scientists would describe as an objectively crazy-ass delusion that is wildly popular with millions of average Americans — and especially popular among boutique minority communities. It’s way more accepted than the rather oddball notion that Caitlyn Jenner is a woman.
So if we’re just going to blandly go along with the idea that Caitlyn Jenner is a woman — heck, even the Associated Press guidelines instruct news organizations to just treat self-reported gender as a neutral fact, like “it rained on Tuesday” — then why not report Creationism as the truth, at least any time a self-described Creationist puts it forward? Writing in the Weekly Standard, Mark Hemingway trolls the vile PolitiFact, run by the unspeakably loathsome Tampa Bay Times, by asking them to fact check the statement, “Is Caitlyn Jenner a woman?”
See what I mean here when I talk about “polite social convention?” If this is the standard, then PolitiFact cannot fact check Hemingway’s question without committing a major social faux pas. But if that’s the standard, why would it not be a serious faux pas for PolitiFact to declare that a Creationist claim that the Earth is only about 4,000 years old is complete rubbish? Shouldn’t we be at least as polite to Creationists as we are to folks who are transgender?
Perhaps you’d respond that we can afford to indulge Caitlyn Jenner, because that’s relatively harmless, while the Creationist claim is more fraught with real-world consequences. Really? You’re going to tell me that pretending in everyday life that gender is a “social construct” will have no serious practical consequences, while beliefs about the age and origin of the earth — which are highly unlikely to arise in normal circumstances outside of a science classroom — are of enormous consequence, and must be brutally and forcefully corrected using the full complement of society’s resources?
Yeah — good luck with that. Good luck with selling people on the idea that we’re required to hammer kids with an absolutely ruthless, godless secularism when talking about long-extinct dinosaurs, but that they are free to retreat to an airy fantasy world when choosing which bathroom to use.
So option 1 poses problems. What about option 2?
Option #2: Let’s warp reality. According to this approach, Caitlyn Jenner is a woman, period. The fact that she has XY chromosomes is irrelevant; Caitlyn Jenner “feels” that she is a woman, and that emotional certainty is all that is necessary to establish the fact of her womanhood.
Let’s call this what it is: It’s an explicitly religious claim, no different in principle than Catholic beliefs about transubstantiation. You can get around it by trying to claim that it’s all due to the fact that transgender people have a different brain structure than people with “normal” gender identity, but then that brings you back to Option #1: You’re admitting that these beliefs are, in some fundamental way, not congruent with physical reality, and positing that the ideal solution is to humor people about their unavoidable delusions, rather than helping them to accept their inborn physical limitations. All that does is raise the question again: If we can indulge some delusions, why not others — particularly ones that are more widespread? Who’s to say that belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is not due to one’s particular genetic inheritance?
So if Caitlyn Jenner is a woman — a no-ifs-ands-or-buts-woman — why shouldn’t she be regarded as the greatest female athlete of all time?
Because unless Caitlyn Jenner is one of the very, very, very tiny number of chromosome-determined intersex individuals — so far, I haven’t heard anyone claim this about Jenner — then she has an actual binary sexual identity, at least according to actual science. This is an actual objective fact which a real-live scientist can conclusively determine.
Now, normally the left prides itself on being grounded in science. They proudly trumpet themselves as “The Reality-Based Community.” Well, here is a case of someone denying objective reality, and suddenly the left is cool with throwing science out the window. There’s nothing wrong with that, necessarily: As an evil right-winger, I’m naturally partial to the idea that science, even granted its vast explanatory power, provides only a partial picture of the world, and absent strengthening elements such as tradition and religion, it’s a poor foundation for civilization.
But doesn’t that go against the core of liberal thought — the idea that man and society can be endlessly improved through reason alone? If we admit that mystical, religious claims must be treated seriously by society, would that not strongly undermine all the good and humane advances (I don’t mean that ironically) that the left has fought so hard to bring us?
Most of the great gifts that have flowed from the liberal project have come from ruling various nutty religious claims invalid as controlling principles for the organization of society. Part of the basic sales pitch of liberalism has always been its commitment to sober-minded reason over mindless dogma. That is why women are allowed to vote and blacks are no longer forced to use separate water fountains; polite society is no longer willing to entertain the idea that sexism and racial segregation are inviolable religious commandments.
Well, with Caitlyn Jenner, we have an example of a person making what can only be understood as a religious claim. Caitlyn Jenner insists upon a fact which does not correspond with empirical reality, and insists that despite its variance with all observable and testable conditions, this fact represents the literal truth. When Christians talk this way, Richard Dawkins laughs and throws rocks at them (figuratively speaking).
But with Caitlyn Jenner in particular and the issue of transgenderism in general, the left has seemingly abandoned this principle. On what basis will liberals now be able dismiss other preposterous claims, if the person making the claim can simply plead sincere conviction? It seems like a question that many of those who are cheerleading the transgender movement haven’t really thought through.