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Saturday, 28 November 2015

Cissy and Tomboy

In England, the most intellectually serious newspaper  is The Financial Times. Today 28 November 2015, India Ross interviews Jill Soloway, creator of an American TV series Transparent which has a transgender theme. They talk about gender issues and at the end Soloway says:

“People will recognise that just because somebody is masculine, it doesn’t mean they have a penis. Just because somebody’s feminine, it doesn’t mean they have a vagina. That’s going to be the revolution over the next five years”

India Ross adds:

“I suggest that, even today, that’s a fairly radical thing to say. She agrees …”

I paused. When, if ever, has this “radical thing” not been recognised as true – and even platitudinously true?

Think of “cissy” and “tomboy”. A cissy was a boy who displayed feminine tastes and traits, deemed unacceptable. A tomboy was a girl who displayed masculine tastes and traits, though sometimes these were treated more indulgently than cissy traits. To go back just fifty years,  think To Kill a Mockingbird.

Both terms involve using a fundamental distinction between sex and gender. Both recognise that sex and gender can be mismatched in a person. Neither supposes that cis-gendering (the matching of sex and gender) is inevitable, though as judgemental terms, they assume that cis-gendering is desirable.

So maybe the revolution is simply to remove the judgemental aspect. No one will get called out as a cissy or laughed at as a tomboy. They will just be accepted.

Didn’t that also happen in the past?

Caring has been marked + feminine in my culture and for a very long time. Let’s go back a hundred years.  In war, there were male officers who distinguished themselves by caring for their men. This was regarded as admirable, not cissy.

Bravery has been marked + masculine in my culture, also for a very long time. But go back to 1838 and read the story of Grace Darling at Wikipedia. This 23 year old woman got marked + for Bravery (in fact, + + +). But no one dismissed her as a tomboy and several men who had never met her wrote seeking her hand in marriage. No one called her out for rowing the boat.

It would be interesting to me but perhaps tedious to you if I multiplied examples. 

It is simply not true that the sex / gender distinction has ever been unclear to anyone (except perhaps to those who have been made to read Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble). It is also - perhaps surprisingly - untrue that society has been consistently and remorselessly unwilling to recognise, accept, and even applaud, trans – gender characteristics.

 Of course, it’s tolerance has never been whole-hearted and probably never consistent. But a flicker of tolerance has always been there. 

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

The Social Misconstruction of Reality: Sex and Gender Again

I went online recently to check the status of my Driving Convictions. I was surprised to find at the head of the page which dealt with me the words   “Gender: Male”. Well, I have to say I never told them that. I am pretty sure that when I filled in their forms however many decades ago I responded to a question which asked me for my “Sex” by answering “Male”, which was truthful and true. If they had asked me for my “Gender” I might have replied – well, I hope I would have replied - “Not sure” or “Changeable” or “None of your business” or “My role model is Jeremy Clarkson”

Gender is an adjectival rather than a nominal aspect of people’s selves and it is rarely uncomplicated. Few people are as straightforwardly “cis-gendered” as is assumed by those whose imagination does not rise above deleting the word “Sex” and inserting the word “Gender” in misplaced Homage to that excellent high school sociology textbook, Peter Berger’s and Thomas Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality.

Equally, few people are completely “trans-gendered”.  So maybe there is a normal curve of distribution ( a Bell curve ) for gendering - though I am sure the curve will vary from society to society. I have read lots of Op Ed pieces telling me that over recent decades in my society boys have found it harder to develop masculine characteristics resulting in a “Crisis of Masculinity”. Statistically, that would come out as a change in the shape of the distribution curve.

But when big companies are castigated for not having a “gender balance” at top executive level no one would be amused if they adopted the following strategy:

Look, we’re all men I know but, hey, some of us are less masculine than others – more feminine. Yeah? So why don’t we start by scoring people for their masculinity and their femininity. Like, you know, everyone says I am a “Good Listener” which must knock 10 points off my 100% Masculinity index. So why not credit those 10 points to the Female side of our Gender Balance Sheet? That way, we at least make a start on changing the Gender Balance here. Yes, guys?

No, guys. The truth is that your critics are talking Anatomy. They don’t like to say so, may even deny it, but Anatomy is what they are talking about. 

Why should Anatomy be so important?

Anatomy is important because it is an extremely powerful Profiling tool. You never need to be screened for prostate cancer if you tick the F box, and (though with a bit less confidence) you never need to be screened for breast cancer if you tick the M box. Your athletic abilities also can be read off from your M or F profiling, which is why we have Men’s and Women’s events for most Olympic sports. And so on.

Because of the normal curve of distribution, M and F are still good gender profiling tools, though less reliably so: in my culture / society if you are strongly cis-gendered, then you will be a better listener if your sex is F than if your sex is M. True? And if you are cis-gendered and M, then you are more likely to have driving convictions for Speeding. True?

We can wish it otherwise and we can work to make it otherwise. That thought is only intelligible if you accept the basic distinction between Sex and Gender and don’t try to deny it by conflating the two as has now been done on my Driving Licence.

Monday, 23 November 2015

Is Closing Down Brussels a Good Idea?

Terrorists – or rather the spectre of them – have closed down Brussels without so much as setting off a firework. They may be as stunned as the people of Brussels, who are enduring a state of siege declared by their government. Can it really be that easy?

Seems like it can. In which case, we should ask if the Belgian government – such as it is in that deeply divided country – has made the right judgement call. My gut feeling is that they have got it wrong.

True, if you are a politician and your security chiefs tell you that a bomb is going to go off but they are not sure where, then you are in a difficult position: if you ignore them and a bomb goes off – well, you will be condemned; if you take their advice, no bomb goes off but your economy takes a huge hit – well, you will be condemned.

In World War Two, London was a regular target for German bombing. The government did not close it down. The Royal Family stayed and the Government stayed. True, at the outset children were evacuated but that was at least partly given up on: adults went to work and children went to school. Life went on and every day some people were killed.

If life had gone on as normal in Brussels in the past few days, the worst that could have happened is a co-ordinated attack on soft targets, just like those recently visited on Paris. A large number of people could have died .

My gut feeling is that you should carry on. Aircraft sometimes fall out of the sky or get blown out of the sky, but people go on flying and airlines continue to prosper. In a  big city like Brussels, the chances that any one individual will fall victim to a terrorist attack are really very small. As yet, the terrorists don’t have sophisticated technology to kill people; that’s what we have and use every day in the Middle East to great destructive effect. It just doesn't bring victory or peace.

For the most part, governments and security services should tackle the problem of murderous gangs as they usually tackle them: tracking down their members, disrupting their activities and arresting or killing their members. While they go about their business, we should go about ours.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Terror in Paris: does M.Hollande know how to respond?

I am not convinced. Alienated young men and psychopathic criminals, most of them born in Belgium and France, go on a killing spree in Paris and the immediate  response of Monsieur Normal is to do the Normal thing: Bomb from great heights the Syrian territory which has the misfortune to be controlled by Daesh. All the evidence seems to point to the conclusion that only those engaged on the ground - notably the remarkably determined Kurdish forces - have made real progress against ISIS. Bombing from great heights always kills the innocent and always creates new enemies, so that Daesh may even seem the lesser evil.

The French and the British have been bombing Lebanon, Syria and Iraq for almost a century. They acquired those territories as spoils of war, taking them from the defeated Ottoman Empire  according to lines in the sand mutually agreed in the 1917 Sykes-Picot agreement (see James Barr, A Line in The Sand - a very informative book)

The UK's Royal Air Force developed its civilian bombing techniques in Iraq in the 1920s which is where Arthur "Bomber" Harris - the architect of RAF raids on Hamburg and Dresden - developed his enthusiasm and his skills. Here is an extract from one of his 1924 reports:

"They [ the Arabs and the Kurds] now know what real bombing means, in casualties and damage: they now know that within 45 minutes a full sized village, vide attached photos of Kushan-Al-Ajaza, can be practically wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured by four or five machines which offer them no real target, no opportunity for glory as warriors, no effective means of escape, and little chance of retaliation or loot such as an infantry column would afford them in producing a similar result" [ quoted from Yuki Tanaka and Marilyn B Young, Bombing Civilians: a twentieth century history, page 21]

The French used other methods to control their subject populations. In 1943, for example - forget that there was supposed to be a war in Europe - de Gaulle sought to put down Arab nationalism in Lebanon and Syria by unleashing his Free French troops on a War Crimes spree, documented in James Barr's book. At the same time, the French were funding the terrorists - the Irgun, the Stern Gang -  who were trying to drive the British out of Palestine. See again James Barr's book for details.

France, a very divided country with a long-standing inclination towards authoritarian solutions,  has a very poor record in building social cohesion. The benefits of the "Socialist" system are pretty much closed to the young in general and the non-white communities - predominantly Arab and Muslim - in particular. President Hollande has really done nothing about that. His voting base is a bit like that of Britain's Conservatives - those who benefit from the status quo.

Just as it is easy to be uncritical of migrants and refugees, as if they were all morally superior unfortunates deserving of sympathy, so it will be easy to be uncritical of what France (and the UK) now does in response to the terrorist attack on Paris. But one needs to keep in mind such simple facts as that neither M.Hollande or Mr Cameron is very bright and they will only think of responses which haven't worked for nearly a century now. Bombing more bits of Syria does nothing to address France's problem with its unintegrated and disaffected young people. Belgium - pretty much a non-country - probably has an even bigger problem. Nor does bombing the Other address the evident failings of  bureaucratic "Security" and "Intelligence" systems which seem unable to keep one step ahead of people who in most respects are disadvantaged and disturbed  and who routinely make mistakes (careless talk and so  on) which are not picked up by our oh-so-sophisticated systems or - if picked up - are ignored.


Written and published before President Hollande's address to the joint session of the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, which tends to confirm my doubts about his leadership. The grip of colonialist tradition is so strong in France that he thought it appropriate to announce that France is despatching a Gunboat - aptly named the Charles de Gaulle - to the enemy's shores

Thursday, 12 November 2015

God, The Queen and Nuclear Missiles: the Importance of Jeremy Corbyn

There aren’t International League Tables for this, but if there were I guess we could come pretty high up: British people (or at least, English people) find it very hard to imagine a Future which differs in any way from the Present. They are very happy with the present, partly because they are very frequently told they are happy with it, and they feel no impulse to expend mental energy exploring possible alternatives – even if they do sometimes singalong to John Lennon’s Imagine.

Thus it is that they are undisturbed by the fact that their Heads of State for the next hundred years have already been chosen for them: after Elizabeth, they will have Charles then William then George. No votes there for generations as yet unborn.

Likewise, though nowadays remarkably non-religious, they take it for granted that their children should be made to Do God in every school in the land and that their Establishment Does God on every possible occasion – opening of sessions, closings of sessions, funerals of the Mighty, christenings of Royal children – and pretty much regardless of any actual belief. It is as if God lives on as some totem, like Stonehenge, some piece of architectural heritage which must not be pulled down lest the ruling class is pulled down with it (a most unlikely scenario).

Sometimes you will be bullied if you don’t conform – stand up and sing for the National Anthem (which is not National at all, merely an invocation of the Deity on the Monarch’s behalf); wear your Poppy (soon it will be worn all year); curtsy, bow or kneel for the Queen.

In this context, which extends to encompass school uniform, public schools, Honours in the name of a lost Empire and – not least – ageing nuclear missiles, Mr Jeremy Corbyn, Leader of the Labour Party - egalitarian, unbeliever, republican, and anti-militarist - is a splendid challenge to the British way of not living. His small actions upset the complacent refusal to imagine alternatives which characterise English life.

At least on one issue, he has broad support. The whole of Scotland is agin’ replacing our ageing submarine-based nuclear weapons system – for which it provides the docks - with a hugely expensive new system, controlled by the USA. (The British Finger on the Button only works if the Americans are pressing the button too).

And he has worked some magic by tempting the Military out of the corner and got the Chief of the General Staff  - one of those not-so-bright Generals with whom we have been afflicted for centuries – to say daft things about Our Nuclear Deterrent, things which can lead only to the conclusions that (a) countries without such weapons of mass destruction are all – and every minute of every day - quaking with fear that the Russkies will invade; (b) that all countries without such weapons should acquire them ASAP, notably those like Iran and Saudi Arabia unable to deter nuclear-armed Israel.

Mr Corbyn is under enormous pressure. He yielded on the Poppy. But he made up for it by declining the VIP lunch which follows the Remembrance Day service – one of those coercive Establishment get-togethers – and instead spoke to some War Veterans out in the street.

If he keeps it up, his small gestures will do wonders for his country and send the foreign-owned and tax-exile Press into ever deeper spasms of hatred from which they may, hopefully, die. Of course, it may happen that he is dragged kicking and screaming into the Establishment. For all our sakes, I hope not.

Private Eye and the President of China's Visit to the UK

It's hard to get a letter printed in the UKs very widely-read and very excellent satirical magazine, Private Eye; it's a must read for England's Estabishment, which is why I keep trying. 

This was my most recent attempt:


About your coverage of the Chinese President’s visit (Eye 1404, passim). It reminded me that many years ago Mr Tony Blair visited Rome to beg former Professor and Cardinal Ratzinger to visit the UK. The Professor and Cardinal had spent most of his life persecuting those members of the Roman Catholic church who sought to make it a more humane institution. For that, he was elected Pope. Mr Blair yielded to Mr Brown and though of a different stripe in religious matters, Mr Brown renewed the invitation to Pope Benedict. And so it came to pass that under Mr Cameron, of no religious stripe at all,  Benedict deigned to visit Scotland and England (but not the nearby Republic of Ireland where he would not have been safe and which shortly thereafter expelled his Papal Nuncio) and trod upon many red carpets and addressed both Houses of Parliament and the whole Establishment bowed and scraped  and I don’t remember your organ or any other organ of the Press (except in muted terms The Independent) saying that it was a disgrace and a national humiliation to grovel thus to someone so deeply implicated in covering up crimes against humanity around the world. And since then the only gesture of contrition came from HSBC which forcibly closed the London Nunciate’s bank account; too dodgy by half.


Well, they didn't publish it but the Editor did respond:

The Ed says: Thank you for your letter. Point noted. 

Friday, 6 November 2015

Germaine Greer and Rachael Melhuish: trying to think about it because they don't do that in universities now

Are we always who we say we are?

Are we always what we say we are?

Germaine Greer, writer and celebrity, recently cancelled [ but see Footnote] an invited lecture at a United Kingdom university (Cardiff, in Wales) because the women’s officer of the Student Union there, Rachael Melhuish, got up a petition against her:

“Greer has demonstrated time and time again her misogynistic views towards trans women, including continually misgendering transwomen and denying the existence of transphobia altogether. Trans-exclusionary views should have no place in feminism or society”

As an example of her “transphobia” I find cited - by the Internet sources I am using - the use of the expression “ghastly parodies” to describe those whose birth sex was Male but who subsequently choose to present themselves in society as women, either with or without surgery.

I have always understood that a man who dresses as a woman is correctly described as a transvestite and that a man who in addition has undergone hormonal treatment or surgery is usually described as a trans sexual. More or less the same distinction can be made in relation to women who present themselves as men. 

The distinction is not entirely academic. But neither category tells us anything about a trans person’s sexual orientation. Nor does it actually tell us much about their gender since it is not spelled out what it is to present oneself as a woman (or when the transition is made in the other direction, a man). Melhuish seems to treat it as unproblematic whereas I thought most Feminisms from Simone de Beauvoir (at the very latest) onwards were about it being extremely problematic.

Does it mean presenting oneself according to the local gender stereotypes of what it is to be a woman? Does it mean presenting oneself as a woman in one’s dress and the public toilets you enter? Does it mean signalling to men that they should treat you (according to the conventions in place) as a woman? And likewise, signalling the same to women – so that, for example, you can claim admission to “Women Only” meetings? Does it mean signalling to others that you feel more comfortable presenting yourself and being treated as a woman (whatever that happens to mean), pretty much regardless of how you dress, what toilets you use, what personality traits you display, and so on?

Presumably, in nearly every case it means more than asking to be labelled a certain way. The exceptions are provided, notably, by cases – largely in the past -  where birth sex women cross-dressed as men in order to gain admission to armies, medical schools, and so on, but who did not in any way feel that they were something other than women. There were also cases where men cross-dressed as women, usually for nefarious purposes like escaping military service or gaining access to places where young females could be found and, hopefully, available for heterosexual sex.

But the most obvious cases of cross-dressing occurred (and still occur) on stage where the Pantomime Dame or the burlesque Drag Queen have for a very long time (centuries?) presented a comedy of “ghastly parodies” . Sometimes these parodies appear off stage and may have been in Germaine Greer’s mind. Would Rachael Melhuish welcome a Pantomime Dame to a Women Only meeting?

That question is actually a way into thinking about the whole issue. If you would not admit a Pantomime Dame, my guess is that is because you think they are simply a man pretending to be a woman. Fine. Next question: How about an old-fashioned male - to-female transvestite who cuts a very striking figure in high heels and booming voice? Is that person more than a Pantomime Dame, but just off-stage? If so, what makes the difference?  or, What has to happen to qualify that person for a "Women Only" meeting? And what qualifies anyone to make up the rules? A degree in Gender Studies?

Germaine Greer has also said that "just because you lop off your dick it doesn't make you a woman". This is obviously true: men have their dicks lopped off in car crashes, industrial accidents and - most frequently - misadventures with military high explosives. Few if any of them breathe a sigh of relief or think "Now I can be the woman I always wanted to be". Greer is saying that even if you lose your dick as part of a self-mutilation or voluntarily undergone medical procedure, that in itself is not sufficient to make you a woman, not enough to get you into the "Women Only" meeting. That seems correct: you need a supporting story which explains why you did it and how it forms part of the "woman" identity you are claiming. It seems to me quite possible that someone whose dick is intact could have a stronger claim than the dickless person to be regarded as a woman - just as there are quite a lot of  people who are more expert in the study of History than some of  those who are titled Professors of History.

Less obvious but still relevant to this discussion is what happens in the private space of the bedroom where cross-dressing and gender play are common. There, they are not at all parodic but are devices for enhancing and exploring desire. Men put on fishnets and women put on strap ons. Unfortunately, we don’t have global output figures or know who buys what where but we do know it’s a big industry. Most of  those who play with sexual identity and gender roles in the bedroom almost certainly do not do so outside that  private space .Nonetheless, it may make them more understanding of those who have full-time trans- identities. I hope so. Rachael Melhuish is right in this: people who are gratuitously offensive to others generally deserve a put-down of some kind.

Freudian psychoanalysis is hated only and always by those who insist that we are always who we say we are and what we say we are. I am a kind and loving person, always – and if you dispute those Facts, I will cast you into outer darkness.

But most aspects of our selves are not things we can will, and those who believe that the will can always triumph are doomed to failure. My will won't triumph over my toothache and I can’t will away primary sexual characteristics or even many of the secondary gender characteristics I have acquired. Several critics of Rachael Melhuish, including other feminists, use the word “fascist” or allude to it (as I have done) in describing her politics. I think this is because of a suspicion that she believes that life is about decisions and will-power.  ( Take away the reference to Fascism and an alternative might be to call such beliefs the Anorexic's Mistake). 

I realise that I have introduced my discussion with examples which may seem trivial, but it's a device philosophers use to try to clarify complex issues and it sometimes works.  But in reality, from what I read, Trans people have much more difficult lives than the Pantomime Dame, as do Hermaphrodites (who I am not discussing in this piece). It is hard and often enough anguishing to realise that you are only going to feel more authentic, more comfortable, more desirable if you shift into a mode of self-presentation which asks other people to reclassify your gender, more or less regardless of the state of your sexual organs. But just because it’s hard does not mean that a Narrative of Suffering or a Hard Luck story on its own should open the doors to the Women Only meeting. The narrative needs to be convincing and the story true. Rachael Melhuish needs to tell us what sort of story she is looking for.

As it is with stories, so it is with reactions. Just because you may encounter hostile or dismissive reactions does not mean that you are morally superior to those around you. You will still have your own weaknesses, vanities, unkindnesses – things which make everyone uncomfortable with themselves at one time or another, things which we would like to wish away with a “No, that’s not me”. But we can never be entirely who we say we are or what we say we are. That's just one of life's unfairnesses.

At the back of my mind I have this thought. The history of medicine is littered with histories of doctors doing terrible things to people, supposedly to "cure" them of this or that. Some of the medical techniques employed to enable gender transitions have been around a long time: sheikhs had eunuchs in their harems, the Vatican had castrati in its choirs (until very recently), chemical castration was already around to deal with homosexuals like Alan Turing. Now we have a wider range of surgeries and chemistries. But there is a possibility that a hundred years from now, those who by then believe themselves to be  progressive and humane may regard at least some of those techniques as barbaric, even when chosen, and falsely offering cures for catastrophic dilemmas which require other modes of approach.

Meanwhile, if you don't make it into the paradise of the Women Only meeting, there are still places you can go where people are too lazy to ask  you for your Identity but where, hopefully, at least most people will welcome you.


Footnote: After receiving reassurances from the University that her personal safety would be guaranteed, Greer did in fact deliver the lecture she had been invited to give and which was not about transgender issues

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

BREXIT begins at Calais

BREXITing has been going on for many years now. The United Kingdom has signed up to neither of the European Union’s major innovations – the Euro and the Open Borders (Schengen) agreement – and it pleaded idleness and stupidity when invited to join the Metric system. (As a result, the UK is the only "advanced" country in the world to have no unified system of weights and measures, as a visit to any supermarket will demonstrate).

Back in the 1990s, the opening of the Channel Tunnel and the introduction of Eurostar and Eurotunnel services, promised to bring at least London and south east England closer to their nearest neighbours. But today the Ministry of the Interior run by Theresa May has other ideas: it wants to deter travel in either direction.

UK citizens who want to travel to France are now objects of suspicion; they need Exit visas (that is what Advance Passenger Information is about), they are frisked and they are delayed.

It’s worse when they try to return, since a huge operation designed to delay them has been created at the Channel Tunnel – I don’t know about Eurostar; I gave up on it some years ago.

Two days ago, Sunday 1 November, I returned from a business trip to Germany. From arrival at the Channel Tunnel to exit from the Border Control Holding Pen took an hour. Even if all the Border Control booths had been open, it would still have taken 30 or 45 minutes. If screening was done on an intelligence-led basis, ninety-nine percent of British and other EU number-plated vehicles should simply be waved through.

It’s got nothing to do with the Migrants at Calais trying to get into the UK, nor has it got anything to do with National Security. It is about teaching British citizens – holidaymakers and business people alike – that Theresa May does not like them going to France or coming back. There is going to be a price to be paid – a target delay applied to your journey.

And how is the Target achieved? Mindless scanning of passports on quaint machines. No wonder those migrants think they will get through with all those Border Control agents deployed by  Mrs May to frustrate British citizens.

It’s time to close down this Tribute Act to the Soviet Union. Eurostar and Eurotunnel should summons up some courage and tell Mrs May: The UK borders at Calais and Folkestone should be policed – and open.


When I was a young Leftie, I used to wear my Poppy. Now I don't. It's too clear that wearing a Poppy now has nothing to do with remembering the past and everything to do with asserting something in the present.

At the heart of it there is this, that the Poppy has been hijacked by the political class.They may be stupid, they may be corrupt, they may have sent service personnel to pointless deaths in ill-conceived campaigns - but, when the chips are down, they want you to think they are all in the same boat together. And, look, it's a Patriotic one!

And if you don't wear your Poppy, then the bully boys will finger you.

As for remembering the past, which the BBC encourages us to do, it is about old men's memories of heroism and sacrifice and not about the stupidity, the corruption, the callousness of previous political classes. The most memorable fact about the First World War is that it didn't end with every single Minister and General swinging from the lamp posts.

As for World War two, I was reading Matthew Sweet's West End Front. In Chapter Two, I learnt that when the London Blitz began, the Government at first declined to open the London Underground at night to provide Air Raid shelters. At the same time, luxury London hotels already had deep shelters constructed in their basements where their guests could find safety during air raids. Only pressure from Communist agitators in the East End (where most of the bombs were falling) opened the Underground at night.

They had only to make a very simple point: All In It Together? How come then that at the Ritz and the Savoy they have deep shelters and here in the East End, we have only surface shelters? (Anderson shelters and such like). A couple of thousand East Enders died before the Underground was opened.

Reblogged, with some editing, from this site where it appeared on 12 November 2011