Yes, of course there is a Culture War
But the people leading it are usually the people who most often complain about it.
According to Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister of Scotland, the British government’s opposition to her ministry’s gender recognition reforms is easily explained. It is the latest episode in a “culture war”, by which term impeccably “progressive” people such as the first minister mean a view with which they disagree. “Culture wars” are only waged by people who are wrong.
And, certainly, “culture war” has become a very convenient means by which opponents can be dismissed and, crucially, presumed to be acting in bad faith. This being so, it is no surprise that everything and anything may now be reckoned part of a “culture war”. Researchers at King’s College, London reported that in 2015 just 21 articles discussing “culture war” issues were published in “mainstream British newspapers”; in 2020 there were 534. The number will have only increased since then. You may not be interested in the culture wars but they are interested in you.
Some - much - of this is plainly intimately-connected to Brexit, a modal shift that has stupefied British politics for much of the past six years. At the same time, and heavily influenced by events and trends in the United States, has come a renewed and often distorting focus on particular aspects of history, race, and identity. Often, all of these are wrapped together to the extent that a given person’s connections to, say, the slave trade are (usually but not always, see below) to be considered the most significant thing about them. Often this leads to very bad history even if complaints about history being “rewritten” are also overblown. (Since history is always being rewritten; the argument here should be between good and bad history, not between the status quo and revisionism).
But Sturgeon is not entirely mistaken. There is a culture war being fought here. It’s just that it is being waged, or was at least begun, by people who broadly support her and share her views on gender and identity.
The British government’s position is, at present, little more than a defence of current practice. It does not seek to change anything. Moreover, if the British government really is - as Sturgeon insists they are - “weaponising trans people” as part of their “culture war” then why, after some discussion, will a looming ban on “conversion therapy” reportedly also encompass trans people? Here, then, Rishi Sunak’s government has accepted a demand made by many trans-rights campaigners. If the British government really hated or wished to further marginalise trans-people, would it have done this? (Granted, let us see how “conversion therapy” is defined: there is ample distinction to be drawn between coercive “therapy” and standard counselling or psychiatric assessment. Few people would endorse the former; rendering the latter illegal is a different matter.)
In point of fact, it is Sturgeon’s government which is the culture war protagonist. It wishes to change the law so any person may self-identify as a member of the opposite sex and attain a Gender Recognition Certificate without the need for a diagnosis of gender dysphoria or a demonstrated two-year commitment to living in their new identity. This may be many things but it cannot reasonably be considered a mere piece of bureaucratic neatness or tidying-up. It is - it must be - a profound change, literally redefining the terms and conditions of, well, life. As a philosophical matter, it is the most radical piece of legislation ever considered by the Scottish parliament.
Many of its supporters certainly think so. For some, it does not go nearly far enough. Patrick Harvie, co-leader of the Scottish Green party and Sturgeon’s coalition partner, considers it a “start”. Maggie Chapman, one of Harvie’s colleagues and a member of the committee notionally scrutinising the bill passed last month, believes children as young as six should be considered competent to change their legal sex. (Chapman is not so sure about her own status. Since she has not had a “chromosome" test” she cannot be wholly certain she is a woman.) This seems like a pretty big deal.
Many women journalists, activists, and campaigners have been drawing attention to this agenda for many years. The reward for this perspicacity has been to be labelled bigots and - more often than you might imagine or care to believe - genocidal extremists, hellbent on eradicating trans people from the face of the earth. Yes, really.
A few years ago Selina Todd, professor of history at Oxford University and a specialist in feminist history in particular, was the subject of one of those tedious “no platforming” protests. These are too familiar now but there was, back then, still a frisson of novelty to such witless demonstrations of closed-thinking. I recall being struck by what one of the leaders of that protest had to say. For this person, “feminism” was just a methodology that we can use to make demands for our freedom” and “woman is an umbrella term under which we can gather to make those demands”. As such, being a woman could only be “a strategy for those of us on the underside of capital and other death-making machines” and “has no meaning to me absent of that function”.
That was not all. For, “Sex and the body are not the final frontier for me. My imagination is bigger than that. My liberated future includes us all. It is not beholden to a rigid sex binary” because “trans liberation is central to our collective liberation, especially for anyone interested in abolishing gender and its violent consequences.”
Now you may think this many things - loopy, certainly - but it is not a minor declaration of modest ambitions. Granted, undergraduates and other young people must be free to make fools of themselves but this kind of thinking - if you may dignify it as such - is more widespread than you might care to believe.
And if that manifesto is not the manifesto for a “culture war”, what is? Perhaps you are not minded to take these things literally but it does seem worth taking them seriously.
Identity is the fashion of the moment. You are what you say you are and you may be anything you wish to be. This is your “lived experience” and no-one can, or should, deny its reality. Despite being nonsense, this is lovely and comforting and beguiling. Indeed, it may be that it is attractive precisely because it is nonsense; a means by which a whole new self may be created at a period in history in which it has never been easier to find a welcoming community of those prepared to affirm your new reality.
Sometimes, however, this is not much more than make-believe. No matter how many times you are told otherwise, it is not possible for a person to change sex. They may certainly change their legal sex and have that legal fiction (a technical term) considered a kind of reality but they have not, in point of boring fact, changed their sex.
Still, most of the time and in most instances for most adults much of this need not be a matter of too much controversy. People will rub along as best they can and few people will, or would wish to, intrude upon another person’s journey to self-realisation. There is no need to agree with either its premise or its destination to allow that it will not, most of the time, have much of an impact. Live and let live.
But, inconveniently, this is where so-called “trans liberation” differs from previous progressive movements. I have gay friends who worry that scepticism about gender recognition reforms is not very much more than a rehashed, refreshed, version of scepticism about gay rights. I think it is different, however, in as much as gay rights - equal marriage, for instance, and even the battle against the ban on “promoting” homosexuality in schools - had a negligible real-life impact on people who were not themselves gay.
It is not obvious the same may be said of trans rights since these extend beyond an affirmation of a personal sense of self and unavoidably intrude upon other people’s rights, most often those of women. Refereeing that clash is not straightforward but becomes impossible if politicians - like most members of the Scottish parliament - simply refuse to accept there is a clash. If anyone can be a woman, what is a woman?
Well, here is India Willoughby, one of the most high-profile trans women in Britain to tell us.
Reader, this is not the definition of a woman. Note, however, how quickly it slides into this:
Well, ok sister! Moving on: oppression is not identity’s butler but sometimes you gain a sense some people would dearly love it to be considered such. Thus:
“Bar the camps, it is the same”. Think on that and then recall that claims of “genocide” against trans people are not the preserve of the fringe but perilously close to the centre. No good can come of this but nor is there much point in pretending this kind of sought-victimhood - which in turn is a validating act - does not exist.
That is part of a “culture war” too and it is one in which we are encouraged to believe that many simple things - the definition of a woman, for instance - are in fact so complex as to lie beyond simple and satisfactory classification. From which it follows that since you can’t be “sure” about that, is there anything to be said for being sure about anything?
Affirming something does not in fact make it so. People with gender dysphoria have no need to seek fresh troubles and, as ever, they should be treated with the same dignity and decency as anyone else. That imposes no requirement, however, to dismantle sex-based classifications wherever these exist (for, remember, they chiefly exist to benefit or protect women). And this, remember, is merely the portion of it in which adults - or at least people aged 16 and above - are engaged. The children’s wing of the gender and identity-based culture wars is a different, and still more depressing, battleground.
So Nicola Sturgeon is right. There is a culture war. She’s just wrong about who is fighting it.
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Great Chieftain o’ the Puddin-race
I confess that of all the social engagements I cannot abide, Burns’ night sits at the pinnacle of dissatisfaction. Enforced jollity is bad enough without being laced with rank sentimentalism and swaddled in Tartan exceptionalism. As a poet, Burns was fine but the case for his greatness - much of which rests upon the songs, in point of fact - has been dramatically overstated for two centuries. This is not intended as a criticism of him; only of those who cannot let a good thing be without making extravagant additional claims for it.
Somehow Burns has avoided cancellation even though, you know, he literally accepted a job on a Jamaican plantation where he would be employed, as he put it, as “a negro driver”. That the success of his poetry rendered this fortune-seeking unnecessary hardly seems the point. I do not especially judge Burns for this, so much as I am warmed by the excuses made for him that are denied many others of his time.
Jackie Kay, for instance, once said: “I like to think that had he ever gone, he would have turned straight back once he'd realised what it involved. I can't reconcile my version of Burns in my head with a man that would have comfortably been an overseer.” This surely suggests an unfortunate lack of imagination, unbecoming in a poet of Kay’s renown and stature. A man, after all, is just a man, for a’ that. And usually a complicated beast, too.
The work, though, stands for itself without the need for lily-gilding. Nevertheless, immensely tedious battles are fought over the supremely unimportant question of whether or not Burns would have been “out” for Scottish independence were he both alive today and, somehow, unchanged from the man of his time he was.
Textual exegesis allows everyone a shot at this and, as so often with pointless discussions, partisans on both sides may find evidence to support the conclusions with which they began their investigations.
For my part, I suggest Burns was radically Scotch and radically British, flitting between these two states as and when circumstances made doing so desirable. In this he was, then, no different from countless others of his nationality.
Something of this was brought to mind when I listened recently to a The Rest Is History podcast on the subject, “Beef and Liberty”. Dominic Sandbrook, the historian, and Tom Holland, the historian, cricketer, and friend of this newsletter, are never less than engaging coves and this episode exploring how the Roast Beef of Old England became, for a while, a bovine demonstration of English manliness and, consequently, a kind of beefy commitment to a particular idea of free-born liberty is no exception.
That concept was not uniquely English in the 18th century, however. It was also British even if old John Bull is both epitome and guarantor of a particular brand of Englishness. Since Burns’ night is celebrated this Wednesday, it may be worth considering a verse or two from the Address to a Haggis which forms a necessary part of the ritual:
Is there that owre his French ragout,Or olio that wad staw a sow,Or fricassee wad mak her spewWi’ perfect sconner,Looks down wi’ sneering, scornfu’ viewOn sic a dinner?
Poor devil! see him owre his trash,As feckless as a wither’d rash,His spindle shank a guid whip-lash,His nieve a nit;Thro’ bluidy flood or field to dash,O how unfit!
But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed,The trembling earth resounds his tread,Clap in his walie nieve a blade,He’ll make it whissle;An’ legs, an’ arms, an’ heads will sned,Like taps o’ thrissle.
There you have it: the rustic simplicity of the noble haggis is to be contrasted with the fey, nay effeminate, temptations of dubious French and fancy dishes. The ragout and olio and fricassee are inherently worthy of suspicion. No honest man, and certainly no great patriot, could possibly be sustained by them.
Knockabout stuff? Perhaps so. But beneath that, something else too: a Scots bragging so intimately connected to its contemporaneous English counterpart it cannot successfully be disentangled from the greater Britannic whole of which both are part. But then just as Scottish Unionism is inherently also a variant of Scottish nationalism so the reverse is also often true and icons - in this rare instance, an appropriate term - of Scottish culture and identity and exceptionalism are keenly, if sometimes also surprisingly, British. Both/And, then, not Either/Or.
Look, here’s an hour of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. What more could you need?
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The weird thing about those India Willoughby tweets is that "classy, well-rounded, strong, compassionate, kind, thinks of others, never gives up no matter the odds" is a much better description of JK than it is of India, so she's dead wrong even on her own twisted terms.