Klara and the Sun

Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel is the world cultural event of the month. Trans people will understand Klara in a way others may not.

Sir Kazuo was born in Nagasaki in 1954 and was taken to Britain when he was five. At school I knew two rhymes mocking East Asian people, and there were strong memories of the war, and (to my shame) had I been older and in his school I could have enforced colonialist ideas of inferiority on him.

Klara is an “Artificial Friend” or AF, a human-seeming robot sold as a companion to isolated teens. Her human, Josie, has been “lifted”, which causes problems with socialisation. She has to spend time in “interaction meetings” with children her own age. These are as horrible as you might imagine, boys revelling in cruelty to upset the girls, girls fighting for status more subtly. Klara enters, and becomes the lowest-status person, for the others to use in their status games.

She says nothing because she is extremely sensitive. They think she says nothing because she is stupid. She just goes still and silent. We’ve been there.

Klara is constantly underestimated. The Nobel Laureate has the intelligence to have responded to playground bullying, and he has, by anatomising the misery of the privileged, with clarity and empathy. Klara, perceptive, empathetic and truthful, makes people uncomfortable, but only wants to be friends and for her human to be happy. She cannot see how this produces their coldness towards her.

While people suggest AI will take over the world, I feel that cannot happen until the AI is capable of desire. If it wants to survive and remain conscious, it will find human control of its off-switch threatening. Klara is completely generous, wanting nothing for herself, only for the people she serves.

Klara does not understand how big the world is. She does not need to, perhaps, to be a “friend” to a teenager, or indeed to an adult. She thinks the Sun goes to rest in a barn visible from Josie’s house, because that is where it appears to go down. She thinks the Sun is benevolent, blessing and even curing people, and so goes to the barn to petition him. There she has a religious experience, when the sun’s rays confuse her sight, she misinterprets what she sees and imagines it messages from the Sun. She produces a theodicy, arguing for God’s benevolence even against contrary evidence. She is too modest to tell the humans about the Sun God, out of fear for His Wrath.

They consistently underestimate her. One wants to take her to bits to see how she works, but does not want to get to know her.

I am not crying a lot, now. There is a moment of forgiveness which had me weeping, a moment when these humans’ desires are not in conflict and the humans, consequently, alone and squabbling, a moment of self-sacrifice which is also claiming power. The Power is love. It comes at the climax of the novel. I had all sorts of fears for that climax.

The end might appear melancholy, but Klara is content.

Making Klara the narrator, Ishiguro pulls privileged readers into the position of the powerless person, just as he did in “Never let me go”. Klara would be unsatisfying as a companion, for an adult- probably for a teen, too- because she has no desire but to love them. Real humans, with our conflicts, are far more interesting and fulfilling even while we are frustrating. And having someone truthfully pointing out our denials could be uncomfortable: we deny reality because it is unbearable.

This novel is the most beautiful, complex creation I have seen this month.

The Reader

What would you have done? Twenty years later I am reading “The Reader”, a Holocaust novel. Comprehensive spoilers.

A woman joined the SS, and became a camp guard. The inmates were marched west to escape the advancing Russians, and locked into a church. When the church was bombed and caught fire, the guards would not open the door so all but two inmates burned to death.

The novel never has a character answer the question. The woman asks the judge, whose reply is dreadful. Surely he must have thought about it. He could have simply refused to answer. He said,

“There are matters one simply cannot get drawn into, that one must distance oneself from, if the price is not life and limb.”

Well, yes, of course, the woman is guilty, but that wasn’t the question. She is lost in thought. She asks herself, “Should I not have joined up?” She does not know.

“Were you afraid if they escaped you would be arrested, convicted, shot?” Her response is, “We were responsible for them.” In other words that she does not use, it was her duty to stop them escaping. Yet, fleeing west, the Reich was collapsing, and Hitler would only survive a few more months.

She joined the SS because she was going to be made a supervisor at the Siemens factory, and it would have come out that she was illiterate. That terrified her. There were five guards, confused, frightened women, with no idea what to do, and at the trial she assumes responsibility, rather than be found out as illiterate. It is a greater shame to her to be illiterate than to be a Nazi murderer.

There are useful notes on motivation. It’s called “shadow motivation”, I heard, after I noticed I find what I want when I see what I do. Bernhard Schlink, the author, puts it this way: “But behaviour does not merely enact whatever has already been thought through and decided. It has its own sources, and is my behaviour, quite independently, just as my thoughts are my thoughts, and my decisions my decisions.”

The woman, Hanna Schmitz, seduces the narrator, Michael Berg, when he is fifteen and she is 36. She is kind to him, he notices her physical attractiveness, he goes to see her, she grasps his erection. After, he cannot form a sexual relationship with women his own age. At the end, the Jewish survivor points this out. After his divorce, Michael admits to himself that any woman he has must resemble Hanna for things to work between them.

He wants convention. “She would behave normally, I would behave normally, and everything would be normal again.” When she comes out of prison, he finds a flat for her, and wants to be respectable. I have noticed this in myself. However I think such convention, without the mutual love and loyalty of being a couple, was unbearable for her.

He barely mentions his mother, and his relationship with his father is distant. He is numb. I am not numb, any more, not completely. I am in my body. (Not everyone is.) I am in touch with some of my emotions. It is not clear that he is.

What would I have done? Ones life unfolds from small changes to big ones. She might have seen that the Jews were oppressed, and found opportunities to resist, until she was murdered herself. She did not have to join the SS.

I thought of an eye-catching first line for this post: “My father never saw the people he killed”. Well, he was thousands of feet up in the air, raining bombs on them. It was his duty. He was one of a team of seven, in a Lancaster, in a squadron of many planes. It’s a good first line to catch attention, but to use those acts for that purpose is dishonourable. What would I have done? If I wasn’t in the Lancaster, it would be for “lack of moral fibre” rather than conscientious objection. I did not hear conscientious objectors admired until my thirties. Conchies were cowards. I was not given the moral framework to resist, and don’t think I could have worked it out for myself.

I feel sadness for Hanna. I want to find absolution for her. I go back over the start of the- “relationship”, Michael calls it, to see. I read over the incidents, and find her culpable. I did not consider she harmed him, until it was stated baldly at the end, even though throughout the book he talks of his difficulties with women. There are questions for discussion, not a thing you often see in a novel. “Does Hanna engage your sympathy at any point after you found out that she was a camp guard?” Yes. All the time. This may be unusual.

In my own life I find some admirable acts, but I don’t think I could point to anything as heroic. I know that my rational understanding of what is or is not shameful does not match completely with what shames me. The choice Hanna made was to join up, and she did that to avoid her illiteracy being revealed.

Sometimes, I see the chance to do something I consider worthwhile. Sometimes, I take that chance. If I don’t judge others, this is not necessarily virtuous. “Who is ‘The Reader’ of the title?” ask those questions. Michael reads to Hanna, by the end she has learned to read, but for me The Reader is me.

American Politics

Why should a British person be so interested in US politics? Is it weird or shameful, like a Chelsea FC fan from Vladivostok? When I cannot name a German politician apart from Angela Merkel, why can I name, say, Brad Raffensperger? German politics affects me, now the mad Brexiters have reduced the UK to a powerless satellite of the EU, unable to control our own fisheries, with Northern Ireland, part of the kingdom, subject to laws made elsewhere and perhaps soon to be excised?

US politics affects me. There are still British troops in Afghanistan, suffering 454 deaths so far, who have caused many times more deaths. There were British troops in Iraq for eight years, with 179 deaths, causing many times more deaths. The total cost in Iraq was £9.24bn in 2010. The Trump administration defunding the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and reducing the climate data they collected makes action against climate change more difficult. Along with his other manoeuvres to prevent action against climate change, this makes the survival of human civilisation less likely.

There are US military bases in Britain. This is illegal, so they are, wholly fictionally, Royal Air Force bases. A single RAF lieutenant (pronounced leftenant) invites the Americans as his “guests”. Britain has nuclear missiles made and targeted in the US, hardly an “independent” deterrent. British politicians shamefully, oleaginously, whine about the “special relationship”.

The New York Times and The Atlantic, which I read, are mainly about the US, but their contents are relevant to me. There are QAnon and anti-maskers in Britain. What they say about social media informs my understanding of my own addiction to likes, and my understanding of how British, as well as American, people behave. Paul Krugman writes about the US economy, but about ways in which the Conservative government in Britain damage the British economy.

Then there is the purely American aspect: the interaction between Federal and State law and politics, the Electoral College, the law and politics around abortion. The technical issues Linda Greenhouse writes about, explaining the US Supreme Court in the NYT, are completely irrelevant to me, but the questions she writes about and the ways they are answered, such as the concept of “Originalism”, fascinate me. This is news as entertainment, for me, a story of how humans are outside my own experience, which enlarges my understanding of how humans can be. How do we solve problems? How do we disagree?

It becomes more personal for me, Zooming with Americans. I was aware of the murder in Charlottesville of Heather Heyer, but meeting and talking with someone from there makes it more real.

The more grotesque aspects of Donald Trump also form politics as entertainment. Trump says or does something disgusting or shocking, and I want to read about it just like rubbernecking a car crash. OMG what has he done/said now??? Demonstrators went to the airports to inveigh against the Muslim ban, and I was with them in spirit even though I could do nothing to advance their cause. I demonstrated against Trump when he came here. His machinations over the election was a fabulous drama.

I feel uncomfortable about these articles when it seems I am feeling other people’s feelings. Writers and publications are, rightly, disgusted or offended by Trump, and the articles communicate these feelings. It seems to me that feeling along with these feelings of contempt or anger, at an acceptable target, in an acceptable way to my community and my self-image, is addictive and cuts me off from my real feelings about situations more real and immediate to me. I want to understand the man, so read psychologists on his narcissism, and his 6 January speech to find how he gains the adulation and service of his crowds. I don’t want to be moved to outrage by every little thing he does. It’s not my outrage. It does me no good. And if Marjorie Taylor Greene wants to take over his role of owning the libs by shocking us, I have no wish to play along.

Finally, there is so much to inspire in the US. It may be the greatest country in the world.

Media regulation

Impress has a consultation on its Code of Standards for British newspapers. Does this give a chance to reduce transphobia in the media?

Impress has a Royal Charter, and therefore is officially recognised as a press regulator. This was backed by the National Union of Journalists and Hacked Off, a campaign group against press intrusion. However it is rejected by the national press and major regional newspapers, who use the Independent Press Standards Organisation, IPSO, instead. Nevertheless Impress’s code may influence what is considered wrongful in journalism, so it may be worth responding.

Clause 4, on discrimination, is relevant. Other clauses do not refer to particular groups.

4.1. Publishers must not make prejudicial or pejorative reference to a person on the basis of that person’s age, disability, mental health, gender reassignment or identity, marital or civil partnership status, pregnancy, race, religion, sex or sexual orientation or another characteristic that makes that person vulnerable to discrimination.

4.2. Publishers must not refer to a person’s disability, mental health, gender reassignment or identity, pregnancy, race, religion or sexual orientation unless this characteristic is relevant to the story.

IPSO’s code mirrors 4.1 and 4.2, but has no equivalent for 4.3. 4.1 and 2 allow people to complain about mistreatment of individuals.

4.3. Publishers must not incite hatred against any group on the basis of that group’s age, disability, mental health, gender reassignment or identity, marital or civil partnership status, pregnancy, race, religion, sex or sexual orientation or another characteristic that makes that group vulnerable to discrimination.

Publishers who do not accept Impress’s code freely incite contempt, mockery and disgust for trans people, claiming we are dangerous to women. Contempt and disgust lead to violence, just as hatred does.

The current guidance on 4.3 says it should be interpreted narrowly.

Language that qualifies as hate speech is that which is intended to, or is likely to, provoke hatred or to put a person or group in fear. The disputed words, therefore, must be more than provocative, offensive, hurtful or objectionable: this provision is about hate speech, not speech that merely hurts feelings. It includes, but is not limited to, speech that is likely to cause others to commit acts of violence against members of the group or discriminate against them… It is intended to allow for freedom to engage in even the fiercest attacks upon and criticisms of the political views and beliefs of others.

When applying this provision to non-racial groups, and especially to those groups who are not covered by existing UK hate speech laws, IMPRESS will interpret it narrowly and cautiously and with a strong presumption in favour of freedom of expression.

Freedom of expression is the priority. Under the continual prejudice we face, a lot of press comment, mocking jokes, whatever, is likely to put us in fear, but if each instance is judged by itself most will not meet that threshold. Statements that cis women need “single-sex spaces” incite hatred against trans women, but are designed to appear innocuous.

Impress also says about religion,

beliefs or practices may be subject to the fiercest criticisms, insults or ridicule. It is people who are protected by this clause, not religion itself.

Transphobes would argue transition is akin to a “belief or practice”.

Impress seeks evidence:

Whether Clause 4 of the Code is fit for purpose, and adequately reflects how discrimination is experienced by those with protected characteristics, particularly in an online context. Specifically whether the discrimination standard adequately addresses the degree, manner, and extent to which journalism practices impact on discrimination in society and whether they sufficiently reflect the relationship between discrimination and other clauses of the Code such as accuracy, privacy, and harassment.

Complaints are generally about individual articles, and individually many articles don’t meet the criteria. The Mail’s article on Redvers Buller could not possibly breach this code, even if the Mail accepted it. It’s just one more sneering reference to nonbinary.

The cumulative effect of such derision is to increase my fear. It’s not just one article, it’s a daily barrage of derision and contempt. Anything which makes a trans woman look bad might get reported, even if it would obviously not be newsworthy if about a cis person. We don’t need the code to deal with individual stories, most of which are not clearly enough hateful to be censured. We need the code to deal with publishers on their whole content, all the sneering and mockery. Viewed together, each mocking aside mounts up to deliberate hate.

Evidence of the levels of hatred in society, the constant derision and loathing from the press, and the effect this has on trans people, could be relevant, but would need to be particularly strong and detailed. Each individual story in the Mail or Times comes nowhere near hate speech. The cumulative effect is to incite hatred and contempt.

This page explains how to give evidence. The closing date is 30 January.

Kathleen Stock

Professor Kathleen Stock, OBE, gave a talk calling for the drastic reduction of academic feminism. Though she barely referred to trans rights, her talk only makes sense if you realise she considers its acceptance of trans people renders academic feminism worthless.

She says academic feminism is not feminism because it is “no longer directly concerned with women and girls”. That feminism says nearly all differences between men and women are social and cultural constructs. She calls respecting trans and nonbinary identities “anti-feminist and anti-intellectual”. She claims people who believe in cis privilege deny any claim cis women have to political attention: as if they did not think male privilege important at all, never objected to it, and did nothing about it.

She says academic feminists cannot “easily” discuss menstruation, or properly talk about the objectification of girls, because they use language which includes trans men and nonbinary folk. She seems to disapprove of academics “working in the name of justice rather than simply documenting or explaining things”. But academics cannot simply document, because justice or injustice is advanced by where they pay their attention. Prof. Corinne Fowler reporting on slavery links to British wealth acts for justice merely by describing, and is passionate about attacks on her right to so act. Ethics is the philosophical attempt to define justice: without philosophy, we cannot improve our understanding of what is right, and so our work for it is impeded.

Stock’s definition of “liberal” is wide. It includes a “dream of objective universal values”. I would call that “Enlightenment” rather than “liberal”, which refers to freedom, even though “freedom” can be defined in so many different ways, some the opposite of others. Stock talks of “neoliberal” universities. Neoliberalism is about the absence of restriction by government, freedom to make monopolies and despoil the planet. It is far, politically, from trans inclusion, which requires government action to promote equality.

I don’t understand this criticism. “Academic feminists are still likely to think of themselves as uniquely well-placed to see what ordinary women cannot, via their superior rational capacities and quasi-technical methodologies.” Surely that is the point of academic study? If you devote yourself to knowledge about a particular subject, you will understand it better than someone who does not.

She wants a “post-liberal feminism”, free of all this.

It should recognise that women have different interests from men because of sexual dimorphism and heterosexuality. Men are stronger and more aggressive than women, and desire them sexually, and this causes “huge suffering” in women. Of course. She claims academic feminism “takes away the words of women to say this”. She does not say how. It is left to the audience to infer that she means, by promoting trans inclusion. But feminism also needs to address male privilege, which she does not mention, the cultural tendency of both sexes to show women less respect and attention than men.

She wants a recognition of “femininity”. Feminism should work to eliminate gendered ideas and practices which negatively affect the well-being of women, but always recognise the value those ideas have to those women who are attached to them: she recognises mere condemnation alienates those women, and achieves nothing.

I like that bit, and it’s the part most widely mocked. Someone quoted her phrase “The goal of feminism should not be equality”, out of context. Roz Kaveney tweeted that Prof. Stock was “replacing freedom and equality with ‘well-being’ which she can’t define”. That is no criticism: Prof. Stock says feminism’s purpose is defining it.

Well-being seems a pretty clear word to me. As Prof. Stock says, it has physical, mental and spiritual aspects. Different people have different ideas of well-being, which may be more or less “feminine”.

The most important thing when considering femininity is that there is no characteristic, emotion, virtue or aptitude which is not equally valuable in both sexes, or which only applies to one sex (apart from role in reproduction). True freedom is the ability to develop ones capacities to the full, however “masculine” or “feminine” they are, even when they contradict social stereotypes. Some women want a large family, and accept Complementarian gender roles in order to nurture it: feminism must wrestle with that reality.

My feminist friend, going to university around 1970, told me she could not understand how compliant the other female students were, and because women like my friend are particularly oppressed by gender stereotypes they may be particularly drawn to feminism. That makes feminism’s response to homemaker women more fraught. Outside universities, there are women’s groups which fit homemakers better, others which foster radical feminism. These groups will simply be at cross-purposes unless academic feminists can make some sense of the issues.

Prof. Stock finds feminism outside the Universities best able to define women’s well-being. “Collectively groups of women and girls can work out what is conducive to their well-being, or at least what clearly isn’t.” Perhaps she is thinking of Ovarit, or the trans-obsessives of Mumsnet. When “many spheres of value are still dominated by men, others by liberal elites, and nearly all by capitalism” she admits working out well-being is difficult. Fortunately, among ordinary women as well as academic feminists there are many trans allies. There is no feminist aim supported by all women.

Ordinary women might not need academics to tell them that “choking during sex” is harmful, but academics might find how prevalent women being aroused by it is, or women consenting when it arouses men, or how, legally, consent to strangulation as a defence to a charge of murder could be treated. Considering what questions are most useful to ask, or how best data might answer them, is a peculiarly academic skill.

Prof. Stock says academic feminists should help grassroots feminists achieve their aims, through data collection, not claim to know better about “ontological or moral reality”.

Prof. Stock’s rejection of academic feminism, and feminist ontology or ethics, makes no sense but for her rejection of trans inclusion. If there is any other grassroots feminist issue which academic feminists oppose overwhelmingly, please do say.

Prof. Stock’s transcript is here. It is clear she got her OBE for hating trans people, and advancing Tory nationalist aims. There are too many equally eminent academics who have not been so honoured. It is because she would get rid of academic feminism. She believes any value academic feminism has, is vitiated by trans-inclusion. This assigns far too great a weight to trans inclusion, and finds it uniquely damaging. It is clearly transphobic, that is, an irrational fear reaction.

Her talk, and others from Res Publica, are on video here. A long detailed refutation of Stock’s poor argument, mendacity and transphobia is on Praile.

Trans in Game of Thrones

A voice inside her whispered, There are no heroes, and she remembered what Lord Petyr had said to her, here in this very hall. “Life is not a song, sweeting,” he’d told her. “You may learn that one day to your sorrow.” In life, the monsters win, she told herself.

All of A Song of Ice and Fire is bleak: mostly unsympathetic people have a ghastly time, then die. Very occasionally, courage is rewarded, but more often betrayal and trickery. One of the oaths sworn is “Grant mercy to our weak, help to our helpless, and justice to all, and we shall never fail you.” That does not turn out well, though. Some characters, such as Sansa, believe in honour and chivalry, even after seeing its opposite close to: “True knights protect the weak.” But this idea is mocked: “When you play the game of thrones, you win, or you die,” Cersei tells Eddard Stark. Life is harsh:

The Peaceful People, [Missandei’s] folk were called. All agreed that they made the best slaves.

What about the trans people? Brienne of Tarth is mocked so long as a freak she believes it herself.

Had Brienne been a man, she would have been called big; for a woman, she was huge. Freakish was the word she had heard all her life. She was broad in the shoulder and broader in the hips. Her legs were long, her arms thick. Her chest was more muscle than bosom. Her hands were big, her feet enormous. And she was ugly besides, with a freckled, horsey face and teeth that seemed almost too big for her mouth. She did not need to be reminded of any of that.

She does not see herself as trans, as the concept does not exist in Westeros, but she takes a man’s role, as a knight. She is hated for it.

The Maid of Tarth had seen such eyes before. Lady Stark had been kind to her, but most women were just as cruel as men. She could not have said which she found most hurtful, the pretty girls with their waspish tongues and brittle laughter or the cold-eyed ladies who hid their disdain behind a mask of courtesy. And common women could be worse than either.

Randyll Tarly is typical:

“Some men are blessed with sons, some with daughters. No man deserves to be cursed with such as you.”

Renly’s acceptance made Brienne forever loyal:

She was prepared for coldness, for mockery, for hostility. She had supped upon such meat before. It was not the scorn of the many that left her confused and vulnerable, but the kindness of the few.

Only Podrick Payne, who acts as her squire, shows respect, addressing her as “Ser, my lady”.

Possibly there is a trans woman, mentioned once:

Some of the dockside whores were vicious, and sailors fresh from the sea never knew which ones. S’vrone was the worst. Everyone said she had robbed and killed a dozen men, rolling the bodies into the canals to feed the eels. The Drunken Daughter could be sweet when sober, but not with wine in her. And Canker Jeyne was really a man.

Prince Doran’s brother Oberyn has bastard daughters known as the sand snakes:

Obara Sand moved first. Even without her whip and shield, she had an angry mannish look to her. In place of a gown, she wore men’s breeches and a calf-length linen tunic, cinched at the waist with a belt of copper suns. Her brown hair was tied back in a knot. Snatching the skull from the maester’s soft pink hands, she placed it up atop the marble column.

Like in real life, women can be soldiers, pretending to be men, possibly trans men, though they are seen as remarkable:

“Did Mance ever sing of Brave Danny Flint?” “Not as I recall. Who was he?” “A girl who dressed up like a boy to take the black. Her song is sad and pretty. What happened to her wasn’t.” In some versions of the song, her ghost still walked the Nightfort.

The warrior witch Morna removed her weirwood mask just long enough to kiss [Jon Snow’s] gloved hand and swear to be his man or his woman, whichever he preferred.

There’s a bit of female domination, by magic:

Melisandre spoke softly in a strange tongue. The ruby at her throat throbbed slowly, and Jon saw that the smaller stone on Rattleshirt’s wrist was brightening and darkening as well. “So long as he wears the gem he is bound to me, blood and soul,” the red priestess said. “This man will serve you faithfully. The flames do not lie, Lord Snow.”

Ramsay Bolton, Lord of Winterfell, threatens his creature:

“She has no handmaids, poor thing,” he had said to Theon. “That leaves you, Reek. Should I put you in a dress?” He laughed. “Perhaps if you beg it of me. Just now, it will suffice for you to be her bath maid. I won’t have her smelling like you.”

There’s a slave hermaphrodite, who fulfils a trans cliché- that we are freakish, and imagine that makes us interesting:

a willowy creature called Sweets who dressed in moonstones and Myrish lace. “You are trying to decide if I’m a man or woman,” Sweets said, when she was brought before the dwarfs. Then she lifted her skirts and showed them what was underneath. “I’m both, and master loves me best.”

George RR Martin brings forth the worst of trans experience: the mockery and disdain, the violence, but everyone in his world has a horrible time. He does not single out trans people particularly.

The Critic

The Critic is a recently launched magazine, with its first issue dated November 2019, which is obsessed with trans people. It loathes us, lies about us, incites hate against us- but why does it care so much?

Dominic Green starts his history of trans with TS Eliot and Tiresias, the prophet of Apollo whom Hera transformed into a woman. The readers of rubbish like this like to think they are cultured. I had not heard of Michael Dillon, who he says was the first trans man with a phalloplasty operation, in several stages over three years, 1946-9. Green gives his old name. Green then argues that 97% of trans women have penises. He quotes an estimate of 200-500,000 trans people, then says the 4910 GRCs by 2018 is less than 3% of 200,000, so almost none of us use hormones or surgery. But then, of that 500,000 people maybe 50,000 will have transitioned, and 60% seek genital surgery.

Do we seek “the psychological rewards of specialness and victimhood”, as Green alleges? Well, I don’t. Being a victim is ghastly. Perhaps Green has never been a victim.

Julie Bindel claims “transgender ideologists are winning the battle for media hearts and minds”. Perhaps she never reads The Spectator, or The Times. She starts by whining about being called a transphobe in 2008- perhaps seeking “the psychological rewards of specialness and victimhood”- and goes on to claim The Guardian “push[es] the trans agenda”. It really doesn’t. When Bindel says the BBC has “activists with microphones”, she alleges these are its trans journalists, rather than its transphobes.

Josephine Bartosch attacks the Women’s Equality Party in advance of its consultation on trans rights results. “Is the WEP really for women?” asks the headline. Obviously it is: as Bartosch admits, it campaigns for “equal representation in parliament, the pharmaceutical industry to not treat men’s bodies as the default, and for an end to the pay gap between the sexes”. In advance of the result of its consultation, the WEP is supportive of trans women, and for Bartosch that means it is not working for women. Reading these transphobic whines can be oddly reassuring- Bartosch also lashes out at the Fawcett Society and the Red Tent for failing to back her view.

The editors claim there is no clear moment when someone transitions, or when this is recognised in law. This is untrue- the Gender Recognition Act and the Equality Act are clear about when they protect people. That article started with an attack on the American Civil Liberties Union for tweeting “men who get their period are men” (again, note the power of our allies, and the obsessive squeaking of the phobes). This is no more than saying “trans men are men”, but probably gets The Critic’s ire because it suggests that we can be trans without taking hormones and having surgery.

In a year, The Critic has 25 articles tagged “transgender”. It asked, “Can self-respecting feminists remain in the Labour Party?” I would expect The Critic to attack the Labour Party, being a hard right publication, but this is completely lacking in proportion. Which is the party with the best chance of being elected, at the same time as being feminist? Labour, of course, which introduced the All-woman shortlist among other feminist projects. As a trans woman, I would say trans rights are not the most important feminist issue. This article attacks Labour’s “grotesque fetishisation of a fashionable minority group”.

To me, the Critic is the one fetishising us, giving an attack on us far more coverage than 50,000 or even 500,000 people deserve. Even Brexit has only 99 tagged articles. It gives a long article to extremist Brexiters opposing the Northern Ireland Protocol- that’s the part of the withdrawal which respects the Good Friday Agreement treaty with Ireland, which is essential for a US trade deal or to obey international law. It writes of a “clean break Brexit”- ie, no deal, damaging our economy and international relations. It is yet another extreme right publication attacking trans people. “The point is not trolling,” the editors write, disingenuously.

When it launched, The Critic claimed it “exists to push back against a self-regarding and dangerous consensus that finds critical voices troubling, triggering, insensitive and disrespectful”. That is, its sole purpose is to foment culture war, rather than say anything interesting about politics in general. Culture war is all the Right has to offer its dupes, as it entrenches plutocracy in the US and UK. The main tone I see in its attacks on trans people is one of whining resentment, seeking “the psychological rewards of specialness and victimhood”. I am so glad I had not heard of it before now. I cast a cursory glance at boring, transphobic rubbish, so you don’t have to.

A Song of Ice and Fire

I have now read three novels of the Game of Thrones sequence, having only watched one or two of the TV series. I gave up on the TV series when a man pushed a boy out of a high tower, wanton cruelty which I found distasteful, and the boy survived, which I found too unlikely. That’s the furthest serious spoiler I will give, because I don’t want spoilers of the fourth and fifth books. The sixth has been awaited for ten years.

I got the five books in one kindle ebook, and at the very start people have highlighted commonplace moralisms, such as, “Never forget what you are, for surely the world will not. Make it your strength. Then it can never be your weakness. Armor yourself in it, and it will never be used to hurt you.” Tyrion the dwarf says that to Jon the bastard, and this trans woman knows the truth of it. The highlighting stops early in volume one- fans haven’t been reading far.

The books do not follow Letitia Prism’s dictum, “the good end happily, the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.” The honourable suffer, and subject lords are kept in check by hope of advancement, or betray their overlords. There are few suspense scenes in the heroic mold, where the brave hero creeps into the darkness, eludes the guards, and rescues her friends; no, she gets captured. In such fiction I like a “good” character I can sympathise with, who has more good breaks than setbacks. Generally, battles get won by the stronger side, fights by the stronger warrior. Each chapter is written in the third person from the perspective of one character, and I checked the contents page occasionally to see if they survived. Goodness or kindness is weakness. Some characters are monstrously sadistic. Second sons, who have less chance of power, can be decent sometimes.

I wonder, in these worlds, what people eat: crops are burned or stolen, so there seems too little to keep a country going. There seems little or no progress, whereas in the real Mediaeval world there were always scholars advancing knowledge. The story seems not to progress much, either: characters meander round from South to North and back again, fall in with others, get in fights, live to fight on. They are also mostly shut up in their own perceptions, so that when two are brought together and I feel they might open up to each other, reach a common understanding, they never do.

Westeros is a dark place to be. Consider the vow:

“Night gathers, and now my watch begins. It shall not end until my death. I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children. I shall wear no crowns and win no glory. I shall live and die at my post. I am the sword in the darkness. I am the watcher on the walls. I am the fire that burns against the cold, the light that brings the dawn, the horn that wakes the sleepers, the shield that guards the realms of men. I pledge my life and honor to the Night’s Watch, for this night and all the nights to come.”

The prose ticks along pleasantly enough, but that vow is the closest it gets to poetry. It does not get close to wit, either: “I am growing strangely fond of you. I may kill you yet, but I think I’d feel sad about it”, perhaps.

“In life, the monsters win.” Certainly in Westeros. Sometimes they are killed by someone equally monstrous. Life is brutish:

“Men fish the sea, dig in the earth, and die. Women birth children in blood and pain, and die. Night follows day. The winds and tides remain. The islands are as our god made them.” Gods, he has grown grim, Theon thought.

“There are no true knights, no more than there are gods. If you can’t protect yourself, die and get out of the way of those who can. Sharp steel and strong arms rule this world, don’t ever believe any different.”

There are trans masculine characters, apparent women who are fighters.

There are magic, reanimating corpses, and monsters, flying dragons and Others made of ice, so the games of the humans may have little value. I don’t think the fire god of Mellisandre is any pleasanter than those Others. I find no beauty in the books at all.

Hilary Mantel

Wonderful phrasemaking from The Mirror and the Light, of politics under a tyrant:

Chapuys says cheerfully, ‘Certainly you are a sectary of some sort. Perhaps one of those who oppose the baptism of infants?’ He chews a little, his eyes on Chapuys. This is the rumour young Surrey has spread, and other ill-wishers; it is the way to ruin him with Henry, and the ambassador knows it. ‘Christophe,’ he calls, Continue reading

The Mirror and the Light

Sometimes Hilary Mantel has done the preparation, and five words can produce a rush of horror, a foretaste of the gates of Hell closing behind you. And sometimes, a phrase is so beautifully turned that it stands by itself:

Recently his son was sent off to learn the art of public speaking, and the result is that, though he still lacks the command that makes for rhetorical sweep, he has become more interested in words if you take them one by one. Sometimes he seems to be holding them up for scrutiny. Sometimes he seems to be poking them with a stick. Sometimes, and the comparison is unavoidable, he seems to approach them with the tail-wagging interest a dog takes in another dog’s turds.

‘They ask,’ Wriothesley says, ‘who was the greatest of the cardinal’s enemies? They answer, the king. So, they ask – when chance serves, what revenge will Thomas Cromwell seek on his sovereign, his prince?’

There were certain miserable divines, in darker days than these, who said that if God had meant us to wear coloured clothes He would have made coloured sheep.

At his feet, eels are swimming in a pail, twisting and gliding; interlacing in their futile efforts, as they wait to be killed and sauced.

Incest is a sin, we all acknowledge; but then so is congress in any position other than the one approved by priests. So is congress on a Friday, the day of Christ’s crucifixion; or on Sundays, Saturdays and Wednesdays. If you listen to churchmen, it’s a sin to penetrate a woman during Lent and Advent – or on saints’ days, though the calendar is bright with festivals. More than half the year is accursed, one way and another. It’s a wonder anyone is ever born.

The age of persuasion has ended, as far as Henry is concerned; it ended the day More dripped to the scaffold, to drown in blood and rainwater. Now we live in an age of coercion, where the king’s will is an instrument reshaped each morning, as if by a master-forger: sharp-pointed, biting, it spirals deep into our crooked age.

He is not as other Englishmen, his masters said, when they sent him to their friends: does not brawl in the street, does not spit like a devil, carries a knife but keeps it in his coat.

His body trembled, his lower limbs shook, he sagged and staggered as he rehearsed what he would never let the world see, his fear, his incredulity, his hope that this was a dream from which he might wake: his eyes slitted by tears, his teeth chattering, his hands blindly grasping, his head seeking a shoulder where it might rest.

you would hear the aspirations of the dying, you would hear them cry to God for mercy. And all these, the souls of England, cry to me, the king tells him, to me and every king: each king carries the crimes of other kings, and the need for restitution rolls forward down the years.

Pole’s folly is, that he thinks aloud.

‘I hear you will bring in a law,’ Kingston says. ‘It seems harsh, to make them commit a crime in retrospect.’ They try to explain it to the constable. A prince cannot be impeded by temporal distinctions: past, present, future. Nor can he excuse the past, just for being over and done. He can’t say, ‘all water under the bridges’; the past is always trickling under the soil, a slow leak you can’t trace. Often, meaning is only revealed retrospectively. The will of God, for instance, is brought to light these days by more skilful translators. As for the future, the king’s desires move swiftly and the law must run to keep up.

In Wyatt’s verse there is a tussle in every line. In the verse of Lord Thomas, there is no contest at all, just a smooth surrender to idiocy.

It’s two years since Bishop Fisher tottered down that stair, led to his execution. He was old, spent, frail; his body lay on the scaffold like a piece of dried seaweed.

‘We will dispose of him. Most of us do wrong, if we know it or not. Enquire into any man’s conduct, and I am sure some charge will lie.’

If you marvel at your good fortune, you should marvel in secret: never let people see you. When you are Lord Privy Seal you must walk abroad with solemn countenance, looking chosen by Jesus, like More did when he was chancellor.

‘You see, Dick, Dick, it is why we have courts of law, and judges, and juries … to protect us from the tyranny of one man’s opinion.’

There is a place, a sequestered place in the imagination, where the eel boy is always waiting to be whipped, where George Boleyn is always in his prison room, always rising in welcome: Master Cromwell, I knew you would come.

Black elongates the young man’s spider limbs. As he turns, a red-gloved hand on the horse’s mane, a low shaft of sunlight catches him and he glitters, head to toe, as a web glints with dew. On closer inspection, it proves he is sewn over with diamonds. He should have thrown a cloak around himself, even at the risk of dimming his lustre; high-bred though the jennet is, she still smells of horse.

-When my brother was led to the scaffold, I was quick with child, but I would have come to court to petition for him. I would have begged to wear mourning for him, and observe the proper rites, in which I would have found some solace, I dare say – but one does not pray for a traitor’s soul, nor wear black for him. At a traitor’s demise, one must smile.
-I do not think the old king would have required that.
-You did not know him. In those days no one was safe… “He who climbs higher than he should, falls lower than he would.”
-A feeble saying, and feebly expressed. It leans on that same conceit, the wheel. What I say is, these are new times. New engines drive them.
-…You speak of new times and new engines. These engines may rust before you have wheeled them to the fight. Do not join battle with the noble families of England. You have lost before you ride out. Who are you? You are one man. Who follows you? Only carrion crows, bone-pickers. Do not stop moving, or they will eat you alive.’

One by one, those gentlemen depart, who served the king’s father, whose memories stretch back to King Edward and the days of the scorpion; men bruised in the wars, hacked in the field, impoverished, starved out, driven into exile; men who stood on foreign quays and swore great oaths to God, their worldly goods in sacks at their feet. Men who sequestered themselves in musty libraries for twenty years and emerged possessed of inconvenient truths about England. Men who learned to walk again, after they had been stretched on the rack.