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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 11-06-2022 00:01

Turning the world upside-down

Reports from the culture-wars front certainly make strange reading.

Not that many years ago, knowledgeable Argentines took a keen interest in the “culture wars” raging in Europe and North America, especially the ones which pitted leftists who defended the Soviet Union against those who drew attention to the criminal nature of the Communist regime. No doubt some still try to keep track of the ideological scuffles that are going on, but these days even the most fervent progressives find it hard to take seriously the issues that obsess presumably intelligent people in those parts of the world. Despite the efforts of Kirchnerites in search of a cause to import fashions that originated in the United States, the notion that replacing sexist vowels with a resolutely neutral ‘X’ would help put an end to millennia of injustice has not made much headway, and Argentine sportsmen – sorry, sportspeople – have yet to make fighting racism by “taking the knee” an obligatory pre-match ritual.

This is just as well. Not only Argentines but a great many others, including Europeans and North Americans, have far more important things to worry about than pronouns (with “their” going where “he” or “she” used to be), or one’s proper place in the hierarchy of victims of white supremacy which, according to almost everyone of note in the English-speaking world, including Joe Biden and his underlings, is behind almost everything that is bad. At a time in which entire categories of people are steadily being rendered surplus by technology-driven economic development and the gap between the well-off and the rest is getting wider, the left’s adoption of identity politics can be seen as an attempt by those at or near the top to persuade themselves and others that they owe their good fortune to their superior virtue, which is why they continually berate “ordinary” working-class folk for their crass refusal to see the light.

Reports from the culture-wars front certainly make strange reading. If you want to send North American or British politicians scurrying away in terror, all you have to do is aim a microphone and camera at them and ask: What is a woman? Confronted by that dreadful question in a Senate hearing before becoming a member of the US Supreme Court, Ketanji Brown Jackson spoke for many when she said there was “no simple answer” and, not being a biologist, she was unable to come up with a complicated one.

Like many others, the lady feared that if she provided a straightforward definition of womanhood she would be ferociously attacked by a very small but astonishingly influential minority of individuals who pretend to believe that any man can become a woman overnight if he so desires. Some crafty male sex offenders have exploited official willingness to believe such declarations in order to get sent to women’s prisons where, to no great surprise, they have taken full advantage of the opportunities made available.

After failing to bring capitalism to its knees so it could be replaced by an economy micromanaged by bureaucrats, politicians and their hangers-on, opponents of the established order gave up that particular struggle to devote themselves to fighting against traditional beliefs and ways of doing things. After overrunning legal and social barriers that all but a handful of diehards agreed should be done away with, they mounted an assault on just about everything that somehow or other reminded them of a benighted past and went on to demand reparations for whatever indignities minorities of any kind had ever suffered. For a while, they carried all before them, but they are now meeting resistance from the many who accept that, imperfect though the society they live in undoubtedly is, it is still far better than almost any other, and, in any case, are sick and tired of seeing decent people lose their jobs after being accused of Orwellian wrong-think.

Among those pilloried by the neo-puritans of the relentlessly moralising woke brigade is the author of the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling, who after making some perfectly sensible comments about the differences between men and women was bombarded with death threats and subjected to a campaign to hound her out of public life. As one of the wealthiest women on planet earth, she is able to withstand the abuse, but many other victims of “cancellation culture” have been less fortunate. People who decades ago wrote or said something that could, no matter how implausibly, be interpreted as sexist, anti-trans, imperialistic or racist have suddenly found themselves in the firing line. Even having a remote ancestor accused of such crimes can get you into trouble: the poet Ted Hughes was blacklisted, post-mortem, by the British Library after it was assumed that, as a relative of Nicholas Ferrar who was born in 1592, he had belonged to a family “deeply involved” in the slave trade. As it happened, Ferrar died childless and wrote a pamphlet attacking slavery. 

This would be bad enough if it were merely part of a game of the kind undistinguished intellectuals like to play, but it is more than that. Affirmative action designed to compensate “people of colour” for what their forefathers endured is not only breeding resentment among whites and East Asians but is also encouraging advanced thinkers to look for a racial bias in mathematics and the hard sciences which according to them are manifestations of the European mind and therefore alien to people of a certain ethnic origins.

Similar prejudices are making themselves felt in other fields. For years, cultish enthusiasts for the idea that sex or gender is only a cultural construct so everyone is entitled to chose “their” own have been preying on adolescents to induce them to let themselves be pumped full of drugs and undergo “reassignment surgery,” often with tragic results for those who otherwise would have emerged unscathed from a bout of what specialists in what was, until quite recently, a marginal subject call “gender dysphoria.”

They are also raining blows on women’s sports by insisting, with the support of people like Biden, that athletes who grew up as men, with all the physical advantages that gave them, but then “transitioned”, should be allowed to compete in them. Some who have done so have won the events they entered by quite ridiculous margins; this was to be expected as there are thousands of males who, if rebranded as females, could smash the world records set by women. 

Just how all this will end is anybody’s guess. Watching it with a mixture of satisfaction and concern are members of the Chinese politburo who, along with Vladimir Putin and his supporters, see it as a gratifying symptom of a Western death wish but fear that their own populations could catch the same disease. Perhaps it will prove to be just a passing phase. Unless it does, the future will be as bizarre as Aldous Huxley imagined in Brave New World and, perhaps, as oppressive as George Orwell predicted in 1984. 

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James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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