The town hall also revived Sanders’s chronic problem of prioritizing economic justice over the identity-based concerns of marginalized groups. Towards the very end, Cuomo asked the senator what he’d say to Americans who see Democrats as “more concerned with what bathroom people go into [than] how they earn a living?”
“Very fair question,” Sanders said.
But it wasn’t a fair question. It was based on a pernicious premise that the senator should have challenged. Ensuring transgender Americans can use bathrooms corresponding with their gender identities isn’t some tertiary issue. It’s a vital anti-discrimination measure. And, for transgender Americans in the workplace, it’s very much about being treated equally as they earn a living.
You wouldn’t have known this from Sanders’s answer. As always, he railed against the plutocrats, disparaging Democrats for joining with Republicans to deregulate Wall Street and pass free trade deals. “I think the American people understand that there’s something profoundly wrong in this country when you have a small number of billionaires that have so much power,” he said. He also trotted out stump-speech lines about tuition-free public colleges and higher minimum wages; with passing mentions of fighting climate change and reforming our immigration and criminal justice systems.
What Sanders didn’t do was mention bathrooms—or transgender Americans—even once.
And he wonders why critics say he only cares about economic issues.
Not even once! Because toilets for transgenders is the most important political issue of our time.
In what follows I am not denying that there are some people with confused bodies who deserve our every help towards a viable individual solution. Nor that there are others with unfathomable psychological conditions estranging them from their own corporeal manifestation. Perhaps, in extremis, surgery is the only solution for them.
But many people rightly sense that the liberal obsession with the transgender issue has gone beyond merely wanting to help this minority. It has become a whole movement to change our notions of gender. And its preoccupations come across as irrelevant to most people, unjustified in its conclusions, and apparently condemnatory of the normal with which most people identify.
As with the new post-liberalism in general (in both nasty and wise variants), the point is not “conservatism” versus “progressivism”. It is rather a question of essentially liberal novelties tied to an individualist, positivist philosophy which recognises only “facts” and “choice” as real. To reject this philosophy does not make you a reactionary.
If it does make you a reactionary, then so much the better for reactionaries. More from Milbank:
Liberalism, then, drives the attempt to displace the heterosexual norm – which leads to the (shockingly illiberal) criminalisation of those who do not endorse either gay practice or gay marriage. But liberalism includes capitalism: in the end, liberalism defines people as simply property-owners, narcissistic self-owners, choosers and consumers. Aquinas thought that our natural orientation to something outside ourselves was fundamental to our being. Liberalism, by contrast, denies the importance of relationships. Thereby it encourages the undoing of community, locality and beauty – and also marriage and the family.
And there is, naturally, money to be made out of all this. Husbands, wives, children and adolescents (this last an invention of the market) are more effective and exploitable consumers when they are isolated. Fluctuating identities and fluid preferences, including as to sexual orientation, consume still more, more often and more variously in terms of products and services. The fact that the market also continues to promote the nuclear family as the norm is not here to the point – of course it will make money from both the “normal” and the “deviant” and still more from their dispute. Ultimately, profits will accrue from reducing the heterosexual norm to the status of just another “lifestyle choice”.
The populist (as opposed to the well-heeled and ultra-liberal) faction amongst Brexiteers and Trumpists implicitly see all this – and realise that the marginalising of the family, as of secure labour, coherent community and safe environment, is not in their interests. For, as RR Reno and others have pointed out, the poor or relatively poor simply cannot afford the experimentation with sex, drugs and lifestyle that can be afforded by those cushioned by wealth. Thus the result of sexual liberalism and the decay of marriage as a norm for working people is too often women left on their own with babies, and young men (shorn of their traditional chivalric and regular breadwinning dignity) driven to suicide.
It is not surprising if the majority of people feel threatened by transgender obsessions, both for the way in which they themselves are perceived and for the fate of their children and their own way of life. Dimly, perhaps, they also discern the post-humanist direction in which this is all heading. Both the unchurched and Christian dissenters may have now obliquely spoken up for the western and Christian legacy more abruptly and absolutely than the mainline churches.
The cult of transgender is of course but one manifestation of a rejected liberalism, but it is highly symptomatic. And it may well be one of the things that has provoked an altogether unexpected populist reaction. Like so many, I do not admire much of the form this takes. But the people may sense that, in this case as in others, things have gone too far, and they are by no means wrong.
Read the whole thing. It’s important.
Lest we conservatives sneer at the haplessness of liberals and Democrats trapped in this identity-politics snare by its own activist and academic wings, let us note the comment appended to the Milbank article by the reader who sent it in:
What I find singularly curious is the absence of leadership on the part of those (ie, movement Conservatism, the GOP) who one should expect to have led the opposition against the transgender tide. They didn’t and leadership has still to materialize.
Who is leading the charge against transgenderism?
Far as I can tell, not a soul. Well, that’s not strictly true. Dr. Paul McHugh, for one, has been amazingly courageous. But why has movement conservatism, or what’s left of it, and the Republican Party fallen silent? I think it’s fear — that, and the fact that Big Business is 100 percent behind spreading gender ideology, and the GOP therefore won’t object. They’re too afraid of being called bigots. And you know, maybe they’re right to be. Ask the newly unemployed Republican governor of North Carolina.
The Texas GOP has taken a stand on the bathroom issue, over the business community’s objection. This is going to be a really interesting showdown, given how pro-bidness Texas Republicans are. What I wish would happen is that Republicans would get sophisticated about this stuff, and stop relying on the “yuck” factor, or the “because the Bible says so” factor. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with citing the Bible, nor is there always something wrong with instinctive aversion to that kind of disorder. But there are a number of reasons why this stuff has to be resisted — and why this old-fashioned approach doesn’t work.
The students with whom I associate—from middle school to college students—have understood for several years that we now reside in a world beyond gender. The youngest of them probably don’t realize that TIME’s article announced anything “new.”
For many of them, gender discussions, even of the transgender variation, are just so yesterday. When we talk about personal identity, we don’t include the mundane questions about being male and/or female. A person can certainly identify as male or female if they wish, but there is little expectation that one would do so.
Kuehne is an Evangelical Christian who teaches at St. Anselm College in New Hampshire. He’s not exactly in the geographical center of cosmopolitan liberalism. That’s how far this stuff has gone. Here’s his key point in this talk:
Young people today are much less binary when it comes to understanding identity because “male” and “female” as categories don’t express a unique or comprehensive identity.
When I tell this to many adult audiences, they laugh, believing that young people will grow out of this “stage.” They’re surprised that I don’t share their sense of the immaturity of our youth.
That’s because the young people with whom I interact are extraordinarily perceptive, compared to adults. As one high school student recently asked me, “Why does our school demand that we figure out if we are male or female or some variation? How could we figure it out even if we cared about gender? Can you tell me what it feels like to be woman? Can you tell me what it feels like to be a man? Of course not. No one knows.”
If everything is reduced to gender—even liquid gender—then how can anyone know by a solely internal exploration if they feel male or female?
What does it feel like to be a man? It can’t just mean that I am attracted to women, because it is okay to be attracted to men. It can’t just mean I feel like a lumberjack—because what does it mean to feel like a lumberjack? It can’t simply mean to be drawn to women’s clothes because what makes some garments women’s clothes?
In short, if the ultimate source of reference is the self, and if no other self than the individual is a reference point, how can you know who or what you are?
Indeed. The kids are right.
We don’t live at a tipping point; we already live beyond the tipping point. Whether adults realize it or not, the most important conversation today is not about gender, but about identity, as released from the confines of gender.
It’s all about the freely choosing individual, and the modern ideology that puts that person at the center of the world. Justice Anthony Kennedy is the Prophet of Our Age. As he said in his 1992 Planned Parenthood vs. Casey majority opinion:
At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.
What anyone who wants to resist the triumph of gender ideology has to understand is that this is deeper than gender or sexuality. This is all about identity, and to stand against it is to stand against the way most younger Americans have been conditioned by consumerist liberal democracy to understand themselves and the way the world works. It’s just that radical. As Kuehne once put it, Americans should get ready for things like the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s program to help students transition to the other gender to come to public elementary and secondary schools around the country. It’s already happening. We are far beyond bathrooms.
We may hope that a Trump Supreme Court nominee holds more traditional views on the matter, and is in place before the Court takes up the trans bathrooms issue. But there is no guarantee of it, and besides, the power of Big Business, the Media, and Academia to shape the views of civil society is immense. Never forget that Donald Trump truly doesn’t care about this stuff. He probably doesn’t want to push it, à la Obama, Hillary, and the Democratic Party, but he probably doesn’t care to interfere to protect the rights of dissenters when others do.