A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Bruce Jenner, Rene Descartes, and Stolen Valor

 "How is a person or a world unmade or unformed? First, by being deformed. And following the deforming is the collapsing. The tenuous balance is broken. Insanity is induced easily under the name of the higher sanity. Then the little candle that is in each head is blown out on the pretext that the great cosmic light can better be seen without it."  
-- R.A. Lafferty

He was in the news. Perhaps you read of him. His body had cheated him, denied his true inner self, so all his life he had been encumbered with an (ahem) extraneous organ. Oh, he used it as society taught him to use it, and he used it well enough to satisfy the stereotypes society imposed, but he always felt that it was not truly a part of him and he began to consider ways in which he might correct the error that biology had made. In the end, surgery seemed the only option. He would transform by art what nature had neglected.

Backward-thinking surgeons were loathe to do such work. There was nothing after all wrong with his body; only that it felt wrong to him. But when all was finally accomplished, he said, "I feel like my body is correct at last, and that's a way cool feeling." He has no regrets.

So runs the story of One-Hand Jason, who cut off his right hand because it seemed alien to him.

Why? Who did you think we were talking about?

Jason is one of the "transabled." They suffer from Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID), which occurs when the "brain" "sees" a part of the body as unnatural or foreign. [In fact, BIID is only a fancier rephrasing of it.] Oliver Sacks tells of a man who threw his leg out of bed (and himself with it) because he thought another person had gotten into bed with him. He literally did not recognize the leg as a part of himself. BIID is not, they say, a mental illness so much as a problem with the body's "mapping." Although those who equate the mind with the brain should have a fun time distinguishing a brain disorder from a mental illness.

Besides, who says it is "disordered" or a problem? Bigots, that's who! What, after all is the difference between lopping off one organ and lopping off another? 

But those who compare transablism with transgenderism run into resistance from... the transgendered, who don't like being compared with those nutcases. They also run into criticism from people with actual disabilities, who see the transabled as "dishonest people, people who try to steal resources from the community." It is, in a sense, "stolen valor" by which people have claimed credit for deeds never done or service never served. "Posers" is the term the skaters used.

When the body identity involves one's sexual organs, body modification has become almost a sacrament, and those who afterward have regrets or who reverse the surgery are savagely vilified off screen. Since sex is the single most important thing in the universe -- even to people who otherwise subscribe to the so-called "Copernican Principle" -- an entire hermeneutic of sex has been developed to distinguish sex from gender, and transgender from gender nonconforming from genderqueer (oneword!). People, especially academics, discuss these things with earnest gravity and devise much Theory. They write of gender being "assigned" and how people "express" as men or women and how gender is “an oppressive class system made all the more dangerous by the belief that it is an entirely natural state of affairs.” (This whole "oppressive class system" schtick enables the wholesale importation of Marxist analysis.) Papers are written; tenure attained. People seriously write sentences like "Early this morning, I was mis-gendered by a gay man on a bus." (Apparently, there are tensions between the LGBs and the Ts.) 

But  how do we distinguish between transgendered and transabled? What makes one a case of BIID while the other is not? Is it only the bizarre obsession of the secular world with pelvic issues, that no appetite should go unslaked provided only that it is sexual? Compare the reaction of the world to indulgence in the reproductive act to indulgence in the digestive act. In the latter case, we have an "epidemic" of obesity and have declared war on fast food. In the former case, it's Wahoo! and Nellie, bar the door! Yet is it any coincidence that obesity and single motherhood have run up in parallel or that bulemia and abortion track? Both digestion and reproduction belong to the vegetative powers, and these are the most susceptible to "slip the leash" when reason loosens the reins.

Someone named German Lopez wrote on something called Vox that gender as we know it is “a social construct, not a biological one,” and thus malleable, and that there also may be a “biological link to a person’s transgender identity.” These two statements are mutually exclusive, but since the Collapse of Philosophy, the vital thing is not logical consistency, but blowing the right dog whistles and signalling to one another that you are One of Us. This is especially poignant when the whistlers, on other topics, call themselves the "reality-based community."
Gender as TOF knows it is a grammatical construct that determines which pronouns are used. For example: spoon, fork, and knife are masculine, feminine, and neuter, resp. (der Löffel, die Gabel, das Messer). In Latin, a farmer (agricola) is always feminine. Make of it what you will. Especially you Anglophone-centric types, who confuse the rules of English grammar with the laws of the universe.
In "Transphobia in the Gay Community," Dr. Jillian T. Weiss,  writes, "Recently, an icon of gay activist history, Ronald Gold, posted a transphobic diatribe on The Bilerico Project" and goes on from there. The remarkable thing is that Dr. Weiss focused not on factual errors in Gold's article, which are presumably legion, but on the many people whose feelings were hurt by reading it. Talk about playing into the stereotype of the Special Snowflake!
It's funny how often great thinkers suddenly become Stoopid when they disagree with Us. Freeman Dyson, for example, ceased being a genius when he disagreed about anthropogenic global warming. 

One is sorely tempted to say, "Be a Man!" but for grave uncertainty as to how some might go about complying.
 A second tension exists between M→F transgenders and feminists. Bruce Jenner claimed, inter alia, that all his life he had "felt" like a woman. (Note that this really is different from One-Hand Jason, who felt that his hand was an alien growth. In a sense, Bruce felt his entire body was an foreign object.) But, aside from the impossibility of anyone actually knowing what it feels like to be someone else, what can he have meant by this?

Feminist theory -- at least among gender feminists -- holds that there are no essential differences between the sexes. "There is no such thing as a 'female brain' or a 'female soul' or 'feeling like a female.' As Germaine Greer put it, "We don't know if we think like women or not. We just think."  But what Jenner evidently meant was demonstrated on the cover of Vanity Fair: Being a woman means looks and emotions.

The Blaze acidly comments:
The picture ... Bruce dolled up in makeup and hair extensions, posing in a corset, with parts of his face, forehead, and throat shaved off for cosmetic reasons, and his chest enhanced by hormone pills, Photoshop, and silicone.  ...  He’s just happy that, through extensive plastic surgery, high doses of synthetic chemicals, pounds of makeup, and a liberal use of Photoshop, he can finally be himself. 
In an article in The Federalist, Libby Emmons writes:
When a person identifies as female, what is being defined as female? Is it the breasts? Lips? Ass? Slim waist? Small hands? Batting eyelashes? Flirtatious smile? Long hair? Finger-nail polish? Eyeliner? Lipstick? ...
IOW, "feeling like a woman" reduces to dress-up and having "physical attributes attractive to men."  The feminine attributes Bruce wanted were those things the women's movement has been criticizing as stereotypes for decades. After all, Jenner is 65 years old, but he "didn’t get surgery to have the breasts of the average 65-year-old woman."

Meanwhile, "more PC than thou" folks have been turning on their compadres for expressing "transphobia." (One article taking a feminist to task for a mild criticism of Jenner actually starts with a "trigger warning", the latest bit of academic newspeak among the Snowflakes.)  The number of dog whistles, key phrases, and so on is impressive. Even Germaine Greer comes in for criticism.

Meanwhile, an Edmonton mother has filed a complaint with the Alberta Human Rights Commission after the Catholic school district there refused to let her transgender child, born a male, use the girls' washroom.¹  The child isn't "a boy who liked girl toys," said the parents. "She was a girl who had a penis." The mind of the reality-based community reels. However, the child was diagnosed by a really-truly doctor as having gender identity disorder (a/k/a "gender dysphoria"). The psychologist probably should be diagnosed with cognitive dissonance: it it's a "disorder" (i.e., billable) then why should everyone else pretend it's normal? What if someone really-truly feels like he is Napoleon? Do we call him "Your Excellency" and put him up in a palace?

1. Ever notice how they always seek out a Catholic institution to make the fuss?

But TOF (we hear you cry) what has Caitlyn (née Bruce) Jenner to do with Rene Descartes, let alone with 4th century Gnosticism?

Plotinus' prison
A good question, and oddly enough not one that has been widely discussed on the Today Show, Extra! and other places where Jenner has bravely faced the applause and approval of his peers for his upcoming "reality" show. Fr. Barron (now a bishop) noted the link. It all goes back to Plotinus, as you knew it would.

Porphyry, in his bios of Plotinus, wrote: "Plotinus, the philosopher our contemporary, seemed ashamed of being in the body."

This was not because (as Porphyry also notes) he never took a bath,  which would make anyone ashamed of their stinky shell, but because he held his body as so uncouth that he disdained to wash it. Perhaps he was never properly toilet trained and so found natural bodily functions icky. 
In his philosophy, the body is repugnant, "a fallen, inferior form of being, produced by a low-level deity. The soul is trapped in matter, and the whole point of the spiritual life is to acquire the gnosis (knowledge) requisite to facilitate an escape of the soul from the body."
The Alexandrian philosopher Hypatia was a devotee of Plotinus and had a similar 'tude toward the body, as the story of the menstrual rags indicates.
This inferior deity, in case you were wondering, was equated with the Yahweh of the Old Testament, who famously looked on all he had created and called it good. Matter is good? Eeeuuuw!

Christianity in particular always insisted on the goodness of matter and the resurrection of the body, necessary in this schema, struck the neoplatonists and gnostics as repulsive. They wanted to escape their bodies, not find themselves repackaged.  Now this sort of thing has a certain attraction, especially for people who want to think of themselves as "spiritual," and various kinds of gnosticism have reappeared like a bad penny over the centuries. 

A recent repackaged gnosticism was the anthropology of René Descartes, which radically informs modern attitudes. "Descartes famously drove a wedge between spirit and matter, or in his language, between the res cogitans (thinking thing) and the res extensa (thing extended in space)." The former, in what Midgley calls "the cult of the cerebral," is obviously the superior thing, the true self; while the latter is inferior and "legitimately the object of manipulation and re-organization." (Recall that the Scientific Revolution of which Descartes was a participant was explicitly directed toward the mastery of the universe and man's dominion over nature: 
The heart of the modernity as a project is the new science developed in the 17th century, which consists in the application of a certain kind of symbolic-calculation to nature through experiments for the sake of technological power over nature. This science was “new” because unlike the old science its goal was not the contemplation of the truth in the forms of things; the goal of the new science was and is practical. As El Mono Liso recently noted, “the attempt to analyze the world as a series of mathematical equations or chemical formulas is ultimately not an unbiased analysis of static essences, but a blueprint by which civilized actors seek to bend all things to their own will, in our case, the will of capital.”
Which eventually led to Anthony Kennedy's statement in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (Justice O’Connor, Justice Kennedy, and Justice Souter delivered the opinion of the Court)
 "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."
Define your own concept of the universe? Really? Isn't that carrying the Triumph of the Will a little too far? All the Nietzschean chest-thumping in the world won't compel the universe to go along with the gag. Even "the mystery of human life" might be a matter in which the science of biology (or something else beyond one's own ego) has a say.  Might could be there is something more communal, more objective out there. But we digress. 

Fr. Barron continues:
"In justifying the transformation that he has undergone, Jenner consistently says something along these lines: “Deep down, I always knew that I was a woman, but I felt trapped in the body of a man. Therefore, I have the right to change my body to bring it in line with my true identity.” Notice how the mind or the will—the inner self—is casually identified as the “real me” whereas the body is presented as an antagonist which can and should be manipulated by the authentic self." 

Some might think that this takes the Triumph of the Will a little too far. But notice that to celebrate Jenner means to accept the Cartesian notion of the soul by people who otherwise deny that a soul exists. That is, there is (somehow) a True Jenner imprisoned in a gross material shell. The "mind-body problem," usually held a stumbling block by the bien pensants, has been embraced entirely in this instance. That is because the purpose is to poke a finger in the eye of bourgeois culture, not to help or show sympathy with Jenner, who is only a convenient finger.

In Christian thought, the mind/will is not the True Self as opposed to the body. Thomas Aquinas famously declared, "My soul is not 'I'." A person is not a "ghost in a machine," but a synolon, a compound of form (soul) and matter (body). In particular, the body is not an object to be manipulated at will. It is an integral part of the subject, the person.

Transgenders commit suicide at a tragic rate of 40%, almost ten times the rate in the general US population (4.6%) who have reported a suicide attempt over their lifetime. But it is also considerably higher than for lesbian, gay and bisexual adults (of whom 10-20% have attempted suicide). There is no such thing as a transsexual. No amount of surgery can turn an actual male body into an actual female body, or vice versa. The best that can be achieved is a cosmetic alteration that simulates the other sex. Some will say "parodies." That being the case, people who really do desire to "be" the opposite sex are foredoomed to disappointment. The best they can hope for is to play an extreme form of "dress up," never actually attaining the goal. This may contribute to the terrible rate at which they attempt suicide, or to regret or to try to reverse the surgery.

An example is that of Nancy Verhelst in Belgium. Her mother had wanted boys and had rejected her, putting her in a storage room over the garage, telling her that she was ugly, and so on. Naturally, she developed "gender dysphoria," and naturally the first resort was not to help her be affirmed in her feminity but to alter the physical world to conform to her self-image. Afterward, what she saw in the mirror did not measure up to her wishful thinking, and she petitioned the Belgian State to kill her. Which they did. (The mother shrugged. She literally did not care if her daughter lived or died!)¹

Nancy Verhelst, writes Jennifer Morse in Public Discourse, "was not 'really' a man 'trapped' in a woman's body. She was 'really' a woman 'trapped' in a world in which the most important person in her life did not love her."

1. The media reported that she committed suicide after a botched sex-change operation. Three equivocations in one headline! Euthanasia is not suicide except by extension, no operation can actually change the sex, and there is no explanation of what was "botched."

Dr. Paul McHugh, who as Psychiatrist-in-Chief at Johns Hopkins University, shut down the sex-reassignment unit at the hospital, said:
As for the adults who came to us claiming to have discovered their “true” sexual identity and to have heard about sex-change operations, we psychiatrists have been distracted from studying the causes and natures of their mental misdirections by preparing them for surgery and for a life in the other sex. We have wasted scientific and technical resources and damaged our professional credibility by collaborating with madness rather than trying to study, cure, and ultimately prevent it.
Not to mention the disservice to people desperately in need of counseling. Whether there might be those for whom gender dysphoria is a genuine problem -- one suspects there would be physical indicators, genetic or otherwise -- society seems all to willing to leap to the most radical ways of dealing with the symptoms rather than try to deal with the causes. Surgery does not correct a psychological problem.

Perhaps a bit of compassion would be called for.


  1. "It all goes back to Plotinus, as you knew it would," made me laugh. Great article.

    However, I think the quote you attribute to Sandra Day O'Connor is actually Anthony Kennedy in a more recent ruling.

    1. The opinion was delivered jointly by O'Conner, Kennedy, and Souter -- itself a significant combo -- but yes, Kennedy is given credit for the wordsmithing. I've made suitable modification of the text.

  2. Thanks!

    Note also the resonance with Eric Voegelin's Science, Politics and Gnosticism.

    The prevalence of Marxist polemic in contemporary LGBTQRSUVWXYZ agitation is not merely a case of one movement cynically or opportunistically exploiting the other. Rather, since both movements have the same Gnostic origin, all that has happened is merely, as it were, a transformation of coordinates.

    I particularly like Voegelin's discussion of the importance of the "prohibition against asking questions". The prophets of the gods of catastrophic anthropogenic global warming enforce this prohibition so severely that I am amazed that anyone claiming to have scientific training can remain untroubled by it.

  3. Actually, since he lived a long, long time ago, I think it all goes back to Yoda - "Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter."

    1. Yoda has the excuse of being a caricature of a Zen master by someone who thinks Buddhism is Christian Science.

      It's actually the reverse, of course: in Buddhism, matter is only unreal because "spirit" is unreal (Sanskrit "anatman" is cognate with "inanimate"), and India knows metaphysics well enough to know that when you deny formal parts, you ipso facto deny anything "real" about matter.

      The Mahayana sects, at least, may be interpreted as, so far from being an "atheist religion", a-"everything but God"-ist; they essentially, though they prefer not to put it that way, assert that the Monad is the sole reality, as a way out of the infinite regress atomism always tends toward. And then consider the Lotus Sutra if you'd like to see how well their "but it's totally not the same thing as the Christian God" argument holds up to scrutiny.


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