Now Reading - 12.19.18
Every week on our Patreon, I publish a post called “Now Reading” and this week I thought I’d share it with everybody! Here’s a list of the best articles, books, podcasts, videos, and whatever else I’ve come across in the last week. Browse around and I hope you find something you enjoy. This week, the list goes from serious to delirious, beginning with some articles on the transgender movement and ending with an interview series by Conan O’Brien.
“The Death of Clear Thinking” - Carl Trueman, First Things
First of all, I’d like to adopt this as the overarching title for the year 2018. In the words of Walter Sobchak, “Has the whole world gone crazy?” Carl Trueman’s summary of Roy Richard Grinker’s op-ed in the NYT, “Being Trans Is Not a Mental Disorder” is worth your time. In the original post, Grinker follows a fairly common line of argument linking transgenderism with homosexuality and arguing that being who you really are isn’t a mental disorder. In fact, he goes on, a small part of the population is born intersex, or in some way outside the binary gender norms, and ought to be recognized for their full humanity. For a final slam dunk, he cites some examples of cultures who revere those individuals who for whatever reason find themselves outside of traditional conceptions of gender.
This is the second startling post from the NYT in the last few weeks, the first being, “My New Vagina Won’t Make Me Happy” by Andrea Long Chu. She took a very different line of argument, basically that happiness shouldn’t be the criterion for whether or not individuals can undergo reassignment surgery. She identifies a common narrative among liberals that goes like this; those who suffer from gender dysphoria are in an extreme amount of pain and anguish. The only kind thing to do for them is to give them what they need, most commonly, hormone therapy and eventually surgery. But Chu makes an interesting observation, “But by focusing on minimizing patients’ pain, it leaves the door open for care to be refused when a doctor, or someone playing doctor, deems the risks too high.” It turns out both conservatives and liberals share an underlying sentiment; they both want to make decisions concerning those with gender dysphoria based on some measure of rationale, whether that be moral, empathetic, or medical.
But that’s simply not good enough. The choice to transition, for Chu, comes down to something much more radical: desire. See, Chu claims that most of those who empathize with the trans community believe that treatment will make them feel better. It doesn’t, she asserts, and it shouldn’t have to. Others want to impose a standard of care, abiding by that ancient maxim, “Do no harm,” but who really knows what harm means? She arrives at her conclusion - and brace yourself, this may be the most honest and most disturbing line I’ve read about the transgender movement - “I also believe that surgery’s only prerequisite should be a simple demonstration of want. Beyond this, no amount of pain, anticipated or continuing, justifies its withholding.”
So there it is. No matter the consequences, no matter the degree of harm it might cause, the only requirement should be the demonstration of want. It’s unimaginable that a doctor could go along with this and retain their medical license. What this presents is a fundamental demolition of medical ethics. What doctor could survive in court after amputating a perfectly healthy and functional limb? Or who would argue that a doctor was morally justified in administering chemicals to sterilize a patient, even at the patient’s request? There’s no way. Unless it happened to be this one specfic scenario.
Trueman’s analysis makes a couple of points clear. First, not everyone in the sexual revolution believes the same thing, and they shouldn’t all be treated the same way. In fact, gay and transgender people have little in common, “Rather, it is a strategic marriage born of political convenience.” The LGBTQ alliance is an amalgam of expedient partnerships defined more by their common enemies than by their commonality. In fact, these groups are often at odds with each other, using the umbrella label, LGBTQ, which has been granted human rights protection through various Title IX, lobbying, and social pressure strategies to smuggle in a cadre of undefined and even contradictory visions of sexuality. Trueman points out the inconsistency, “Would someone convinced he is Napoleon Bonaparte or an African-American trapped in a Caucasian body receive the same treatment if he too could find his condition inserted as an initial somewhere in the LGBTQ acronym? If you truly believe identity is a purely social construction, why give privileges to gender that are denied to other, arguably less “biological,” identities, such as race? Believing the APA was right to change the status of homosexuality does not imply it would be right to do so on a completely different issue, like transgenderism.”
He ends with the final clever observation that bringing biology into an argument specifically designed to show that biology doesn’t matter is ironic, to say the least. To say that the existence of intersex individuals proves that gender dysphoria should not be considered a mental disorder is like saying that people born with color blindness prove that there is no such thing as the difference between red and green. For a group who argues biology does not determine anything, this is a really bad argument.
The most puzzling thing is how baffled otherwise smart people can be when it comes to transgenderism. This article is framed as a piece of expert testimony in the country’s most prominent newspaper. Trueman is absolutely right as he ends, “It is clearly not transgenderism we have to fear so much as the death of clear thinking.”
“The Case of Agatha Christie” - John Lanchester, The London Review of Books
You need to read an article every week that has nothing to do with anything; this week Lanchester’s article was mine. Unless you saw Murder on the Orient Express last year, you probably haven’t thought about Agatha Christie lately - or ever. You might also be surprised to know that next to the Bible, Christie’s books are the all-time most popular works in the English language; over a billion sold and counting.
Lanchester puts the question perfectly: why Agatha Christie? What is it about her that’s led to this level of popularity? There are better writers and there are better stories, but anybody who’s ever read And Then There Were None or The Murder of Roger Ackroyd knows there’s something about Christie. Maybe the greatest mystery of all is how her books outlasted all the other mystery books in the last 150 years. As Lanchester frames it, “why the most popular detective writer of all time had as her principal character a man who is, by general agreement, the worst detective of all. By ‘worst’ I mean least likable, most implausible, most annoying, vainest, and the one whose characterization is most dependent on whimsical details that add nothing in terms of psychological insight: in other words, Poirot.”
The most decisive reason for Agatha Christie’s success is her expert grasp on the human condition. Her characters are identifiable, their motives are believable, and their “malignity” grips you in a way you wish you could be gripped by real life, and something inside you believes you’re right in the middle of something that could actually happen. Identifiability is a dangerous game, it sells books, but also risks a short shelf life.
Christie masters one of the most important aspects of fiction by presenting characters that image general pieces of the human condition without allegorizing. She deals with real issues and real-feeling people without descending into romance novels. As Christians, especially, we should learn all we can about people through fiction. In doing so we come to a new knowledge of our own hearts and renew the desire to pour out our lives for our neighbors. Lanchester strikes a resounding final note; “Her work is a cocktail of orderly settings and deep malignity, of comfiness and coldness, and at its heart it asks one of the most basic questions of all, modernity’s recurring preoccupation: who are you?”
“Why You Should Care About the Nate Silver Vs. Nassim Taleb Twitter War” - Isaac Faber, Medium
This title is misleading. If you don’t already care about Nate Silver (FiveThirtyEight), Nassim Taleb (Black Swan, Skin in the Game, Fooled by Randomness), or probability and prediction, this article is not likely to flood your brain with dopamine. Nevertheless, this is high theater and great entertainment. Silver’s recent dips into politics, tweeting in defense of AOC last week being a prime example, have continued his unlikely rise from the self-proclaimed king of recursion to mainstream fame as a master election predictor. Taleb is my intellectual crush of 2018 (more to come on that in our podcast this week), so I’m partial to his critiques. You don’t get to see a combined 3.3 million Twitter followers dragged into this kind of brawl very often. Pull up a chair.
“Serious Jibber Jabber” - Conan O’Brien
How did I not discover this sooner? I’ll blame it on my total disinterest in late night tv, but that hardly makes me feel better. For the last few years, Conan O’Brien has hosted an interview show called Serious Jibber Jabber where he interviews actors, writers, historians, and others about their projects and ideas. The guests range from Ken Burns to Martin Short to the Simpsons writers, and you might be surprised to hear that America’s favorite pompadour is a pretty good interviewer.
I’ll take you down the rabbit hole of my discovery process. I originally read John Koblin’s article, “Conan O’Brien’s Unrequited Fanboy Love for Robert Caro” in the NYT, which chronicles Conan’s decade-long struggle to get an interview with the famed LBJ biographer, Robert Caro. It’s hard to believe he’s held out for this long, but it’s not like Caro doesn’t know what he’s doing. He doesn’t have a no interview policy; he’s gone on with Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart. This has the trappings of an unrequited junior high crush, complete with the all the false hope. He even sent O’Brien a copy of his latest book, “The Path to Power” with a personal note, “To Conan O’Brien. From a fan - Robert A. Caro.” Power move.
I first encountered Caro in the Paris Review’s excellent interview series, “The Art of Biography.” I’d never come across someone like Caro. He’s absolutely meticulous. In the interview, he recounts the opening years of his study of Lyndon B. Johnson, particularly his early years in west Texas. You’ll never forget Caro talking about moving out to Johnson’s hometown to really understand the loneliness of his early years. Later, Caro walked the route Johnson took to the White House every day, filling his mind with the sights, sounds, and sensations his subject would have absorbed every day. Second, Caro got into biography through a side door. He started out studying power, and he’s stayed true to that goal. From his first book, The Power Broker through 3000 pages about LBJ, Caro has sustained a long examination of human power, and the results have been fascinating. If you want an introduction (because Caro is incapable of writing a short book), listen to On Power on Audible. You’ll get the best sections of Caro’s books and Caro reads the book himself.
Back to Conan. It’s no wonder he likes this guy. He and a friend have been reading through Caro’s books for decades. They geek out and speed read the Johnson biographies like they’re the latest installment in the Harry Potter series. And yet, he’s still waiting for that interview. Who knows if it will ever come. In the meantime, check out the interviews on the Serious Jibber Jabber site. The one with Edmund Morris is especially good.
Cole Feix is the founder of So We Speak and a regular writer. Follow him on Twitter, @cfeix7.
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