There now follows a short recantation.
I have spent the last fifteen years barking up an entirely erroneous tree.
Some people do, in fact, believe that it is incorrect to use certain words and phrases for political reasons, and, at certain times and places, these people have, indeed, acted as if they were entirely insane.
Some people do, in fact, treat their aspiration to make society more just as if it were a war, and some of them do, in fact, believe that this war can be won with a keyboard alone. Some of them are not very honest and some of them are over inclined to compare other people with Hitler.
There is, in fact, an identifiable and definable group of people who believe themselves to be more than usually awake to the problems of power and oppression; and these people do sometimes assemble themselves into metaphorical and literal mobs.
Members of these and other political sub-cultures do, in fact, sometimes black-list writers, artists and politicians who they deem to have transgressed certain standards of ideological purity.
The Brigade, the Mob, the Warriors and the Culture really do exist.
They really do have a way of looking at the world which, if widely accepted, would lead to—if not the literal end of civilisation—then certainly the transformation of it into something which I might not recognise or like very much.
Golden age science fiction really was more fun than the modern stuff. Birmingham city council really did run an event called Winterval. Doctor Who really was better before Jodie Whittaker was cast in the lead role. Hyperbole is a perfectly reasonable way to start an essay, even if everyone knows that you are going to spend they next eight thousand words qualifying what you said in your opening paragraph.
I doubt if anyone ever really changes their mind about anything.
No-one who is walking East suddenly decides to turn around and go West. People just gradually realise that West is the direction they have always been going in.
Not so long ago I was listening to a podcast about the New Perspective On St Paul, as one does. In the course of the talk, the speaker referred to “the ideas of Martin Luther”—ideas about Law and Sin and Grace and Redemption.
“Oh” I said to myself “That isn’t Martin Luther’s teaching, particularly. That’s just what Christianity is”.
And, at the same moment, almost in the same mental act, “Ah. I see.”
I had not learned any new thing. I knew that my background was evangelical or post-evangelical. I knew that evangelicalism is a form of Christianity which majors on the core fundamentals of protestantism. (That’s why it used to be called fundamentalism. Fundamentalism now means something quite different.) I knew that protestantism was invented by Martin Luther: at any rate I knew that English Baptists and the Christian Union didn’t tend to be Calvinists. But I hadn’t particularly registered before that moment that what I considered to be “my ideas” and “Christian ideas” were specifically Lutheran ideas.
I hadn’t changed my mind. I had merely articulated a thing I already knew. But that articulation coloured everything I thought on the subject from then on. My perception had changed. What I had thought of as The Way Things Are turned out to be How Things Look From the Hill I Happen To Be Standing On.
Douglas Adams says that he was a Christian, for a while, at public school; and that one day he stopped to listen to an earnest street preacher, found himself thinking “this man is talking nonsense” and regarded himself as an atheist from then on.
I am not going to say “Well then, he was never really a Christian. If he had really been a Christian he would not have changed his mind so easily.” Atheists say that about C.S Lewis: he couldn’t really have ever been One of Us, because he liked poetry and studied philosophy and was convinced by really bad religious arguments about trees in quads. I don’t think we should do that. I think that if C.S Lewis said he was an atheist and Douglas Adams said he was a Christian, then we should take them at their respective words. People are what they say they are: black or atheist or Star Wars fan or that other thing we don’t talk about here any more.
But one does, in both cases, have a sense, not of demolition and rebuilding, but of pieces clicking into place. Lewis was always going to be a Christian; Adams was always going to be an atheist. One doesn’t feel that walls have come tumbling down in the face of an onslaught by a superior Platonic dialectical cavalry. It’s more like: “Oh. So that’s what I have always thought, is it?”
So with politics. I have not heard any new arguments. I have not discovered any new facts. No-one has devastated me with a forensic killer question. I have just noticed that what I thought I thought isn’t what I think I think. Some pieces have clicked into place.
Woke exists. It is a bad thing. That appears to be what I have always believed.
I did not, in fact, change my mind about same sex marriage.
My opinion is, so far as I can tell, exactly what it was in 2012. Marriage has a social function; a religious function; and a legal function. Those functions are entangled: you are probably getting married because you want to celebrate your love in front of your friends; but you may not feel you are having a proper celebration without a Priest or a Rabbi in charge, even if you yourself aren’t particularly religious. You may sincerely want to enter into a sacrament according to the tenets of your preferred deity; but your clergy-person cannot perform the rite without filling in the government’s legal paperwork. I thought and think that a formal disentanglement of those functions would have been a good idea. I thought and think that Mr Blair’s idea of civil partnership was a good one. I thought and think that Mr Cameron’s attempt to introduce a third category (relationships which are called marriages by the state but not recognised as such by the state church) is hopelessly confused. I think I understand why some of my co-religionists think that a same-sex relationship can’t be called a marriage; but since I am (as it turns out) a Lutheran I don’t really believe in either priests or sacraments, I don’t feel it matters very much. I thought, and still think, that there should be a single legal process called “Civil Partnership” which applied to both same sex and different sex couples; and a separate process called “marriage” which social and religious groups could define according to their own theories. None of that has changed.
I do accept a much broader definition of “homophobic” than I did at one time: I would not now be comfortable saying “The Archbishop of Canterbury does not think two women should be married in church, but that does not mean he is homophobic”. (I would also not be comfortable saying “This text portrays Chinese people as grotesque villains but that does not mean that the text itself is racist.”)
Two things did change in 2013. It became quite clear that all the arguments being used by opponents of same sex marriage were specious, bonkers, and to use the technical term, completely mental. Christians applied ambiguous dominical utterances selectively and got cross if you went back to the text. Reactionary secularists argued that if men were allowed to marry men pretty soon hedgehogs would be allowed to marry hat-stands. Outwardly sane people claimed that if gay people were allowed to marry, straight people would become less married. Melanie Phillips literally argued that if two men could get married, civilisation would come to an end.
It didn’t. Not so you would notice.
It is very hard to carry on being “not very strongly in favour of a thing” when the people who are “strongly against the thing” can’t marshal a single coherent argument between them.
It became clear to me that a lot of people with whom I was otherwise in sympathy felt that even having the discussion—applying my kind of “let’s think this one through” discourse to the question; treating it like a page from the Gospel of Mark or an episode of Doctor Who—was homophobic in itself. Saying “This is jolly interesting. I wonder what we mean by marriage, and what we think its function in society is, and what it should be?” was like sending out a kind of semaphore signal that said “I hate gay people”. I didn’t and don’t want to send out that signal: so I stopped talking.
More recently, I have learned that asking exactly what we mean by “state”, “right”, “exist” and “Israel” would signify membership of another group which I certainly don’t want to be associated with.
The prevailing climate appeared to be that what mattered about arguments was not whether they were valid or invalid. What mattered about arguments was which tribe they signified your membership of: the light side or the dark side; the goodies or the baddies; us, them, or the other lot. I strongly did not want to be identified as part of Melanie Phillips’ tribe. So I withdrew from the fray.
I am happy with the way things turned out. Civilisation did not end. I am pleased that my gay friends can get married. But I have very much the same questions that I had five years ago. If I were going to equality, I wouldn’t have started from here.
After publishing my ill-judged response to Andrew Sullivan’s theories about Critical (Race) Theory and the Roots of the Woke-ocracy I went away and re-read some of my old political essays.
In 2011, I wrote:
This seems to be rather a good instance of “we are never talking about what we appear to be talking about”, and one of the reasons why I increasingly think that important subjects can only be debated through the medium of
a: swearwords and
I thought, or I thought that I thought, that “marriage” was either a social institution, created by the state for some reason; or else a religious thingybob, with a particular significance to the members of that particular faith. I thought, or thought that I thought, you could discuss the rules in that context—is marriage in fact doing what the state wants it to do? is the thing which the state wants it to do a good thing or a bad thing? how do you navigate between the different religious and social meanings in a way which annoys as few people as possible? Can my right to go skinny dipping be accommodated to your social embarrassment, (say by having clothing optional days and frosted glass at the pool) or do we have to say that everything not forbidden is compulsory?
I now see (or think that I see) that questions about “the law” and “custom” and “different people believing different things” are really just a symbolic projection of the Real Thing, which is a power struggle between certain groups. Certain gays want to get married because certain straights don’t want them to; certain people pretend to care about fox hunting in order to annoy the landed aristocracy; and if there weren’t annoying textiles telling me to keep my trunks on then I wouldn’t care whether I went swimming in the nude or not.
We thought we were having a debate. We’re actually performing a dance. The dance steps matter in so far as we don’t want to trip over each others feet, but it isn’t really about the steps, it’s about love and courtship. There’s no need to actually look at what the Daily Mail says, because we already know in advance what they really think because of where they stand within the class struggle.
In 2015, I wrote:
It isn’t that my arguments are “bad”. It’s the whole idea of “argument” that’s the problem. “Argument”, “logic”, “evidence”, “proof”, “neutrality” are things you learned in school, and schools were set up by rich white guys to teach ideas thought up by other rich white guys in order to keep rich white guys in charge.
Everything’s really all about power. (Unless everything’s really all about sex, but that’s an argument for another day.) You might think that you are talking about theology or music or sanitation but if you look under the bonnet, it’s always really about who gets to sit at the front of the bus. The question is never “who is right?: it’s always “which side are you on?”
All of which leaves me rather stuck.
When I’m asked a question, my inclination is always to work out the answer from first principles. At any rate, to use some kind of argumentation and try to work out what the other fella is trying to say, and if he’s wrong why he’s wrong and if he might have a good point. Which keeps putting me on the wrong side of the question....
Despite early assurances, the internet does not contain a 3D virtual reality in which I can be taught Kung Fu by Laurence Fishburne and drown Tom Baker. All the internet actually contains is words. Lots and lots of words. Oceans of words. Millions of writers telling us what they think. Good writers, bad writers, indifferent writers; informed writers; ignorant writers; boringly right, engagingly wrong. Writers telling you what they think about what other people wrote about stuff they read on the internet.
Derrida was right. There isn’t any stuff. There’s only people talking about stuff. I’ve never experienced a murder, or an election, or a football match, or (god forbid) an instalment of I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here. I just kind of intersect with the ripples these things put out in cyberspace. Which isn’t really a space, and isn’t really very cyber. It’s more like a lot of very bored people making wisecracks in their coffee break.
But all this argument is taking place in a space in which we have already agreed that argument is not even possible. “Right” and “Wrong” aren’t qualities that any argument has: they are just descriptions of which side you are on in a big fight that has been going on throughout history, and will carry on until, any day now, history comes to an end.
Having reread those pieces and several others, various lights came on.
Ah. I see.
When Andrew Sullivan talks about Critical Theory; when Jonathan Pie talks about the Woke Utopia; when Melanie Phillips talks about Political Correctness Gone Mad and even (and typing this makes me feel dirty) when multiple Hugo Award loser John C Wright talks about Social Justice Warriors, this is what they are talking about.
My complaints about Twitter rhetoric in One Hundred and Forty Characters In Search of An Argument maps almost exactly onto what Sullivan describes in the Roots of Woke.
I have literally spent 15 years arguing that The Thing does not exist while actively pointing out and bemoaning the fact that it does.
I feel like a whey-faced Coxcomb.
Something else I haven’t changed my mind about is the wisdom of casting a non-male person in the role of Doctor Who.
I think that gender-swapping or race-swapping established characters sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. I greatly enjoyed the Donmar’s all-black, all-female production of Richard II. I didn’t specially think “How challenging and revelatory it is to re-imagine the Duke of York as a woman of colour!”, but I did think that Shobna Gulati did a really interesting job on one of the best and most under-celebrated Shakespearian roles, and that she wouldn’t have been able to essay the part in a more conventional staging. The Tobacco Factory’s Henry V, with a female Dauphin conflated with Princess Katherine, not so much. It failed to build a stage-world which convinced me that women could both lead armies and be sold into dynastic marriages. But theatre is all about trying stuff out.
I am convinced that Peter Parker (or at any rate, Uncle Ben) was Jewish; and have argued that casting a Muslim or (more specifically) a Sikh actor in a movie version of the comic-book would be rather faithful to the spirit of Stan Lee’s text. But the existence of Kamala Khan probably makes that exercise redundant. I wasn’t convinced by Michael Jordan as Johnny Storm, but that was because the whole movie seemed to water down the central conceit of the Fantastic Four as a surrogate 1950s nuclear family. I certainly don’t find it hard to imagine a young black guy being hot-headed, cool, good with motor cars and capable of shooting fireballs from his fingers.
James Bond is as quintessentially and aggressively masculine as a fictional character could possibly be: he very much has to be a boy. Which is exactly why I’d like to try the experiment of making him a girl. No, you couldn’t simply have a female actor playing Bond, in the way you can (arguably) simply have a female actor playing Bolingbroke. The film would have to be about the fact that the ultimate arch-alpha-male was being played by a female. But that in itself would be artistically interesting. Maybe it would be business as usual: Bond would carry on doing all the macho male stuff—fast cars and guns and scantily clad pretty ladies in every hotel bed. The actor would just happen not to be male. That would create an interesting clash between character and genre; it would make all the Bond cliches more visible, and more ridiculous, and funnier. But maybe you would create a new character who was a female inversion of James Bond: ultra-feminine in all the ways Bond is ultra-masculine and misandric in all the ways Bond is misogynist. A bevy of glamorous Bond boys in speedos; incredibly patronising remarks about all guys in the story; sexist flirting with Master Moneypenny. (If Aston Martins and Harpoons are symbols of Male Power, what would be the female counterpart?) It would probably come out as a parody, but then the franchise arguably always tends to parody.
I confess I haven’t seen a Bond movie since Timothy Dalton was the next big thing.
What about a black Superman? My first thought is that since he’s an alien who happens to look like a human being, it makes as much sense for him to be a Negro alien as a Caucasian alien. Granted, Superman’s comic-book appearance is more than usually iconic; but if Zack Snyder can redesign his costume beyond recognition then it is hard to see why a change in skin tone would be a fatal departure. George Reeves doesn’t look any less like Tom Welling than Michael Jordan does. Red underpants are a much more irreducible part of Superman's appearance than a white face, and we’ve already dropped those (so to speak).
But once I try to imagine a black Superman (as opposed to a Superman who happens to be being played by a black actor) I run into hard questions. Are Pa and Ma Ken also people of colour? Does the life experience of a black farmer in Kansas differ from that of a white farmer? Did he come to earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men in the 1920s, or the 1950s, or is he a millennial? The Golden and Silver Age Superman presumably grew up in a Smallville which was still segregated. (Did canonical Superboy have any black classmates?) If Jonathan and Martha are white people, what are the specific problems faced by mixed race adoptees? And how would this new version of Superman interact with the political and social questions of his day? A black Superman who stands aloof from the civil rights movement, Obama’s administration or Black Lives Matter is different from a politically neutral white person. The meaning of “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” depends greatly on who is saying it.
These are interesting questions with potentially interesting answers. I don’t know whether, by the time you have answered them, you have come up with a challengingly different take on an established character; or created a completely new one. Both are worth doing. But the world may have room for movie adaptations of popular comic book characters which don’t radically re-imagine them.
And that’s the problem, isn’t it? “I’d rather watch an adaptation of Superman than a radical re-interpretation of him” is itself a political stance. Choosing not to talk about race is a way of talking about race.
When the idea of a Female Doctor Who was proposed in 2015 I had the same questions as I did when it was raised by the show’s creator in 1986.
"Yes, that would be a good idea, if it shakes the format up."
"Yes, that would be a good idea if a woman actor can find a new way of playing the part and not just try to be a female Tom Baker, or, worse, a female David Tennant."
"Yes, that would be a good idea, provided she still portrays them as an un-cool science geek."
"No it, would be a bad idea if the show became about female-ness, in the same way that it would have been a bad idea for it to have become about Northernness in 2005 or Scottishness in 1987."
I don’t think it matters what has been said about gender in previous episodes. Doctor Who has such a mercurial continuity that what has gone before hardly counts. I think it might have been better if we had stuck with the implicit 1976 canon: the Time LORDS were all stuffy old men, who met their match in the SISTERhood of Kahn. But that was retconned out by Douglas Adams in the first episode of Ribos Operation. Anyone saying that a woman couldn’t play the Doctor because Dalek Invasion of Earth is thinking about this TV show in quite the wrong way.
I’m not sure it is necessary. I think the patriarchal bias of the show was largely addressed by making Rose such a strong and interesting character at the dawn of the relaunch. But by all means give it a go and see if it works.
They gave it a go and it didn’t work, unfortunately.
But, as it turns out, this doesn’t matter, because we were never really talking about Doctor Who in the first place.
Opinion split, neatly, into those who thought that there was an absolute moral imperative for Doctor Who not to be an old dead white guy so that little girl-fans could aspire to be the Doctor one day; and those who thought that this new series, Nurse Who, Doctor Karen, was dead to them and that the BBC had been taken over by Wokes who wanted to destroy civilisation and the next thing would be an episode involving a pregnant man.
Now, if the casting of a TV character is a piece of semaphore and these are the only choices, then I know what signal I have to send. If the choices are between “Doctor Who OUGHT to be a woman” and “Doctor Who CAN NEVER be a woman” I know quite well what side I am on. And I see well enough that by asking “will it work as a TV show? will it be interesting? will it be canon?” I am implying that making a good, canonical TV show is more important than recognising the agency of one half of the population. If I come out and say that I think that the last two seasons of Doctor Who have come very close to killing my interest in the programme I am, in fact, aligning myself with the reactionary nutters. I am making a political statement regardless of my intention. So it is better to just keep my mouth shut, which is what I have largely done.
I have not been cancelled. I have not been herded into an incinerator. I have not been voted off the island. I rather suspect that if I had not deleted the Unwise Footnote I would now have a lot more readers than I currently do.
But I feel constrained. I have constrained myself. Some of the ways I think may cause me to say things which will be interpreted as virtue signalling for the side I do not agree with.
I think that this is what some people mean when they talk about Woke. I think that for fifteen years I have been saying that they are wrong when actually I think they are right.
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