What Putin, JK Rowling, and Texas Republicans Have in Common
When Putin compared Russia to JK Rowling, it sent me scurrying to remember: why was JK “canceled” again?
It just goes to show how broken Putin’s moral compass is that he thinks what he’s doing in Ukraine is on the same level as JK’s decision to publish her opinions on trans identity. His bizarre digression into culture wars certainly won’t take any pressure off of the Kremlin or Russia’s economy. Oh, no — we “canceled” a country committing crimes against humanity? That’s awful — we don’t want anyone to think we’re “woke,” so let’s just lift those sanctions toute suite. If anything, the main effect of his comments will be to align himself with JK’s critics and intensify her cancellation.
I like to picture Putin being a bit more overt with his false equivalency:
JK’s questions about trans identity are every bit the atrocity that my indiscriminate shelling of civilians in Ukraine and Syria has been. She is horrible. Transwomen are women.
Who knew Putin cared so much about the plight of trans people in the Western world? I mean, this is the same man who’s made it illegal to be gay in Russia. This is the same man providing support to a Chechen strongman who’s literally torturing people for being gay.
He does have a point, though, however unintentionally. JK is engaging in that fine tradition of privilege —“just” asking questions. It might seem more benign than Putin’s OMON beating people at pride parades or Kadyrov’s murder of any Chechens unlucky enough to be “born that way (in Kadyrov’s nightmarish vision of Chechnya),” but nonetheless, there is a harmony between JK’s questions and Putin’s actions.
When folks like JK start asking questions, it’s funny where they always seem to land — in the backyard of people who were marginalized to begin with. No different than Putin, why does she find people’s identities threatening enough to start asking questions about them? Does a transwoman calling herself a “woman” actively interfere with JK’s attempts to redress the historic inequities visited upon women who were born with conforming genitalia? Why does the existence of homosexuals threaten Putin? He is arguably the world’s most powerful man — does it really matter if a gay man flies a rainbow flag on Pushkinskaya ploshchad’?
I will personally admit that I grew up deeply uncomfortable with homosexuality. Within the construct of the society I grew up in, homosexuals were viewed (as Macklemore might put it) as the lesser. That paternalistic value system favored strength and toughness; (one consenting man) sucking (another consenting man’s) dick, I guess, was synonymous with subservience, and what real man would ever accept that? Likewise, it was a society that believed in the binary worldview of masculine and feminine, masculine being positive and feminine being all the things a man must not be: frivolous, weak, soft. Nothing was worse than being a “sissy,” a term we used without realizing the ugly history of the word.
Why, though, beat up homosexuals, either rhetorically or physically? Say you believe homosexuals are lesser. What does it have to do with you? Let them do their thing and be subservient to one another. So sad for them, I guess; nothing to do with you. Why does their mere existence need a reaction at all? Are they an active threat? I’ve searched my memory banks, and the number of homosexuals running around our town forcibly sodomizing poor, innocent straight guys was precisely zero.
No, concern about appearing weak or subservient generates an overreaction, and the need to show the inverse — dominance — becomes as important as not seeming weak. You need someone to dominate, and well, the gays are so easy to push around. They’re a minority after all, and once you’ve stigmatized them, no one will stand up for them for fear of appearing to be one themselves. So it has been for centuries and centuries, ever since the Abrahamic religions reacted to the ancient Greek practices of sex among men so negatively (and not because it codified the idea that penetration was an act of domination—a sad little fact that already conflated and polluted sex with power).
The real problem in that society I grew up in (and in so many others), I realized at some point in my adulthood, was the threat of male violence, whether express or implied. Fear of vulnerability and/or of male-on-male rape fueled a toxic culture that took glee in victimizing others. The idea that life is a zero-sum game where someone must lose for you to win is a macho falsehood that has generated countless unnecessary misery throughout history.
As a method of organizing people, the exercise of power (meaning: the threat of violence) is a horribly crude tool, which is most likely why it died out and became something infinitely more complicated: polite societies and rules. Yes, the strongest can impose their will on others by force, but you know the risk: if you grant legitimacy to the use of power, you are unleashing something dangerous to your own interests. Live by the sword, die by the sword etcetera etcetera. You might die at the hands of an usurper, and there is always someone bigger and stronger, if not now then in ten, twenty years (if you can think that far ahead). Failing that, a group of people will conspire to overthrow you (I’m looking at you, Caesar). At best, you will live every second of every day fearful of being weak. Just ask Putin. Like countless Soviet premiers and dictators before him, he knows he must never lose control. He knows what someone like himself would do to secure power, and he is therefore suspicious of everyone around him. What a fun way to live.
The opposite is democracy, and not just democracy as practiced in the United States circa 2022 (it has room for improvement), but a truly open society where people accept others and embrace differences. This is an exceedingly rare thing. Think Paris circa 1900 or perhaps Jerusalem under Saladin. People rarely feel the sense of security that allows them to experience the joy in novel and diverse perspectives. Trust is the diametrical opposite of fear, and it is best furthered by embracing everyone, hard as that might be. Liberty, freedom — these are not finite substances wherein the more is granted to one group, the less there is for others. No, the more everyone is protected and valued, the less everyone is at risk of the kind of arbitrary, petty oppressions we like to visit on others in order to mask our sense of vulnerability.
In that sense, innocuous “questions” of the sort JK has posed are like water in a crack in a rock. It seeps in, and you hardly notice. Over time, it wears away at the monolith until it rips asunder. It seems benign. JK only wants to protect the poor confused youth who might fall sway to doctors who will just prescribe them hormones at the slightest pretense. Never mind that the trans youth of the world didn’t ask her to be their savior. She took it upon herself. Why?
We have to interrogate the impulse to protect and defend. It often masks something sinister, as in the case of Ukraine. Putin predicated this “special military operation” on the need to defend Russian speakers from a non-existent “genocide.” He has decided he needs to defend Russia itself from Russophobia. A tiny portion of the claim was fair (before all this started — now, good god…); but as with the homophobic bullies of my youth, he’s gone way beyond the pale (an ugly phrase for an ugly situation) — he has made the cardinal error of viewing his foes through the lens of his own rottenness.
The perception of threats in the absence of real harm is no neutral thing. It is often the pretext for terrible things. Just as JK has decided to take it upon herself to protect the over-medicated non-gender-conforming youth, Texas has decided it needed to intervene in parents’ decisions regarding their own such children. The hypocrisy is galling. The party that often declares — loudly — that people should be free from government interference in their lives…is interfering in people’s lives and one of the most personal of decisions. The part they leave out when convenient is that they only care about certain people’s lives and a narrow definition of life. If you are trying to open a takeout pizza chain or a for-profit university, you should be unfettered by any government regulation. Try to help your child navigate their identity when they are unsure if the term “boy” or “girl” as understood in our sea of pink and blue should apply to them…well, in that case, the government (of Texas) would like to have a word with you about “child abuse” [sic and sick]. The government of Florida, of course, would simply like the education system to pretend homosexuality does not exist, not of course because Florida Republicans are weirdly fascinated by homosexuality, but simply to protect the children.
There might — and I stress might — be a small need to protect the children. In this era of greater awareness of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities, kids these days may be a bit confused. I have more than a few friends with kids who have decided they are pansexual and gender-fluid. Far from making them happy, these declarations seem to leave them miserable. It gives me pause every so often. I mean, sure — you may in fact be pansexual gender-fluid, or you could simply be going through a phase. Statistics say: probably you’re heterosexual. Not to say that the latter is normal — just common. We don’t have a great vocabulary to describe the common without normalizing it. In the desire to avoid alienating those who don’t fit into our convenient oversimplifications, are we risking alienating some who do fit the standard paradigms? Odds are most kids will grow to be heterosexual men and women.
Then I ask myself: why on earth should that concern me? Why do I care? Is it any of my business? These are the questions JK and any of the other self-appointed defenders of the children need to ask before they start asking the questions they eventually write blog posts about. Is it because there’s a real harm to be mitigated, or because I want to impose my views on the world around me?
Imagine for a second that you could quantify misery and other forms of harm and add it all up over the centuries. For simplicity, we will use JK’s framing of transgender communities as our currency. On the one hand, you have all the alienation and actual violence visited upon transgender individuals in western societies. On the other, you have the actual harm done by over-prescription of anti-depressants to questioning youth. On yet another, you could add up all the emotional distress suffered by entirely heterosexual children who mis-self-identify as something else during their teenage years because it’s become, you know, so fashionable to cancel the patriarchy these days. Which one would be the most massive? Shouldn’t that one deserve our attention first? If so, it’s no contest: it is the cumulative misery of all the transgender individuals forced to conform and be invisible. The other two categories — to the extent they even exist — are miniscule.
All of that should make us question why folks like JK and DeSantis and Abbott are so interested in the latter two categories. If folks like these are so concerned about harm, why weren’t the rushing to save families from opioids when that was a clear crisis? JK and the rest’s intentions may be pure, but it’s funny how their actions align with the continued greater harm. It’s almost as if they simply want to impose themselves on a group perceived as lesser and other. Go figure.
While they may not be as awful as Putin or Kadyrov, they have chosen to be spiritual cousins. They are taking the first steps down a path which, if taken to its extreme, leads to a very ugly place. While JK probably doesn’t want to go there, it’s not clear that people like DeSantis don’t. He has a bully’s sneer. Bound by law (for now), all he can do is mock teenagers into removing masks against their will and sign into law bills that help re-shut the closet door. Be even more scared by the consequences of his other imaginary defense — that of the integrity of elections. Like Christmas or white male power, it is not under threat at all, so the impulse to defend it is also about something else entirely: pure, naked power.
All of that may explain the bizarre fondness Republicans have for Putin. Yes, they may be mostly united in opposition now that he’s attacked a nation of blond people, but the sympathy creeps in. Trump, Carlson, Taylor Greene — they all can’t help but take his side, maybe for the simple reason that they wish they had the power to do what he does and punish the weak to make themselves feel strong.