Notes and Comment Blog

Three memories of Oliver Sacks

Sep 2nd, 2015 5:14 pm | By

Wired got some scientists to talk about what Oliver Sacks had meant to them.

Temple Grandin is the first.

A few weeks ago, I read an editorial he wrote about the Sabbath. He was originally brought up as an Orthodox Jew, but he decided to go another route, and at the end of the article he writes, “What if A and B and C had been different? What sort of person might I have been? What sort of a life might I have lived?” I just burst into tears in front of the computer reading that. I was crying so much I couldn’t even print it out. I sent him this card just before he died:

I started crying at the end of the article when you said, “What if A and B and C had been different?” If that had happened our paths probably would have never crossed. You have made a big difference in my life. Your life has been worthwhile, and you helped many people doing things to enlighten and help others to understand the meaning of life.

If Oliver had decided to stay an Orthodox Jew, his whole life of writing would have never happened. He just gave people so much insight into how the brain works. He just added so much to the literature of how the mind works, especially when the mind is a so-called not normal mind. He really got inside these minds. He got inside my mind.

As told to Sarah Zhang.

Daniel J Levitin, a neuroscientist and writer:

Oliver taught all of us about the power and joy that come from being curious. Oliver was curious about a great many things: absolute pitch, insects, hallucinations, mind-altering experiences (either drug- or injury-induced), perceptual disorders, and theater are just a few. He loved Mozart, 3-D viewscopes, the chemical elements, swimming, and ferns.

Like Freud, Oliver wrote compelling accounts of his patients. But in Oliver’s hands, these accounts became literature. He created the genre of medical case studies as popular literature, opening the door for the many lay books about the brain that have followed. But no other writer brings his sense of the literary, the comic and the tragic, and his sense of humanity to scientific writing.

As I saw him do on so many other occasions, he left all my students in that room ten years ago feeling as though they had done him a favor, for he had learned so much that was new to him. Oliver has now left this room and has done all of us an enormous favor by igniting our curiosity and showing us that science and compassion, rationalism and love, can feed one another.

Bradley Voytek, cognitive scientist:

The fact that I, a practicing neuroscientist, can openly admit to giving a shit about the human side of neuroscience without fearing “outing” myself as a soft thinker is in no small part due to artistry of Dr. Sacks’ blend of scientific rationality and human empathy. That’s an incredibly difficult line to walk when you’re faced with the existential reality that the very thing that makes us who we are can be changed in some way—for example by neurological trauma or injury—and can therefore change basic aspects of our perception and personality.

Dr. Sacks, through sheer force of compassion, reminded us, as a scientific field, that the very thing that makes neuroscience most frightening—its ability to expose our humanness as being tied to our physical self—is also why it’s so important for us to pursue it.


You become so afraid of the world out there

Sep 2nd, 2015 3:39 pm | By

British three-year-olds have been told “the non-Jews” are “evil” in a Kindergarten worksheet handed out at ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools in north London, it can be revealed.

Documents seen by The Independent show children are taught about the horrors of the Holocaust when they are still in kindergarten at the Beis Rochel boys’ school in north London.

A whistle-blower, who wished to remain anonymous, has shown The Independent a worksheet given to boys aged three and four at the school…

The document refers to Nazis only as “goyim” – a term for non-Jews some people argue is offensive.

The issue isn’t so much that it’s “offensive,” I would think, but that it implies that all non-Jews are genocidal fascists.

Emily Green, who used to teach at the same Beis Rochel girls’ secondary school, now chairs the Gesher EU organisation which supports ultra-Orthodox Jews who want to leave the community.

“It’s not uncommon to be taught non-Jewish people are evil in ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools. It is part of the prayers, teaching, their whole ethos,” she said.

Describing it as a form of “indoctrination”, Ms Green added:  “Psychologically, you become so afraid of the world out there after being taught how dangerous and bad and evil non-Jews are, that it makes it harder to leave.”

That sounds like the Amish…like Quiverfull and other drastic Christian cults…like Islamism…Like the FLDS…It sounds like all theocratic cults. They all teach their members that the entire world outside the cult is evil and demonic, and that makes it much harder to leave.

Independently translated from Yiddish for The Independent, the worksheet’s first question reads: “What have the evil goyim (non-Jews) done with the synagogues and cheders [Jewish primary schools]?” The answer in the completed worksheet reads: “Burned them.”

Another question asks: “What did the goyim want to do with all the Jews?” – to which the answer, according to the worksheet, is: “Kill them.”.

“It doesn’t explicitly refer to the Holocaust,” the source said. “It’s a document that teaches very young children to be very afraid and treat non-Jews very suspiciously because of what they did to us in the past.”

It’s just sick.

For an evening of solidarity

Sep 2nd, 2015 11:31 am | By

A PEN event in Brooklyn September 16

Roulette, 509 Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11217

Free and open to the public.

As the fight for freedom of speech in Bangladesh continues, artists of Bangladeshi origin take the stage to commemorate the voices of four recently slain bloggers, and protest the threat looming over more than 70 other Bangladeshi intellectuals, many of whom are in hiding. Join them at Roulette for an evening of solidarity, live music, and readings to condemn the assassinations of Avijit Roy, Oyasiqur Babu, Ananta Bijoy Das, and Niloy Neel, and to celebrate writing. Featuring Farah Mehreen Ahmad, Abeer Y. Hoque, Majib Hoque, Tanwi Nandini Islam, Javed Jahangir, and Anik Khan. The evening will also feature a statement from Karin Deutsch Karlekar, Director of Free Expression Programs at PEN America.

This is an official Brooklyn Book Festival Bookend Event, co-presented with Roulette and PEN American Center.

Farah Mehreen Ahmad is a Brooklyn-based Bangladeshi writer, researcher and translator. Her work has appeared in The Daily Star, New Age, Forum magazine, Eclectica, Popular Anthropology Magazine, etc. She is currently working on a novel and a collection of short stories. Some of her work can be found at

Abeer Y. Hoque is a Nigerian born Bangladeshi American writer and photographer. She is the author of the linked story collection, The Lovers and the Leavers (HarperCollins India 2015), and a coffee table book, The Long Way Home (Ogro Bangladesh, 2013). Her memoir, Olive Witch, is forthcoming from HarperCollins India (2016). She is a Fulbright Scholar and NEA Literature Fellow, and her writing and photography have been published inGuernica, ZYZZYVA, 580 Split, The Daily Star, and Wasafiri, among others. She has degrees from University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, an MFA in Writing from the University of San Francisco. See more at

Majib Hoque is a Queens based Bangladeshi American playwright, actor, and director. He is an anchor for Bangla TV, and belongs to Bohubachan Theatre Group, which has had both local and off Broadway performances.

Tanwi Nandini Islam is the author of the novel Bright Lines. She is a writer, multimedia artist, and founder of Hi Wildflower Botanica, a handcrafted natural perfume and skincare line. Her writing has appeared on,, and, and in the Feminist Wire, Open City, and Hyphen magazine. A graduate of Vassar College and Brooklyn College’s MFA program, she lives in Brooklyn. You can visit her website at

Javed Jahangir’s fiction has been published in HIMAL magazine, Smokelong Journal, LOST Magazine (picked by Peter Orner), LUMINA Literary Journal (Sarah Lawrence College), Bengal Lights Literary Journal, The Daily Star, Bangladesh and others. He is a founding member of, a website of daily literary essays. He was on the 2011 panel of judges for the RISCA (Rhode Island State Council Arts) Fiction Fellowship award. He has contributed to, and been editor-in-chief for The Grub Street Writers’ 10 year Anthology, and has been a reader for the Harvard Review. His novel Ghost Alley was published by Bengal Foundation 2014.

Born in Dhaka, Anik Khan immigrated to the United States with his family at an early age and settled in Queens, NY where he describes his low-income building as a true melting pot of different ethnicities sharing the same daily struggles. Despite his neighborhood’s rough exterior, he found beauty and inspiration in the spirited hustle in his neighbors. Today, his music reflects the cultures that surrounded him throughout his upbringing. He raps from a first generation perspective but speaks to a worldwide audience—a true representation of hip-hop’s universal appeal.

If I were in Brooklyn I would so go to that. I would go to it if I were in the Bronx.

While sweeping up the feathers

Sep 2nd, 2015 11:04 am | By

The pope cleans up.

VATICAN CITY—Hurrying outside after hearing a disturbingly loud thud against the side of the church, Pope Francis was reportedly left to clean up the remains of a dead angel Monday that flew straight into one of the Sistine Chapel’s windows. “It’s really sad; it seems like one of these guys crashes into a window at least once a week,” said the pontiff, who appeared visibly distressed while sweeping up the feathers scattered around the angel’s lifeless body.

They should put pieces of tape on the windows, or tint them, or do something so that the poor angels don’t think they’re apertures in the walls.

At press time, the Bishop of Rome was attempting to scrape off an angel splattered on the windshield of the Popemobile.

Nothing they can do about that – the windshield has to be clear.


A marriage license which conflicts with God’s definition of marriage

Sep 2nd, 2015 10:15 am | By

Kim Davis has one job to do.

The job of Rowan County clerk is not one you take seeking celebrity. It mostly involves shuffling paper: maintaining voter registration rolls, overseeing elections, issuing license plates, filing reports on the goings-on in the small northeastern Kentucky county of roughly 23,000. The elections for the position are uneventful and remarkably civil — the local Morehead News published just one story about the most recent campaign, remarking on how unusual it was for the job to be contested.

It’s absurd that it even is an elective position; it should be a civil service job, filled on the basis of qualifications.

“My words can never express the appreciation,” she said of the constituents who voted for her, “but I promise to each and every one that I will be the very best working clerk that I can be and will be a good steward of their tax dollars and follow the statutes of this office to the letter.”

Whoops no she didn’t mean that! She totally takes it back lol!

Davis’s defiance of a court order to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples has put her in an unbidden spotlight and at odds with that Election Day promise. She faces official misconduct charges and a hearing to determine whether she is in contempt of court.

On account of how she’s refusing to do a part of her job. It’s her job, and she’s refusing to do it.

Since June, when the Supreme Court ruled that gay couples have a constitutional right to wed, Davis has asked to be excused from issuing marriage licenses to anyone on the grounds that licensing a same-sex marriage would violate her religious beliefs.

Those aren’t really her religious beliefs, they’re just her ugly prejudices, dressed up as “religious beliefs.”

In doing so, the longtime public servant has evoked the anger of couples who say it’s their right to be married in their home county by the clerk whose salary comes from their tax dollars.

“I pay your salary,” David Moore insisted Tuesday, leaning over Davis’s desk after she refused to issue a license to him and his partner, David Ermold. “I pay you to discriminate against me right now, that’s what I’m paying for.”

Davis isn’t the only clerk to reject the Supreme Court’s ruling, but she is certainly the most notorious. That’s in part because of a now viral video that Moore and Ermold filmed in July during their first attempt to obtain a marriage license in Rowan County.

But Davis is also the most outspoken of the holdout clerks — she has issued a statement explaining her stance on the issue and is being represented by the public interest law firm Liberty Counsel, which provides free legal assistance for “advancing religious freedom, the sanctity of life and the family,” according to its Web site. The Southern Poverty Law Center has called the firm an “anti-LGBT hate group.”

Let’s check out that statement she made.

I have worked in the Rowan County Clerk’s office for 27 years as a Deputy Clerk and was honored to be elected as the Clerk in November 2014, and took office in January 2015. I love my job and the people of Rowan County. I have never lived any place other than Rowan County. Some people have said I should resign, but I have done my job well. This year we are on track to generate a surplus for the county of 1.5 million dollars.

In addition to my desire to serve the people of Rowan County, I owe my life to Jesus Christ who loves me and gave His life for me. Following the death of my godly mother-in-law over four years ago, I went to church to fulfill her dying wish. There I heard a message of grace and forgiveness and surrendered my life to Jesus Christ. I am not perfect. No one is. But I am forgiven and I love my Lord and must be obedient to Him and to the Word of God.

I never imagined a day like this would come, where I would be asked to violate a central teaching of Scripture and of Jesus Himself regarding marriage. To issue a marriage license which conflicts with God’s definition of marriage, with my name affixed to the certificate, would violate my conscience. It is not a light issue for me. It is a Heaven or Hell decision.

“God’s definition of marriage”? What’s that exactly? Where did God write down a definition of marriage? Does it square with all those men married to multiple women? In the bible?

For me it is a decision of obedience. I have no animosity toward anyone and harbor no ill will. To me this has never been a gay or lesbian issue. It is about marriage and God’s Word. It is a matter of religious liberty, which is protected under the First Amendment, the Kentucky Constitution, and in the Kentucky Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Our history is filled with accommodations for people’s religious freedom and conscience. I want to continue to perform my duties, but I also am requesting what our Founders envisioned – that conscience and religious freedom would be protected. That is all I am asking.

“All” she is asking is to be allowed to refuse to do a part of her job, because of an imaginary “definition of marriage” from god itself. That’s asking too much.

On the family blog

Sep 2nd, 2015 9:52 am | By

Oh dear, Josh Duggar is being unsubmissive and disobedient. That’s not very quiverfull of him.

Former “19 Kids and Counting” star Josh Duggar went into a Christian rehab after he was exposed for cheating on wife Anna in the Ashley Madison hack, but now his whereabouts might be unknown, Radar Online reported Tuesday. Duggar reportedly entered the Reformers Unanimous treatment center, in Rockford, Illinois, which his parents publicly have supported, to treat his admitted porn addiction, but the eldest Duggar sibling has not shown up to church services and meetings mandated by the program.

Well, his messing around on the side without his wife’s knowledge or submission (we have to assume there’s no such thing as “consent” from a subordinate to her boss) isn’t a crime, unlike the sexual molestation of underage girls. It’s not a crime so it’s not really anyone’s business whether he showed up to church services or not.

Except that he has made everyone else’s business his business, by being Mr Family Leadership guy, so to some extent we get to return the favor. Not to mention the whole tv thing, where they get to advertise the joys of having 19 children and talking about god all the time, so we sort of get to peer at them when they do a pratfall.

The disgraced father of four, who was previously involved in a sex scandal for fondling his younger sisters, entered rehab Aug. 25. “Yesterday Josh checked himself into a long-term treatment center,” his mother, Michelle, wrote on the family blog. “For him it will be a long journey toward wholeness and recovery. We pray that in this he comes to complete repentance and sincere change.”

Yeah see it’s not just a “scandal.” Molesting children is not just a scandal.

Anyway. Creepy Josh is hiding out somewhere. Maybe he’s working on new campaigns against same-sex marriage.

Imagine if religion could get that kind of protection

Sep 2nd, 2015 9:13 am | By

My friend Author has been paying attention.


Sep 1st, 2015 6:27 pm | By

Godalmighty, these people.


Christopher J Benton ‏@ChrisJBenton 1 hour ago
@MAMelby @ImprobableJoe Your call of course, but it’s probably best to leave Milophelia alone. There’s nothing left you can usefully say.

@MAMelby @ImprobableJoe To be fair, Milo’s articles are largely text he wrote himself. OK, OK, I’ll be nice now.

M. A. Melby ‏@MAMelby 24 minutes ago
@ChrisJBenton @ImprobableJoe Zing!

But they’re nothing like the slime pit. Good heavens no. Comparing me to Milo Yiannopoulos is nothing like the slime pit at all whatsoever, plus it’s totally rational and evidence-based and humanistic.

Chris Benton used to put a lot of energy into tracking down some of the Twitter harassers; now he acts like one. Sucks to be him.

Where misuse can get you savaged on the Internet

Sep 1st, 2015 5:19 pm | By

David Auerbach on the uses of Wittgenstein.

Wittgenstein’s first period, culminating in 1921’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus(which Pears had co-translated), drew heavily on Bertrand Russell’s work in philosophical logic and made a huge impact on the logical positivist movement of the time, which would later in turn influence computer science, artificial intelligence, and linguistics. The Tractatus makes an ambitious and ostensibly definitive attempt to chart out the relationship between language and the world.

Then he went away and did other things for ten years (like teaching school and beating up his students, for instance), and then he said no that was all wrong, and started over.

Language did not have such a fixed, eternal relation to reality bound by logic. The process of “measuring” the truth of a statement against reality was neither objective nor cleanly delineated. The meaning of what we say can’t be abstracted away from the context in which we say it: “We are unable clearly to circumscribe the concepts we use; not because we don’t know their real definition, but because there is no real ‘definition’ to them,” Wittgenstein wrote. Instead, our speech acts are grounded in a set of social practices.

The idea of words having relative meanings was not new, but Wittgenstein pioneered the controversial linguistic conception of meaning-as-use, or the idea that the meanings of words, relative or not, cannot be specified in isolation from the life practices in which they are used. Instead, language should be studied from the starting point of its practices, rather from abstractions to syntax and semantics. As Wittgenstein put it, “Speaking a language is part of an activity, or of a form of life.”

And since we don’t all have the same form of life, we don’t always understand each other very well.

It means that instead of a word having a fixed definition or referent, a word is an evolving entity that carries its own history with it through time, picking up new nuances and discarding old ones as practices (linguistic and life) shift. This is trivially true in a sense, as you can see from dictionaries grudgingly accepting that literally now also means “not literally” and me grudgingly accepting that begging the question will usually mean “raising the question” for the rest of my natural life and I should just start saying petitio principii instead. But the implications are more troublesome when you get to nouns, especially as they get more abstract. The usage of dog has remained somewhat consistent over the years, but try defining love or heavy or Russia in any kind of complete or precise way. You can’t do it, yet we use these words with confidence every day.

I’ve known that since forever – I noticed long ago how shit I am at defining words, which seemed surprising since using them is my one skill. Witters seems to be talking about that, if I’m understanding correctly (which I’m probably not, because who knows what David Auerbach’s form of life is…).

So, language is quicksand—except it’s not. Unlike the parlor tricks of the deconstructionists who bloviate about différance and traces, there clearly are rules that shouldn’t be broken and clearly ways of speaking that are blatantly incorrect, even if they change over time and admit to flexible interpretations even on a daily basis. It’s just that explicitly delineating those boundaries is extremely difficult, because language is not built up through organized, hierarchical rules but from the top down through byzantine, overlapping practices. Some things can be pinned down with practical certainty, just notin isolation and without context.

And you know what didn’t know that at first? AI, that’s what!

Artificial intelligence was quite slow at learning this lesson. Well into the 1970s, it was still assumed that computers could understand natural language in more or less the same way that they could understand formal logic: by interpreting them as propositions that were either true or false. The efforts in this direction have, on the whole, been remarkably unsuccessful.

And these difficulties are exactly why Google succeeded—by ignoring semantics as much as possible, sticking instead to whatever it could glean without trying to understand the meaning of words or sentences. Google could count the popularity of a word, see which words co-occur with others, figure out which people where use which words—anything as long as it didn’t require determining where and how one should use a word. In very limited, circumscribed situations, like asking questions of certain specified forms, computers can figure out what you mean, and even then things are very limited. Google can answer, “How many ounces in a pound?” but still can’t tell me “How many years has Obama been in office?” Picking up on “Obama” and “years” and “in office,” Google returns some data about his 2012 re-election, but that’s as far as it gets in “understanding” my question. The problem, as summed up by Wittgenstein: “Understanding a sentence means understanding a language.”

Hmmm. In a way Google has taught me that – at least, it’s taught me not to ask a complete-sentence question like “How many years has Obama been in office?” but rather give it the key words and hope it figures it out – which it often does. I would make it something like “How long Obama president” –

*Googles it*

Ha! The top answer is 6’1″ of course, but the second is the answer in years days hours seconds. Google has taught me to talk to it.

And all this also explains why we’re always brawling with each other on the internet. It probably even explains the pathetic degeneration of Purethought blogs.

Wittgenstein’s philosophy also accounts for the disastrous state of Internet discourse today. The shift to online communication, textual interactions separated from accompanying physical practices, has had a persistent and egregious warping effect on language, and one that most people don’t even understand. It has made linguistic practice more limited, more universal, and more ambiguous. More people interact with one another without even realizing they are following different rules for words’ usages. There is no time or space to clarify one’s self—especially on Twitter.

It is this phenomenon that has affected political and ethical discourse in particular. To take some hot-button issues, use of the words privilege and feminism and racism is so hopelessly contentious that it’s not even worth asking for a definition—even if you get one, no one else will agree with it. In situations where misuse can get you savaged on the Internet, I’ve simply stopped using a word. Let me know when everyone else has worked it out.

Hahahahaha yeah been there.

On the other hand – if that were completely true, we wouldn’t be able to read each other’s essays and columns and books. I wouldn’t like Montaigne and Hazlitt and Pollitt and Goldberg. I wouldn’t have friends via the Internet whom I still haven’t alienated (and vice versa). We can use language in such a way that it doesn’t push us off a cliff…but there are traps all along the road.

Bullying in Hillsboro

Sep 1st, 2015 3:57 pm | By

This is just cruelty: students walk out of class to protest a trans student’s use of the girls’ restroom.

More than 100 students at Hillsboro High School, about an hour south of St Louis, walked out of class on Monday in protest.

“I’m hoping this dies down,” said Lila Perry, the 17-year-old who began identifying as a girl publicly in February. “I don’t want my entire senior year to be like this.”

Ms. Perry, who began feeling “more like a girl than a boy” when she was 13, said school officials gave her permission to use the girls’ facilities as the new school year began.

It’s not just kids feeling squicked out – there’s something more sinister behind it. I bet you can guess what.

“My goal is for the district and parents to have a policy discussion,” said Derrick Good, a lawyer who has two daughters in the district and wants students to use either facilities based on their biological sex or other gender-neutral facilities.

He worked with the Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian advocacy group, to draft a “student physical privacy policy” and submit it to the district, which has about 3,500 students.

Uh huh huh – the god squad is behind it. It’s god’s plan for people with dicks to use the BOY cans and that’s the end of the story. It’s in Deuteronomy somewhere – thou shalt not use the toilet facility designated for the sex that is not thine own from birth.

The protesting students assembled outside the school for about two hours. Mr. Cornman said he did not believe any of them were penalized.

Ms. Perry, who dropped out of the physical education class that prompted her use of the girls’ locker room, spent the two hours in her guidance counselor’s office.

“I was concerned about my own safety,” she said.

She said she knows of other, younger transgender students in the district and wants to open a dialogue so they have a better high school experience.

“It feels really awful that people are going to these extremes against me, not just in school but all over the Internet,” Ms. Perry said. “But I’ve also received so much support. It feels really surreal to be in the middle of all of this.”

The Missouri Gay-Straight Alliance Network will host a rally supporting Ms. Perry on Friday.

Everybody should relax. The “activists” who spend their time monitoring heretical bloggers should relax, and the people who persecute trans teenagers (and adults) should relax. We put a rover on Mars, we can figure out this restroom thing. I say put in cubicles and be done with it.

With gender as the contested territory

Sep 1st, 2015 1:34 pm | By

From a 2013 piece by Delilah Campbell at Trouble and Strife about the [cough] tensions between feminism and trans activism:

It is notable that the policing of what can or cannot be said about trans in public is almost invariably directed against women who speak from a feminist, and especially a radical feminist, perspective. It might be thought that trans people have far more powerful adversaries (like religious conservatives, the right-wing press and some members of the medical establishment), and also far more dangerous ones (whatever radical feminists may say about trans people, they aren’t usually a threat to their physical safety). And yet a significant proportion of all the political energy expended by or on behalf of trans activism is expended on opposing and harassing radical feminists.

It is indeed; it’s very notable, and alarming. Religious conservatism and the right-wing press roll along happily, unbothered by trans activism, while feminism is being plowed up and sown with salt. It’s just barely possible that this is not entirely healthy for feminism.

But this isn’t just some misunderstanding, Campbell says. It’s basic.

When trans activists identify feminists as the enemy, they are not just being illogical or petty. Some trans activists refer to their feminist opponents as TERFs, meaning ‘trans-exclusive radical feminists’, or ‘trans-exterminating radical feminists’. The epithet is unpleasant, but the acronym is apt: this is very much a turf dispute, with gender as the contested territory.

At its core, the trans struggle is a battle for legitimacy. What activists want to get accepted is not just the claim of trans people for recognition and civil rights, but the whole view of gender and gender oppression on which that claim is based. To win this battle, the trans activists must displace the view of gender and gender oppression which is currently accorded most legitimacy in progressive/liberal circles: the one put forward by feminists since the late 1960s.

Aaaaaaaand that’s what I (for one) think should not be displaced.

Views of gender are already contested, Campbell concedes, but all the same –

But in fact, the two propositions about gender which trans activists are most opposed to are not confined to radical feminism: both go back to what is often regarded as the founding text of all modern feminism, Simone de Beauvoir’s 1949 classic The Second Sex, and they are still asserted, in some form or other, by almost everyone who claims any kind of feminist allegiance, be it radical, socialist or liberal. The first of these propositions is that gender as we know it is socially constructed rather than ‘natural’; the second is that gender relations are power relations, in which women are structurally unequal to men. On what exactly these statements mean and what they imply for feminist politics there is plenty of internal disagreement, but in themselves they have the status of core feminist beliefs. In the last 15 years, however, these propositions—especially the first one—have become the target of a sustained attack: a multi-pronged attempt to take the turf of gender back from feminism.


Among the prongs are gender essentialism (e.g. Simon Baron-Cohen and Steven Pinker) and libertarian ideas about choice.

Across the political spectrum, it has become commonplace to argue that what really ‘empowers’ people is being able to choose: the more choices we have, and the freer we are to make them, the more powerful we will be. Applied to gender, what this produces is ‘post-feminism’, an ideology which dispenses with the idea of collective politics and instead equates the liberation of women with the exercise of individual agency. The headline in which this argument was once satirized by The Onion—‘women now empowered by anything a woman does’—is not even a parody: this is the attitude which underpins all those statements to the effect that if women choose to be housewives or prostitutes, then who is anyone (read: feminists) to criticize them?

So choosy choosers choose their own flavor of gender, and if that’s being Michelle Duggar, well that’s their choosy choice.

Current trans politics, like feminism, cannot be thought of as an internally unified movement whose members all make exactly the same arguments. But although there are some dissenting voices, in general the views of gender and gender oppression which trans activists promote are strongly marked by the two tendencies just described.

In the first place, the trans account puts little if any emphasis on gender as a power relation in which one group (women) is subordinated to/oppressed by the other (men). In the trans account, gender in the ‘men and women’ sense is primarily a matter of individual identity: individuals have a sovereign right to define their gender, and have it recognized by society, on the basis of who they feel themselves to be. But I said ‘gender in the men and women sense’ because in trans politics, gender is understood in another sense as well: there is an overarching division between ‘cisgendered’ individuals, who identify with the gender assigned to them at birth, and ‘transgendered’ individuals, who do not identify with their assigned gender. Even if trans activists recognize the feminist concept of male power and privilege, it is secondary in their thinking to ‘cis’ power and privilege: what is considered to be fundamentally oppressive is the devaluing or non-recognition of ‘trans’ identities in a society which systematically privileges the ‘cis’ majority.

That. That’s the idea that’s been swallowed whole by The Community of Trans Allies, and it’s verkakte.

I gotta go. More later.


The life of Inky

Sep 1st, 2015 9:44 am | By

Michiko Kakutani on Oliver Sacks:

Those case studies captured the emotional and metaphysical, as well as physiological, dimensions of his patients’ conditions. While they tracked the costs and isolation these individuals often endured, they also emphasized people’s resilience — their ability to adapt to their “deficits,” enabling them to hold onto a sense of identity and agency. Some even find that their conditions spur them to startling creative achievement.

I remember reading one of his books in a book group years ago and getting into an intense argument about that ability to adapt to “deficits”…arguing over Temple Grandin, and what she said about experiencing being Temple Grandin. I argued that from her perspective her autism wasn’t a deficit, it was just being Temple Grandin, and it gave her some skills that are particular to autism. The other party argued that what she was missing out on was a real deficit, and that it made her life less good than that of neurotypical people. I still don’t buy that.

In fact, Dr. Sacks wrote in “An Anthropologist on Mars,” that illnesses and disorders “can play a paradoxical role in bringing out latent powers, developments, evolutions, forms of life that might never be seen or even be imaginable in their absence.” A young woman with a low I.Q. learns to sing arias in more than 30 languages, and a Canadian physician with Tourette’s syndrome learns to perform long, complicated surgical procedures without a single tic or twitch. Some scholars believe, Dr. Sacks once wrote, that Dostoyevsky and van Gogh may have had temporal lobe epilepsy, that Bartok and Wittgenstein may have been autistic, and that Mozart and Samuel Johnson could have had Tourette’s syndrome.

See that’s why I don’t buy that you have to have all the usual “normal” skills and experiences to have a good life. I think an odd eccentric life can be a good life too, because different people want different things.

Animated by a self-deprecating sense of humor and set down in limber, pointillist prose, Dr. Sacks’s autobiographical accounts are as candid and searching as his writings about his patients, and they suggest just how rooted his compassion and intuitive understanding — as a doctor and a writer — were in his youthful feelings of fear and dislocation. He tells us about the lasting shock of being evacuated from London as a boy during the war, and being beaten and bullied at boarding school. The rest of his life, he writes, he would have trouble with the three B’s: “bonding, belonging, and believing.”

And yet he was Oliver Sacks. Who would wish he had been different?

Dr. Sacks once described himself as a man with an “extreme immoderation in all my passions,” and his books pulsate with his “violent enthusiasms” and endless curiosity: his fascination with ferns, cephalopods, jellyfish, volcanoes, the periodic table — for all the marvels of the natural world; as well as his passion for swimming, chemistry, photography and perhaps most of all, writing. Known as Inky as a child, he began keeping journals at the age of 14. For the shy boy, writing was a way to connect with the world, a way to order his thoughts; and he kept up the habit throughout his life, amassing nearly a thousand journals, while using his books and essays to communicate to readers the romance of science and the creative and creaturely blessings of being alive.

I identify as an Inky.

His patients have lost an erudite and compassionate doctor. The world has lost a writer of immense talent and heart, a writer who helped illuminate the wonders, losses and consolations of the human condition.

We still have his books though.

This confusion sucks up a lot of mental energy

Aug 31st, 2015 6:21 pm | By

Sometimes being a feminist is a strain, because there is reality and then there is feminism and there can be a quarrel between them.

Michelle Goldberg points out the trap this can lead to.

Because sexism is so interwoven with how we live our lives, it sometimes feels like the transformation of our personal lives is demanded by feminism. This is extremely exhausting, leading to a neurotic level of analysis and justification of our own preferences, motives and interpersonal relationships. Two kinds of personal essays, repeated with nearly infinite variations, manifest this neurosis. One is confessional: I’m a feminist, but I enjoy X, in which X is some traditionally female thing like not working, wearing makeup, being submissive in bed, or doing all the housework. The other is tautological: don’t judge me for doing this traditionally female thing, because it makes me, a feminist, feel good, and thus must be more feminist than it appears.

We live in the real world; sometimes doing the feminist thing is too damn much work, so we don’t. That’s life.

Often doing the conventional thing is the path of least resistance. (That’s why it’s the conventional thing.) It is not easy—it might be impossible — to live a productive life while bucking social expectations at every turn. It’s too bad that so many young women have gotten the idea that feminism expects them to.

Or even that feminism expects them to apologize for failing to. (I expect that, but that’s not feminism, it’s just me. I’m a shithead.)

This confusion sucks up a lot of mental energy, leading to guilt and defensiveness. It turns feminism—the demand that women be recognized as full, equal human beings, legally and socially—from something libratory into another thing for women to feel like they’re failing at. It becomes, ironically, a source of gender inequality, since men, by and large, don’t spend so much time second-guessing their romantic decisions and aesthetic preferences. Changing your name is not a feminist act. You have not betrayed feminism if you change your name. The same is true for staying home with your kids, wearing high heels, or getting Botox. Women live in a sexist system, and contort themselves to negotiate it, picking from a menu of mostly bad options and then hating themselves for choosing wrong. The problem is the system, not the women. That’s what the personal is political is supposed to mean.

I feel better about these pink socks I’m wearing now.

The girl that nobody wanted

Aug 31st, 2015 4:59 pm | By

This is a terrible story from two years ago.

A Belgian man has chosen to die by euthanasia, after his sex change operation turned him into “a monster”.

Nathan Verhelst, 44, was administered legal euthanasia on Monday afternoon, on the grounds of “unbearable psychological suffering”, by the same doctor who euthanized two deaf twins last year.

Shortly before he died, he told Belgium’s Het Laatse Nieuws: “I was ready to celebrate my new birth. But when I looked in the mirror, I was disgusted with myself.

“My new breasts did not match my expectations and my new penis had symptoms of rejection. I do not want to be a monster.”

Verhelst was born the only daughter in a family of three boys, and admitted that he had been “the girl that nobody wanted”.

That’s horrifying. I hope he didn’t get the sex change operation because he had been “the girl that nobody wanted” – I hope there was a lot more to it than that. But even assuming there was a lot more to it than that, it’s heart-breaking.

Not that I think that’s anything exclusive to people who want a sex change. There are lots of people whose unhappiness with their bodies basically ruins their lives. I shouldn’t be surprised that some of them choose suicide…but god it’s sad.


Participants had lost gray matter

Aug 31st, 2015 3:53 pm | By

There’s a new study of changes in the brain caused by hormones. I find it rather disturbing. Rachel Gross reports for Slate:

Research has shown that women have the advantage when it comes to memory and language, while men tend to have stronger spatial skills (though this too has been disputed). But due to ethical restrictions, no study had been able to track the direct effect that testosterone exposure has on the brain—until now. Using neuroimaging, Dutch and Austrian researchers found that an increase in this potent hormone led to shrinkage in key areas of the female (transitioning to male) brain associated with language. They presented their findings at last week’s annual meeting of the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology in Amsterdam.

Shrinkage. Just plain old shrinkage. It sounds very drastic. (And I can’t discuss it without thinking of that Seinfeld episode about swimming and shrinkage…)

For the study, researchers scanned the brains of 18 individuals receiving high doses of testosterone as part of female-to-male gender reassignment surgery before and after hormone treatment. After just four weeks of receiving testosterone, participants had lost gray matter (which mainly processes information) in the regions of the brain that are used for language processing. That change amounted to a “real, quantitative difference in brain structure,” said researcher Rupert Lanzenberger of the Medical University of Vienna.

Sobering, isn’t it.


He spent his final days doing what he loved

Aug 31st, 2015 2:41 pm | By

The Oliver Sacks Foundation on Facebook:

Oliver Sacks died early this morning at his home in Greenwich Village, surrounded by his close friends and family. He was 82. He spent his final days doing what he loved—playing the piano, writing to friends, swimming, enjoying smoked salmon, and completing several articles. His final thoughts were of gratitude for a life well lived and the privilege of working with his patients at various hospitals and residences including the Little Sisters of the Poor in the Bronx and in Queens, New York.

Dr. Sacks was writing to the last. On August 14, he published an essay, “Sabbath,” in the New York Times. Two more articles are to be published this week, one in the New York Review of Books and one in the New Yorker.

Sacks also left several nearly completed books and a vast archive of correspondence, manuscripts, and journals. Before his death, Sacks established the Oliver Sacks Foundation, a nonprofit organization devoted to increasing understanding of the human brain and mind through the power of narrative nonfiction and case histories.

The foundation’s goals include making Dr. Sacks’s published and yet-unpublished writings available to the broadest possible audience, preserving and digitizing materials related to his life and work and making them available for scholarly use, working to reduce the stigma of mental and neurological illness, and supporting a humane approach to neurology and psychiatry.

We at the Sacks office extend our love and sympathies to Dr. Sacks’s partner, Billy Hayes, and we are enormously grateful for the outpouring of love and support from Dr. Sacks’s readers and friends around the world.


Guest post: Being an AIDS patient in a Catholic building

Aug 31st, 2015 12:22 pm | By

Originally a comment by Kevin Hutchins the Bellinghamster on Left to the Church and its tribunals.

My HIV physician is continuing her private practise, but because so much of the work involves the hospital, she might be actually moving her practise INTO the hospital by the end of this year. She said it’s a trend in Infectious Disease specialists.

It’s a Catholic hospital which has already almost killed me before.

When I try to tell her i’m concerned about this, she says she doesn’t see anything improper happening, she assures me she’ll keep taking good care of me the same as always. I didn’t have a chance to press the issue with her because we were too busy talking about medical physiological issues for me to even have time to get into these more abstract things. I told her I’ve always trusted her because she’s helped keep me alive for years, but I have so much paranoia being an AIDS patient in a Catholic building with Catholic crucifixes in the alcoves and Catholic crucifixes on the desk staff and Catholic prayers over the intercom… and almost entirely Catholic employees… employees who are very likely to be looking less favorably on the fag with AIDS who comes into their hospital, than they might look towards some other kinds of patients, good Christian faithful patients.

The paranoia is unproductive, I try to stop myself from going overboard, I don’t want to be afraid of Catholic boogeymen, the way that some Christians get their panties in a bunch around queer boogeymen.

But they’ve already demonstrated poor decisions during my previous inpatient stays at that hospital and one time it almost killed me (but I survived, but it was incredibly torturously painful what they were doing wrong for a few days continuously) so I have shaky confidence at best. The only thing that keeps me from giving up on the situation entirely is knowing that my partner will stick by my side if I have to be at the hospital. If I had to do any more of this ALONE, I would just be too paranoid and scared and I would give up.

This is part of why i think Ophelia’s blog is so important. It helps remind the queer atheist feminist gender-nonconforming vegan pacifist that there are people who care and people who have overlapping problems, and we can all look at them and discuss them together. No matter what our gender or personal characteristcs are, no matter how weirdly different, this blog is good for making people feel like they have somewhere to voice concerns that would get them into serious trouble if uttered in most other places.

Siobhan is speaking her truth

Aug 31st, 2015 12:05 pm | By

Coming out as trans-everything.

Mostly it is women who pay the price

Aug 30th, 2015 4:36 pm | By

Another excellent post from Diana at Neopythia.

I want to talk about something I find offensive and morally repugnant.  It is the notion that trans women, who have arrived at a gender critical position, or simply accept certain realities are self hating.  I know this is a popular meme.  It’s an easy rationalization for those who hold certain political ideologies, or those too consumed by irrational fear to think.  It is completely without merit and harmful [to] women and trans women alike.

I think I know what political ideologies she means, and I think I know of several people who hold them.

Literally nobody identifies as a terf*. It is a term which has moved far beyond whatever usefulness it once had, if it ever had any.  It is a slur thrown about indiscriminately to silence those certain people disagree with.  I wish it was just a twitter thing, confined to largely meaningless internet squabbling, but increasingly there are real world consequences. Mostly it is women who pay the price, but isn’t that usually the case? Anyway, I don’t even label myself a feminist. I wouldn’t presume to, though I ally myself with women to the extent I am able.

*Going forward where others would use “terf,” I will use “women” to illustrate just how ridiculous this is.

That’s something I’ve been wondering about a lot, especially over the past few weeks – the fact that mostly it’s women who pay the price. Why is that? Why is it women, and specifically feminist women, who get trashed and shunned and demonized over this issue? Why is so much fire and brimstone called down on women while men are left alone? Why is feminism the enemy? Why do so many women join in with this pattern? Why do so many feminist women join in with it? Why don’t they notice the gender imbalance and the bad effects on feminism?

The self hatred meme goes something like this: a trans woman regrets her transition and is consumed by self hatred. Devious women, always preying on the weak and disillusioned, pounce, exploiting this self hatred to turn them into token women. The newly minted tokens parrot all of the hateful rhetoric and work from the inside to bring down transwomen.  What the token gets out of this, I don’t know.

Aside from sounding like something out of a horror story, I hate all of the implications of this. It is puerile, delusional thinking.  It removes any personal agency from any individual transwoman and lays the blame squarely at the feet of women.

And laying the blame squarely at the feet of women is just the same old shit – the same old misogynist patriarchal shit. Why would trans women want to perpetuate that? It’s sort of like wanting to join a club so desperately that you fight with every single member before you join.

Nobody lured me.  Nobody preyed upon my weakness or insecurity.  I made the decision on my own. I chose to listen to women, really listen.  I read their words and witnessed their testimonials.  I read books and blogs that challenged the way I think, not just those that reinforced it.  I read these with a critical, but not defensive mind. I started to look honestly at who I am, about my past, and how the world shaped me.  For the first time I talked honestly with others, and myself. It wasn’t easy. Sometimes the truth is painful to confront.  But the truth is this: I was born male. I transitioned to live as a woman. I am legally and socially accepted even if I am still learning what that means and still struggling to bury my male socialization.

It’s supposed to be the height of terrible to say that trans women have had some male socialization…and yet in all other contexts we agree that gender socialization is pervasive and unavoidable, even for people who reject it at a conscious level. If that’s true…how can it be anything but true that trans women have had some male socialization?

If you listen to transwomen, you’ll hear how dangerous and poisonous testosterone is.  What you won’t hear is how dangerous masculinity is, except in purely descriptive terms such as dress.  Gender is insidious.  It shapes us from birth in unseen ways.  It can be toxic to the way we think, especially in how we view women.  Socialization is very difficult to unlearn. We are unaware the extent to which it permeates us. To believe [that because] we have transitioned, started to transition, or “feel like a woman” we are immune to our male socialized thinking is dangerous and delusional. While not immutable, it will forever be part of our experience.

Right? How could that not be true? Nobody is immune to socialization (unless raised by wolves).

Trans women share a venn diagram of experience with women. Our experiences overlap, but are not universal.  To use a poor analogy: Even if you live in another country for decades, you will never experience it in the same way as someone who is from there. You can learn the customs and the language, even pass as a native, but there remains a level of experiential knowledge which is unobtainable, and that’s ok.

I know this. I’ve spent a lot of time in the UK, I’ve lived there for extended periods, I’ve learned a lot of customs and idioms, but that’s not at all the same as being born and growing up there.

The dirty secret is that, far from hating myself, I’m happier now than I’ve ever been.  By accepting certain basic, biological truths, and accepting how much about “being a woman” I don’t know, and can never know, I’ve found peace.  I cannot tell you how liberating this is.  I never realized how much energy I spent maintaing the delusion until it was gone. I look back and am able to reconcile the person I was with the person I am.  I don’t have to pretend. I haven’t always been a woman.  I’m a transwoman, and I’m fine with that.

I hope soon things can shake out so that that will be the usual and available way of thinking about it.

Enough money and fame to be insulated from everything

Aug 30th, 2015 10:28 am | By

A trans woman wrote a post about Caitlyn Jenner back at the beginning of June, when the Vanity Fair cover was all over the place.

The post says many things I thought at the time (and continue to think when I catch a few minutes of “Meet Cait” on cable tv) but didn’t dare say – things about how odd it is to treat a rich privileged self-absorbed conservative as an icon of both trans rights and feminism.

Friends sent me notes of congratulations as if I’d done something, as if I cared. An aging reality star spent more money than I will see in my lifetime to make himself into a pin-up queen and this is cause for celebration? I didn’t respond to any of them. I watched my progressive male friends police the words of others.  “It’s She not He!” “It’s Caitlyn not Bruce!” I suppose they think they’re helping, but I’ve never asked for it. All of them are more concerned about their progressive bona fides over my actual feelings.

I see that a lot – progressive male types policing words to demonstrate their progressive bona fides at the expense of…so many, many things.

I couldn’t get away. Every twitter refresh, every website, every television commercial, there she was. I sought refuge with my friends. Their words supported me even as the ground shook beneath me. I felt as if piece of me was torn out, stomped on, and left bleeding on the ground. I could not comprehend why, and then a friend, a friend who has taught me so much about what it means to be a transwoman, wrote this:

I want to be able to have my own story, to be who I am. To be a person, but what becomes more and more clear each day is that I will not have this small, small privilege. I cannot be a bird. I must be the kite on a string, defined by the wind…am I an object? Am I a human? I will forever after today be described to people as “Like Bruce Jenner.” I am no more.

I broke.

Tears streamed down my face as I read and re-read her words. I couldn’t read any longer.  I turned off the computer, picked up my headphones and crawled into bed.

This is part of what I was thinking about that cover all along. Why on earth set the bar there? Why make it look as if that’s what transition is supposed to be? Why make it a beauty contest?

Everything we are. Everything we were.  Everything we struggled for, fought for, and hurt for is gone. We are eclipsed by our own shadow. Whatever we were, we are no more. We are all reflections of an aged wealthy conservative living out his own personal gender passion play. Like a perfumed Pontius Pilate, he has condemned us all.

Did I misgender Caitlyn? Honestly, I don’t care anymore.  None of it matters. I have spent the last twenty years in transition. Jenner has enough money and fame as to be insulated from everything. Jenner will never experience what it is like to live as a woman in society, or even what it’s like for most to transition. Yet Caitlyn is now our queen; the standard all transwomen will be measured against henceforth. I feel as if my life and struggle has been ripped from beneath me, tarted up, and paraded about for the world to gawk at. It is the Real Housewives version of the transgender experience.

Brilliantly put. I loathe the whole “Real Housewives” whatever-that-is for the way it defines the female experience, so why should I think the trans version is any better? Both are insulting.

The whole spread is an exercise in wealth, privilege, styling, and photo shop. This is what every young transwoman now has to strive for. Only after you have visited the facial feminization doctor will you be complete. Assimilation? Who cares! it’s all about the photo shoot.  It is the transformation salon fantasy played out across our media, with a societal stamp of authenticity; Narcissistic indulgence as political act.

And yet there are many who feel the Vanity Fair cover is empowering, that it “increases awareness” of trans people. To that I say, Fuck you. Come to the city and we’ll visit young transwomen, mostly transwomen of color, homeless on the streets because their families cast them out for living their “true authentic selves.”  They did not wait to amass personal and financial security, nor have millions of dollars of plastic surgery. Such a thing is impossible and yet I’m supposed to view Caitlyn’s actions as brave? Here’s bravery for you: For the past fifteen years, Bruce Jenner has been the member of a male only golf club.  So brave. So feminist.


This is what I’ve been saying – trans activism is not the same thing as feminism, and not all trans women are feminists. I support trans rights, no question, but that does not mean I can’t disagree with particular trans women on particular subjects, including feminism.