About twenty years ago, when Tony Blair was in the midst of "reforming" - ie, wrecking - the House of Lords, I suggested in The Sunday Telegraph that he replace it with the House of Gays, since, as a small, unrepresentative elite exercising power and influence out of all proportion to their actual numbers, gays were now the contemporary equivalent of the old peerage. It wasn't the greatest jest, but Page Six in The New York Post and a few other papers picked up the quip and reported on it. And, running into me a few weeks later, my National Post colleague David Frum asked if I'd been a bit nervous about its edginess. I giggled, and said that originally I'd written that Mr Blair should replace the House of Peers with the House of Queers, but I'd amended it because these days only G&S fans recognize the formulation "House of Peers".
One of the problems with cheap jokes is that you wake up one morning and find that everyone who matters in society is doing them for real. Mine, for example, discerned, albeit carelessly, something about the coming era of "identity politics" before the phrase was really in widespread circulation - before "identity" became "politics", and indeed swallowed the very idea of old-school, non-identity politics. I thought of my ancient throwaway last Sunday night during the lamest of all those lame Oscar montages, the one starting with Mira Sorvino and progressing to blacks, Muslims and that Chilean transgender gal who, for an actress in a Best Foreign-Language Film nominee, was remarkably omnipresent during the ceremony. Miss Sorvino is an actual Oscar-winner and an indictment of her industry: she refused to put out for Harvey Weinstein, so he destroyed her career, and the town's suck-ups who depended on his favor went along with it. So her suffering was oddly diminished by being tossed into a montage of people bragging that they weren't white men. A Pakistani-American, for example, mentioned a project called "Muslims Being Funny" in which Muslims do "funny" things like eat ice cream. The audience dutifully applauded, although I found myself wondering if for next year someone might start a project called "Awards Show Performers Being Funny".
Anyone who has ever spoken on a college campus will have felt the weariness that descends during the Q&A when audience members begin their "questions" with "As a woman..." "As a black woman..." "As a trans woman..." If Frances McDormand's "inclusion rider" can be made to apply to something as elusive as the particular combination of talents required to bring a script to sparkling life, is it really such a stretch to imagine a House of Gays - that's to say, a legislature predicated on appropriate representation of identity groups? After all, the left is already institutionally hostile to America's electoral college, under which small, peripheral, recalcitrant white-privilege backwater states have a disproportionate say in the selection of a president. Instead of these obsolete, irrelevant, geographical boundaries, would it not make more sense for the Senate to reflect the balance of competing power interests in today's America? A precise number of seats, determined by the Supreme Court, for gays, trans women, cis women, cis black women, trans Muslim women, cis illegal immigrants, etc?
Oh, you can laugh, but it's not so difficult to imagine a jurisdiction such as California proposing such changes to a state legislature. For example, not so long ago it was broadly accepted that the right to participate in choosing the government of your society was a privilege of allegiance to that society. Yet now Californians and many others are proposing the extension of voting rights to non-citizens - by which they mean not even lawful immigrants but persons whose very presence in the land is an act of lawbreaking that mocks the very concept of fealty. If you step back for a moment, that's extraordinary: millions and millions of Americans who support such alien-voting proposals have abandoned, in the blink of an eye, the defining attribute of citizenship.
The new identity politics supplants not just old, essential concepts of identity - such as citizens, equal before the law - but also core western liberties, such as freedom of expression. We have become used to reading of campus shutdowns and riots over Ann Coulter or Charles Murray or some such. To the cynical and inattentive, these are nature's trouble-makers: If you book them, Ya Got Trouble with a Capital T and That Rhymes with P and That Stands For Provocateur... But the assault on free speech has accelerated way beyond such obvious targets. I've just read a piece in this week's Spectator by Judith Green of Woman's Place UK, a group so notorious I'd never heard of them. Yet booking them is apparently the British equivalent of holding a Klan meeting in your school gym. Ms Green writes:
In the past few months, I've discovered firsthand that political debate is narrowing for everyone β and that fear and intimidation are being used increasingly to curtail free speech.
I am one of a small group of women who get together to discuss proposed changes in the law on sex and gender. We're called Woman's Place UK. But because of the content of our discussions, certain activists want us closed down. They're doing their best to make it happen. The managers of the venues we book are harassed, our attendees are abused, our organisers are threatened. For our most recent meeting, held in London last week, we had to disclose the location only a few hours before it started, just to be safe.
And it's all because we want to ask questions about changes which could have serious consequences for us as women, for our children, and for society as a whole.
As you can tell, Judith Green is nobody's idea of a rhetorical bomb-thrower, and her group appears to be such a model of near torpid reasonableness that the "changes" they want to "ask questions about" are changes being proposed by a Conservative Government. One of the few defining characteristics of the increasingly amorphous British Tories is that they're determined not to let anybody get to the left of them on identity-group issues. So the cobwebbed Blair-era Gender Recognition Act required a transitioning man to live as a woman for two years and get a note from his/her doctor in order to change, legally, his "gender". Less than a decade-and-a-half on, the suggestion that gender choice is some kind of medical issue is obviously deeply offensive, so Mrs May is proposing to abolish it: If Nigel wakes up this morning and decides he's Nigella, Her Britannic Majesty's Government will be happy to string along, and she can start swinging her wedding tackle in the changing rooms of the nation with the full imprimatur of the state.
Being the soul of moderation, Ms Green puts it more moderately:
As well as backing self-declared gender laws, this committee has also proposed that laws allowing some services and jobs to be reserved exclusively for what we call natal-born women should be removed. It was the combination of these two proposals that rang alarm bells for many women... How would the changes affect women of certain faiths who rely on single-sex exemptions to enable them to access services they might otherwise have to avoid?
But a fat lot of good being the soul of moderation does you:
Most transgender people, I am sure, are as decent and kind and open-minded as anyone else. But a small, aggressive group of activists β not all of them trans, by the way β want to establish a new norm of debate: that anyone who disagrees with them, or even asks questions, ought to be silenced, sacked or both. They do this by branding us as 'transphobic' bigots, and by going to astonishing and worrying lengths to disrupt our meetings. As soon as Woman's Place UK announces a meeting, the venue starts getting hassled and harassed β with phone calls and social media messages accusing them of hosting a 'hate group' β as if a bunch of women talking about the law are dangerous subversives.
In fact, Judith Green is a "dangerous subversive". Because, as reasonable as she is, she is demanding the right to "ask questions about" identity politics - which is beyond question. For a majority of young people in particular, "free speech" is a cis het white male concept that is subordinate to identity rights. If you disagree with that proposition, you might schedule a debate on the merits of free speech at, say, King's College, London - but the mob will break it up, throw smoke bombs, smash windows, put the security guard in hospital, and the college will take the mob's side because you threatened their "safe space". As I heard a decade ago in my battles with Canada's "human rights" commissions, to officialdom it's you freespeechers who are the problem, holding debates, talking about stuff, and thereby upping our security costs because of your needless provocation of the increasingly inarticulate varsity.
The dictatorship of the identitariat is spreading rapidly, as all bad ideas do, way beyond loony campuses. If the right to freedom of speech no longer has much purchase on society, the law of contract for the moment still prevails - so I congratulate VDare.com on extracting a five-figure sum from Hilton Hotels for screwing them over and canceling their annual Immigration Reform Conference in Arizona. VDare are opposed both to illegal immigration and the legal immigration enabled by the 1965 act. I can think of no reason why in a free society a person should not be entitled to hold such views. But, in the wake of last year's statue-toppling frenzy, PayPal (a de facto Internet monopoly) booted out VDare, and other contractors, such as Hilton, followed suit. Some corporations do this stuff because they're headed by social-justice ideologues who are genuine believers; others are merely jelly-spined wankers thrown into a tizz by a couple of hostile Tweets coming over the transom. I have no idea into which category Hilton fall, but I certainly hope the "five-figure sum" was in the high five figures - and even then that isn't really big enough to discourage this malign trend.
When identity becomes politics, free speech shrivels: governments, whether Canadian Liberals or British Tories or German Coalitions-of-all-the-no-talents, are prepared to sacrifice it, so why should twitchy, risk-averse corporate venue-renters be expected to defend it? And, as Judith Green's Woman's Place UK surely understands by now, no matter how measured and temperate you are, this new age brooks no dissent.
Just as in the House of Lords, there are hierarchies in the House of Identities: Dukes, Marquesses, Earls, Viscounts, mere Barons. The mere Barons are the women, who, as old-school feminists are beginning to discover, are getting trampled like cis girls in a Texas wrestling championship. Also from the Speccie, I see that L'OrΓ©al's Munroe Bergdorf, a ferocious transgender model who didn't stint on the implants (see above), has quit as Jeremy Corbyn's advisor on LGBTQWERTY issues after only a week. Nobody minded very much when she savaged "all white people" for being "drenched in racism" and the "blood and death of people of color", nor when she dismissed the Suffragettes as "white supremacists", nor Caucasian homeless people as beneficiaries of "white privilege", presumably for excluding persons of color from the cozier dumpsters and less piss-sodden alleys. Nor did they care very much when she sneered that Conservative homosexuals were "a special kind of dickhead": after all, they're traitors to their identity, aren't they? But remarks about "hairy barren lesbians" were more problematic, as was an observation that "sometimes you're just NOT in the mood for a gay and their flapping arms". Let's face it, we've all been there. Whoops, did I just say that? At any rate, Miss Bergdorf's mouth is even bigger than her knockers, and it's now cost her the job.
To the totalitarian left, though, this is merely a temporary setback. In the scheme of things, gays and lesbians of whatever degree of hirsuteness are the Viscounts: their usefulness more or less peaked with the passage of same-sex marriage. Illegal immigrants are the Earls, because they undermine the concept of citizenship and thus the basic unit of world order: the nation state. But transgender activists are the Marquesses, because to the fundamentalist left they offer the biggest prize of all: the abolition of biology, the abolition of the sexes, and in particular the abolition of man. Mrs May's proposed legislation hands them a great, incredible gift: the ability to re-define yourself legally, in an instant. And why should such a right be confined to "gender"? You'll notice we're already seeing a flight from white: Miss Bergdorf was born not just a boy but half-white, and has likewise transitioned away from the latter, because why wouldn't you? If, per Mr Corbyn's former advisor, a derelict sleeping on a park bench is just flaunting his "white privilege", why wouldn't you identify as something, anything else?
The Dukes of this new House? Oh, they're not in the redefinition business. They like the old definitions, the ones that the Prophet laid down a millennium and a half ago. When it comes to gays, the flapping arms are for when they're tossed off the roofs of buildings. The new Dukes see the nonsense, and they smile. But, for the moment, they're happy to play along. And the restrictions on free speech that are increasingly the norm around the western world will suit them just fine...