Careless Wispa coverage

The mess the Guardian has got itself into

The Guardian has got itself into an appalling mess by first printing and then pulling the section of an interview with Judith Butler in which they [Butler] were prompted with the following question:

"It seems that some within feminist movements are becoming sympathetic to these far-right campaigns. This year’s furore around Wi Spa in Los Angeles saw an online outrage by transphobes followed by bloody protests organised by the Proud Boys. Can we expect this alliance to continue?"

This is a tendentious reading of the events around the Wi Spa, in which a woman filmed herself complaining at the reception desk about the presence of a man in the changing rooms and uploaded the video to Instagram where it went viral. The Guardian ran two long pieces, supposedly reported, casting doubt on the story because — and all these excuses were offered — the woman who complained might be a fraud; there was no film of the offending penis; the flasher himself might never have existed; the whole thing was orchestrated by the far right; and anyway only some kind of fascist or even a Christian would object to a penis in a woman's changing rooms.

That was still the party line when the interview with Judith Butler was conducted by a trans woman. Hence her question. Butler duly answered that everyone who disagrees with her is a fascist or an enabler of fascism and they are just too fucking ignorant to read what she writes or to understand it:

"The anti-gender ideology is one of the dominant strains of fascism in our times. So the Terfs will not be part of the contemporary struggle against fascism … The anti-gender movement circulates a spectre of “gender” as a force of destruction, but they never actually read any works in gender studies. Quick and fearful conclusions take the place of considered judgments. Yes, some work on gender is difficult and not everyone can read it, so we have to do better in reaching a broader public. As important as it is, however, to make complex concepts available to a popular audience, it is equally important to encourage intellectual inquiry as part of public life. Unfortunately, we are living in anti-intellectual times, and neo-fascism is becoming more normalized."

This wasn't just verbatim burble1. It represents their considered opinion. Butler had copy approval on both questions and answers, which had been rewritten several times before publication.

Sometime between this interview being conducted and its being put up on the web, the Wi Spa flasher was identified as Darren Merager.2

He turns out to be a registered sex offender and petty criminal; the police have said that four women and one minor have laid complaints against his him for his behaviour in the Wi Spa. He was already wanted on other charges over a separate incident elsewhere.

The Guardian did report these facts in a third piece, and then spent roughly five times as much space playing them down …

The original allegations about what happened at the spa were quickly distorted online, leading to widespread misinformation and online abuse against trans women who spoke out and engaged in counter protests.

As the allegations about the spa spread, a Los Angeles LGBTQ+ newspaper reported in early July that there was no known record of trans clients at the spa that day, and questioned whether the incident “may have been staged”.

Tamara Lave, a University of Miami law professor and former public defender in California, said that prosecutors in indecent exposure cases have to prove a defendant not only “willfully exposed” themselves in front of others, but that the person did so with the intention of arousing themselves or sexually offending another individual.

“If somebody goes into a spa and sits naked in the tub, and all they are trying to do is relax, the fact that they are naked in public is not enough for them to be guilty of a crime,” she said, adding that she was concerned about the ramifications for trans rights.

And so on …

None the less, to anyone outside the Guardian US bubble, the identification of the flasher mattered quite a lot. It made us look as if we had taken the side of a 6’.2” white male sex offender against a group of black women and children. Not a good look for a supposedly progressive paper.

Also, on an absolutely basic level of journalistic competence, why the hell had three full time Guardian staffers in LA been beaten to this excellent scoop by a dodgy freelance working on his own? All they had to do was to keep an eye on what the police were up to. The answer of course is that they didn't want to find out or to know what had really happened. All their coverage was about telling people how to think about the story the right way and how to avoid thinking of it the wrong way. What had actually happened was of no importance to them at all except in so far as it reinforced their prejudices. This is how you would expect the Daily Express to report a story about foreigners. It is not what the Guardian aspires to.

So far as one can see, the reaction of the LA bureau was to double down.

Quick, St Judith, give us back our blinkers!

It appears that the interview was conducted before the exposure of the sex offender; it was published afterwards. Within about six hours someone in London noticed it. They demanded at the very least a correction to the question, acknowledging that there was a bit more to the story than "an online outrage by transphobes followed by bloody protests organised by the Proud Boys."

This Gleeson refused. She suggested instead

It seems that some within feminist movements are becoming sympathetic to these far-right campaigns. In 2019 NBC news reported that the US right wing lobbying group The Heritage Foundation had hosted 'gender critical' feminist perspectives. Remarkable given the Heritage Foundation is pushing for restrictions on abortion, as seen in Texas.

which would have had the merit from her point of view of still further directing attention away from the truth about the incident.

So the whole section of the interview was pulled.

I thought I had seen a lot in this business, but the immediate surge of online outrage at "censoring Judith Butler" quite astonished me. The story shouldn't have been cut, of course: she said it and it should remain on the record. But it was her supporters who were performing the outrage.

How could anyone not see the harm she does to her own cause? What she said made her look pompous, nasty and obscurantist.

I don't see, either, why the interviewer was given any choice about what kind of editorial correction there was. Had I been in charge it would have been left up with a note saying that this passage was recorded before the discovery that bla bla bla.

There is also the political point that the "terfs" she denounces as fascists and the tools of fascists include the editor of the paper printing her remarks and the majority of the staff as well — all those who did not sign the letter denouncing Suzanne Moore. Just as a matter of internal politics, that was unwise. We all know that is the opinion of the LA staff but newspapers are not constitutional monarchies and they take seriously lèse majesté. This is a point which some Americans have difficulty understanding.

It's not just internal politics. Those people claiming that resistance to legal self-ID is all got up by fascists and neofascists for political gain should be on their knees praying that they are not telling the truth. "Trans Rights", in the form promoted by Judith Butler, are a stupendous vote loser, right up there with "abolish the police". The claim that trans people should be treated decently, and that there should be legal accommodation for those who have completed their transition is widely accepted in Britain. It’s also the law here.

The Butler claim is different.

She and her followers believe that anyone who declares themselves trans thereby becomes a member of the sex they claim. It’s Christian Science with an added superpower: once they have named themselves and claimed their status, trans people vault over any other disempowered group to the top of the marginalisation rankings.

That won't fly as a political programme. It's ludicrous as a theory and in concrete ways damaging to women and girls. You need power if you are going to force people to pay lip service to something that they don't believe; while that power is available to the Butlerian jihad within American elite culture on the left, there is nowhere near enough to compel acquiescence even on the Guardian. There is certainly not enough to compel the great mass of voters. Once the apolitical masses realise what is proposed, they will rebel against it in decisive numbers. For any British political party to adopt it would be political suicide. I'm afraid this dynamic will work the same way in the US, too. The Guardian may have been responsible for the election of George W Bush 2001 with its cackhanded attempt to persuade the voters of an American swing county in a swing state to vote gainst him; the American unit is now doing all it can to see a Republican elected in 2024.


As Gleeson herself tweeted “For context all the questions were reworked and condensed several times over pre-publication, as making this accessible to a broadest possible audience was very important to us. That took a few drafts. Butler then got to read over and rewrite responses before publication”.


He was in fact identified by Andy Ngo, a notable culture warrior on the other side, and himself quite as ignorant of the ethics of the trade as Sam Levin. But unlike Levin he put the phone calls in.

Some thoughts on the TERF nonsense.

Here goes nothing

I don’t think trans women are the same as cis women. What follows from the existence of this difference is, however, difficult to disentangle.

The first point is that trans people are not monsters. They are human beings, with human rights and dignities, which extent beyond legal obligations and into those of courtesy and mutual respect. That they should not be raped, murdered, bullied or abused are all human rights, legally enforceable. Using their preferred pronouns and in general treating them as they would prefer is not a legal obligation, but a moral recognition of common humanity, which I accept and follow. It’s not an absolute right, though. If a woman who has been assaulted wants to speak of her attacker as a man, let her do so.

None the less, if the choice is a simple binary between those who assert that trans people are monsters, and freaks who should be defined out of existence and those who assert that they are in fact members of their chosen gender – then obviously it’s no choice. The important issue is the human rights, and indeed the humanity, of real people.

But that brutal binary – that trans people must either be monsters or else whoever they say they are - isn’t in fact the choice confronting anyone, except in the crazier corners of the internet. When anyone who hesitates over the blanket claim that “trans women are women”, is accused of being on the side of those who rape and murder transsexuals, accused of hatred, and called silly names like “terf” their accusers have passed outside reasoned discussion. The claim, which I have seen made explicitly on Twitter, that journalists on liberal papers are responsible for the murder of trans women seems to me deranged as well as offensive.

Until you know what the claim that “trans women are women” is supposed to mean it is impossible to agree or disagree with it except as a marker of tribal allegiance, which is a bad way to think. There are vile people on both sides of any sufficiently important argument and it is wrong to let yourself be diverted by the thought that some horrible people will agree (and others, equally vile, disagree) with what you say. That will be true whichever side you take. There is no stance of perfect moral purity.

Neither is it the case that to support or even to respect someone requires you to take them at their own valuation. This is especially not true for journalists and writers. Otherwise we’d just be in PR.

But if trans women are not cis women, what follows? Not much. Sex and gender involve both biological categories and social constructions. Biological categories are by their nature fuzzy. Social constructions can have much harder edges but they are fluid. Sex and gender are both biological and social. Some people have distinct, physical disorders of sexual development; others are completely convinced that they are trapped in a body of the wrong gender. These people are statistically abnormal but not morally wrong. We should not suppose that the biological norm is the moral ideal.

But think this through: if we’re going to treat sex and gender are fluid or fuzzy categories, then the assertion that “trans women are women” loses a great deal of force. This is where I feel that some trans rights advocates play a sort of three card trick: they use a fuzzy definition of woman in part of their argument and then go on to assume to it all the privileges consequent on a strict definition. Equally, the difference between pre- and post-op transsexuals is important: while I don’t think that operations and hormones actually make you indistinguishable from a member of the preferred sex, they certainly distance you from the rejected one.

If we don’t know what “woman” means – which is one consequence of rejecting biological essentialism – neither do we know what it means to assert that someone is a woman. We have to pick among the multiple possible meanings of “woman” that could be implied by any particular usage.

The question that guides us towards humane and sensible answers is surely this: Under what circumstances are which differences between cis and trans relevant? When is it reasonable, useful and humane to say that trans women are women?

To put the question another way, on which occasions are we forced in real life to divide people into two and only two classes - “men” or “women”, whose members are assumed to be like each other in all significant ways, so that trans people can be treated entirely as if they were cis one way or the other?

In most of life we’re not forced to do this, and when we’re not forced we should refuse to do so, and treat trans people as the gender they would prefer without holding a view on whether they have actually transsubstantiated. But in some cases the choice is unavoidable. A ragged list of them follows:

The simplest and clearest case is women’s sports. There is no possible justification for allowing anyone who has gone through puberty as a male to compete against women as if they were themselves one in the relevant aspects. In this context, trans women are not in fact women and shouldn’t gain advantages by pretending to be1.

Then there is the prison system, where at present offenders are judged on a case by case basis. I think that’s fair enough. Different trans people are more or less anatomically and perhaps psychologically matched with the gender they prefer. This ought to be relevant to their treatment in the prison system. This argument does cut both ways, of course. Some trans people will be far more at risk when treated as their denied sex in prison and should be protected accordingly. But the presumption should always be that m-to-f transsexuals are treated as men unless there are compelling reasons otherwise. Ideally, there would be by a system whereby transgender people had their own prison facilities, but that’s unrealistic in the present criminally overcrowded and neglected system. Men’s prisons are in Britain such hellholes that legal self-ID would certainly be abused by some prisoners to demand a transfer to a woman’s prison. But the answer is not the further punishment of women by confining them with heterosexual men – who will sometimes be sex offenders – claiming to have become women.

Lavatories are more complex. The obvious compromise is to extend gender-neutral facilities, but these can actually work more to the disadvantage of women ( who need more toilets, more often) than simply allowing anyone who looks like a woman to use a women’s loo would do. This is what you might call moderate self-ID. On this the TRAs are I think right. Rigorous policing of who uses which lavatories is just an example of obnoxious virtue signalling and persecution from the Right: these things are not a monopoly of the Left.

Note that rights-based law is no help here, at least in the UK: equalities law prevents discrimination both on the grounds of gender and of sex, but in the case of men with penises demanding the right to swim in Hampstead Ponds because they identify themselves as women, the two rights are clearly in conflict.

Changing rooms and swimming pools have their own problems. In part this is because of the TRA claim that genitals are an irrelevance to gender, so that rules are drawn up which don’t discriminate between supposed women who have penises and those who do not. That’s not how the rest of us see the penis. There are cultures and places in which strange naked men and women mingle freely – that’s still how I approach a sauna – but whether this is experienced as aggression by women is something they get to determine, not men. Women who don’t want a penis in their changing rooms or swimming ponds should not have to have them there unless they choose. I certainly think that it should be the women involved who make the choice.

Again, it’s quite important that such judgments be made on a case by case basis: this person in that space, but not, perhaps, that person in this space. It’s no part of the terf/gender crit argument that all trans women or even a sizeable minority are a threat: only that some might be, and that a badly drawn law would be an invitation to bad actors. See the Yaniv case for an illustration. I really cannot think of any justification for a man to shove his balls in the face of a woman and tell her that she must wax them however this violates her dignity and her religious beliefs; and then adding, in an assault on her sanity, that he can do this is because he is a woman. Cunt, possibly; woman, not.

But outside of such egregious cases I can’t think of a situation where it matters very much whether Trans Women are (really, substantially, truly) Women. They are undoubtedly people, with human rights and dignities and in the normal course of events should be treated as they’d prefer to be. There’s no reason why trans people should not serve in the army, the police, the clergy, as teachers, nurses or doctors. This position puts me rather to the Left of a lot of British opinion. Almost 60% of the participants in the most recent British Social Attitudes survey doubt that trans people should work in primary schools or the police. While I think that Mermaids should be kept out of schools – and indeed from all public life – there’s every reason to distinguish between a crazed ideology and the actual human beings that it’s apparently about.

This sketch started off as a modest and probably futile attempt to think through some of these problems while dialling down the noise. It was very much the way one tried to think as a leader writer, moving from practices (or evidence) to principles and thence to policy positions. It relies on distinctions between sex and gender – obviously – but also between social, legal, and psychological realities, all of which have different qualities and uses when we want to understand the world. It takes for granted the distinction between saying, eg, “This is a badly framed law, which will be used by bad actors”, which is true and intended; and “all the people affected by this law are themselves bad actors”, which is obviously false, and almost always unintended.

But in the course of writing it – and of course, everyone told me to avoid the subject for fear of being cancelled – I have shifted gradually to a much clearer position, mostly under the repellent influence of of some trans activists for whom these distinctions are treated as proof of moral and intellectual rottennness. This is most obvious on twitter and medium. Twitter is self-evident: to interact there on any subject that requires thought is actively to destroy trust and understanding; but Medium came as a surprise. For some reason algorithm keeps feeding me articles reinforcing the TRA position and the more I read them, the weaker the arguments seem, and the more they collapse into tribal solidarity and sloganeering. To quote the crucial sentences of one I was sent today: “There has been a rash of anti-transgender articles published in the UK press over the last couple of weeks (I have no desire to link to them, but you can read rebuttals here and here and here).”

There’s no doubt that some people stay away from these arguments out of fear of damaging their careers or their friendships. But there is the more subtle danger of being corrupted just by caring too much about what idiots say on twitter and elsewhere.

The people most engaged, on both sides, feel that they are defending powerless minorities from bullying and this emotional dynamic charges everything they do. This is an argument that recruits the highest motives to the lowest ends. The antidote to that is just friendships with real people who really disagree with you, something increasingly difficult in these plague times.

To get too hung up on the weaknesses of a case you disagree with is if course a recipe for madness, especially when examples multiply indefinitely, as on the internet they do. So I’ll stop now.

1 (There is a separate difficulty with biologically “intersex” women, as Caster Semyana appears to be. I think her case is tragic; it is certainly not the result of any of her deliberate choices or attempts to game the system. So she, and people like her, should be permitted to compete as women, which they have always, and with much justice, understood themselves to be. This is to accept a permanent, genetic, disadvantage for other competitors who are born as more normal females but so far as I can see sport will always entail such disadvantages.)

The people who walk in darkness

A superficial tour of the abyss

One evening in 1992, I went to supper in Bogota with a photojournalist named Tim Ross, and admired a photograph on his wall. It showed a boy with a flat Indian face smeared with terror, crouching at the booted feet of two policemen who had their guns out. They had already beaten him up, and one had shot him through the hand. Now he had realised what would happen next. “They were going to take him up the hill to kill him”, said Tim, “but they didn’t want to finish it while I was there.”

The boy was a street robber who had mugged a whore because he didn’t realise her husband was a policemen; not just any policeman, but one who already had two official investigations against him for shooting civilians in unexplained circumstances. So he had called on his uniformed buddies to track and kill the witnesses to the event as well. Do a favour, get a favour. That’s the way it works.

Ross told the story well. He even offered to take me to see one of the witnesses later and in the meantime we ate a delicious supper prepared by his wife. Within the flat, everything was peace and order.  He lived on the 26th floor of the Phoenician Towers, a gated and guarded tower block towards the edge of the city. Beyond the ring road, a shanty town straggled up the mountain. The traffic noise was distant but occasional gunshots came through to us very clearly and Tim Ross would identify each by its calibre and so whether it was a police weapon or not.

The Colombian police, he explained,  made up in enthusiasm what they lacked in precision. He had actually once been invited to a death squad killing, by one of his policeman friends, but arranged instead to come by a few minutes later. There was a photograph of the aftermath on the wall.

Brutal methods were not confined to the police: the anti-drug militias of the Medellin barrios had cleaned the place up to the extent that, he said, that it was now possible for a tourist without a word of Spanish to walk round anywhere in complete safety: the last time he had been there, he had been interviewing one of the organisers at night, when the man said: "excuse me, I have to go and do a job now." The next morning, five drug dealers, all women, were found shot dead on the outskirts of town. Ross was invited to make pictures at one of the funerals. To “make pictures” is a phrase that news photographers use to show that they are trying to make art out of chaos, and not just to record it. 

Underneath the bravado there was a quiet despair and a deep love for the country and its tortured people. He tried to explain how completely dysfunctional the justice system was: A former Minister of Justice used to hold drug parties in jail while under arrest. Jorge Luís Ochoa, one of the founders of the Medellin cartel, was also in jail at the time, and from there  had had 27 people killed —  probably more but Ross had stopped keeping count.

The going rate for an assassination, he explained, was about $70 to $80 for a trouble-free job — the official minimum wage was then $100 a month. Rates went up for skilled work. Ross had been present at a discussion about someone in Miami who needed to be done, but might have had bodyguards who would also need killing, and so on. So the budget under discussion was complicated: there would be the airfare, and then a week in a hotel, and the car hire, to watch the victim and plan it out, and then, on top of that $1200 to the man who did the job.

At the low end of the business, he had once met a man who had just come out from two years in a French jail —  probably gangbanged by Algerians, he added as a footnote, because Colombian drug runners were unpopular abroad — who had came back to Colombia with nothing but the cheap and nasty suit he wore. Nobody wanted to know him.  "I'm good at blood jobs." he had said to Ross. He wanted to find his feet in society again: "I'll give you the first one for free, just to show you what I can do."

But when he talked about the atrocities of the guerrillas and the drug gangs his voice took on a note of controlled hysteria is if the studied cool of his other stories had finally cracked.

The FARC, he reckoned, was by then probably the second-biggest drug-producing organisation in the country, after the Cali cartel, but ahead of the Medellin cartel, which had moved into Brazil. He rattled off a list of FARC "fronts", each with their areas of drug control. Tolima province, where I had just visited the back country, was the scene of two rival fronts trying to muscle in on the heroin business — “old-line fifties Stalinists”, he said: much given to shooting each other thirty at a time, in order to enforce loyalty. Their allies in the ELN were more into cocaine, he said, and “quite mad and nasty”. They had blown up a chemical pipeline to spite the government, which left 10,000 fishing families to starve.

The spread of the drug business had brought with it a new performative brutality: he talked about priests with their arms hacked off and their dicks shoved into their mouths, and how the man who did that had been feted by his masters. Three hundred bodies had been found floating down the Cauca river the other month, with stones in their bellies and their fingers either smashed or hacked off to preclude identification.

The army was very much better armed than the drug guerrillas . With American encouragement it was fighting “The War on Drugs” like a war. The army helicopters used a tactic on suspected guerrillas called “reconnaissance by fire”. He had been on one of these flights when someone fired a shotgun at the helicopter from under cover. The chopper emptied its cannon at the hillside and then landed to investigate.  They could find nothing at all case in the wreckage of the forest to indicate that anything had ever been alive in the target area except a single shotgun cartridge.

I had come to his flat in a taxi, of course, but Ross offered to walk me back to my hotel.

As soon as we reached the street his manner changed entirely. Gone was the languid and cynical manner of his safe apartment, that fitted so well with the book-lined walls and the Leica gear.  Now his walk changed: he bounced on the balls of his feet, waved his hips a little, kept his head forwards like a boxer, and talked a lot with his shoulders high and hands low. He wore a short and vicious knife sewn into the lower back of his denim jacket, and kept a swiss army knife in his hip pocket.

Almost at once we were in a shanty town. The lights were sparse and the streets had no names. After a while Ross turned off  and we scrambled over the ten foot wall, into an indescribable stink and mess of rubbish where once a house had stood. Up at the end he gave a welcoming hiss outside one stinking hole. No reply. So we climbed over the next wall, into an area even smellier and more rubbish-strewn. One wall  had something quite like a screen in front of it, made from polythene sheeting and shreds of cloth, so far as I could tell in the moonlight. We pushed through that: the smell was even worse. I noticed a pair of child's spectacle frames among the rubble. Tim spoke through a further door at the far end, then motioned me in ahead of him. There was no room for him to come further, and the smell in there was even worse, a mixture of cocaine fumes and dirt and body odour, though without the pronounced accent of shit which gave the open air its distinctive quality. The light was so steady that I wondered for a while whether it was not stolen electricity. But it was a candle, burning in a space where there had not been a draught of fresh air for several years.

This was the home of a young man called Limping Joe — he limped because of the bullets in his leg from a robbery that had gone wrong.  That wasn’t why he was afraid of the police. His problem was more personal. He had been one of the witnesses to the preliminary pistol-whipping and shooting of the boy who’d then been murdered for robbing a policeman’s wife and this was known.

It took some time to get the story out, for first he had to reassemble the pipe he had hidden when he heard us arrive and then he had to get it going, and then he had to have a few good  blasts, I stood uneasily in the slipstream and inhaled rather more than I meant to so that the rest of the evening comes back to me bright coloured, hard edged, and with an echoing acoustic of rustling polythene.

Joe made tiny leather jackets and equally kitschy little pendants for sale on the streets, though the ones he showed us had already fallen to bits because he could not afford the glue to hold them together. Mostly, he was a professional thief and hustler.

Ross explained how that worked: the basic technique was a flat out charge on Seventh Avenue: get close enough to your victim — accelerate, tear off the briefcase or gold chain or whatever as you go past, keep on accelerating, and run for the alleys. Once there, you're safe.

After we had left the foetid shack, Ross explained the complex relationships between police and thieves in the shanty towns. Friday night is an especially bad night to go wondering round in, he said, because everyone got paid that day, then went out to spend the money in whorehouses. There could be 2,000 girls working one block. This was good for the thieves. But the police also liked to go out on the razzle, so they financed their  own weekend binges by shaking down the thieves, and woe betide the thief who was arrested with nothing valuable on him on a Friday night: the cops could simply send him out again to steal a wristwatch or a gold chain. A really good thief could make $80 a day, most of which would go on drugs.

We left the compound and came to a better lit area. This was the red light district; at that time the fawn coloured concrete street was largely empty. People seemed no more than stirrings in the shadowed niches. Ross knew many of them. We talked to a girl in a red dress with large, shining eyes. She was, he said, 17, and got 2000 pesos, or two pounds, a trick — enough for ten hits of bazuco. Her husband beat her if she didn’t split the money.

The economics of prostitution in Bogotà were very grim. Ross told me of an afternoon he had spent in a brothel, talking to the madam and watching a tall 19-year old girl turn 18 tricks in two hours. But she was in her prime. Older whores could only charge 1500 pesos, and 900 of that went on the hire of a room. I’d imagine that “older” meant anything over about 21.

But after we emerged from the red light district Ross ran across the street to meet and talk with another girl. This one was eighteen. He father, he said, was upstairs, drunk while her mother was out on the streets dealing marijuana and trying not to get arrested. But the girl herself was going secondary school in evening classes and trying to get to university. She even spoke a little English.

The last part of our walk, through the respectable centre of town, took us through an ornamental park.  On one of the paths, at quarter to midnight, a young man walked back and forth clutching a large book, all alone. He moved to one side as we approached, and we kept a respectful distance away. I asked Tim what he might be: he said probably a plainclothes policeman fresh from the provinces, put on mugging duty in his first year: just stuck out there until he got mugged. Or he might be a mugger, a dope dealer, on a gay assignation. He could have been anything out there at that time of night except innocent.

When we reached the hotel, I thanked him insufficiently for such a wonderful evening. "If you shook hands with any of my friends, you'd better wash your hands with carbolic soap once you're inside", he said.

I found the diary fragment on which this is based when I was looking through my files this spring. The original 4,500 word version was typed up in my hotel room that night, with my head still ringing from the fumes of Limping Joe’s bazuco pipe. That was the closest I ever came to snorting cocaine. After what I had seen in Colombia I understood it as an entirely evil drug.

When I returned to London the paper I then worked for was completely uninterested in a story about another journalist. I lacked the wit to sell it anywhere else. But when I had reread the original diary this year I wanted to know what had happened to Tim Ross. I’d admired him then and I admire him still more now.

He had given up photojournalism, retrained as a paramedic, and set up a charity to rescue the victims of the sex trade. He was a damn good journalist and an unforgettable photographer, but it’s hard not to believe that he is doing more good now for the victims of the city than all but the very luckiest photographer or writer— and the luck of distribution is almost entirely independent of artistic merit. We fool ourselves sometimes that journalism can change the world. But it can only illuminate at best; it can’t make people see.

Can sociopath be cruel?

We are not cats

Can a sociopath be cruel? The thought arises reading John Gray on cats. Much of the book is illuminating, if familiar. But there is one passage that brought me up short. Gray argues that cats are not cruel because they completely lack empathy for their prey:

“As predators, a a highly developed sense of empathy would be dysfunctional for cars. That is why they lack this capacity. It is also why the popular belief that cats are cruel is mistaken. Cruelty is empathy in a negative form. Unless you feel for others, you cannot take pleasure in their pain. Humans displayed this negative empathy when they tortured cats in medieval times. In contrast, when cats toy with a captured mouse they are not revelling in its torment. Teasing their prey expresses their nature as hunters. Rather than torturing creatures in their power – a singularly human predilection – they are playing with them.”

Gray seems to argue that cruelty is the deliberate relish of another’s pain. It is a property of the actor, not the sufferer. So: cancer tortures people, one can say, but that does not make cancer a torturer, nor cancer cruel. There is nothing in the disease to which one can ascribe a moral nature. To call someone cruel is to make a moral judgment, or at least one which presupposes that they had a choice to act otherwise.

Thus far I think it is a valid distinction, if not a particularly useful one. The personification of natural evil may make it easier for us to marshal resources to fight it it, whether or not it is mistaken. It is perfectly true that cancer doesn’t give a shit about your suffering, but if we are raising funds for cancer research, the language of righteous struggle against evil will probably raise more than the praise of pure research.

But to say that cats cannot be cruel because they lack empathy for their prey seems to me wrong both empirically and analytically.

Empirically, it’s just not true that empathy is dangerous in a predator. On the contrary, the ability to think yourself into the mind of your prey is crucial to success. This applies even when the prey has minds as small as fish. I know as a moderately successful fisherman that the question to ask of any piece of water is “Where would I be if I were a fish and what would I be doing?” and this is much better answered on an unconscious level. [in fact, there is a second-order version of this question, posed by Conrad Voss Bark: “Where would the current take me if I were something a fish could eat?”]

This kind of empathy becomes correspondingly more useful when we are dealing with land animals, which have much greater freedom of behaviour. The more they are capable of responding to the threat of predation, the more important it becomes to the predator to understand the world from their point of view. Those humans are the best hunters who can get closest to animals in their thinking.

There is a distinction here between empathy and sympathy. One is consciousness of another’s distress and close attention to it; the other adds to this awareness the sympathetic quality of sharing it as if it were our own. Gray, if I read him right, does not make this distinction.

“Cruelty is empathy in a negative form”, he writes, and I would rephrase that as “Cruelty is sympathy in a negative form.” In this view, Cruelty is a moral deficit: only creatures who are capable of sympathy can be cruel.

But if cats are not cruel in this sense, neither are many humans. Slave owners do not always derive pleasure from the sufferings of their slaves. They are just rather puzzled by the fuss they make. There is a wonderful passage in one of Gregor von Rezzori’s books (The Death of my Brother Abel, I believe) where guests at a Prussian manor house in 1943 observe with interest and a certain disgust the Russian prisoners of war who are eating grass from the fields because they are being starved to death.

Yet if they were employing them as forced labour, they would take an entirely unsympathetic (they would say “unsentimental”) interest in the state of their slaves’ nutrition and so of their capacity for work.

Quite a number of medical experiments (Tuskegee comes to mind, as well as the experiments in concentration camps) were conducted with this kind of interest combined with an absolute lack of compassion towards the suffering of the subjects. Were they not cruel? Or were the experiments cruel but not the experimenters?

This point holds even more strongly for animal research. Gray is outraged by the cruelties that have been practised on cats for pleasure; but from the point of view of the kitten who has its eyes sewn shut so that vision may be studied in a laboratory, what’s done is just as cruel.

A sociopath, in this scheme, is someone who lacks all sympathy but has plenty of empathy. The example becomes most obvious when we consider those sociopaths whose cruelties are directed at other people’s emotions, rather than their bodies. Martin Shkreli, John Le Carré’s father Ronnie Cornwell, perhaps Mark Zuckerberg, too are obvious examples of this kind of pathology. They understand their victims’ psychologies much better than most, much better, often, than the victims themselves. Yet they feel no compassion whatsoever for the suffering they inflict. They don’t even appear to derive pleasure from it, except in so far as it measures their progress towards other aims.

To this extent such people are indeed cat-like, rather like the elves in Terry Pratchett. But I would hesitate for a long time before acquitting them of a moral flaw because of this. In practice, Gray might, too. But I don’t see that he can do so in theory. Gray rejects explicitly any Aristotelian idea that there is a single proper way for a human being (or the member of any other species) to be. Instead, he sees the purpose of life as living as the best individual you can be. And if that is the case, then we cannot say that the sociopath is a deficient human being. Given the brain defects (or abnormalities) that they have, they can only be what they are. They cannot be condemned for their behaviour, or held to a higher standard. They just have to be the best sociopath they can.

It is wrong to inflict pain on others, and this wrong is distinct from the wrong of enjoying this infliction. Cats are not cruel because they lack empathy. They can’t be cruel because cruelty is something of which only humans are capable. Language and self-consciousness have cut us off absolutely from the animals; our urges may be the same, but the way we understand them, even the ability to understand them, places us in a different universe, one where morality is possible and so becomes obligatory. When we behave as cats do, we are cruel.

Guns and prophecy

Trumpism is now a movement with religious roots. This makes it much tougher and much more dangerous in ways the secular media completely misunderstand

There was a small riot of Donald Trump’s hard core supporters in Washington on Saturday. After it ended, four people were stabbed in a brawl outside Harry’s Bar, a hangout for the neofascist Proud Boys group, and most of the press coverage concentrated on that violence. The content of the rally that preceded the riot was hardly mentioned in the secular press.

The Guardian, for instance, ran some wire reports together to get this:

“An estimated 200 members of the Proud Boys, a violent far-right group, had joined the marches earlier on Saturday near the Trump hotel in the capital. Mixing with church groups who urged the faithful to participate in “Jericho Marches” and prayer rallies for the defeated president, the Proud Boys contingent wore combat fatigues and ballistic vests, carried helmets and flashed hand signals used by white nationalists.”

The rest of the report concentrated entirely on the outbursts of street brawling.

Compare and contrast the Orthodox writer Rod Dreher’s appalled livetweeting of the rally as he followed it on some cable network. Much was reproduced in his column for the American Conservative.

“I wanted to see how far the Christian Right — for the record, I am an Orthodox Christian, and a conservative — would go to conflate Trump politics and religion. Pretty far, as it turns out. Right over the cliff. You had to see it to believe it.”

“I began to think that all of this is the right-wing Christian version of Critical Race Theory, and various doctrines held by the woke Left. … we conservatives are allowing ourselves to be conquered by the same kind of unreality. We can’t look away from it, or fall back on whataboutism.”

[There is probably a grammatical term for this usage of “can’t” to mean “most certainly will”, but I don’t know it].

What’s important is that Dreher understood the pull as well as the grotesquerie of these people: the mainstream coverage of the rally focused on the neofascist Proud Boy thugs, and on Michael Flynn, one of the few Trump henchmen actually to have gone to jail (for lying to the FBI; Trump pardoned him).

But for Dreher, the meat of the show were the various charismatic evangelical “prophets” and the toppings were Alex Jones and Carlo Maria Viganò --- and he is undoubtedly right. Conspiracy theories and apocalyptic decodings use exactly the same heuristics and persuasive techniques. Both Jones and Viganò made their names pushing outlandish conspiracy theories. Viganò is pretty much as Dreher describes him: “ the world’s fiercest critic of Pope Francis.” and in a frightening note, he adds “It is hard to overstate how much credibility Vigano has with a large number of conservative Catholics.”

Alex Jones made his name and his fortune distributing comforting lies and selling quack cures. The period of his greatest fame came between 2012, when he claimed that a massacre of 19 primary school children never happened, but was instead as staged as the moon landings, and 2018 when all the major internet platforms finally banned him for saying this.

Noefacist thugs like the Proud Boys appeal to a very limited demographic. Men like Jones and Viganò are much more valuable propagandists. Jones, in particular, knows how to nourish – and profit from – a lasting culture of defiant delusion. In this he is no different from prosperity gospellers of every sort, and they, too, were represented at this rally. Prophecy has assured them that Trump will win; that he has in fact already won – by a landslide – and the faithful need only pray together until God reveals this fact to the world.

I look at the hideous strength of this alliance and remember the last verse of the little Auden song for which this place is named

Nothing your strength, your skill, could do
can alter their embrace
Or dispersuade the Furies who
At the appointed place
With claw and dreadful brow
Wait for them now.

Loading more posts…