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.