Rachel Maddow recently indulged in a strange episode of media bullying, using a half a dozen disreputable and dishonest techniques to smear an obscure writer and psychotherapist, Richard Cohen, whose business it is to help homosexuals who wish to live heterosexual lives to do so.
Therapists such as Mr. Cohen are an object of special hatred for organized homosexuality, and that lobby probably has never had so prominent a voice as Miss Maddow’s. To be sure, Cohen is a distinctly unsympathetic figure. His psychotherapeutic work is pure New Age goo, but that is to be expected: Psychotherapy is pseudoscience. At its least destructive it amounts to idle chatter; at its worst it is a reality-displacing religion substitute, advancing beliefs that are every bit as fundamentalist and anti-rational as any desert jihadist’s, if not so violent.
In this context, there is nothing uniquely offensive about Mr. Cohen’s brand of pseudoscience. America offers a splendiferous bouquet of preposterous belief systems from which the connoisseur of the absurd may choose. Miss Maddow, strangely, made much of the fact that Mr. Cohen is not a licensed psychotherapist, as though being a chartered practitioner of witch-doctoring were preferable to being a freelance operator. She repeatedly dismissed his arguments on the grounds that he has no professional credentials. But what, precisely, are Miss Maddow’s professional credentials for pronouncing on matters psychotherapeutic? She has a D.Phil. in politics and wrote her thesis about prison health care.
Mr. Cohen is an object of contempt because homosexuals, in their political activities, desire that sexuality be thought of as an essential condition, something akin to race. This enables them to continue to argue, as they have done with great success, that hesitancy to accede to any part of their political agenda is the moral equivalent of rolling with Jim Crow or standing in the schoolhouse door with George Wallace.
That belief is intellectually as indefensible as Mr. Cohen’s psychotherapeutic treacle. Sexuality is not race and it is not like race, neither in its biology nor in its history. The injustice that has befallen homosexuals in American history is not like slavery. But shouts of “discrimination!” have served the homosexual lobby well, and they are keen on crushing anything, and anyone, who states the obvious: Volition plays some role in human sexuality.
The homosexual lobby’s civil-rights rhetoric is the product of a defective moral argument, again rooted in the search for parallels to the experience of black Americans. We cannot judge homosexuals morally, the argument goes, if they do not choose to be homosexual. Just as it is wrong to invest moral meaning in an inherited feature such as race, so too must it be wrong to invest moral meaning in sexuality, if sexuality is inherited.
This argument is unsatisfactory in many ways. There is some evidence that homosexuality has biological origins. But there is some evidence that biology plays a role in criminality, including certain kinds of sexual criminality. If a man is born with an inclination to rape or to murder, do we withhold judgment because his condition is congenital? (It should go without saying, but nothing does, so let me clarify here: Nothing about that argument assumes that homosexuality is in any way morally equivalent to rape or murder; it only establishes that conditions can be both genetic and morally significant.)
Miss Maddow attempted to smear Mr. Cohen by association with the government of Uganda, which is considering enacting a law that would empower the state to further repress homosexuals with sanctions including execution. The Ugandans, oddly, share with Miss Maddow the belief that homosexuality is morally significant insofar as it is a matter of choice; unlike Miss Maddow, the Ugandans believe that homosexuality in fact is a matter of choice, and one of the law’s proponents cited Mr. Cohen’s gooey book as evidence of that. In the helter-skelter moral world of Miss Maddow, that makes Mr. Cohen a party to the Ugandans’ kill-the-homosexuals bill.
Mr. Cohen, being not insane, is aghast that the Ugandans would consider such a thing. He is full-throated in his condemnation of their efforts and has sent communications to them to that effect, informing them that they have misunderstood his work and its moral significance, declaring, in unequivocal terms, that homosexuals have a right to lead whatever sort of lives they choose to live. He opposes, categorically, the persecution of homosexuals. It is, therefore, grossly dishonest for Miss Maddow to have tried to associate Mr. Cohen with this ghastly political initiative — and let us remind ourselves that Uganda is a backward and brutal land whose most famous ruler, Idi Amin, was a mad cannibal. Uganda needs no spur from Mr. Cohen, a mild-mannered ex-homosexual American psychotherapist, to go Hobbesian.
Why should Mr. Cohen’s work be considered a threat? In her grad-school research into HIV in British and American prisons, Miss Maddow must certainly have encountered some evidence that human sexual behavior, and perhaps male sexual behavior more than female, is fluid, its expressions opportunistic. Surely Miss Maddow, during her undergraduate years at Stanford, met that famous fixture of 1990s campus life, the LUG? (That is, Lesbian Until Graduation.) It is not uncommon to meet men and women who were contentedly homosexual in their 20s who are married with children in their 30s or 40s. It is not at all unusual to meet men and women who have traveled the opposite path. People change. They change in college. They change in the navy and in prison. They change on Wall Street and in small towns. This is a normal part of life. If there are people with homosexual inclinations who wish to be rid of them, why should they not be helped by whatever means are available? Even if we assume, for the purposes of argument, that Mr. Cohen’s means are fraudulent or ineffective — and I do not know that they are — it is not difficult to imagine approaches that would not be.
Our society places a very large premium on sexual contentedness, indeed, a comical and sometimes horrific one. Consider the lengths to which we will go, and the absurdities we will indulge, in the service of sexual satisfaction. The Rachel Maddows of the world may insist otherwise, but the irrefutable fact is that a man who believes he is, in some metaphysically true sense, a woman, is not a woman: A man is a man. He has a man’s DNA, a man’s bones, a man’s organs, a man’s anatomy, a man’s history. All of the gender-dysphoric foot-stomping in the world will not make him a woman. But we, as a society, are quite happy to countenance what we euphemistically call sex-reassignment surgery, which is to say the mutilation of his genitals, the amputation of healthy organs, the application of breast implants and other cosmetic alterations that will help such a man to pretend that he is a woman. (That this is considered the enlightened approach will, I suspect, be a source of amazement and disbelief, if not mirth, centuries hence.)
Such delusion, of course, need not be sexual, or exclusively sexual, in nature: Our friends the psychologists have invented the term Body Integrity Identity Disorder to describe people with arms and legs who believe that they are, in their truest souls, amputees, and who seek to have their limbs amputated in order to accommodate that sense of identity. Of course that sounds insane — but more insane than amputating the genitals of a man who believes, against all reality, that he is a woman? (If he believed that he were a particular woman, say, Cleopatra, we would not be as easily taken in by the delusion, I suspect.) Sex-reassignment surgery once sounded insane, too. (It’s not that recent an idea: Read Cassius Dio on the emperor Elagabalus.)
In that context, what right has Miss Maddow, or anybody else, to put up moral crime-scene tape around the fact that some homosexuals may be unhappily homosexual, and may wish to live, instead, as heterosexuals? What right has she, or anybody else, to condemn those who would help them with that ambition?
There are nested structures of irrational belief informing these views. One of the key irrationalities is that there exists such a thing as homosexuality, meaning a single, unified human sexual condition that stands in symmetrical contrast to something called heterosexuality. “Homosexuality” as a category encompassing both the sexualities of homosexual men and homosexual women is probably meaningless; male homosexuality is not very much like female homosexuality. I suspect Miss Maddow would not have to spend very much time wandering the halls of MSNBC to discover as much. And “male homosexuality” is not really a very illuminating category, either. There are several distinct identifiable typologies of sexual behavior within that single set, just as there are many distinct identifiable typologies of behavior within the categories of male and female heterosexuality. The homo-hetero coin-toss is an intellectually destructive idea, and it has deeply distorted much of our thinking about human sexuality, which is far more complex and subtle than is our dialogue about it. Certainly more so than Rachel Maddow’s conversation.
It is easy to imagine why Mr. Cohen would go on Miss Maddow’s show: He was allowed to pronounce the name of his website on the air several times, and he has books and services to sell. Why would Miss Maddow, I wonder, pluck from obscurity such a man, and put on such a manic performance for the purpose of smearing him? The fact that she does so in the furtherance of sexual ideas that are narrow and authoritarian — a progressive might say “anti-choice” — tells us more about Rachel Maddow than it does about Richard Cohen, who turns out to be the tolerant half of the pair.
– Kevin Williamson is a deputy managing editor of National Review.