Just before the Moscow Olympics in 1980, the now-defunct British humor magazine Punch ran a number of cartoons about them. One showed the sex test that would be run there for allegedly female athletes suspected to be male (the Soviets had a record of fielding ambiguously sexed athletes, most notably the Press sisters, Tamara and Irina, sometimes known as the Press brothers, who disappeared from the sporting scene once chromosomal sex tests were introduced).
The cartoon showed a man, the Soviet tester, and a woman, the athlete, standing next to a tractor. “If you were a woman,” says the tester, “you could change that tractor tyre in thirty seconds.”
But where chromosome sex tests are concerned, what Sganarelle says to Géronte, when the latter accuses him (in Le médecin malgré lui) of placing the liver and the heart on the wrong sides of the body, is apposite: “Nous avons changé tout cela,” we have changed all that. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that we are in the process of changing all that, since the change is, and ever will be, a work in progress: for in the absence of a sense of eternity, change under our direction is the only meaning we can attach to life.
A couple of weeks ago, Beauties of Canada, the company that runs the Miss Universe Canada beauty contest, announced that a transsexual person, Jenna Talackova, will now be allowed to compete in the contest after all, having first been rejected on the grounds of transsexuality, which was against the previously existing rules. A “lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender” group, GLAAD, welcomed the decision, saying that Miss Universe had taken an important first step. To what, exactly?
One learns with some alarm that Jenna Talackova was started on sex-hormone therapy at the age of 14, and had reassignment surgery at the age of 19. Since the school-leaving age in British Columbia is 16, and one of the International Labour Organization’s criteria for child labor is work that forces a child to leave school prematurely, one is forced to the conclusion that, in Canada, the decision to change one’s outward sex is considered to be of less moment, requiring less maturity, than the decision to leave school, and a lesser potential danger to the welfare of the child than that of being exploited by employers.
Thereafter, Jenna Talackova’s trajectory as a beauty queen seems to have been somewhat contradictory. Shortly before entering for Miss Universe Canada (surely one of the few last places on earth where the demeaning, derogatory, and abusive mode of address “Miss” is still in use), Jenna Talackova took part in the Miss International Queen event in Thailand, open only to transsexuals — no chromosomal XX women need have applied, the rules forbade them.
This smacks of wanting to have one’s cake and eat it, or of wanting two bites of the cherry, or (to change the metaphor yet again) of being a rose among thorns and a thorn among roses — in effect, a mediocrity’s charter. But if transsexuals claim the right to compete against normal women, because they consider that they are to all intents and purposes women and not merely playing at being women as Marie Antoinette played at being a shepherdess, by what argument are normal women to be excluded from competing against transsexuals? Evidently all women are equal, but some are more equal than others.
The story of Jenna Talackova is that of a person who demands the right to be different according to his or her own desires (I leave it to the reader to choose the appropriate pronoun in this case), and to be accorded the privileges of conventional society at the same time. Such persons are very frequently encountered these days: I demand the right to tattoo the words “F*** off” on my forehead, and that you take no notice of it (except, of course, when I want you to do so).
Jenna Talackova’s story is also that of the change in meaning that we now attach to the word (and concept of) “tolerance.” Where once tolerance was the discipline of leaving people in peace to go about their lawful business insofar as it did not harm others, in spite of one’s disapproval of what they did, it is now a demand for total acceptance, approval, and even celebration of what one previously found aberrant or even abhorrent.
Liberal reforms thus start as humane and end up as bullying or morally, intellectually, and emotionally intimidatory. Most people (I think) would accept that it was right and humane that laws making homosexual acts in private between consenting adults into a crime came to be regarded as foolish, wrong, and cruel, and that such laws were therefore reformed. But in a comparatively short time, the demand for the right to be left alone became a demand for the right to parade en masse through the streets of cities in sadomasochistic costume, inadvertently reinforcing the most extreme stereotypes in the minds of moralizers, and not so much liberating homosexuals in society as imprisoning them in a little Balkan state of their own, in which their sexual orientation became the most important, if not the sole, aspect of their identity. Furthermore, the right so to parade went along with the duty on the part of other citizens not to object; indeed, they were almost duty-bound to applaud. If anyone were to object, however mildly, to the indecorousness or tastelessness of it all, at its sheer unabashed vulgarity, at the absurdity of such cavortings’ being a manifestation of “pride,” he would be reproved not only as a prude, but as a bigot, a bad person, one step removed from Anders Breivik.
This notion of tolerance is a one-way train, of course. Everyone has a moral (and increasingly a legal) duty to spare the feelings of members of an officially certified minority, but members of that minority have no duty, legal or otherwise, to spare the feelings of everyone else, however much in the majority they might be. The freedom they claim is that (to use a crude expression) to be constantly in your face, and for you to say nothing in return.
So Jenna Talackova probably insists on competing in Miss Universe Canada not so much for the chance to obtain that worthless crown (it is unlikely that her insistence will find much favor with feminists, who would not want the test of entry into true femaleness to be participation in a beauty contest), but to make a point: her or his right to obtrude her- or himself on a public most of which would still regard her or him as a freak, and to compel its silence. It is the demand that the public should simultaneously know that she or he is different from the other competitors, but nevertheless act as if, and pretend to think that, she or he is the same — in other words, that the public should perform the kind of mental maneuver daily required in totalitarian states, which did such violence to the human personality. If Jenna Talackova merely wanted the crown for its own tinselly sake, she or he would have taken elaborate steps to ensure that the organizers did not find out about her or his transsexuality, and would have retired quietly from the fray once it was discovered.
Jenna Talackova said something revealing when, at first, she was disqualified from the competition. She was, she said, “disqualified for being born.” This, of course, is a Promethean revolt against the existential limits of human life — any such limits whatsoever. But people who hanker for limitless choice over everything are destined for a state of permanent egotistical resentment and querulousness. To them, there is no wisdom, only defeat and cowardice, in the Gospel’s words: “Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature?”
That the Promethean bargain has to be interpreted with judgment and subtlety is a thought completely, indeed repellently, alien to them.
By chance, I happened recently to be reading a short essay by the late Malcolm Muggeridge on the subject of humor (for a time, he had been editor of Punch), published in 1966 and titled “Tread Softly for You Tread on My Jokes.” Muggeridge lamented the lack of subject matter for the humorist because the world itself had become so absurd that humorous commentary on it was supererogatory, indeed impossible. This is what he said: “The sad fact is that there are very few jokes — not more than six or seven at most, and all by now decidedly well-worn. Every now and then something happens in the world — as, for instance, a man changing his sex and becoming a woman — which opens the faint hope that a new joke may be born; but this hope is soon disappointed, and it is seen that the seemingly new situation falls into the pattern of an old joke.”
Nous avons changé tout cela. But in a certain respect, Muggeridge was mistaken: Old jokes do not remain jokes, that is to say old friends, as he thought they did, to be sniggered at when we knew they were coming. Instead, what was formerly a joke becomes deadly serious, perhaps the most serious thing left to many of us. The ridiculous become sublime, the sublime ridiculous.
– Mr. Daniels, a physician, is a contributing editor of City Journal and the Dietrich Weismann Fellow at the Manhattan Institute.