Althouse | category: Roxane Gay



an endless succession of beans and nuts.

"The young ones tend to never wear a bra.... What is with the hate on bras?... I am very happy to wear a comfortable bra every day..."

"... and I am uncomfortable not wearing one. I find this new generation of braless ladies rude and unprofessional. These young ladies do not seem to mind the stares from others and more so when the office gets a little chilly. I have nothing against 'free the nipple' but why impose this on others in a professional environment?"

Asks an anonymous letter-writer of Roxane Gay, the NYT "work friend" advice columnist.

Hey, you know what's "unprofessional"? Staring at nipples!

As Gay puts it: "Women are not imposing their nipples on you by existing, braless, in public spaces. You are imposing your judgment on their bodies." She advises Anonymous to "interrogate the judgments you place on other people’s bodies." Ha ha ha. "Interrogate." Academic jargon is hilarious encountered in the raw on a chilly morning. I picture a crime suspect grilled in a harshly lit, windowless room. But it makes perfect sense to say: question your own judgments. That's something we should do more often.

An especially interesting aspect of this interrogation/questioning is why so fixated on nipples. I have seen this in real life. It's not the non-wearing of a bra that bothers people. It's the visibility of the contour of the nipple. If you wear a completely unpadded bra, your nipples will still show. And you can use a ridiculous product like Nippies and disguise the nipples without wearing a bra. Meanwhile, male nipples are on display everywhere.

Is it that people — some people — have the idea that when female nipples are visible through clothing, what is being seen is an erection? Gay writes: "Nipples exist. Sometimes, they are erect beneath clothing. The human body is not shameful. It’s a perfectly natural thing." If male erections were on display everywhere, you wouldn't blithely intone The human body is not shameful. It’s a perfectly natural thing.

More interrogation is necessary, even of the work friend's judgment.

200 journalists and writers release an open letter to the NYT to raise "serious concerns about editorial bias in the newspaper’s reporting on transgender, non-binary, and gender nonconforming people.”

Hell Gate reports.
The open letter, whose signees include regular contributors to the Times and prominent writers and journalists like Ed Yong, Lucy Sante, Roxane Gay, and Rebecca Solnit, comes at a time when far-right extremist groups and their analogues in state legislatures are ramping up their attacks on trans young people....
In recent years and months, the Times has decided to play an outsized role in laundering anti-trans narratives and seeding the discourse with those narratives, publishing tens of thousands of handwringing words on trans youth—reporting that is now approvingly cited and lauded, as the letter writers note, by those who seek to ban and criminalize gender-affirming care.
Hell Gate has an interview with Jo Livingstone, "an award-winning critic and writer who helped organize the open letter."

Here's the open letter. I'll highlight what I think are important parts:
The newspaper’s editorial guidelines demand that reporters “preserve a professional detachment, free of any whiff of bias” when cultivating their sources, remaining “sensitive that personal relationships with news sources can erode into favoritism, in fact or appearance.” Yet the Times has in recent years treated gender diversity with an eerily familiar mix of pseudoscience and euphemistic, charged language, while publishing reporting on trans children that omits relevant information about its sources.

For example, Emily Bazelon’s article “The Battle Over Gender Therapy” uncritically used the term “patient zero” to refer to a trans child seeking gender⁠-⁠affirming care, a phrase that vilifies transness as a disease to be feared.

Are persons seeking "gender⁠-⁠affirming care" not "patients"? If they are not suffering from a condition to be feared, then why is treatment provided? Why are they not told they are fine as they are?

We discussed the Bazelon article on this blog, here

Back to the open letter:

Bazelon quoted multiple expert sources who have since expressed regret over their work’s misrepresentation. Another source, Grace Lidinksy⁠-⁠Smith, was identified as an individual person speaking about a personal choice to detransition, rather than the President of GCCAN, an activist organization that pushes junk science and partners with explicitly anti⁠-⁠trans hate groups.

In a similar case, Katie Baker’s recent feature “When Students Change Gender Identity and Parents Don’t Know” misframed the battle over children’s right to safely transition.

I blogged that story here.

Back to the open letter: 

The piece fails to make clear that court cases brought by parents who want schools to out their trans children are part of a legal strategy pursued by anti-trans hate groups. These groups have identified trans people as an “existential threat to society” and seek to replace the American public education system with Christian homeschooling, key context Baker did not provide to Times readers.

The natural destination of poor editorial judgment is the court of law.

I had a lot of trouble understanding that last sentence. I doubt if you would understand it without reading what comes next, but let me translate. The idea is that the NYT articles have been cited in court cases dealing with legislation about children seeking transgender treatments.

Last year, Arkansas’ attorney general filed an amicus brief in defense of Alabama’s Vulnerable Child Compassion and Protection Act, which would make it a felony, punishable by up to 10 years’ imprisonment, for any medical provider to administer certain gender⁠-⁠affirming medical care to a minor (including puberty blockers) that diverges from their sex assigned at birth. The brief cited three different New York Times articles to justify its support of the law: Bazelon’s “The Battle Over Gender Therapy,” Azeen Ghorayshi’s “Doctors Debate Whether Trans Teens Need Therapy Before Hormones,” and Ross Douthat’s “How to Make Sense of the New L.G.B.T.Q. Culture War.” As recently as February 8th, 2023, attorney David Begley’s invited testimony to the Nebraska state legislature in support of a similar bill approvingly cited the Times’ reporting and relied on its reputation as the “paper of record” to justify criminalizing gender⁠-⁠affirming care....

David Begley! 

As thinkers, we are disappointed to see the New York Times follow the lead of far-right hate groups in presenting gender diversity as a new controversy warranting new, punitive legislation.

I think the NYT is showing leadership and not allowing itself to be led around by the doctrinaire left.

Puberty blockers, hormone replacement therapy, and gender⁠-⁠affirming surgeries have been standard forms of care for cis and trans people alike for decades....

Please cite the science. Is there some idea that medical treatments, once they've gone on for a while, must be correct and above question? Obviously not.

In that view, read this: "What the world can learn from a lobotomy surgeon’s horrible mistake." That's in the Washington Post, published yesterday, written by Megan McArdle.

Back to the open letter:

You no doubt recall a time in more recent history when it was ordinary to speak of homosexuality as a disease at the American family dinner table—a norm fostered in part by the New York Times’ track record of demonizing queers through the ostensible reporting of science.

In 1963, the New York Times published a front⁠-⁠page story with the title “Growth of Overt Homosexuality in City Provokes Wide Concern,” which stated that homosexuals saw their own sexuality as “an inborn, incurable disease”—one that scientists, the Times announced, now thought could be “cured.”

And, now, we're in a time when doctors are providing treatments for transgender persons. What is the lesson here?  

The word “gay” started making its way into the paper. Then, in 1975, the Times published an article by Clifford Jahr about a queer cruise (the kind on a boat) featuring a “sadomasochistic fashion show.” On the urging of his shocked mother, Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger sent down the order: Stop covering these people. The Times style guide was updated to include the following dictum, which stood until 1987: “Do not use gay as a synonym for homosexual unless it appears in the formal, capitalized name of an organization or in quoted matter.”

New York Times managing editor and executive editor A. M. Rosenthal neglected to put AIDS on the front page until 1983, by which time the virus had already killed 500 New Yorkers. He withheld planned promotions from colleagues he learned on the grapevine were gay. Many of his employees feared being outed. William F. Buckley published his op-ed arguing that people with HIV/AIDS should all be forcibly tattooed in the Times. Obituaries in the Times ascribed death from HIV/AIDS to “undisclosed causes” or a “rare disorder,” and left the partners of the deceased out entirely from its record of their lives. This era of hateful rhetoric also saw the rise of the term “patient zero,” used to falsely accuse an HIV/AIDS patient of deliberately infecting others. This is the same rhetoric that transphobic policymakers recently reintroduced to the American lawmaking apparatus by quoting Emily Bazelon’s Times article.

Yes, there is some bad history there. The NYT should be on guard not to make more mistakes — either similar mistakes or new mistakes overreacting to its famous old mistakes. 

Some of us are trans, non⁠-⁠binary, or gender nonconforming, and we resent the fact that our work, but not our person, is good enough for the paper of record.

What does it mean to say the NYT rejects your "person"?  

Some of us are cis, and we have seen those we love discover and fight for their true selves, often swimming upstream against currents of bigotry and pseudoscience fomented by the kind of coverage we here protest.

I do not see where they have pointed out "bigotry and pseudoscience." Perhaps they mean that the Times articles were not "bigotry and pseudoscience," but they "fomented" "bigotry and pseudoscience" in others.

All of us daresay our stance is unremarkable, even common, and certainly not deserving of the Times’ intense scrutiny. A tiny percentage of the population is trans, and an even smaller percentage of those people face the type of conflict the Times is so intent on magnifying. There is no rapt reporting on the thousands of parents who simply love and support their children, or on the hardworking professionals at the New York Times enduring a workplace made hostile by bias—a period of forbearance that ends today.

The "period of forbearance... ends today."  That made me want to go back to the Hell Gate interview to see what, specifically, this end of forbearance would look like.

The interviewer asks: "Are y'all asking the people who signed on to, for example, agree to not contribute to the Times until there is a response? Is there anything concrete like that being planned?"

Livingstone responds that there was no agreement to do anything other than to sign the letter. She adds that "there will be more letters and more kinds of venues for nonprofits and institutions to sign on" and says, "We made a gathering space that people have just come to us, ready to support."

She concludes: 

And I am proud of and grateful for everybody who is taking a risk on their future engagement by this employer, to stand with us. So when I think about all of that bravery, I feel okay, and can take a nap.

"And if we dare to protest, if we dare to express our rage, if we dare to say enough, we are lectured about the importance of civility."

"We are told to stay calm and vote as an outlet for our anger. Incivility runs through the history of this country, founded on stolen land, built with the labor of stolen lives. The document that governs our lives effectively denied more than half of the population the right to vote. It counted only three-fifths of the enslaved population when determining representation. If you want to talk about incivility, let us be clear about how deep those roots reach. The United States has become ungovernable not because of political differences or protest or a lack of civility but because this is a country unwilling to protect and care for its citizens.... When politicians talk about civility and public discourse, what they’re really saying is that they would prefer for people to remain silent in the face of injustice.... The Washington Post editorial board [called] for civility, but the definition of civility is malleable and ever-changing. Civility is whatever enables them to wield power without question or challenge...."

Writes Roxane Gay, in "These Are Desperately Uncivil Times. We Are Disgracing America" (NYT).

I've edited this down to exclude the particular issue about which she does not want to be civil so that it will stand as a general statement that is in accord with my position that calls for civility are always bullshit. I'm not going to try to look up whether there are other occasions where she has been the one calling for civility. She's not calling for it here. This post gets the "civility bullshit" tag because she's talking about calls for civility, and she, like me, is rejecting them.

"Whenever Joel moved to a new city, he introduced himself and his son to the local police. 'This is my child; take a good look at him,' he would say..."

"... trying to ensure that the officers would see my nephew, this young Black man, as a human being rather than a target. He told them the makes and models of the cars that he and his son drove. It is not likely that these gestures could prevent the tragedies he feared most — tragedies that happen daily in America, even if they don’t make headlines — but I think my brother needed to feel a semblance of control in a world where so much was beyond his control. He never made himself smaller in the ways the world expected him to. But he needed to believe that he and his child were not trapped in an impossible place."

"Upspeak is not a proud signifier of womanhood. It's not even a harmless quirk. It signifies submission just as clearly as a dog rolling over to display its belly."

"Women and girls use it the same way they use their constant smiles: to appease men, to demonstrate that they represent no challenge to the latter's superior status. If the first LW really wants to fight the patriarchy, she can help her protegee learn to speak in firm, declarative sentences. That's not 'acting like a man.' It's acting like an adult with agency and power."

 Says a commenter at the NYT, to an advice column LW — letter-writer — who mentors a younger woman and wonders whether it would be appropriate to advise her on "style issues," including upspeak. The mentor is also female, and she's worried that this kind of advice would "reinforce patriarchal nonsense." 

The official NYT adviser says to "find that sweet spot between idealism and a realistic understanding of the workplace." I say "sweet spot"?! Isn't that reinforcing patriarchy? Why must the women dilute straight talk with sweetness?

And there's no need to email me to tell me that "sweet spot" is a technical term relating to sports equipment like tennis rackets. The NYT advice columnist did not use "sweet spot" in a way that relates to the center of a racket. She's visualizing it as a midpoint between extremes. To say "sweet" like that is more like saying put sugar in it.

"Michelle always says, 'When they go low, we go high.' No. No. When they go low, we kick them."

Said Eric Holder, quoted at WaPo in "'When they go low, we kick them': How Michelle Obama’s maxim morphed to fit angry and divided times." Morphed? It's not some kind of updating or evolution. It's the opposite. The only coherence comes from understanding that calls for civility are always bullshit — just a con to get the other side to stand down, because when you think incivility suits your interests, suddenly it's a good thing.
[Holder] said a more antagonistic spirit is “what this new Democratic Party is about,” adding, “We are proud as hell to be Democrats. We are willing to fight for the ideals of the Democratic Party.

He tried to clarify that he wasn’t calling for violence, saying later in his remarks, “I don’t mean we do anything inappropriate, we don’t do anything illegal, but we have to be tough and we have to fight.” A combative strategy, he said, would honor the legacy of civil rights leaders, such as Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and Martin Luther King Jr.
Yeah, MLK had a "nonviolence" shtick but he would have morphed to fit angry and divided times — if only he hadn't been a victim of violence. But Holder says he is "honor[ing] the legacy" of MLK by getting "combative." Maybe MLK was only choosing a means to an end and didn't have high principles at all, but if so, at least he picked effective tactics. Holder isn't even doing that. The angry aggressive approach is failing. Look at the post-Kavanaugh-hearings polls.

The WaPo article also has the new Hillary Clinton quote (which we talked about yesterday here): "You cannot be civil with a political party that wants to destroy what you stand for, what you care about."

It doesn't have the second part of her quote — "That's why I believe, if we are fortunate enough to win back the House and or the Senate, that's when civility can start again" — which I credit for its humorous frankness. It's what I've been saying for years under my "civility bullshit" tag. In that view, Michelle's "When they go low, we go high" never meant we're lofty and principled and stick to our values, but that the idea we're high and they're low is effective rhetoric.

I suspect going high would have been more effective in 2018 than crazy-sounding combativeness, but in choosing a tactic, you're always at risk of being wrong. If you're principled and do what's right as an end in itself, then if it turns out not to get you want you want, you still have your honor. No one needs to follow you. No one needs to believe in you. But I don't think you are in politics. That's why I say calls for civility are always bullshit.

Combativeness isn't a new idea for Democrats, of course. Michelle Obama's line is memorable, but so is "If you get hit, we will punch back twice as hard" (spoken by Obama's deputy chief of staff Jim Messina in 2009).

Other recent rejection of "When they go low, we go high," collected in the WaPo article:

“Michelle Obama had that beautiful line, ‘When they go low, we go high,'” Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) told a Los Angeles Times columnist in March 2017. “I thought about it a lot. But I also thought, ‘We lost the election.’ My view now is that when they go low, we fight back.”...

In a December 2016 HuffPost column, [transgender rights advocate Dana Beyer]... “Now, when they go low (and they do so every day), we must go lower. We fight them with everything we’ve got. Americans love a fighter, so let’s give them a fight.”

Last June, Neera Tanden, the Hillary Clinton apostle and head of the Center for American Progress, used colorful language on Twitter to argue that, when the other side goes low, “going high doesn’t . . . work.”...

“When they go low, I say, we hit harder,” [said Michael Avenatti, last August]...

Speaking in February on the “Lovett or Leave It” podcast, hosted by former Obama speechwriter Jon Lovett, author and commentator Roxane Gay declared.... “When they go low, we need to go [f—–g] subterranean.... Until Democratic politicians start adopting that, we’re never, ever going to overcome these kinds of obstacles.”...

"New Yorker Festival Pulls Steve Bannon as Headliner Following High-Profile Dropouts."

The NYT reports.

The New Yorker dropped Bannon after John Mulaney, Judd Apatow, Jack Antonoff, and Jim Carrey all dropped out. And according to the editor David Remnick, "even New Yorker staff members had expressed discomfort" at including Bannon. Remnick also said, "The reaction on social media was critical and a lot of the dismay and anger was directed at me and my decision to engage him."

Jeez, the editor of The New Yorker is sensitive to "dismay and anger" that's directed at him personally? Stand up to it! "I don’t want well-meaning readers and staff members to think that I’ve ignored their concerns." What about the concerns of your readers who now think you're cowardly and lame? I'm a long-time subscriber to The New Yorker, and I think you're lame.

I think you've ignored my concerns, and I'd like to think your magazine challenges readers and isn't just about paying attention to our "concerns."

Bannon's response is, of course, much more appealing:
“The reason for my acceptance was simple: I would be facing one of the most fearless journalists of his generation,” Mr. Bannon said in a statement to The New York Times. “In what I would call a defining moment, David Remnick showed he was gutless when confronted by the howling online mob.” 
Remnick walked right into that.

ALSO: The article quotes Mulaney: "I’m out. I genuinely support public intellectual debate, and have paid to see people speak with whom I strongly disagree. But this isn’t James Baldwin vs William F Buckley.” And Antonoff: “respectfully that’s a full no for me and normalization of white supremacy.”

By the way, who are John Mulaney and Jack Antonof? I think I might be familiar with Antonof as the ex-boyfriend of Lena Dunham. Ah, yes:
Antonoff and Dunham remained together until January 2018, with representatives of both announcing their separation as "amicable".

In June 2014, Antonoff said he was "desperate" for kids, explaining:
It just seems like the most fun thing in the world. I've never met people who have kids who haven't looked me in the eye and been like, "It's the greatest thing that's ever happened." ... I think it's biological. I'm 30. I'm not that young, right? I'm not, like, 24 or 22. I'm no longer in the phase of my life where I talk about everything as in the future. Like, I'm in the future.
IN THE COMMENTS: mccullough said:
Remnick was an idiot to invite Bannon in the first place. He was a fool if he didn’t know this all would happen.
Was Remnick an idiot? For one brief shining moment he believed that The New Yorker audience wants breadth and challenge. And some of us really do. But I guess he was an idiot not to see the game several moves ahead. Now, here he is, in the future, looking narrow and weak.

"Anders Carlson-Wee engaged in nothing we moderns need slur as 'blackface.'"

"To wit, while we must evaluate each case on its own basis, to the extent that any white person’s depiction of Black English of whatever quality or diligence elicits rolling eyes at best and social media witch hunts at worst, we have lost step not only with linguistic science, but also with what most would consider norms of how human groups co-occupy social spaces and learn from one another."

Writes John McWhorter in "There’s Nothing Wrong With Black English/Accepting it as an alternative form of the language, and not a degraded one, requires being open to artists employing it in their work, even if they didn't grow up speaking it" (The Atlantic).

Anders Carlson-Wee is the white poet whose poem The Nation obsequiously apologized for publishing. We talked about it here.

McWhorter pushes back the writer/professor/editor/commentator Roxane Gay (who, like McWhorter, is African American):
[Roxane Gay] directs white writers to “know your lane,” and not depict the dialect.... Of course, if a Carlson-Wee depicted Black English gracelessly in terms of the grammar, it’d be time to call foul. But he got it right....

Gay... wrote on Twitter: “The reality is that when most white writers use [African American Vernacular English] they do so badly. They do so without understanding that it is a language with rules. Instead, they use AAVE to denote that there is a black character in their story because they understand blackness as a monolith. Framing blackness as monolithic is racist. It is lazy.” Indeed. But it isn’t clear to me that Carlson-Wee is guilty of either of these flubs....
This may be some solace to Carlson-Wee, but — for all McWhorter's linguistic expertise — Gay's message is the one that will stick. What white writer would read all this and decide anything other than just to stay in your lane as Gay instructed? You might get McWhorter's elevated, educated approval, but you'll only get that — is that enough?! — if you avoid "flubs" — what are all the possible flubs?! — and even then, I sense there's something more:
[W]hen a Carlson-Wee briefly explores the pain of a black homeless person and shows her using precisely the speech variety she actually would, or an Oscar Hammerstein knows that working-class black people in a parachute factory [in Carmen Jones] would not talk like the characters in his previous hits Oklahoma! or Carousel, it’s time for educated America to get past the cringe of seeing Black English depicted on the page by someone who didn’t grow up speaking it.
It seems the writer will also have to pass an empathy test and successfully inspire the belief that he's exploring the pain or showering knowledge of working class black people. But good literature doesn't make it that clear. How do we know this writer is not making fun of black people or criticizing them in some way? Even when he's not, you may think he is. I read Carlson-Wee's poem and I don't think it unambiguously or simply "explores the pain." As I wrote a few days ago:
The voice is that of a black person, talking to other black people, explaining how to to collect money from the white people who pass by... The key insight is that you get money by causing white people to think about who they are and to be motivated to give you money because they were made to think that the person who gives you money is the person they want to be. So you succeed if you essentially cease to be and transform yourself into the image of whatever it is that jogs them into feeling they need to be the person who helps you. That key insight follows a how-to list of ways to be that inauthentic person who gets white people to give you money.

Is the main problem that the white poet had the nerve to appropriate a black voice or is it that he portrayed black people as pathetic and conniving? Or is it that he portrayed white people helping black people as a matter of white narcissism?
That is, I suspect that the hostility to Carlson-Wee came not because he tried to embody a suffering black person, but because he had that black person criticize the kind of good white person The Nation's readers like to think they are. Didn't pass the political test. And I see McWhorter as carrying forward a political test, though he paid almost no attention to it.

I'd like to think McWhorter would approve of the politics of the Carlson-Wee poem that means what I said it means. But even if the McWhorter seal of approval is all a white writer would need to have permission to depict a black style of speech, who would take the risk? And what writer would choose a project that entails the incessant inhibition of gunning for that approval?

Fly buzz.

How to go viral with the boring news that you're doing a remake of the old teacher-made-me-read-it book "Lord of the Flies"? Announce that you're going with an all-female cast.

And the once-orderly internet dissolves into chaos. A top-notch feminist (Roxane Gay) tweets: "the plot of that book wouldn't happen with all women."

Now, you've got something — a raging debate about whether a couple dozen girls would attempt to establish order and then descend into brutality the way the (fictional) boys did.

I clicked through to Roxane Gay's twitter feed and was amused to see that the tweet she's got "pinned" at the top (from 2015) is: "It's fucking bullshit that Jack dies. There is plenty of room on that door. I am going to bed." Now, that's a movie debate. I don't know how long we can talk about what the "Lord of the Flies" — Lady of the Flies? — girls are going to do on their island and how convincingly they're going to be cruel to each other, but the old question of why Rose hogged the door in "Titanic" will go on forever.

"I Don’t Want to Watch Slavery Fan Fiction."

Writes Roxane Gay (in the NYT) on the occasion of the announcement that HBO will be doing a series called "Confederate," an alternative history story based on the interesting if obvious premise that the South pulled off its secession from the Union and kept slavery going.
When I first read about “Confederate,” however, I felt exhausted, simply because I have long been exhausted by slavery narratives...

This show’s premise highlights the limits of the imagination in a world where oppression thrives. These creators can imagine a world where the Confederacy won the Civil War and black people are still enslaved, but they can’t or aren’t interested in imagining a world where, say, things went in a completely different direction after the Civil War and, say, white people are enslaved. Or a world where slavery never happened at all. What would happen in a show where American Indians won the conflicts in which they were embroiled as the British and French and other European nations colonized this country? What would happen if Mexicans won the Mexican-American War and Texas and California were still part of Mexico?

It is curious that time and again, when people create alternate histories, they are largely replicating a history we already know, and intimately. They are replicating histories where whiteness thrives and people of color remain oppressed....

We do not make art in a vacuum isolated from sociopolitical context. We live in a starkly divided country with a president who is shamefully ill equipped to bridge that divide. I cannot help worrying that there are people, emboldened by this administration, who will watch a show like “Confederate” and see it as inspiration, rather than a cautionary tale.

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