In Defense of Books

A year or two ago my friend Brewster Kahle told me he had been asking people, “when is the last time you read a book? Cover to cover?” Predictably, the answers were discouraging. In the age of the Internet, people still talk about books, praise books, and condemn books; but actually reading books is rare.

When I first heard of feminist author Andrea Dworkin, in the early 1990’s, I was told she said all heterosexual sex is rape. In popular discourse, “het sex is rape” was considered the gist of her work.

Well, I could easily form an opinion about that, and I did. Of course all heterosexual sex isn’t rape! What a dumb idea. I didn’t have to read any books to know that! So I didn’t.

It was a few decades before I finally read Dworkin’s Intercourse. I had been seeing endless condemnations of “TERF”s – “Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists” – online, and was constantly admonished to “educate myself” because I had asserted that transwomen are male. Since I had spent my 20’s and 30’s immersed in San Francisco Sex-Positive and Kink and LGBT culture, and therefore had known many transwomen (including a few lovers), I wondered where my education was lacking. I was well versed in Queer Theory, but I realized then I had never actually read one of these “radical feminists.”

And so I learned Dworkin never wrote “all heterosexual intercourse is rape.” Her thoughts about sex were a lot more nuanced. I was surprised by how passionately and sensitively she wrote about it; clearly she was heterosexual, in spite of (or along with) declaring herself a Political Lesbian in her activist years. I was also persuaded by many of her other radical feminist ideas. Dworkin had been unfairly maligned, and because I fell for it, I had missed out.

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I am part of the moderation team of Spinster, a woman-centered, radical-feminist-leaning social media platform founded half a year ago, in August 2019. A few weeks after our small team had formed, one of the moderators started denouncing Lesbian Feminist author Sheila Jeffreys, and publicly wishing her harm. She explained it was because Jeffreys advocated Political Lesbianism. A young lesbian, this mod considered Political Lesbianism lesbophobic, homophobic, and dangerous. As far as she was concerned, Jeffreys said sexual orientation is a choice, making her no different from fundamentalist Christians and conversion therapy advocates.

Well, I could easily form an opinion about that, and I did. Of course sexual orientation isn’t a choice! What a dumb idea. I didn’t have to read any books to know that!

Over the next couple days, the young moderator accused Spinster’s founders, other mods, and many of its members of “lesbophobia.” If one doesn’t vocally condemn Jeffreys and Political Lesbianism, the logic went, one supports it, and therefore hates lesbians. She was joined by others, and a rift formed, with some Spinster users canceling their accounts in protest.

Time has taught me to be skeptical of the condemnation of authors and their ideas, so it was only a few weeks before I read Jeffrey’s The Lesbian Heresy. Just as Dworkin never said all het sex is rape, Jeffreys never said sexual orientation is a choice. I was especially surprised – and moved – that so much of The Lesbian Heresy was about the very same Sex-Positive and Kink and LGBT worlds I had been immersed in in my youth. Jeffreys helped me piece together events of the 1980’s and 90’s I had never connected; connections that help explain the condemnation of Andrea Dworkin, the replacement of Radical Feminism with Liberal Feminism, the academic acceptance and promotion of porn, and the near extinction of Lesbian Feminism.

That left me with a different understanding of Political Lesbianism and the movement from whence it arose, Lesbian Feminism. I could not in good faith condemn it. I recommended The Lesbian Heresy on Spinster, where arguments about Political Lesbianism rage on. As far as I know, no one condemning it has actually read The Lesbian Heresy; and by the logic of Social Media, or social groups in general, they don’t have to, because the issue has already been summarized for them as Political Lesbianism = Sexual Orientation Is A Choice = Homophobia.

The fact that I had read and was recommending a book angered some women even more. “Oh she read a book and now she’s straightsplaining lesbianism to lesbians!” I was surprised to be resented for reading, and wanting to discuss, a Lesbian Feminist book. I am surprised that Sheila Jeffreys, as lesbian as any lesbian who ever lesbianed, and an excellent writer to boot, is so maligned by women who haven’t actually read her words.

I am open to nuanced arguments, but those don’t happen on social media. Everything gets distilled into soundbites, phrases like “born that way” and “trans women are women!” These thought-terminating memes are effective political cudgels, but anathema to understanding reality. Good books are the opposite.

There are also bad books. I recently read one called The 57 Bus, which resembles an extended Tumblr. But even it was more nuanced than online discourse. I read it for a nonfiction book group I’m part of. I found it agonizingly sexist, and it made me angry; I read it anyway, because I am a grown-up and capable of reading things I disagree with. And it wasn’t completely without merit: it discusses some important issues, in spite of being spun for a target market of white Liberal virtue-signalers. Reading the whole book allowed me to make reasoned arguments, and better understand the intellectual pablum that is the main diet of schools right now.

Some books are overlong. Some books contain important information, but are poorly written. We can’t read everything, certainly not every book that is recommended to us.

But perhaps we can acknowledge that Internet memes, denunciations, and simple summaries of entire books might be missing a world of nuance.

I recently recommended Lierre Keith’s book The Vegetarian Myth to a couple vegan friends, because they told me they’d never heard even one reasonable argument in favor of carnivorism. I personally don’t eat birds or mammals, and I very much appreciate vegans, and I don’t want to convert anyone; but The Vegetarian Myth makes compelling arguments, and expanded my ideas about eating, life, death, and my own motivations for eschewing meat. (The book had no effect on my dietary choices, proving that it is possible to appreciate arguments without capitulating to them.) Still, my friends refuse to read it because they are certain they already have already heard anything it could contain, plus they read a Wikipedia summary which was easy to condemn. They told me they won’t read the book, but invited me to sum it up for them in a sentence or two. I said I’d try.

But I can’t. The reason good books exist is some things can’t be summed up in a sentence. Or even a paragraph. Or even an entire blog post. 

I used to pride myself on being able to distill complex ideas into simple one-liners, an essential skill for a cartoonist. Refining messages into easily digestible memes is a crucial tool of propaganda and advertising, and I’ve employed my talents in many an ideological battle. Increasingly, though, I don’t want to do battle. I just want to have a conversation. I am lonely, I am tired, and I want to discuss the world, not argue you into compliance, or dazzle you with my clever memes.

Eh, I’m gonna go read a book.

 

 

 

 

TERVen On Their Minds

Sung by Judy Handmaiden

My mind is clearer now.
At last all too well
I can see where we all soon will be.
If you strip away
The myth from the men,
You will see where we all soon will be.
Woman!
They’ve started to believe
All that postmodern woo.
They really do believe
their genders could be true.
And all the rights you’ve won
Will soon be swept away.
Reality now matters less
Than the things they say.

Listen Woman I don’t like what I see.
All I ask is that you listen to me.
And remember, I’ve been the Left’s handmaiden all along.
You have set them all on fire
By saying sex is not attire.
And they hurt you when you show they’re wrong.

I remember when this whole thing began.
No talk of “cis” then, just woman and man.
And believe me, my admiration for you hasn’t died.
But every word you say today
Gets twisted ’round some other way.
And they hurt you when you show they’ve lied.

Internet, your female crones
should have stayed the great unknowns
Like her mother keeping house, serving her spouse.
Not complaining when oppressed
would have suited Woman best.
She’d have caused nobody harm; no one alarm.

Listen, Woman, do you care for your sex?
Don’t you see that their boot’s on our necks?
We are occupied; have you forgotten how put down we are?
I am frightened for the TERVes
For they have hit too many nerves.
And they’ll crush us if we go too far.
If we go too far

Listen, Woman, to the warning I give.
Please remember that I want us to live,
But it’s sad to see our chances weakening with every hour.
All your followers are blind
Too much TERVen on their minds.
It was beautiful, but now it’s sour.
Yes it’s all gone sour.

Listen, Woman, to the warning I give.
Please remember that I want us to live.
So c’mon, c’mon
She won’t listen to me
c’mon, listen to me
She won’t listen to me

Strava vs. Women

I have been using an app called Strava to record my bike rides for the last four years.

Recently, Strava started promoting men in women’s sports. Specifically, a male cyclist named Rachel (nee Rhys) McKinnon, who has been setting “women’s” cycling records, because mediocre males still have physical advantages over elite females.

I have been urged to quit Strava and leave a one-star review. I may end up doing that, but I really don’t want to. Changing familiar apps is a pain in the butt; I have friends on Strava I will miss following; and I like having continuous records in one place. And honestly, there’s nothing wrong with the app itself (other than harvesting and selling data in an exploitative asymmetric system, but unfortunately all fitness tracking apps do that). The problem is that the company itself is pushing anti-woman policies. I don’t want to support their woman-hating propaganda, but the price of quitting is high, for me and other women who use the platform.

So today I did this protest ride. I “wrote” the word WOMAN with my bike, and titled the result, “Woman Means Adult Human Female.” The word required about 44 miles, plus 16 miles to get to the start point, and about 5 miles to get home, making the whole ride 65 miles — just over a Metric Century.

I designed the route on a competing app called Ride With GPS, which I also used to record the ride simultaneously with Strava today.  If I have to quit Strava, at least I’m familiarizing myself with an alternative.

My hope is that other Strava users will do similar protest rides, spelling the word WOMAN and titling it “Woman Means Adult Human Female.” Anyone can do it; Ride With GPS is free and its route planning tools are easy to use. It would be heartening to see people do this, and use the very same misogynistic Strava to connect with each other (I’ve already connected to 2 cool women bicyclists on it today, because of this ride!).

If you’re in Central Illinois, I’d be thrilled if you rode the same route! But beware it has 7 miles of gravel. I chose these roads because they were the only ones near me that could fit the full word, including a residential area to make the zig-zag diagonal of the “N.” Detouring around gravel wasn’t an option today, because I had to stick to the plan to “write” correctly. But if I can survive 7 miles of nasty gravel on skinny road tires, anyone can.

I also made this mini-route in Urbana that is so short (4 miles) you could even walk it. It goes through lovely, leafy West Urbana neighborhoods, and some very nice University of Illinois campus. Note that Nevada Street is quaint brick, and Lincoln Avenue is busy.

If you do your own WOMAN ride (or walk, or run, or swim, whatever) comment or tag or email me and I’ll add it to this blog.

UPDATE 9-18-2019: Another cyclist has already done a WOMAN ride!

Big ups to Rae Faba of Ohio!

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UPDATE 10-13-2019: I did another 100km WOMAN ride, a variation of the same route: https://blog.ninapaley.com/2019/10/15/another-woman-ride/

Open Letter to the University of Illinois

February 28, 2019

In July of 2018, Arcadia, a cafe in Urbana, announced on Facebook an “Art Salon” at which my new film would be screened. The next day, Professor Mimi Thi Nguyen commented on Arcadia’s event page: “She’s a transphobe. I will never attend your events now.”

My crime was, months earlier, sharing on Facebook the following lyric: “If a person has a penis he’s a man.” At various times I have also shared such contentious views as, “women don’t have penises,” “sex is not gender,” “woman means adult human female,” and “everyone is free to identify however they wish, but not to force me to identify them the same way.” Nonetheless, “If a person has a penis he’s a man” is continually quoted as my greatest hit of so-called ‘hate speech.’ It is also a fact.

When asked by other commenters why my stating biological facts was ‘transphobic’ and grounds for no-platforming, Ms. Nguyen replied “I’m the chair of Gender and Women’s Studies. I know what I’m talking about.” Speaking not merely as an individual, but in her capacity as a UIUC faculty member, Ms. Nguyen threatened a local business and libeled a community member and encouraged others to join in.

Arcadia promptly cancelled the event.

That October, my film, Seder-Masochism, screened to enthusiastic audiences at the Vancouver International Film Festival. In attendance were film scholars Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell, frequent speakers at past Ebertfests, who loved the film and emailed Ebertfest director Nate Kohn to recommend it. Kohn replied they already knew about Seder-Masochism, and it was at the top of their list. Which makes sense, since it’s by an Urbana filmmaker (me) whose last film was a star at the festival (Sita Sings the Blues) and contains my late father’s voice, which is known to much of the festival’s audience (Hiram Paley used to be Mayor of Urbana, as well as a math professor at the U of I).

Later that Fall, I turned down an invitation to judge a major film festival in Buenos Aires, because its dates overlapped with Ebertfest. Since Seder-Masochism was “at the top of (their) list,” I didn’t want to miss it. In January, I emailed Nate Kohn and Chaz Ebert to ask if in fact Seder-Masochism would screen. For over a week, they didn’t respond. That same week, I was attacked by a Twitter mob accusing me of ‘hate speech,’ once again for having said “If a person has a penis he’s a man.” Then all trace of my film was removed from the website of a women’s film festival in Belgium, after they were bullied by a Belgian transactivist.

Still awaiting a response, at the end of January I emailed Ebertfest again. They replied: “Sorry, we don’t have room for it.” (Update 3-28-2019: Chaz Ebert confirms Ebertfest’s decisions had nothing to do with my no-platforming in Urbana and Beligium, and they were unaware of any controversy. )

I’m not entitled to be at any film festival, and the decisions of Ebertfest – a special event of the University of Illinois College of Media – are made behind closed doors, preventing any hope of accountability. But going from the top of Ebertfest’s list to “sorry there’s no room” in the midst of libel campaigns is consistent with the blacklisting and no-platforming of feminists at universities nationally and internationally. From the banishing of noted feminist speakers like Sheila Jeffreys and Julie Bindel; to the suppression of ‘politically incorrect’ research at Bath Spa University and Brown University; to secret blacklists of female academics uncovered at Goldsmiths University, the speech-suppressing behavior at the University of Illinois is consistent with unsavory developments around the world.

In 2017, the U of I adopted “Guiding Principles” on Freedom of Speech and Civic Engagement. I list some ways they are failing to uphold these principles:

    • “We have a duty to vigorously and even-handedly protect community members against conduct that falls outside the First Amendment – including true threats, pervasive harassment, incitement to imminent lawless action, and libel…” Ms. Nguyen’s accusation, “she is a transphobe,” is libel. I do not fear or hate trans people. Although it shouldn’t be anyone’s business, I have had trans friends and lovers, and stood for the human rights of trans people, since before Ms. Nguyen entered college.
    • ”We will create conditions for a safe and robust exchange of viewpoints.” This has not happened at the U of I. While one-sided policies of “preferred pronouns” dominate, no voice is given to those who use English sex-based pronouns over newly imposed “gender identity” rules.
    • “In all matters involving freedom of speech, the University of Illinois system will endeavor to maintain a high level of transparency.” I am confident anti-feminist blacklisting occurs here, as it does on many other campuses. Blacklisting is by its nature non-transparent and unaccountable, but its effects are devastating.
    • “We will not condone shouting down or physically obstructing or threatening a speaker or the speaker’s audience.” Does this include on Social Media? Because Facebook is where Ms. Nguyen did just that, and got my event shut down.
    • “We must always strive to be valued local partners, learning from and collaborating with the communities that are home to our universities and programs.” Bullying a local venue into shutting down a screening by a local artist achieves the opposite of that mission.
  • “We owe our students opportunities for substantive civic engagement so that they graduate not only prepared for personal success but also knowing what is expected of them as productive global citizens.” Certainly the University has already failed its students and faculty by refusing any open discussion of genderist ideology and policies. This failure to foster free speech has spilled beyond campus and into the surrounding cities of Urbana-Champaign, harming the community.

HARMS

Many local residents were looking forward to the event at Arcadia. Due to the bullying by Ms. Nguyen, representing the University of Illinois, and her associates, the event was cancelled. Many more locals hoped Seder-Masochism would screen at Ebertfest this year. Now, they will not see it.

Many in this college town are afraid to voice support for me, or express any gender-critical thought, for fear of being branded “transphobic.” Academics who even question ‘gender identity’ have been disciplined or denounced in open letters; those who express fully gender critical views have lost their jobs. Between that and the imposition of ‘preferred pronouns,’ requiring the speaker to suppress their correct recognition of biological sex in favor of compelled speech – that is, lying – University employees, their spouses, and friends, feel compelled to keep quiet.

So, instead of the “opportunities for substantive civic engagement” promised in the University’s Principles, the University instead fosters a climate of fear and silence in the wider community.

Beyond this harm to our community, I have been harmed personally as well. I can’t calculate the cost this has had on my professional reputation, career, and livelihood. I have certainly suffered psychological harm: being falsely accused and shut down in my hometown, with no accountability for the accusers, evokes a despair I had previously only read about in books like “The Crucible” and histories of witch trials.

REMEDIES

The University needs to protect speech.

I acknowledge the University is in a bind. Recent State interpretations of Title IX have – perhaps unwittingly – redefined ‘sex’ to include ‘gender identity.’ As long as Title IX fails to uphold its original purpose – protections based on sex – and instead protects incoherent, ill-defined, and fundamentally sexist concepts of ‘gender identity,’ it is at odds with the First Amendment – and with itself.

The University’s Student Affairs web page states:

We will continue to protect and treat all students according to their gender identities and gender expressions, honoring chosen names, pronouns, and restroom access, as is current campus policy.”

‘Preferred pronouns’ are compelled speech, forcing the speaker to contradict their own recognition of another’s sex. This compulsion violates the First Amendment. But ‘preferred pronouns’ also violate Title IX itself, insofar as it still protects sex. Although trans activists vehemently deny this, there is ample evidence that some trans-identified males are autogynephiles – that is, fetishists who are sexually aroused by imagining themselves as women. Being forced to call such men “she” is forced participation in sexual activity without consent. That is just one way privileging ‘gender identity’ over sex is institutionalized sexual coercion.

‘Sex’ and ‘gender identity’ are fundamentally mutually exclusive; you cannot protect one without delegitimizing the other. The University considers failure to use ‘preferred pronouns’ harassment against the individual who imposes them. But ‘preferred pronouns’ themselves are harassment, including sexual harassment, against individuals compelled to use them.

My plea to the University is to reaffirm its commitment to Free Speech and acknowledge the untenable and inconsistent demands added to Title IX by the redefinition of sex. It is tragic that the former integrity of Title IX, which has been instrumental in providing sex-based protections and opportunities for women and girls, is now in opposition to the First Amendment. Free Speech is important. Sex-based protections are important. Redefining ‘sex’ to include ‘gender identity’ is an assault on both.

On an immediate and practical level, the University should:

Assure the right of all employees and students to use whatever pronouns they see fit;

Assure the right of all students and employees to question and discuss current “gender identity” politics without fear of libel or punishment, and;

Host meaningful discussion on this subject. Feminist Journalist Meghan Murphy is available to debate anyone on the topic, “Does Trans Activism Negatively Impact Women’s Rights?” The University would do well to host such a debate here.

Finally, having lost two screening opportunities in my hometown because of the University’s negligence, I would like the University to sponsor a screening of my film Seder-Masochism for the community.

Sincerely,

—Nina Paley

Director, Seder-Masochism and Sita Sings the Blues

Urbana, IL

ninapaley.com

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