Boxed In

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

A shorter version of this article appeared in Ceylon Today on February 9, 2022

The Toxicity of Taxonomy

Some time ago, I coined myself a phrase to address the bad effects of imprisoning ideas in restrictive and reductive categories. The phrase was “the toxicity of taxonomy.” We try to impose some order on the chaos around us by sorting worldly phenomena, including people, into types. However, awful messes ensue if we prejudge according to assumptions which might be mistaken.

The world of social media exacerbates the problem. Complete strangers make unwarranted assumptions about one’s background or character and run with those distortions. I posed the innocent question on Facebook: “is it possible to make criticisms of the government of Israel without being called an anti-Semite?” There was an immediate pile-on with several people unfriending me and even blocking me. Some pro-Israel commenters accused me of being an anti-Semite. Given that I was an anti-Semite, I must be a supporter of then Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. If they had done the most minimal digging, my assumers would have found that it was no secret that I was a strong critic of Corbyn. Corbyn supporters accused me of smearing their hero and proceeded to smear me by calling me a Blairite. I had written many critical articles about Tony Blair.

When I was trying to clear up for a western audience in Le Monde diplomatique and the New York Times some misperceptions about what was happening in Sri Lanka in the closing stages of the war against the LTTE, I was accused by some of being a paid shill for the Rajapaksas, and by others of being a regurgitator of Tiger propaganda.  And so it goes on. Get back in your box!

Cross Dressing to the Left

I have always considered myself as one inclined to dress towards the left. I have never voted Conservative in my life. However, the terms left and right, never unambiguous, are very difficult to fathom these days because of profound changes in the class structure and the way economies work.

I recounted in these pages the strange tale of Frank Furedi and the RCG (Revolutionary Communist Group, which was far to the left of left).

Furedi was expelled from the RCG and became the founder and chairman of the RCT (Revolutionary Communist Tendency), which morphed into the RCP (Revolutionary Communist Party). The RCP was distinguished by its commitment to theoretical elaboration and hostility to state intervention in social life (but mainly interested in fighting with other lefty sects). The RCP eventually developed into Living Marxism and the LM Network, which now produces a contrarian website called Spiked. To echo Groucho Marx, whatever it is, Spiked is against it. Puzzlingly, the supposedly leftist LM Network took what seemed right-wing stances on most issues and has received generous funding from the extreme right Koch brothers.

Munira Mirza has been described as a backroom aide no voter had ever heard of but her resignation may be the most significant event in Boris Johnson’s downfall. She had worked for him for fourteen years. One bemused civil servant said she was one of the few people who actually seemed to like Johnson. She described Johnson’s smearing of Keir Starmer over the failure to prosecute Jimmy Savile as “scurrilous.” Mirza was a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party and a regular contributor to Spiked, even when she was working for Boris Johnson.

What Is the Working Class?

David Boaz is the executive vice president of the Cato Institute, an American libertarian think tank. He is considered right wing by the left, but has taken up leftish positions on some issues, such as supporting the legalization of recreational drugs. Boaz has argued that the political terms Left and Right are no longer simple descriptors. The way they are used today displaces arguments about policy by raising emotional prejudice against a preconceived notion of what the terms Left and Right mean. Those considering themselves to be on the Left stress their support for working people and accuse the Right of supporting the interests of the upper class.

In the UK, the Labour Party was founded to support the interests of the working class but the working class is not what it was. Thatcher, as leader of the right wing Conservative Party destroyed the unions which protected the working class and, indeed, destroyed the manufacturing industry which gave the working class its livelihood. Tony Blair created New Labour by cutting Labour’s traditional ties with trade unions and carrying on with Thatcherite policies of privatisation and outsourcing. These policies did not help the traditional working class.

Box Wallahs

The historian Thomas Frank has argued that Left-wing politics has become “a matter of shallow appearances, or fatuous self-righteousness… a politics in which the beautiful and wellborn tell the unwashed and the beaten-down and the funny-looking how they ought to behave”. Leftism has lost its appeal to whatever the working class these days is. The Labour Party attracts middle class voters and academics as parliamentary candidates. The lefty left seems to have sold its soul to identity politics. The self-appointed spokespersons of the lefty left in the UK (Kerry-Anne Mendoza, Owen Jones, Jackie Walker, Ash Sarkar) tend to put people in boxes. They use the divisive tropes of identity politics and paint a cartoon version of history peopled with stereotypes. This tribalist instinct leads to hostility and reflexive opposition towards those deemed the “other.” Identity has become dependent upon countering someone else with no room for nuance. They position themselves as champions of honesty which means their opponents are the worst of humanity whose views can be distorted.

Doxxing and Boxing

A group of aggressive males who claim to be women but have not surrendered their appendages or even taken the pills are attempting to create a hierarchy within the term “woman” and to push born females lower in it. They apply the loathsome term “cis women” in a derogatory spirit to the people they claim to identify with. They intimidate through words and sometimes through physical violence. These people are getting support from the Left who cry “bigot” at those who remind the world what “woman” means. This bigotry, this “transphobia” often consists of simply repeating the dictionary definition of a woman. JK Rowling has suffered untold abuse for merely expressing her own common sense view that a woman is a woman and that biological fact cannot be changed by self-declaration.

Thinking Outside the Box

Looking at this issue has led me to realise I have some unexpected allies. I learned a long time ago that, although I have been reading the Guardian since around 1960, and generally agree with it, I cannot expect the paper’s contributors to tell the truth about Sri Lanka. I am more likely to read common sense about transgender issues in the right wing Daily Telegraph than in the Guardian. When I pointed out on Facebook that the Daily Mail was publishing articles by the estimable Eileen Fairweather about then Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s role in the Islington child abuse scandal, Corbyn’s supporters vilified me and said the involvement of the Daily Mail meant it could not be true. As Orwell put it, Soviet atrocities were still atrocities even if the Daily Telegraph said so. Saddam Hussein was still a monster even if George W Bush believed so.

Herd Impunity

Many people whose views I do not normally share – Douglas Murray, Ruth Dudley Edwards, Jordan Peterson, Liz Truss, Melanie Phillips, Rod Liddle, even Tucker Carlson and the appalling Laurence Fox! – were saying things about trans activism that made more sense than the ill-informed arrogant nonsense spouted by bien pensant entertainers whom I would have considered to be on my team, like Billy Bragg, Stewart Lee and Daniel Radcliffe.

Comedian Stewart Lee

Publications and blogs I had previously steered clear of as right-wing and anti-PC, such as Unherd, Quillette, The Federalist, The Critics, Daily Telegraph, the Spectator, and Standpoint, were publishing sensible articles on the subject while more liberal organs were carried away by the madness and doing the bidding of the bullies in frocks. The Conservative MP Miriam Cates was talking more sense about the subject than any left wing politician. In the US, it was a Republican Senator Tom Cotton who introduced a bill to keep men out of women’s prisons.

Miriam Cates MP

Rose Duffield is a UK Labour MP who has shared LGB Alliance platforms with Graham Linehan (a comedy writer whose life has been disrupted by trans lobby bullies) and supported JK Rowling (who has donated generously to the Labour Party and been vilified in return). Duffield’s pro-woman feminist stance has aroused the ire of trans activists. She has a record of expressing gender-critical views and was called transphobic after simply “liking” a tweet saying women were people with cervixes. You can watch on YouTube Conservative MPs such as Jackie Doyle-Price expressing eminently sensible views on women’s rights and misogyny, views which are completely harmonious with what Rosie Duffield is saying. That does not mean that Duffield is a traitor to the left.

Inevitably, the trans bullies have gone after Rose Duffield, making her life hell. As I write this she is seriously contemplating leaving the Labour Party. She has said she felt unable to attend last year’s Labour conference because of the controversy generated by her remarks. Duffield has denied being transphobic and has said she is “completely supportive of trans rights”.

Rose Duffield MP

The chilling aspect of this is that a Labour spokesman said: “The party continues to be in touch with Rosie Duffield and has offered her advice and support.”  That means they will try to intimidate her to stop her expressing her views. Duffield says, “It is obsessive harassment. Neither the Labour party or either the former or current Leader or the Whips’ Office have done anything at all to stop it, to offer me any support, help or legal assistance. I am financially unable to pursue a libel action.”

Box On

On her Substack blog, Eliza Mondegreen writes: “When asking questions and looking for answers outside the approved sources gets you branded a hateful bigot or dangerous heretic, we’ve traveled into strange territory. Holy land, so to speak. No wonder citizens, civil servants, and secularists of many stripes feel so uncomfortable. Holy land isn’t our terrain. We’re unsure of our footing.

And no wonder so many people, sensing the ever-shrinking perimeter of acceptable variation on this issue, don’t budge an inch, don’t ask the obvious questions, and frankly don’t want to look for honest answers.”

I have not become one of those old Lefties like Paul Johnson who become reactionary with age. I walk in with an open mind and no preconceived expectations. This vastly widens the landscape of information that I can explore. People would rather protect their ego than experience intellectual growth.