An Internet search of Arabic news sources uncovers no comment in that language about the weirdest utterance ever made by an American president during a major speech, namely Barack Obama’s promise to keep America safe from Muslims and transgenders in last week’s State of the Union address. Obama said that “we continue to reject offensive stereotypes of Muslims, the vast majority of whom share our commitment to peace. That’s why we defend free speech and advocate for political prisoners and condemn the persecution of women or religious minorities or people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. We do these things not only because they are the right thing to do but because ultimately, they make us safer.”
No doubt Obama meant to say that it is right not to offend transgenders, whose feelings might be hurt, and safer not to offend Muslims, who otherwise might commit acts of terrorism, but what he actually said was that condemning the persecution of transgenders (among other things) makes America safer. Like so much bad writing, it illuminates a deeper truth.
There is a reason why Muslims and transgenders both are sensitive in the extreme. Fragility, thy name is trans-woman. To be a Muslim or a transgender is to live on the fringe of humiliation. Once the conquerors of the world from the Himalayas to the Pyrenees, Muslims now live poor and fragile lives compared to the prosperous East or West. In their three largest population concentrations, namely India, Indonesia and Pakistan, they are chronically poor and ill-educated. Only in Muslim countries are civilians murdered by the tens of thousand, and only by other Muslims. For the most part their diaspora in the West is impoverished, isolated and resentful. Worst of all, they have few defenses against the leveling force of modernity, which threaten to rip out the roots of a religion with deep roots in tribal society. It is helpful to remember that ancient Israel as it conquered Canaan, and medieval Christianity as it converted and pacified the pagan barbarians, were keen to kill heretics, and no-one more than St. Thomas Aquinas. Islam is all the more fragile today, and views not only heresy but insult as an existential threat.
Many Muslims would rather die than be humiliated. No other group of people in history has produced so many prospective suicides willing to die in order to kill civilians on the other side, and the overwhelming majority of murdered Muslims are murdered by other Muslims. Despite President Obama’s good offices to deny the future to those who defame the prophet of Islam, Americans have low opinion of Muslims. The Zogby poll last year showed that only 27% of Americans have a favorable opinion of Muslims, vs. 35% in 2010. Americans are tolerant folk; what East Asians think is not printable on a family website.
Traditional life in the Muslim world is unraveling; as Muslim women learn to read, they reject traditional family life, marry late or not at all, and have fewer children. Muslim birthrates are falling drastically. Of course Muslims are sensitive: they view criticism, let alone ridicule, as an existential threat that portends the extinction of their community and social death.
Transgenders, until very recently, did their best not to draw attention to themselves. Apart from the extremely small number of children born with ambiguous genitalia, they comprised a very small minority of individuals convinced from early childhood that they were born with the wrong gender. Explain it however you might, these individuals could not be persuaded otherwise, and live the best lives they can under pitiable circumstances.
That was before the Gender Studies departments at elite universities promoted designer sexual identities, and before confused American young people set out to try on these identities as a means of personal exploration. We are in the age of self-invention. That is “why it’s a big deal that Obama said ‘transgender,’ Time Magazine—the dark heart of the American mainstream—wrote on Jan. 21.
“Many people still mistakenly assume transgender people are only really transgender if their bodies look a certain way,” Time wrote. Nope, you are whatever you think you are! Actress Laverne Cox talked about this issue during an interview with TIME for our cover story on trans issues: “We have to listen to people about who they are and not assume that there’s something wrong with trans people. Because we know who we are. And I think the biggest thing is folks want to believe that there’s something, that genitals and biology are destiny. … When you think about it, it’s kind of ridiculous. People need to be willing to let go of what they think they know about what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman.”
Reinventing one’s gender is ultimate assertion of the postmodern belief that we can define ourselves to be whatever we want to be (in “South Park,” a plastic surgeon turns Kyle into a tall black basketball player and turns his father into a dolphin, while Mr. Garrison gets a vagina. That was 10 years ago; no way that episode would be filmed today). Ultimately there is an either/or: either you receive tradition, or you can presume to be anything you want. The trouble is that we are not clever enough to reinvent ourselves, to recreate on a whim what Creation (or, if you will, millennia of evolution) and hundreds of generation of human learning have created. In short, when we recreate ourselves, we become a pack of caricatures and clowns. Every day is Halloween. When venerable Mount Holyoke College cancels its annual staging of “The Vagina Monologues,” once the cutting edge of feminist transgression, because it “excludes the experience of transgender women who don’t have a vagina,” we have entered a realm of self-ridicule in which any response beyond a fixed stare and regular respiration constitutes “micro-aggression.”
Social movements of this sort are self-liquidating. Proponents of the various gradations of designer sexuality will die of lockjaw from trying not to offend each other, or they will slaughter each other like Sunnis and Shi’ites. Sex, drugs and rock and roll will do for the Muslims, whose grandchildren will identify with their mustachioed fathers and masked mothers less than we do with cavemen. We gender-normative humans will prevail, if only because we are much more likely to raise children—unless, of course, the transgenders get the bomb. Unless Obama starts to negotiate with them, that’s not likely to happen.