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Happiness, Happiness You Shall Pursue

A recent ‘New York Times’ essay delivers a crucial reminder from the Founding Fathers about identity politics

Liel Leibovitz
December 05, 2018
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine

Last week, the essayist Andrea Long Chu wrote a powerful piece in The New York Times. Here’s how it began:

Next Thursday, I will get a vagina. The procedure will last around six hours, and I will be in recovery for at least three months. Until the day I die, my body will regard the vagina as a wound; as a result, it will require regular, painful attention to maintain. This is what I want, but there is no guarantee it will make me happier. In fact, I don’t expect it to. That shouldn’t disqualify me from getting it.

Happiness, elusive as it is, remains the radical principle around which Chu organizes her argument. Even the Hippocratic oath, she believes, is at fault, because when doctors vow to do no harm, they place their own judgment over the patient’s. “Nonmaleficence,” she writes, “is a principle violated in its very observation. Its true purpose is not to shield patients from injury but to install the medical professional as a little king of someone else’s body.” And this, Chu concludes, must stop: “Surgery’s only prerequisite,” she claims, “should be a simple demonstration of want.” Nothing, in other words, should ever trump the patient’s shot at happiness.

It’s a proposition that should resonate with anyone committed to America’s foundational principles, and one that is not a bit dimmed by Chu’s own admission that her happiness may prove elusive. It’s the pursuit the Declaration of Independence guarantees us, not happiness itself, and if that pursuit means a painful surgery, or female hormone treatments, or any other medical decision a person chooses to make about her or his body, let it be. Americans are guaranteed the right to change their sex, or their appearance, or their religion, or any other thing about themselves, as fundamental as it may seem to others, that strikes them as somehow incongruent to their authentic experience, the emotional resonance of their own happiness.

But here’s the tricky part: We’re all in pursuit of happiness, and each person’s pursuit is different. Anyone has the right to undergo gender reassignment surgery, but no one has the right to insist that their friends and neighbors now call them Mark instead of Mary. Accepting a transgender person’s chosen name is the decent thing to do—a request I and many others are only happy to oblige—but it’s not and should never be mandatory. If it doesn’t make you happy, you’re entirely at liberty, simply by virtue of being an American, to refuse to listen when the conversation turns to matters you find disagreeable. You’re just as free to tell your fellow Americans that you find their beliefs ridiculous, even—or especially—beliefs that are deeply personal, emotional, and raw like those concerning one’s true gender identity. Of course, if you choose to be rude, your fellow Americans, transgender and otherwise, are utterly free to point out that you’re being a world-class jerk, and just as free to choose not to welcome you into their midst.

This sounds commonsensical enough, but a flurry of recent cases prove that it’s anything but. Last month, Twitter permanently banned the feminist writer Meghan Murphy for pointing out on the social network that “men aren’t women.” In October, a British transgender lawyer named Stephanie Hayden filed a lawsuit against comedy writer Graham Linehan after he referred to her using her male birth name. And in 2016, British Columbia’s Federation of Labour blacklisted Canada’s longest serving rape crisis center after the NGO refused to admit a transgender woman as a volunteer, arguing that they didn’t allow men into the group and that they expected their volunteers to be women who’d experienced gender-based discrimination from birth.

If you expect the champions of liberalism to rush to the defense of that most gleaming of all liberal ideals—that we’re all free to chart our own individual course to bliss—I’ve some disappointing news. On the left these days, the loudest and most prominent voices are singing out for more censure. Writing in The New York Times, Parker Molloy, a transgender woman and an editor at Media Matters for America—a prominent progressive think tank supported by several senior figures in Democratic politics—argued that Twitter’s decision to ban any user who referred to transgender people by their birth name would boost, not hurt, free speech. Why? Because failing to call transgender people by their chosen names hurt their feelings and makes them feel disinclined to partake in conversation, so if it’s conversation you want you ought first to police everyone’s speech. Twitter’s draconian policy, Molloy wrote without a trace of irony, “gives us the framework we need to reset our thinking.” And resetting people’s thoughts, of course, was precisely what the Founders always had in mind.

Taking things even further, ProPublica, the Pulitzer Prize-winning nonprofit news organization, ran a story earlier this fall claiming that by “deadnaming”—or using a person’s birth name rather than his or her chosen name after gender transition—law enforcement officials were failing to protect transgender people. “’Deadnaming’ Trans Women Isn’t Just Insulting,” read the story’s headline, “It Subverts Justice.”

But justice, really, is a concept for which the Founding Fathers, with the dew of the Enlightenment still glistening in their hair, had very little use. Justice, they understood, was an inherently subjective concept, which meant that one person’s idea of justice is bound sooner or later to clash with another’s; the only way to resolve the conflict that ensued was to invite the state to exercise its coercion, a goal best achieved, naturally, by the establishment of a state-sanctioned religion. Which, of course, was the one thing they were eager to avoid. Instead of justice, then, they promised us the ability to pursue something even more transcendent, happiness, and secured for us our inalienable rights, the mechanism through which said pursuit could proceed. It was a truly revolutionary new compact, and one, in case we need a reminder, that has done much good service to America’s minorities, Jews included.

If we want to preserve it—that is, if we want to continue to be Americans in any intellectually, emotionally, historically, and morally meaningful sense of the word—we have to defend this sacred compact with all our might. The challenge we face has very little to do with hormonal injections or surgically constructed vaginas, and everything to do with the use of coercive power—of the state, of the media, of the culture—to target people whose ideas differ from our own. And no matter how loudly the self-styled radicals cheer, coercive power has never and never will guarantee anyone life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. If we want to continue and hear that American chorus—in which, as the poet once put it, each is “singing what belongs to him or her and to none else”—it’s time we raised our voices.


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Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.