Perhaps the most enduring of communism’s many ignominious contributions to Western intellectual life is the collective letter of denunciation.
In 1958, after the writer Boris Pasternak won the Nobel Prize in literature, the presidium of the Union of Soviet Writers voted unanimously to expel him in a move that was reported on the front page of The New York Times. According to this governmentally controlled body, the author of Dr. Zhivago had committed “treason with regard to the Soviet people, the cause of socialism, peace, and progress paid for by a Nobel Prize in order to intensify the Cold War.” Articles in Literaturnaya Gazeta, an official organ of the union, denounced the Jewish author as a “Judas” and likened him to a “snake” that had emerged from the “poetical dungwaters of lyrical manure.”
In 1969, the union expelled another author whose work challenged the Soviet regime, Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, for “antisocial behavior.” The following year, Solzhenitsyn, like Pasternak before him, won the Nobel. In an angry statement, also reported on the front page of the Times, the union decried how “works by this writer that were illegally taken abroad and published there have long been used by Western reactionary circles for anti-Soviet aims.”
In 1973, an open letter signed by 40 members of the Soviet Academy of Sciences denounced the physicist Andrei Sakharov for his criticisms of Kremlin human rights abuses, which, they alleged, had found favor with “the most reactionary imperialist circles” abroad. Sakharov, too, won the Nobel Prize (for peace) two years later, only for 72 members of the academy—a full third of its membership—to sign a florid statement declaring that the award was “of an unworthy and provocatory nature and is blasphemy against the noble ideals cherished by us all of humanism, peace, justice, and friendship between peoples of all countries.”
The pattern of denunciation by committee was repeated in countless cases across the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. Though the totalitarian states of the Eastern bloc could not prevent the emergence of individual truth-seekers and dissidents like Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov, and Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia, the public shaming rituals served a broader purpose: to dissuade the great majority of the people from following their own consciences by making them witness the high cost paid by others.
Systems of government may come and go, but habits of mind persist. Over three decades after communism was relegated to the ash heap of history, a new group of progressive writers are embracing the language and tactics of their ideological forebears. Importing the methods of East Berlin to Brooklyn, they seek to enforce intellectual conformity on one of the most contentious issues facing America today by denouncing their colleagues for deviating from the party line.
Over three decades after communism was relegated to the ash heap of history, a new group of progressive writers are embracing the language and tactics of their ideological forebears.
The exemplar of this effort is an open letter sent last week by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) to The New York Times lambasting the paper’s “irresponsible, biased coverage of transgender people.” Signed by over 100 “leaders” and organizations including filmmaker Judd Apatow, actress Lena Dunham, purported comedian Hannah Gadsby, and a host of state-level LGBT rights organizations, the letter is written in the language of an irate undergraduate, featuring many of that genre’s by now tiresome tics and catchphrases, such as the use of CAPITAL LETTERS to denote anger, promises to “educate” the troglodytes who hold incorrect beliefs, and instructions that they “do the work.” Among the Times’ alleged sins are its decision to give “noted cisgender heterosexual Pamela Paul space for her unfounded thoughts” on the op-ed page, where her offenses have ranged from lamenting how so-called trans-inclusive language (“pregnant people,” “menstruators,” and “bodies with vaginas”) erases women to questioning why the word “queer” has supplanted “gay” and “lesbian.” The letter also takes the Times to task for hiring Never Trump conservative David French as a columnist, citing his previous work for a Christian legal organization that has filed lawsuits to prevent natal males from participating in women’s sports. (Though French, like Paul, is a “cisgender heterosexual,” apparently he’s not a “noted” one.) Oddly for a letter so seized with the plight of the gender nonconforming, French gets no credit from GLAAD for his controversial defense, on First Amendment grounds, of public libraries hosting drag queen story hours, a principled position that earned him a massive amount of grief from polemicists further to his right.
While faulting the Times for spreading “inaccurate and harmful misinformation about transgender people and issues” in “article after article, page after page” for “more than a year,” the GLAAD letter does not point to a single factual error in the paper’s coverage other than the temporary misgendering of a trans woman in a story about a shooting at a Colorado gay club last year. Published in the immediate aftermath of a deadly incident while news was still developing and facts were difficult to ascertain, and “relying on a first-person account,” the article initially identified the woman as a “drag dancer.” After confirming that she was in fact transgender, the Times fixed the mistake. A statement GLAAD cites from the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH), issued in response to a lengthy Times article concerning the debate within the medical community about the provision of puberty blockers to gender dysphoric children, does not dispute any facts in the paper’s coverage but rather faults it for promoting “inaccurate narratives.” The Times did not issue any corrections to the piece.
“We could spend paragraphs listing every anti-LGBTQ and every anti-trans article the Times has printed in just the past year, but we would rather focus on action,” the letter states, before proceeding, as these missives always do, to a series of ultimatums. GLAAD issued three demands, listed under the headings “STOP,” “LISTEN,” and “HIRE.” To avoid GLAAD’s continued wrath, the paper must “Stop printing biased anti-trans stories” (deadline: immediately), “Hold a meeting with transgender community members and leaders, and listen throughout that meeting” (deadline: within two months), and “Hire at least 2 trans people on the Opinion side and at least 2 trans people on the news side” (deadline: within three months). It then concludes with a suggestion that the paper of record look to Vox, Jon Stewart, and John Oliver for how to cover transgender issues.
GLAAD parked a billboard truck outside the paper’s Eighth Avenue headquarters (“DEAR NEW YORK TIMES: STOP QUESTIONING TRANS PEOPLE’S RIGHT TO EXIST & ACCESS TO MEDICAL CARE”) and coordinated the release of its letter with a separate one signed by hundreds of the paper’s contributors. What the GLAAD communiqué lacks in subtlety, the letter from Times “contributors” (some of whose claims to that distinction consist of a single letter to the editor) makes up for in self-righteousness. “As thinkers,” the signatories haughtily declare, in a text that singles out a number of Times reporters and columnists for obloquy, “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.” The sudden prominence of transgender issues in the West can absolutely be described as a “new controversy,” a characterization which GLAAD and its allies implicitly acknowledge by engaging in a well-funded, well-organized public relations battle against the most influential newspaper in the country. (So controversial is the transgender question that it played a major role in bringing down Scotland’s long-serving leader earlier this month.) And while the Times has covered many aspects of this controversy—including but hardly limited to the appropriate age at which to administer puberty blockers to gender dysphoric children, concerns by parents that schools are hiding their children’s gender transitions, and the participation of transgender women in women’s sports—categorizing the paper’s coverage as giving aid and comfort to the mortal enemies of transgender people is absurd.
But not to the letter’s signatories, who believe that the traditional values of American journalism—objectivity foremost among them—should be replaced with advocacy. “The natural destination of poor editorial judgment is the court of law,” they write, mentioning a legal brief filed by the attorney general of Arkansas in support of a bill that would make it illegal to provide puberty blockers to children, and which cited three Times articles. But the ways that politicians make use of Times reporting should not be a concern for the paper—its role is only to report the truth. Holding the Times responsible for what elected officials do with the information it uncovers is like the Union of Soviet Writers complaining that the works of Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn, and Sakharov deserved to be denounced because they were cited approvingly by “imperialists” and “fascists.” (That the Times, through its measured coverage of transgender issues, “wants fascism,” is an accusation that one of the letter’s signatories has made.) “I believe that there are editors at The New York Times who believe that they are covering this issue properly, that it’s in the public interest to present both sides,” says the ringleader of the letter, for whom only one side is worth hearing.
Contrary to GLAAD and the thousands of people who have since signed onto the two letters attacking the Times, the science concerning transgender issues is far from “SETTLED.” Indeed, with regard to the debate among medical professionals, the timing of GLAAD’s campaign could not have been less fortuitous. The week before the letters were published, a former case manager at the Washington University Transgender Center at St. Louis Children’s Hospital published a harrowing account in The Free Press of her four-year stint counseling children with gender dysphoria, many of whom were rushed into gender transitions without “formal protocols for treatment.” The situation, she concluded, was “morally and medically appalling,” with vulnerable young people essentially treated like lab rats. A few days later, The Times of London published a blockbuster report exposing the downfall of England’s Tavistock gender clinic, where a large portion of the patients were gay young people who tragically came to see transitioning as a way of overcoming their unwanted same-sex attraction. According to one former employee, Tavistock was implementing “conversion therapy for gay kids,” with some clinicians darkly joking that, at the rate their work was going, there would be “no gay people left.” Last fall, The Guardian (hardly a right-wing outlet) described “the lack of consensus within the medical profession about how best to proceed if a child experiences gender dysphoria,” a simple statement of fact that, by the lights of GLAAD and its journalistic auxiliaries, constitutes hate speech. (Along with the U.K., Finland and Sweden have issued new guidelines drastically limiting the “gender affirming” medical interventions GLAAD assures us are beyond reproach.) Understandably fearful of the bullying that invariably greets those who question the dogmas of radical gender ideology, every source from the U.K. National Health Service interviewed by The Guardian did so on the condition of anonymity.
Three years ago, when The New York Times published an op-ed by a sitting United States senator that was unpopular with many of its staff, the paper’s leadership crumbled to the mob, publicly disavowing the piece and forcing the editorial page editor to resign. Fortunately, in reaction to this latest contretemps, the Times brass have responded rationally. Last week, showing the spine that his predecessor Dean Baquet lacked, Executive Editor Joe Kahn sent a tersely worded memo to staff stating that the paper does “not welcome, and will not tolerate, participation by Times journalists in protests organized by advocacy groups or attacks on colleagues on social media and other public forums.”
A leaked portion of a conversation in the Times #LGBTQIA Slack channel illustrates what Kahn is up against. “I don’t think a public forum and a coordinated campaign with advocates is the way to [improve the paper’s coverage of transgender issues],” a reporter, who has worked at the Times for nearly three decades, writes.
“Ok, understood,” responds a news assistant who graduated from college in 2016. “So, what do you want to do to help queer and trans folx get true respect and feel safe?”
A software engineer in the paper’s cooking section chimes in. “You are free to do that in spaces that are appropriate. I don’t think this one is. This is a community for queer people”
“I’m a lesbian, folks,” the reporter responds, “so maybe I am queer?”
Much will depend on whether the Times upholds the principle of journalistic objectivity against those who would trash it in favor of agitprop. About few other subjects are Americans more afraid to express an opinion today than transgender issues. The chief reason for this phenomenon is the bullying which one side habitually employs—exploiting the language of emotional blackmail to intimidate skeptics into submission—whenever its shibboleths are subjected to the slightest scrutiny. Insisting that anyone who questions novel medical treatments being administered to children opposes transgender people’s very “right to exist,” citing misleading statistics to claim that gender dysphoric youth will commit suicide unless their cross-sex self-identification is instantly confirmed, and denigrating journalists who dare to report on these issues, are not the argumentative methods conducive to liberal democracy. They smack of Pavel Morozov, the mythical 13-year-old boy transformed into a posthumous hero by the Soviet Union for informing on his parents.
For all the bombast, America’s contentious debate over transgender issues has very little to do with the plight of actual transgender people, a miniscule portion of the population whom a large majority of the public supports protecting from discrimination. What we’re really arguing about are not civil rights and legal protections but, rather, a set of far more expansive propositions like whether the biological concept of sex is a construct, whether people with penises should be allowed into rape shelters and housed in women’s prisons, and whether irreversible medical interventions are appropriate for minors who express discomfort with their gender identity. For the aspiring commissars who joined the collective denunciation of the Times, the vast majority of whom are neither transgender nor medical professionals, staking an extreme position in the “trans” debate is a signifier, a means of conveying that one is on the right side of history in the way that supporting marriage equality for gay couples once did. This is why they compare, ludicrously, the paper’s careful and sensitive reporting about transgender issues to its past coverage “demonizing queers.” Like the Marxism-Leninism of yore, radical gender ideology offers its believers a sense of righteous purpose, moralistic mantras, and devious enemies to despise (with J.K. Rowling fulfilling the role of Emmanuel Goldstein).
The signatories to the open letter protesting The New York Times for its “transphobic” coverage are not the “thinkers” they presume themselves to be, but rather modern-day equivalents of Vaclav Havel’s proverbial greengrocer, the shopkeeper in a communist society who dutifully places signs in his store window asserting various party-approved slogans such as “Workers of the world, unite!”
He put them all into the window simply because it has been done that way for years, because everyone does it, and because that is the way it has to be. If he were to refuse, there could be trouble. He could be reproached for not having the proper decoration in his window; someone might even accuse him of disloyalty. He does it because these things must be done if one is to get along in life.
Describing the scale of the damage wrought at England’s Tavistock gender clinic, staff made comparisons to one of the great medical scandals of the 20th century: East Germany’s mass doping of athletes in the 1960s and ’70s. Decades from now, when we look back at our present transgender moment, the writers at the Times whom the letter condemns will be remembered for their professionalism and scrupulousness in covering a highly complex issue. Those attacking them for thought crimes will be seen as the epigones of their predecessors in the Union of Soviet Writers, as small-minded enforcers of absurdities that were bound to one day fall apart.
James Kirchick is a Tablet columnist and the author of Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington (Henry Holt, 2022). He tweets @jkirchick.