Friday, 14 May 2010

In what is perhaps my finest hour, I hate on a paralyzed man

I was for a couple of years a very good fan of the moderate left-wing historian Tony Judt. His collection of essays, Reappraisals, came along just at the time that I developed a serious essay-fetish. Better still, unlike the other major essayist I got into, Clive 'never knowingly unannoying' James, he followed a broadly social-democratic line and wasn't given to (a) showing off his multilingualism in an extremely de haut en bas fashion, (b) going on and on about the bloody tango, or (c)breaking off in the middle of an otherwise decent article to go off on another rant about how Marxism was inevitably doomed and Margaret Thatcher is a modern-day Joan of Arc. I would keep an eye out for anything in a magazine at the bookshop that contained one of Judt's pieces, and was particularly pleased, in a bittersweet sort of a way, when the New York Review began publishing a regular series of memoirs by Judt, reflecting on his long career in the humanities.

It was bittersweet because in the first of these articles, Night, Judt wrote, heartbreakingly, about the motor neurone disease that had left him bedridden and with no other intellectual stimulation than to make voyages into his own remembered past. Night was one of those things that you read which, when you finish it, mean you have to walk around the house for a bit (if you're lucky enough to be able to), not exactly thinking and not exactly upset and not exactly angry but sort of stressed and restless, battling a vague sense of the unfairness of the universe.

So when, last week, I was browsing the magazine stand in Fenwicks during a rare day to myself during the recent worry of Michelle's breast cancer, and I saw a copy of the New York Review with Judt's byline on the cover, I picked it up immediately.

I'm a busy person, especially so of late, so I didn't get around to reading Judt's article until today. And I kind of wish I hadn't, because if I'd never read it I could have carried on thinking of Judt as an essentially noble, freethinking genius, tragically struck down by a cruel degenerative disease in the twilight of his years. Instead of, as it turns out, an insufferable, arrogant prick who embodies everything distasteful about male and cis privilege (because of which, a trigger warning is in effect for the next link if you, like me, find those things distressing).

Tony has been thinking about girls while he's in bed, you see. He's been thinking in particular about how feminism and what he calls 'sexual correctness' ruined things for crazy, fun-loving '60s types' like himself. 'History,' Judt writes, sounding like no-one so much as dandified right-wing rent-a-gob David Starkey, 'was a fast-feminizing profession, with a graduate community primed for signs of discrimination - or worse.' Clearly, this 'rabble of womankind' caused Judt some bother. 'Physical contact constituted a presumption of malevolent intention; a closed door was proof positive.'

So basically, Judt was upset that he couldn't (a) touch his female students up and (b) couldn't have the door to his office closed when one of them was in there with him. Oh, the humanity! It's poliddikul corregdness gawn maaaaaaahhhhhhd, that's what it is. Except it's fucking not. These are students we're talking about: why would he need to physically touch them? I don't recall any of my lecturers having to personhandle me during my student days (as much as I may have wanted some of them to), and as for the closed door, well, so what? So he had to leave his door open, it's NYU, not the school in Dangerous Minds. I'm pretty sure he wasn't bothered by many kids staging impromptu breakdance contests outside of his study.

Fantastically it gets better, as Judt rapidly transmogrifies into a modern-day Humbert Humbert and tells us about his own dinner dates with an attractive young student (don't worry ladies; we're given to understand Judt only loves her for her mind, and if you believe that I have a face-cream enriched with pro-retinol to sell you), and whines about how it's such a shame that 'Americans assiduously avoid anything that might smack of harassment, even at the risk of forgoing promising friendships and the joys of flirtation.'

Bitch, please. First of all, if you can't flirt without inviting accusations of sexual harassment, you are no fucking good at flirting and would be advised to give it the fuck up. Secondly, sorry chum, but I have lots of female friends and at no point have I thought, shit, I better stop being friends with these girls in case I leave myself open to a charge of sexual harassment because, guess the fuck what, I'm not a total fucking prick.

But then Judt really goes all-in when he cries havoc and unleashes the dogs of victim-blaming and cisfail. First of all, he introduces us to the case of 'a promising young professor' who 'was accused of improper advances by a graduate student in his department.' Judt takes at face value the confession from his golden boy that he 'followed her into a supply closet and declared his feelings.' Judt then says there was 'no question of intimidation', apparently not being smart enough, despite his Cambridge education, to grasp the fact that a woman might feel somewhat threatened when followed into a confined space by a man who then confesses his sexual desire for her. Fortunately, female students at Judt's school weren't quite so unwise in the ways of the world - they refused to take his classes, which eventually led to Judt's acolyte being denied tenure. Judt, predictably, is full of sorrow for the privileged professor - 'his career was ruined' - and full of bile for the woman he picked on: 'Meanwhile, his "victim" was offered the usual counseling (sic).' You stay classy there, Mr Judt.

Fortunately, the honourable Judt got his revenge, and he wastes no time in telling us, gloatingly, about how he did so:

'Some years later, I was called to the Office of the University Lawyer. Would I serve as a witness for the defense in a case against NYU being brought by that same young woman? Note, the lawyer warned me: "she" is really a "he" and is suing the university for failing to take seriously "her" needs as a transvestite. We shall fight the case but must not be thought insensitive.'

Oh, how very fucking big of you, Mr Judt! Words fail me here but, let's face it, they fail Judt too...the humanities scholar is unable to tell the difference between a trans woman and a 'transvestite', and can't resist those Bindel-like scare quotes around all the pronouns in his paragraph. Unfortunately his linguistic gifts didn't desert him in the courtroom. He can barely conceal his grin when telling us of his cute turn of phrase when asked 'were you not prejudiced against my client because of her transgendered identity preference?' (which phrase itself reads to me like Judt's mind playing Proustian perceptual tricks on him - 'identity preference' is the way someone like Judt would categorise gender identity as a matter of choice). What did Judt say on the stand? 'I don't see how I could have been...I thought she was a woman - isn't that what she wanted me to think?'

I can just picture Judt smirking, sneering, as he sits in a courtroom and trots out this wheedling little sophistry. Needless to say, in a court of the privileged, the university won the case - but Judt says it anyway, because he wants to underline how he - backed with nothing more than the entire financial and legal might of a prestigious university - managed to beat down a sneaky little trans woman.

There's a lot more in Judt's article - he has the front, in trying to justify his behaviour, to make a ridiculous case that demanding safety and respect for women - trans or cis - is apparently on the same moral level as 'Bill Clinton's self-destructive transgressions or Tony Blair's insistence that he was right to lie his way into a war' - but it's Friday night and I don't want to spend the rest of my evening fighting back an urge to vomit. Here's the bottom line:

Tony Judt makes excuses for a man who sexually harrassed a trans woman. He blames the victim of this harassment for what the harasser did. He then defended the university when this woman was brave enough to take them to court for mistreating her. Tony Judt, a man who in his career has written much about the injustice of oppression, sees nothing wrong at all with what he did.

From where I'm sitting, it looks nothing but wrong. It looks like another old cis white guy picking on those who lack his privilege to make himself feel better about his own peccadiloes. It looks like the old boys club getting together to cover up their crimes and keep the girls out of the clubhouse unless they're being wheeled in in cakes. It looks shameful, and pathetic, and sad.

I liked Tony Judt's books because I thought he was a historian who believed in justice. But it turns out he isn't. He's just another in a long line of privileged bastards who make the world worse.

Tonight, I go to sleep, knowing I've lost a hero. Tony Judt tries to sleep, knowing pain and discomfort, but knowing also that his discomfort is relative: he has nurses, a restful bed, and constant supervision. But tonight many trans women go to sleep knowing they're left out - not just of Judt's privileged little boys' club but also the world of employment, of housing, of the privileges of normal life which only seem 'normal' to those who never realise what a privilege they are.

High rates of homelessness. High rates of unemployment. High rates of harassment and discrimination. A shockingly high chance of being murdered. Tony Judt has done his bit to keep those statistics high. And, if he wasn't sick, he'd have no problem sleeping.

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