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How to Fight a Holy War
There is no humanity, no subtlety, in a crusade. Just servants of light, and servants of darkness.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Thanks so much for staying patient during the two-week break I took to try to quit smoking. Let the record show that as soon as I had to write a column I started smoking again, rendering the hiatus a bit moot, except that I had time to get really angry, and when I get really angry, I get more florid than you could possibly imagine. I hope you had a good President’s Day weekend and I’d like to implore, nay, beg you to become a paid subscriber to this newsletter. To date, paid-subscriber content has been a bit spotty, but frankly I provide a crap-ton of words for free already, and I have a good idea of where I want to go from here with the paid side of things, and if you get any pleasure or joy or rage or interesting cocktail-party anecdotes from this newsletter I would greatly appreciate it if you could help your local struggling writer & editor out and give us five bucks a month. In honor of America’s long train of war-criminal presidents with bad chins, we’re offering a 20% off deal; help us stop sweating about our rent and subscribe!
And now: an absolutely unhinged screed to kick off the end of February off right.
Back in the laurel-draped past of Greek myth there was a bandit named Procrustes, a rogue who had once been a blacksmith. From his stronghold on Mount Korydallos, along the pilgrim’s path from Athens to Eleusis, Procrustes expressed his depraved urges by means of pretended hospitality. He would invite travelers on the Sacred Way to rest for the night, in one of two iron beds of his own devising. In the small hours, according to Hyginis’ Fabulae, the host sprung his trap: “When a guest came to visit him, if he was rather tall, he brought a shorter bed, and cut off the rest of his body; if rather short, he gave him a longer bed, and by hanging anvils to him stretched him to match the length of the bed.” Procrustes was killed by the hero Theseus, who was on a quest to rid Greece of its bandit scourge, in the same manner: decapitated, the better to fit his own cruel bed.
Lately, I have been thinking about that bed and those who pretend to offer welcome. About people who smile as they break your bones to fit the shape they want. I think about Procrustes—that demented son of Poseidon—and how much he might like the laws being proposed and passed across this country, some three thousand years after his chroniclers lived.
For example: on the eve of Valentine’s Day, South Dakota’s hard-right haircut of a governor, Kristi Noem, took it upon herself to sign a vile piece of legislation. House Bill 1080, dubbed the “Help Not Harm Act,” betrayed much of its hideousness in its name: it is a bill designed to prevent trans kids from receiving routine healthcare procedures, such as puberty blockers and hormone replacement therapy. It also legislates against all gender-confirmation surgery, vanishingly rare among minors in the first place, as part of a nationwide campaign of fearmongering and control.
Before the bill passed, trans teens and their parents vociferously demonstrated that it would harm, not help, their ability to survive in South Dakota. The bill’s primary sponsor, former Ted Cruz clerk Bethany Soye, crowed about 1080’s success at a news conference held by a nefarious Christian-right organization called the Family Heritage Alliance. The baby-faced Soye, moonlighting as a state legislator while holding down a day job as a lawyer for a bank, spouted the grotesque stream of bullshit that has become her stock in trade. “Under the guise of ‘medical treatment,’ children are being mutilated, sterilized, and being turned into permanent medical patients,” she said, lying through her teeth, ready to slice everyone down to her size like the mad bandit of the sacred way.
I’m sorry, did I lose my sense of journalistic objectivity and start expressing some anger in the previous paragraph? When I think about this shit my teeth clench so hard they squeak like little angry rats, my hands inadvertently bunch into claws, and I feel a surge of impotent fury so sickening it’s like a series of F1 drivers are curving ‘round my duodenum. So for a moment I forgot I was supposed to show both sides of the equation.
Let me present both sides: On the one hand, trans teens would like to be more comfortable in their bodies during an extremely difficult period of development. If their parents—who already have an inordinate amount of control over their healthcare—agree, they can begin the extremely difficult process of accessing treatment. That primarily consists of therapy, hormone treatment, and rarely, for teens on the cusp of adulthood, mastectomies. On the other hand, fundamentalist lawmakers scream about genitals, and their own unwarranted right to control teenage breasts. The lack of teenage breasts bothers them so much they are making laws about it. They are obsessed with the breasts of strangers’ children. They believe they know the proper shape for a body and will enact any violence, use any coercion, to enforce it. They call their bill “Help Not Harm,” though harm is really the point.
Naturally, Soye’s bill is being pushed by the Family Heritage Alliance, christo-fascist bullies who proclaim that their nefarious legislative agenda is driven by a commitment “to defending the freedom to live our Christian faith in every aspect of public life. This is not just the freedom to worship, but the freedom to freely exercise our faith.” These are the people who militated for the crushing of Roe. Not content with endangering the lives of anyone with a uterus, and no doubt causing a spike in the nation’s already scandalously high maternal mortality rate, they are now interfering in extremely private decisions between kids and parents and doctors, because the free exercise of their faith is an exercise in control over other people’s bodies.
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Their freedom is the unfreedom of others, and they know this. They revel in it. There is no such thing as hypocrisy in a holy war. Bethany Soye, who proudly proclaims to be an advocate of religious freedom and writes that she is on the “praise team” at her church, is at war with those trans teens and their families. Their discomfort and pain is her joy, because she believes she will succeed at forcing them back into the closet, the better to fit into the Procrustean bed of Christofascist gender norms.
“80 to 90% of children who are struggling with their identities will come to accept and thrive as their biological sex,” Soye claimed at the FHA press conference. “That is why this bill is needed now.” She necessarily picked that statistic out of her ass, but it doesn’t matter—truth doesn’t matter to her in this or any other context—and what she is making, here, is a statement of intent. She wants those kids who are questioning their gender to be pressed back into the rigid molds her faith dictates. And if they’re too brittle to be so mishandled, and they break, it’s of no concern. Casualties are a fact of war, if not its purpose.
The freedom to exercise Christian faith as defined by the FHA and their many, many fellow-travelers—in pulpits and state legislatures and sitting at home letting Fox News whip them into a lather—is the freedom to nullify their enemies, to obtain and retain complete control over every aspect of public life. They have creepy guys with sunken cheeks to work out the polysyllabic theories behind the “moralized tyranny” of the “secular-progressive establishment,” but the upshot is they’ve invented some very powerful enemies that they are pretending very hard are the ones doing the persecuting, and as a result they will stop at nothing to punch these phantoms to shreds. It is the nature of reactionary movements to claim that their power is negligible until it is absolute; it is the nature of right-wing American Christianity to tenderly nurture a martyrdom that was never theirs and never will be theirs, and use its sentiments to feed their animus. It is the nature of reactionaries, too, to hurl others forcefully back into an imagined, ideal past.
In his classic A History of Fascism, Stanley G. Payne notes that fascists have a “horror of androgyny,” a fixation on male virility, an obsession with female submission. I have frankly neither the expertise nor the patience to conduct a 1:1 comparison with Mussolini’s squadristi and the holy-roller jagweeds of Sioux Falls, but suffice it to say that a century after Il Duce’s March on Rome, the horror of androgyny has persisted among authoritarians: noted asshole-Canadian Jordan Peterson recently said that nonbinary people anger him because he doesn’t know how to stereotype them; right-wing Christians are obsessed with fertility and keep their women pregnant with a “quiver full” of child-arrowheads designed to mortally wound the secular order, and so on long past nauseam.
The same people are banning books by Black and Native authors at unprecedented rates, cleansing the past of all they find indecorous, arthroscopically excising the healthy bone of hard truth, and braying all the while that their opponents are too censorious. Holy warfare is waged any way it can be; in its service reality is malleable as shadow, and pain and ignorance are weapons of convenience.
Suffice it to say that it’s no coincidence that laws designed to destroy the security, autonomy, and safety of people with uteruses are rolling out across the country at the same time as laws mandating that gender identity be fixed as if in amber. Sadistic as Procrustes, the crusaders behind these laws will break bones and cut limbs until everyone fits snugly and everyone hurts.
The pain isn’t incidental. It’s meant to both punish and prevent misbehavior. Even the deaths caused by the withholding of necessary medical care aren’t incidental, but cautionary. It is not a matter of simply striving for the evangelical right to recognize the humanity of people who, say, need a D&C to clear a miscarriage, or who want, after years of struggle to achieve self-knowledge, to receive the hormone treatments which might allow them to live more comfortably in their own bodies. There is no humanity in a holy war, no subtlety in a crusade, just servants of light, and servants of darkness.
These are people who are willing to storm a children’s library because there’s a gender-nonconforming performer in it, who are willing to call in bomb threats to a hospital, who are willing to let women across the country bleed out and die from miscarriages and botched deliveries and perforated uteruses and all the myriad ways fate can fuck with a birthing body. They’re holy warriors, their minds smooth and narrow and pointed as bullets, and they have spent decades preparing to spill the blood of their foes.
I say this not to marinate in despair—although god knows I feel it, along with the choking fury and the half-moons my nails dig into my own flesh—but to acknowledge reality. It is not enough to assert our humanity and inherent dignity; no matter how eloquent the words are, they will not be heeded. It is time and past time to recognize the nature of the war, that it engulfs all of us, that it is total, that the other side quite literally believe themselves to be engaged with the servants of Lucifer, or are paid or power-mad enough to proclaim themselves so. In this moment it is time to cease being deferential, to meet odium with odium, to provide some of the persecution they crave so dearly. It’s time to kindle a good and rageful flame, and burn the iron bed they made to break us.