Mrs. Grundy Against Ryan Anderson’s Book
I used to say, half-jokingly, that the ACLU reduced life and freedom to what happened between the waist and the knees. It is true, though, that the venerable association was defending free speech, so I should have said “between the upper lip and the knees.” They were also defending the 4th and 5th Amendments. That kept me a due-paying member for a number of years. The woke movement and its LGBTQ+ wing, which are in many ways the successors of the ACLU, reduce life to what happens between the chest and the knees (due account being taken of the skin color).
The delisting by Amazon of Ryan Anderson’s book When Harry Became Sally (Encounter Books, 2018) is revealing. As a private company, of course, Amazon has and should have the right to refuse to bake Anderson’s cake. Fortunately, more enlightened bookstores continue to sell the book. Anderson’s book is about the transgender ideology. It argues that gender is the social manifestation of sex, that drugs and surgery cannot change one’s biological sex, and that to encourage “transitioning” including among teenagers is an error paid by those who later regret it and try to “detransition.”
It is a strange society where, often under the indoctrination of public-school programs, children can start changing their sex with puberty blockers and teenage girls can get mastectomies at 13, while they won’t have the right to buy cigarettes or vaping pens until they reach 21! (Besides Anderson’s book, see Johanna Olson-Kennedy et al., “Chest Reconstruction and Chest Dysphoria in Transmasculine Minors and Young Adults: Comparisons of Nonsurgical and Postsurgical Cohorts,” JAMA Pediatrics 172:5 , notably the figure.)
Anderson’s description of the transgender movement suggests an anti-scientific ideology not dissimilar to that of the public health movement in general. (See my “Public Health Models and Related Government Interventions: A Primer,” Reason Foundation, March 22, 2021.)
Not surprisingly, Anderson has been attacked by woke activists, who have not shown more respect for the truth than expected. Amazon followed the woke reincarnation of Mrs. Grundy. Originally a fictional character in a 1798 play by Thomas Morton, Mrs. Grundy had a long literary career. In The Subjection of Women, John Stuart Mill makes her the censorious guardian of stifling social acceptability. Today, she can be recognized in the conformity, ignorance, and righteousness of the woke movement and its little red guards.
I don’t agree with everything Anderson says or implies, but he does present serious and rational arguments that should be heard. An indication that the book is challenging for Mrs. Grundy is indeed that that it was delisted by Amazon. The company explained that they have chosen not to sell books that frame LGBTQ+ identity as a mental illness,” which is not really what Anderson claims.
The whole episode illustrates the importance of understanding the difference between children and adults, heeding reality, combatting groupthink, and protecting free speech and free competition. It also shows the peril of a powerful movement that marshal the power of the government and its anti-discrimination laws. These observations are consistent with the economic way of thinking.
Contrary to the woke bien-pensants, I would argue for the principle or presumption that governments should stay out of what adult individuals do with their own bodies, except if they used it to directly interfere with somebody else’s body and other property. As John Stuart Mill wrote in his book On Liberty (1859), “over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” If an adult wants to modify his body at his own expense, he should of course be free to do so, and we should respect his decision. In that area, governments should neither ban nor subsidize. We are far, very far from that ideal.