Vivian and Evan are nerds so we have nerdy jokes. And possibly none is nerdier than the one about René Descartes walking into a bar. After he has had a few the bartender asks “Do you want another one?”. René responsibly responds “I think not”. And poof, he disappears.
René famously said “I think, therefore I am” translated from French and then Latin into these pithy five words in English. When I first heard the line as a kid I took it to mean that because I think I exist. I thought thinking a necessary and sufficient condition for existence. Years later I learned that Descartes’ reasoning was more nuanced. He said that we cannot doubt of our existence while we doubt.
So I am born of doubt. I identify as me. My identity is generated from within, but also imposed by people around me, my childhood, my family, my community, my co-workers, my neighbors, my political cohort, my country, my culture, the media I consume. I am a husband, a dad, an engineer, an entrepreneur, a friend, a neighbor, an Indian, an American, a liberal, a global citizen, a geek, an art lover, a hiker, a sailor, a soccer enthusiast, a cook, and hundred other identities, some of which are thrust upon me, like “a person of color”, a legal immigrant, a tech bro, a boomer.
The other day a friend, a Gen X white cis male (enough identity labels?) said that he identified as an attack helicopter. We laughed. That was cool. Why didn’t I think of that? Should I say that I identify as a race car or an SR-71 or a Beneteau 43. Too late. I am a mediocre copycat.
We were discussing gender identity. I have been groomed, though not to her satisfaction, by Vivian on the proper use of pronouns. My feeble jokes about grammar have been swept aside and my LinkedIn profile now lists my prefered pronouns, though “He/Him” is surely the most boring pair. Vivian deals with the concept of gender fluidity with the ease of one who is growing up in an environment with fewer prejudices. In the Age of Identity, gender, even most recalcitrant of categories is falling. We of the skinny jeans generation and older keep finding readblocks, but if I’m receptive enough, I find myself being led into wide open meadows to explore new ideas about these matters. Not all of them will stick, but it is too early to stop looking. Besides, at Vivian’s graduation, she wanted her “super power” to be announced as open-minded. I take some minor credit for the fourteen years of her life that led to that. How can I fall short now?
We were discussing the story of the Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie following in the footsteps of J.K. Rowling. In the frothy surf of gender fluidity and identity politics there is still the question of categories, just different ones. Are trans-women women? Adichie and Rowling have questioned that. They have been thought to seek the benefits of womanhood only for those born with wombs. If this is all you read about this subject, I must add that it isn’t that they are transphobic. Rowling has spoken and acted with sympathy about the horrors of high rates of suicide and assault that plague the trans community. But Adichie and Rowling have been labeled trans exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs). In the leftist progressive world that’s like branding someone an uber douchebag.
Back at home I googled “I identify as an attack helicopter”.
It turns out that the meme of “I identify as an attack helicopter” had landed like a ton of horseshit a few years back. Here is the original meme:
I sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter. Ever since I was a boy I dreamed of soaring over the oilfields dropping hot sticky loads on disgusting foreigners. People say to me that a person being a helicopter is Impossible and I’m fucking retarded but I don’t care, I’m beautiful. I’m having a plastic surgeon install rotary blades, 30 mm cannons and AMG-114 Hellfire missiles on my body. From now on I want you guys to call me “Apache” and respect my right to kill from above and kill needlessly. If you can’t accept me you’re a heliphobe and need to check your vehicle privilege. Thank you for being so understanding.
It makes fun of people identifying as belonging to a gender different from the sex of their birth. Coming out must require immense courage. The attack helicopter meme is a joke and I’m up for a good laugh most of the time. But this meme has become pervasive enough that it crept into the consciousness of my Gen X white cis male friend who surely does not have a transphobic bone in his body but who is now inadvertently a part of the cruel joke.
I dug deeper into google (you can’t stop after just one rabbit hole). On January 1 2020, a short story with the title “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” was published in the Hugo award winning Clarksworld SF magazine by an unknown author, Isabel Fall. It received critical acclaim as a fresh new work of science fiction. But soon enough it faced a tsunami of backlash in defence of the LGBTQ+ community. The most common sentiment was that the story was hurtful. It took a painful meme and used it as a weapon against the trans community.
My identity shapes my thoughts. If I write a poem or paint a picture, will you judge it in the vacuum of your value system or do you need my identity to give you a context within which you can declare that you like it? If I write an otherwise acceptable story about a poor Indian girl without living the experiences of being a poor Indian girl, am I doing something unethical? Does that determine how you receive my story? Am I of the wrong gender to tell her story? Am I Indian enough? Was I poor enough? Was Jeanine Cummins not brown enough to write American Dirt? But surely wasn’t Ishiguro knighted and awarded the Nobel Prize for his most English of books, The Remains of the Day? Back in the late 80’s I was moved by the movie and his book. Between the time I saw the movie and read the book I learned that the author was born in Nagasaki and moved to England as a child. That he, a first generation Japanese immigrant (identity alert), could live inside the head of his aging English butler protagonist blew my twenty-five year old mind. It increased my appreciation of his writing.
Nobody knew much about Isabel Fall’s identity. There was no context. Just her story to speak for itself. By the time I was googling attack helicopters, it had been a year and six months since the publication of the story but all this was boiling over and people outside the circles that care most about these issues were beginning to hear and add their voices to the conversation. There were stories in mainstream publications like the Atlantic and Vox. The Atlantic story’s title, The Talented Victim Is Not the Point, made me think about my reaction to reading Ishiguro’s book thirty years ago. I had liked the story on it’s own but the context of the author’s identity had added to my pleasure. Just as surely, the same sentiment can do the opposite.
Isabel Fall’s story was dragged through the mud. “She” must surely be a hateful male who wrote badly about things he knew nothing about with an intent to hurt or hoax. When you’ve been hurt over and over it isn’t an unreasonable reaction. But the author’s identity shouldn’t be the point. While there is nothing unusual about people disagreeing on the merits of a work of art, two different discussions morphed into one. How good is the story? Does the author have the moral authority to write it? In the anonymous free-for-all ugly world of comment threads judgement was passed that the story sucked because the author did not have the moral authority to write it. Isabel Fall contacted the magazine to retract the story 13 days after its publication. Once it was removed it is hard to find now. I did read it. I found it fascinating from my comfortable cis male dominion.
In the still unfolding story about the story, it turns out that the author who identifies as a woman was hoping to co-opt the attack-helicopter meme into the trans-friendly universe. Instead the world hurled acid filled bottles at the author’s identity while they were transitioning.
Vivian has been encouraged to apply for a certain youth literary recognition. Should her work be be judged on its merit? Will her work be judged on who she is? Descartes was on to something when he concluded that to exist is to doubt. But to doubt is to reason. And to reason is to seek clarity. Didn’t Yoda say that?