The anti-Western left has been exposed for its sexual imperialism over the last few months. Evidence is all around. American Muslims have led protests against the imposition of LGBTQ policies and curricula in schools, leaving American progressives uncomfortably caught between two pillars of their favored rhetoric of political thought-crime: transphobia and Islamophobia. The Washington Post opined that anti-LGBTQ moves in the Middle East were “echoing” those of the American culture wars—as if Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan had been listed by the Human Rights Campaign as favored vacation destinations until their ruling elites started reading the website of Moms for Liberty.
It is, of course, the nature of imperialism that everything, everywhere, is always to be measured by the imperialists’ standards. And that is also what makes them so impervious to spotting their own imperialism. “Queering the Mary Rose's Collection,” an article on the website of the Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth, England, is a recent example of this. The Mary Rose was a Tudor warship that sank in 1545 and was raised from the seabed in 1982 in a groundbreaking act of marine archaeology. The museum is dedicated to displaying artifacts retrieved from the wreck, some of which are now being analyzed “through a Queer lens.”
The specific examples are an octagonal mirror, nit combs, a gold ring, and Paternosters. Apparently, looking into a mirror can stir strong emotions for both straight and queer people, and for the latter it can generate, for example, feelings of gender dysphoria or euphoria, depending on whether the reflection matches their gender identity. Combs would have been used by the sailors to remove the eggs of hair lice. Today they are reminders of how hairstyles can be the result of imposed gender stereotypes, but also make possible the subverting of these through hairdos that break with social expectations. Rings are a reminder of marriage and, of course, that the Church of England founded by Henry VIII, king during the Mary Rose’s working life, still does not allow gay marriage. Finally, the Paternosters remind us that the crew were “practicing” Christians and that, once again, Henry VIII, via his initiation of the English Reformation, facilitated the civil criminalization of homosexual acts.
Two things are striking about the article, in addition to its lack of any intellectual merit. First, the absence of any historical awareness is striking. For example, the category of “practicing Christian” is essentially meaningless when applied to the early sixteenth century. Everybody, bar a few underground Jews, Anabaptists, and radicals, was part of the Catholic Church by baptism. The question of how the crew might have understood themselves, whether in terms of mirrors, rings, combs, or Paternosters, is never asked. To be fair, a short blog post cannot ask all the relevant questions, but this does not even nod in the direction of suggesting that the differences between yesterday and today might be remotely interesting or instructive.
This points to the second issue: the obvious cultural imperialism. “Queerness as an interpretative tool” seems to be no more than the blunt assertion that today’s questions are the only ones worth asking and today’s categories the only ones worth applying. Never mind that when the ship sank, the crew drowned and that these artifacts spoke of real human lives that were lost and families that were presumably devastated. And one does not need to be conservative to consider the piece problematic: There is not even a hint of the old-style Marxist questions about who gained and who lost from the production of mirrors, from the rise of the English navy, or about the function of religion in sixteenth-century military projects. No. It is all about today’s categories such as gender and queerness. Difference need not be respected. Perspectives unsanctioned by modern Western progressivism need not apply.
Still, might the “interpretative tool” game yet prove fruitful? As a self-identifying middle-aged bald man, let me offer my own reading of the artifacts through an “alopecia interpretative tool.” The mirror is a constant reminder of the hair I once had and now is gone, causing feelings of nostalgia, regret, and occasional melancholy. The ring speaks of my wedding day when my head was indeed as hirsute as befits a man in his twenties and thus makes me sad for lost glory. The Paternoster reminds me that Henry VIII had the monasteries dissolved and with them the monastic tonsure—a genocidal move that erased with a stroke of the legislative pen a significant section of the bald community. And as for the combs, do not even ask. It is just too painful a subject to speak on. I have not owned one for over a decade.
Of course, this is all nonsense. But given the assumptions of queer theory, why? Why privilege a “queer lens” over a “bald” one? The only real reason is that the former conforms to the contours of emerging cultural power among the ruling intellectual classes in the West and, like all imperialisms, asserts itself in a manner that discounts all other perspectives as deviant, hateful, or silly, and has no interest in history or indeed in other people except to the extent that such can be used to justify its own imperialist project. The queer-trans’ burden, to coin a phrase.
Yes, the article is silly, and the writer has been ill-served by those who allowed its publication. But the fact that such silliness can be presented as a serious contribution on the website of a respected museum speaks much about our present age. The article uses one of the “interpretative tools” that are always and only about us, our times, and our concerns, and that simply reinforce that age-old sin of Western imperialists in general—our assumed innate superiority to anybody who might be different and thus of no importance or interest.
Carl Trueman is a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
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