Thursday 16 February 2017

Interview with Prof. Deirdre Nansen McCloskey

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Prof. Deirdre Nansen McCloskey, a well-known American economist, historian, and rhetorician, LGBTQ activist, the author of 17 books and over 400 scholarly pieces on topics ranging from technical economics and statistical theory to transgender advocacy, including the biographical book titled “Crossing: A Memoir” (2000). For more information about her academic career, see

Monika: Let me tease you a bit. Some people say that economists can be compared to weather forecasting guys we see on TV. They are most precise at describing the weather we had yesterday but far from being precise when they have to tell us whether it is going to rain or not tomorrow. Do you object? :)
Prof. McCloskey: A little bit! I wrote a book in 1990 entitled "If You're So Smart" arguing that economists cannot predict profitably, simply because if they could they would all be rich. And, believe me, I am not rich. People, and some economists (when they are also people), think that economics is indeed like forecasting the weather. It is not. The economic "clouds" and "cold fronts" are listening.
We economists can offer only wisdom, such as "Don't nationalize the steel industry: it has never worked" or "Let people enter the occupations they want because then the customers will be best served." We cannot make profitable predictions of, say, the stock market.

Monika: In one of your articles, you elaborated on the way how economics is influenced by the male perception of the world and market and called for a more female approach to this science. Do women understand the economic challenges better than men?
Prof. McCloskey: Women in my experience are more "realistic" than men, that is, more vividly aware that willpower is not all we need to prosper. Women think about connection, men think about autonomy. Women dream of love, men of courage. But to really understand the economy, of course, or to have a full human life, each of us needs both love and courage.
Yet economics as presently understood, whether the "Samuelsonian" way prevalent in what we used to call The West or the Marxist way once enforced in The East, is highly masculine. It praises courage and hope as against love and faith. We need all the virtues in play, the masculine ones of autonomy and the feminine ones of connection.
Monika: In 2003, among Andrea James and Lynn Conway and other trans-activists, you played the instrumental role in refuting the theory of J. Michael Bailey who published a controversial book about transsexualism “The Man Who Would Be Queen”, claiming that there are two forms of transsexualism: male homosexuality and male sexual interest in having a female body. When I asked Andrea James about that scandal, she highlighted a positive aspect of the whole case, namely that the community rose up in near-unanimous condemnation of this book because it makes it impossible to discuss the very interesting and nuanced topic of transsexuality outside of a pathological model. When you look back at yourself, which aspects of that debate do you find as most important?
Prof. McCloskey: The key to the Bailey book, and to the little group of sexologists from which he emerged, especially those torturing gender crossers at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, is the belief that everything is about sex, sex, sex. "Sex" as in "sexual intercourse." It is the locker-room theory held by the more stupid straight men—that all those queers are the same, and all have sex, sex, sex on their minds. It's silly as science.


For example, none of the experiments in "sexual" excitement have any born-female controls. I myself have never had sex as a woman, but am not at all bothered. It wasn't what I was doing.
Who you are is not the same as whom you love, or wish to have sex with. I love my dog! Bailey's own "research" consisted of hanging out in a bar in north Chicago with six gender-crossing prostitutes (he dropped one of them from the "sample" because she became a real estate agent instead).
At a meeting of sexologists one of the leading (non-Toronto) scientists stood up and said to Bailey, "Michael, I don't know what your book is. But it is certainly not science."
Monika: In my opinion, Riki Wilchins hit the nail on the head in her book titled “Read My Lips” (1997), stating that "Academics, shrinks, and feminist theorists have traveled through our lives and problems like tourists on a junket. Picnicking on our identities like flies at a free lunch, they have selected the tastiest tidbits with which to illustrate a theory or push a book." How can we stop such people? They will always revert to freedom of speech etc. …
Prof. McCloskey: Yes. Riki and I hear the "freedom of speech" claim every time we criticize people like Bailey.
Alice Dreger, a fake historian, for example, says that we are "censoring" Bailey when we complain that he is practicing clinical psychology without a license, or simply that he is wrong scientifically. She does not seem to understand—as Poles are learning again to their distress—that "censorship" is something that people in possession of the monopoly of violence do, people called "the government."
Complaining about fellow citizens is the exercise of free speech, not its denial. I have no legal objection to Bailey and the Toronto sadists spreading hate. I'm not going to court and calling on the police to arrest them. I am arguing against them! 
Monika: Why did you decide to write your biography? You wrote many scientific books before. However, this particular book was quite special …
Prof. McCloskey: Partly it was personal, to explain myself, especially to my family, at a time when gender crossing was less common (1995 was when I started my transition; the book was published in 1999; it needs a Polish translation, by the way).

“Crossing: A Memoir” (2000) available via Amazon.
From the left, the editions in the following languages: English, Japanese, and Italian.

Partly it was professional, to explain to my colleagues in economics and history. And partly it was political, to defend other gender crossers and assorted queers. I had in the 1950s and 1960s the correct views against segregation and in favor of Black civil rights but didn't do much. I had in the 1970s and 1980s the correct views against discrimination against women and gays and the handicapped and colonial people, but I didn't do much. 
Then in 1995 God (who is, by the way, a Black, lesbian, working-class single mother who lives in Leeds: better get ready!) touched me on the shoulder. "This is your last chance, dearie, to stand up for something you believe in!" So I did.
Monika: Which aspects of your experience can be useful for other transwomen?
Prof. McCloskey: Well, maybe not so much, since I was a tenured full professor at the time. True, I was willing to give it all up to be the person I wanted to be. But fortunately, I didn't have to. Having the income and standing made my path smoother—although not entirely smooth: for example my sister tried four times and succeeded twice in having me seized by the police and put in a madhouse; and my marriage family turned against me, never relenting in the 21 years since then.
Yet there are some lessons that might be useful. Get on with your actual life as a woman. Don't become a professional transwoman, necessarily, unless you have the political gifts of people like Andrea, Lynn, or Riki. Get with born women, in church or clubs or work. 
Attend to your facial appearance with operations (nose job and the like), and don't worry too much about the plumbing—after all, your plumbing is not inspected hundreds of times a day. Learn the right gestures. Don't have vocal operations (I did), but work on how to talk, not in sound only but in content.

Deirdre with cast member at Cage au
Fol show in Iowa City, 1997.

Monika: I read about such operations conducted in South Korea. Most girls opt out for vocal training though. Did you suffer from any vocal post-op complications?
Prof. McCloskey: Oh, yes. Avoid the operation and do the vocal training.
Monika: I must say that I love the cover of the book. An elegant lady is having a big laugh. What or who do you laugh at?
Prof. McCloskey: I think I was laughing at some gentle criticism from the audience—the occasion was my presidential speech in 1999 to the American Economic History of Association. I laugh a lot. If you don't have a pretty good sense of humor I advise against crossing gender!
Monika: You transitioned in your early 50s, proving that it is never too late to become your real self, but did you ever have any regrets that you waited so long?
Prof. McCloskey: Sure. But on the other hand, as my 94-year old mother always says I should be thankful: I had the experience of a full life as a man—as a husband in my 30-year successful marriage, as a father of two children, as a tough-guy academic—and now a pretty full life as a woman.
I would prefer to have changed in 1953, at age 11. That way the male secondary characteristics such as having a big body and the like would not have developed. But in 1953 there was nothing to be done. If I had told my parents then (no one but my wife ever knew), they would have put me in the madhouse—and they were loving, liberal parents.

Monika: Your business trip to Australia, where you were asked to give lectures, coincided with your meticulous plan for undergoing GRS there. Was it symbolic?
Prof. McCloskey: Nothing "meticulous" about it! I was going there to speak, and an Australian friend put me in touch with her surgeon. Outside the USA or the Netherlands (I was teaching in the Netherlands for a year at the time), I could do it, and not worry about psychiatrists or my sister intervening. I was six months into full time, by the way, having had all sorts of facial surgery already. As I say: face first.


All the photos: courtesy of Prof. Deirdre Nansen McCloskey.
© 2017 - Monika Kowalska

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