There are three steps to a good magic trick: the pledge, the turn, and the prestige. The pledge is an establishment, an introduction to something presumably mundane which you promise to change. Then comes the turn, the moment the rug is pulled from the audience. The magician pledges a dove, then turns the bird and makes it disappear.
Finally, the prestige. The magician brings the dove back. The assistant steps out of the box from which they vanished. The thing which was changed is now unchanged in seemingly impossible ways. What delights the audience is the return to normal, the idea that even though something has changed in seemingly cosmic and un-understandable ways, there is security and comfort to its return to form.
There’s nothing progressive about magic. When a magician performs the pledge, the turn, and the prestige, the joy of seeing a 40-year-old man with his snazzy tux perform to kids is the comfort of returning from the turning. It is safety in preserving the norm.
But who says the pledge needs to be the pledge? I mean, when a magician pulls out a dove it’s “wondrous” and “exciting” but when I pull out a dove I “need to leave the playground, you’re scaring the kids”? Sounds like a double standard.
Who says a norm is a norm? And why do we accept that?
I’m going to level with you. Attempting to unravel this idea has been knotty, and at every turn I’m confronted with how intricately set-up the premise is. The things I’m trying to see are designed to be unseen, mechanisms constructed on each other which need to be simultaneously halted to see the true inner workings of the machine.
Progressives exist as a turn, whilst conservatives are a pledge disguised as a prestige: they look to go forward, but take steps backwards. See, in the triple-step of magic, the turn is framed as an unreality. It is something which shakes the foundation of what we know to be true, and then the prestige is a comfortable hug which secures us in our trust of the world.
What does this have to do with conservatism? Let’s ground this. When we made gay marriage legal, we did the turn. Marriage as a contemporary institution was the pledge of a man and a woman uniting their love under the state and under God. We turned, yet there are certain sects of conservatism (mostly far-right) who aim to enact the prestige; the return to the pledge of heterosexual marriage. Magic.
Or some other examples: The Liberals consistently promote themselves as a party aimed at reducing “increased” taxes (the pledge of a party based on minimal economic and social interventions, the turn of increased taxes for social welfare initiatives, the prestige of the “true” independent man); the hard-line enactment of borders to conserve national identity (reacting to the progressive “turn” of accepting refugees in desperate need of help and security due to the “pledge” of preserving national safety); and the overturning of Roe v. Wade in the US (the ultimate prestige — removing abortion rights for millions of Americans because they got a smidgen too progressive in the turn).
The Pledge; The Turn; The Prestige.
All of this works to put on a show. Politics is presenting an idea to an audience and appealing to sensibilities. Often, we don’t consciously understand our own sensibilities, they’re just something inherent to our view of the world. Often, this worldview is heteronormative, invisible.
To take a complex idea from Judith Butler (the dreaded God of the canon of Gender Studies) and extract the most relevant part could be seen as disingenuous, but I will do it anyway. Gender is citational.
Gender is citational, in that it is the many small notes that we make in our heads as to what it means to be a man/woman, masc/femme. We see someone act in a masculine/feminine way, and we un/consciously note that this is what a masculine/feminine person should be. And we do it all the time, we build our own reference book and we view the world using it as a manual. It’s like a tour guide, constantly commenting in your head: “that’s a man”, “that was something a woman would do”, “that sounds like a man’s voice”. Attempting to override this is difficult, because it’s the first and most constant train of thought which flits through our heads.
We see the pledge, and we ground it in what we understand the world to be. This is the reference point for why the turn is a turn, why it is the thing which doesn’t fit our norm.
The Pledge; The Citation; The Turn; The Prestige.
Let’s dissect another issue: trans inclusion in sports. From a conservative magician, we take the pledge: “sports have been historically fair, and it is not fair to have individuals who may possess ‘biological advantages’ to compete in said sports.” Sprinkle in some citations: “cisgender men are inherently stronger and fitter and more skilled at all sports than women, and as long as these cisgender men and women fit our idea of what a ‘man’ and ‘woman’ look like we won’t question their right to take up these spaces.”
Let’s turn: Trans people competing in sports is not ‘objectively’ taking spaces from cisgender competitors, but rather, when trans people compete in sports they contribute to the idea of human excellence in physical prowess in the same way that cisgender people do. When they have differing physical attributes, it’s equivalent to swimmers with bigger feet or taller basketball players having physical advantages but still needing to train and be technically impressive to compete. Then, the prestige: now that a trans person has won a sporting event, we must ban them all, because it is unfair to the cisgender person who would’ve won if it weren’t for these mischievous and conniving trans people.
And through it all, the prestige is pierced by a simple, undefinable concept: camp.
Camp is both a monolith and a sprawling concept. Difficult to pin down but capable of looking you right in the eye, camp is an ironic appeal to bad taste, a recognition of how something which is aesthetically bad can be useful, funny, and ironically good.
Watching prominent conservative figures fight so hard to maintain rigid gender norms is camp. Seeing Pauline Hanson walk into Parliament, seriously wearing a Burka with complete confidence even though it was absolutely racist garbage? Camp. Ben Shapiro, a human man, setting Barbie dolls on fire to protest the “anti-man” and “woke” movie which he claims to be “anti-men” for suggesting patriarchy hurts everyone? Camp. Posie Parker, a prominent UK-based TERF who was chased out of Australia for spreading anti-trans discourse, insisting that cis-women be called “adult human females” because she refuses to use scientifically and grammatically correct terms? Camp.
When these harmful and persistent ideologies are distilled into obvious and concrete reference points, it inflames people with a conservative bend to support their own view of the world, but it also actively brings to light the societal pressures and norms which lead us to believe that white-cisgender-heterosexual ideals are the foundation of our society. It is much more difficult to explain to someone who has not seriously examined their own experiences with gender and race and class how heteronormativity enacts itself in our language, culture, and ideas of what is normal when we lack such explicit attempts to preserve it.
Heteronormativity is pervasive because it is invisible. Attempting to conserve it makes it visible, thus making it more difficult to conserve.
The Pledge; The Citation; The Turn; The Prestige; The Camp.
There are many fallacies in this argument. Progressives are not inherently shielded from perpetuating heteronormativity or gender dualism. Conservatism is not merely a political movement which wields an axe and chips away at existing legislation. Both of these terms exist under a wide array of political spectrums and who am I to try and cast broad strokes about the functioning of our society?
But what I am trying to do is illuminate the magical ways conservatism can imbue itself in our logics. We should question the pledge. When the magician pulls out a dove, we should question why we are surprised by the dove, or further, why we aren’t surprised by the dove.
Conservatism is a lens which, when viewed from the right angle, can make heteronormativity clear. The system itself keeps us in check in silence. It is not a hypnotic vision projected into our brains through radio waves, it is the macro and the micro, the laws and discourses around what it means to be a certain gender and all the ways that it intersects with race, class, personhood. It is the ways we instinctively make assumptions about other people, colours, careers, and clothes, and we turn that inwards. Gender is self-examination, and therefore self-policing. If you are never forced to question your gender you do not question the systems which make you gendered.
There are some who argue that the human brain is not meant to comprehend as much information as we are exposed to in the digital age. But heteronormativity thrives on the subconscious.
Politics is a performance, in the sense that it is many parts and the whole. The magic of performance is the multiplicities with which it can be performed, it is the harmony of sound and visuals and acting and singing and performing, intentionally projecting an image or emotion to get a point across. But when performance is broken down, we see that a performance is merely many people working together to create an awe-inspiring fantasy.
Conservatism is based on a magic trick. When we see how the magic works, it dulls it down from a spectacle to a series of steps which are enacted to make us believe the world is a certain way. As a political ideology, conservatism is a paradox: it engenders the things it fights against to preserve its own identity. In doing so, conservatism illuminates all of the subtle ways in which we, as humans, perceive and process the world around us. Breaking down the magic trick gives us the tools to interrogate each step, and question why we start at the pledge, and why we end at the prestige.
Maybe with this same logic, we can start to reshape our perceptions of gender/race/class as a society, and as a system. Things which persist in the dark can’t survive in the light.
Am I just over-analysing things which are inherent to our existence as humans? Or are all of these concepts, all of these ideas which implicitly shape the way we interact with the world, are all of these systems built like a card tower, perceivably strong and immovable, but it takes one shaken card to collapse the whole thing.
Sometimes we need to shake the table to know all the cards at play.