The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling
It’s important to understand exactly what Megan Phelps-Roper thinks her podcast is. Why did she make it? What does she think she’s accomplishing? What ills of society is she healing, and how?
J.K. Rowling has been an absolute force in the culture for more than two decades at this point. And the world has changed a lot during that time. And so in Witch Trials, we kind of use her story as a way of exploring those changes. We investigate the similarities and the differences between these two vocal backlashes that she’s faced. First, from the Christian right, as you mentioned, who said she was promoting witchcraft and disobedience to authority. And then also now from the left who accuse her of transphobia. And it’s not a story about shaming or blaming people for being angry at her or for vehemently disagreeing with her and condemning her. And it’s also not about trying to prove that she’s right. It’s really about trying to understand where people on all sides of this conflict are coming from in a scrupulously good faith way.Megan Phelps-Roper speaking to Bari Weiss on Twitter Spaces
All sides. Scrupulously good faith. Remember that.
It’s worth noting that Megan repeats this exact paragraph, nearly word for word, on Sam Harris’s podcast. I can only wonder why she would have something like this memorized; if it’s just because she’s not comfortable speaking on the fly or if The Free Press trained her on how to answer questions.
I’m fascinated when trying to imagine just how this podcast came to be. Megan and her publisher Bari Weiss’s story is that Megan wrote J.K. Rowling a letter in 2022, and was shocked that Rowling responded.
J.K. Rowling: very famous woman, but does not give a lot of interviews. Megan, for some reason, she agreed not to sit down with The New York Times or The Washington Post or any of the other legacy outlets. She decided to sit down with you for what ended up being more than 9 hours over the course of several days at her home castle in Scotland. And I don’t think she’s ever done that before. And you write in this essay introducing the series that it was all because of a letter you wrote. And so I think people are probably wondering what the hell was in that letter.Bari Weiss speaking to Megan Phelps-Roper on Twitter Spaces
First of all, Megan frames it as a letter telling Rowling about her time in Westboro and asking her to have an open conversation about her views. Theoretically, it could have included that, but it obviously also included a request to be interviewed for a podcast. (We never get to read the letter.) Megan herself admits in her interview with Weiss that “it is such a long shot,” and “the likelihood that she says yes to this is so minimal that if she says yes, maybe that’s a sign of some kind.”
But was it a long shot? Considering that Weiss and Rowling co-signed a letter in 2020, and that they already had mutual friends like Maya Forstater and Julie Bindel, both of whom Rowling had brunch with in early 2022, I highly, highly doubt that Megan decided on her own to send Rowling a letter out of the blue last year. I am almost positive that Weiss approached Megan and Rowling with the idea for the podcast.
Only moments after I saw Megan’s announcement of the podcast, I saw her predictably defending the title which paints an undeniable picture.
The title is ambiguous. Toward the end of our conversations, I spent a long time talking with @jk_rowling about discernment. About how a person can ever know if they’re standing up for what’s right—or joining a moral panic. I think you’ll be surprised by the thoughts she shares. https://t.co/X1QO77FVA8— Megan Phelps-Roper (@meganphelps) February 14, 2023
At the end of March, Megan was still trying to sell the title as “deep,” “interesting,” and “about human nature.” She says she references one reason for the title in episode 1. That reference is:
After I left Rowling’s home, I spoke to reporters and historians. Transgender adults, teens and advocates, doctors and lawyers, and many of Rowling’s critics, including some who supported book bans. And one of the things that stood out to me was how people on all sides of this conflict felt so under attack, so threatened that they invoked the language of witch hunts, even as they vehemently disagreed on who was the witch and who was the mob lighting the fire.Megan Phelps-Roper, The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling, Episode 1: Plotted in Darkness
She went into more detail about this “ambiguous” title in the Twitter Spaces interview:
People on all sides of this conflict invoke the language of witch hunts. And they see themselves as the object of a moral panic. […] Ultimately, we realized the title was actually far more ambiguous than it seems at first glance. So obviously there are people who see Rowling as the subject of a witch hunt, so she is prosecuting a witch hunt, and other people who think that she is the object of one, that she’s the target of one. It is an investigation. People look at that and they read it in one way without acknowledging or realizing that it could be read a different way. And I don’t blame them. It makes perfect sense that people might misread or misunderstand, but it is a very well thought out title.Megan Phelps-Roper speaking to Bari Weiss on Twitter Spaces
Well thought out indeed.
When you title something called “The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling,” you have already set up a narrative in which Rowling is the persecuted figure.
Watch out for that narrative. Be vigilant. Because Rowling needs to be questioned, rigorously. She’s a talented enough writer to know exactly what she’s saying and exactly how it’s landing. She’s a talented enough writer to know exactly how to thread needle after needle, so her supporters can claim there’s nothing to see there and her critics get exhausted.Monica Hesse, Listening to ‘The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling’ is exhausting work
The Free Press and Bari Weiss
I had never heard of The Free Press before, but I did not trust it after reading Megan’s article about Rowling being “canceled,” with her air of wonder about why that could have possibly happened. And crucially, the concept of “freedom of speech” has been co-opted by the right to essentially mean “freedom to harass people and spread harmful misinformation without consequences.” So no, my hopes were not high for The Free Press.
Well, The Free Press is owned by Bari Weiss, who is best known for leaving The New York Times because they were “ideologically unaligned.” Her resignation letter doesn’t give many specifics of what happened, but it hints that The New York Times was simply not conservative—or centrist—enough for her and the writers she platformed like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Jesse Singal. Mind you, this was before The New York Times—or Weiss—openly supported Rowling’s transphobia… largely to promote the Witch Trials podcast!
(Interestingly, the podcast is also sponsored by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression. While “freedom of expression” is a common dogwhistle, and FIRE has enjoyed donations from places like the Charles Koch Institute, they’ve also done good things like challenging Florida’s recent “Stop WOKE” Act.)
But Weiss’s anti-trans views are extensive. According to Transgender Map, Weiss “is an American opinion writer and a key figure in promoting and platforming gender-critical and anti-transgender views.”
While at the New York Times, Weiss popularized the intellectual dark web, described as a gateway to the far right. She has platformed, appeared with, promoted, and logrolled for other activists in the gender critical movement, including J.K. Rowling, Alice Dreger, Jesse Singal, Katie Herzog, Abigail Shrier, Ana Valens, Sue Evans, Suzy Weiss, Julie Bindel, Carole Hooven, Maud Maron, Andrew Sullivan, Lisa Selin Davis, and Helen Lewis.Transgender Map: Bari Weiss vs. transgender people
Weiss also sits on the board of trustees for the still-seeking-accreditation University of Austin Texas, which holds summer courses on Old Parkland Campus in Dallas, which is owned by Crow Holdings, the real estate business of Harlan Crow, Clarence Thomas’s recently-discovered Nazi artifact-loving benefactor. The school, where a Black Lives Matter protestor had the privilege of debating a Trump campaign worker, also boasts faculty and advisors such as Richard Dawkins, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Kathleen Stock.
A look into The Free Press’s transphobia
Browsing The Free Press, I found an article by someone named Jamie Reed called I Thought I Was Saving Trans Kids. Now I’m Blowing the Whistle. Reed wrote that she believes that the clinic where she worked as a case manager, the Washington University Transgender Center at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, didn’t screen young people enough before carelessly prescribing them hormone replacement therapy.
Three weeks later, a local St. Louis paper reported on what really goes on inside the clinic with detailed but anonymous stories from several patients’ parents which directly contradict Reed’s claims.
Rather than the “rapid medicalization” and “poor assessment of mental health concerns” that Reed cited in a complaint sent to Bailey in January, parents reported a well-defined, step-by-step approach that could be halted at any time.
Slow, methodical adjustments began at home, long before medications were used: testing out new names, using different pronouns, cutting hair short or growing it long. The social transitions ran concurrently with mental health care, sometimes lasting years. Only then, parents said, was medication considered.Parents push back on allegations against St. Louis transgender center. ‘I’m baffled.’
What’s more, a parent on Twitter explained that she and her young trans child could not even obtain the information (not medication) they needed because Reed lied and said the center didn’t provide those services. And more recently, yet another writer at The Free Press, Emily Yoffe, published an article featuring a concerned mother about her transfemme child’s treatment at the same center. Hours after it was published, Alex—the teen in question—revealed that the article was rife with lies, and that she hadn’t given her mother permission to share the medical information that she did.
The patience to find transphobia
It’s safe to say that The Free Press is an anti-trans publication with a record of distorting and excluding information that doesn’t fit their harmful narrative. This is why I first wondered if Megan Phelps-Roper approached them or if they approached her, seeing her passion for “good-faith conversation” as a perfect vehicle for the biggest story about one of the internet’s biggest names all year. With Megan, they can shield accusations of platforming a transphobic bigot with claims that they’re just “bridging divides,” questioning what they see as authoritarian, and being unbiased.
It is none of those things. The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling is a transphobic podcast. But to anyone who calls it that on Twitter, Megan will always say, “Just listen to the podcast.” “We’ll get to that in episode x.” “If only people would listen to the whole thing.”
Well, I did listen. Every week. But listening is half of the battle. Maybe you’ve listened to Witch Trials and thought it was even-handed. But as Monica Hesse wrote for the Washington Post, “Things are said that sound reasonable. You would only know they were unreasonable — they were, in fact, wrong — if you had the patience to fact-check, or if you had the personal experience of counterevidence.” Or maybe… if you had this blog post.