Sunday, January 02, 2005

A significant letter

Susan Barclay is, as far as I know, just a rank and file left-liberal living in the charming Victorian country town of Castlemaine.

She is noteworthy, though, because she has written a letter to the Age newspaper expressing her deep political convictions. Her line of reasoning in this letter tells us something about the basic principles held to even by grassroots liberals.

Her actual claim, that Prime Minister John Howard can be compared to Adolf Hitler, is boring nonsense. But her line of reasoning is significant. She writes that like Adolf Hitler John Howard is trying to promote an ideal, in Mr Howard's case,

an idyllic view of the perfect model of the 1950s society, the stable, quietly hard-working family, raising two or three quiet, well-behaved children.

Now what, you may ask, is so bad about promoting such an ideal? Susan Barclay gives the liberal answer as follows,

I do not want to be ... squashed into a box defined by someone else. We have the right to choose what, and how, to be. That is the nature of being human.

To Susan Barclay's credit, she has come up here with a most concise and accurate summary of liberal belief. This is the driving principle of liberal politics: that to be fully human we have to be self-created by our own individual will and reason. You can go all the way back to the Renaissance humanist writer Pico della Mirandola for the origins of this principle. Pico, in the late 1400s, imagined God saying to man that,

You, constrained by no limits, in accordance with your own free will ... shall ordain for yourself the limits of your nature ... We have made you ... so that with freedom of choice, as though the maker and moulder of yourself, you may fashion yourself in whatever shape you shall prefer.

The adoption of this principle has had enormous consequences for Western societies. The fact that we are not allowed to be "other-defined" means that any form of identity or connectedness which is not voluntarily chosen becomes illegitimate. And this rules out, amongst other things, traditional national identities (because they are based on an inherited ethnicity), traditional forms of family life (because they are not diverse or fluid enough to allow for individual "negotiation"), and traditional gender identity & gender roles (because they are an inherited "biological destiny").

It is Susan Barclay's fear that Mr Howard is a conservative who believes in traditional ideals, which would prevent her from being "self-defined". She need not worry. In 2002 Mr Howard congratulated feminists for having broken down gender "stereotypes" and he has provided funds to promote women into engineering courses and onto boards of management. Mr Howard, just like Susan Barclay, believes in removing inherited gender as a factor shaping or influencing people's lives.

The pity is that there is not yet a genuinely conservative movement in Australian politics, to provide a truer bogeyman for nervous liberals like Susan Barclay.

No comments:

Post a Comment