Sunday, February 26, 2006

Isn't this domestic violence?

The domestic violence campaigns assume that men are always the perpetrators. But in real life things are more complicated.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Pell & his critics

Last week liberal Catholics revealed that they had reported Cardinal Pell of Sydney to the Vatican for preaching “outside of mainstream doctrine” (which, we are told, is not quite the same thing as heresy).

Why? The liberals in the Church don’t like what Cardinal Pell has to say on the issue of individual conscience.

I’m not surprised the liberals are upset. Cardinal Pell has done what the liberals would not have wanted him to do: he has identified the difference between a view of morality inspired by secular liberalism, and a Catholic view.

What is the secular liberal idea of morality? Liberals believe that we become human when we choose for ourselves who we are and what we do. Therefore, liberals generally make the assumption that there is nothing in our nature, or in the way the world is constituted, which might limit the choices open to us. We can inscribe on ourselves whatever seems best. As long as what we choose does not restrict the similar freedom of others it is permissible.

What matters to a liberal is more the fact that a choice is “self-authored”, rather than what is actually chosen.

This is a view which runs counter to the authority of traditional moral codes and that of church hierarchies, as these will both appear to a liberal to be external impediments to the self-authoring individual.

What does Cardinal Pell have to say about such ideas? A good place to find the answer is a lecture given by Cardinal Pell two years ago at the University of Cambridge.

In this lecture, Cardinal Pell argues against the idea that there is a primacy of individual conscience. Pell begins his argument by quoting and commenting on the following from John Paul II:

For man has in his heart a law written by God. To obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged (cf. Romans 2:-14-16). Naturally, though this law is written in our hearts, it is not our hearts’ law: it is God’s law.

This is not what a liberal would want to hear. This is not a view of man as being unbounded in his choices, but one which asserts the existence of a moral law (and therefore the possibility of right choices) and also the existence of a given moral nature in man (and therefore the possibility of a “right will”).

Our dignity as humans, in this view, depends on whether our will is aligned with our given moral nature. It is a perfection of will, rather than a “liberation” of will, which is important.

Later in the lecture Cardinal Pell observes that,

Unless all kinds of implicit Christian assumptions are made explicit, the claim to the primacy of individual conscience easily becomes in our cultural context the same as a claim to personal moral autonomy. Fine though autonomy is, in Christian hands this has tended to become code for “rationalisation of personal wishes” and there is no dignity in that, unless our wishes are for the genuine good. A wish isn’t dignifying just because it’s mine.

Again, this won’t go down well in the liberal heartlands. Cardinal Pell is explaining that in a liberal society, arguing for the primacy of individual conscience easily slips into the idea that there is no higher moral authority than ourselves as individuals, so that we can falsely dignify as “moral” whatever it is that we desire for ourselves.

Cardinal Pell develops this theme further when he notes that,

Most Western moral philosophers since the eighteenth century ... have followed Kant in advocating some form of moral self-legislation and government (autonomy) ... Kant would be appalled by contemporary autonomy liberalism. He believed in objective morality ... which autonomy gives us the means and opportunity to follow, never a self-made morality of private preference.

Finally, Pell discusses the views on conscience of Cardinal Newman. It seems that even in the 1800s, Cardinal Newman thought it important to distinguish a Catholic view of conscience from the secular liberal view.

First, Cardinal Newman emphasised that conscience was external to our own will: he termed it a “messenger from Him” or “the aboriginal Vicar of Christ”. That this placed Newman outside of liberal orthodoxy he well knew:

Newman carefully distinguishes this proper understanding of Christian conscience from its secular alternative, which is “in one way or another a creation of man”. “Conscience is a stern monitor, but in this century it has been superseded by a counterfeit, which the 18 centuries prior to it never heard of, and could not have mistaken for it, if they had. It is the right of self-will ... It is the very right and freedom of conscience to dispense with conscience.”

I won’t attempt a more detailed summary of Cardinal Pell’s arguments. All that I’ve tried to show here is the effort made by Cardinal Pell to separate the secular liberal view of morality from the Catholic one. Cardinal Pell is correct, I believe, in thinking it important to make this distinction at a time when the Church is suffering the effects of “the acid rain of modernity on our Catholic communities.”

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Young, crazy, out of control

There are a lot of young Australian expats - about 10% of Australians aged 18 to 35 live overseas. Why? The reasons are looked at in a new book by 25-year-old Ryan Heath, an extract of which was printed in The Age this morning.

Some of the expats he interviews come across as profoundly narcissistic. For instance, Holly Lyons, now living in London complains that,

In Australia the television industry is ageist. As a 22-year-old woman, it was impossible to get work heading a script department.

Yes, Holly, it's tough not being able to start out at the top.

A lot of the expats, though, complain about a lack of job opportunities in Australia. This is interesting, as our Government justifies its immigration programme on the basis that Australia has too few skilled workers; the expats are providing evidence that the opposite is true and that there is an oversupply.

How do you fix this situation? Ryan Heath's solution is not to give preference to Australian youngsters seeking professional work, ahead of overseas applicants. Instead, it's actually to increase overseas migration and to create vacancies by kicking the older generation of Australians out of work (The charming title of his book, addressed to baby boomers, is Please Just F*** Off, It's Our Turn Now).

Heath is serious when he calls for more immigration. He wants Australia to be more globalised in its demographics and writes,

The truth is that Australia doesn't really have a world city - and it's too deluded to realise what it needs to do to create one.

Reading the morning papers in the aftermath of th 2005 London bombings, I was struck by the faces of London. Thirty-two of the 39 photos of victims that stared at us that next morning were under 35 and looked like the United Nations.

That's when I realised what a real "world city" is. It's not easy; it's not white; it's not old. It's crazy and colourful and out of control in a way I don't recognise in Australia.

This is not the most obvious conclusion to draw from the London bombings. But equally odd is Heath's next argument. He claims that Sydney is only a middle-ranking city and that,

it takes no great leap of the imagination to put Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro or Johannesburg on the same footing as Sydney. But it's a real challenge for white chauvinists to think that a Portuguese-speaking city might be more interesting.

The funny thing about this quote is that I have often wondered whether liberals really want Australia to end up like Brazil. And it seems that for Ryan Heath the answer is actually yes. He thinks it could only be chauvinism which might make an Australian prefer Sydney to Rio.

Ryan Heath, as you may have guessed, is not a politically neutral commentator. His leftist credentials include being a National Union of Students representative, and working as an Australian Labor Party adviser and refugee advocate.

He is not, though, considered to be radically leftist; some have actually critised his book for selling out the cause, and Heath himself wrote in reply to one correspondent that,

I am more glad that you still called me 'left'. I think quite a few people worry I have abandoned that perspective.

So he is not even on the far left. The gap between liberals, even of the mainstream variety, and the rest of us seems to be growing ever larger.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

The no future clause

There are people who like the idea of liberalism. They are attracted by the thought that we might define who we are by our own individual choices.

Last year, authoress Lionel Shriver wrote an article for The Guardian in which she paid tribute to the liberal idea. But her article had an unexpected twist: she recognised in the very philosophy she was praising the seeds of Western decline.

So she wavers in her article between an appreciation of liberalism and an awareness that it has a no future clause for any society which adopts it.

Why no future? Because if we are concerned only to be autonomous in our choices, then we will shift our emphasis,

from the communal to the individual, from the future to the present, from virtue to personal satisfaction

and this makes it less likely that we will commit ourselves to family life and children and the creation of new generations.

Lionel Shriver believes that this underlies the falling birthrate in Western countries. She describes what has happened to the culture of the West as follows:

Increasingly secular, we pledge allegiance to lower-case gods of our private devising. We are less concerned with leading a good life than the good life ... We shun values such as self-sacrifice and duty ... We give little thought to the perpetuation of lineage, culture or nation; we take our heritage for granted.

We are ahistorical. We measure the value of our lives within the brackets of our own births and deaths, and don’t especially care what happens once we’re dead ... we are apt to look back on our pasts and ask not ‘Did I serve family, God and country?’ but ‘Did I ever get to Cuba, or run a marathon?

As I have mentioned, Lionel Shriver is not entirely unsympathetic to such a culture. She thinks it has an “upside” in people trying to live for the moment and pack as much as they can into their lives. Her liberalism, in fact, is utterly orthodox when she suggests that material progress may lead inevitably to a modern Western style culture:

Furthermore, prosperity may naturally lead any well-off citizenry to the final frontier: the self, whose borders are as narrow or infinite as we make them.

This is a pure and intense liberalism. The claim is that we ourselves can decide the limits of what we might become, which means that there are no limits. The self, in this view, is borderless and open.

(In contrast, conservatives would claim that we do have an inborn nature which gives a natural direction to our lives. An example would be our nature as men and women, which does influence our behaviour, our identity, our social roles and our ideals.)

Wavering women

Lionel Shriver, therefore, is a woman who believes in the liberal idea, but who regrets its major consequence: that the West won’t reproduce itself.

She develops this view further by interviewing some of her female friends, who similarly waver between their support for a liberal culture and their regret about a failure to reproduce.

First, there is 44-year-old Gabriella, who thought having children would compromise her autonomy – her freedom to choose – and only changed her mind when it was too late. She tells us that,

Having children in my 20s would have spelled the end of everything I had spent my life working towards and was about to really enjoy: the ability to spend my money the way I wanted, travel where I wanted, choose my partners, live as I wished.

Gabriella has accepted the fact of being childless, but she does feel some sense of loss that she has not passed on her genes to future generations. She states that,

If people like me don’t reproduce, civilisation may be the worse for it ... I am a typical product of my family; I can see the thread stretching back through the generations. Do I think it’s a shame that this genetic inheritance won’t continue? Yes I do ...

Then there is Nora. She is a childless woman who aims to continue “to have fun, to enjoy my job, to meet interesting people, to go on great holidays, to read interesting books” and so on.

But she too has regrets. “I think my parents came from an excellent gene pool," she says, "and it’s a shame that, to date, that hasn’t been passed on.” Then there’s this:

at the end of our exchange Nora declares fervently, “You and I should have had children!” – hastily appending that she meant not for our own sakes, but in social terms. “We’re blessed with brains, education and good health.” She admits that the longer our discourse has continued, “the more I think I am a squanderer of my gifts and my heritage. But I live in a decadent age where that doesn’t seem such a problem. Anyway, devoting my whole life to promulgating my ethnicity is a big ask.

And from here the balance in the article swings decisively to a disappointment with liberalism as a dead end. Lionel Shriver is moved to write:

Contentment. Happiness. Satisfaction. Fun. There’s nothing, strictly speaking, wrong with these concerns, but they are all of a piece. They fail to take into account that our individual lives are tiny beads in a string.

Our beloved present is merely the precarious link between the past and the future – of family, ethnicity, nation and species. We owe our very contentment ... to the ingenuity of our ancestors, yet it rarely seems to enter the modern childfree head that proper payback of that debt might entail handing the baton of our happy-happy heritage on to someone else.

Even more trenchantly she adds,

My friends and I are decent people – or at least we treat each other well. We’re interesting. We’re fun. But writ large, we’re an economic, cultural and moral disaster.

There has to be something wrong when spurning reproduction doesn’t make Gabriella and me the “mavericks” that we’d both have fancied ourselves in our younger days, but standard issue for our age. Surely the contemporary absorption with our own lives as the be-all and end-all ultimately hails from an insidious misanthropy – a lack of faith in the whole human enterprise ...

Large sectors of western population have broken faith with the future.

In Lionel Shriver we have a liberalism grown wistful and self-critical, but too deeply ingrained to be jettisoned.

Let’s hope that others will take the further, necessary step of repudiating liberalism more decisively, as a mark of faith in our own future.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

The exquisite morality of a ratfink

What does cartoonist Michael Leunig think about the Danish cartoons affair? His answer, as set out in The Age today, appears to be this: treating people with respect is more important than freedom of speech, unless the people are Westerners, in which case they should rightly have ridicule dumped on them.

Think I'm being unfair? Well it's true that Leunig dresses up his argument in much moral finery of expression. Even so, it's not hard to recognise the primal emotions bubbling away underneath: an uncritical adulation of the outsider and a vilification of his own society.

But here is Leunig in his own words:

Some very vile and vicious things are done in the name of freedom. Mischief and bad motivation attach themselves, surreptitiously and parasitically to noble ideas. We've seen a lot of that lately ...

I am also suspicious of the motivation behind the commissioning of the famous Danish cartoons. I suspect that hatred may lie at the heart of the matter, even though hatred is a condition the West increasingly disowns.

The anti-cartoon riot story, as ugly as it is, must surely be the consequence not only of a handful of dull cartoon cliches, but of the accumulated anger resulting from the humiliation, persecution and suffering inflicted on Islam by the West. [See it's all our fault.] The cartoons are taunts, probably deliberate, to an aggrieved and traumatised spiritual community who feel at the mercy of the West's contempt, ignorance and ruthless military might. [It's all our fault, just in case we didn't get the message the first time.]

Any cartoonist with a heart or conscience (from whence good cartoons come) would not mock or taunt such a group in this formally transgressive way. [I almost fell of my seat laughing at this point: a liberal complaining about transgression? Liberals transgress as readily as they breathe. The cultural history of the West during my own lifetime has been one of transgression.] I like Manning Clarke's advice here: look with the eye of pity, which implies mercy and respect, the qualities which redeem a society more than the quality of raw freedom. [Manning Clarke was a fellow traveller who couldn't quite make his mind up about communist Russia.]

Any Australian who has lingered in an indigenous community learns of the traditional sacred protocols and chooses to respect them or not. To publish a photograph of a recently deceased Aborigine is something a white photographer might be asked to avoid. It is a matter of respect and character whether a photographer complies. [Note: Aborigines get respect.]

Public cartoon ridicule is properly dumped on the slick and the mighty, the officially powerful, on our own smug mob, on the triumphant ones protected by helicopter gunships and offices of state. [Note: Aborigines are not "smug", Muslims are not "smug", but we are, so we don't get respect.]

Cartooning is psychoanalytic and it is best when it discomforts us, not them ...

And on it goes. The underlying assumption is that morality works as follows: if you are strong you are morally bad, if you are weak you are morally good.

As a consequence it pays in a Leunigian world to be weak. You get to be morally justified. The strong, in comparison, get a guilt which no amount of mea culpas is going to wash away.

It is all very unhealthy. It requires the adoption of moral double standards. It justifies a most basic disloyalty to your own community. And it irrationally makes strength a vice and weakness a virtue.

Leunig makes considerable use of the phraseology of traditional morality to make it all sound more palatable, but no amount of rhetorical gloss will ever make his arguments sound.

What is the C for?

There was an odd twist today to the campaign in Australia to legalise the abortion drug RU486. A letter appeared in The Age supporting the campaign and praising parliamentarian Lyn Allison for telling the world about her own abortion. The letter runs:

Thanks to the courage of four female senators who put forward a private bill, the question of whether women will have access to RU486 is one step closer ... Particular acknowledgement must go to Lyn Allison, whose bravery in telling her personal story will come as a great comfort to the many women who have also made the difficult decision to have an abortion. I hope that members of the House of Representatives will follow in the footsteps of their Senate colleagues and vote in support of this important bill ...

Why is this so remarkable? It was penned by the Shannon Rees, the President of the YWCA!

I'd known that the YWCA was left-leaning but this open and extravagant support for abortion by a supposedly Christian women's organisation surprised me.

So I went to the YWCA website and discovered the following:

YWCA used to stand for Young Women's Christian Association. Our name was officially changed to YWCA in 2002. Although we respect and honour our Christian history, we are a modern progressive secular organisation ... YWCA women are united by one belief: a commitment to equality and opportunity for all women, and peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all people.

So they no longer pretend to be Christian. In some ways I admire them for their honesty. It's clear that many "Christian" organisations are so in name only and are really motivated by secular "progresssive" ideals. Perhaps in coming years we'll see more of these nominally Christian organisations follow the lead of the YWCA and formally renounce their religious affiliation.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Are we entering a feminist down phase?

Some years ago I was browsing through a pile of American magazines from the late 1940s in a second hand bookshop. The most interesting article I found was written by a female columnist (the magazine was from around 1946 or 1947). She argued that women had had enough of the hardships brought about by feminism (loneliness, childlessness etc) and that it would be a relief to return to more traditional values.

Which is what women did in the 1950s, thereby ending the first great wave of feminism which had begun (roughly speaking) in the 1860s (there had been individual feminists before then, but it seems to have been in the 1860s that feminism was first taken up as government policy in Great Britain).

I wonder if we are now poised on the brink of another feminist down phase. There seems to be a similar weariness amongst women - an unwillingness to continue shouldering the burden of overwork and poor family outcomes which are associated with modern feminism.

This wearing down of feminism from within is especially marked in a recent article in the Daily Mail by Amanda Platell (The Silent Conspiracy, 28th January 2006). The entire article is worth reading as evidence of a change in attitude, but let me cite some of the most revealing passages.

Here is Amanda Platell explaining that despite her glamorous career and lifestyle she wishes to question the feminist legacy:

Fortunate as I am to have lived the life I have done, my marriage ended in failure and I was never able to have the children I longed for (though in my case that owed more to biology than circumstance). Look around you and there are plenty of others like me; the women who inherited a new world order - and who now bear the emotional scars to prove it.

It's only now, as we start to look back, that we can see just how much we've scorched the social landscape around us. In our rush to embrace the new, we have systematically rejected much that, for centuries past, had brought women stability and happiness. Is it any wonder that the younger generation aren't sure what to think, and instead allow the thrill of youthful hedonism to drown out the conflicting signals around them.

On the one hand they are told they must strive to have it all; and on the other, they can see around them the evidence that this will never truly be possible. Or at least not without great cost to their physical and emotional well-being.

Far too often, it seems to me, the unwitting price of female emancipation has been heartache, stress and a life spent chasing false promises. But if we women are ever to feel truly happy with our lot, I believe we have to stop whingeing, stop blaming men and society, stop playing the victim and stand up and ask the unthinkable; are we ruining for ourselves? Could it be that the freedom we now enjoy is part of the problem?

Another revealing part of the article begins when Amanda Platell seeks a comment from author Fay Weldon, once a feminist icon:

"Women like you should be cursing women of my generation", she told me. "All we did was make you go out to work and earn money and have children and completely exhaust yourselves. I'm sorry". She called women like me 'the lost generation' - the ones who had inherited a barren landscape after the revolution had marched through.

"If you want to be like a man, then feminism hasn't gone far enough", she said, "if you want to be like a woman, it has gone too far.

And there, straight away, was the kernel of the matter: feminism was supposed to about equality, not sameness. We wanted to better our sex, not obliterate it. But that is what has happened. In striving to be the same as men, the only things we were guaranteed were the exhaustion and stress and guilt that came with the effort of labouring to become something we never were and never could be.

And striving to be like a man had other consequences. For a start, men don't like it - at least, not the kind of men you'd want to spend your life with. This has led to another unsayable truth. Women today take their 20's out for themselves, to pursue career and relationships - but not permanent ones - to experiment, to have fun. It's the 'me' decade of their life. I have no problem with that, but it does lead to a kind of independence that can make it hard for women to ever settle down with another person and willingly accept all the emotional and financial compromises that entails.

This, in turn, has led to another unintended consequence - this time biological. The principled and often pathological belief that men and women have to be treated the same has led women to believe they can have kids whenever they want and with whomever they want - or even by themselves if they choose. The principle legacy of that belief is not more contented mothers, but more women putting money in the pockets of a booming fertility industry as they discover the hard way that nature doesn't perform to order and pays no regard to social idealism.

Then there is the following extraordinary admission which Amanda Platell obtains from Tessa Jowell, the Minister for Women:

I felt sure the Minister for Women, Tessa Jowell, would have some right-on feminist response, so I tracked her down at the start of a countrywide tour where she was listening to women's concerns. I expected a sop: what I got was a shock.

Tessa said straight out that her daughter would not tolerate the stress of the impossible juggling act that women of her generation performed. Moreover, she admitted no amount of government policy would ever bring about the perfect work/life balance that might help make women happier. Part of the problem, she admitted, was that the anticipated participation of men in the home and parenting stakes has simply not materialised, and certainly not to the degree expected.

Women, even when they work full-time, are still the primary carers of children and elderly relatives, still do most of the housework, cooking and shopping. Only a fraction of men have taken up paternity leave.

Perhaps, as Tessa suggested to me, such characteristics are part of women's DNA - and no amount of legislation can change this fundamental difference between the sexes.

(This last statement of Tessa Jowell is the most significant. It represents a truly heretical thought within the church of liberalism: that perhaps we can't choose to be anything we will ourselves to be, because science has proven the reality of gender difference. Gender, in other words, can't be made not to matter, because our distinctive masculinity and femininity is hardwired into us.)

Time will tell whether Amanda Platell is representative of the spirit of the age, and that we really are to get some relief from feminism.

I'm not suggesting that institutional feminism will go away. Even in the 1950s there were UN women's officers jetting around the globe to various conferences and no doubt this will continue.

But perhaps at ground level some more space will open up for romance, marriage and motherhood.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

The unturned mind

In the year 1587 (or thereabouts) Sir Walter Raleigh wrote the following lines for Queen Elizabeth,

But true love is a durable fire
In the mind ever burning;
Never sick, never old, never dead,
From itself never turning.

The last line is the most striking. It suggests something important: that a mind which loves does not turn against itself.

The conservative mind, I believe, does not readily turn against itself. It does not seek to step outside a faithfulness to natural forms of love, attachment and identity.

This helps to explain the reluctance of conservatives, throughout the centuries, to grapple with the liberal mindset. There would be some discomfort and confusion for a conservative to turn his mind the way a liberal does.

There is a lesson here too for the modern Christian churches. At times the churches seem to suggest that Western man should practise a kind of self-abnegation as an act of love for "the Other".

But in reality this suggestion is incoherent. If the Christian churches want love, they should preach the opposite of self-annihilation for the Other, and instead encourage the Western mind to stay true to itself, its loyalties and attachments.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

More violence

It's happened again, this time at Australia's most famous beach, Bondi in Sydney.

A group of six young people, including a female, suffered multiple stab wounds after being attacked by a large group of men "of Middle Eastern appearance" armed with knives and bottles.

More here.