Sunday, April 30, 2006

Flanagan's cause

What happens when an Australian liberal is confronted by the realities of the new South Africa?

The liberal in question is Martin Flanagan, a good test case as he represents so well that caste of Anglo left-liberals who so thoroughly permeated our culture in the 1970s and 80s.

Flanagan’s visit to South Africa began with a bus trip through Johannesburg. The guide was an Afrikaner, a man who “made it clear that he supported what is called ‘the new South Africa’“.

The Afrikaner guide took Flanagan through Soweto, visiting the school where the Soweto uprising began, and then to Nelson Mandela’s house, as well as various other sites significant to the campaign against the old South Africa. By the end of the day, relates Flanagan,

I had got to know our guide a bit. We were sitting in a cafe at the end of the day when he revealed, in general conversation, that his daughter was shot dead by two black youths in a carjacking in Johannesburg two years before. And this man still believes in the new South Africa.

It seems to me a bitter fate for this Afrikaner. The new, more violent South Africa took his own daughter, yet he works to showcase it for tourists.

Flanagan then considers the story of the Afrikaner journalist, Max du Preez. Du Preez was an opponent of the old South Africa and worked hard to bring about its demise. The new order showed little gratitude. After the transition to black power, he went for a job, failed to get it, and was then,

taken outside by the white who headed the selection panel and told there is something he should understand. The job had to go to a black. “History has turned against you, my brother,” he is told.

Flanagan, then, knows what happens to Europeans when they lose political power. They are subject to greater violence and they are increasingly excluded from work. So what conclusion does Flanagan draw about his South African experience? He writes,

What I do know is that returning to Australia from that country is to be aware that we live in a protected reality. We have gone back to the “lucky country” mentality. John Howard is the leader you have when you don’t have to think or care too much.

I don’t know if I could live in South Africa. You’d need strong nerves. But I do know there is something in what Max du Preez said at the end of his book. South Africa has problems far greater than this country’s, but in South Africa you keep coming across a great invigorating passion for the future that is unlike anything here. We equate nationalism with beating the drum on Anzac Day and playing up sporting wins. They have people like the little man who took us through Soweto.

It is striking that Flanagan objects to living in a “protected reality”. This puts him at odds with the most basic of masculine instincts, which is to protect family and tribe from physical harm. It means, too, that he has little sense of what this task draws forth from men.

He is attracted instead to what he calls the “social adventure” of the new South Africa. It is, it seems, a kind of intellectual attraction he feels, as he doesn’t actually want to subject himself to living there. But the idea of it appeals to him, the idea of the drama of living under more extreme circumstances.

And so he comes to admire the Afrikaner guide, a man who appeared to him initially as a fool, but who reveals himself to be so strongly committed to the cause of the new South Africa, that he will serve it loyally even to the utmost cost to himself.

I can’t help but think that Flanagan’s view is a product of the alienation of liberals from what is significant in everyday life. Liberalism presents us with such a pared down individualism, that the more deeply sustaining aspects of our daily lives and our natural loyalties are lost to us. Some liberals respond by looking for causes to commit themselves to.

And what of Flanagan’s cause? Is the South African social adventure likely to lead to a great humanitarian outcome?

Turning just a few pages of The Age from Flanagan’s piece, you find an article about another southern African nation with a white minority, namely Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe has been pursuing the same kind of adventure as South Africa, but for a longer time. The results have certainly been dramatic and Europeans have certainly lost their protected status, but it’s difficult to see the results as positively “invigorating”.

The economy is shattered. Inflation is over 1000 per cent, life expectancy has fallen to the world’s lowest and food aid is required for 4 million people.

President Mugabe, who recently referred to white farmers as “filth” and “murderous thieves” is now inviting some of them back on long term leases to try and restore food production.

But many will decline the offer. Vernon Nicolle is one such farmer who won’t subject himself to Zimbabwean conditions. He lost his land in 2003 to a Zimbabwe High Court judge (not much point in appealing) and is now farming in the Margaret River region of Western Australia.

He thinks it “stupid and naive in the extreme” for white farmers to accept the offer to return to Zimbabwe. As for claims that white farmers would be welcome as long as they remained loyal to Mugabe, he has the following response:

Sorry to be boring, but we as the Nicolle family produced 24 per cent of the national wheat crop. We fed the nation. We thought we were OK because we weren’t political animals, we were just farmers. And when it suited them (the regime), they chucked us off.

So in reality the experiment of living precariously in southern Africa has not bred in Vernon Nicolle a grand passion for the future of his country. There is no invigoration, no great cause to follow. Just a flight to somewhere else – to a place, in fact, which Martin Flanagan believes we should abandon, a place which is, for the time being at least, a “protected reality”.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The lost girls of Shibuya

What makes us free? According to liberals it is our liberation from whatever might impede individual choice.

But this is a definition which takes us in odd directions. Take, for instance, the views of Jessica Brinton, who recently wrote an article on the young women of Tokyo ("Maid in Japan", Herald Sun, not online).

The article was intended as “a snapshot of a culture where radical fashion, sexual bravura and cultural weirdness are finally beginning to liberate its women.”

So what is the evidence that young Tokyo women are being liberated? First, there is a changing attitude to work,

Now, to be part-time (or freeter) is the chosen career dream ... you work three days a week in shops and spend the rest of your time chasing creative dreams. The real energy goes into doing what you want, when you want ...

But what exactly is this “doing what you want, when you want”? Well, this is how Jessica Brinton describes the lifestyle choices of the girls of the Shibuya district of Tokyo,

They congregate inside the auditory bedlam of the Shibuya department store 109. Or outside McDonald’s, where they occasionally pick up older men for a few hundred yen (the extra cash goes towards the latest Chanel handbag). Aggressive, self-empowered and sexy, they dress as they want – from orange tans, razor sharp stilettoes and microskirts, through Victoriana to extreme punk – shop as they want and behave exactly as they want.

You see - the more outrageous the behaviour of the girls, the more “liberated” they are, as it only shows how far they will go to “behave exactly as they want” and to be “self-empowered”.

It’s the same when Jessica Brinton discusses what young Tokyo women are choosing to read. She notes approvingly that,

Girl manga or shojo – which features cross-dressing boys, characters who magically change sex, brother-sister romances and teenage girls falling in love with 10-year-old boys, among other things, sells fast in Japan.

Obviously, these manga (comic books) are breaking taboos. They are portraying a world in which there are no restrictions at all placed on either sexuality or gender. For Jessica Brinton, this is liberating because it is an assertion of free choice against traditional moral standards. Later in her article, she describes such manga as “part of a rich and complex sexual landscape in which almost everything is allowed”.

Jessica Brinton concludes that the behaviour of young Tokyo women promises great things. She writes,

In a country where women comprise only 7.7 per cent of managerial positions, it’s clear that popular culture is outpacing the business world. But who knows? The freedom, creativity and ingenuity these girls are exhibiting make it clear that today’s freeter or Shibuya Girl might just be tomorrow’s economic leader.

For conservatives, there is a much different conclusion to be drawn. It is obviously not enough to define freedom as the state in which you can choose to do what you want when you want – where there are no restrictions on your choices and “almost everything is allowed”.

Such a definition makes the Shibuya girls seem progressive, liberated, cutting-edge and therefore admirable. But the truth is that they are lost souls, whose lives are limited to smaller things like shopping and fashion, and whose sexuality is coarsely promiscuous.

If this is freedom it is worthless.

So what, then, might be a better way to define freedom? I don’t know if I can put it the right way just yet, but I don’t think you can really understand freedom if all you recognise is the individual and his will.

A better understanding of freedom is only possible in a society which still recognises a set of “goods” external to the individual (often called transcendent goods because they transcend the individual and his will). We are then ‘free’ when we are able to live according to such goods.

For example, an Englishman might declare himself “free” if he is able to live as part of his national community. If, on the other hand, his country were overthrown by conquest, he would no longer enjoy this freedom.

Similarly, if we live in a society which recognises objectively existing moral goods, then we are free to pursue a moral life within a community. But if our society only recognises as a good what the individual will desires, then we lose this freedom to pursue or practise the moral virtues as part of a community.

Again, if masculinity is something of “transcendent” value, then men are most free when they achieve a masculine adult personality and when they are able to enact this personality via the institutions and social roles of their own community.

I could go on. But the basic point is to consider what really inspires a sense of freedom. Liberals like Jessica Brinton seriously believe that it is the Shibuya girls who are free, because they aggressively assert the idea of doing what they want when they want.

I can’t accept this because I know I would not feel free in Shibuya. I would feel dismayed.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

What matters?

What gives us a sense of wellbeing? The results of some Australian research might surprise you.

A study was released last October which compared the wellbeing of Australians according to the electorate they live in. 23,000 Australians were interviewed for the survey which was a joint project of Deakin University and Australian Unity, a large insurance company.

In which electorates did people report the highest level of wellbeing? The decisive factor was not money. In fact, the electorate with the lowest taxable income, Wide Bay in Queensland, scored the highest level of personal wellbeing.

So what did count? The report highlighted three factors which, according to political orthodoxy, are not supposed to matter the way they do.

First, stable family formation was important. Electorates with fewer separated, divorced or never married people reported higher levels of personal wellbeing. According to the survey,

The low EDs [electoral districts] contain 11.6% fewer people who are married, almost double the population of people who have never married (14.8% vs 26.5%) and half the proportion of widows (10.0% vs 5.6%). This is important information since people who are married or widowed have higher SWB [subjective wellbeing] than other types of relationship status, and people who have never married, at least once they age beyond 26 years, have lower wellbeing.

and, on the same theme,

We also have uncovered factors that are associated with low personal wellbeing: Living with adult non-partners, being separated or divorced, and having never married.

We are often told that any kind of living arrangement can serve equally as family, but the survey results contradict this claim by connecting wellbeing to marital status.

Gender was also significant in influencing wellbeing. Electorates with a higher proportion of women ranked higher in the survey. Again, this result is not what you might expect. If being female makes you more likely to report a higher level of wellbeing it is harder to accept the feminist idea that women should be classed as an oppressed victim group.

The survey also connected electorates with high ethnic diversity to low personal wellbeing. The research did not, therefore, support the orthodox idea that we are enriched in our personal lives by multicultural diversity. Instead, the survey concluded that,

ethnic diversity is far higher within the low EDs. They have a significantly higher proportion of people who speak a language other than English and have a religion other than Christianity. While this might be expected if the low EDs simply represented enclaves of low paid and educated migrants, this is not the case. As has been seen, the high and low divisions do not differ in terms of income, rate of employment, or levels of education, except for the very small minority who did not go to school. Thus, the picture that emerges is that the low EDs are more ethnically diverse but not more socio-economically disadvantaged.

To put this the other way around, the survey is suggesting that it helps your sense of wellbeing if you live in an ethnically homogeneous area, less impacted by waves of diverse immigration.

So, if the research is valid governments need to rethink current approaches to family, gender and ethnicity, if they are to truly promote the wellbeing of those they are supposed to represent.

(Hat tip: reader Shane who directed me to the source material.)

Monday, April 17, 2006

Poetry wars

When the French Revolution broke out in 1789 it was greeted with enthusiasm by the young intellectuals of Europe.

The English poet William Wordsworth was no exception. He wrote verses in support of the Revolution, including these significant lines,

Once Man entirely free, alone and wild,
Was bless’d as free, for he was Nature’s child.
He, all superior but his God disdained,
Walk’d none restraining, and by none restrained,
Confessed no law but what his reason taught,
Did all he wish’d, and wish’d but what he ought.

In these lines Wordsworth is claiming that man is naturally free in the liberal sense of having no impediments to his individual will and reason. The individual man is superior to everyone else but God; he needs no restraints and recognises no laws except those accepted by his own reason; he follows his own will in all things (but always chooses to do the right thing).

A few decades later another famous young English poet, Shelley, was still holding firm to the same political ideal. In his work Prometheus Unbound (1820), Shelley advanced his ideal of a “new man” who would “make the earth one brotherhood”. This new man would be,

Sceptreless, free, uncircumscribed, but man
Equal, unclassed, tribeless, and nationless,
Exempt from awe, worship, degree, the king
Over himself

Shelley is following the same ideal as the young Wordsworth, but has taken things a step further. Unlike the nature’s child described by Wordsworth, Shelley’s new man does not recognise a higher authority in God, nor is it assumed that he will always choose what is right.

Shelley has also drawn out the logic of this liberal concept of freedom by rejecting nationalism. What matters for Shelley is that we are all equally sovereign individuals – the kings over ourselves. We are not to be circumscribed, contained, or ranked according to collective identities, whether they be based on class, tribe or nation.

In the long run, Shelley got his way. The liberal concept of freedom came to dominate Western politics; it became such an orthodoxy that traditional nationalism came to be seen negatively as a limitation or restriction on the individual, and as a “discriminatory” offence against equality.

There was resistance along the way, though, to this unfolding of the liberal view. The French Revolution did not meet the expectations of its supporters. It did not return man to a natural, untrammelled freedom, but unleashed the Reign of Terror, followed by the dictatorship of Bonaparte.

Wordsworth reconsidered his position. He shed his liberalism and adopted a more conservative outlook. This change in his views is very clear in his homage to Edmund Burke, the political philosopher who had stood against the stream and had warned, prophetically, of the likely consequences of the Revolution:

I see him – old, but vigorous in age, -
Stand like an oak whose stag-horn branches start
Out of its leafy brow, the more to awe
The younger brethren of the grove. But some -
While he forewarns, denounces, launches forth,
Against all systems based on abstract rights,
Keen ridicule; the majesty proclaims
Of Institutes and Laws, hallowed by time;
Declares the vital power of social ties
Endeared by Custom; and with high disdain,
Exploding upstart Theory, insists
Upon the allegiance to which men are born
(The Prelude 519 – 529)

There is no quibbling about liberalism in these lines. Wordsworth, following Burke, no longer believes that our own individual will and reason, acting alone, are sufficient to order society. Time hallowed institutes and laws are to be respected, even though they cannot by definition be self-authored. Customary social ties do not circumscribe individual freedom but are remarkable for their vital power.

Most strikingly, we are born to our allegiances. Wordsworth, in asserting this, has made a root and branch rejection of liberalism, and has, politically, set himself free. He is no longer limited, in what he identifies with, to purely “voluntary” associations chosen as a deliberate act of will or reason.

Instead, the whole gamut of allegiance is open to him. He may follow his deeper loyalties to an inherited ethnic nationalism; he may identify completely with an inborn masculinity; he may accept traditional and stable forms of family life; and he may assent to external, objective codes of morality.

Wordsworth, having once shared Shelley’s enthusiasms, knew how to break most cleanly with the ideal of the sceptreless, tribeless new man. But Wordsworth’s defence of nationalism was not the most famous of its time.

In 1804 Sir Walter Scott wrote a stinging attack on those who felt no allegiance to their own homelands. He relied less on theory and more on force of expression:

Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land!
Whose heart hath ne'er within him burn'd,
As home his footsteps he hath turn'd,
From wandering on a foreign strand!
If such there breathe, go, mark him well;
For him no Minstrel raptures swell;
High though his titles, proud his name,
Boundless his wealth as wish can claim;
Despite those titles, power, and pelf,
The wretch, concentred all in self,
Living, shall forfeit fair renown,
And, doubly dying, shall go down
To the vile dust, from whence he sprung,
Unwept, unhonor'd, and unsung.
(Lay of the Last Minstrel, Canto Sixth)

There is only a hint of theory in this poem. The “wretch” is described as being “concentrated all in self” and this perhaps is aimed at the radical individualism of the “new man” who was, despite the best efforts of poets like Wordsworth and Scott, to so greatly affect the fortunes of twentieth century Europe.

Friday, April 14, 2006

By their side

In 1966, a young Australian woman, Jean Debelle Lamensdorf, went to Vietnam as a Red Cross volunteer. She has written a book about her experiences, Write Home for Me.

Lamensdorf portrays the Australian soldiers she cared for in a refreshingly positive way. In a lengthy article on her life in Vietnam in last weekend’s Herald Sun (9/4/06), she recounts that on her first day in Saigon she visited the US headquarters and that,

In the public relations office she saw photographs of unknown soldiers scattered across a desk. One photo caught her eye.

The image was of an Australian Digger. Rivulets of sweat ran down his dirty face and his eyes told of physical and emotional exhaustion.

Lamensdorf asked if she could keep the photograph. It hung above her bed for her year in Vietnam.

“To me, he summed up the spirit of the Digger: good-looking, rugged, covered in sweat and dirt and though totally shattered, resilient,” she says. “I didn’t know who he was, but he made a huge impression.

“I met many men like him in Vietnam; selfless and well-trained, they never lost their humour and they worried more about their mates than about themselves.”

The man who captivated Lamensdorf was later identified as Barry Harford, a Tunnel Rat who would lead the way into the eerie darkness of the Viet Cong tunnels. Men like Harford never knew what awaited them in the darkness, but they did their job anyway.

On being an attractive young female living among 5000 troops she says,

It was like walking a tightrope. The men had been without women for a long time and there was a lot of sexual tension in the air, but they always treated the Red Cross women with respect and dignity.

After a year, Lamensdorf returned to Adelaide but,

I felt very out of step. I became intolerant of hypocrisy, insincerity and anything plastic. But at the same time Vietnam made me realise the goodness of mankind.

It sounds sugary, but I’d seen the finest that men could be to each other in Vietnam.

This is a very different view of the Vietnam War than that conjured up by films like Apocalypse Now. What’s even more striking, though, is that Lamensdorf so openly appreciates the traditional masculinity of the Australian soldiers and bears not a trace of disloyalty toward them.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

The politics of bad faith

In 1970 Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics became a feminist bestseller. Today it reads like a template for the feminism which came after.

What inspired such an influential book? It’s hard to miss, as part of the answer, the role of orthodox liberal philosophy.

There’s even that most primal liberal idea: that we are made human by our ability to shape our own existence, in contrast to the animals who act from biological instinct.

What’s odd about this idea is that it means we can be more or less human, according to how much we are subject to forces we don’t decide for ourselves, such as traditions, or authorities, or behavioural codes or our own inherited nature. Our very humanity is put on the line.

This is particularly a problem for women, as traditional womanhood was centred on the biological act of motherhood and the emotional life associated with it, rather than an act of intellectual or wilful “self-making” as might be claimed by men competing in the public world of arts, sciences and politics.

This, at any rate, is how Kate Millett saw things. She wrote,

In terms of activity, sex role assigns domestic service and attendance upon infants to the female, the rest of human achievement, interest, and ambition to the male. The limited role allotted the female tends to arrest her at the level of biological experience. Therefore, nearly all that can be described as distinctly human rather than animal activity (in their own way animals also give birth and care for their young) is largely reserved for the male.

This is a devastating way to understand the traditional female role. It means that women are lower even than slaves – they are not even living as humans.

Why would women be assigned such a role? Millett argues at length, as she must, that there is nothing natural about the female role. In fact, Millett doesn’t even accept that our “core gender identity” is natural.

Instead, Millett makes a distinction between our “sex”, which is biological, and our “gender”, which is a product of culture. As she herself puts it:

Important new research not only suggests that the possibilities of innate temperamental differences seem more remote than ever, but even raises questions as to the validity and permanence of psycho-sexual identity. In doing so it gives fairly concrete positive evidence of the overwhelmingly cultural character of gender.

So why then do women have a role which robs them of their humanity? Millett answers: as an act of power by men over women. For Millett all politics is to be understood as a will to power by one group over another:

The term ‘politics’ shall refer to power-structured relationships, arrangements whereby one group of persons is controlled by another.

Millett believes that men are the dominant group who have subordinated women within a patriarchy:

the situation between the sexes now, and throughout history, is a case of that phenomenon Max Weber defined as herrschaft, a relationship of dominance and subordinance.

By this point there is no saving the position of love, marriage and family. They can only be understood as instruments of control by men over women:

Patriarchy’s chief institution is the family ... the family effects control and conformity where political and other authorities are insufficient ... Traditionally, patriarchy granted the father nearly total ownership over wife or wives and children, including the powers of physical abuse and often even those of murder and sale ... The concept of romantic love affords a means of emotional manipulation which the male is free to exploit ...

How to respond?

This then is the feminist path to bad faith, laid out so clearly for us by Kate Millett.

It begins with the idea that our humanity is contingent - that acting from a biological nature imperils our distinct status as humans. From this flows the claim that women’s traditional role, based around motherhood, denies women their humanity. This makes it awkward to view women’s role as natural; as an alternative the role is explained as a product of cultural influences. The leading position of men within public culture, the “human” sphere, similarly cannot be accepted as natural, but is explained as a politically organised dominance of men over women: a patriarchy. Love, marriage and the family, central as they are to relations between men and women, are then understood as “local” mechanisms of a male subordination of women.

There is, in other words, a chain of argument leading up to feminist expressions of bad faith. When Kate Millett writes of women being treated as chattels by men, or when she describes sexuality as an act of hostility by men toward women, or when she denies the real possibilities of love between men and women, denigrating love instead as a politically calculated manipulation, she does so within an ideological framework which appears to justify such claims.

However, in the feminist chain of argument there is no strong link – each argument can be easily pulled apart.

There is no compelling reason, for instance, to accept the idea that our status as humans is contingent. We certainly don’t feel this to be true. If I act according to instinct, or in obedience to a traditional authority, or from an inherited identity, I don’t feel my humanity to be under threat. Most of us, I expect, have a sense that our humanity is something that is with us as a matter of course and is more the sum total of our existence, rather than something we must self-consciously achieve as an act of “self-making”.

Once we view our human status this way, then we are more free to accept the significance of the traditional female role. Creating a new human life can be seen as important, even if it is connected closely to biology. Similarly, it becomes possible again to value the role women traditionally played as the emotional centre of family life.

Nor are we under the same pressure to deny that sex roles are natural. Millett wanted us to believe that the distinction between masculine and feminine was not natural: that it was an artificial product of culture and not biology. She claimed that “important new research” supported this view.

She has been proved wrong. Science has, in fact, proved the conservative view to be correct: that differences between men and women are hardwired into our biology. It is now accepted, for instance, that there are important differences between men and women in the structure of the brain.

Couldn’t this mean that the personalities of men have developed in a distinct way as part of their natural role as protectors and providers? Thousands of years ago, being a protector and provider might have meant organising to hunt together and establishing basic leadership councils to hold the tribe together. But as civilisation developed, these same functions might have been expressed in more sophisticated ways. The masculine personality might have been directed toward industry and economic development, and toward higher level political activity and interests.

The greater involvement of men in careers and politics might, therefore, simply be an expression of a positive and useful function played by men in society, something they are fitted for in their personalities, namely their traditional function of being providers and protectors. It does not have to be explained as an organised attempt to subordinate women. It might actually be something which has generally benefited women.

A failed experiment

Which brings us finally to love, marriage and the family.

Whereas a conservative might see love between a man and a woman as a finer part of human nature, leading ideally to marriage, an exclusive union for life of a man and a woman, Kate Millett regarded love and marriage as oppressive instruments of control over women.

And whereas a conservative might see the family as securing for women both emotional and material support, Millett took the more negative view that the family was a mechanism for subordinating women.

So which outlook has more validity? Millett herself decided to find out by living as part of a “sisterhood” rather than as part of a family. She used the money she made from the success of her book to buy a farm, which she invited other women to stay at.

According to Millett’s theory, by making this choice she ought to have escaped a patriarchal oppression and found happiness, freedom and fulfilment. What she actually did experience is recorded in a description of her life she wrote in 1998. It is too long to reproduce in full, but a few excerpts will do:

Another season at the farm ... the tedium of a small community, shearing trees, so exhausted afterward that I did nothing but read ... Back to the Bowery and another emptiness. I cannot spend the whole day reading, so I write, or try to. A pure if pointless exercise ...

I cannot get employment. I cannot earn money. Except by selling Christmas trees, one by one, in the cold in Poughkeepsie. I cannot teach and have nothing but farming now. And when physically I can no longer farm, what then? Nothing I write now has any prospect of seeing print ...

Frightening, this future. What poverty ahead, what mortification, what distant bag-lady horrors, when my savings are gone? And why did I imagine it would be any different, imagine my books would give me some slender living ...

Much as I tire of a life without purpose or the meaningful work that would make it bearable, I can’t die because the moment I do, my sculpture, drawings, negatives and silkscreens will be carted off to the dump ...

We [feminists] haven’t helped each other much, haven’t been able to build solidly enough to have created community or safety. Some women in this generation disappeared to struggle alone in makeshift oblivion. Or vanished into asylums and have yet to return to tell the tale, as has Shula Firestone. There were despairs that could only end in death: Maria del Drago chose suicide, so did Ellen Frankfurt, and Elizabeth Fischer ...

Elizabeth and I would eat an afternoon breakfast and chat, carefully disguising our misery from each other. Feminists didn’t complain to one another then; each imagined the loneliness and sense of failure was unique.

The outcome of Millett’s experiment was loneliness, insecurity and a loss of purpose. I don’t think that this is accidental. If the family has resilience it is partly because it offers the possibility of a refuge from these things. This, though, is not something to be admitted by those, like Kate Millett, who understand the family primarily in terms of “sexual politics”.

Saturday, April 01, 2006


One of the issues which has been seized upon to discredit Australia's past has been the "stolen generations" - the idea that whites forcibly removed Aboriginal children from their parents in order to commit a racist genocide.

I won't attempt here to make a detailed response to the theory. I simply want to present a single primary source material: an account of her experiences by "Cecily", an Aboriginal girl who grew up in Bega in NSW in the 1960s.

Cecily is not a doctrinaire leftist, and so simply tells things as they appeared to her. The picture we get is not the ideologically convenient one of oppressor whites and victimised Aborigines, but of something much more complex.

Cecily's removal from her family was not without its problems, including, as you might expect, difficulties in terms of belonging and identity. The removal was not, though, motivated by racism, nor by any attempt to deny Cecily her Aboriginality.

Cecily's account is taken from a book The Colour of Difference published by The Federation Press (2001). I encourage you to read the entire piece, but for those who want a brief summary Cecily's story is as follows.

Cecily was abandoned as a baby by her mother. She was raised for a time by her grandmother and an aunt. A white Sunday school teacher invited her to stay at her home for periods of time, which Cecily enjoyed.

At the age of six, Cecily began to suffer illnesses from poor diet, and at the same time her grandmother began abusing alcohol and her aunt moved away.

The grandmother arranged for the Sunday school teacher to foster Cecily. The white family accepted Cecily except for one of the brothers, though he eventually accepted the situation also.

Cecily's life wasn't perfect. At times she wished she was white, and other Aboriginal children teased her for living with a white family. Also, when she reached adolescence, she became more concerned with questions of her real family identity.

At the age of 15 she decided, with the support of her foster mother, to stay with her Aboriginal mother and her brothers and sisters. However, she witnessed a shocking incident of domestic violence and went back to live with her foster family.

However at age 17 "the pressure within me started mounting again. I was trying to establish my identity."

She went to live with her Aboriginal aunt and finally returned to live in her Aboriginal community near Nowra. She met her Aboriginal father's brothers (he had died in a car crash) and put some of the missing pieces of her life together, so that "I felt like I belonged".

What can we conclude from Cecily's story? Simply, I think, that there was no easy solution for Cecily's plight. There was no one in her own community to look after her properly, and so she grew up within a white family. This was not an ideal situation, as she needed to feel connected to her own family and her own community.

The role of whites in all this, though, was not racist or genocidal - far from it, in fact, as Cecily herself is gracious enough to recognise.