Saturday, May 27, 2006

The shadow side of political modernism

It's rare to hear self-doubt from political moderns. Therefore, appreciate while you can the confessions of Rev. Alan Taylor.

Rev. Taylor preaches at a Chicago temple of the Unitarian Universalist church. The Unitarians are one of the most liberal churches you're likely to find. They describe themselves as "a living example of, and a powerful voice for, liberal religion in America."

In a sermon in 2004, Rev. Taylor spoke about a book he had read by a fellow liberal, David Brooks, called Bobos in Paradise. Brooks' basic idea is that in the 1990s a new elite emerged who combined wealth with free-spirited creativity. He calls this new elite "bourgeois bohemians" or, more simply, "Bobos".

Brooks self-identifies as one of these "Bobos", as does the Rev. Taylor who admitted:

Rarely do I read a book like Bobos in Paradise and say, they're talking about me, about so many religious liberals, and about most of the folks with whom I graduated from college in 1990.

Which brings us to the self-doubt.

The Bobos are political moderns. The basic idea of such modernism is that we are made human when we are free to create ourselves through our own individual choices. This means that the aim of politics is to achieve an individual "freedom" in which there are no impediments to "individual choice."

I have pointed out many times that this way of looking at things, as good as it sounds, doesn't work out as it's supposed to.

One reason for this is the following problem. If the aim is to allow me to create who I am by my own choices, then anything which influences me in an important way, but which I don't choose, must be rejected.

But this means that it is exactly the deeper things which must be rejected, as it is these which are most likely to be part of an inherited tradition or a biological nature, placing them outside the realm of individual choice.

For instance, my masculine nature as a man is something that I didn't choose, but was born into. Therefore, political moderns think it ought to be made not to matter. Political moderns admire men who act outside of, or contrary to, such an inherited nature.

As a result of considering things this way, modernism leaves us with an abundance of choices, but only of a shallow nature (such as consumer choices). The deeper, really important things are rejected as being a "biological destiny" or a "traditional role" and so on.

What do political moderns think about the shallow range of lifestyle choices they have limited themselves to? Usually, the topic isn't raised. But Rev. Taylor, and David Brooks, aren't entirely comfortable living so lightly. Hence the self-doubt.

The Rev. says:

Here in Oak Park it is challenging. We live in a community that caters to the upper middle-class. The value of maximizing freedom reigns supreme, but there are forces that undermine sustained connections...

I have lived a quintessentially Bobo life ... If these trends continue ... my life will be a series of light, ultimately inconsequential and therefore meaningless connections. But I will have a lot of them! And that's just it, when we Bobos maximize our freedom, depth and meaning elude us.

And so what we get in Bobo life, Brooks says, is "a world of many options, but not a life of solid commitments, and maybe not a life that ever offers access to the profoundest truths, deepest emotions, or highest aspirations. Maybe in the end the problem with this attempt to reconcile freedom with commitment, virtue with affluence, autonomy with community is not that it leads to some catastrophic crack-up or some picturesque slide into immorality and decadence, but rather that it leads to too many compromises and spiritual fudges. Maybe people who try to have endless choices end up with semi-commitments and semi-freedoms. Maybe we will end up leading a life that is moderate but flat, our souls being colored with shades of gray, as we find nothing heroic, nothing inspiring, nothing that brings our lives to a point. Some days I look around and I think we have been able to achieve these reconciliations only by making ourselves more superficial, by simply ignoring the deeper thoughts and highest ideals that would torture us if we actually stopped to measure ourselves according to them.

The Rev. Taylor believes that the following quote from Brooks also captures this "shadow side" of political modernism,

Bobos pay lip-service to the virtues of tradition, roots, community. However, when push comes to shove, they tend to choose personal choice over other commitments ... And this is self-defeating, because at the end of all this movement and freedom and self-exploration, they find that they have nothing deep and lasting to hold on to.

Surprisingly for a Unitarian, the Rev. Taylor even looks back to the following lost religious tradition to underline his point:

The monk in the monastery does not lead an experimental life, but perhaps he is able to lead a profound one.

And isn't this a worthier aim? To live profoundly, within a world and a nature we did not create, rather than skittling life down to those things we can choose freely as autonomous individuals, but which don't count for much.

Some political moderns might object that they would lose their "individuality" in a world where individual autonomy was not the overriding principle. But their fear is unfounded in my opinion.

A man who is connected to the more profound aspects of his own nature will almost inevitably express a stronger and more confident individuality, than someone whose existence revolves around mere lifestyle choices.

In any event, we should be grateful that the Rev. Taylor and David Brooks are willing to admit the self-doubt they feel about the superficiality and rootlessness in the lives of political moderns.

It helps our case as conservatives when even insiders are willing to acknowledge this fault within liberal societies.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Anti-liberalism not enough?

Earlier this month I reviewed the first half of a biography of James McAuley, a leading figure on the anti-communist right in Australia in the 1950s and 60s.

I noted that McAuley, as a younger independent leftist in the 1940s, had given up on a traditional nationalism, like other intellectuals of that era.

McAuley actually advocated adding Papua New Guinea to Australia, and complained that the scheme was unlikely to go ahead because of the “narrow ethnocentrism” of Australian nationalism.

A reader, Shane, asked in the comments if McAuley retained this view when his politics moved rightward after WWII. As it happens, the answer to this question does appear later in the biography.


The first thing to note, though, is that McAuley did recognise liberalism as a problem besetting Western societies.

The second half of the biography has many quotes from McAuley which clearly identify liberalism as a weakness in Western cultural life. Consider the following summaries or direct quotes of McAuley’s views:

the heirs of the Englightenment – liberal-progressive humanists – were ... unable “to distinguish between right and wrong, truth and lies, sense and nonsense, honour and dishonour.”

he felt that liberal intellectuals were so readily deceived about communism because of “the ideological complicities, the wavering rootlessness, the superficiality and inexperience, the personal vanity and the secret tendency to worship power which are the ordinary marks of the Western intellectual.”

Since the thirties, he wrote, liberal intellectuals had become no more than “camp followers” of socialism … Liberal intellectuals were wrong-headed in their view that man was perfectible by some rearrangement of circumstances.

Papua New Guinea

So McAuley was a rare voice criticising liberalism. However, being anti-liberal did not necessarily translate into a consistent conservatism. Even as late as 1960, long after his shift rightward, he was no conservative nationalist.

The biography states that at this time he had only reluctantly abandoned his view that Papua and New Guinea could become an Australian state. He now supported John Kerr’s proposal that the best option was a Melanesian Federation.

The Melanesian option is the conservative one. It would have meant bringing together the territories sharing at least some aspects of a common ethnicity into a united nation. John Kerr also sensibly advocated fostering an intellectual and cultural elite in Papua and New Guinea.

McAuley’s views were not so sensible. In an essay titled “My New Guinea” he suggested that white women were to blame for the failure of Australian efforts in colonial New Guinea. Why?

Well, if white women had stayed home, and only men had gone to New Guinea, then the men would have interacted socially and sexually with the natives and it would have become a mulatto society,

“a slatternly, but more colourful and easy-going society, with the minor vices of concubinage and sloth, rather than the major respectable vices of cold-heartedness and hypocrisy.”


McAuley’s advocacy of a colourful mulatto New Guinea reminds me of those who admire Brazil today. I’ve written previously, for example, about Ryan Heath who admires “crazy and colourful” and “non-white” cities like Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.

Why would intellectuals like McAuley and Heath advocate creating such melting-pots, even when they recognise the negative traits associated with them (such as being more slothful, or slatternly, or out of control)?

Perhaps it’s for the following reason (though I’m speculating). If you’re a white person, and you’re confronted with an inequality of condition between your own society and a third world country, how do you react?

Is it possible that some whites, brought up on ideas of social justice, wish to solve this problem of unequal condition through dissolution? That they want to merge the white population into the “other” population, blending them together, and thereby equalising them? And that they wish to “dissolve” the qualities which bring advantage to their own society – namely, habits of being law-abiding, hard-working, sober and self-disciplined – to bring social levels closer together?

This last point would explain why seemingly negative qualities of being slothful, or slatternly or out of control would be presented so positively – they are positive, for a social justice egalitarian, in the sense of cutting away at one’s own advantage.

The human person

I don’t want to be too hard on McAuley. He recognised intellectually the failings of liberal modernism, which is further than most other intellectuals of his time ever got.

But he didn’t quite get far enough. The American traditionalist, Jim Kalb, wrote recently that the problem of liberalism goes very deep, into the very way we conceive the nature of the individual.

Kalb suggests that the liberal individual is the same as the Cartesian ego, “a disembodied subject with no qualities at all other than the free-floating ability to have experiences and make choices.” One consequence of understanding the individual this way is that,

The Cartesian ego isn’t really part of the world of experience. How, after all, could something with no qualities be embodied? So perhaps there’s a feeling that it’s more legitimate for Third World types, who don’t seem to be free floating Cartesian egos, to be embodied and thus part of the world of experience.

As it happens, McAuley outlines his own view of the individual in his essay on New Guinea. It is certainly not a radical leftist view, as it makes mention of moral responsibility, dignity, obligations and order. However, it still seems to be liberal in the terms set out by Jim Kalb: it presents what seems to me to be a disembodied view of the individual.

McAuley was “tormented” by the following question:

How were the New Guinea people going to step out of a decayed primitive culture, and embrace and make their own, in knowledge and habit, in inward acceptance and institutional result, those things that seem to be essential: for example, the acceptance of the notion of the human “person” with its structure of intellect and free will and moral responsibility, its intrinsic and inalienable dignity and obligations and rights, its need to find the freedom of self-fulfilment through order and love? … What wisdom would build this house, and furnish and decorate it, and maintain it?

This is McAuley writing in a more credible vein. Even so, his human “person” remains too much the Cartesian ego of intellect and free will, with the proviso of “moral responsibility” and an abstracted dignity, order and love added on.

I don’t think a liberal modernist would blink at this way of presenting the nature of the individual. But what if we “embodied” this individual, placing him in the world, with his natural loyalties and identities and with his more particular social responsibilities and obligations?

McAuley might, for instance, have written about men and women, rather than about “persons”. He might have written about paternal responsibilities, about marital love or maternal love, about ethnic loyalties or about masculine pride and dignity.

As an orthodox Catholic, he might also have written about the structure of the individual not only in terms of intellect and free will, but of the human soul.

It is in conceiving the nature of individuals in this way, in a way unacceptable to the free floating Cartesian ego, that we break most decisively with liberalism.

That’s why I don’t think an intellectual anti-liberalism will necessarily produce a consistent conservatism. We have inherited a liberal understanding of the individual which, as Jim Kalb puts it, is a ‘fundamental conceptual thing’ and “invisible to people’.

As long as we operate within this concept of the individual, we will tend to think in some ways in liberal terms, even if we have begun to recognise the failings of liberal modernity.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

More Hollywood lies

Glory Road has just been released in Australia. It’s a film which claims to be the true story of the Texan Western Miners basketball team, an all-black team, which unexpectedly won the 1966 championship.

The film vilifies white America. It contends that black players weren’t accepted on university basketball teams and that the all-black team was met with racial violence and intimidation. As the American film critic William Arnold describes it,

In the middle of the film, there’s a devastating sequence of events that begins when one of the traveling Texas Western Miners is brutally assaulted in the restroom of a Southern restaurant by “crackers,” beaten bloody and then shoved head-first into a toilet in which we have just seen a man urinating.

Frightened by the incident, their confidence shaken, the Miners thereafter find, in an even more shocking scene, their motel rooms trashed, their personal belongings violated and the slogans “Niggers Die” and “Coons go home” scrawled all over the walls in what looks like either red paint or blood.

From here, the battered team takes a long, solemn bus ride to Seattle for its next game. When they arrive, the mood is so grim that Haskins’ assistant wants to give up. But Haskins can’t, because it’s become a moral crusade for him. “Just THINK of how these boys have been degraded and humiliated just because they’re black.”

Cut to the Seattle University game, where the fans are booing just like all the rest of the rednecks we have seen. And as a consequence of this abuse – the restaurant, the motel, the Seattle U fans – the Miners lose the game: the only loss of their magical season.

The Melbourne Herald Sun reviewer, Leigh Paatsch, fell for this portrayal of events. He came away from the film with the following belief about the Miners’ season,

Incredibly, until that time the very presence of non-white players was barely tolerated by schools, coaches or spectators.

Indeed, for much of the season chronicled by Glory Road, the Miners’ star players … are subjected to treatment seemingly lifted wholesale from a Ku Klux Klan guide to social etiquette.

Paatsch ought to have been more sceptical. The maltreatment of the black basketball players depicted in the film did not, in fact, occur. If we return to William Arnold’s review we finally get to the truth,

First, neither the restaurant nor the motel scenes actually happened to the Western Miners. This was divulged to me by the film’s producer, Jerry Bruckheimer, when I interviewed him a month before the film was released, Those incidents were made up, he said, “for dramatic purposes.”

Second, the racist reaction of the Seattle U fans is a fantasy. When I questioned the scene in my review of the film, a number of readers wrote to confirm my suspicion. “I was at the game,” one writes, “I was 12 years old at the time … It was a great game but there was no racial booing toward Texas that I remember.”

Another writes: “I am black. I was 16 when I listened to that game on the radio, and I don’t remember hearing any racially motivated booing, or any comment on such a response. I’m certain it never happened …”

Moreover, the ’66 Seattle University Chieftains were hardly the lily-white foe the movie depicts. As former player Mike Acres testifies in a recent issue of the Seattle University newspaper … they were “a predominantly black team. Four of our six top players were black.”

So the key scenes are made up. Why? Jerry Bruckheimer claims that it is for “dramatic purposes”. The problem is, though, that the film is being advertised as a true story, rather than dramatic fiction.

Jerry Bruckheimer must know that most people will respond like Leigh Paatsch, and accept the “dramatic” scenes in the film as historic fact, and draw negative conclusions about white Americans, their history and culture. In other words, Bruckheimer must know that the fabrications will have wider consequences than just adding cinematic drama.

It is another case of Hollywood manipulating public feeling. There’s not much we can do about it right now, except, of course, to distrust any Hollywood film dealing with such issues.

I can’t finish without one final quote from William Arnold. He too doesn’t accept that the fabrications in Glory Road are justified on dramatic grounds. He ends his review with this forthright comment:

When the movie untruth slaps you in the face, it’s not artistic licence: It’s a lie.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Failing skills

Some people in Australia seem to believe that skills shortages can be filled through migration from developing countries. Not all employer groups, though, are so keen.

There is, for instance, the case of the Victorian Automobile Chamber of Commerce (VACC), which represents 5000 employers. Last year the VACC made a submission to a Government migration committee. The submission revealed the problems experienced by employers in bringing in workers from non-Western countries.

One of these problems is the difficulty in verifying the qualifications and experience claimed by such applicants. According to the VACC,

A reliable method of verification and practical assessment is not possible from Australia.

However, travelling outside Australia to verify an applicant’s qualifications is also impractical:

This process ... Is a costly one which for most employers is not possible.

The issue of qualifications is not as difficult with applicants from Western countries as,

… the capacity to assess the skills and training of individuals trained in the UK, US and Western Europe is significantly easier due to the similarity of qualifications, educational structures and educational/training guidelines


The experience with underdeveloped countries is a difficult process as educational and social structures are most often unlike those in Australia.

There is also a problem of adequate levels of English:

For many trade occupations, employers have also commented that a comprehension of English is required … tradespeople are often required to be competent in researching technical details in manuals or to communicate with manufacturers.

What all this means is that some “skilled” migrants from developing countries have only been able to perform unskilled tasks:

Some experiences of dealerships that have recruited recent immigrants with mechanical trade qualifications from underdeveloped countries have found that their level of diagnostic competence in current vehicles is insufficient. As a result, these individuals have been relegated to work of a process nature; this has been an unsatisfactory outcome for the dealership and the immigrant.

Of course, migrants should not be selected on economic grounds alone anyway. For traditionalist conservatives, the issue of maintaining an existing national identity is of more importance. However, what the VACC submission shows is that even the economic benefits are questionable, as the selection of workers from developing countries has created a number of difficulties for employers.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

A great artist

There was a short item in last Saturday’s Age on one of my favourite painters, Hans Heysen (1877-1968).

Heysen did not view his role as an artist in the modernist way as being to provoke, shock, break down or unsettle. He succeeded in what I consider to be the true role of an artist, namely to literally “inspire” – to communicate to an audience a higher, spiritual experience.

He did so through what might seem to be unpromising material: paintings of cows in gum forests bathed in early morning light. When you see these paintings, though, you are drawn into the heightened response to nature which Heysen wanted to convey.

I admire Heysen also for his success in family life and for establishing a fine home, The Cedars, which is now a popular tourist destination close to Adelaide.

What I hadn’t been aware of until I read the Age story were the difficult circumstances in which Heysen began his career.

Heysen originally worked selling eggs and butter on his father’s cart, and had to wait for Sundays and holidays to sketch and paint. Then in 1899 an Adelaide pawnbroker recognised his talent and agreed to buy a number of paintings each week.

This allowed Heysen to paint full-time, but there were still financial hardships: Heysen was reduced to living off boiled rice and sleeping on a bare floor.

When I read this, I thought of the feminists who argue that male artists got where they did through patriarchal privilege. In so many cases, including that of Heysen, this is patently untrue. Male artists often had to take great risks and endure considerable poverty to develop their talents.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Taking the road to Sao Paulo

Remember Ryan Heath? He's the young Australian lefty who wrote earlier this year:

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 the 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.

Heath then compared Sydney unfavourably with certain places overseas,

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.

To sum up, Ryan would like us to have even more immigration, to create even higher levels of globalisation, so that we can enjoy the benefits of living in a real, non-white, out of control, interesting world city like Sao Paulo in Brazil. Those who object to this vision of earthly paradise are dismissed as white chauvinists.

Well, I wonder if Ryan Heath read the newspapers today. This is how the Melbourne Age described the current situation in Sao Paulo:

The Brazilian Government offered today to send troops to the business capital Sao Paulo to help combat a wave of gang attacks in which 81 people, many of them police, have died in four days.

The gangsters set buses ablaze and blasted banks yesterday after hitting police posts and vehicles across the city and state at the weekend.

Heavily armed police manned checkpoints on main roads as fear gripped the city over the worst wave of crime-related violence in recent memory. Inmates also rioted in about 45 prisons in Sao Paulo state, holding about 200 people hostage, mostly guards.

The bloodshed was unleashed on Friday night by a powerful criminal gang ...

So, Sao Paulo is interesting alright - for all the wrong reasons. It is a city subject to extraordinary levels of crime and violence.

It is not a multicultural, world city success story, but a place and a future to be avoided.

Friday, May 12, 2006


I've been reading a biography of James McAuley, one of the leading figures on the Australian right after WWII.

The first half of the book deals with the 1940s, when McAuley was part of a group of young progressive intellectuals.

As I expected, the book provides further evidence that the political class had moved away from a traditional nationalism by the 1940s.

Part of the problem was the influence of Marxism: McAuley himself said of the Melbourne intelligentsia of the 1940s that they were good people to drink with, but frozen in the attitudes of the 1930s and "completely subjugated by a quite infantile Stalinism".

But the problem went deeper than a flirtation by intellectuals with the Communist Party. McAuley himself, who was quite independent in his views, was no more a traditional nationalist than the Marxists.

In 1947 he advocated adding Papua New Guinea to Australia. He wrote,

One is tempted to think the old French dream, never capable of fulfilment under the conditions of the French Empire, of a united polity and economy shared equally by French citizens of any colour or origin, is a conception most suitable for application to New Guinea. Consciously to develop the islands so as to add to the Commonwealth of Australia, one, two or three million citizens ... would be the most fruitful and gigantic defence work Australia could undertake.

McCauley did not believe his proposal would be implemented because it conflicted with the "narrow ethnocentrism" of Australian nationalism.

So, even someone like McCauley had already reached the view by 1947 that white ethnocentrism was a negative quality.

This was not the commonly held view at Federation in 1901. At Federation it was positively asserted that the states could form a successful nation because of the bond of common ethnicity - language, ancestry, history etc - shared between them.

So between the early to mid-1900s there occurred one of those shifts in thinking amongst the political class in Australia, in which the intellectual reflex was to consider white ethnocentrism as illegitimate or unprogressive, rather than as a foundation stone of national identity.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

A sentimental victory

I found a book showcasing my home town, Melbourne, in a second-hand bookshop on the weekend.

Published in 1968 it is full of glorious photos of the Victorian era architecture of the inner suburbs, with Carlton featuring strongly.

So I was taken aback when I read the text accompanying the photos. The authors described the inner suburbs as follows,

In districts eventually destined for rebuilding the great majority of present-day residents still live in time-expired houses made habitable and, indeed, often presentable by renovation.

The argument that inner suburban areas must be rebuilt to provide residential accommodation for a much greater proportion of the population is patently true. The metropolitan sprawl cannot go on much longer ...

Central Melbourne - the city of the first hundred years is vanishing. It had much that was quaint and charming, but it was uneconomic and therefore an anachronism. Sentiment may yet preserve some of its buildings as curiosities, but they will never again much influence its atmosphere.

Such a dry economic rationalism! The love of place and heritage and gracious architecture is recognised only as sentimentality. The future belongs, it is claimed, to the more impersonal, objective requirements of scientific planning.

And initially history seemed to prove the authors right. A small part of Carlton was, indeed, demolished and replaced with modern, high-rise Housing Commission towers.

But "sentiment" was not so easily vanquished. Today, the Housing Commission area is considered a blot on the landscape, and the old Victorian terraces of the inner suburbs have soared in value. There are still many sections of the inner suburbs where the historic atmosphere has been largely preserved.

Ironically, it is the extraordinarily dry and technocratic views of the authors which now seem quaintly anachronistic rather than the Victorian terraces.

It's good to reflect that something relating more to the soul has proved stronger than an empty rationalism. I have often walked such inner suburban streets and felt connected to the historic character, and felt pride in what my own ancestors created, and enjoyed the pre-modern architectural design, with its emphasis on elegance and charm.

It seems I was not alone in valuing such things.