Thursday, March 29, 2007

Singer not so doctrinaire

Jill Singer is not as doctrinaire a leftist as I thought she was. First there was her comment late last year in support of traditional men:

Just as men hanker for women who are more gorgeous but less clever than themselves, women will generally keep seeking men who can provide for their family in material terms.

I hear many women complain they feel dudded in their relationships, that gender equality means women's workload is made unbearable by both work and home duties.

Their husbands apparently benefit from their wife's income but don't put in more at home themselves.

We're not just talking about caring for children, but old-fashioned domestic duties that men used to do such as household repairs. Sure, there are lots of good handymen out there, but they're not married to anyone I know.

Now she has written an article on the importance of our home country and culture and the dislocation of migrants living in a foreign land.

She begins her piece by quoting an ancient Indian text:

One of the paths to happiness, according to an ancient Indian text, is not to leave your homeland permanently.

The wisdom of this has struck me during my visit to Vietnam.

Singer joined a party of Vietnamese men and women and noted:

... it was remarkable to witness their love of country ... The people here are so enthusiastic about their culture and prosperity that I feel sympathy for the Vietnamese who were forced to make their lives elsewhere in the wake of the Vietnam War.

One of the Vietnamese women has a sister living in Sydney who wants to return home but won't because of her Australian born children. According to Singer,

The expatriate sister longs for her family in Vietnam, but her children are Australian.

She lives a life amputated from her culture.

Of those Vietnamese refugees who cannot return home because of "newly formed bonds" Singer writes:

They have gained new homes and new opportunities, but they are also missing out on so much.

Nor does Singer exclude her own kind from the appeal of native land and culture. She writes of those Australians who move overseas that:

Being an outsider can be exhilarating as a visitor, but can prove tiresome over time.

She tells us too that,

I have often dreamed of living elsewhere ... And then I think of being permanently away from home, friends and family, and the appeal quickly fades. Travel is a tonic, but home is a haven.

The conclusion Singer draws from all this is not a conservative one. She argues that refugees wouldn't lightly forsake their homelands and therefore should be judged as genuinely in need rather than as aspiring to a better lifestyle.

It's a pity Singer didn't draw the more obvious, albeit bolder, conclusion, namely that those claiming refugee status should be resettled in places most similar to their home country and culture. This would be an effective way to test whether refugee claimants are genuine, and it would also mean that genuine refugees would suffer the least degree of cultural dislocation.

To illustrate this point, consider the case of a white farmer driven out of Zimbabwe. Would he feel more at home resettled in rural Australia or in a suburb of Beijing? It would seem perverse to place him in Beijing, where both he and his children could never feel part of the mainstream. Yet the refugee policies in place today don't consider this issue, and claimants are resettled without consideration of their prospects for a cultural identity.

Finally, it's worth noting that Singer's article represents something of a return to a traditional view. Throughout European history exile from your homeland was considered an unfortunate fate. Dante wrote in The Divine Comedy of the exile that:

You will leave everything you love most:
this is the arrow that the bow of exile
shoots first. You will know how salty
another's bread tastes and how hard it
is to ascend and descend
another's stairs ...

In Njal's Saga (written in Iceland in the 1200s) the hero Gunnar is sent into exile for three years. As he is leaving, though, his horse stumbles, causing him to look homeward. He decides to stay, even though this will leave him an outlaw and lead to his death.

Finally, I'm reminded too of Elizabeth Fenton, who travelled with her husband to Australia in the 1820s. In the Arab ship she sailed on were two men, both exiles of a kind, whom she pitied. Of the first she wrote:

He makes me quite melancholy. He is English by name and complexion, but his tastes, manners, and his scruples, not to say his religion, are Arab. He is the son of a Scotch clergyman, but for many years has been leading his present life, trading between Muscat and Mozambique ... Poor fellow!

The second was from Greece:

Among this crowd there is, - Oh! sad to write it, - a Greek, a native of Athens, a Moslem now by adopted faith and practice. Little reckons he of past time; Marathon is no more to him than Mozambique. He would rather have a curry than all the fame of his ancestors.

So Jill Singer, in writing of love of homeland and the loss of exile, is contributing to a longstanding tradition within Western culture.


  1. Excellent post. I think that policies such as multiculturalism are starting to be challenged by evidenced based examination.

  2. Great piece, Mark.

    Jill Singer's views are quite refreshing. I like how she writes so warmly against deracination.

  3. Liberals are increasingly finding themselves up against a wall. They ‘want’ everyone to discard historical and inherited constructs (in the name of ‘freedom’) – but often find themselves alone & baseless.

    How can it be otherwise?

    If ‘freedom’ (in a liberal sense of the word), compels the casting off of historical & inherited ties in the name of ‘autonomy’ & ‘independence’ – then it's little wonder that Liberals are finding themselves, spiritually alone.

    For a politic whose character is largely gregarious, I think (like most things under the liberal umbrella), it fails to see the antithesis of it’s ideals in relation to the world they hope to create.


  4. A different country?! I can't stand living in a different state!