Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Does this explain Fraser?

Malcolm Fraser was the Liberal Party Prime Minister of Australia who played a significant role in bringing Robert Mugabe to power in Zimbabwe.

Fraser's biographer, Philip Ayres has written that:

The centrality of Fraser's part in the processes leading to Zimbabwe's independence is indisputable. All the major African figures affirm it.

At one time, Fraser and Mugabe were close. Mugabe once said of Fraser, according to Ayres, that:

I got enchanted by [Fraser], we became friends, personal friends ... he's really motivated by a liberal philosophy.

Since Mugabe took power 27 years ago, Zimbabwe has declined from a once prosperous nation to a hellhole marked by political violence, corruption, starvation, and a rapidly declining population.

What has been Fraser's response to this? You would think that having helped propel Mugabe to power that Fraser would have a good account of his own actions and a detailed explanation of Zimbabwe's plight.

But he doesn't. The few comments he's made about Zimbabwe reveal Fraser to be startled, perplexed and at a loss to explain the situation. Worse, he continues to play the role of "naive liberal" when it comes to African politics.

For instance, back in 2000 Fraser was interviewed by John Highfield on the ABC. The transcript of the interview is titled "Fraser perplexed at turn of events in Zimbabwe". Here's how it begins:

JOHN HIGHFIELD: Mr Fraser, what do you make of these goings on in Zimbabwe? After all it was in the late 1970s that you and your friend, Kenneth Kowunda, persuaded Mrs Thatcher to come across to your view and give Zimbabwe independence.

MALCOLM FRASER: I find it very hard to understand the disintegration that has, in fact, occurred because I really did believe, and I think many people who knew what was happening in the country believed, that President Mugabe started very well. I can remember speaking with Dennis Norman who was a white farmer in Mugabe's first government, and he spoke very highly of him and spoke very highly of his policies at that time.

Highfield later asks Fraser if the elections in Zimbabwe should go ahead. Fraser appears to put a great deal of misplaced faith in the elections:

MALCOLM FRASER: I believe that the elections should go ahead as scheduled. I also believe that the Government should commit itself to doing everything possible to try and ask the - well, not to try, to ask the whole community to be calm, because there are going to be elections. I suspected an announcement of an election date would itself have a calming influence because people would know, "Well, on this day I can have a real say." And then there also obviously should be a commitment to all parties to accept whatever the outcome of that democratic process might be.

In 2005 Fraser was again interviewed on the ABC, this time by Maxine McKew:

MAXINE McKEW: If I can cite one country where you've had a considerable input into its birth as an independent country, and of course that's Zimbabwe, if you look at the latest example of self-inflicted misery and poverty, it's really in that country and it's all because of the activities of President Mugabe and his forcible removal of thousands of people and, of course, in the process, ruining their livelihoods.

MALCOLM FRASER: Well, Zimbabwe seems to have gone through one tragedy after another and this is the latest chapter, it's the latest tragedy ... I really do believe that if President Mbeki, President Obasanjo of Nigeria - South Africa and Nigeria together can make it plain that Africa will not tolerate this kind of behaviour from African leaders.

MAXINE McKEW: But the point is they do tolerate it, don't they?

MALCOLM FRASER: Well, I think it's up to them to demonstrate that they don't. The African organisations, continent-wide organisations, now have a commitment to human rights, so it's up to them to make sure that that commitment is maintained, that human rights are preserved.

So Fraser has no explanation for what has happened; he regards it as a "tragedy" (as if it's a kind of accident that no-one could foresee). He then puts his misplaced faith in the intervention of African leaders.

All of which raises the question of how Fraser can remain so naive and perplexed about important international affairs.

I wonder if it has to do with liberal ideas about equality. When liberals talk about equality, they usually don't have in mind the idea that people are equal but different. If you were to ask if men and women were equal, it probably wouldn't satisfy a liberal to answer "Yes, but not at the same things." A liberal is looking for an equality in kind.

Perhaps this is because liberals think of equality in terms of people having the same potential. At any rate, I expect that some liberals are naive because their ideal of equality leads them to think of people as being the same.

It's possible that Fraser believes that having liberal political values is what gives you worth. This means that if everyone is to be equal, in the liberal understanding of equality, we must all have the same potential for such liberal values. To doubt this would be a denial of the possibility of human equality.

Therefore, African leaders who make the right kinds of liberal noises, who sign up to charters of rights, or who seem like decent fellows to white liberals, are to be taken at face value as expressing the same kind of things that Malcolm Fraser himself holds to.

You would think that liberals, having wandered away from a belief in a transcendent morality, would be free to act in a worldly-wise, crafty, Machiavellian way in politics. And Fraser has been accused of doing so in some aspects of his career and business dealings.

In foreign affairs, though, Fraser represents the gullible, unperceptive side of the liberal political personality - the side which cannot, and doesn't want to, comprehend deep-seated differences in political cultures and which utterly fails, time and again, to predict the ultimate outcome of political events.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

An impossible demand

Word is that the next wave of refugees will be Tamils from Sri Lanka.

Well, my sources were right. I wrote the above line just a month ago, and now we have a new "boat people" incident involving 83 Sri Lankans.

Significantly, the Australian Government is organising with both Indonesia (where the boat sailed from) and Sri Lanka to repatriate the men.

You have to wonder why, if the 83 men really believe themselves to be refugees, they made the very long journey to Australia via Indonesia, rather than just travelling 30km to India.

As I wrote a month ago, India is a safe and increasingly prosperous and self-confident nation for Tamils to relocate to. Furthermore, the state of Tamil Nadu in India is an ethnic homeland for Tamils, in which Tamils from Sri Lanka could feel at home culturally and easily assimilate into.

Australia cannot be an ethnic homeland for Tamils in the way that Tamil Nadu in India can be. Therefore, young Tamils growing up here would likely suffer from a confusion in their identity, a disadvantage which isn't easily set aside.

What is it like to grow up without an easy identification with your country's mainstream culture and tradition?

I read a blog post recently which described the experiences of three young people in this position. The first, a journalist from Sweden with Kurdish and Lebanese parents, wrote of her identity that:

To be honest, I'm tired of defining who I am. Am I Swedish? Am I Kurdish? Am I Lebanese? I'm all of these things, and none. Sometimes I'm more Swedish than Kurdish, sometimes I'm more Lebanese than Swedish.

Then there is the actual author of the post (Osmond?) who is mostly of Chinese descent, though with some Spanish ancestry, and whose family have been living in Australia for 30 years. He writes:

I've rarely referred to myself as Australian or Chinese-Australian or even Chinese except when responding to people's questions. I've never felt honest or comfortable trying to define myself in those narrow categories ...

Do I give wholesale loyalty to one part of my identity and nothing to the rest or prioritise one over the other when I have a greater connection with different parts at different times?

Finally there's Randa Abdel-Fattah, an author of Muslim ancestry now living in Australia. She tells us that,

The inconsistency in my emotions and devotions used to faze me. It used to arouse in me a sense of disloyalty and insincerity ... I don't feel the need to be "fully Aussie". Not because I am not of Anglo background, but because it is an impossible demand ... One's past, whether ancestral or as a migrant, necessarily shapes one's present. The issue is the place of this construction of self in Australia's future.

There are some common themes running through these descriptions. One is a kind of irritation with the whole question of identity; a wish that it could just be made a non-issue.

How different this is to what most of us experience, namely a positive and affirming sense of communal identity which we would never want to give up.

The three writers also seem to share an identity which is shifting and unstable. At times, they feel more connected to their adopted culture, but at other times to their ancestral tradition.

This "multiple" and "shifting" focus of identity isn't the liberation some might think it to be. Randa, for instance, mentions that the "inconsistency" in her "devotions" aroused in her "a sense of disloyalty and insincerity". Osmond, similarly, admitted that he "never felt honest or comfortable" when having to define himself as either Australian or Chinese.

Again, most of us don't have to face this problem. Our loyalties aren't divided, and we don't have to doubt our sincerity or honesty in talking about our identity.

Finally, it's important to understand Randa's comment. She tells us that she can't feel "fully Aussie" because it's "an impossible demand". Why? Because we are shaped not just by our present, but by our ancestral past. I think she's right, and that politicians who insist on large-scale ethnically diverse migration, but who also expect straightforward allegiances to an existing tradition, are ignoring important aspects of reality.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Tweaked by mother love

I found this research interesting. Scientists have discovered that newborn rats which receive more maternal care have the expression of their genes altered, making them less stressed and fearful in later life.

So it's not just the genes we are born with which matter. What also counts is how the genes are "tweaked" by our experiences and conditions of life.

The experiment with rats might not hold true for humans. If it does, though, it will help to explain the reluctance of many women to leave the care of their young children to others. Perhaps many women do feel instinctively that mother care has a long-term positive influence on their offspring.

It's long been my belief, drawn from my own observations, that boys who receive a strong dose of mother love have a more secure sense of self-esteem than others. It's not that they don't suffer disappointments or negative emotions, but that there is a level they don't easily fall below.

I don't think that father love works quite the same way with sons. The father represents the wider social order. A bad father can therefore produce a son who rebels not only against him, but against the order of society he represents.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Hitting the right note

Who said the protest song was dead? I recently listened to the song Roots by English folk-rock group Show of Hands on You Tube. It's a stirring song with a catchy tune and the following lyrics:

Now it’s been twenty-five years or more
I’ve roamed this land from shore to shore
From Tyne to Tamar, Severn to Thames
From moor to vale, from peak to fen
Played in cafes and pubs and bars
I’ve stood in the street with my old guitar
But I’d be richer than all the rest
If I had a pound for each request
For ‘Duelling Banjos’ ‘American Pie’
Its enough to make you cry
‘Rule Britannia’ or ‘Swing Low’
Are they the only songs the English know?

Seed, bud, flower, fruit
They’re never gonna grow without their roots
Branch, stem, shoots - they need roots

After the speeches when the cake’s been cut
The disco is over and the bar is shut
At christening, birthday, wedding or wake
What can we sing until the morning breaks?
When the Indian, Asians, Afro, Celts
It’s in their blood, below the belt
They’re playing and dancing all night long
So what have they got right that we’ve got wrong?

Seed, bud, flower, fruit
Never gonna grow without their roots
Branch, stem, shoots - we need roots

Haul away boys let them go
Out in the wind and the rain and snow
We’ve lost more than we’ll ever know
Round the rocky shores of England

And a minister said his vision of hell
Is three folk singers in a pub near Wells
Well I’ve got a vision of urban sprawl
It’s pubs where no one ever sings at all
And everyone stares at a great big screen
Over-paid soccer stars, prancing teens
Australian soap, American rap
Estuary English, baseball caps
And we learn to be ashamed before we walk
Of the way we look and the way we talk
Without our stories or our songs
How will we know where we've come from?
I’ve lost St George in the Union Jack
It’s my flag too and I want it back

Seed, bud, flower, fruit
Never gonna grow without their roots
Branch, stem, shoots - we need roots

Haul away boys let them go
Out in the wind and the rain and snow
We’ve lost more than we’ll ever know
Round the rocky shores of England.

You might remember that in my last column I discussed the issue of liberalism and neutrality.

The argument is that liberals in the late 1600s began to see neutrality toward religious truth as the highest ordering principle of society and over time adopted the same neutral stance toward other substantive goods, such as ethnicity.

As a consequence Westerners, as the liberal "subject", either relegated their own ethnic identity to a sphere of private sentiment, or else failed to project their own ethnicity and became passive observers of other ethnic traditions.

The song by Show of Hands seems to me to be a protest against this failure to project one's own tradition. It's a rejection of "Invisible English Syndrome", in which one's own cultural roots are ignored and unacknowledged, whilst other ethnic traditions or a commercialised global culture are given free play.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Tackling neutrality

How is liberal modernism to be understood?

There is an important current within liberalism focused on "self-authorship"; this is the aspect of liberalism I most often write about and criticise (see here).

Liberalism, though, so dominates the modern West philosophically, that it's unreasonable to expect that it has been formed from just a single intellectual current or influence.

There is another important aspect of liberalism which focuses not so much on self-authorship, but neutrality.

The importance of the "neutrality" strand within liberalism was highlighted in a recent column by Lawrence Auster. Auster's column considered different explanations for the origins of liberalism, including this one:

Liberalism began, in the 17th and 18th centuries ... by declaring that convictions about God and religion should play no role in politics because they lead to deadly conflict. Instead of being ordered by religious authority, society was to be ordered according to neutral procedures based on the recognition of everyone's equal rights.

Modern liberalism developed from this starting point because:

As Jim Kalb has pointed out, whatever is the highest public principle of a society tends over time to make the rest of the society conform to it.

Since neutrality with respect to religious truth was now the highest ordering principle of society, men progressively adopted a stance of neutrality with respect to other substantive truths and values - natural, social, and spiritual - on which society had historically been based.

At the same time, with the steady extension of state power, the liberal rule of neutrality spread to more and more areas of society where men had once been free to assert and order their lives according to traditional beliefs.

I have to say, first, that I don't believe that this explains the origins of liberalism. The seventeenth century English philosopher John Locke is often associated with this aspect of liberalism, and if you read his works it is striking just how fully developed his liberalism is (Locke's starting point is the abstracted, presocial, contracting, autonomous individual.)

So it's not as if Locke's ideas about neutrality later led to the development of a liberal mindset - the liberal worldview was already in existence when Locke was writing his works.

However, the argument as set out in Lawrence Auster's column does impress me in other ways. It does explain certain characteristics of modern liberalism.

First, I do believe that some liberals operate according to the principles set out above. In other words, there are intellectuals who think they are being good liberals (and acting ethically) in adopting a stance of neutrality not just toward religion but toward other substantive goods.

Here, for instance, is Australian liberal Gary Sauer-Thompson recently discussing the place of ethnicity in modern society:

"Ethnic tribalism" is like religion in a liberal democracy---it's a personal matter premised on the public private distinction.

Notice how clearly the point is made here. Sauer-Thompson believes that ethnicity should be treated by liberals just as it was decided to treat religion. So it is not just religion which men are to adopt a neutral stance toward in terms of public policy, but ethnicity too.

Once you agree to such a stance, you are left in an awkward position in terms of your own ethnic loyalties. I think two postures are common. One is to speak warmly of your own ethnic identity, but to dismiss or relegate this identity as being mere "personal sentiment".

The other is to be a kind of cellophane man. If you are the liberal "subject", the one who embodies neutrality, then your role is to observe the ethnicity of others, rather than to project your own. There was a strong element of this in Australian culture in the 1980s and 90s.

The "neutrality" argument might also help explain the particular way that liberals understand equality. I imagine that it's easier psychologically to maintain a neutral stance toward competing goods if you consider such goods as equal. Therefore, given the natural preference for what is familiar, liberals might seek an equivalence between competing goods by building up what is alien, or seemingly inferior, in comparison to the goods or values traditionally accepted within their own culture.

Finally, let me note just a couple of obvious flaws within the neutrality strand of liberalism. The first, as just touched on, is that neutrality in theory doesn't become neutrality in fact. There are obvious double standards, such as the fact that, with government support, we have been expected to celebrate minority ethnic traditions, whilst denigrating our own mainstream tradition.

Second, the "solution" of managing religion and ethnicity by relegating them to the private sphere is no solution at all, as they cannot survive as private goods.

This is especially obvious when it comes to ethnicity. An ethnic culture is a communal culture not an individual one. It isn't sustained at a purely individual level and therefore can't be upheld as a private good.

This is, admittedly, just a sketch of the whole topic of liberalism and neutrality. It's an argument which needs fleshing out, so I will try to develop some of the points in future posts.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Working out role reversal

It has become common to come across stories in the media on role reversal couples, in which the woman goes out to work while the man stays at home to look after the kids.

The stories are mostly positive, which you would expect from a liberal media. For a liberal, role reversal is an encouraging sign of the overthrow of the influence of gender.

Why would liberals want to overthrow the influence of gender? Because some hundreds of years ago liberals decided that to be fully human we need to be self-created by our own reason and will. This is, if you like, the liberal first principle, according to which the rightness of wrongness of things is decided.

Unfortunately, the liberal first principle undermines the legitimacy of gender. Liberals insist that our identity must be something that we choose for ourselves, but our gender is something we don't get to choose, we're simply born male or female.

That's why liberals so often claim that the influence of gender, such as in traditional sex roles, is an oppressive, or "sexist" limitation, from which the "self-defining" individual needs to be liberated.

Toby Green

I recently came across a column in my files by the relationships psychologist for the Herald Sun, Toby Green. The topic of the column was role reversal, and the piece concluded as follows:

Many women agree in concept that it makes sense they should be able to handle the role of breadwinner. It is my experience that it does not work. The women I have dealt with appear to have an innate gender need for their partners to pull equal financial weight or some weight or to look after her.

No matter how militantly we are told a man's use in our lives is redundant, I keep observing the concept only works at a distance. If we are in a relationship with a man it appears to me to be a biological drive to want to be taken care of and nurtured in the classic ways. (Herald Sun 25/4/99)

This short conclusion is obviously out of line with modern day liberalism. What Toby Green is saying is that we have an innate, biologically fixed nature as men and women which gives a natural direction to our behaviour.

For liberals, this is a kind of heresy. It means that we are being defined in who we are by something we didn't choose for ourselves. By something inborn and unchanging. Liberals usually claim at this point that the desire of women to be nurtured by men is merely a product of socialisation; that it's created by education and culture, rather than by an innate drive, and can therefore be altered.

Modern science, though, is tending to favour Toby Green's view, that differences between men and women are hardwired into us, and are not just a product of education or of cultural tradition.


Which brings us back to Toby Green's observation, that in her experience role reversal rarely works. She gives as an example the case of a 33 year old female executive who resented the fact that her fiancé insisted on halving all expenses, including dinners out.

The female executive was obviously able to afford to pay a half share, but she still felt a need to be provided for by her male partner. She explained to Toby Green that,

It's not the money ... It's a form of psychological nurturing and being taken care of, and a signal that he cares.

Personally, I have only known one role reversal couple. They didn't reverse roles out of liberal principle, but because she earned more than he did. Their decision caused a lot of tension in the relationship, because it left the wife feeling stressed and overworked.

Of course, it might be the case that things work out better for some other role-reversing couples. It's important to know, though, that the reason the media is promoting the cause of role reversal is not because it generally leads to happy outcomes. In fact, it's Toby Green's testimony that it doesn't.

Instead, the positive exposure of role reversal couples in the media is due more to liberal politics: to the importance within liberal politics of overthrowing the influence of gender in our lives.

(First published at Conservative Central, 09/05/2004)

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The ultimate liberal dream?

My recent post on diversity attracted quite a number of comments. One of them, from the liberal side of things, was from Brett who argued against the very idea of nations:

Personally, I would like to see the abolition of the concept of "a country".

Why might a radical liberal want to abolish even the concept of a country? One part of the answer runs as follows.

In the late 1400s, humanists like Pico della Mirandola began to define humanity in terms of self-creation. We are distinctly human, and at the apex of existence, wrote Pico, because we are free to determine for ourselves our own being.

This argument implies, though, that anything which impedes "self-authorship" is a denial of our true humanity. And the list of such impediments is long.

Over time politics came to be directed toward the liberation or emancipation of people from impediments to self-authorship.

At first, much of the focus was on unchosen forms of authority. The authority of kings and priests (and later of fathers), which could not be individually contracted or assented to, was the primary target of early political modernism. The French philosopher Denis Diderot expressed such aims in the 1700s by declaring that:

Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.

The logic of liberal modernism, though, went far beyond the rejection of uncontracted forms of authority.

Whatever is important to us, but which exists through tradition or biology, implies a limitation to self-authorship. Therefore, liberal moderns have tended to reject the influence of our biological sex. They have commonly argued either that there is no naturally occurring masculinity or femininity, and that such qualities are merely social constructs, or else that we are influenced naturally by the fact of being born man or woman, but that this must be made not to matter.

Similarly, and here we get back to Brett, liberal moderns have come to view nationalism negatively as a restriction on the self-determining, autonomous individual.

The poet Shelley pushed the modern view as long ago as 1820 when he praised the coming "new man" as someone who would "make the world one brotherhood" and be:

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

For Shelley the aim is to be "uncircumscribed". He wants to be unrestricted, not only from the authority of kings (sceptreless) and churches (worship), but also from membership of a tribe or nation.

Why might he think that membership of a tribe or nation would restrict him? If the aim is to create our own self-being, then a national identity can be thought of as an impediment. We don't get to create for ourselves such an identity, as it's something we inherit (passed on to us as a long-standing tradition), and as it often involves a shared ancestry and kinship, which is a biological reality we don't determine ourselves.

So Brett is following a larger pattern of modernism in rejecting the very concept of countries. It's interesting, though, to read Brett's further development of the liberal idea. On his own website, Brett explains to us that he has a dream:

I dream...

I dream of a time when medical technology allows us to transcend the notion of being human.

I dream of a time when there are "simple" and effective procedures exist, which are probably automated, to allow us to change any physical facet of our being that we choose. The notion of a third arm, green skin, multiple eyes or any host of body modifications is possible, doable and acceptable. To go further, features that we see in nature could be adapted and included: imagine having the ability to breathe underwater, to live and work in an undersea world, or to have the eyes or wings of a falcon?

But more than that, I dream of a time when our basic bipedal form, replete with somatotype and genetic heritage means nothing. I love the idea of a world where "humans" can come in any shape, size and form, from those who choose to live in a purely "conscious" form (i.e. non corporeal), to those who might augment their bodies beyond recognition with mechanical prostheses, "other parts" and who knows what else.

But most of all, I love the idea that shape and form means nothing to anyone as it's (potentially) only ever transitory.

But the changes need not be only physical ... I dream of a time when there are vast interpersonal information networks which are as ubiquitous as todays internet. I dream of a time when information flows so freely that the boundaries between people start to blur, and antiquated concepts such a countries no longer exist.

And of course, I dream of a society which supports all of this.

Here the liberal idea finally consumes itself. Our humanity itself is now identified as a restriction on the act of self-creation. It is now the fact of being human which we are to be liberated from. Our bodies and brains are held to limit us and therefore must be transcended.

What started out in the 1400s as an attempt to glorify the status of man ends up here as a dream of post-humanity.

I'm not alone in connecting an intellectual thread beginning in Renaissance humanism to the "transhumanism" of today. In the wikipedia entry on transhumanism we find one of the leading transhumanists claiming something similar:

In his 2005 article A History of Transhumanist Thought, transhumanist philosopher Nick Bostrum locates transhumanism's roots in Renaissance humanism and the Enlightenment. For example, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola called on people to "sculpt their own statue".

The effort to deny or suppress gender difference, the call to abolish the concept of countries, the desire to overcome a human existence - all of these flow from the same intellectual presuppositions.

It's these intellectual presuppositions we need to challenge. I don't see much point in trying to rescue countries from a modernist like Brett, when he has already given up on the idea of corporeal existence.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Miss Potter

I went to see Miss Potter with my wife on the weekend. I'm pleased to report that it's not too bad.

The film does set up a typically liberal set of concerns, namely the restrictiveness of class, gender, family and marriage. To the disappointment of some mainstream critics, though, the film isn't really transgressive in its politics. The upper-class family is shown to be ultimately warm and caring, albeit overly class conscious, and Beatrix Potter happily renounces her single girl philosophy when she meets the right man.

It's not an especially deep film, but it's charming, and refreshing in its lack of rancour. A good couples film.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Fictional identities

For some time the difference between left and right liberals on the issue of nationalism has been quite clear.

Right liberals (such as those in the Australian Liberal Party, or the American Republicans) have supported high rates of foreign immigration, but, out of a concern for social cohesion, have emphasised the idea of assimilation. In other words, they have welcomed the idea of the "melting pot".

Left liberals, on the other hand, have been more consistently supportive of multiculturalism, rather than assimilation. They too have supported high rates of foreign immigration, but with the idea that society would be made up of the many diverse cultures brought by the immigrants.

The left liberal ideal was always a short term fiction. This is particularly true in Australia where migrants arrive from such a diverse number of countries, in relatively even numbers, and are mixed together in the large capital cities.

In these circumstances, it was unlikely that 150 or more different communities would continue to flourish independently of each other, no matter how much government funding they received to do so. The connection of migrants to their home culture was always going to weaken.

A shift

Mark Latham is the new leader of the left liberal Labor Party here in Australia. He recently made a speech on the issue of national identity in which he moved Labor Party policy a little closer to the right liberal emphasis on social cohesion and assimilation.

It's possible he did this because of the war on terror. After all, both Britain and Australia have had to face the fact that a number of terrorists have emerged from within their Islamic populations. It's noteworthy that both the British and Australian Labor Parties have recently changed their policies to more greatly emphasise assimilation and social cohesion.

However, the reason Mr Latham himself gave for the shift was that the older concept of multiculturalism was unrealistic - that it did not really describe what was happening in the general population. That, in other words, it was now more fiction than fact.

The new approach

Mr Latham has outlined what he claims to be a more modern and realistic approach to multiculturalism. One which brings people together, rather than separating them. He says,

If we treat multiculturalism as as static concept, as something frozen in time - each of us pigeon-holed into past habits and identities - then inevitably, it will be a policy based more on difference than diversity. A policy that separates people from each other, rather than bringing them together to share each other's cultures and the goals of a good society.

We shouldn't assume that a person's culture comes from a narrow set of attitudes and beliefs, that they are restricted to their nationality-of-origin or ethnic group. The reality is more complex and dynamic, with people picking and choosing from a range of cultural influences. This is true of many second-generation migrants. They do not necessarily see themselves as "Chinese Australians" or "Greek Australians" but rather, citizens with a range of interests and identities.

Government policies and definitions of multiculturalism need to catch up with this reality. They should not automatically treat nationality-of-origin as a marker of cultural identity. They should recognise that multiculturalism lies, not so much between individuals, but within them - the habit of living one's life through many cultural habits.

This should be a unifying idea in Australia's national identity - a new and realistic way of thinking about multiculturalism. In a diverse nation, social cohesion is as important as respect for difference. It provides the foundations by which people of different cultural backgrounds can interact and learn from each other. This is the key to national progress: our capacity to absorb the best of the world's cultures and create a stronger Australia ...

Liberal Man

Mr Latham's vision of national identity is still firmly within a liberal framework. Liberals want people to be self created by their own will and reason. Therefore, they reject traditional ethnic nationalism because it's something we're born into, rather than choosing for ourselves.

That's why Mr Latham uses the language of "limitation" when talking about ethnic identity. He uses terms like "pigeon-holed", "narrow" and "restricted" when rejecting the ethnic identities of migrants. There is a logic to this choice of language. If you believe that we should be self-created by our own will, then an inherited ethnic identity does represent a limitation. It limits the extent to which you are a self-defining individual.

The same logic explains why Mr Latham proposes that people ought to deliberately choose a complex, diverse and evolving identity from the best of many cultures. This is a vision of the self-defining Liberal Man, creating himself directly from out of his own reason and will, rather than accepting a traditional or inherited identity.

Commercial Culture

Joseph Wakim, the founder of the Australian Arabic Council, was quick to support Mr Latham's new approach to multiculturalism. However, in a newspaper column praising Mr Latham's new policy (Herald Sun 29/4/04) he unintentionally highlighted a flaw in the policy. He wrote,

...much of the evolving cultural identity of our home-grown Lebanese youth is actually made in the USA. Anyone who spends time with the youth in question would immediately recognise the influence of the American rap culture on their wall posters and in their language; phrases such as "Yo bro" are direct imports from the cultural West, not the Middle East ...

Their attire also resembles their hip-hop heroes, with their baggy jeans, Fila jackets, adidas shoes, Nike baseball caps and goatees...

Can we stop the tidal wave of US culture into our living rooms, market place, media and streets ...?

The truth is that the average person is not making a rational choice to form a distinctive identity from the best of many cultures. This is just another liberal fiction.

As Mr Wakim let slip, what really happens is that once a traditional identity is weakened the dominant commercial culture, wherever it is from, is likely to make inroads. At the present time, the dominant commercial culture happens to be American.

Mr Latham is therefore replacing one fictional identity, that hundreds of cultures can flourish equally within a mixed population, with another fictional identity, that we can rationally construct our own identity from the best of many cultures.

We can't for several reasons. First, the truth is that we don't, in Mr Latham's words "pick and choose" our identity. The Australian Lebanese youths did not each individually decide to opt for American popular culture. With a weakening of their ancestral identity, and a weakening of the traditional Australian identity, they were simply influenced by a mass marketed popular culture. It was a multitude of commercially marketed ads, films, songs and so on, which created the Americanised Australian Lebanese youth, not individual rational choice.

Secondly, we don't necessarily get to be influenced by what is best in the many cultures around us. Sometimes we are influenced by what is worst or at least mediocre. For instance, I can still remember a "fight fair" ideal among young Australian men. The idea was that you should fight with your fists and that you should have roughly even size and numbers. This ideal is unsustainable when other ethnic groups have a tradition of carrying weapons or king-hitting (sucker punching). In this case, there is no choice but to give up the better local tradition for something worse.

Finally, a self-selected identity will not be of the same quality as a traditional, inherited ethnic identity. It will necessarily be more superficial. An ethnic identity connects us to generations past and future; it connects us deeply to a particular cultural tradition; to a church and the tradition embodied by the church; and to a particular history of achievement and sacrifice.

In comparison, the liberal identity is something easily made and easily discarded. It is, in theory at least, a temporary creation of our own will and nothing more. It does not connect us deeply to others, nor to a particular place or culture. It is, at best, "identity-lite" for those liberals who still feel the instinctive need that we have as humans for forms of connectedness and self-identity.

For these reasons, Mark Latham's new approach to multiculturalism is neither better nor worse than the old one. Neither are realistic accounts of human identity, and both are hamstrung by the liberal need to reject traditional identities in favour of self-created ones.

It's difficult to see real progress being made in terms of building up the deeper and more satisfying forms of self-identity until we open our minds to alternatives to liberal orthodoxy.

(First published at Conservative Central, 05/05/2004)

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Can you put trust in diversity?

Dr Andrew Leigh is an economist at the Australian National University. In a recent article he explains the importance of interpersonal trust to the healthy functioning of a society:

Trust is important because it acts as a kind of social glue that enables business and communities to operate more effectively. In regions where people trust one another, institutions, markets and societies seem to work better. Trusting societies have more effective bureaucracies, schools that function more efficiently, less corruption and faster growth.

Trust, though, is undermined by ethno-linguistic diversity. This, at least, is what Dr Leigh found when he researched data from the Australian Community Survey. Dr Leigh found that:

Neighbourhood-level analysis also throws up a startling finding: trust is lower in ethnically diverse neighbourhoods ... The effect of diversity operates on immigrants and locals alike. In more linguistically diverse suburbs, both foreign-born and Australian-born residents are less inclined to trust those around them.

Dr Leigh believes that this pattern, in which diversity is associated with low levels of trust, holds true elsewhere:

The negative relationship between trust and ethnic diversity is not unique to Australia. Separate studies looking at the US, Britain, India, Kenya and Pakistan have shown that diversity is associated with lower levels of trust and less investment in shared resources. In the US, work by Alberto Alesina and Eliana La Ferrara has produced very similar results to my own: holding constant a raft of other factors, US cities that are more diverse tend to be less trusting. Other research has reached similar conclusions.

Dr Leigh's research corresponds closely to the well-publicised findings of Professor Robert Putnam of Harvard University. Professor Putnam's research shows that:

the more diverse a community is, the less likely its neighbours are to trust anyone ... "in the presence of diversity, we hunker down ... We act like turtles. The effect of diversity is worse than had been imagined."

So what does Dr Leigh conclude from all this? He makes it very clear throughout his article that he supports continuing large-scale immigration, despite the negative effect that diversity has on trust.

Significantly, he concludes his article with this quote from Professor Putnam:

Growing up in a small Ohio town in the 1950s, I knew the religion of just about every kid in my 600 person high school ... when my children attended high school in the 1980s, they didn't know the religion of practically anyone, it simply didn't matter ..."

In my lifetime, Americans have deconstructed religion as a basis for making decisions. Why can't we do the same thing with other types of diversity?

So here we get back to a basic problem liberal modernists like Professor Putnam and Dr Leigh face, namely of having to make things which matter, not matter. The "hope" of these men is that ethnicity might be somehow deconstructed and made unimportant to people, so that high levels of immigration, and therefore high levels of ethnic diversity, might be able to coexist with high levels of neighbourhood trust.

Ethnicity, though, is what places people within a larger tradition, and connects them closely to a particular culture and community. It's not really the kind of thing which is secondary and which can reasonably be sacrificed to the goals, or the decision making processes, favoured by economists.

What happens when diversity does become the reality? As might be expected, it can be experienced negatively, as something alienating. As an example of this, consider the recently reported reaction of Oliver James, a prominent British author and psychologist, to modern Sydney. He thought the city itself was "beautiful and spacious" but he nonetheless became "unsettled" as he was driven into town:

Oxford Street was like the "Tower of Babel, a confusing polyglot in its diversity". There were people from "all the ends of the Earth", creating a feeling of "identitylessness, so you feel like you could be from anywhere.

English journalist, Peter Whittle, wrote along similar lines about the transformation by immigration of the London suburb he had grown up in:

Sometimes now, in streets I've used since Sixties boyhood, I'm struck by the sense that I should no longer think of this place as providing my identifiable roots, and that I am simply one of many who happen to be living here, with no greater claim to it sentimentally or historically. Such anonymity might be what people are looking for when they choose to live in the teeming metropolitan centre, but in a suburb which has shaped much of your life it's a much harder feeling to negotiate.

This part of south-east London has never been affluent ... But it had something which amounted to a collective identity. Now, it appears to me fragmented, with different ethnic communities existing side-by-side, sometimes uneasily, and always with a sense of nothingness in the air.

What kind of social policy can adequately replace this kind of loss? I don't believe there is one which can even begin to compensate. A better aim would be to support the continued existence of traditional community life, rather than insisting on ever increasing levels of diversity.

Friday, February 02, 2007

The single girl stretched too far

Anna Pasternak writes that,

our mothers and grandmothers were courting and acquiring the security of a husband when they were 20 to 25.

More recently, women decided their early 20s are strictly for fun, and now the Relationship Window opens at 28 and closes at 35.

This corresponds to my own observations. Back in the 1990s, there seemed to be an understanding amongst women that marriage was something to be postponed to some unspecified time in their 30s.

This trend can be at least partly explained, I think, by the influence of feminism on modern culture. If the aim is, as feminism claims, for women to seek autonomy, then it makes sense for women to stretch out a single girl lifestyle to the last possible moment.

This is not, though, a wise life strategy for women. It has the following problems:

1) As Anna Pasternak’s article suggests, putting things off for too long can lead women to marry in haste. A single woman of 33 who wants to start a family can be influenced by "screaming ovaries" in accepting a man. A woman of 23 isn’t under such duress when she chooses. Nor does a 23-year-old woman have to worry that she will scare partners away with her desperation for a baby.

2) Women are more likely to experience fertility problems in their 30s. There are countless women now gambling that they will have the children they want in their last few fertile years. As in the nature of any gamble, a lot will miss out.

3) If a whole cohort of women leave marriage and motherhood to their 30s, there will inevitably be an effect on men. There will be men who will spend longer “drifting” in their 20s (staying home, studying rather than working). There will be men who will habituate themselves to a bachelor lifestyle. There will be men who will resent their treatment by women within a culture of casual relationships.

By the time women in their 30s finally decide to seek out a life partner, they are more likely to be left wondering where all the good men have gone.

4) If women leave partnering to a narrow “relationships window” they are more likely to misjudge and leave things too late.

Anna Pasternak quotes the director of a dating agency, Mairead Molloy, who describes the women who typically miss out on the “relationships window” as being:

those who wanted the flat, the job and their own money, and suddenly, they lift up their heads at 37 and think: “Right, where’s the man?”

The women Mairead Molloy is describing have things around the wrong way. Love, marriage and family are what really matter and deserve our first attention. It’s denatured to place them low down on a lifestyle checklist.

The “leave it till last” women sometimes end up in difficult circumstances. According to Mairead Molloy, a woman in her mid-40s is left with few choices. She is no longer fertile, and no longer attractive to men in her own age group. In Molloy’s words:

A 45-year-old woman wants a maximum 47-year-old man, or a good-looking 50-year-old, but a 47-year-old man wants to find a 40-year-old woman.

The problem is that the 45-year-old woman doesn’t want to date the 60-something man who wants to go out with her, and yet she’s terrified of facing 50 alone – and projects that.

How different it would be for that same woman to be seeking a husband when in her mid-20s. She would be at the height of her appeal to men, with nature having arranged things very much in her favour.

On marrying, she would be well-placed to fulfil her “reproductive choice”, in being able to have children and create a family without the anxieties and difficulties of trying to do so late in life.

She would give the gift of her youthful beauty and romantic passion to the man she ultimately commits to, rather than to other men she will have no enduring connection to.

She will share her primary memories of love and affection with the man she has married, rather than with other men.

It might seem more modern for a woman to leave marriage and motherhood to her 30s, but I can’t help but think that this is a mistake and that it’s more sensible for women (and men) to aim to marry in their 20s.