Saturday, September 27, 2008

Solitary, selfish, suspicious

I've written a couple of posts already on the book Liberalism & Community by American academic Steven Kautz.

The book was written as a defence of classical liberalism, particularly that early version of liberalism set out by John Locke (late 1600s). What are we to make of this defence? I'd list the following main points:

a) Classical liberalism is openly hostile to a traditionalist conservatism.

b) Classical liberalism begins with too negative an assessment of human nature and an artificial account of the basis of human society. It radically limits the sights that we may set ourselves as individuals and as communities.

c) Classical liberalism discourages people from acting publicly in the defence of a community.

I'll illustrate these points with some excerpts from the book, beginning with this:

Since human beings are by nature solitary and selfish, querulous and untrustworthy competitors for scarce and often fragile private goods, prudent individuals will learn to attend to the mostly private acquisition of the tools necessary to provide for their mostly private welfare - above all, liberty and property ...

... even a well-ordered civil society can ... not abolish, the harsh natural conditions and the querulous traits of our human natures that make it necessary to treat our fellows with abiding suspicion ...

So it is the principal business of political community to arrange "conditions" so that the acquisition and maintenance of liberty and property is protected, as against the "Fancy or Covetousness" of incipient aggressors.(p.30)

Is this really a balanced reading of human nature? Are humans by nature solitary and selfish? Must we limit our aims to our private welfare, in particular to the accumulation of private property?

the way of life of the businessman is only the most prominent among many other private ways of life, available in a liberal community, that enable human beings substantially to retain their natural freedom to "order their Actions, and dispose of their Possessions, and Persons as they think fit" ...(p.31)

The most prominent way of life is that of the businessman? As we'll see, there is a great emphasis on acquisitiveness in classical liberalism.

According to classical liberals, the political community is surely not natural: man is not by nature a political animal. Still, there can be no doubt that membership in a peaceful and stable political community accords with the interests of almost all individual human beings.

Thus, the liberal political community, which seeks above all to secure this peace and stability, is an artificial rational construction, established by a "social contract" among free individuals; it is not a natural organism, a whole to which the individual is related as the hand is related to the body ... The liberal believes that "each of us" is somehow independent of, or prior to, the political community. Or again: we constitute our (political) communities; they do not "constitute" us. (p.32)

This is not a persuasive account of how human communities are, in practice, formed. We are supposed to believe that naturally solitary and selfish individuals decided to make a contract with each other, in order to safeguard their property and personal security. Therefore, human community is to be understood in terms of an unnatural, but rational, political arrangement.

It's more plausible to regard humans as social creatures, who are born into social communities, in which they live and work together with others they are related to, and with whom they share a common identity. Such communities arose naturally rather than being created through a process of contract; nor are the aims of these communities limited to the protection of life and property.

There are some particular problems with the classical liberal view as set out by Kautz. First, Kautz believes that the contracted form of community is rational because it accords with individual self-interest. So Kautz connects reason here with self-interest. It would seem that if you want individuals to act rationally, as liberals do, you will then expect them to act in a self-interested way. Egoism becomes a matter of principle.

Second, the larger, natural form of community is hidden within the liberal framework. In the classical liberal view, there are "free" individuals who contract to form a political community. Where in this is the natural social community? How can we have a proper regard for this natural social community if it is made obscure?

Third, the classical liberal theory sets up a framework in which the aims of a community are severely limited: community was established for the purpose of defending property rights and a right to personal security. The higher aim of a society is too one-sided and materialistic: it is to create the conditions in which property can be safely accumulated.

It's a recipe for a materially wealthy and technologically advanced society, but one which is likely to suffer a "hollowing" process, in which the culture and institutions which once sustained it and inspired loyalty in those who belonged to it are gradually lost.

There's more to add but I'll leave it to the next post.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Nationalism & the liberal mind

There are many conservatives who don't understand the liberal attitude to nationalism. Why, ask such conservatives, would liberals want to destroy their own national traditions? Are they being manipulated by hostile outsiders? Are they unprincipled, or ridden by guilt?

Fortunately, liberal intellectuals like to record their views, so what we conservatives need to do is to look into the debates liberals have amongst themselves. By doing so we can begin to understand what is going on in the liberal mind.

Traditional nationalism

To make sense of things, what we have to do first is to define the kind of traditional nationalism supported by conservatives.

Traditional nationalism was nearly always some form of ethnic nationalism. In other words, it was a nationalism in which people felt connected to each other by ties of ethnicity: by some admixture of a common ancestry, language, religion, culture and history.

Over time ethnic nationalism came to have a negative connotation for liberals. This is because it is in conflict with the first principle of liberalism.

Liberals believe that our humanity is defined by our ability to shape ourselves according to our own will and reason. Our ethnicity, though, is not something we get to choose through individual will and reason: it is something we simply inherit.

Therefore, liberals have come to oppose ethnic nationalism as an unchosen "destiny" rather than a "rational attachment". In their usual style, liberals like to undercut traditional nationalism by arguing that such forms of national identity aren't real, but are merely imagined or constructed.


So, liberals generally reject the idea of traditional ethnic nationalism. What though do they suggest should replace it?

One of the most influential of liberal theorists of nationalism is Professor Michael Ignatieff. As you might expect of a liberal, he rejects ethnic nationalism because it suggests "that an individual's deepest attachments are inherited, not chosen."

What he proposes instead is a "civic nationalism" which he describes as follows:

According to the civic nationalist creed, what holds a society together is not common roots but law. By subscribing to a set of democratic procedures and values, individuals can reconcile their right to shape their own lives with their need to belong to a community.

This is basically the "official" nationalism we have today in most Western countries. The idea is that we are united by a common commitment to liberal political values and practices.

The advantage of this civic form of nationalism for liberals is that it is something, in theory at least, that we can rationally and voluntarily consent to. It's a form of community that we choose for ourselves. It seems to fit in well, therefore, with liberal first principles.

In theory, nobody is excluded from the civic nation by inherited factors, such as their ethnicity. As long as you agree to uphold liberal political practices and values you can choose to belong.

Radical criticism

From the conservative point of view, civic nationalism is a very radical imposition on society. Its adoption means that the political class no longer seeks to preserve the traditional nation. In the civic nationalist view, anyone can be a member of the nation, so there can be no principled objections to ethnically diverse mass immigration.

Conservatives are therefore inclined to look upon civic nationalist politicians as being at the radical end of the political debate. We don't understand why the more moderate liberal politicians don't stand up and oppose the civic nationalists.
But we've misunderstood things. The civic nationalists are actually, in terms of liberalism, not at the radical end of the spectrum. They are, in fact, strongly criticised by more radical liberals for not going far enough.

In a 1996 edition of Critical Review, the editor, Jeffrey Friedman, surveyed the arguments of the more purist and radical liberals. He summarises their basic objections to civic nationalism as follows.

For liberals what is important are the universal qualities which define our humanity such as our "ability to choose and will freely".

Therefore, our moral obligations can't be limited to some subset of humans, but must apply to humanity in general. Civic nationalism violates this principle of liberalism, however, by claiming that we have a special obligation to fellow citizens.

Civic nationalism is therefore inegalitarian. In contrast,

A truly liberal society would encompass all human beings. It would extend any welfare benefits to all humankind, not just to those born within arbitrary borders; and far from prohibiting the importing of "foreign" workers or goods they have produced, or the exporting of jobs to them across national boundaries, it would encourage the free flow of labor, the goods, and capital ...

To put this simply, the more radical liberal attitude is that it is not only wrong to discriminate on the basis of ethnicity, it is also wrong to discriminate on the basis of citizenship.

Such liberals believe that we are morally compelled to accept open borders, and that we should even encourage the export of jobs and the the import of foreign workers.

How influential is this more radical version of liberalism? On the left, it now seems close to being an orthodoxy. For instance, the former Labor Party Prime Minister of Australia, Paul Keating, is strongly against the idea of civic nationalism. He has sharply criticised those whose "exclusiveness" relies on,

constructing arbitrary and parochial distinctions between the civic and the human community ... if you ask what is the common policy of the Le Pens, the Terreblanches, Hansons and Howards of this world, in a word, it is "citizenship". Who is in and who is out.

In fact, it's possible to understand Australian politics in terms of this division between "conservative" civic nationalist liberals on the right and radical open borders liberals on the left.

The right-wing Liberal Party are civic nationalists because they still accept the legitimacy of the citizenship distinction. This means that although they support multiculturalism and high levels of foreign immigration, they still take seriously the task of enforcing the boundaries of citizenship, for instance, by acting against illegal immigration.

In contrast, left liberals in Australia typically portray these efforts to maintain citizenship distinctions as being grossly immoral. It is nearly always assumed in a middle-class liberal paper like the Melbourne Age that the "moral" position is the one which undercuts citizenship distinctions in favour of open borders.

Special consideration

Friedman himself seems sympathetic to the radical view that we don't have a particular obligation to fellow citizens. His argument for this, though, actually betrays a weakness in the liberal position as a whole. He writes,

We would be miserable if we could not treat our friends, spouses, and siblings with special consideration; but is this necessarily true of our conationals?

This argument betrays what liberals are really committing themselves to. For if it's morally wrong to feel a special connection and a special obligation to a particular "subset" of humans, then it's wrong as a matter of principle to favour our own immediate family.

Few people, though, could really put this principle into practice (Professor Peter Singer famously tried and failed). So Jeffrey Friedman applies an unprincipled exception. He simply asserts that what we can do to our conationals we could never do to our family and friends.

Conservatives would turn this argument around and apply it consistently. The fact is that we do treat our own family with special consideration because we are more closely connected and related to it than to others.

Similarly we are more closely connected to fellow members of our ethnic group than to others, an ethnic group being like a very large extended family, related not only by culture, language and history, but also by "biology", better expressed as "kinship".

Therefore, traditional ethnic nationalism reflects the "special consideration" we apply even today in our daily lives. Liberal nationalism, though, leads to the idea that logically we shouldn't have particular attachments at all: a principle which seems unpalatable and unworkable even to the most radical liberals.

As I have tried to explain in this article, though, the difficulty for conservatives is not so much asserting the greater consistency of our beliefs. The difficulty is that we don't fully grasp just how far the political class has moved away from traditional nationalism.

What we see as a radical civic nationalism is actually the more right-wing or "conservative" position on the spectrum of liberal belief. We need, therefore, to stop looking to right-wing liberals for a solution, and instead begin to reassert our own conservative principles within the political debate.

(First published at Conservative Central, 14/05/2005)

Collapsing nationalism

Liberals aren't very good at preserving things, not even their own creations.

Take the case of nationalism. Liberals have gone to a lot of trouble to replace traditional ethnic nationalism with a liberal civic nationalism. The basic idea of this civic nationalism is that it is citizenship which defines national belonging, and that national identity is based on a shared commitment to liberal political practices and values.

This is a version of nationalism which makes liberalism itself the defining point of national existence and which has become the dominant, orthodox, politically correct form of nationalism in all Western countries. Yet many liberals are already discarding it.

Why is civic nationalism so vulnerable to collapse? I suggested one reason in a recent article, A hollow identity?:

Civic nationalism has a further defect. Even though civic nationalism doesn't discriminate on the basis of race, it does discriminate. It draws a line between people who are citizens, and therefore part of the nation, and those who aren't.

This is a problem for liberals, who believe that any kind of discrimination which impedes the individual will is wrong. Therefore, it's not hard to find liberals who find even civic nationalism to be morally indefensible, and who want to collapse all distinctions of national identity.

John Edwards a bigot?

Right on cue, economist Steven Landsburg recently declared himself to be one such liberal who believes that discriminating on the basis of citizenship is just as illegitimate as discriminating on the basis of race.

He announced that he would refuse to vote for John Kerry at the recent US elections, because of the protectionist policies of Kerry's running mate, John Edwards.

Edward's support of tariffs shows a willingness to discriminate in favour of American citizens and against foreigners. This, thinks Landsburg, is the same as someone like David Duke discriminating in favour of whites. In Landsburg's own words:

While Duke would discriminate on the arbitrary basis of skin colour, Edwards would discriminate on the arbitrary basis of birthplace. Either way, bigotry is bigotry, and appeals to base instincts should always be repudiated.

Notice that Landsburg rejects discrimination on the basis of both race and birthplace because they are "arbitrary". Why are they arbitrary? Because they are things we don't deliberately choose through our own will and reason. And liberals, as a first principle, believe that we are made human by being self-created through individual will and reason.

Of course, our membership of a particular family is "arbitrary" in the same way: it's not something we decide rationally or purposefully. If Landsburg were to take his position one step further he should also declare it to be bigotry and a base instinct to discriminate in favour of our own family members. (As liberal philosopher Peter Singer and various radicals such as the Russian Bolsheviks have already done.)

I doubt he is ready to be quite this logical. For the moment, though, he is part of an "advanced" group of liberals who consider it illegitimate to discriminate in favour of their fellow citizens and who therefore cannot support even a civic nationalism.


Not all liberals are ready to accept Landsburg's position. Jack Strocchi, for instance, was concerned enough by Landsburg's comments to write a rebuttal at the liberal Catallaxy website (October 28th "Why free market economists just don't get it").

Strocchi used to believe that liberal values were so universal, that an "end of history" had been reached in which liberalism would be permanently triumphant. His confidence in this view was shaken by the Iraq war. Many Iraqis did not eagerly embrace the liberal democracy offered by the Americans, but chose instead to remain loyal to their religious leaders.

This has led Strocchi to wonder if liberalism is so universal after all. He has observed that liberalism is mostly a product of the English and French speaking political traditions. Might it not be wise, concludes Strocchi, to discriminate in favour of the English and French speaking peoples, to ensure the continued existence of liberalism itself?

In effect, Strocchi is putting forward a conservative liberal position: we need to discriminate on the grounds of citizenship, perhaps even on the grounds of ethnicity, in order to safeguard liberalism itself.

How was this argument received at Catallaxy? Not so well. One contributor, John Humphreys, aligned himself with Landsburg by commenting,

I largely agree with Landsburg in that I see little moral difference between discrimination based on colour of skin or colour of passport.

Jason Soon chose to defend the status quo of civic nationalism. He explained that even though he was a "committed universalist and internationalist" he was loyal to Australia because it embodied a set of liberal values, namely liberty, rationality, utility and secularism.

(Jason Soon himself considers an obvious response to this: why not have an equal loyalty to other states which embody the same values? He answers that he has a particular affinity to Australia because he has friends and family here. What, though, if most of his friends and family lived overseas, say in Canada? Would his first loyalty then be to Canada?)

A contributor named Fyodor also chose to defend civic nationalism. His argument is that we can rightfully discriminate in favour of a fellow citizen because the fellow citizen pays taxes and fights militarily to support our way of life.

Fyodor rejects the idea of loyalty to an ethnic group as "immoral" but thinks it alright to be loyal to a state, as we have an "implicit social contract" with a state. (Meaning that our connection to a state is something that lies within the sphere of individual will and reason, and therefore acceptable to liberal principles. This is a convenient fiction, though: most of us have never contracted with a state, implicitly or otherwise.)

The overall result, therefore, is that we have two radical liberals who believe that even civic nationalism is morally illegitimate (Landsburg and Humphreys), two who defend civic nationalism, though on shaky grounds (Soon and Fyodor) and one who defends nationalism in general more substantially, but only as a means of preserving liberalism (Strocchi).

Which line of thought is likely to win in the long run? The answer is that the radicals will probably be victorious. Over time, liberalism tends to unfold according to the logic of its first principles. Landsburg is right to suggest that our citizenship is (in most cases) obtained in as arbitrary a way as our race: it's something we're born into. Therefore, it's illegitimate within the terms of liberal first principles.


Of course, the conservative response to this must be to argue against liberal first principles. Conservatives need to make the case that just because something is "arbitrary" (ie not obtained by our own will or reason) doesn't mean that it lacks meaning or significance.

After all, our sex is "arbitrary", and yet our manhood or womanhood is central to our sense of ourselves and helps to create a vital part of our self-identity.

Similarly, our place within a family is "arbitrary" and yet most of us enjoy a strong sense of connectedness to our own parents, children and siblings.

The liberal view is skewered by its own terms of reference. A liberal isn't able to judge existing forms of identity and connectedness on their own terms, but must always dismiss them as not conforming to an abstract principle.

That's why liberals can't even agree to defend a form of nationalism which they themselves have created and which places their own beliefs at the centre of national identity.

(First published at Conservative Central, 06/11/2004)

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Are women better?

Concerned by feminist theories of gender war, the Catholic Church released a letter in July promoting the idea of "active collaboration" between men and women.

The letter provoked a short burst of media comment, which did not, however, highlight the real significance of the letter's contents.

Liberalism defied

The first thing missed by the mainstream media is the very explicit rejection of liberalism in the letter.

It is a first principle of liberalism that to be fully human we must be self-created by our own individual will and reason. The aim of politics, for liberals, is to "free" us from anything which impedes our individual will and reason.

One thing liberals want to free us from is our sex, as this is something we don't get to choose for ourselves. Liberals don't want to admit that being born male or female might influence who we are as this would be a merely "biological destiny". They prefer to believe that observable differences between men and women are due to an oppressive social conditioning which it is our duty to overcome.

The Vatican letter rejects this entire theoretical framework of liberalism. It describes the attempt to deny gender difference as follows:

their [men and women] differences tend to be denied, viewed as mere effects of historical and cultural conditioning. In this perspective, physical difference, termed sex, is minimized, while the purely cultural element, termed gender, is emphasized to the maximum and held to be primary.

What can explain this attempt to deny sex differences? The Vatican letter quite rightly points to liberal first principles:

its deeper motivation must be sought in the human attempt to be freed from one's biological conditioning. According to this perspective, human nature in itself does not possess characteristics in an absolute manner: all persons can and ought to constitute themselves as they like, since they are free from every predetermination linked to their essential constitution.

This theory is described in the letter as a "false conception of freedom" with harmful consequences to our understanding of family life and sexuality.

Difference & unity

So the good news for conservatives is that there is at least one major institution in the world, the Catholic Church, which is willing both to identify and to criticise liberal first principles.

This then raises a further question: what kind of alternative view of the relationship between men and women does the Catholic Church propose?

There is much to praise in the answer outlined in the Vatican letter. The Church unmistakably accepts the reality of gender difference, by confirming that,

From the first moment of their creation, man and woman are distinct, and will remain so for eternity.

This difference is manifested both in spirit, and in our bodies which are an expression of our spirit:

... the body is the expression of the spirit ...

... the spousal character of the body, in which the masculinity and femininity of the person is expressed ... The human creature, in its unity of body and spirit ...

The letter also affirms that men and women complement and complete each other. It does so by discussing the account of creation in Genesis:

Formed by God and placed in the garden which he was to cultivate, the man, who is still referred to with the generic expression Adam, experienced a loneliness ... He needs a helpmate who will be his partner. The term here does not refer to an inferior but to a vital helper. This is so that Adam's life does not sink into a sterile and, in the end, baneful encounter with himself ...

... woman is another "I" in a common humanity. From the very beginning they appear as a 'unity of the two' ... it is a matter of a life's companion with whom, as a wife, a man can unite himself, becoming with her 'one flesh' ...

Finally, the Church also clearly rejects the idea of gender war. In fact, the general purpose of the letter is to rebut the idea that men and women are locked into a state of permanent conflict.

The letter proposes instead an "active collaboration" between the sexes. It calls for men and women to,

no longer see their difference as a source of discord to be overcome by denial or eradication, but rather as the possibility for collaboration, to be cultivated with mutual respect for their difference.

In a similar vein, we read that,

these observations seek to correct the perspective which views men as enemies to be overcome. The proper condition of the male-female relationship cannot be a kind of mistrustful and defensive opposition. Their relationship needs to be lived in peace and the happiness of shared love.


The final section of the Vatican letter is on the importance of feminine values in the life of the church. I found this part of the letter very disappointing.

The intention is clearly to reassure women that just because they are different does not mean that they are inferior. The attempt to praise women, though, is taken much too far, with the implication that women are not only different to men, but superior.

The letter argues that the core value of Christianity, in fact of human values in general, is the giving of oneself to others. This is put very starkly in the words:

There is no Christian vocation except in the concrete gift of oneself to others.

It is then asserted that women are more oriented in their natures to giving of themselves to others. For instance, the letter states that,

Among the fundamental values linked to women's actual lives is what has been called a "capacity for the other".

The conclusion drawn is that women represent both Christian and human values better than men. This is why, to the delight of feminists, the letter calls on women to be drawn further into paid work and careers:

It means also that women should be present in the world of work and in the organization of society, and that women should have access to positions of responsibility which allow them to inspire the policies of nations and to promote innovative solutions to economic and social problems.

The letter suggests that the alternative to this promotion of women is a kind of masculine violence. The argument is therefore very similar to the feminist one that if women ruled the world, society would be more peaceful, humane, caring etc.

A further conclusion drawn from the idea that women represent Christian and human values better than men is that it is actually Mary who should be at the centre of Christian worship. The letter asserts that,

In this regard, the figure of Mary constitutes the fundamental reference of the Church. One could say metaphorically that Mary is a mirror placed before the Church, in which the Church is invited to recognise her own identity as well as the dispositions of the heart, the attitudes and the actions which God expects from her.

Where does all this leave men? Once again, the letter adopts a curiously feminist attitude. Men are told that they too can be good ... by being feminine. This is put, in the language of the letter, as follows:

It is appropriate however to recall that the feminine values mentioned here are above all human values ... It is only because women are more immediately attuned to these values that they are the reminder and the privileged sign of such values.

But, in the final analysis, every human being, man or woman, is destined to be "for the other". In this perspective, that which is called "femininity" is more than simply an attribute of the female sex. The word designates that fundamental human capacity to live for the other and because of the other.

Once again, note the radical final conclusion following directly on from these lines. Replacing men with women in public life will, it is claimed, lead to a "humanization" of society through feminine values:

Therefore, the promotion of women in society must be understood and desired as a humanization accomplished through those values, rediscovered thanks to women.

(One conclusion not drawn in the letter, but which will inevitably occur to others, is that if the arguments put forward in the letter are right, then the Church should ideally have a female rather than a male leadership. The letter, in other words, undermines the authority of a male priesthood.)

An alternative

Is the only alternative to a liberal feminism a Catholic one? I don't think so. In fact, I think it's possible to see women as being at the centre of life, without undercutting the masculine role of men.

Think of it this way. When a man's instincts are strongest, he is likely to perceive the love, beauty, grace, tenderness and charity embodied in a woman as being at "the heart of things" - as being core human values.

He will also, though, perceive these feminine qualities of women to be soft and vulnerable. He will want to use his harder, tougher masculine qualities to defend what he believes to be at the core of human life: to create a protected space in which the more fragile feminine qualities can survive and be made manifest.

This basic task of men, however, creates its own significant values, such as the courage and loyalty demanded of men in the physical defence of their communities, or the wisdom and impartiality required in the formal, public governance of a community.

Furthermore, it seems to be given especially to men to love and appreciate what is best in the feminine nature of women.

Who then is better? Women who embody core human values, or men who are made to love and protect these values, and who create their own masculine values in doing so?

The answer surely is that it makes no sense to declare either to be superior. Neither would exist without the other. And anyway, the healthy attitude is to be so engrossed in our own masculine or feminine identity that we wouldn't want to exchange what is best in our manhood or womanhood.

For this reason alone, the attempt to place either sex in rank cannot serve a useful purpose.

(First published at Conservative Central, 25/10/2004)

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Changing nations

What forms the basis of a national identity? Conservatives would answer that ethnicity does. Real historical ties of ancestry, language, culture and religion are what give people a deeper feeling of a common identity.

Liberals, though, reject ethnic identity. They believe, as a first principle, that we should be self-created by our own reason and will. Since ethnicity is not created out of our own reason and will, but is inherited, it takes on negative connotations in a liberal society.

Liberals prefer the alternative of a civic nationalism, in which we form a communal identity through a common commitment to liberal political practices and values. This is the form of nationalism which is now dominant in Western societies.


Can civic nationalism provide a viable form of national identity? There are reasons to think not.

As I detailed previously (here and here), even the leading exponents of civic nationalism have conceded that it's a shallow form of identity compared to ethnic nationalism.

Even worse, civic nationalism is unable to provide stable or meaningful definitions of national identity. If your national identity is defined by liberal politics, then anyone is potentially part of your nation. It becomes difficult to see any logical limitations on what constitutes a nation, either in terms of populace or boundaries.

We are already beginning to see the ramifications of this aspect of civic nationalism. For instance, liberals in Europe believe that people are European by virtue of their commitment to liberal politics.

This means that Turkey is now being considered for membership of the European Union, despite the fact that it's an Asian country. Some commentators are also looking forward to the day when an African country like Morocco joins the EU.

Suddenly, the historical concept of Europe has shifted to the point at which the word "European" would seem to lack any stable or useful meaning.


Nor is the EU the only example of an identity made radically unstable by civic nationalism.

In August 2003, an Australian Senate committee proposed the formation of a Pacific Economic and Political Community (PEPC). In their report, the Committee stated that:

The discussion concerning the feasibility of a Pacific economic and political community is set out in Chapter Three. In essence, it proposes a Pacific community which will eventually have one currency, one labour market, common strong budgetary and fiscal discipline, democratic and ethical governance, shared defence and security arrangements, common laws and resolve in fighting crime, and, health, welfare, education and environmental goals.

This is, to all intents and purposes, a federal union. Australia would become a state within a larger national entity.

The proposal would join Australia together with New Zealand, PNG and 14 smaller countries. Obviously this would dramatically shift the national identity of those of us now living in Australia. And what is to prevent further changes in the future? Would this new Pacific Union one day join together with a South-East Asian Union?

Note how blithely this committee, representing all the political parties, is willing to contemplate such a radical overthrow of the existing national identity (there were three Labor senators, one National Party, one Liberal Party and one Australian Democrat on the committee).

There is nothing within civic nationalism to anchor a national identity to a particular people or a particular place. That's why it's hard to take a civic identity seriously, as what it frames as "the nation" now may not be so tomorrow.

(First published at Conservative Central, 11/10/2004)

What makes a European?

Should Turkey be allowed to join the European Union? The answer depends on what you think forms a European identity.

Conservatives believe that a communal identity is formed by ties of ethnicity, such as a common ancestry, history, religion, language and culture. In Europe there do exist ethnic differences, which is why conservatives oppose the idea of merging different nations into a single European super state.

However, it is possible to recognise common ethnic origins across Europe. For instance, languages are different, but nearly all derive from a common Indo-European root. Similarly, there are differences of race, but also similarities, reflecting again a common origin. And although there are different churches, they share a common Christian heritage. And so on.

Therefore, it does make sense to talk of people not only having a national identity, but a European one as well. In fact, most of us know immediately what people mean if they talk of someone being "European" or of a nation being a "European" country.

If we think about a European identity in this way then we have to answer no to Turkey joining the European Union. Turkey simply lacks the ties of ethnicity binding it to Europe.

This point has been made, surprisingly enough, by Muammar Gaddafi of Libya. On what is purportedly his own website he has declared that Turkey should not join Europe because,

Turkey is a tree, whose roots are in Asia, and only its branch touches Europe. It is an Islamic state of a Sunni denomination, with oriental traditions, customs, history, culture, attitude and taste ... Turkey historically did not look to Europe but was an arena for expansion and conquests ...

Admitting Turkey to the European Union is like an attempt to transplant a human organ into the body of another person with a different blood group, and they never have any biological compatibility. Their only link is that they live in opposite blocks across the street.

The Catholic Church has also supported a more traditional view of European identity. Cardinal Ratzinger, the most senior theologian of the Catholic Church, told a French newspaper that,

In the course of history, Turkey has always represented a different continent, in permanent contrast to Europe. Making the two continents identical would be a mistake. It would mean a loss of richness, the disappearance of the cultural to the benefit of economics.

The cardinal also noted that the Turkish Ottoman Empire had long fought to conquer parts of Europe (more on this later). He suggested that rather than seeking to be part of Europe Turkey "could try to set up a cultural continent with neighbouring Arab countries and become the leading figure of a culture with its own identity."

So what do liberals think?

Liberals don't define a European identity in the same way as conservatives. For reasons explained elsewhere, liberals have rejected the idea of ethnic identity. Instead, they believe that being "European" means sharing certain political values and practices. For liberals, our identity is based on a shared commitment to the liberal political order.

Liberals therefore have given a "maybe" to the idea of Turkey joining Europe. They will agree as long as Turkey can prove itself to be committed to liberal political values.

That's why when liberals discuss the issue of Turkey joining the EU they often debate whether Turkey is sufficiently secular, or feminist, or whether it will accept the Kurds as part of a multicultural state. It is these things which define, for a liberal, whether Turkey is European or not.

A meddlesome cleric

The liberal view is obviously the one which dominates in the mainstream media. It has, though, a number of questionable repercussions.

The liberal view, for example, makes it difficult to defend the existing culture and heritage of a community. You can see this at work in a New York Times editorial criticising Cardinal Ratzinger for his views on Turkey.

The editorial called the cardinal a "meddlesome cleric" and complained that,

he and his fellow doctrinal conservatives worry most about secularization and loss of Christian identity, both of which are implied if Turkey joins the union.

Most people would think it normal for a Christian leader to oppose a loss of Christian identity. But according to the New York Times editorial the cardinal is at fault for elevating "personal beliefs over universal values".

This, then, is the radical implication of the liberal view: a longstanding and deeply rooted religious tradition is no longer considered a legitimate part of a public, communal life. It is relegated to the status of "personal belief". Liberal political values, on the other hand, are treated not just as a personal belief. They are instead universal values to be applied everywhere and to everyone.

This assertion of the dominance of liberal politics is not the only way that liberals have sought to deal with questions of ethnicity. At times, leading liberals have simply reinterpreted history to make the ethnic differences between Turkey and Europe less apparent.

President Chirac of France, for instance, declared earlier this year that "the roots of Europe are as much Moslem as Christian". If true, it would obviously lessen the ethnic divide between Turkey and Europe, but it's absurdly false.

Then there are the thoughts of Chris Patten, the EU Commissioner for External Affairs. In a speech in May he spoke of the Turkish military incursions into Europe as follows,

At one time, particularly when Western Europe was a more savage place, Turkey and the Turks were the very incarnation of the threatening outsider ... We've moved on from that ...

Patten recognises the troubled history, but makes it seem as if Europe and not Turkey was the savage aggressor.

This is a foretaste of what might happen to the presentation of European history if Turkey actually does join the EU. The historical record is that the Turks seized Belgrade in 1521 and conquered Hungary in 1528. In 1529 they laid siege to Vienna.

Prior to the siege the Turks had slaughtered the inhabitants of Pest, and they also slaughtered a column of 4000 elderly men, women and children leaving Vienna itself, impaling some of their captives on stakes. The Viennese resisted over twenty assaults on their city before the Turks retreated.

The Turks set fire to Moscow in 1571, capturing tens of thousands of slaves, and invaded Austria again in 1594.

As late as 1664 Turkey achieved control over Transylvania and in 1683 Vienna was once again placed under siege and was only relieved when the Polish king left his own nation undefended and attacked the Turks outside the walls of Vienna.

For most Europeans this defence of Europe against the Ottoman Turks is something to be positively identified with as part of a shared history. But if Turkey joins the EU, history will no longer be able to play this role in a common culture.

At best history will be told from a "neutral" perspective, designed not to offend anyone's sensibilities. At worst history will be "Pattenised" and reinterpreted to best integrate the former "outsiders".

Are there limits?

One final consequence of the liberal view ought to be considered. Chris Patten at one point says,

Is Turkey European? If aspiration is any guide, the answer would have to be a resounding yes.

This statement is a reminder that for a liberal it's possible for a country to "aspire" to be European, as being European means having a liberal political order.

At one level, this might sound appealing, as it makes things seem open, rather than fixed. It brings with it, though, a problem: it means that potentially any country can become European. This makes the liberal definition of what is European seem too open, to the point at which it begins to lose stability or useful meaning.

Stephen Kinzer, a former New York Times bureau chief, has already drawn out the implications of this point. He has noted that many countries could reach a satisfactory level "of political and economic democracy" for EU membership. This means that,

Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and possibly Russia could also become candidates. In the distant future, so might Israel, a Palestinian state, or even Morocco.

Why not Morocco? If you hold to the liberal view potentially any country could apply to join the EU, even if they have no connection of either geography or ethnicity to Europe. Why not one day Uganda or Nigeria or Syria?

When someone like Stephen Kinzer is willing to consider even Morocco as a European country, it's time to reconsider the way that liberals are choosing to define communal identity.

The liberal definition ultimately collapses because it's unable to draw meaningful boundaries. The conservative definition works better because it recognises what is particular about the existence of Europe and the Europeans, not just in relation to politics, but to a much wider sphere of people, culture and history.

(First published at Conservative Central, 24/09/2004)

Monday, September 22, 2008

Unpacking whose privilege?

As expected, whiteness studies is beginning to be picked up and run with by rank and file leftists.

What is it? It's a field of studies based on the theory that whiteness was socially constructed to maintain the unearned privilege of whites.

The theory is steadily increasing in influence and it's not difficult to imagine it going mainstream.

We should do what we can to resist this process. The theory suggests that it is the very fact of being white which is a problem, and not just any particular kind of behaviour or attitude.

The claim is that all whites benefit from "white privilege" at the expense of the non-white other; in other words, there is an unjust system of privilege built into the way society operates through which whites are given privileges and advantages denied to others.

If you are white and you believe this theory you are going to be mightily conflicted in your identity and affiliations. You will not have a healthy regard for your own tradition - there will be no celebrating your part of the world's ethnic mosaic.

The best you will be able to do is to act against your own identity and your own kind (one whiteness studies professor has written that "treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity").

I have written a detailed criticism of whiteness studies elsewhere; I'd like to focus in this post on just one particular problem with the theory.

Whiteness theorists usually focus on just two races: whites and blacks. As blacks, on average, are worse off in some respects, it might seem plausible to talk about white privilege and black oppression.

The theory becomes much less plausible if we allow Asians into the picture. Asians do better than whites in certain important social outcomes. How is this possible if a system of white privilege exists in society? Why, if society is a system of white privilege, should whites be privileged in comparison to blacks but disadvantaged compared to Asians?

It's not difficult to find evidence of better social outcomes for Asians. In the US, for example, Asians do much better than whites in gaining entrance to university (college) courses:

Asian Americans, though only 4 percent of the nation's population, account for nearly 20 percent of all medical students. Forty-five percent of Berkeley's freshman class, but only 12 percent of California's populace, consists of Asian-Americans. And at UT-Austin, 18 percent of the freshman class is Asian American, compared to 3 percent for the state.

An even more telling statistic is provided in a book titled Asian Americans by Pyong Gap Min. In this book (p.66) there is a table in which the earnings of white Americans are compared to native-born Asian Americans. An Asian American male with the same level of experience and education as a white American male receives a 4% bonus in earnings - for women the gap rises to 17%.

If mean earnings remain unadjusted for education and experience, then the discrepancy is even more pronounced: in 2000, native-born Asian American men recorded a 14% bonus in mean earnings compared to white American men, and the gap for women was 32%.

Unsurprisingly, Pyong Gap Min concludes that:

there is no clear evidence that native-born Asian American men systematically face a net racial disadvantage in terms of wages, earnings or occupational attainment.

It's a similar story when professional outcomes are looked at. Pyong Gap Min provides a table (p.68) listing the percentage of Asian Americans in each profession.

In the year 2000, 4.1% of America's population was Asian American, but Asian Americans were 13.6% of doctors and dentists, 13.2% of computer specialists, 9.9% of engineers, 6.1% of accountants, 8.7% of post-secondary teachers (such as uni professors) and 6.9% of architects.

So Asian Americans are privileged compared to white Americans when it comes to jobs, earnings and education. But why? Does Pyong Gap Min resort to accusations that "Asianness" is a social construct designed to systematically oppress others?

Not at all. He ascribes part of the success of Asian Americans to stable patterns of family life:

educational attainment is strongly affected by parents' emotional encouragement and financial support. Hence, high educational attainment amongst Asian American youth reflects in large part the heavy investment of Asian parents in their children. (p.70)

On p.71 he provides a table showing the percentage of each American ethnic group living in a two parent family and mean family income. There is a correlation between family stability and income level. Asian Americans have the highest percentage of two-parent families (73%) and the highest mean family income ($77,000). White Americans were somewhat lower on both counts (67% and $70,000). African Americans fared much worse in both areas (40% and $45,000).

Pyong Gap Min is not bound by any political ideology and is therefore free to look to the strengths of his own community in explaining Asian American social advantage.

For whites, though, it is not a stable family life or self-disciplined work patterns which are held to create success - but rather an unearned privilege bought at the expense of everyone else. We are held to a different standard - singled out as having a uniquely bad role in human society.

We shouldn't accept this characterisation lightly. It is a kind of vilification, one which will become more serious as whiteness theory is accepted more widely in society.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Proof you say?

One of the problems with feminist patriarchy theory is that it's so dismal. If you accept it, you're committed to the idea that men have acted throughout the centuries to oppress women.

Feminists who follow patriarchy theory are going to take innocent aspects of male and female relationships and find brutal proof of male ownership and control of women.

I gave an example of this a few months ago. A feminist took the word "chatelaine", which is occasionally used in literature to describe a widow, and claimed that it derives from the word "chattel", meaning moveable property. She asserted that this was proof that women were treated in marriage as a man's property.

This word origin, though, is a fabrication: chatelaine is not derived from the word "chattel" but is simply the feminine form of a word meaning keeper of a castle or country house.

I've just recently read a further feminist attempt to prove male ownership of women through word origins.

At the feministing website, there was a discussion of a change in the marriage laws in California. The acceptance of gay marriage in that state means that marriage licenses must now be gender neutral. Therefore, instead of signing yourself as the bride or the groom, you have to sign as Partner A or Partner B. One heterosexual couple simply crossed out the new terms and wrote in bride and groom, but this was disallowed.

One of the feminist commenters argued that the heterosexual couple should have rejected the terms bride and groom as a matter of principle:

They do know those terms mean owner/master & property right? I'm always shocked anyone wants to be called a wife or bride

(The meaning of bride is cook, the meaning of wife is property; the meaning of groom is householder, the meaning of husband is master.)

So according to this feminist, the traditional terms relate to men being the owners of women. Therefore, it is better for women to accept being a degendered Partner A or B, rather than a bride or a wife.

My advice here: always check such feminist claims. As it happens, this is yet another fabrication.

English is a Germanic language, and in these languages the term for husband and wife is usually simply the same word as man and woman. So a woman introducing her husband is effectively saying "this is my man" and vice versa.

In Old English, a man was a "wer" (as in "werwolf" = "manwolf") and a woman a "wife" (as in "midwife" or "fishwife"). The original terms for husband and wife were therefore "wer" and "wife". There is no connection here to ownership or property.

We took the word for husband from the Scandinavians. The original meaning was something like "householder". The word groom comes from on older word "brydguma" (a suitor) meaning literally a bride's man. The word bride has always in the Germanic languages meant bride.

So there is no reason for women to think that the traditional terms denote ownership of women by men. There are reasons, though, to question the modern terms.

Do women grow up dreaming of becoming Partner B and living happily with a Partner A? The terms sound ridiculous because marriage can't be disconnected from the heterosexual instincts and drives of men and women. A newly married man doesn't look on his bride as a gender neutral entity, but very much as a woman and wife.

I hope that we don't follow the Californian example here in Australia. Even if you marry in a church in Australia, you sign the register just after making your vows.

Would we be forced to sign as Partner A and Partner B at the culmination of the marriage service in church? If so, we would be forced to tell a lie, at this most significant moment, about who we are and what we have just done. Is this really the time, when you have just made the most serious vows before family and friends, to have your sense of integrity challenged by the state?

It's worth the effort, I think, to defend the traditional terms rather than be forced to sign on to the modern ones.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Why go crazy over Palin?

The response to Sarah Palin is sometimes startling. There are some on the left who seem to literally hate her for being white and Christian. She is also routinely condemned by left-wing feminists as a misogynistic, anti-feminist patriarchal stooge. She seems also to bring out the elitist strain in the modern left: we are supposed to feel superior by looking down on her as an ordinary, unthinking, unsophisticated white person.

Cintra Wilson is guilty of all these things. She wrote a column on Sarah Palin which included the following:

Like many people I thought, "Damn, a hyperconservative ... Christian Stepford wife" ... Sarah Palin is a bit comical, like one of those cutthroat Texas cheerleader stage moms ... The throat she's so hot to cut is that of all American women ... the thought of such an opportunistic anti-female in the White House ... is akin to ideological brain rape ... I feel it is really time for women to be angry ... Not just with old white Christian patriarchs and their hopelessly calcified, religiously condoned misogyny, but also with the self-abnegating, submissive female Uncle Tommies ...

We must regard Sarah Palin as ... an enabling wife of organized crime, who sees, hears and speaks no evil of the boys in her old-boys network ... The Republicans are in effect saying ... You don't like thinking. Here's an It Girl vice president who is easy on the eyes, you stodgy old white baby boomer ... Sarah Palin and her virtual burqa have me and my friends retching into our handbags. She's such a power-mad, backwater beauty-pageant casualty ...

And on and on it goes. Cintra Wilson manages to fit in negative references to whites; attacks on Palin as a woman-hating stooge; elitist sneers at Palin's "backwater" lifestyle; and undisguised hostility toward Christianity.

Alan Howe writes an opinion page for the Melbourne Herald Sun. He was less vitriolic than Cintra Wilson in his comments on Palin, but he followed the same themes:

we should all be very afraid ... Palin would bring to the White House not just the usual baggage of the deeply conservative American rural constituency, but a fearsome religious commitment ... Palin favours the language of ... inarticulate gum-chewing teenagers ...

A picture beneath Howe's column of Sarah Palin sitting on a bearskin rug was captioned:

Unlike the sometimes deadly evangelical white Homo Sapiens, the endangered grizzly is native to Alaska.

Finally, there's our own Catherine Deveny, regular columnist for the Melbourne Age. This is her considered view of Sarah Palin:

She's the closest thing Republican stragegists could find to a man with a vagina ... New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd likened the Sarah Palin story to the chick flick Miss Congeniality. I think of it more as an in-flight movie. Like Dumb and Dumber ...

The running mates look like an old rich bloke with erectile dysfunction and his white trash trophy wife ... the comedy writer in me really, really hopes Palin gets in ... God-fearing, anti-abortion, book-banning, homophobic, white trash moron. I'd love to see the White House lawn covered in cars up on blocks.

... like it or not, she'll be used as an example of a female politician. Regardless of the fact she should be filed under dangerous white trash fuelled by fear, propelled by power and supported by halfwits ...

Amazingly, having attacked Palin for her race and her class, Deveny goes on to write:

We're at the mercy of the morons. People who vote for race, gender, class ...

She then goes for an extra dose of hypocrisy by writing:

Sarah Palin personifies the cockiness of ignorance. Bertrand Russell said: "Fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts".

Are Catherine Deveny's columns unedited? She writes a ranting, vitriolic attack on Sarah Palin and finishes by claiming that she, unlike Palin, is wisely full of doubts.

The message we get from these kind of columns on Palin is that there are leftists who hate whites and Christians, who are elitist, and who view Sarah Palin as an anti-feminist conservative.

Now, if you are white or Christian or anti-feminist or conservative or if you live an ordinary suburban or rural lifestyle, you might therefore conclude that Sarah Palin is your dream candidate.

I don't think anyone should rush to this conclusion. It's not exactly clear yet where Palin stands on important issues. However, there are reasons to believe that she is not, in her politics, what the left believes her to be.

For instance, it's unlikely that Palin is anti-feminist. She belongs to a group called Feminists for Life; she has written positivley about Title IX legislation, a feminist affirmative action law; and she has spoken of her candidacy as "shattering the glass ceiling" for women.

Camille Paglia, a leading academic feminist in the US, is excited by Sarah Palin's brand of feminism. Having watched a speech by Palin, Paglia tells us that:

I felt that Palin represented an explosion of a brand new style of muscular American feminism. At her startling debut on that day, she was combining male and female qualities in ways that I have never seen before. And she was somehow able to seem simultaneously reassuringly traditional and gung-ho futurist.

In terms of redefining the persona for female authority and leadership, Palin has made the biggest step forward in feminism since Madonna channeled the dominatrix persona of high-glam Marlene Dietrich and rammed pro-sex, pro-beauty feminism down the throats of the prissy, victim-mongering, philistine feminist establishment.

Palin might not follow all the usual patterns of an established left-wing feminism, but this doesn't necessarily make her a traditionalist.

It would be a mistake to support Sarah Palin on the basis of left-wing denunciations of her as a conservative. We'll have to see how she performs as a politician, what political positions she takes and what larger political effect her candidacy has - and on this basis decide how well she represents a genuine conservatism.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

A morality which is neutral or harmful?

We've had a debate here in Victoria on a parliamentary bill to decriminalise abortion. MPs are allowed a conscience vote on this issue, a fact which concerns ethicist Dr Leslie Cannold.

She ran an argument that the primary aim of society is to promote autonomy and that it is therefore the duty of politicians and doctors, regardless of their own conscience, to allow individuals to choose for themselves whether to have an abortion.

Dr Cannold is a follower of liberal autonomy theory. She writes:

An autonomous person is one who is free to direct her life according to her own values. It would be hard to overestimate the role autonomy ... plays in the value systems of contemporary Australian society ...

The idea appears to be as follows: a society is made up of individuals each with his own values; the freedom to autonomously follow our own values is paramount; therefore, what matters is that the state remains neutral or unbiased on moral issues, so that this freedom is not compromised.

What's wrong with such an approach to morality? First, it's not true in practice that the liberal state remains neutral on moral issues.

In all Western countries, liberal autonomy itself has become the value coercively imposed on society. If a traditional practice is thought to clash with autonomy, it is acted against in various ways. In Scandinavia, for instance, the state has acted deliberately to deconstruct the traditional family and traditional sex roles - regardless of whether they are held as values by individuals. Nor are any Western states neutral when it comes to traditional Western identities; we are supposed to sign on to multiculturalism, regardless of our individual values.

Even when it comes to issues of "personal" morality, the effect of autonomy theory isn't neutral. If you believe that the highest good is a freedom to choose in any direction, then acting against moral restrictions becomes "empowering". A moral culture in a liberal society will therefore tend to be transgressive rather than neutral.

Similarly, the moral culture is likely to be permissive. Individuals in a liberal society will begin to believe that if they freely choose a certain behaviour, it becomes moral.

And so, for instance, you find the morality of burlesque dancing discussed in a daily paper as follows:

DeLuxe said burlesque ... represented a rebellion against the restrictive morality of the time ... Modern burlesque performers are clearly in charge of their own destiny ... "The woman doing it is completely in control of her own sexuality. She decides." (Kansas City Star, July 2008)

A rebellion against morals becomes heroic; and as long as I decide, and am in control, then I am acting morally. These are the kinds of ideas that are fostered by a morality based on autonomy theory. They are not neutral in their effect on moral values.

There is another way that autonomy theory fails to be neutral in its effects. Morality is thought of not in terms of what is good, or what is right or wrong, but in terms of "values". This word suggests that we are following something subjective, something of value to us, rather than something which is objectively good. It also suggests an equality in the moral beliefs held by individuals: what one person values is as important to them as what another person values.

This has to have a certain effect on the moral culture of a society. If we only talk about equally valid, subjective values, then moral belief itself loses status and there isn't likely to be the same level of moral restraint or self-discipline in society. Nor will a community be as likely to hold to, and identify with, a moral ideal.

So autonomy theory doesn't in practice create a neutral arena for individuals to pursue their own values. Nor would most people really want such a neutral arena to exist. Would we really want the state to remain neutral and allow individuals to pursue their own values, if these values included polygamy? Group marriage? Public nudity? The sale of heroin?

The reality is that every society functions with a view of what is moral and what isn't and liberal society is no different. A liberal society does not simply allow individuals to follow their own values. Far from being neutral, a liberal society tends to be more intrusive than traditional societies in enforcing a moral view; liberal societies have, for instance, gone further than most others in setting up laws punishing "speech" crimes or "thought" crimes.

The real question then is not whether a society should take a view of what is moral or what isn't, as all societies inevitably do this. The real question is what this moral view should be and how it should be decided.

I don't believe the moral view should be the liberal one. Autonomy is important, but it doesn't work well if we take it to be the highest good in society. As explained above, its effect on the moral culture of society is overly transgressive and permissive; it also delegitimises too many important things as immoral, including all those aspects of life which are "predetermined" rather than "self-determined", including sex distinctions, ethnicity and traditional family life.

The alternative? Each generation inherits a view of the good, which is then tested against experience and against our innate sense of what is right or wrong. At times, certain views of morality will be contested in society, others will remain uncontroversial. There is no certain way (i.e. no formulaic way) of getting to a right answer; there is no "principle" acting like a scientific principle to explain how a society is to determine moral issues.

But still a society will arrive at a moral ideal. Hopefully, this moral ideal will work to support 'the better angels of our nature' when we make moral decisions. Hopefully too it will wisely guide younger people, until they have enough life experience to judge the real harm of certain behaviours.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

What do European feminists want banned?

A report by a women's rights committee of the European Union has called for laws against ads which reinforce gender stereotypes. It would be illegal to show an image of a woman in the role of a mother and housewife or a man working as a builder.

Why? Eva-Britt Svensson, a Swedish member of the committee, explained as follows:

Gender stereotyping in advertising straitjackets women, men, girls and boys by restricting individuals to predetermined and artificial roles ...

This is a very clear-cut expression of liberal autonomy theory. According to this theory, our status as humans depends on our ability to be self-determining individuals. Therefore, whatever is significant about our own self which is not self-determined, but rather "predetermined", is a held to be an impediment from which we must be liberated.

Our sex is something we don't get to determine for ourselves; therefore, Eva-Britt Svensson follows the theory logically in speaking of gender as a limiting impediment placed on the individual (a "straitjacket" responsible for "restricting individuals").

If your aim is to make the fact of being male or female not matter, then you will of course deny that there is any natural basis to gender difference. So again Eva-Britt is following the theory logically when she calls gender roles "artificial".

How might we criticise Eva-Britt and her autonomy theory? Some of the more obvious objections are that:

a) Science has shown conclusively that gender difference is not entirely socialised, but is also biologically hardwired. Therefore, it's not true that sex distinctions in society are artificial.

b) We don't experience the fact of being distinctly male and female as negatively as Eva-Britt claims. Few of us would want to be "liberated" from our masculinity or femininity. Our heterosexuality generally leads us to appreciate at least some aspects of gender difference.

c) We don't develop and fulfil ourselves as neutered individuals, but as men and women. Therefore, even if our sex is predetermined, it is nonetheless highly significant to a full expression of who we are. It would be a loss of our individual potential to reject our masculine or feminine natures.

If you look at a photo of Britt-Eva Svensson, a woman who rejects femininity on principle, you don't get a sense that she has been liberated toward a larger, happier sense of self; she looks defiant, but tightly-wound and shrunk into herself. If you had to choose whether she looks full-natured or denatured, which would you say?

d) If the aim of the theory is to maximise autonomy, then a contradiction emerges. If you attempt to maximise autonomy by allowing people to freely choose in any direction, then people will choose other goods besides autonomy, for instance, by following a 'predetermined' masculinity and femininity. So you don't get the autonomous outcome you were seeking by following this option.

However, if you attempt to maximise autonomy by coercively repressing non-autonomous choices, as Eva-Britt is seeking to do, then you limit autonomy by removing the ability of individuals to choose in any direction. So again you don't arrive at the condition of autonomy called for by the theory.

Either way, the theory doesn't work.

e) There is much in life which is predetermined. We generally don't self-determine our own sex, our ethnicity, the culture we inherit, the religion we are raised in, our sexuality, the traditional form of the family, social mores and patterns of life. Are we really to reject all these significant aspects of existence simply because they are inherited rather than self-created?

Autonomy theory strips the individual of much that is of value. It is onerous in its implications. We are more likely to experience a true sense of liberation by rejecting its demands and embracing what is best in our given natures as men and women.

Monday, September 08, 2008

A step toward reform in the UK?

There has been a surge in immigration into the UK over the past decade, with numbers now running at over 300,000 a year. This is 25 times higher than at any other period in British history over the past 1000 years.

A coalition of public figures has been formed to support some modest measures to pull back the numbers. The leaders of this coalition include former Labour Minister Frank Field, Tory MP Nicholas Soames and former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey.

The proposed reforms are low-key: they would not limit refugee numbers, they would not limit immigration via marriage, they would not limit immigration from within the European Union and they would not limit temporary economic migration. The only change is that there would be a cap placed on the number of permanent economic migrants.

Even these modest proposals, though, drew a predictable response from some. Jill Rutter, a spokeswoman for a "progressive" think tank, said:

We need to make migration work for Britain, rather than play to xenophobic sentiments.

So even the most minor of limits placed on open borders still strikes Jill Rutter as "xenophobic". Clearly the word has lost all meaning.

The irony is that the reform proposals are being supported not only by a range of public figures from both the left and right, but also from ethnic minorities. A leading Muslim politician, Lord Ahmed, supports the reforms as do 75% of those from ethnic minority groups in the UK.

In fact, support for a reduction in immigration is overwhelming at the moment. 81% of Labour voters and 89% of Tory voters support a substantial reduction in immigrant numbers.

As for "making migration work for Britain", there's an interesting article here on the economic results of the immigration surge over the past decade. It turns out that shortages in the labour market have increased over that time, due to extra demand being generated; therefore, rather than filling labour shortages in the economy, the wave of migration has worsened the problem.

At the same time, because employers have had access to overseas workers there has been less need to train locals; there are now 500,000 unemployed 18 to 24-year-olds.

As I mentioned, the reforms don't go very far and they have already been rejected by the Labour Party; nonetheless, it's encouraging to see a range of public figures, including trade union leaders, economists and academics, step forward to present an alternative to the current open borders policy.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

A history of crossed lines

I had dinner with friends last week and caught up with an academic couple I've known for years. They are both solidly left-liberal in their politics, though traditional in their family life.

The conversation turned to the issue of the European Union. The left-liberal couple didn't express opposition to the EU, but they did take the view that some parts of Europe had a closer affinity than others and were therefore more suited to be joined together.

I wanted to see if I could push their Euroscepticism a bit further, so I pointed out that there was support for extending the borders of the European Union much further, to Turkey and even to northern African countries. The lack of natural affinity would then be even more marked.

Their response? They laughed dismissively and claimed that it would never happen. The same thing happened when I followed up by mentioning plans to form a Pacific Union, modelled on the EU, in our own region. They knew far less of these plans than I did and wouldn't entertain the idea that such a plan would ever go ahead.

It was as if they had drawn a line in the sand within which liberalism would be contained.

The problem is that this line in the sand is imaginary. There is nothing within liberal politics to keep it within certain limits. Over time, liberalism will be taken to its logical end point.

The left-liberal couple somehow wanted to reconcile contradictory things. They wanted to continue to comfortably identify with left-liberalism, perhaps as this serves a particular function for them, as a marker of both class status and membership of a progressive moral elite. They also wanted, though, to set limits on what would be lost to a liberal politics - they didn't want natural, traditional, historic boundaries to be entirely overthrown.

This just won't work. What is really needed are people who are so committed to a realistic view of where things are headed, that they don't dodge a recognition of what is going to be lost. Such people will at least avoid contradictions; they will either stick with liberalism knowing what the long-term costs will be, or they will choose to give up the comforts of a liberal identity in order to help conserve significant aspects of their own tradition.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

The othered woman

What does Twisty the American feminist think of femininity? She explains:

My position is that the construct recognized as “femininity” represents the dominant social order’s successful attempt to otherize an entire class of people for the purpose of oppressing them. Because feminization is among the first steps taken to socialize children, and because it is so readily accepted, deeply internalized, and staunchly defended, it is the primary foundation of patriarchy.

... many Western women have privilege enough to repudiate femininity ... My crazy idea is that they should if they can, because women cannot be liberated from men’s oppression until we are de-otherized.

What's your first reaction on reading this? Mine is surprise, once again, at what patriarchy theory assumes. Twisty is not saying that what women represent is great and equal to what men represent. Instead, she is associating the male with what is human; to be female is to be "othered" and deprived of a fully human status. The male, as Twisty sees it, is the human norm.

It's not exactly an encouraging theory for women to adopt. Imagine being a woman and believing that the male was the human norm and that to be liberated you had to cast off your own distinctly female qualities.

Here is a sample of how Twisty's followers responded to her post:

other orange: ... society will never see women’s rights as human rights until they see women as human ... We barely exist as people. I happen to agree that shedding femininity wherever we safely can is a first step.

Virginia: This debate has helped me understand the difference between feminity the behaviour and feminity the uniform, and that just as wearing combat pants doesn’t make me a soldier wearing a skirt doesn’t make me feminine if I’m still acting like my bad-ass self.

One of the most incredible insights into all of this I had was when at age 19 I decided to have blonde hair for 4 months and shamefully it brought out the worst of my feminine behaviour.

Angry Jules: Identifying subtle feminine behaviors and casting off femininity is much, much easier when women form feminist communities.

Another voice: I’m working on not smiling at men and looking them in the eye when they start the whole I can stare at you and you just have to “drop your eyes deferentially” act. Looking right at them with an impassive face and just a touch of how dare you in the eyes actually makes some of them look away. Of course, it may shove some women back into the likely to get killed category in other places/situations.

chingona: I have a lot of respect for women who publicly repudiate feminity because they are confronting patriarchy head-on

slythwolf: Femininity is something we are herded into, not the way a dog herds sheep, but the way a group of predators herd their prey.

Cassie: I am working more and more on the taking up my own space part, although I find it is difficult: I am a small person. I make up for my size by scowling a lot when necessary, also putting my stuff around me on buses or subways (bags, books, keys, etc).

It seems that these women not only aim to reject feminine qualities for masculine ones, they have a cartoonish view of what is masculine. They seem to be aiming at public aggression, as if this is the male key to becoming fully human.

How did Twisty arrive at such ideas? In some ways, she has taken liberal autonomy theory to a radical, but logical, conclusion. Autonomy theory begins with the idea that our human status is contingent: that we become human to the extent that we are self-determining creatures. However, this aim requires the ability to enact our own will. Therefore, if a class of individuals have more money, power and status there is a crisis in human equality to be overcome.

If men have more money, power and status? Autonomy theorists will not accept that this is an expression of a naturally occurring masculinity, in which men seek to fulfil a protector/provider role in society. This role, and a woman's motherhood role, will be treated as socially constructed and therefore artificial and open to change.

But why would the social construct exist? This is where Twisty and other patriarchy theorists come in. They argue that men as a class have created a patriarchy in order to maintain an unearned privilege over oppressed women. All the institutions of society were created for oppressive purposes: marriage, family, romantic love, femininity - even the very category of "women" as a distinct group in society.

So Twisty is at the more radical end of the feminist spectrum. She is, nonetheless, cheerfully accepted by more mainstream feminists, for the simple reason that she is following the same path of thought but simply taking it further and laying it out in a more uncompromising way.

A liberal modern who accepts autonomy theory has the same political starting point as Twisty the radical patriarchy theorist.

Traditionalists don't follow liberal autonomy theory, so it's more difficult for us to "get" patriarchy theory, but also easier for us to freely criticise it.

One of the easier criticisms to make is that the sex differences between men and women are not just social constructs but are also hardwired into human biology. This is not just the traditionalist view, but also increasingly the scientific consensus.

So femininity can't be explained just as the creation of the evil patriarchy. It is, at least to a considerable degree, a natural expression of womanhood.

There is a considerable literature on this theme, including an article I read recently by psychologist Anita Sethi on the differences in behaviour between baby girls and boys. Anita Sethi is one of those mothers who initially intended to raise their children gender neutrally but who soon recognised a lost cause:

As a good postfeminist-era mom, I certainly didn't push my son toward trucks and my daughter toward tutus.

If anything, I went out of my way to avoid giving them gender-stereotyped toys, offering glittery finger paint to my son and trains to my daughter. But it didn't matter: My son turned his doll's crib into a race car and my daughter was obsessed with shoes.

Even though I'm a psychologist who specializes in early education, it took having kids to make me realize that sex differences aren't just the stuff of Brady Bunch reruns.

In fact, one study found that when 18-month-old boys and girls were shown pictures of a doll and a vehicle, for example, most of the girls opted for the doll, while the majority of the boys chose the vehicle. And while 18 months is old enough to have been influenced by stereotyped gifts, research suggests that many of the differences we see are evident from birth, and may even be hardwired. And that's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to gender research.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Goldsmith's Traveller

I was intrigued to read at Vanishing American's site an excerpt from a poem by Oliver Goldsmith.

The poem is The Traveller, written in 1764. It begins with a traveller observing that nations tend to hold to a single good, rather than keeping a range of goods in balance. The emphasis on one good alone inevitably produces negative outcomes:

Hence every state, to one loved blessing prone,
Conforms and models life to that alone.
Each to the favorite happiness attends,
And spurns the plan that aims at other ends;
'Till carried to excess in each domain,
This favorite good begets peculiar pain.

Goldsmith then describes the particular good sought by the Italians, the Swiss, the French and the Dutch, and the "peculiar pain" brought about by each.

The main interest of the poem, though, is Goldsmith's treatment of his own homeland. He believes that the British have adopted freedom as the key good, which has had some positive effects on national character:

With daring aims irregularly great,
Pride in their port, defiance in their eye,
I see the lords of human kind pass by;
Intent on high designs, a thoughtful band,
By forms unfashion'd, fresh from Nature's hand;
Fierce in their native hardiness of soul,
True to imagin'd right, above control,--
While e'en the peasant boasts these rights to scan,
And learns to venerate himself as man.

However, even in Goldsmith's day, a danger was looming:

But foster'd e'en by Freedom, ills annoy:
That independence Britons prize too high,
Keeps man from man, and breaks the social tie;
The self-dependent lordlings stand alone,
All claims that bind and sweeten life unknown;
Here, by the bonds of nature feebly held,
Minds combat minds, repelling and repell'd;

Goldsmith sounds like a traditionalist here, observing that it is wrong to take "freedom" as the sole organising principle of society, and that when individual autonomy is all ("The self-dependent lordlings stand alone") natural social ties are likely to suffer.

If natural social ties fall away, then you get a society based on money and the rule of law:

Nor this the worst. As Nature's ties decay,
As duty, love, and honor fail to sway,
Fictitious bonds, the bonds of wealth and law,
Still gather strength, and force unwilling awe.

Goldsmith worries that older virtues such as patriotism, military prowess, and a love of learning and culture will give way to a levelled, materialistic society:

Till time may come, when, stripped of all her charms,
The land of scholars, and the nurse of arms,
Where noble stems transmit the patriot flame,
Where kings have toil'd, and poets wrote for fame,
One sink of level avarice shall lie,
And scholars, soldiers, kings, unhonor'd die.

Over time, radical individualism hasn't even kept its positive side. Who would describe modern Britons (or any other Westerners) as "fierce in their native hardiness of soul"?

It seems that a society has to get the balance right: individualism can't be so excessive that natural social ties are undone - or else any benefits of this individualism are lost.