Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Manne's conservative moment?

Most Australians would know Professor Robert Manne as a left-wing academic and political commentator. He wasn't always associated, though, with the left. Back in the 1980s, he was thought of on campus as a right-wing anti-communist.

As late as 1998, he was still not easily categorised as a leftist. I was looking through some old files and I found a newspaper column he wrote in that year. Given some of his more recent, politically correct forays into politics, I was surprised by its contents.

His column is titled "Why Australia's cultural orthodoxy must be resisted" (The Age, 25/05/1998). The orthodoxy he wanted resisted was the liberal one:

Since the 1960s all Western societies have been caught up in one of history's most profound revolutions - the progressive liberation of the individual from those age-old social obligations to family and community, which once put severe limits on individual freedom and autonomy.

No one has captured the essence of this cultural revolution more deftly, than the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawn in his Age Of Extremes. This revolution, he writes, is "best understood as the triumph of the individual over society or, rather, the breaking of the threads which in the past have woven human beings into social textures ... the world was now passively assumed to consist of several billion human beings defined by their pursuit of individual desire.

Both Arndt and Ackland belong to the generation that fought for, observed the triumph of and experienced the benefits of the '60s cultural revolution of modernity. Concerning this revolution, this generation - my generation - is now beginning to divide.

One part still looks on the progressive emancipation of the individual from the ties of family and community obligation, and from all restraints on the gratification of individual desire, as an unambiguous good. Their instinct is to close their eyes to the mounting evidence of consequent social disintegration and harm. Yet another part is beginning to feel anxious about certain unexpected or unintended consequences of the revolution in which they once invested their energies and hopes.

Professor Manne sets out the basic "first tier" point of contention in politics very clearly. I don't think he's right, though, in claiming that the "profound revolution" began in the 1960s - it goes back much further in time. Nor did his generation end up dividing between those who supported this revolution as an unambiguous good and those who felt anxious about its unintended consequences. A few public intellectuals have put up some moderate opposition, but overall Manne's generation have continued to go along with things. Manne himself has fallen into line.

It's really up to a new generation to make a more decisive break with the liberal orthodoxy.

Left & right

Lawrence Auster in 2003:

The left denigrates an America that is itself largely a creation of the left, believing (or at least pretending to believe) that this leftist-created America is really "conservative." In reaction to the leftist denigration of America, conservatives celebrate this same America that is largely a creation of the left, also believing this leftist-created America to be "conservative."

If we get sucked into this political dynamic we are lost. We need to keep in mind that those on the left, no matter how much they like to think of themselves as dissenting outsiders, form an influential part of the political establishment.

Nor is it an adequate anti-leftism to react to this "dissent" by supporting every aspect of the modern West - as this means that we endorse much of what the left itself has brought about.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

What went missing?

Earlier this year I wrote a piece on the three great "conversations" in the Western tradition:

There have been three important "conversations" in European culture. One is the materialistic, naturalistic, scientific one. Another is the formal religious one, marked by a Christian concern for individual salvation through the avoidance of sin. The third conversation is also spiritual, but not tied formally to religion or theology or to salvation or sin; it is a conversation on what impressed the European mind as being of spiritual meaning or worth in life.

We are used now to the materialistic conversation dominating what we discuss and in what terms. The Christian conversation is still there, but cordoned off to a minority of the population. The third conversation is now almost entirely lost to us, even though it was once as prominent as the other two.

What is also striking is that there is so little crossover now between the conversations. It was once not unusual for an individual to hold all three realities together: a man could be a believing Christian, conversant in theology; he could at the same time recognise the reality of the material world, and be educated in the scientific processes describing this world; and still again take part in a conversation about the role of character or moral virtue in the spiritual life of man.

And here's the thing. When I read books about the radicals of the early twentieth century, I recognise immediately what I dislike about their politics. At the same time, though, it's hard not to notice that even the radicals of the time were usually more embedded in all three of the European conversations than an ordinary, conventional man of today. In this sense, they were still more cultured, in spite of their political radicalism.

I was interested to learn, in researching my recent posts on Simone de Beauvoir, that she too seems to fall into this category of relatively cultured mid-twentieth century Western radicals.

No doubt she was mostly committed to a secular materialism. Consider, though, her views on love between men and women:

Love has been assigned to woman as her supreme vocation, and when she directs it towards a man, she is seeking God in him ... Human love and love of the divine commingle ... because human love is a reaching out towards a transcendent, an absolute.

This is taken from her book The Second Sex. I only have a partial quote and so I'm not sure of the exact context of what she is saying. Still, she seems at least to be "conversant" in an aspect of the human experience not usually dealt with so openly today.

A commenter at this site, Franklin, did recently write something similar to de Beauvoir. In a discussion on relationships he stated that,

Man, both male and female, has an innate desire for transcendent love, for something out of this world in this world.

This places a considerable degree of meaning in human relationships. If a man experiences the transcendent in his love of women, then he will appreciate all the more (and be particularly attuned to) those women who bring out their finer, more womanly qualities.

There will be a deeper reason to appreciate what is admirably feminine in women and to feel alienated by moves toward an androgynous, grungy culture in which gender difference is repressed.

De Beauvoir's quote reminds us, too, of one reason why many women are discontent with metrosexuality in men. There are women who want to admire us for our stronger, more masculine qualities - the ones that we ourselves instinctively feel carry the most significance.

De Beauvoir may have been relatively cultured in her ability to participate in the different Western conversations; she did women a disservice, though, in making her final political stance so one-sided.

She chose in her politics to tell women that femininity was an oppressive construct created by men in a process of "othering". This entirely fails to reconcile what de Beauvoir had written of in the quote above: that individuals experience the finer qualities of the opposite sex to have a significant meaning and to inspire love.

De Beauvoir knew the conversations but she failed to hold them together.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

De Beauvoir's Disturbia

I've been looking at the politics of Simone de Beauvoir, the French feminist who wrote an influential book The Second Sex.

De Beauvoir was a follower of liberal autonomy theory. She believed that a person was not fully human if they were restricted in any way by "given conditions". The aim was to be independent, autonomous and self-determining and to follow a life path uninfluenced by convention, tradition or a biological destiny.

De Beauvoir believed that women had been denied this kind of autonomous "freedom" by men and that she was acting as a champion of women to bring them liberty and equality.

But before women rush out to become Beauvoirists, they might like to consider what autonomy really looked like in de Beauvoir's own life.

De Beauvoir took the ideal of autonomy seriously in her personal life. She quite logically rejected marriage and motherhood, as these were conventional life outcomes for women, rather than a uniquely chosen individual life path; as motherhood tied women too closely to a biological destiny; and as marriage and motherhood represented a formal commitment to others and therefore a restriction on what the individual woman might choose at any time.

So when de Beauvoir met the love of her life, the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, they agreed to an open relationship, one which did not compromise their individual autonomy, their "freedom".

There are some who still praise de Beauvoir for her open relationship with Sartre. Hazel Rowley, author of a study of the Beauvoir-Sartre story, has said that,

If we're celebrating Simone de Beauvoir, it's because she had the enormous courage to live in a free, open relationship in 1929 ...

Similarly, a biographer of de Beauvoir, Daniele Sallenave, continues to admire de Beauvoir for her commitment to personal autonomy:

... she showed that women are free to choose their destiny, as much as men, and don't have to obey what is supposedly dictated to them by nature and convention.

Another champion of the relationship was de Beauvoir herself. Later in life she described her relationship with Sartre as her "greatest achievement".

When Sartre first met de Beauvoir, he was upfront in explaining to her his sexual philosophy. He wanted to sleep with many women, with his ideal in relationships being "polygamy, transparency". Sartre was keen to "assert" his "freedom against women".

There was no double standard. Sartre was happy for de Beauvoir to act likewise. She accepted these conditions.

What happened? One biographer describes the results this way:

Yet in this lifelong relationship of supposed equals, he, it turned out, was far more equal than she was. It was he who engaged in countless affairs, to which she responded on only a few occasions with longer-lasting passions of her own ... it is also evident that De Beauvoir suffered deeply from jealousy. She wanted to keep the image of a model life intact. There were no children. They never shared a house and their sexual relations were more or less over by the end of the war ...

... What the letters express is not only De Beauvoir's overarching love for a man who is never sexually faithful to her, a man she addresses as her "dear little being" and whose work she loyally edits. They also underline the mundanity of De Beauvoir's early accommodation to his wishes ...

So the rejection of marriage in favour of autonomy did not bring de Beauvoir a greater degree of equality, but arguably the very opposite. She had to work much harder, and accept a lower position, in order to retain a place in his life.

And aspects of the relationship were more sordid than the above quote lets on. De Beauvoir began to act as a kind of procuress for Sartre, seducing her own school pupils and then handing them on to Sartre:

They hoped to devise new ways of living in a godless world, unrestricted by detested bourgeois institutions. But, in reality, Seymour-Jones demonstrates that their quest became a darker, more collusive joint enterprise through the 51 years of their partnership, with deeply unpleasant consequences ...

De Beauvoir became a glorified procuress, exploiting her profession as a teacher to seduce impressionable female pupils and then passing them on to Sartre ... One of them, Olga Kosakiewicz, was so unbalanced by the experience that she started to self-harm. In 1938, the 30-year-old de Beauvoir seduced her student Bianca Bienenfeld. A few months later, Sartre slept with the 16-year-old Bianca in a hotel room ...

In 1943 the parents of one of these girls brought charges against de Beauvoir for abducting a minor and she had her licence to teach anywhere in France revoked for the rest of her life.

(Isn't de Beauvoir here acting as an exploiter of young women rather than their saviour or liberator?)

After WWII, Sartre lost sexual interest in de Beauvoir, so her role was an unusual one of involving herself in Sartre's "family" of lovers:

From early on [de Beauvoir] organises the comings and goings of Sartre's "contingent" women; she encourages, consoles, manipulates, and continues to do so until the very end for that loose grouping of friends and exes they called their "family". With a few exceptions, she performs whatever Sartre at the Front asks of her, including finding money for him, or having an affair.

How did Sartre describe his relationship with de Beauvoir? He set out the consequence of having such an open, transparent relationship as follows:

"To have such freedom, we had to suppress or overcome any possessiveness, any tendency to be jealous," said Sartre. "In other words, passion. To be free, you cannot be passionate."

So here we have again a modernist rejection of the passions as being opposed to freedom. Little wonder that Sartre was often described as cold in his personality.

De Beauvoir seems to have found it harder to be dispassionate. She was a woman in love and stayed loyal to Sartre no matter how he treated her.

Her ability to love seems to have made it hard for her to think consistently in terms of autonomy. She preferred to see her relationship with Sartre as being ordained or fated rather than freely chosen:

It was as if everything had been preordained from the very beginning. My parents acted as if nothing in the universe could change the normal course of my life, which was to be a nice little bourgeois intellectual. Sartre’s grandfather, who raised him – you know his father died when he was still a baby – behaved the same way, absolutely convinced that Sartre would grow up to be a professor. And that’s the way it was.

... we were fundamentally in accord with our parents’ design for us. They wanted us to be intellectual, to read, to study, to teach, and we agreed and did so. Thus, when Sartre and I met not only did our backgrounds fuse, but also our solidity, our individual conviction that we were what we were made to be. In that framework we could not become rivals. Then, as the relationship between Sartre and me grew, I became convinced that I was irreplaceable in his life, and he in mine. In other words, we were totally secure in the knowledge that our relationship was also totally solid, again preordained, though, of course, we would have laughed at that word then.

So she accepts that her life was subject to fate, leading her to her great love. This doesn't gel with her political ideas - the commitment to autonomy - which so undermined her position as a woman in the relationship with Sartre.

The lesson is that freedom - defined in terms of personal autonomy - is inadequate as a sole, overriding good in society. Would you really wish to sacrifice love for autonomy? Passion? Children? Isn't it better, and more realistic, to define freedom in terms of our opportunity to enjoy and to live by a range of significant goods - rather than by an autonomous self-invention?

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A disappointed liberal

Not all liberals are pleased with what they have created. Clive Hamilton is a leading left-liberal thinker here in Australia. He has written a lengthy 50 page article titled The Disappointment of Liberalism.

In this article, Clive Hamilton describes very well what liberals set out to do. The basic idea of liberalism is that we should seek a particular kind of freedom, namely, a freedom to shape who we are and what we do according to our own individual will and reason.

The main impediments to this kind of freedom are the important parts of our personal and social identity which we don't choose, but are born into, such as our gender, race and class. If only, thought the liberals, we could abolish the "oppressive" influence of such things, we could create an autonomous, independent, self-defining individual, free to pursue his own happiness.

Here is Clive Hamilton himself telling this story of how liberalism has made people "free" to define themselves according to their own will and reason:

Now that the constraints of socially imposed roles have weakened, oppression based on gender, class and race is no longer tenable, and the daily struggle for survival has for most people disappeared, we have entered an era characterised by 'individualisation' where, for the first time, individuals have the opportunity to 'write their own biographies' rather than have the chapters foretold by the circumstances of their birth. For the first time in history, the ordinary individual in the West has the opportunity to make a true choice.

We are today "free" in this liberal sense in a way no-one has been before. As Clive Hamilton puts it,

... the shackles of minority oppression and social conservatism have been cast off. The traditional standards, expectations and stereotypes that were the target of the various movements dating from the 1960s - the sexual revolution, the counter-culture and the women's movement - ushered in an era of personal liberty that could barely have been imagined by the classical advocates of liberalism.


In theory, the success of liberalism should have brought a new wave of happiness and contentment to Westerners. Hamilton, though, observes that something has gone wrong with the theory and that liberalism hasn't delivered what it was supposed to.

He writes that although "the citizens of rich countries have never enjoyed greater political and personal freedoms" that people are no happier today than were their parents and grandparents in the 1950s and that,

the extraordinary proliferation of the diseases of affluence suggests that the psychological wellbeing of citizens of rich countries is in decline. These diseases include drug dependence, obesity, loneliness and a suite of psychological disorders ranging from depression, anxiety, compulsive behaviours and widespread but ill-defined anomie.

Perhaps the most telling evidence is the extraordinary prevalence of depression in rich countries ... Newspapers report that nearly one in four French people are taking tranquillisers, anti-depressants, antipsychotics or other mood-altering drugs.

For Hamilton the conclusion to be faced is that "These disappointments of money and freedom must be seen as a profound challenge to liberalism, and especially its more dogmatic child, libertarianism."

Right liberalism

What then does Hamilton suggest has gone wrong? To understand his answer it's useful to note the distinction between right-wing and left-wing liberals.

All liberals begin with a view of society as a collection of individual wills, with each individual trying to pursue his own desires. Once liberals adopt this view, they then have to solve a significant problem: how do you regulate a society made up of millions of competing wills?

Liberals have given two main answers to this question. Right-liberals believe that the free market can regulate competing wills to the overall benefit of society. Even if we selfishly pursue our own profit, this creates beneficial outcomes for the whole of society.

Left-liberals, though, don't like the idea of the "hidden hand" of the market regulating competing wills. They believe that individual wills can be regulated by rational human intervention, especially via the influence of the state.

In this contest between left and right forms of liberalism, the left seems destined to lose. Once the traditional, more conservative forms of culture and identity are broken down by liberalism, there is little to stop the growing influence of market forces in people's lives.

Left-liberals are revolted by this "commodification" of life, even though they have helped to bring it about. They really do not want the market to define or control human existence.

So, when Clive Hamilton answers the question of "What has gone wrong with liberalism?" he does so from the point of view of a left-liberal who dislikes the domination of the free market. His explanation for the failure of liberalism is that people are not making considered free choices, despite their new liberties, because they are being manipulated by capitalism to make spontaneous or impulsive choices which don't serve their real interests.

Market rules

Exactly how does Clive Hamilton express his objections to the market? He writes,

The very purpose of the marketing society is to make us the slaves of our passions ... What does it mean to have personal freedom if one's choices are formed and manipulated by powerful external forces...

In recent decades, the market itself has evolved into an instrument of coercion. Modern marketing actively sets out to deceive us; it prays on our insecurities and doubts to convince us that we will be persons of lesser worth in our own eyes and those of others unless we do as we are being urged..."

Is not the absence of inner freedom ... the dominant characteristic of modern consumer capitalism, a social system that cultivates behaviour driven by momentary impulse, temporary emotions and moral and intellectual weakness? ...

Do we enjoy political freedom when we are conditioned to believe that the only responsible vote is one that elects a party that promises to put the interests of the economy before everything else?

Clive Hamilton does not blame "conservatives" for this dominance of the market. He correctly sees that it is free market liberals who have triumphed in modern culture (he does not call them right-liberals, he uses the terms neoliberals and libertarians).

Some conclusions

Clive Hamilton's own solution to this market dominance is clear enough. He believes that people need to reach a state of "inner freedom" in which they make decisions not on short-term impulsiveness but through,

a more considered position based on reflections on our moral values and longer-term interests ... what may be called 'considered awareness'.

This argument has some advantages for a left-liberal. It suggests that the true liberal, the one who maximises individual autonomy, is the one who has "sufficient command of their own reason and moral strength" to resist the influence of market forces.

I'm not sure, though, that Hamilton's argument will become generally popular amongst left-liberals. Many such liberals won't like the idea that true freedom requires an inner self-discipline, which only the most morally strong can achieve. Even though this turns left liberals into a kind of elite, it means that the whole liberal project has limited applicability and that freedom will necessarily be held unequally.

And what of conservatives? How should we react to Hamilton's ideas?

There are some aspects of Hamilton's arguments which are likely to appeal to conservatives. Hamilton's criticism of the market means that he is opposed to the "crass materialism" of modern culture, as are conservatives. Similarly, Hamilton does not believe in the idea of happiness as a pursuit of hedonistic pleasures in a consumer society. He suggests that there are more meaningful forms of happiness that need to be better understood, and conservatives would wholeheartedly agree.

Hamilton also openly admits that the liberal project, in its current form, has some serious failings. For instance, the whole purpose of rejecting unchosen forms of identity, like gender, race and class, was to allow people to be self-defined, independent and autonomous. But Hamilton quotes studies which show that young Americans are increasingly tending to believe the very opposite: that rather than being self-authored their lives are being controlled by outside forces. In Hamilton's own words,

On the face of it, the rise of individualism and the falling away of the social constraints on people imposed by their class, gender, race and so on should have given rise to a much stronger internal locus of control in the populations of rich countries.

After all, we are told endlessly, not least by the advertisers and Third Way politicians, that the course of our lives is a matter of personal choice. The evidence, however, shows that the opposite is the case. Compared to the 1960s, young Americans today are substantially more likely to believe that outside forces control their lives ...

Even more remarkably, the same studies show that despite the dramatic decline in patriarchal attitudes and institutions and the enormous expansion of opportunities for women the increase in 'externality' is greater in young women than young men.

In other words, young people don't feel themselves to be more free and independent even after they have been "liberated" from the "oppressive" influences of class, race and gender.

For the left-liberal Clive Hamilton this is because the market has distorted the process of individual choice. For conservatives, though, there is a deeper explanation.

If people feel less free today it's because the liberal conception of freedom is wrong. True freedom means an ability to fulfil important aspects of our nature - even if such aspects of our nature are simply given to us or inherited, rather than being individually chosen.

We do not, for instance, choose our sex, but this does not mean that our gender identity is experienced as an oppressive constraint on our freedom to be self-defined. A man doesn't become free by destroying his own unchosen manhood.

Rather, we are free when we are free to be men, and when our culture supports our instinctive efforts to develop the stronger and better part of our masculinity.

The task for conservatives, therefore, must be to go beyond the terms of political debate set by liberals, both of the left and the right, so that the first principles of liberalism can finally come under critical examination.

(First published at Conservative Central, 03/01/2005)

Monday, December 22, 2008

What explains Simone de Beauvoir?

I'm reading Simone de Beauvoir's book, The Second Sex, published in 1949.

In my previous post, I briefly summarised de Beauvoir's politics. She held that men and women were distinct, but not for natural reasons. Women were different because they had been "othered".

De Beauvoir was a pioneer of this concept of the "Other". The idea is that for men to establish an identity, it was necessary for them to "other" women - to marginalise women by making them an object rather than a subject, inessential rather than essential, the negative rather than the positive, the exception rather than the norm and so on.

As I pointed out, the dangerous implication of this theory is that it means that no one can have a distinct identity, as to do so involves an act of oppression against some other group.

In particular, it will be thought wrong for any majority group to have an identity, as the majority will be seen as the "subject" group doing the "othering". It will be up to the majority to cease identifying as themselves, and to identify sympathetically instead with the minority "Other".

(Does this help to explain the attitude of writers like Germaine Greer, Michael Leunig and Robert Manne, who have sought throughout their lives to identify with a minority group (e.g. the Aborigines), and who are at pains to show their sympathy with the most alien aspects of the minority culture, even if this conflicts with the liberalism they expect from the majority?)

What, though, led de Beauvoir to explain the existence of a distinct womanhood in this way? Why develop this theory of the Other? Why not accept womanhood in more positive terms?

Here de Beauvoir is a lot less original. In fact, she is orthodox. It turns out that de Beauvoir was following a philosophy of existentialism, which itself appears to be another expression of liberal autonomy theory.

Liberal autonomy theory is the idea that to be fully human we must create our own self - we must be self-determined, rather than predetermined. According to the theory, we are less than human if we are not independent, autonomous creatures who write our own life scripts and are unrestricted in choosing who we are and what we do.

The theory might sound reasonable, but it has unreasonable consequences. It tends to make illegitimate whatever is significant in our life that we have inherited rather than chosen for ourselves. This includes our sex - the fact of being male or female - as this is something we are born into. Therefore, liberals often seek to make our sex not matter, even to the extent of treating sex differences as artificial, oppressive constructs.

It's not difficult to pick up references to liberal autonomy theory in de Beauvoir's book. You can see the assumption that we can be less than human if we are not autonomous in the following quotes:

It was only later, in the eighteenth century, that genuinely democratic men began to view the matter objectively. Diderot, among others, strove to show that woman is, like man, a human being ...

... along with the ethical urge of each individual to affirm his subjective existence, there is also the temptation to forgo liberty and become a thing. This is an inauspicious road, for he who takes it - passive, lost, ruined - becomes henceforth the creature of another's will, frustrated in his transcendence and deprived of every value.

What is the claim being made in the above quote? De Beauvoir seems to think that we create our own value by actively affirming ourselves as a free, autonomous subject. If we do so, we achieve a meaningful state of "transcendence" rather than a meaningless, valueless state of "immanence".

Again, there are high stakes being laid out here. If you accept the theory, then it will seem terribly unjust for anyone to be "othered" into a condition of being the "object" rather than the value creating subject. The whole meaning of life, as well as our status of being human, will be thought to depend on it.

De Beauvoir finishes the introduction to her book by setting out her philosophy at somewhat greater length. She writes:

There is no justification for present existence other than its expansion into an indefinitely open future. Every time transcendence falls back into immanence, stagnation, there is a degradation of existence into the ‘en-sois’ – the brutish life of subjection to given conditions – and of liberty into constraint and contingence.

This downfall represents a moral fault if the subject consents to it; if it is inflicted upon him, it spells frustration and oppression. In both cases it is an absolute evil. Every individual concerned to justify his existence feels that his existence involves an undefined need to transcend himself, to engage in freely chosen projects.

This is classic autonomy theory - you can hear the voice of John Stuart Mill in it. De Beauvoir believes that life is "brutish" (not human) if we are "subject to given conditions" (if we are not self-determined). We are not free if we are constrained or restricted in transcending who we are (which suggests that there is nothing meaningful in what we are given to be).

Note that this requires "an indefinitely open future", as any definite characteristic of society effectively becomes a constraint on what we might choose. (But a completely "open" society is also an empty one - what de Beauvoir is offering is free choice within a social void, which is a very negative kind of freedom - the one you might experience when you think you have nothing left to lose.)

De Beauvoir continues:

Now, what peculiarly signalises the situation of woman is that she – a free and autonomous being like all human creatures – nevertheless finds herself living in a world where men compel her to assume the status of the Other. They propose to stabilise her as object and to doom her to immanence since her transcendence is to be overshadowed and for ever transcended by another ego (conscience) which is essential and sovereign.

The drama of woman lies in this conflict between the fundamental aspirations of every subject (ego) – who always regards the self as the essential and the compulsions of a situation in which she is the inessential. How can a human being in woman’s situation attain fulfilment? What roads are open to her? Which are blocked? How can independence be recovered in a state of dependency? What circumstances limit woman’s liberty and how can they be overcome? These are the fundamental questions on which I would fain throw some light. This means that I am interested in the fortunes of the individual as defined not in terms of happiness but in terms of liberty.

Once more, de Beauvoir insists that the aim is to be free, autonomous and independent, a state of being denied to women because in identifying as "men", males have consigned women to the position of an inessential object - the Other. Men have effectively established their power at the expense of women, they have become essential and sovereign by making women inessential and abnormal.

Obviously, there is nothing wrong with a measure of autonomy and independence. De Beauvoir, though, has tied our status as humans, our life meaning, our freedom and the progress of society to an absolute measure of autonomy, one in which we are unconstrained and in which we create value by transcending our given self.

How is this likely to work out in practice? In my next post, I'll look at how de Beauvoir tried to implement her philosophy in her own life. By looking at what de Beauvoir called her greatest achievement, we get a more practical sense of how autonomy theory is likely to work out in real life.

Friday, December 19, 2008

What was feminism like in 1949?

I'm just now reading The Second Sex by French feminist Simone de Beauvoir. It was published in 1949 and is considered one of a handful of key texts of the feminist movement.

It was written at the end of the first-wave of feminism, which lasted for roughly 100 years from the mid 1800s to the mid 1900s.

De Beauvoir begins her work by wondering if the subject of feminism hadn't already been done to death by 1949:

For a long time I have hesitated to write a book on woman ... Enough ink has been spilled in quarrelling over feminism, and perhaps we should say no more about it.

But she does go on to say more. She tells us that the first-wave of feminism was so radical that it doubted the real existence of a separate womanhood:

Are there women, really? Most assuredly the theory of the eternal feminine still has its adherents who will whisper in your ear: 'Even in Russia women still are women' ... One wonders if women still exist, if they will always exist, whether or not it is desirable that they should ....

Why did people doubt the existence of women? It wasn't, argued de Beauvoir, because of the disappearance of physical distinctions between men and women. There were still individuals with uteruses. Rather, it was that womanhood was thought to require some measure of femininity:

... we are told that femininity is in danger; we are exhorted to be women ... It would appear, then, that every female human being is not necessarily a woman; to be so considered she must share in that mysterious and threatened reality known as femininity.

De Beauvoir rejects the idea that the feminine has a real, essential existence:

Is this attribute [femininity] secreted by the ovaries? Or is it a Platonic essence ... Although some women try zealously to incarnate this essence, it is hardly patentable.

... the biological and social sciences no longer admit the existence of unchangeably fixed entities that determine given characteristics, such as those ascribed to women ...

So it was already the case in 1949 that femininity was rejected as an artificial social construct.

Once the reality of femininity is denied, there is the option of declaring that the male role should define a single "human" category, applicable to everyone. This is the conclusion that some people had already reached in 1949:

If today femininity no longer exists, then it never existed. But does the word woman, then, have no specific content? This is stoutly affirmed by those who hold to the philosophy of the enlightenment, of rationalism, of nominalism; women, to them, are merely the human beings arbitrarily designated by the word woman.

Many American women particularly are prepared to think that there is no longer any place for woman as such; if a backward individual still takes herself for a woman, her friends advise her to be psychoanalysed and thus get rid of this obsession. In regard to a work, Modern Woman: The Lost Sex, which in other respects has its irritating features, Dorothy Parker has written: ‘My idea is that all of us, men as well as women, should be regarded as human beings.’

De Beauvoir could have left things here. She couldn't accept, though, that there were not two distinct categories of male and female:

In truth, to go for a walk with one's eyes open is enough to demonstrate that humanity is divided into two classes of individuals whose clothes, faces, bodies, smiles, gaits, interests, and occupations are manifestly different.

So if the existence of "woman" wasn't based on a real, feminine essence, how could de Beauvoir explain it? She turned to the idea of a power differential, in which "male" is considered both neutral and superior and "female" is thought of as the deviant "Other":

... man represents both the positive and the neutral ... whereas woman represents only the negative ... there is an absolute human type, the masculine ... Thus humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him, she is not regarded as an autonomous being ... she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute - she is the Other.

De Beauvoir goes on to develop the idea of the Other in strikingly modern terms:

... no group ever sets itself up as the One without at once setting up the Other over and against itself ... if, following Hegel, we find in consciousness itself a fundamental hostility towards every other consciousness, the subject can be posed only in being opposed - he sets himself up as the essential, as opposed to the other, the inessential, the object.

The way de Beauvoir describes it, there is something oppressive about having the category of the "other" - as this involves one category setting itself up as sovereign, privileged and essential in opposition to another category, which becomes inessential and a mere object.

This is a very radical move. It means that it is somehow advanced to break down any categories of "otherness". Instead of celebrating differences between men and women, or between nations, the focus is on overcoming these distinctions - especially from the side of those considered the dominant "subject" who are thought to be the agents of the othering process.

In other words, the very idea of my being an Australian becomes suspect as it is thought to involve an oppressive act of othering - and it rests more on myself as the "subject" of the othering process to overcome it - to prove that I don't make any such distinctions between myself and others.

What I hope is clear from all this is that de Beauvoir's argument leads her to a very difficult place. If the problem is "othering", then isn't heterosexuality itself suspect? (I'll see if de Beauvoir deals with this problem later in the book) Isn't any sense of a distinct communal tradition suspect?

A second conclusion is that the kinds of ideas common on the left today go back further in time than is commonly supposed. It was not a long march through the institutions that brought them into being some time in the 1960s.

Third, it's interesting to note the intellectual source of the leftist concept of the "Other". Apparently, it can be traced back to a dubious claim by Hegel that "we find in consciousness itself a fundamental hostility towards every other consciousness".

Finally, we should take note of an early step in de Beauvoir's chain of thought. She openly rejects the idea of essences, so that femininity can only appear to her to be an artificial social construct.

This is the part of the argument traditionalists have to go back to. If de Beauvoir is wrong, and natural differences between the sexes do exist, and if there are essentially feminine qualities that can be known to us, then womanhood does have a real and dignified existence - and one that can exist in a complementary rather than a hostile relationship to men.

What I'm suggesting is that traditionalists have a strong position here. We don't have to doubt the real existence of womanhood; nor explain it as a subservient category created by men. It exists as an essential quality in its own right.

A feminine woman can be admired for embodying an important life principle or quality.

There are other important aspects of de Beauvoir's thought to discuss, but I'll take these up in the next post.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The American image of Australian men

Last week I reported on moves here in Victoria to discriminate against white males:

DISCRIMINATION against dominant white males will soon be encouraged in a bid to boost the status of women, the disabled and cultural and religious minorities.

... Equal Opportunity Commission CEO Dr Helen Szoke said males had "been the big success story in business and goods and services".

"Clearly, they will have their position changed ..."

Herald Sun columnist Susie O'Brien made clear her hostility to white men in reporting the news:

THE powerful white man is set to join the powerful white rhino as the world's latest endangered species.

Let's say goodbye to what some have dubbed the "VOMITS" - the Very Old Men In Ties who are running this country.

The bluntness of the attack on white men was noticed at the American website View from the Right. A reader of the site, John Hagan, started a discussion there by noting that,

This is unlike any thing I have ever seen from a Western government, and the only recourse for whites in the state of Victoria should be one of active resistance.

Lawrence Auster, who runs the site, agreed that the language used by our authorities was novel and disturbing:

I can't recall ever hearing an official of a Western government use quite such ruthless, totalitarian-style language about whites

But will men here in Victoria actively resist the new laws? An Australian reader of View from the Right argued that Americans often hold an overly optimistic view of Australian men as being more traditionally masculine and more likely to fight back when attacked. Lawrence Auster agreed that this impression of Australian men did exist:

That's an insightful comment about the way Americans view Australians. I know it's true of my view of Australians. I'm sorry to hear I was wrong.

Australians have this vigorous, upbeat, confident quality which creates the impression that Alan is referring to. But, as with all good things under the conditions of modern liberalism, these virtues end up being subsumed under liberalism. Thus the fear of being called racist/sexist trumps being a manly, irreverent Crocodile Dundee type. People seem to be strong, but they're really weak.

My own impression is that Australian working-class men have resisted liberalism better than most. They have held to a traditional identity for much longer than other social classes; they broke with the Labor Party when Paul Keating began to openly promote a trendier, radical form of liberalism; and at times they have shown some fighting spirit of their own.

And middle-class men? The problem here, I think, is that the image Australian middle-class men have of their role in life is too confined. To be a good and successful man means succeeding in your career, having a family, having a nice house and perhaps contributing to a charity for poor people overseas.

Australian middle-class men have done reasonably well up to recent times in pursuing the role set for them - hence the anger of the equal opportunity apparatchiks that there are still numbers of white men succeeding in their careers.

But what is missing is any sense that these men have a larger, civilisational role in society. There is no expectation that middle-class men will act to uphold the best aspects of the tradition they were born into; or that they will act in the public sphere to defend institutions like the family; or that they will identify more widely with a national tradition of their own.

And so they don't.

Their failure to do so is going to make it much harder for them to succeed at even the limited role society has set for them. The apparatchiks are now setting up a more aggressive and intrusive set of restrictions on white male employment - and a reduced access to jobs will make family formation that much more difficult.

Feminism, too, has disrupted family formation, with marriage being increasingly delayed or opted out of.

We traditionalists have two tasks ahead of us. The one we are most involved with now is challenging the liberal political ideas that are currently dominant. What we also need to do is to promote a different ideal of what a good and successful man is. This is what the radical left did in breaking down the older Western civilisation: they openly promoted their idea of the New Man (and the New Woman).

We obviously don't need to reject the particular aims of career success, family and a nice house - we can continue to point out the unnecessary obstacles being put in the way of achieving these goals.

These aims, though, don't define masculine strength or a complete and admirable life for a man. It is the man who is strong enough to go further and contribute to the defence of his own civilisation and tradition who deserves our respect.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Four conceited stories

Here are the attitudes of four middle-class, English women to casual sex:

Jo Day: "It's a myth that women can't enjoy a brief encounter as much as a man ... I have slept with 30 men. The vast majority of those were one-night stands ..." Well-educated and intelligent ... she insists that her approach is reasoned and rational. That's as may be, but any talk of the long-term legacy in emotional or even physical terms is pushed to one side, or dismissed as irrelevant.

Jessica McConnell: "It's all about sexual confidence ... I think that women actually call the shots more than men now. Most of my friends are quite happy to approach a man and be upfront about sleeping with them. There's no hanging around waiting for them to call the next day. You can just have sex, and then move on ... We are perhaps the first generation of women to absolutely have our own financial independence, because we have good careers - and we work hard and like to have fun."

Jackie Robson: "Our icons were women who are sexually confident and free, such as Madonna, and I think Sex and the City had a big impact on my generation. For the first time it was OK to talk to your girlfriends openly about sex ... Women are just more honest about their sexuality now. If they want just sex without a relationship, why not? No one gets hurt as along as you are honest about what you want.

"Our parents were very quick to get married, but we don't have that pressure ... I may be 40 before I think about getting married and having kids. Women now have as much right as men to make sexual decisions ..."

Georgia B: "I think that being in long-term relationships with men often holds you back in life - so I am much happier at the moment to have short-term relationships or the odd one-night stand. At the moment, my career is more important to me than anything else. I don't want to get married and have children until I am in my mid-30s. Most of my friends are like me - quite headstrong - and we feel no one - especially men - can tell us what to do."

It's clear what these women want us to believe. They want us to believe that they are pioneers of female sexual liberation; that they suffer no loss from engaging in casual sex; that casual sex marks their freedom and independence; that they are proving themselves superior to men in their sexual confidence; and that marriage and motherhood should be deferred until some vague time in their mid to late 30s.

It's a conceit. They are not pioneers. The same attitude was adopted by "progressive" women from the early 1900s onward. I observed it personally amongst the university educated women of the mid 1980s to early 1990s.

Nor is it credible that these women suffer no emotional loss. It's more reasonable to expect that they will become jaded and hardened to some degree.

So why would our four well-educated women speak the way they do about casual sex? One reason is that they are following the political orthodoxy of their times - rather than truly asserting an independent mind of their own.

The political orthodoxy states that personal autonomy is the key good. Men are thought to be the privileged class in society who have taken autonomy for themselves at the expense of women. Therefore, a liberated woman is supposed to prove that she can assert autonomy and independence equal to, or even greater than, a man.

If a woman is taught to seek autonomy and independence, in competition with men, then it's not surprising that she would value career and casual relationships, rather than serious commitments like marriage and motherhood.

But there are all kinds of problems associated with doing so. It's not wise to deliberately defer marriage and motherhood to the very last moment. We've just had a generation of middle-class women who have struggled to successfully partner and have children late in life. You would think that younger women would learn the lesson - but it seems that the force of political orthodoxy is too strong for some.

Here's another major problem. Men respond well to feminine women who are on their side. The orthodoxy, though, encourages something like the opposite: women who believe that they ought to behave more like men, and that men have withheld the key goods in life from them, and that they are in competition with men to outperform men at their own game - a game you win by remaining separate, invulnerable, self-assertive and unfeeling.

It's not a recipe for happy relationships. I can still remember the atmosphere on campus in the early 1990s. The casual attitude to sex did not lead to some kind of sexual utopia. It was more like a big chill, with very few signs of romantic affection between the sexes.

There are other distortions. If numbers of women begin to defer marriage and motherhood to some distant point in the future, then it becomes more difficult for men to justify launching into a career and other adult responsibilities. When women begin to aim for merely casual relationships, then it makes sense for them to choose unsuitable men - which further discourages men from developing stronger, adult qualities.

It is likely, too, that men will respond to a female individualism with an individualism of their own. They might, for instance, choose a permanent bachelorhood, or learn to play the field.

So what happens when our four English women hit their 30s and begin to take marriage and motherhood more seriously? They are likely to find it much more difficult than they imagined to meet the right kind of guy, having discouraged such men all too successfully over the previous decade.

Finally, I don't mean to suggest that all Western women have been influenced to the same degree by a liberal orthodoxy. There are still large numbers of women who are oriented to love, and who do wish to marry and have children in their 20s. I do encourage men to remain active in looking for someone; to be a bit thick-skinned when they encounter modernist distortions; and to work in the longer-term to overturn the modernist politics which makes relationships and family formation much more difficult than is necessary.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Herald Sun columnist: time to get rid of white men

The hostile attitude to white men just keeps growing. Here is columnist Susie O'Brien in today's Herald Sun:

THE powerful white man is set to join the powerful white rhino as the world's latest endangered species.

Let's say goodbye to what some have dubbed the "VOMITS" - the Very Old Men In Ties who are running this country.

Thanks to planned changes by the Brumby Government to the state Equal Opportunity Act, it will soon be legal to discriminate against middle-aged white able-bodied men who hold the reins of power.

In fact, it will be actively encouraged.

It's about time too.

Susie O'Brien was commenting on the following changes to the equal opportunity laws here in Victoria:

DISCRIMINATION against dominant white males will soon be encouraged in a bid to boost the status of women, the disabled and cultural and religious minorities.

Such positive discrimination -- treating people differently in order to obtain equality for marginalised groups - is set to be legalised under planned changes to the Equal Opportunity Act foreshadowed last week by state Attorney-General Rob Hulls

... Equal Opportunity Commission CEO Dr Helen Szoke said males had "been the big success story in business and goods and services".

"Clearly, they will have their position changed ..."

... the proposed changes go much further, allowing the commission to inquire into discrimination, seize documents and search and enter premises after attempts to bring about change have failed.

Businesses and individuals would be required to change their ways even if a complaint had not been received.

Action could be taken where an unlawful act was "likely to occur", not just in cases where discrimination has taken place. [Another Orwellian moment in the modern West]

Some of the terminology used here gives the game away. Susie O'Brien sets herself against the "powerful" white man. Discrimination will be allowed against "dominant" white males.

We're dealing here with the belief that if inequality exists it's because white men as a group have unjustly secured an unearned privilege for themselves by discriminating against the oppressed other.

This belief has certain logical consequences. It means that white men are singled out as a kind of "cosmic enemy", standing uniquely in the way of social justice and equality.

It means that the success of white men isn't attributed to hard work, talent or self-sacrifice but to racism or sexism or other forms of discrimination.

It means that the preponderance of white men in professional positions in Western countries isn't attributed to white men being an historic majority in these countries, but to discrimination.

It means that the privilege of other groups in society is overlooked and not attacked by coercive, anti-discrimination laws.

It means that the declining status and position of white males in Western countries isn't recognised, let alone remedied.

Let me give a few examples of the above points. Is it really true that white males are the most privileged group in Western countries? If we take America as an example, then it is Asians who do best in terms of university admissions and income. For example:

Asian Americans, though only 4 percent of the nation's population, account for nearly 20 percent of all medical students.

As for earnings, Asian men are 14% better off than white American men:

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%.

It's the same story when membership of the professions is looked at:

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.

Nor is it only in the US that Asians are doing better. In the UK it is white boys who are least likely to go on to university:

White teenagers are less likely to go to university than school-leavers from other ethnic groups - even with the same A-level results, according to official figures.

... According to a Government report, just over one-in-20 white boys from poor homes goes on to university.

This compares to 66 per cent of Indian girls and 65 per cent of young women from Chinese families.

... Last year the proportion of young men studying for a degree fell to 35 per cent, compared to 47 per cent of women.

... Overall, 58 per cent of men from Indian backgrounds and 66 per cent of women go on to university. Among Chinese families, 60 per cent of boys and 65 per cent of women go to university.

Is the success of Asians generally attributed to unjust discrimination against others? No - it's held to be the result of hard work, talent and strong family support. For instance, Pyong Gap Min, the author of a book on Asian Americans, explains their success at school in terms of the strength of their family life:

high educational attainment amongst Asian American youth reflects in large part the heavy investment of Asian parents in their children.

Robinder Kaur, a Sikh woman living in Britain, has told whites that they cannot escape the guilt of their unearned privilege:

there is no 'safe space', no haven of guiltlessness to retreat to.

But what about successful Sikh women? If they have privilege, is it due to the suspect influence of discrimination? Should successful Sikh women be wracked with guilt?

No, the message is very different. The same Robinder Kaur quoted above edits a magazine for Sikh women which has this mission statement:

The magazine will encourage the Sikh woman to rediscover herself in the light of the glorious heritage and current meritorious achievements of the Sikh community.

And what might explain the meritorious achievements of the Sikh community? Discrimination? Unearned privilege? No, it's this:

Hard work, confidence, dedication and, of course, the blessings of the Almighty are a sure recipe for success.

How should we react to all this? The worst response would be to become demoralised - which is exactly what the modernist liberals behind the anti-white male laws would want.

We should instead inflict a bit of dismay on them.

One thing that every reader of this site has in their power is to make a clean break with liberal politics. If we stop pinning our hopes on liberal politicians, if we stop thinking that what is required is an ever greater dose of liberalism, and if we instead adopt a principled opposition to liberalism itself - then we begin to break free of the grip of those who are hostile to us.

Friday, December 05, 2008


Over at I blame the patriarchy, Twisty and her friends are discussing the future post-patriarchal society.

What they want is complete individual autonomy, with no-one having any power over anyone else.

It's not surprising that they should choose this goal. It's what liberal moderns generally claim to be aiming at - it's what they understand freedom to mean.

Twisty states ultimate goals more openly than most, and she is a lot more concerned to be politically correct than to be practical. So she writes as a kind of utopian intellectual - and is often "ahead" of her own readers.

It's fascinating to observe. Where exactly does liberal modernism lead to for someone as exacting as Twisty? Is her utopia somewhere that we'd really want to live?

It gets interesting straight away: Twisty begins by telling us that in her post-patriarchal society there would be no culture, including no art:

Lots of the ideas put forth by Shulamith Firestone in The Dialectic of Sex intrigue ... spinster aunts, but none intrigues ... them like this one: that in a post-patriarchal society, culture (inclusive, I am happy to say, of art) will become irrelevant and extrinsic and die a long-overdue death, whereupon humans, freed from the prison of domination, will transmogrify into giant intellects pretty much throbbing with contentment.

So we will be freed from art and culture. Is this a good thing? Only if you share some of the same intellectual starting points as Twisty.

Twisty is assuming that there is nothing of inherent worth that artists might communicate to others; nothing that is objectively beautiful or uplifting or profound. There is just one will (the artist) forcing itself on other wills (the audience), thereby infringing the rules of autonomy. For Twisty, art is a,

ponderous, self-absorbed, interpretation, or anti-interpretation (whatever!), of reality, with an audience manipulated by a creator

For Twisty, art only exists because the patriarchal system encourages power differentials. When patriarchy is brought down, art will lose its place and purpose in society.

How far out of kilter is Twisty in stating such a view? She's not as far distant from mainstream modernism as you might think. Modern art is based partly on the idea that anything can be art - even a big pile of junk. But if everything is art, then art loses significant meaning - it effectively ceases to exist as a distinct entity.

The idea seems to be: there is no art, only things. (Though there is still a preference for things that shock or confront or disconcert.)

But art and culture are not the only oppressions Twisty wants to liberate us from. She reminds us that in Firestone's "golden age" of self-determination there would be:

the “disappearance of cultural sex, age, and race distinction and of the psychology of power.”

So no age distinctions. This means abolishing childhood:

Certainly we couldn’t, at this point in human evolution, just start turning the kids loose in the world. It is unthinkable that they should not spend their idyllic first years in thrall to one or two adults who will educate (socialize) them according to the adults’ personal “values,” meaning, of course, the DNA necessary to replicate patriarchy. This indoctrination period is known as “raising” children, and differs from raising tomatoes chiefly in that tomatoes are given quite a bit more freedom to be themselves.

The problem with being a child, reasons Twisty, is that you are not completely autonomous - and therefore not free. Your parents have power over you and influence you and therefore you don't have complete freedom to be yourself. Childhood too must be considered a patriarchal construct designed to uphold power differentials.

So youngsters should just be left free to do as they like:

Say, for example, that because of changes engendered by the feminist revolution, kids wouldn’t need to be raised at all. They could flit about the countryside according to whim, just like anybody else. Why not?

They wouldn’t be kidnaped or raped or sold into sex slavery because, remember? dominance and submission is a thing of the past. They wouldn’t be run over by cars, because future-topia vehicles are accident-proof. They won’t skip school because there isn’t any school to skip. They won’t join roving gangs of thugs because crime doesn’t exist, either.

The kids would choose the people they wish to hang out with, which people may or may not include their biological parents. The parents would be relieved of their neurotic, self-absorbed obsession with their own offspring, the kids would be free from enslavement as low-status sub-beings in a nuclear family to which they belong only as an accident of birth.

Here, clearly, a dash of utopianism is required to make the theory work.

And how do Twisty's readers respond? Kate tries to rescue art as follows:

Everyone would be an artist and everyone a musician. If something needs fixing, everyone would try and if one excelled ... they wouldn’t carry it around on their chest like a badge to market and to demand “respect” because respect would not be something to be demanded, everyone would have it, everyone would get it because they exist and that’s all there is; existence, the beauty of existence in all things as they are.

No one would give a damn about what one person said over another about what was ‘good’ or ‘great’ because well, no one’s opinion or version of events is any more important than the others.

Of course with this kind of fluidity with reality, I’d imagine there wouldn’t be a lot of “progress” as we know it, but then who cares? What’s the rush? Does a dog or a cat rush to find the answer to why they can’t sit at a table and eat with fork and spoon? No, they accept what is and are happy ...

In fact, I’ll bet people wouldn’t really have names beyond whatever one determined they might want to be called, but certainly there wouldn’t be “Mary’s child” anymore as each child has an identity of their own that they decide. If said child decides to be called “stick of wood” and then changes later to be called “George” who cares? Its what they want and that’s that.

Everyone would have respect because they exist; nobody's version of events is more important than another's; we determine our own identity according to what we want.

Which is to say: there are no objective standards, just my own will to do what I want. This is where liberal modernism has brought Kate.

Rob in Madison seems to have signed onto the wrong program:

I don’t want to manipulate anything. I take pictures of trees, mostly, because I love them. Then, occasionally, I send prints of them to friends. Is this an exercise of power?

I grant that, steeped as everything is in patriarchy, art will serve as one of its conduits; but, jeez: can’t we still make things of beauty without exercising dominance/submission? I don’t even want to dominate myself. I just love my lens.

Rob hasn't grasped yet that for his modernist friends it makes little sense to talk about making "things of beauty". There's just what I happen to like. Everything has much the same status.

Yttik, too, may find herself changing camps one day:

But I think of mothers nurturing children as an example of a potential positive example of a hierarchy.

So do I. But liberal moderns take autonomy to be the overriding good. How then can a liberal modern accept, in principle, the idea of a positive hierarchy? This would mean accepting that there are other positive goods to be held in balance with that of autonomy.

Lexie explains Firestone's position on babies and childhood as follows,

As for babies, I think the idea here is not that a woman gives birth (or in Firestone’s world, a child is born through technological invention that circumvents the need for a female gestator) and the infant is left lying on the ground to fend for itself. The idea is more that no one “owns” the baby. There is no official parent or guardian. The idea being that the baby is cared for by the community, to which time when its not. The child, who of course, needs less and less care as they get older, would decide for themselves when to move on, who to get guidance from, what they need most. The child would have full rights of self-determination.

Women are no longer to be "female gestators" as there will be artificial wombs. There is to be no official parent, but instead communal care. The child would decide who to live with, in order to guarantee its full rights to self-determination - its freedom - or what a modern like Lexie understands to be freedom.

Sean pipes in with this view of the post-patriarchy:

Making something, whether utilitarian or not, would not be called “art.” It would just be something. Doing something would not be called a “crime.” It would just be an action. Children wouldn’t be forced into the role of submission, and if they needed help with something, they could seek it out of their own free-will, like everyone else does. And remember, “age” is gone, too, so it’s not as if the children are being separated into some vacuum. The distinction between parent and child, adult and child, wouldn’t exist, so neither would the anxieties related to it.

There is no art, there are just things. Everything just is. There is no crime, there are just people doing things. There are just our subjective preferences, which we follow as we will. This, for Sean, is what freedom means.

Twisty then pops up again with this view of motherhood:

Women, however, particularly women with children, don’t have access to the full menu of choices. In our culture “motherhood” is a kind of prison ...

As for freedom from biology ... there can be little argument against the notion that females bear a disproportionate burden, biology-wise ... That women have to do the pregnancy is not a “cultural construct.” What Firestone and others have postulated is that until women are liberated from this burden, their personal autonomy will always be compromised, not just by the state or some dude laying claim to their uteruses, but by the actual physiological process of hosting a parasite for nine months.

Well, she doesn't beat around the bush. For Twisty, motherhood is a prison depriving women of full autonomy, and women need to be liberated from pregnancy, which is simply the hosting of a parasite for nine months.

Conclusions? Utopian thoughts about maximising autonomy only serve to prove how inadequate the whole project is. It is not a true freedom to be liberated from art and culture, or from childhood and motherhood - even if this does, logically, increase our individual autonomy.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Luhrmann's low act

Why isn't this considered vilification? Consider how Baz Luhrmann portrays race relations in the early 1940s in his film Australia:

Nullah is a part-Aboriginal boy stolen from his white guardian, a British artistocrat played by Nicole Kidman, by corrupt police acting under a racist law that a pitiless mission official tells Kidman’s character is designed to breed out Aborigines.

As Nullah (beautifully played by the magnetic Brandon Walters) is marched down Darwin’s docks with other captured boys to be sent by boat to the Garden Point home on Melville Island, a sneering white boy holding a joey (yes!) stops and abuses him: “Creamy, didn’t your mother want you?” A racist white kid holding a kangaroo in a film called Australia - could there be anything more archetypally us?

To add to the white sin, the Japanese army is sweeping towards Australia and the boys are being sent to an island that one character notes “will be the first place the Japs hit". White women and children are being evacuated from Darwin in the background, but here the Aboriginal boys are being sent to their deaths by racist white men. To really grind in his point, Luhrmann has the Japanese not just bombing the children’s home at Melville Island (which they didn’t) but invading it as well.

Bear in mind that the film is sold in captions at its beginning and its end as based on historical truths, and is being reported as such, too.

But it's not the historical truth. Andrew Bolt goes on to explain:

But what of this story that Aboriginal children were callously and deliberately sent into danger at Melville Island, while whites were evacuated south?

In fact, Aboriginal women and children were evacuated from Darwin and nearby settlements - including Garden Point - and sent as far south as the Blue Mountains.

So Luhrmann is making stuff up to vilify the white Australians of the 1940s.

If you want a more balanced account of race relations (from the early 1960s) consider the story of Cecily, as told by herself.

She is a member of what has become known as the "stolen generations" - though she wasn't actually stolen.

Cecily tells us that she was abandoned by her Aboriginal mother as a baby, and then raised for a time by her grandmother and an aunt. However, the aunt moved away and the grandmother began to abuse alcohol.

The grandmother arranged for Cecily to be raised in a white foster home. Her life wasn't perfect: she was teased by other Aboriginal children for living with a white family and she felt different as an Aboriginal child living in a white environment.

As a teenager, questions of identity became stronger and she decided, with the support of her white foster mother, to return to live with her Aboriginal mother and siblings. However, she witnessed a shocking incident of domestic violence and went back to live with her foster family.

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

She finally returned to live in her Aboriginal community near Nowra. She met her Aboriginal uncles and put some of the missing pieces of her life together, so that "I felt like I belonged".

What does Cecily's story tell us? It can't be used to support the right-liberal assimilationist view, given that Cecily chose to return to her Aboriginal community because of the importance to her of her Aboriginal identity and kinship.

Nor does it support a Baz Luhrmann portrayal of white Australians as evil racist oppressors. This is what Cecily herself has to say of her white foster parents:

I know a couple of Kooris who were fostered by Koori families. They would say to me “I’m glad I wasn’t fostered into a white family”. I smile at these people because they don’t realise how lucky I was to be so loved and wanted. I was fostered for 12 years by a lovely white family in Bega on the far south coast of NSW. Overall I was grateful and I have always respected my foster family ...

Yes, the ideal thing would be for Aboriginal children to be fostered within their own communities, so that children like Cecily would not feel alienated from their own culture and people. But this doesn't mean that the fostering of Aboriginal children by white families was an act of racist oppression.

What has Baz Luhrmann done? He has fabricated an event in the past in order to malign his own countrymen - and then claimed it to be an historical fact. It is a low act.