Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Norwegian professor: we have to deconstruct the majority

Thomas Eriksen is a professor of anthropology. In a recent interview, he was asked what topics Norwegian anthropologists should research more thoroughly. He replied:

The most important blank spot exists now in deconstructing the majority so thoroughly that it can never be called the majority again, to follow up on some of Marianne Gullestad's research from the last ten years. Something like this could contribute to both understanding and liberation.

Which raises the obvious question: why would Professor Eriksen want to deconstruct his own ethnic group?

The basic answer, the one I often put forward, is that liberalism insists that we must self-determine who we are. But we do not self-determine our ethnicity. Our ethnicity is based (at least in part) on an inherited culture, race, ancestry, kinship, descent etc. Therefore, liberals view ethnicity as as an impediment to individual freedom; they see it as something the individual should be liberated from.

There's some evidence that this is Professor Eriksen's view of things. First, he is a committed liberal, having stood as a candidate for the Norwegian Liberal Party. Second, he states that deconstructing the Norwegian majority would contribute to liberation. Third, he recommends the work of Marianne Gullestad and she focuses on the "problem" that Norwegian identity is connected to a common culture and kinship (i.e. ethnicity). For instance, Marianne Gullestad writes that,

My argument is that there is currently a popular reinforcement of the ethnic dimensions of majority nationalism, with a focus on common culture, ancestry and origin. In particular, the national imagined sameness rests on the metaphor of the nation as a family writ large.

... History, descent, religion, and morality are intertwined in this form of nationalism, ethnicizing the state as an expression of collective identity.

I'd like to add another possible explanation for Professor Eriksen wanting to permanently deconstruct the Norwegian majority.

Once humanism became part of Western culture there was no longer such an emphasis on a pre-existing, pre-determined good already put there for us to discover and live by. Instead, the focus turned to what man could achieve and determine for himself. It was this that became the source of value.

It then began to make sense to see social change, or what liberals call progress, as a value in itself. What mattered was an open-ended possibility for change, so that man could apply a deliberate direction to his own affairs. It was a case of "man makes who he is" and "man shapes his own destiny from his own resources".

This then has several further consequences.

First, the humanistic philosophy will appeal especially to secular intellectuals, as they will be the ones to create and to lead schemes of human progress. As John Stuart Mill put it when discussing the views of Auguste Comte:

I agreed with him that the moral and intellectual ascendancy, once exercised by priests, must in time pass into the hands of philosophers.

So Professor Eriksen gets to see himself as the guide of humanity in his status as a public intellectual.

Second, the allegiance of these "philosophers" won't be to their particular, historic communities but to "man", as it is on the capacities of man to direct his own fate and to secure his own good that their outlook is focused. So they will tend to look to the global, to "humanity", rather than to particular nations or ethnies.

Third, they will not want a "block" to schemes of change. They will prefer what is fluid and complex, to what is concrete, fixed or stable. It is better for them to have a blank canvas to work their schemes on, and so they will prefer to start with the idea of man as a blank slate and existing entities or identities as being mere social constructs.

So there are reasons for Professor Eriksen, as a liberal, to regard the existence of the Norwegian majority as a nuisance and a hindrance. The Norwegian majority has an identity which is relatively stable, distinct and definite. It fits individual Norwegians within a structure which can't be easily manipulated or directed by intellectuals bent on social change. It also impedes a shift toward a focus on man (humanity) rather than on distinct nations (Eriksen considers himself a "transnationalist").

A couple of other points occur to me regarding liberal humanism. There is a certain tension between the idea that man should be self-directing and determine his own conditions of life and the idea that man should apply a deliberate direction to his affairs through schemes of social reform directed by public intellectuals.

The tendency of those advocating schemes of reform will be to find an ideal form of social organisation, one which achieves a total transformation of man into his ideal condition of being, thereby bringing history to an end.

This, though, would then bring to an end the very thing that liberal humanists believe make man so great: his ability to self-direct and self-create. It would bring about a totalitarian society in which the room for individual self-direction would be limited.

Perhaps that's one reason why individual autonomy is emphasised so strongly within liberal culture. It's an antidote to the real possibility that a liberal humanism will lurch into totalitarian schemes of social reform.

Perhaps too it explains why some liberal humanists are much more comfortable with the destructive task they have set themselves (getting rid of traditional institutions which hinder a process of change), rather than a clear, positive view of what is going to constitute the future society.

Professor Eriksen, for instance, was asked during his interview "You said once that someone should study what holds society together?". The issue of what holds society together is treated here as little more than an afterthought.

And when Professor Eriksen is asked about "the greatest challenges in research", he says,

The greatest challenge is to accept that no final solution exists. We must find out that ... we "make the rules as we go along". The dream of something stable and finished is widespread, but society will never be finished.

So it's a permanent revolution, in which having a clear idea of where you're going isn't so important (we "make the rules as we go along"). We should not aim at a stable social arrangment, claims Eriksen - we have to accept instability leading on to an unending process of reform.

That's certainly one logical position for a liberal humanist to take; in some ways it's preferable to the alternative of a total, finished scheme of social reform bringing history to an end.

But what if we don't want to permanently banish ethnic Norwegians? Then we have to step outside the logic of liberal humanism. It becomes a matter of pushing past the debates generated by a humanist philosophy and taking the argument back to first principles.

Professor Eriksen's desire to deconstruct the Norwegians is a radically destructive position; we should in turn be seeking to deconstruct the philosophy which led to such a view.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

An ABBA star, a child called Pop and bathing Swedish style

Björn, the ABBA pop star, wants to ban independent religious schools in Sweden. Why? He gives this explanation:

Above all, children should be kept away from anything that bears even the slightest whiff of indoctrination. In fact, freedom from indoctrination ought to be a basic human right for all children.

I burst out laughing when I read this. There is no place in the world where people are more indoctrinated than in Sweden. And they are not indoctrinated by churches but by the secular state.

Consider two other news stories from Sweden. We learn in one story that the parents of a 2-year-old have refused to reveal the child's gender:

In an interview with newspaper Svenska Dagbladet in March, the parents were quoted saying their decision was rooted in the feminist philosophy that gender is a social construction.

Where would the parents have gotten this idea from? It's state policy in Sweden. A Swedish minister, Jens Orback, announced some years ago that:

The government considers female and male as social constructions, that means gender patterns are created by upbringing, culture, economic conditions, power structures and political ideology.

So there is a state doctrine that gender is an artificial social construct which should be made not to matter. The parents, as indoctrinated as they come, want to raise their child in line with this state policy:

“We want Pop to grow up more freely and avoid being forced into a specific gender mould from the outset,” Pop’s mother said. “It's cruel to bring a child into the world with a blue or pink stamp on their forehead.”

The child's parents said so long as they keep Pop’s gender a secret, he or she will be able to avoid preconceived notions of how people should be treated if male or female.

Pop's wardrobe includes everything from dresses to trousers and Pop's hairstyle changes on a regular basis. And Pop usually decides how Pop is going to dress on a given morning.

Although Pop knows that there are physical differences between a boy and a girl, Pop's parents never use personal pronouns when referring to the child – they just say Pop.

So we are not supposed to discriminate between boys and girls, not even by dressing them differently or applying different pronouns to them. Gender must be made not to matter.

The second story has a similar theme. Authorities in the city of Malmö in Sweden have decided to let women swim topless at public swimming pools. It was thought discriminatory that men should be allowed to swim bare breasted and not women. Also, thinking about women's breasts as sexually attractive was thought wrong as this made a woman's gender matter - and gender is not supposed to matter:

Speaking to The Local, Ragnhild Karlsson , 22, explained the womens' motives for swimming without bikini tops.

"It's a question of equality. I think it's a problem that women are sexualized in this way. If women are forced to wear a top, shouldn't men also have to?"

Outraged by what they regarded as discrimination, a group of women in southern Sweden made a show of solidarity by establishing the Bara Bröst network. (The name translates both as 'Bare Breasts' and 'Just Breasts'.)

"We want our breasts to be as 'normal' and desexualized as men's, so that we too can pull off our shirts at football matches," spokeswomen Astrid Hellroth and Liv Ambjörnsson told Ottar, a magazine published by the Swedish Association for Sexuality Education ...

"Our aim is to start a debate about the unwritten social and cultural rules that sexualize and discriminate against the female body," said Astrid Hellroth and Liv Ambjörnsson.

So to be equal, Swedish style, we must not discriminate between men and women - we must treat them exactly the same. This means not recognising that the adult female body has a sexual significance different to that of men. It means, in other words, pretending that the female body has no natural sex appeal to men.

The non-discrimination principle leads on to a denial of any form of social differentiation. And so you get the following "resolution" of the bare breasted swimming controversy:

“I’m satisfied with the decision,” Bengt Forsberg, chair of the sports and recreation committee on recreation, told The Local.

“Everyone is required to have a swimsuit when visiting the city’s indoor pools and if it doesn’t cover the upper body, that’s OK too.”

... "We don't define what bathing suits men should wear so it doesn't make much sense to do it for women. And besides, it's not unusual for men to have large breasts that resemble women's breasts," he said.

According to Bengt, everyone is being treated the same by the same rule so everything is OK. Nor, in Bengt's world, are male breasts any different to female breasts. Gender doesn't matter.

In 2007, a young woman named Cordelia wrote about her unisex childhood in Sweden. She noted that at adolescence it was no longer possible to pretend that the sexes were the same, as the behaviour of the boys and girls started to vary dramatically. Then, as a young woman, she rejected the whole unisex indoctrination that had been pushed on her at school and within her family:

It started becoming increasingly clear to me as if man and woman are two pieces of a puzzle that fit together because they are essentially differently shaped ... That their physique and psyche complemented rather than duplicated each other. The idea that they are identical pieces seemed to me as a tremendous misconception and I was terribly irritated at having been fed an incorrect version of things all through my childhood. What I had been told simply wasn’t true. All my recent experiences showed that men and women were different and that men could no less be like women than women could be like men.

Since I wouldn’t want a man who behaves and looks like a woman, it makes sense that a man wouldn’t want a woman who behaves and looks like a man! True?

Why this ridiculous pretense that we are the same, when we very obviously are not? If I had been brought up more as a girl/woman instead of a gender-neutral being, I would have been stronger and more confident as a woman today! As it is, I had to discover the hard way that I was not the same as a man in a multitude of ways ...

I have no idea how the unisex ideal affected the boys around me. They too were brought up in a ‘unisex’ way.

I can tell you this though: In Sweden it is not common for men to help women with bags on public transport. Also, men expect women to regard sex in the same way as they do (i.e. casual unless expicitly stated otherwise ...)

Until quite recently, every time I noticed a difference between me and men I kept thinking; this is wrong ... I ought to be like the men ... I felt like I was letting other women down unless I constantly strived towards the male ‘ideal’ that was set for Swedish women ... But let me tell you, it’s hard work hiding your true nature and pretending to be something you are not!

Discovering that being feminine is not a ‘crime’ (in fact, it can be a positive thing) was a big revelation for me. I don’t actually want to be like a man!

I wish Northern European society would stop denying women the opportunity to be female! What good does it really bring? Who benefits?

So, Björn, here you have one Swedish child who was indoctrinated in ways she came to think false and harmful. But it wasn't by a church school. It was not a religious indoctrination but a political one, carried out by the Swedish state and within a secular culture.

Perhaps we have to accept that parents will always seek to indoctrinate their children and governments will always seek to indoctrinate the citizens. What matters is the quality of the indoctrination. The Swedish product seems to be of a particularly poor quality.

The principles of equality and non-discrimination are not sufficient by themselves. Taken literally and absolutely, they ignore or destroy all forms of social differentiation. They lead ultimately to a bland denial of reality in which, for instance, we are supposed to believe that there is no natural sex appeal invested in women's bodies. Instead of a celebration of gender difference, they lead to an unhappy repression of it.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

2,336 women charged with domestic violence in NSW

From the ABC news:

There has been a startling increase in the number of women who are the perpetrators of domestic violence.

New South Wales Bureau of Crime Statistics figures show that over the past eight years, the number of women charged with domestic abuse has rocketed by 159 per cent.

In 2007, 2,336 women fronted court on domestic violence charges, compared to around 800 in 1999.

Other states haven't released comparable statistics, but if the NSW rate holds good for the other states then over 7000 women in Australia are being charged with domestic violence every year.

How can a physically weaker woman attack her husband or partner? According to the ABC news report,

Ms Price says it is a well-known fact that many abusive women resort to using weapons, or wait to catch their spouse unawares before they attack.

"We have so many reports of people having hot liquids poured over them in bed, glasses broken, men hit over the head from the back, attacked while they're asleep, cut, burnt," she said.

There is resistance to accepting the reality of this female domestic violence. It doesn't fit well with the assumptions of feminist patriarchy theory. According to this theory, men use violence against women to maintain a patriarchal power and privilege over women.

If the theory is true, violence will be directed by men against women; it will be caused by attitudes held as a social norm amongst men; and it will be prevalent amongst all groups of men.

The problem for the patriarchy theorists is that all these claims can be shown to be false. It is not just men who are perpetrators of domestic violence - so are women. Men do not think of domestic violence as an acceptable social norm. Nor is domestic violence found equally among all social classes; it is much more prevalent amongst a social underclass and is linked to stressors such as alcohol abuse, homelessness and unemployment.

And why is patriarchy theory popular? If you believe that gender shouldn't matter, then you have to explain why it mattered so much in the past. The liberal explanation is often that gender existed in the past as an artificial, oppressive social construct rather than something natural.

But why was it constructed? The common answer here is that gender was constructed by one class of people (men) to assert power over another class of people (women).

So it all comes down to theory. First, the theory that gender must be made not to matter. Then the theory that gender must be a social construct. Then the theory that the construct exists to uphold male power and privilege. Then the theory that violence is necessary to uphold this system of male power and privilege.

Reality gets lost in all this. The theory can't explain why men have acted to physically protect women rather than to enact violence against them. The theory can't explain why male culture is set so firmly against male violence toward women. The theory can't explain why it is the poorest of men in the most dysfunctional of circumstances, rather than the most powerful of men, who are mostly responsible for domestic violence. Nor can the theory explain why women are so frequently the perpetrators of domestic violence.

Hat tip: reader George

Monday, June 22, 2009

So this is our choice?

What is the way forward for the left? That's the theme of an article by Jonathan Derbyshire in the New Statesman.

According to Derbyshire the mainstream left in Britain is "intellectually hollowed out". He thinks it timely that a new pamphlet has been released titled What Next for Labour? Ideas for the Progressive Left.

One of the contributors to the pamphlet, Sunder Katwala, argues that the technocratic management of the market isn't enough. Instead, the left must focus on elaborating,

an autonomous moral conception, independent of, and ultimately sovereign over, the mere notions of efficiency and rational 'tidying up' of capitalist society into which socialism is in danger of degenerating.

Katwala is a Fabian socialist who wants to go back to basics. He wants more emphasis on the autonomous individual rather than on technocratic efficiency.

Then there is the suggestion made by Jon Cruddas, a Labour Party MP, and Jonathan Rutherfod, an academic:

New Labour, Cruddas and Rutherford imply, has worried too much about individual liberty and not enough about equality. The key 'fault line' in the coming debates on the left, they argue, will be between those who see the market as the best mechanism for delivering the autonomy so prized in modern societies, and those who think that genuine freedom is a collective achievement. Or, as Katwala puts it, between those for whom autonomy is the ultimate end (call them "liberals") and those whose principal concern is with how autonomy is distributed (call them "social democrats").

Read this carefully and you'll see just how limited a choice we're being offered here.

Katwala's "liberals" think that individual autonomy is the ultimate end. So do his "social democrats". The only difference between them is that the "liberals" (in the European not American sense) believe that autonomy is maximised by individuals pursuing their self-interest in a market; the "social democrats" are more focused on the equal distribution of autonomy through "collective" (by which they mean state) action.

This debate is generations old. It is politics with a walking stick. And it is radically reductive: we are supposed to assume that the ultimate end is one single good, namely individual autonomy - with politics divided between those who favour equality (in the distribution of autonomy) and those who favour liberty (fewer impediments to the practice of autonomy).

The task for traditionalists isn't to take sides in this debate. It's to move beyond its limitations.

What we should be discussing is whether autonomy (or any other single good) can be taken as the sole organising principle of society; what we are logically committing ourselves to when autonomy becomes the highest end; what other goods must be sacrificed in the attempt to maximise autonomy; and whether the pursuit of autonomy has internal coherence.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Once were Vikings

History has been cruel to Scandinavian men. They were once masculine warriors but are now living in liberal societies determined to make gender not matter.

How is it panning out? A feminist writer named Elizabeth Debold set out to investigate. She began by interviewing Jorgen Lorentzen, a Norwegian gender studies expert. He supports the changes:

The goal in contemporary Scandinavia is also to make gender not matter ... “Gender is losing meaning,” explains Jørgen Lorentzen, postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre for Women’s Studies and Gender Research at the University of Oslo. Jørgen studies men’s changing roles and is a member of the prestigious Norwegian Men’s Commission. The Commission was established to advise the government on how men can make the transition into a gender-neutral society.

“In some very recent studies that we have conducted, we see that gender means less and less. Gender doesn’t mean anything for employment, politics, or sharing work and family. Gender has nothing to do with who cooks or takes care of children. Men and women are equally able to do these things.”

Throughout our conversation, Jørgen makes it clear that Norway, and by extension the other countries in Northern Europe, is still in a transition. “What is your vision of a fully gender-neutral society? What will it look like?” I ask him.

“I hope that gender will lose its meaning even more,” he replies.

But when Elizabeth Debold interviews a group of Danish men a less happy picture of Scandinavian society appears:

As the conversation continues, I notice that the men speak about a vague, almost inchoate experience of victimization. “Where did this sense of victimization come from?”

Christian responds, “There’s a kind of victimization with not knowing which way to go, how you are supposed to be, what to do in your relationship. We’re in a double bind.”

“What is the double bind?” I ask.

Martin jumps in, speaking rapidly but softly. “I have tried to give women what they say they want, but they always want something else. Women think that what they want is for the man to really talk and to be at home with the kids. But she doesn’t want that for long. She wants a strong man.”

“We end up relating to women in a way that is more like woman to woman, not man to woman,” says Bo. “We are feminized in our relationships, and they don’t last.”

Jon explains that their relationships end up revolving around what the woman wants. “There’s a constant fear that I feel — like I’m doing it wrong somehow. That I should feel like this or like that, and you just don’t know what you are supposed to do ..."

Martin nods in agreement: “I think that the big problem with the new man is that we have forgotten to take responsibility. We let women make all of the decisions. And now we have no direction.”

“There’s something inside yourself that gets messed up as a man when you have no internal compass, no higher value, and then you do whatever you have to do to keep your sexual relationship,” says Jon. “You are lost.”

There were incidents that left Elizabeth Debold dumbfounded:

In my short stay, one example after another came to my attention. Each story alone could be seen as just another anecdote — like the well-known psychologist who studied “core masculinity” and was thrilled by my invitation to be interviewed but couldn’t because his girlfriend said that he would be too tired.

Or the one that really left my head spinning: an interview with a prominent Danish researcher on male roles who is himself a staunch feminist. The interview careened all over the place, bouncing off the extremes of his internal division. In a boomingly clear voice, he spoke about the need for men to really take part in gender equality. But interspersed between his pro-feminist statements, he told the story of how his second marriage had fallen apart.

(They had married after having two children together. Six months into the marriage, she told him that she had met another man—when she was pregnant with their second child—and wanted a divorce. She had married the researcher, which now gave her rights to his property, while knowing that there was another man in her life.)

Whenever he came near anything close to anger or betrayal, he howled with laughter—so loudly that I could barely hear his words. He laughed when he told me that he had been “totally understanding about everything—I only shouted once on the telephone—and then gave her a half a million!”

Then he would stop laughing and speak about “the pain in the faces of my children” and his own shattered dreams of family life. As he said right before he ran out the door to meet his new girlfriend: “I am dividing my life into smaller and smaller parts. I have my work; I have my children. I have to go to the gym four times a week. I have to eat. I have to have a sex life. In a way, there is a freedom that is fantastic.” But he acknowledged: “I have just accepted what has happened so that I don’t go bananas. I think about it in an intellectual way, and okay, well, life has to go on.”

So what did Elizabeth Debold come to realise from her stay in Scandinavia? She writes:

I was beginning to realize that killing off the patriarch — the father in the home and in the culture ... will not liberate us and society as we might have hoped.

She now looks sympathetically on the ideas of an historian, Henrik Jensen:

The masculine — which Henrik calls the “father” — is not simply about men as individuals but is an essential aspect of culture.

He sees it as the vertical dimension, which includes everything that human beings have looked up to, from God on high to ideals and excellence as well as the father’s traditional moral authority.

That vertical dimension is the source of our higher aspirations. This upward reach needs a strong foundation of healthy human relationship — which the more horizontally inclusive world of mothering traditionally has provided. As Henrik said to me, there needs to be a balance between the two.

I found it surprising and almost counterintuitive to discover that placing so much priority on nurturing and mothering functions — caring for the special needs of each child, ensuring that each person grows in his or her unique way — does not lead to a close-knit and deeply connected society. Not in our day and age. Ironically, and perhaps paradoxically, the result is hyperindividuation, which leaves us self-focused, isolated, and victimized.

If you read Elizabeth Debold's article it becomes clear that she comes from a pretty orthodox liberal politics. Clearly, though, she isn't comfortable with dispirited, unmotivated men. It's led her to something of a rethink.

One thing I believe she gets wrong, though, is her belief that Scandinavian society is putting the traditionally feminine nurturing role first at the expense of the masculine.

In fact, Scandinavian politicians openly state that it's the traditional male career role that they see as the privileged, autonomous one. Therefore, they want women to be more careerist and less feminine and nurturing. They want men to shift their priorities toward the feminine in order to make it easier for women to change to a more masculine role. So it's really the traditionally masculine career role which is unduly emphasised in Scandinavia.

At any rate, what all of the above illustrates is that an orthodox liberalism works especially poorly when it comes to relationships. We are supposed to believe, as a matter of principle, that our sex shouldn't matter. It's supposed to not matter because it's something we are born into rather than something we self-determine. It therefore violates the liberal idea that our individual autonomy is the highest good.

Scandinavian societies have used the power of the state to undermine a masculine protector and provider role. What is left to connect men and women is the sex instinct. But relying on the sex instinct alone has problems.

First, it doesn't connect men to a masculine social or familial role. Hence the complaints by the Scandinavian men about a lack of direction or inner compass.

Second, it makes relationships less stable, as the sexual impulse itself is easily transferred from one person to another.

Third, there is a conflict between the political aim of gender neutral family roles and the natural instinct of women to be attracted to masculine men.

Fourth, it makes relationships dependent on the sexual power wielded by women. There is no complementarity between men and women leading on to interdependent family roles.

So it's not surprising that Elizabeth Debold ultimately rejects the Scandinavian model, finding that it does not bring the liberation it promised and does not create a close-knit or deeply connected society.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

A feminist fantasy: a world without fathers

Sara Ruddick is an American feminist philosopher. Back in 1990, she published an essay Thinking about Fathers.

She began by presenting a dismal picture of the role of fathers in family life:

In the official story fathers are necessary ingredients both of childhood and of good-enough mothering ... But the official story cannot conceal the fact that, as Gertrude Stein remarked, "fathers are depressing". Barely known, scarcely knowable, the "absence" of fathers permeates feminist stories ...

If an absent father is depressingly disappointing, a present father can be dangerous to mothers and children ... the father with no time for the double shift may well have time enough to serve as a controlling judge of his children's lives.

So what is to be done? Sara Ruddick presents two feminist responses. The first is to make fathers unnecessary by having children supported instead by the state. This would then make women wholly autonomous:

If putative fathers are absent or perpetually disappearing and actual present fathers are controlling or abusive, who needs a father? ... Most mothers do not choose and cannot afford to raise children alone. But in a state that provided for its children's basic needs, women could raise children together as lesbian co-parents or as part of larger friendship circles or intergenerational households.

Exceptional men who proved particularly responsible and responsive might be invited to contribute to maternal projects - that is to donate, as other mothers do, their cash, labor, and love. [Note that there is no longer a paternal role for men. Men are only to be permitted to contribute to a maternal project.]

... Secure in near-exclusively female enclaves that are governed by ideals of gender justice, women could undertake a politico-spiritual journey in which they (almost all) relinquished heterosexuality though not (necessarily) mothering, overcame their dependence on fathers and fears of fatherlessness, and claimed for themselves personal autonomy.

Sara Ruddick then presents a second option, one in which the average man still plays a role in family life, but as a mother rather than as a father:

Rather than attempting to free mothers from men, they (we) work to transform the institutions of fatherhood. Their (our) reasons are naive and familiar: many men ... prove themselves fully capable of responsible, responsive mothering ... Feminists cannot afford to distance themselves from the many heterosexually active women for whom heterosexual and birthing fantasies are intertwined and who want to share mothering with a sexual partner ... For all these familiar reasons, many feminists, and I among them, envision a world where many more men are more capable of participating fully in the responsibilities and pleasures of mothering.

So Sara Ruddick prefers the second option. She does, though, fantasise about the first:

I only have to open a newspaper, read the testimony of women, listen to students, or (more frequently) remember the father-dominated homes of friends and colleagues to find myself fantasising about a world without fathers.

Well, Sara Ruddick's fantasy didn't really come true. There are no separatist lesbian co-parenting communes.

But in other respects we have moved increasingly toward the ideas set out by Sara Ruddick back in 1990. The state has continued to make it more possible for women to raise children independently of men (via welfare payments, child support, paid maternity leave, subsidised childcare and so on). And the idea has taken hold that a good father is one who does work traditionally done by women. In other words, we have moved toward an assumption that being a good parent means being a good mother.

Just today comes the news that the Labour Party in Britain has appointed as its new chief spokeswoman on families Dr Katherine Rake. She is a feminist who has declared it her aim to "transform the most intimate and private relations between women and men" because "It is only when men are ready to share caring and work responsibilities with women that we will be able to fulfil our true potential to form equal partnerships in which we have respect, autonomy and dignity."

Where do these ideas come from? Why are they influential (apart from the giving up heterosexuality bit)? Well, they fit in with liberal autonomy theory - the idea that the ultimate aim of existence is to be as self-determining and independent as possible.

If you wish to be self-determining, then you won't want distinct gender roles within the family, as these are tied to an unchosen biology. But you will also be particularly hostile to the paternal role, as this is connected to a form of authority within the family that is unchosen and uncontracted. So it makes sense for an autonomist to opt for a single unisex parental role based on the traditional maternal role.

The end result, though, is to deny the importance of a distinct role for men within the family. This is the end point of Sara Ruddick's feminist philosophy - "fantasising about a world without fathers".

Better, I think, to encourage men to carry out their distinct role effectively, wisely and conscientiously - rather than to follow Sarah Ruddick along the paths of modernist philosophy.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Louis CK: whites will pay

There's an American comedian called Louis CK who has picked up the gist of whiteness theory.

According to the theory, race is an artificial category invented by whites to uphold their unearned privilege over the non-white other.

Below is a You Tube clip of Louis CK, with a transcript underneath:

Sorry I’m being so negative. I’m a bummer, I don’t know I shouldn’t be I’m a very lucky guy. I got a lot going from me. I’m a healthy, I’m relatively young. I’m white; which thank God for that sh** boy. That is a huge leg up, are you kidding me? I love being white I really do. Seriously, if you’re not white you’re missing out because this sh** is pearly good. Let me be clear by the way, I’m not saying that white people are better. I’m saying that being white is clearly better, who could even argue? If it was an option I would reup ever year. Oh yeah I’ll take white again absolutely, I’ve been enjoying that, I’ll stick with white thank you. Here’s how great it is to be white, I could get in a time machine and go to any time and it would be f***** awesome when I get there. That is exclusively a white privilege. Black people can’t f*** with time machines. A black guy in a time machine is like hey anything before 1980 no thank you, I don’t want to go. But I can go to any time. The year 2, I don’t even know what was happening then but I know when I get there, welcome we have a table right here for you sir. ... thank you, it’s lovely here in the year 2. I can go to any time in the past, I don’t want to go to the future and find out what happens to white people because we’re going to pay hard for this sh**, you gotta know that ... we’re not just gonna fall from number 1 to 2. They’re going to hold us down and f*** us in the ass forever and we totally deserve it but for now wheeeee. If you’re white and you don’t admit that it’s great, you’re an asshole. It is great and I’m a man. How many advantages can one person have? I’m a white man, you can’t even hurt my feelings. What can you really call a white man that really digs deep? Hey cracker ... oh ruined my day. Boy shouldn’t have called me a cracker, bringing me back to owning land and people what a drag.

The basic message of the Louis CK rant? Whites have always been privileged at the expense of everyone else and will be justifiably harshly punished for it.

So confident is Louis CK of the theory that he even extends it through known time. Go back in a time machine, even to the year 2 A.D., and there will be whites lapping up their privilege by denying a decent life to others.

The theory explains quite a bit about the liberal attitude to white forms of identity. If you accept the theory, then it makes sense to treat whites differently and to see any expression of white identity as an assertion of supremacy. After all, if it's true that whiteness was created to oppress others, then anyone defending it must be in favour of white supremacy.

The theory, though, is rubbish. First, it's clearly nonsensical to claim that what European villagers were doing in the year 2 A.D. had any significant effect on the lives of African or Asian villagers of the same era.

Second, it simply isn't true that Europeans have always had the upper hand when it comes to conquest and colonialism. For much of history Europe itself was conquered by foreign powers and subject to colonial rule.

Think of Russia under the Tatar yoke for several centuries. Or Spain under the Moors. Or the Balkans under the Ottomans.

It's not even true that whites are the most privileged racial group in America today. That distinction clearly goes to Asians:

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.

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).

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.

So what are white Americans being punished for? They have been singled out for the sake of a political theory.

Liberals want to make unchosen qualities like our sex and our race not matter. But this means they have to explain why these qualities mattered in the past.

Some right-liberals are content to simply explain their existence in terms of the backwardness of history which progress will finally overcome. But left-liberals generally go further than this.

Left-liberals assert, first, that categories like our sex and race are not natural entities but artificial social constructs. Why were they constructed? As an act of power. They allowed one privileged class of people to assert a dominance of will over another oppressed class of people.

So there has to be a dominant oppressor group with an artificial, supremacist identity for the theory to work. Whites got tapped on the shoulder for the role.

As a result, we get to be the ones who deserve what's coming to us.

But again, it's all theory. It all depends on a number of doubtful claims, such as that our sex and our race are social constructs, and that male identities and white identities have an essentially negative purpose and origin in oppressing others.

(For some further reading on whiteness theory, see here.)

Monday, June 08, 2009

Modernism & traditionalism

What makes us human? It was the answer given to this question in the early modern period which decided the way we are now.

According to the early moderns, we are made human by our capacity to self-determine. The aim, therefore, is to be autonomous: to self-create who we are through our own individual reason and will and to be unimpeded in determining how to act.

This became the ruling idea of Western societies. It was popular amongst leading aristocrats and the rising commercial classes because it undercut the unchosen authority of the king. It was also presented in the most flattering terms as an argument for individual freedom. Nor, at first, did it undermine other aspects of life that were important to people.

Nonetheless, it was a destructive idea. If the aim is to self-determine, then the individual has to be “liberated” from anything which is predetermined. Anything that is a given part of human nature, or which belongs to an inherited tradition or which is hardwired into human biology is predetermined.

Therefore, the early moderns were committing themselves to making some of the most important things in life not matter. After all, much of what is carried to us as part of a tradition survives exactly because it is significant to us as individuals. Similarly, it’s unlikely that aspects of the self would have been hardwired into us, as part of our given nature, if they were not important.

So what specifically is the cost of this pursuit of autonomy? First, we don’t determine for ourselves whether we are born male or female. Therefore, liberal moderns are committed to making sex differences between men and women not matter. This is how some of these liberal moderns put the issue:

Professor Susan Moller Okin: “A just future would be one without gender. In its social structures and practices, one's sex would have no more relevance than one's eye color or the length of one's toes.”

David Fiore: “Any time a human being chooses to describe themselves as anything but a "human being", liberalism has been thwarted ... The liberal subject is always merely that - he or she can have no group affiliation, no "sexual orientation," no gender in fact!”

Professor Robert Jensen: “We need to get rid of the whole idea of masculinity … Of course, if we are going to jettison masculinity, we have to scrap femininity along with it … For those of us who are biologically male, we have a simple choice: We men can settle for being men, or we can strive to be human beings.”

Nor can liberal moderns easily accept the traditional family. In the traditional family there are distinct gender roles of father and mother, and husband and wife. We don’t get to self-determine these roles; therefore, there are liberal moderns who wish to see them replaced with a single, unisex, interchangeable parental role.

Nor do we get to self-determine the authority that fathers have over us, so liberal moderns are often particularly concerned to reject a distinct paternal role within the family.

Again, if there is only one form of family life we don’t get to self-select which one to belong to. Therefore, liberal moderns will often insist that there is no natural form of family life, but rather a diversity of family forms. Some liberal moderns insist that family life is so open that it cannot even be defined.

What else do we not self-determine? We don’t get to choose for ourselves our ethnicity. Therefore, traditional forms of national identity, based on ethnicity, have been declared illegitimate by liberal moderns.

Professor Michael Ignatieff, leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, has rejected ethnic nationalism on these grounds:

Ethnic nationalism claims ... that an individual’s deepest attachments are inherited not chosen.

It is the fact that ethnic identity is both highly significant to the individual, but not able to be self-determined, which puts it so much at odds with the liberal pursuit of autonomy. That’s why there has been so much effort to deconstruct traditional forms of nationalism in Western countries.

Then there is the issue of morality. This is a particularly difficult issue for liberal moderns. If the highest good is to self-determine, then moral rules can only be negative limitations on the individual. Furthermore, if morality is something inherent and objective, then it can’t be self-determined.

So liberal moderns will tend to believe that there is nothing inherently right or wrong, and that what makes an act moral or immoral is whether or not it is an authentic want of the individual (i.e. whether it is freely consented to).

Professor Catherine Lumby, therefore, rejects the idea of morality altogether in favour of “ethics” on these grounds:

Morality is a blueprint for living that someone hands to you. Ethics is the zone we all enter when we find ourselves, by choice or necessity, negotiating those rules.

Dr Mirko Bargaric, an Australian human rights lawyer, assures us that,

we are morally complete and virtuous individuals if we do as we wish so long as our actions do not harm others

And Dr Leslie Cannold, an Australian ethicist, takes the view that,

defining your own good ... is at the heart of a moral life.

So the pursuit of autonomy has a terrible cost: it requires the suppression of gender difference, of traditional family life, of ethnicity and of an objective morality.

Both the left and right are committed to modernism. That’s why underlying principles are never debated in mainstream politics. The distinction between left and right is based instead on a second-tier issue. If society is to be made up of millions of competing wills, each in pursuit of his or her own interests and with no commitment to a collective good, then how is society to hold together?

The right (i.e. right-liberals) believe that individuals can seek their own interests and profit in the economy and that the market will regulate the outcome for the overall progress of society. The left (left-liberals) prefer the technocratic solution of the regulation of society by a state bureaucracy.

The more significant debate is not between right (Liberal Party) and left (Labor Party) liberals but between moderns and traditionalists. The point of traditionalism is not to uncritically endorse everything in the past or to reject all that is modern. It’s to challenge the specific underlying principle of modernism: the idea that we are made human by our capacity to self-determine.

Traditionalists are not opposed to autonomy, but we don’t hold it to be the sole organising principle of society. There are other important goods to uphold, including those relating to family, ethny and nation.

Nor do we believe that modernism can deliver the individual freedom it promises. We cannot be free as abstracted, autonomous individuals. If we are to be free, it must be as we really exist: as men and women, as members of traditional, historic communities, and as moral beings.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Women doing it for themselves?

How do liberal moderns decide moral issues? Consider the case of Clementine Ford, a feminist columnist for the Adelaide Sunday Mail. She recently discussed at her website the story of a young Romanian woman who auctioned her virginity on the internet, selling it to an Italian man for $20,000.

Clementine Ford declares at the start that "It's not the auctioning itself that I have a problem with." For Clementine Ford, the sale of a woman's virginity is moral if it is an act of female autonomy, i.e. if it's something the woman does herself without interference from others:

The value placed on female virginity through the ages has always been despicably high ... the idea that women need to somehow ‘save’ themselves for their husbands because their virginity is the most precious gift they can give them – virginity has ALWAYS been commodified.

It’s just that the sale of it was never controlled by the women who actually owned it.

In Alina's case, even her autonomy in selling her virginity ... was undermined along the way:

The auction was hit by controversy three weeks before its culmination when a teacher at Alina's former school claimed she was not a virgin.

Clementine Ford then considers the objection that auctioning your virginity is equivalent to prostitution. But this too is OK if it's an act of autonomy:

So what if it's, as some critics argue, 'nothing more than prostitution'? Is it the prostitution itself that offends them, or the idea that a woman might choose it for herself rather than having the socially sympathetic ease of being the victim of a pimp (or father) who forces her into it?

For that matter, is that why the auctioning of virginity is considered so offensive - because the person determining the situation, parameters and outcome of its loss is a woman who, while not necessarily required to be in command of her emotions regarding the situation, is at least in command of the financials?

Again, what matters here to Clementine Ford is not the act of prostitution itself. It's whether or not the prostitute is autonomous, i.e. whether she is "determining the situation". There's even a suggestion in the above quote that prostitution might be an act of liberation and feminist independence if it's self-determined.

Before anyone jumps in to write off Clementine Ford as mad, let me say that she is following orthodox liberalism in a perfectly logical way. If autonomy is the one intrinsic good, and if our Romanian woman is following her own autonomous will to achieve her independent life goals, then liberals must declare her actions to be moral.

Furthermore, if feminist patriarchy theory is right, and men have asserted an oppressive power over women, denying them autonomy, then it's not so bizarre for Clementine Ford to think that the issue is not prostitution itself, but a resistance in society to female autonomy.

But look where these theories lead us. They commit us to the view that there is nothing that is inherently right or wrong, that there is nothing in the expression of sexuality itself that is a moral good or that is morally degraded. A woman who sells her virginity online, according to these theories, is acting in a more moral way than a woman who saves her virginity for her husband.

This is a curiously empty and alienated world to inhabit. I find it hard to believe that Clementine Ford would really want to inhabit such a world. Has she never wanted a significant relationship with a man? One in which sexuality did express something meaningful?

Does she really want men to follow the principle of autonomy alone? Would she mind if men simply went and had sex, according to their own autonomous will, with whomever they wanted to, whenever they wanted to? Would this culture be conducive to good relations between men and women? To family life? To the ultimate happiness of both men and women?

Would Clementine Ford view her own daughter positively as an agent of liberation if she were to become a prostitute?

Even though Clementine Ford is willing to follow the logic of autonomy theory further than most, I doubt if even she would be willing to live by it consistently. Her mistake is not just her attitude to the one issue, but her acceptance of an overly abstract, formulaic, simplistic and reductionist approach to morality, in which autonomy is held to be the sole intrinsic moral good.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Writing off mothers

Alan Howe is not exactly a supporter of stay-at-home mums. This is how he describes the era when most women were in their early 20s when they had children:

It used to be that your early 20s were an ideal time to have children. Newly married and generally expected to do little more than care for little nappy-clad economic stimulation packages, women's lives were often predetermined events.

They had "little more to do" than to care for their children. This is, obviously, a put-down of stay-at-home mothers.

Why would Alan Howe so undervalue the motherhood role of women? Perhaps, as someone imbued with commercial values, he believes that it's our participation in the economy which matters.

Or perhaps it's his commitment to liberal autonomy theory. His attachment to this theory is given away when he objects to women's lives being "predetermined events". According to liberal autonomy theory we are supposed to lead self-determined, rather than predetermined, lives. Motherhood fails this test as it's thought to be an unchosen "biological destiny" for women, in contrast to a self-chosen career path.

The problem for liberals like Howe is that marriage and motherhood continue to be central to women's lives. That's because autonomy is not the one good which outranks all other goods. Men and women still choose to marry and have kids even if this means giving up a certain amount of autonomy.

In other words, the fact that motherhood is "predetermined" doesn't make it any less significant in the lives of women.

There's a beautiful TV presenter in Australia called Suzie Wilks. She's sacrificed relationships for her career, but now says that she's been left feeling lonely and depressed.

If you read what she says, in an article about her quest for a husband and child, she portrays the motherhood role in much more significant terms than Alan Howe:

She says she hopes the relationship she has with her own children will mirror that with her beloved mum.

"We were best friends - incredibly close. All the love and support that I had came from her," she says. "I've never known a woman so capable of loving."

Wilks says she doesn't have any major career ambitions left. It is the prospect of love and having children that fire her these days.

"I've had to battle. Look where I've come from. Look what I've done," she says.

"Now I want the real things in life."

It's not just all about the economy. The love of mothers for their children matters - a great deal.

By the way, there's one other consequence of Alan Howe's prioritising of careers. He supports an increase in the retirement age not just from 65 to 67 but into the 70s:

The Rudd Government acted in last month's Budget ... just look at the publicity generated by the proposed incremental increase of the retiring age from 65 to 67.

Don't listen to the lies of politicians. That was just a start. Late baby boomers can put plans for retirement on the back burner.

Their pensionable age will start with a "7"

... we need to keep ourselves working productively for much longer than 65