Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Prehistory Wars 2 - Uncle societies

Christopher Ryan has written a book titled Sex at Dawn. The aim of the book is to popularise the idea of open marriages. His basic argument is that our hunter-gatherer ancestors were peaceful egalitarians who shared everything amicably including sex. It wasn't until the advent of agriculture and settled communities that property relations arose and women lost their status and began to be treated as sexual possessions.

In my last post, I pointed to one problem with the argument. At the time of European contact the Tasmanian Aborigines were living a primitive hunter-gatherer lifestyle. But they weren't peaceful egalitarians. European observers were shocked by the low status of women, the sexual jealousy and violence, and the intertribal warfare.

Matters in these small hunter-gatherer bands were settled forcibly. And it was men who possessed the force to decide issues.

There's another problem with Christopher Ryan's argument. He uses as evidence for his theory the family practices of certain tribes such as the Mosuo in China:

The Mosuo people of China practice a form of courtship and sexual interaction anthropologists have called "walking marriage." This form of "traditional marriage" consists of women and men being completely free to sleep with whomever they like, children being cared for by the woman's family - her brothers assuming all paternal responsibility. Biological paternity is a non-issue among the Mosuo. Every tryst is seen as an independent event, with no expectation of permanence or even continuity expected in amorous relationships.

Ryan overstates the casualness of relationships, but the gist of it is correct. Ryan also writes, when discussing the practice of sexual gossip in various tribes:

One very interesting exception to this that we discuss in Sex at Dawn is the Mosuo people, of China. Part of their view of romance is that sexual gossip is deeply shameful and must never happen. Each person's sexual autonomy is absolute (men's and women's) and any attempt to limit this essential freedom by innuendo, declarations of jealousy, or any other means is strongly discouraged and ridiculed. As one Mosuo woman put it, "Women and men should not marry, for love is like the seasons—it comes and goes." Of course, the Mosuo have a family system which doesn't depend on married couples to provide social stability.

So here we have a claim that a magical dream society for liberals, one in which each person's sexual autonomy is absolute, actually exists in the provinces of China.

So what's the problem? Ryan predicted that the hunter-gatherers would be the sexual autonomists and that the agriculturalists would be the property owning possessives. But if we take the Tasmanian Aborigines and the Chinese Mosuo it seems to be the other way around. It is the peasants, not the hunter-gatherers, who institute the sexual autonomy.

Which leads me to a (speculative) theory of my own. It might be true that once you give up being nomadic foragers and hunters and live instead as agriculturalists that property issues become more important. But how should the property be transmitted from one generation to the next?

In a society in which female sexuality is not carefully regulated, it makes sense for the property to be passed down along the female line. After all, in such circumstances a man would know that his sisters' children would be closely related to him. But he couldn't have much certainty about any offspring of his own.

In these societies, fatherhood was not very important. What mattered was being an uncle. Men would typically live with their sisters, helping to raise their sisters' children (a matrifocal system).

These societies were not strictly speaking matriarchal. Men would still run the tribal councils. And there remained a division of labour, with men typically being the hunters and warriors, and women tilling the fields and looking after the homes. But the organisation of family life might be left to the older women.

This is what happens with the Mosuo. Men spend their lives living with their mothers and sisters, handing over whatever they produce to the senior woman in the house. The men get to visit a "wife" in another house during the night, but return home to their mother's house during the day. The power to veto relationships lies with the senior women.

Such "uncle" societies have existed in parts of Africa and Asia. A ship's doctor in the German colony of Cameroon described the situation there in the nineteenth century as follows:

With a large number of tribes, inheritance is based on maternity. Paternity is immaterial. Brothers and sisters are only the children of one mother. A man does not bequeath his property to his children, but to the children of his sister, that is to say, to his nephews and nieces, as his nearest demonstrable blood relatives. A chief of the Way people explained to me in horrible English: "My sister and I are certainly blood relatives, consequently her son is my heir; when I die, he will be the king of my town." "And your father?" I inquired. "I don't know what that means, 'my father,' answered he. Upon my putting to him the question whether he had no children, rolling on the ground with laughter, he answered that, with them, men have no children, only women.

But what happens if female sexuality is tied more closely to monogamous marriage? Then men can have more confidence in their paternity. They can then form their own households and pass property directly to their own children. Men have a more direct reason to work productively to sustain a household of their own.

Consider the case of "Joe", a young Mosuo man who has little role in society until his sister has children:

"If you could afford to buy a souvenir stand, would you?"

Joe laughs, almost spitting in the direction of the knickknack vendors. "Mosuo are not shopkeepers."

"So, what do you do?"

"I have a good time. I help my uncles and cousins build houses. I'm young. I have no status until my sister has a child. Then, I'm important."

It's not that he doesn't do anything. But he's not responsible for a household of his own. His incentive to work is not as great as a man seeking the resources to marry and support a family. Is it any wonder then that the societies which eventually produced the dominant civilisations were not matrifocal, uncle societies but paternal ones?

It's not that the advantage runs all one way. A danger of paternal societies is that men withdraw excessively into their fatherhood role, neglecting the communal leadership that is reserved for men in uncle societies.

But even so, the evidence seems very clear that father societies were the ones to create wealth and more sophisticated forms of civilisation. The Mosuo, unsurprisingly, suffered from grinding poverty for much of the twentieth century and even now are experiencing encroachments from the Han population.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Michigan Womyn's Festival invaded by four year old boys!

I found a post at a feminist website which is so way out I burst out laughing:

One hears quite a lot about male trannies being excluded from the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, but you never really hear much public discussion about the fact that males as old as TEN are allowed.

Girls four and under don’t even have childcare facilities separate from males in their age-group, but are instead lumped together with them as “Sprouts.”

Males as old as four are allowed free reign of the grounds, meaning that all attendees are at all times in the presence of males, including, of course, at the outdoor showers.  It’s outrageous that girls would be expected to bathe with these males roaming around.

I should say that I’ve never been to MWMF, but my girlfriend and I have discussed perhaps going in the future.  The one thing that causes us hesitation is the fact that boys 4 and under would be running around.  In our day-to-day lives the only males we really have any contact with are the bratty 2- and 3-year-old sons of friends of ours.  And we hate being subjected to the sight of their penises and just their overall male presence in general.

It is not ... feminist to subject daughters, one’s own or others, to males of any age given the frequency with which boys harass and abuse girls.  One would also have to consider the male-supremacist implications of  the general lumping of children of both sexes in with women as an inevitable grouping, even if those boys weren’t disruptive or abusive – but of course I haven’t seen any little boys refraining from misogynist abuse of little girls.

Sheesh! These "womyn" are scared of being oppressed by four-year-old patriarchalists. Imagine having to inhabit the head space of these lesbian separatist feminist womyn. Now that would be truly oppressive.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Prehistory Wars 1

How did our human ancestors live? A new book, Sex at Dawn, claims that our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived an Edenic life, in which everything was peacefully shared - including sexual partners:

Sex at Dawn makes a well-documented case that for a million years or more, our hunter-gatherer ancestors evolved with an easy-going, egalitarian, polyamorous approach to sex and relationships.

Women in these prehistoric communes were supposedly sexually liberated. A journalist interviewing the author of the book (Christopher Ryan) observes that:

your depiction of early human female sexuality is a radical departure: you depict early hunter-gatherer women as sexually bold, confident, autonomous, and novelty-seeking.

Such claims have consequences. Christopher Ryan has an agenda, which is to portray modern monogamous marriage as both unnatural and harmful. He prefers the option of polyamorous marriage, in which there would be "social monogamy" (couples staying together) but not sexual monogamy.

I'll agree with Christopher Ryan on one thing. What we now call traditional marriage is not the only arrangement that has been known throughout history. We do need to recognise this within our own understanding of anthropology.

But what about Ryan's claims of an easy-going, egalitarian hunter-gatherer prehistory in which women were sexually autonomous?

The evidence from Australia doesn't really match this. The Australian Aborigines lived a primitive hunter-gatherer lifestyle remote from the influence of other societies. Yet to the early European settlers relationships between Aboriginal men and women seemed relatively brutal and unequal.

Keith Windschuttle devotes seven pages of his book, The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, to this issue (specifically to the situation in Tasmania). I can't reproduce all of the evidence here - the following sample will have to do:

The first European observers called the men 'indolent' and 'extremely selfish' and said they treated their women like 'slaves' and 'drudges' ... In 1807, the French anthropologist Francois Peron observed twenty women deposit the results of their fishing at the feet of their men. Although the women had not eaten, the men:

immediately divided it up, without giving them any; they proceeded to group themselves behind their husbands, who were seated on the back of a large sand-bank; and there, during the remainder of the interview, these unfortunates dared neither to raise their eyes, speak, nor smile.

... there is abundant evidence of the violent nature of relations between the sexes ... In November 1830, on Swan Island ... Robinson observed the Aboriginal men forcing the women to their beds at knife-point. He wrote:

Informed that Mannerlelargenner had cut Tencotemainner with a knife because she would not stop with him. The aboriginal females came to my tent and informed me that several of the men had concealed themselves in the bush and took knives with them, and when night came they meant to cut the women. And why would they do so? Because women no marry them.

...Aboriginal women who rejected advances from amorous males put their lives in danger. Tasmanian marriage was largely monogamous but murder of women because of insult, jealousy and infidelity was common. The Big River Chief, Montpeliatter, killed a 'tall, fine young woman' because she did not like him. Out of jealousy, a man named Nappelarleyer killed 'quite a young girl' on Robbins Island 'spearing her in both her sides and in her neck.' The murderer was himself then killed by another man.

... This endemic violence left women in a state of fear during courtship, lest they offend their suitor

... the biggest single cause of internecine warfare between the Aborigines was the custom of bands raiding one another to abduct women, a practice that sometimes led to all the men on the losing side being killed. (pp. 379-382)

It seems that brute force was often used to decide matters. Perhaps you can get away with this when society is still pretty basic (small nomadic bands who survive by hunting and gathering). It would be difficult to sustain a more settled, large-scale society on this basis, though.

And using brute force to settle matters certainly seems to have given men an advantage over women. Tasmanian Aboriginal society was not, therefore, easy-going and egalitarian and nor were the Aboriginal women sexually bold, confident and autonomous.

I suspect that Christopher Ryan might have things the wrong way around. He believes that it was the lack of property in hunter gatherer societies that meant that women were not treated as sexual property. In fact, Aboriginal men in Tasmania were known to trade their women to European sealers in return for dogs.

It's more likely that it was the development of property when humans began to settle in one place and develop agriculture that led, for a time at least, to women having more sexual autonomy. I'll explain why in the next post.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Angels principle

When I was growing up I used to watch the TV series Charlie's Angels. The episodes would often end with the very feminine looking angels chasing and then bringing down a criminal tough guy. I used to scoff at this even as a 10-year-old. But since then there has been an unending supply of heroines successfully kick-boxing their way across our TV and film screens.

So just how likely is it for a woman to be as fast and as strong as a man? The answer is that it's not likely at all. One comparative study found that the average man is stronger than 99.9% of women. Here's a summary of some recent research:

When fat-free mass is considered, men are 40% heavier (Lassek & Gaulin, 2009; Mayhew & Salm, 1990) and have 60% more total lean muscle mass than women. Men have 80% greater arm muscle mass and 50% more lower body muscle mass (Abe, Kearns, & Fukunaga, 2003). Lassek and Gaulin (2009) note that the sex difference in upper-body muscle mass in humans is similar to the sex difference in fat-free mass in gorillas (Zihlman & MacFarland, 2000), the most sexually dimorphic of all living primates.

These differences in muscularity translate into large differences in strength and speed. Men have about 90% greater upper-body strength, a difference of approximately three standard deviations (Abe et al., 2003; Lassek & Gaulin, 2009). The average man is stronger than 99.9% of women (Lassek & Gaulin, 2009). Men also have about 65% greater lower body strength (Lassek & Gaulin, 2009; Mayhew & Salm, 1990), over 45% higher vertical leap, and over 22% faster sprint times (Mayhew & Salm, 1990).

When I first read this I understood even better why I instinctively dislike seeing my wife lifting heavy items. It's not just that I have a little more muscle for such jobs, I have 90% greater upper body strength. Something that I can lift with ease is going to put a lot more pressure on my wife's body.

How should women react to such data? I don't think they should be too worried. The female body is impressive in its own way. Most young men know that female beauty has a power and a significance of its own. And when it comes to procreation, the female body takes centre stage.

But there have been women who have expressed their dismay at the physical differences between men and women. Alexandra Kollontai was a Russian feminist socialist in the early 1900s. She once gave a lecture in which it was reported that:

[Kollontai] longs for the female body itself to become less soft and curvy and more muscular ... She argues that prehistoric women were physiologically less distinct from men ... Accordingly, sexual dimorphism may (and should) again become less visible in a communist society.

Kollontai was a modern who wanted to make sex distinctions not matter, even the physical distinctions that most heterosexuals find appealing. So she held to the hope that if political conditions were to change that women might "revert" to a "natural" condition of being muscular like men rather than soft and curvy.

Kollontai was intellectual enough to take the autonomy principle seriously. She believed that sex distinctions should be made not to matter, because she believed that the "human" attribute was to be a self-determining individual, unaffected by predetermined physical qualities relating to manhood or womanhood.

She wanted to be free from being a man or woman rather than free to be a man or woman.

Most moderns don't go as far as she did, but the underlying principle is nonetheless at work in the societies we live in. There are still a lot of women raised to believe that there is something wrong with being feminine or that being feminine somehow has to be justified.

Perhaps the Charlie's Angels principle was this: women are allowed to be glamorously feminine as long as they can still pack a punch and match it with the men physically.

It's not a principle that's likely to work too well in real life. Most men will be put off by women who set out to prove their masculine credentials before allowing themselves to show a feminine side.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Latham Diaries

I bought a copy of The Latham Diaries on the weekend. The former Labor leader sets out his political beliefs clearly enough in the introduction.

Latham worries that there is a crisis in civil society. He believes that individuals have become alienated from their communities and are less willing to trust and cooperate with each other:

It is the alienation of the individual from community life that is the cause of so many social problems. (p.16)

He focuses on two culprits for this. One is the market. He criticises "a grotesque expansion of market forces into social relationships" and also consumerism as a form of middle-class escapism.

The second culprit is conservatism. Latham believes that there is a conservative establishment which stymies change and is intent on hoarding power for itself. He sees himself as one of the outsiders attempting to break down hierarchies of power.

It's a flawed view. I'd agree with Latham that individuals are increasingly socially alienated, that our culture is excessively individualistic, that there is too little political engagement and that consumerism and a cult of celebrity are ultimately empty forms of escapism.

But how do you achieve a real depth of community? I would argue that you need to allow stable forms of social life to develop over time and that you need a shared identity based on real forms of connectedness.

This is not what Latham is looking for. He does not want to maintain either stability or commonality. He believes instead that community should be encouraged as the basis for "a sweeping program of social justice" and so that people will "reach out and trust in strangers" from around the globe and support "the redistributive functions of government":

As a society we are poorly equipped to meet the challenges of globalisation: building strong communities that are prepared to reach out and trust in strangers - people, values and information from across the globe.

The crisis in social capital is also a crisis for social democracy. If people do not practise mutual trust and cooperation in their lives, they are not likely to support the redistributive functions of government...

The task of social reformers is extraordinarily difficult ... Not only must they rebuild the trust and cohesiveness of civil society, they also need to motivate people about the value and possibilities of organised politics ... they then need to win majority public support for a sweeping program of social justice. (pp. 16-17)

In one sense he is right. When people are more closely connected to their communities they are likely to have more altruistic attitudes. Social reformers have, in the past, drawn on this altruism to win support for programmes that were not in the interests of the mainstream.

Such reformers could, as an alternative, rely on the apathy of a socially alienated population to force through their programmes. But Latham seems to have too much of a populist streak to find this an appealing option. He sees himself as representing those who are outsiders to political power (the insiders are by his definition the bad guys, the "conservatives"). Latham seems to want to lead a grassroots movement of "social democracy" to push through his sweeping changes - and that can't be done when altruism and social engagement are low.

Finally, Latham is wrong to claim that the establishment is conservative.  His line is that those in power (the insiders) want to preserve their control and therefore are in favour of social hierarchies and the status quo. That's why, surmises Latham, he met such opposition to his reform programme.

But much of the opposition to Latham came from within his own party. So he is led to the idea that the ALP itself is a conservative organisation, run as an oligarchy by half a dozen union officials. He describes the ALP as follows:

The Party's defining purpose now revolves around power and patronage, the fuel that sustains its factions but that ultimately drains the True Believers of conviction and belief. It has become a conservative institution run by conservative people, the worst elements of machine politics. (p.8)

In contrast to this, Latham presents himself as in no way attached to the status quo:

Over time, our national political culture has become more conservative and uniform ... I battled against this tendency inside the Labor Party, determined to maintain a bold approach to public policy. I believed in adventurism as a way of public life. (p.20)

It's a misleading picture of Australian politics. Yes, there is entrenched power. But it is power at the service of an increasingly radical liberalism. When Kevin Rudd, for instance, raised immigration to record levels, it was difficult to see this as a conservative measure designed to keep things as they are.

The orthodoxy is a liberal one. Latham doesn't see this because he has in his mind the idea that being progressive means attacking power hierarchies as a dissenting outsider. Therefore, the insiders who hold the power are, by definition, the non-progressives - the "conservatives". He ends up believing that ALP powerbrokers, ABC journalists and the like are Tories.

But this means that he can't engage with the liberalism that is so influential amongst the political class as a whole. And I don't think you can truly understand the shifts in modern society, including those toward social alienation, without considering the role played by this liberalism.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Chapter 2: Autonomy theory

So what is liberalism? A key principle or aim of liberalism is individual autonomy. According to Professor John Kekes,

the true core of liberalism, the inner citadel for whose protection all the liberal battles are waged [is] autonomy … Autonomy is what the basic political principles of liberalism are intended to foster and protect. [1]

Professor Joseph Raz explains that,

One common strand in liberal thought regards the promotion and protection of personal autonomy as the core of the liberal concern. [2]

Similarly, Professor Bruce Ackerman writes of liberalism that,

The core of this tradition is an insistence that the forms of social life be rooted in the self-conscious value affirmations of autonomous individuals. [3]

And Professor Kok-Chor Tan defines liberalism as,

an individualistic political morality...concerned primarily with protecting and promoting the autonomy of individuals. [4]

But this then raises another question. What do liberals understand by the idea of individual autonomy?

According to liberal autonomy theory, a fully human life is one that is self-determined. What matters therefore is that individuals have a life and a self which are variously described as self-created, self-defined, self-authored, self-chosen or self-directed.

Here, for instance, is how Professor Raz defines liberal autonomy:

A person is autonomous if he can become the author of his own life.[5]

From a chapter description of the same work we get the following definition:

Autonomy is an ideal of self-creation, or self-authorship [6]

Professor Alan Ryan defines liberal autonomy in a similar way,

The essence [of liberalism] is that individuals are self-creating... [7]

As a final example, Professor Wayne Sumner connects the "traditional liberal value of autonomy" to the,

liberal conception of the person as self-determining and self-making [8]

Let’s say that you are a liberal who believes in this. What then becomes your political aim?

Your aim will be to remove impediments to individual autonomy. Whatever defines us in important ways that we do not choose for ourselves will be thought of negatively as something limiting and oppressive that we must be liberated from.

Liberals therefore have a strong motivation to launch campaigns to “reform” society. Over time the influence of liberalism on Western societies has been radical, arguably more radical than anything that has gone before.

This transforming effect on society has been presented to the general public by liberals in the most positive terms, as a progress toward freedom, equality and justice. When put this way, liberalism can seem difficult to challenge, even by those who sense that something is wrong with the direction of modern Western societies.

But if we go back to liberal autonomy theory, and look in detail at what it logically requires, then a more obviously negative picture emerges, one that is very much open to criticism.

What, after all, are the impediments to autonomy which liberalism seeks to abolish? They are those aspects of our own self and existence which we do not get to self-determine. And there is a lot that we don’t get to self-determine, including what we inherit as part of a tradition and what is given to us as part of an inborn human nature.

What is most significant to us as individuals has often survived over time as aspects of a tradition or of human nature. Therefore, liberalism has often found itself having to make what matters most not matter.

In this way liberalism has diminished our lives rather than liberated them.

But what exactly does liberalism not allow to matter? This is what now needs to be looked at more closely.

Next chapter: Sex distinctions

[1] John Kekes, Against Liberalism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997), 14-15.

[2] Joseph Raz, The Morality of Freedom (Oxford: Clarendon, 1986), 203, quoted in Kekes, 217.

[3] Bruce Ackerman, Social Justice and the Liberal State (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980), 196, quoted in Kekes, 217.

[4] Kok-Chor Tan, Toleration, Diversity, and Global Justice (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000), p.2 (location 62)

[5] Raz, 204.

[6] Oxford Scholarship Online, The Morality of Freedom, 14 Autonomy and Pluralism, Abstract, http://www.oxfordscholarship.com/oso/public/content/philosophy/9780198248071/acprof-9780198248071-chapter-14.html (August 2010)

[7] Alan Ryan, “Liberalism” in Goodin and Pettit, A Companion to Contemporary Political Philosophy (Oxford: Blackwell), quoted in Kekes, 217.

[8] Wayne Sumner, Welfare, Happiness, and Ethics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 218-219, quoted in Kok-Chor Tan, Toleration, Diversity, and Global Justice (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000), 49.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Delusions of gender?

Are there any hard-wired differences between men and women? An article in the Daily Mail today suggests not:

It's official, men and women ARE from the same planet

Scientists would have us believe that men and women are so different they could hail from different planets.

But a new book claims the difference between the genders is down to the way we are brought up.

It says the idea we are hard-wired at birth, as promoted by 1992 bestseller Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, is outdated...

Instead, we are steered towards gender-defined skills by parents and teachers. According to the book, Delusions of Gender, by Cordelia Fine, a Melbourne University psychologist, there are no major neurological differences.

It seems most unlikely. Our daily experience suggests that there are some sex distinctions which run deep. Earlier this year, for example, I announced to a Year 8 class (14-year-olds) that I had some baby photos and asked if they'd like to see them. An enthusiastic chorus of "yes" came spontaneously from the girls, but the boys just looked at me blankly. It's difficult to believe that such an immediate, unrehearsed response could arise just from intellectual conditioning.

So why would Cordelia Fine assert that there are no major hard-wired differences between the sexes? One of the glories of the internet age is that you can easily do some research of your own on such matters. I looked up Cordelia Fine and discovered an article she wrote setting out her ideas.

It turns out that she is a feminist with standard, orthodox ideas about autonomy. Like most liberal moderns, she believes that autonomy is the aim of life. She rejects the traditional maternal role of women as being non-autonomous and therefore (in her eyes) low status. She wants to transform traditional roles so that women are careerist and men participate equally in the "inferior" domestic and maternal tasks. This shift toward a single unisex role for men and women represents gender equality for her.

So she worries about trends in science which are revealing neurological differences between men and women. She thinks that these scientific findings might lead people to accept sex distinctions as natural and inevitable. Such an attitude she labels "neurosexism".

She wants to continue to believe that sex distinctions are social constructs which can be entirely overcome. This puts her at odds with scientific research showing that there are differences in the functioning of the male and female brain.

But do people accept the unisex ideal? In her article, Cordelia Fine admits that research shows that people drop the unisex ideal once they've had children. Why would women in particular do this? According to Cordelia Fine, it's because a belief in innate differences makes it easier for women to accept their "inferior," non-autonomous motherhood role:

If a frazzled mother can tell herself that her hard-wired powers of female empathy uniquely position her to intuit that the red-faced, cross-patch baby wants to get down from the highchair, then there’s no need to feel cross that she’s the only one who ever seems to notice. If she can take seriously Brizendine’s claim that it is only when the children leave home that “the mommy brain circuits are finally free to be applied to new ambitions, new thoughts, new ideas” she may feel less resentful that the autonomy to pursue a career unhindered, a freedom still taken for granted by her partner, is now no longer extended to her.

And what if women feel torn trying to combine career ambitions with motherhood? The answer, asserts Fine, is not to accept limitations, but to change social arrangements - by which she means loading more work onto the shoulders of men (whom she treats with some contempt). For instance, in response to one (female) neurobiologist she writes:

Brizendine promises her female readers that “understanding our innate biology empowers us to better plan our future.” It may startle some readers to learn that family friendly workplace policies are not the solution to reduced maternal stress and anxiety, and that fathers who do the kindergarten pick-ups, pack the lunch-boxes, stay home when the kids are sick, get up in the night when the baby wakes up, and buy the birthday presents and ring the paediatrician in their lunch hour are not the obvious solution to enhanced maternal ‘brainpower’.

(Predictably, Brizendine never even hints that the overwired working mother consider the simplest antidote to the ill-effects of going against her ‘natural wiring’: namely, giving her partner a giant kick up the neurological backside.)

She seems to think that aggressively placing extra demands on hard-working family men is a viable way forward.

I don't believe that sex distinctions are entirely due to hormones, genes or brain structure. Our behaviour as men and women is also influenced by the culture of relationships (i.e. by what is selected for in relationships) and by ideals of masculinity and femininity promoted within a society.

But I wouldn't want to be taking Cordelia Fine's position that there are no significant neurological distinctions between men and women. I doubt if that will be borne out by further scientific research.

Nor would I want to share her politics. Feminists sometimes claim that they are all for choice for women. But Cordelia Fine is yet another feminist who ends up pushing one option alone. Because she sees autonomy as the great prize, and careers as the way to get autonomy, she treats the motherhood option as an inferior, low-status pursuit associated negatively with oppression and inequality.

In the Cordelia Fine version of life, women get to have children but they don't get to identify positively with the motherhood role. Motherhood becomes something dangerous to women, a potential hindrance to the important things. It therefore loses its standing as a legitimate choice.

Is it any wonder that so many women drop their belief in Cordelia's version of "egalitarianism" once they have children?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Hawke: we should admire illegals

You wouldn't want Bob Hawke protecting your borders. The former Labor PM had this to say on the issue of illegal arrivals:

He also said there was no way to "stop the boats" as Mr Abbott had promised.

"We’re all bloody boat people," Mr Hawke said. "That’s how we found the place."

Mr Hawke said he understood the frustration of many voters at "queue jumpers", but said "we have to look at the other side of the coin".

He said the Coalition’s approach to the boat people question was "nonsense".

"We cannot turn the boats back," Mr Hawke said.

"These people have got initiative, guts and courage and Australia needs people like that."

The last bit is interesting. Those who are politically liberal, like Hawke, often see illegal immigrants in very positive terms, as showing ideal qualities. Why would they do this?

It goes back to the basic liberal world view. Let's say you believe that what matters is living an autonomous life. Who are you likely to think best represents this ideal? The Westerner who follows lawfully his own inherited culture and way of life or the Middle-Easterner who flies to Indonesia and pays a people smuggler to land him on Australian territory in order to enjoy the benefits of an Australian lifestyle?

The Middle-Easterner might well seem to better fit the liberal ideal. After all, he has done two things that make him fit the ideal of autonomy. First, he has acted to self-determine his life circumstances in a way that the loyal Westerner has not - he has dared to break the law and travel the seas to do so. Second, he has chosen "rationally" (in the liberal scheme of things) to enhance his autonomy by shifting to a more prosperous Western democratic country, where he will have more resources to pursue his individually chosen autonomous lifestyle.

So to the liberal mind, even though the illegal has jumped the queue, there's likely to be a respect toward him for doing so. He is acting in an ideal way compared to the ordinary citizen.

Most people don't think this way, as they don't share the underlying liberal philosophy. For traditionalists, it is not only autonomy that matters. Our membership of a common tradition, one based on kinship, language, history, religion and culture also matters. So for us, open borders are not to be welcomed and those who illegally cross borders for lifestyle purposes are not to be admired. We are more likely to look up to those who loyally contribute to a tradition they belong to or one that they can realistically assimilate to.

There's one other issue worth raising here. Liberals like Hawke think that autonomy is the key good and that there's more of it on offer in Australia than elsewhere. But if autonomy is what fundamentally makes us human, how can they bear the inequality of Australians having more autonomy than others?

They can't easily do so, which is one reason they are committed to programmes of mass immigration.

I'll put this another way. Let's say you believe that autonomy as the key human good must be distributed as equally as possible. Therefore, it should be distributed equally among the citizens of the state. But on what grounds should it not be distributed equally as well to non-citizens? What justification can be made for limiting equal distribution to citizens?

Liberals really struggle with this. Hawke himself once suggested that you could morally distinguish an Australian citizen from a non-citizen by the fact that the Australian citizen contributed taxes whereas the non-citizen did not:

An Australian is someone who chooses to live here, obey the law and pays taxes

But his successor, Paul Keating, didn't like making any such distinction between citizens and non-citizens. He railed against the "exclusiveness" of any such distinction based on citizenship as it involved,

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

If you think this way, what can you do to make distribution equal to all? You can move toward a system of world government, but that's not yet in place. So you might instead think it moral to accept as many people into the liberal West as possible. Which, unfortunately, is what Tony Abbott initially committed himself to in his earlier stance on immigration:

My instinct is to extend to as many people as possible the freedom and benefits of life in Australia.

Again, traditionalists don't have this problem. We don't see autonomy as the sole good in life, nor as the good which defines our humanity. We therefore believe that someone living in a less wealthy or less democratic country can still have a worthwhile life based on such goods as family, community, religion, nature, art, culture and so on. Furthermore, as we believe that forms of communal identity are so important, we don't think the best solution to material inequality is to transfer populations but rather to work towards development in those countries requiring it.

Finally, there's a larger point to be drawn from all this. In the short term we are stuck with a liberal political elite and we have to try to influence politics within this limitation. But we won't ever get back to a really healthy state of affairs until we begin to have politicians who don't hold the underlying assumptions of liberalism. Our larger aim has to be a shift in political ideas, even as we attempt to deal with the political problems thrown our way by an ascendant liberalism.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

A Hollywood liberal takes on the family

Jennifer Aniston is a liberal when it comes to family. The American actress thinks that fathers are optional in family life; that it is a sign of progress for women to have the option to go it alone; and that a family can be made up of any arrangement of people who love each other.

JENNIFER Aniston has praised single mothers and urged women not to settle for a man just to have a baby.

During a press conference for new movie The Switch, in which she plays a woman who uses a sperm donor to get pregnant, the former Friends star claimed that she was pleased that more women were being brave enough to raise children on their own.

"Women are realising it more and more, knowing that they don't have to settle with a man just to have that child," she told People.

"Times have changed, and that is also what is amazing is that we do have so many options these days, as opposed to our parents' days when you can't have children because you have waited too long."

The 41-year-old actress, who admitted during the conference that she still hoped to become a mother one day, also spoke out against the notion of a nuclear family, adding: "The point of the movie is, what is it that defines family? It isn't necessarily the traditional mother, father, two children and a dog named Spot.

"Love is love and family is what is around you and who is in your immediate sphere. That is what I love about this movie. It is saying it is not the traditional sort of stereotype of what we have been taught as a society of what family is."

Why is this a liberal view? If you follow liberalism in thinking that autonomy is the highest good, then you'll want multiple forms of family life to choose from rather than just the single, traditional one; you'll approve of women acting independently of men to have children; and you'll like the idea of defining family not around a definite traditional structure but more vaguely and fluidly around your own unique personal circumstances ("family is ... who is in your immediate sphere").

This liberal view will no doubt sound good to some people. It might seem more personally free, or perhaps there will be a feel good factor in thinking that love is all you need.

But love isn't always enough. I was reminded of this when watching a couple of episodes of a TV show that has aired recently here in Australia. Each episode followed a pair of wayward, self-destructive Australian teens whose lives were in free fall. One pair was sent to live with some strict parents on an Australian sheep station, the next on a Texan cattle ranch. The teens all played up at first but then some tough love and some productive work on the farms turned them around.

What was so significant about this? All four teens came from single mother households. There was not a dad in sight. And the single mums all seemed reasonably middle-class: they were articulate, lived in nice homes and expressed much love for their children.

But still the children were confused and angry. It was only when the host fathers successfully asserted paternal authority and care that the teenagers began to have a change of attitude. This was especially true of the boy who was sent to Texas: he thrived when he worked alongside his American host father and received praise and encouragement. He stated openly his need to have an older man in his life as a father figure.

A well-functioning nuclear family of father, mother and children is the best environment to raise children. It provides the key relationships needed for the successful socialisation of children.

It's true that there are families which don't function well and suffer break-down. But this doesn't change what constitutes the basic family type that a society ought to encourage.

It's true as well that there are children brought up by single mothers who turn out well. Still, the statistics show that on average children do better with both a father and a mother. For instance, a recent American study which compared outcomes between children raised in traditional families and those raised through donor inseminated single mothers found that:

Donor offspring are significantly more likely than those raised by their biological parents to struggle with serious, negative outcomes such as delinquency, substance abuse, and depression, even when controlling for socio-economic and other factors.

Donor offspring and those who were adopted are twice as likely as those raised by biological parents to report problems with the law before age 25.

Donor offspring are about 1.5 times more likely than those raised by their biological parents to report mental health problems, with the adopted being closer to twice as likely as those raised by biological parents to report the same thing.

Donor offspring are more than twice as likely as those raised by biological parents to report substance abuse problems. ("My Daddy's Name Is Donor" released by the Commission on Parenthood's Future, executive summary, p.9)

Note that the mothers choosing donor insemination were better educated and slightly better off financially than the comparison group of traditional couples - so the worse outcomes can't be put down to socio-economic factors.

Jennifer Aniston is wrong. Family is not just "what is around you". It's not just you and your dog or you and your friends. Such relationships might be important to people in various ways, but family is something else. Family has to do with fatherhood and motherhood and with the care, nurturing and socialisation of children.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Chapter 1: What is shaping the West?

What has brought us to the way we are now? What can explain the rapid changes in Western societies?

To answer these questions you need to know the world view of the Western political class. It is the belief system shared by the Western political class which determines what is thought to be moral and legitimate, which then, over time, drives society in a particular direction.

But what orthodox view is shared by nearly all members of this class?

Liberalism as orthodoxy

The Western political class shares a commitment to a liberal political philosophy. There are very few politicians, academics, writers or intellectuals whose beliefs are not based on an underlying liberalism.

That’s why an American professor of politics, Steven Kautz, is able to state that,
The political philosophy of liberalism ... is in some sense our political philosophy: we are somehow all liberals. [1]

The political writer James Kalb observes that,
Liberalism so surrounds us that it is hard to imagine an alternative. Even those who see difficulties with it almost never reject it fundamentally, but attempt to reinvent it in some way or another. [2]

Professor Appiah of Princeton University describes liberalism as encompassing,
... nearly all members of nearly all of the mainstream political parties in Europe and North America. [3]

Alasdair MacIntyre, a philosophy professor at the University of Notre Dame, tells us that,
Contemporary debates within modern political systems are almost exclusively between conservative liberals, liberal liberals, and radical liberals. There is little place in such political systems for the criticism of the system itself, that is, for putting liberalism in question. [4]

Another prominent political philosopher, Professor John Gray, believes that,
We are all liberals nowadays ... It sometimes seems as if the spectrum of ideas in political life ranges from the sovereign consumer of the neo-liberal right to the sovereign chooser of the egalitarian left. [5]

According to Dr Phillip Cole, a senior lecturer in politics,
normative political philosophy at present simply is predominantly liberal political philosophy [6]

And Professor John Schwarzmantel, who teaches politics at the University of Leeds, holds that,
Contemporary liberal-democracy is an ideological society, where a particular version of liberalism prevails ... [which] has been able to ... capture if not public enthusiasm then at least acceptance as ‘the only game in town’. This then gives rise to a very impoverished spectrum of ideological and political debate... [7]

Next chapter: Autonomy theory

[1] Steven Kautz, Liberalism & Community (New York: Cornell University Press, 1997), 28.

[2] James Kalb, The Tyranny of Liberalism (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2008), x.

[3] Kwame Anthony Appiah, The Ethics of Identity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), xi.

[4] Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (University of Notre Dame Press, 1998).

[5] John Gray, “What liberalism cannot do,” New Statesman, 20 September 1996, 18.

[6] Phillip Cole, Philosophies of Exclusion: Liberal Political Theory and Immigration (Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2000), xi.

[7] John Schwarzmantel, “Hegemony and Contestation in Post-ideological Society,” Paper presented at the ECPR Joint Sessions of Workshops, Uppsala, 13-17 April 2004.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Editor: let's end the conspiracy of silence

I'm happy to be able to report some more good news. Another mainstream opinion maker has questioned the benefits of mass immigration.

Ross Gittins is the economics editor of the Sydney Morning Herald. His opinion piece today (in the Melbourne Age) is well worth reading.  He begins by noting that for many years the political elite has deliberately ignored popular opinion on the issue:

Something significant has happened in this hollow, populist election campaign: the long-standing bipartisan support for strong population growth - Big Australia - has collapsed. Though both sides imagine they're merely conning the punters, it's hard to see how they'll put Humpty Dumpty together again. Which will be no bad thing.

The original bipartisanship was a kind of conspiracy. The nation's business, economic and political elite has always believed in economic growth and, with it, population growth, meaning it has always believed in high immigration.

Trouble is, stretching back to the origins of the White Australia policy, the public has had its reservations about immigration. Hence the tacit decision of the parties to pursue continuing immigration, but not debate it in front of the children.

But immigration has now become an election issue and Gittins thinks this is a good thing:

Gillard and Abbott have attracted criticism from commentators wedded to the old way of doing things, but the end of the conspiracy of silence is a good thing. Whatever the public's reasons for frowning on immigration, it does have disadvantages as well as advantages and the two ought to be weighed and debated openly.

Gittins is sceptical about the benefits of mass immigration because of its effects on the environment. But he also believes that for the native born that there is an economic cost as well:

Even when you ignore the environmental consequences, the proposition that population growth makes us better off materially isn't as self-evident as most business people, economists and politicians want us to accept. Business people like high immigration because it gives them an ever-growing market to sell to and profit from. But what's convenient for business is not necessarily good for the economy.

Since self-interest is no crime in conventional economics, the advocates of immigration need to answer the question: what's in it for us? A bigger population undoubtedly leads to a bigger economy (as measured by the nation's production of goods and services, which is also the nation's income), but it leaves people better off in narrow material terms only if it leads to higher national income per person.

So does it? The most recent study by the Productivity Commission found an increase in skilled migration led to only a minor increase in income per person, far less than could be gained from measures to increase the productivity of the workforce.

What's more, it found the gains actually went to the immigrants, leaving the original inhabitants a fraction worse off. So among business people, economists and politicians there is much blind faith in population growth, a belief in growth for its own sake, not because it makes you and me better off.

Gittins doesn't believe mass immigration has improved the standard of living:

Why doesn't immigration lead to higher living standards? To shortcut the explanation, because each extra immigrant family requires more capital investment to put them at the same standard as the rest of us: homes to live in, machines to work with, hospitals and schools, public transport and so forth.

Little of that extra physical capital and infrastructure is paid for by the immigrants themselves. The rest is paid for by businesses and, particularly, governments. When the infrastructure is provided, taxes and public debt levels rise. When it isn't provided, the result is declining standards, rising house prices, overcrowding and congestion.

So the option is either to raise taxes and/or national debt, or to allow the quality of infrastructure to decline. In Australia it seems to have been the latter option.

How much influence will the opening up of public debate on this issue have? It's difficult to say. The business lobbies do still have a great deal of influence, so I'm not expecting any immediate policy breakthroughs.

But it's nonetheless significant that papers like The Age are carrying such articles. It's possible that there has been a shift of sorts within the political class on the issue and hopefully this will lead to a less one-sided debate in the years to come.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Was free love really so free?

Have you ever heard of the Oneida Community? It was founded in the 1840s by the American John Humphrey Noyes.

Noyes started out as a theologian. He recognised that the Bible was strong on marriage, but thought that believers were called upon to live in a "resurrection state", i.e. to live posthumously, as if in the afterlife. And in the afterlife there were no laws regarding marriage or divorce. Instead, there was openness and service to all, equally.

Noyes therefore held that believers should reject monogamous marriage and replace it with pantogamy, in which there would be no "selfish possession" when it came to sexual relations. As the Oneida Handbook put it,

In the resurrection, marriage was to be superseded by universal unity ... We have thus far carefully traced the doctrine of Christ and Paul on the subject of marriage ... We have found them not in favor of divorce, and not polygamists, but pressing toward the cessation of marriage itself ...

pantogamy ... recognizes the continued existence of the sexual relation, but excludes ownership, and replaces human beings where they were as children - in friendship and freedom, without selfish possession.

... in that posthumous state which we are taught to pray for and expect on earth, the relation of the sexes will be that described in Christ's prayer - "that they may all be one, even as I and my Father are one" - which we call pantogamy.

It seems that if you were an American radical in the 1830s you still had to find justification for your views in the Bible. But this wasn't Noyes's only source of authority. He mixed the Bible with scientism - his aim was to achieve "scientific" forms of social organisation (rather than "sentimental" ones).

And he often sounded something like a radical left-liberal, believing in feminism, freedom, equality and progress to human perfection.

It was Noyes who coined the term "free love" to denote the abolition of marriage and its replacement by non-possessive, multiple sexual relationships. He founded a community of several hundred people on this basis that lasted for 30 years. So how did it work out in practice?

The commune

The commune had a conception of itself as being "free, open and democratic," as "enlightened," and as practising "sexual freedom".

It also saw itself as feminist, with women there pioneering the wearing of pants and working alongside the men:

Always concerned for the plight of women in modern society, under Noyes' belief in the equality of the sexes, the group went in for communal cooking and housekeeping as well as group farming, the men and women sharing in all the work.

But the "free love" practised at Oneida was in reality not so free and not so loving. The community was highly regulated, with "a complex bureaucracy of 27 standing committees and 48 administrative sections" for just 300 people.

One of these committees, headed by Noyes himself, decided who would be allowed to embark on a sexual relationship. There was a principle of Ascending Fellowship, which meant that older members of the community were paired up with younger members. This meant that Noyes and a few of the other older men were paired up with very young girls (twelve or thirteen years old). Noyes at times used his power to determine relationships to maintain control over the community.

So relationships weren't really so free. And there were limitations on love as well. Couples weren't supposed to get too attached to each other, as this was thought to be too exclusive and detrimental to a commitment to the community. It was condemned as "idolatrous worship".

Nor was there much opportunity for maternal or paternal love. In the early years of the community, Noyes sought to prevent children being born. Men were supposed to practise "continence" as a form of birth control (i.e. withdrawal). Later on, Noyes became interested in the science of eugenics. He set up another committee, with himself at the head, to decide on applications from those wishing to conceive.

The children born from this system of stirpiculture were allowed to stay with their mothers, for breastfeeding purposes, for 15 months. Afterwards, they were removed to be raised communally by those considered expert at the job. The children were rotated at night between different members of the community according to a principle of "non-attachment".

So there was sex and work but a repression of marital love and maternal love. In this, the Oneida communists (a term they used themselves) were strikingly similar to later radical moderns. I'm reminded of the Spanish anarchists of the 1930s who passed a resolution stating that for those comrades suffering from "the sickness of love ... a change of commune will be recommended". Alexandra Kollontai, the Russian Bolshevik of the 1920s, wrote similarly that love was,

an expenditure of precious time and energy ... utterly worthless ... We, the women of the past generation, did not yet understand how to be free. The whole thing was an absolutely incredible squandering of our mental energy, a diminution of our labour power.

It is certainly true that we ... were able to understand that love was not the main goal of our life and that we knew how to place work at its center...

For those who wish to control or manage people according to a perfectionist ideology, love and marriage will often be looked on as a threat - as binding people to each other and creating independent sources of loyalty and commitment.

It's interesting too that Noyes promoted mediocrity as best suited to life in an egalitarian commune:

We must all be mediocre and avoid abnormal or excessive development in the individual, since forms of excellence are at the expense of other individuals who are less endowed.

How did it end?

Two factors led to the demise of the Oneida community. First, there were younger men who did not accept that the older men should have the rights over the younger women. So an oppositional faction to Noyes emerged.

Second, when the women were finally allowed to have children, they then started to want to marry for the purposes of security. There is possibly an insight into the nature of women here. When women are young and childless they are possibly more accepting of acting from sexual impulse alone. But when they have young children, the instinct for the security provided by a husband is at its strongest. Women at this point in their life can develop the qualities associated with the "loving wife and mother".

Perhaps that's one reason I'm troubled by the advent in Australia of paid maternity schemes. At just the time that a woman might look to her husband for security and develop the qualities in herself that are likely to ground a lifelong marriage, the government steps in to provide security instead.

Anyway, an ageing Noyes did finally concede and allowed the women to marry. By the 1880s, the Oneida experiment went into decline.

There are many conclusions to be drawn from the Oneida Community. But perhaps one of the most significant is that attacking traditional marriage is unlikely to lead to a "sexual utopia" in which people freely and equally exchange partners.

At Oneida, in spite of the idealism and the rhetoric about free love, once the traditional restraints were gone the older men used their power in the community to win sexual access for themselves to very young women (to girls). They were in effect reverting to the customs of more primitive societies: they were enacting a civilisational regress rather than a progress.

Whatever its faults, traditional marriage is more egalitarian than the alternatives (allowing everyone a strong chance to partner, to have a sexual relationship and to bear children); it avoids generational conflict (in which fathers and sons are set against each other in competition for women); it is pro-natalist (as the emphasis is not on keeping all women available for sexual purposes); it provides protection for women from more primitive customs of pairing girls with much older men; and it also forms an independent unit of society that helps to prevent total power over individuals by those governing society.