Sunday, December 30, 2012

Paglia the vitalist?

You've probably heard of Camille Paglia. She's a lesbian feminist professor from the U.S. She's generally left-wing, though she doesn't always follow the standard line.

Anyway, she's written a column that's critical of the pop stars Taylor Swift and Katy Perry:
Despite the passage of time since second-wave feminism erupted in the late 1960s, we’ve somehow been thrown back to the demure girly-girl days of the white-bread 1950s. It feels positively nightmarish to survivors like me of that rigidly conformist and man-pleasing era, when girls had to be simple, peppy, cheerful and modest. Doris Day, Debbie Reynolds and Sandra Dee formed the national template -- that trinity of blond oppressors!

As if flashed forward by some terrifying time machine, there’s Taylor Swift, America’s latest sweetheart, beaming beatifically in all her winsome 1950s glory from the cover of Parade magazine in the Thanksgiving weekend newspapers.

The minor note in this comment is a swipe at white people ("blond oppressors"). The major note is a criticism of feminine women. She doesn't like it if women are demure, or girly-girl, or man-pleasing, or peppy, or cheerful or modest.

And what of Katy Perry? Camille Paglia notes that Katy Perry is more overtly sexual than Taylor Swift:
Most striking about Perry, however, is the yawning chasm between her fresh, flawless 1950s girliness, bedecked in cartoonish floral colors, and the overt raunch of her lyrics

But this "overt raunch" doesn't satisfy Paglia - as it's not truly rebellious or decadent:
Whatever sex represents to this generation of affluent white girls, it doesn’t mean rebellion or leaving the protective umbrella of hovering parents. The messy party scenes where everyone boastingly goes crazy don’t have the debasement and ostracism of true decadence once projected by such avant-garde groups as The Velvet Underground and The Doors. No alienation here!

So who does Paglia prefer? Black or Hispanic women like Rihanna, Beyonce and Jennifer Lopez:
Authentic sizzling eroticism does appear among the strata of high-earning female celebrities. Rihanna, who earned $53 million last year, was born and raised on Barbados, and her music ... has an elemental erotic intensity, a sensuality inspired by the beauty of the Caribbean sun and sea. The stylish Rihanna’s enigmatic dominatrix pose has thrown some critics off. Anyone who follows tabloids like the Daily Mail online, however, has vicariously enjoyed Rihanna’s indolent vacations, where she lustily imbibes, gambols in the waves and lolls with friends of all available genders. She is the pleasure principle incarnate.

That's interesting. By now Camille Paglia is beginning to sound like a vitalist nihilist, i.e. as someone who, to overcome a void in their lives, feels the need for excitement, novelty, intense experience of any sort (that's the vitalist part) and who also wants to pull down what is left of society or social values (hence the emphasis on debasement, rebellion, decadence and alienation).

There's more:
With her multicultural roots ... Beyonce draws on the emotional depths of black gospel as well as the brazen street sass of hip-hop, which produced her formidable persona of Sasha Fierce. Urban rappers’ notorious sexism seems to have made black female performers stronger and more defiant. But middle-class white girls, told that every career is open to them and encouraged to excel at athletics, are faced with slacker white boys nagged by the PC thought police into suppressing their masculinity -- which gets diverted instead into video games and the flourishing genre of online pornography.

The emotional deficiencies in sanitized middle-class life have led to the blockbuster success of the five Twilight films as well as this year’s The Hunger Games...

The insipid, bleached-out personas of Taylor Swift and Katy Perry cannot be blamed on some eternal law of “bubblegum” music...

...Middle-class white girls will never escape the cookie-cutter tyranny of their airless ghettos until the entertainment industry looks into its soul and starts giving them powerful models of mature womanliness.
Again, we're being presented with an image of boring, middle-class, whitebread whites in contrast with more vital and alive blacks and Hispanics. In this viewpoint, Rihanna is the role model even if she gets beaten up by the boyfriend she then returns to (which is a more "vitalist" experience, I suppose, than having a merely nice husband).

It's interesting, though, that moderns who choose to go down the vitalist path sometimes reach different conclusions to those who choose the more orthodox liberal path. For Camille Paglia the failure of whites is not in being too powerful and too oppressive, but too repressed and insipid. She is willing, for instance, to recognise that white boys have had their masculinity suppressed by the ruling PC.

The problem with vitalists, though, is that even if they are willing to unleash the masculinity of white boys, it is not to serve the good, but to pursue an unrestrained lifestyle in which what matters is the intensity of sensation in whatever direction, a preference for the primitive, and an unrestrained and unbounded assertion of self.

Perhaps I've read Camille Paglia wrong - after all, it's just one article. It's just that she doesn't seem to have any orientation to what is good or true in society or social mores; it's all about avoiding what is bland and insipid in favour of what is intense or challenging, no matter what it is. If Taylor Swift were to swear black and blue on stage, or act like Madonna and wear weird corsets and flash on stage, I get the impression that Camille Paglia would be impressed and think things were moving in the right direction.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Academic wants heads to roll

Richard Parncutt is originally from Melbourne but now works as a professor of musicology at the University of Graz in Austria.

He's predictably a leftie, with an interest in Aborigines, racism and global warming. He is also a person who is strongly opposed to the death penalty, even for mass murderers:
I have always been opposed to the death penalty in all cases, and I have always supported the clear and consistent stand of Amnesty International on this issue. The death penalty is barbaric, racist, expensive, and is often applied by mistake. Apparently, it does not even act as a deterrent to would-be murderers. Hopefully, the USA and China will come to their senses soon.

Even mass murderers should not be executed, in my opinion.

So is he then a tender hearted man of the left? Well, no. He may be against the death penalty "in all cases" as being "barbaric" but he has published an article calling for global warming sceptics (and the Pope) to be executed.

This is despite the fact that he recognises the uncertainty around climate science. He reasons oddly that there is a statistical formula by which we know that millions will die from global warming:
given the inherent uncertainty surrounding climatic predictions, even exaggerated accounts must be considered possible, albeit with a low probability. Consider this: If ten million people are going to die with a probability of 10%, that is like one million people dying with a probability of 100%.

Having "proven" that a million people are going to die from global warming he feels justified in concluding that those who are sceptics on the issue of global warming should rightly get the death penalty:
So far, the political response to the threat of GW has been lots of talk and little action. But action is urgently needed. We are in a very real sense talking about something similar to the end of the world. What will it take to get people to sit up and listen?

Much more would have happened by now if not for the GW deniers.

....The problem gets even more uncomfortable when you consider the broader context. Even without GW (or ignoring the small amount that has happened so far), a billion people are living in poverty right now...The United Nations and diverse NGOs are trying to solve this problem, and making some progress. But political forces in the other direction are stronger. The strongest of these political forces is GW denial.

So global warming sceptics are not only bringing about the end of the world, they are also blocking the progress of the UN in solving world poverty - exactly how isn't explained by Parncutt. He seems bent on finding a group of "saboteurs" who are blocking the path of leftist progress.

Anyway, having convinced himself that there is a 100% probability that global warming sceptics will kill a million people he proposes to make this figure the cut off point of who is eligible for the death penalty. Kill 900,000 and you're safe, but 1,000,000 and you've gone too far:
I wish to claim that it is generally ok to kill someone in order to save one million people. Similarly, the death penalty is an appropriate punishment for GW deniers who are so influential that one million future deaths can with high probability be traced to their personal actions.

This means that the Pope and his advisers must also be executed. Why? For opposing contraception:
That raises the interesting question of whether and how the Pope and his closest advisers should be punished for their consistent stand against contraception in the form of condoms...There is a clear causal relationship between the Vatican’s continuing active discouragement of the use of condoms and the spread of AIDS, especially in Africa. We are talking about millions of deaths, so according to the principle I have proposed, the Pope and perhaps some of his closest advisers should be sentenced to death.

Again, oddly, having proposed to end any debate on global warming by threatening to arrest and execute the sceptics, Parncutt then defends freedom of speech:
I have freedom of speech, which is a very valuable thing.

Where did all this come from? It seems that Parncutt is a supporter of a left-wing NGO called The World Future Council. Part of the programme of this council is to establish the concept of "crimes against future generations." You can see from Parncutt's article, though, the dangers inherent in this concept of "crimes against future generations".

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Should we welcome our weaknesses?

A few days ago I wrote a post criticising a homily given by a local priest. The priest had argued that Mary was not favoured because she was special but because she was a poor confused peasant girl and that God favours the poor, broken down and marginalised. The equivalent of Mary in the modern world, continued the priest, are the likes of the Sri Lankan refugees and the Palestinians in the occupied territories.

I agreed with the priest that it is sometimes when we are at our lowest that the egoistic self gives way and we become more receptive to God. But I wrote too that:
I find it difficult to believe that we should automatically side with whoever seems to be most powerless, as if being powerless defines you as good.

In the comments I added some further thoughts, which several readers have urged me to include in a post. The gist of it is that focusing always on being weak or powerless can be one factor in alienating men from Christianity:
I know people whose fathers have died and it sometimes affects them very deeply. Not just in the sense of mourning a lost one, but in the sense of their existential stability. The father brought a sense of assurance and stability to their lives.

And this is an aspect of men attempting to be strong for the benefit of those around them, those they are responsible for.

The interpretation of Christianity made by my local priest suggests that a man who is successfully strong in this way is separating himself from the good. He should instead focus on and identify with being powerless, broken down, marginalised etc.

If this is true it sets up an irresolvable contradiction in the lives of men. Our worldly role would be to be strong; our religious role would be to be weak.

I don't think this is how Christianity was understood by previous generations of Christians. I think instead the idea that we should treat well "the least amongst you" meant that those who were strong should not abuse those less fortunate.

You can see this is in the ethos of the Christian knight; you can see it in Western literature (as when in a Jane Austen novel the heroine is chastised for mocking a poor widow).

Is it not true that men should be morally strong and self-disciplined? That men should be strong in wisdom and prudence? That men should be strong in discharging their duties to family and community? Whilst at the same time serving God in a spirit of humility? (i.e. not adopting a stance of arrogant, closed off self-sufficiency).

Cannot the Church sometimes encourage men to be strong? (For instance, in their role as husbands and fathers within a family?)

Maybe this is part of the reason why many men don't feel as connected to Christianity as they might. They know that they have to develop their masculine strengths as best they can, but when they sit in a church they hear a message that identifies the good with being broken down, weak and marginalised.

It's not that churches shouldn't challenge the way people ordinarily think, but in this case the churches are challenging genuine duties held by men. It makes the message heard by men in the churches feel alien to their deeper conscience.

I'd like to hear a sermon which praises men for a strength of perseverance in working to support their families. Or for a strength in maintaining composure when there is stress within their families. Or for exercising a masculine protectiveness in stepping in when their wives need support. And so on.

And rather than charity meaning supporting Palestinians against Israelis, maybe it could be an encouragement to do something practical and local, for instance, helping an elderly person maintain their home, or doing some maintenance work for the local kindergarten.

I wrote this several days ago, but the significance of it has been confirmed by the Christmas Day sermon of the next Archbishop of Canterbury, Bishop Justin Welby. In this sermon, you get the same theme that Christians should aim to be vulnerable and weak as this is what makes a man receptive to God's transforming love. I can't reproduce the whole sermon but here are some snippets:
This is the true triumph, of utter vulnerability that in weakness overthrows every apparent strength.

Glorifying God, leaking into the world the love that he leaks into us through the wounds and breaches and gaps of our own lives

we do in the world what God does in us. We receive His love where we are vulnerable and weak, and lose sight of it when we claim strength and power. Christians reach to the jagged edges of our society, and of the world in general.

we must begin with weakness and vulnerability

God comes to us through the breaches and wounds of our lives because He comes in utter vulnerability. We are to be those who allow Him to make us vulnerable, welcome the weakness we have

It's not that I think this is entirely false. There are people who on hearing this kind of message might let go of their egoistic defences and become more receptive to the Christian message.

But think of the logic of what is being proposed in Bishop Welby's sermon. If it's true that we receive God's love when we are vulnerable and weak, then presumably we are to aim at being vulnerable and weak (we are to welcome our weaknesses, rather than trying to overcome them). And mere powerlessness, rather than goodness or faithfulness, becomes the deciding factor in who is most blessed. The Palestinians get to be defined as the good guys not because their cause is deemed just or because their acts are deemed more moral, but simply because they don't as yet have the upper hand. And if they do get the upper hand, then they won't be the good guys anymore - they'll drop back in moral status.

Nor is it true, in my opinion, that we are only open to God "in extremity". It could be claimed equally that the religious experience is often a "peak experience" - one that comes to us most forcefully when we are physically and mentally at our best. And when this happens, we have a sense not of powerlessness but of our powers being held in their proper place. It is a feeling of being completed or fulfilled in who we are, and it is that feeling which brings us a sense of peace, of a natural sense of humility before God, of the Biblical virtue of "prautes" (a measured, deliberate, self-possessed response to things) and of a desire to serve God's will. But it is definitely not an experience of weakness or powerlessness.

Finally, I don't think it's true either that the only way for a church to encourage people to be open to the religious experience is by emphasising our weakness as a way of dissolving an excessive egoism. Churches might also encourage time for contemplation and prayer; inspiring forms of architecture, music and art; a form of the mass that imparts a sense of the sacred; and a striving toward moral virtue.

And many people are led toward a religious outlook by what they experience as beautiful, good and true and which then inspires their particular loves. They might be inspired in this way by an ideal of manhood or womanhood, by the love they feel for their spouse or children, by the higher forms of art and culture, by the beauty of nature or by the goodness they discern within a communal life and tradition.

Bishop Welby's Christianity doesn't and can't speak to any of this, as it defines the good narrowly in terms of weakness, vulnerability and powerlessness. I don't think this is a form of Christianity that is likely to stand in the longer term. It leaves too much out and, as I argued in my comment, it establishes a particular difficulty for men who are called on to be strong for the benefit of those around them.

Sourp Sourp

I wasn't expecting to like this so much: it's a high school choir singing an obscure Armenian hymn with poor sound quality. But for one minute, from 00:20 to 1:20 it's very good. (Hat tip: Tiberge)

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Merry Christmas

A Merry Christmas to all my readers!

A fifteenth century nativity scene by Paolo Schiavo

Sunday, December 23, 2012

I failed the test of suburban Catholicism again

I took my son to mass this morning at my local parish church. My approach these days to suburban Catholicism is not to expect too much and just to look for the good things in the mass.

And I was going very well until the sermon. The argument of the sermon was that Mary wasn't such a pure or special person, she was just an ordinary, confused peasant girl. This is because God favours the powerless, the marginalised and the broken.

This isn't what set me off. There's a saying that "In man's extremity is God's opportunity" - meaning that when we reach a low point it's possible that our egoistic self lets go and we become open to the religious experience.

But what do you conclude from this? I would have thought the conclusion would be that we shouldn't allow ourselves to become so comfortable and complacent that we live through a worldly, egoistic self alone. Nor that we should think that the truths of religion are limited to the rich and powerful and favoured.

But the priest went in a different direction. His conclusion was that we should identify with whoever seemed to be the most powerless. So he said that the modern equivalents to the powerless in the Bible are the Sri Lankan refugees and the Palestinians in the occupied territories.

So he arrived, by way of suburban Catholicism, at exactly the same conclusion that a secular liberal would arrive at, namely that the point of it all is to identify with refugees and Palestinians.

It seems to me, first, to be a ridiculously cut-down version of a religion. Second, I find it difficult to believe that we should automatically side with whoever seems to be most powerless, as if being powerless defines you as good. It's a bit like when a Marxist decides to support someone on the basis of their class ("He's the more working-class one, therefore he is in the right").

Anyway, I ended up doing what I tell myself over and over not to do, which is to walk out.

I hope this post hasn't sounded too light in tone. The falling away of suburban Catholicism is a serious thing. Someone I know who has attended mass for many decades every Sunday recently stopped attending; he told me he no longer believes. And I can understand this, as there is no longer much of a religious culture within the average suburban Catholic parish.

I'm not going to stop attending, but I no longer think I can rely on the church when it comes to my children's upbringing. I'm planning to set aside some time on a Sunday to go through things with my son myself.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

What's happening to Canadian Christianity?

I wrote a post recently on some female Anglican priests who performed the play The Vagina Monologues in a cathedral.

A reader has pointed out to me that the United Church of Canada (the equivalent of the Uniting Church here in Australia) is no better. But before I point out what's happening in that church I'd like to set out a theory of what's going wrong in a number of Christian churches.

The theory goes like this. A church that is functioning well is going to create a religious culture through which its members will come to a sense of communion with the divine. But there are Christian churches now which are either abandoning or compromising this function.

What they are increasingly focusing on is the idea of bringing meaning or purpose to their members' lives through involvement in a series of causes, such as environmentalism, the Palestinians, Aborigines or refugees.

It is no coincidence that this aligns these churches very closely with liberalism. There are a lot of liberals who like to believe that they have a "deep social conscience" which means that they support the marginalised and dispossessed. It's likely that Western liberals were influenced by Christianity in this, as it is a part of Christianity to be concerned for "the least amongst you". It's possible that liberals secularised this aspect of Christianity and ran with it. And now this secularised liberal ethos is making its way back into the churches from which it most likely originated, albeit as part of a larger and more integrated religious view of things.

What does it mean when churches go with a secularised "cause" based approach rather than the more traditional "religious culture" one? Here's one significant problem. A religious culture was one of the forces protecting against anomie; it was significant in bringing a sense of a moral universe to the individual, of the goods of family life, of the sacred purpose of social roles and social hierarchies, of a higher purpose of art and culture. It helped, in other words, to protect against the dissolving of society and social roles and relationships and identities.

So the more that the churches abandon the traditional function, the more likely it is that anomie will increase, which then means that cause based satisfaction will have to be ramped up even more to compensate for this.

And here's another unfortunate consequence. Because there is so little difference between the secular liberal ideal of "social conscience" and the new church focus on "social justice" or "cause" based satisfaction, then there is little to prevent members of the churches from drifting away into the secular liberal mainstream. Why go to church if you can get the same thing in your daily secular programming?

Which brings me back to the United Church of Canada. The process of abandoning a religious culture in favour of a secular cause based one seems to have gone further in this church than elsewhere (though even in suburban Catholic parishes here in Melbourne the process has gone some way). There are parishes of the United Church which have adopted what they call "post-theism"; they continue to talk in a vague way about spirituality but they no longer have religious beliefs:
It’s community prayer time at West Hill United, and a microphone is being passed from hand to hand between the pews. Overhead, colourful streamers resembling a rainbow dangle wistfully, nearly concealing a cross on the wall beyond. A few of the 50 or more people packed into the church on a November Sunday seem to bare all during this time: one offers a prayer for the quashed federal climate change bill, and another remembers a neighbour who has hurt her ankle. A woman stands up to share her battle with depression and reveals she’s been going through a dark stage in her life. “I just ask that I be kept in your thoughts and prayers,” she says, her voice fragile but clear in the Scarborough, Ont., sanctuary.

She wasn’t asking for God’s strength or for a miracle. West Hill identifies itself as a post-theistic congregation, one that does not believe in a supernatural being or an interventionist, capital “G” God, but rather in the sacredness inherent in leading a life of justice and love. And so the woman’s plea was met with “May love abound,” a blessing spoken in unison by the people around her.

Post-theism has quietly emerged in individual United Church ministries across Canada that desire a sense of intellectual satisfaction and nurturing and inspiration in their spiritual lives, qualities they say the traditional format fails to offer. Post-theistic churches use the Bible sparingly, acknowledging its contents as myth — or don’t reference it at all. Many write their own music, use contemporary songs to convey their values or change the lyrics to familiar tunes. Prayers aren’t addressed to God, but to the community and its innate sacredness.

West Hill’s shift to post-theistic worship began in 2001 when the Board decided to gradually shed the word “God,” says Rev. Gretta Vosper, the minister of West Hill and author of With or Without God: Why the Way We Live Is More Important than What We Believe. “In the United Church, we’re very strong about praying for guidance, praying for strength, praying for courage, and if you take that idea of an interventionist God . . . away, nothing has really changed,” she says. “You’re still asking for strength, except it’s not coming from some supernatural source. It comes from the community that you gather with.”

Note the emphasis on "leading a life of justice and love". I'll write more about this later, but if there is a theological heresy in the modern Christian churches it comes from a non-traditional understanding of the concept of caritas, i.e. the virtue of love or charity.

A Protestant historian has made the following criticism of the United Church:
It is that reluctance to define doctrinal belief, while at the same time putting an emphasis on social causes, that is making the United Church indistinguishable from many activist secular groups, said Kevin Flatt, a Protestant historian who has studied the United Church for years.

“The main question is, What are the characteristics a religious group needs to have in order to hold on to members and maintain its relevance in our society?” said Prof. Flatt, who teaches at Redeemer University in Ancaster, Ont. “There have been lots of studies that show a religious group has to have a very clear and shared identity and there are boundaries around the group that makes them distinct from the general culture. In the United Church, those lines have blurred.

“What is this organization bringing to the table that doesn’t already exist from a secular perspective? There are many people concerned about the environment who have no belief in God. If you are essentially not bringing anything that’s different, there’s a risk you will be perceived as redundant and groups who are redundant lose members.”

The data on United Church membership seems to back him up:

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Some interesting income data

Dalrock has some interesting data at his site which looks at the earnings of unmarried people in the U.S. by age group. One of the conclusions Dalrock draws is something I also noticed:
I am astounded at the number of unmarried men and women who earn either nothing or extremely small amounts.

The following graph shows the earnings of unmarried men and women aged 30 to 34, an age at which you would expect most people to be finished with study. There are more women than men earning a low income, but even the figure for men is striking. There are 17% of men earning no income; 34% earning less than $15,000 and 68% earning less than $40,000.


Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Unpacking Harry Belafonte

Harry Belafonte hit it big as a singer in 1956 and became known as the King of Calypso. But he was also a political activist from early on.

Harry Belafonte
But here is something to wonder at. Belafonte is often described as a human rights or social justice activist. In 2004 he was even awarded the Domestic Human Rights Award by Global Exchange, an American organisation which is supposedly dedicated to promoting human rights and a living democracy.

That sits oddly with his earlier support for communist causes, given the lack of rights or democracy in such countries. But even more so it sits oddly with his recent comments about political opposition to the policies of Barack Obama.

This is what Belafonte said in an interview:

Interviewer: You've fought for decades for some of the entitlements that the right-wing wants to balance the budget off of...How do you view this?

Belafonte: What's attracted me most to this process is watching the political maturity of the American people, because it was a question during the first election whether Barack would even be elected, and after the turnout so emphatically put him in the presidency, it's interesting to watch the second turnout, when everybody didn't quite know what the game would be. But the American people in their maturity declared themselves fully "We want what Barack Obama is talking about, we want the country to go in that direction". And what fascinates me is that in the midst of millions of Americans expressing their desire, the whole political establishment defining its game, that there should be this lingering infestation of really corrupt people, who sit trying to dismantle the wishes of the people, the mandate that has been given to Barack Obama, and I don't know what more they want, the only thing left for Barack Obama to do, is to work like a Third World dictator and just put all these guys in jail. You're violating the American desire.

The way Belafonte describes it there is an "American desire" which has defined what American politics is to be and only a "lingering infestation of really corrupt people" stand in its way and the only thing left to do is to repress them.

There's a lot to unpack in all of this. I've already pointed out how incongruous it is for Belafonte to win awards from organisations promoting living democracy and domestic human rights and then to hear him talk about jailing "really corrupt people" who dare to be a democratic opposition in America.

But there's more. Belafonte's views in some ways show a danger within democratic politics. One way to understand politics is that it is an effort to order society according to right principles. Democratic politics would be one way of choosing which policies were thought to be most in accord with these right principles.

But this isn't how Belafonte seems to understand democracy. He seems to take seriously the idea that the ultimate standard is not a set of right principles that different parties try to get closest to, but instead it is the "will of the people" itself. The fact that something is desired makes it right.

So if two elections have returned Obama and the Democrats, then the American desire is that of Obama and the Democrats, and that becomes the right by which politics is defined, and then only those who don't accept the right (and who are therefore corrupt) would remain in opposition (i.e. an opposition can't say "Well I think something else is right", as what is right is what is desired and it is Obama and the Democrats that are desired).

In short, there is a danger in making the ultimate standard "the will of the people," particularly when the left senses that it is politically ascendant in the long term.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

France too eternal?

The Miss France competition has just taken place. There were 32 contestants, 8 of them from immigrant backgrounds. But this year the contest was won by an ethnic Frenchwoman, Marine Lorphelin:

Miss France, Marine Lorphelin

The decision hasn't pleased everyone. A group calling itself the Representative Council of Black Associations complained that there weren't enough immigrant competitors and that:
Miss France is as white as the end of year snow on the steeples of an eternal France.

Which I find extraordinary. Imagine migrating to a country and complaining that its very essence - its eternality - is still too present. I say that as someone who has lived in a foreign country (Japan); I wanted to experience the eternal Japan and not kick it to the curb as an offence against my presence there.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Wherefore art thou, Romeoette?

Phyllida Lloyd
Phyllida Lloyd is an English film director. You might know her from movies such as Mamma Mia! and The Iron Lady.

She's hit the news after complaining that there are more roles for men than women in Shakespeare's plays. Her solution is to have the European Union pass laws requiring that theatre companies employ exactly equal numbers of men and women, which would then require "gender blind" casting for roles (i.e. gender wouldn't be taken into account when casting for plays, so that you might end up with a male Juliet and a female Romeo):
Probably the European Union will legislate soon and ... I would imagine, somebody’s going to be shaming the theatre.

They should be just told that they have to have a 50/50 employment spread, then work out how to do the plays.

If that means some gender-blind casting, some all-female, some all-male, it’s not rocket science, and I think they could have some fun

Phyllida is herself a lesbian, which goes part of the way in explaining her enthusiasm for gender bending in the theatre. But her demands do fit in with the liberal idea that our sex, as a predetermined quality, should be made not to matter.

Which brings me to Virginia Valian, an American academic. She believes that women are held back in life by feminine qualities (particularly by nurturing tendencies), but she accepts that such qualities do have at least some basis in biology. So what then is the solution? She believes that despite being grounded in biology our sex can still be made not to matter. We just have to fight biological sex the same way we fight biological disease:
We don’t accept biol­ogy as destiny…. We vaccinate, we inoculate, we medicate.... I propose we adopt the same attitude toward biological sex differences.

She doesn't celebrate biological sex differences, she wants to eradicate them as if they were a disease. Note too that familiar complaint about womanhood being a "biological destiny" (rather than a self-created one).

Virginia Valian

Finally, the Valian quote comes from an article by Christina Hoff Sommers that is worth reading. It discusses the efforts being made in Sweden to dissolve sex distinctions, including the revised reading list at one Stockholm preschool:
Classic fairy tales like Cinderella and Snow White have been replaced by tales of two male giraffes who parent abandoned crocodile eggs.

Friday, December 07, 2012

The feminist fight is....

I've often asserted that feminism is liberalism applied to the lives of women. That means that feminism is the attempt to make women autonomous (self-determining, independent, self-defining).

That's not a great secret. Over the years of writing this blog, I've collected any number of examples of feminists claiming to be interested primarily in female autonomy. And I've got another one to add to the list.

The former First Lady of France, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, made the news recently when she rejected the label of "active feminist":
I'm not at all an active feminist. On the contrary, I'm a bourgeois. I love family life, I love doing the same thing every day.

This led to criticisms from feminists, including a Salon writer, Mary Elizabeth Williams, who defended feminism as being a fight for female autonomy:
you should know that “the fight” is just being an autonomous person in the world.

Ross Douthat also raised the issue of feminism and autonomy in a recent column. Douthat believes (as I do) that below replacement levels of fertility are a problem for advanced societies. But he has met resistance in raising the issue with leftist audiences. This is his appeal to the feminists in his audience:
Likewise for readers who regard any talk about the moral weight of reproductive choices as a subtle attempt to reimpose the patriarchy: Can it really be that having achieved so much independence and autonomy and professional success, today’s Western women have no moral interest in seeing that as many women are born into the possibility of similar opportunities tomorrow?

Douthat is no doubt to the right of much of his audience but he still seems to agree with feminists that the pursuit of autonomy is the higher aim for women in Western societies.

So what's wrong with making autonomy the higher aim?

If what matters is that we are self-determining, then predetermined aspects of life will seem like negative impediments to be overcome. And this includes our sex, our ethny and the traditional family, all of which are inherited in some way rather than self-created. So we lose much when we make autonomy the overriding good.

And how do we maximise autonomy? We are most autonomous when we live a single person lifestyle. That's why Douthat's appeal is unlikely to be effective. If what matters to women is independence, autonomy and professional success then why marry and have children? Marrying and having children decreases independence and autonomy (and in some cases professional success). A liberal society which is focused on maximising autonomy will gradually trend toward more people living alone (as do 50% of Swedes).

Finally, the emphasis on autonomy shouldn't be accepted by those who believe that there are objective goods for humans to be oriented toward. Autonomy is an option for those who don't believe that such goods exist and who opt to believe instead that value or meaning is created through the assertion of human will. If you believe that the only value that exists is the act of self-determining choice, then it won't matter so much what people choose or what they are oriented toward, but rather that they are "equally free" to self-determine.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Eltham Traditionalists update

Regular readers will know that I live in Eltham, an outer suburb of Melbourne. Almost two years ago I set up the Eltham Traditionalists site to allow those interested in traditionalist ideas to meet up in person. The venture has progressed to the stage that a few of us are having regular catch ups.

I do think it's a worthwhile effort to set up informal, local groups like Eltham Traditionalists. We don't at the moment have an institutional base like the unions or business associations. A network of local groups could be a first step in creating such a base, from which other ventures could then be organised.

We've got to the first stage and now need to add to our numbers. So if you're interested, and live within a car drive of Eltham, I'd encourage you to get in touch (contact details are at the Eltham Traditionalists site).

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

An interesting journey

Here's a problem for feminists. The theory tells them that they should maximise their autonomy, by living independent lives in which they do not need men. But where does that leave them when it comes to relationships? If a woman is oriented to independence from men, then what role is a man supposed to play in her life?

You can see this difficulty at work in the life of 30-something American feminist Kristine Solomon. She describes herself as liberal, single and childless.

Kristine Solomon recently read a column by Suzanne Venker and was left conflicted by it. It's Suzanne Venker's belief that some modern women are turning men off marriage by being too angry, too unfeminine and too independent:
Men want to love women, not compete with them. They want to provide for and protect their families – it’s in their DNA. But modern women won’t let them.

This isn't easy for Kristine Solomon to accept:
I didn’t spend all this time establishing a career and a comfortable, independent life so I could be told I’m "doing it wrong."

But even so she finds in Suzanne Venker's piece "basic truths that resonate with me":
The truth is, I do believe that there are certain instincts that are hardwired in men, and others that are hardwired in women, and that many men (perhaps subconsciously) are put off by a woman who asserts her independence too severely. I'm suggesting that when Venker urges us to embrace our "femininity," she isn’t implying that we should back down like scared animals and morph into 1950s sitcom wives. It's okay for women to sometimes exhibit stereotypically gendered behaviors — like nurturing or flirtatiousness — and for men to likewise indulge theirs — chivalry or machismo, for instance. It doesn’t mean we’re compromising our values if we engage in that dance. We’re still equal. We’re just... different. And that’s okay.

She's trying to get to the point at which she can accept "equal but different" and the complementarity of masculine and feminine. Better late than never, but as she admits she took a different view in her 20s:
Trust me, I didn’t always feel this way. I can tell you there have been many times when I've practically breathed fire in the face of my old-fashioned mother for suggesting that I refrain from coming across as "too independent," because, you know, the men I date might believe me and move on to women who do need them. Can you think of anything more offensive to say to an ambitious young woman?!

But, as time passed — and my 20s became my 30s — I began to realize that when I told men I was independent and didn’t "need anyone," many eventually backed off...I was determined to be equal, and my 25-year-old self found even the most remote sign of needing a man to be a weakness; I wouldn’t let myself go there.

She finishes with this somewhat compromised argument:
In my 30s, my approach to dating has changed. I've become even stronger and more independent, in large part because I’m no longer faking it. That freedom has given way to a sense of vulnerability. Traditional, antiquated acts of chivalry like holding a door open, paying on the first date and letting him walk on the outside of the pavement (yes, this is a thing) are welcome now. I don't feel those things lower me in any way, but rather, they make me feel protected and cared for. I don’t feel weak allowing that because I only date men who I know, right off the bat, hold me in high regard and consider me their equal. So there are no sensitive implications to being treated "like a woman." I don't feel I have a chip on my shoulder, and I’m no longer defensive.

She is no longer faking things, but likes feeling protected and cared for. She no longer has such a chip on her shoulder and is willing to accept a sense of vulnerability. But it all still has to be justified in terms of being independent, as she has been brought up to see this as the higher good.

She's wrong in continuing to justify herself in terms of independence; if she were really aiming at independence she would stay single and childless. The truth is that she's beginning to accept other goods as important in her life.

I can't criticise the reforms she is making, but I do find it interesting that she was sensitive, in her 20s, to being treated like a woman. That must have confused the men who tried to make contact with her. It can be difficult enough for people to meet the right person without major stumbling blocks like that being put in their way.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Canadian Anglicans, what are you doing?

Think you've heard it all? Earlier this year a group of eight female Anglican priests performed a play in the Christ Church's Cathedral in Hamilton, Canada. A large audience greeted the play with laughter and a standing ovation.

Smiling Canadian priestesses

What's so bad about that? Well, the play was Eve Ensler's Vagina Monologues. It's a play in which a young teenage girl finds salvation in lesbian sex with an older woman and in which the men are presented as hellish rapists and abusers of women. If you read the play you can't help but think it's the product of a very sick mind. And yet here we have it being performed by smiling priestesses in an Anglican Cathedral and being cheered on by the audience.

Even though these people are fellow Westerners, I don't see myself as belonging to what they have become. They are hurtling away from me; the split is irrevocable.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Getting Girls wrong

National Review Online is supposed to represent the conservative opposition in the U.S. But I hardly ever read it and when I do visit I'm inevitably disappointed.

I had a look at it this morning and read a review by Betsy Woodruff of a new HBO TV series called Girls. Betsy doesn't mince words when reviewing the show:
it’s impossible to tell whether Girls is reflecting or shaping culture. But given how popular the show is and how much scrutiny it has drawn, it’s worth speculating as to which is the case. And for the sake of Western civilization, let’s hope it’s the former. That’s because if Dunham’s vision is prophetic — if it’s helping to forward a larger cultural shift, rather than just depicting a self-contained subgroup — then I think it’s safe to say it’s all over for us.

So there's something in the show that is simply incompatible with civilisation - it's that bad. But what?

At first it seems as if Betsy is going to make a conservative criticism of the show. She notes that the characters are uninterested in morality and devoid of responsibility. And the characters really are living morally bleak lives. In an early episode one of the characters finds out she is pregnant, her friends gather at the abortion clinic but she misses the appointment because she's hooking up with a man at a bar. In another scene from the show the lead character is told she has HPV but a friend reassures her by noting that "all adventurous women have HPV".

But it turns out that Betsy is quite happy with the modern girl lifestyle. What worries her is not what the girls are doing but that they're not proud enough to finance it for themselves. It's that right-liberal versus left-liberal argument again. Both accept that the goal is to be an autonomous agent. For right-liberals like Betsy this means being self-reliant and not depending on the state. For left-liberals it means the state empowering people to live autonomously. Betsy seems to believe that civilisation depends on people taking the right-liberal option and financing their own abortions and contraception rather than expecting the government to subsidise the cost.

Let me give some examples, starting with the worst of the lot. Here is Betsy criticising Girls by comparing its "new vision of women" unfavourably with the vision pursued by second wave feminists:
Second-wave feminists lionized the independent woman who paid her own rent and busted through glass ceilings and ran for Congress. Being totally self-sufficient was the goal. The idea was that women didn’t need men, whether those men were their fathers or husbands or boyfriends or presidents. By contrast, Dunham’s new vision of women as lady parts with ballots is infantilizing and regressive.

What does that paragraph tell you about National Review Online? To me that's a radically liberal view of the world. The aim is to be totally self-sufficient (autonomous) even to the point of not needing fathers or husbands or boyfriends. Betsy thinks that this is an adult and progressive approach to life, because it makes women self-reliant and independent. A left-liberal would simply reply that if justice means women not needing men, then the state can promote justice by increasing the number of women not needing men. Otherwise some privileged women will live a fully human life (independent of men) and others will miss out - an offence against human equality.

And here is Betsy complaining that Girls is not feminist enough:
You’d think the feminist elevation of agency would result in women who take pride in being responsible for their own bodies. You’d hope that telling women that they can do whatever they want would imply that they’re responsible for what they do. You’d think serious feminists would argue that true empowerment is something you lay claim to, not something the federal government dispenses in all its benevolence. But for Dunham, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

Again, there is no in principle disagreement with the philosophy of modernity here. Betsy is just upset with the idea that the left wants women to rely on the state in pursuit of their modern girl lifestyles. If they paid for it themselves, she'd be happy with it.

She makes the same criticism here:
In fact, for all practical purposes, the patriarchy no longer decides whom American women can sleep with and when. That’s great. But if you don’t want men in Washington telling you how to use your sexuality, you shouldn’t expect them to subsidize it. But Dunham seems to actually believe they should. Dunham makes tons of money, and I’m quite confident she can afford to pay for her own birth control. But she doesn’t seem to take pride in that...

Again, she has no problems with the decline of traditional morality - she thinks it's "great" that women can be promiscuous and can use their sexuality for whatever purpose they want. Betsy seems to be unconscious of the possibility that not all choices are the same when it comes to sexuality: that some choices might be elevating and others degrading; that some choices might prioritise love and a commitment to family whilst others might impair the ability to pair bond; and that some choices present risks to health and well-being.

The show itself is possibly a little wiser than Betsy in this regard. Girls does at least portray the more negative consequences of the sexual revolution. It doesn't pretend that if only people paid for their own contraception all would be well.

The thing is, I don't think we need to fear Girls. The lifestyle depicted in the show is so far gone that anyone who adopts it is simply lost to us. Girls portrays left-liberalism in such deep decay that it presents us with the opportunity to demonstrate something much better.

Which is why I fear Betsy a lot more. We are not showing the better alternative if the most right-wing criticism we permit ourselves is to complain about people not self-funding their modernist lifestyles. The opposition to left-liberal decay is, at the moment, a sham and that is what is really holding back a necessary response to it.