Sunday, June 30, 2019

Ginsburg on feminism

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, once defined feminism as follows:
"Feminism … I think the simplest explanation, and one that captures the idea, is a song that Marlo Thomas sang, 'Free to be You and Me.' Free to be, if you were a girl—doctor, lawyer, Indian chief. Anything you want to be. And if you’re a boy, and you like teaching, you like nursing, you would like to have a doll, that’s OK too. That notion that we should each be free to develop our own talents, whatever they may be, and not be held back by artificial barriers—manmade barriers, certainly not heaven sent."

This definition conjures up a feeling that feminism is an expansive movement, one that is opening up new vistas of human experience to people, more opportunities, new fields of endeavour.

Maybe this is what some feminists intended or hoped for. I would argue, though, that in practice things have moved the opposite way - that there has been a narrowing of life for most people, a "thinning" of human experience, especially of those aspects of life that once provided a sense of meaning, identity and emotional support to individuals.

Why have things moved the wrong way? It is important to understand that the principle set out by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, as a matter of logic, disallows as much as it permits. And what it disallows is, arguably, much more significant that what it grants.

What Ginsburg is arguing for is the autonomy principle, namely that what matters is a freedom to self-determine. Whatever is a barrier to us self-determining is thought of as a limitation, a cage, from which we have to be liberated.

We do not get to determine our sex. Therefore, according to the autonomy principle our sex should not influence what we might do or be in life. Ginsburg herself wrote:
The gender line helps to keep women not on a pedestal, but in a cage

And the Marlo Thomas song that she believes defines feminism has the stanzas:
They're closing down 'Girl Land'
Some say it's a shame
It used to be busy
Then nobody came

... And soon in the park
That was 'Girl Land' before
You'll do as you like
And be who you are.

There is an unfortunate logic at play here in which a girl can only "do as you like / And be who you are" by denying her own girlhood, something that you would think would be at the core of who she is and how she identifies.

It is the same when it comes to family life. To be autonomous means being independent. But a stable, successful marriage requires that men and women cultivate those aspects of their given nature, and those social roles, that make them truly interdependent.

Similarly, successful relationships require that individuals discipline themselves to a higher concept of behaviour, one that promotes high trust and one that places relationships within a larger concept of the good (of service to family, community, nation, God). But autonomy emphasises that we be free to act as we please, to act, as the song puts it, "as you like" without limitations. And so there is a shift to a low trust society with an unstable culture of family life.

There is also an assumption made by those who push autonomy that what matters most as a measure of life is our career. Career success is thought to override other aspects of life that were once thought significant, such as family. We are supposed to live primarily for one thing alone, for our job and for the values associated with it - for work values.

This is more than acceptable to those who have the most power in society. First, because it represents their own value set, but also because it focuses human life on patterns of work and consumption that benefits the plutocracy at the top of society.

If you think back just a few generations, an individual might have felt deeply connected in terms of purpose, social role, belonging, pride, self-worth, commitment, love and identity to the communities they were a part of (town, city, state, nation etc.); to family life and the goods associated with this; to their manhood or womanhood and the identity/values/roles attached to this; to long established ideals of moral behaviour (including to honour); and to the experience of what was "transcendent" in life (not self-determined, but a given part of existence) that connected us to the good, the beautiful and the true (in nature, in art, in religion, in love).

Can we trade all of this for a working life within a corporation or institution and claim that our lives have been expanded? That we have a wider circle of life? Or even that we are freer to be ourselves?

In my own experience, the answer is no. It feels instead as if life is being directed, over time, into a singular and narrower channel. This channel begins with the idea that what matters most is that we are self-determined, moves on to the related idea that our lives are then measured by self-achievement within the market place, which then means that we ideally cultivate "executive focus" skills as a means to this success, which then means that our lives are increasingly regulated by the needs and demands of the corporations or institutions we work for.

I am not entirely against this aspect of life. The pressures of work can help us, for instance, to achieve a higher level of self-governance and therefore build character. My concern is that there is little to delimit it, to provide boundaries to prevent it entirely dominating the culture we inhabit.

Which brings me to a further problem with Ruth Bader Ginsburg's approach to expanding life. According to her, the aim is to remove limits or barriers, as this will then give greater opportunity. But limits or barriers are not always a bad thing. They can protect. They can provide a delineated space within which certain aspects of life can be safely cultivated. They can demarcate, i.e. mark out spaces within which the variety of life can be maintained.

If we really wanted to maximise "self-determination" the smart thing would be to establish, as a community, an understanding of a common good, i.e. of what matters most in our individual lives within a community and then to act to secure this common good. This would give us a much greater control over the course of our lives.

As things stand now, our lives are being radically shaped by forces that we feel are alien to us: by powerful interests in society, by distant government, by a media we have no control over, and by a political philosophy which promises freedom from limitation, but which fails to delimit or protect or uphold, and which therefore places no barriers to the ever expanding dominance of work and consumption as the major source of values in modern life.

A note to Melbourne readers. If you are sympathetic to the ideas of this website, please visit the site of the Melbourne Traditionalists. It's important that traditionalists don't remain isolated from each other; our group provides a great opportunity for traditionalists to meet up and connect. Details at the website.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Augustine on freedom

In my recent post on Senator Hawley, I found myself writing about Pelagius - a figure from the early church.

Pelagius is associated with the idea that we, as humans, are free to self-determine, in the sense that we have the power to choose freely between good and evil.

St Augustine was not so sure. He believed that what lay behind the choices we make was more complex and that a "freed will" required both knowledge and feeling to be integrated. This integration of the human will was made possible "by an inseparable connection between growing self-determination and dependence on a source of life that always escapes self-determination".

I'm not enough of a theologian to be fully aware of the implications of this concept of the role of grace. But it does seem to have led Augustine to a sophisticated concept of freedom in which our efforts to self-determine take place, inseparably, in relationship with something that we know is not ours to will. And so freedom is not to be understood in terms of choice:
Freedom, therefore, for Augustine, cannot be reduced to a sense of choice: it is a freedom to act fully. Such freedom must involve the transcendence of a sense of choice. For a sense of choice is a symptom of the disintegration of the will: the final union of knowledge and feeling would involve a man in the object of his choice in such a way that any other alternative would be inconceivable.

(Source: Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography, p.376)

Sunday, June 16, 2019

On middle class life

The middle class has proven resistant to traditionalism. I want to explain some of the reasons for this and suggest how we might identify and appeal to the more disaffected members of this class.

Middle class life today is based on two distinct value sets. The first set I would call elite status values. These are materialistic values such as money, power, social status and conspicuous consumption. The pursuit of career success is at the heart of this value set.

Elite status values aren't new. I remember reading about middle class life in the mid-1800s. It was supposedly the case that a young man wasn't thought to be in a position to marry until he had enough resources to afford to stable horses and have a carriage at his disposal. This meant that some men had to wait until their 30s before they had any prospects for marriage.

What is new is that status has become more narrowly materialistic. Middle-class men in the past were also judged on other criteria, such as their status within a family as husbands and fathers; their uprightness; their masculine character; their commitment to a church; their taste in the fine arts; their education and learning; their self-control and so on. It's an extraordinary thing today to read character portraits that were written in the early to mid-1800s as they are so detailed and perceptive regarding the strengths and weaknesses of the men being described.

The second middle class value set is that of liberal autonomy. The good here is not so much having money, power and status but a freedom to do what you have a mind to do - to freely pursue your aims whatever they might be. It is thought to be just for everyone to have an equal right to this value of individual autonomy.

In certain respects these two value sets are in harmony. If you achieve great success in obtaining money and social influence then you are likely to have more lifestyle choice. Also, by committing yourself to the second value set you can persuade yourself that your life is not narrowly about money but also about a cause (of justice, freedom, equality etc.).

However, there is also a sense in which the two value sets are incompatible. Someone who commits themselves to the corporate grind is not really living a life in which they can choose freely to do whatever they have a mind to do. Their life is closely regulated to meet the needs of the corporation or institution they work for. Also, not everyone has an "equal right" to actually achieve elite status - if they did, then the status would no longer be elite. Most people who commit to the values of elite status will never actually experience this status. They will do the hard work but not get the desired reward. So the egalitarian aspect of the liberal autonomy value set is not compatible with the elitist aspect of the elite values set.

Middle class values are, therefore, not entirely coherent. Nonetheless, people willingly or unwillingly conform to them. If we look at middle class men, I think they fall into two camps. There are some middle class men who are by nature materialistic and ambitious. They are unsettled in life until they achieve career success. There is an equally large group of men, however, who are not like this. These men commit to career not because they think material success is important in itself, but because it is a means to other goods in life, especially the opportunity to attract a wife and to form a family (but also to fulfil aspects of manhood, such as successfully providing for a family, and to raise up the next generation to perpetuate familial and national traditions etc.)

For this second group of men, long hours in an office will seem like a considerable sacrifice in life, and they will be hoping for some reward or recognition for their efforts in bearing this burden. In the past, these men had a good chance of an enduring marriage (admittedly there was no guarantee of a happy marriage); of raising children within their own tradition; and of gaining a level of respect and acknowledgement within society as husbands and fathers.

As for middle class women, they too are committed to achieving elite status. The question for women is whether they aim to do this independently via careers, through marriage or both.

I work among women at the lower end of the middle class pecking order. These are women who are strongly committed to elite status values but who have no prospect of anything other than stressful working lives. A high percentage are either divorced or childless. They are under constant pressure to meet work demands or else face the threat of being called into the boss's office to justify their failings. It is in the nature of our industry that the work consumes a lot of time at home as well.

These women are often discontent and disgruntled, but they are still strongly supportive of the middle class values system. The problem is that they have been raised to believe that men, just in virtue of being men, have complete access to both middle class value sets. In other words, they believe that men already have all the elite status rewards and all the autonomous power to act as they want.

It's a strange belief, perhaps based, in part, on the "apex fallacy" of looking only at those men at the very top of society. What it means, though, is that they think that the way to solve their problems is to force men to share the goods that men are supposedly hoarding for themselves and won't give up.

These women often complain that men have easy lives, can do what they want, that marriage only benefits men, that men have all the power in relationships and so on. It is a mindset destructive of loving relationships, which then further cements the position of these women at the bottom of the elite values pecking order.

But you can see why traditionalism makes no headway among these women. The worse their lives get, the more they double down on the belief that men are to blame. They are held to the system as well by their belief that no matter how difficult their lives it is all for the cause of female liberation.

Unsurprisingly, traditionalism is strongest among middle class women who have commitments other than elite status or autonomy. These are usually religious women who view being a wife and mother as serious vocations.

If traditionalism is to make headway within the middle class, it's more likely to be among men (at first anyway). Not the naturally ambitious, materialistic men, but among those who sign onto careers as a means to achieve other, non-material goods in life.

These other goods are increasingly difficult to obtain - the expectation is growing that we are meant to find a materialistic justification for our lives to be sufficient (combined with some sort of superficial "wokeness" on social issues).

It is likely that numbers of these men will become disaffected. They won't find much joy in the prospect of becoming "bugmen" - corporate wage slaves whose only rewards are ethnic cuisine, new technology and shallow virtue signalling.

So one of our tasks is to find ways to appeal to the sensibilities and values of these men (ideally we would be in a position to concentrate numbers and provide real world, small scale communities, but we're not there yet).

One way to appeal to these men is to develop our own version of elite status. We don't have to reject career success as one aspect of this (industry and self-discipline are virtues after all) but it should go beyond this to include masculine leadership within the family and community.

We can encourage the link between elite status and "polis life" - the active contribution of men to the building and governance of community.

We can also appeal to the type of men I am speaking about by clearly affirming the non-material goods in life that traditionally motivated men. We can, for instance, promote the dignity of the roles of father and husband, connection to people and place, and the cultivation of masculine character.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Senator Hawley's Great Speech

Hawley with his wife and two sons being sworn in
Josh Hawley is currently the youngest American senator, aged only 39. He was invited to give the commencement address for King's College in New York City.

Early in his address, Senator Hawley spoke of a failure in America's public philosophy which he urged the graduates to rectify:
"Your work is only just beginning. For the wider world now beckons you and it is a world in need. And so this morning I remind you of the words of the Apostle Paul, "Fan into a flame the gift that God has given you. For God has not given us a spirit of fear but a spirit of power, and of love and of discipline" - and you will need all three to meet the challenges of our present age.

For we stand at one of the great turning points of our national history. When the failure of our public philosophy and the crisis of our public life can no longer be ignored, and what we do about these needs will define the era that is to come.

For decades now our politics and our culture have been dominated by a particular philosophy of freedom. It is a philosophy of liberation from family and tradition. Of escape from God and community. A philosophy of self-creation and unrestricted, unfettered free choice. It is a philosophy that has defined our age."

This is the philosophy of individual autonomy that is most commonly associated with political liberalism. But Senator Hawley does not name liberalism as the problem. Instead, he believes that we are living in an age of Pelagius, a British theologian who was condemned as a heretic in 418 AD.

Which raises the question of why Senator Hawley connects political liberalism with the theology of a heretical British monk. At first glance, the connection seems tenuous. Pelagius would not have endorsed a modern liberal morality. He belonged to the ascetic wing of the early church. He believed that through our free will we could achieve moral perfection and therefore salvation. His theology was morally demanding. He would have been aghast at the liberal idea that the highest good is a freedom to choose in any direction.

Nonetheless, Pelagius is looked on warmly by some liberals. Why? It seems that when it comes to the critical debate in the early church between Pelagius and Augustine some liberals instinctively prefer the Pelagian view.

The Pelagian view of salvation gives a greater role to individual self-determination. The stress is more on what we achieve through our own will, rather than through unmerited grace or through the sacraments of the church. It is claimed that Pelagius regarded Augustine's theology as giving man too supine a role in relation to God (which made me think of the liberal humanist intellectuals of the late 1800s and early 1900s who wanted man to be co-active with God in steering humanity to its ultimate destination).

The Pelagian view also gives greater emphasis to human perfectibility. The Augustine view was that man inherited sin via the fall and therefore all men, even the saints, were blemished and in need of grace. The Pelagians are said to have rejected this doctrine of original sin. This view would certainly have appealed to some of the early utopian liberals, such as the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. He and his circle bristled at the idea that man's nature was tainted. They believed that we could live in this world as in the Garden of Eden, in an idyllic and perfect state of freedom and equality, doing whatever we had a mind to do, and that this was only prevented by the existence of power structures in society.

Charlotte Allen, writing in First Things, explains the appeal of Pelagius to liberal progressives as follows:
Augustine is at odds with our prevailing climate of opinion, which regards obedience to the will of God as servility, the idea of eternal damnation as unspeakably cruel, and mankind as essentially a race of good people held back only by reactionary political attitudes and unjust social structures. Such views have turned Pelagius into a modern hero, a progressive before his time. As Michael Axworthy wrote in the New Statesman last December, those living in the “liberal, humanist culture of western Europe today . . . believe in free will, in the perfectibility of mankind, in the ability of people to make the right choices, do good, and to make things better.” We are, in a word, Pelagians.

Regardless of how much blame we apportion to Pelagian theology, Senator Hawley does a great job in identifying troubling aspects of "our public philosophy". For instance, in commenting on a significant Supreme Court decision, Hawley observes:
It is the Pelagian vision. Liberty is the right to choose your own meaning, define your own values, emancipate yourself from God by creating your own self. Indeed this notion of freedom says you can emancipate yourself not just from God but also from society: from family, from tradition. The Pelagian view says the individual is most free when he or she is most alone, able to choose his or her own way without interference. Family and tradition, neighbourhood and church, these things get in the way of uninhibited free choice.

Senator Hawley makes a further important point. This view of freedom most suits the elite, who are in a better position to imagine themselves having significant choices in life:
The truth is the people at the top of our society have built a culture and an economy that work mainly for themselves. Our cultural elites look down on the plain virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice, things like humility and faithfulness. They celebrate self-promotion, self-discovery, self-aggrandisement...The elites assume that their interests are vital, while everyone else's can be done without, they assume that their value preferences should prevail, while denigrating the loves and loyalties of the great middle of America...Our Pelagian public philosophy says liberty is all about choosing your own ends - that turns out to be a philosophy for the privileged and for the few. For everybody else, for those who cannot build an identity based around what they buy, for those whose life is anchored in family and home and's Pelagianism robs them of the liberty that is rightfully theirs.

I'd like to draw this point out further. It is concerning to see the anxiety epidemic that is growing among young people. I think the following explanation for this epidemic is perceptive:
I’ve observed in myself and others a deep seated anxiety (which can manifest itself in depression, arrogance, self-loathing, or an affect of neurotic superiority, among other things) which seems to follow from the idea that our worth is ours to either prove or create. Under this idea, even if our worth is unconditional we must live a certain way to make sure that others know this — and if the value of our existence is in our own hands, then we need to make sure we live a certain way in order to justify our existence in this world.

There has been a significant change in how individuals derive self-worth even during the course of my own lifetime. Of course individual ambition and a desire for personal achievement existed when I was younger. But this was not the only source of people's sense of worth. There used to be a much stronger connection to larger social entities that individuals identified with, took pride in and derived a sense of meaning from.

Individual achievement was supplemented by membership of communities with a common fund of achievement that everyone could draw on. These communities were richly overlaid. I remember the civic pride in local suburbs, parochial attachments to city and to state, a sense of national family, as well as participation in a larger Anglo and then Western culture and civilisation. Most of all, there was a positive sense of belonging to a tradition of Australian manhood.

Senator Hawley is right to express concern at the logic of the reigning public philosophy. If it is all about my own self-determined achievement, measured in terms of status, money and social power, then there will be a severe hierarchy of winners and losers (and many of those who "win" will work themselves to the bone to do so).

I believe one of the reasons the philosophy will ultimately fail is because it does denigrate and undermine the loves and loyalties of the common man, expecting him instead to join a contest for elite status, with all the demands and sacrifices of this aim, but with little prospect of success.

Wednesday, June 05, 2019

Houellebecq & Liberal Modernity

Michel Houellebecq
There's an interesting review at American Affairs of Sérotonine, the latest novel by French author Michel Houellebecq.

The reviewer is none other than Thierry Baudet, leader of the Dutch party Forum for Democracy, which made significant gains in the elections in The Netherlands earlier this year.

Baudet notes that the characters in Houellebecq's novels are portrayed as grappling with the alienating effects of liberal modernity - of a society which is focused on maximising individual autonomy to a degree that dissolves traditional forms of identity and belonging and which also makes stable, enduring relationships difficult to maintain:
At some point in the course of their lives, all of Houellebecq’s characters are forced to acknowledge that their romantic ideals have be­come untenable in the modern age, since individualism has made profound, long-term relationships impossible. This simple idea forms the fundamental conviction of Houellebecq’s work. It echoes, in certain ways, Marxist Verelendungstheorie: as technological inno­vations have made jobs boring and interchangeable, and as free trade has destroyed traditional farm life and honest labor, we now pass through life as atomized wage slaves in the service of incomprehensible, unfathomable government organizations and overwhelmingly powerful multinational corporations. Erratic consumer preferences, capricious fashions, and an unpredictable herd instinct dictate the opinions (or the whims and fancies) of most of us who no longer have a family, a home, a church, and a nation to reinforce our sense of identity. Unable to chart a course for ourselves, we are floating around in an empty sea. Rudderless. All control of life—andof who we are—is lost.

The fault lies on both sides of the mainstream political spectrum. As a European, Baudet labels these the social democrats on the left and the liberals (classical liberals) on the right:
Now this fundamental point which Houellebecq makes time and again deserves further reflection, because it challenges the very fun­damentals of both the contemporary “Left” and the “Right.” It challenges modern anthropology as such. Both the social-dem­ocratic and the liberal wing of the modern political spectrum (re­spectively advocating the welfare state and the free market) wish to maximize individual autonomy. Liberalism and socialism differ when it comes to the most effective way to achieve that objective, but they do not differ in the objective itself. They are both liberation movements; they both want the complete emancipation of the indi­vidual.

And both base their vision of society on the (unfounded but supposedly “self-evident”) principle that every individual enjoys certain “inalienable rights,” which by definition eclipse all other claims, and to which all other ties, loyalties, and connections must ultimately be subordinated. Over time, all such institutions that the individual requires to fully actualize a meaningful existence—such as a family and a connection to generations past and future, a nation, a tradition, perhaps a church—will weaken and eventually disappear. Today, even new life (in the womb) may be extinguished to avoid disturbing the individual’s freedom. In the Netherlands (where I live), suicide is facilitated to ensure that here, too, no constraints—such as the duty to care for your parents—are placed on the indi­vidual.

It is this fundamental assumption of the modern age—that individual autonomy (be it through free markets or welfarism) leads to happiness—which Michel Houellebecq challenges.

The weakness that Baudet identifies in Houellebecq's writing is defeatism. Houellebecq captures the descent skillfully but cannot see a way out.

There is much more in the review - I recommend clicking on the link and reading it in full.

Saturday, June 01, 2019