Sunday, December 08, 2019

Can feminism be reformed?

PragerU, a classical liberal website, has published a video on feminism. The argument made in the video is that feminism has done great harm to society but only because it has veered away from its founding, liberal principles. Therefore, a new feminism is needed which returns to these principles.

Although I find it encouraging that a right-liberal organisation is so clearly acknowledging the damage done by feminism, it's not difficult to show that the larger argument is wrong and that modern day feminism is a logical development of those foundational liberal principles. Returning to them is just starting over and repeating the process. What's needed instead is a rethink of those early liberal principles.

Here is the video itself:




Tammy Bruce, herself once a leading feminist activist, sets out the first principles when she says:
Dignity is at the core of what feminism should always be about. Dignity means that a woman should always be able to freely choose her own path in life.

Liberalism was an attempt to create a post-Christian philosophy for the West. It argued that human dignity rested on man's ability to live according to self-determining choice, i.e. on his autonomy. Feminism applied the same principle to the lives of women.

Tammy Bruce believes that modern feminism has betrayed this principle. Her complaint is that:
Feminism has downplayed the desire for women to have a family and hyped the rewards of career and casual sex.

She goes on to complain about modern sexual mores as witnessed in music videos and the hookup culture.

However, if the aim is dignity, and dignity means always being able to choose freely what we do, then it is logical that women will reject traditional family roles of being a wife and mother and focus instead on careers. It is also logical that sexual mores will become increasingly libertine.

Let's start with sexuality. I wrote a post some months ago on the popular singer Cardi B. She made a music video showing a dozen or so women twerking - the kind of thing Tammy Bruce is complaining about. One woman on social media did criticise Cardi B for doing this. Cardi B defended her video on the grounds that,
It says to women that I can wear and not wear whatever I want. Do whatever I want and that NO still means NO.

She is defending her twerking video based on the very liberal principle that Tammy Bruce wants to base a "reformed" feminism on, namely that it displays women choosing for themselves as an act of empowerment.

A legion of other women chimed in as well to defend the video for much the same reason. A selection:
Leah: It's because we're free to do what we want with our bodies.

Fatimata: It shows that women can do whatever they want with their bodies...Encouraging women to be themselves and act as they please...

The Hoarse Whisperer: You seem troubled by women having autonomy over what they choose to do with their bodies...

Ahkweah: It shows that as women we can do whatever we want.

The mistake is to see dignity not as a quality in itself to be upheld as a matter of character but as something we gain as through the act of choosing or through self-defining our own good.

This is a debate that goes back quite some way within Western culture. I wrote another post earlier this year about a pamphlet published in 1620 on the topic of transvestism. In the pamphlet there is a woman who chooses to dress like a man and she initially defends this choice on the basis that it represents a genuine freedom. In her mind we are not free if we are subject to any "restraint from those actions which the mind of its own accord doth most willingly desire".

Yes, it's old-fashioned language but it's the same argument being put forward by the followers of Cardi B.

Her opponent in the debate rejects the notion that freedom is a liberty to choose as we please, as this encourages "unbridled appetite" and a "wilfull liberty to do evil":
...what basest bondage, or what more servile baseness, than for the flattering and soothing of an un-bridled appetite, or delight, to take a wilfull liberty to do evil, and to give evil example? This is to be Hells Prentice, not Heaven’s Free-woman.

There was a pre-liberal understanding in the West that we achieved dignity not by asserting our power to choose as we pleased, but by rejecting the baser aspects of our nature in favour of the nobler ones. The debate ends with the male character declaring:
From henceforth deformity shall pack to Hell...we will live nobly like ourselves...ever worthy: true men and true women.

Let me reiterate the basic point I am making here. If what matters is dignity, and dignity is based on a freedom to choose as we will, then you are going to end up in the long run with Cardi B, because that is what the "I will not be restrained or limited in what I choose to do" looks like. If you prefer a culture that has some level of modesty attached to it, then you need something besides the liberal definition of dignity to support it.

And what about women being wives and mothers? At one level, this sounds like it fits the liberal principle logically. If it's about dignity to choose, then why shouldn't some women choose to prioritise family over career?

But there's a catch. If what matters is my own autonomous choice, then I should, as a matter of principle, choose to do things that maximise this choice. And being a wife and mother fails this test. First, it is based on a predetermined gender role, i.e. on an aspect of self that is not self-determined. Second, it is not uniquely chosen but is based on a biological aspect of human nature that is shared by all women. Third, it is based on a notion of interdependent, complementary roles within the family, rather than on independent and individual self-achievement. Fourth, because stable, lifelong commitments place restrictions on who we might choose to live with.

For all these reasons, feminist theorists have often looked down on women choosing to prioritise family. Many have gone so far as to denounce the family as a patriarchal construct that oppresses women. And those who have accepted the family often want to reconstruct it so that it allows for female autonomy, for instance, by delaying family formation; or by having gender neutral roles within the family; or by outsourcing the traditional maternal role to the state; or by having easy divorce laws that favour women.

So you cannot uphold the family on the principle that human dignity rests upon a freedom of autonomous choice. Instead, you have to reassert the idea that we bring our own natures as men and women to fulfilment, in part, through participating in the offices of being a husband/father or a wife/mother, or that we express the principle of sacrificial love through what we give of ourselves to our families as husbands/fathers and wives/ mothers, or that we uphold the common good for ourselves and our progeny through the transmission of our own distinct culture, tradition and lineage through our willingness to uphold a culture of family life.

Finally, it's worth pointing out that some of the failings of modern feminism that Tammy Bruce criticises were in evidence from the very start of first wave feminism. It was not unusual for the leading figures of first wave feminism to believe that free love should replace marriage, or that the distinctions between men and women should be dissolved, or that women should prioritise independence via career rather than marriage and motherhood. First wave feminists were also criticised for hating men whilst nonetheless copying them, just as modern feminists are.

I can't give a complete account of this in a single post, but one general point I'll make is that once intellectuals accepted the liberal principle that they should not be subject to the will of another, only their own, they rapidly drew the conclusion that there should be a levelling of society, in which distinctions between people were abolished, so that there was something like an equality of sameness. It was thought to be "bigotry" for distinctions to matter.

Here, for instance, is a founding theorist of feminism, Mary Wollstonecraft, wanting women to become more man-like:
A wild wish has just flown from my heart to my head, and I will not stifle it, though it may excite a horse-laugh. I do earnestly wish to see the distinction of sex confounded in society ... For this distinction ... accounts for their [women] preferring the graceful before the heroic virtues.

Wollstonecraft was a believer in free love, travelled to Paris during the French Revolution in the 1790s and had a love child there with an American businessman (though when he abandoned her she tried to drown herself in a river).

Wollstonecraft later had another child, Mary, with William Godwin - himself a believer in free love. This child ran away at age 16 to live with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Shelley too wanted to abolish sex distinctions in society. He wrote in 1811:
...these detestable distinctions will surely be abolished in a future state of being

Shelley was also a free love enthusiast who abandoned his first wife Harriet when she was pregnant with their second child. Harriet drowned herself in the Serpentine River. Shelley's reasons for opposing marriage are exactly the liberal ones you would expect:
That which will result from the abolition of marriage will be natural and right; because choice and change will be exempted from restraint.

If we jump forward to 1837 we have the early American feminist Sarah Grimke also complaining about the existence of sex distinctions:
We approach each other, and mingle with each other, under the constant pressure of a feeling that we are of different sexes...the mind is fettered by the idea which is early and industriously infused into it, that we must never forget the distinction between male and female...Nothing, I believe, has tended more to destroy the true dignity of woman, than the fact that she is approached by man in the character of a female.

... Until our intercourse is purified by the forgetfulness of sex...we never can derive that benefit from each other's society...

John Stuart Mill was an influential first-wave feminist. In 1833 he theorised that higher character was androgynous rather than distinctly masculine and feminine:
...is there really any distinction between the highest masculine and the highest feminine character?

In the 1860s, Eliza Linton addressed the feminists of her era as "you of the emancipated who imitate while you profess to hate" and as the "bad copies of men who have thrown off all womanly charm".

In 1889 a student of Girton College, a feminist college at Cambridge established in 1869, summed up the spirit of her education as follows:
We are no longer mere parts - excrescences, so to speak, of a family ... One may develop as an individual and independent unit.

Here you have the idea that what matters is developing as an independent individual rather than as an interdependent member of a family. Note the negative terminology applied to family roles: "mere parts - excrescences".

By the early twentieth century the radical wing of first wave feminism was just as extreme as that of today. Alexandra Kollontai, for instance, grew up understanding feminism to mean:
That I ought not to shape my life according to the given model ... I could help my sisters shape their lives, in accordance not with the given traditions but with their own free choice ... I wanted to be free. I wanted to express desires on my own, to shape my own little life.

Therefore, as you might predict, she disliked the idea of sex distinctions, wanting them to be levelled away. She gave public lectures in which she prophesied that even the physical differences between men and women would, as a matter of progress, dissolve. A record of one lecture recounts how she,
...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...

She even thought that love itself should be subordinated to the objective of individual autonomy:
this motive was a leading force in my life ... to shape my personal, intimate life as a woman according to my own will ... Above all, I never let my feelings, the joy or pain of love take the first place in my life...

We are stuck in a loop. We adopt an inadequate principle for our society, it does damage, we retreat a little but still keep to the principle and then we suffer another wave of harm. At some point in time we need to reconsider the underlying principle itself, the one that keeps setting us down the wrong path.

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.

Sunday, December 01, 2019

For my people

I don't often get to review a book of poetry, so it's a pleasure to announce the publication this year of the first collection of poetry by Nathaniel Lucas titled For My People.

The poems vary in their content: a few touch on politics, others religion, women and nature. Most are reflections or musings touching on some part of the life of the poet, often a memory of a a past event, person or place.

My one criticism of the poetry was going to be that some of the poems are difficult to get inside of (that it's difficult to follow some of the references). However, I got into the habit of reading the poems a few at a time, when I was in the right frame of mind, and I came to enjoy the texture of each poem. Like a good film, you get drawn into a particular way of seeing or experiencing reality.

I'm grateful to have been pulled back into reading poetry, particularly contemporary poetry, and I look forward to a future collection.

As this is a political site, I'll mention two of the more overtly political poems. One,"The Tale of Boomer and Chen," is bitingly humorous and upfront in its social commentary. I heard it read aloud recently to a very appreciative audience.

The other is the poem from which the title of the volume derives, "For My People". Here are the first two stanzas:
For my people,
everywhere singing
their slave songs,
their despair songs, self-hate
songs, for those who
don't know they are
singing another's song.

For those who have never heard of prayer
who believe all transcendence Eastern.
For my brothers who would
disdain my brotherhood.

And the final stanza:
For my people who are all of this,
for those who find out who they are
let a people loving grace
barrel out of sweated suburbs,
blast floodlights out of shoebox
apartments, send bonfires up
from vast estates of wool and beef,
so all will know, though it won't be said,
let the rule of thirds return to rule.
let brother sing in truth once more.

I hope you find from reading this, as I did, that there is much ability to encourage here. You can purchase For My People very reasonably in both print and electronic versions here.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Based comedian

My apologies for the language in the video below, but I found it to be of considerable interest when I watched it and so wanted to post it here.

It's a short clip of a Jewish libertarian comedian talking about the alt right. The interesting part is that he understands why white people might not be looking forward to becoming a minority in what had previously been majority white countries.

It goes to show that even a self-professed outsider can understand what is at stake.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Gatekeepers of the failed right pt 3

Thomas Jefferson
There are people on the American right who believe that their country is nothing more than a credal or propositional nation.

In support of their position they sometimes point to the Declaration of Independence of 1776, drafted by Thomas Jefferson, with its opening statement "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

Charlie Kirk has taken this idea of America as a proposition nation to its logical conclusion. He has argued that America is not only not a people, it is not a place either. Rather it is an idea. Therefore, if it was just him on an island with the idea, then that would then be America:
...if all that [America as a place] disappeared and all I had was ideas and we were on an island...that's America...people have to remember that America is just a placeholder for timeless ideas and if you fall too much in love with the specific place, that's not what it is...

But what would Jefferson himself have thought of Kirk's placeless America? It's true that Jefferson was a liberal in the philosophical meaning of the word, believing that "rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will, within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others" - which is the classic (and highly problematic) liberal formula.

But in 1785 Jefferson wrote to another founding father, John Jay, the following:
We have now lands enough to employ an infinite number of people in their cultivation. Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country, and wedded to its liberty and interests, by the most lasting bonds.

So during the founding period of America, Jefferson did not believe in placelessness. On the contrary, he thought that it was being tied to the land that gave people the strongest motivation to care for their country and to feel connected to it.

And what of his correspondent, John Jay? In 1787, in Federalist No.2, Jay wrote:
It has often given me pleasure to observe that independent America was not composed of detached and distant territories, but that one connected, fertile, widespreading country was the portion of our western sons of liberty...

With equal pleasure I have as often taken notice that Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people--a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs...

This country and this people seem to have been made for each other, and it appears as if it was the design of Providence, that an inheritance so proper and convenient for a band of brethren, united to each other by the strongest ties, should never be split...

Jay, in this quote, not only affirms the relevance of place, he sets forth a traditional view of a nation as a union of a people and place. He does not see America as simply a "placeholder" for ideas as Kirk does.

Here, then, are two founding fathers who at the time of the Declaration did not think in terms of America as a credal or propositional nation, a nation defined by ideas alone. They thought of a connection to place as important, and Jay made clear that he thought it a blessing, an act of Providence, that America was formed by a union of a distinct people and place.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Gatekeepers of the failed right pt 2

In my last post I noted that the establishment right likes to call itself conservative but is, in reality, right-liberal (classical liberal/libertarian) and that this explains why there has been no effective opposition to the dominance of liberalism in Western politics.

A reader helpfully pointed me to the following tweet. It is from Jeremy Boreing, who founded The Daily Wire with Ben Shapiro. In the tweet he complains that the younger, independent right-wingers are "retrograde losers" (a slur that sounds similar to "deplorables"):



Think about this. If you are someone who wants to conserve liberalism, then what are you really in your politics? Clearly, you are a liberal. That's your belief system. The "conservatism" doesn't mean anything much in itself, except perhaps that you want to introduce liberal policies a little more cautiously to maintain the stability of the liberal order, or perhaps you prefer the classical liberal focus on the autonomous self-made man in the market rather than the left-liberal focus on state support for the autonomous individual.

This reality of the establishment right being "conservative" only in the sense that they wish to conserve liberalism goes back some way. An Australian PM, Malcolm Fraser, wrote back in 1980 that,
As its name implies, ours is a liberal government holding liberal principles ...

I have stressed the commitment of the Government to liberal principles and values. Precisely because of that commitment it is also concerned to conserve and protect those principles and values.

Once liberal institutions are installed in a society, a government which wishes to preserve them must in some sense be conservative.

Even former PM Tony Abbott, with a reputation as being one of the most right-wing of the mainstream politicians here in Australia, has followed along with this idea. Not only has he endorsed the comments by Malcolm Fraser, he once defined conservatism as a kind of slow-burning liberalism:
The difference between a “liberal” and a “conservative” is not that one values freedom and the other doesn’t or even that one asserts and the other denies that freedom comes first. The difference between the ways liberals and conservatives value freedom is, perhaps, more the difference between love at first sight and the love which grows over time.

(It's interesting to note that the right wing liberal Abbott defined the animating principle of Australian politics in terms very similar to how the left wing liberal Barack Obama defined the animating principle of American politics. Abbott wrote: "The essential principle animating the Federation Fathers...was citizens’ greater freedom to pursue their individual destinies". For Obama it was "We are the first nation to be founded for the sake of an idea—the idea that each of us deserves the chance to shape our own destiny.")

The idea that a conservative is someone whose love for a liberal take on freedom "grows over time" rather than "at first sight" is lame. If you are going to pursue the liberal concept of freedom, then why would you want to be the one dragging your feet? Why not be part of the pioneering first wave and take the credit?

To finish on a positive note, it's encouraging that some of those reading James Boreing's tweet were less than impressed:






And there was this:



Saturday, November 16, 2019

The gatekeepers of the failed right

Back in 1998 the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre wrote:
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.

This explains why society has drifted in an ever more liberal direction. Those who have called themselves "conservatives" have actually been right-wing liberals who believe in little more than individualism & the free market - a philosophy that is dissolving of tradition rather than supportive of it.

We are at an interesting moment in political history when this framework is beginning to be challenged. Some younger members of the right are no longer willing to go along with a philosophy they see as dissolving their identity; on the other hand there is a well-funded movement that aims to exclude from the right anyone who is not a right-liberal of some sort (i.e. classical liberal / libertarian).

I want to take a quick look in this post at some of the ideas that the right-liberal gatekeepers are promulgating - because I think it demonstrates clearly just how radically dissolving of society these ideas are.

Charlie Kirk, for instance, gave a speech in which he said he loved some of the places in America, like the Grand Canyon, but that,
...if all that disappeared and all I had was ideas and we were on an island...that's America...people have to remember that America is just a placeholder for timeless ideas and if you fall too much in love with the specific place, that's not what it is...

If this were true then anyone, anywhere could be just as "American," or perhaps more so, than actual Americans. Kirk, then, is not conserving a real entity, i.e. a people & place, but at most an idea - one which can be realised anywhere by anyone.

Moreover, this idea (or "proposition") is usually defined as something which is itself highly dissolving. Barack Obama expressed it during his 2011 State of the Union address as follows:
We are the first nation to be founded for the sake of an idea—the idea that each of us deserves the chance to shape our own destiny.

Sounds nice, but if that is it, then why not have open borders so that everyone who wants to can participate in shaping their own destiny? There is nothing to delineate a real historic people in this formulation - the nation is just a large conglomerate of people doing their own thing. There is nothing to connect them meaningfully, apart from a shared commitment to doing their own thing - and anyone from anywhere can do this.

Dan Crenshaw, a Texan Congressman, is another to reject the idea of a real community in favour of a radical individualism. He said,
Speaking to those reptilian brains, which go back for thousands of years of human history, where identity politics actually matters. But it doesn't. The Western Enlightenment told us it doesn't, individualism is what matters.

According to Crenshaw, having a communal identity is something which should be made not to matter. We should instead just see ourselves as individuals. Again, this is a radically dissolving philosophy rather than one which conserves real, historic communities.

Where do such ideas lead establishment "conservatives"? Here is what a writer for National Review (and a TV personality for Fox News) believes about immigration:





Now, here's the thing. If Kat Timpf is allowed to represent the side of politics that is supposed to conserve the nation, how is that going to turn out? Obviously, not much in the way of conserving an existing people or nation is going to take place.

My hope, therefore, is that Charlie Kirk and the TPUSA, in spite of their funding, do not succeed as gatekeepers in limiting the right to forms of right-liberalism. I support the gatecrashers. I particularly support those who have correctly observed that the current establishment right does not actually conserve, but that all too often it is part of the process of dissolving peoples & identities.

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

Imlay, Wollstonecraft & Free Love

Mary Wollstonecraft
I recently wrote about the free love philosophy of the Englishman William Godwin. He believed that progress was achieved when people were perfectly free to follow the dictates of their mind (i.e. autonomy), and that marriage was therefore an artificial, prejudiced and tyrannical social institution.

In other words, the belief in free love was high-minded. It was supposed to lead to a moral progress in which people would follow pure reason and choose to act selflessly and benevolently for the good of others.

The theory was put into practice with damaging consequences spanning two generations. I want to look in this post at the case of Gilbert Imlay and Mary Wollstonecraft. Imlay was an American diplomat and businessman, Wollstonecraft a feminist author. They met in France at the height of the French Revolution. Both being advocates of free love, they began an affair and Mary fell pregnant. Imlay, true to the free love theory, quietly abandoned Mary - she gave birth to her daughter, Fanny, in 1794.

Mary wrote letters to Imlay during this period, criticising his behaviour. She drew on a more traditional understanding of morality to do so. The following is drawn heavily from a book by E. Michael Jones, Libido Dominandi.

Mary was critical of Imlay for following impulse (sensual passion/appetite), ungoverned by reason. She wrote, for instance,
Beware of the deceptions of passion! It will not always banish from your mind, that you have acted ignobly - and condescended to subterfuge to gloss over the conduct you could not excuse.

Along similar lines she wrote,
But is it not possible that passion clouds your reason, as much as it does mine? - and ought you not to doubt, whether those principles are so “exalted,” as you term them, which only lead to your own gratification?

Mary notes here that Imlay's "exalted" principles are really only being used to justify a pursuit of individual self-gratification.

She also attempts to describe a higher form of love than the sensual alone, one which requires self-denial, but which is held to more stably and which expresses a higher nature within man:
The common run of men, I know, with strong, healthy and gross appetites, must have variety to banish ennui, because the imagination never lends its magic wand, to convert appetite into love, cemented by according reason.

Ah! my friend, you know not the ineffable delight, the exquisite pleasure, which arises from a unison of affection and desire, when the whole soul and senses are abandoned to a lively imagination, that renders every emotion delicate and rapturous. Yes; these are emotions over which satiety has no power, and the recollection of which, even disappointment cannot disenchant: but they do not exist without self-denial. These emotions, more or less strong, appear to me to be the distinctive characteristic of genius, the foundation of taste, and of that exquisite relish for the beauties of nature, of which the common herd of eaters and drinkers and childbegetters, certainly have no idea

Finally, she notes the way that a life based on gratifying appetite can make someone jaded and less capable of love:
I shall always consider it as one of the most serious misfortunes of my life, that I did not meet you, before satiety had rendered your senses so fastidious, as almost to close up every tender avenue of sentiment and affection that leads to your sympathetic heart. You have a heart, my friend, yet, hurried away by the impetuosity of inferior feelings, you have sought in vulgar excesses, for that gratification which only the heart can bestow.

So what happened to Mary and her daughter? Mary returned to London in 1795, trying to rekindle the relationship with Imlay, but he rejected her. She then attempted suicide via an overdose of laudanum. In 1796, realising that Imlay was never going to accept her, she attempted to drown herself in the Thames but was rescued by a passer-by.

In 1797, in an odd twist to the story, Mary married William Godwin - the radical philosopher of free love. However, she died giving birth to a daughter, also called Mary, who would go on to write the novel Frankenstein.

And what of her first daughter, Fanny? She committed suicide as a young woman in 1816. There are different theories about what led her to do so, but one of them is that her two sisters had run off with another advocate of free love, Percy Bysshe Shelley, but she had been rejected by him.

Conclusions? Most obviously, in practice free love did not lead someone like Imlay to act selflessly toward others. Nor did it liberate individuals like Mary Wollstonecraft from tyranny. Nor did it crush prejudice so that individuals might follow pure reason. Nor did it usher in a new age of benevolent love.

As Mary's letters indicate, a free love philosophy had something like the opposite effect. It justified the pursuit of self-gratification. It harmed others grievously. It justified the pursuit of passion, ungoverned by reason. And it closed off the experience of a higher-natured love.

In a larger sense, the problem is that Enlightenment thinkers like Godwin were trying to find ways to justify assumptions about the individual as an autonomous actor in society. This individual was supposed to act according to his own unlimited will and reason, but whilst still advancing the common good. It was shaky ground to build a social philosophy on, as it relied on beliefs about human nature (man as a blank slate), about progress (that unfettered mind would advance knowledge and therefore moral culture), and about human goods (highly abstracted, indefinite forms of love and community as purposes in life).

The starting point is wrong. It is the wrong image of man. It is important that we ditch the Enlightenment project and describe man differently, not as an autonomous actor, but bound by his own nature to specific forms of human community and to specific roles within them - so that we fulfil our own selves, at least in part, through our commitments to particular forms of community.

There is one more post to come. Another generation was to be inspired by Godwin to adopt beliefs about free love - and they too were deeply affected by the real life consequences.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

A comment on Godwin

Before I resume telling the ill-fated story of the free love advocates of the British enlightenment, I want to do something I don't often do and highlight a comment to my original post.

My first post sketched out the philosophy of William Godwin (1756-1836). I noted that Godwin's philososophy established a gulf between man's being in the world and the pursuit of a common good that was only uneasily bridged.

For Godwin, it was "natural" for man to follow the dictates of his own mind. In doing so, he would extend the sphere of knowledge and this would then improve moral standards - autonomous man would, via pure reason, choose to act selflessly and benevolently for the benefit of mankind as a whole.

This philosophy led Godwin to denounce marriage and the family as these placed controls over who we chose to establish relationships with. By the logic of Godwin's philosophy, to marry was to engage in an artificial, selfish and prejudiced act in which we treated others as property.

Godwin had not given up on a common good. He connected a radically individualistic mode of being (we act according to the dictates of our own mind without constraint) to a highly abstract common good (by acting so we come to choose, via pure reason, to act selflessly and benevolently for the good of our fellow man - i.e. for humankind).

A reader observed:
I am convinced that the "valid" realms of human pursuits are for liberals relegated to the individual or the global abstract, while the stations in between are dismissed or denounced.

With enough brainwashing, the individual can be convinced he is master of himself, and liberal elites (the brainwashers) can dictate universal values. It is family, community, church, ethnicity, etc., that represent a threat to this binary. They give people some measure of influence in managing their particular interests and connecting with others in meaningful ways. Liberals seem to believe, therefore, that those venues, in which their revolutionary ideas have little control or influence, must be made irrelevant or destroyed.

I have bolded the two thoughts that I think are particularly well put. I would only add to the first that the conceit of being a "master of oneself" might contribute to the liberals of today believing that they are anti-establishment free thinkers when in fact they are conforming to a state ideology that has been entrenched for generations.

As for the second observation, it rings true when you consider the rationalism of Enlightenment thinkers like Godwin. By rationalism I mean the belief that a society could be refounded (literally "re-formed") on the basis of rational principles formulated by intellectuals like Godwin himself.

If you have this mindset, you will instinctively dislike the "measure of influence" that institutions like the family give to ordinary people in "managing their particular interests and connecting with others in meaningful ways" because this then limits the "ground zero" approach to re-forming society along the "rational" and "unprejudiced" principles favoured by intellectuals.

In stark contrast, traditionalists instinctively admire the "little kingdom" aspect of family life, i.e. the way that family allows us to perform offices that express and fulfil our natures (even if they involve burdens) and, in so doing, create unique human communities based on very personal ties, loves and loyalties. Our instinct is that this is a better foundation on which to build the wider expressions of human community than any philosopher's abstract formula.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Love gone wrong

One of the more extraordinary stories in English political history was the failure of the free love movement across two generations.

The story begins with William Godwin, who published an influential book, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, in 1793. In this work he attacks marriage on the following grounds:
So long as two human beings are forbidden, by positive institution, to follow the dictates of their own mind, prejudice will be alive and vigorous. So long as I seek, by despotic and artificial means, to maintain my possession of a woman, I am guilty of the most odious selfishness.

There is a political philosophy underpinning this argument. Godwin believed that we start out as blank slates and that it is therefore possible to improve human nature via the gradual extension of knowledge. Knowledge would advance only to the extent that people could follow their own individual judgement - the "dictates of their own mind".

I find it interesting that this is similar to the approach of what we now call classical liberals. They had attempted to resolve the problem of how to fit together the liberated individual and the common good by asserting that if individuals acted freely for their own profit that the hidden hand of the market would deliver a benefit to society as a whole.

Godwin resolves the same problem by claiming that if individuals act freely according to the dictates of their own mind, without the influence of social institutions, traditions or conventions, that knowledge would increase, and therefore there would be a progress in moral virtue, with people choosing to act selflessly and benevolently to maximise the happiness of the community.

The problem is that in both cases there is now a deep divide between the understanding of man and the common good that has to be bridged. In the older understanding, it was essential to our nature as men that we were fathers, sons, brothers, husbands and Englishmen. Our commitment to the common good was written into our natures. Yes, there could be a tension between the duties to family, community and nation springing from this aspect of our inborn natures and our more purely individual existence. But in general we expressed our own natures via our participation in stable forms of community.

In the newer Godwinian view, we do not have a given nature. And the emphasis is on ourselves as wholly independent minds, developing without the corrupting influence of "artificial" communal entities such as family. What is "natural" is to develop alone as a thinking, rational mind. Our "being" therefore is highly individualistic and atomised, so the leap to a common good is a difficult one. It relies on the assumption that as knowledge and education progressively develop, we will reason our way to a belief that the moral purpose in life is to maximise the happiness of the general population, leading individuals via "pure reason" to act selflessly and benevolently.

Note that this new common good is an abstract one. We are not acting selflessly to uphold particular forms of community, such as our own family, but a "general happiness of mankind".

For Godwin, the important thing was that we were free to follow the "dictates" of our own mind; it was therefore an irrational, selfish and despotic act to hold someone to a marriage vow. If we allowed individuals to follow their minds freely, the result would ultimately be an extension of knowledge, of moral virtue and of human happiness.

But things did not turn out happily for those who followed Godwin's philosophy of free love.

(In the next post I'll look at the story of Mary Wollstonecraft, a feminist of the era, who became Godwin's wife.)

Monday, October 21, 2019

Conference 2019 a great success!

The Melbourne Traditionalists Conference took place on the weekend, organised by Mark Moncrieff of the Upon Hope blog. It was another very enjoyable event with about 30 in attendance.

The conference once again gave things a good push along. There were plenty of new faces, lots of new friendships made and interesting talks on a range of subjects. The conference has given our movement a welcome boost - many thanks to all those who took part.

If any local readers are interested in getting involved, we do hold regular catch ups. More information at the Melbourne Traditionalists website.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Is Charlie Kirk a conservative?

There is an organisation in America called Turning Point USA (TPUSA). It's active on campuses and it promotes itself as a conservative organisation, even selling T-shirts with the slogan "Keep it conservative".

As good as this might sound, the reality is different. To give you a sense of what TPUSA really stands for take a look at the exchange between its leader, Charlie Kirk, and an audience member at a recent campus talk. I'll provide a summary below, but you can watch it live from 40:40 onwards:

  

The gist of the exchange is as follows:

Audience member: I'm against mass immigration. I'm from California and things have declined there since mass immigration began in 1965. Its changed the voting trends. It's made cities like Los Angeles culturally divided.

Charlie Kirk: I think the growing anti-immigration part of the Republican movement is dangerous. There's a difference between coming here legally and border jumping. However, I do believe that what makes America different and what will continue to make America exceptional is that the best, the brightest and most aspirational from all over the planet earth should be able to get a shot to come here legally...this country was built by immigrants, this country is a shining city on a hill for immigrants.

Audience member: But is a million a year a sustainable number? Before I die more than 60 million foreigners will come in who will bring their culture with them. 80% of immigrants vote Democrat. And the trend holds through the generations.

Charlie Kirk: I don't think you can design immigration policy based on politics. I think that's very dangerous. If someone graduates from a US university and we send them back to Korea or to Japan that doesn't make any sense. They should be given a green card or a visa upon graduation...What makes this country so different is the embracing of coming from somewhere else to be able to achieve your dreams here. When an immigrant entrepreneur comes here with an idea and comes here to take a risk basic economics will tell you it's a net benefit for everybody. I want the best, smartest people here in America.

Kirk is obviously misguided in thinking that America is exceptional in having a large scale immigration programme - most Western countries do. The more significant thing to note, though, is that Kirk has a typically right liberal attitude to what matters in life. For him, what matters is success in the market, and he therefore idealises America on the basis that it offers people from around the world the opportunity to pursue such success.

This, however, is anything but a genuinely conservative world view. What, after all, does it end up conserving? If the aim is to have the fewest constraints to participation in the market, then you will end up radically dissolving the core, traditional aspects of a society rather than conserving them.

Think, for instance, of the family. If success in life is measured by material success in a free market, and if the core value of society is a "freedom" of having the least constraints on participation in the market, then why would people devote themselves to family? On what basis would women forego participation in the market to devote themselves to home and children? Why would people forego a consumerist lifestyle to direct their energies and resources instead to the raising of children? And why would people not begin to treat relationships themselves as a kind of commodity, i.e. as a lifestyle choice based on personal preference - rather than as a sacramental union, or as a commitment to an ongoing familial legacy spanning the generations.

It's the same when it comes to traditional national ties. If what matters is the absence of constraints on participation in the market, then it will be thought a positive development for people to arrive from around the world to join the national economy (the "shining city on a hill"). It will be thought wrong to limit who might come in order to conserve an existing identity. In some ways, the "aspirational immigrant" will be seen to be a better representative of the nation's values than the stay-put native born resident. And so the end result is an outlook that dissolves the existing identity and tradition, and replaces it not with anything new and stable, but with continual change as new waves of immigration roll onto the country's shores.

It is therefore misleading to associate right liberalism with the term conservatism. Right liberalism does not conserve, it dissolves. Nor does right liberalism succeed on its own terms. For instance, the slogan of right liberalism is usually something like "free markets, individual freedom and limited government". However, in the longer term the inner contradictions of right liberalism fail to secure these things. Government tends to grow larger and more intrusive under the philosophy of right liberalism, despite the call to limit its influence.

One reason for this is that it is the state that is used to break up the traditional structures of society that once placed limits on the market. If, for instance, you want women to participate in the market to an equal degree to men, then you have to use the power of the state to create affordable childcare; to enforce anti-discrimination laws; and to replace the social welfare functions once associated with the family. Similarly, if there are mass waves of immigration that gradually undermine social cohesion, there will be less social engagement and potentially issues of crime or social decay that then require state intervention (e.g. government agencies to undertake welfare work once managed by volunteer organisations, a greater presence of law enforcement etc.).

The other reason why right liberalism fails was pointed out to Charlie Kirk by the man in the audience. By having such a glowing account of immigration, and refusing to think in practical political terms about the consequences of this immigration, right liberals are handing political power to the left. California is a very clear example of this: in 1988 52% of Californians voted for the Republican candidate for President, but by 2016, after large-scale demographic change, that percentage had fallen to 31%. California is now a stronghold of the left.

Those right-liberals who are willing to confront this issue often have a change of heart and rethink many of their political positions. But for the Charlie Kirks, who still centre their politics on the "shining city" philosophy, this isn't possible. They will hold fast to their philosophy, even as evidence mounts that the philosophy will ultimately hand power to those who stand openly for big government and government regulation of the economy.

Finally, we need to call out right liberals for having too "thin" an account of what matters in life. It's true that success in the marketplace can bring a sense of achievement, as it requires self-discipline, self-sacrifice, industry, judgement, perseverance and boldness. Material success can also give access to other goods in life, including success in relationships, financial freedom and so on.

The reality, though, is that participation in the market is not very glamorous for most people. It consumes time and energy, it separates us from our family, it prevents a more rounded development of our talents, it places us often in stressful conditions in which we are subject to a boss, and it leaves most people in a merely modest financial position.

Many people, therefore, do not live to work. They make the rational decision to base their life values elsewhere, often in family commitments, but also in friendships, in a church community, in sporting or artistic endeavours, or through identifying with the larger ethnic or civilisational tradition they belong to.

Most people won't succeed in any notable way as entrepreneurs in the market. In right liberal terms, they will be failures. And so right liberalism is, at best, an "apex" philosophy for a relatively small number of people - it cannot genuinely represent the values of the greater part of the population. If anything it undermines the sense of meaning, identity and belonging that most people once found in society.

It is therefore a pity that the opposition to the left still comes primarily from right liberals rather than from a more genuinely socially conservative political movement.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Two new podcasts

Australian readers in particular might be interested in two new discussions between myself and Mark Moncrieff:



And here:

Saturday, October 12, 2019

The skirmish line

The focus in liberalism is on freely determining for ourselves our identity, our purposes, our values and so on. Therefore, a liberal society cheers on those who reject received identities. It's considered a great thing for a young woman to play rugby and not so good for her to be oriented to motherhood.

On what basis do traditionalists reject this liberal focus? One serious way to do so is to emphasise that we should, as individuals, be focused on ordering ourselves to the good. In this view, our impulses are wayward and need to be directed, through the cultivation of virtue, and with the support of culture, toward higher ends.

How would a liberal react to this claim? Well, I don't think a liberal would easily think along these lines, but at the same time a liberal might attempt to incorporate it into the liberal view. A liberal might respond that, yes, an individual might order themselves toward the good, but that nobody else but the individual has the right to determine what that good is. We would then have a society in which each individual orients themselves toward the good that they have chosen, whilst respecting the right of everyone else to do the same.

So the idea of being oriented toward the good is only, at best, a skirmish line separating liberals and traditionalists - it is not the war line.

The liberal view can work if people choose a good that can be pursued at the individual level. For instance, if it is my chosen good to be successful in the career, status and money sense, then I can pursue this within the liberal framework. Similarly, if I choose to pursue personal pleasure, such as through travel, entertainment or dining out.

So what is the war line?

We get to the war line if we insist that the good that we orient ourselves to is given to us within the natural order rather than being subjectively chosen. The liberal view is that we can choose anything, and that as long as it does not limit the choice of anyone else, it is equally valid. The traditional view is that there is an objective good for us to order ourselves toward and that there are ends given to us that we properly seek to fulfil in life.

Professor Patrick Deneen, in his book Why Liberalism Failed, explains the distinction this way:
Premodern political thought...understood the human creature as part of a comprehensive natural order. Humans were understood to have a telos, a fixed end, given by nature and unalterable. Human nature was continuous with the order of the natural world, and thus humanity was required to conform both to its own nature and, in a broader sense, to the natural order of which it was a part. Human beings could freely act against their own nature and the natural order, but such actions deformed them and harmed the good of human beings and the world. (p.35)

A secondary war line is when we see the individual good and the common good as being intertwined. For instance, let's say that I see my individual good as being tied in with the good of family life. I might take seriously a goal of marrying well, having a large family, playing a distinct sex role as a husband and father, expressing both marital and paternal love within the family, socialising my children into a familial, communal and civilisational heritage and so on.

I cannot easily do this within the liberal framework because I cannot do it alone through my own choices. It requires that I live within a culture that supports such a concept of the good. Imagine, for instance, that the women I live amongst have been socialised to be independent career women, who see family life as limiting their autonomy, and who see an unrestrained sexuality as empowering. Imagine, too, that it is assumed that family life is secondary to careerism and that I should spend all my time and energy at work. Or that I should not be paid a living wage, given the default assumption that there will be two full-time wage earners.

In other words, the assumptions that liberalism makes about the good - that it is based on the subjective preferences of autonomous individuals - limits the realm of what goods are practically available to us, in particular by undermining the possibility of a common good. And if you hold that the individual good rests upon the existence of a common good, then liberalism does clearly fail.

Saturday, October 05, 2019

UK judge: Christian belief incompatible with human dignity

The UK was once a very Christian nation. I've been reading a biography of the radical poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (Shelley: The Pursuit), who, unusually for his time, was an atheist. In 1811 he met his future wife Harriet Westbrook. This is how she described her initial reaction to his beliefs:
You may conceive with what horror I first heard that Percy was an Atheist...at first I did not comprehend the meaning of the word; therefore when it was explained I was truly petrified. (p.67)

But how things have changed. A UK judge has recently declared Christian belief to be incompatible with human dignity. In a way, this is not surprising, as Christianity does not fit in with the ruling state ideology in the UK, namely liberalism.

The story runs as follows. Dr David Mackereth was employed by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) as a disability assessor. He was queried by a supervisor about whether he would, hypothetically, refer to a 6ft tall bearded man by female pronouns. He answered that he couldn't in conscience do this given his Christian belief that we are created male or female by God (Genesis 1:27) and that we cannot change our sex according to our own will.

There is some dispute about whether or not Dr Mackereth was then directly dismissed from his position or not, but regardless the case ended up at an employment tribunal hearing. Judge Perry found in favour of the DWP and it is the reasons he gave for his decision which are the most significant part of the story.

Judge Perry began by noting that according to the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms:
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion

So what's the catch? Well, another judge, J Burton, (in the case of Grainger v Nicholson) defined what constituted an acceptable "philosophical belief" or religion. And one of his criteria was the following:
(v) It must be worthy of respect in a democratic society, be not incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others

Judge Perry then ruled that:
belief in Genesis 1:27, lack of belief in transgenderism and conscientious objection to transgenderism in our judgment are incompatible with human dignity and conflict with the fundamental rights of others, specifically here, transgender individuals.

And this:
We accept Dr Mackereth’s account that his beliefs are inherent to his wider faith. In so far as those beliefs form part of his wider faith, his wider faith also does not satisfy Grainger.

According to Judge Perry, the orthodox Christian view "does not satisfy" the criteria for acceptable belief in a society because it is incompatible with human dignity and conflicts with the fundamental rights of others. Therefore, orthodox Christianity is not protected under the convention of human rights.

The underlying problem is not that Christianity is incompatible with human dignity but that it is incompatible with liberalism. A Christian might argue that the belief that our male and female natures are God-given and a part of God's plan for us enhances the dignity of our persons. But for a liberal human dignity comes from the act of autonomous choice in which we self-determine our own personhood.

For a Christian, the moral thing is to fully develop our given natures as men and women, i.e. to order ourselves toward ideals or standards of masculine and feminine virtue. We discern what is best within our masculine and feminine natures and attempt to fully develop these qualities, as a way of completing ourselves and meeting one of our missions in life (our telos).

For a liberal, the moral thing is not only to author our own identity but to respect the right of others to do the same. Because liberals do not like the idea of a given nature, it will be held to be particularly moral to act against "stereotypes" when it comes to masculinity or femininity (hence the banning in the UK earlier this year of a car ad which briefly portrayed a mother sitting next to a pram, the image being ruled to be a harmful and offensive stereotype).

Given the logic of the situation, it seems naive to me to expect that orthodox Christianity will be well tolerated within a liberal system. Either it will change to fit in better with liberalism (which usually means becoming irrelevant, as it then loses its animating principles) or else it will have to more self-consciously recognise the difficulty of the situation and use whatever power it has to defend its own place in society.

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.

Tuesday, October 01, 2019

In conversation with Mark Moncrieff

Mark Moncrieff (of Upon Hope) and I sat down yesterday and recorded some conversations, the first of which is now up at YouTube. It can be either listened to directly or else extracted as an MP3 file. I hope you enjoy it (the photo, if you're wondering, is of the American traditionalist Lawrence Auster).