Wednesday, May 25, 2005

The feminism which ends in tears

Virginia Haussegger is becoming well-known in Australia as a feminist critic of feminism.

She already had a public profile as a TV journalist when she wrote an explosive newspaper article in 2002, The sins of our feminist mothers.

In this article she describes how her generation of women was brought up to believe “We could be and do whatever we pleased”. This is the basic principle of liberalism: that we should be “free” to create who we are and what we do through our own individual choices.

At first things seemed to go well. She writes of a generation of women who “crashed through barriers and carved out good, successful and even some brilliant careers.”

But the story ends unhappily. The feminist mothers forgot “to warn us that we would need to stop, take time out and learn to nurture our partnerships and relationships.”

Virginia Haussegger describes very well the incompetent attitude to relationships of women brought up in a culture of liberal individualism:

For those of us that did marry, marriage was perhaps akin to an accessory. And in our high-disposable-income lives, accessories pass their use-by date, and are thoughtlessly tossed aside. Frankly, the dominant message was to not let our man, or any man for that matter, get in the way of career and our own personal progress.

Nor did the feminist mothers warn their daughters of the biological clock, so that:

We are the ones, now in our late 30s and early 40s, who are suddenly sitting before a sheepish doctor listening to the words:

“Well, I’m sorry, but you may have left your run too late. Women at your age find it very difficult to get pregnant naturally ...”

For Virginia Haussegger the end result is that,

here we are, supposedly “having it all” as we edge 40; excellent education; good qualifications; great jobs; fast-moving careers; good incomes ... It’s a nice caffe-latte kind of life, really.

But the truth is – for me at least – the career is no longer a challenge, the lifestyle trappings are joyless ... and the point of it all seems, well, pointless.

I am childless and I am angry. Angry that I was so foolish to take the word of my feminist mothers as gospel. Angry that I was daft enough to believe female fulfilment came with a leather briefcase.

It was wrong. It was crap.

Of course, Virginia Haussegger received a bucketing from the sisterhood for her bold complaints. She has, though, held firm in making criticisms of feminism, even publishing a book this month, Wonder Woman, in which she declares feminism to be “an inadequate structure from which to build a life.”

I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know how far she goes in really challenging feminism. Not too far, I expect, as this would require a radical rethinking of the way things are valued in a liberal society.

Is the important thing in life, as liberals claim, establishing an unimpeded individual choice? If yes, then women who break down traditional restrictions on their choices, for instance by “breaking through” career barriers, really are the feminist heroines they are made out to be.

But what if this assumption is wrong? What if the important thing is to fulfil the better and deeper parts of our own inborn natures? Then the task would not be to break through traditional stereotypes but to create the best conditions in which we could fulfil our masculine or feminine natures – for instance, by protecting the conditions in which women could express and experience marital and maternal love.

Virginia Haussegger is trying to warn us that even when the liberal option is undertaken most successfully, even when we create the greatest level of individual autonomy, in which our individual choices are least impeded, all we get is a pleasant and comfortable, but barren and pointless existence.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

When surrender isn't enough

From Paul Cella the following story of rights gone wrong.

In America a school wrestling league allows competition between high school boys and girls. Two Christian schools, which don't "want to put our young men in a situation where they would be inappropriately touching a young lady" have responded by allowing their male students to forfeit their matches against female competitors.

This, you might think, is a kind of principled surrender on the issue. The girls win the matches, but the boys don't have to act inappropriately. But for some liberal parents even this passive evasion is an infringement of the girls' "rights" and they plan to take the Christian schools to court.

Again, this case highlights the radically different attitudes to gender held by liberals and conservatives. For liberals, our sex is something we don't get to choose and is therefore an impediment to our freedom to decide individually who we are and what we do. Gender therefore has to be abolished as a "limiting" factor to individual choice and hence the insistence that there should not be discrimination on the basis of gender.

For conservatives the point of life is not an unlimited freedom to create ourselves in any direction. Instead, it's an effort to draw out the better, higher qualities of our given nature, including our nature as men and women. One part of the higher nature of men is to be physically protective toward women. Therefore a "gentleman" would not agree to engage in physically rough contact sports with women.

Of course, it's the liberal view of things which currently holds sway, which is why even a passive resistance on the issue by the two Christian schools has come under attack.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Radically inconsistent

I'd like to hear a liberal explain this one.

In 2003 a pregnant woman was violently attacked in NSW and tragically lost her baby. The attacker couldn't be prosecuted for murder or manslaughter as the unborn child was not considered a "separate entity" from the mother.

In response, as Marcel White reports, the NSW Parliament has recently passed a new law which would make it an offense punishable by up to 25 years jail to kill an unborn child in an attack on a mother.

But where is the consistency in this? When a mother doesn't want to complete a pregnancy, the state will actually pay for an abortion. The state does so many thousands of times a year. Therefore, you would think, the state has determined that there is no moral problem in deliberately killing the unborn.

But when a mother does want to complete a pregnancy, the killing of the unborn child suddenly attracts a penalty usually applied to manslaughter or murder. The unborn child in this case attracts the stern protection of the law.

As Marcel White observes,

In the legal world, it seems like in some situations it's a baby, and in other situations it's a loose conglomeration of cells. All is contingent on whether the mother wishes to have a child.

So what matters, in a liberal society, is what a woman wills. What is "moral" is that which gives her the freedom of individual choice. If this requires the state to fund abortions on the one hand but to prosecute severely those who kill unborn children on the other, then this is what will happen, in spite of the radical inconsistency of the two measures.

Liberals are willing to accept the inconsistency because they don't want to break with their own way of describing the nature and purpose of human existence, namely that we are made fully human, and partake in our humanity, when we create ourselves through our own will and reason.

Placing limits on our will, for a liberal, means denying a part of our humanity. Hence, the idea that the most moral thing must be to allow a woman to choose "in any direction".

The liberal world view, though, is arbitrary. There is no compelling reason why it should be accepted. It makes a lot more sense to define our humanity not in terms of a self-creating will, but in terms of a complex inborn nature acting within a given universe.

Liberals have succeeded in imposing their understanding of things on society in general, and without a challenge to this ideological orthodoxy, it's unlikely that there will be a change of heart, or even a search for consistency, on this issue.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Rethinking the left: Judith Brett

Are we given a political choice in Western democracies? The answer is yes, but only within limits. We do get to choose between a left wing and a right wing political party, but these represent the left and right wings of liberalism.

In other words, we don't get a choice when it comes to political philosophies, as the major political parties are all liberal in their underlying principles. Both the left wing and right wing parties have a common starting point of liberal individualism: the belief that individual autonomy is the highest good, so that the goal of politics is to break down impediments to individual will and reason.

Where left and right liberals differ is their understanding of how best to create the autonomous individual. Right liberals focus on the idea that the economic activity of the individual should be unimpeded. They also tend to believe that a big central government is destructive of individual autonomy.

Left liberals, on the other hand, are willing to regulate economic activity, because they are more focused on social autonomy. They are also more likely to believe that central governments can create the best conditions in which individuals can maximise their individual autonomy.

For the parties to win office they tend to aim at the middle ground, which means that these differences tend to be downplayed in practice. But still, the basic distinction holds that right liberals support the free market and small government, whereas left liberals prefer economic regulation and a larger role for government.

A problem for the left

There are some left liberals who realise that their political approach has been self-defeating. By breaking down social impediments to individual autonomy, they have created a vacuum into which a free market, globalised, commercial culture has been more than willing to step. In other words, their own efforts have been preparing the triumph of their traditional "enemy", the free market right liberals.

The Australian academic Judith Brett is one left liberal who recognises this problem. She has written that:

Those on the left who are critical of the unfettered free play of market forces, but all for the freedoms of cultural transgression, also have to see how their cultural values and activities have enabled the progress of the forces they decry. (The Age 24/10/97)

She goes on to give some examples of how left wing movements have cleared a path for inroads by market forces:

The attack on religion, for example, has contributed to the processes of secularisation which are opening up all of nature and most areas of human life to exploitation by the market.

The commodification of sex and the body which has resulted in part from the liberation movements of the 1960s is an obvious example, as is the loss of any sense that nature is sacred.

Less obvious is the way the emphasis on the rights and freedoms of the self-realising individual undermines the commitments and obligations on which stable family and community life depend.


Judith Brett also recognises that both left and right have sought to break down (transgress) those boundaries which limit or constrain individual autonomy, with right liberals focusing on economic constraints.

She uses the artist Andres Serrano as an example of a left liberal transgressor, and the Australian Prime Minister John Howard as a right liberal one. She asks:

What do Andres Serrano and John Howard have in common? They both represent, in different forms, Western civilization's deep intolerance of limits and the belief that the overcoming of limits is the sine qua non of progress...

Serrano's exhibition at the National Gallery was closed after fierce protests from people offended by his depictions of a crucifix in urine. Serrano is part of the last gasp of the Western avant-garde's fascination with the transgression of the codes of respectable bourgeois decency ...

Howard is not excited by cultural transgression ... His intolerance, however, is of limits which constrain economic rather than social or cultural activity.

Brett then makes the point that there is also a contradiction in the politics of right liberals. Right liberals commonly want society to be supported by civil institutions like the family rather than by big government, but their support for the free market often undermines such institutions.

As Brett puts it, one failing of John Howard's right liberalism is the refusal:

to see the ways in which continuous economic change undermines social and cultural stability.

He is quite happy to press for the abolition of penalty rates at the same time as he promotes the values of stable family life; or urge the unemployed to uproot themselves ... as he bemoans the breakdown of community values


In thinking through the reasons for the triumph of right liberalism, Judith Brett has made some clear sighted criticisms of both the right and the left.

The question remains, though, of what the alternative to traditional right and left liberalism should be.

This is the point at which conservatives should be pressing to become a real alternative to both kinds of liberalism. Because individual autonomy is not a starting point for conservatives, we are in a much better position to defend the culture, traditions and institutions with which most people in a society naturally identify and feel connected to.

There is no contradiction in conservative philosophy to prevent us from effectively defending a stable family life, an inherited national tradition, or a settled moral code.

Depending on liberals to think through the limitations of their own philosophy is not a good strategy; we need to put forward conservatism as a clear alternative to both the left and right forms of liberalism.

(First published at Conservative Central 01/02/2004)

Thursday, May 05, 2005

All brutes and barbarians?

Late last year I chose for the inaugural Biased History Award a school textbook which described the crusaders as follows:

They were all fanatics. Crusaders were fundamental extremists - mad warriors who were intent on causing havoc for whatever they believed. They were virtually religious terrorists.

This year's leading contender for the award has chosen the same theme. Film director Ridley Scott has made a $150 million feature about the crusades called Kingdom of Heaven. The New York Times pithily described the plot of the film this way:

Muslims are portrayed as bent on coexistence until Christian extremists ruin everything.

According to an excellent review by Robert Spencer, the film invents a group called the "Brotherhood of Muslims, Jews and Christians" whose multicultural solidarity is only ruined by the activities of the Knights Templar.

This is too much even for academic historians. Professor Jonathan Riley-Smith called the movie "rubbish", "not historically accurate at all", "nothing to do with reality" and "utter nonsense". He complained about the bias of a plot which depicts "the Muslims as sophisticated and civilised" in contrast to the Crusaders who "are all brutes and barbarians".

But to really get a grasp of how false the film is I suggest you read a short article called "The Real History of the Crusades" by Professor Thomas Madden of St Louis University. Professor Madden reminds us in this article of the reality of the situation which gave rise to the crusades:

So what is the truth about the Crusades? Scholars are still working some of that out. But much can already be said with certainty. For starters, the Crusades to the East were in every way defensive wars. They were a direct response to Muslim aggression—an attempt to turn back or defend against Muslim conquests of Christian lands.

Christians in the eleventh century were not paranoid fanatics. Muslims really were gunning for them. While Muslims can be peaceful, Islam was born in war and grew the same way. From the time of Mohammed, the means of Muslim expansion was always the sword. Muslim thought divides the world into two spheres, the Abode of Islam and the Abode of War. Christianity—and for that matter any other non-Muslim religion—has no abode. Christians and Jews can be tolerated within a Muslim state under Muslim rule. But, in traditional Islam, Christian and Jewish states must be destroyed and their lands conquered.

When Mohammed was waging war against Mecca in the seventh century, Christianity was the dominant religion of power and wealth. As the faith of the Roman Empire, it spanned the entire Mediterranean, including the Middle East, where it was born. The Christian world, therefore, was a prime target for the earliest caliphs, and it would remain so for Muslim leaders for the next thousand years.

With enormous energy, the warriors of Islam struck out against the Christians shortly after Mohammed’s death. They were extremely successful. Palestine, Syria, and Egypt—once the most heavily Christian areas in the world—quickly succumbed. By the eighth century, Muslim armies had conquered all of Christian North Africa and Spain. In the eleventh century, the Seljuk Turks conquered Asia Minor (modern Turkey), which had been Christian since the time of St. Paul. The old Roman Empire, known to modern historians as the Byzantine Empire, was reduced to little more than Greece. In desperation, the emperor in Constantinople sent word to the Christians of western Europe asking them to aid their brothers and sisters in the East.

That is what gave birth to the Crusades. They were not the brainchild of an ambitious pope or rapacious knights but a response to more than four centuries of conquests in which Muslims had already captured two-thirds of the old Christian world. At some point, Christianity as a faith and a culture had to defend itself or be subsumed by Islam. The Crusades were that defense.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

War hero too blokey?

The Australian Government has set up a body to examine which values should be taught in Australian schools. My first thought was that the "values" promoted would be the familiar liberal ones of tolerance, diversity and respect: values which are really more about "non-interference" rather than a positive ideal of behaviour and character.

I was pleasantly surprised therefore when the list of values finally appeared. Although tolerance, respect and inclusion are three of the values, so are integrity, honesty, trustworthiness and responsibility. The list, in other words, goes a little bit beyond mere "non-interference" and includes some values that are genuinely important to character.

But all is not well. A row has erupted over the design selected to accompany the "values" publications. It is an image of the Australian war hero John Simpson Kirkpatrick. Simpson was a stretcher bearer at Gallipoli and he risked his life many times rescuing wounded soldiers under heavy fire before finally being killed.

Andrew Blair, who represents school principals on the values advisory body, has complained that the image is "very blokey" and he has asked "why would you go in with an image that is grounded in ... heroism in conflict, and not about tolerance, trust - all of the issues that are embedded in the program?"

The liberal orthodoxy bites back! For Andrew Blair it is the old liberal faithfuls of "tolerance" and "trust" which are the "issues" embedded in the programme. Poor old Simpson is just too heroic and too masculine a figure to represent these modern liberal "values".

Conclusions? First, notice how restrictive liberalism really is, despite all its talk about individual choice and personal freedom. It struggles to permit anything beyond the passive value of non-interference, which is re-badged in various ways as tolerance, trust, respect etc. It struggles even to accept the masculinity and heroism of a man who was a humble member of the Field Ambulance and who gave his life to help save his mates. How limiting is this to our ideals of human conduct and human nature! It ends up making us very small.

Second, if Andrew Blair really is representative of secondary school principals, it's highly unlikely that Australian schools will ever attempt to develop a positive masculine character in boys. This is a role, it seems, that fathers are going to have to undertake themselves.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Swedish PM proud of very high ....

At a May Day rally the Swedish PM, Goran Persson, praised the "Swedish model" with the comment,

Swedes are equal, safe, environmentally conscious, and, I can add, pay very high taxes. All of the economists I've talked to through the years have said "This won't work." But it does. We've had better economic development in the past ten years than any other country in the European Union.

If an Australian PM were to admit to going against the advice of economists to proudly enact "very high taxes" he would go down in a landslide at the next election.

The Swedish political class, though, seems very determined to remain at the forefront of left-liberalism. Unlike right-liberals, who think that the free market is the best way to regulate competing wills, mainstream left-liberals (social democrats) believe that the state can do the job in a more equitable way.

That's why left-liberals can view a big, high-taxing state as a positive achievement, rather than as a destructive intrusion.

And what of Mr Persson's claim that the high-taxing Swedish model is economically successful? There are reasons to be sceptical. In 1970 Sweden had the fourth highest per capita income in the OECD. By 1998 the Swedish income level had fallen to a tied 18th position.

This decline prompted Swedish governments to make reforms which cut back some of the extremes of the Swedish model. For instance, in 1991 the corporate tax rate was cut in half to a relatively low 28%. There has also been an effort to lower public expenditure as a share of GDP, with the rate falling from a massive 67.3 percent in 1994, to about 54% in 2001.

So, if the Swedish economy has been performing relatively well in recent years (and I don't know whether it has or not) it might be just as easily attributed to a cutting back of the Swedish model than as a vindication of high rates of taxation.

(Note that conservatives don't see society as a collection of competing wills and so don't need to find a regulator of such wills in either the state or the free market. For us, the point is to defend the natural ties existing between people, including those of the family and the traditional nation. Where either the state or the free market undermines such ties we are willing to oppose or to seek to modify the operation of either.)