Thursday, December 21, 2006

Return to Pleasantville

Robert Bosler is a creative kind of left liberal. In a recent web article he invites us to go on a journey with him into a "world of vision" which will give us a "treasure of insight" into the heart and soul of the Australian nation.

The purpose of this journey? To discover why the right-liberal Liberal Party is in danger of becoming irrelevant. He asks us first to meditate a while, and then to dive into the depths of the warm soft pulsing body of our nation's heart and mind.

Once there, he suggests that we go back in time to 1944, the year in which Sir Robert Menzies founded the modern Liberal Party. What do we discover about Australians at this time? According to our guide, Mr Bosler,

It's grey, it's all grey. There's no colour. They're all doing what they're doing but they seem like they are all boxed in. They're all sort of trapped within themselves.

This image of Australia in the mid-1940s reminds me of the film Pleasantville. In Pleasantville a teenage boy and girl are transported back in time to the 1950s. The small American town they find themselves in is pleasant to live in, but literally grey. The residents are "liberated" and first experience colour in their lives when the teenage girl starts to sex things up with the local boys.

So, we are supposed to accept that 1940s Australia was another grey Pleasantville, in which everyone was boxed in or trapped. But trapped by what? Mr Bosler explains that,

It looks like every man has set jobs to do, as the breadwinner. That's all. It looks like every woman has to have a baby and clean the house. That's all. This is no joke; it's not much better than that for man or woman. That's not life as we know, from where we come; but there it is, all grey and boxed in, in 1944.

Mr Bosler does, at least, give us a straightforward answer: Australians in 1944 were trapped by traditional gender roles. His claim that this is all there was to life is difficult to accept in a literal sense, but at least we know what he is driving at ideologically.

What happens next? Robert Menzies realises what has to be done and promises to "provide people with more individual choice and freedom". He inspirationally establishes the Liberal Party to achieve this goal.

Mr Bosler, in other words, approves of Mr Menzies' liberal platform of "more individual choice and freedom". But, on travelling forward to the the 1950s, when Menzies became Prime Minister, we find that things have not improved:

It's still grey. The men and women of Australia are still all trapped and caught up in the roles life has set for them. It's like they are living on traintracks. It's a stilted existence, this. What is it gonna take for them to be free?

What will it take to liberate the people? An explosion. And this is what happens when we move forward again to the 1960s. In the 1960s the eruption of freedom is,

Huge. Boundaries break and boxed in lives burst, exploded. Colour!

And what happens after our liberation, when colour has arrived in the world? Well, the 1970s are a bit of an unstable experimentation with new freedoms, but in the 1980s personal freedom is securely in place. Mr Bosler describes the 80s in the following, excited terms,

... look at the colour! Look at the vibrancy and richness of life. There's a woman excelling in a professional career, heading up a boardroom. There's a man staying home looking after his children. The people are, individually, free. If only Mr Menzies could see this. These people have individual choice. Look, they can do what they want, be what they want ...

The crying need for the fully free individual, the time of individual choice, has arrived. Achieved. Done. Mr Menzies, and your Liberal Party, what you set out to achieve is now here, in abundance. Whatever any individual wants to do ... they can set out freely to do it.


So, what can we say about Robert Bosler's imaginative outline of modern history? Perhaps the most obvious thing to say is that it is a fully-fledged liberal history.

Liberals believe that we should be self-created by our individual will and reason. One thing that we don't choose according to our individual will and reason is our sex. Therefore, liberals don't like the idea that who we are and what we do might be influenced by our manhood or womanhood.

This explains why liberals view traditional family roles so negatively. Such roles are decided by our sex, rather than by our individual reason. For a liberal this is an impediment to free choice. In Robert Bosler's words, it's something that we are boxed in by, or caught up in, or trapped by.

And what is the best way to show that we have escaped such sex-based family roles? By choosing to do the opposite of what is traditional. We show that we are personally "liberated" from sex-based family roles when, as Robert Bosler puts it, a woman becomes the breadwinner and heads up a boardroom or when a man stays at home to look after his children.

But are we really liberated by such sex-role reversal? Is our sphere of choice really so enlarged that colour finally enters our lives?

I don't think so. I doubt if the men of the 1940s and 50s were yearning to swap places with their wives. It's highly unlikely that they felt terribly restricted by being limited to a masculine role within the family.

And as for the men of today, the 60s revolution which gave us a theoretical choice to become househusbands also took away a great deal. We no longer have the family stability that the men of the 40s and 50s enjoyed. A lot of men today will experience divorce and separation from their families.

Nor is there the same kind of positive respect and reward for our efforts to be breadwinners. The mass media is too concerned with issues of female independence to accord men respect for working hard to provide for their families.

The men of the 40s and 50s had a stronger national identity, a stronger masculine identity and a more stable family life to give their working lives a meaning. There is more "vibrancy" and "richness" in this, than in a theoretical choice to become a househusband, a role which only 1% of modern Australian men have actually taken up.


There are some things that Robert Bosler gets right. He recognises that a right liberal like Robert Menzies shared the same underlying philosophy as a left liberal like himself. He finds some warmth for Robert Menzies as a fellow philosophical liberal, something that most Labor Party types are not perceptive enough to do.

Also, although he is wrong to suggest that Robert Menzies' liberalism was somehow new or courageous in 1944 (liberalism has been orthodox for many generations) he is right to portray the period from the late 60s to the mid 90s as a radically liberal period in Western history.

In other words, Mr Bosler is right to claim that from the late 1960s there has been a particularly intense effort to achieve the goals of liberal individualism: to bring about a situation in which individuals "can do what they want, be what they want."

The problem as conservatives see it, is that to achieve this goal you have to destroy whatever impedes individual will, and this includes most of the things which give meaning and identity to our individual lives.

What you end up with are highly atomised individuals, who are free to pursue relatively superficial things. The traditional "anchors" to life which once gave people a sense of connectedness are lost, leaving people free in a more negative sense of being "free-floating".

This more troubled side to liberal individualism is not entirely lost to Robert Bosler. After explaining that the goals of liberal individualism had been secured in the 1980s, he then points out that individuals were now just that: individuals. And that the task now is to find ways to bring individuals into some sort of relationship.

The Liberal Party, claims Bosler, is losing relevance because it is continuing to seek greater individual choice when this has already been achieved, and what is required is to bring individuals back into relationship with each other.

One problem with this argument is that it's not only the Liberal Party which is continuing to push an individualistic philosophy: the Labor Party under Mark Latham is pursuing the same thing. Latham, for instance, believes that the solution to the social alienation of men is a further breakdown of traditional sex roles, so that more men become primary caregivers at home.

Latham, in other words, wants to cure a "relationships" problem created by liberal individualism with more of the same individualism.

Furthermore, Bosler is not very good at suggesting ways in which people might establish better relationships. He talks much about a better relationship with nature, which is admirable, but a relationship with the environment is hardly adequate to fulfil our social natures.

Apart from that all we get are general assertions such as the following:

Cut the relationship, and each individual withers and dies. Cut the ties that bind us together, cut the bond, cut our brotherhood and sisterhood, and we suffer.

All too true. But this is a lesson that all liberals need to learn. Our sense of connectedness, our given sense of who we are, whether as members of a particular ethnic group, nation, sex, or family is too important to be sacrificed to the goal of an individualistic freedom to choose in any direction.

This was just as true in the 1940s and 50s as it is now. Robert Bosler would have us believe that liberal individualism was a liberating force 50 years ago, rescuing us from grey lives, but is only just now interfering with human relationships. In fact, it has been undercutting such relationships for generations and will continue to do so until we decisively reject it as the orthodox philosophy of the West.

(First published at Conservative Central, 28/03/2004)

1 comment:

  1. The 1940's and 1950's WERE a boring, bland period. The idea that the natural roles for men and women were what were seen as the 'traditional' roles in that period is laughable. Men were not the breadwinner. They were niether independant nor providing. They were, in reality, wage slaves who by servitide to an employer were granted the right to an income which mean food/shelter. For women, their job was to maintain the family unit, to bring up a new generation of workers. Real breadwinners were those that hunted their food, gathered it, built their own shelter.

    It was a self perpetuating family unit, but in no way was it 'natural'. It is the logical outcome of a world where the right to existance was granted conditionally, upon accepting servitude to the system. It was very much a product of capitalism, in contrast to wider communities pre-industrial revolution where extended family and other locals had direct roles. The mentality that arose from this period was one that people who didn't fit this 'traditional' role, ie, unemployed, single women, etc were 'unworthy'. Throughout most of human history, and even western history the nuclear family wasn't as distinct and seperate as it was mid 20th century.

    Men and women focused on their roles and were unidimensional.

    While one can definately cast doubt as the whether liberalism has taken us on a positive course, and whether the current indivualism is the inevitable OUTCOME of the trends which led towards the 50's lifestyle, that lifestyle was only considered natural because no one had experience of an alternative.