Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Are we really like that?

In his most recent column, Michael Leunig reminisces about a summer trip he took as an 18-year-old to far north Queensland:

What I saw as we wandered northwards along the beaches and small towns was a beautiful remnant Australia - more innocent and organic and far more slow and peaceful than the land we know today.

Crumbling, yet luminous mental images remain to console and sadden me: a broad, shallow cove lapping into rainforest with indigenous families dragging nets at sunset, lizards and exquisite tree frogs clinging to hotel bars lit by dim bulbs, sugar towns being swallowed by flowering vines - the streets strewn with golden mangoes fermenting, enchanted architecture of lattice, tin and wood - delicately laced with peeling paint and richly jewelled with fireflies and butterflies - frangipani vapours and the slow, warm dripping of time in darkly rotting gardens - all engulfed in a deep, humble and intoxicating peace.

When I first read this I thought perhaps that Leunig was reaching beyond a purely political, abstract, theoretical account of the good, and was expressing something more real: a description of a deeper good as he himself had experienced it.

But abstract politics does intrude. Leunig goes on to lament the loss of the tribal rituals of the Walpuri Aborigines as follows:

Eighteen years more found me weeping alone in a remote cave in the Western Desert ... I had been led there by a Walpuri man who wanted to show me this sacred place where he was initiated into Walpuri law and manhood ... This was his country ... home of a profoundly spiritual people ...

In the cave ... for many thousands of years, young men in ritual had moved their dusty hands along the rock ... This gentle smoothing of hard rock had been going on in ceremony since way before the days of the ancient Egyptians or Moses.

My friend was part of the final group in this line of history to be initiated here; to learn all the truths of the land and masculinity ...

But it all came to an end in his time - and in my time also. The hands moving over the rock, the ceremony, the continuity and story - all ended ...

... a massive wave of grief swept over me as I realised the magnitude of what had happened: the utter tragedy and loss to us all.

This too seems to project a less abstract account of the good. There is a value placed on particular goods which are held to be significant to men: the continuity of a communal culture and identity; a masculine identity; a connection to place; a sense of ancestry; a love of country.

Unfortunately, in Leunig's case we have to assume the sentiment to be, at least in part, bogus. If Leunig really held such things to represent the good, then he would hold them to be good for all men, including his fellow "whitefellas".

We know, though, that he doesn't. Leunig typically presents the mainstream tradition not in terms of the sacred good, but as a uniquely evil manifestation of racism and xenophobia. For us he recommends not continuity and tradition, but a more culturally anonymous existence within a modern, diverse multiculture.

So it's still the case with Leunig that theory is driving the account of reality. This is what I complained to be too often true of liberal thought when I recently discussed why some liberals held traditional cultures to be colourless.

I'm not alone in observing this. In the current edition of Arena, Guy Rundle takes aim at his fellow leftists for precisely this fault. [Goodbye To All That, April/May 2007]

Rundle thinks that too many Australian films and novels are narrow political constructs and therefore fail to engage with how things really are. He complains that they "impose a series of authors' moral fantasies upon a world that varies utterly from it".

This is especially true, he believes, in the portrayal of more traditional peoples, such as the Aborigines, who are all too predictably presented as "people of nature, pre-political unity, and timelessness" - as "knowing grounded blacks" compared to "anxious, rootless whites". (Rundle here seems to catch Leunig out.)

Rundle has a theory for why the leftist cultural class came to miss the reality of things. He believes that from the late 1960s to the mid 1990s, there was a successful Labor alliance between a sub-class of left-liberal cultural professionals and the working-class.

Although the politics of the left-liberals tended to cut across the values of the more socially conservative working-class, the alliance could hold early on because the cultural professionals weren't so dominant in Australian society.

However, by 1990 the value systems of the two groups had come into conflict. By the mid-90s the alliance was over, as the working-class shifted its support toward Howard.

But the artists never grasped this, and continued to present a "fantasy" that, rather than being politically isolated, they still represented the wider national alliance in exile.

Their artworks attempted to tell the big story but without recognising how things really stood. Rundle comments:

Reflecting back the world as their creators want it to be, such works can be profoundly embarrassing, impossible to defend ... Ultimately there is a degree of narcissism involved in them, the 'is' of Australian society disappearing before the 'ought' reflected back at the writers, for whom the revival of a national progressive project would also form a route back to a greater influence in national debates.

Without a grand historical project, left-liberalism had no place to put its emotional politics. Pre-modern peoples were turned to for meaning, in part because they represent a "perfect other" as their stable "frameworks of correspondence and meaning" are what is lacking in the life practices of media professionals in whose world "everything can be re-arranged and connected to everything else".

When Rundle writes of the left-liberal cultural class turning to Aborigines as "a key resource whose lives could be mined for meaning", it's difficult not to think, once again, of Michael Leunig. The Aborigines appear, in Leunig's writing, as a counterpoise to what we are not - to what we are missing. This not only involves a certain romanticising of the Aborigines, it also leads him to discount the place of what is traditional and meaningful in the lives of white Australians.

It's not a politics which goes anywhere. To prove his point, Leunig must show the mainstream as lacking the values he asserts in the "other". And then what? It becomes a case of running down the mainstream and building up the other. There's no creative purpose in it for the mainstream and for Leunig there is mostly the unhappy role of charmless critic.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The cardinal & the liberal

It's unusual for a cardinal to make a bold foray into mainstream society, but that's what Cardinal Thomas Williams, leader of New Zealand's 480,000 Catholics, did recently.

Pulling no punches, he published an essay titled "The Spiritual Bankruptcy of Liberalism". In the essay Cardinal Williams writes that,

Relativism and permissiveness have been deliberately promoted and morality reduced to purely subjective preference. Our failure to protect basic values and rudimentary citizenship is fast converting our society into a moral wasteland.

We have rejected the moral sustenance of the past and are attempting to live on junk food provided by a bankrupt liberalism ...

Can we restore health and sanity to society? My answer is yes. Yes, by challenging a culture asserting the exaggerated individualism that what one does is no one else's business.

The cardinal was immediately challenged in his views by Jim Perron who runs a classical liberal (a traditionally right-liberal) think tank. Mr Perron protested that,

When Cardinal Williams attacks "relativism and permissiveness" he is attacking the idea that individuals can make choices and should be free to do so provided they do not violate the equal right of others ...

At its core liberalism is about liberty and liberty means the right of the individual to make choices ... People may choose to live according to values which others find abhorrent. But in a liberal society, unless those values directly violate the life, liberty and property of another person they are allowed.

I believe that the cardinal is right and Jim Perron is wrong in what they claim about morality. However, I concede that the liberal approach put forward by Jim Perron sounds appealing. The idea that people can do whatever they like provided it doesn't directly harm the "life, liberty or property" of others seems reasonable at first view.

So why then is it wrong?

1) General standards of morality are important

The liberal approach assumes that we each determine our own moral standard by which we freely make individual moral choices.

But it's not as simple as this. There also exists a general moral standard in every society which exerts a powerful influence on the choices we can and do make.

Therefore, we need to be concerned not only about our own individual standard and choices, but also about the general standard.

The problem is that liberalism doesn't allow us to do this. Liberalism makes the defence of an existing general standard illegitimate. Therefore, the general standard is left unprotected to gradually fall to whatever it is that a minority of people are willing to do.

This doesn't help the majority to freely enact moral choices. The influence of the general standard doesn't go away, it simply reinforces the lower standards of the minority rather than the higher standards of the majority. Many people find themselves having to resist the lowered general standards, rather than being inspired by a higher standard.

2) Liberals aren't morally neutral

Liberals claim to be morally neutral. In other words, they claim that they are merely concerned to establish the framework of moral "liberty" and that they don't enforce a positive morality of their own.

In reality, though, liberals do advance a positive view of morality. They aren't really able to leave things just to individual choice, but do instead assert a kind of "good" which they seek to enforce across society.

To a minor degree, this positive view of morality is traditional. For instance, if I were to walk up the street naked with a heroin syringe hanging out of my arm, I wouldn't be directly harming anyone's life or liberty. But even a liberal society draws the line somewhere and I would be quickly removed from the scene. It's not possible, in other words, for liberals to live entirely consistently according to their own theory.

Generally, though, the positive liberal view of morality is anti-traditional. This is because liberals believe that we should be self-created by our own will and reason, rather than by something we inherit or by something external to us, like a traditional code of morality.

Therefore, in a liberal culture, it will be seen as "emancipated" to throw off in your own personal life traditional understandings of morality. This is particularly true of the liberal intelligentsia who exert a tremendous influence over culture and the arts.

This is another reason why the general trend in a liberal culture is toward a lower standard of morality: on the one hand, as explained above, it is made illegitimate to defend a general standard of morality, and on the other hand, liberal intellectuals will mostly act to deliberately "deconstruct" traditional morality as a logical outcome of their first principles.

There is one final way in which liberals seek to enforce a positive morality. Liberals believe that we should be unimpeded to act according to our own will and reason. This belief itself then becomes a kind of moral law for liberals, which is enforced as an overriding moral good.

This leads liberals to set up their own versions of censorship and thought crimes which are far more intrusive than anything which traditionally existed in Western societies. When we talk of "political correctness" for instance we are mostly talking about a kind of intimidating regime of what we may and may not believe.

Another example of liberal censorship and thought crime is a proposed law in France which would make any "incitement to discriminate" on the basis of gender or sexuality punishable by a year in prison. The real effect of this law depends on its interpretation, but if taken literally it would mean that someone arguing that it's morally wrong for women to be sent into military combat would be "inciting to discriminate" on the basis of gender and could risk a lengthy jail term.

So, despite liberal claims to be morally neutral, modern liberal societies are becoming very lax in some areas of morality and increasingly repressive in others.

3) Morality is not just about power

I started out by conceding that the liberal theory of morality seems appealing, at least on the surface. However, there is one particular aspect of the theory which immediately seems less plausible. That is the idea that morality is just an attempt by one group to assert power over another.

For liberals what is important is that we are equally free to to create ourselves according to our own will and reason. Therefore, when someone asserts something to be generally a moral good (ie to place it beyond individual choice) liberals interpret this is a kind of authoritarian power play: an illegitimate attempt to assert the power of one person's will over another.

Liberals are especially inclined to make these claims about the Christian Churches, which have traditionally held some moral authority in the West. Instead of judging that the churches have tried to uphold a genuine, objectively existing moral good in what they teach, many liberals assume instead that the churches are really motivated by an authoritarian "will to power".

That's why right-liberal Jim Perron makes the claim that,

From the start the Church opposed liberalism because liberalism opposed state control and the Church desired to merge church and state into one monolithic centre of authority. For the Church power was something granted by God to the ruling elite. It did not, and could not, reside in the people themselves particularly in individuals.

Left-liberal Niall Cook is cruder, explaining the Christian religion as,

A fallacy created in dim distant times by powermongers and fanatics ... and perpetrated by religious organisations in a bid to spread their dominance over the ignorant unwashed multitudes.

The historical record, though, suggests something very different. Here, for instance, are the words of Pope Pius XI lamenting the fact that power was becoming overly centralised in the modern state:

On account of the evil of "individualism" ... things have come to such a pass that the highly developed social life which once flourished in a variety of prosperous and interdependent institutions, has been damaged and all but ruined, leaving virtually only individuals and the State ...

The idea that the Western religious tradition has all been about a competing will to power is unreasonably cynical, and shows the extent to which liberalism is stuck within its own ideological framework.

Making the argument

Let's say that you're debating a moral issue with a liberal. You as a conservative make a positive moral claim. The liberal replies that people can act however they choose provided they don't violate the life, liberty or property of others.

What could you then say in opposition to the liberal? You actually have several choices. You could reply with any of the following:

a) But people make moral choices within the framework of a general standard of morality. So we have to be concerned about the general standard.

b) But you liberals don't just leave people free to make their own moral choices. You seek to enforce your own understanding of morality. You actively reject traditional standards and you are gradually enforcing a liberal understanding through repressive thought crime laws.

c) But you liberals limit morality to individual choice because you are too caught up in an ideology of "equal wills". You wrongly see general claims about morality as an authoritarian power play. You're too cynical and unrealistic in limiting moral claims in this way.

I expect that there also exist other arguments against the liberal position. The point, of course, is to become adept at making whichever arguments we think best, so that we can follow the lead of Cardinal Williams and begin to challenge the orthodoxy that liberals have established in dealing with moral issues.

(First published at Conservative Central, 06/07/2004)

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Is this really how we earn our colour?

We are often told that Australian society prior to WWII was a boring monoculture.

I can't help but react to this claim sceptically. When I was growing up in the 1970s, the "monoculture" was still a living presence. I experienced it as anything but boring. It was for me an enriching aspect of life.

I'm sceptical too for another reason. When we travel overseas and experience other national cultures - other monocultures - we don't react with boredom. We don't arrive in Japan, for instance, and complain that the culture there is too Japanese and therefore uninteresting. In fact, it's likely to be the "monoculture" that strikes us most as distinctive and fascinating.

Which leads me to wonder if the claim about monocultures being boring is generated from abstract political beliefs rather than real life experience.

If you hold to liberal autonomy theory you are likely to believe that individuals, as a condition of their humanity, ought to be self-determining. We ought to be, according to this theory, unimpeded in creating our own identity, writing our own life script, setting our own values and so on.

The problem is that there are important aspects of life which are pre-determined rather than self-determined. For instance, we don't get to determine our gender, as we are born either male or female. Nor do we get to choose our ethnicity, as we inherit such traditions.

Therefore, in a liberal society qualities such as gender and ethnicity come to have negative associations as restrictions on the free, self-creating, autonomous individual.

It is logical, then, for a liberal to assume that in a society in which there were traditional gender roles and a traditional ethnic nationalism that the free self-creating autonomous individual was repressed - and that the society itself must therefore have been repressed, dull, grey and boring. When individuals were released from such gender roles and from a "monoculture", a liberal might well assume that society must become more creative, interesting and colourful.

In this way, political ideas unfold into assumptions about reality.

Robert Bosler is one such liberal who seems to think along the lines I described above. This is how Bosler describes Australia in the 1940s:

... the year is 1944. The country is at war. See all the people. Look at what they are wearing. 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.

And there now we see the great leader of the time, Mr Menzies.

He’s talking to the people. What’s he saying? He’s saying he wants to give everyone there “more personal choice, more personal freedom”... Well, these people here in 1944 certainly need more personal choice, and more personal freedom, that’s for sure. 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.

Let’s consider Mr Menzies’ task for a moment. The Australian people we see here are vastly different from us. Mr Menzies has a seriously big ask here. “To provide people with more individual choice and freedom.” Can he do it?

Inspirationally, he establishes in this year a political party for that very purpose, and it’s called the Liberal Party of Australia.

The 1950s, in Bosler's account, are little better. It's still grey and colourless, because the self-creating individual is still restricted by gender roles and ethnicity:

The 1950's and 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 life on traintracks. It’s a stilted existence, this. What is it gonna take for them to be free?

In the 1960s colour finally arrives:

There we see it, as time moved forward into the sixties. Huge. Boundaries break and boxed in lives burst, exploded. Colour!

By the 80s the revolution is well-secured. The self-creating individual is ascendant:

Ideas from each and every individual can take root and they can grow. And 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 ...

We saw that freedom and choice had arrived, secure, in the eighties ... We knew it had arrived when we saw on our TV screens the news item telling us that a black woman had been made a judge. That signaled the full arrival of the individual of freedom and choice ... That it would be a black woman who could now sit in judgement over whites and decide impartially upon their fate ... signaled the end of the ball game for the liberal vision. The world over: liberal fulfillment had been sought for so long, the evidence was clear that now it had come.

The Bosler example is clear enough. For him, gender and ethnicity are the key impediments to free, self-creating, autonomous individuals. He thinks traditional Australia restricted the self-creating individual and was therefore grey, boxed in and stilted. When gender and ethnicity were overthrown, you suddenly and finally get creative individuality and vibrancy, richness and colour.

This is where the abstract theory leads you. It's logical, but divorced from reality. It can be cast aside if you are willing to ask awkward questions. Am I as a man, for instance, really going to feel liberated and enriched by living a less masculine life? And do people really celebrate the loss of their traditional national culture as an enriching freedom?

If the theory is wrong, then so is the account of reality.

There's another example of this kind of liberal thinking that's worth looking at, namely the film Pleasantville. In Pleasantville a teenage boy and his sister are transported into new lives as characters in a wholesome 1950s TV show. Everything is pleasant, but their new world is literally grey.

Why is it grey? Because the characters are following a script. They are not writing their own life scripts as liberal autonomy theory requires them to do.

It is only when the characters begin, under the influence of the newcomers, to break from the script that they start to gain colour.

At this point, Pleasantville really takes autonomy theory to a logical conclusion. If what matters is breaking from the script, then a whole series of behaviours can be considered morally justified.

For instance, one of the female characters gains colour when she commits adultery. This is portrayed as a courageous act because she stops to consider her commitments instead of simply going along with fidelity.

There is no sense of adultery being in its nature a wrong act. How could it be a wrong act, when the first rule of this autonomous world is that there is no script?

That's why when the teenage boy eventually returns home to find his mother grieving about the loss of her marriage the following conversation takes place:

Mother: Oh God. It's not supposed to be like this. I'm forty-four ...

Son: It's not supposed to be anything.

If there is no obvious way for things to be, then it's difficult to categorise choices as either morally good or bad. What is left to matter is that I'm asserting my individual will in things.

So when the Pleasantville teenagers begin to engage wildly in casual sex they turn from grey to colour, as they are acting counter-culturally, in other words, against the prevailing social norms. When, though, the sister from the 1990s does the same thing, she remains grey, as she has grown up in a culture of casual sex. She only earns her colour when she begins to act more independently by questioning her promiscuity and developing an interest in literature.

The message of Pleasantville is that the worst setting of life is one which is settled and straightforward, and in which there are given values. Such a life setting doesn't provide the best conditions for asserting meaning through individual choice making.

A better life setting for an autonomist is one in which we must negotiate complex, difficult choices in a world characterised by change and uncertainty. This world might be "louder, scarier, more dangerous" than traditional societies, and create all kinds of social dysfunction, but because it fits better with an ideal of autonomy, it is thought to be more vibrant and colourful.

So this is the context within which traditional societies are categorised as grey. It's a context which goes with a wider set of assumptions, which most people I expect would find unpalatable. Do we really accept that acts must be considered morally neutral, and that the good resides primarily in an independent assertion of our will? Do we really accept that more dangerous, difficult and dysfunctional social conditions are ultimately of positive benefit in breaking up settled patterns of life and providing a challenging context for our life choices?

Finally, there are many cultural references in Pleasantville. The most significant of these is to the writer D.H.Lawrence, who is held to be on the side of the "coloureds" in their march to autonomy. I doubt very much if Lawrence himself would have accepted the role. Lawrence, as the following quote makes clear, did not equate freedom with liberal autonomy and would not have appreciated the politics of Pleasantville:

Men are free when they are in a living homeland, not when they are straying and breaking away. Men are free when they are obeying some deep, inward voice of religious belief ... Men are free when they belong to a living, organic, believing community, active in fulfilling some unfulfilled, perhaps unrealized purpose ...

Men are not free when they are doing just what they like. The moment you can do just what you like, there is nothing you care about doing ...

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Across the political spectrum

All of the major political parties are liberal but they aren't all the same.

They are all liberal because they all follow the liberal first principle: that to be fully human we must be self-created by our own individual will and reason.

The parties are different, though, in how they try to follow through with this principle. It's useful to try to understand how the different forms of liberalism are represented across the political spectrum.

Right versus left liberalism

The major distinction is that existing between the right and left wing of politics. This division (in its modern form) has been around since at least the late nineteenth century.

Right liberals are the heirs of the classical liberal tradition, which was dominant in the English speaking countries in the early and mid-nineteenth century.

The classical liberals tried to solve the basic problem of liberalism in an ingenious way. Liberals want us to be unimpeded in following our own will and reason. But if you have millions of individuals each doing whatever they want, then how do you hold a society together?

The answer for the classical liberals was not to deny that individuals would act selfishly under the liberal principle, but to argue that this selfishness would actually benefit society through the workings of a free market. In other words, millions of competing wills could successfully be regulated by a free market and bring about economic and social advancement.

This right liberal attitude has a number of consequences. Firstly, there is a great emphasis in right liberalism on Economic Man, as it is through our economic activities that we carry out the underlying principles of liberalism. In fact, it's important to remember with right liberals that the free market doesn't just exist for purely economic outcomes: it is the bearer, for right liberals, of larger liberal ideals. That's why a right liberal like Margaret Thatcher could proclaim that "Economics are the method; the object is to change the soul."

Also, right liberals don't like the state to interfere with the workings of the free market. They have therefore tended to prefer a smaller state than other kinds of liberals.

The commitment to the free market has also led right liberals to prefer an ideal of equal opportunities rather than equal outcomes. After all, if you support the free market then you have to accept that some will do better than others, and end up with greater wealth and power.

And historically this is where classical liberalism spawned an opposition. Some liberals could not commit themselves to the inequality of condition brought about by classical liberalism.

Therefore, instead of looking to the free market to regulate the millions of competing wills, they looked to the state instead. These were the "new" liberals of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But today they are called left liberals or social democrats.

The contrast between right and left liberals could be broadly put as follows. Whereas right liberals focus on Economic Man, left liberals instead emphasise the idea of Social Man (which is why the left wing opponents of the World Economic Forum established a rival grouping called the World Social Forum).

Whereas right liberals are anti-statist in the sense that they don't like too much state interference in the economy (and so often have policies of privatisation and deregulation), left liberals tend to be statist and have at times called for the nationalisation of industry.

Whereas right liberals are most comfortable with equality of opportunity (a level playing field) left liberals are more sympathetic to government intervention to engineer equality of outcome.

And finally, there is one more common distinction between right and left liberals. Left liberals, even when they are an influential part of the establishment, like to see themselves as "dissenters". Right liberals, on the other hand, are more inclined to see themselves as "loyalists".

(Another marker of the distinction between right and left liberals is that right liberals often identify positively with the USA, where right liberalism is strongest, whereas left liberals look to the Scandinavian countries, where social democracy is most dominant.)

Left liberalism

The distinction that people make between the right wing and left wing of politics therefore holds true, as long as it's realised that this is a broad distinction between different kinds of liberalism.

It's possible to go further than this, though, and make distinctions between different kinds of left liberals and right liberals.

For instance, within the left liberal camp there are what might be termed "mainstream left liberals" or "social democrats". These are left liberals who are committed to gradual reform through democratic politics. They include the American Democrats, the British Labour Party and the Australian Labor Party.

They are different from radical left liberals who prefer to take direct action to achieve their aims immediately. Some feminists, socialists and animal liberationists fall into this radical left liberal camp.

Then there are libertarian left liberals, sometimes known as anarchists. Like other left liberals, they are hostile to the idea that a free market should regulate the workings of society. But instead of looking to the state as an alternative, they want things to be determined at a local community level.

To summarise, the left liberal camp can be further divided into three parts: mainstream left liberals (social democrats), radical left liberals (socialists) and libertarian left liberals (anarchists).

Right liberalism

It's also possible to make distinctions within the right liberal camp. First, there are mainstream right liberal parties, such as the American Republicans, or the British Conservatives, or the Australian Liberals. These parties are sometimes confusingly called "conservative" parties, even though they are based on a liberal philosophy.

The more radical version of right liberalism is right libertarianism. Right libertarians are more strongly opposed to the role of the state in society than mainstream right liberals. They are also more likely to see themselves as dissenters than mainstream right liberals.

Right and left libertarians obviously agree with each other in wanting to strictly limit the sphere of the central state. However, right libertarians support the free market as an alternative, putting them at odds with left libertarians.

The mainstream

An even finer level of distinction can be made within the mainstream left and right liberal parties.

For instance, in Australia the mainstream left liberal party, the Labor Party, has a left wing and a right wing. As you would expect, the more left wing members of the party are more firmly opposed to the free market and more strongly in favour of state intervention.

It is the right wing of the Labor Party which has been dominant, though, and which has been willing to agree to free market measures such as privatisation and deregulation.

Similarly, the mainstream right liberal party, the Liberal Party, has a left wing (the wets) and a right wing (the dries). In the past, the wets were often small businessmen who weren't so keen on a free market in which the larger and more powerful economic units could clear out the weaker. (Nor were they keen on small business being at the mercy of powerful unions which dominated the Labor Party.)

It's not surprising that the wets within the Liberal Party have defected in the past to form independent left wing parties (such as the Australian Democrats).

The spectrum

The political spectrum is therefore made up different varieties of liberalism. The main division is between left and right liberals. Right liberals look to the free market to regulate competing wills, left liberals believe instead that either the central state or local communities should perform this role.

There are further distinctions within each wing of politics with the "moderates" broadly in the middle and radicals at either end.

Of course, looked at more closely the situation is more complex than this. Still, a general understanding of the political spectrum is useful to get a grasp on the way that politics currently works.

(First published at Conservative Central, 19/06/2004)

Cordelia on the metrosexual male

Cordelia, of Viking Princess fame, has written a list comparing the qualities of her ideal man with those of metrosexuals.

It's an interesting read. Cordelia is not concerned to uphold PC platitudes when writing about relationships, so it's refreshingly open and frank.

Personally, I think she describes the traditional male mindset pretty well. For instance, one of her preferred qualities of a traditional man is:

Doesn’t feel intimidated by an intelligent woman. She is no competition to him. Appreciates the fact that she is intelligent.

Feminist women sometimes take the attitude that men just can't take being intellectually inferior to them. What this misses is that a self-confident, masculine male is unlikely to assume that he is intellectually inferior. Men who have this attitude can find female intelligence appealing, without any sense of it threatening their own identity or standing.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The ultimate freedom?

What is America doing in Iraq? This is the question British journalist, Janet Daley, asks herself in a recent column.

Her answer is that the Americans are being good-natured idealists and trying to bring freedom to Iraq. Not just any freedom, mind you, like liberation from a despotic tyrant like Saddam.

No, she praises Americans for believing that "freedom is the ultimate human goal" and that the "enemies of freedom" are the "enemies of all that makes life worthwhile."

Such phraseology should alert us to the presence of an ideology at work. After all, looked at in an ordinary way, freedom is not "all that makes life worthwhile". Even under the tyrannical rule of Saddam, Iraqis could still appreciate nature or fall in love or raise families, which are certainly things which help make life worthwhile.

What kind of ideology could make Janet Daley talk about freedom in such unreasonable and absolute terms? Perhaps you've already guessed: the answer is liberalism.

For liberals, the very thing which makes us human is our capacity to fashion who we are from our own will and reason. Liberals therefore understand freedom in very specific terms: it is an absence of anything which impedes our own individual will and reason from choosing who we are and what we do.

This explains, first of all, why Janet Daley presents freedom as the "ultimate human goal" and "all that makes life worth living". Within the theory of liberalism, a particular kind of freedom is what defines our very humanity, so it's to be expected that a liberal would see such freedom as central to human life.

The theory of liberalism also explains what Janet Daley understands freedom to be. For Janet Daley freedom isn't just liberation from a tyrannical ruler. Instead, she describes it as "individual self-determination" made possible by submitting "hereditary baggage" to the rule of secular democracy.

Why define freedom this way? Because the liberal first principle is that we should be able to to create ourselves in any direction according to our own reason and will: hence the idea that freedom means "individual self-determination".

And the main impediments to "individual self-determination" are things we don't choose for ourselves, but which we are born into: hence the hostility to "inherited baggage".

So, what exactly do we have to give up to rid ourselves of inherited baggage? Janet Daley lists a few such things which she claims place "limitations on life".

Amongst the "limitations" are "ancient tribal hatreds, extended family loyalties, religious commandments" and "authoritarian faith, clan loyalties and homogenous local cultures."

Janet Daley is putting things as nicely as she can. It is not just "ancient tribal hatreds" that modern liberalism insists we put aside, but ethnic loyalties in general (particularly the mainstream ethnicity on which traditional nationalisms are based). This is because such traditions form an important part of our self-identity, but are inherited and not chosen, and are therefore illegitimate in an important way within liberal theory.

Similarly, it is not just "extended family loyalties" which liberals seek to overcome, but even the basic structure of the nuclear family. Liberals don't want us to identify as wives and mothers, husbands and fathers because this is a "biological destiny" we are born into: part of that inherited baggage we are supposed to leave at the door upon entering the liberal sphere of "individual self-determination".

All of which raises an important point. The liberal view of freedom insists that we give up our ethnic identity within a nation or tribe, and it insists that we give up our identity within a family structure. Doesn't liberal freedom therefore take away important things in life?

Janet Daley agrees that it does. She writes that there is a "price" to be paid for this kind of freedom, a freedom which she even considers to be unnatural. She believes that liberal freedom has "created huge social unease and chronic anxiety" and that "The disruption and dislocation of American life makes it violent and perpetually unstable in ways that less free societies can never know".

And yet she not only supports liberal freedom but wants it extended to all parts of the world. It is almost tragic, I think, that this is the only way she can conceive of politics: that we have no option but to choose a kind of freedom which perpetually disrupts and dislocates our own society.

Why not instead just think outside of the liberal square, and conceive of freedom in a different way? What if being free is not just "individual self-determination" but the freedom to live an integrated life, in which the importance to us of inherited forms of self-identity is accepted and fostered?

There is nothing stopping us from rethinking freedom in this more positive and rounded way, except the force of orthodoxy that liberalism has achieved over many generations. It's time for intellectuals to really re-examine the underlying principles of modern Western thought, in order to open up better political options that just "a necessary freedom which destroys".

(First published at Conservative Central, 06/06/2004)

Saturday, May 19, 2007

A balance of goods

In my last post I tried to explain the contradiction at the heart of liberal autonomy theory. In brief, autonomy theory requires two things. First, it requires that we be unimpeded in pursuing our life aims, setting our values and creating our identity. This aspect of autonomy theory leads to an insistence on neutrality, impartiality and non-coercion.

Second, we are considered human because of our status as an autonomous agent. Therefore, if a person leads a life which is thought to be less autonomous, he is no longer equally human: there is a serious breach of human equality. It is clear that liberals regard this as unacceptable, and so the response in practice is an interventionist, coercive one to remedy the situation.

I noted that when it comes to family arrangements the two requirements of autonomy theory come into conflict. According to the official government research body, women wish to organise family arrangements on motherhood principles, and they wish to be supported in doing so by their husbands. According to the first requirement of autonomy theory, they should be left alone to set these values and life aims.

However, the human rights agency believes that women, in choosing motherhood, are living a less autonomous life than men. Autonomy is to be measured through an independent careerism, and therefore the human rights agency believes that family arrangements should be judged in terms of female workforce participation rates and paid maternity schemes. The human rights arm of the government wants state intervention to change women's lives regardless of women's preferences.

Autonomy theory therefore generates a coercion which violates one of its own basic requirements: it generates its own significant impediment to autonomy.

But if autonomy theory doesn't work coherently, what is the alternative? There are two significant questions to consider here. First, it's important to reconsider one of the basic assumptions of autonomy theory, namely that our status as humans is contingent - that it depends on our enacting something, or being granted access to some kind of social condition.

Traditionally in the West, our humanity wasn't thought to be contingent at all. It was something we were invested with. We could represent this human status for better or worse, we could show different levels of personal character and achievement, but whether we were a wealthy aristocrat or a peasant, a man labouring in a factory or a woman working at home, didn't make us any more or less human.

Autonomy theory changes this. By defining our humanity in terms of our capacity for autonomous self-determination, it makes individuals more or less human, which then (understandably) creates feelings of guilt, resentment, illegitimacy and an unending drive to re-engineer the most basic forms of society.

It's difficult, once you accept a contingent humanity, to consider a range of human goods in balance with each other. Once you think of people as being made more or less human by social conditions, and by their own beliefs, values and identities, then addressing this "failing" of society will be given supreme moral status - it will override all other considerations.

Which then leads to a second major consideration. If we were to return to an "invested humanity" rather than a contingent one, then the logic of autonomy theory would be applied less intensely. Even so, autonomy would still be held to be a sole, overriding good: it would be used as the organising principle of society.

This too needs to be reconsidered. The counter-position is that there are, in reality, a number of possible goods to be weighed when thinking about issues. Autonomy can be one of these, but it shouldn't be singled out as the primary good.

For instance, when considering how family life might be arranged we might think about the following questions in terms of securing the good:

- What will help to perpetuate the distinctive community to which I belong, which forms the setting for an important aspect of my identity, and whose existence I take to be a good in itself?

- What will enable me to fulfil my identity/drives/instincts as a man or woman?

- What do I owe my spouse/children/community?

- What really furthers my sense of freedom and independence? (The answer won't always be a radical individualism.)

- What will serve the standard of what is objectively good, of what is virtuous in itself?

Often the answers we give to these questions will fit well together. If being a provider helps to fulfil one of my masculine drives, it can also reasonably be thought to fulfil a responsibility to my family and community.

It's possible, though, for the answers to be in conflict. In such cases, a community has to arrive at a balance of goods. This is where political debate, properly understood, has a significant role.

The nature of and opportunity for such discussion, though, is impoverished when there is held to be a sole primary good. The task becomes not to arrive at a balance of goods, but simply to manage and apply the one primary good. The emphasis shifts to politics as technique, to the process of managing and extending the primary good in society.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Women & coercive autonomy

A recent research project conducted by the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) found that:

Australian parents seem comfortable in traditional gender roles - mother as the primary caring role and the father the breadwinning role - at least while their children are of preschool age.

The AIFS is the official government body charged with research on the family. It reports directly to the minister responsible for family affairs.

The AIFS report found further that:

Almost all the mothers reported that when they first had children, they arranged to stay home with the children as primary carer, perhaps returning to work on a part-time basis when the children were old enough to be left in the care of others ...

Eventually, though, many mothers reported that there is a point where their partners begin to talk to them about returning to work and the advantages of additional income for the family budget.

So women are choosing to stay at home until their husbands talk to them about returning to work to help with the family finances.

What's even more significant is that,

A focus on breadwinning rather than childrearing by fathers was not seen by mothers as a lack of participation in fatherhood, but reflected their role as a good father.

In the eyes of mothers who strongly believed that small children needed their mothers to be at home with them all of the time, a partner who 'worked hard' and was a 'good provider' enabled them to stay home and fulfill this crucial mothering role - and in their eyes fulfill a crucial aspect of fatherhood.

Compare this traditional view with the following "Mother's Day" story from the Melbourne Age:

Monday May 14 2007 'Punished' for having children

Rights chief renews push for paid maternity leave.

Australia's human rights chief says women are being 'punished' in the workplace ... Renewing a bid for paid maternity leave to be put on the Federal Government's agenda, the president of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, John von Doussa, said failure to set up a universal scheme was 'unfortunate policy' and plainly wrong ...

"Women are getting punished for the simple fact that they, genetically, are those with the function to produce the next generation ... Why should they suffer the penalty?"

The remarks come as up to 60 women's groups prepare to meet in Melbourne next month to build momentum on the issue.

[Mr Von Doussa} said a more comprehensive plan was needed ... to secure better female participation in the workforce.

So the situation appears to be this. The information arm of the state is reporting that women want to care for their young children themselves and that they wish to be supported by a hard-working husband to do so. The human rights arm of the state, though, is advocating something quite different: that what counts is women's workforce participation rate, and that women should be funded by paid maternity schemes to care for their children.

What can explain the discrepancy? I believe it comes down to the liberal idea that what matters most is individual autonomy. We are human, in this theory, because we are creatures capable of self-determination. Therefore, the aim of politics is to ensure that we aren't impeded in our life choices, but can act as autonomous agents in creating our self-identity, in establishing our values and in pursuing our life aims.

The problem with autonomy theory is that it would only work coherently in practice if people really did choose autonomy as their highest good. People, though, generally don't view autonomy as a sole, overriding good in their lives. Therefore, there is a conflict within the theory.

For instance, the theory would work coherently if women were both unimpeded in choosing their identities, values and life aims, and if they then chose to maximise their autonomy by seeking financial independence through careers and bureaucratic paid maternity schemes.

But this is not what women are choosing. Women are identifying and prioritising goods other than autonomy; they might, for instance, in wanting to be supported by a husband, be valuing the love and commitment expressed through the husband's provider role; or the masculine role modelling this provides for their sons; or they might value the anchor such a role provides for their husbands, brothers and sons in terms of family and career commitments.

So the liberal theory in practice has an internal contradiction. Autonomy is supposed to lead to women choosing their own life aims, but autonomy is also supposed to lead to women living a maximally autonomous life. When women choose to sacrifice a degree of autonomy in the service of some higher good, then the two principles can't easily be combined.

The reality is that, over time, a liberal society enforces the "maximally autonomous life" principle, even if this means coercively limiting the "choose your own life" principle of autonomy. Hence, it's likely that a liberal state will implement paid maternity schemes in the service of independent female careerism, rather than allow women to follow their preference of taking the motherhood role itself as the organising principle and being supported financially by a husband rather than by public paid maternity schemes.

The result might be termed "coercive autonomy". We lose the chance to choose the very things that are most important to us and which we hold to be the higher goods and all in the name of autonomy.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Why don't the Marxists take off?

Ever since I first arrived at uni in the mid-80s campus activism has been dominated by Marxists. A number of small but highly dedicated groups have hammered away at the students, year after year, without much competition from any other activist organisations.

For all this, the Marxist groups have never taken off. They've never drawn a significant number of students to their ranks.

What limits the appeal of Marxism? A lot of students, perhaps, recoil from the general aims of Marxism. Marxists want to abolish countries, they want to overthrow the family, and they oppose gender differentiation between men and women. For a lot of students, this is a dystopian vision rather than a utopian one. Most students, in other words, value their national identity and their identity as men and women; most students also hope one day to have a family of their own. Why then should Marxism appeal to them?

So who is left to join the Marxist ranks? First, there are those for whom Marxist aims actually do seem liberating. For instance, a disproportionate number of those who join the little Marxist groups are homosexual. This makes sense, as homosexuals are more likely to react positively to the prospect of abolishing the traditional family and traditional versions of gender. Similarly, the more radically feminist of women might also approve of these aims.

The problem with this audience for Marxists is not only the limited numbers involved. It's also that such groups have their own political movements, targeted specifically to them. They don't need to wade their way through Marxist theory; nor are they likely to look up to the working-class, when workers are the most remote from their own lifestyle and politics.

So feminist and gay activists tend not to stick around. They're more likely to end up as academics, with a mixture of Marxist and "movementist" politics. They move on, and retain only tenuous links with the little campus groups.

So who else is there to fill the Marxist ranks? The radicalism of Marxism can appeal to those who are rebelling against authority. Often this will be paternal authority, so at times the Marxist groups can recruit very young people (15-year-old girls and 17-year-old boys).

But there are problems as well with this target group. First, it usually will only involve isolated individuals. The exception is when there is a more generalised sense of youth rebellion, a generation conflict. It's difficult to imagine this occurring again soon, though. There is no significant youth demographic on the horizon, and society is so culturally fractured now, that it's difficult to imagine solidarity along generational lines.

Anyway, two things are likely to happen to our anti-authoritarian youths. First, they're likely to discover that the new authority in their lives is the Marxist party itself, rather than Dad or the school principal. This authority is likely to be exercised with much less personal care; the result is that the party itself is often identified as the problem, leading either to an early exit, or else attempts at reform, internal divisions, splits and fragmentation.

Second, individuals do tend to mellow in their radicalism over time, so again the 18-year-olds are unlikely to be there in the long-term to build numbers.

Which leaves one other recruiting point for the Marxist groups. It's possible for people to join such groups seeking meaning in their lives. That's why the high-sounding talk of liberation, equality, brotherhood etc can be effective. It's a way for people to think that their life is serving some significant purpose.

It's possible for individuals joining Marxist groups to have their real interest at this more abstract level of idealism. They might not ever really have thought about, or be passionate about, the particular campaigns they find themselves involved in.

It's notable perhaps that Marxism in Australia reached a high-point from the 1930s to the 1950s, at a time when regular religion was losing its place amongst the intellectual class. Catholicism retained some of its vitality in Australia in this period, and therefore formed something of a line of resistance to Australian Marxism.

The people who find Marxism appealing as a secular religion do tend to be the "true believers" - those who maintain a lifelong commitment. They still most often are, in Australia, heterosexual Anglo males.

Yet, there aren't many of them. One reason for this is that Marxism requires its followers to "believe against belief". If you think that your life will be significant because you helped to bring about an international working-class revolution, then you will be depressed to find yourself part of a stagnant, tiny group of middle-class activists with no real chance of practically implementing your aims.

Nor does a political transformation of society really bring a genuinely religious meaning to life. The liberal philosopher J.S. Mill had a nervous breakdown when, as a young man, he asked himself whether he would really be content if all his political aims were to be practically achieved. He was honest enough to answer no.

This isn't to say that politics isn't important. It can't, though, provide the kind of meaning or purpose which those seeking a substitute religion are looking for.

So a Marxist organisation isn't likely to attract, or hold, large numbers of people as a kind of replacement church. As it happens, the pentecostal churches appear to be far more successful in appealing to young people alienated from modern society. I can't see the little Marxist groups competing successfully with the churches in this field.

For all these reasons, the Marxist groups haven't really benefited from their advantageous position on campus. As dedicated as they are, there's not an audience for them which can give them numbers or long-term appeal.

The old left in change?

Phillip Adams was an icon of the Australian left in the 1980s and 90s. So it's noteworthy that, in discussing the English dramatist Dennis Potter, he should write:

How can anyone ever be bored anywhere at any time? Isn’t there’s always something to observe, to think, to feel?

Potter applied this intensity to his love of England. Not of Britain; he was repelled by its connotations of imperialism. He loved England and its “Englishness”. But he wasn’t xenophobic, fully expecting others to feel the same way about their countries and cultures. Yet there was much happening to his England and the English that he deplored. Admitting that he no longer saw himself as “of the Left”, that there were issues on which he felt conservative, and recognising that there were times the country had needed some radicalism from the Right, this son of a coal miner deplored the influence of Thatcherism ...

Even if Adams is just building up to an attack on Thatcher, it's still an unusually sympathetic account of national feeling to come from a figure like Adams. Adams is suggesting, reasonably enough, that it's not xenophobic to love your own national tradition if you expect others to do likewise. He also, in terms of a sympathetic account of Potter, presents us with the idea that England might have needed to counter the influence of the left with some activism from the right.

Sometimes I get the impression that members of the "old left" in Australia are discontented with the way things have actually turned out. There's a sense of loss in some of their writings. In the case of Michael Leunig the discontent has pushed him over the edge, to what sometimes comes across as misanthropic ranting and hatred. Adams, perhaps, is more inclined to a mellow re-evaluation of how things stand.

Friday, May 11, 2007

The French disconnection

Marilyn French made a splash in 1977 with the publication of The Women's Room. This angry feminist novel tells the story of Mira, an unhappily married woman who escapes via divorce to an independent life of study and sexual freedom. The book sold 21 million copies.

Last Saturday The Age ran a story on the now 77-year-old French ("The French Revolution" 5/5/07). What struck me most about the piece were the "disconnects" in the views of the ageing feminist writer.

For instance, Marilyn French's two children are now in their 50s and both are childless. It's understandable that French should miss being a grandmother and therefore lament the growing rate of childlessness in Western society:

She still has a dim view of marriage, but is passionate about motherhood, believing it should be the central organising principle of society. She sits forward, eyes flashing, when I ask why. "What else are we here for? I mean, if there is a god, what did the god put us here to do? One thing: have children. That's it. And what do we do? We make it into the least interesting, unpaid, on-the-side thing you can do - societies are geared so that really, you'll have an easier ride if you just don't have children. Perverse values.

She points to rising childlessness among women of the current generation and says it's only going to get worse. "You make it so hard, they're just not going to have the babies - people are going to have to pay them to have babies. Building airplanes - is that really what we're here to do? Going to the moon - is that really a primary consideration? No.

I agree with much of this. In a sense society traditionally has been organised around motherhood: around creating a protected and secure space in which women can bear and nurture their children. Most people too do ultimately think of their children as being the most important of their life achievements.

I wonder, though, how French thinks motherhood can be treated as the central organising principle of society if men aren't brought into an active and enduring support for the mothers of their children through marriage.

It's odd too that French thinks that the way to make motherhood more interesting and attractive is to commodify it. Usually the left is opposed to the commodification of social relationships under capitalism, so it's notable that French wants motherhood to be valued in terms of wages and market value.

However, there is a more jarring disconnect in French's views on motherhood and children. She proudly tells her interviewer that:

I've had more love affairs than anyone else except for my daughter ... The number amounts to the hundreds.

We learn too that French has,

a strict policy of living for pleasure. This is a big thing for French.

She won't commit to living with anyone else, choosing instead to live independently:

I've had lovers that would come for four, five days or every other weekend - and that's fine with me. I like that.

She has spent her time writing, travelling (most recently to the Amazon), and having casual affairs. It's the standard modernist lifestyle choice, if you think that autonomy (independence) is the key good in life and that traditional commitments represent an oppressive restriction.

The problem is that it's difficult to fit children into it. When we have children we give up part of our autonomy: we are no longer unimpeded in choosing what to do or be. So French is living and advocating an autonomist lifestyle, the classic single girl lifestyle, in which motherhood is likely to loom as a repressive defeat.

French wants things which are at odds with each other. She advocates autonomist views which are likely to lead people to associate motherhood negatively with oppression. Consider the opinions of right-liberal Charles Richardson, quoted approvingly at the left-liberal Larvatus Prodeo site. Charles Richardson recently attacked the Treasurer's calls for improved fertility on the grounds that:

Decreased birthrates are associated with two things: increased standards of living and improved status of women ... If Australia wants more people we don't have to return our womenfolk to domestic drudgery in order to get them. We just need to open the door (to immigrants) a bit wider ... The drivers of fertility crusades are racism and misogyny: keep the women barefoot and pregnant ...

So autonomy theory led Marilyn French in the 1970s to condemn marriage as a domestic restriction and to propose an independent lifestyle in its place; the same theory now leads modern liberals like Charles Richardson to condemn motherhood as an oppressive domestic burden on women, limiting women's independence.

There's one other disconnect in French's views I'd like to briefly mention. French believes a true revolution in the relations between the sexes has stalled because men haven't changed enough:

Too many are still trapped in the old deluded myths of masculinity, a "hollow suit" of actions and beliefs that has proved extremely stubborn to alter, despite all the talk of SNAGs and metrosexuals, she says.

But is French romantically attracted to the modern metrosexual male? When asked why she wrote, My Summer With George, a novel about an older female pursuing an eligible male journalist, this is the response:

"Well, I got a crush on a guy," she says bluntly. "I realised, I've gone through all these experiences, and here I am - how old was I? I don't know, in my late 60s - and it was like Cinderella. I'm not kidding. You really mean I still have these feelings, that somebody's going to come along, this prince, and make my world wonderful? ... Talk about the triumph of hope over experience."

So the fundamental relationship between men and women, the fundamental attraction between the sexes, is still experienced, even by an ageing radical feminist, in terms of traditional gender. Yet, Marilyn French is calling for a revolution in which traditional masculinity is overthrown.

In other words, she admits that she herself responds romantically to the traditional male, and yet she criticises men for being too traditionally masculine. It seems to me that her own heterosexuality is getting in the way of a consistent politics here. Personally, I'd suggest that she modify the politics at this stage, but I think it's more likely for expectations of love to be sacrificed. A pity, though, if women in general are encouraged to follow suit.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Liberals vs democracy?

Here's another of those contradictions spawned by autonomy theory.

Liberalism states that we must be self-determining to be fully human (hence "autonomous"). Therefore, the first phase of political modernism was devoted to abolishing non-contractual forms of political power. The power of kings and priests was held to be illegitimate because it did not involve an act of consent from the governed.

And so we ended up with "liberal democracy". However, there's a problem. Democracy might seem to fit in with autonomy theory as it involves a formal act of consent. But what if a democratic majority chooses goods other than the maximisation of liberal autonomy? What are liberals to do then? Do they continue to support democracy, as a political form based on consent? Or do they oppose it as bringing about outcomes which conflict with liberal first principles?

Geoff Robinson, an Australian labour historian, has discussed this quandary for liberals like himself in a recent blog post Democracy vs liberalism? He recognises that majority opinion often runs against liberal political aims. He mentions the Tampa incident of 2001 when 77% supported turning back the Tampa, a ship carrying illegal immigrants to Australia; Lipset's theory of "working-class authoritarianism" in the US; and the "populist conservatism" which has "challenged the American left in its heartlands".

So how does Robinson seek a way out of the contradiction? Does he support democracy even if this leads to non-liberal majorities? Or does he seek to preserve liberal first principles against democracy?

He takes the latter option. He reminds us that the first principle he holds to is that of autonomy (fulfilling our potential through self-government). He then writes that:

We are not obliged to support capitalist democracy when it reduces the ability of humans to fulfil their full potential. Democracy, as James Bryce noted long ago, has won support as a means to an end ... We cannot be 'all for' democracy as currently constituted.

This, though, isn't really a solution to the contradiction. It is merely an assertion of which contradictory option he prefers. After all, preserving "autonomy" from non-liberal democratic majorities means abandoning "autonomy" in terms of democratic consent as a basis for political power.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

May you live in interesting places

Remember Ryan Heath? He's the young Australian writer who last year claimed that Australia had no world city. Sydney, he thought, couldn't compare with places like Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Sydney was old, white and easy, whereas the Brazilian cities were colourful, crazy and out of control. They were more interesting.

Australians, added Ryan, were too chauvinistic and deluded to follow the Brazilian lead in building world cities:

The truth is that Australia doesn't really have a world city - and it's too deluded to realise what it needs to do to create one.

Reading the morning papers in the aftermath of the 2005 London bombings, I was struck by the faces of London. Thirty-two of the 39 photos of victims that stared at us that next morning were under 35 and looked like the United Nations. That's when I realised what a real "world city" is. It's not easy; it's not white; it's not old. It's crazy and colourful and out of control in a way I don't recognise in Australia. Sydney isn't the fifth column after New York, London, Tokyo and Paris ... Sydney is middle-ranking and miles ahead of its Australian rivals at that.

Indeed, it takes no great leap of the imagination to put Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro or Johannesburg on the same footing as Sydney. But it's a real challenge for white chauvinists to think that a Portuguese-speaking city might be more interesting.

So what is life like in these "interesting" Brazilian cities? Maybe a little too interesting according to a recent report by Amnesty International:

Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo have reached a tragic impasse. Criminal gangs – be they drug factions, death squads or para-police – have rushed to fill the vacuum left by the state, balkanising the cities into a patchwork of violent fiefdoms. The crumbling prison system has incubated sophisticated organised crime rings. The police themselves have been left vulnerable to attack, weakening their ability to play their part in protecting Brazilian citizens. Meanwhile, poor communities continue to suffer – hit by stray bullets, placed under effective curfew during police operations, and extorted by militias or traffickers.

The AI report goes on to discuss the recent history of São Paulo:

Over nine days in May 2006, 493 people were shot dead in São Paulo State ... On 11 May, the first day of the violence, the criminal organisation known as the PCC shot 7 policemen dead, and wounded a further 8. The following day rebellions spread through the prison system, many involving hostage taking ... By the end of the second day, 22 police officers and five prison guards had been shot dead. Gang members, including some of the over 12,000 inmates on temporary release for Mother’s Day, were now sowing panic in the city, burning buses, throwing grenades and hand-made bombs at banks, police stations and public buildings. São Paulo was gridlocked by a 100km tailback as people tried to get out of the city centre, where many of the attacks were taking place. Small businesses and shopping centres closed, public transport shut down, school children and university students stayed at home.

As for Rio:

In 1999 Anthony Garotinho took office as governor of Rio de Janeiro promising to introduce profound reforms to combat years of spiralling criminal violence ... But when Rosinha Matheus Garotinho (wife of Anthony Garotinho, and his successor as governor of Rio de Janeiro) ended her term in office in December 2006, Rio was still mired in violence. Seven years on the homicide rate was still running at over 6,000 deaths a year, with official statistics for killings by police hovering around the 1,000 mark per year. Drug factions were entrenched in most of the city’s favelas as well as dominant in the prison system. The police were resorting to increasingly militaristic approaches to public security, including the sporadic use of the armed forces. Corruption and criminality remained embedded in law enforcement agencies. And in a more recent development which threatens to further destabilise the city, para-policing groups or "milícias" have begun contesting control of favelas in the vacuum left by the state.

Do we really want to create more of these world cities, these mini-UNs, in which outbursts of violent crime are met with equally violent repression?

Saturday, May 05, 2007


In my piece on Anzac Day I mentioned the poem Recessional by Rudyard Kipling. I've read enough on Kipling to be wary of endorsing him as a conservative. Even so, he doesn't fit well into an orthodox liberalism either. The writer Evelyn Waugh summarised Kipling's politics this way:

He was a conservative in the sense that he believed civilization to be something laboriously achieved which was only precariously defended. He wanted to see the defences fully manned and he hated the liberals because he thought them gullible and feeble, believing in the easy perfectibility of man and ready to abandon the work of centuries for sentimental qualms.

Kipling's Jungle Books, which he began in 1892, are described by one biographer (David Gilmour, The Long Recessional, p.107) as follows:

he was not simply writing animal stories to amuse children. The tales are also fables with a moral, allegories with a message. The verses of "The Law of the Jungle," recited by the wise bear Baloo, lay down rules for the safety of individuals, families and communities. Individualism must be tempered by loyalty to the tribe - "For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack" - while survival depends on respect for the rules.

Kipling came to greatly admire the soldier and administrator Lord Roberts of Kandahar. Roberts, in his maiden speech to the House of Lords in 1905, summed up the motivation behind his long years of service with these words:

we are links in a living chain pledged to transmit intact to posterity the glorious heritage we have received from those who have gone before us in this place.

How different this sounds to the opinions of a Michael Leunig or a Tracee Hutchison, who both fall over themselves to reject the past and their own place within a living tradition.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Striking out on Anzac Day

Some left-wing journalists greet Anzac Day like actors in horror films waving crosses at vampires.

This time around the Melbourne Age featured commentary by both Tracee Hutchison and Michael Leunig. It's hard to decide which was the most curiously disordered.

I'll start with Tracee's column. She doesn't like the idea that there might be reason to honour previous generations of Australians. After all, Australia was a bad place from day one. Think Botany Bay circa 1770, she writes.

What's worse, those 300,000 Australian volunteers in WWI signed up when the White Australia policy was in place:

That was a hundred years ago. Food for thought, isn't it? ... Yet that was the prevailing social and political mood that shaped the thinking of those young men who willingly signed up when WWI was declared in 1914. That was their idea of the freedom they were defending.

Bad diggers! Tracee then confesses that:

I don't know anyone who would have volunteered to fight in a war as a teenager ... none of us can imagine doing what they did. Does that make us cowards?

That the men in Tracee's social circle can't imagine signing up is no great surprise. What have they got to fight for? If you think that your country has a past which renders it morally illegitimate, then you have no tradition to love and feel responsible for. I wonder, though, how Tracee thinks her morally illegitimate Australia might defend itself in any future conflict.

Anyway, at least Tracee has been consistent to this point. Things get worse when she adds multi-layered contradictions to her position:

What kind of Australia did our diggers die defending and what kind of Australia did they imagine we would become? Have we let them down?

Are the fear-laced policies of our Government what our original diggers had in mind when they enlisted? Or were they thinking of a different kind of Australia - at peace with its past, its present and future?

... And why does all of it have to come with an Australian flag draped around its shoulders? It frightens me.

A few paragraphs ago they were bad diggers dying to defend the discriminatory White Australia policy. Now they are suddenly good, noble diggers who would feel let down by the discriminatory policies of today.

A few paragraphs ago Tracee was telling us of our evil past. Now she's complaining that we as a country are not at peace with our own past.

And, to cap it all off, Tracee then complains that our Government is "fear-laced" and yet in the very next paragraph announces that she is frightened by ... the sight of an Australian flag!

From the apprentice leftist Tracee Hutchison we move to the old master, the cartoonist and columnist Michael Leunig. He pushes the idea of identifying with the "other" just about as far as it can go - so far, in fact, that it should make sensible readers question the whole process.

His opening contribution to Anzac Day is to praise a rude Turk:

I knew a Turkish man who owned a coffee shop around the corner from where I used to live. Ten Anzac Days ago I went to his shop for a morning coffee to be greeted by his wicked smile and twinkling eyes: "Good morning Michael," he said. "Happy Anzac Day. This is the special day," he declared with mock formality, "to remember that all invading armies must be thrown back into the sea."

I have to say, it was not such a bad way to start the morning.

Leunig is just warming to the task. His next topic is how great the multicultural Western suburbs of Melbourne are (he knows because a friend told him - Leunig himself lives far away in country Victoria). According to Leunig (via his friend) it is African, Asian and Muslim immigrants who are true to the Australian tradition unlike the stupid and boring Anglos:

a delightful aspect of being among so many Africans, Asians and Muslims is the spirited good humour, lively thinking and sincerity that they generate ... "They are what the dinkum, working-class Aussies used to be when we were growing up," says my friend. "They keep the spirit alive, they've got the humour; they remind me of what Australians were like before we became so stupid, boring and up ourselves, like the Americans.

There follows a sustained attack on Anglo Australia circa 1955. Leunig, to borrow a phrase from Tracee Hutchison, is not at all at peace with Australia's past.

First he recalls singing Onward Christian Soldiers at school, a hymn he categorises as a "melodramatic Anglo jihad song". Then on Anzac Day he, poor soul, was forced to sing:

a racist song called Recessional about the glory of battle, boastful Gentiles, "lesser breeds wihout the law" and our rightful domination of their lands ...

Rudyard Kipling's anthem lingered like mustard gas in the schoolyard where we played "war" and invented new torture techniques for various imaginary non-white and non-English speaking undesirables.

The mind boggles at Australian schoolboys of that era even being aware of various non-white, non-English speaking peoples, let alone focusing their schoolyard play on their torture. Leunig is really cranking up the vilification here.

Leunig even gets the message of Kipling's poem Recessional wrong. The poem was published in 1897 at the time of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee celebrations. Kipling thought the English were becoming a little too overconfident and wanted to remind them of the decay of nations which, on rising to prominence, became boastful and power hungry and lost a sense of the higher purposes their civilisation once served.

Kipling at the time was strongly anti-German. He not only saw the Germans as a threat to the English, but believed them to be arrogant and motivated by power alone, and therefore uncivilised. So the line "lesser breeds without the law" is usually thought to refer to the Germans, rather than to any non-European colonial peoples.

Leunig also remembers celebrating Guy Fawkes Day as a boy. He calls Guy Fawkes "the famous terrorist bomber" and "the bomb-making terrorist", once again attempting none too subtly to place our own culture on the same plane with that of the jihadist suicide bombers.

Finally, Leunig describes a novel, Breakfast of Champions, in which a visiting writer insults the sporting achievements of some philistine citizens of a small town and is beaten up. Leunig writes that "This tale often helps me to understand Australia". Leunig appears to be suggesting that, having used Anzac Day to spit in our eye, we are to value his artistic spittle highly, otherwise we are hostile, violent philistines.

Would anyone want to end up like Leunig? Would we really want to inhabit a mental world in which we seek to vilify our own tradition in an exaggerated way, deliberately ascribing to it the worst faults identified in other traditions, whilst giving over to others the best features of our own?

Leunig is not a misunderstood prophet. The insults, the disloyalty and the intent to do damage are all too clear in what he writes.

When you end up applying hatred to your own kind, isn't it time to reconsider your politics?

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Losing motherhood

It's soon to be election time here in Australia. Currently the right liberal Liberal Party is in power, and they have promised voters a $3000 "baby bonus" as part of their family package.

Interestingly, the left liberal Labor Party has warned that the baby bonus might backfire by encouraging teenage girls to become pregnant.

Why is this interesting? Because it's usually conservatives who worry that government welfare undermines the family. Conservatives often argue that the best way to help families financially is to give tax breaks. This form of assistance supports the efforts of men to be providers by returning some of their earnings. It therefore increases the financial benefit to a woman of having a husband, and strengthens the social role of marriage.

The $3000 baby bonus, on the other hand, undermines the position of men in families. It is the government which gets the credit for this kind of family payment, and not husbands. In effect, the government is taking over some of the role of being a provider from men, so that women need a husband as a provider within a marriage to a lesser degree.

That's why you might expect a family-oriented conservative to prefer a $3000 tax deduction to a $3000 baby bonus. But why would a left liberal oppose the bonus?

The answer, perhaps, is revealed in an article by Fiona Stewart in today's Age newspaper. Fiona Stewart is worried that the $3000 baby bonus might encourage young women to become mothers. Why doesn't she want young women to become mothers? She explains that when she was completing academic work on this subject a few years ago,

Everyone in the youth sector was - and still is - committed to encouraging girls to see motherhood as one of many choices. To move away from the historical model of "the baby maketh the woman" ... This strategy of encouraging choice over biological destiny was aimed particularly at girls from non-English-speaking backgrounds ... (Age 29/5/04)

This is a logical position for a liberal to take. Liberals believe that we should be self-defined through our own reason and will, rather than through unchosen things we simply inherit. Therefore, liberals like Fiona Stewart don't like the idea that a woman's identity should be formed around motherhood as this is part of an inherited "biological destiny" rather than something chosen individually, like a particular career path.

This issue, of how we define ourselves, is raised again later in the article when the reasons why a young woman might choose to have a child are discussed. According to Fiona Stewart,

She will do this, not to get social security benefits as some seem to believe, but because motherhood is a definer of self.

Which is exactly the problem for a liberal like Fiona Stewart. Motherhood is not supposed to be a primary "definer of self" under the rules of liberalism because it's not something self-created out of a woman's own mind, but is a natural outcome of her inherited sex.

What Fiona Stewart would prefer is for women to fashion their self-identity through educational and career accomplishments, with motherhood being a possible later and subsidiary add on.

For Fiona Stewart, if there is to be any incentive for women to become mothers, it shouldn't be in the form of a baby bonus, nor a tax break, but greater support for childcare, so that women needn't interrupt their focus on career or education when they have children.

Hence her less than maternal conclusion that,

If we have to pay women to have children - rather than providing the infrastructure to support the integration of parenting and work - it should be done in a way that ensures that education and career still come first.

The kids can wait.

Is this a way of looking at things which is likely to lead to a commitment to family and having children? The answer clearly is no, which helps to explain delayed family formation and low birth rates in liberal, Western countries.

Yet, it's hard to blame young intellectual women like Fiona Stewart. They are simply following through the logic of the orthodox liberal philosophy of the West. Unless we decisively reject this orthodoxy how can we expect our intellectual class to view motherhood as a central "definer of self", rather than as a form of self-identity to be suppressed?

Motherhood is likely to be placed in a losing position, despite concern over low birth rates, until we reject the first principles of liberalism.

(First published at Conservative Central, 29/05/2004)