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 ...


  1. I think this is an excellent post and the analysis of the film Pleasanville is both interesting and insightful. I enjoyed the film when I saw it and never considered any political implications - probably the sign of a skilful movie-maker.

    I would take exception with one comment you made however; "If the theory is wrong, then so is the account of reality."

    I would suggest that it is the incorrect account of reality which invalidates the theory, not the other way around. In scientific terms it's the evidence that proves or disproves a theory, not a theory which proves or disproves evidence.

    As I agree with your conclusions completely it is a minor point, but it seems to me that choosing what part of reality to believe based on how it fits a theory is one of the areas in which liberals are weakest and an area on which we, as conservatives, should be attacking them.

    Thank you for your excellent blog. As a recent arrival to Australia it's nice to know I'm not the only conservative in the country.


  2. Peter W, you're right that it's reality which determines the validity of the theory. In fact, if the article hadn't already been so long, I would have liked to draw out this point.

    I think it's a fault of the liberals I'm describing that they are willing to pronounce on the world according to the logical implications of their theory, rather than speaking directly from their real experiences of the world.

    In other words, there's a problem when it's the theory which builds up an account of reality.

    Thanks for the comments about the site. And if you ever feel a bit isolated as a conservative here, please remember the option of the Australian Traditionalist Conservative Network (the link is in the sidebar).

  3. Another great post.

    If you grow up with the values and beliefs of this liberal autonomy, it affects the way people treat institutions in a way that they wouldn't if they were brought up with a conservative mindset. Marriage is the great example. The liberal view was that its sole purpose is the pleasure of the participants; this is why they are in favour of gay marriage- from a liberal set of values that makes sense.

    But since conservatives also view marriage as having a role in wider society for the having of children and the disciplining of people's sexual appetites, it's no wonder that people with conservative values look at the whole institution, and people's behavior surrounding marriage differently.

    Was Menzies to blame? I think he was merely answering the popular demand. The point where conservative values were lost forever in mainstream society seems to be in the whole 1914-45 period when we underwent two World Wars.

    After all that, it's no wonder that liberal autonomy theory was so alluring to people.

  4. What is it with liberals and colour???

    Are they just idiots?

  5. Mark Richardson quotes Robert Bosler's description of life in the 1940s and 50s:

    "[T]he 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."

    Later, on the advent of the 1960s, he sees colour.

    Clearly this leftist thinks the past lived in the television box; understandably so, as I find it difficult to image this cretin actually reading a book.

    These delicate left-wing minds, how impressionable they are: no Mr. Bosler, the past wasn't black-&white just because the TVs were! When he says that "[t]his is no joke", I seem to think Bosler is, au contraire, rather hilarious!

    Furthermore, the celebration of the appointment of Pat O'Shane to the Bar ("[w]e 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"), isn't exactly something to be rather proud of.

    Anybody who toasts that as a step in the right direction must be a complete loon; consider the following:

    1. Wikipedia - Pat O'Shane - Controversial Rulings, (@ 26 May 2007)

    2. Les Kennedy, Michael Pelly and Lisa Pryor, "Magistrate Pat O'Shane Facing [Apprehended Violence Order] Hearing", Sydney Morning Herald (online), (22 September 2004) (@ 26 May 2007)

    3. Janet Fyfe-Yeomans, "Controversial Magistrate Fights for Judicial Life," News.Com.Au, (1 November 2005) (@ 26 May 2007)

    4. "Controversial Magistrate Could Go", News.Com.Au, (17 January 2007) (@ 26 May 2007)

    5. Karen Fredericks, "... and [sic] ain't i [sic] a woman?: [sic] Pat O'Shane's good reasons," Green Left Online, (24 March 1993) (@ 26 May 2007)

    Happy reading!

  6. Thanks for the comments.

    Scott, I agree with your reading of history when you write:

    The point where conservative values were lost forever in mainstream society seems to be in the whole 1914-45 period when we underwent two World Wars.

    Even in the 1920s it's still possible to find conservative values within the mainstream political class in Australia, but by the late 1930s there's not much left at all.

  7. Please excuse my errors of spelling and grammar in my last post...

    It's never advisable to engage in debate and tackle HTML, all at eight minutes to 1am, LOL.

  8. "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!"

    lol. Is that before or after they discovered mind-altering drugs?

  9. I loathed Pleasantville, every last unthinking, propagandistic, self-congratulatory frame. And (no offense to anonymous) I remain shocked to the point of despair that almost no one I know could immediately pick up on its overt socio-political message, nor were put off by its preachy script. A movie at once idiotic and full of itself, Pleasantville is simply my least favorite movie, period. There is so much I could say on this subject, although I only saw the movie once--I recall it as though I have seen it a hundred times.

    Perhaps the most disturbing moment of the movie is its conclusion. When asked, "What happens now?" (as in, now that all social convention and tradition has been abandoned wholesale), the adolescent anti-moralist who is the film's protagonist simply giggles, "I don't know!" at which point they both erupt into satisfied laughter. I have never seen a more perfect illustration of the sheer sadistic joy that some men feel at burning what other men cherish. I can say without exaggeration that I actually believe Pleasantville is the most diabolical thing I have ever watched.

  10. SAGE SAID:
    “I have never seen a more perfect illustration of the sheer sadistic joy that some men feel at burning what other men cherish.”

    This is quite true, and sad, that men have (collectively), over the last few decades, let things ‘slide’ by apathetically allowing feminists & liberalists to ’have-their-way’ when it comes to almost any important historical construct (like marriage, religion, etc).

    I understand that it may be considered biologically common (and often necessary) to ‘break-away’ from one’s parents into adulthood, but to me, it belies a fundamental petulance toward one’s father & mother that goes WAY beyond moving forward to becoming a ‘man’ or ‘woman’ – and seems more like reverting to ‘childhood’.

    The liberal/feminist notion of “abandoning all that has come before” in favor of a self-determined lifestyle, which has the inevitable consequence of metaphorically ‘spitiing” in the face of your ancestors, has roots in much of the literature that fostered it’s popularity in the earlier feminist boom. Gore Vidal’s essay of the late 70’s - “This Critic and This Gin and These Shoes” (New York Review of Books, September 25, 1980) – alludes to a liberal conquest when he writes;

    “The long dialogue has broken down. Fortunately, as Flaubert pointed out, the worst thing about the present is the future. One day there will be no . . . But I have been asked not to give the game away. Meanwhile, I shall drop a single hint: Only construct!”

    Ok then. What do you do when an untested theory (like liberalism/feminism) is foist upon society and you do away with the old? What happens after you “Only Construct” and have thrown away the old ‘working’ model?

    Pleasantville’s dialogue of “What now?” – is an important one to ponder. It’s a comment I often convey to ‘proud’ feminists who have demolished historical social values to an ‘anything goes’ model.

    What now?

    Indeed, (to heterosexual feminists), I ask - ‘What now?”

    When their strongly held ethic is that they have an overall contempt & dislike for traditional men & masculinity, (while STILL wanting the nobility of those men to exist) then I fail to see how their ‘no-rules’ societal structure is supposed to work.

    If men & women have no recommended or prescribed notions of behavior to one-another, then WHAT exactly am I to expect from a partner? The answer of course, is only sex. The ‘physical’ seems to be the only ‘certainty’. The main thing that feminists have been complaining about NOT wanting to be ‘defined’ as - is exactly the ONLY thing a man can define a woman as if one strips away an prescribed behaviors, roles or decorum. If she is ‘only constructed’ (ie. Being defined by the ‘now’ & ‘future’ with no regard for the past) – then how do I trust in her to be anything than ‘short-term’? If she is only to be had ‘now’ - then why would I marry her for the ‘future’? Parenthetically, why would I base my relationship to her on any type of LASTING ethical ‘honor’, when she doesn’t prescribe to it herself?

    The rule of : “Every action has an equal & opposite Reaction” – does seem apt here, and is something liberalists need to realize.

    It really should be no surprise that men are regarding women as ‘predominantly’ sex objects, when the things men ‘used’ to respect them for, are things the modern woman refuses to be any longer.

    From a man’s point of view (and I’m sure it’s similar from a woman’s in today’s time as we hear her complain about how uncivilized men have become now), it seems that since we are following the idea that we don’t have to ‘treat’ another any particular way (that is trying to live by behaviors that others would accept and be familiar with.) – we’ve adopted this ‘colourful’ liberal notion that an unorganized (and uncertain) culture is somehow harmonious?

    But what am I to count on? What am I to ‘build’ on? While colour and fury may be ‘exciting’ & ‘spontaneous’ – it is seldom the bedfellow of ‘security’ & ‘honor’. Something healthy families & societies are built on.

    If the target is constantly shifting, then the only sensible thing to do IS (unfortunately) to adopt the liberal mindset of being single and selfish. It, personally, leaves a bitter taste in my mouth, to be sure, but as a logically thinking man, I cannot abandon all reason and ‘throw caution to the wind’ by taking major risks with my life in traveling down a path with someone who’s belief system is subjectively based on little more than how they ‘feel’ from one day to the other.

    I simply cannot ‘trust’ in a ‘wholly’ liberal mindset. There simply is NO security at all. There is no real future to build your life on.


  11. Bobby N.,

    You put it so well, I am envious the words are not mine!

  12. If I recall correctly, "Pleasantville"--which is indeed one of the most vile films ever made--appeared about the same time as the film "Blast from the Past," and the two formed a perfect complement to each other. "Blast" shows, in effect, the moral and cultural superiority of the 1950s. What is more, it showed how even a corrupted contemporary woman would ultimately find a man from the 1950s more desireable than anything else on offer in her milieu. Predictably, "Pleasantville" received rapturous critical attention while "Blast" was almost entirely ignored.

  13. Pleasantville may have recieved critical attention, but it was a boring piece of rubbish and I am pretty sure I couldn't even be bothered finishing it. By contrast, I remember as a teenager that several people I knew were head over heels for Blast from the Past.

    On a more empirical note, Australian society was not monocultural prior to WWII. People just had less cultural fatigue, and appreciated more of the subtleties between different parts of the culture of the time.

    For instance, there was a greater appreciation of the subtleties between the different Northern European groups who had moved to Australia - my maternal grandmother's family were Channel Islands French, my maternal grandfather's family were from Schleswig-Holstein, my paternal grandfather's family were a mix of English and Welsh, my paternal grandmother's family was a mix of English and Scottish.

    In that culture, small things like surnames could still carry lots of meaning about a person's origins. Muller was German - you might be Lutheran, you were more likely to drink. Maxwell and Murdoch were Scottish names, if you were religious, you were probably teetotalling Presbyterian, if you weren't, you were probably a heavy drinker.

    Catholics and Protestants drew radical distinctions between each other. A mixed marriage was one between these two groups, and because belief mattered back then, meant that one party or the other would have to convert, and do it sincerely.

    Anyone who suggests that this Australia was monocultural or boring is suffering from a severe case of propoganda, and should just call their grandparents to have a chat about what things were really like back in the day.