Saturday, June 30, 2007

The man merely has to show up at the wedding?

Back in April I posted on some research which found that traditionalist women were happier in their marriages:

adherence to traditional beliefs and practices regarding gender seems to be tied not only to global marital happiness but also - surprisingly enough - to expressive patterns of marriage ...

Why wouldn't modernist, feminist marriages work as well? Part of the answer must be that patriarchy theory, on which much of modern feminism is based, leaves little room for successful relationships between men and women.

Patriarchy theory assumes that the aim of life is individual autonomy, in which there are no impediments to our choosing to do or be whatever we want. What then matters is the power to exercise autonomy. Patriarchy theory claims that society has been organised around a pattern of dominance and subordination, and that men as a dominant class enjoy a privilege of autonomy at the expense of women. This oppression of women by men is built into the structure of society, so that even love, marriage and motherhood are instruments of the patriarchal oppression of women.

It's not easy to create a marriage based on this political world view. For evidence of this, consider the recent discussion of marriage on the feminist website, I blame the patriarchy.

A few words from the writer of the marriage post will give you a flavour of patriarchy theory at work:

... marriage benefits not just individual men at the expense of individual women; it is the very foundation of global patriarchy

... Even modern American marriages between progressive, trendy hipsters are, at the least, fanciful or ironic reenactments of a gruesome misogynistic hegemony

..."Love" ... cannot withstand the pressures wrought by the power differential between dominator and dominated. Because all of society, not to mention the global economy, turns on the difference between two classes - oppressor and oppressed, man and woman, white and black, top and bottom - love ... morphs into a class struggle. Couples struggle against the world and each other for fidelity, for money, for sex, for kids, for individual happiness or fulfillment. Thus, marriage is "work" ... but it is woman who has to do most of it; the dude merely has to show up at the wedding.

... Your Nigel is different, of course, [but] he enjoys a privilege that you will never see for as long as you live. I allude to the privilege of personal sovereignty.

The discussion which follows (over 300 comments) largely follows the same kind of themes. Most of the comments include the following propositions:

1) What matters is autonomy/personal sovereignty. It's good to be selfish and act for yourself only.

2) Women have to do everything. Men as the privileged, autonomous class don't have to do anything in a marriage.

3) Even if men are great husbands and fathers and even if they are perfect feminist liberals, they are still a drag on autonomy and self-actualisation and you should be ready to divorce.

4) Marriage is to be approached as a struggle between two people with conflicting interests.

5) You shouldn't have kids either, no matter how great they are, because they are an impediment to autonomy.

6) It would be easier to be a lesbian living in a commune. Children should be raised as autonomous beings, in female communes. It's better for heterosexual women to be lonely, rather than capitulate.

I can't reproduce all the relevant comments, but here's a selection:

23. I'm married. To a great guy. He's kind. He's loving. He's an amazing father ... He never expects adulation, kudos, or any special recognition for participating in the running of the household. I have two kids, and I love them ... But sometimes I wish I had just done whatever the heck I wanted, whenever I wanted.

33. I blame the patriarchy for the way in which social expectations and assumptions result in marriage that confines and limits the potential to take chances and dare to please yourself before everyone else!

37. I would add: Don't have kids, either. They are the ultimate trap. Frankly, if I had the chance to do it over again I'd go the whole hog and be a radical feminist lesbian separatist and organise a collective somewhere.

42. I hear you. Every day I thank dog we don't have children.

43. Despite having a "good one" as a partner ... I'm afraid of having children and sinking deeper into the wife/mother role ... Living with or depending on others for essential pieces of your life opens you up to domination, period.

44. As for post-patriarchal child-rearing, I'm fond of Shulie's utopian sci-fi scenario: 'motherhood' is eradicated; kids are not 'raised' but instead are allowed full independence in a cooperative of assorted adults; 'childhood' ceases to be sentimentalized or romanticized; kids receive fully human status ...

62. ... the boundaries I selfishly set for myself now are often the only things that make me feel like I'm still an autonomous human being. And no, it's not him. He really embraces the idea of an equal marriage and puts it in action. But the broader culture sets it up a certain way and you can't avoid these problems. What I am left with is a situation where I feel like I'm battling him to set those boundaries ...

I want everything, just like men get to have, except without having an easy life buttressed by inequality.

73. Maybe the ideal would be feminist collectives, where we could find companionship and solidarity (and look after each others' kids), without the bonds and binds of marriage.

74. Amen, sister. You know there are times I really wished I was a lesbian. It just sucks to crave male companionship when you're a woman living in a patriarchy.

75. I have been married for almost seven years to a "good guy" ... I'm going to stick with my good guy for the time being, but I am proud to say that I'm no longer terrified of the idea of ending my marriage if I ever reach a point where I feel I can no longer handle the power differential.

77. My cousin became a wife two weeks ago ... The wedding was extremely depressing for me because, as so many of you have shared, the dude does as little as possible while she has been doing every f..... thing.

78. Don't settle for anyone who isn't perfect for you, a feminist, and comfortable with the idea of divorce.

85. It's so nice to have these sentiments expressed from a source not in my head. It helps me understand why I threw away my engagement to a generally lovely man.

And on and on it goes. It seems to me that once you accept the basic assumptions of patriarchy theory, you're unlikely to experience marriage and family life as positively as you might.

First, if you think that autonomy is the basic good in life, you're likely to resent the inevitable impositions that marriage and parenthood make on you. Second, if you think that men are inevitably privileged and made autonomous by patriarchy, then you won't even recognise, let alone appreciate, the sacrifices men make on behalf of their families. No matter how much a man attempts to follow feminist rules of marriage, he won't ever escape the taint of patriarchy.

Finally, if a woman sees her husband as someone who fundamentally takes something away from her, and whom she must struggle against to retain a human status, then resentments will come easily, as will thoughts of independence and divorce.

Is it any wonder that women with more traditionalist views of marriage generally experience a more satisfying relationship with their husbands?

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

What really drives Putnam?

According to Professor Putnam of Harvard University, diversity leads to a loss of trust, happiness and friendship. In diverse communities, individuals "hunker down" and become socially isolated.

And yet Professor Putnam remains a "diversiticrat". He wants to continue to extend diversity, despite the significant, negative effects that his own research uncovered.

Why? What can explain the contradiction between the research findings and the professor's continuing allegiance to the cause of diversity?

The professor himself never really gets to first principles. He does attempt to make a case for his position, but it's pitched to us as persuasive argument. So there is a frustrating sense that on such an important issue the fundamentals are being left unexamined.

Still, it's worth looking at the arguments he does put forward.


Resistance to diversity is futile, according to Professor Putnam. The most certain thing is that diversity will grow in Western countries, fuelled by immigration and immigrant birth rates. (pp.137, 139, 140)

I find it difficult to accept this argument at face value. First, it is obviously not inevitable that Western governments have to encourage ongoing large-scale immigration. There is no "force of nature" type reason that current immigration policies have to remain in place. They could definitely be changed if there were a shift in political climate.

Second, Professor Putnam is not consistent in his fatalism. He wants to extend diversity by rooting out traces of ethnic solidarity in the West (in churches, in neighbourhoods, in workplaces). He thinks that this is a difficult task and a great challenge, but reminds us (quoting Weber) that "Politics is a slow boring of hard boards".

So we are to be fatalists when the task is relatively straightforward (reducing immigration levels) but unyielding in our efforts to implement a much more difficult and intrusive policy which the professor happens to support.

Economic benefits

The professor goes on to argue that an increase in ethnic diversity is not only inevitable but also desirable. This is despite the negative effects of diversity on social capital.

The desirable benefit he points to is economic growth. Again, though, it's difficult to believe that this is the main driver behind Professor Putnam's support for diversity.

First, the professor himself admits that this is a contested area, and that some research shows a negative effect of immigration on the economy. The best he can claim is that overall a "weight of evidence" suggests the effect to be positive. (p.140)

Second, it's not reasonable to conclude that a modest positive effect on "economic capital" is enough to offset the serious damage to "social capital" that the professor outlines at length in his report.

If diversity makes us less happy and less socially connected, does a modest economic gain really justify a deliberate increase in diversity? The answer is obviously no, and therefore it's unlikely that Professor Putnam is devoted to diversity for economic reasons.

Furthermore, it's difficult to believe that a serious loss of social capital is associated with long-term economic growth. In fact, Professor Putnam tells us elsewhere in the report that, based on his own earlier research, a high level of social capital makes "the economy work better". (p.138) Therefore, if ethnic diversity destroys social capital you might expect the economy to work worse.

Professor Putnam himself details some of the negative effects that this loss of social capital has on the economy. He notes research that in workplaces diversity "is generally associated with lower group cohesion, lower satisfaction and higher turnover", and that it has also been linked to "lower investment in public goods" and "higher default rates". (pp.142-143)

Finally, it might be noted that there are plenty of examples of homogeneous societies which have managed impressive rates of economic growth. Japan, South Korea and China have all had major periods of growth as (relatively) ethnically homogeneous countries. Australia had the world's highest living standards in 1900, again with a relatively high level of homogeneity.


Professor Putnam also thinks that diverse societies are more creative. He gives as evidence the disproportionate number of American immigrants who have won Nobel prizes, who are members of the National Academy of Science and who are Academy Award film directors. (p.140)

Is he right? Not in terms of the Nobel prize. There is a Wikipedia list of American Nobel Laureates and their country of origin. Of the 169 American winners, only 20 were born outside Anglophone or northern European countries. If we then take out the southern and eastern European born winners we are left with 4 foreign born winners (a Japanese, a Chinese, and two Indians).

So there are only four American Nobel Laureates out of 169 who are of non-Western national origins.

It has to be remembered, too, that it's highly unlikely that someone will become a Nobel Laureate or a member of the National Academy of Science without a strong educational background and a capacity to work in the top professions.

But most of the current wave of immigrants into Europe and North America don't fit this category. A large majority of the Mexican immigrants to America don't have high school qualifications, let alone advanced university degrees. A disproportionate number of immigrants into Europe become welfare dependent or work in low-skilled jobs.

Furthermore, mass immigration can lead to a loss of young, middle-class professionals, who are much more likely to contribute to the arts and sciences.

Why? Imagine you live in a high-taxing, crowded, cold, northern European country, like the Netherlands, Germany, Britain or Sweden. Why would you stay? The most basic reason would be that you are bound to your country in terms of identity, culture, language and history.

But what if your government decided to make such traditional forms of attachment obsolete? Then you would no longer have the same motivation to stay. You would be more likely to find yourself tempted by warmer climes, less punitive tax levels or more living space.

According to a recent article by Paul Belien, northern European countries are already losing large numbers of young professionals, who are being replaced by low-educated and unskilled migrants. In 2006, for instance, over 130,000 Dutchmen left Holland.

There are European countries, therefore, experiencing the reverse effect to that imagined by Professor Putnam. The population transfer is likely to be negative in terms of creativity in the arts and sciences.

But anyway, I don't think that arguments about creativity or economic growth are what really motivate Professor Putnam to support diversity. It's probable that he believes in diversity as part of a political world view.

This world view is brought out to a greater degree when Professor Putnam moves on to another topic, namely how the negative effects of diversity might be overcome. But I'll leave discussion of that topic for a future post.

Part 3: Professor Putnam's challenge

Monday, June 25, 2007

Films & crisis

Is there a brief way to describe the problem of modernism? Spencer Warren has made a good effort to do so, in an article on film director Martin Scorsese. He writes:

Scorsese's more than three decades of such expression ... embodies the moral crisis of Western popular culture today and, indeed, of Western society: making a god of oneself in the name of "freedom", substituting the unfettered self for higher, transcendent truth, and utter disregard for thousands of years of civilized tradition based on moral and social self-restraint. (Hat tip: Lawrence Auster)

It's what I've tried to explain at this site, but perhaps Warren has put it in a way which works better for some readers. I don't believe Warren has his own site, but some of his work is available here.

Jim Kalb, meanwhile, has briefly defined the role of conservatism:

The role of conservatism is to maintain connection and continuity, between the past and future, the formal and informal, the explicit and unspoken, the secular and transcendent.

I hope this definition doesn't slip away; it seems to me to capture, at the very least, an important facet of the meaning of conservatism.

Friday, June 22, 2007

She wears a suit to work so it must be OK!

What do TV ads tell us about modern morality? In the case of the Nando’s commercial, quite a bit.

The idea behind the ad is that the company's chicken is so addictive you have to wear Nando’s patches or chew Nando’s gum to reduce the cravings. It’s a clever concept, but the advertisers decided on a controversial way of presenting the idea.

They made an ad in which a pole-dancing woman, naked except for a g-string, thrusts her rear end toward a male customer, but doesn’t get the tip because she is wearing a Nando's patch. So she changes to Nando's gum, and next time the happy client slips money into her g-string. Later she is shown in a happy family scene in which she and her family enjoy a chicken dinner together.

The ad attracted a number of complaints to the Advertising Standards Bureau. Some of these complaints were:

This ad was played in a popular public cinema at what is clearly a child friendly session time … showing sexually based advertising content to a young audience is totally inappropriate.

Shows and glorifies strip joints and venues that are R18 in a cinema full of children.

It was sexual and provocative and inappropriate for children to view.

Young children are shown it is acceptable for men to pay for gratuitous behaviour/performances. It promotes working in a strip club as an “ordinary” acceptable vocation for loving, family oriented mothers. It devalues the worth of women into sex objects.

How did Nando’s respond to these complaints? First, they argued that the nudity in the ad wasn’t “gratuitous” because it was “central to the idea” of the ad and ensured “authenticity”.

Second, they claimed that the ad, rather than being degrading to women, was the opposite because it showed a woman,

who was clearly in charge of her own destiny. The woman we depict in the commercial is shown to be intelligent, in control and making her own choices. She is not being coerced by the man in any way. She is acting in accordance with her own free will … Many women see the open display of female sexuality as a forthright display of empowerment.

This defence of the ad gets right to the heart of things. The company is invoking what is currently the ruling concept of morality, one based on liberal autonomy theory.

According to this theory, what matters is that we are self-determining, autonomous agents (as this is what is thought to make us human). So it is not what I choose which counts in terms of morality; it is that I am autonomous in choosing it.

That's why Nando's goes to such lengths to describe their pole-dancing mum as a self-determining agent: she is "in charge of her destiny," "in control," "making her own choices," "not ... coerced," and "acting in accordance with her own free will".

But should Nando's be portraying a woman who is engaging in a form of prostitution as a motherly role model? The company gives this answer:

We don't believe that it is our place, nor our audience's, to make a judgement about a woman's fitness as a mother based solely on her professional choices. The woman is not engaged in any activity that shows her being a bad mother. Indeed, she is clearly portrayed in the final scene as an ideal mother who cares for her family.

I hardly know where to begin my criticism of this statement. First, note the taboo placed on "judging" by Nando's. Again, this makes sense if the real aim of morality is to maximise autonomy. If we judge a choice negatively and make it morally illegitimate then we are placing a limit on someone's will, on their ability to determine for themselves how to act.

Hence the seeming arrogance of Nando's in solemnly telling us that we, the audience, must not make judgements about the choice of a mother to support herself by pole-dancing.

Note too the unrealistic, nihilistic conclusions that this leads to: that the woman is "not engaged in any activity that shows her being a bad mother" and that she is, in fact, an "ideal mother" who cares for her family.

In the Nando's world it would be impossible to uphold any moral standards. Individuals could behave however they liked, and as long as they could show they weren't coerced, their choices would be considered moral. Furthermore, it would be thought wrong to judge individuals for the moral choices that they did make.

Which leaves the Advertising Standards Bureau in a tricky position, as there isn't much for them to do without the possiblity of standards.

As it is, the ASB finding was laughably incoherent. The ASB dismissed the complaints against the ad, in part on this reasoning:

The Board noted the complaints that the advertisement vilified women by depicting the woman pole dancing and therefore as a stripper or prostitute. The Board considered that the depiction of the woman pole dancing was not a depiction of a sleazy or overtly sexual woman and that there was no suggestion that the woman was a prostitute.

A naked, pole-dancing woman shoving her genitalia toward a male client isn't "overtly sexual"? A woman accepts money for such a service and there is "no suggestion that the woman was a prostitute"? There is a radical redefinition of reality going on here. And what of Nando's claim that their pole dancing woman was engaging in "an open display of female sexuality" as an act of empowerment? How do you square this with the ASB denial that there was anything overtly sexual happening?

Then there is this ASB classic:

The Board noted complaints about the inappropriateness of stripping or pole dancing being shown in conjunction with images of a happy family and the disconnect between poledancing or stripping and family values. The Board considered that poledancing was not incompatible with family values.

Are we supposed to laugh out loud at this point? But then we get the explanation for the seemingly out of touch comments:

The Board noted many complaints about the depiction of a mother and wife as a pole dancer/prostitute and considered that this vilified women. The Board considered that this advertisement depicted a strong in control woman who went about her work in a professional manner (wearing a suit to work), enjoyed her work, enjoyed being 'sexy' and enjoyed time with her family. The Board considered that this advertisement depicted the woman as being a strong and empowered woman. The Board considered that the advertisement did not vilify women by portraying a woman in both roles or in a manner that demonstrated that she was 'sexy'. The Board considered that such a depiction was not improper as a depiction of someone who was also a mother and wife.

So the Board too follows autonomy theory morality. What matters is that the woman is an uncoerced, self-defining agent. She is a "strong in control woman" who "enjoyed her work" and who is "empowered" (rather than lacking power and therefore being coerced in her choices by someone else).

Again, the consequence of adopting this approach is that the concern is simply to be non-judgemental and permissive (as this places the fewest limits on individual choice). There isn't a focus on the inherent goodness of an act, nor a realistic assessment of the effects moral choices are likely to have.

At times, it seems as if the Board is content to press the right theoretical buttons, and to be unconcerned with the contradictory arguments this generates. In the last quote, for instance, we are told that the ad is OK because the woman enjoys being sexy (and is therefore uncoerced) and just a few lines later we're assured that the ad is fine because the woman is not being depicted as "sexy".

So at least Nando's have done us one favour. They have brought into the open the uselessness of the ASB as a body charged with upholding standards.

Note: to read the ASB finding you have to click here and go to the findings for June 2007

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Professor Putnam: hunkering after diversity

What effect does ethnic diversity really have on society? Professor Robert Putnam of Harvard University set out to discover the answer in a recently published research project.

He found that ethnic diversity doesn't create conflict, nor does it foster increased trust of outsiders. Instead, it is associated with anomie - a condition in which individuals become increasingly socially isolated and purposeless.

Professor Putnam reports in his study that an increase in diversity leads to a decrease in social solidarity:

The evidence that diversity and solidarity are negatively correlated comes from many different settings. (p.142)

He finds that trust between different ethnic groups is highest when there is less ethnic diversity:

Inter-racial trust is relatively high in homogeneous South Dakota and relatively low in heterogeneous San Francisco or Los Angeles. The more ethnically diverse the people we live around, the less we trust them ...

... The differences across our 41 sites are very substantial in absolute terms. In highly diverse Los Angeles or San Francisco, for example, roughly 30 percent of the inhabitants say that they trust their neighbours 'a lot', whereas in the ethnically homogeneous communities of North and South Dakota, 78-80 percent of the inhabitants say the same. In more diverse communities, people trust their neighbours less. (pp.147-148)

The result of living in a more diverse community, though, is not increased bonding with your own ethnic group. In diverse areas, people withdraw into social isolation:

Diversity seems to trigger not in-group/out-group division, but anomie or social isolation. In colloquial language, people living in ethnically diverse settings appear to "hunker down" - that is, to pull in like a turtle. (p.149)

Some of the more specific consequences of this hunkering down include:

- fewer close friends
- less happiness and lower perceived quality of life
- more time spent watching TV
- lower likelihood of giving to charity or volunteering (pp.149-150)

Professor Putnam goes on to explain that:

Diversity does not produce ‘bad race relations’ or ethnically-defined group hostility, our findings suggest. Rather, inhabitants of diverse communities tend to withdraw from collective life, to distrust their neighbours, regardless of the colour of their skin, to withdraw even from close friends, to expect the worst from their community and its leaders, to volunteer less, give less to charity and work on community projects less often, to register to vote less, to agitate for social reform more, but have less faith that they can actually make a difference, and to huddle unhappily in front of the television. (pp.150-151)

The negative effect of diversity holds true for women as well as men and for liberals as well as conservatives:

Diversity seems to affect men and women equally, though with minor variation across different indicators of sociability. The impact of diversity on sociability seems somewhat greater among conservatives, but it is significant among liberals, too. (P.154)

Similarly, the alienating effects of diversity are apparent across different age groups:

We initially suspected that the effects of diversity might be greater for older generations raised in a less multicultural era, whereas younger cohorts would be less discombobulated by diversity ... However, every successively older cohort from age 30 to age 90 showed essentially equal effects, so Americans raised in the 1970s seem fully as unnerved by diversity as those raised in the 1920s. (p.155)

Nor does economic inequality account for the negative effects of diversity:

we have been able to discover no significant interactive effects between economic inequality and ethnic diversity – that is, our core finding that diversity produces hunkering is equally true both in communities with great economic disparities and in those that are relatively egalitarian. (p.157)

So, if ethnic diversity tends to create, in Professor Putnam's own words, "paranoid, television-watching introverts" and if it decreases solidarity, happiness, friendship and trust, mightn't we then at least consider the idea that it's something to discourage?

Perhaps there is good cause to reconsider the programs of mass immigration into Western countries, which are the main drivers of increased ethnic diversity.

Professor Putnam himself won't consider what would seem to be the logical conclusion to draw from his study. I'll discuss his refusal in my next post.

Part 2: What really drives Putnam?

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Rorty, irony & the logic of modernity

The American philosopher Richard Rorty died recently. Curious to learn a little about his beliefs I read a Wikipedia article on one of his most famous works, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity.

What I discovered was fascinating. Rorty appears to have been the kind of intellectual who really tries to take a set of principles to their logical conclusion.

The ruling principles of our time are based on liberal autonomy theory. This theory claims that our status as humans is contingent: that we become more or less human depending on our capacity to create ourselves as autonomous agents.

This focus on the self-creating, autonomous individual has shaped the modern West. In recent times it has led to the insistence that both gender and ethnicity be made not to matter, as these are both important aspects of the self which we don’t choose for ourselves, and which therefore seem oppressively restrictive to an autonomist.

That’s why there are radical liberals who claim that gender, ethnicity and sexuality are oppressive social constructs with no real existence. We shouldn’t be too surprised, therefore, to find Rorty arguing that:

notions like “the homosexual” and “the Negro” and “the female” are best seen not as inevitable classifications of human beings but rather as inventions that have done more harm than good.

If Rorty had left the development of autonomy theory to this claim that female is an invented category, he would not be so remarkable (after all, the Swedish state has endorsed this denial of female as a real category).

Rorty went further. He worried about the notion of an “objective reality”, as this limited individual autonomy by making humans answerable to something outside of themselves, rather than to what they themselves decided on. He wrote:

Maybe someday the idea of human beings answering to an independent authority called How Things Are in Themselves will be obsolete. In a thoroughly de-Platonized, fully Protagorean culture the only answerability humans would recognise would be to one another. It would never occur to them that “the objective” could mean more than “the agreed-upon upshot of argument.” In such a culture we would have as little use for the idea of the intrinsic structure of reality as for that of the will of God. We would view both as unfortunate and obsolete social constructions.

Nor was it only objective reality that appeared to Rorty as a restriction on autonomy. So too did the past. If the aim is to be self-created, then we have to somehow throw off the influence on us of past generations.

How did Rorty propose that we do this? In short, we have to not only create ourselves, but recreate the past.

In other words, it’s not a question of pretending to start from year zero, in which there simply is no past. The past exists, but it is to be “recontextualised” by us, so that it is us shaping the past, rather than the past shaping us.

Rorty described himself as an "ironist" and he wrote of individuals having a "final vocabulary", which was the set of beliefs they operated with. The Wikipedia article tells us that:

One of the ironist’s greatest fears, according to Rorty, is that he will discover that he has been operating within someone else’s final vocabulary all along; that he has not “self-created.” It is his goal, therefore, to recontextualize the past which has led to his historically contingent self, so that the past which defines him will be created by him, rather than creating him.

The sad irony here is that the very concern for self-definition means that Rorty has adopted someone else’s final vocabulary; in fact, worse than this, he has adopted a final vocabulary held in a predictably orthodox way by nearly all Western intellectuals over many generations.

The argument is therefore self-defeating as the further Rorty or any other ironist tries to self-define, the more they are placing themselves within an historically determined, orthodox final vocabulary, namely that of liberal autonomy theory.

The Wikipedia article also mentions Rorty’s anxieties about the notion of objective truth:

In his utopia, people would never discuss restrictive metaphysical generalities such as “good”, “moral”, or “human nature”, but would be allowed to communicate freely with each other on entirely subjective terms.

So there is not only a rejection of an objective truth, but contained within this, a rejection of the categories of “good”, “moral” and of “human nature”. Such categories are held to be “restrictive” to the self-creating, autonomous individual.

There’s another curious passage in the Wikipedia article. Rorty seems to have admired the French philosopher Derrida:

For Rorty, Derrida most perfectly typifies the ironist … Derrida free associates about theorizers instead of theories, thus preventing him discussing metaphysics at all. This keeps Derrida contingent, and maintains Derrida’s ability to recreate his past so that his past does not create him. Derrida is, therefore, autonomous and self-creating, two properties which Rorty considers most valuable to a private ironist. While Derrida does not discuss philosophies per se, he responds, reacts, and is primarily concerned with philosophy. Because he is contained in this philosophical tradition, he is still a philosopher, even if he does not philosophize.

So philosophy itself is radically recast. It’s no longer possible to be concerned with the truth of a philosophy, so in this sense it’s no longer possible to philosophise. Instead, there is “free association”: a response or reaction to other theorisers, which connects someone to the realm of philosophy.

Finally, there is the question of human status. If we are invested with the qualities which make us human, then we are naturally equal in our human status (even if we are unequal in particular talents or abilities).

However, autonomy theory begins with the assumption that our human status is not invested but contingent. Therefore, it’s possible for some people to be more human than others.

Rorty seems to have accepted a contingent humanity, and to have been greatly troubled by it. So he did not even want the question of human status to be considered; he assumed that the answer would be an inequality of status, which would then be used to justify cruelty:

Rorty sees most cruelty as stemming from metaphysical questions like, “what is it to be human?”, because questions such as these allow us to rationalize that some people are to be considered less than human, thus justifying cruelty to those people.

Similarly, Rorty thought that a distinction between an “us” and a “them” would be based on an assumption of an unequal human status – that the “them” would naturally be thought to be less human – and that us/them distinctions should therefore be abolished:

Rorty argues that because humans tend to view morals as “we-statements”, and find it easier to be cruel to those who they can define as “them”, we should continue to expand our definition of “we” to include more and more subsets of the human population until no one can be considered less than human.

I find this aspect of Rorty’s thought interesting, because it points to a reason why liberal autonomists are so concerned with issues of equality (and issues of “otherness”). They lack the sense of a naturally invested equality of human status, which then leads them to an excessive response in which differences in particular talents or abilities (rather than status) between groups cannot be admitted, and group loyalties are misunderstood to imply a dehumanisation of the outsider.

Postscript: I have had to rely on just a couple of sources for this article, so it’s possible I’ve misrepresented Rorty’s thought in some respects. I will try to follow on later with some more in-depth reading of his work.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

No love lost in Stockholm

Even in feminist Sweden the metrosexual male is ridiculed. This is what Kathleen Harman, a mother living in Stockholm, has to say about "poncy pappas" - the well-coiffed fathers on "pappaledighet" (paternal leave):

It's hard enough in this town trying to be a Yummy Mummy without having to contend with the emergence of a new and direct threat to our status ... Our arch rivals are none other than the Poncy Pappas and make no mistake, they are taking over the joint ...

When I first arrived in Stockholm, just over three years ago, there were two distinct and acceptable types of dads on pappaledighet. The first was the emasculated, gimpy, wimpy type and the second was the bored and sulking type who spent his days at the park reading the paper whilst his offspring ate the contents of the sandpit.

... Suddenly, Stockholm in summertime has been overrun by over buffed, designer clad metrosexual daddies. They sit in our favourite cafes for hours and hours, just chatting aimlessly with each other and into their little black Prada phones ...

Anyway, in an effort not to be outdone by these foolish usurpers, I booked myself into the Centralbadet for a day of advanced maintenance ... I noticed with smug satisfaction that we had beaten the Poncy Pappas to the sun loungers.

Top on my list was the deluxe pedicure ... Whilst I wouldn't put it past those fathers to start painting their nails and wearing wedge heels, I just wanted to make sure that I got there first ...

Yes, it's written humorously. Is there not, though, in these lines also some female (as opposed to feminist) social commentary?

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Review: Trust the man

Trust the man has just hit pay TV in Australia. It's a romantic comedy (aka chick flick) about two couples struggling through crises in their relationships.

The first couple have done a role reversal. Rebecca is a successful actress returning to the stage after having children; Tom has given up a job in advertising to stay home and look after the kids.

The second couple, Tobey and Elaine, have been living together, as "free spirits", for seven years.

The film doesn't put a liberal gloss on the relationships. The stay-at-home dad situation isn't working well. Tom is having a crisis in masculine identity and doesn't know who he is. His one consolation is internet porn. Rebecca, for her part, resents the suggestion that her role as wife and mother is now secondary to her career.

Nor is Elaine happy. She can no longer convince herself that she wants to live the single girl lifestyle forever. She now wants to get married and have kids. Tobey, though, is not good husband and father material. He is suffering an existential angst, which keeps him disengaged from life and selfishly immature.

The couples split apart. What can reconcile them? Here the message of the film is a little confused. To some degree, the film goes against liberal orthodoxy. The two men, both of them aimless and disoriented in their lives, realise that there is something worth striving for.

For Tom, it's family life. He misses his children and can't bear to live apart from them. So he tries to gain control over his more destructive behaviours. For Tobey, it's his love for Elaine. To win her love he has to be more serious and sincere in his attitudes.

So the basic message isn't too bad. It's that love and family are goods worth striving for as a man - that they justify an adult commitment to life.

So why is the film largely unsatisfying? One reason, I think, is that the two men are presented all too well as being cut adrift in life. They are hollow men, without a sustaining connection to their own masculinity, to work, to community or nation, to church, to nature or to culture.

Not only does this make it hard to identify with the men as characters, it also makes their eventual turnaround seem desperate. They are clutching at something left over, something offered to them by the much more grounded and mature women in their lives.

Nor do either of the men really challenge the overall drift of things. In the final scene we see Tom and Rebecca in a plane, now happily reconciled. Rebecca's career is going well, and the reinvigorated Tom has won the gushing admiration of a stewardess for writing a book about childcare.

This is a return to the more orthodox liberal idea that we can build a life around our own individual "projects", like book writing, and through status and career success.

The film doesn't really seem to have taken us anywhere. We started out with Tom being dissatisfied with what career status and career success brought him; now we're supposed to think that he's finally arrived through ... career status and success.

It makes me think that liberals, even when they recognise that something has gone wrong, have rejected too much to be able to offer a persuasive alternative.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Why have a nation?

Giuseppe Mazzini was a nationalist who devoted his life to uniting the separate states of Italy into a single country. Yet it would be wrong to assume that he was a conservative. Writing in the mid-nineteenth century, he advised Italian workers that:

Your first duties - first as regards importance - are ... towards Humanity. You are men before you are either citizens or fathers. If you do not embrace the whole human family in your affections; if you do not bear witness to your belief in the Unity of that family, ... if, wheresoever a fellow-creature suffers, or the dignity of human nature is violated by falsehood or tyranny - you are not ready, if able, to aid the unhappy, and do not feel called on to combat, if able, for the redemption of the betrayed and oppressed - you violate your law of life, you comrehend not that Religion which will be the guide and blessing of the future.

But what can each of you, singly, do for the moral improvement and progress of Humanity? ... The individual is too insignificant, and Humanity too vast. The mariner of Brittany prays to God as he puts to sea; "Help me, my God! my boat is so small and Thy ocean so wide!" And this prayer is the true expression of the condition of each one of you, until you find the means of infinitely multiplying your forces and powers of action. This means was provided for you by God when He gave you a country."

Why have a nation? For Mazzini the nation is not an end in itself. Instead, it is an instrument to better enact a universal political morality.

Mazzini uses the image of a lever to describe this instrumental understanding of nations:

In labouring for our own country on the right principle, we labour for Humanity. Our country is the fulcrum of the lever we have to wield for the common good.

So was Mazzini onto something? Can this particular type of liberal or humanistic nationalism justify the existence of countries?

I think not. It seems to me to be too unstable a justification. After all, if a nation is a lever for achieving universal political aims, then it will only be held onto until a more powerful lever emerges, such as a League of Nations or a UN or a European Union or a regional power bloc.

It then becomes logical to transfer allegiance from the "lesser" instrument to the greater.

As an example of this, consider the following recent opinion piece from an Australian website, The Dead Roo. Titled "Get rid of Australia", the piece argues that the UN would be a more effective institution than the existing nation state for securing desired political outcomes:

The long-term goal of constitutional reform is obviously the dissolution of Australia.

The Westphalian system is failing. The legality and morality of meddling with the internal affairs of nation states is demonstrated by actions in the Balkans and East Timor, or the inaction in Darfur or Zimbabwe. The necessity of co-ordinated management of global issues, including forced compliance of recalcitrant states, becomes more obvious every year. Climate change is merely the most pressing issue, universal human and para-human rights the deepest.

In the modern world, nation states are as irrelevant and indeed counterproductive as the city-states of old.

There's another problem with the instrumental view of nations. There's no reason for the end goal to remain the same. Politicians might decide to change economic partnerships, or political alignments or moral causes. If the nation exists as an instrument to achieve such aims, then it must change in character as the aims change. The tool must fit the task.

Politicians therefore think it reasonable to make the most radical changes to national existence to serve what appear to be historically transient aims of trade or diplomacy.

A genuinely conservative view of nations differs considerably from this. The nation isn't assumed to be an instrument for the getting of some other aim or the spreading of some other value. It is justified, in itself, as an aspect of being, as constituting a part of who we are, of our self-identity.

A conservative is likely to value the national tradition he belongs to as providing him with a particularly close connection to his own culture, to the places he inhabits, and to generations past and future. He is likely to value it too as providing a larger, stable setting in which to make his commitments to family and to maintaining the standards of public life.

It makes little sense, in terms of this conservative view, to voluntary discontinue an existing national tradition. Even if a greater lever of state power became available, or if there were new claims of trade and diplomacy, this wouldn't be thought to justify overturning an ongoing tradition which is so significant in forming our identity and our deeper attachments.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Sweden, this is what's waiting for you

There are Swedes, apparently, who are experimenting on children as follows:

In a kindergarten in Stockholm, the parents were encouraged by the preschool teachers - apparently ideological pioneers - to equip their sons with dresses and female first names. There are now weeks in some places when boys HAVE TO wear a dress.

Why give a boy a girl's name and put him in a dress? The general answer is straightforward. According to liberal autonomy theory our status as humans requires us to be self-defining. Therefore, it will be thought progressive in a liberal society to break down traditional gender identities. This might involve encouraging girls to act in masculine ways or, as in the case above, expecting boys to become more feminine.

In Sweden, though, there's more to it than this. The Swedes have adopted patriarchy theory (a more detailed working out of these ideas) as a state policy.

Patriarchy theory begins with the common liberal assumption that our humanity is contingent: that we are only fully human when we are autonomous (i.e. when we are self-determining).

The next step is the observation that women appear to be less autonomous than men. Women traditionally had a life path which was based on a biological destiny (motherhood) rather than a uniquely chosen career; they were financially dependent on their husbands; and they did not have as much formal political power as men to shape social outcomes.

Logically, if women were less autonomous this meant (according to the theory) that they weren't being considered as fully and equally human.

How might this "inequality" be explained? Understandably, there was a reluctance to accept that traditional gender roles were natural, as this implied that women were naturally unequal.

So instead the idea was put forward that existing gender differences were socially constructed by a dominant class in order to exploit an oppressed class. Society itself was organised to invisibly reinforce this patriarchal oppression.

Therefore, you can see what those pioneers in the Swedish kindergartens might be up to. For them, the distinction between boy and girl isn't real - it's an oppressive fiction. Their aim would be to overturn the distinction and destroy the categories of male and female, so that there is only one equal human category.

In patriarchy theory the category of female is the subordinate one. Men represent the autonomous human class and women the inferior "sexed" class. It's logical, then, that liberals should first attempt to de-sex girls and "raise" them toward the masculine ("human") standard.

So in Sweden (as elsewhere) it was girls who were first put in boys' clothing rather than vice versa. One of the girls affected by this was Cordelia of the Viking Princess site, who has complained of her Swedish childhood that:

When going abroad to Southern Europe, I noticed that little girls there usually wore skirts and frequently even pretty dresses. I and my friends very rarely did. In fact I very rarely wore traditionally girly clothes at all. My parents told me that the Southern Europeans wore such clothes because they were old-fashioned, religious and couldn’t afford much clothes anyway. They made all these things sound very bad, which I as a child of course latched on to.

I also dreamed of wearing pink, or perhaps yellow clothes. But looking at photos, it would appear I was mainly in brown corduroy or navy cotton! ... I remember fantasizing about being asked to be a bridesmaid so I could wear a frilly dress and carry a bouquet of pretty cut flowers!

I was aware though that I was not supposed to want such things.

There's no reason to think, though, that a breaking down of traditional gender patterns mightn't also involve feminising boys. This is especially true, when (as seems to be the case in the Swedish kindergartens) there is the added influence of gay activists, with their belief that there is no binary sex distinction between male and female, but that people are spread out on a continuum in their gender and sexual identities.

Which brings me to I blame the patriarchy. This is a popular radical feminist site, authored by an American lesbian feminist. In a recent post, readers were asked to try and define what a woman is.

Here are some typical answers:

Drakyn: Woman=anyone who defines themselves as such.

Shabnam: people whom the patriarchy would like to put in the sex class

Elizabeth: I think a woman is a human being who declares herself to be a woman.

Heather: Woman is a social construction, a myth.

Margarita: I suppose traditionally a woman is defined biologically ... But i also think that if you define yourself as a woman, you are one. All you have to do is think it.

Kristina: In a perfect world, there would be no definition of woman. There would be no definition of man. There would just be human or person.

Curiousgyrl: woman=not man, man=person, woman=that which is not a person.

Jodie: There are no women. There are no men. There are only humans.

Opoponax: Woman: a fictional character.

Kairos Rae: A woman ... is whatever she says she is. There are no women. There are no men. There are only humans ...We are all people, and gender is a social disease... a cultural construction ...

PDXstudent: I wonder if because “woman” is constructed in patriarchy it makes sense to say that woman does not exist at all.

Edith: “man” and “woman” are only categories that exist because of the patriarchal need for them ... after the revolution, men and women won’t exist ...

Tina: How come we have to differentiate between one and the other?

The author of the site replied to these observations in a separate post:

Yesterday I asked yew-all what the word ‘woman’ means ...

Several of you clever young onions hit upon what I consider to be the point of the exercise, which is that ‘woman’ is a load of crap; defining it is impossible except in terms of patriarchy, which means that sex is virtually indistinguishable from gender, socially, philosophically, and scientifically ...

Sex, though advertised as ‘fact’, cannot in fact be fact, since it cannot be defined or quantified or observed. Since it is not a fact, it must be a fiction. Therefore, ‘woman’ is nothing but a narrative intended to sell the idea that male abuse of the sex class is congruent with essential biological truths.

Get the idea? First, there's the emphasis on self-definition, so that we can simply define ourselves to be either male or female and that a woman is whatever she defines herself to be (which makes being female pointless).

Then there's the additional thought that gender is a social construct, and that those categorised as women are non-persons.

Finally, there's the desire to entirely abolish the sex distinction in favour of one equal human category. For the more radical women this means denying not just gender difference but even the validity of categorising people as male and female based on physical characteristics.

It's all a long way from home. Such ideas might appeal to butch lesbians who don't easily fit into a mainstream femininity. They shouldn't, though, seem reasonable to ministers of state.

The Swedish state finds itself in strange company, pursuing a false theory to ever more unrealistic conclusions.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Let me off the Anglosphere!

I recently came across the writings of political futurist James Bennett. He is an advocate of a new political alignment, which he calls the Anglosphere.

I cannot support his project. I can never be a loyal member of an Anglosphere, and I wish to explain why.

Three states

In one of his articles, James Bennett spells out the three kinds of nation states that might survive into the future. In effect, these three states are right-liberal, left-liberal and traditionalist conservative.

Bennett describes the features of these different states very well. For instance, he accurately describes the right-liberal state as,

The classical-liberal civic state, which seeks to carry out most social functions through voluntary institutions of civil society rather than through the state, seeks to minimize the percentage of GDP devoted to remaining core functions, and in general seeks to maximize the prosperity of its citizens as individuals.

This very ably describes the ideal state of right-wing liberals. Right-liberals ideally want a free market economy and a small state. The state can be kept small because many of the functions of society are carried out by small voluntary associations instead of by a central state.

Bennett describes the left-liberal state as,

The social democratic civic state, which maintains a high tax rate relative to classical-liberal states, intervenes more frequently in its market economy, delivers more elaborate social benefits, and seeks to maximize the economic and social security of its citizens.

Again, this is an intelligent description of the ideal left-liberal state, in which there is a greater emphasis on deliberate intervention by a central welfare state, such as you find in the Scandinavian countries.

Finally, Bennett describes a more traditionalist conservative state as,

The nationalist-conservative or religious civic state, which generates a strong nationalist, religious or ideological narrative and places duty obligations on its citizens, yet maintains a relatively open market economy.

This is perhaps the least tidy description, but it does attempt to describe a state based on what he calls a "positive, self-affirming narrative ... provided by religious, national or ethnic identity."

Which one?

So I agree broadly with the alternatives set out by James Bennett. Which leaves the vital question: which one do we wish to follow?

Bennett gives us a clear answer: he wants the English speaking countries to go with the first, right-liberal option.

Bennett points out, correctly enough, that the English speaking countries have tended to adopt a right-wing form of liberalism, in contrast to the more left-liberal continental European countries.

He therefore wants the English speaking countries to form a kind of right-liberal alliance. This alliance would develop around trade agreements and defence treaties.
The group of English speaking nations would form a "network commonwealth" which Bennett has dubbed the Anglosphere.

Civil society

So what is wrong with a right-liberal Anglosphere? It's important to remember that right-liberals have a particular understanding of a civil society. In Bennett's own words,

A civil society is one that is built of a vast network of networks. These networks start with the individual and the families, community organizations, religious congregations, social organizations, and businesses created by individuals coming together voluntarily. Continuing up through the local, regional, national, and international networks, the tying together of local organizations creates civil societies, which in turn beget civil states.

At first sight, this might seem like a conservative view. Conservatives too believe that a central state should remain small so that the natural institutions of civil society can flourish.

But there's a key difference. Bennett insists that the institutions of civil society be strictly voluntary. It's no accident that he specifies a voluntary arrangement.

All liberals, whether of the left or right, believe that the individual must be created by his own will and reason. This means that the individual must rationally consent to membership of any social grouping. That's why liberals so much like the idea of individuals making a contract or covenant to form social groups. It's also why liberals contrast a "good" voluntary organisation to a "bad" one which is inherited or otherwise unchosen by the individual.

Listen, for instance, to Bennett describe one of the "successes" of modern civil society,

One of the quiet success stories of strong civil societies, particularly the United States, has been the manner in which the compulsory family and religious affiliations from the Old World were transformed in the New World into voluntary associations of civil society, and the immigrants themselves changed from members of traditional societies into self-actualized individuals.

This is one of those pure expressions of liberal belief. According to Bennett we become a "self-actualized" (self-created) individual only when we leave behind a traditional society with its "compulsory" (unchosen) affiliations in favour of purely voluntary forms of social organisation and identity.

Not surprisingly Bennett also praises the early settlers of America for their support of individual contract and covenant as a basis of social organisation. He writes,

In fact, Anglo-America was a particularly strong civil society from the start, especially in New England and Pennsylvania, where Puritans and Quakers, both of whom were strongly dedicated to the fundamentals of civil society, brought particularly robust institutions. Above all, they elevated the sanctity of contract and covenant to central places in their moral universe, a critical advantage in fostering civil society.

So Bennett takes very seriously the idea that social organisations are to be built around the voluntarily contracting individual. Hence his insistence on the following:

It is important to make clear that at the root of civil society is the individual. People who define themselves primarily as members of collective entities, be they families, religions, racial or ethnic groups, political movements, or corporations, cannot form the basis of a civil society.

In a true civil society, individuals must be free to dissociate themselves from such collectives without prejudice and reaffiliate with others. Societies that permanently bind individuals under the discipline of inherited or assigned collectives remain bogged down in ethnic, racial or religious factionalism ...

It is likewise important to make clear that a family in a civil society is a voluntary association.


Perhaps the problem with Bennett's vision of civil society is now clearer. For Bennett even the family is only allowed to exist as a "voluntary association".

What's important for Bennett is that there are no necessary or natural allegiances binding us in particular ways to certain groups of people.

Yet we are bound in a natural way to our own families. Ties of kinship are strong, and ought to be encouraged to help preserve a stable family life.

Again, in Bennett's view there is a problem with ethnic allegiances, since these are inherited or "assigned" rather than purely voluntary (self-chosen).

Bennett, it is true, does not wish to forbid individuals from associating with an ethnic collective. But this is to be a private matter, a kind of personal choice or preference. The state is to only recognise the individual.

This effectively rules out the survival of an existing ethnic identity. It means that the state can't consider ethnicity in determining its immigration policy. And so you reach the point at which ethnic mixing occurs and the original strength of an existing ethnic identity begins to weaken.

Not that Bennett is too fussed by this. He believes that right-liberal societies can prosper and triumph by reducing impediments to foreign immigration, thereby attracting the best and brightest from around the world.

He claims, for instance, that America has powered ahead of Germany because America was more willing to recruit South Asian computer programmers and that Japan will miss out on the "next stages of the scientific-technological revolution" because its restrictions on foreign immigrants are too "rigid".

So Bennett can be described as nothing less than an immigration enthusiast.

A high cost

The cost of James Bennett's Anglosphere is very high. You get the promise of a technologically dynamic society. But you are only allowed to maintain voluntary associations.

This rules out a stable family life, at least for a great many people. It also rules out the survival of existing ethnic groups, including the Anglos themselves.

I don't want to be part of such an Anglosphere. I believe that our task is not to extend right-liberalism internationally, but to oppose it and drive it back within our own countries.

To do so, conservatives need to carefully distinguish our own view of civil society, in which human associations are allowed to grow naturally, "organically" and deeply, from the right-liberal one, in which only voluntary associations made by covenanting individuals are permitted.

(First published at Conservative Central, 09/04/2005)