Saturday, September 29, 2007

The new happy family?

The Australian lesbian couple who sued their IVF obstetrician because they ended up with two babies instead of one generated a lot of media coverage last week - most of it unfavourable.

One of the more revealing comments came, I think, in an editorial in The Australian, which is the more right-liberal of the Australian daily papers. The editorialist thought that the lesbian couple should have taken a more positive view of their situation:

This couple has so many blessings: they have each other to love; two incomes; two babies, and they live in a society where they are able to get IVF treatment, much of it free, regardless of sexual orientation or marital status.

This kind of comment is pretty typical of right-liberal politics in Australia. Whereas left-liberals see themselves as dissenters and criticise society for having failed liberal principles, right-liberals talk up how much society has progressed in line with liberal values.

Right-liberalism might well appeal to those who have outgrown and become weary of a dissenting phase in life. However, if right-liberalism is the furthest "right" that politics goes, then society is in trouble.

Take the issue at hand. The editorialist thinks it's a great thing that lesbian couples and single mothers can access government funded IVF in Australia. What this IVF policy means, of course, is that society has officially accepted the idea that fathers aren't necessary to family life.

We aren't talking here about widowed or divorced women who attempted to follow the ideal of their children having a father in the home, but ended up in different circumstances. Instead, we're talking about the Government funding women to deliberately create fatherless families.

Once the idea of fatherlessness is officially sanctioned in this way, further assaults on the traditional family are inevitable. Perhaps one small example of what's to come is the recent Coles supermarket advertisement.

This begins as a classic happy family ad. Mum and the kids are caught in the rain and dash into Coles to do the shopping. Then they're shown safely at home, sitting around the table enjoying a hearty family meal prepared by a radiant mum.

But there's no dad. Maybe we're supposed to assume that he's hard at work somewhere supporting the family. Perhaps he'll show up in a later ad. I wonder, though, if Coles is attempting to appeal in this ad to a single mother audience.

If we do shift toward a culture in which the fatherless family becomes an accepted norm, expect poorer, working-class men to be hit hardest. Expect, too, less stable forms of marriage to develop, as it won't be thought to matter as much as it once did if mothers eject fathers from the family, or if fathers themselves walk away from family responsibilities.

I can't see either left-liberals or right-liberals countering any such negative trends. To secure change, we need to break free from the limitations of current understandings of left and right toward a genuinely non-liberal alternative.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Learning from MASH

I learnt a rather curious fact by watching, of all things, an episode of the TV comedy show MASH.

The episode, The Red/White Blues, first screened in 1981. The plot is that the malaria season is about to descend on the MASH unit (during the Korean War, sometime between 1950 and 1953).

There are no stocks available of the usual anti-malaria drug, so the unit is sent a case of primaquine, a malaria suppressant. Colonel Potter isn't happy, and asks "What about the negroes?"

It turns out that those of black African descent can't be given primaquine, as it was known to give them hemolytic anemia. Everyone else is given the medicine, but Corporal Klinger (of Lebanese ancestry) and several others become sick. He is thought to be malingering, but is later diagnosed to be suffering from hemolytic anemia. We're told at the end of the episode that by the late 1950s it was also recognised that people of Mediterranean descent were unable to tolerate primaquine.

Why is this significant? As I mentioned in my last post on whiteness studies, modern liberals often deny the real, biological existence of race. Instead they prefer to view race as a social construct.

One of the arguments often made against the 'social construct' view of race is that modern medical science is finding that there are drugs which work effectively with some races but not others. Therefore, the real, biological existence of race is being accepted (and put to scientific use) by medical researchers at the very time it is denied by certain liberal academics.

What the MASH episode reveals is that knowledge of the biological differences between the races has been known to medical researchers since at least the early 1950s. It's not new knowledge after all. The reality of such differences was accepted in an uncomplicated way by the liberal scriptwriters of MASH as late as the early 1980s.

Race denial is an expression of how latter-day liberals would like things to be; it tells us something about ideological preferences rather than the larger developments within medical science.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Whiteness studies

I wrote this article for the Autumn 2007 edition of The Independent Australian. It draws on a number of pieces written earlier for Oz Conservative.

Ten years ago there were no such courses. Now “whiteness studies” is being taught at over 30 American campuses. In Australia too there are academics teaching this subject; in 2003 they formed their own whiteness studies association.

So what is it? In short, it’s a field of studies based on the theory that whites invented the idea of biological race in order to oppress indigenous peoples and to benefit from unearned privileges.

An Australian whiteness theorist, Damien Riggs, has summarized the new field of studies as follows:

Whiteness is seen as a thoroughly racialised project that aims to legitimate the authority of certain groups over others by drawing on a legacy of ‘biological’ explanations of race … Whilst this approach starts from an understanding of race as a social construction, it also acknowledges the very concrete ways in which race shapes experiences of oppression and privilege.

What is the effect of these studies on white students? One young Australian woman, Veronica Coen, tells us that her whiteness studies course led her,

to recognise that my privilege as an educated middle-class white woman was directly attributed to my ancestor’s theft of indigenous land and their exploitation

She then,

took a frightening journey into Australia’s violent history … The path was at times very distressing. My study journal was often wrinkled with tears.

Nado Aveling, who teaches whiteness studies to student teachers at Perth’s Murdoch University (it’s a mandatory part of the course) tells us of the students’ reactions that:

responses are often strongly emotional, and resistance, misunderstanding, frustration, anger and feelings of inefficacy may be the outcomes.

A social construct?

So whiteness studies confronts students with the claim that their identity is a false social construct, built around the oppression of Aborigines, and that the lives they lead are built unjustly on unearned privilege.

It’s a significant claim to make, but not one which is intellectually coherent. Even its starting point makes little sense.

Damien Riggs tells us that his approach “starts from an understanding of race as a social construction” and that we should reject “the legacy of ‘biological’ explanations of race”.

So we are meant to accept the idea that a “white race” exists not as a biological fact, but as a social construct – as something simply made up by society for its own purposes.

Why would someone make this claim, when it contradicts the visible evidence of a biologically existing white race? The answer has to do with certain intellectual assumptions existing within liberal modernism.

Liberal modernism asserts that to be fully human we must be autonomous in the sense that we are able to determine for ourselves who we are to be. Therefore, liberal modernists don’t like to recognise the existence of a “biological destiny” in which we are influenced in our identity by our sex or our race (or by other inherited or traditional qualities which we don’t choose for ourselves).

Liberal modernists therefore often prefer to believe that qualities like race are oppressive social constructs whose real existence can either be denied or made not to matter.


Riggs is therefore following a modernist ideology in claiming that race is a social construct. However, even in ideological terms, this claim is incoherent.

Why? One reason is that whiteness theorists don’t simply want to declare race null and void. They want to pin down whites as guilty oppressors. Therefore, they are concerned to emphasise the idea of “whiteness” as a racial category at the same time as they deny the real existence of a white race.

To make this clear, whiteness theorists are strongly opposed to the idea of whites being race blind. They want to make whites more conscious of their “racialised” existence, whilst still claiming that there is no such thing as a really existing white race.

It’s a difficult distinction to hold and Damien Riggs himself warns that,

It is important to recognise that in talking about race we run the risk of reifying race as a ‘real entity’

Similarly, whiteness theorists dismiss the idea of really existing races and yet they recognise Aborigines as a real entity, even to the extent of claiming that Aborigines are sovereign over other groups (Riggs states that “indigenous sovereignty is the ground on which we stand”).

Then there is the issue of “complicity”. Whiteness theorists don’t want to allow any escape routes by which whites can escape the guilt of their unearned privileges. Robinder Kaur, a whiteness theorist at York University has explained that for whites,
“there is no 'safe space', no haven of guiltlessness to retreat to.”

Therefore, whiteness theorists emphasise the idea of “complicity”: that all whites, even the whiteness theorists themselves, are complicit in white guilt. It is made clear that you are still complicit, even if you renounce all privilege, or choose to identify with Aborigines, or dedicate your life to anti-racist causes. You remain a guilty white.

This may serve a useful purpose within whiteness theory. However, it adds to the intellectual incoherence of whiteness studies. After all, the original purpose of liberal moderns declaring race to be a social construct was to allow individuals to autonomously choose their own multiple, fluid identities. Now, though, we have whiteness theorists, as liberal moderns, talking about whiteness as the most absolute, fixed and inescapable of racialised categories.

Whiteness theorists simply haven’t thought through such implications; they haven’t made a good enough effort to formulate a consistent ideology.


Whiteness studies claims that all whites enjoy unearned privilege at the expense of indigenous peoples. How, though, is this claim justified?

Veronica Coen, the student I quoted above, thinks that white Australians benefited from Aboriginal labour in colonial times. This seems an unlikely explanation for the prosperity of modern Australia. Though Aboriginal labour was important in some areas of Australia, its economic importance overall must have been small compared even to white convict labour let alone to that of free settlers.

Even the claim that whites are privileged from having taken Aboriginal land has its problems. The prominent Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson has pointed out that Aborigines who were never dispossessed of their land experience similar problems to those who were:

the problems are pretty similar between communities that have never been dispossessed of their land – like in the western Cape York peninsula – and those that had been positively uprooted. It wasn’t about poverty, and it wasn’t about land, and it wasn’t about the degree of trauma experienced in history.

Pearson blames the dysfunction in Aboriginal communities not on whites having taken wealth from them, but rather on having given it to them in a misguided transfer of welfare money. He remembers a more intact community in the time before such transfers:

Everybody in Hope Vale of my generation or older grew up in a family, or household, where parents worked hard, the kids were looked after. They were bequeathed a real privilege.

Pearson is exactly right to identify these social norms as being a real privilege. It’s much easier to prosper when you are surrounded by people with a strong family and work ethic. Whites who aren’t exposed to this ethic in their homes or communities tend to experience the same loss of living standard as non-whites do.

There is one other way in which whiteness theorists have tried to explain white privilege. According to Peggy McIntosh, an American writer, she experiences a daily privilege as a white person on the following grounds:

- I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.

- I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my own race widely represented.

- I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods which fit with my cultural traditions

- I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to the “person in charge”, I will be facing a person of my own race.

- I can easily buy posters, post-cards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys and children’s magazines featuring people of my own race.

One way to criticise this approach is to point out that American blacks, who Peggy McIntosh is taking to be the oppressed group, don’t really have that much trouble finding their own areas to live in, or their own music, or food they like, or films and posters in which they feature.

The more important criticism, though, is once again a lack of coherence. White Americans are told endlessly that diversity is a blessing which will enrich their lives. Peggy McIntosh, though, is basing her case that whites are privileged on the idea that whites can more easily escape the effects of diversity than blacks.

In other words, to accept Peggy McIntosh’s argument requires us to believe that it is oppressive to live in diverse areas in which we are no longer the majority race. If this is the case, though, why would white Americans choose to accept diversity, if the consequences are really so undesirable?

In fact, the logical consequences of Peggy McIntosh’s argument go much further than this. If I lived in a country with a million white people, but not a single non-white, then I would not be privileged and I would not need to feel guilt about my existence. However, if a single non-white was allowed to live in my country, then I would be privileged in comparison to them, I would breach the morality of modern equality, and my identity would be called into question.

It seems to me that Peggy McIntosh needs to reconsider her intellectual assumptions as they lead her to political absurdities.


What else is wrong with whiteness studies? Remember Robinder Kaur? She was the Sikh woman I quoted above who told whites that there was no escape from their guilt.

As it happens, Robinder Kaur is an editor for a magazine called Kaurs. This magazine celebrates the identity of Sikh women as follows:

The magazine will encourage the Sikh woman to rediscover herself in the light of the glorious heritage and current meritorious achievements of the Sikh community.

And how does the magazine think that the Sikh community has prospered? The editor thinks that life is full of challenges, which leads to this advice:

... how to overcome these challenges and emerge as a winner? Hard work, confidence, dedication and, of course, the blessings of the Almighty are a sure recipe for success.

So we have here a clear double standard. For Robinder Kaur her own identity as a Sikh woman is a positive thing, and Sikhs are to think of their past as a “glorious heritage”. If Sikhs have done well it is due to hard work, confidence and dedication. For whites, though, there is only guilt. Our past is to be regarded negatively as a history of oppression of others, and our prosperity is unearned.

Obviously I don’t think whites should lamely accept such a double standard. It’s natural for Robinder Kaur to think of her own ethnic identity in positive terms, and we should follow her lead in regarding our own identity a similarly positive way. What kind of life would it be if we accepted the double standard in which our role, unlike others, was one of inescapable guilt? How could a psychologically healthy life be built on the assumptions of whiteness studies?


There’s one final issue to deal with. Whiteness theorists would regard themselves as being cutting edge anti-racists. Yet, in one further act of incoherence, it is they who are peddling a dangerous racism.

Whiteness theorists are creating a picture of whites as a “cosmic enemy”: as a force in the world standing in the way of justice and equality. Groups who are regarded this way shouldn’t be surprised to find themselves targeted for removal. Here, for instance, is the “solution” of Dr Noel Ignatiev, a Harvard academic and whiteness theorist, to the “problem” of whites:

The key to solving the social problems of our age is to abolish the white race.

... The goal of abolishing the white race is on its face so desirable that some may find it hard to believe that it could incur any opposition.

... we intend to keep bashing the dead white males, and the live ones, and the females too, until the social construct known as ‘the white race’ is destroyed – not ‘deconstructed’ but destroyed.

... treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity.

The problem is that it’s not a few radical cranks pushing this line, but a growing academic movement within our universities. This movement has the power to influence the minds of students and to set an intellectual and political agenda. We should therefore be concerned about the appearance of whiteness studies and be ready to take up a political fight against it.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Giving inclusion a twist

Last week Peter Costello outlined the goals of the Liberal Party if re-elected for a fifth term. Much of what he said was based on the idea that it is our role in the market which matters. For instance, he called for greater "inclusion and opportunity" by which he meant treating mentally and physically disabled people so that they could return to the labour market:

There are some people that have health problems which are entirely treatable and which, if they are treated, they can return to the workforce and lead a meaningful working life. Let's use our economic strength to treat some of these people so they can enjoy inclusion in mainstream economic life.

Similarly, he wants more old people and women to participate in the labour force:

"a lot more people seek to work today. The participation rate is much higher - it's 65 per cent -" ... But there are still groups under-represented in the work-force, to some degree women - although there has been a huge leap in their participation - and mature workers, though thinking towards them has changed.

Costello is no doubt right that there are people whose lives might improve through better access to employment. Even so, the assumption seems to be that it is our representation in the market which is the measure of our progress. Costello is veering toward a view of the individual as Economic Man - as man seen primarily in terms of his economic function.

Which isn't so surprising for a member of the Liberal Party. Most politicians, whether left-wing or right-wing, are liberal modernists in the sense of assuming individuals to be autonomous, abstracted individuals, each pursuing his own desires.

A key question for liberals is how a society made up of such individuals can hold together. Left-liberals generally believe that society can be managed by the neutral expertise of state bureaucrats. Right-liberals believe, ingeniously, that individuals can pursue their own selfish ends in a market and that the hidden hand of the market will ensure that such activity works out for the overall progress and profit of society.

However, the right-liberal idea can only work conceptually when it is activity within the market which is under consideration. So there's a reason for right-liberals to focus on individuals in terms of their market activity.

If Costello does become the next leader of the Liberal Party, the signs are that he will follow a right-liberal politics. Perhaps the best that conservatives can hope for is that he will be more of a pragmatist than an ideologue, and so not drive the liberal agenda as hard as some other politicians.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The problem of the inner woman

What happens when things just don't work out as they were supposed to? Some feminists are now confronting this very problem.

Take a recent article by Laura Kipnis, an American professor of media studies. It was introduced by the following subtitle:

In our post-feminist Western world, women are supposed to be able to have it all. So why are so many dissatisfied?

What answer does she give? Ordinarily, a feminist would blame the patriarchy. The usual argument runs as follows: the primary aim of life is autonomy; men have established a patriarchy to dominate women; women are therefore oppressed by a social system in which men are autonomous but women are dependent; the pursuit of justice, freedom and equality therefore requires women to become independent of men, especially through the pursuit of careers.

Kipnis is strongly influenced by this orthodox view:

For the first time in history, women are relatively free from traditional fetters. No longer is womanhood synonymous with motherhood for those who don't so choose.

... with more control over maternity, record numbers of women are now participating in the workforce, meaning that womanhood is no longer synonymous with dependency. In fact, women can now be entirely free from men should they so choose.

The problem is that women still don't seem liberated. Kipnis thinks that modern women feel such a lack of control and sense of inadequacy that a whole self-help industry has sprung up to tell women how to live their lives.

This is where it gets particularly interesting. Kipnis believes that feminism has hit a brick wall because of a conflict between the goal of feminism (autonomy) and the "inner woman" (femininity):

Feminism ("Don't call me darling, idiot") and femininity ("I just found the perfect push-up bra") are in a big catfight, nowhere more than within each individual female psyche ... Gender barriers have largely crumbled, and women have increasing economic independence from men if they choose it. But one keeps stumbling across a certain ambivalence, an ambivalence among women themselves.

Which is why being female at this point in history seems an especially conflicted enterprise ... Which one should it be? The Feisty Feminist or the Eternal Feminine?

Kipnis herself would prefer to see the feisty feminist triumph. She recognises, though, that feminists underestimated the stubborn desire of the "inner woman" to live in relationship with a man:

Yet it turns out there are rather obdurate female longings with regard to dependency on men, despite pronouncements to the contrary - women need men like fish need bicycles - back in the heady years of the second wave. It turns out that fish are devoted cyclists. Indeed, the problem these days is that the bicycles seem to be fleeing the fish.

Which turns relationships into an "agonised business" for many women:

... we're facing a disastrous resource shortage .... single heterosexual men wishing to couple on a long-term basis. It's not just that demand exceeds supply but also that the majority of single men are - according to field reports from those who've hazarded dating them - "relationship challenged", in flight from commitment, their true feelings, real women.

Thus it falls to the intimacy seeking female to blockade the escape routes and lure those men out of ambivalence and into domesticity.

Kipnis finishes by again emphasising that the "inner woman" is the stumbling block for feminism:

So if something remains a little obdurate about female inequality after the past 40 years or so, it's because feminism came up against an unanticipated opponent: the inner woman ...

Feminism, once construed as a liberation movement, has somehow ended up producing more dichotomies and more impasses ...

So where is feminism supposed to go from here? Is it supposed to wage war on the inner woman in order to achieve its political goals?

The easier option is to drop the underlying assumption that autonomy is the overriding good in life. If autonomy is seen to be one good amongst many, then it can be left to individuals and communities to find a balance between it and other goods.

Finding the right measure is a much less conflicted option than seeking absolute autonomy and being caught between this political aim and your own "obdurate" inner self.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

But why is Deveny wrong?

Catherine Deveny woke up one morning, opened her newspaper and found out that athlete Jana Pittman had changed her last name to Rawlinson. Deveny could not, at first, understand what had happened:

Then it dawned on me. She has got married, bizarre enough in itself these days, and changed her last name to her husband's. What an anachronism ...

Wake up! We are in 2007. Women are no longer owned by their father and then their husband. So why are some women still changing their surnames? And why do some men still want them to? It's sad, it's misogynous, it's archaic, it's insecure and it's unnecessary.

Why would you do something so drastic simply because you decided to delude yourself it was easier? Because you are deeply insecure, deeply conservative or deeply stupid. And in deep denial.

Deveny is pretty free with the insults here, so it's not surprising that she attracted a largely hostile response. Most of the criticism, though, focused on her bitterly aggressive style, rather than on her argument.

So why might a woman change her name on getting married? Is she simply a deluded victim of the patriarchy in doing so? Or are there other ways of explaining this custom?

Paternal pride

Societies generally don't have to worry about connecting mothers with their children.

It's possible, though, to have a situation in which men father children, but then don't stay around to help raise and socialise them.

This is roughly what happens within black American families. About 70% of children within the black community are born to single mothers. The social consequences for both mothers and children aren't good; there is an increase in poverty, crime, drug use and gangs.

There is a rational purpose, therefore, in encouraging men to stay. And one way of doing this is to appeal to the instinct men have to feel a pride in paternity, including a pride in family lineage.

My own father often discusses the history of our family (sometimes considerably embellished) and he is obviously concerned to keep the family name going. If you grow up as a boy in such an atmosphere you absorb a basic expectation: that you will marry, father children and do your best to raise them so that they too can successfully carry on the family tradition.

The idea that you would reproduce simply as a sperm donor for a single mother just doesn't match expectations.

That there is a benefit in women encouraging male participation in family life is borne out by research into the "marriage gap" in America. There is a growing divide between upper class women, who continue to believe that paternal investment in family life is important, and lower class women, who are more likely to become single mothers, or remain de facto, or divorce and remarry:

America really has become two nations. The old-fashioned married-couple-with-children model is doing quite well among college-educated women. It is primarily among lower-income women with only a high school education that it is in poor health...

Virtually all — 92 percent — of children whose families make over $75,000 are living with both parents. On the other end of the income scale, the situation is reversed: only about 20 percent of kids in families earning under $15,000 live with both parents ...

Educated, middle-class mothers tend to be dedicated to what I have called The Mission, the careful nurturing of their children’s cognitive, emotional, and social development ... It’s common sense, backed up by plenty of research, that you’ll have a better chance of fully “developing” your children — that is, of fulfilling The Mission — if you have a husband around.

It is the better educated and more ambitious women who most want to keep the father of their children around. They are seeking a high level of paternal investment and they're more likely to be successful if men are encouraged in their instincts toward a pride in paternity and lineage.

A counter-argument might be that a woman could achieve the same desired effect by having her children adopt her husband's family name whilst she retains her own. This is, as I understand it, the custom in some countries such as The Netherlands. It seems, though, that once the children adopt the father's last name, many women find it simpler to also change their own name, and some feel that it improves the sense of family unity if they too share their husband and children's surname.

Status seeking

A while back feminists decided to introduce the term "Ms" as a title for both married and unmarried women. It didn't work. Most women still prefer to use the title "Mrs" after marriage.

The most obvious reason for the failure of "Ms" is that many women still associate marriage with status, and that "Mrs" therefore denotes a positive status compared to either "Ms" or "Miss".

Similarly, it's possible that for some women a change of surname on marriage is another marker of increased status.

Is it rational to encourage this form of status seeking? It depends on what you think of marriage. If, like Catherine Deveny, you're hostile to marriage, then you won't approve of the link between marriage and status. However, if you believe that that marriage is of overall benefit, it does become reasonable to encourage such "marital status seeking" amongst women.

A romantic gesture

You can't ignore heterosexuality in all this. Think of the psychology of relationships between men and women. A man perceives that a woman has something to give. He pursues her and tries to win her over.

A woman in yielding makes herself vulnerable. She gives herself in trust to the man; she places herself in his care.

For a man, there is a kind of thrill in the realisation that the woman has voluntarily consented to yield to him.

At no time is this interplay between men and women likely to be more intense than when we marry. The sense of feminine yielding is much more likely to lead to women changing their name (and residence and even their religion) than vice versa.

Do women experience this as an oppression? I don't think so. For some women, the romantic interplay is intoxicating. They try to heighten the effect by making the act of yielding more dangerous: they place themselves in the care of "bad boys" who can't be trusted to do the right thing.

The columnist Andrea Burns wrote recently about her own addiction to bad boys:

Maybe there is something addictive in the poison relationship? ... I'm talking about a feeling we get that is so powerful we just can't keep away. These boys who treat us so bad, but make us feel so good are everywhere ... No one wants to date a nice, boring bloke. That's just not exciting.

If anything, the "thrill" that women get in yielding and trusting needs to be drawn in at times (which seems to be the theme of various Jane Austen novels).

The problem for Deveny is that these kind of feminine romantic gestures run counter to the official political programme of female independence and autonomy. It's difficult, though, to entirely suppress heterosexual instincts. Most women make some sort of compromise between their heterosexuality and feminist politics; Deveny is too strident to accept a compromise position.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Men to pay more tax in Sweden?

It all began just five months ago. Two economics professors suggested that men should be taxed more heavily than women. This policy, which they called "gender based taxation", was aimed at increasing women's participation in the labour market. The professors wrote of their hope that:

In the long run, gender-based taxation may contribute to changing the traditional division of labour within the family, which currently encourages men to work more in the market and women more often at home.

It will come as no great surprise to regular readers of this site, that the first nation to consider taking up such a policy is Sweden:

The government also unveiled formal proposals for an equality bonus for people who take parental leave. The bonus, in the form of a 3,000 kronor per month tax reduction, will be paid to the lower-earning member of a couple when he or she returns to work.

The idea is that the bonus will encourage couples to share parental leave more equally, by making it financially more feasible for fathers to take time off. The bonus has been estimated to cost 1.2 billion kronor a year. Nyamko Sabuni said the money would be a "great step" in ensuring that mothers and fathers take equal shares of parental leave.

Nyamko Sabuni is the "Minister for Integration and Gender Equality" in the Swedish Government. She is a member of the centre-right Liberal People's Party.

Why Sweden? The Swedish state is committed to patriarchy theory: to the idea that the chief good in life is autonomy; that careers are the measure of how autonomous we are; that men and women should therefore participate equally in careers; and that the traditional connection between women and motherhood is simply an oppressive social construct.

Monica Silvell, from the Division of Gender Equality, noted in a speech in 2004 that the adoption in Sweden of patriarchy theory meant that:

The old view of men and women complementing one another was replaced by the notion that the sexes were basically similar.

The Swedish state is therefore intent on creating a sameness in the social roles of men and women, even if this means spending billions of kronor to greatly reduce female tax rates.

But can the idea that the sexes are basically similar really form the basis of social policy? I can think of at least three reasons for doubt.

The first is the most obvious. Our love life and our sexuality are built on the differences between the masculine and feminine. Therefore, there is likely to be considerable disappointment and confusion if our roles in society are forced toward androgyny.

It's difficult to believe that the heterosexual instinct will be denied. Compare Monica Silvell's idea that "the sexes were basically similar" with the views of these Melbourne women:

A Melbourne office worker, who wanted to be known only as Jessica, was left stunned when no man in her office could help her change her flat tyre last week. "I had to wonder, where have all the real men gone?"

Emma Fletcher, 25, said metrosexuals were poseurs and cared too much about how they looked. "We're the girls and it's our job to pretty it up."

A real man is someone who is handy like her father and can fix things, according to Rebecca Campbell, 26. "A real man is someone who acts and looks like a man, not a woman."

Even career women have trouble dealing with the conflict between their heterosexual instincts and newer family arrangements. Amy Brayfield lost interest in her husband when he became too feminine in his role as house husband:

But our sex life was in ruins ... I realized it had been almost a year since Mark and I had made love.

Sometimes he'd say, "I really think things would be better for us if we could just be intimate again." ... but just the thought of him touching me made me recoil. "Maybe I'm just not a sexual person anymore," I told him, and I honestly meant it.

The truth is, I wasn't attracted to him anymore. ... in my head, I'd neutralized him as a sexual being. I wanted to be overwhelmed by the sheer power of his masculinity in the bedroom, but I wasn't. Because I felt like the man in our relationship.

It's not just a question of relationships, though. The idea that being a man or woman doesn't matter runs up against issues of personal identity: of our basic sense of who we are. We don't identify ourselves as being gender neutral or as being only insignificantly a man or woman. Our sex is fundamental to our sense of self. The Swedes are therefore pitting social roles against personal identity.

Even more significantly, there is the question of life meaning. Is it really surprising that we should experience our highest and most satisfying sense of self, and a more purposeful connection to our place in the world, when we most fully manifest our nature as a man or a woman?

The Swedish state has a simpler and more limited prospect for its citizens. They are to have an autonomous family life, a somewhat oxymoronic ambition as someone in serious pursuit of autonomy would most likely avoid the commitments of marriage and parenthood altogether.

How far you can subvert important aspects of existence with billions of kronor remains to be seen. In the long run, it doesn't seem likely that a state ideology will conquer all.

Friday, September 07, 2007

We're not allowed to have the important things?

Here is liberal writer David Fiore:

Any time a human being chooses to describe themselves as anything but a "human being", liberalism has been thwarted.

... The liberal subject is always merely that - he or she can have no group affiliation, no "sexual orientation", no gender in fact! As far as the state is concerned, each person is a "unit" and that is absolutely all.

This strikes me immediately as being oppressively inhuman. It takes away important aspects of the human experience, such as our existence as men and women and as members of particular ethnocultural traditions. It treats us merely as abstracted units, without a given nature and without the connection to history, people and place which we derive from "group affiliation".

So the question is why liberals like Fiore adopt this position. I've put a part of the answer often enough: that liberals have turned to individual autonomy as their prime good, and that this makes unchosen identities and inherited affiliations morally illegitimate.

Still, we then have to ask why autonomy should be adopted as the overriding goal. I've suggested that the liberal theory of being is faulty: liberals assume our distinction as human beings is that we can self-create who we are. This then means that to be fully human we must be, above all, autonomous, self-determining agents.

There's undoubtedly more to it, though. For instance, there's a variety of ways to arrive at the belief that transcendent goods either don't exist or can't be known. Once you arrive at this belief, then meaning has to be individually constructed or asserted. What then matters is our autonomy to individually construct our life's purpose.

Here is how one modernist thinker puts it (with admirable brevity):

We all find ourselves existing. Now we must all decide our own meaning or purpose.

A traditionalist wouldn't accept this. If you believe, as a traditionalist, that transcendent goods exist, and can be known (at least imperfectly), then it's not a case of constructing our own individual meaning (out of nothing), but of relating our own lives to these larger, objective goods.

As for David Fiore, he makes these claims:

Ideally, society is a pact between people that makes the existential struggle for meaning as pure as possible.

... If, as I (and all non-pantheists) believe, we have no access to the noumenal, then two thousand years of tradition are as useless to us in ascertaining what is "right" as the word of any living, breathing person.

The message here seems to be that we can't know, and that therefore longstanding cultures embodying the ideals of generations past cannot point to important truths.

Why should Western intellectuals come to deny transcendent goods? It's possible that it has to do with a modernist project to make knowledge certain - to the same degree that knowledge in the natural sciences is made certain. As Jim Kalb recently put it, there is a modernist preference for directing reason to things that are "clear, distinct and verifiable".

It's a project which not only leaves out those areas of knowledge which can't be made distinct along scientific lines, but which also often ends in a profound scepticism about our ability to know the external world at all.

Finally, I'd like to quote a small part of Jim Kalb's reply to David Fiore. It focuses on a particular issue - the likelihood of liberalism achieving social cohesion - but also sets out in condensed form a general outline of liberalism:

As you seem to say, liberalism understands man as essentially an ego with thoughts and desires but no particular qualities that are relevant to what he is. He has no binding connection to anyone in particular. His connection to his next door neighbor shouldn't weigh more for him than his connection to someone in Borneo. He can't assume that he shares any common goods with others. He does have the abstract realization that everyone else is in the same position, and he'd agree that it would be better for all men to get what they want than otherwise.

So I suppose the question is how much social cohesion can arise out of such abstract realizations. Not a lot, it seems to me ...

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Grayling's progress is Lagonda's loss

Lagonda is a young Dutchwoman who loved the community she grew up in. She remembers tranquil Sunday mornings, marked by familiar sights and sounds:

That is how I remember the Sunday mornings of my childhood. Calm and beautiful, saturated in a slow light.

She remembers a well-knit community, decent and caring, in which people looked out for each other and respected basic social norms.

Sadly, she is now grieving for a lost community:

That was less than 20 years ago. But who still knows what is normal? When I walk into my town now, the inevitable conclusion forces itself on me: The Netherlands is gone and will never come back.

In the last 20 years cheap apartment blocks were built, a diverse population moved in, ethnic violence broke out, parts of the town became off limits to locals, drugs and crime increased, and the new suburbs became run down and poorly maintained.

As a result,

the town closed up definitively: the last remains of the old spirit have disappeared. People have become closed, cautious, frightened.

Lagonda directs her ire at a section of the Dutch political class:

There is a force active in the Netherlands, that lives on this fear, a force that savours tearing apart the textures of traditional society. It is the force of the progressives: it hates contentment, it hates the citizen that dares to be satisfied with his life, it hates the soap bubble of safety that the common man wishes for himself ...

I think Lagonda is right to blame the political progressives. Perhaps she's right too that some of these progressives are motivated by sheer animosity toward the comfortable middle-classes, by a desire to shock, upset and outrank the average citizen.

I doubt, though, that progressives are motivated chiefly by malice. It's best to look at the political beliefs of progressives to understand why they act as they do.

We have a prominent progressive visiting Melbourne this month, namely Professor A.C.Grayling. He's here to discuss his most recent book Toward the Light, in which he argues that Western history since the 1500s has been a progress toward ever greater amounts of liberty.

Grayling claims that as a progressive he is following a great ideal and bringing a blessing of "liberty" to ordinary citizens. But what does he mean by liberty?

As you might expect, he means individual autonomy. For Grayling, the measure of human progress is the advance toward ever greater levels of individual autonomy:

The most congenial moment in the moral progress of humanity for Grayling seems to be the Enlightenment. This is the age whose best minds affirm the fundamental good of personal and political autonomy.

But what does it mean to have more autonomy? First, the existence of social norms, which Lagonda valued as giving shape and purpose to community life, will be looked on negatively as restrictions. Grayling writes:

A living community has to tread this line, always; once a static moral orthodoxy is enforced, the effect on the community is a stifling one. Take the examples of divorce and homosexuality, both of which in living memory were regarded with distaste and opprobrium, and both of which have become acceptable and part of the mainstream, thereby liberating people to more generous possibilities for living flourishing lives.

Grayling has to take this view. If you believe that the fundamental good is individual autonomy, then the existence of a community standard will be thought of negatively as a "stifling" limitation on the self-determining individual.

Similarly, the mainstreaming of divorce will be described as part of the progress of society, as a step toward "liberating people" from a settled pattern of family life.

Grayling is enough of an intellectual to also take this logical step:

One measure of a good society is whether its individual members have the autonomy to do as they choose in respects that principally concern only them. The debate about heroin, cocaine and marijuana touches precisely on this. In my submission, a society in which such substances are legal and available is a good society not because drugs are in themselves good, but because the autonomy of those who wish to use them is respected ...

If a good society is one in which individual autonomy is paramount, then Grayling has a case. Restricting drugs like heroin and cocaine is "stifling" to some other individual's liberty to self-determine his own life and therefore impedes his opportunities to "flourish".

The problem, of course, is the gap between theory and reality. Lagonda didn't experience the trafficking of drugs and the breakdown of social norms in her town as a liberating progress, but rather as a demoralising erosion of community life.

In Professor Grayling's homeland, a wave of murders by teenage gangs has led even some of those on the left to decry the extent of family breakdown in England. People see the fatherless boys, the street gangs and the crime and they don't easily interpret it all as a further step toward liberation and human flourishing.

Then there's the issue of religion. If your aim is to be autonomous, you won't easily accept a higher authority. Consider the following online discussion between Grayling and some admirers:

tarav: Grayling discusses how the Christian story of Satan was based on a pagan myth. Grayling tells of "the fall of Satan, once an archangel high in the ranks of heaven, but whose pride - he desired autonomy, independence, self-determination - was the cause of his being cast from heaven"

tarav: if this is evil, then I am evil too!

MadArchitect: if God is merely a personality of authority, and heaven is merely a territory of the good, then there's much reason to sympathise with the fall of Satan

acgrayling: Tarav and Milton would agree "me too!" ...

Which brings us to a further question. Why should individual autonomy be cast by progressives as the overriding good?

In part, it's because of a tradition within Western thought which answers the question of what makes us human with the idea that it is our ability to determine for ourselves who we are that sets us apart from other (lesser) creatures. Therefore, to hold on to our human status we must assert our autonomy; if some are denied autonomy they are being treated as less human and the principle of human equality is being denied.

Perhaps another reason for the emphasis on autonomy is that modernists tend not to recognise goods existing objectively outside of our own selves. Therefore, the "good" for modernists often consists in the satisfaction of our own preferences or the achievement of our own goals.

Grayling has at least partly confirmed that this is his understanding by writing that:

"the good" is not exclusively a matter of human satisfactions and achievements, because there is the non-human world to be taken into account too.

So, with the proviso that we need to consider the welfare of animals and nature, Grayling seems to connect the "good" with what he terms "human satisfactions and achievements".

If preference satisfaction is the goal, then autonomy will be valued because what matters is that I am unimpeded in pursuing what I want.

If achievement is the aim, then the argument is usually that it is the individual who can best determine what life projects interest him and suit him and that autonomy will therefore best serve the pursuit of the good.

So liberal modernists have a theory of being (regarding what makes us human) and a theory of value (of what constitutes the good). These theories are supposed to lead to human flourishing: to a society in which we flourish as autonomous individuals, each of us pursuing our own career or lifestyle goals, within materially prosperous, differentiated, neutral/respectful, open societies.

That the theories are inadequate is suggested by the fact that the societies don't flourish as they are supposed to. This is not because the whole project is held back by an "irrational" opposition to extending full human equality (i.e. equal autonomy) to all people. Lagonda herself points out that the Dutch, more than any other nation, have tried to adapt to the demands of modernity and to accommodate to newcomers. Yet, the effect isn't a sense of flourishing, but rather a loss of moorings, confusion and a sense of powerlessness:

Nothing is natural or obvious anymore, everything has become guilt-ridden and corroded. Who knows what is normal anymore? Who knows anymore what behaviour may be expected, or even demanded, from fellow citizens? The average citizen, who time after time tried his or her hardest to adapt, is completely lost. All that he knew has been taken away, all the ways he could arm himself have become powerless. We are made to walk as if on eggs through our own society, yelled at by the propagandists of the progressive congregation, who tell us it is our own fault.

Even those presenting Grayling's views to us no longer truly believe that theory matches reality. One columnist declares himself to be sceptical about Grayling's account of progress because:

it seems to me that another delusion the success of science has fostered is that there might be no limits to human capabilities or knowledge. It is not just that technology has downsides as well as upsides ... It is that a scientific account of the world is not enough to live by, though meliorism would have us act as if it is.

When interviewed in the Melbourne Age, Grayling pressed the idea that religion is to blame for society's problems. The interviewer, James Button, wasn't persuaded:

Yet given the world's problems, I ask him, is this a top-order issue in countries like Britain and Australia? Surely a larger concern is the pervasive feeling that the consumer society is empty, devoid of value?

Many of the responses to Grayling run along such sceptical lines. The progressive theory is more difficult to accept now as it is difficult to read modern societies in terms of "onwards and upwards".

It is time to rethink modernist theory. We need a theory of being which is willing to consider as key human qualities our defining forms of identity and attachments, and our place as social beings within communities. This would allow us to recognise that there is a good in how we have been made and not just in the process of self-making.

We need too to rethink the theory of value, so that we recognise "transcendent" goods: higher goods embedded in institutions and traditions, in which individuals partake, but which are grasped as larger, encompassing entities. In doing so, we would open our eyes to the reasonable desire of most people who, just like Lagonda, wish to conserve what is good within the traditional texture of society.