Monday, December 31, 2007

What feminists don't get

I recently wrote some posts on feminists who become mothers. The idea was to see what happens to the feminist ideal of autonomy when babies start coming along.

There was a very critical response from the feminist women I quoted. Predictably, some of the women argued that I was a privileged male who already had autonomy and wanted to keep it from women. For example, the operator of the blue milk site which ran the series on feminist motherhood had this to say about me:

Only someone with all the autonomy they could ever hope for could possibly suggest so determinedly that others not aspire to it. White male drowning in privilege I think.

She's not alone in holding such a view. There was an entry at the feminist website I blame the patriarchy on the topic of marriage and autonomy. It was assumed in the feminist discussion following the entry that men got all the autonomy they wanted in marriage, whilst women suffered on alone:

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

... 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.

Are these feminists right? Do married men have all the autonomy they could ever hope for? Are they drowning in a privilege they seek to deny to others?

It's not enough just to say that the feminists are wrong; what has to be explained is just how far off the mark they are.

If a man held autonomy to be a key aim in life he would never marry and never consent to an active fatherhood. Marriage and fatherhood lock men into a life of work and responsibility in which there is rarely time or money for a man to do as he pleases.

It's not an easy thing for a man to adjust to and increasing numbers of men appear to be opting out or at least delaying their commitment to married life.

Most men, though, do sacrifice the larger part of their autonomy to work, marry and have children. They do so because of an impulse to find love and a soul mate; because of a sense that becoming a husband and father are the proper "offices" for an adult male through which their lives are completed: because of the instinct to procreate to pass on something of themselves to future generations; and because of paternal instincts to have children to love and to guide to adulthood.

Men are in their natures protectors and so there is a level at which meeting the burdens of fatherhood is a self-fulfilment.

Why do feminists misunderstand men? The answer is that they are thinking ideologically. According to feminist patriarchy theory, men as a class invented gender as a social construct in order to secure the privilege of autonomy for themselves at the expense of oppressed women. Institutions like marriage, according to patriarchy theory, are designed to secure male privilege over women.

So if you're a feminist who accepts patriarchy theory you are likely to believe that men are motivated by a desire for power over women and that marriage secures for men a privilege of autonomy in which, unlike women, they have it easy and can do as they please.

The gap between theory and reality is vast. Patriarchy theory is not a truthful account of what happens in society and it does harm to relations between men and women and to family formation. It's time to put it aside and to look more directly at the lives of men and women.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

What matters to technocrats?

What was the most complained about TV ad in Australia this year? Not surprisingly, it was the Nando's ad in which a mother performs a pole dancing routine in a skimpy g-string and then later sits with her husband and children eating a Nando's dinner in a classic happy family scene.

The Advertising Standards Bureau (ASB) rejected the many submissions against the Nando's ad, such as the one which pointed out that "It promotes working in a strip club as an “ordinary” acceptable vocation for loving, family oriented mothers."

Curiously, the ASB did find against three other ads, even though they only received 10% of the complaints filed against Nando's. The ASB was extraordinarily strict in banning these three ads on health and safety grounds. One was a McDonalds ad which showed a girl taking a ride on a UFO with some Martians to have lunch with her dad. It was thought that the ad might encourage stranger danger.

When asked to comment about her year's work, the chief executive of the ASB, Fiona Jolly, blithely ignored the most complained about ads, in order to claim that the public was most concerned about health and safety issues:

ASB chief executive officer Fiona Jolly said the public seemed most concerned about depictions of activities which contravened community standards on health and safety.

Why would she take this line? Perhaps some recent comments by Jim Kalb on the technocratic mindset help to explain the situation:

Liberals adopt the standpoint of a technocratic administrator who wants to run the world in a way that brings results that make simple sense to him. He views the people in his custody as an aggregate of individuals without personal responsibility or connections to each other that need be taken seriously. All that matters is that the individuals for whom he is responsible be protected from harm and treated equally by the system as a whole.

Conservatives in contrast view themselves as participants in a human world that surrounds and transcends them. There’s no overall system responsible for everything. Accordingly, they take the particular connections through which life gets carried on very seriously (loyalty and authority), and make sense of those connections by referring them to conceptions of what things are and should be (purity).

So the people complaining about the Nando's ad were being protective of "the particular connections through which life gets carried on" (family connections). The ASB represents the technocratic position in which people are seen as a collection of individuals without connections to each other that need to be taken seriously, but who must be protected from harm (hence the exacting attitude to health and safety issues).

The Kalb quote looks at things from an interesting angle. During the ASB hearing on the Nando's ad, the company defended its portrayal of the mother on classic liberal grounds by claiming that she was 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 is liberal autonomy theory: what matters is that we are making uncoerced choices and have the power to enact our individual will. What we choose to do or be isn't so important, in this view, unless it directly impedes someone else.

What happens, though, to an elite who have long ago adopted such a view? How do you manage a society based on liberal presumptions?

Here the Kalb description of liberal technocracy is well worth considering. Note again the idea that for conservatives there is no overall system to be applied, so that particular connections are taken seriously and made sense of by reference to conceptions of what things are and should be. Therefore, conservatives will not only take the role of motherhood seriously, they will also have a concept of what motherhood is in reality and as an ideal.

In contrast, the liberal technocrat does think in terms of an overall system, so the aim is to apply a simple framework equally to individuals. Particular connections don't need to be taken seriously.

When the ASB rejected the complaints against the Nando's ad, there did seem to be a lack of seriousness in considering what might represent family life. For instance, the ASB had this to say on the connection between stripping and family values:

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.

Is this a serious view on what brings people together in family relationships? Does it really attempt to get at the defining qualities of motherhood?

It seems to me to be a long way off target, and Jim Kalb's description of liberal technocracy does seem helpful in explaining why it is so unrealistic a view.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Tsunami money goes to this?

Last year I was surprised to discover that the "charity" organisation Oxfam is not what most people would assume it to be. Oxfam has adopted feminist patriarchy theory and has set itself the aim of transforming gender relations. Oxfam argues that there is nothing natural about masculinity and femininity and that central to their mission is the aim of "changing masculinities, changing men".

Now a major newspaper has taken up the story. In yesterday's Australian there is a piece about how various charity organisations have spent the $400 million donated by Australians to help the victims of the Asian tsunami.

Oxfam is criticised for spending money on a "travelling Oxfam gender justice show" in rural Indonesia. World Vision likewise funded feminist education and lobbying projects in Indonesia.

The Catholic aid agency Caritas even spent donor money to fund an Islamic learning centre in Aceh in order to promote "the importance of the Koran".

I'll finish with a relevant quote from the newspaper article:

Critics say the aid agencies have exceeded the mandate provided to them by mum-and-dad donors from middle Australia who thought they were giving money to rebuild houses and lives shattered by the tsunami, rather than forcing the ideological views of the Australian left on traditional Asians.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Victory for moral relativists in the Anglican church

The Anglican Church in Melbourne has largely collapsed into modern intellectual trends, including, it seems, moral relativism.

Take the issue of abortion. The Victorian Government is considering decriminalising abortion and has been taking submissions on the issue. According to the Anglican Archbishop of Melbourne, Dr Philip Freier, "The Anglican Church has predominantly been silent about abortion." However, despite this silence Dr Freier also feels that Anglican men "have said enough" and so he appointed an all female working group to prepare a submission.

What did these Anglican women come up with? They argued for decriminalisation on a number of grounds. The first is that public opinion is accepting of abortion:

In our view, public acceptance of the reality of abortion, including acceptance of the practice among women of diverse religious communities, indicates that a change in the law is timely.

Determining the rightness or wrongness of an act according to public opinion seems to indicate clearly that we are dealing with moral relativism which is defined in Wikipedia this way:

moral relativism is the position that moral or ethical propositions do not reflect objective and/or universal moral truths, but instead make claims relative to social, cultural, historical or personal circumstances.

The Anglican women then write of a biblical vision in which "all life is embraced as the gift of a benevolent, self-giving God". But, they write, all life cannot be embraced in today's world as:

in the less than ideal circumstances in which we live, we realise that difficult moral decisions often have to be made. Further, we recognise that the Bible is a collection of texts written in a world without our modern medical practices and so does not speak specifically to the ease and safety with which a pregnancy may be terminated today.

So the "social, cultural, historical or personal circumsatnces" determine moral outcomes rather than a universal moral ideal as presented in the Bible.

The Anglican women then tell us that it is "absolutist" to believe that life begins at conception. They offer instead a vague formulation in which the embryo is fully human from the time of conception, but only accrues moral significance and value as it develops. The women believe that it is more serious to consider destroying a foetus at 28 weeks than at 10 weeks, though they are against any "absolutist end-point after which an abortion could not proceed". So neither the human status nor the "moral value" of the foetus seem to count for much.

Then there is a discussion of women's "moral agency". The Anglican women state that:

We do not advocate change on the basis that a woman has the right to do whatever she wants with her body, as that removes the rights of others, such as the foetus, the father and the wider community. In any legislation, we would like to see statements which affirm the value of the foetus, but hold that in balance with the moral agency of the mother, in community with others, to make choices.

Although this is, in theory, a step back from a radically individualistic approach to morality, it's next to worthless. In the next paragraph the Anglican women call for something close to free abortion on demand:

The Anglican Diocese of Melbourne, even within the diversity of members' views, supports the provision of safe and affordable abortions with appropriate safeguards for women who, for whatever reasons, request them.

So the intent to "affirm the value" of the foetus doesn't come to much. The only protections extended to the foetus are that abortions sought after 20 weeks would need to come before a hospital ethics committee and that abortion after 7 months would continue to be illegal unless the mother's life were in danger. The Anglican women state that late term abortions shouldn't be allowed for certain minor birth defects such as simple cleft palate, which suggests that they believe that more serious birth defects would be a permissible reason for late term abortions.

What has been the reaction of the Anglican hierarchy here in Victoria? The church's representative in Castlemaine made this classically relativist statement in support of the submission:

The Reverend Ken Parker, of Castlemaine, said in some circumstances, abortion was the only right way.

"We need to stand in the shoes of the woman concerned and struggle to see what's right for them," he said.

Then there was this comment:

Archdeacon Alison Taylor said yesterday the church recognised there were circumstances, especially foetal abnormality, when abortion was "the least problematic solution".

"We certainly don't adopt the pro-choice perspective, that it's something women can do with their bodies like having their appendix removed," Archdeacon Taylor said. "We live in a broken world where appallingly difficult decisions have to be made."

The Anglican Dean of Bendigo, the Very Reverend Peta Sherlock, emphasised instead the simplicity of the issue:

"To want an abortion is not a crime for somebody who is in need - I think it's a no-brainer," she said.

Two final points. One of the Anglican women who wrote the submission was Dr Muriel Porter, who is the reigning church feminist. She is an avowed relativist. A few years ago she urged the Anglican Church to support abortion. She ran an argument that the Anglican Church, by supplying chaplains to soldiers at war, was not consistently pacifist and so did not consistently uphold the sacredness of human life. Therefore, she wrote, the same "relativist" approach could be extended to pregnant women wanting an abortion:

If the sacredness of human life is an absolute value, then the churches should uphold a position of total pacifism. Why cannot the churches adopt the same generous relativism to pregnant women?

The last point is this. The relativists like to think that they are being intellectually sophisticated and advanced in their approach to morality. What the Anglican abortion document really shows, though, is the difficulty of running a consistent and persuasive argument as a relativist.

There are no logical grounds provided for the assertion that a foetus is fully human but only acquires "moral value" as it develops. We are given no reasons why it's possible to be fully human but without moral value, nor are we told the criteria by which a foetus is judged to hold more moral value at 15 weeks than at 10 weeks.

Similarly, there is no reason to think that something is morally right just because public opinion holds it to be so, nor because it represents an act of "agency".

The real effect of relativism is to make the church a servant of the times. Whatever seems reasonable to the age will most likely be upheld as dogma by a relativist church. But if a church mimics the age doesn't this make it less, rather than more, relevant as an institution? What can it offer that isn't already available in the wider society? How can a church lead when it follows the changing social mores of the wider society?

Saturday, December 22, 2007

What holds the wings of modernism together?

Why should it be that modernism has held together? After all, the two wings of modernism seem to be directly opposed to each other.

One wing of modernism is political liberalism. Liberalism is based on the idea of the self-creating, autonomous individual who is free to choose in any direction.

The other wing is a scientific materialism. The materialists believe that everything is a product of material causes, so that every action we take is ultimately predetermined (and could, in theory, be predicted).

You would think that the liberals and the materialists would wage intellectual war on each other. The two seem difficult to reconcile: a strict materialism is deterministic and so denies the very possibility of free will or the reality of individual choice.

Some moderns are aware of this problem. There was a debate at the Catallaxy website some time ago in which Jason Soon admitted that he and other moderns were haunted by the difficulty of reconciling what he refers to as philosophical naturalism with their political beliefs:

Naturalism holds that everything we are and do is connected to the rest of the world and derived from conditions that precede us and surround us. Each of us is an unfolding natural process, and every aspect of that process is caused, and is a cause of itself. So we are fully caused creatures.

Of course this is just another way of saying naturalism implies determinism at some fundamental level even if we know that in practice we cannot (at least for now) have the ability to pull certain strings to make humans function like clockwork. I do consider myself a naturalist but a question that haunts (in my view unjustly) those of us who are simultaneously philosophical naturalists and politically libertarians is whether the two are reconcilable.

There follows a debate in which one of the contributors, Daniel Barnes, actually does step back from a full acceptance of the materialistic view. He writes that he doesn't want to dodge:

another basic difficulty, which is how you can say ‘choice’ is both vitally important (ie: be a libertarian) and an illusion at the same time. Call me old-fashioned - I probably am - but despite the compelling nature of deterministic arguments, and the semi-occult feeling of denying them, I still can’t...quite...go...there.

A commenter calling himself c8to then tries to reconcile free will with determinism as follows:

what we always meant by free will was the ability to look at a list of possibilities, run some algorithm and deterministically decide the goal maximising actions

Daniel Barnes shot back with this:

“Deterministically decide” is an oxymoron. Because if determinism is true, you ‘decide’ nothing. A scientist with sufficient data should be able to exactly predict what your “algorithm” will do - and, like every other event, it will have been exactly predictable since the dawn of time. If you call that a decision you might as well say a planet ‘decides’ to circle the sun.

If, though, it is difficult to reconcile political liberalism with a deterministic materialism, why have they successfully coexisted? One possible answer is to be found in a recent study on liberal and conservative patterns of belief. This study found that conservatives placed a far greater weight on "purity" than did liberals. A libertarian called Razib did the questionnaire on which the study was based and reported the results as follows:

when it comes to "Purity" I go farther than even the typical liberal. Here this might be my hard-core reductionist materialism coming through, I don't really believe that anything has an essence, everything is simply a collection of atoms, so talk of an act or object being pure or impure seems totally incoherent to me most of the time.

You can see in this quote how a "hard-core reductionist materialism" might work well together with political liberalism. The materialism undercuts the idea of essences, which then means that there is no given quality toward which things ideally develop. This removes a basic obstacle to individuals developing, as liberals wish them to do, in any direction.

So liberalism and materialism are in alliance when it comes to attacking a traditionally "essentialist" view of things and perhaps this helped them to combine to form the modernist mindset.

It's hardly an ideal combination though. Materialism might help liberals to strike down essentialism, but it does so at the expense of choice and free will. The liberal individual might be able to choose in any direction, but his choice is illusory as it is predetermined. He becomes a fully caused, rather than a self-created, creature.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Not quite getting there

Over at blue milk the interviews with feminist mothers continue. The following is from Chantelle:

What is the impact of motherhood on your feminism?

I think, for a long time, feminist notions for me were bound up in a specific contemporary form which defines feminist ideals along traditionally male roles in society – being career orientated, being independent, being a leader. Being a mother didn’t fit easily into this paradigm, and that has caused me to take another look at what feminism could/should mean for me. I feel that what often passes as equality actually forces women into certain roles either at the expense of motherhood or in addition to motherhood

This is an intelligent framing of the situation. Feminism follows modern liberalism in thinking of autonomy as the proper organising principle of society. Left-wing feminists commonly assert that men have arranged society so that they gain the privilege of autonomy at the expense of oppressed women. Therefore, the traditionally male career role is held to be the superior one which represents liberation and equality for women.

Chantelle tells us that when she became a mother she began to question whether the aims of autonomy (independence, careers, power) should be the feminist ideal.

This is the moment at which a traditionalist like myself would take the simple step of putting autonomy in its right place. Rather than being the sole organising principle of society, autonomy should be thought of as one good amongst many. The point of politics would then become (in part) to find the just balance between a range of goods.

Chantelle, though, doesn't take this step. Instead, she wants society reorganised to maximise female autonomy and careerism:

I feel that what often passes as equality actually forces women into certain roles either at the expense of motherhood or in addition to motherhood, without any changes being made societally. In other words, women were encouraged to change, with relatively few negotiations being made on the system level. So, although it is now acceptable for a woman to have a career and a family, maternity leave (at least in the US) is almost non-existent, few fathers choose to stay at home or reduce their workload to take part caring for children, and for these reasons women with children are still viewed unfavorably by employers in ways that men with children are not. Studies of academic professionals, at least, show that there is a strong discrepancy between the effect of having children on female and male professionals and that to me signifies a bias that needs to be addressed.

The important thing for Chantelle is still the aim of women following the traditionally masculine career path. She still holds to this view despite her own apparent lack of career enthusiasm:

I have a PhD in the humanities, which basically means I can no longer keep hiding in higher education and should really figure out what I want to be when I grow up. Or maybe I will just get another degree. In the meanwhile, I am spending most of my time taking care of the little guy whose picture is posted all over this blog, and I am doing a lot of reading and writing, just because I want to and not because I have to.

Chantelle's rethinking of the feminist paradigm didn't really go that far. The emphasis is still on how to make motherhood less of a hindrance to careers, rather than asserting motherhood as a good in itself.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

When feminists become mothers

Students in New Zealand were asked in their geography exams this year a peculiar question. They were given photos of five city scenes ranging from a park to a business district and asked to explain how each image could be viewed from a feminist perspective.

Dr Julie Cupples, a feminist geographer from Canterbury University, answered the question for a newspaper by claiming that the suburbs are highly gendered given that many women are at home with children “and the interesting stuff that is happening downtown they are excluded from”.

So the “correct” feminist answer involves an assumption that motherhood isn’t so interesting and that women who are at home with their children are being denied access to something better.

Where does this anti-maternal assumption come from? It stems from patriarchy theory. According to patriarchy theory what matters most is that we are autonomous. The motherhood role is thought to be less autonomous than the traditional male career role, as it is based on a “biological destiny” rather than on an individual career path, and because it involves financial dependence on a husband. If the motherhood role is inferior, though, patriarchy theorists must deny that it is a natural one for women. Therefore, patriarchy theorists claim that gender is an oppressive social construct, imposed on women to uphold male privilege.

What happens, though, when feminists actually do become mothers? Is there a collision between patriarchy theory and real experience? Do feminist women still feel that autonomy is the key good in life?

The answer seems to be no, at least according to a set of interviews with feminist mothers I read recently.

The first to be interviewed was Theresa, who is a stay at home mum with a partner and a young son. At one level she is quite an orthodox feminist. She defines feminism this way:

My feminism supports a woman's right to make choices and challenges the status quo when it comes to limitations - no matter who's defining the status.

This is the typical autonomist line that we must be self-defining agents, so that the aim of politics is to remove impediments to individual choice in any direction.

And yet Theresa no longer thinks of this kind of autonomy as the highest good. She now values her own family higher. This means that she doesn't attack the family as an oppressive restriction on her personal autonomy; instead, she identifies her own interests with that of the family and she seeks to act for the benefit of her family.

The attempt to maintain an autonomist politics whilst identifying positively with her family leads to this curious position:

What makes your mothering feminist?

The fact that I'm doing what is right for my family and not what's best for society or some other outside influence. I make the choices. With my husband. Not my priest or my husband's boss or the mayor of our city or the writer with a big paycheck.

She still applies the logic of autonomy theory to the wider society, but from the vantage point of her own family, rather than herself as an individual. Even so, the basic shift is away from the absolute value of autonomy:

I grew up knowing that I shouldn't sacrifice myself to a job or a partner ... Yet, now I also know that the act of sacrifice is ultimately good for me, connecting me to the world and making me human.

This reminds me of what Alice James, sister of the famous American novelist Henry James, had to say of her spinsterhood:

to have no one to care and 'do for' daily is not only a sorrow but a sterilizing process.

Marjorie was the second feminist mother interviewed. She too is a woman who followed an autonomist culture by valuing independence above all else, by intending to remain childless and by intending to return to work once she had children. Again, though, after she had children she began to value family more highly than these forms of autonomy:

I am shocked and bewildered by how much I love my kids and love mothering them. I have a vague recollection of swearing I would never have children (and double- and triple-swearing that I would never have children), but I can't remember why now ...

I have also been surprised that I absolutely need my husband and family and friends to get through it all. I think I first said, "Me do it myself," at two years of age and said it until the moment before Martin was born. I absolutely need them to help me.

I don't feel like I've sacrificed my career in a negative way because the alternative was sacrificing this time with my children, which, to me, would have been the worse option. I thought I was going back to work, but I didn't even consider it once I had the baby.

The one aspect of patriarchy theory Marjorie still clings to is that of gender being an unnatural, oppressive construct. Yet, given that she herself is following a traditional gender pattern of stay at home motherhood, she feels conflicted:

I sometimes feel compromised and have trouble identifying as a feminist mother since I get so bogged down by the stay at home mother/housewife stereotype.

It's a pity she doesn't realise that once you no longer hold autonomy to be the one, overriding value, there is no reason to judge the traditional female role as inferior and therefore no need to attack gender as an oppressive construct. Her residual feminism is making her feel unnecessarily uncomfortable in what she is doing.

The third interview is the saddest. Rose is a sole parent with three children. The father of the third child is a "baby daddy" - he has some kind of parenting role but is not her partner.

How has motherhood changed her feminism? She says in answer to this question that "I stopped being so angry at men when I had a son".

Unfortunately, Rose tried to apply the autonomy principle to her own children. She raised them, as Theresa put it, to challenge the status quo when it comes to limitations. She undermined her own authority as a parent in doing so:

My eldest two were encouraged to speak their minds, make their own decisions - to treat me as an equal. This - backfired somewhat.

For me, the egalitarian basis for feminism had dictated everything ...

When her daughter became a teenager the lack of parental authority had major consequences:

It was the beginning of a nightmare ... I think we had two years of pretty solid verbal abuse ... The biggest shock was the self-destructive ways these kids chose to behave ... we had drinking, drugs, self mutilation, eating disorder ... My kid and a couple of others made it their mission to be as aggressive as possible to just about everyone ...

She changed tactics:

These days I want them to respect me. I want to be treated as head of the household. I think that what I didn't teach them was that as a woman, as their mother, as a person who had strived to do the best for them, I was worthy of their respect, even if they didn't like what I had said.

Raising her children to challenge authority and rebel against limitations didn't create a sense of autonomous freedom in her family, but led instead to conflict and family breakdown.

Rose has travelled the least distance in rejecting an autonomist version of family life. When asked what feminism has given mothers, she mostly lists government programmes which allow her to be "independent" as a single mother:

What specifically has feminism given mothers? - the right to support their children if their partner leaves instead of being dependent on family ... Free education for children. The sole parent pension. Acceptance of childcare.

Finally there is Ariane. She recognises that the feminist orthodoxy has been anti-maternal:

I think at times feminism has belittled the role of mothers, as if a stay at home mum has betrayed women.

She makes, though, a similar mistake to Marjorie. Although she recognises that the sexes are different and complementary, she nonetheless seems keen to prove that gender is an open quality. She tells us, for instance, that her son was "hammered by his peers for dressing up as a princess and dancing like a ballerina" and that she has "no opinion" on the genders of the two involved parents kids should ideally have (which in itself belittles mothers by suggesting that it doesn't matter whether or not children have an involved female parent).

Overall, the message which comes through is that feminist women do tend to change in their attitude to autonomy when they become mothers. Although none of the women interviewed ceased to identify as a feminist, they did make a transition from a more orthodox attitude in regard to independence and careers to one in which autonomy was no longer the sole, overriding good.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Now a baby tax?

This is what the modern environmentalist movement has come to. Associate Professor Barry Walters has written an article for Australia's top medical journal dealing with the issue of climate change. The professor believes that a woman giving birth to a child is engaging in "greenhouse-unfriendly behaviour" and should therefore be hit with a "baby levy". He wants families to pay a $5000 baby levy at birth and an annual carbon tax of $800 per child. People who get themselves sterilised would be rewarded with a carbon credit. In the professor's own words:

Far from showering financial booty on new mothers and thereby rewarding greenhouse-unfriendly behaviour, a baby levy in the form of a carbon tax should apply, in line with the polluter pays principle.

The professor is making this suggestion despite the fact that Australia has a fertility rate of 1.8, which is well below replacement level.

Nor is he alone in expressing such views. Dr Egger, the director of the Centre for Health Promotion and Research in Sydney has declared his support for Professor Walters. There is a list here of others who have advocated radical measures against human populations, including a Melbourne neuroscientist, Dr John Reid, who said last year that:

[one] human way to reduce the population might be to put something in the water, a virus that would be specific to the human reproductive system and would make a substantial proportion of the population infertile. Perhaps a virus that would knock out the genes that produce certain hormones necessary for conception.

I should say that I'm someone who loves nature and has chosen to live close to the countryside. Ordinarily, therefore, I would support efforts to preserve the environment.

But not when the movement is aimed at a power grab and not when it becomes a vehicle for misanthropes.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Holding the stage

Talk about a man out of his time. Just as Western high art was collapsing in the mid-twentieth century, one man stood against the stream in its defence. He was a Canadian opera singer, a heroic tenor, named Jon Vickers.

There's an interview by Bruce Duffie in which Vickers explains some of his views on art. It's worth reading in full, but the sections I enjoyed most are these:

BD: Do you think that opera should speak to everyone?

JV: Absolutely. I'm not sure that it can speak to everyone, but it should attempt always to speak to everyone. There is a great difference between entertaining the masses and seeking to make them turn their eyes symbolically to that idealistic, divine struggle that is the example of manhood and womanhood. You understand? That element within mankind which is divine. I think that once we lower our sights from that which is unattainable, that degree of perfection which is totally beyond our understanding, beyond our comprehension and beyond our grasp, then if we only shoot at the tree-tops we'll only hit the tops of the fence posts.

* * *

BD: Is the music the servant of man or is it the other way round - is man the servant of the music? ...

JV: We are all servants of Man if, in my thinking, we recognize the divinity with the word "Man." I think that we cannot judge Manhood by men. We must judge men by Manhood. And when we speak of Manhood, we talk of that spark of the divine in man. And if that spark isn't there, then in our definition of man we have lowered the whole standard of work.

* * *

BD: You say that we are losing this in the vocal decline of our age. Will it ever come back?

JV: I'm not sure that there is a vocal decline.

BD: An aesthetic decline?

JV: I think there is a decline in exactly what we are talking about. There is a dis-inclination to demand of our artists truth.

BD: Are we lazy?

JV: No, I think it is a very long-developing process. I think it's developed possibly over the last 20 years. People will laugh when I say it, but I feel there has been for some years now a ground-swell of demand for mediocrity. They don't want excellence. We don't have positive heroes anymore; they're negative heroes. What do we attack? We've attacked all the great pillars of civilization. We take great heroes of history and so far as we are capable we snoop around in the excretia of some of these heroes until we find a flaw. So because a hero is not perfection, which if he was he would be God himself, then he's nothing more than anybody on the street.

* * *

BD: Should we not observe monsters at all?

JV: Yes. But I don't think we should embrace their philosophies. Look at the philosophical lines. In France, Voltaire showed the revolution; and then came Napoleon, and Napoleon was a monster. He was a great genius, but he was a monster. The same thing happened in German thought - Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Wagner, Freud. The destruction of Christian principles, the lowering of man's sight from divinity to an acceptance of man's own majestic intellectual capacity that by himself he would pick himself up by his shoestraps and elevate himself to being divine. And, of course, what was the result? Hitler. And Stalin.

There have been some debates lately about the positive and negative effects of Christianity on Western civilisation. Vickers stands as an example of the more positive influence.

For example, when Vickers says that "I think that we cannot judge Manhood by men. We must judge men by Manhood" he is clearly rejecting the nominalist, anti-realist trend within modernist thought. He is asserting the reality of an entity "Manhood", external to our own wills, by which we might be judged and to which we might aspire.

Not only would modernist thought deny the reality of such entities, it would treat them as oppressive constructs which limit a man's freedom to self-determine according to his own will.

Vicker's Christianity allowed him to confidently assert a philosophical realism, which meant that he could positively look to and defend the ideals of his own civilisation.

A second interesting aspect of Vicker's Christianity is that it was not in the least productive of effeminacy. Vickers was a powerfully masculine presence on stage. For instance, Monteverdi's operas are often sung with high-pitched voices in the male roles (counter-tenors or mezzo sopranos). Although this does produce a beautiful sound, it doesn't heighten the dramatic interplay between the male and female characters.

So it's stunning to hear for the first time Vickers play the role of Nero in Monterverdi's Coronation of Poppea. This You Tube video isn't of great quality but it does convey Vicker's stage presence. I hope you enjoy it.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Tracee's victory column

Left-wing journalist Tracee Hutchison has been moved by the victory of Kevin Rudd ... to new levels of incoherence.

Her victory column begins with this:

It's hard to identify the exact moment I knew Australia was experiencing a seismic shift in identity and direction over this past week.

I'm not sure I'm living in the same country as Tracee. A seismic shift in identity and direction? Just from switching from Liberal to Labor?

Odder still is the "exact moment" Tracee finally settles on to mark this seismic shift in identity. It seems that Kevin Rudd's wife did a "shimmy" whilst standing next to him on election night:

If ever there was an image to differentiate the old from the new on election night, it was Therese Rein's shimmy ... It was sassy and confident and delicious. And 100% woman. Suddenly we had a first couple who were smart, successful AND sexy. It was magnificent.

It's not an easy thing to push Therese Rein into the sexy category. It's a measure of Tracee's euphoria that she gives it a go.

Then we have Tracee's glee at the appointment by Kevin Rudd of some female ministers:

Finally, we have a group of women in the highest office in the land who don't make me feel like a freak.

Women who are the daughters of migrants, women who are single and/or childless, openly gay, unmarried with children, married with children but who haven't taken the surname of their husbands and others who have.

This is beyond odd. Tracee herself is a single, childless career woman. She admits here that she is so sensitive to her situation that she feels like a "freak" if women like herself aren't in power. She wants her own situation to be made normative because it helps her with her own psychological issues.

And what of the fact that the Liberals also had single childless women as ministers (e.g. Julie Bishop)? Is it not possible for Tracee to be consoled by Liberal women?

But Tracee keeps it all going:

It is significant and noteworthy that half the women Kevin Rudd has given high-profile cabinet and portfolio responsibilities to are childless and/or unmarried — the Deputy Prime Minister to name just one. It is a great moment for generational change and validates the often difficult choices so many of us have made to pursue our careers. And it is so very welcome.

Yes, it's all about Tracee feeling "validated". Strangely, earlier this year she put a different spin on her childlessness. It wasn't a noble choice of hers, but something forced on her by an epidemic of feckless men. After watching the competition between three men to be named the father of Anna Nicole Smith's baby, she wrote:

I suspect I wasn't the only single, childless woman of a certain age who belched up a slightly sour-tasting ironic burp ...

... it seemed incredible, from my experience, that each of them seemed so desperately keen to own up to firing the winning sperm.

If only there were men queueing up for fatherhood duties with such fervour in the real-life version of what happens to women in their late 30s. With due respect to the many doting fathers I know, who love and support their kids in one — or two — homes, I seem to know a lot more women who have either given up chasing child-support payments from absent and/or financially gymnastic fathers or given up the idea of having a biological child at all.

If anecdote is the litmus test for truth, the latter category feels like an epidemic. Especially if you're immersed in that special something that happens to women when their body clock starts shrieking like a wounded hyena and there's not a willing bloke within cooee.

... There aren't enough blokes with sufficient enthusiasm for child-rearing to go around.

You might think that Tracee would be most concerned to repair the damage done to family formation in this country, in order to spare younger women the sadness of unchosen childlessness. Instead, being stuck with it herself, she wants to make it a kind of high principle.

Finally, there is Tracee's attitude to country. She tells us that the sight of Therese Rein's seismic shimmy made her overflow with patriotism:

I felt my body jolt upright with exultant anticipation and gushing love of country.

Is this the same Tracee who, in questioning the appropriateness of ANZAC Day, wrote:

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

Tracee is frightened by the quietly held patriotism of ANZAC Day and the sight of the Australian flag, but gushes with love of country when her candidate's wife moves on stage.

I wouldn't mind Tracee following the impulses of her mind, if it represented a liberation from ideology and released her from the grip of political correctness. I expect, though, that she identifies too closely with her side of politics for this ever to happen.