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.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Lessons of 2007

The Liberals have been defeated and what does the media say? You read everywhere that the Liberals must turn away from their socially conservative wing and to the left - or else face a more permanent electoral ruin.

It's an odd lesson to draw. Consider the following:

a) The Labor Party won by studiously avoiding any upset to the socially conservative instincts of the electorate.

b) The state Liberal parties are all more "socially progressive" than the Federal party and all are out of office.

c) The most unpopular Liberal policy was Work Choices, which was more of an economically liberal measure than a socially conservative one.

However, I do believe that the Liberal Party has to consider the future carefully. If you look at an electoral map of Melbourne you find that the Liberals can only rely on a tiny belt of four safe seats. The north, the west and most of the south now belong to Labor.

The problem for the Liberal Party is that migrants generally vote Labor. In a Parliament of Australia electoral survey it was found that:

a) There are 18 seats in which more than 22% of the population was born in a non-English speaking country. In 2006 Labor held 16 of those seats. It now holds all 18. Labor holds 27 of the 29 seats with the highest proportion of electors born in non-English speaking countries. (p.39)

b) 32 of the 33 electorates with the most people who can't speak English well voted Labor in 2007. (p.43)

c) The 24 electorates with the most Muslims all voted Labor. (p.29)

d) These results don't seem to correlate to levels of income. Of the 37 poorest electorates, 23 were held (in 2006) by the Liberals/Nationals, 12 by Labor and 2 by independents. (p.57)

How might the Liberal Party react to this information? They could, I suppose, conclude that they have to be especially nice to migrants to win their votes. The problem is that the Liberals could not have done more for migrants during their term of office. Migration was set at record levels and education policy favoured fee paying students from overseas. Despite this, the trend for migrants to vote Labor continued, leading to a loss of the Prime Minister's own seat.

A more realistic option would be for the Liberals to drop their commitment to high levels of immigration. They would have to stand up to the big business federations in doing this, but otherwise the move would be a popular one. It would also secure a more viable long-term future for the Liberal Party.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Bahrainis seek immigration reform

The Arab Gulf states have their own immigration problems. Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have proposed a six year residency limit for foreign workers. The Bahraini labour minister believes that most of the foreign workers in his country cannot assimilate or adapt because of their cultural and social backgrounds. He recently complained that:

In some areas of the Gulf, you can't tell whether you are in an Arab Muslim country or in an Asian district. We can't call this diversity and no nation on earth could accept the erosion of its culture on its own land.

I can't fault the Bahraini minister for acting to conserve his own culture. However, the situation in the Gulf does raise some further questions.

For instance, if the Bahraini minister believes that non-Muslims cannot adapt or assimilate to an Arab Muslim culture, then the same difficulty of assimilation must also occur when Arab Muslims seek residence in foreign countries. If mutual adaptation or assimilation isn't possible in Bahrain, then why would it be possible in France or Finland?

Also, if the Gulf states are so dependent on foreign labour (there are currently 14 million foreign workers in the Gulf), and if this labour force is thought to be too foreign to assimilate or adapt, then why are Middle Eastern refugees being sent to all the way to the West rather than to the nearby Gulf states? The Gulf states are very wealthy and are very much in need of a more assimilable labour force. It would seem to be a good match.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Heterosexuals just 10 percent?

During an otherwise standard sex education lesson, I was astonished to hear the teacher in charge claim that heterosexuals make up just 10% of the population. She chided the students for their mistaken belief that heterosexuals were a majority. The students were told that for 80% of the population sexuality was fluid and changed in any direction over time.

This has to be one of the more extreme instances I've observed of redefining reality to fit your own ideological purposes. Presumably the sex ed teacher is following the ideal of liberal autonomy in which we are supposed to be self-determined in all things which matter. If our sexuality is fixed it can't be self-determined, so it helps the theory if our sexuality can be made fluid.

This is the basic idea behind queer theory, which has been promoted widely in schools in the US:

For the queer theorist, all unambiguous and permanent notions of a natural sexual or gender identity are coercive impositions on our individual autonomy - our freedom to reinvent our sexual selves whenever we like. Sexuality is androgynous, fluid, polymorphous ...

So we shouldn't be surprised if activists aim to overturn heterosexual norms. I hadn't, though, expected the bold move of relegating heterosexuals to minority status.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Are men and women equal?

In a recent post I claimed that it is liberalism which leads to the feminist belief that women are the victims of oppression and inequality:

The liberal starting point ends badly: in feelings of loss of humanity; in assumptions of oppression and inequality; and, for some, in a rejection of love and relationships.

A regular reader posted a comment suggesting that the feminist belief in inequality was more than an assumption, as men really are superior:

The inequality of men and women is not an assumption, it's a reality. It's evolved. Unless you are a female spotted hyena, you just have to like it or lump it.

I thought this comment worth responding to at length, as it involves some important issues. I'll say at the outset that I disagree with the idea that men are superior to women. This is not because I hold to a politically correct belief that everyone is equal. Furthermore, I think it's healthy for men to assert themselves confidently in their relationships with women.

So why don't I think men superior? The big issue, I think, is how we judge the quality of people. If we follow modernist ideas, and reject the existence of "transcendent" (i.e. really existing) goods, then the measure of man is power. I will be held to be superior if I prove my dominance by holding power over others. I can achieve dominant status through money, through a professional career and through political power.

If we accept this "proof" of superiority, then I cannot blame feminists for acting the way that they do. It's inevitable that some women will be too proud to accept an inferior status, particularly when they know that they have the ability to prove themselves dominant in careers, money and politics over many men.

It's a pity, though, if women accept such a proof of their own quality. It means that they are forced to compete to prove themselves on traditionally masculine terms; the more feminine side to life will inevitably be neglected.

Which leads to the question: what happens if we accept the existence of transcendent goods, as Western societies traditionally did? We then have an alternative way of judging the quality of people, namely according to how finely they embody some aspect of the good.

Looked at this way, there is a lot to admire in both men and women. Men, at their best, are loyal, courageous, persevering and good-humoured, and their dispassionate intellect serves them well in acting justly and in seeking knowledge. Women, at their best, are warm, vivacious, graceful, beautiful, empathetic, considerate and intuitive. Women, more than men, are often present in the moment for others.

So which constellation of goods is superior? The question makes little sense for two reasons. First, it's difficult to measure in any objective way whether the finer female qualities represent a higher good than the male qualities or vice versa. It might be possible to have a personal preference, but there's no obvious way to prove such a preference to be true.

More importantly, the question of superiority is misconceived because the male and female goods grow out of each other; therefore, if you think of the masculine qualities as being particularly fine, you must recognise that they wouldn't exist without the feminine qualities being strongly present (and vice versa).

If the women of a society no longer embody the higher feminine goods, then it's unlikely that men will be inspired to fully develop their masculine qualities. Similarly, femininity can only flourish when men are moved to create a protected space for it.

So it's not even so much a question of stating that men and women are equal, as this tends to miss the point of what determines our quality as men and women.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

A romantic feminism? Really?

This just doesn't fit my experience:

New research shows feminism and romance go hand-in-hand, with egalitarian men and women enjoying better intimate relationships than the new breed of young men and women who dismiss the pioneer movement as unfashionable.

So I tried to do a little research on the research. It wasn't easy as the academic paper hasn't been released to the general public. I can, though, suggest three reasons to doubt the findings.

The first concerns possible bias. The study was undertaken by a feminist academic, Laurie Rudman, and published in a feminist journal. Rudman had conducted previous research showing that women often shied away from feminism because they thought it harmed romantic relationships. This is the political context for Rudman's "makeover" of feminism; if women can be persuaded that feminism is good for romance, they will more readily embrace it. So are we dealing with "advocacy" research?

The second reason for doubt is that other research has reached different conclusions. For instance, I reported in April on a major study which found that women were, on average, happier in traditional, gender-based marriages, partly because such marriages were generally more "expressive" (the husbands put more "emotion work" into such relationships):

Men who are married to more traditional-minded women ... are more likely to devote themselves to spending quality time with their wives.

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

women's gender role liberalism ... [is] associated with lower levels of women's happiness with the affection and understanding they receive from their husbands.

Finally, it's not enough to look at individual relationships. There are no guarantees in individual relationships - it is, of course, true that there will be feminist partners with better relationships than many more traditional couples.

But what is the overall influence of feminism on society? Does feminism generally encourage stable, committed, romantic relationships between men and women?

I don't think so. I remember being at uni at the height of third-wave feminism in the mid-1990s. It was striking how little interaction there was between male and female students, let alone signs of affection. It was romantically cold.

It was noticeable too how popular music changed in the 1990s. The love ballad gave way to more aggressively sexual songs and music videos.

There was a change, too, from the older custom of dating, to one of more casual "hook ups". This was lamented just a couple of weeks ago by Andrea Burns in a Herald Sun column:

THE date is dead. Time of death? Some point between candlelit dinners and "you can come along if you want to".

But sadly the esteemed tradition of dating is a thing of the past ...

Try to lock in the average bloke for a date and you might as well try to pin down a shadow.

It's a shame because the perfect date is something many women fantasise about ...

If we are not careful we'll have spent the entire courting process boozed and wake up at 35 with a baby and some dude we picked up in a bar.

And what is the situation in Sweden, the home of feminism? A recent article on relationships there noted that Stockholm is the world's divorce capital; that marriage is becoming increasingly rare; and that the Swedish preference for IKEA style disposable consumer goods mirrors the easy, commitment free attitude to relationships.

So it will take more than Laurie Rudman's research paper to persuade me to change my mind on this issue. I remain sceptical that feminism is good for romance.

Monday, November 12, 2007

The worst of feminism

A popular feminist website carries this dark as night assessment of men, women and society:

all humans are conditioned to despise women. A woman ... can never be humanized. The American legal system, as a matter of fact, effectively outlaws humanity for women. It does this in many ways ... One of the most insidious is its assertion that women are in a perpetual state of 'consent' unless they specify in front of 147 witnesses that they have withdrawn it ... It is by this cunning method ... that the future of rape as the cornerstone of human social order is secured.

Rape is the dominant culture's most cherished method of controlling the female underclass, of moulding us into a self-replicating supply of fearful, impaired, coercible receptacles ... It is by popular demand that, decades after American women were first deemed "liberated", the countryside remains infested with unjailed rapists. These freely roaming rapists are patriarchy's enforcers.

One reader was moved to comment:

This idea that rapists belong in prison makes my head hurt. Damn near every dude on the planet is a rapist! As remarkable as the U.S. prison industrial complex may be, it is entirely unequipped to deal with the jailing of half this nation's denizens.

The solution to rape is not one that will ever be brought about under capitalism, as it involves the recognition of women as agentive, sentient humans. I don't expect this to happen during my lifetime, so I ... never go anywhere without a big knife in my pocket.

Where do such ideas come from? You might answer, reasonably, from unhappy souls. There's more to it, though. There is a progression of thought from mainstream liberalism to this kind of radical patriarchy theory.

It goes like this. Liberalism states that our humanity is contingent: that we are only fully human when we are self-determining, autonomous agents. Feminists then argue that women are less autonomous than men and are therefore treated as less than human. Leftist feminists then add another argument: the reason why women are less autonomous is not because of any natural differences between the sexes, but because a group of people ("men") have set up gender as a social construct to obtain a privilege over women.

This oppressive structuring of society is termed the "patriarchy". Those who believe in patriarchy theory view all social relations between men and women as serving male privilege. Therefore marriage, love, romance, sex, gender roles and sex identities are held to be oppressive to women. The more radical patriarchy theorists tend to be a glum lot: because they see women's oppression as systemic (as basic to the way society works), the only cure is a revolutionary overthrow of all social structures and the emergence of a hazily conceived non-patriarchal utopia.

The patriarchy theorists might have an unrealistic view of men and society, but they're grounded enough to know that such a radical transformation is a long shot. So they see themselves as doomed to a vulnerable existence as sub-human victims of a monstrous social system.

It's more likely that they are victims of their own belief system. It's not the "patriarchy" that they need to challenge, but the chain of political ideas I outlined above.

Do we really have to accept the idea that our humanity is contingent and not invested in who we are? Must we really accept the idea that it is autonomy alone, and not some wider set of qualities, which determines our humanity?

The liberal starting point ends badly: in feelings of loss of humanity; in assumptions of oppression and inequality; and, for some, in a rejection of love and relationships. What we need is a less ideological beginning, so that we don't become alienated from important goods in life.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

What are we defending?

Until recently, a section of the right was united around a "counterjihadi" cause. This unity has been shattered by Charles Johnson, the operator of the Little Green Footballs (LGF) site, who has accused his former European allies of being racists.

The rift has exposed something significant. Those on the right are not fighting to defend the same thing. There are some whose politics is bounded by their identification with political liberalism: they are fighting to defend a political creed. There are others who, even if they accept this creed, also wish to defend a particular tradition, culture, people or national existence.

Let's start with Johnson. He was a left-liberal until the terror attacks on the World Trade Centre. Like some others on the left, the terror attacks shook up his politics. He began to see Islam as a threat to his political values and he dismissed the left as being too unrealistic (too "idiotarian") to recognise this threat.

Hence the logo at Johnson's website which shows his little green footballs being hurled at a cowering hippy leftist and a Muslim jihadi "lizard".

If you understand why Johnson is against the left and against Muslim jihadists, it's easier to explain his unease with others on the right. He remains a purist liberal. He just believes that Islam and the left are a threat to what he values.

So when others on the right also transgress his liberalism, why wouldn't he make a fuss? In his own way, he is being consistent.

The problem is that it isn't difficult to transgress modernist liberalism. The idea of modernist liberalism is that we must be self-determining, autonomous agents in order to reach a full humanity. This means that everything which is "other" determined is a restriction on our freedom and on our human dignity from which we must be liberated.

Most of the important, sustaining aspects of life, though, are other determined. Therefore, liberalism ends up placing its own fatwahs on the very things which mean most to people - and all in the name of "freedom".

And so Johnson's European allies were found wanting. Most of them have attempted to be mainstream in their politics, and some even sound at times like mainstream right-liberals. However, it's true that most of the groups attacked by Johnson wish to limit immigration in order to preserve something outside of political liberalism, such as a people, culture or tradition.

It seems that this alone was too much of a transgression for Johnson to bear. He attacked the Europeans and embarked on an undignified hunt for evidence of unsavoury connections (he found a couple of Celtic crosses and some old photos).

Johnson is trying to delegitimise the Europeans - to have them placed beyond the pale. His campaign seems to be failing. In part, this is because some of those who agree with him politically still think an alliance is necessary. Partly it's because some key figures just don't believe that the Europeans are extreme in the way Johnson is claiming.

Some further reading:

Johnson's nemesis

Blogosphere bannings

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

How can it be both things?

Most readers will be aware of recent events at the University of Delaware. The 7000 students residing on campus were expected to attend diversity training based on the theory of "whiteness studies". The students were taught that all white Americans were, by definition, racists:

[a] racist is one who is both privileged and socialized on the basis of race by a white supremacist (racist) system. The term applies to all white people (i.e., people of European descent) living in the United States, regardless of class, gender, religion, culture or sexuality.

The training has been suspended for the time being. I thought it might be interesting, though, to read through the diversity training materials prepared by Dr Shakti Butler.

I've outlined previously the basic idea behind whiteness studies: that whiteness was invented to give some people an unearned privilege at the expense of oppressed people of colour.

Dr Butler's training materials hold faithfully to this idea for over ten pages. She defines race itself not in neutral terms but as "a specious classification of human beings created by Europeans (whites) ... for the purpose of establishing and maintaining privilege and power". She then gives us a potted history lesson intended to prove that:

a small group of colonial slave owners invented the "white race"

This is everything you'd expect from a whiteness theorist. What's surprising is the argument Dr Butler makes on the very next page. She supports her case with the research of Dr Frances Cress Welsing:

Dr Welsing analyzes the root causes of white supremacy. She demonstrates that the genes of white people are recessive compared to those of people of African descent. Thus, if whites and African-descended people mate and create children, the family tree will have more darker skin offspring.

Dr Welsing concludes that the virulence of white supremacy stems from white fear of genetic annihilation. In other words, if white/African sexual interrelationships become the norm rather than the statistical exception, in a few generations there will be no more white people. An historical analysis of the perverseness of white fear of intermarriage, from 1691 to the present, lends much credence to this perspective.

Dr Cress Welsing further asserts that white people keep this fear in their white closets. I agree.

Does Dr Butler not realise that she has contradicted her first, lengthy argument? We were supposed to believe that Europeans invented a fictitious category of race out of a lust for power and dominance. Now we are told that it is the biological reality of race which is the problem, and that Europeans are vulnerable because of recessive genes. Europeans have suddenly gone from inventing a fictitious category of race to hiding their unique problems of racial preservation.

How can you explain an academic advancing such irreconcilable arguments? Perhaps Dr Butler thought that adding on an argument with the aura of the physical sciences attached to it might bolster her case.

At any rate, it seems that Dr Butler doesn't really believe much of the guff that whiteness theorists rattle on with. The one idea that she really sticks to consistently is that of "white exceptionalism" - that whites are to be proved to be unique in acting against the proper norms held to by other groups.

This is weak ground for Dr Butler to occupy. What are we to make of the "anti-racism" of someone who picks out whites this way? Nor is it difficult to show that whites are not unique in the particular respects claimed by Dr Butler.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Is Gillard setting women up for conflict?

Julia Gillard, deputy leader of the Australian Labor Party, made this prediction back in August:

There will come a time when we women will be judged purely on achievements and strength of character rather than whether we ascribe to what are seen as feminine traits, fit a particular model of attractiveness for public life or have fruit in a fruit bowl.

This is an unfortunate way of putting things. It cuts women off from what is feminine in two ways. First, Gillard seems to deny that femininity is something irrevocably connected to womanhood. She states that women may or may not "ascribe" to feminine traits, as if femininity is something that can be picked up or discarded as a personal choice. Similarly, she doesn't simply speak of feminine traits, but of qualities "which are seen as feminine traits", as if to doubt their objective existence.

Worse, Gillard separates a woman's achievements and character from her femininity. The way she puts things you would think that femininity is not a substantive part of what it means to be a woman - that it isn't a core aspect of who a woman is and what she has to offer.

What is supposed to be cutting-edge feminism puts women in a difficult position. It makes what is distinctively female a negative, secondary quality.

Imagine having a female identity but seeing what is distinctively female as being inferior and in opposition to your life goals. Isn't this an unsuitable framework for a woman to live her life by?

Saturday, November 03, 2007

A leftist baulks at dangerous logic of whiteness studies

There is a dangerous logic to whiteness studies.

Whiteness theorists argue that racism is peculiar to whites. The sole purpose of whiteness, they claim, is to create a society in which whites benefit from an unearned privilege at the expense of people of colour.

As I pointed out in a recent article, this puts whites in a vulnerable position. The last thing you want, in a modern liberal society, is to be identified as the group preventing the final achievement of human equality:

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."

I'm not alone in recognising the dangerous logic of whiteness studies. It has been remarked on too by someone on the other side of politics, who is himself committed to a radically leftist anti-racism.

I'm referring to a radical activist by the name of Pete Spina. In an article published in March 2006 he establishes his leftist credentials as follows:

I am white (3rd generation Irish and Italian American) and am an active anti-fascist and anti-racist. I am an anarchist.

Spina complains that he is increasingly hearing from fellow radicals the idea that "the color of racism is white" - that racism is peculiar to a white identity and to the maintenance of white privilege.

He criticises the logic of this view. First, it means that racism isn't connected so much to "unequal or oppressive social dynamics" as this would mean that non-whites could also be racist. Since non-whites (supposedly) can't be racist, then unequal social dynamics can't be the defining cause of racism. Instead, the existence of "whiteness" has to be.

Spina then observes:

A contradiction arises: anti-racists confront racists and racism with the ultimate intent of ending racism. If racism is determined by whites, then the only solution to racism is a solution to whiteness. [my emphasis]

For Spina, this is a dangerous idea as there are those who hold to what he calls an "extrinsic view" of race who might target whites violently:

the Extrinsic argument says that whiteness is both a social and a biological construct, not simply a social one, therefore any solution to whiteness would have to include a biological "solution" to retain consistency in the Intrinsic view ... a scary thought that ranges from genocide to eugenics or forced/voluntary sterilization.

Spina even recognises the psychologically unhealthy effect that these kind of ideas have on the Western political class:

If there is no solution to racism other than self-destruction, then self-destruction (or self-righteousness) is all that is necessary. It creates a syndrome of disempowering, self-deprecating white guilt.

... the mindset that racism is due to whiteness alone allows white radicals to play the victim for a time. The new burden of the white radical becomes that of struggling bravely to overcome the oppressive force of white privilege within oneself in a way that dramatizes one's role as victim ...

The fetishization of victimhood, so ingrained in the political fabric of the oldline, and liberal left, has found a clever new way of working itself back into the collective unconsciousness of white radicals.

If Pete Spina can see this as a radical, then we should have some confidence that others too will recognise the defects (logical and moral) of whiteness studies.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

A false accusation finally laid to rest

Some readers might remember that back at the height of third wave feminism in the mid-90s, there was such a focus on men as oppressors and abusers of women, that some men were arrested after being accused of preposterous crimes by daughters undergoing "recovered memory therapy".

One of these cases hit the news last week, when the British National Health Service agreed to compensate a young woman, Katrina Fairlie, who had been subjected to the therapy.

Katrina had a good relationship with her father as a child:

He would take me and my sister for Sunday walks, and also used to take us skating, swimming and riding. As the youngest, I always felt very loved.

In 1994 she suffered abdominal pain, which wasn't cured by two operations. Doctors decided that the cause was psychological and she underwent psychiatric treatment at a Scottish hospital.

Like other patients who underwent recovered memory therapy she was given drugs (one patient of the therapy in Ohio was injected 141 times with sodium amytal):

I was on anti-depressants and sedatives, drugged up to the eyeballs, and I was mingling with schizophrenics and drug addicts. I quickly became overwhelmed with depression and was losing all sense of reality.

When a nurse suggested to her that she had been abused by her father she replied no, but the staff (the treatment lasted five months) continued to suggest that she had. She began to have hallucinations which she was told were genuine flashbacks.

These hallucinations were bizarre and incredible, but her carers were nonetheless pleased:

When I told them these things, it didn't seem to come as any surprise. It seemed to be the answer they were looking for.

What had Katrina "remembered"? She now had memories of her father murdering a six-year-old girl with an iron bar and of being raped not only by her father but by 17 other men, including two MPs she had never met.

The accusations were investigated by the police, but quickly dropped; however, the family was left in turmoil.

In 1996 Katrina checked herself out of hospital and reduced her drug dose. Soon after, her sense of reality returned:

one morning I just woke up and had this revelation. I thought: "This is all garbage" - and there was this enormous sense of release, and relief.

She was able to repair the relationship with her father:

The first time I saw my father after making the allegations, he was standing on the doorstep. He'd had pneumonia and looked so vulnerable, and I felt so guilty. All I wanted to do was cuddle him and make it all go away.

This story is a reminder of why we need to oppose exaggerated accounts of male violence against women, including accounts which blame men as an entire class for such violence. When the theme of "men as abusers of women" gets out of hand, we get a cultural climate in which men like Jim Fairlie can be unjustly accused and in which young, vulnerable women are harmed rather than helped.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

European babies are creepy?

Why would someone find a picture of a European baby creepy? Because they are conditioned to imagine a resemblance to .... see here.

Confused Danish radicals

There is a group in Europe called SIOE (Stop the Islamisation of Europe). A few days ago a disgusting attack took place on a few Danish members of the group, the details of which have been reported here.

It appears that the thugs who carried out the assaults are "autonomists". Autonomism is a current of radical left-wing thought in Europe, embraced by both anarchists and some Marxists. The theory involved is described in wikipedia as follows:

Some of the most discussed issues in autonomous groups are the questions of self-determination, self-organisation and militancy ... In the understanding of the autonomists it is not ultimately possible to be autonomous (independent in the sense of being self-determined). Every person lives in a web of dependence, which is normal for a social creature. The main emphasis is on the question of how far these dependencies are other-determined or self-determined, the struggle being to live wherever possible without being other-determined ... The "triple oppression" (racism, sexism and class) belongs to the theoretical foundations of the autonomists ...

Reading this, I can't help but think that the autonomists are deeply confused. They have set themselves up as radicals and revolutionaries, but their ideals are the same as those of the establishment. They are followers of liberal autonomy theory, just like John Howard, Kevin Rudd and any other mainstream politician you care to mention. When the autonomists declare themselves to be in favour of voluntary social associations, rather than inherited or unchosen ones based on race, class or sex, they sound little different from your average Australian Liberal Party MP.

It is confused, too, for autonomists to support the growing influence of Islam in Europe. Do they really expect self-determination and autonomy to flourish in an Islamic Europe? The word Islam means submission, and it forms, as Omar Bakri Muhammed puts it:

a complete way of life that could not yield to any other way. “Islam is a complete system of living, the Sharia system. Islam has political beliefs — it cannot co-exist with another political belief.”

To underline this point, there has been a split in the German autonomist movement: one faction since 2001 has become critical of Islamic fundamentalism and suicide attacks - which is the more logically consistent position for an "autonomist" group to take.

So the Danes who were violently attacked ran into the wrong group of autonomists - those who, unlike some of the Germans, haven't figured out that Islam is incompatible with their own political beliefs.

In the meantime there have been more riots in European cities: in Amsterdam (see here and here) and in Brussels.

Friday, October 26, 2007

What about conservative preference?

If liberalism is based on the idea that we should be equally free to satisfy our preferences, then liberalism has a major problem. Many of us have conservative preferences. If liberalism is to be true to its basic principle, then it ought to establish a society in which we conservatives can have our preferences realised.

So how do liberals cope with this problem? I have observed at least two distinct "solutions". The first is to deny the legitimacy of conservative preference. At times this is done (relatively) gently, by claiming that conservative preference is based on fear or ignorance. Often, though, the process is a fierce one, in which conservative preference is attacked as a form of hatred or dominance.

The point to be made about this first response is that the ferocity of attack makes sense under the terms of liberal theory. It's not enough for liberals to state that they don't like or that they oppose conservative preference. They would still be obliged, in this scenario, to recognise the equal value of conservative life choices and to make possible the realisation of conservatism in society.

The strategy has to go further: it has to be to place conservative preference outside the normal, acceptable bounds of society.

There is another option available to liberals. This is simply to deny that conservative preference can't be satisfied in a modern liberal society.

Consider the response of Marc Ramsay to philosopher John Gray. Gray had made a seemingly obvious point, that there are limits to choice in liberal societies, as pre-liberal values and ways of life become unavailable:

[l]iberal societies tend to drive out non-liberal forms of life, to ghettoize or marginalize them, or trivialize them. [Liberalism] passes over the commonplace truth that, even if pre-liberal virtues linger on in liberal societies, they do so as shadows of their former selves, incompletely realized in those who exhibit them. This commonplace is, after all, only an application of the pluralist insight that the virtues are not all combinable--not, at least, without some loss to them; and that many genuine goods depend upon specific social structures, some of them illiberal and uncombinable with liberal societies, as their matrices.

What Gray takes to be commonplace, and what seems obvious to me, is dismissed by Marc Ramsay curtly as follows:

[Gray] does not sufficiently justify the claim that liberal societies cannot adequately capture or maintain the pursuit of so-called pre-liberal virtues.

If the depth of denial is astonishing, it needs to be remembered that liberal theory is based not on the idea that liberals should triumph over others, but that there should be an equal freedom to satisfy our preferences. So there are theoretical reasons for liberals like Marc Ramsay to resist to the end the reality that some important sets of preferences (values, ways of life) cannot be satisfied in a liberal society.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Retailing your country

Gerry Harvey is the Australian billionaire retailer who runs the Harvey Norman computer and furniture stores. A few days ago he called for a two-tier wage system in Australia, one for locals and another for a new breed of low-paid foreign guest workers.

How did he justify such a measure? He couldn't argue that high wages were harming the economy, as the economy has been doing well. So he argued instead that prosperity itself was the problem, as it has led to labour shortages. According to Mr Harvey, there are countless people overseas who would happily move to Australia to work here at half-pay.

The logic of this position is less than impeccable. If there are people willing to move here to work at half-pay to fill labour shortages, they would presumably be even more willing to work here at full-pay. In other words, you don't need a two-tier wage system to overcome labour shortages.

Nor, as Mr Harvey has already admitted, do you need low pay to keep the economy going. The economy is doing well with current wage rates.

So there's no necessity for a two-tier wage system. It's probable that Mr Harvey is pushing the idea simply because he likes the prospect of a mass of low-paid foreign workers; perhaps he thinks he can use them as cheap labour in his stores.

It's interesting that Mr Harvey endorses the situation in the US, in which illegal arrivals from Mexico make up a cheap labour force. I've been reading a series of posts from Face Right, which cover some of the social fallout from exactly this policy:

LA: The Reconquista gets ugly

More prosecutions in the SoCal race wars

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Strange Norwegian kindergartens

A respected kindergarten teacher in Norway, backed by child psychologists, believes that toddlers should be encouraged to dance naked, masturbate and play sex games in preschools.

Why would she believe such things? I have to speculate here, not being able to read the original documents in Norwegian, but I expect there is an intellectual lineage running back to psychological theorists like Wilhelm Reich.

Reich lived in Norway in the 1930s. Although some of his ideas aroused popular hostility there, forcing him to relocate to the US, his students carried on his work:

Reich was a substantial influence in Norwegian psychology and sexology ... Ola Raknes, one of Reich’s most prominent Norwegian proponents, did extensive research on the results of the socialization of sexuality in childhood. Raknes was able to identify many adult sexual problems that were related to the repression of the natural sexual urge in childhood.

This is how Wikipedia describes Reich's theories:

Reich agreed with Freud that sexual development was the origin of mental disorder. They both believed that most psychological states were dictated by unconscious processes; that infant sexuality develops early but is repressed, and that this has important consequences for mental health. At that time a Marxist, Reich argued that the source of sexual repression was bourgeois morality and the socio-economic structures that produced it. As sexual repression was the cause of the neuroses, the best cure would be to have an active, guilt-free sex life.

Our Norwegian kindergarten teacher is therefore a bit dated in her views: she is regurgitating theories which have been around for several generations. She is replaying a scene first from the 1930s and then from the 1970s:

Thore Langfeldt, a pioneer in the field of sexology in Norway, began ... his groundbreaking research with children. During the 1970s, he supervised several students, Jens Skaar, Bjørn Helge Gundersen, and Per Steinar Melås, in their task of collecting information from parents and nursery staff about the sexual behavior observed among children. The findings, published in Hverdag, caused a public protest against the invasion of the pristine world of children by lewd professionals.

How can you explain the Reichian view? You could try to explain it in terms of Reich's personal life. Reich's mother committed suicide after an affair with his tutor; his shattered father followed suit not long after. Reich had a particular reason, therefore, to focus on the effects of sexual guilt.

Why, though, would Reich's views take hold amongst other members of the intelligentsia? I expect a full answer would have to consider the following:

a) Reich was proposing an all-encompassing, unified, scientific explanation for the existence of problems in the individual and society. Modernists hunger for this kind of theory.

b) Reich's ideas fit well with liberal autonomy theory: the view that the overriding good is a self-determination in which there are no impediments to our will. Sexual morality limits what we can choose and therefore comes to be thought of negatively as a restriction on individual autonomy from which individuals are to be liberated.

c) If you are an intellectual in a state of rancour against your society and civilisation, subverting sexual mores might be thought of as an effective blow against the existing order.

As for the Norwegians, they need to get over the 1930s. Reich is generally thought of now as a mad scientist (he apparently claimed to have done battle with alien spaceships). There must be more fitting approaches to child psychology than the ideological one he represents.

Friday, October 19, 2007

How does a liberal decide on prostitution?

Dr Leslie Cannold has thought a great deal about prostitution. She believes that she has arrived at a reasonable, compromise position on the issue, which is that brothels should be legal and regulated, but that outdoor street work is intolerable.

The truly interesting thing is how she arrives at this conclusion. For her, it's not a question of whether prostitution in itself is good or bad. This simply isn't part of the process of moral reasoning. What matters for her is the question of "agency". If a women has made an uncoerced choice to become a prostitute, then prostitution must be approved (as long as it doesn't impact on the "freedom" of the wider community).

So the debate is framed oddly around a single question: can women make an uncoerced choice to become a prostitute? Dr Cannold chides those who believe that the answer is always no, as this denies women the possibility of "agency":

most offensive is the way in which the argument itself victimises sex-sellers by denying their experience and stripping them of their agency

What is needed instead is:

A position where sex-sellers are moral agents worthy of respect

So how does Dr Cannold then justify restricting the "agency" of those women who prefer to work the streets? She argues first that street work impacts on the wider community:

when the consequences of the selling choice restricts the capacity of the fellow citizens to exercise their freedoms, the state is obligated to restrict their activity

Second, street prostitutes are coerced in their choices:

A focus on autonomous choice also justifies state intervention where sex workers lack the capacity - because they are too young, mentally ill, sexually or physically abused or drug addicted, to make choices about selling sex.

So we get this conclusion:

This is why allowing brothels to operate in a regulated fashion is a good idea, but street sex work can never be tolerated. Not just because a disproportionate number of street prostitutes are too young, too drug-addicted ... to make an autonomous choice to sell themselves, but because the cost to the community of their behaviour, even if theirs is a choice worthy of the name, is far too high.

Dr Cannold is basing her approach on liberal autonomy theory, which is the idea that the overriding good is our status as self-determining agents.

The theory doesn't exactly work in a "clear and distinct" way. Dr Cannold begins by criticising those who believe that prostitutes are coerced in their choices. She claims that this doesn't respect agency and is obnoxiously paternalistic and an imposition of one person's view on another.

However, she herself then uses the "coerced choices" argument to declare street prostitution to be intolerable. Furthermore, she tells us that in order to make prostitution in general uncoerced a community would have to offer:

sex-sellers opportunities to exit, such as income support, places in drug rehabilitation programs and police intervention in violent relationships at regular intervals at their 'workplaces' and each time they have contact with the law.

Then there's this sentence:

Autonomous adult women have a right to sell provided they go about it in ways that don't unfairly burden the community of which they are a part, though as a community we have a positive obligation to ensure that at every stage of what is a potentially violent, exploitative and coercive game, a woman's freedom to say "no" is protected.

So the community is obligated to provide a burdensome protection to prostitutes' agency, even though prostitutes are obligated not to be a burden to the community, and even though prostitution has been morally justified on the basis that it is an uncoerced choice.

These, though, are minor criticisms. The real problem is that Dr Cannold assumes liberal autonomy theory to be true. In effect, the most important parts of her argument remain unstated and unexamined.