Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Liberalism & power

Catherine Deveny went to a wedding expo and found the imagery "terrifying". Her complaint is that in wedding photos:

The traditional bride is never powerful or sexy.

Not powerful? Most people wouldn't expect power to be uppermost in people's minds at a wedding. It's not uncommon, though, for liberals to reduce relationships between people to issues of power.

Here we have a feminist named Janet discussing how she mothers her son:

I want him to understand that women are powerful, not to be trifled with ... I try to find programs and books that have girls and boys as agents of action and power ...

So her son is supposed to admire women because they are powerful? And he himself is supposed to aim to be an agent of power? Is that really it?

I can think of two reasons for this focus on power. First, if liberals believe that autonomy is the highest good, the good which defines our humanity, then what matters is that I have the power to enact my own will. If being powerful defines my participation in the "human", then it's good manners and respectful to recognise other people's power and vitally important to assert my own.

Second, liberals are generally "anti-essentialist" in their philosophy. They usually reject the idea that there are "essences" to things which define their real nature. So something like marriage won't be thought of as having an essential nature of its own which we might orient ourselves toward in our behaviour or attitudes. If there are no real essences, then we are left with a world in which human will competes to create meaning - a "made up" world in which nothing expresses its own truth but is rather an expression of the power of will.

Not being a liberal, I don't believe autonomy to be the defining quality of my humanity, nor do I reject essences. So I'm not limited, in what I would wish for my son, to an advocacy of power.

I hope that my son will retain throughout his life a sense of integrity; that he will develop in character; and that he will be strongly natured in his appreciation of women, in his connection to nature, in his love of ancestry and tradition, in his responsiveness to art and music, and in his identity as a man.

I hope too that he will find a genuinely lovely woman to marry, that he will be blessed with children and that he will be a wise and loving husband and father.

If he is the kind of man to use power for the benefit of his community, then I hope he has it, but I would not wish him to have a life that is powerful, but empty and alienated.


  1. Women are "powerful" and "not to be trifled with"? All women? What a bizarre lesson to attempt to impart on a young boy. And what will she teach her daughter about men? Certainly not that they are not to be trifled with. I feel genuinely sorry for these people.

  2. 1. Catherine Deveny wallows in self-pity because no man with half a brain would go anywhere near, let alone marry, that nasty piece of work.

    2. That Janet feminazi should be charged with child abuse.

  3. I agree with the contents of this post, but I take exception to your use of the word 'liberal'.

    Real liberals, that is to say classical liberals, are more likely to agree with you than the anti-essentialist, autonomist "social" liberals.

  4. "Women are "powerful" and "not to be trifled with"? All women? What a bizarre lesson to attempt to impart on a young boy. And what will she teach her daughter about men? Certainly not that they are not to be trifled with. I feel genuinely sorry for these people."

    I don't.

    I feel sorry for the boy.

    What is being done to him is child abuse, plain and simple.

    Anybody up for a nice hot cup of "stolen generation"?

  5. "The traditional bride is never powerful", says someone who has obviously never been involved in the planning of a wedding.

    "or sexy", don't know about sexy, but on no other day are they more beautiful.

    john's 1. is likely correct. I pity her.

    anonymous (whichever anonymous you are), you are correct, but nowadays "liberal" doesn't usually refer to the classical type.

  6. I just had another look at that article... I can't get over the very title:

    Wedding Consumer Heaven Unveils New Layer of Hell

    Jesus... I mean, can you even believe that? This was actually published!

  7. Anonymous (20/02 3:25),

    I agree with you that my post best describes a trend within left-liberalism (or, as you put it, "social liberalism"). It is left-liberals who most commonly reduce social phenomena to issues of power.

    However, I disagree that classical liberalism did not emphasise autonomy. In the 1800s, the logic of having autonomy as an overriding aim might not have been pursued as far as it has been today, but it was there pushing things in the modern direction.

    I've just been reading an encyclopedia entry, "Autonomy in Moral and Political Philosophy". This article traces the fundamental status of autonomy in Western political thought back to the Englightenment (i.e. 1700s). I would actually put its roots back even earlier, at least to Hobbes and Locke.

    In the entry it states that individual autonomy:

    "is a central value in the Kantian tradition of moral philosophy but it is also given fundamental status in John Stuart Mill's version of utilitarian liberalism".

  8. Further on Mill and nineteenth century liberalism. From a review of a Mill biography:

    "Capaldi thinks that if you were to read all of Mill's writings ... you would realize that there is a unifying aim. In all of his work, J.S. Mill tried to promote the idea of autonomy."

    So liberal autonomy theory reaches back into the heyday of classical liberalism.

  9. Well, these are the people that wsaid "The personal is political" and interjected themselves in the most private of human relationships: those within a family.

    If the bride is viewed as powerful does that mean her son should view power struggles as natural part of a healthy marriage? What a sad, troubled home that would be.

  10. The traditional bride is never powerful or sexy.


    Why would either bride or groom need to look powerful? Maybe it's just me, but the grooms don't necessarily look "powerful" to me. Indeed, should they? They do look masculine - and often handsome (amazing what good clothes can do for us ordinary-looking folk!) And the brides often look beautiful.

    And sexy?? What the hell does she expect? Pole dancing?

    I would have thought there was enough "instinct of sex" at a *wedding* for crying out loud! (What does she think they'll be doing on their honeymoon? Playing euchre?)

    Bugger me, but these feminazis are stark raving mad!

  11. WPC:

    "The traditional bride is never powerful", says someone who has obviously never been involved in the planning of a wedding.


    *So* true!

  12. "... I try to find programs and books that have girls and boys as agents of action and power ..."

    So apparently we must prepare our children for an amoral life of soulless competition. Wouldn't the development of principles and character be a pre-requisite to this approach? If the kids are grounded in these and in the *essence* of things then action and power can be utilized properly. But to assert their primacy front and center is inexcusably ignorant.

    Did someone mention feminism already? All human relations are a game of power if you have forsaken faith in your fellow man and in all tradition. The question is not When will feminism-liberalism run out of gas but What will our societies look like when it happens?

  13. Catherine Deveney guys is a satirist-and upsets you reactionaries brilliantly but is incredibly compassionate in her world view. I'm sure most Melbournes looney right would feel much more comfortable with the Bolta's rants in that intellectual powerhouse known as the Herald Sun.

  14. Actually the article was pretty funny - let's face it, marriages are important but people are over the top about the wedding day. She was quite right about that. The hoopla associated with wedding ceremonies is absurd.

    Having said that, nothing in her article makes me think she has a "compassionate world view" and her concept of a powerful, sexy bride is just absurd.

  15. pdev

    "compassionate in her world view". What the hell does that even mean?

    Sounds like another candidate for wank word bingo to me.

    But you shouldn't waste your time with intellectual minnows like us. Go talk with your peers about how stupid Bush is because he thinks Mandela is dead.

  16. "Further on Mill and nineteenth century liberalism."

    You correctly identify the first major philosopher of "positive" liberalism as Kant. His theory of freedom/autonomy, which was articulated more strongly by Hegel but in a more collectivist sense, rests on the idea that freedom is exercised through collective reason and self-actualization. In other words, freedom is something bestowed upon people by rational government.

    Through this sleight of hand, all collectivists, right or left, have since have been able to use the rhetoric of freedom without attracting contradiction.

    J.S. Mill, like all 'negative' liberals, believed that the capacity for practical reason is a necessary precondition of political liberty. But he did not use this to justify collectivism. He used it to justify limiting the freedoms of insane, young and 'primitive' people.

    Therefore, Mill should not be lumped in with the autonomists, who are almost exclusively continental with the exception of a small coterie of anglo-amateurs.

    P.S. I have used the positive, negative dichotomy of Isaiah Berlin. I am the original anon of post 3.