Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Feminist proof that men owned women?

In a debate on gay marriage a feminist using the name "Min of Billinudgel" decided to throw in some patriarchy theory. She claimed that until recent times marriage was based on property rights for men:

Example: a man’s goods and chat(t)els - hence the reason that widows were until recently described as chatelaines. That is, the wife and the kids were/are defined as ‘moveable property’.

Min's idea is that widows were called chatelaines, that chatelaine derives from the word chattel, and that this proves that women were/are treated in marriage as men's property.

The proper response to these kind of feminist arguments is scepticism. A little research usually proves them false.

So what is the origin of the word chatelaine? It is part of a pair: a chatelain is the male keeper of a castle, a chatelaine the female mistress of a castle (or country house). So Min's argument can't work, as the word was applied in a similar way to both men and women.

Widows were sometimes called chatelaines, but in a literary sense of a woman who found herself running a country house, e.g. "Mrs Gareth, widowed chatelaine of Poynton, is fighting to keep her house with its priceless objets d'art ..."

Why would Min want to believe that women existed as male property? It fits patriarchy theory: the belief that autonomy makes us human, that men have autonomy at the expense of women, that women are therefore not treated as fully and equally human, and that this is due to men organising society to oppress and dominate women.

It's a dismal theory in that it assumes the worst about society: that past generations of women have not had a fully human existence, that men have acted in bad faith toward women, and that institutions like marriage are based not on heterosexual love or an ideal of family life but on issues of power and gender conflict.

Min made one other contribution to the debate. Someone had suggested that if gay marriage were to be permitted because it had become socially acceptable, then so too might polygamy or incest one day gain social acceptance and therefore have to be made legal. Min replied:

The reason that a number of sexual practices are not acceptable, such as incest is because there is the element that one of the partners to the relationship would be a victim of coercion.

Likewise with polygamy. While some people might be quite happy within a polygamous relationship, there are a number of examples especially in fundamentalist religions of younger members being coerced into becoming junior wives and therefore subordinate to the senior wife - and especially the coercion element, that is in spite of the girl’s own wishes.

Obviously, very obviously the same rule of law would apply to same sex marriages - that a marriage is null and void should there be an element of coercion prior to entering into the marriage.

Min is apparently a modernist when it comes to morality. She believes that everything is moral if it is freely chosen. Therefore, the only way to legitimately oppose a practice like polygamy is to argue that it is coerced in some way.

It's not an approach that is likely to maintain any existing standard: a polygamist would merely need to display the free consent of his wives to have his marriage endorsed as moral. Min's approach to morality would not only lead to an acceptance of gay marriage, but to nearly any conceivable kind of marriage.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Trials of a feminist daughter

Rebecca Walker was brought up by an American feminist icon, Alice Walker. Rebecca, though, does not share her mother's feminism and for obvious reasons.

Modernity makes individual autonomy the key good in life. Feminism insists that women receive an equal measure of autonomy. Where, though, does this leave motherhood? If you believe, above all, in "independence" - in being able to follow your own will in any direction - then motherhood will be thought of as an impediment.

And so it was in the Walker household. Rebecca was brought up to think that having children was the ultimate form of servitude, and Alice put motherhood low down in her priorities.

Rebecca found it impossible to adopt her mother's feminism: as a child she yearned for a more traditional mother and she found it difficult later in life to suppress her own maternal instincts. When she finally had a child of her own, and found it such a rewarding experience, the break with her mother's feminism was complete.

Here is Rebecca West's criticism of feminism in her own words:

The other day I was vacuuming when my son came bounding into the room. 'Mummy, Mummy, let me help,' he cried. His little hands were grabbing me around the knees and his huge brown eyes were looking up at me. I was overwhelmed by a huge surge of happiness ...

It reminds me of just how blessed I am. The truth is that I very nearly missed out on becoming a mother - thanks to being brought up by a rabid feminist who thought motherhood was about the worst thing that could happen to a woman.

You see, my mum taught me that children enslave women. I grew up believing that children are millstones around your neck, and the idea that motherhood can make you blissfully happy is a complete fairytale.

In fact, having a child has been the most rewarding experience of my life. Far from 'enslaving' me, three-and-a-half-year-old Tenzin has opened my world. My only regret is that I discovered the joys of motherhood so late - I have been trying for a second child for two years, but so far with no luck.

I was raised to believe that women need men like a fish needs a bicycle. But I strongly feel children need two parents and the thought of raising Tenzin without my partner, Glen, 52, would be terrifying.

As the child of divorced parents, I know only too well the painful consequences of being brought up in those circumstances. Feminism has much to answer for denigrating men and encouraging women to seek independence whatever the cost to their families.

My mother's feminist principles coloured every aspect of my life. As a little girl, I wasn't even allowed to play with dolls or stuffed toys in case they brought out a maternal instinct. It was drummed into me that being a mother, raising children and running a home were a form of slavery. Having a career, travelling the world and being independent were what really mattered according to her.

... I came very low down in her priorities - after work, political integrity, self-fulfilment, friendships, spiritual life, fame and travel.

My mother would always do what she wanted - for example taking off to Greece for two months in the summer, leaving me with relatives when I was a teenager. Is that independent, or just plain selfish?

... the truth was I was very lonely and, with my mother's knowledge, started having sex at 13. I guess it was a relief for my mother as it meant I was less demanding. And she felt that being sexually active was empowering for me because it meant I was in control of my body.

Now I simply cannot understand how she could have been so permissive ... A good mother is attentive, sets boundaries and makes the world safe for her child. But my mother did none of those things ...

As a child, I was terribly confused, because while I was being fed a strong feminist message, I actually yearned for a traditional mother. My father's second wife, Judy, was a loving, maternal homemaker with five children she doted on ...

When I hit my 20s and first felt a longing to be a mother, I was totally confused. I could feel my biological clock ticking, but I felt if I listened to it, I would be betraying my mother and all she had taught me.

I tried to push it to the back of my mind, but over the next ten years the longing became more intense ...

I know many women are shocked by my views. They expect the daughter of Alice Walker to deliver a very different message. Yes, feminism has undoubtedly given women opportunities ... But what about the problems it's caused for my contemporaries?

... there is the issue of not having children. Even now, I meet women in their 30s who are ambivalent about having a family. They say things like: 'I'd like a child. If it happens, it happens.' I tell them: 'Go home and get on with it because your window of opportunity is very small.' As I know only too well.

Then I meet women in their 40s who are devastated because they spent two decades working on a PhD or becoming a partner in a law firm, and they missed out on having a family. Thanks to the feminist movement, they discounted their biological clocks. They've missed the opportunity and they're bereft.

Feminism has betrayed an entire generation of women into childlessness. It is devastating.

But far from taking responsibility for any of this, the leaders of the women's movement close ranks against anyone who dares to question them - as I have learned to my cost. I don't want to hurt my mother, but I cannot stay silent. I believe feminism is an experiment, and all experiments need to be assessed on their results. Then, when you see huge mistakes have been made, you need to make alterations.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

A throwback policy?

It seems likely that the Rudd Labor Government will introduce a guest worker scheme, bringing South Pacific Islanders to Australia to harvest crops.

(This is, oddly enough, a step back to the 1860s when kanaka labour was brought to Queensland to work on the sugar and cotton plantations.)

There is some resistance by the unions to the proposal. The national secretary of the CFMEU has warned that the guest woker scheme could lead to the "Mexicanisation" of the country's job market:

The large movement of guest workers from the Asia-Pacific to our small labour market would have profound effects on the ability of governments or unions to uphold standards.

Former union boss Doug Cameron has also come out in opposition to the proposal:

Overseas - in the UK, the US, Europe and in Asia - problems with migration schemes are there and we can't just sweep it under the carpet.

However, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) has approved a guest worker scheme on the basis that it would increase "labour market mobility". The Australian Workers Union has also given "in-principle support".

It's interesting to find the ACTU basing its policy on extending "labour market mobility". It wasn't that long ago that leaders of the ACTU could be found singing the Internationale; now they are echoing the free market ethos of the employer organisations.

We shouldn't be too surprised by this. A lot of union leaders today have little connection to the working-class. Bill Shorten, head of the Australian Workers Union before his recent election to Parliament, and one of the key supporters of the guest worker policy, is an alumni of Xavier College, the most prestigious Catholic school in Melbourne.

The Rudd Government seems to have committed itself to the guest worker policy, despite considerable opposition to the scheme from a number of well-informed sources. The guest worker option has been questioned not only by the unionists cited above but also by:

- The Australian Farm Institute
- The Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs
- Authors of the Australian Government's White Paper on the Overseas Aid Programme (2006)
- Emeritus Professor Helen Hughes
- Sandy Cuthbertson, Centre for International Economics, and Rodney Cole, ANU, in their research into population growth in the South Pacific Islands

I would suggest that those wanting to familiarise themselves with the arguments read the parliamentary research report prepared in 2006. Before I begin quoting sections of the report I'll briefly list the arguments it cites against guest worker schemes:

- they encourage inefficiency and backwardness in the rural sector
- they are a spur to illegal immigration
- they are expensive to administer
- they have failed overseas
- they distort the development of third world nations
- they make rural work unattractive to local workers
- they exploit immigrant labour
- they are likely to create welfare dependent ghettoes in Australian cities
- other developing nations will expect to join in

I can't quote every relevant section of the report. One interesting item of information, though, is that a survey of farmers showed that only one in ten thought that labour shortages were preventing the expansion of their business. In other words, 90% of farmers are confident that they already have enough labour not only for current needs but also to expand further.

The Australian Farm Institute undertook research into a guest worker scheme, but didn't endorse the option for these reasons:

A recent Australian Farm Institute study of farm demography examined but stopped short of recommending a guest-worker scheme to alleviate seasonal farm-worker shortages in the short term.

It suggested that such a program would need to be heavily regulated and monitored to prevent exploitation of the workers involved, and could lead to dependency on such labour on the part of otherwise unproductive growers. The agricultural labour force more broadly has increasingly required skilled workers to operate the high-tech (and expensive) farm machinery used in the production of crops such as grains, cotton or sugar, or, for example, to generate and interpret crop production data and manage genetic improvement in livestock herds. Referring to the farm sector labour force generally, the AFI study found that the Australian farm sector is not competitive in attracting labour. Low remuneration, poor conditions and lack of professional development or career structures were leading to labour shortages, especially in the horticultural industry.

The AFI study argued that in the medium to long-term the problems of the farm sector can only be met by a concerted effort to ‘professionalise’ the farm labour force. Farming is now a knowledge-based industry. The report concluded that:

"... over the medium to longer-term, a substantial shift will need to occur in how farmers manage the rural workforce. The focus on keeping rural wages low will need to change, and a greater focus will need to be placed on ‘professionalising’ the rural workforce by developing training and career structures.

"Farmers will need to recognise that in order to successfully produce the quality of outputs that are demanded by consumers in higher-value markets, a skilled and motivated workforce is essential."

The section of the parliamentarly report summarising the views of the Department of Immigration runs as follows:

The Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, in submissions to parliamentary inquiries, has consistently warned that there are serious risks associated with a Pacific guest-worker program. They argue that similar guest-worker programs would be sought by other countries and possibly other groups of employers. There would be significant problems of compliance. Pacific Islanders have high visa overstay rates. (The country with the highest visa overstay rate in 2004–05 was Kiribati.) A guest-worker scheme would increase these overstay (and illegal work and social security fraud) rates. It could lead to stigmatisation of Pacific Island communities in Australia, and a backlash against the migration program.

The department argues further that the level of management and extent of controls necessary to ensure employer and employee compliance with program conditions, and to safeguard seasonal workers from exploitation, would render such a scheme prohibitively expensive: the costs could outweigh the benefits. It points out that expectations regarding financial benefits for individual guest workers and the level of remittances sent home could be unrealistic, once costs of living and taxes in Australia are taken into account. (Temporary residents are taxed at a flat rate of 29 per cent.)

I'll finish by quoting the problems identified by the report with guest worker programmes overseas:

Debate about guest-worker schemes in Europe is coloured by the failure of earlier experiences; Germany’s ‘Gastarbeiter’ program is often cited as the archetypal guest-worker failure ... The program ‘failed’ because the guest workers who were supposed to leave stayed. After the program was abruptly ended with changed economic conditions in 1973, immigration continued as the ‘guest workers’ were joined by their families, and later by asylum seekers.

... A study published in July 2003 by the UK Trades Union Congress claimed there were up to 2.6 million migrant workers in Britain who were under the control of ‘gang-masters’ and unregulated recruiters. It claimed that farmers were unable to make the distinction between ‘legals’ and ‘illegals’; that many couldn’t afford to pay wages above welfare levels, and that people were evading taxes and being exploited. It made the point that while there was a system in place to recruit seasonal guest workers from Eastern Europe, there was no infrastructure to recruit people from East Anglia or Essex.

The USA ... As in Europe, debate about guest workers is coloured by the failure of an earlier program, the ‘Bracero’ program. This ran from 1942 to 1964, and admitted mainly agricultural workers from Mexico. It was accompanied by massive illegal immigration, and followed by even more massive illegal immigration ... According to Mark Krikorian of the Centre for Immigration Research in Washington:

"... As immigration has increased, native-born low-skilled workers (those most directly affected by foreign-labor programs) are increasingly dropping out of the labor force, and the tendency seems most pronounced among teenagers.

"... guest-worker programs just can’t work even on their own terms. Every guest-worker program - everywhere - has failed. In every instance, they lead to large-scale permanent settlement, they spur parallel flows of illegal immigration, and they distort the development of the industries in which the foreign workers are concentrated."

Canada ... As in the US agricultural sector, the ready access to low-skilled cheap foreign labour provided through CSAWP has been criticised as downgrading productivity and competitiveness in the sector over the longer term, as employers are able to avoid innovation and investment in new technology. Another criticism is that the Canadian guest-worker program, with its many layers of administration, would be so expensive that the costs to government would outweigh any economic benefits to the nation as a whole. Canadian taxpayers are thus subsidising employers’ use of cheap labour.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Network dinner a success

This year has been a good one so far for the Australian Traditionalist Conservative Network (ATCN). There has been a steady growth in the network over the last five months. On Wednesday night Melbourne members of the network got together for a social evening at a restaurant in Carlton. It was an enjoyable night out with some interesting and relaxed political conversation. I'd like to thank those who attended; if you missed out there'll be further opportunities later in the year.

(If you're not part of the network but are interested in finding out more there's a link in the sidebar.)

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The revolutionary family heads West?

Here is someone else who thought of the family in technological terms. In 1932 Leon Trotsky defended the changes to family life made in revolutionary Russia:

The revolution made a heroic effort to destroy the so-called “family hearth” - that archaic, stuffy and stagnant institution in which the woman of the toiling classes performs galley labor from childhood to death. The place of the family as a shut-in petty enterprise was to be occupied, according to the plans, by a finished system of social care and accommodation: maternity houses, creches, kindergartens, schools, social dining rooms, social laundries, first-aid stations, hospitals, sanatoria, athletic organizations, moving-picture theaters, etc. The complete absorption of the housekeeping functions of the family by institutions of the socialist society, uniting all generations in solidarity and mutual aid, was to bring to woman, and thereby to the loving couple, a real liberation from the thousand-year-old fetters.

There is a familiar reference to autonomy theory at the end of this passage. If you believe that autonomy is the key good, then politics will be aimed at "liberating" (or freeing or emancipating) the individual from the "fetters" (impediments, prisons, restrictions) of unchosen, external commitments.

More striking, though, is Trotsky's technological vision of an alternative family. He speaks of the traditional family as a "shut-in petty enterprise" to be replaced "according to the plans" by a "finished system of social care".

What might appear to someone else as an attractively private and intimate realm of human life, becomes to the technological mind a "shut-in petty enterprise" to be prised open, made subject to technocratic planning and enlarged through socialisation.

It's no use casually dismissing Trotsky's views. His revolution has become our revolution. The measures advocated by Trotsky for the family have been increasingly implemented in the Western democracies.

So has Trotsky been vindicated? Perhaps not. Trotsky wanted two things. First, he wanted to maximise individual autonomy, which meant "liberating" individuals from parental authority and from moral codes and making divorce easy. Second, he wanted to subject relationships instead to a kind of scientistic reason in which relationships could only be ordered by "naturalistic" concerns such as physical and psychological health.

What Trotsky expected was that when relationships were subject only to naturalistic concerns that society would move closer to the ideal of life-long monogamous relationships:

A long and permanent marriage, based on mutual love and cooperation — that is the ideal standard. To this the influences of the school, of literature, and of public opinion in the Soviets tend. Freed from the chains of police and clergy, later also from those of economic necessity, the tie between man and woman will find its own way, determined by physiology, psychology, and care for the welfare of the race.

Well, the tie between man and woman hasn't found its own way toward "a long and permanent marriage, based on mutual love and cooperation". Instead, the closer that the West has moved toward a Trotsky type family, the greater has been the disruption to family life: delayed family formation, lower fertility rates, increased levels of divorce and so on. The scientistic appeal to "physiology, psychology, and the care for the welfare of the race" hasn't proved to be strong enough to defend the family.

One final point. There is a tension between Trotsky's two aims of autonomy and scientism. Autonomy is meant to bring individuals a greater level of freedom and independence. However, subjecting people to a "finished system" which is "planned" by state bureaucrats doesn't have the ring of personal freedom to it - particularly not when compared to the traditional family, which, for all its faults, was independent of centralised control and more deeply and immediately expressive of the social and emotional natures of men and women.

Hat tip: the Trotsky quote was supplied by Mild Colonial Boy.

Australian readers: Have you considered joining the Australian Traditionalist Conservative Network? It's a good time to consider adding your name to the network; we're having a particularly good year so far. More details here.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The family is not a technology

If a mother is to spend time with her new born child she needs to be materially provided for. How does a society arrange this? Traditionally, the husband worked to provide for his family. Now it is assumed that the mother should be provided for by a centralised system of maternity benefits.

Why the change? Up to now, I've focused my answer on liberal autonomy theory. This theory holds that autonomy is the overriding good, that paid work is the key to autonomy and that women should therefore gain maternity leave through their labour force participation.

Does this really explain why we are shifting to a system of centralised, bureaucratic maternity leave? The strength of this analysis is that it is how maternity leave is argued for in the documents. If you read the reports on maternity leave, it is usually argued for on the grounds of female autonomy and labour force participation.

However, there's probably more to it. There was an article in the Melbourne Herald Sun yesterday which reported that certain mothers' groups want all women, including those at home, to be paid maternity leave by the Government:

MOTHERS' groups and women's organisations have called for paid maternity leave for all women, even those not in paid employment at the time of pregnancy.

The Women's Action Alliance, speaking yesterday at the Productivity Commission's inquiry into paid maternity and parental leave, said maternity leave should be inclusive and funded by government.

Lisa Brick, national secretary of the WAA, said current maternity leave schemes excluded many women, including mothers at home, casual and contracted workers, unemployed and recently employed women, and those who were self-employed.

She said some models for maternity leave were too tied to the workplace and meant women often felt compelled to return before they were ready.

"We often wonder why there is this focus on getting mothers back to work when the youth employment rate is still around 15 per cent," Ms Brick said ...

The WAA said maternity leave could be initially funded by combining the baby bonus and Family Tax Benefit B, which spread over the course of a year would work out to around $318 per fortnight.

Ms Brick said an early return to work hampered women's ability to breastfeed exclusively for the first six months -- a view backed by the Australian Breastfeeding Association, who spoke at the inquiry later in the day.

ABA president Margaret Grove said government-funded maternity leave for all women, not just those in paid work, would help the duration of breastfeeding.

"We would like six months' paid maternity leave, government-paid, for all women. It would be for everybody, as the baby bonus is currently for everybody," she said.

So even those organisations which don't tie motherhood to the workplace immediately assume that mothers should be provided for through a centralised, bureaucratic scheme run by the state. Even more noteworthy is the fact that the traditional means of supporting mothers, the one that has been around for millennia, is not even argued against - it simply doesn't seem to register as an option in people's minds. During the entire maternity leave debate in this country I'm not aware of a single public figure who has suggested that husbands might work to support their wives.

What might explain this? The American traditionalist Jim Kalb recently published an interesting document in which he explains the origins of a modern technological mindset. Kalb argues that the view of reason adopted by the West is too limited:

The modern understanding of reason is radically defective, because it takes a fragment of reason, scientific reason, and treats it as the whole.

The Western view of reason, scientism, is based on a sceptical view of what can be known, with the purpose of knowledge being limited to what in practice gives power to achieve an end:

On the scientistic view, we can know only the things that modern natural science knows: things that can be observed and measured by any trained observer who follows the appropriate procedures, and things that are connected to observations by a theory that makes predictions and so can be tested, and is as simple, mathematical, and consistent with other accepted theories as possible. Since those are the only things we know, those are the only things we can treat as real.

Anything beyond that is not knowledge at all. It’s opinion or feeling or taste or prejudice. It doesn’t relate to anything real. Knowledge of the good and beautiful is not knowledge. Contemplation is not knowledge. Knowledge is experimental and oriented toward control ...

The result of this scientistic view of reason is a technologically-ordered world, in which the methods of the modern natural sciences are applied to political, social and moral affairs. The aim is to supply the satisfaction of wants according to a clear, efficient, universal system administered by experts.

You can see how the traditional, family-based method of providing for a mother fails to fit into such an outlook. It is not an application of science or technology to a social question to generate an identifiable and testable "policy", but a decentralised, non-expert method of provision based on qualities difficult to measure, standardise or control, such as instincts and emotions.

The strength of Kalb's analysis is that explains why the traditional practice, as significant as it is, fails to register in terms of public debate. People don't feel comfortable defending it in policy terms because even the pro-family people think something else is expected when discussing social issues.

It's another case of conservatives being too compliant with the settings of a liberal society. If we agree to those settings we will always lose. The terms of policy debate might be rendered technocratic by the modern Western understanding of reason, but that doesn't mean that conservatives should fall in line and limit debate to what appears acceptably technocratic.

We distinguish ourselves best when we state: the family is not a technology. It is an intensely human institution, in its nature not reducible to technocratic control. We should allow the natural, interconnected forms of family relationships to flourish, and be willing to defend them even in the setting of a technologically-ordered world.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Marriage: an oppressive human right?

Is marriage a good thing or a bad thing? Progressive thought doesn't seem to provide a consistent answer to this question.

On the one hand, patriarchy theory tells us that marriage is an institution designed to uphold the privilege of men as a class over women. It is therefore a key institution enforcing the sexist oppression of women.

So you might think that progressives would hold marriage to be a bad thing. However, progressive thought also holds that if gays are not allowed to marry they suffer a major loss of human rights. If gays can't marry, the argument goes, they are being excluded from a vital human institution - which then makes marriage sound like a good thing.

So we end up with a mixed message about marriage. But what would happen if a progressive was forced to confront this inconsistency?

The Rev. Elder Nori J. Rost, a pastor at a community church in Colorado Springs, has written an article discussing the issue. She begins by claiming that marriage was created as an instrument of the patriarchy:

As basically the only means of survival for women, marriage was clearly a restrictive yoke placed on them that assured the continued domination by men in society.

This was still the case at the time of the Reformation:

... marriage was still not about love ... This in itself served to continue to control the bodies of women, but the other implication was that marriage was still primarily a contractual agreement about the current property of the bride and future property of any offspring.

It was only in the mid-1800s, claims Rev. Rost, that love started to have anything to do with marriage. Nonetheless, even today marriage is an oppressive institution:

when heterosexual couples marry, they participate in a patriarchal system that has, at its foundation, control and subjugation of women and children. Moreover, they continue to enforce the perception of marriage as normative and healthy and alternative arrangements as suspect and inferior.

The Rev. Rost then asks what really motivates opposition to gay marriage. She believes that the right opposes gay marriage because it threatens the patriarchal order in three ways.

First, it would help to destroy gender roles:

Two men or two women who choose to share their lives together ... will have to figure out their unique roles ... those roles can be created without the underlying assumption of what the man's role and the woman's role is to be.

Second, it would promote the idea that sex is for pleasure not procreation:

The only purpose of sexual intimacy in gay and lesbian relationships is that of pleasure. I believe this is fearful for the right-wing element to contemplate ...

Third, gay marriage would weaken the wider structure of society:

If, however, we legitimize those relationships by sanctioning same-sex marriage the right-wing people unconsciously fear that such blatant disregard for patriarchal norms will seep over into the heterosexual community like a virus, challenging other old ways of being. In other words, perhaps the conservatives are right: same sex-marriage does threaten the fabric of society.

So to this point we have learned that the Rev. Rost believes that marriage is oppressive and that the right fears gay marriage because it represents a threat to the social order.

Does she therefore support gay marriage? At first, the answer seems to be no. After describing the ills of marriage she complains:

Yet it is this somewhat scurrilous goal that many gays and lesbians are now vociferously seeking.

You might think, having described marriage as a "scurrilous goal" that she would advise gays to stay well clear of it. Yet her final word on the matter is not so straightforward:

Which brings me to the unasked question: Should gays and lesbians be seeking marriage rights at all? ... Is marriage, in its current form with its nebulous history, the prize we should all be eying?

Clearly, there is no easy answer. Early on I was tempted to say that the struggle for marriage is one that is a fruitless waste of our energy and resources. However, I am now more inclined to see it as a step in the right direction ...

While in many ways I think we are climbing the ladder of same sex marriage only to find it is propped against the wrong wall, I also recognize that it is the ladder we seem to be facing. At the end of the day, there is much more to be done ...

Perhaps the means in which marriage is disentangled from the entitlements is by the allowing of same sex marriage and the affront to the patriarchal norms that are so entrenched in the current institution of marriage. Marriage needs to be de-constructed so it becomes iconic of "just" love ...

Her answer is confused and hesitant, but she seems to think that marriage, despite being a bad thing, should still be sought by gays because it will be undone by gay marriage and replaced by a more "just" form of love.

I won't launch at this point into a criticism of the Rev. Rost's patriarchy theory (though I would not want to be defending her claim that love was not an important aspect of marriage prior to 1850). My purpose in this article has been to show the difficulty in the progressive position on marriage: marriage is treated as both an oppressive and unnatural patriarchal construct as well as an important human right from which no-one should be excluded.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Can we make it up?

The late Pamela Bone wrote an article some years ago summing up her life beliefs. In the final paragraph she tells us:

I don't know the meaning of life. I believe it has the meaning we give to it.

Pamela Bone was an independent-minded feminist who didn't always endorse the latest left-wing position. The above quote, though, shows her to be an orthodox liberal modern in terms of her basic life philosophy.

She is assuming that there is nothing to reality (or nothing that can be known) which represents a significant good in life which might anchor our life's meaning. In the absence of a meaning grounded in reality, it is left up to us as individuals to create a meaning.

Little wonder that those who hold this view believe that autonomy is such a key principle: if it's true that we each create our own meaning then we must be left to do this unimpeded and we must give equal respect to what each creates as their meaning as none can be more objectively true than others.

Isn't there, though, a basic problem with all this? If my life can only have the meaning I make up for it then it is meaningless. The whole project is therefore misconceived. Either there is a meaning to life which transcends individual will or we must set aside the whole question of meaning. One or the other.

Which leads me to happiness studies. A researcher in this field, Arthur Brooks, has recently found that conservatives are happier, by a large margin, than liberals:

In 2004 Americans who called themselves “conservative” or “very conservative” were nearly twice as likely to tell pollsters they were “very happy” as those who considered themselves “liberal” or “very liberal” (44% versus 25%).

Why might this be? It's not because conservatives are wealthier (they're not) and not because there was a Republican President in 2004 (conservatives were also happier than liberals when Bill Clinton was President).

Statistically three factors appear to be important, namely marriage, children and church:

Mr Brooks thinks three factors are important. Conservatives are twice as likely as liberals to be married and twice as likely to attend church every week. Married, religious people are more likely than secular singles to be happy. They are also more likely to have children, which makes Mr Brooks confident that the next generation will be at least as happy as the current one.

When religious and political differences are combined, the results are striking. Secular liberals are as likely to say they are “not too happy” as to say they are very happy (22% to 22%). Religious conservatives are ten times more likely to report being very happy than not too happy (50% to 5%). Religious liberals are about as happy as secular conservatives.

So conservatives are more likely to find an externally grounded life meaning outside of autonomous will: in a commitment to marriage, to parenthood and to church.

Brooks makes clear in explaining his findings that marriage and parenthood aren't of benefit because they bring comfort or pleasure, but because they contribute in the long term to a sense of life meaning. I was reminded when reading this of the complaint of Australian journalist Virginia Haussegger that feminism had left her with "a nice caffe-latte kind of life" but that "the lifestyle trappings are joyless ... and the point of it all seems, well, pointless ... I am childless and I am angry."

I was reminded too of what D.H. Lawrence wrote on this issue; he believed that the autonomy of unimpeded will undercut a purpose in life and therefore was not experienced as a true freedom:

Men are free when they are in a living homeland, not when they are straying and breaking away. Men are free when they are obeying some deep, inward voice of religious belief ... Men are free when they belong to a living, organic, believing community, active in fulfilling some unfulfilled, perhaps unrealized purpose ...

Men are not free when they are doing just what they like. The moment you can do just what you like, there is nothing you care about doing. Men are only free when they are doing what the deepest self likes.

Hat tip: reader George for the happiness studies article.