Monday, June 30, 2008

Why would feminists switch voices?

I've had a brief response from the Hoyden about Town feminists, Lauredhel and Tigtog. If you remember, Lauredhel had advocated lesbian separatism as a reasonable "survival strategy" for women:

I don’t see what’s inherently irrational about positing lesbian separatism as being one possible survival strategy in this world.

Similarly, she admitted to cheering on the "radfem separatism" of a group of young American girls who, it was reported, had made a pact to become single mothers:

I agree that I felt a little radical cheer when I heard of their plans to support each other. And I think this is exactly what the mainstream finds threatening about it. Women supporting each other, raising families, deliberately and clearly saying “We can do it”? Nothing like a hint of something that might look a little like radfem separatism to get the Patriarchy frothing at the mouth.

Tigtog also approved of single motherhood for these girls, all of whom were under the age of 16:

This is a model that could actually work really well for these girls.

The Hoyden feminists noticed my posts and responded briefly as follows:’s definitely an overweening matriarchal conspiracy and it’s got Ozcon Mark really worried!

19 tigtog
Jun 25th, 2008 at 7:18 am
I saw reference to that, Helen. But after all, he’s worried about the family-destroying ideologies of two feminist bloggers who are actually happily and productively cohabiting with the fathers of their respective children, because we happen to believe that there are other equally valid family models for raising children. I suspect he spends much of his time worried about overweening shadows.

21 Lauredhel
Jun 25th, 2008 at 11:04 am
I suspect he spends much of his time worried about overweening shadows.

“Hey! Who turned out the lights?”

This is a real switch of voice for the Hoyden feminists. One minute they're cheering on the cause of radical feminist separatism, the next they're taking a "Who us?" position and claiming that I am imagining hostility on the part of feminists toward the family.

Tigtog makes two points in support of her claim. The first is that both she and Lauredhel are happily living together with the fathers of their children. The two feminist women, in other words, are championing the cause of radfem separatism for other women, whilst living in a relatively traditional family arrangement themselves.

Isn't there some kind of warning in this for young women reading Hoyden about Town? Isn't there a message here that the feminists at Hoyden are preaching one thing, whilst choosing another for themselves?

The second point Tigtog makes is that I'm overreacting to the fact that she and Lauredhel "happen to believe that there are other equally valid family models for raising children."

The "other equally valid family model" she is talking about is single motherhood for young teens.

Now it's one thing to accept that teen pregnancies will happen and that the best has to be made of the situation. It's another to claim that it's an "equally valid family model".

How can single motherhood for young teens be equally valid when the mother is left without a husband and the child without a father? Or when the mother has to be supported by the taxpayer? Or when the father is left without the same motivation for work or social responsibility? Or when the child will later have a statistically higher risk of involvement in crime or drug use?

And if single motherhood for young teens is equally valid, then how do you ever draw the line in rejecting something as invalid? How do you, for instance, reject polygamy? I wasn't exactly surprised to find that Lauredhel supported the call by several Australian Islamic officials to legalise polygamy, on the basis that it would help protect the rights of women already living in polygamous relationships.

It's difficult to disentangle all the threads here. We have a case of two feminist women living happily with the fathers of their children who claim that they only want to recognise other relationships as equally valid, but who at their website are strident in their opposition to the traditional family, seeing it as a product of the patriarchy.

(Lauredhel in one recent post describes marriage as a "problem" and writes that "abolishing the concept of marriage or domestic partnership" sounds "superficially attractive" to her.)

So what's going on? One way to explain the feminist attitude is to see it as a consequence of the "neutrality strand" within liberalism. The basic idea of the neutrality strand is that the way to achieve peace, security and harmony is to take a neutral stance toward important goods. Therefore, adopting a neutral stance is thought to be a mark of high principle; from this comes an insistence on non-discrimination, tolerance and equality.

The way to prove your neutrality is to endorse and point to the virtues of "othered" ways of life, particularly those most dissimilar to your own. Perhaps this explains, in part, two happily partnered women describing the "advantages" of single motherhood for young teens.

It's possible, too, to explain the situation in terms of the "autonomy" strand within liberalism. If you want to be free to choose in any direction, then you will want reality to be open-ended - you will want to have a situation in which a whole range of models of family life are "equally valid".

At the same time you will be most hostile to the longstanding, socially sanctioned, mainstream model of family life, as this is the one you will feel is less a product of individual choice or negotiation, and more a result of tradition or custom or social expectation.

The situation is made worse if you accept the claim of patriarchy theory, namely that the institutions of society were established to buttress the dominance of men over an oppressed class of women. This casts a pall of suspicion on the traditional model of family life, as being formed to oppress women.

If somewhat different influences are at play, then the "switching" attitude of the Hoyden feminists is more easily comprehended. The neutrality strand means that they don't like to be labelled as being biased against the existing model of family life or to be thought of as harming the existing model; it also encourages them to prove their neutrality by identifying advantages in models of family life dissimilar to their own.

The autonomy strand explains the willingness to declare an unsustainable form of family to be "equally valid" - there is a need for reality to be open-ended in order for autonomy to be perfectible.

The hostility to marriage and the traditional family, even though it contradicts the claim to be unbiased, can be explained both in terms of autonomy theory (not wanting to be constrained by tradition or social expectation) and patriarchy theory (in which the traditional family is regarded as an institution designed to oppress women).

Friday, June 27, 2008

The weirdness of the American idea?

How do American Jews form their identity? David Samuels believes there is a tension in the process. He thinks that most American Jews still have a traditional view of identity: that it is tied to an historic, ongoing ethnic tradition. The mainstream American identity, though, he takes to be modernist: it is based on relinquishing the past in order to be a self-made, future oriented individualist.

Samuels writes that there is a creative tension in trying to reconcile the two aspects of American Jewish identity; in maintaining the traditional and ethnic, whilst identifying with a mainstream identity in which heritage has been dissolved.

Samuels' argument has its strengths and weaknesses. The strong point is that Samuels has captured the point of transition between a traditional understanding of identity and the liberal modernist one.

In the past, communal identity was based largely on ethnicity: on membership of a shared ethnic tradition, which might involve a common ancestry, religion, language, culture, history and so on.

This kind of identity, though, was undermined by liberal modernism. In part, this is because liberalism has taken individual autonomy to be the highest good. Ethnicity is not something that is self-determined: it is inherited and not chosen by us as individuals. It therefore stands in conflict with autonomy theory.

As a result, liberal moderns have either treated ethnicity as a trap or prison from which the individual must be liberated, or else they have thought of ethnic identity as something that individuals might construct for themselves as part of a personal narrative (which ignores or denies the real, historic, objective basis of ethnicity).

Samuels doesn't connect the modern view of identity to liberalism. He sees it as a peculiarly Christian thing. This has one positive outcome: it means that he, as a Jew, feels sufficiently distant from the "Christian" mainstream identity to express his doubts about it. But there's a negative consequence too of seeing modernism as a peculiarly Christian affair: Samuels doesn't seem to be aware of just how deeply he himself as a Jew is influenced by liberal modernist assumptions about autonomy and identity.

Here is Samuels on the difficulty of combining a traditional and modern understanding of identity:

If Americans are self-made people who embrace an imagined future in order to escape the burdens of the past, American Jews seek to have their cake and eat it too by embracing the future-oriented American idea without relinquishing their historically bound identity as Jews. While I don't think that the American and the Jewish identity principles are always necessarily opposed, I do think that keeping both ideas in one's head at one time can be the source of a tremendous amount of creative tension.

It is also inherently deceptive, in the sense that one is quite often signaling to others that one has agreed to dissolve one's particular heritage and historically bound point of view into a common Christian-inflected, highly individualistic and alienating, yet incredibly productive future-oriented social whole that most American Jews view with a high degree of distance and skepticism. The only real parallel for the ungracious refusal of large numbers of American Jews to buy into the full weirdness and wonder and scariness of the American idea is the experience and behavior of blacks ...

Note the terms in which Samuels describes the mainstream identity: the aim is to be "self-made" (i.e. self-created or self-determined), which then makes the past not a positive source of identity but a "burden" (an impediment, a restriction). This is identity seen in terms of liberal autonomy theory.

And how does Samuels, raised within a more traditional ethnic identity, portray the mainstream, liberal identity? He is not altogether complimentary: although he describes the mainstream identity as being incredibly productive, he also thinks that it is weird, scary, alienating and individualistic. He believes that most American Jews view it with "a high degree of distance and scepticism".

Samuels has written a story based on the life of James Hogue, a con man who lied his way into Princeton. Samuels draws on liberal autonomy theory when linking Hogue to the mainstream American identity:

... I see James Hogue as a representative American who embodied the abstract logic of self-invention and being born-again, and took those ideas to an uncomfortable extreme. One purpose of my text is to create sympathy for Hogue's victims without denying Hogue his actual achievements or reducing his personal autonomy and the strangeness of his choices to a bunch of symptoms for which Prozac or some newfangled anti-psychotic pill might be usefully described.

Similarly Barack Obama is described this way:

I see him as a representative American - a self-made man, part con artist, part performer, living in an imaginary future that will make him and his audience whole.

Samuels is enough of a liberal modernist to reject the ethnic nationalism on which Israel is based. In correspondence with an Israeli Jew he writes:

The other reason this conversation scares you is that you are an Israeli, meaning that you are a product of a nineteenth century ideology that believes that blood, soil and language must be unified in order to form a healthy, unified self ... Israelis can't help but believe ... that the mark of being a healthy Jew is to be a member of a free nation living in its own land.

Here is Samuels arguing that American Jews don't follow the modernist line consistently - again because they don't follow the principle of autonomy:

Why do they (Jews) insist on converting their goyish wives or children's children to their religion instead of simply letting them choose to be whoever they want to be?

And some more on the difference between the liberal American mainstream identity and the more conservative Jewish one:

Americans believe, very deeply, in the value and necessity of abolishing the past and living in the future. Americans believe that each individual has the capacity for finding God's grace within him or herself, and can only find it by being born again --- independent of family history and ties. While you don't have to be a Christian to accept historically peculiar American ideas about the individual, the past and the future, it is hard to ignore the fact that these ideas are Christian in their history and, I would argue, in their essence.

The stories Jews tell ourselves are different. We tell ourselves stories about our unbroken connection to a common set of tribal ancestors to whom all Jews are connected by blood. We tell ourselves about the unbroken chain of interpretation that connects today's Torah sages to the medieval commentators to the sages of the Gemarra and Mishna to the revelation given to Moses on Har Sinai. We tell ourselves stories about our survival as a people through thousands of years of exile and persecution in which we still claim to be able to see the hand of God.


The ways that Jews see the individual and his or her place in the world contradicts core American beliefs about abolishing the past, living in the future, and making yourself up from scratch. Sometimes we acknowledge this contradiction to ourselves, and sometimes we pretend that we think and see the world the same way as everyone else.

But how does Samuels reconcile all this? He is clearly deeply influenced by liberal autonomy theory. Does he then reject his own Jewish ethnic identity as a "burden" to be cast aside?

He doesn't. He finds a way to preserve it within the terms of autonomy theory:

I am Jewish, not because I think things are rosy, but because I chose to be Jewish, because I feel lucky to carry the historical weight of 3500 years of contradiction and argument and exile, and because there is something irreducibly slippery and human and contemporary about having to be two or more things at the same time.

So his Jewish identity is legitimate because he chose it, and because it is complex, multiple and fluid - and therefore something difficult and challenging for the individual to negotiate (which preserves the idea that it's something the individual is constructing for himself, or at least participating in the construction of).

This might seem like a useful "out" - a way to stay Jewish whilst still holding to liberal orthodoxy. The problem is, though, that it doesn't provide a strong basis in the long run for a Jewish identity. Is it just a matter of an arbitrary individual choice? And why not find a complex identity to negotiate somewhere else? I just can't see generations of Jewish kids opting in for the reasons outlined by Samuels.

Liberal autonomy theory played a major role in undermining the mainstream heritage; it is likely to do the same if adopted elsewhere, no matter how cleverly Samuels attempts to fit his own ethnic identity within it.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Capturing generational disillusionment

The best review I've read of the movie Sex and the City comes from an unlikely source: the Melbourne Age.

The reviewer, Julie Szego, was once a fan of the TV series:

... the show represented a parallel universe of sorts ... for my group of 20-something girlfriends. Carrie Bradshaw and her cohorts spoke to professional women who fancied themselves as sassy, powerful and poised to uncover the ultimate truth in their quest for love.

But the lifestyle pursued by these women didn't yield all that it was supposed to:

... the show tapped into the Zeitgeist of young women reaping the rewards of the sexual and feminist revolutions, but dancing around their fears that all this freedom wasn't yielding any lasting rewards ... in truth, these girls weren't really having fun.

The movie carries on where the TV series left off:

Relationships remain fragile or out of reach, families complicated by separation, divorce or problems with reproduction, the future very much a whatever-will-be-will-be proposition.

For Julie Szego this is all too familiar terrain:

A stocktake of my girlfriends 10 years on suggests many of their stories are still unfolding; they are yet to partner, or have partnered just in the nick of time and are crossing fingers with hope, or they're grappling with the joys and challenges of blended families, or they're quietly mourning as careers, or dreams of parenthood, slip away.

Reading Julie Szego's review, you understand why feminism is currently in one of its down phases. A generation of women, who thought they were on the cusp of radical liberation, have instead experienced a radical disruption to family formation. There is a sense of sadness and fatalism in the way Julie Szego writes about the situation.

It's a pity that Julie Szego doesn't develop her idea that the feminist and sexual revolutions, with "all their freedom", hadn't yielded "any lasting rewards". It seems highly relevant to ask why not.

What was wrong with the feminist concept of freedom? Is freedom the only good to be conserved? Why didn't 30-something professional women meet better husband material? What did 30-something women do to undermine their own chances in love and marriage? What do these disillusioned women now owe a younger cohort of females?

Monday, June 23, 2008

The best of both worlds

Is the aim of my life to be autonomous? Is this what makes me free? If so, there must be no significant aspect of my life which I cannot choose for myself.

This is a problem when it comes to ethnicity. Ethnicity appears to be inherited as a tradition rather than being self-determined. Therefore, if I want to be autonomous I have to either "liberate" myself from the "prison" of ethnicity; or else I have to think of ethnicity as being something that I myself might construct - as something individual and subjective, a "personal narrative".

But is ethnicity really experienced by individuals as something negative, as an impediment to freedom? And is it really experienced as a self-constructed narrative, rather than as a real, objective tradition?

If the answer to both questions is yes, then how do we explain the case of Nirpal Dhaliwal. He is a man of Indian descent raised in Great Britain. He stayed away from India for many years due to its economic backwardness. But now that it is more economically advanced, he believes he can enjoy there both the modern lifestyle trappings as well as the sense of ethnic attachment:

So many Indians like me, born and raised in the West, are returning, wanting to reconnect with their motherland as much as seek their fortunes ...

It is now a society where we can be as modern and cosmopolitan as we want while immersing ourselves in its ancient culture.

India wields an irresistible ancestral pull - and is now the place where we can most truly be ourselves.

If autonomy theory were right, then Dhaliwal would experience India's ancient culture and ancestral pull as an oppression. He would feel burdened. Instead, Dhaliwal feels most true to himself when connected to his ethnic homeland.

Then there is the case of Melbourne artist Michael Peck. In a recent newspaper article, Peck explained the inspiration for his paintings:

Peck said he wanted his work to convey the experience of refugees and migrants trying to fit into a new culture.

"The figures in my paintings are there, but they always seem out of place ..."

Peck began exploring the idea after a difficult year in London. While there he taught art to underprivileged migrant children and found many were "lost" because they lacked a connection to their cultural roots ...

"Most of my work focuses on the idea of cultural displacement or dislocation, the concept of identity and how our identity is formed ..." (Diamond Valley Leader, June 18, 2008)

Again, if autonomy theory were right, then refugees ought not to feel lost at all, but unburdened. They should either experience a liberation from their cultural roots, or else control the process in terms of their personal narrative.

Instead, we are told that the refugees feel disconnected, lost and out of place.

Shouldn't then the aim be to enable people, as far as possible, to continue to enjoy a connection to their own ethnic tradition?

This requires a rethink of autonomy theory. It doesn't work to make autonomy an overriding principle in life; this doesn't bring either freedom or authenticity, but rather loss and displacement. A better option would be to think of autonomy as one good in life, to be balanced intelligently with other goods.

Friday, June 20, 2008

A model that could actually work really well?

The small town of Gloucester in Boston is in the news. A group of girls at the local high school made a pact to get pregnant and raise their children together. Seventeen girls are pregnant at the school, all of them under the age of sixteen. The fathers, one of them a homeless man, are in their mid-20s.

It has been suggested that the school has gone too far in accepting teen pregnancies:

The high school has done perhaps too good a job of embracing young mothers ... teen parents are encouraged to take their children to a free on-site day-care center. Strollers mingle seamlessly in school hallways among cheerleaders and junior ROTC.

But what about feminists? What attitude are they likely to take? Will they blame older men for having sex with underage girls?

Well, our own Australian feminists appear to approve of the situation. At Hoyden about Town, the feminist writer Tigtog claims that the girls are smart to take advantage of the "support structure" provided by the school and by each other and concludes:

This is a model that could actually work really well for these girls.

Lauredhel added in the comments:

I agree that I felt a little radical cheer when I heard of their plans to support each other. And I think this is exactly what the mainstream finds threatening about it. Women supporting each other, raising families, deliberately and clearly saying “We can do it”? Nothing like a hint of something that might look a little like radfem separatism to get the Patriarchy frothing at the mouth.

Beppie found this silver lining to the story:

The radical aspect of this is ... that they are planning to actually support each other– to create non-traditional family units.

Mary Tracy has the following high hopes:

I hope the girls form a commune and grow up to be badass radical feminists.

It's odd. These feminists spend a lot of time trying to pin the rape label on the average male. Here is one case where a group of men really have committed statutory rape ... and the feminists cheer.

The HaT feminists are very keen to see the destruction of the traditional family. So much so that they are heartened by some very young girls getting pregnant to older men and relying on their high school, instead of a husband, for support.

If you see society, as patriarchy theorists do, as being a contest for power and autonomy between a dominant male class and an oppressed female class, then you won't warm to the idea of a traditional family. You will want women to remain autonomous of men, which means being supported by social welfare rather than by a husband or, as an even more radical option, you will prefer women to live apart from men.

Separatism might involve a commitment to fatherless families; it might extend all the way to support for lesbian communes.

And what of the Gloucester girls? Have they really found, in teen pregnancy and single motherhood, a "model that could actually work very well".

Not according to Barack Obama. He has observed the effect of fatherless families on black communities in the US and he believes that it represents not progress but social breakdown:

BARACK Obama has demanded fathers, especially black men, shoulder their responsibility to heal broken families and restore hope in crime-ridden communities.

... The senator amplified one of his campaign themes in condemning absent fathers who have "abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men''.

"You and I know how true this is in the African-American community,'' Senator Obama said, recapping government statistics showing more than half of all black children live in single-parent households.

Such children are five times more likely to live in poverty and commit crime, nine times more likely to drop out of school and 20 times more likely to end up in prison, he said.

"And the foundations of our community are weaker because of it,'' said Senator Obama ...

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Redefining the minimum

What are the economic consequences of having hundreds of thousands of international students in Australia? According to a report in The Age, minimum wage rates are not being respected:

NEARLY 60% of international students in Victoria could be receiving below minimum wage rates, a study by Monash and Melbourne university academics has revealed.

Interviews with 200 international students drawn from nine universities across Victoria revealed that up to 58.1% of students surveyed were paid below $15 an hour, with 33.9% receiving less than $10 an hour.

Does this have an effect on the working conditions of the wider labour force? The researchers found the answer to be yes:

The influx of international students working outside industrial relations controls adversely affects overall conditions in the workforce.

And is the Rudd Labor Government concerned by a workforce numbering in the hundreds of thousands working below minimum wage rates? Apparently not:

"The Rudd Government has shown no sign of recognising this as an issue," Professor Nyland said.

(For those interested in immigration related matters there is a new Australian website here.)

Friday, June 13, 2008

Should women be warned?

Hoyden about Town is arguably the most prominent Australian feminist site. It carried a story recently about a spate of attacks on young women in Cairns. The Cairns police have warned young women not to get drunk and wander off alone with men they've just met:

Some victims of sex crimes were so drunk they could not remember what had happened.

"During investigations, it has become apparent that many of the victims have been under the influence of alcohol or other intoxicating substance at the time of the offence and do not recall the act itself or the circumstances surrounding their complaint ..."

A feminist writer at Hoyden, Lauredhel, took this as an example of police blaming the victim. It seems that Lauredhel and several other comment writers at Hoyden don't want women to be warned about risky behaviour.

I wrote a comment at Hoyden gently suggesting that the police were being responsible in warning young women of the dangers they faced. I was told to get lost.

Then the Hoydenites opened up a little on what lay behind their feelings on the issue. Lauredhel started the ball rolling when she announced that it was a case of "institutionalised victim blaming". She thinks the problem exists at an institutional level. Then a commenter, Jodie, claimed the police were "ignoring the real problem of rape". Beppie then added that a woman was more vulnerable at home than passed out drunk with a stranger. Tigtog listed dating men as also being more dangerous.

At this point the influence of patriarchy theory was becoming increasingly clear. Patriarchy theory claims that the institutions of society exist so that men can enjoy an unearned privilege as an oppressor class at the expense of victimised women. According to patriarchy theory, violence and rape exist to enforce the dominant male power in society.

If you believe in patriarchy theory, then you're more likely to think that the police force, as an institution in a patriarchal society, might somehow act to enable rape by blaming the victim. You might also prefer to think that rape was relatively common within society and that it was associated with men dominating women in relationships.

It's a depressing scenario, isn't it? Imagine being a woman and believing that rape was a prevalent form of social control by men over women, one enabled by the institutions of society.

Which brings me to the comment of QoT, who announced in disgust that she was ready to start advocating radical lesbian separatism. Lauredhel replied:

QoT, I don’t see what’s inherently irrational about positing lesbian separatism as being one possible survival strategy in this world.

And so we get to the logical end point of feminist patriarchy theory. Nor is it the first time we've been there; when I was first at uni in the mid-80s there were notices for lesbian separatist communes on the housing boards.

There has not been an adequate reconsideration of the theoretical foundations of feminism since then. So we are still getting, even during a less radical period of feminism, the most dead-end of solutions for the average woman: that of joining a lesbian separatist commune in order to "survive" the world.

And all this coming from one of the more prominent and mainstream of Australian feminist websites.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Rebecca West: A house of one's own

I've read a few more chapters of the biography of Rebecca West. If you recall she was a British feminist and socialist writer, who, at the end of my first instalment, had agreed to become the mistress of H.G. Wells.

In short, she then fell pregnant and decided to keep the baby, a son named Anthony. Wells was unfaithful to her (if you can be unfaithful to a mistress), but the relationship continued for many years. She became well-known as a reviewer and wrote several novels. There was a messy break up with Wells, followed by affairs with a newspaper magnate, Max Beaverbrook, and several Americans, including Charlie Chaplin. She had a nervous breakdown and consulted a psychiatrist. At age 38 she married a banker, Henry Maxwell Andrews.

I can't in a short post like this attempt a universal critique of this stage of her life. All I aim to do is to pluck out a few themes that are of interest to me as a conservative.

The first theme is straightforward. It is striking just how privileged Rebecca West was as a writer. There is an idea at large that women artists were held down by a male dominated society and lacked a room of their own to create their art. This view doesn't hold true in the case of Rebecca West.

She began as a radical writer who wrote scathingly of male authors such as Wells and Ford Madox Ford. These male writers responded sympathetically to her and used their connections to promote her work. When Rebecca West became pregnant, Wells set her up in a house, with a nurse, two servants and a housekeeper.

She was paid handsomely for her literary work; receiving at one time, for instance, a guaranteed payment of $10,000 from Cosmopolitan magazine. In the 1920s and 30s, she travelled the world, taking frequent trips to New York and holidays in tourist resorts in Italy and France.

She lived better then as a writer and single mother than would most upper middle-class couples of today.

The second theme concerns her love life. There is an obvious disparity between Rebecca West's political beliefs as a feminist and socialist and what she instinctively was drawn to in her relationships with men.

She was a socialist and yet she was romantically attracted to wealthy, powerful men. First there was H.G. Wells and then later the newspaper magnate Max Beaverbrook. When she jumped ship (so to speak) she justified the move on the basis that Beaverbrook was the more masculine, unreconstructed kind of man. She wrote a novel in which the character based on Wells is described negatively as a "more recent, more edited kind of man". The Wells character is rejected as being too intellectual and sensitive compared to the more direct and unfiltered masculinity of Beaverbrook.

Nor was Rebecca, in her own love life, content with the feminist goal of independence. She could have lived independently as a single mother with a good income. We are told in the biography, though, that "Rebecca yearned for male companionship and marriage". She seems to have sought out a strong, protective type of man; the biography says of her marriage that:

... Rebecca revered Henry. He was a man who would take on any burden for her sake - a strong man, physically active ... Rebecca could do things for herself, but oh what a pleasure to have Henry do them for her, especially with such loving grace.

She praised her husband too for his emotional support, for being "So sensible when it's needed, and so insensible when that's needed."

In the early 1930s, Rebecca met the French writer Anais Nin. Both women expressed a preference for strong men:

Neither Rebecca nor Anais liked what they termed weak men. Rebecca was especially harsh on what she called pansies.

So whereas feminism leans toward female independence and non-traditional gender roles, Rebecca West in her personal life needed a relationship with a man and was attracted to strong, protective, "unedited", masculine men. Rather than the personal being the political, there was a major, unexplained disparity between the two in Rebecca's life.

The third theme is more difficult to explain. I'll have to introduce it in the broadest of terms. There have been three important "conversations" in European culture. One is the materialistic, naturalistic, scientific one. Another is the formal religious one, marked by a Christian concern for individual salvation through the avoidance of sin. The third conversation is also spiritual, but not tied formally to religion or theology or to salvation or sin; it is a conversation on what impressed the European mind as being of spiritual meaning or worth in life.

We are used now to the materialistic conversation dominating what we discuss and in what terms. The Christian conversation is still there, but cordoned off to a minority of the population. The third conversation is now almost entirely lost to us, even though it was once as prominent as the other two.

What is also striking is that there is so little crossover now between the conversations. It was once not unusual for an individual to hold all three realities together: a man could be a believing Christian, conversant in theology; he could at the same time recognise the reality of the material world, and be educated in the scientific processes describing this world; and still again take part in a conversation about the role of character or moral virtue in the spiritual life of man.

And here's the thing. When I read books about the radicals of the early twentieth century, I recognise immediately what I dislike about their politics. At the same time, though, it's hard not to notice that even the radicals of the time were usually more embedded in all three of the European conversations than an ordinary, conventional man of today. In this sense, they were still more cultured, in spite of their political radicalism.

Rebecca West is no exception. Yes, she did have her materialistic side, sometimes taken too far. She wrote, for instance, a book outlining a theory of art which appears to reduce art to a kind of scientific experiment on the human mind:

She has to work terribly hard at showing how Pavlov's experiments with dogs resemble the artist's experiments with humanity, since each, she believes, carries on a methodical inquiry into the mind that has advanced knowledge.

One reviewer, Edward Garnett, criticised her "materialistic confusions" and even H.G. Wells, more technocratic in his thinking than most, thought the book "ought to have music by Stravinsky":

And religion? We learn that:

Rebecca occasionally attended Catholic services, finding in ritual "a picture of spiritual facts which human language still finds it difficult to express adequately". She admired the spiritual discipline the church inculcated in its members.

We learn too that Rebecca found:

her own touchstone in St Augustine, the great Church father whom she had been reading since her teens ... Rebecca employed Augustine's belief in original sin as a symbol of the neuroses that made a mockery of free will ...

Finally, as you would expect of a well-educated, cultured woman of the time, Rebecca also participated in the third great conversation, the one turning on what was found to be of spiritual worth in life. She described herself at one point as being "interpenetrated with interests of the soul and the intellect". She admired other women for their beauty, grace and nobility. She praised D.H. Lawrence for being,

intent on revealing the spirituality of human beings even as the England of his day was "swamped in naturalism".

I'm not claiming that Rebecca West was especially adept at holding the three conversations in balance. It does seem clear, though, that she was able to participate in each, to a degree that would be rare for an intellectual of our own times. And I admire her for it. She still had something that we have lost.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

What gets recognised?

The Rudd Government has announced that the Myall Creek massacre site is to be heritage listed. Back in 1838, 28 Aborigines were murdered at the site; seven convicts were later hanged for the crime.

The heritage listing of the site is part of a longer term trend in which one aspect only of race relationships in colonial Australia is recognised, namely white violence toward Aborigines.

I spent a number of years reading colonial era newspapers and it gave me a fuller picture of the reality of the era. The most common attitude of white settlers toward Aborigines was one of curiosity, particularly about Aboriginal language and customs.

As for violence, the situation was more complex than is usually recognised. Yes, there was violence by whites towards Aborigines on the newly settled frontier. But there were also occasions when whites helped to prevent violence between different groups of Aborigines. There were some Aborigines who helped rescue white settlers. There were other Aborigines who murdered white settlers.

The last point usually baffles those white Australians I mention it to. They find it a difficult thought to process as they are so used to the idea that violence went the other way. So I'll give just a few examples of Aboriginal violence toward white settlers to help illustrate the situation.

In colonial Tasmania, in the short period of time between January and October 1828, there were 68 separate attacks on white settlers by Aborigines, resulting in 26 European deaths (including women and children).

The records of the Adelaide Gaol show that between 1843 and 1861 there were 12 hangings, all for murder. Of these, three were cases of violence between whites. Of the other nine, only one was a case of white violence against an Aborigine. The rest, the large majority, involved Aboriginal perpetrators and white victims. There were 10 white victims altogether (5 men, 3 women and 2 children).

After one of these hangings of an Aborigine for murdering a white, a newspaper editor used the occasion not to demonise the Aborigines, but to express doubt about the use of capital punishment:

If transportation for life is the full penalty in England more ought not, we think, to be inflicted here...

The above list of white South Australians murdered by Aborigines doesn't include the victims of the Maria massacre. In June 1840 the brig Maria hit a reef; the passengers and crew were evacuated safely in a life boat. They negotiated with a local Aboriginal tribe to escort them back to Adelaide; however, this tribe wouldn't go further than their tribal boundaries. The shipwreck survivors were handed over to the neighbouring tribe who massacred them, stuffing the bodies down wombat holes.

Twenty-five white settlers were killed in the Maria massacre, including five women and six children.

There has been a filtering of Australian history which has created a false picture of the times; there is a one-sided account of race relations in which it is only white violence against Aborigines that is recognised and in which only the most negative and unsympathetic of white attitudes toward Aborigines is publicised.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Father Demagogue

American readers might already have seen the following extraordinary video. It shows a Catholic priest, Father Michael Pfleger, giving a grotesque sermon at Barack Obama's church.

The video is striking because it's so unusual to witness a Catholic priest working an audience like this and straying so far from normal standards of dignity (which is my polite way of saying that Father Pfleger comes across as a buffoon).

Pfleger's message, though, is all too familiar. It is the common left-liberal response to inequality. In the liberal view what matters is the power to self-determine: to enact our own will. Therefore, if one group has less of this power they are being treated as less human - there is a fundamental breach of human equality. Why would this occur? The common left-liberal answer is that an oppressor group has organised society to maintain an unearned privilege at the expense of an oppressed group.

It's a theory which assumes that American society is structured in a racist way and is therefore morally illegitimate; that America will be morally illegitimate for as long as any inequality between white Americans and black Americans can be identified; that white Americans are well-off because they have forced down black Americans; and that there must be powerful, racist white Americans upholding the system of oppression.

(This last point helps to explain why white American college students are so often vilified on American TV shows. They are portrayed as domineering types: as arrogant and ready to enact violence against the less privileged. I watched an episode of Cold Case last night (set in the early 1960s) in which the formula was worked hard: the murderer was the only young white character with a flicker of human sympathy, the rest being cold, angry and violent.

Where does the left-liberal theory leave white Americans? With nowhere to turn. They get no kudos for hard work, or sacrifice for family, or financial responsibility, or commitment to education. Whatever they have is held to be a product of a racist, unearned privilege. Nor do any efforts, individual or social, to contribute to the welfare of the black community put them in better standing. The moral taint will be there until that day in which an absolute equality is achieved.

It's not how life is supposed to be lived. We ought to be able to celebrate our own communal identity; the left-liberal theory demands, instead, a defensive, apologetic, guilt-ridden identity. It is hopeless to attempt to satisfy the demands of the theory; a better response is to consider its defects and to speak and act against it.

I don't think it's a coincidence that speaking for the theory has lost Father Pfleger his dignity.

(BTW, I should note that Father Pfleger doesn't speak with the blessing of the Catholic Church. His Cardinal, at the last report, has suggested that Father Pfleger take some time off to reconsider what he's doing.)

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Rebecca West part 1

I'm reading a biography of Rebecca West, a prominent feminist and socialist writer of last century.

I've only read the first few chapters, but already there's much to comment on. West's parents met on board a ship to Australia; her father became a conservative writer in Melbourne in the 1880s. Rebecca, the youngest of three daughters, was born after the family had returned to the UK to live in Glasgow.

Unfortunately, the parents' marriage wasn't close and the father left the family when Rebecca was eight. The consequences were predictable: all three daughters became, when still in their teens, radical feminists.

It's such a common pattern: a spirited and intellectual daughter is abandoned by her father and becomes a feminist activist. This, for instance, is what the biography tells us of West's feminist friend Dora Marsden:

Dora and Rebecca shared certain searing family experiences. Dora's father had left the family when she was eight, after years of a strained marriage, causing extreme financial hardship ...

There are plenty of more recent examples of feminist women with similar backgrounds. Germaine Greer once wrote a book entitled Daddy, We Hardly Knew You. Gloria Steinem said of her father that he "was living in California. He didn't ring up but I would get letters from him and saw him maybe twice a year." Jill Johnston wrote frequently about her missing father who never tried to contact her. Kate Millett adored her father but when she was thirteen he abandoned the family to live with a nineteen-year-old. The father of Eva Cox left the family to pursue a relationship with a pianist "leaving an embittered wife and a bewildered and rebellious daughter".

Why would paternal abandonment provoke feminist activism? It's often said that a father embodies within a family the outside social order. So if the father fails the daughter, it makes sense that the daughter would set herself against this order.

It's possible too that for a proud young woman the loss of status brought about by paternal abandonment cuts deeply; she believes she has been robbed of the place she rightfully deserves to occupy in society by untrustworthy or unreliable men.

The lesson for conservative men is clear enough: we shouldn't underestimate how important our role is in our daughter's lives, not just in personal terms, but also in influencing the attitude of our daughters (and sons) to society itself.

To return to Rebecca's biography, although the family now lacked money she was provided with a scholarship to a private school; she distinguished herself as a student but left the school at the age of sixteen when she contracted tuberculosis.

She recovered and attended drama school, intending to become an actress, but she failed in her efforts. In 1911 she began writing for The Freewoman, an English feminist magazine.

The following year she met the 46-year-old novelist H.G. Wells. He already had both a wife and a mistress, but she pursued him. She got a kiss out of him, but he told her that he wasn't interested in an affair with her. She travelled to France and Spain and twice attempted suicide. She wrote a letter to Wells, which included the following lines:

Dear H.G.,

In the next few days I shall either put a bullet through my head or commit something more shattering to myself than death ... I am always at a loss when I meet hostility, because I can love and I can do practically nothing else ... You've literally ruined me ... I would give my whole life to feel your arms around me again ... Don't leave me utterly alone.

I've included these lines because they run so much against one of the currents of feminist thought, namely that men have no necessary role in a woman's life ("a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle", "I might want a man but I don't need a man" etc). Rebecca West did need a man in her life, to the point that she felt "ruined" when left "utterly alone".

In 1913 Wells' mistress left him and he offered the position to Rebecca West. She accepted.

As for the feminism of the period, it seems to have generated the same kind of tensions in its principles that it does today. For instance, in 1913 The New Freewoman declared to its readers:

Women's movement forsooth ... Why does not someone start a straight nose movement ... or any other movement based upon some accidental physical contournation.

In other words, the magazine set up to lead the women's movement believed that the category of "woman" was insignificant, a mere accident of physiology.

Rebecca West wasn't one who followed through with the idea that "woman" was an artificial category; for instance, she praised her feminist friend Dora Marsden for being an "exquisite beauty," a "perfectly proportioned fairy," and so "flower like". She appears to have appreciated the distinctly feminine qualities of her friend, at the same time that her feminist magazine was suggesting that womanhood could be dismissed as a merely accidental attribute of a person.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

A hollow identity?

The nineteenth century liberal philosopher, John Stuart Mill, once wrote that,

He who lets the world, or his own portion of it, choose his life plan for him, has no need for any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation.

The irony is that Mill was merely echoing here an entrenched liberal orthodoxy, namely that to be fully human (and not like the apes) we have to be self-created by our own will and reason (rather than letting the world choose our "life plan".)

As I've noted before, the idea that we should be self-created by our individual will and reason sounds nice. But it has some radical consequences when taken logically to its full extent.

It means, for instance, that those things that we inherit, rather than choose for ourselves, become illegitimate. And this includes those things which modern liberals dismiss as a merely "biological destiny", namely our sex and our race.

Our sex and our race are physical things which can't be altered by any force of our own will (sex change surgery and Michael Jackson aside). Therefore, for liberals the two things which are most strictly forbidden as factors influencing human relationships and human identity are race and gender.

For liberals, to allow race or gender to count in any important way - to "discriminate" on the basis of race or gender - is logically (in terms of liberal principles) seen as a grave moral offence.

Abbott & national identity

I was reminded of this when reading a recent speech by a leading member of Australia's Liberal Party Government, Tony Abbott.

Abbott is one of the more "conservative" leaders of the right-liberal Liberal Party. Yet, when discussing the national identity of the founder of the Liberal Party, Sir Robert Menzies, he followed the usual liberal orthodoxy by denying that race had anything to do with national identity. He claimed that,

Although the English-speaking countries have handled difference badly (like everyone else but generally less so), race has rarely been central to any of the English-speaking national identities.

Starting from Roman times, England was one of the first "melting pot" nations. More than any other, the English-speaking culture is prepared to take people from anywhere on their own terms. No one who can speak English is really a foreigner in any of the English speaking countries.

The problem here is not just the historical inaccuracy (the main waves of settlers into England in historical times were Celts, Anglo-Saxons and Danes, who were not dissimilar in race. To call this a "melting-pot" is like considering a group of New Zealand settlers into Australia as creating a "melting-pot" nation).

The major problem is that once you dismiss race entirely, as Abbott does, you have undermined traditional nationalism. Nations were traditionally founded on an ethnic unity, in which people were connected by ties of ancestry (ie a real biological kinship marked by a common race), as well as a shared history, language, religion and culture.

Abbott has jettisoned the very idea of traditional nationalism, even its historical existence, because he wants, in his own words, to found national identity not on race but on values.

This is why the only thing he really insists on is that people share a common language, as this is all that is required for them to participate in the shared values which are to form the new basis of national unity and national identity.

Civic nationalism

The kind of values which liberals usually put forward as a basis of national identity are civic ones.

A leading spokesman for a civic based nationalism is Professor Michael Ignatieff. He has written that civic nationalism envisions the nation "as a community of equal, rights-bearing citizens, united in patriotic attachment to a shared set of political practices and values."

In a sense, liberals like Professor Ignatieff are saying that what will bind us together as a nation is our shared commitment to ... the liberal political order. Which means that the phrases "I am Australian" and "I am a liberal" are closely interlinked.

This is a very convenient way for liberals to define national identity. If you think it over, it veers toward a certain kind of political totalitarianism - at least in the sense that a certain understanding of politics is taking over and coming to totally dominate forms of self-identity which used to be non-political and more varied in character.

There are other significant problems with basing nationalism on shared political values. One of these problems is well known to the civic nationalists themselves. This is that civic nationalism is based on more shallow forms of attachment than the traditional form of nationalism.

For instance, Professor West of Suffolk College has defined the strength of ethnic national identity as follows:

... the sense of identity is so strong that it is an inseparable part of the personalities of most of the individuals in the group. People are born and raised to conceive of themselves as being a part of the nation, and rarely lose that self-conception in the course of their lives. There is a feeling of pride and a deep sense of loyalty associated with it.

Michael Ignatieff has conceded that this "psychology of belonging" of traditional nationalism has "greater depth than civic nationalism's".

Similarly, two academics from the University of Melbourne, Brian Gallagan and Winsome Roberts, have recently written a book titled Australian Citizenship in which they worry that civic nationalism is too insubstantial.

They pull no punches, describing an Australian identity defined solely in terms of shared political institutions and values as "hollow, lacking in cultural richness and human content." They talk also in similar terms of "an empty and flaccid citizenship based on abstract principles that lack the inspirational power to represent what it means to be Australian."

A parochial distinction?

Civic nationalism has a further defect. Even though civic nationalism doesn't discriminate on the basis of race, it does discriminate. It draws a line between people who are citizens, and therefore part of the nation, and those who aren't.

This is a problem for liberals, who believe that any kind of discrimination which impedes the individual will is wrong. Therefore, it's not hard to find liberals who find even civic nationalism to be morally indefensible, and who want to collapse all distinctions of national identity.

Former Australian Prime Minister, Paul Keating, is one such liberal who angrily opposes even civic forms of nationalism. He has thundered against those whose "exclusiveness" relies on,

constructing arbitrary and parochial distinctions between the civic and the human community ... if you ask what is the common policy of the Le Pens, the Terreblanches, Hansons and Howards of this world, in a word, it is "citizenship". Who is in and who is out.

Then there are the views of Age newspaper columnist Sharon Gray. For her, even a nationalism which is similar to supporting your own football team is too much. She writes,

Although no one chooses one's nationality at birth, patriotism is held up as the Holy Grail, but I'm not convinced of its sanctity. [Note the liberal objection to a form of identity which we don't choose.]

Patriotism means you define one group as preferable to another. You will do more for them than for others. You want your group to win, which means you want other groups to lose. It breeds a football team mentality, which seems childish in this shrinking world.

There is, in other words, a tension within the theory of civic nationalism. Civic nationalism puts liberalism at the heart of national identity, but liberalism rejects the idea of any discrimination limiting to individual will. And civic nationalism, though more open to individual will than ethnic nationalism, does still discriminate.

The further "progress" of liberalism is therefore likely to undermine the moral authority of civic nationalism.

The challenge

Of course, none of this would be such a problem if Western societies weren't dominated by liberalism in the first place.

The older and deeper forms of national identity have only been rejected because they don't conform to a political theory, which itself is simply accepted unquestioningly.

The response of conservatives must therefore be, not only to point out the flaws of civic nationalism, but to begin to challenge the underlying principles of liberalism itself.

Civic nationalism has no future

On what basis do nations exist? It was once thought that a nation was a people sharing a common ethnicity living together in the same country and governed by their own state.

This kind of nationalism fell out of favour in the modern West because it was held to discriminate on the basis of an unchosen quality, namely ethnicity. It was replaced by a civic nationalism, in which membership of a nation was determined by citizenship, and in which national identity was based on liberal political values, such as non-discrimination.

But can a civic nationalism do the job? Can it maintain the existing nations of the West? The answer seems to be clearly no.

One problem is that a civic nationalism blurs the boundaries of what is or isn't part of a nation. For instance, if it is a belief in liberal poltical values which makes me an Australian, then why can't people everywhere who believe in the same values also be considered a part of my nation?

And if it is a belief in liberal political values that defines a nation, then why shouldn't nations be merged together if there is an economic or diplomatic advantage in doing so? Why not abandon the traditional nations of Europe in order to build a European Union? Why not abandon Australia to build a Pacific Union?

There's one further problem with a civic nationalism. The older type of nationalism was rejected on the grounds that it discriminated against people. But so too does civic nationalism: it discriminates between citizens and non-citizens. Therefore, it will increasingly be seen by the more rigorously intellectual types as being immoral and illegitimate.

Enter Professor Peter Spiro, author of Beyond Citizenship: American Identity After Globalization. He has done what intellectuals will inevitably do, and taken the ideas of civic nationalism to their logical conclusion.

His argument is that a territorial citizenship is becoming increasingly more difficult to justify. If being an American is based on liberal political ideals, then membership of the nation should include those living outside America who agree with these ideals:

But here's something that really is new: the underinclusion of members-in-fact outside the territory of the United States.

One of the commenters on my first post pressed the proposition that America is an idea. That's completely consistent with strong civic notions of American citizenship and identity.

At one time, that idea was distinct. No longer. The American idea of constitutional democracy has gone global. That's American's triumph, but it may also be its downfall.

As I ask in the book, if that person in Bangalore wants to take an oath to support the Constitution of the United States, on what grounds can we deny him membership? ... And what of the child born in Juarez, whose interests and identity will be connected to El Paso, Austin and Washington ... but who has the bad luck to have been born a mile on the wrong side of the line? ...

So: whatever it means to be American, it's everywhere. But that makes it all the harder to draw the membership line in a meaningful way.

Another person to have followed through with the logic of civic nationalism is the British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband. He has called for the European Union to be extended to include non-European countries. Specifically he wants the countries of the Mahgreb (North Africa) and the Middle East to join a European Union free trade association "not as an alternative to membership, but potentially as a step towards it". Miliband believes that such an enlarged EU would develop shared values and overcome an east/west divide, whilst providing trade and investment opportunities. This is where civic nationalism leads: to membership of a state with no definable borders.

Finally, there's the issue of citizenship and discrimination. Our former PM, Paul Keating, was in the vanguard on this issue, railing against the "exclusiveness" of civic nationalism which involves:

constructing arbitrary and parochial distinctions between the civic and the human community ... if you ask what is the common policy of the Le Pens, the Terreblanches, Hansons and Howards of this world, in a word, it is “citizenship”. Who is in and who is out.

For Keating, it was "parochial" to establish any kind of community other than an international "human" community. Keating thought that a civic nationalism was a radical, extremist form of discrimination.

Lawrence Auster wrote a good post recently on this theme, in which he observed that:

To a consistent liberal, and thus to a consistent libertarian, there can be no justification for any kind of unequal or exclusionary treatment. If a country comes into existence by the use of force (as all countries throughout history have done), well, the use of force is a form of inequality and oppression, meaning that the country is illegitimate. If a country simply exists as a country with borders, its very existence distinguishes between members and non-members and thus it violates the equal freedom of all humans and is illegitimate. If a country has a state, that represents a further inequality in which some people exercise power over others. If a country elects its government through democratic elections, that means that the majority has more power than the minority, which is also a violation of equality.

As I've said many times, liberalism, consistently applied, is incompatible with the existence of any organic, self-governing institution or society, since all such societies and institutions violate the liberal principle of the equal freedom of all human persons.

The nations of the West will not be held together by civic nationalism. The logic of a civic nationalism is toward its own dissolution.