Monday, July 28, 2008

What makes heterosexuality legitimate?

Feministe is one of the larger feminist websites. There was a post recently at the site titled "What Does a Feminist Relationship Look Like?". Readers were asked to respond to the following question:

How do you work feminism into your relationships? Do you think it’s even possible to have a fully feminist, egalitarian heterosexual relationship?

There was a range of answers, but I couldn't help but notice response no.54 from Allyson:

I would like to suggest that women (and men) struggling with what an egalitarian heterosexual relationship looks like refer to Christine Overall’s Heterosexuality and Feminist Theory. The feminist philosopher argues that it is possible to have a feminist heterosexuality, if it is separated from institutionalized heterosexuality. She suggests that this is accomplished by each partner taking a critical perspective, becoming aware of the privileges attached to their relationship and then rejecting that privilege and striving against heterosexist oppression.

In addition, she argues that a feminist heterosexuality can only be present when it is a conscious choice; in other words, she argues that a woman must engage in critical reflection, identify that she is attracted to men and act accordingly. A feminist heterosexuality cannot be one that is automatically assumed because self-determination is not present there.

Dr Overall is apparently a big thing in Canadian academia: the Queen's University website declares,

Dr. Christine Overall is one of the world’s foremost feminist scholars, particularly in the field of reproductive ethics, and is regarded as a pioneer in the field of feminist philosophy.

(By the way, what are the chances of a pioneer in feminist philosophy being called Dr Overall - conjuring up images of the appearance of 1970s style feminists.)

So, on Allyson's reading at least, Professor Overall believes that women can be legitimately heterosexual, but only if they choose this heterosexuality self-consciously after a period of "critical reflection". If they fail to do this they haven't self-determined their sexuality and it becomes illegitimate.

This is a logical, if unusual, application of liberal autonomy theory. Liberalism sets autonomy as a primary life aim and therefore seeks to remove impediments to individual self-determination. But there are a lot of significant things we don't self-determine, our sexuality being one of them (along with our ethnicity and our gender). Some liberals therefore claim that heterosexuality is not fixed and naturally predominant, but that sexuality exists fluidly in multiple forms along a continuum.

Dr Overall's solution seems to be a bit different: she wants people to go through a conscious process of choice to make it seem as if their heterosexuality is voluntary and self-determined. (Note how closely connected feminist philosophy is here with the basic concerns of liberalism.)

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Living the modern dream?

Tracey Emin would seem to be living the dream life, at least as it's defined in modern society. She is a British modernist artist (of part Turkish Cypriot descent) who has money, fame, a successful career and independence.

But she's been "depressed for months pondering her life". She is finding it difficult to come to terms with her childlessness:

The future is freaking her out and even the present she's finding hard to cope with. She always thought the brilliant thing about not having kids “is that you can do what the f*** you like, but I don't want to do what the f*** I like. I can do anything. I can travel around the world, I can stay up all night drinking, I don't have to answer to anyone. But I don't want to be like that anyway.” ... sometimes I question the whole big scheme of things. How does it all work? What's it all for? If I was a grandmother I'd have this other kind of arc where things go but I don't have an arc. The only thing I have is me.”

Emin's disenchantment is expressed in some of her artworks:

This is what she meant in her photographic self-portrait, I've Got it All, which shows Emin giving birth to a pile of banknotes: “I was saying I haven't actually got anything, that's it. There's no other level of fecundity that's coming out of me except this material one. The raw stuff, the thing that propels people through life, that's not happening to me.”

So maximising individual autonomy through money, career status, independence and casual relationships hasn't brought Emin to a condition of liberty or emancipation. She feels instead cut off from significant, fulfilling aspects of life.

Nor has the pursuit of autonomy created a "self-determining" character type. Instead, Emin tends to be passive and naive when pondering her fate - as if her situation is something that has simply happened to her and over which she had no control. For instance, we read:

She's been ... pondering her life, the "children thing", she tells me again and again. It's getting to her. Where are they? Why doesn't she have any? Will she ever?

It doesn't seem to be all that difficult to explain why she has no children: abortions in her twenties, shacking up with unsuitable men, and deliberately leaving motherhood to an advanced age.

I don't think Emin is alone in refusing to consider the reasons for things. It seems to be a characteristic of Western modernity. Perhaps it's because the Western orthodoxy doesn't like to recognise a given human nature, believing the existence of such a nature to be an impediment to autonomy. This, though, means that it's difficult to consider, and to grow knowledgeable about, the role of this nature in human affairs.

Similarly, if your focus is on autonomy - on the idea that we should be unimpeded in choosing according to our own will - then it becomes difficult to ask things of other people. On what basis can we expect others to act for our own benefit? So we can only hope or assume that they will. There is no principled basis for expecting that someone will act in a certain way toward us.

Consider too that autonomy is maximised by making everything as "open" as possible, so that our options are made to seem unlimited. To suggest that some things might not work out as well as others is therefore, in modernist terms, to set limits and to be judgemental. The scope for judgement becomes more limited.

Perhaps there are other factors in play as well. Regardless, it does seem to be true that modernity has not fostered a confidently "self-determining" character type.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Renan & the nation

What is a nation? John Laughland asked this question recently at Brussels Journal, and gave an impressive answer; he did exactly what needs to be done, which is to intelligently examine the liberal principles on which the modern order is based:

“What is a nation?” Ernest Renan famously asked in 1882 and concluded that it was a group of people who had decided to live together. The definition has stuck because it encapsulates the most cherished belief of all liberals, which is that human life is essentially about individual choice ...

Even Renan’s definition, however, contained a fudge – a fudge which was essential to prevent his idea from descending into obvious absurdity. He said that a nation was a group of people which had done great things in the past and which wanted to do more in the future. The use of “wanted” was essential to preserve his key notion of choice, but his reference to the past made a nonsense of it.

The people who have done great things in the history of the nation are not the same people (not the same individuals) who are alive now. It is therefore wrong to elide the two uses of the word “people” into one. A people cannot be defined by choice: if members of a nation find or believe that their country has a glorious past, then that past is precisely something inherited and not chosen, like one’s parents. One’s parents determine an individual in a way the individual has not chosen and cannot control.

Laughland has put this well. Liberal autonomy theory is based on the idea that to be fully human we must be self-creating, self-determining individuals. This means that we must be "liberated" from whatever impedes individual choice. This sounds nice, but has drastic consequences. As Laughland points out, it undermines a traditional national identity, as this is "something inherited, not chosen".

But does liberal autonomy theory describe reality? Are we really uninfluenced by inherited forms of identity? Do we really make choices as autonomously as the liberal theory hopes and claims we do?

Laughland observes the situation in England today and concludes not. He writes of the young white people who marched against the violence currently sweeping England that:

their unspoken choice – their instinct – to rally together reveals a good deal about the nature of human action. It reveals, in particular, that choice and forms of behaviour are, in fact, partly determined by ethnicity – very often without people being aware of it.

The Renanian attempt to carve out a sphere for the liberal ideal of free individual choice is therefore doomed to failure. Just as Joseph de Maistre said that he had never met “a man” but only Frenchmen, Englishmen and so on, so our free individual choices are in fact influenced by factors we have not chosen. These include our parents, our nationhood and our ethnic background. They form part of what we are as individuals – we are all members of various human groups – and the human condition is unthinkable without them.

A nation, in other words, is not a “community of values” or an impersonal social construct governed by certain laws. A nation – as the word suggests, derived as it is from the verb ‘to be born’ – is a family.

But what of the opposition? What about those who strongly support the liberal view? There's a forum called Debate and relate which recently debated a statement by the former Australian Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, namely that:

An Australian is someone who chooses to live here, obey the law and pays taxes.

Hawke is following autonomy theory logically by stating that to be an Australian all you have to do is choose to live in Australia. It seems, though, to empty the concept of an Australian identity of meaning. A commenter at the forum made the obvious objection that:

According to Hawke, Australians have no distinct ethnic or cultural identity. In fact, they have absolutely nothing to define them as a people - no history, traditions, ancestors, customs or heroes. To be an 'Australian' is not to belong to a distinct national community; it simply means you live here and pay tax.

In short, it seems that Hawke is saying that 'Australians' don't really exist in any meaningful sense.

Hawke, though, found a defender. One commenter thought that Hawke's position on a national identity was the morally right one:

To say it is just 'to live here, obey the law and pay taxes' is opening up the door for the individual to create his own identity. To say we have 'distinct identity' is to indoctrinate people into a 'social/cultural straightjacket'. But because you're a right-wing redneck retard, you'll maintain that everyone ought to act just as you say; because you have psychological fascist tendencies. Who knows, maybe one day you'll grow up and respect other's decisions to live a life they choose.

Autonomy theory has led this person to see any kind of meaningful communal identity in negative terms as a restriction on individual choice (a "straitjacket"). He takes a defence of a distinct identity to be an act of disrespect toward others; he explains it as an assertion of power over others by those who are psychologically authoritarian.

There are a few things to say in response to this. First, it's obviously hopeless to try to uphold an existing national tradition when people follow autonomy theory in this way. That's why John Laughland is right to take the argument back to first principles and to explain why autonomy theory is misconceived.

Second, the above quote is a good example of how liberalism in practice is anything but neutral on important issues. To even assert the existence of a distinct identity is damned as illegitimate in the quote. So even though we are supposed to be granted free choice by liberal autonomy theory, in practice much is put entirely out of bounds (including much that is most significant in our lives).

Third, the quote suggests the insincerity of the ideal of multiculturalism. The liberal commenter hates the very thought of identity; don't tell me then that he is motivated by an appreciation of ethnic culture. Presumably, if he does support diversity it's because he doesn't want any particular culture to predominate and to form an obvious source of identity for individuals.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

A feminist comment to show young women

In a recent post I complained about a feminist double standard. Some feminists at the Hoyden about Town site had endorsed lesbian separatism as a strategy for women whilst later admitting that they themselves lived happily with the fathers of their children.

My post generated a lengthy debate. One of the participants, deus ex macintosh, is a feminist commenter at Hoyden. She argued with a refreshing lack of rancour and a willingness to reply directly to comments. I'm grateful to her for engaging in a reasonable discussion of the issues. Nonetheless, I was struck by her concluding remarks - and I only wish that I could make young women aware of them.

She was asked the following question:

... if the wife and mother deal is so bad, why do women keep signing up for it?

She answered:

For the same reason that theory conflicts with evidence as Mark has pointed out. We are talking in generalisations. Patriarchy or any other type of social theory works at a macro-level to describe general social trends and attempts to explain them. Marriage or any other type of personal relationship works at a micro-level and is a result of individual negotiation. Feminist or not I would no more live my life based solely on a social theory than I would invest my money based on an economic one. At the micro-level they're inherently unreliable which is why we're constantly examining where our personal experience supports the theory and where it differs, hence the switch in voices.

"Feminist or not I would no more live my life based solely on a social theory..." So here the personal is being insulated from the political. Unfortunately, not all young women are going to be so pragmatic. Some will be too earnest or too conscientious or even too unsophisticated in picking up cues as to how far the theory is meant to be taken in one's personal life.

So you arrive at a situation in which some active feminists will escape the negative consequences of their own theory more successfully than other young women who are less politically savvy and who follow the theory at face value.

The message to young women therefore is this: feminists might sound very confident in condemning what is traditional in relationships and family life, but this masks a pragmatism and a scepticism about the real world applicability of the theory.

Chances are that feminists will later wash their hands of you if you take what they say too literally.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Is the "freemale" a fiction?

What is it that liberalism asks of women? The aim of life in a liberal society is autonomy. Women maximise their autonomy by pursuing a single girl lifestyle of career, travel, shopping, casual relationships, partying and so on. With this lifestyle women have financial independence and no binding family commitments to impede their autonomy. They become, in the liberal sense of the word, free.

The Daily Mail ran an article recently titled "Rise of the Freemale". It heralded the increase in the number of single women in the UK as evidence of female liberation:

The number of single women has hit an all-time high, a study has shown - and most of them aren't looking for love.

They apparently choose to be alone, and rejoice in a life where they can spend their time and money as they wish.

This new breed of singleton has been dubbed a "freemale", because she chooses freedom over family ...

Paula Hall, a relationship psychotherapist with Relate, said many women had been put off relying on relationships for their happiness ...

"If you're busy and fulfilled with lots of close friends, then relationships may seem a bit irrelevant ...

"Basically, women feel comfortable doing whatever they want to do with their lives."

The article makes it sound as if the liberal theory is working out well in practice, and that there are growing numbers of single women happily liberated from serious relationships or motherhood.

But then the Daily Mail ran a follow-up article by Dr Pam Spurr, a relationships counsellor. She believes that many single women in their 30s are putting on a public act of being contented with their situation:

What's really going on behind the confident demeanour and fulfilled exterior is crushing loneliness and desperation.

Single women become adept at playing the isn't-life-grand game.

They have to do it around men so they don't appear desperate.

And they come to do it around other women, too, as I've discovered in the course of counselling hundreds of single women ...

She gives the example of Susie:

Susie, 38, a music industry lawyer, is a classic case of portraying the sunny single when inside she's utterly miserable ... Susie felt ashamed of living a lie - and finally confessed she always pretends to be cheerful about her single status.

"How would other people feel coming back to an empty flat after a long, hard day with no one to talk to or cuddle?

"They have no idea how good they've got it. Yet I've got too much pride to say: 'I desperately want to meet someone'".

Then there is the case of Jenny:

Take Jenny, 35, who e-mailed me about her profound regret over dumping a man she had dated at 29.

She said he had been a good and kind partner, but she'd felt there was something "more" to be had in a relationship, and also had wanted to focus on her TV production career while it was hurtling skywards.

Jenny's e-mail made pitiful reading. She blamed herself for her predicament: her damaging attitude towards her former boyfriend, her immaturity in wanting every aspect of her "needs" met and being blinkered about putting her career first.

She suffered insomnia as she fretted nights away about her choices.

So what went wrong? Dr Pam Spurr puts things this way:

Yes, outwardly women in 2008 are supposed to aspire to careers and self-fulfilment, but inwardly they also long to satisfy an urge that's been around as long as humankind: to connect with a partner - and if their biological clock is ticking - to fulfil it and produce children together.

It's absolute tosh to think it's any other way. The human species would die out if this weren't the case.

So autonomy can't always be the overriding aim. There are other important goods to consider as well if we wish to be fulfilled in life. If we always make autonomy the primary aim, we are likely to end up feeling alienated and disconnected rather than liberated and free.

Dr Pam Spurr tells us that the women she counsels:

come home to a sleek apartment, decorated to their taste, and surrounded by lots of lovely things - and they feel as empty as the rooms they paid so much for.

It's normal to want a period of independence from family commitments in our early adulthood. But to take autonomy as the main principle on which to build a life isn't likely to work in the longer run.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Work or anti-work?

Can a consistent politics be derived from liberalism? Here's yet another reason to think that the answer is no.

Liberalism begins with a view of society as being made up of millions of individual wills, each competing to enact their own desires. Therefore, a key question for liberals is how you best regulate society so that these competing wills can be harmonised.

The answer given by right liberals is that the market can do the job. The idea is that individuals can act selfishly for their own profit and the market will ensure a beneficial result overall, one which creates freedom, progress and prosperity. It's no surprise, then, that right liberals focus on a certain vision of Economic Man - of man viewed in terms of his economic role within a market.

Left liberalism emerged in protest at this market-oriented politics. Left liberals decried the unequal outcomes created by the market, and they criticised the irrational, inefficient outcomes created by the free market. They preferred society to be regulated by a benevolent, neutral, reforming class of government bureaucrats. They asserted a vision of Social Man against the right liberal view of Economic Man.

But there is a contradiction in the left liberal position, one which tends to split left liberals into different camps today. If, as liberals believe, the good in life is to be autonomous, so that we are free to enact our own individual wants, then we will naturally seek the power, status and money required to achieve this.

How do we get power, status and financial independence? Through careers. In fact, it is a common feminist complaint that women have been oppressed because they have not had access to power, status and independence through careers to the same extent as men.

So you might think, then, that left liberals would strongly promote access to careers as a path to liberation - and many do. In the Scandinavian countries, for instance, left liberals have succeeded in making this an explicit government policy.

But there's a catch. Left liberals define themselves against a vision of Economic Man; how then can they promote participation in the market as the path to individual liberation and human equality?

So left-liberals are caught between a work and an anti-work position. If they take the "work" position, they are giving credit to the market, which runs against their leftism. If they take an "anti-work" position, they have to accept inequalities in what they see as the key public good, namely individual autonomy - in particular, they have to leave intact the "power structures" by which they believe some groups in society oppress others.

It's not easy for left liberals to bridge the two positions. I've recently read Catherine Deveny try to do this. Here she is putting the "anti-work" view:

I watch office workers, jolted out of their slumber by the alarm clock, who have shovelled in their breakfast, thrown on their clothes and rush to catch the train to a job they hate.

This is not a view of careers as liberation. But she still keeps to the idea that women are oppressed by a lack of autonomy provided by careers. So her solution is to suggest that women who don't choose careers should nonetheless be paid and given career titles to increase their status:

Considering there is no status in being a parent or carer, let's at least give these skilled and dedicated individuals wads of cash and a fancy name, such as 'domestic engineer' or 'early childhood development specialist'. Seriously. And let's stop discussing maternity leave and go in swinging for paid parenting, paid grandparenting and paid caring.

There is still a logical inconsistency here. She wants women to have career status and financial independence without having to participate in the market. Her solution, though, involves "commodifying" motherhood - redefining motherhood as a market type activity, rather than valuing it in non-market terms. So she is advancing a view of "Economic Woman" - of women valued in terms of market activity - which contradicts her left liberalism.

I expect that left liberalism will continue to generate two different positions. There will be the downshifting, anti-materialist, hippy type rejection of careerism and market values. Alongside this will be a more dominant and public view of careers as integral to personal liberation, social success and human equality. There won't be a stable view bridging the two positions.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Immigration forcing down standards?

What are some of the consequences of Prime Minister Rudd pushing immigration to record levels?

Well, pity the first home buyer. According to the ANZ bank, housing prices are set to soar again due to pent up demand:

The ANZ's senior economist, Paul Braddick, said yesterday that Australia faced a critical and potentially chronic shortage of housing.

"A growing housing shortage is setting the scene for the mother of all housing booms," Mr Braddick said.

"Demand has accelerated and rising immigration, both permanent and temporary, shows no sign of abating".

There will be cultural changes as a result of this. Parents and grandparents will have to play more of a role in purchasing housing for younger people, as happens in some Asian countries with high property prices. It will be more difficult for young people to establish financial independence early in life; it will also be more difficult for women to choose to devote a part of their life to raising young children at home.

We're also more likely to get low quality housing options:

A radical plan to solve Victoria's affordability crisis by putting shipping containers in caravan parks has infuriated social welfare groups.

Macroplan Australia managing director and prominent urban planner Brian Haratsis said shipping containers could be located on public land or in caravan parks ...

"There will be a lot of talk about trailer trash, but people don't seem to understand there are others who simply can't afford accommodation ..."

This follows on from earlier news about overseas students being crammed into Melbourne share houses. In one case a Nepalese landlord stacked 48 overseas students into a single Melbourne home:

A millionaire landlord has been stacking up to 48 Nepalese students in a single house in northern Melbourne and dozens in two other rundown properties, say council investigators.

In today's Age, writer Lea McInerney describes the difficulty of finding a flat to rent:

Constant, fruitless searching in this high-pressure rental market is crazing me ... I behave obsequiously toward agents ... They get to decide how long my life stays on hold. One day I'm sitting in a park, feeling glum ... A friend rings and I burst into tears, not sure I can go on ... The lowest number of people I count inspecting a flat was 11; at the busiest one, a quirky two-storey place, I stopped counting at 60 ... One agent I came across, from the kindly camp, said: "Don't take it personally; it's a nightmare for everyone."

Saturday, July 05, 2008

The family is not a technology, part 2

If, as Jim Kalb writes, modernism is based on a scientistic view of reason, what are the consequences for the family?

Not so good. Scientism, the attempt to apply the kind of reasoning at work in the natural sciences to the whole of life, has encouraged a technological view of society. There are to be universal systems based on clear and efficient principles which can be applied and managed by experts.

The traditional family fails as a technology. Jim Kalb has explained some of the reasons why:

(a) For a rational technological system to exist, everything has to be transparent and manageable from the point of view of those on top.

(b) Traditional and local institutions - family, religion, nationality, and non-liberal conceptions of personal integrity and dignity

i) Are generally opaque and resistant to outside control. They're recalcitrant.

ii) Aren't oriented toward maximum equal satisfaction of individual preference ...

iii) Aren't based on expert knowledge ...

iv) Recognise distinctions and authorities that aren't required by liberal market and bureaucratic institutions. It follows that they're based on hate and oppression. The family, for instance, is based on distinctions of sex, age and blood ... (see p.8)

Is it possible to find examples of moderns rejecting the family on the grounds outlined above by Jim Kalb? Absolutely.

Leon Trotsky wrote the following in 1932 in defence of the attempts to reform the family in communist Russia:

The revolution made a heroic effort to destroy the so-called “family hearth” - that archaic, stuffy and stagnant institution ... 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.

Note the terminology at work: "archaic, stuffy and stagnant", a "shut-in petty enterprise". The term "shut-in" corresponds to Kalb's second point, namely that the traditional family is too opaque and resistant to outside control to function well as a technology. The complaint that the family is a "petty enterprise" makes sense if you expect the institutions of society to exist as part of a universal, centralised system managed from the top.

And then there is Tom Flynn. A few years ago he was co-editor of the Secular Humanist Bulletin. In an article titled "Replacing our Last Cottage Industry" he exhorted secular humanists to continue their attack on the family:

Pat Robertson is right - as secular humanists, we are heir to a tradition that is in many ways profoundly anti-family. For more than a hundred years humanists and freethinkers have been either center stage, or cheering from the front row, each time reform blunted the family's ubiquity and power ... humanists and other reformers have dealt the family countless body blows. Some say the family is becoming more inclusive. I say we are subduing the family, not extending it - perhaps setting the stage for its replacement.

Secular humanists should celebrate this achievement, not minimize it, and renew their assaults upon the family. This obsolete and exploitative institution must go.

What does Tom Flynn have against the family? He explains:

... At humanism's core lies enmity toward all things medieval, authoritarian, and obscurantist. As medieval holdovers go, the family is short on obscurantism, but drenched in authoritarianism. It's second only to matrimony in transmitting the idea of women as brood animals. In perpetuating the idea of children as property it has no peer. The family must go.

So secular humanists object to that which is "obscurantist". This seems to relate to Kalb's observation that institutions which are "opaque" aren't well suited for technological systems.

Flynn also objects to the authoritarianism of the family. This was predicted in Kalb's fourth point: the family fails in a technological society because it recognises authorities not required by liberal market and bureaucratic institutions.

Similary, there is Flynn's objection to the place of women and children in the family. Again this is predicted in Kalb's fourth point: the family fails in a technological society because it recognises distinctions of age and sex not required by liberal market and bureaucratic institutions. These distinctions will therefore be understood and explained in a negative sense, as aspects of oppression.

What's most intersting, though, is another of Flynn's objections to the family, the one fitting Kalb's third point: that it isn't administered by a class of experts:

... the family stands in the way of another implicit humanist goal: decoupling ... reproduction from parenting. The birth control explosion of the 60s emancipated much sex from reproduction. Yet even today, few can imagine anyone but themselves raising their kids, as though conception and childbirth imply anything about one's capacity to prepare a child for today's complex world.

The costs of cottage industry

We expect specialists to build our cars, raise our buildings, make our clothing, write our software - the list is endless. Perversely, only society's most precious products - us - are still entrusted to cottage industry. If society is falling apart as conservatives charge, perhaps the blame lies not with "alternative family structures" (more accurately, non-familial households) but simply with parents, single or married, rich or poor, for whom parenting could never be more than a hobby - pursued in naive isolation, abandoned just when one threatens to get good at it. While procreation and parenting remain yoked, most children are doomed to be raised by amateurs ...

The family, our last cottage industry, must go!

Looking Backwards - Issuing A Challenge

In 1888 Edward Bellamy published the utopian novel Looking Backwards, 2000-1887. Bellamy predicted that by the 21st Century capitalism, home, and family would be forgotten. Generations of reformers imbibed Bellamy's vivid images of happy workers who lived in dorms and ate in refectories, of children raised in large cohorts by gifted mentors, and dreamt that this was the shape of things to come. Science-fiction masters like Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and others portrayed futures in which the family had been eclipsed by licensed, professionalized alternatives. Many progressives simply assumed that one day, if not too soon, parenting would be a career like any other. Those most capable of it would be trained to mentor armies of children not their own.

Too many secular humanists no longer find such visions compelling.

It's interesting how similar Trotsky's turn of phrase is to Flynn's. Trotsky condemned the family as an archaic petty enterprise; Flynn condemns it as a cottage industry.

There is the same technological impulse at work; instead of a family run as a "hobby" by "amateurs" (i.e. by parents), children would instead by raised by "specialists", by "licensed, professionals" who would transform parenting into a "career".

Note that Flynn isn't satisfied with the degree to which children are already raised by "specialists" (i.e. via schools and pre-school centres). He wants to take the principle further, so that bearing a child would no longer be connected to parenting that child. He wants there to be fewer children and for these children to be raised by "gifted mentors" rather than by their biological parents. He asks:

Can we construct a vision of an individualist future where most sex never leads to conception; where only a fraction of the population reproduces; and where only gifted mentors parent, without regard for whose offspring the children may be?

The most direct response to Flynn's challenge is to state clearly that the family is not a technology and cannot be ordered on the basis of neutral expertise, or centralised management, or bureaucratic or market authority. It is too much an intimate, private institution based on instinct, affection, and natural forms of loyalty and distinction.

Hat tip: for the Flynn article, Pilgrimage to Montsalvat.

See also: The family is not a technology & The revolutionary family heads west

Thursday, July 03, 2008

We can be better than neutral

Here's a more upbeat story to report on. Over at Abandon Skip, there's a post on the popularity of the song De La Rey amongst Afrikaners in South Africa. The song has become something of an anthem for Afrikaners, expressing a pride in their own identity.

There are a couple of things about the situation which impress me. First, it seems to be predominantly young Afrikaners, both male and female, who are generating enthusiasm for the song. Second, some of the Arikaners have clearly rejected the idea that it is a mark of distinction to be neutral about ethnicity.

For instance, Bok van Blerk asks the audience before singing the song, "I'm proud of my language and culture. Are you?". He has also made the comment that, "Tswana, Zulu, Sotho, English or Afrikaner, take pride in who you are, it gives you backbone and direction in life."

This is exactly the shift Westerners need to make. For a long time, the neutrality strand of liberalism has set a different tone. The gist of this strand of liberalism is that it's best to be neutral about important public goods, and to orient ourselves instead to the pursuit of our private, individual interests. At best, ethnicity is then recognised as a purely personal sentiment, not to be defended as a good in a formal, public setting.

We are therefore supposed to win admiration by proving how neutral we are about our own ethnicity. The most advanced practitioners of this art achieve status by identifying the most "othered" ethnic group and displaying sympathy toward them. In general, though, the effect is to produce a Westerner who has little sense of his own culture and who thinks of culture instead as something he consumes according to taste from a range of other ethnicities.

It's not a sustainable way of ordering things. If everyone were to do it, and we were all neutralists, then there would be no range of "other" ethnicities to consume. In other words, even to maintain things as they are now, there have to be groups of people who reject the ideal of neutrality and who continue to produce distinctive cultures.

There is another problem with the neutrality strand: it trivialises our life aims. Much of what is significant in life requires a communal setting. If we limit ourselves to the pursuit of private interests, we undermine the opportunity to fulfil important aspects of life.

We can be better than neutral. We can identify positively with our own culture; we can defend its value as a real entity and not just as a personal sentiment; and we can admire those who show themselves to be most connected to their own ethnic culture and who represent it at its best.

(If you follow the link to Abandon Skip's post there are several short You Tube videos showing the response of young Afrikaners to the De La Rey song.)