Thursday, August 28, 2008

Responding to Greer's rage

Germaine Greer has published an essay, On Rage, in which she blames white men for the domestic violence in Aboriginal communities.

The essay is yet another example of an ethnic double standard. Greer is a radical liberal in her attitude to white Australian society, but a traditionalist when it comes to Aborigines.

For instance, Greer complains that the effect of white society on Aborigines has been to set men and women against each other and to undermine the traditional male role, thereby marginalising Aboriginal men within the family. This, she argues, has fostered the rage of Aboriginal men which then leads to domestic violence.

Greer quotes an Aboriginal woman who laments that,

Our communities are like a piece of broken string with women on one side and men on the other. (p.56)

Greer also voices disapproval of the effects of government welfare in increasing the autonomy of Aboriginal women to the detriment of the male role within the family:

The fact that government welfare payments are often made to women ... means that more and more women can live independently of men, and are doing so.

... When hunter-gatherer societies begin to break down, it is invariably the gatherers, the women, who combine to hold them together, but in doing so they further marginalise their menfolk, including their own sons. (pp.75,76)

To give you some idea of how Greer treats the Aboriginal family and the male role within it, here is part of her discussion of the issue:

According to anthropologists RM and CH Berndt, traditionally "the most cherished possessions of men were women, children and their sacred heritage," in that order ... The Aboriginal man's wife was not simply a woman he met by chance and fancied, but a kinswoman ... it is the level of avoidance which signifies just how fundamental, how absolutely shattering this loss and humiliation must be. (pp.56,57)

It's curious to find a Western feminist writing in this vein. After all, Greer led a movement to achieve in her own society the very things she is so dismayed occurred in Aboriginal society.

Take the complaint that Aboriginal societies have been left "like a piece of broken string with women on one side and men on the other".

This view of society, in which men and women are set against each other, is built into the feminist theory championed by Greer. In feminist patriarchy theory, men are believed to have organised a power structure in society in order to protect an unearned privilege gained at the expense of oppressed women.

In this world view, the traditional male role within the family is a source of oppression to be overthrown; men are motivated by a desire to assert power over women; women must therefore compete with men for money, power and status.

Millions of Western girls have been brought up to follow this world view, almost like a religion.

The more radical feminists even go so far as to assume that men, by having organised society to oppress women, must be assumed to hate women. Greer herself, in her influential book The Female Eunuch, goes to great lengths to describe male hatred of women.

Nor has Greer overcome this negative view of men. As I'll describe a little later, Greer is all too ready to vilify white men in her essay on rage - the same essay in which she laments the setting apart of Aboriginal men and women.

It's a similar story when it comes to the issue of autonomy. Greer is terribly concerned that Aboriginal men have been emasculated and marginalised by the decline in their provider role (and in their leadership role); this may have made Aboriginal women more independent, but to the overall loss of cohesiveness of Aboriginal communities.

Yet it is exactly a radical individual autonomy which has been most keenly sought by Western feminists, regardless of the larger consequences to society.

There is another aspect to Greer's ethnic double standard. Greer is a traditionalist in wanting Aborigines to survive as a people, as an ethny. For example, when she discusses the problem of domestic violence in Aboriginal communities, she is concerned not with issues of patriarchy or gender equity, but with the survival of Aborigines as a race:

What is now undeniable is that violence towards women and children across the same spectrum has reached the level of race suicide. (p.91)

When Greer writes about Aborigines, traditional attachments are held to matter. She tells us that Aborigines have lost "what makes any human life worth living". What does she include in this category? Well, she holds that Aborigines have lost "all the important things" including "their families, their social networks, their culture, their religion, their languages and their self-esteem". Furthermore, Aborigines, instead of living in their own tribes, have been forced to amalgamate and live in "polyglot assemblages" (pp.30, 31).

So for Greer it is a terrible fate for Aborigines to live in "polyglot assemblages" as this destroys "what makes any human life worth living". Yet isn't "polyglot assemblage" just another term for "diversity". Is Greer willing to apply her principle to Westerners, just as she does for Aborigines?

I suspect not, as Greer vilifies whites frequently throughout her essay. She claims that Judy Atkinson "puts it as delicately as she can" when she writes of "marauding white males" (p.58); she uses terms like "Australian racists"; she claims that the rape of Aboriginal children by white men "prevailed on a massive scale across the continent, wherever the white man penetrated, in the words of Strehlow's superior, "all the time"" (pp.49-51); she writes too that "From the beginning of white contact in the 1780s ... the white man has considered Aboriginal women his for the taking" (pp. 39-40).

At the end of the essay, the derogatory treatment of whites hits a low point: she uses the term "Whitey" in an openly hostile way:

People now talk of establishing an annual sorry day, as if it would do Whitey good to remind himself how magnanimous he was on 13 February 2008. More useful would be an annual angry day, when Whitey would get reminded of just what he has done for Australia. (pp.97-98)

Little concern here for the "self-esteem" of her own race, despite having previously described it as one of the qualities "that makes any human life worth living".

What is happening here with Germaine Greer? The key thing is that Greer cares about Aboriginal society. She identifies with it and wants it to survive as a distinct entity. Therefore she does not apply liberal concepts to it. She takes instead a traditionalist view.

It's important to understand this, so I'll rephrase it. Here we have a leading figure of left-liberalism, who has expressed on many occasions her alienation from her own tradition and her concern for Aboriginal society. It is no coincidence that she pushes liberalism on her own tradition but refrains from doing so when it comes to Aboriginal society. She wishes to conserve Aboriginal society and therefore takes a conservative, rather than a liberal, stance toward it.

So the question then is why she cares for the survival of Aboriginal society but not her own. I can only speculate as to the reasons why.

Perhaps it has to do with a certain understanding of equality widespread on the left. If you assume that our status as humans depends on our autonomy (our power to enact our will), then an imbalance of power means that some people are human at the expense of others. Therefore, you have to either accept that some people aren't fully human (not a palatable option) or else claim that the inequality in the balance of power is the result of an unjust, unnatural, "racist" organisation of society. The group doing the oppression then loses its legitimacy - its moral status.

As whites were the dominant group for a period of time, it's easy for the left to regard them as the illegitimate, oppressive party - and to prefer to identify instead with a non-dominant minority.

Greer has, in fact, throughout her life identified with an ethnic minority. As a young woman she chose to believe that she was Jewish, despite little evidence of Jewish ancestry. More recently she has sought an Aboriginal identity; in one essay (Whitefella Jump Up, 2003) she wrote of Australians declaring themselves Aboriginal "as if by an act of transubstantiation".

In her essay on rage she also emphasises the powerlessness of Aborigines ("utterly powerless"), whereas white society is represented by "racist authorities". It fits the framework of a majority organised illegitimately around the oppression of a powerless minority.

The framework itself deserves to be criticised: it assumes that human equality is contingent and is to be measured by an autonomous power to enact our will; it makes any majority tradition illegitimate; and it falsely assumes that a majority tradition is organised primarily as an act of oppressive dominance over others.

The framework also distorts Greer's understanding of the real situation. She seems to believe that whites are so powerful that their existence can be assumed to be perfectly secure, whereas Aborigines are so powerless they are on the brink.

If anything, the position of Aborigines is advancing, whilst that of whites is declining. Aborigines are becoming more numerous; there is an increasing amount of land set aside permanently for their own use; they are free to celebrate their own existence and there are considerable government funds at their disposable to organise themselves as a community.

In contrast, whites have declining birth rates; are being relegated to minority status throughout the West by immigration; and do not have the same freedom to celebrate their own existence.

That Greer doesn't see this suggests to me that she is still working through the theory I described above. The distance of this theory from reality, and the double standard it encourages in Greer's own writing, are reasons for younger Australians to question the politics of an older generation of left-liberals.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

A policy just to plug the gaps?

As predicted the Rudd Government is introducing a scheme to bring Pacific Islanders to Australia to harvest crops.

The scheme is not without its critics. Aboriginal leaders have asked why their own youth couldn't be employed to do the work; similarly, Opposition Leader Brendan Nelson has pointed to the large numbers of local unemployed available for work:

Why is it beyond the wit of our country to be able to provide the resources and encouragement in supporting Australians who are unemployed to go to areas where they can get seasonal work?

Dr Nelson is taking the scheme at face value; he is assuming that its promoters really do believe that they are just plugging temporary gaps in the labour market. I think it's more likely that those who support the scheme do so for other reasons.

Back in 2005, as the shadow minister for foreign affairs, Kevin Rudd boasted,

Labor led the government on the East Asia Community. We're now leading the government on the creation of a Pacific Community.

As PM, Kevin Rudd has had a further go at developing the East Asia Community, but with lukewarm support from abroad. But what is the Pacific Community he is so keen to create?

In 2003, an Australian Senate committee delivered a report which (quoting the report itself):

proposes a Pacific community which will eventually have one currency, one labour market, common strong budgetary and fiscal discipline, democratic and ethical governance, shared defence and security arrangements, common laws and resolve in fighting crime, and, health, welfare, education and environmental goals.

The Senate committee proposed, in other words, something like the European Union, but made up of Australia, New Zealand, PNG and the smaller Pacific Island nations. It's important to note that the Pacific Union would effectively replace the existing nations of the region, as there would be a free movement of people, a single currency and common laws.

The current policy of bringing in Pacific Islander labour fits this larger aim of creating an integrated Pacific Union. It's a first step toward a single labour market and an integrated economy.

Steve Lewis, the national political correspondent for the Herald Sun, has written openly about this aspect of the labour scheme. In a recent article, he attacked Brendan Nelson's opposition to the policy:

... his populist stance against a Pacific guest worker scheme ... is outrageously shrill ... he panders to the lowest common denominator ... A guest worker scheme makes sense ... it should also pave the way for a pan-Pacific economic and trade pact ... Rudd's employment scheme, which will initially allow 2500 "guest workers" into Australia, is the first tranche of an eventual Pacific "common market".

Steve Lewis summons up the usual open borders platitudes, telling Dr Nelson that he is "playing the politics of fear". Oddly, Steve Lewis ends his piece by appealing to Dr Nelson's patriotism: "The nation deserves better".

Steve Lewis is trying to have it both ways. He is anti-national in backing a policy designed to create a supra-national Pacific Community. He is anti-national too in associating nationalism negatively with a politics of populism and fear. But he then appeals for support for his open borders, anti-national policy on the grounds that "The nation deserves better". Go figure.

It's interesting too to look at the reasons given by Chris Berg for supporting the guest worker scheme. He is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs and describes himself as a libertarian or classical liberal (in other words, he is a right rather than a left liberal):

I admit to being very uncomfortable with those supposedly free market advocates who oppose immigration, for whatever reason ... The idea that we should stop an individual from searching for work beyond the national borders of their birthplace simply because we believe that their culture is somehow incompatable with ours is a deeply illiberal position to hold ...

How does the free movement of people differ in any significant way from the free movement of goods or services?

... we have a moral obligation to accept into our borders those who want to come. For individuals born in under-developed countries, simply crossing into the developed world can dramatically increase their potential salary, as well as allow them to experience the historically unprecedented living standards that we already enjoy.

The objections to expanded immigration seem nationalistic or economically illiterate at best, and immoral at worst.

This is the "atomised and materialistic individual living in an economy" view of society - one which has come down to us in the classical liberal tradition. If we are to be guided by an acquisitive individualism, in which the important thing is a lack of restriction on our solitary efforts to accumulate material goods, then Chris Berg is undoubtedly right - it would be immoral to prevent anyone from moving to whichever country most improved their material standard of living.

But what if the underlying view of man and society is wrong? What if man is not by nature solitary and selfish, but instead most fulfilled in his nature when he is living within a settled community? What if the primary form of human community is not so much an economic market, but rather a social community with a distinct culture and history? What if there are natural bonds between people giving rise to natural forms of community?

It then becomes immoral to break up these natural, settled forms of community.

So the issue goes beyond policy arguments to first concepts. If there is only the solitary, economic man working privately toward acquiring material goods - if that is the primary view of man and society - then it will be difficult to find a principled basis for defending existing forms of community.

Friday, August 22, 2008


There is a fine reply by Stephen Hopewell to a libertarian reader over at The Heritage American.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The end of man

Here is the personal profile of an Australian blogger:

About me

Merely one of the billions of crudely assembled piles of meat that inhabit this rock, the only thing setting me apart from the masses is my ability to think.

There are others who also see things this way. For instance, there is the feminist writer who believes that men and women are not so different as:

We are all human beings. We are all similar lumps of fleshy matter that moves and grunts and goes around its daily business.

It is, I suppose, a strictly materialist approach to describing existence (although I wonder if nominalism also doesn't play a role - if there are only particulars then perhaps you end up with the kind of reductionism quoted above.)

It's not a view, though, which fits how we experience life. Just this afternoon I went for a walk after work in one of the more rustic parts of the outer suburb of Melbourne I live in.

In late winter there's a bit of moisture in the soil and the wattles are in bloom - so the air is heavily scented. I walked through the country-style lanes to the river and felt richly, luxuriantly connected to nature. You would have to strip off whole layers of the mind, at such a time, to reduce the earth to a mere "rock" and myself to "a crudely assembled pile of meat".

(I just read out the blogger's view of himself to my wife. Her laughing reply: "So poetic, isn't it!")

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Why does the Swedish boy wear pink sandals?

One of the clearest differences between liberals and traditionalists concerns sex distinctions.

Liberals want to be autonomous - they wish to be "self-determined" in the sense of choosing for themselves who they are and what they do. We don't get to choose our sex for ourselves and therefore masculinity and femininity will often be treated by liberals as a limitation or restriction to be overcome.

Just recently I've read a number of articles in the media, each of which expresses this underlying negative attitude to sex differences.

At one extreme, there was a report of a speech given by a Melbourne bio-ethicist, Dr Robert Sparrow, to the Australian Medical Students Association. According to Dr Sparrow, medical technology should be used to "remove limitations on the opportunities available" to individuals.

What is one major limitation on individuals according to Dr Sparrow? Quite logically for a liberal, he believes that manhood and womanhood are limitations. Therefore, he suggested in his speech that one day medical technology might be used to create a "post sex" world in which there were no males or females but only hermaphrodites. If this proves impossible, he suggests that all people be born female, as females have a more "open" future than males, being able to do things (such as experience pregnancy) that are unavailable to men:

To reach this post-sex world, Dr Sparrow said parents wanting the best for their children should start choosing baby girls through IVF because they live longer and have more opportunities in life.

"There are significant restrictions on the opportunities available to men around gestation, childbirth, and breastfeeding, which will be extremely difficult to overcome via social or technological mechanisms in the foreseeable future. Women also have longer life expectancies than men," he said.

Dr Sparrow said his somewhat "tongue-in-cheek" argument was based on a line of thought about medical ethics that suggests medical technology should be used to serve the welfare of individuals and remove limitations on the opportunities available to them.

"I argue that, if these are our goals, we may do well to move towards a 'post-sex' humanity. Until we have the technology to produce genuine hermaphrodites, the most efficient way to do this is to use sex selection technology to ensure that only girl children are born. Girl babies therefore have a significantly more 'open' future than boy babies," he said.

... When asked if people should act on his suggestion, Dr Sparrow said he didn't expect many people would take up the challenge just yet.

"I don't think we're seriously looking at a world of only girl children just yet, but I do think that when philosophers start talking about using medical technology to achieve things that aren't about health, so increasing people's IQ or life expectancy for example, you have to ask why we shouldn't all be girls," he said.

Then there is the war on the colour pink. I wrote an item some time back about the uproar created in Sweden by a pink ice-cream marketed to girls:

The Swedish Consumers Association however uses an entirely different word: "gender-profiling".

"Girlie, GB's new ice pop, is pink and has make-up inside the stick. It says a lot about what GB thinks about girls and how they should be," said the association in a statement.

Well, the war on pink continues. Lauredhel, an Australian feminist, recently opened up a Target catalogue and was horrified to discover the marketing of pink toys to girls. She complained that it was "pinkly sickening". She went in search of toys for girls in the catalogue that weren't "pinkified" and was glad to discover a castle, but alas inside the castle there were no "siege engines and dragons and such" but instead a "sleeping pink baby".

Meanwhile, The Age saw fit to run a column titled "Girls can't thrive in a puff of pink". The writer, Monica Dux, is alarmed by the sight of young girls dressed as fairies, princesses and ballerinas. She suggests, oddly enough, that mothers who dress girls this way have created a raunch culture among older girls. She writes that those people who are anxious about raunch culture,

seem to be overlooking the pink elephant in the nursery, the one in fairy wings and a tiara.

She believes that there is,

a whiff of hypocrisy surrounding those parents who so readily lament the rise of raunch, while at the same time dressing their daughters in ways that entrench objectifying feminine stereotypes ...

Her solution runs as follows:

So, here's an idea: no matter how keen your daughter may be on her pretty princess outfit, pack it away and bring it out only for occasional play.

There might be a few tears, but you might also short-circuit a development path that leads to a grown woman who, deep down, still sees herself as all sugar and spice.

Then there was the report about two new publishing houses in Sweden (yes, Sweden again) which are operating explicitly on a liberal philosophy in which "individual freedom" is set against "traditional gender roles":

Two new publishing houses for children's books have sparked debate in gender-equal Sweden ...

"Our goal is for all people, regardless of gender, sexuality, ethnicity or other such things, to have the freedom to create their own identity and be respected for their personal qualities," said Karin Salmson, the co-founder of the new Vilda publishing house.

Vilda and another small publisher, Olika, both opened their doors last year with the express aim of making children's books that promote liberal values and challenge traditional views on gender, race and sexual orientation.

"Many parents feel forced to change he to she or she to he and other details as they read stories for their children, because so many details in children's books are so very traditional," Salmson said.

Vilda has therefore introduced a so-called "hug label", guaranteeing that its books have been "scrutinized from a democracy, equality and diversity perspective" and contain no details "based on prejudice or traditional gender roles that rein in individual freedom".

The publisher for instance makes sure girls are not always dressed in pink and boys in blue, that dad is not necessarily the one rushing off to work while mom stays home whipping up dinner and that same-sex parents are portrayed as a natural part of life.

Olika's co-founder Marie Tomicic also says her publishing house aims to "break down traditional gender roles and offer children broader role models, allowing them to be all they can be."

Together the two small publishers have so far only released about a dozen titles, including a book about a boy who wears pink sandals, and a story about a girl who likes to make farting sounds using her armpits, who just happens to have two dads.

The publishers' philosophies are largely in line with ruling attitudes in the country, which is widely considered a world leader in gender equality and minority rights.

What all of this suggests is that liberal autonomy theory doesn't work on its own terms. It is based on the idea that we should aim to be free to choose for ourselves in any direction. But when liberal thinkers try to apply this idea, it generates its own major limitations.

And so you get a bioethicist who looks forward to a time when the option of being male and female no longer exists; you get others who find it difficult to accept little girls acting like little girls by associating with the colour pink or wearing fairy princess costumes or playing with dolls.

What's worse is that the kind of choices liberalism sets itself against are often the ones most important to individuals. We don't seek our freedom as abstract entities; most men want the freedom to live as men, most women the freedom to live as women.

If a liberal tells me that I embody nothing, it is no use him then proclaiming that he has made me free "to be all that I can be". I was free to be more back when I embodied, as a man, a significant life principle - even if this meant that my identity wasn't entirely open-ended.

One final point. The traditional view of gender contains a principle of self-development. We are asked to find what is most admirable in our masculine or feminine selves and apply it successfully in the world. The liberal view of gender makes an easier, but less productive, demand on us; we are exhorted as men to not act so much like men and as women to act less like women.

Isn't there a reason, therefore, why the traditional view is more likely to develop individual character?

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

So we are friendless by nature?

I've now read the second chapter of Professor Steven Kautz's Liberalism & Community. If you remember, the book is intended to be a defence of classical liberalism.

Once again, I found it an extraordinary read. Kautz sets out the foundations of classical liberalism so openly that the flaws in the theory are strikingly clear.

Kautz begins the chapter by reminding the reader that liberalism has become an orthodoxy:

Classical and contemporary liberal teachings ... dominate our political discourse. America is still now, or perhaps now more than ever, somehow a liberal regime ... (p.23)

Why is "community" such a problem for us, here and now? The short answer is liberalism. The political philosophy of liberalism, its critics and friends agree, is in some sense our political philosophy: we are somehow all liberals. (p.28)

Why has a liberal orthodoxy brought about a lost sense of community? Kautz argues first that liberalism overwhelmed other traditions which once upheld a positive sense of virtue:

Liberalism ... has prevailed in this century in America, overwhelming those elements of the American political tradition that once tamed our individualism and materialism. If liberal America once found needed moral sustenance in various religious and republican traditions of virtue that have long since been abandoned, as many argue, then it must now find a way to reconstitute those indispensable moral supplements to the material comforts that liberal politics provides. (p.28)

It's Kautz's second argument which is really striking. Kautz explains that the "moral pyschology" on which liberalism is based is inevitably hostile to community:

It should not be surprising, even to partisans of liberalism, that a world dominated by liberal individualism has given rise to longings for lost community. Classical liberalism is a doctrine of acquisitive individualism, and teaches that man is by nature solitary and selfish, not political or even social: the most powerful natural passions and needs of human beings are private. Human beings are not friends by nature.

This harsh moral psychology is, at any rate, the fundamental teaching of classical liberalism. As a result, the idea of community is always somewhat suspect for thoughtful liberals. Liberals are inclined to view partisans of community as either romantic utopians or dangerous authoritarians.

If there is no natural common good, beyond peace and security, then invocations of the spirit of community are either foolish or fraudulent, impossible dreams or wicked ideologies. (p.28)

Kautz goes on to write in a similar vein:

Classical liberals ... seem to believe that we could be content to live alone, because there are no natural bonds between human beings, and so there is no natural community. Indeed, the family is not simply natural, according to some of the founders of liberalism. And even if there were certain natural passions or sentiments that might, in favourable circumstances, bring human beings together in a natural community, these passions are overwhelmed, in most circumstances, by the strongest human passion, the desire to preserve oneself and to live in tolerable comfort in a world of human enemies ...

In short, the most urgent human good ... is the security of our bodies ... I repeat: our classical liberal teachers have taught us that human beings are in the decisive respect friendless by nature, and we have constructed a world on the basis of this understanding. It is not surprising that we feel lonely, now and then. (p.29)

Liberal politics is, as a result, a politics of fearful accommodation among natural foes who somehow reconstitute themselves as civil friends ... (p.29)

This "moral psychology" ought to have been challenged, and marginalised, long ago. It is way too pessimistic an account of human nature. We are asked to believe the following:

i) humans are by nature solitary and selfish
ii) other humans are to be regarded primarily as a threat to my life
iii) the primary good is to be left alone, in physical security, to pursue acquisitive wants, in other words, to accumulate material goods
iv) any invocation of community is either utopian or authoritarian

I think back to my childhood and early adulthood in Melbourne, a city of several million souls. I remember a whole set of naturally occurring communities: those of family, suburb, parish, city, state and nation. I remember people acting supportively toward each other, on the basis that you should "help your mates", or that men should act courteously toward women, or that you should help out a fellow Australian, or that you should help the less fortuntate and so on. I remember too a range of goods that were held to be more important than acquisitive wants: loyalty to friends, love for women, a culture of family life, masculine character and achievement, an appreciation of the arts, and a love of nature to name a few.

Melbourne was, at that time, a settled community and the primary experience of life was not fear of those you lived amongst. If anything, the opposite was true: people were generally honest and helpful in their dealings with each other.

So there is no compelling reason, in my own life experience, to retreat into a private world of acquisitive individualism - a world in which community is feared as a danger to my liberty of person or property.

We lose too much in this retreat, including a freedom to participate in the more significant aspects of life.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Feminism ... just ... got ... worse ...

Penny Red is angry:

You bloody traitor, Kathleen Parker. You weak-willed, belly-showing traitor.

What would make a young socialist feminist so mad? How could Kathleen Parker so enrage her?

Penny Red is upset that Kathleen Parker wrote a column in defence of men and fatherhood. Parker's column is worth reading in its entirety, but it ends on this note:

As long as men feel marginalised by the women whose favours and approval they seek; as long as they are alienated from their children and treated as criminals by family courts; as long as they are disrespected by a culture that no longer values masculinity tied to honour; and as long as boys are bereft of strong fathers and our young men and women wage sexual war, then we risk cultural suicide.

In the coming years we will need men who are not confused about their responsibilities. We need boys who have acquired the virtues of honour, courage, valour and loyalty. We need women willing to let men be men – and boys be boys. And we need young men and women who will commit and marry and raise children in stable homes.

I think this is exceptionally well put. Penny Red, though, intensely dislikes the quote because she thinks it is right that men are marginalised, that culture disrespects and dishonours masculinity, and that men and women engage in a sex war.

Here is how Penny Red responds to Kathleen Parker:

Women have been raising children alone for centuries untold, and, since feminist liberation, we have been enabled to provide for ourselves and our children on a more basic level. If that alienates men from their traditional roles of breadwinner and head of the table then too bad. I was raised by a single mother who was also a part-time lawyer; it did me no harm whatsoever, and I fully intend to be one myself one day.

... So, precisely in what way do children ‘need’ fathers - or is it, in fact, fathers who need children? ... The plain fact is that now that women are allowed to financially provide for themselves, we no longer need husbands to raise children effectively, if, indeed, we ever did. What women could do with, fundamentally, are wives –other people, male or female, to share the load of domestic work and money-earning in a spirit of genuine support and partnership. When more men can stomach seeing themselves in the role of 'wife and father', then we’ll have a basis for negotiation.

This is bad enough, but it gets worse. Penny Red goes on to state that a child is only the mother's - that the father has no rights at all when it comes to a child. She is willing to balance this view by stating that the father is therefore under no obligations, financial or otherwise, to the child:

Why is it unarguable that a man should support his offspring? With state help, most women are perfectly capable of doing so on their own ...

... Before they are their own, my kids will be just that - mine - and my money will pay for the nappies and school shoes.

So sorry about your balls, guys, but before they are their own these babies are ours, and they will remain ours whilst they are born from our bodies. We would be only too delighted for you to help us – genuinely help us – with the work of raising the next generation, but fatherhood is a privilege, not a right. If you’re truly man enough to be a wife and father, bring that to the table and we'll talk.

How should men respond to this? There are a couple of ways I think are unhelpful. The first is to get angry and resentful toward women in general. Not all women are Penny Reds. In my own neighbourhood of Melbourne there are many genuinely lovely young women who still represent a more traditional womanhood. The best comeback to the Penny Reds is to find such a woman and live happily with her.

However, it's not helpful either to entirely ignore women like Penny Red. She represents a trend within modernism which has real influence within our culture. If we take the attitude that it's most masculine just to shrug off women like Penny Red, we allow the situation to get worse. A real advantage we have as men is the ability to apply ourselves in a concentrated way to a problem in order to solve it. We shouldn't leave it to sympathetic women like Kathleen Parker to take on the problem of feminism. It should be our aim to work patiently and perseveringly to entirely rid our culture of the negative influence of feminism.

How do we do this? There are at least four ways to argue persuasively against Penny Red's politics.

The first is simply to point out the factual errors. On average, children raised by single women don't do as well as those raised in more traditional families. Nor do most single mothers manage to do well financially on their own. The provider and protector roles of men are not yet redundant, in spite of the role of the state in supporting single motherhood.

The second approach is to point out just how unliveable Penny Red's politics are. Feminism has reached the point at which feminists themselves are rarely able to follow their own principles in practice. For instance, Penny Red declared early in her post that she intended to become a single mother. However, later we learn that she has left herself considerable wriggle room:

I love my partner deeply and would be thrilled to bear a child who carried half of his genetic material. If we are still together at the time my child is born I will be only too happy for him to help me raise it, for him to share legal guardianship and for my child to call him ‘dad’. And this is not because it’s his moral or genetic right, but because I’m lucky enough to have met an emotionally and domestically literate man who I think would make a wonderful parent. But I want him around because he's a fantastic person, not because my kids need a male parent. And if he doesn't want to be involved, I'll manage.

So she does have a male partner and she would be "thrilled" to bear his child and she thinks he would make a "wonderful" parent and she would like her child to call him "dad". But the fact of his being male is just ... well, fortuitous. What seems clear is that Penny Red does want to live with the father of her child, in spite of all her arguments that men are superfluous.

Which leads on to the third problem with her politics. Penny Red, despite wanting to live with the father of her child, has undercut her own position in such a relationship. If men and women were really to believe the arguments that she makes, then how could a woman keep a man in a long-term relationship? If a man no longer believes his role as a father is a necessary one, and if he believes that he has no obligations to a child which, after all, is his wife's and not really his, then a woman is going to have to work overtime to keep him around. She is going to have to really exert herself to keep him happy.

To put it another way, when a man believes that his children are his own in a significant way, and that their welfare depends on his masculine role within the family, then he is much less likely to leave in a crisis. A woman in such a relationship can relax a bit, knowing that her husband has reasons to stay.

The final approach is the most important. What Penny Red has done is to apply, in a radical way, liberal autonomy theory to the lives of women. If the key aim in life is to be autonomous, then why wouldn't a woman assert that her child is her own and not someone else's? Why wouldn't she want to negotiate a role for the father on her own terms? Why wouldn't she claim that fathers are unnecessary and that she as a woman can manage on her own?

So if we really want to undermine feminism in Western culture we have to attack at the root of the problem - by decisively rejecting liberal autonomy theory. This means rejecting the idea that individual autonomy is the overriding, organising principle in society. We need to confidently assert other goods as well, including (as Kathleen Parker does) what is good for the survival of our own tradition.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Cut adrift in Harlem

You might have heard the saying that a conservative is a liberal who's been mugged by reality. Well, here's a story to illustrate the quote.

Susan Crain Bakos is an older, white, female liberal. A few years ago, she wrote a column announcing that she'd given up on white men and now preferred the company of black men. She wrote that she deliberately chose black men because of the racial difference and because black men not only had "more energy, style and edge" but were also "gentlemen, something which white men no longer are".

Well, she's now written another column. It turns out that she acted on her decision to only date black men by moving to Harlem and socialising in a Harlem bar. At first, things went well. The bar, St.Nicks Pub, was a bubbling hub of diversity:

On that Saturday night when I first went with friends to hear the Africa Band, I thought the pub — Harlem! — welcomed me. And I rhapsodized about the experience to friends. Striding into St. Nicks on a balmy August night, working my embroidered denim Halle Bob skirt with the deep front slit, I felt Harlem gently kissing my thighs. Nelson, the bar manager, smiled at me and brought folding chairs up from the basement to arrange seating for us because, he said, “I want you sitting here where I can keep an eye on those pretty white legs.”

I was surrounded by the kind of crowd that I imagined assembled in small Harlem jazz bars during the Renaissance and again in the 1940s and the 1960s, time periods when the excitement in the air was inextricably linked to a sound appreciated by sophisticated people who sought out diversity. Africans and African Americans, whites, Latinos, European and Japanese tourists — a mélange of ages, races, sexual orientations and interracial couples — they were jostling against each other in this tiny crowded space without animosity ...

But as time passed problems emerged. There was crime:

It was always a place where cash disappears from unwatched handbags, a jacket or cashmere shawl tossed casually on the back of a bar stool may be sold to another patron and “salesmen” come through hawking everything from tube socks to portraits of the Virgin Mary. Between the casual theft and the men who asked, “Will you buy me a drink? Lend me some money? Help me buy a new car?” — Yes, a car! — I had stopped carrying more cash than I would spend on two drinks and a cab home. Drugs, of course, were available for purchase in the backyard, which usually smelled of pot smoke.

There was jealous hostility from black women:

... the undercurrent of anger that I’d seen as an occasional flash in a black woman’s eye turned into more open hostility. The African-American girl bartenders, especially on Sunday nights, brazenly overcharged white customers and told them to leave for “being disrespectful” if they complained. Black women “regulars” made loud negative comments about white women ...

There were political resentments:

One of the regulars, an educated, successful black man, lectured me repeatedly: “America must apologize for the original sin of slavery and offer reparations.” “The prisons are full of young black men caught with nickel and dime bags,” he declared, “Incarcerated on the three-strikes-you’re-out rule.” “Reverend Jeremiah Wright! Why is he being pilloried for saying what black ministers say every Sunday in Harlem!”

There was violence:

...the violence was escalating, too ... There were stories of one musician slashing another in the backyard, of fist fights among drug buyers and sellers, of guns waved but not shot. One Friday night, I was in the pub when some thugs came in and roughed up some other thugs. Most of the African-American regulars bolted for the door; the white people stayed.

Then there was Mykul, a thug who knocked her to the ground to steal her handbag:

Mykul, my assailant, is a thug; and I was naive to have ignored that.

I discovered during chatty conversation at the pub that Mykul—pronounced Michael—was a hairdresser who initially learned his craft while in prison. Liberal white woman that I am — was? — I believed in rehabilitation, so I made an appointment with him at Big Russ’ Barber Shop on Frederick Douglass Boulevard. And I even returned a second time.

I’m sure he stole my wallet on that second hair appointment, though he blamed a gypsy cab driver for its loss. I wasn’t going to make a third appointment. Then the shakedowns for more money began. He called asking me to pay more “because you would pay it downtown.” Apparently desperate to cover the debt with his drug dealer, he’d told me he had — or maybe just to buy more drugs — he stepped up his game.

When I hit the concrete with the back of my head and the small of my back, I knew that I was forever changed. I was mugged once before, but it wasn’t personal. No one I actually knew by name had ever raised a hand to me. Born and raised in East St. Louis, Ill., I had nevertheless lived my life — until that night — in a world where men do not hit or shove women.

She found herself friendless:

No one outside the pub that night would loan me a cell phone to dial 911. Crying, I went inside and borrowed a phone from Melvin. Two uniformed cops responded to the call, a man and a woman, young and as unsympathetic as the patrons at the bar — who hugged me in greeting most nights — and now wouldn’t look me in the eye.

“Nobody knows you,” the cops said. “Nobody saw anything,” they said.

“It’s always like that in there. Someone gets stabbed in the backyard and nobody saw nothing, nobody knows nothing."

... The next day, a friend who has written about Harlem said: “I am sorry you lost your idealism and innocence; you held on to it far longer than most people do ..."

She concludes:

Often I think that African Americans give us too much power. White people aren’t the primary force keeping them down. Thug Life is. I haven’t seen Mykul since that night in May. If I did, I’d probably find a safe building and hide. The physical sense of violation I felt when Mykul attacked me was so profound that I could not understand how my neighbors could stand by and offer no help, no sympathy.

She began by glamourising the diversity of Harlem, but her own experiences there led her to observe that:

Harlem is no place for a woman without male protection.

Having cut herself adrift from her own community, she found herself in a place where she no longer felt, in her own words, "emotionally safe".

Hat tip: Pilgrimage to Montsalvat

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Liberalism vs community?

I've just begun reading Liberalism & Community by Steven Kautz. He is an Associate Professor of Politics at Michigan State University.

The book is a reply to those who have criticised liberalism for undermining community. Admittedly, I've only read the first chapter, but so far I've been more disconcerted than persuaded by the way Kautz puts his argument.

I'm going to quote some sections of the text and then briefly comment underneath, beginning with this admission by Kautz:

We have been taught by our classical liberal ancestors to think of ourselves as free individuals above all, rather than as children or parishioners or citizens, or as members of a racial or ethnic group - or, indeed, as members of any other communities. (p.19)

I'm still astonished that people can think this way and build a politics on such an understanding of life. Kautz is happy to support a liberalism in which we become "free" to the extent that we diminish the role in our lives of communities. Kautz thinks of "freedom" as the highest good, and he identifies communities as a threat or hazard to this freedom.

Such a perspective makes no sense if you think of people as social creatures, whose lives are naturally embedded in distinct communities. In this view, freedom is something that is achieved within a society and not against it.

Kautz is aware of such objections. He goes on to quote some communitarian critics of the liberal outlook:

But this idea of the free individual is based on a confusion, say its critics: one's deepest attachments to other human beings are not freely chosen, adopted, and then discarded like articles of clothing, but are given prior to such choices and "partly define the person I am" ...

Indeed, the human being who overcomes such "constitutive" attachments is not liberated, but is rather, says Sandel, "wholly without character, without moral depth"; an honorable human being must surely "feel the moral weight" of these primary loyalties.

The criticisms here are quite good. Liberalism holds that to be free we must be self-defining, self-determining individuals. But much of what is most significant in our lives is unchosen, including our communal identity and a great part of our family commitments. If we lose this unchosen aspect of life, then we will be poorer in our sense of ourselves and our place within a community.

Kautz seems to take this criticism seriously. He therefore sets out to prove that the asocial, "free" liberal individual can also stake a claim to "moral depth":

All of this is undoubtedly partly true: the liberal idea of the free individual too often, in liberal practice, produces eccentric, passive, lonely individuals. But it is perhaps not exhaustive.

Even for contemporary admirers of community, praise of the loyal and devoted citizen is commonly tempered by an awareness of the moral gravity of those who contributed to liberalism's past and present victories over intolerant and oppressive communities: moral freedom may require rebellion against moral community.

Those free individuals who secured for themselves, and for us, the blessings of liberty, even at the price of rebellion against a father or a priest or a prince, are perhaps not wholly "without moral depth," but deserve both our admiration and our gratitude: the truly free human being possesses a moral dignity that at least rivals the dignity of a human life that is animated by love or piety or patriotism.

Once again, Kautz, the defender of classical liberalism, writes of community as a kind of natural competitor against, or even enemy of, freedom. He even contrasts the "truly free human being" with the human being animated "by love or piety or patriotism".

I don't like Kautz's radically individualistic "truly free human being". I don't even think he is all that free - what, after all, is his freedom for, once he becomes asocial and discards membership of a distinct community and tradition, and once he steps aside from a life animated "by love or piety or patriotism"? Isn't it better to be free to participate in the greater aspects of life, rather than to discard them in order to be an autonomous loner?

Friday, August 01, 2008

Falling down in Koreatown

Back in 1996, at the age of 43, Heather King found herself married but childless, and living in Koreatown, a suburb of Los Angeles crowded with large immigrant families.

The experience led her to break with the liberal culture she had grown up with. As a young woman, Heather King believed "passionately" in the freedom to have casual sex and to take drugs. She fell pregnant a number of times and ended up having three abortions; she refused to consider motherhood out of fear that it might limit or restrict her lifestyle:

Coming of age in the '60s, I believed passionately in sexual freedom and the concomitant right to choose abortion. Also a staunch supporter of drinking and drugs, I became deeply alcoholic and sobered up in my mid-thirties to discover that I had somehow graduated from law school. I have now been married for six years, and, at forty-three, am childless.

It is difficult to admit that two of the babies I aborted were conceived with married men, one of whom was a one-night stand, and that the third abortion was performed during the course of a long-term relationship. I would like to be able to say that I agonized over the decisions, but the fact is that they were based on expedience and fear.

Motherhood would have disrupted my life in every conceivable way. It would call upon resources I was not at all certain I possessed--patience, selflessness, the ability to go without sleep--and I viewed it, frankly, as a kind of prison sentence. It seemed inconceivable that a woman would actually invite the upheaval that a baby entails. I don't care how much joy they say it brings, I said to myself, no way am I getting sucked into that trap.

She then devoted herself to a career as a lawyer:

When we arrived in Koreatown, I was working as a litigation attorney in a Beverly Hills office. I could scarcely have been more temperamentally ill-suited for the job, but it was the first time in my life I had made decent money and I was desperately afraid to give it up. My eyes, red-rimmed with fatigue, fell upon the bimonthly paycheck with the same grim relish a buzzard displays for carrion; I dragged through each day consumed by anxiety and the hideous fear that I would contract some stress-based disease and keel over dead at my desk.

Finally she began to reconsider the values on which her life had been founded:

During those four years my life felt, oddly enough, like a prison sentence--the sentence I had hoped to avoid by exercising intelligence backed by the unfettered exercise of free will. As a matter of fact, although I had enjoyed virtually every purported freedom that modern life has to offer, I realized that in one way, my life had always felt like a sentence. I had drunk and smoked and slept around to my heart's content, yet the apotheosis of my personal freedom had consisted of servitude to a bottle of booze and getting pregnant by someone whose name I barely knew ...

I had followed my own unguided will, and it had led me straight to hell on earth: an existence characterized by guilt, shame, doubt, insecurity, and the inability to love or be loved.

So the freedom to act in any direction guided by nothing more than individual reason was not liberating for Heather King. She had been misled, first by the belief that it is the absence of limit or restraint which represents human freedom, and second by the idea that individual reason alone is sufficient to guide us successfully through life.

Individual reason is important but it's not enough: not only does it vary in quality from individual to individual, even when it's strong it will still often take too long for individuals to learn important life lessons from scratch. As Burke famously wrote:

We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that the stock in each man is small, and that individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and of ages.

Which brings us back to Koreatown, Los Angeles. Heather King moved there for the cheap rent, but felt alienated rather than enriched living in the midst of diversity:

It is a neighborhood under physical, mental, and spiritual siege. Here, encircled and infiltrated, we live in the agora. As I write, a man ten feet from my desk puffs a cigarette on his porch; I can see the whites of his eyes ...

Here it is not an exaggeration to say that somebody will steal it if it's not nailed down. Somebody, for instance, stole my brand-new bicycle, then somebody stole my car ...

The majority of our neighbors are Latino and Korean and the place is lousy with children. Mothers and fathers - mostly mothers - throng the sidewalk with their litters of offspring. I used to wonder with irritation why these people give birth so relentlessly ...

Three times a day the produce truck parks out front, blaring "Turkey in the Straw" or "O'er the Bounding Main" for twenty minutes at a stretch. At 8 P.M., a man who sells bread out of the back of his car pulls up and emits a haunting wail, like a mullah calling the devout to prayer ...

We fall asleep to the whirr of circling helicopters and the staccato lullaby of gunfire. Crack addicts propel their shopping carts through the alley; car alarms shriek like wounded animals; the spray cans of the graffiti "taggers" hiss audibly. Girlish screams follow the thud of fist against flesh.

The litter is ferocious. A set of unspoken rules prevails: when holding something you no longer have any use for--a newspaper, a napkin, a styrofoam cup--open your hand and let the thing drop to the ground where you stand. When finished eating, throw what's left - a chicken bone, a corn cob, a banana peel - in the street ...

When I do the dishes, I can see the Korean mother across the way stirring a pot and wiping her table. A kind of blue-net birdcage, housing what appear to be dead sardines, dangles from an eave; kimchee ferments below in an earthenware crock ...

There seem to be two things going on here. First, an understandable reaction to crime, overcrowding, and unfamiliar sights, sounds and social mores. How could Heather King relax and feel a sense of home in these conditions of diversity?

But it seems too that Koreatown challenged her liberal-left hostility to motherhood and family. She was confronted daily with the sight of large families and women surrounded by their children. This too was alien to her own social class and she records her negative response: "lousy with children", "litters of offspring".

But in re-examining her underlying values, she also came to question her negative attitude to motherhood. She has come to believe that the reasons she gave herself for her abortions were false:

The vague notion underlying my abortions, and I suspect of the vast majority of other women's as well, is the idea that there wouldn't be enough to go round--not enough time, not enough energy, not enough space, not enough people to help. But when I examined my motives honestly, I realized that though I said not enough for the kid, I meant not enough for me.

I mouthed platitudes about the global population boom; in fact, I was most worried about overcrowding in my own bedroom. I chafed against the "enforced labor" of motherhood while accepting without question the prevailing consumer ethic that sentences the vast majority of us to a lifetime of economic servitude.

The truth in my case is that there was not only enough to go round, there would probably have been more than most of the rest of the world will ever enjoy: maybe not an expensive home or fancy cars--I don't have those things now--but nourishing food and a roof over our heads and comfortable clothes. There would have been books and music and museums. It would have meant sacrifice, deferred plans, missed vacations, no slipcovered down sofa, no hundred-dollar shoes, but there would have been enough. The truth was that I simply did not want to share.

She now believes that motherhood might have changed her for the better:

If I discovered today I was pregnant, I hope my convictions would be steadfast and unwavering. I hope I would know enough to weigh my fear--of birth defects, of making do with less, of not being a good parent, of noise and anxiety and lack of sleep--against the possibility that a child would change me in ways I cannot imagine, in aspects of my life that probably desperately need changing.

What a pity, though, that this change of heart came so late in life, when the time for motherhood had probably passed by.