Saturday, February 27, 2010

Is Virginia any better as a feminist mother?

Back in 2002, Australian journalist Virginia Haussegger wrote a newspaper column titled "The sins of our feminist mothers". It begins with the following description of her feminist upbringing:

As we worked our way through high school and university in the '70s and early '80s, girls like me listened to our mothers, our trailblazing feminist teachers, and the outspoken women who demanded a better deal for all women. They paved the way for us to have rich careers.

They anointed us and encouraged us to take it all. We had the right to be editors, paediatricians, engineers, premiers, executive producers, High Court judges, CEOs etc. We were brought up to believe that the world was ours. We could be and do whatever we pleased.

Feminism's hard-fought battles had borne fruit. And it was ours for the taking.

Or so we thought - until the lie of super "you-can-have-it-all" feminism hits home, in a very personal and emotional way.

The idea was to be autonomous, hence the slogan of "doing and being whatever we pleased". However, since it was careers which made women independent, women were to aim not at doing whatever they pleased but at a powerful professional career.

And Virginia Haussegger succeeded at this. She became a high profile news and current affairs journalist on Australian TV. But at a cost. She had a loving marriage but when she worked in a different city to her husband the relationship foundered. After her divorce she embarked on a series of casual encounters with men. By the time she met her second husband in her mid-30s, her fallopian tubes had been damaged beyond repair by chlamydia. She had lost the chance to have children of her own.

She wished that she had received a different message from her feminist role models:

The point is that while encouraging women in the '70s and '80s to reach for the sky, none of our purple-clad, feminist mothers thought to tell us the truth about the biological clock. Our biological clock. The one that would eventually reach exploding point inside us ...

And none of our mothers thought to warn us that we would need to stop, take time out and learn to nurture our partnerships and relationships. Or if they did, we were running too fast to hear it.

For those of us that did marry, marriage was perhaps akin to an accessory. And in our high-disposable-income lives, accessories pass their use-by date, and are thoughtlessly tossed aside.

Frankly, the dominant message was to not let our man, or any man for that matter, get in the way of career and our own personal progress.

Autonomy and careers were what mattered. Men were "accessories" to be tossed aside if they got in the way of a woman's "personal progress".

But, in the long run, it didn't seem worth it. A career and a single girl lifestyle made for a comfortable but alienating existence:

The end result: here we are, supposedly "having it all" as we edge 40; excellent education; good qualifications; great jobs; fast-moving careers; good incomes; and many of us own the trendy little inner-city pad we live in. It's a nice caffe-latte kind of life, really.

But the truth is - for me at least - the career is no longer a challenge, the lifestyle trappings are joyless (the latest Collette Dinnigan frock looks pretty silly on a near-40-year-old), and the point of it all seems, well, pointless.

I am childless and I am angry. Angry that I was so foolish to take the word of my feminist mothers as gospel. Angry that I was daft enough to believe female fulfilment came with a leather briefcase.

It was wrong. It was crap.

And now Virginia Haussegger herself is playing the role of a feminist mother, being the guest speaker and "chief feminist flag waver" at an event at the Australian National University. And what advice did she give the young women?

The same advice that she called "crap" back in 2002. She thought it great that the young women had a strong sense of entitlement; she highlighted professional success as what mattered; and she spoke at length of women being held back from achieving career success and pay parity.

Think about this. In 2010 she is telling young women that they will be oppressed by their lack of career and pay opportunities. In 2002, it was a very different story. She admitted then that she and her friends had not been held back at all in their careers and income. They had great jobs, high incomes and a glamorous, comfortable lifestyle. But she had learned that career and money weren't enough for fulfilment. She should not have treated men and relationships as secondary, as mere "accessories".

So why not tell the next generation of women this? Why not spare them from making the same mistake? Why not let them know that they can be oppressed not so much by discrimination but by failing to take the time to nurture relationships? That career and money alone can seem pointless?

Worst of all, why discuss motherhood in such negative terms, as a "breeding creed" that might upset a woman's "career and income ambitions"?

Virginia, aren't you repeating the sins of your own feminist mothers?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

She married him

Simon Downer is a thug. He plunged a knife into the stomach of a girlfriend and got six years in prison. Whilst there he met another woman, Tracey, a single mother in her late 30s.

Tracey fell head over heels in love, married the violent criminal on his release and brought him home to live with her 8-year-old daughter. The married couple were very happy together.

Until they had an argument one night, just three months after their marriage. Simon Downer shoved aside his stepdaughter, stabbed his new wife fatally in the heart telling her "that's what happens if you push it with me".

Most women would not have married the thug. Even so, there has been a spate of reports in recent times of women, sometimes quite respectable professional women, choosing to have relationships with violent criminals.

One thing this tells us is that the ruling idea of human nature in Western societies is mistaken. John Kekes describes this ruling idea as follows:

The view of human nature at the core of the liberal faith is thus that human beings are by their nature free, equal, rational, and morally good.

If you accept this view of human nature as adequate, then you will think it not only possible but desirable to leave each individual to arrive at their own moral view. The ideal will be a society of free, equal and morally elevated individuals, untouched by any external restraints on their choices.

But the liberal view of human nature hasn't brought us closer to a society of independent, high-minded gentlemen and women who freely, and therefore most virtuously, choose to discipline their lives to some morally elevated purpose.

Look what happens, for instance, when the "no rules" principle is applied to women like Tracey Downer. Her sexuality is liberated from the influence of traditional morals, which then unleashes a destructive attraction to violent, dangerous men. The result is disastrous.

The problem is that we are not equal in our natures. Not everyone has the same level of moral conscience, prudence and self-discipline. Nor are we entirely rational in our natures. We are moved too by passions and loves, which for both better and worse define the human experience in important ways.

Liberals worry that if a society sets a moral standard, or if we are influenced by the culture we live in to be good, that we are acting like automatons, and losing the virtue of freely choosing the good. A liberal wants to feel morally elevated because of his own autonomous character.

I think this fear is mistaken. There will always be the possibility of acting badly, no matter how great the influence of society. Our moral free will to choose for the better or the worse will always be there. All that a society can do is to bolster the voice of moral conscience and encourage prudence.

Second, it can be argued that it's the liberal view which undercuts the need for character and moral will. After all, if people are naturally and equally good, then doing the good will come easily. It's only if you think that human nature is fallen, with each individual struggling to follow the better part of his nature, that our acts of goodness become achievements of character.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Liberalism itself intolerant?

Harriet Harman, the British Minister for Equality, has introduced a new Equality Bill which she hopes will build "a new social order".

One feature of the Equality Bill is that it will allow companies to discriminate against white men in order to boost the number of female or ethnic minority employees.

This effectively means that people will be chosen on the basis of race and ethnicity rather than merit, but Harman doesn't want to admit this. At the government website we're told that employers will be allowed to take "positive action" to hire women or ethnic minority applicants, but that:

Positive discrimination (employing someone because of a characteristic regardless of merit) will remain illegal.

In other words, they want to maintain the fiction that they're hiring on merit even when they're practising affirmative action. A necessary self-deceit perhaps.

Anyway, the Equality Bill was criticised by the Pope as it could potentially be used to force the Church to hire job applicants who acted against the Church's teachings.

Enter Simon Jenkins, a writer for the very liberal Guardian newspaper and a former editor of the Times. He decided to back the Pope in a column which I think is revealing of contemporary liberalism. It's revealing because it demonstrates the difficulty that a liberal like Jenkins has with religion, whilst also being an admission that contemporary liberalism has become intolerant.

This is how Jenkins frames the issue:

The ­Roman Catholic church may be a hotbed of religious prejudice, indoctrination and, somewhere in the United Kingdom, social division. But faced with Harriet Harman's equality bill and her utopian campaign to straighten all the rough timber of mankind, the pope's right to practise what he preaches needs defending.

A hotbed of religious prejudice? Is that how a former editor of the Times looks on the Catholic Church? I wouldn't describe my local parish that way. It usually strikes me as overly sedate and casual and flavoured heavily with a social justice doctrine derived more from secular liberalism than from Catholic orthodoxy.

Jenkins later describes the Church in these terms:

The church's historic aversion to religious debate and dissent, its pathological conservatism, its veneration of relics, its cruelty to its own adherents and its necrophilia make the pope's plea for tolerance ring hollow.

Pathological conservatism? Cruelty to its own adherents? Necrophilia? Again, I find it disconcerting that someone from the upper echelons of the media would write this way. (And why is the veneration of relics an act of intolerance - what is happening in the liberal mind here?)

Jenkins does not, though, support the use of the Equality Bill against the churches. He believes that this only furthers the imposition of state control. He goes so far as to admit that,

British liberalism has had a good half-century, but has begun to lurch into the intolerance it purports to oppose. It should loosen up and acknowledge that some communal space must be allowed the old illiberalism.

I'm not entirely sure how to react to this. Jenkins does recognise that liberalism has become intolerant, but his alternative is merely that we non-liberals be granted "some communal space". So much for liberalism supposedly being neutral. It is revealed here as the governing principle of society.

Nor am I sure how to respond to this attempt at sympathy toward traditionalists by Jenkins:

There are still large numbers of Britons who are uncomfortable with those whose behaviour diverges from what they see as traditional norms. These conservatives have swallowed much this past half-century, as authoritarianism has been steadily eradicated by liberal legislation on homosexuality, abortion, divorce and free speech.

Occasionally the liberalism has looked more like intolerance, as over smoking and aspects of "hate speech". Indeed to some people, liberalism's onward march has seemed more like a jackboot in the face. A few have reacted by retreating into a know-nothing fundamentalism, as witnessed in many parts of America.

Jenkins has already admitted that liberalism has become intolerant in imposing itself on society. So it's not really a case of liberalism ushering in a less authoritarian society, thereby upsetting traditionalists. There is still an authoritarianism, a liberal one, combined with the divergence from traditional norms.

Nor is the most significant reaction against liberalism a "know-nothing fundamentalism". What's more important is the growing sense of division between the liberal elite and the rest of society. Many people now have the sense of no longer being truly represented by the political class.

Charlie & Boots

A brief film review for Australian readers.

I saw Charlie & Boots on DVD last night. It's a road movie in which a father and son reconnect. I have to give credit to those involved: there was not even a moment of guilt mongering in the film, unlike so many recent Australian releases. The film isn't that deep, but I enjoyed the humour and the scenery - it works well as light entertainment.

I'd give it a 7 or 8 out of 10.

If you've already seen it, feel free to add your own comments.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Does this justify the left-liberal bias on campus?

It's a common complaint of conservatives that universities have a left-wing bias.

Jere P. Surber is a professor of philosophy at the University of Denver. He is a left-liberal who agrees that the arts faculties are strongly biased to the left. But he thinks that there are three good reasons for this.

Before I summarise these three reasons, just a quick point on terminology. Surber distinguishes between a "liberalism" which dominates the arts faculties and a "conservatism" which dominates the business faculties. By "liberalism" is meant what we would call in Australia "left-liberalism". And the "conservatism" in the business faculties is really a kind of economic liberalism, a right-liberalism.

So why does Professor Surber think it natural and reasonable for the arts faculties to be dominated by left-liberalism?

1) Envy

It's best if I let Professor Surber explain this one:

First ... virtually all instructors in the liberal arts are aware of the disparity between their level of education and their financial situation. There's no secret that the liberal arts are the lowest-compensated sector of academe, despite substantially more advanced study  ... You don't have to be a militant Marxist to recognize that people's political persuasions will align pretty well with their economic interests. It's real simple: Those who have less and want more will tend to support social changes that promise to accomplish that; those who are already economic winners will want to conserve their status.

I don't mean to suggest that issues of conscience beyond the confines of crass self-interest don't play an important role for many in the liberal arts, but their basic economic condition virtually assures that those in the liberal arts will be natural-born liberals. Who, after all, would want to preserve a situation in which others who are equivalently educated and experienced—doctors, engineers, lawyers, scientists, colleagues in other areas, and, yes, chief executives—receive vastly more compensation ...

Every time I read this I'm left speechless. If Professor Surber were working in Australia he'd be on $135,000 a year. He'd also enjoy some perks of the job, such as frequent trips overseas for academic conferences. Yet, in his mind, he's not getting what he's entitled to, given his splendiferous level of education ... because someone else is getting more.

2) The evidence of history

According to Professor Surber, it is left-liberals who study history; therefore it is left-liberals who discover the truth that history is all about the struggle against oppression; therefore the only respectable intellectual position is that of left-liberalism:

A second reason that liberal-arts professors tend to be politically liberal is that they have very likely studied large-scale historical processes and complex cultural dynamics. Conservatives, who tend to evoke the need to preserve traditional connections with the past, have nonetheless contributed least to any detailed or thoughtful study of history. Most (although, of course, by no means all) prominent historians of politics, literature, the arts, religion, and even economics have tended, as conservatives claim, to be liberally biased. Fair enough. But if you actually take the time to look at history and culture, certain conclusions about human nature, society, and economics tend to force themselves on you. History has a trajectory, driven in large part by the desires of underprivileged or oppressed groups to attain parity with the privileged or the oppressor.

Consider the Greek struggle against Persian tyranny, the struggles to preserve the Roman Republic, the peasant uprisings of the Middle Ages, the American and French revolutions, the abolitionist and civil-rights movements, and now movements on behalf of other groups—women, Latinos, homosexuals, and the physically impaired. As President Obama recently put it, any open-minded review of history (and perhaps especially American history) teaches at least one clear lesson: There is a "right side of history," Obama said­—the side of those who would overcome prejudice, question unearned privilege, and resist oppression in favor of a more just condition.

If you don't study history, whether because it doesn't pad quarterly profits, isn't sufficiently scientific or objective, or threatens your own economic status, then you won't know any of that. But most of those in the liberal arts have concluded that there really isn't any other intellectually respectable way to interpret the broad contours of history and culture. They are liberal, in other words, by deliberate and reasoned choice, based upon the best available evidence.

They are liberal by deliberate and reasoned choice? This is myth making. The embarrassing truth for left-liberal professors is that liberalism is a long-standing orthodoxy that most Western intellectuals fall into. The idea that every professor just happens to end up agreeing with the orthodoxy after a process of "deliberate and reasoned choice" is incredible.

Note too that Professor Surber wants things both ways. He wants to hold to the pretence that intellectuals adopt liberalism via "deliberate and reasoned choice" rather than it being the orthodoxy, whilst at the same time claiming that liberalism is the only "intellectualy respectable way" to interpret history, i.e. that there can only be a liberal orthodoxy.

To rephrase this: we are supposed to accept that there can only be a liberal orthodoxy, but that it is accepted not as an orthodoxy but via the deliberate and reasoned choice of each intellectual. Yeah, sure.

Note too just how reductionist Professor Surber's understanding of history is. History is nothing more than the movement to overcome prejudice, question unearned privilege, and resist oppression in favor of a more just condition. This is obviously a reading backward of the political programme of the liberals of today into centuries past.

It also provides more evidence of the relatedness of left-liberalism and Marxism. It was, after all, Marx who wrote that, "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles." Isn't Professor Surber as a left-liberal pushing a similar idea?

And look at where Professor Surber's reductionism leads him. The Middle Ages gets reduced to the peasant uprisings; the history of America to the civil-rights movement. There is a view of man embedded in all this. Professor Surber assumes that the ideal man, who contributes to the trajectory of human history, is the one who agitates against privilege. So if German peasants have any historical meaning it was in their uprising against the landowners.

But this is a very limited view of man. I would like to think that a man might conceivably be measured by his strength of character, by the quality of his loves and attachments, by his productive contribution to society, by his success in raising children to adulthood, by his cultivation of knowledge, by his appreciation of culture, by the quality of his spiritual life, by his creativity and inventiveness, by his virtue, by his appreciation of the ordinary pleasures of life, by his ability to perceive beauty and goodness and so on.

If we have a more sophisticated view of man, then we can look at past societies and see more than occasional agitations for political reform.

3) Values

Professor Surber's final argument is that professors in the humanities,

have trained ourselves to think in complex, nuanced, and productive ways about the human condition 

It is this "open perspective on what types of values can be considered legitimate" that helps to explain why so many professors in the arts faculties are left-liberals.

If only. As I've already discussed, Professor Surber does not think in a complex way about the human condition but in a remarkably and disastrously reductionist way. Nor does he have an "open perspective" on "what kind of values can be considered legitimate". He told us earlier in his essay that there was only one "intellectually respectable" way to look at history, namely via left-liberal values. And later on he tells us that there is considerable agreement in the arts faculties "on what constitutes the good life," based on "some sort of a broadly liberal point of view."

I don't see how you get from this insistence that left-liberal values are the politically correct ones to the idea that left-liberals are unique in having an "open perspective on what types of values can be considered legitimate".

(Hat tip: David Thompson)

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Male & female

Male and female are more than biological realities. They are spiritual essences and cultural ideals.

Laura Wood puts this well. So well, that I can imagine liberals hyperventilating on reading it.

Liberals take autonomy to be the highest good. This means that we are supposed to be self-determining creatures, i.e. we are supposed to create who we are for ourselves. But this means that liberals are committed to making our sex not matter. We don't get to determine what sex we are, therefore it's thought of by liberals as a negative restriction on individual autonomy.

Here, for instance, is a brief exchange I had at a men's rights forum with someone calling themselves "Atomic parrot".

Atomic parrot: The "provider" role espoused by the author of this article is as damaging to men as the "housewife/mother" role is/was to women. People are individuals, we're smarter than our biology, we need the freedom to live our lives as we see fit, not to be forced into a narrow role defined by social conservatives. Some people really don't even want kids and a family ... Live and let live, stop trying to define yourself by your gender alone.

Me: Your gender is a more meaningful aspect of who you are than your job, your hobbies or your consumer choices. It's not some kind of negative restriction, it's something that can potentially make you feel more connected in your personal identity.

Atomic parrot: I'd argue that gender is less meaningful than the choices you make - because your gender is something you didn't choose, something that just is - but what you choose and do defines you more than something you were born with.

Me: Atomic parrot, that's a clearly set out reply. It's modernist philosophy in a nutshell. I disagree with it though. The fact of something being predetermined doesn't make it less of a good. I didn't choose my nationality and yet that's important for my self-identity. I didn't choose my sexuality, but that's important too. The things we get to self-determine are mostly limited in scope: career, consumer choices, travel destinations, hobbies. What we inherit is often of greater significance, even though it's not something self-created.

Atomic parrot is an orthodox liberal. He believes that freedom is the choice to self-create. He therefore looks down on the fact of his sex because it's something that is pre-created, something that "just is," rather than something self-chosen. It loses meaning for him as a liberal, and is associated in highly negative terms with "forced" or "narrow" life paths.

What a distance there is between the modernist liberal and traditionalist conservative viewpoints. For us the fact of being a man or a woman is part of the essence of who we are. It is a deeply meaningful aspect of our personal identity, one that rightly generates some of the ideals that we live by.

But for a liberal like Atomic parrot it's something that just is, a mere fact of biology that is dangerously limiting. Freedom for Atomic parrot is not the fulfilment of our masculine or feminine selves, but the transcending of our gender, our making it not matter in our lives.

There's not much common ground here.

And where does Atomic parrot's liberalism take him? He declares that he doesn't like to date women who know whether they want children or not:

cfisi79: So, do you only date women who also aren't 100% sure whether or not they want kids?

Atomic parrot: My current GF isn't sure either - I like not having "set" expectations for the future.

This is the way that the logic of the liberal position unfolds. If a masculine role is thought to limit our autonomy, then why wouldn't a parental role? A parental role, after all, is also linked to the fact of biology. It's not a uniquely chosen life path.

And so it's no surprise that Atomic parrot should finally declare himself against a masculine role, a marital role and a parental role,

Monogamous marriage partnerships are kinda out dated at this point, especially since more and more people just don't want to have kids.

For someone who didn't want to be limited, Atomic parrot is placing a lot of significant life experiences out of bounds here.

And it's not exactly a recipe for an enduring civilisation. It's an unsustainable form of individualism, one that can't carry on for long. A philosophical dead end.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Did feminism betray Zoe Lewis?

When Zoe Lewis was a young woman she followed the feminist life path expected of her:

I was part of the 'golden generation' of women who expected to go to university, have careers and enjoy our sexual freedom.

In our 20s, my friends and I pursued casual relationships, thinking all the 'serious stuff' would come along when we'd reached the peak of our success - i.e. in our 30s, when Mr Right would be attracted like a moth to the flame of our blazing glory.

This is what you might describe as a faulty compromise. According to feminism, the highest good in life is autonomy. Therefore, what matters most for a woman is preserving her independence. A woman can achieve this by following a single girl lifestyle based on careers, casual relationships, travel and consumerism.

The instinct to marry and have children, though, runs deep. So most women did not reject marriage and family entirely as life ambitions, even though these require both men and women to sacrifice a degree of autonomy. Instead, marriage was delayed as a life goal and made secondary to other ambitions.

With often disastrous results. It's not so easy for a woman to successfully marry and have children in her 30s - many will miss out. Zoe Lewis is one of those women who left things too late:

My own late 30s have been spent in an inelegant stumble towards validation - quickly trying to do the thing that defines a woman: have a baby.

And I found myself scratching around in the leftovers of my single male peers to find a partner with whom to have a child before it got too late.

It didn't have to be that way. She rejected many men when she was in her 20s:

Had I had this understanding of my inner psyche in my 20s, I would have mentally demoted my writing (and hedonism) and pursued a relationship with vigour.

There were plenty of men and even a marriage offer from someone with whom I would have happily settled down. But no, I wasn't prepared to give up my dreams, the life I had been told was the right and proper one for a modern woman.

She has friends in the same boat:

Sas Taylor, 38, single and childless, runs her own PR company. 'In my 20s, I felt as if I was invincible, unstoppable,' she says. 'Now, I wish I had done it all differently ...'

Nicki P, 35, single and also childless, works in the music industry and adds: 'It was all a game back then. Now, it's serious, and I am panicking. No one told me having fun isn't as much fun as I thought.'

So what has Zoe Lewis decided to do? She reluctantly, as a last resort, went to Denmark to be artificially inseminated. She's now six months pregnant. Her child will never know its father.

She doesn't think of this as a great act of feminist independence. She feels scarred by her experience of being a feminist modern woman, so much so that she didn't want to bring a girl into the world:

I'd convinced myself it was a boy because I felt I'd be better off with a male child. I didn't want my daughter to have to struggle with the pressure of trying to 'have it all' as I have. The sad and uncomfortable truth is that being a woman has often made me unhappy, and I didn't want my daughter to be unhappy either.

She could have done things differently. If she had aimed to marry well in her 20s, she might have had a husband to help support her literary aims - as well as a more fulfilled personal life. She herself seems to recognise this:

I wish I had been given the advice that I am now giving to my sister, who is 22. If you find a great guy, don't be afraid to settle down and have kids because there isn't anything to miss out on that you can't go back and do later - apart from having kids.

In the future, I hope there can be a better understanding of women by women. The past 25 years has been confusing for our sex, and I can't help feeling I've been caught in the crossfire ...

I have always felt an immense pressure to be successful, to show men I am their equal. What a waste of time that was...

And how does Zoe Lewis now feel about feminism? She has rejected the feminism of her mother's generation. She doesn't think that autonomy (choice, sexual liberation, the single girl lifestyle) should always be the overriding aim in life. Love and family are what matter in the end:

My mother - a film-maker - was a hippy who kept a pile of dusty books by Germaine Greer and Erica Jong by her bedside. (Like every good feminist, she didn't see why she should do all the cleaning.) She imbued me with the great values of choice, equality and sexual liberation.

As a result, I fought with my older brother and won, and at university I beat the rugby lads at drinking games. I was not to be messed with.

But, at nearly 37, those same values leave me feeling cold. Now, I want love and children, but they are nowhere to be seen.

When I was growing up, I was led to believe by my mother and other women of her generation that women could 'have it all', and, more to the point, that we wanted it all. To that end, I have spent 20 years ruthlessly pursuing my dream of being a successful playwright. I have sacrificed all my womanly duties and laid it all at the altar of a career. And was it worth it? The answer has to be a resounding no.

Ten years ago, I wrote a play called Paradise Syndrome. It was based on my girlfriends in the music business. All we did was party, work and drink. The play sold out and I thought: 'This is it! I'm going to have it all - success, power - and men are going to adore me for it.'

In reality, it was the beginning of years of hard slog, rejection letters and living on the breadline.

 And this:

I wish a more balanced view of womanhood had been available to me. I wish that being a housewife or a mother hadn't been such a toxic idea to middle-class liberals ...

Increasing numbers of my strongly feminist contemporaries are giving up their careers and opting for love and children and baking instead. Now, I wish I'd had kids ten years ago, when time was on my side. But the essence of the problem, I can see in retrospect, is not so much time as mentality.

It's about understanding what is important in life, and from what I see and feel deep down, loving relationships and children bring more happiness than work ever can.

It's about understanding what is important in life. That does seem to be the crux of it. Is autonomy always what matters most? Or are there other goods in life which deserve our attention and which should be formative in shaping our character and life decisions?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Red Ted's low act

I doubt if there has ever been a worse leader of the Victorian Liberal Party than Red Ted Baillieu.

I'll briefly summarise the current situation. There has been a spate of attacks on Indian students in Melbourne. The Indian Government and media have blamed the racism of Anglo-Australians for the attacks. However, in all of the high profile cases, there has been hardly an Anglo-Australian in sight. In fact, in the most recent cases, the perpetrators turned out to be Indians themselves.

For instance, in January an Indian man claimed that a group of racist men had poured petrol on him and set him alight in the Melbourne suburb of Essendon. The Indian media reacted predictably:

Victoria police say, “there is no reason at this stage to consider this racially motivated.” If the statement had been calculated to enrage, it could hardly have been more provocatively phrased ...

Canberra has been far behind the curve on this issue right from the start ... When you set a person on fire that is like a statement. It goes far beyond a crime of opportunity. The act of burning is likely to be interpreted as a wider symbol of intolerance and ethnic cleansing. If that happens we can say goodbye to rational debate and practical, sober responses. Canberra’s obtuse, insensitive attitude is laying the ground for serious damage to bilateral ties.

It turned out that Mr Singh accidentally burned himself while torching his car for an insurance claim.

Do these false claims of racist violence perpetrated by Anglos on Asians matter much? They matter a great deal. There is a significant public opinion in nations like India and China which is dangerously hostile to white Australians. If you visit the chat forums of the Chinese and Indian media, you quickly get a sense of what is at stake.

Here, for instance, are just a few of the comments I collected from a brief visit to the chat forum of the China Daily. They're in response to stories not only about attacks on Asian students by white Australians but about the "stolen generations":

Comment 1: SUBHUMAN. Seriously, Anglos don't belong in the 21st century. Their war crimes throughout history show they belong in cages, perhaps in a zoo as feed for the animals ... Anglos are illegal immigrants from Schleswig Holstein ... They are the lowest form of crap there is ...

Comment 2: In terms of evolution, these white Australians display streaks of atavism ... So much was given them by providence, a mere smidgeon of humanity was expected of these white Australians, so little they give in return. A disgusting people!

Comment 3: It beggars belief. What kind of crap would separate all the children from their parents? What kind of turd? What kind of excrement?

Comment 4: every single anglo sucks

Comment 5: white Australians are rather good at character assassination, dissembling and, sometimes, just downright lying. Then again, what else can they do when presented with factual accounts of their racist nature but lie? A sad, sad nation peopled by a sadly misguided people. Petty minded and mean spirited.

Comment 6: Australia is a very nice place, except that Australians live there. If the Australians were deported to, say, Nigeria, and then Asians moved into Australia, it would be a good and nice place and productive too.

We ought to take the existence of this kind of sentiment seriously. They are the kind of views which might be used to justify harsh treatment against us. And we are a relatively small community with a declining position in our own country and facing the growing power of nations like China and India.

So what do we call a white Australian who reinforces the prejudices against us? Who unfairly blames the attacks on Indian students on white racism? Who places at some considerable risk the fate of our children and grandchildren?

Enter Red Ted Baillieu, the Liberal Party leader. He made a speech to the Australia India Business Council, in which he promoted the idea that racists in Melbourne were "creating fear and terror for many who live in our community".

What a foolish and low act for an Australian politician. The Labor Party Premier, Mr Brumby, made the correct response:

The Premier hit back, with his spokeswoman saying Mr Baillieu should know better than to use divisive and inflammatory comments that he knows are not true. "Mr Baillieu's deceptive treatment of this issue makes things worse not better," spokeswoman Fiona Macrae said.

What might be motivating Ted Baillieu? Political opportunism springs to mind. He has been making a big pitch to Indian voters here in Melbourne, visiting temples and even writing his own regular column in one of the local Indian newspapers. Perhaps he thinks the future of the Liberal Party lies with the growing Indian electorate.

If so, he is acting at our expense. When there is already a public opinion in powerful nations that Anglo Australians are subhumans who ought to be shipped out, you don't go about reinforcing such prejudices to bolster your own credentials.

How can we expect those in other nations to have a better regard for us, when our own "elite" is so quick to condemn us?

What are we to make, for instance, of Melbourne Anglican bishop, Philip Huggins, asking for forgiveness on our behalf for "our prejudice and indifference" toward people from other countries, "especially Indians" who are "oppressed in our land"? Why would a Christian bishop mimic the secular leftists in assigning whites the role of oppressors? Why would he fuel a sense of racial grievance against whites, when this racial grievance looms so dangerously on the horizon? It's grossly irresponsible and lacking in conscience toward his white parishioners.

And what about the writers of the popular soapie Home & Away, whose Australia Day episode had this plot line:

on Australia Day a bunch of hooligans wearing flags assault the new Muslim character in town, call him a terrorist, tell him to go home and then, when he hides in the Diner with his friends, they burn down the Diner.

So the white Australian political class is happy to present a vicious image of rank and file Australians to the world, which then feeds into a dangerously hostile attitude toward us in overseas countries.

In this circumstance, special pleading isn't going to do much to help. Talking about how you as an individual Anglo aren't racist isn't going to have much of an effect. You'll just be accused of dissembling.

Things will only change when we put our own house in order. We need to call out those individuals, like Ted Baillieu, who seek personal advantage at the expense of their own community. We need to identify this not as high class paternalism but as low, unconscionable behaviour.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

High flying conservatives or globalist liberals?

So historian Niall Ferguson has left his wife and children to live with his mistress Ayaan Hirsi Ali. What's curious about this story is that the three key figures are all high flyers in the mainstream conservative movement. So what do these three people tell us about the state of the "conservative" parties?

I'll begin with the wife, as she is the least controversial. Susan Douglas is one of Tory leader David Cameron's closest friends. She has had a successful career in publishing and she is in the running to become an MP:

Ms Douglas is seen as one of the Tory Party’s rising stars, and is on the A-list of aspiring Parliamentary candidates. She is said to be in the running to contest the Tory stronghold of Stratford-upon-Avon at the next General Election.

She's in her early 50s and is seven years older than her husband. I don't know much about her politics, although she did tell an interviewer that the first thing she reads to start her day is The Guardian, an unusual choice for someone aiming to become a Tory MP.

She doesn't seem to have managed to balance her career and her family. She told the same interviewer that work required her to have an early start (4am) and that she got back home late. This at a time when her three children were aged ten, nine and five and when her husband was living on a different continent in pursuit of his own career.

It hardly seems an ideal arrangement. It strikes me more as a "lifestyle of the rich and famous," with the children presumably being raised by a nanny and not seeing a lot of either parent.

But it's not Susan Douglas who seems most distant from a rank and file conservatism. It's her husband, Niall Ferguson. He too is influential in mainstream conservatism:

Ferguson is on the board of the Centre for Policy Studies, the leading Right-wing think-tank, and works as an unofficial adviser to Mr Cameron, in particular on how to promote ‘Britishness’. He also worked as an adviser to John McCain at the beginning of his election campaign...

Ferguson met his mistress at a party thrown for the "100 most influential people in the world". He is well-connected not just in politics and academia but in the financial world as well:

By this stage he had moved to America, having accepted a chair in history at Harvard. It was then that he also started advising some of the world’s leading hedge-fund managers...

‘There was a point when it was not impossible for me to get $100,000 for a one-hour speech at some extravagant hedge-fund manager conference in an exotic location,’ Ferguson recalled. While he lived a jet-set lifestyle, his wife stayed at home with the children.

So did he use this influence to promote conservatism? No, for the simple reason that he is not a conservative and doesn't even pretend to be one. He calls himself a "liberal fundamentalist":

I would say I'm a 19th-century liberal, possibly even an 18th-century one. Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, Gladstone. My fundamental tenets are concerned with freedom of the individual; the market isn't perfect, but it's the best available way of allocating resources...

As you can see, I'm just a doctrinaire liberal at heart ... I'm just a liberal fundamentalist.

He is a right-liberal who believes that the best way of regulating a liberal society is through the free market. Ferguson is, in fact, so liberal that he thought John McCain ran an unacceptably conservative presidential campaign:

he became, for a time, one of John McCain's foreign policy advisers. "I must say that since he won the nomination, which I was very happy about, I've played virtually no role. In fact, I've played no role. Because, uh" - he is suddenly, uncharacteristically halting - "how to describe it? - I felt much less ... enthused, I think is probably the word, now that it's between him and Obama. And I felt much more uncomfortable with some of the positions he has had to take in order to secure the conservative vote."

Ferguson's right-liberal commitment to the market issues forth in these kinds of comments:

I want to show you that money is the foundation of human progress, and the ascent of money has been indispensable to the ascent of man

He is committed to globalism - to the free movement not only of capital and goods but labour as well. He admits that open borders harm the prospects of the least educated, but believes that people should just be told that they have to compete with waves of immigrants or sink:

Proponents of a new generation of anti-global measures claim to want to protect vulnerable native groups from the ravages of competition. They point to studies that show the biggest losers from immigration to be high school dropouts. Other evidence shows that it's unskilled blue collar workers who are most likely to lose out ...

It makes no sense to jeopardise the benefits of globalisation to protect the employment prospects of high-school dropouts. So here's a modest counter-proposal ... why not ... get this simple message across to the kids in America's high schools: If you flunk, you're sunk. Yes, boys and girls ... Drop out of education without qualifications, and you'll be lucky to get a job alongside the Mexicans picking fruit or stacking shelves.

A commenter at View from the Right responded as follows:

I find this attitude utterly detestable. As far as I am concerned this man is the worst kind of neo-con. I want to live in a society of fellow compatriots, who are valued for being a part of my culture and are brought up to believe they have worth as human beings. To tell them at such a young age that they must compete down at the bottom with people from the third world or perish is my idea of a heartless, cultureless society in which people's worth is defined solely by whether they can stack more cans for less money than the people in the local immigration centre.

Then there is the mistress, Ayaan Hirsi Ali. She was born in Somalia, won asylum in Holland and became an MP there in a centre right party. She became a critic of the treatment of women in Islamic countries, had a fatwa placed on her and was forced to live under police protection. She was then appointed a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute, usually described as a "conservative think tank". As mentioned earlier, she made Time magazine's list of the one hundred most influential people in the world.

So does she represent a rank and file conservatism? No. She describes herself as a liberal, and from her statements it's clear that she is radically liberal. For instance, she sees Catholicism as a dangerous ideology, akin to Nazism:

METRO: Do you see any positive sides to Islam?

HIRSI ALI: That’s like asking if I see positive sides to Nazism, communism, Catholicism.

She has called for an immigration restrictionist party in Belgium, the Vlaams Belang, to be banned, equating it with an Islamic terror group:

I would ban the VB because it hardly differs from the Hofstad group [a Jihadist terror network in the Netherlands, involved in the assassination of Theo van Gogh]. Though the VB members have not committed any violent crimes yet, they are just postponing them...

The Vlaams Belang is a parliamentary party, the largest in Flanders, which has never called for violence - yet Ayaan Hirsi Ali wants it outlawed as a terror group.

What struck me on reading about these "conservatives" is how distant they are from representing a genuine conservatism, not only because they self-identify as liberals, but because they belong to something like a "new global elite," with very little connection in their values or manner of living to rank and file conservatives.

(Lawrence Auster has written on the same issue here.)

Saturday, February 06, 2010

The limits of liberal morality

Morality is a problem for liberals. That's why it's still something of a work in progress for them.

The difficulty is this. Liberals believe in individual autonomy as the highest good. Autonomy is thought to define our very humanity.

Therefore, the moral thing is to be free to do whatever we have a will to do; the immoral thing is to have our will impeded.

Liberalism therefore has a tendency to be libertine, permissive and even transgressive, as it will be thought morally heroic to break taboos which restrict what individuals might choose to do.

That's one side of the ledger. The other side is that liberals still have to make moral judgements. What if people choose to act against liberal values? How will liberals morally condemn this? And what if the "do as you will" philosophy creates damaging outcomes? How will liberals set limits to behaviour, when the underlying idea is that autonomy, a freedom to choose, is what determines the morality of our actions?

Liberals sometimes try to resolve the problem by raising the issue of "authentic wants." Let's say that Person X chooses to do something that a liberal doesn't like. In theory, the liberal should accept that the act is moral as it is Person X's choice to do it. But the liberal can argue that it wasn't an authentic choice, it wasn't what Person X really had a will to do. Perhaps Person X was somehow influenced by other people in his choice, or by tradition, or by advertisers.

This hasn't been an effective tactic. All that Person X has to do is to turn to the liberal and affirm that their choice is, indeed, authentic. For instance, a woman who becomes a stripper can talk about her choice being empowering, an expression of her independence, as being motivated by her own sexuality and life goals and so on. And Person X then wins the argument.

So liberals seem to have moved on to Plan B, which is to insist that moral actions be respectful. Here in Victoria the Labor Government has actually appointed a Minister of Respect in response to the wave of crime in the CBD.

Why such an emphasis on respect? The idea of respect places only indefinite, general, subjective limitations on our moral agency. There remain no specific, objective moral truths or inherently superior forms of personal character to guide our behaviour in a certain direction.

Respect works better as a strategy than authentic wants. It does encourage people to think of others when making moral choices. But I doubt that it can work strongly enough to hold the line. Is a young man who sets out to create violence in the CBD likely to change his mind by being told to respect others? Will this really have purchase on him?

And what happens when the notion of respect collides with the idea that "the fact that it's my choice makes it OK". Let's say a woman decides to be a football groupie. It's her choice to do so, so in her mind it's a moral thing to do. Are the football players who encounter her and others like her going to respect her? Is mutual respect likely to flourish in such a social milieu? Is it even reasonable to ask people to show her the same respect as a suburban mum raising a family? (Wouldn't this require people to suspend or suppress their moral instincts? Should we really show equal respect to people regardless of how they choose to behave?)

To illustrate this problem, consider the views of Charmyne Palavi, a rugby league groupie in Sydney. She clings to the "no limits" side of liberal morality, as when she describes herself as,

a single woman who can have sex whenever, with whomever, I choose.

She knows that the rugby league players don't respect the groupies:

Group sex happens ... The reality is there are women out there who do hunt footballers down, are prepared to have sex with them in nightclub toilets ...

Anyone who thinks the culture is going to change just because the story's out there however are kidding themselves.

I was messaging a young player, a Facebook friend, last week and asked what he was doing.

He replied: "Learning how to respect women. LOL (laugh out loud)."

I wrote back: "Yeah, and I'm still a virgin."

But she still believes that "respect" is the solution to managing interactions between the players and the groupies they have sex in toilets with:

People seem to be ignoring the bigger issue here while they look for someone to blame. That is - the disrespect for women inherent in the clubs.

She wants to behave in an unrespectable way and yet be treated with respect. Again, this shows a danger with the "equal respect" mantra. It has the potential to further undermine people's moral sense, by asking us to give moral assent to people regardless of how they behave.

The level of respect we show for others rightly varies according to the kind of personal character they display. It's not something that can be assumed to be permanently booked in.

There's one other liberal approach to morality that deserves a mention. Liberals will often discuss moral issues in terms of discrimination. A liberal can deem a moral action to be wrong if it discriminates, since the discrimination will be thought to limit the life aims (and therefore the autonomy) of some other person.

There was a curious example of this in yesterday's Age. A banker was caught out looking at a racy photo of a model on his computer during a live telecast on TV. He was temporarily stood down by the bank, but has returned to his job.

Cordelia Fine, a research associate at the Centre for Agency, Values and Ethics (a liberal way of describing moral philosophy) at Macquarie University, wrote a lengthy column about it. Remember, liberals are committed to a "if I choose it, it's moral" philosophy, so Cordelia Fine can't really argue that there is something inherently wrong with the banker looking at a racy photo.

Nonetheless, she makes a detailed argument that looking at the photo was an immoral act. Why? Because it fosters discrimination against women in the workplace, by harming the pursuit of careers by women. According to Cordelia Fine, a man looking at a racy photo in the workplace can undermine a woman's performance at work because she has to,

expend mental energy unconsciously suppressing the unflattering stereotype, and this interferes with the task at hand.

Think of the consequences of this approach to morality. It is an invitation to intrusive, petty, bureaucratic regulation of our day to day interactions with other people. Who doesn't suffer some kind of discrimination in their efforts to achieve their life aims? And how would you set about preventing it happening? Morality here takes the path of social engineering.

And so you end up with a mix of the libertine and the intrusive. Autonomy once again generates a contradiction. To be autonomous means rejecting external limits on what we might choose to do; but creating conditions of autonomy requires highly regulated social settings that are experienced as unnecessarily intrusive rather than individually free.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

The power to intimidate?

One of the big topics in Australian politics this week was a comment by Tony Abbott in a woman's magazine. The Leader of the Opposition was asked what advice he would give his daughters about sex before marriage. He answered:

I would say to my daughters, if they were to ask the question, I would say … it is the greatest gift that you can give someone, the ultimate gift of giving and don’t give it to someone lightly, that is what I would say.

I would have thought most fathers would answer along the lines of "not too lightly". But Abbott's answer unleashed a furious response from the left. Jill Singer, for instance, wrote an outraged article in which she compared Abbott to Osama bin Laden, complained that his response was "pervy," "creepy" and "icky" and raised the spectre of chastity belts.

I was reminded by all this of the way that the left sometimes tries to shut down free discussion of an issue by using its prominence in the media to mock and ridicule opponents. The intent is to intimidate anyone from taking an opposing view.

There are other ways, too, that the left seeks to prevent discussion of an issue from ever getting off the ground. Here, for instance, is Karen Brooks's preferred way of dealing with Tony Abbott's comment:

Seriously, Abbott is entitled to his views, he's entitled to raise his family as he wants and instill in them his faith ... but what he's not entitled to do is discuss "women's issues" (which in many instances are also men's issues - we live together in this society), as if they are homogenous, framed by a Catholic or Christian principle, and as if he, with his very narrow and privileged world-view and experiences, holds the answers.

She's suggesting that someone with a conservative stance on the issue is entitled to hold their views privately but not publicly; that it's more legitimate for a non-Christian than a Christian to express their views publicly; and that it's more legitimate for a worse off person than a better off person to express their views publicly.

It has to be said that these tactics have worked at times for the left. This was particularly the case in Australia in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the left dominated politically. The tactics don't work as well now; there are some prominent right-liberal voices in the mainstream media and alternative sources of opinion on the internet and talk back radio.

Still, it's interesting to witness the left try it on.