Sunday, September 26, 2010

Judith Warner a Mad Man feminist?

Judith Warner is a Mad Man feminist. She treats the show as if it were a truthful eyewitness account of the early 1960s, rather than a TV drama written by a man only slightly older than myself.

Here is Judith Warner using the show to warn us about returning to the "bad old days":

“Has Congress become like an episode of ‘Mad Men’?” California Congresswoman Linda Sanchez asked this week, after the House of Representatives approved a version of health care reform that contained what some pro-choice advocates are calling the toughest restrictions on women’s access to abortion since the Roe v. Wade decision.

Her evocation of the bad old days was well-timed. For this past weekend saw not only the political sleight of hand that stripped millions of women’s abortion coverage from the House’s health care reform bill; it also brought the season finale of AMC’s highly popular pre-Roe-era series, which concluded with the unhappy housewife heroine Betty Draper leaving her philandering husband, Don, for the promise of marriage to another man she barely knows.

As her lawyer, and Don, have made clear, without a man Betty is nothing. She has the right to nothing — not to marital money, not even to custody of her children.

It was, in large part, to free women from this utter dependency upon — and definition by — men that the women’s movement came into being. Self-determination, at base, is what abortion rights in particular have always been about.

Americans ... have embraced many aspects of women’s “liberation.” ... But true self-determination, on the most intimate level, has remained problematic, particularly in the past decade or two, as memories of the prefeminist ’60s have dimmed.

Lives blighted by lack of self-definition?
What was bad about the early 1960s according to Judith Warner? Her answer, predictably, is that women did not have enough autonomy. Liberal moderns see autonomy as the one overriding good and so Judith Warner believes that women were oppressed by their lack of it. She thinks women were not independent enough and did not "self-define" who they were. (Jim Kalb wrote recently of moderns that "They believe the essence of humanity is self-definition.")

She puts the lack of female autonomy in very strong terms: women were utterly dependent on men, had the right to nothing, and were nothing without men.

So are women more autonomous today? Not in the sense of feeling more in control over their own lives:

On the face of it, the rise of individualism and the falling away of the social constraints on people imposed by their class, gender, race and so on should have given rise to a much stronger internal locus of control in the populations of rich countries.

...The evidence, however, shows that the opposite is the case. Compared to the 1960s, young Americans today are substantially more likely to believe that outside forces control their lives ...

Even more remarkably, the same studies show that ... the increase in 'externality' is greater in young women than young men.

So women felt more in charge of their lives, more "self-determining", in the Mad Men 1960s than they do today.

Note too how the idea of autonomy dominates the moral reasoning of Judith Warner. She supports abortion on the grounds that it gives women a greater amount of self-determination (rather than on the moral status of the act itself).

It's the same story when it comes to ending the life of adults. Leslie Cannold is an Australian ethicist who wrote a column recently for the Sydney Morning Herald in support of euthanasia. Her moral reasoning?:

Opponents of dying with dignity will tell you that the core moral principle in a civilised society is respect for life. This is outdated tosh. The central moral value in a modern multicultural society is autonomy, the right of individuals to determine the course of their own lives and deaths according to their own needs and values.

What is held to matter morally is that we get to self-determine. What prevents us from self-determining? Quite a lot. Our sex is predetermined and so is our ethnicity - so it is part of the liberal project to make them not matter. So too are the things that come to us as part of a tradition predetermined, including the traditional family.

The logic of autonomy is ultimately a radically destructive and self-defeating one. It may have become a "central moral value" but at a considerable cost to the future prospects of Western societies.


  1. To much freedom becomes un-freedom, too much individualism becomes desperation, too much choice leaves you searching anxiously for guidance and too much change and confusion makes you feel like you have very little control over your life. These are all truths. If the left's answer to everything is to accelerate the rate of change even faster its my opinion that society won't want a bar of it.

    As people have said they enjoy watching Mad Men precisely because its predominantly NOT like modern society, ie its looked at with longing and nostalgia.

  2. You put too much emphasis on the role of autonomy as a liberal virtue methinks Mark.

    While this emphasis is true for classical liberalism [and is still the only virtue right-liberals will accept as true] for the modern left wing scene autonomy is only PART of the answer.

    The virtues the modern left hold to be self evident are:

    1. Autonomy

    2. Equality

    3. Fraternity [Internationalism]

    The idea that these were the only three real virtues [however defined] is a product of the enlightenment.

    The truth of course is that you cannot have Autonomy and Equality since different choices produce differing outcomes.

    Which explains the 100 million odd corpses such ideas left littered around the world in the 20th century. Trying to force absurd ideas into reality tends to have rather devastating outcomes for all involved.

  3. You're right, JCS, that liberalism seems inconsistent. Race and gender are to be made not to matter and yet there is a lot of identity politics based on race and gender.

    But there's a reason for this. Liberals drop the notion that we should orient our wills to a good that exists outside of ourselves. Instead, the good is that we get to follow our own will. That becomes the definition of existing as a fully human person.

    So the issue of who gets to follow their will looms very large in liberal societies. It's the who/whom issue.

    Liberals are therefore very touchy about issues of power, dominance, oppression, privilege and so on.

    Earlier liberals (classical or right liberals) tended to respond to the issue by emphasising "negative freedom" in which there was to be no interference in what individuals had a will to do. Individuals were thought of as blank slates who self-created and who voluntarily contracted into relationships with others.

    Left liberals think that this still leaves in place institutional privileges and inequalities. They don't accept the "we are all individuals with equal opportunities" mantra, but think that some groups have institutionalised privilege at the expense of others.

    So the oppressed groups get to exist, for political purposes, to challenge their unequal condition - hence identity politics.

    The left liberals do have to walk a tightrope here. They assert that categories like "woman" or "black" are social constructs created for purposes of oppression. Those in the categories are allowed to identify with them for political purposes, but they are not supposed to "reify" and fall into the belief that such categories have a real, "essential" existence.

    Left liberals have even reached the point of wanting whites or men to recognise the categories they belong to - in order to be made self-aware of their "privilege" rather than thinking of themselves blankly as individuals.

    What traditionalists have to do is avoid the mistake of being so offended by the left-liberal view that we become defenders of the right-liberal one instead. Both views are destructive of traditional forms of community and both share the same philosophical underpinnings.

  4. Molock,

    I agree that autonomy is not the only value held by liberals. As liberals tell it, their values include freedom, equality, pluralism, tolerance, diversity and non-discrimination.

    But what gives rise to these values? Why these values and not others?

    When you look more specifically into the arguments made by liberals, time and again the organising principle is autonomy - the underlying aim is to either maximise or equalise autonomy.

    You are right that the left emphasises equal outcomes more than the right. In part that's because right liberals believe that the free market is the best way to regulate a society made up of competing wills. The idea is that we will all pursue our own profit selfishly but the hidden hand of the market will regulate the outcome for the overall progress and benefit of society.

    If you have this view then you have to accept, to a certain degree, that people will take risks and that there will be winners and losers - unequal outcomes.

    The left prefers the idea of the techocratic regulation of society. The left holds that autonomy requires us to have access to certain resources (including power, status, money) and therefore the state should intervene to ensure that all groups have the same access to these resources (otherwise it is a "social injustice").

    Fraternity, in this view, means a political commitment to these social outcomes.

    Yes, there are all sorts of logical tensions in the liberal position. You can see this in feminism. For instance, feminists believe that women are more autonomous if they are careerists than if they are housewives. So what happens if women continue to choose to be housewives?

    How then do you maximise autonomy? If you allow women to choose to be housewives, then women are not being their most autonomous selves. But if you don't allow women to choose to be housewives, you are impeding their ability to self-determine their own lives.

    What tends to happen is that "soft" measures are used to get the desired result (economic policies, cultural pressures etc). But this breaches autonomy anyway, just in a sly way.