Monday, November 29, 2010

What is the purpose of art?

From the Daily Mail:

A Muslim artist has sparked outrage with his depiction of the ripped-apart bus destroyed in the 7/7 terror attacks.

The artwork shows four angels flying above the bombed bus - the same number of Al Qaeda terrorists who took part in the atrocity which left 52 commuters dead and maimed hundreds more on London's transport network.

Also seen are scores of ghostly souls shooting from the number 30 bus, which was travelling through Tavistock Square when it was devastated by suicide bomber Hasib Hussain.

The artist's defence? Less a Muslim and more a modernist one:
I want to shock.

So the idea that art is there to shock is still around. I look forward to the day when this justification for art is thoroughly discredited.

Art has a number of purposes. It can entertain, commemorate or simply decorate. But high art has a high purpose: to capture and communicate the transcendent moment, when we perceive a value that exists in the world independent of our own will.

To achieve this requires a sensitive power of apprehension in the artist as well as highly developed artistic skills.

The Australian landscape painting on the right is by Hans Heysen. It is clearly not intended to shock the audience, but to inspire a certain kind of elevated response to nature.

This is a more meaningful basis to art, and one that better dignifies artists and their profession, than the mere attempt to shock.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

What holds a society together?

What has been needed, for a long time, is a principled opposition to liberalism (i.e. an opposition which doesn't just complain that a particular liberal policy has gone too far too soon, but which rejects the underlying principles on which liberalism is based).

I noted in my previous post that the entry on liberalism in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy does include some principled criticisms of liberalism, of the kind we need to develop.

There was one final criticism of liberalism made in the Oxford Companion that I left out. It's an important, albeit lengthy, one. The issue is whether a liberal society can remain stable in the long run if it rejects preliberal forms of social solidarity:

A similar question has been raised about the long-term political stability of a liberal society. Non-liberal societies are typically held together by shared conceptions of the good, such as a common religion, or by common ethnicity. Members of these societies are willing to make sacrifices for each other because of their commonalities. But what holds a society together when its members come from different ethnic and racial backgrounds and do not share a common conception of the good life?

Some liberals suggest that the tie that binds the citizens of a liberal society is simply a shared commitment to liberal principles of freedom and equality. It is debatable whether this is a 'thick' enough bond to keep a multicultural society together. After all, a liberal society makes many demands on its members: they must be willing to accept considerable sacrifices (e.g. military service), to take an interest in public affairs, and to exercise self-restraint in their personal actions and political demands. Liberals have tended to focus on the rights of citizenship but a liberal society would stop functioning if its citizens did not also accept certain duties and exercise certain virtues. It seems likely that a sense of commonality is needed for individuals to accept these sorts of duties.

Conservative critics have argued that the stability of liberal societies is based on a pre-liberal sense of shared identity. Citizens of England, for example, do not see each other primarily as individual rights-holders, but as fellow members of the English nation, with a shared history and culture. This gives rise to a sense of solidarity which is prior to, and deeper than, a shared commitment to liberalism. It is this national solidarity which explains why the English work together, and make sacrifices for each other. Conservatives worry that this sense of being members of the same 'people' or culture or community is gradually being eroded by the individualism of liberal rights, which treats people in abstraction from their communal ties and responsibilities.

Interestingly, many nineteenth century liberals agreed that liberalism is viable only in countries with a sense of common nationhood, a view shared by some recent theorists of 'liberal nationalism'. Most post-war liberal theorists, however, have rejected the idea that liberalism should ally itself with nationalism, and have instead asserted that a common commitment to liberal principles is a sufficient basis for social unity even in multicultural countries. Habermas's idea of 'constitutional patriotism' is one example of this view, explicitly offered as an alternative to nationalist theories of social cohesion.

One difficulty with this view is that it provides no guidance on how the boundaries of distinct political communities should be drawn. Indeed, it provides no explanation for why there should be distinct political communities at all. Why shouldn't all societies that share liberal values merge into a single state, aiming ultimately to create a single world state? If we reject the nationalist belief that states have the right and responsibility to express particular national identities, languages and cultures, why shouldn't liberals favour abolishing existing nation-states and replacing them with a thoroughgoing cosmopolitanism of open borders within a single global state?

Few liberal theorists are willing to take this step towards an unqualified liberal cosmopolitanism and most believe that nation states remain the only viable forum for the implementation of liberal-democratic values. Yet equally few liberals are willing to acknowledge that these liberal nation states depend for their viability not only on adherence to liberal values, but also on the inculcation of deeper feelings of national identity.

Whether the cohesion of a liberal society depends on some prior sense of identity remains an important topic for debate.

That's a very good summary. My one quibble is that I think the writer underestimates the degree to which liberals are willing to move away from the nation state. In Europe there has been a steady drift of sovereignty away from the nation state and toward the European Union. The Australian political class has also toyed with the idea of moving toward a regional system. First, it was the idea of a Pacific Community, followed by Kevin Rudd's more grandiose vision of an Asia-Pacific Community. If the Asian leaders had been more receptive, the plans might have gone further than they have.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

A more critical take than expected

How is liberalism presented in a work like The Oxford Companion to Philosophy? In a more critical way than I had expected. Here are some excerpts:

Liberalism. One of the major political ideologies of the modern world...Liberalism first emerged as an important movement in Europe in the sixteenth century. is the dominant ideology in many parts of the world.

Excellent. It is recognised here very clearly that liberalism is not only a political ideology, but that it dominates in many countries. It is effectively the state ideology in countries like Australia.

What we then get are two different explanations for the rise of liberalism, one favourable and one critical. The favourable one is that liberalism arose as a way of settling the religious conflicts of the Reformation:

both Protestants and Catholics accepted that the state could not impose a common faith ... Liberalism has simply extended this principle from the sphere of religion to other areas of social life where citizens have conflicting beliefs about the meaning of life. A liberal state does not seek to resolve these conflicts, but rather provides a 'neutral' framework within which citizens can pursue their diverse conceptions of the good life.

I've heard some liberals advance this kind of belief about liberal neutrality. It's not a view that's easily made coherent. First, it's not possible for a state to be neutral when it comes to conceptions of the good life. Second, the demand for neutrality undermines some key conceptions of the good life and privileges others (i.e. it pushes society in particular directions). Third, the reality is that the liberal state has imposed a set of liberal values on society, transforming society in radical ways, rather than remaining neutral.

The Oxford Companion also provides a more critical explanation for the rise of liberalism:

Liberalism's critics, however, argue that liberalism emerged as the ideological justification for the rise of capitalism, and that its image of the autonomous individual is simply a glorification of the pursuit of self-interest in the market. Liberalism replaced the web of mutual obligations which bound people together in ethnic, religious, or other communities with a society predicated on competition and 'atomistic' individualism.

It might well be true that the rising commercial classes found liberal ideas attractive because they tended to dissolve the older precapitalist order of society. But the connection to capitalism doesn't seem sufficient to me to explain why liberalism came to dominate.

The next criticism of liberalism is this:

A major challenge for liberal philosophers has been to explain why individual freedom should have priority over competing values such as community or perfectionism.

The phraseology here takes liberalism on its own terms. What liberal philosophers argue for is a particular understanding of freedom, one based on individual autonomy. So what needs to be asked is why liberals believe that individual autonomy should have priority over competing values such as community.

According to the entry, liberals give two main defences for prioritising individual "freedom". Kantian liberals believe that we are defined as humans by our autonomy and therefore to restrict autonomy is to treat people as being less than fully human:

Kantian liberals, for example, argue that the capacity for rational autonomy is the highest capacity humans possess, and so is worthy of inherent respect. To restrict someone's freedom of choice, on this Kantian view, is to treat them as less than a fully mature and responsible human being, and this is wrong, regardless of the desirable or undesirable social consequences that might follow.

As I've pointed out at this site many times, the undesirable social consequences of making autonomy the overriding good are many and severe. So severe that it would make a lot more sense instead to balance autonomy with a range of other goods. The Kantian approach is not without its critics:

This Kantian view has been very influential in the liberal tradition. However, it rests on a controversial claim about the nature of moral value and moral respect...many critics argue that using the state to promote the Kantian ideal of rational autonomy is as 'sectarian' as using the state to promote Protestantism.

Indeed. The modern liberal state, as noted above, is radically and intrusively ideological.

Critics of the Kantian approach argue that liberals should therefore avoid appealing to the value of autonomy, and instead defend liberalism simply as the only viable basis for peaceful coexistence in culturally and religiously plural societies.

Kantian liberals respond, however, that without appealing to the value of individual autonomy, there is no reason why coexistence between groups should take the form of guaranteeing the rights of individuals. Why not just allow each group in society to organise itself as it sees fit...

The Kantians have a point. If the underlying value of a society is "peaceful existence" then why would you adopt liberalism in the first place? Australia was a relatively unified society one hundred years ago. There weren't great schisms in society. If you had wanted a peaceful society, then it would have been best to let Australia develop along non-liberal lines.

Peacefulness doesn't catch the underlying dynamic of liberalism. After all, it's not as if liberals argue that society has unfortunately become so diverse and multicultural that peaceful existence is threatened and liberalism is required as a remedy. The liberal argument is very different. Liberals tend to argue that a traditionally unified society is boring or illegitimate and that such a society should be transformed by a deliberate policy of diversity or multiculturalism and that this more diverse society will add vibrancy etc.

There's one more criticism of liberalism that I'll finish on:

critics argue that the unfettered exercise of individual choice will undermine the forms of family and community life which help develop people's capacity for choice and provide people with meaningful options. On this view, liberalism is self-defeating - liberals privilege individual rights, even when this undermines the social conditions which make individual freedoms valuable.

In particular, what happens if making individual autonomy paramount dissolves communal institutions and identities? Is the freedom to be an atomised consumer as valuable as the freedom to live as a man, or as an Englishman, or as a husband and father?

In other words, there is likely to be a more significant freedom for the individual if autonomy is balanced with a range of other important goods, including those relating to family life and communal identity.

The Oxford Companion does make one last criticism of liberalism. It's a very good but lengthy one, so I'll leave it to a future post.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Was the worst liberal ever Chinese?

In the late 1800s China was faced with the problem of modernisation. One of the "reforming" Chinese intellectuals was a man named Kang Youwei.

Unfortunately, he caught the Western liberal bug very badly. He combined two of the worst aspects of the Western intellectual tradition, namely a liberal emphasis on "equal autonomy" as well as a scientistic effort to find principles of society as clear and distinct as mathematical or geometric formulas.

From one source we learn that:

Kang sought to delineate absolute moral truths based on a scientific or mathematical approach that supported his universalism ... Using the Confucian value of benevolence, he proclaimed the equality of humanity as well as a notion of individual autonomy. [1]

And where did this lead him? If we continue on with the same source, we begin to get some idea of where this approach was to take him:

He was perhaps the most influential politico-philosophical writer of the 1890s in China ... Although Kang had not yet formulated the principles of his utopian vision by the 1880s, many of his radical notions were already developed.

Marriages should be freely contracted and subject to change; children should be raised in public nurseries with no filial obligations (nor would parents have obligations toward their children); and sages and teachers would have no special authority.

Kang's vision of the king was that of a mediator, chosen by the people for their own protection as two individuals choose a mediator in a dispute. [2]

You can see where this is heading. Kang was enough of an intellectual to take the principle of individual autonomy seriously. He believed that we would be more autonomous if the state raised our children for us and if we had no obligations to our children as parents.

Another source on Kang's ideas tells us that:

In form and organization, as Zhu Weizheng points out, Kang's short and early utopian work ... was "in complete imitation of Euclid's Elements of Geometry,"...

Indeed, Kang Youwei appealed to the authority of science to lend legitimacy and persuasion to his social and political theory, and he claimed, for example, that basic principles such as "human beings have the right of autonomy' and that all societies should be organized on the basis of "human equality" were all "geometric axioms". [3]

This second source draws out further the political programme Kang derived from his scientistic liberalism:

he argued for the eventual abolition of state boundaries and the unification of all nations on earth...racial differences would gradually disappear when "all races will merge into one, and there will be no distinction of the intelligent and the ignorant"...the abolition of families to cultivate world citizenship, the elimination of private ownership...

he would have marriage abolished and replaced with an agreement or, he argued "will be a matter of each individual's gratification of desires, with no formal denomination or capacity, no limits or boundaries"...

As you would expect of a liberal, Kang wanted to make sex distinctions not matter. In his own words,

"in the world of Great Unity, men and women will be equal and everyone will be independent and free. They will be dressed in similar attire and hold similar jobs, and there will be no difference between male and female. As for sex, there will be no difference whether it is between a man and a woman, or between a man and another man."

In Kang's ideal society,

there will be no individual or group differences, there will be no separate nations...all will be equal and free [4]
The gist of Kangism? People have to be made the same so that everyone has the same measure of individual autonomy. Distinctions of nationality, of race, of sex, of sexuality, of wealth and of intelligence all have to be collapsed. A global state is to replace the family as a better, more uniform mechanism of regulating equal individual wills.

This is what is then sold to us as a vision of independence, freedom, equality and unity, all "scientifically" based.

It is a radical vision as it is liberalism given to us all at once.

In the West we have taken it more slowly. But a hundred years after such a vision of freedom and equality was penned, we have already been "half-kanged". We are at least half way to the dystopia envisaged for the world by a Chinese liberal of the 1890s.

The problem is that our political class has still not let go of the principles borrowed by Kang over a hundred years ago. And there's little use complaining about the outcomes we are being herded towards, if we aren't willing to challenge these principles.

[1] Peter Zarrow, "The Reform Movement, the Monarchy and Political Modernity" in Rebecca Karl & Peter Zarrow (eds), Rethinking the 1898 Reform Period (Harvard 2002) 24.
[2] Ibid., 25.
[3] Zhang Longxi, Allegories: Reading Canonical Literature East and West (Cornell University 2005) 196.
[4] Ibid.,198-200.

A bubble on the stream

There aren't too many political magazines you can buy on the newsstands here in Australia. One of them is called The Monthly. It's a mostly left-of-centre magazine that tends to run long articles by established writers. I've rarely found the articles interesting enough to respond to.

It seems that I'm not the only one to find the magazine uninspiring. Guy Rundle is an independent-minded Australian leftist. He's an editor of Arena magazine and he writes occasionally for the Guardian. Rundle wrote a critique of The Monthly last year. Having listed the feature articles of one edition of the magazine, he commented:
I’m sure that all these will be well-written and also that none of the ideas in them will be particularly challenging.

And, as the world seems to be coming apart at the seams, there seems a marginality to the concerns, a degree of preciousness in the approach...

That’s the core of the magazine, and there’s something missing, i.e. a core. From global economics, to what appears to be the meltdown of West Asia, from a critical account of Ruddism ... to the changing nature of identity … The Monthly seems to be missing a great deal of it. In the early period of Warhaft’s editorship there were essays by Anne Manne, which constituted the closest the publication came to mixing some Big Ideas into among the reportage ... Apart from the PM’s contributions of course...

All well and good, but aren’t there any other bloody ideas around, except those that flow from the PM?...

When the world is in face-masks, General Motors is asking to be nationalised, the Taliban is marching on Islamabad, the Chinese are calling for a new global currency, more live organ transplants are the result of cash transaction than donation, and the newspaper appears on the verge of winking out of existence, etc etc the failure to take on Big Ideas becomes unignorable, a gaping hole. To not recognise that the left-liberal ideology, really a late Whitlamism, of a well-connected elite is simply a bubble on the stream, is to miss a great historical opportunity...

That relative absence of ideas applies, I hasten to add, not only to the absence of writers further left than a leftish-centre, though their absence is striking — no Jeff Sparrow, Katherine Wilson, Mark Bahnisch, John Quiggin, Geoff Boucher, Larissa Behrendt, Humphrey McQueen, Terry Janke, Mark Davis (the Gangland one), Julie Stephens, David McKnight, Anita Heiss and that’s right off the top of me head — but no interesting classical/neo-liberals either — Jason Soon, Andrew Norton, Charles Richardson, Rafe Champion — or genuine conservatives like Mark Richardson, John Carroll, Pierre Ryckmans. No longer critical pieces from the likes of Christos Tsiolkas, Owen Richardson, David Bennett, Eve Vincent, Bob Ellis, Germaine Greer, Kerryn Goldsworthy, Mischa Merz, Gig Ryan … and on and on. Even leaving out people whose writing is too academic or activist you can field a pretty impressive team.

I would dare to suggest that a contents at least partly drawn from the above would render a publication with more punch than the current line up. Doubtless some of these people have been asked and declined (and some have got the occasional guernsey), but I know that most would jump at the dollar-a-word fee. Some are overexposed and you’d use them sparingly — certainly more sparingly than the limited roll-call of the existing Monthly contributors — but so many of the existing writers are, compared to the above lot, so goddam tepid.

I thought this interesting. First, Rundle gets the political spectrum right. He lists a series of writers on the left, and then some writers he calls classical or neo-liberals (i.e. right liberals) and then a few writers he terms genuine conservatives, namely myself, John Carroll and Pierre Ryckmans. (John Carroll is the author of the excellent work Humanism: the Wreck of Western Culture.)

Interesting too that Rundle correctly describes left-liberalism as an ideology; that he sees its followers not as underdog outsiders but as part of a "well-connected elite"; and that he views left-liberal ideology not as a universal and final truth bringing us to the end of history but as a bubble on the stream.

Note too that Rundle perceives the world to be "coming apart at the seams". There seems to be a growing perception across the political spectrum that all is not well with the West and that there are signs of decline.

There are shifts occurring in politics. Yes, they are happening more slowly than many of us would like. But think back to the late 1980s, early 1990s (if you're old enough). Back then left-liberalism utterly dominated Australian politics. It stood as a monolith that few were willing to openly criticise. If you wanted to be thought of as a good person you were supposed to embrace orthodox left-liberal views.

It's not that left-liberalism has entirely lost this status. It's still the largest single current of thought in the political class. But it's not as monolithic as it once was. It's not thought of as being as natural or eternal a source of political authority as it was in the late 1980s. Even in its Scandinavian heartland, mainstream left-liberalism has lost its monopoly on politics.

We don't know what opportunities this changing political landscape will eventually bring to traditionalists. I expect that there will be, at least, waves of opportunity that we need to try to put ourselves in a position to catch and make use of.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Jolted and startled

The Daily Mail ran a story a little while ago about a woman, Sharon Parsons, who had come to terms with being childless. What did Sharon Parsons think she had missed out on? I thought her answer interesting:

Yet, it seems to me that those with a family often have more tangible stages punctuating their lives: there's the day they become parents; later, they may become grandparents; and inbetween there are all the defining events that will be remembered and celebrated, such as the one my friend was enjoying so much, the marriage of her child.

Perhaps, in a few years, she will also see the birth of her first grandchild and another chapter of that particular family's life will begin as their lineage continues onward into the future. It's something people like me will never know.

And that - for me, at least - is a jolting part of being childless. However pretentious it may sound, there's the startling fact that my husband and I have severed the thread in our personal ancestry (unless, of course, he should decide to run off with a fertile 20-something).

Despite our respective nephews and nieces taking up the family baton, he and I know that we are not passing anything of ourselves on to future generations.

After an infinite genealogical timeline - impossible to imagine - we have drawn the mark in the sand. Enough. No more. Our bloodline stops here.

What Sharon Parsons is doing here is recognising a good that is not the usual liberal one of autonomy. In fact, she is recognising that she does not exist merely as an autonomous individual, but as part of a family lineage that extends back through countless generations. She finds it startling to be faced with the loss of this lineage "after an infinite genealogical timeline". Ancestral connections do matter to her.

And how did she come to be childless? The usual way for a woman of her generation. She had always wanted to have children:

I always wanted and assumed I'd have a brood of my own. I grew up imagining an idyllic family life and, naturally, I only ever thought about the special times - playing with my children on a sunny beach, seeing them set off on their first day at school, celebrating birthdays and Christmas down the years.

My offspring would - of course! - be beautiful, well-behaved and clever, and would grow up to become happy, well-adjusted and brilliant young adults with fulfilling careers and eventually wonderful children of their own.

But she bought into the idea that a woman's 20s should be devoted to a single girl lifestyle and that family could be deferred until her 30s:

I spent my 20s having a fabulous time and building a career. But I spent my 30s - when I thought babies would surely be the next thing to come along, especially as all my friends were reproducing - slowly coming to terms with the fact motherhood simply wasn't my God-given right.

The deferral of parenthood till some time in your 30s does increase the risk of either not being able to have children or limiting your choice of family size. It would be better for our culture if we shifted back to the idea of marrying and having children, or at least beginning the process, whilst we are still in our 20s.

(To forestall some criticisms here, I do understand that there are people who want to do this but who find it difficult to meet someone, particularly within the current culture of relationships.)

Saturday, November 13, 2010

What's wrong with liberal identity?

Living in a multiculture poses problems for identity:

A study of 339 young people aged 14 to 17 who live in Sydney's west and south-west suburbs found only one-third of them called themselves Australian even though two-thirds were born here.

Instead they identified themselves by their ethnic background as Tongan, Chinese, Lebanese, and so on, and 16 of the indigenous young people identified themselves as Koori or Aboriginal.

Less than half of them also felt ''Australian'' all the time and one-fifth did not feel ''Australian'' at all.

The liberal academic responsible for the research put a positive gloss on the findings:

Jock Collins, a professor of economics at the University of Technology, Sydney, who presented findings from the study at a conference in Europe, said the unwillingness of these "cosmopolitan" youth to identify as Australian should not be seen as a problem.

"A lot of these young people have links to their parents' nations of birth and they have diverse and multiple identities," he said. "They incorporate their migrant identities with elements of 'being Australian'."

Liberals like the idea of "diverse and multiple identities" because it suggests that identity is something that we can choose for ourselves from a menu of options. It fits in with the liberal belief that the key good in life is autonomy, so that the ideal man becomes someone who is self-defining or self-creating.

However, I very much doubt if Professor Collins has it right. I doubt that in the long-term these young people will sustain diverse ethnic identities.

What's more likely is that they are in the process of being deracinated - uprooted from their original culture and ethny. They might still identify as being a Turk or a Tongan, but it will be difficult to sustain this identity over time living in the suburbs of Sydney.

What happens when an ethnic identity is lost? Identity doesn't disappear. Individuals do need a sense of personal identity. So it takes on different forms.

You can see this with the Anglo liberals who came of age in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Many of them are the "true believer" types for whom liberalism is something of a religion. These true believers have a hostile view of whiteness and so have rejected identifying with their own ethny. They have also largely rejected identifying positively with their sex (masculinity or femininity) and with their family roles (husband, wife, mother, father).

So what do they build their identity on? Obviously, partly on their political beliefs. They have a sense that they hold a morally superior politics which makes them good and superior people. They also put a lot of emphasis on their work identity. Some of them, from what I've observed, also fill in the gap of their "tribal" identity through loyally supporting a sports team.

For reasons I will try to explain later, these alternative identities are a step down from the traditional ones. But they are nonetheless better than the ones that the young people living in Sydney's south-western suburbs are likely to adopt.

What happens to youth identity in a liberal culture? This is the issue discussed in a paper by Sarah Riley from the University of Bath in the UK ("Identity, community and selfhood: understanding the self in relation to contemporary youth cultures" 2008).

How would we expect identity to be treated in a liberal society? For liberals, what matters is that we are autonomous; we are supposed to be self-determining, self-sovereign creatures. The good, therefore, is not in anything we choose to do or be but that we get to self-define.

So liberals won't like forms of identity that we can't choose between or that we are "destined" to have as part of our tradition or biology. They will prefer instead forms of identity that are temporary, elective, multiple and fluid.

With that in mind, consider the following excerpts from Sarah Riley's paper. Here, for instance, she describes the dominant "neo-liberal" approach to identity:

The need to story oneself with multiple narratives, whether drawn from traditional - or consumption-based identity markers, is particularly relevant...

Neo-liberalism describes the idea that people are encouraged to see themselves as if they are autonomous, rational, risk-managing subjects, responsible for their own destinies and called “to render one’s life knowable and meaningful through a narrative of free choice and autonomy"...

Neo-liberalism allows people to make sense of themselves in individualistic and psychological terms, understanding their consumption practices as freely chosen markers of their identity

Identity here is self-created and subjective. It is about "self-storying". The elements of identity being played with can be traditional ones (based on family or ethnicity) or they can be modern ones based on "consumption practices" (what we choose to buy, to wear, to own).

Sarah Riley uses the term "liquid" rather than "fluid" to describe the preferred liberal form of identity:

It is likely, however, that young people’s subjectivities are constructed through a variety of identities shaped by ‘traditional’ orientations to class, region, family and gender, and more ‘liquid’, flexible ones orienting around leisure-based activities, such as sports or shopping.

Identity, in the above excerpt, is described as a self-constructed "subjectivity". Although traditional elements of identity are still played with, the modern forms of identity, based on leisure activities such as sports or shopping, are considered more liquid and flexible and therefore superior in liberal terms.

More on the same theme:

This context has opened up the possibility for young people to engage in a playful pick-and-mix approach to identity as they move through a kaleidoscope of temporary, fluid and multiple subjectivities that often celebrate hedonism, sociality and sovereignty over one’s own existence.

Well, that's the liberal approach to identity in a nutshell. We playfully pick-and-mix our identity, and move through "temporary, fluid and multiple subjectivities".

And what about group identity? In her paper, Sarah Riley takes into account a theory of modern group identity called neo-tribalism:

Maffesoli’s theory of neo-tribalism ... characterises daily life as a continuous movement through a range of small and potentially temporary groups that are distinguished by shared lifestyles, values and understandings of what is appropriate behaviour. These groups give a sense of belonging and identity, examples of which include gathering to watch football in a bar, participants on service user websites or regular commuters sharing public transport.

What distinguishes neo-tribal social formation from traditional social groupings is that people belong to a variety of groups, many of them by choice, so that neo-tribal memberships are plural, temporary, fluid and often elective

This too is a liberal approach to identity. Group identity is held to exist, but only in autonomous, self-defining forms, i.e. in forms which are plural, temporary, fluid and elective.

What is the point of this kind of group identity? It is to express "self-sovereignty:

when groups create opportunities to practice sovereignty over their existence they are creating spaces in which to engage in values that orient around sociality, emotionality and hedonism. In relating neo-tribalism to young people, it may be useful to recognise the similarities between Maffesoli’s concept of sovereignty and Hakim Bey’s ‘Temporary Autonomous Zones’ (TAZ), a term he uses to describe transitory unsanctioned self-governing sites

Note the language used to describe these group identities: they are based on "transitory" affiliations, which once again emphasises the idea of identity being temporary.

Which brings us to the key question. What is wrong with these modern, liberal forms of identity? One part of the answer is that they are merely subjective:

Thus, the proliferation and globalisation of near instant forms of technological communication make available a dynamically-shifting range of stories and forms of knowledge that can inform young people’s identity management. Subjectivity, then, is not considered to be constructed from pre-formed essences which exist independently outside of time, talk or other social activity, but are constantly (re)produced in interaction, constructed from the range of subject positions available to the individual...

Our identity is held to be subjective, self-constructed and "managed". It is not thought to be based on "pre-formed essences which exist independently" of our own self.

But if identity is not related to anything that has an independent, objective value, if it has value only because we choose it, then it isn't very significant.

I'll put this another way. For liberals, the forms of identity are not very important or meaningful in themselves. What matters is the feeling of "self-sovereignty" that we get in the moment that we exercise our choice to self-define. Liberals focus on the individual saying "I exercised my choice to opt for this" rather than "this category of being has a meaningful essence I share in or participate in or embody".

The results can be shallow. Identity can be reduced to consumer, lifestyle or leisure choices. Traditional identity, in comparison, dealt more with the "transcendent," by which I mean sources of meaning existing independently of our own individual will, but to which we could feel connected.

There's another problem. Identity based on subjective, transitory connections is likely to be disintegrative. Sarah Riley herself puts this even more strongly than I would:

It may be that young people will experience fractured and multiple subjectivity in the same way that they are encouraged to consider high street clothing – as tools of identity to be temporarily appropriated, experienced and then cast off in favour of some new look or experience. Future subjectivity may therefore be conceptualised as a collection of multiple, diffuse selves existing across time and space, that have differing degrees of relationships with each other and perhaps no longer needing to be held together by the concept of a ‘core self’.

It is likely, therefore, that in the future young people will need to find ways to exist in the plural.

I'm not sure it will get to that stage, but I do think it's true that an identity that aims to be shifting, temporary and liquid will become increasingly fractured.

Monday, November 08, 2010

German Minister for Women criticises feminism

Here's an interesting development that Alte alerted me to. In Germany the Federal Minister of Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth is a 33-year-old woman named Kristina Schröder. She is affiliated with the Christian Democratic Union.

Usually those who head the ministries for women in Western countries are orthodox feminists. But not Kristina Schröder. She has made some criticisms of radical feminism; has argued that women are paid less because of the fields they choose to study; has rejected affirmative action quotas; and wants the advancement of boys to be a focus of her ministry.

The most important of these departures from feminist orthodoxy is her recognition that pay differentials can be explained in part by the different choices that men and women make when it comes to fields of study and work and that it's unreasonable to expect women who study humanities to end up being paid as much as men who take on more economically oriented, technical vocations.

She is not a victim, in other words, of the usual reflex to blame the situation on discrimination or sexism.

I don't know enough about her politics to explain why she has broken with the orthodoxy or even how consistently she has broken with it. But it's a refreshing change from what we'd normally expect to hear from ministers for women.

Here's a rough translation of the Spiegel article (did a bit of German at uni):

Family Minister Kristina Schröder is sharpening her conservative profile - and is taking down (?) part of the feminist movement. "I believe that at least early feminism overlooked in part that partnership and children bestow happiness," said the CDU politician to the Spiegel.

The youngest minister of the black-yellow federal government doesn't spare from her criticisim the icon of the German women's movement, Alice Schwarzer. Quite a few of her theses are too radical, said Schröder. "For example, that heterosexual intercourse is scarcely possible without oppressing women. To that I can only say: Sorry, that's wrong." She adds, "It is absurd, when something that is basic for humanity and its survival is defined as oppressive. That would mean that society couldn't continue without the oppression of women."

It was a mistake of a radical current of the women's movement to reject relationships between men and women, continued Schröder. "That homosexuality should be the solution to female disadvantage I didn't find really persuasive."

The minister rejects advancing women in careers through coercive state measures such as quotas. A quota would be "a capitulation of politics" (?). At the same time she allocated to women some of the blame for often not earning as much as men. "The truth looks like this: Many women like to study German studies or humanities, men in contrast electrical engineering. - and that has consequences for wages. We can't forbid companies to pay electrical engineers better than German studies graduates.

The Minister for Women announced that a focus of her politics in future will be the advancement of boys, because they had fallen behind the scholastic achievement of girls for some time.

Politics has culpably neglected boys and men's issues. It was not only necessary that more men should work in the future as teachers in primary schools. The educational content also ought to change. "Do we write enough dictation with football stories? Boys are interested in that. Or is it always about butterflies and ponies?"

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Tim Wise: the sound of your demise is beautiful

Tim Wise is the ugly face of the left. He's a self-styled "anti-racist" activist, with a brimming hatred of whites.

Wise was clearly upset by Republican gains in the mid-term elections. So he wrote an open letter to American whites, in which he takes comfort in the impending demise of white people:

You need to drink up.

And quickly.

And heavily.

Because your time is limited.

Real damned limited.

So party while you can, but mind the increasingly loud clock ticking away in the corners of your consciousness.

The clock that reminds you how little time you and yours have left.

Already there are two big questions to be asked here. One is why Tim Wise hates whites so much. The second is why he thinks that the Republican Party is devoted to the defence of whites.

But, first, here are some more of the charmless thoughts of Tim Wise:

you will lose...

It is coming, and soon.

This isn’t hubris. It isn’t ideology. It is not wishful thinking.

It is math...

The kind of math that proves how your kind -- mostly older white folks beholden to an absurd, inaccurate, nostalgic fantasy of what America used to be like -- are dying.

You’re like the bad guy in every horror movie ever made, who gets shot five times, or stabbed ten, or blown up twice, and who will eventually pass -- even if it takes four sequels to make it happen -- but who in the meantime keeps coming back around, grabbing at our ankles as we walk by, we having been mistakenly convinced that you were finally dead this time.

Fair enough, and have at it. But remember how this movie ends.

Our ankles survive.

You do not.

So on to the first question. Why does Tim Wise hate whites?

I think the answer has to do with how left-liberals explain the existence of inequality. Liberals believe that inherited group characteristics, such as our sex, our race or our sexuality, should not matter when it comes to our life outcomes.

That means that liberals take it very seriously if one group appears to be advantaged in any way (in liberal-speak "privileged").

Inevitably, such advantage does exist. So liberals have to explain why advantage exists and how it can be overcome.

To answer that it exists because of differences between groups in talents or interests is not accepted by liberals. Liberals generally assume that talents and interests are spread evenly amongst different groups. To answer that advantage exists because one group forms an historic majority is also considered illegitimate.

The answer generally given by liberals is that group advantage exists because of discrimination by one group against another, motivated perhaps by prejudice or bigotry. Right liberals tend to believe that all groups are capable of such bigotry but that progress and enlightenment will overcome historic injustice.

But there are left liberals who spin the theory a bit further. They hold that one dominant group (men, whites) deliberately created a system of discrimination to uphold an unearned privilege at the expense of the excluded "other".

So the dominant group becomes the barrier to the historic achievement of justice and equality. It becomes the "cosmic enemy" of humanity. So to overcome oppression and inequality you have to set about undermining the dominant group, deconstructing it, bringing it down.

Don't believe me? Listen, then, as Tim Wise continues his rant:

in the pantheon of American history, conservative old white people have pretty much always been the bad guys, the keepers of the hegemonic and reactionary flame, the folks unwilling to share the category of American with others on equal terms.

Fine, keep it up. It doesn't matter.

Because you’re on the endangered list.

And unlike, say, the bald eagle or some exotic species of muskrat, you are not worth saving.

Most leftists don't express the "cosmic enemy" idea as strongly as Tim Wise does. Some do not express it at all (e.g. some of the left-liberals in the men's rights movement). But the beliefs I described above are not that uncommon on the left. They are to be found, for instance, in the whiteness studies courses to be found in dozens of universities. And they explain, too, the more general feeling to be found in modern Western politics that it is somehow progressive for established white communities to be broken up (I've had two principals apologise to me in job interviews for the number of white students at their schools).

As a typical example of the "whites as cosmic enemy" theme, there is the article "Privileged whites" penned by Jennifer Clarke, a teacher at the Australian National University. In this article, Clarke describes Australia as a "regionally anomalous white enclave run largely by white people to our own advantage", in which anti-discrimination laws should be applied more effectively so that "a majority of Australians would no longer be of northern European ethnic heritage".

Tim Wise wants the same sort of solution for the US. He doesn't want an armed pogrom against whites. He just wants them to die out and be replaced by other races:

It's OK. Because in about forty years, half the country will be black or brown. And there is nothing you can do about it...

Do whatever you gotta do, but remember that those who are the victims of your greed and indifference take the long view.

They know, but you do not, that justice is not for the sprinters, but rather for the long distance runners who will be hitting their second wind, right about the time that you collapse from exhaustion...

Because those who have lived on the margins, who have been abused, maligned, targeted by austerity measures and budget cuts, subjected to racism, classism, sexism, straight supremacy and every other form of oppression always know more about their abusers than the abusers know about their victims...

And they know how to regroup, and plot, and plan, and they are planning even now -- we are -- your destruction.

And I do not mean by that your physical destruction...

We just have to be patient.

And wait for you to pass into that good night, first politically, and then, well...

Do you hear it?

The sound of your empire dying? Your nation, as you knew it, ending, permanently?

Because I do, and the sound of its demise is beautiful.

Which brings me to the second question. Wise assumes that the Republicans are a pro-white group.  But this isn't obviously true. The Republican leadership has been keen to grant amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants and the party has done little to stem the demographic transformation of the US.

But the left-liberal theory assumes that the system is run in the interests of the dominant group. The theory works better if the Republicans are assumed to be acting in the interests of the white majority (even if there is little evidence that this is so). Therefore Wise portrays a Republican victory as a victory for those who want to keep America as a majority white country.

And what about our response to Tim Wise? First, we have to recognise that Wise is correct about the demographic transformation of the US and its long-term consequences. So we need to continue to build up opposition to open borders in the US and elsewhere.

Second, we need to criticise the liberal assumptions about equality that lead on to hostility against whites. It's utterly wrong for liberals to try to make race and sex not matter in a society. They do matter and should matter.

If, for instance, the Danes are the historic majority in Denmark then of course they will be the "dominant" group. Yes, they will have the "advantage" when it comes to representing the cultural norms of that society or filling most of the positions of power and influence in that society.  But that doesn't represent an illegitimate, immoral privilege. It's a normal aspect of a nation of people maintaining its own existence.

Yes, whites in America have been the "dominant" group in the above sense. Perhaps that does confer an advantage on whites in America in the sense of representing cultural norms or occupying a large number of public offices. But that is a perfectly normal and proper kind of advantage, one that occurs in every living nation, including those in Asia and Africa. What is improper is for liberals, with their abstract, ideological approach to equality, to seek to undermine this kind of "advantage".

Are white Americans privileged in other ways? Yes and no. In terms of income, education and family outcomes, Asian Americans do better than white Americans. It's true that white Americans tend to do better than hispanics and blacks. Liberals assume that talent and interests are spread evenly across groups and that such unequal outcomes must therefore be due to discrimination. But if the problem is discrimination by white Americans toward the excluded other, why then do Asians do so well? Why do they do even better than whites?

We need a better, non-liberal approach to equality. The current one delivers us the absurdity of Tim Wise, an "anti-racist" who treats one particular race as a cosmic enemy and who will not rest until the historic majority is no more.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Men's role is to empower women for what exactly?

There was an article in the New York Times recently which described women as being "empowered" by their growing advantage in education and careers:

You could easily compile statistics to make the case that women — at least Western women — are already empowered. In the United States, we are 50 percent of the workplace (and 51.4 percent of managerial and professional jobs). We receive three college degrees for every two earned by men (along with 60 percent of all master’s degrees, about half of all law and medical degrees and 43 percent of M.B.A.’s). Working wives are coming close to bringing in nearly half the household income. Single, childless urban women under 30 actually earn 8 percent more than their male peers.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton would be pleased. She was one of the early American feminists who wrote in 1887:

The two great sources of progress are intellect and wealth. Both represent power, and are the elements of success in life. Education frees the mind from the bondage of authority and makes the individual self-asserting. Remunerative industry is the means of securing to its possessor wealth and education...

Even back then, Stanton's aim was "power" which was to be achieved through education and career. Hence, the more that women succeed at university and at work the more they are held to be "empowered".

The purpose of this power for Stanton? It was not directed to any social aim. It was intended to bring to women an autonomous existence. In Stanton's own words, the aim was the "self-dependence of every human soul", in which a woman had "self-sovereignty; because, as an individual, she must rely on herself". Stanton believed in the "isolation of every human soul and the necessity of self-dependence".

But if women get autonomy through education and careers and thereby became empowered, what then of the family? Well, it gets downgraded in importance. Stanton wrote of family relations as being "incidental":

it is only the incidental relations of life, such as mother wife, sister, daughter, which may involve some special duties and training

She wrote also that,

the love of offspring ... calls out only the negative virtues that belong to apathetic classes, such as patience, endurance, self-sacrifice

(Stanton's attitudes not only fit in with the larger liberal culture, but they possibly have a personal origin as well. There were 11 children in Stanton's family but all of the boys died young. In her wikipedia article we find this:

Writing of her brother, Eleazar's, death in 1826, Stanton remembers trying to comfort her father, saying that she would try to be all her brother had been. At the time, her father's response devastated Stanton: "Oh, my daughter, I wish you were a boy!")

So Stanton's wishes have been fulfilled and young women are now doing better in their educational and career results than men. So are women now empowered? According to the New York Times article, the answer is no. The changes have not yet made women feel empowered:

It isn’t true until it feels true. That’s because measuring women’s power by looking only at women — and by looking mostly at the workplace — paints a false picture.

It seems that the problem is men. Women won't feel properly empowered until we men get with the female empowerment programme:

The life-work dilemma for women has long been that “the workplace has changed in their favor, but home hasn’t,” she says. Men, however, “have the opposite problem. More is expected of them at home, but expectations have not shifted at work.”

Younger couples say they want and expect parity in their relationships. But many women still carry a chip on their shoulders, chiseled in part by years of keeping all those to-do lists in their heads. And if men can find no relief from the pressures of work, they are not going to be able to fit into the revamped economy of home.

How then to inch toward change? Can we make it “manly” (or even better, “gender neutral”) to spend a day with a child, or earn less money but have more family time, or be the only parent at a parent-teacher conference because your wife has a meeting?

It's an odd sensation reading this as a man. The female journalist, Lisa Belkin, assumes that our role as men is to prop up a female individualism. She makes this explicit later in the article:

Empowering American women can no longer focus only on women — on leveling playing fields or offering mothers “on-ramps” and “offramps” or shattering ceilings one at a time. All those efforts must continue, yes. But none will succeed if we don’t change our expectations for men. Or, more accurately, men’s expectations for themselves.

So men are merely instruments to be manipulated for the empowerment of women? I don't think so, sister.

Note too the difficulty that feminists have here. According to them, the maternal role is the subordinate, secondary and disempowering one. And yet that's the role they want men to pick up. But if the good in life is to be "empowered" by careers, why would men do this? Feminists are forced into the position here of arguing to men, "do this even though we believe it will hurt you".

And then there's Lisa Belkin's suggestion of persuading men to get with the programme by making it "manly" to do so. The assumption here is that there is no unchanging essense to masculinity, but that it's whatever we make it to be. Which makes it not very much at all.

So what's a New York Times feminist to do? She looks approvingly to Sweden where policy pushes men into taking child care leave. Initially in Sweden, either the husband or wife could choose to take the paid leave offered by the state. Only 4% of men chose to do so. The state therefore decided not to allow men and women to choose. Some of the leave had to be taken by the husband. So now 80% of men take paid leave.

The problem for Lisa Belkin is that liberalism is supposed to be about autonomous choice and not state coercion. So she is forced into a verbal contortion to express her support for what the Swedes have done:

By steering men toward a particular path, Sweden redefined the nature of choice. Parental leave was transformed ... from an emotional decision to a financial one; from something mothers do to something every parent does. Would that same kind of redefinition — of the relationship between work and home, of the roles of men and women — work on this side of the Atlantic?

Sweden redefined the nature of choice alright. You are allowed to choose what the feminist state wants you to choose.

The next time you hear a liberal say they respect difference, just remind them that liberals aren't too good at accepting differences in the roles of men and women. The preferred end point of liberalism is one in which, in Lisa Belkin's words, parental roles are "gender neutral", i.e. identical.

I won't launch into it now, but there's also a discussion to be had here about the purposes of power. Is it really true that power is to be deployed to prop up our own individualistic purposes? Can you run a society along these lines?

I would have thought that power was properly directed toward larger social aims, such as the proper functioning of social institutions. Or, at the individual level, it's purpose is to direct the will toward the expression of character and moral purpose. Already in 1887, Elizabeth Cady Stanton seems to reduce it to an instrument of mere "self-assertion".