Monday, October 29, 2018

Standards & the liberal formula

The current liberal understanding of liberty is that we are free when there are fewest constraints on individual choice. The one constraint that liberalism formally recognises is that we are not in our own choices to limit the choices of others (we are not to discriminate, or be intolerant, or judge, or lack openness toward what others choose to be or do).

I don't want to address in this post the lack of internal coherence of the liberal formula. I simply want to point out some of the ways that traditional societies believed that individual choice should rightly be constrained.

I am pointing out a conflict between the traditional view and the liberal one. A liberal society, in attempting to maximise the realm of individual choice, must eventually push against the traditional constraints on choice.

In other words, you cannot operate on the liberal formula and hope to preserve, in the longer run, those cultural standards within a traditional society that constrained individual choice.

Some of these standards held within traditional societies, in no particular order, included:

1. What might be thought of as aristocratic codes of behaviour, including standards of honour, nobility and dignity. These ruled out choices or actions that were thought to be base or dishonourable, including cowardice and dishonesty.

2. Loyalty. It was thought right to be loyal to family and to country (hence the motto "God, King and country"). If we are loyal, then we are constrained in our choices from putting our own immediate material self-interests above the well-being of our family or nation.

3. Manhood & womanhood. In traditional societies men were expected to act according to standards of courage, resilience, self-control, reliability, industry and strength; womanhood was measured by a loving heart, patience, tenderness, kindness, grace, modesty and beauty.

It is perhaps no coincidence that in eras that were focused on dissolving restraint that sex distinctions between men and women were deliberately flattened (e.g. the flappers of the 1920s or the hippies of the later 60s).

4. Duty. I remember as a young man having a serious talk with an older male who told me "there is no such thing as duty." He had been raised in a culture that had already rejected duty as a standard. That's not so surprising, as duty really does suggest a constraint on our choices.

Duty seems to arise, in part, from a sense of what we owe to those who have brought about our being, and nurtured and raised us, and made sacrifices for us. In many cultures, therefore, filial duty is prominent (a duty toward our parents). Similarly, it can be felt that we have a duty to past generations, to our country and its traditions, and to God. (Duty can run the other way as well, in that we have duties to those under our care, such as our children.)

In the ancient world, duty was connected as a concept with piety. Cicero, for instance, defined pietas as the virtue "which admonishes us to do our duty to our country or our parents or other blood relations." For the Ancient Greeks, eusebeia (the Greek counterpart to pietas) was represented by the demi-god of piety, loyalty, duty and filial respect.

5. Reverence/respect. This is a constraint on transgressing certain places or offices that are thought to hold a deeper meaning within a community. For instance, in some communities it might be thought irreverent to shout obscenities in a church, or to damage a flag that soldiers have fought for and died under, or to insult the monarch, or to blaspheme. In modern Australia, there is the example of the reverent way that ANZAC Day services are carried out.

Liberals still sometimes make appeals to an ideal of respect, as when they call for respect for women. But this works differently to the traditional concept. In a liberal society, women are encouraged to self-transgress (to act against moral ideals associated with their sex), as this then widens the realm of individual choice. Similarly, the very notion of womanhood is transgressed when liberals treat it as an oppressive social construct that is, at best, a merely subjective identity open to all.

So there is no deeply held meaning to the idea of womanhood in a liberal society that it might be thought wrong to transgress. We are told to respect women in a general sense, more as a way of upholding women's unconstrained choices, rather than as a response to something within womanhood itself that might naturally draw respect from men.

6. Integrity/self-respect. A desire to maintain moral integrity constrained choice in traditional societies. A person begins with moral foundations that provide a sense of "wholeness" (perhaps the term "wholesomeness" comes from this). If these foundations collapse, there is a loss of the sense of being an integrated, complete person. The feeling of integrity that is so valuable a part of our identity is damaged.

Similarly, a person who routinely yields to vice (to sloth, gluttony, avarice etc.) will eventually feel less respect for themselves (hence the reprimand "a self-respecting person would not do that"). We do not wish to lower ourselves in our own eyes; self-respect therefore places constraints on what we might choose to be or do.

7. Love. If we genuinely love someone, we will wish to protect them from harm. More than this, we often seek to serve and defend that which we love. This could be our family, our nation, our friends, our church, or the larger tradition we belong to. We wish too to uphold the conditions in which such loves can flourish. All of this places constraints on individual choice. There have been some very radical moderns who have rejected love because of this; they have identified it as a brake on "liberation" movements or as a fetter on personal freedom.

8. Service. An impulse toward service is one aspect of our created nature. The use of our strengths and talents in service to others gives us a sense of purpose and fulfilment. Even though it makes claims on us, and therefore places limits on choice, service adds to the richness of our commitments, as when a man acts to protect his family, or a woman nurtures her children, or perhaps when there is a calling toward a higher service to God to uphold the good.

In a liberal society, the call to serve is most often heard from the churches. Some of these churches have accepted the fundamentals of a liberal philosophy and so service is interpreted through a social justice framework as meaning a commitment toward the "equal autonomy" of individuals.

This creates a negative loop. The churches, in response to a largely self-centered culture, preach service to others, but by keeping to a modern philosophy they support movements which further dissolve the traditional, common bonds of historic communities, leading to ever more withdrawn, self-centered forms of culture.

Service shouldn't be just tacked on to an otherwise socially dissolving ideology, but should flow from the commitments that grow naturally within settled, stable, traditional forms of community.

These are some of the key cultural standards that acted as restraints on individual choice in pre-modern societies. If the aim of a modern society is to maximise such choice, then there is going to be a problem in attempting to retain these standards - there is a danger that they will be lost.

Now, a liberal might reply to all this by saying that if choice is unconstrained that people could still choose as individuals to be honourable, or manly, or loyal. If I remember correctly, John Stuart Mill was confident that people who were "liberated" to unconstrained choice would, particularly if they were educated, choose to act like gentlemen.

But there's the problem of the logic at play. If the aim of society is to enlarge the realm of unconstrained choice, and these traditional standards constrain that choice, then they are likely ultimately to be seen as barriers to be taken down. The reality is that these standards will eventually come to be thought of as old-fashioned & out of date, or regressive, or quaint. And if the words themselves survive within a liberal culture ("service," "respect," "manhood"), it is likely that they will have been redefined to better suit liberal purposes.

They don't survive intact as cultural standards. The logic of the liberal formula works against this.

A note to Melbourne readers. If you are sympathetic to the ideas of this website, please visit the site of the Melbourne Traditionalists. It's important that traditionalists don't remain isolated from each other; our group provides a great opportunity for traditionalists to meet up and connect. Details at the website.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Our first conference

Last weekend was the first ever Melbourne Traditionalists Conference. We had a very good turnout, with 25 in attendance. Mark Moncrieff, of the Upon Hope blog, planned the event well. We began with a meet and greet on Friday night, which was low key but very helpful in introducing newcomers to the group. Then on Saturday we had a series of presentations on varying topics ranging from Shakespeare and Aristotelian ethics; the way forward for traditionalism; distinctions in world view between Christianity and paganism; lessons from the anti-suffrage movement; and the keynote address by Dr Frank Salter on Anglo-Australian identity.

The highlight for me came next: an evening banquet at a local restaurant. This was more informal, a good chance for discussion, and it finished the conference with a high level of positive energy.

Special thanks to Mark Moncrieff for his efforts in organising the conference; to all the presenters, but particularly to Dr Salter; to those who made the long trip from Adelaide and Sydney; and to the newcomers who made the step to meeting up in real life.

If you missed out, I have no doubt there will be another conference at this time next year.

A note to Melbourne readers. If you are sympathetic to the ideas of this website, please visit the site of the Melbourne Traditionalists. It's important that traditionalists don't remain isolated from each other; our group provides a great opportunity for traditionalists to meet up and connect. Details at the website.

Monday, October 15, 2018

A warning unheeded

George Essex Evans was one of Australia's Federation poets. He was described by Alfred Deakin, Prime Minister in the early 1900s, as Australia's "national poet whose patriotic songs stirred her people profoundly."

He wrote a poem "Australia" (published 1906) which is notable for its prophetic warning about a false understanding of liberty - one which unfortunately went unheeded.

Liberalism pushes towards an expansion of the realm of individual autonomy. That means, logically, that liberalism pushes against traditional restraints on what I as an individual might choose to do or be.

Evan's poem doesn't look at freedom this way. He wants Australians to be free, not as atomised individuals, but as a people. And freedom does not mean throwing off traditional restraints, but being "proved" as a people in them.

The first two stanzas run as follows:
Earth's mightiest isle. She stands alone.
The wide seas wash around Her throne.
Crowned by the red sun as his own.

The world's grey page lies bare today -
The rise of nations - the decay.
Will She, too, rise - and fall as they?

There is already a challenge here to liberal orthodoxy. Evans is acutely aware that history is not a story of linear progress toward a liberal utopia, but that civilisations rise and fall. He suggests that the old world is already experiencing decay.

He continues:
The trust is ours - to us alone.
We are the strong foundation-stone,
The seed from which the flower is grown.

Again, this focus on intergenerational trust is out of line with modern liberalism, which encourages the view that every generation must live for itself.

Evans then writes:
What shall it profit Her if we
Make gold our God, and strength our plea,
And call wild licence Liberty?

This is, first, a plea against materialism. Evans would not have been pleased to hear Liberal Party Prime Ministers talk about Australia as if we were just an economy, a kind of factory writ large, with political decisions being based mostly on economic considerations.

It is, second, a criticism of freedom being defined as "licence" - which means behaving however we wish, without restraint.
If, in our scorn of creed and king,
All reverence to the winds we fling,
And fall before a baser thing?

Evans identifies here two of the traditional restraints on the realm of individual choice. The first is reverence. A free people does not fling all reverence "to the winds". If it does so, it is likely to adopt something more base. And it is this rejection of the base that is a second traditional restraint on the realm of individual choice. A people is free when it is liberated from what is base, rather than when the distinction between what is base and what is honourable is no longer made.
What though her sword unconquered be,
Her armoured navies sweep the sea,
If still Her people are not free?

To be a people proved and strong -
True freemen of the Poet's song
For whom the world has waited long.

Evans wanted Australians to be "proved and strong" in terms of national character, and it was this that defined being "true freemen" rather than a freedom to be base.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Power without justice

I've written a lot on feminism at this site, mostly about the connection between feminism and the liberal project of maximising individual autonomy.

I happen to know a few high profile feminists and this has given me some insight into the way they think. I've come increasingly to believe that gender politics is used by these women not for the purposes of securing their vision of justice (maximum autonomy for women) but simply for competitive advantage against men in securing the markers of a successful upper middle-class lifestyle, such as professional status, income and cultural/political influence in society.

It's a dreary and demoralising vision of society, one in which men and women are divided into opposing social classes, competing eternally against each other for material things.

Which brings me to a review by Laura Kipnis in The Atlantic of a new feminist book. Laura Kipnis describes the vision of society outlined in this book in similar terms to what I set out above:
One of the unfunny witticisms going around during Hillary Clinton’s first presidential run was that she’d never get elected, because she reminded men of their first wife. When a male friend relayed the update during her second run—no, she didn’t remind men of their first wife; she reminded them of their first wife’s divorce lawyer—I recall barking with laughter. The joke distilled all the male anxieties of the moment: Something was being taken away from them, their balls were in a vise, pissed-off women wanted men’s stuff and were going to be ruthless about trying to get it.

I recalled this joke while reading Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, which shares what might be called a divorce-court view of the gender situation in America. Men and women are on opposing sides, and women will succeed only by quashing men and seizing the spoils: the big jobs, the political offices, and the moral high ground.

The rest of the review is by now very familiar. Social enemy no.1 is the white male:
The primary target for this accumulated rage is, of course, men—white men

But white women are also coming under attack:
83 percent of Democratic women were furious at the news at least once a day. But the oppositional fury isn’t exactly tidy, Traister acknowledges. For many of the women of color whom she quotes, the anger is equally directed at white women.

Rebecca Traister blames "white heterosexual marriage" for the continuing loyalty between white men and women:
the real culprit behind his election, as Traister sees it, is white heterosexual marriage. Analyses of 2016 voting patterns reveal a stark partisan divide between married and never-married white women

Imagine reaching a state of mind in which loyalty between a husband and wife is condemned as undermining the more perfect division of the sexes into hostile, competing social classes.

Patrick Deneen, in his book Why Liberalism Failed, writes about how liberalism, even in its earliest forms, preferred to base itself on "the low" (e.g. harnessing self-interest) rather than aspirations to the high (such as appeals to a common good). He notes of current social problems that,
These maladies include the corrosive social and civic effects of self-interest - a disease that arises from the cure of overcoming the ancient reliance upon virtue. Not only is this malady increasingly manifest in all social interactions and institutions, but it infiltrates liberal politics. Undermining any appeal to a common good, it induces a zero-sum mentality that becomes nationalized polarization for a citizenry that is increasingly driven by private and largely material concerns.

Instead of men and women working together selflessly for a common good (e.g. the family, the nation), and thereby creating stability, trust and improving social standards, the left is pushing a vision of a "nationalized polarization" with men and women standing against each other in competition for power and social resources.

It strikes me as being so bleak a vision of society that it is likely ultimately to bring about a collapse rather than an enduring social order.

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Melbourne Traditionalists Conference 2018

The inaugural Melbourne Traditionalists Conference is coming up soon - Friday 19th and Saturday 20th October. It's open to anyone sympathetic to traditionalist politics. Keynote speaker is Dr Frank Salter.

Details, including how to register, can be found here.

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

Thoughts on freedom

If you were to ask a liberal what freedom is the simplest answer you might get is that it means doing what you want to do. And, it's true, there is a sense in which this is a particular type of freedom.

But taking this as a first principle of society leads to some unusual outcomes. The highest circulation newspaper in the UK ran a story recently with the headline "Trans woman, 41, pretended to be a boy to groom a girl." Accompanying the story was a photo of the "trans woman":

If freedom means doing what you want, then logically this would include a man identifying as a woman, if this is what he wanted to do.

But there is another, and I believe more significant, way to define freedom. In one of Chesterton's books, a character is asked to define freedom and he answers "First and foremost, surely, it is the power of a thing to be itself".

If this is true, then freedom cannot mean being able to choose anything. To be free, we must necessarily limit the choices we make, so that they fit with, and help to develop, our personhood. The better we "self-limit" in this sense, the more freedom we have to be powerfully and admirably what we were created to be.

And this is what most people instinctively aim at. We ask what it means to live excellently, in a fully natured way, to best fulfil our created natures.

And this necessarily means that we are oriented to ordering our lives. We think of ourselves as living within a moral universe and we try to adhere to the natural law that we discover through reason, conscience and experience, so that we maintain the moral integrity that is important to our sense of ourselves, and so that we perfect, as best we can as fallible creatures, our moral nature.

We seek as men to fully develop our masculine qualities. We wish for ourselves a muscular frame and physical strength and athleticism; we attempt to fulfil, to a high degree, the roles and duties associated with being a husband and father; we cultivate the harder virtues of courage, endurance, self-discipline and resilience; and we seek to work effectively with other men to uphold the existence of our communities and traditions.

We wish also to live through our spiritual natures. We value experiences of transcendence or communion. We seek to remain open to deeper experiences of love and connectedness. We appreciate the higher experiences available to us through the arts, through an appreciation of female beauty and through a love of nature.

A mind that can govern itself to be oriented to this line of development is a mind that experiences itself as free. It is a mind that is able to self-consciously guide the person along the path that best fulfils our created nature. But our right minds are not always in charge. Sometimes fierce passions (e.g. anger) clouds our reason, or sometimes bad habits (sloth) prove too strong. Perhaps there is an addiction or a temptation that proves stronger than our right minds.

And so part of life is the effort to cultivate habits of virtue, so that we maintain the freedom to self-consciously and successfully pursue our better purposes - so that we, rather than bad habits or addictions or temptations - are in charge and we can develop freely toward our ultimate ends .

There is a lifelong effort to order ourselves; it stands alongside the effort to accumulate wisdom and self-knowledge.