Sunday, December 17, 2023

Why the dysfunction in relationships?

In "The Load-Bearing Relationship" Cat Orman sets out to explain the dysfunction in modern relationships. She begins with the statistical trends:

In 2000, the percentage of Americans between the ages of 25 and 50 who had never married was just 21%. By 2018, the share of never-married adults climbed to 35%. The median age at first marriage was 25 for women and 27 for men in 2000; by 2022, it was 28 and 30. Today, 41% of Americans ages 18-29 are single, and about a third of never-married single adults say they have never been in a committed romantic relationship.

Her explanation for the decline in relationships is what she calls the "contractual moral framework":

Traditional societies held that we are born into our roles and responsibilities. You owed certain social and practical tributes to your neighbors, siblings, and countrymen, even though you didn’t sign up for them. Confucianism and stoicism made these systems of reciprocal obligations explicit in “role ethics.” Abrahamic religions treated one’s responsibility to the community as part of their obligation to God. Hinduism and the related traditions of the Indian subcontinent contain injunctions from dharma, the personal and social moral duties expected of every spiritually upright individual. While the roles and responsibilities differed greatly across time and place, all of these societies agreed on the necessity and even nobility of fulfilling unchosen roles and responsibilities.

As a consequence, doctrines of how to be a good person centered on the idea that we hold a positive duty of care to others, be it through tithing, caring for sick family members, or raising our neighbor’s barns on the frontier...

The last decade is defined by a shift away from a role ethic and towards a contractualist one. In a contractual moral framework, you have obligations only within relationships that you chose to participate in—meaning, to the children you chose to have and the person you chose to marry—and these can be revoked at any time. You owe nothing to the people in your life that you did not choose: nothing to your parents, your siblings, your extended family or friends, certainly nothing to your neighbors, schoolmates, or countrymen; at least nothing beyond the level of civility that you owe to a stranger on the street.

This is well put. It is part of the shift toward seeing individual autonomy as the highest good in life (which itself has a connection to "voluntarism" in the sense of seeing the will as the ultimate source of value). If it is my autonomy, i.e. my ability to choose as I will in any direction, that is the highest good, then stable commitments to others are a limitation on this good, a kind of fetter or chain, that I should seek to liberate myself from. The focus becomes my freedom to revoke my commitments, rather than my obligations to fulfil my given roles in life. It is not surprising that this focus would lead to a lower trust society with less stable patterns of family life.

Cat Orby goes on to make an interesting observation, namely that if we cannot rely on the support we once received from our unchosen forms of relationships, then too much comes down to the support from a spouse, placing excessive burdens and expectations on that one relationship. 

One small criticism I have of Cat Orby's piece is that the shift toward moral contractualism is much older than she realises. The idea that human society is governed by a "social contract" voluntarily entered into goes back to the proto-liberalism of the seventeenth century. Again, the first wave feminists of the nineteenth century emphasised the idea of maximising autonomy for women, which meant valorising independence rather than family commitments. A female student at Girton College in the 1880s expressed this ethos by stating that,

We are no longer mere parts - excrescences, so to speak, of a family...One may develop as an individual and independent unit.

Unsurprisingly, the same dysfunctions in relationships we see today were also present toward the end of first wave feminism, including delayed family formation and a low fertility rate.

Another minor criticism is that Cat Orby might have extended her argument to go beyond that of obligations. For instance, if what matters is an autonomous freedom to choose in any direction, then the qualities that we are born with, rather than choosing for ourselves, will also seem to be constraints that limit us as individuals. This includes our given sex. And so instead of cultivating the positive qualities of our own sex, it is common for moderns to think negatively of these qualities. Modern women, for instance, have a difficult relationship with their own femininity. This too disrupts heterosexual relationships.

Then there is the issue of equality. It is common now for people to conceive of the very categories of man and woman as political classes vying against each other for power in a zero sum game, where if men win women lose and vice versa. There is little sense of men and women realising themselves more fully in relationship with each other and therefore having a mutual interest in upholding family life as a common good. 

Another way of framing this is that there is no longer a sense of unity governing the relations between men and women. Instead there is fragmentation and the only way of overcoming this fragmentation, within the current way of thinking, is a non-reciprocal one in which either men must strive to meet women's needs and desires or vice versa (or else, as suggested in the recent Barbie film, the sexes achieve equality by going their own way).

To be fair, if there were an emphasis again on role ethics, then this would challenge some of these other problems, because there would once again be a consideration of what we owe to others in virtue of our given roles and responsibilities. What Cat Orby emphasises is therefore not a bad starting point for tackling the current malaise.

Sunday, October 01, 2023

A change of heart on men?

Most leftists today are opposed to masculinity, often prefacing it with the adjective "toxic". Their opposition makes sense given their understanding of both freedom and equality.

If you understand freedom as a self-determining, self-positing individual autonomy, then masculinity will be looked on negatively as something predetermined that is limiting to the individual.

As for equality, moderns see this as a levelling process, in which the emphasis is on "sameness" - we are ideally to stand in the same relation to each other, which then requires distinctions to be negated, at least in certain political contexts.

So leftists will sometimes reject masculinity because it is associated with inequality: masculinity is thought to have been constructed as a means to give men privilege and dominance and to oppress women. And sometimes leftists reject masculinity because it is restrictive, e.g. because of the implication that there are social roles or ways of being in the world that are for men alone.

These attitudes have been around for a long time now. In one of the earliest feminist tracts, The Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1791), Mary Wollstonecraft writes,

A wild wish has just flown from my heart to my head, and I will not stifle it, though it may excite a horse-laugh. I do earnestly wish to see the distinction of sex confounded in society... For this distinction...accounts for their [women] preferring the graceful before the heroic virtues.
Here you can see the modern understanding of both liberty and equality. She wants to level down the distinctions between the sexes (equality) because she wants to choose a masculine way of being (liberty). 

Similarly, we have Shelley writing in 1811, in reference to men and women:
these detestable distinctions will surely be abolished in a future state of being.

Given this long entrenched approach to masculinity, it is of particular interest that a leftist journalist, Christine Emba, has questioned the modern rejection of masculinity. She has written an opinion piece for The Washington Post ("Men are lost. Here's a map out of the wilderness" July 10, 2023), in which she calls for a more positive embrace of the masculine. Why would she go against the current of leftist thought in this way?

Christine Emba

She gives multiple reasons and these should interest us because they indicate some of the deficiencies in modern ways of thinking about our sex. 

First, as a heterosexual woman she is concerned that unmasculine men are unattractive dating prospects:

She quotes a podcaster, Scott Galloway, who makes the point that women who want men to be more feminine often don't want to date such men:

“Where I think this conversation has come off the tracks is where being a man is essentially trying to ignore all masculinity and act more like a woman. And even some women who say that — they don’t want to have sex with those guys. They may believe they’re right, and think it’s a good narrative, but they don’t want to partner with them.”

I, a heterosexual woman, cringed in recognition.
She wrote the piece, in part, because of laments from female friends about the lack of dating opportunities:
It might have been the complaints from the women around me. “Men are in their flop era,” one lamented, sick of trying to date in a pool that seemed shallower than it should be.

So here is a fundamental problem with the leftist rejection of the masculine. Heterosexuality is, by definition, an attraction of the masculine and the feminine. Women will therefore be sexually attracted to masculine qualities of men. Furthermore, it is through their masculine drives that men make commitments to women and to family. So the political commitments of leftist women (to modern understandings of liberty and equality) are set against fundamental aspects of their own being as women (their sexuality and desire for committed relationships with men). 

Second, Christine Emba is concerned that men are struggling. She makes the good point that women should be concerned for the welfare of the men they are closely connected to:

The truth is that most women still want to have intimate relationships with good men. And even those who don’t still want their sons, brothers, fathers and friends to live good lives.
She does not believe that modernity is delivering good lives to men:
I could see a bit of curdling in some of the men around me, too.

They struggled to relate to women. They didn’t have enough friends. They lacked long-term goals. Some guys — including ones I once knew — just quietly disappeared, subsumed into video games and porn...

It felt like a widespread identity crisis — as if they didn’t know how to be.

...Growing numbers of working-age men have detached from the labor market, with the biggest drop in employment among men ages 25 to 34. 

Then there’s the domestic sphere. Last summer, a Psychology Today article caused a stir online by pointing out that “dating opportunities for heterosexual men are diminishing as relationship standards rise.” 

...women are “increasingly selective,” leading to a rise in lonely, single young men — more of whom now live with their parents than a romantic partner. Men also account for almost 3 of every 4 “deaths of despair,” either from a suicide, alcohol abuse or an overdose.

...cut loose from a stable identity as patriarchs deserving of respect, they feel demoralized and adrift. The data show it, but so does the general mood: Men find themselves lonely, depressed, anxious and directionless.

What she is pointing to here is that our sex is deeply connected to our identity, our sense of purpose and our social commitments. Therefore, to malign masculinity and to make it inoperable in society is to undermine the larger welfare and well-being of men. For this reason, it is not liberating for a man to live in a society that is designed for androgyny.

Third, and less important for my argument so I will not dwell on it, she is concerned that if the left simply rejects the masculine that the right will step in and provide the leadership that is otherwise lacking. In other words, she fears that the left will simply vacate the field for the right.

Fourth, she makes a partial acknowledgement that our sex is grounded in reality:

But, in fact, most of these features are scaffolded by biology — all are associated with testosterone, the male sex hormone. It’s not an excuse for “boys will be boys”-style bad behavior, but, realistically, these traits would be better acknowledged and harnessed for pro-social aims than stifled or downplayed. Ignoring obvious truths about human nature, even general ones, fosters the idea that progressives are out of touch with reality.

This is an interesting admission, but she herself is not consistent here. It is very difficult for a leftist to hold together, at the same time, the observation that our sex is a "truth about human nature" with the idea that "freedom means being able to self-determine who we are". 

This is her effort to force these two incompatible ideas together:

The essentialist view...would be dire news for social equality and for the vast numbers of individuals who don’t fit those stereotypes. Biology isn’t destiny — there is no one script for how to be a woman or a man. But...most people don’t actually want a completely androgynous society. And if a new model for masculinity is going to find popular appeal, it will depend on putting the distinctiveness of men to good use in whatever form it comes in.
“Femininity or masculinity are a social construct that we get to define,” Galloway concluded. “They are, loosely speaking, behaviors we associate with people born as men or born as women, or attributes more common among people born as men or as women. But the key is that we still get to fill that vessel and define what those attributes are, and then try and reinforce them with our behavior and our views and our media.”

If this is an awkward way of formulating things, Christine Emba does do a reasonable job in defining desirable masculine traits. For one thing, she rejects the idea that a positive masculinity should be men trying to be feminine:

To the extent that any vision of “nontoxic” masculinity is proposed, it ends up sounding more like stereotypical femininity than anything else: Guys should learn to be more sensitive, quiet and socially apt, seemingly overnight. It’s the equivalent of “learn to code!” as a solution for those struggling to adjust to a new economy: simultaneously hectoring, dismissive and jejune.

She begins her treatment of desirable masculine qualities by quoting Scott Galloway:

“Galloway leaned into the screen. “My view is that, for masculinity, a decent place to start is garnering the skills and strength that you can advocate for and protect others with. If you’re really strong and smart, you will garner enough power, influence, kindness to begin protecting others...”

Richard Reeves, in our earlier conversation, had put it somewhat more subtly...His recipe for masculine success echoed Galloway’s: proactiveness, agency, risk-taking and courage, but with a pro-social cast.

This tracked with my intuitions about what “good masculinity” might look like — the sort that I actually admire, the sort that women I know find attractive but often can’t seem to find at all. It also aligns with what the many young men I spoke with would describe as aspirational, once they finally felt safe enough to admit they did in fact carry an ideal of manhood with its own particular features.

Physical strength came up frequently, as did a desire for personal mastery. They cited adventurousness, leadership, problem-solving, dignity and sexual drive. None of these are negative traits, but many men I spoke with felt that these archetypes were unfairly stigmatized.

The discussion of masculinity here is a good one overall. What is particularly striking is the acceptance that men might set out to garner power and influence to put themselves in a position to protect others, as this is a departure from the "zero sum game" attitude to relationships that I have criticised in the past. It is typical for feminist women to see power in liberal terms as a means to enact our desires in whatever direction we want, without negative judgement or consequence ("empowerment"). But if you see power in these terms, then it becomes a means to have my own way rather than someone else having theirs. Therefore, if men have power, women will be thought to lose out and vice versa. There is no understanding in this view that men might use power to protect those they love rather than to act in a self-interested way that deprives others. 

In other words, Christine Emba has a better anthropology here than most of her left-wing colleagues.

However, I do think the discussion of masculinity could be extended. Its focus is on men being good providers and protectors. This leaves out aspects of masculinity that are rarely defended.

Reality is marked by a tendency toward entropy, both in the individual and society. By this I mean a declining energy to uphold order, so that there is a slide into decay and chaos. One of the higher missions that men have is to resist entropy, both within their own person and in the communities they belong to. The opposite of entropy, or "reverse entropy", is "negentropy" - in which things become increasingly better ordered. 

The task of bringing the individual and the community into negentropy is not an easy one. It is necessary to consider, and to find ways to harmonise, the tripartite nature of existence, namely the biological, social and spiritual aspects of our natures. It requires also a capacity for prudence - for considering the likely consequences of measures that are undertaken; an ability to rank the goods of life in their proper order; an awareness of both the good and the evil that exists within our own nature; a capacity to learn from history and past experience; and an intuitive grasp of what constitutes the human good and rightly ordered action.

In short, what is required is a certain kind of wisdom. The instinct to exercise this kind of wisdom in the leadership of a community is given most strongly to men. You can see this when it comes to feminism. This movement is, and always has been, a "partial" one, in the sense that it is oriented to issues relating to one part of society only. Nor has it ever taken responsibility for upholding the larger social order or for conserving the broader tradition from which it emerged. It is there to "take" or "demand" rather than to order and uphold. 

One of the problems with masculinity in the modern world is not only the undermining of the provider and protector roles, but even more notably that of wise leadership. The fault for this does not lie entirely with feminism. 

Political liberalism hasn't helped. If the purpose of politics is to maximise individual preference satisfaction, with all preferences being equally preferences and therefore of the same value, then how can a politician seek to rule wisely? It becomes difficult to make qualitative distinctions between different choices and different policies. Urging prudence might be condemned as discriminatory or even as "arbitrary". 

Even worse, I think, is the influence of scientism. In part this is because scientism places limits on what type of knowledge is considered valid. But more than this, modern science, in making the advances that it did, seduced Western men into looking for technological and technocratic solutions to social (and personal) problems. I am reminded of this quote from Signorelli and Salingaros:

Modern art embodies and manifests all the worst features of modern thought — the despair, the irrationality, the hostility to tradition, the confusion of scientia with techne, or wisdom with power, the misunderstanding of freedom as liberation from essence rather than perfection of essence.
I want to underline here the problem that Western man is so oriented to "techne" that he voluntarily withdrew from the field of wisdom, thereby making entropy inevitable.

One further problem is that Western thought became too focused on the poles of individualism and universalism. Wisdom comes most into play when considering the particular communities and traditions that the individual wishes to uphold. If all you care about is individual self-interest, or abstract, universal commitments, then wisdom can be at least partly replaced by "cunning" on the one hand or feelings on the other.

The ideal of the wise father lasted for a long time. It was still present in popular culture in the 1960s and 70s, for instance, in television shows like My Three Sons, Little House on the Prairie and even to a degree in The Brady Bunch. But then it was axed. In more recent decades, fathers have been allowed to be loveable, but never a figure who might wisely order or advise. 

The recent Barbie movie is a case in point. In that screenplay, the three wisdom figures are all female, but none of them have much to offer. The creator figure, for instance, tells Barbie that "I created you so that you wouldn't have an ending", i.e. that there are no given ends or purposes to her life. Barbie herself becomes a wisdom figure at the end of the film, but all she can advise Ken is that he is enough as he is. The men in the movie are uniformly of the "goofy" type that our culture prefers (the opposite of men having gravitas). So there is no-one who is truly fit to lead.

It is in this context that a figure like Jordan Peterson has become so prominent. He is a psychologist and so has status as someone within a technocratic field. But he has pushed a little beyond this, a little into the field of "wise father" dispensing life advice, and this is so missing within modern culture that it has catapulted him to fame. Christine Emba has noted precisely this, that despite the advice being a little thin, he is filling an unmet need:
In 2018, curious about a YouTube personality who had seemingly become famous overnight, I got tickets to a sold-out lecture in D.C. by Jordan Peterson. It was one of dozens of stops on the Canadian psychology professor turned anti-“woke” juggernaut’s book tour for his surprise bestseller “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.” The crowd was at least 85 percent male...

Surrounded by men on a Tuesday night, I wondered aloud what the fuss was about. In my opinion, Peterson served up fairly banal advice: “Stand up straight,” “delay gratification.”...Suddenly, the 20-something guy in front of me swung around. “Jordan Peterson,” he told me without a hint of irony in his voice, “taught me how to live.”

If there’s a vacuum in modeling manhood today, Peterson has been one of the boldest in stepping up to fill it.
I don't want to disparage Jordan Peterson's efforts because he is one of the first to take a step in the right direction. His instincts are right. Note the title of his book: "an antidote to chaos" - he understands that it is not just about "techne" but that men are to be a force for negentropy - for the harmonious ordering of the self and society, and that he has a role to play in providing wise advice to younger men. I might wish that he could draw more deeply on "logos", but even so he has made a welcome start.

Sunday, September 24, 2023

Empowerment and misery

There is a feminist by the name of Amanda Montei who has taken autonomy theory to the next level. If you recall, a key aspect of liberalism is a commitment to individual autonomy. Autonomy is thought of as a power to self-determine in whatever direction we choose, with the predetermined aspects of life, such as the sex we are born into, being looked on negatively as impediments artificially imposed upon the individual.

Amanda Montei

Feminists have long sought to apply this theory to the lives of women. It has led them to prefer women to be independent of men, to reject roles traditionally associated with womanhood, and to believe that the aim of life for women is to be empowered, meaning to be able to do as they wish, in whatever direction, without negative consequence or judgement. 

It might, at first glance, sound nice to be "empowered" in this way. It sounds strong and commanding and in control. But the logic of empowerment doesn't foster strength and well-being. As we shall see, it leads Amanda Montei to a kind of pitiable frailty and misery.

First, though, here is Amanda Montei's brain on autonomy theory (from her book Touched Out: Motherhood, Misogyny, Consent, and Control):

On those of us marked is not just toy dolls or our parents that insist on our inevitable maternity. Every aspect of the world...tells us how to be woman, largely indistinguishable from mother. As Melissa Febos writes in Girlhood, "Patriarchal coercion is a ghost", an immeasurable figure that looms, hovers, hardly seen, correcting, policing, molding. The afterimages of our gendered socialization haunt the body, telling us how to be, what to say, who to become...We are compelled toward surrender, as the whole world rambles on, telling us who and what our bodies are for.

She begins by claiming that being a girl or a woman is merely a social construct, and that girls are simply "marked" as girls as if they could be assigned some other identity. This is a good example of why feminists are in no position to criticise transsexuals for undermining female identity when they have done such a good job of it themselves.

She then harps on about an all powerful, ghost-like patriarchy, hiding behind the scenes, robbing women of their autonomy by "telling us how to be, what to say, who to become". 

Note the difficulty she is in already. First, she is at war with herself. She has taken her own womanhood to be something artificially and oppressively imposed upon her by shadowy forces she cannot control, rather than something essentially good about her own personhood that she can then seek to express and embody the higher forms of as a way of fulfilling her own being and purposes in life.

Second, she has adopted an impossibly radical world view, one in which the only things that are legitimate are the ones that are self-given. Therefore, she has already taken a negative and hostile stance toward motherhood as this is a "given" of womanhood and is therefore alien to her radical concept of personhood.

Third, wrapped up in this mindset she is already a hapless victim of the world she inhabits. She is not a strong woman in control of her own life. She inhabits a mental realm in which things are done to her that she does not like and that she cannot resist. The focus on autonomy has created a person who, if anything, is relatively low on self-determination and self-empowerment.

Despite this outlook on life, Amanda Montei did decide to marry and have children. This was not a good move for someone seeking to maximise their individual autonomy, as children inevitably make claims on us as parents. We sacrifice a part of our autonomy in order to serve other goods when we take on the role of father or mother.

Predictably Amanda Montei fell in a heap. Rather than being a strong woman, she couldn't cope with the idea of sacrificing for or serving her own children. Nor was she open to any of the joys of motherhood, as her sense of victimhood and resentment was too overwhelming.

It reached the point that she could not bear the touch of her own young children, feeling this to be a violation of her bodily autonomy. She went as far as to compare her children wanting to hug her to rape culture. 

"The book is really about motherhood after Me Too,” Montei says. “And the connections between rape culture and the institution of motherhood, the continuity between these two kinds of cultural institutions and the way that they see women’s bodies."

And this:

But over time I came to see that the basic tenets of rape culture run through our cultural expectations of American mothers. Just as we normalize sexual violence against women, we normalize the suffering of women in motherhood.

And so you get to this version of motherhood:

What I wanted, more than anything, feel as though I fully inhabited and had my body. But all the ideas about how I should act as a mother - how I should respond to my children's near-constant requests for snacks, their demands for attention, their volatile emotions, their hands down my shirt or smushing my face - felt like insects crawling on me. I found myself frequently rubbing my face, itching my scalp, trying to delouse.

She thinks of her children as being like insects requiring her to "delouse". She continues:

Other times I burst into anger, yelling at my children or my husband, demanding space or help, simply because I felt so small, like a little creature myself, shouting in the wide expanse of darkness and nothingness...I struggled with the physicality of caring for children, but even more with my growing awareness that the lack of autonomy I felt in motherhood reiterated everything I had been urged to believe about my body since I was a girl. 

Where in this passage is the power in empowerment? Her obsession with autonomy has led her to feel small, a "little creature" lost in a "wide expanse of darkness and nothingness". Nor is she in control of anything: she is lost to her negative emotions, taking things out on those who love her, believing herself to be a victim of vast impersonal forces. 

Matt Walsh made a video in response to Amanda Montei. I'm pleased to report that he began with first principles, by denying that autonomy is always and everywhere the highest good to be pursued in life:

As a woman your body does not belong entirely to you. As a man your body doesn't belong entirely to you. You are not an autonomous island floating alone out in the sea. Neither am I. I have responsibilities. I have obligations. I owe myself to others, especially my family and when I say that I include my body as I am not in this life separable from my be entirely autonomous in your body is to be entirely autonomous in your person, but no person is autonomous, we all have duties that transcend whatever claims we might want to make to autonomy...I am not a self-created being existing only for whatever purpose I decide.

The last sentence is particularly good, coming as it does from a relatively mainstream conservative with a large following. I might not have framed the other part exactly as Matt Walsh does (as I don't think it is just about obligations, though these exist, but more about higher goods in life, including caritas love and fulfilling higher aspects of our being as men and women). 

To be fair, Matt Walsh goes on to say:

The author, a feminist named Amanda Montei, has written not a revelation that she is a child of God who exists for a higher purpose, but rather a lament that everybody in the world, including her children, especially her children, are using and victimising her. This is not an expression of motherly love but a long, weird and weirdly sexualised whine.

Walsh also describes well Amanda Montei's pathetic victim mindset:

Yet another is the insistence on being a victim in all things. Notice how she describes all of her sexual encounters as horrific drudgeries that she had to cope with and endure miserably. That's not because the encounters were non-consensual, she did consent, but she is still a victim of them somehow. She's the victim of everything. She's the victim of everything that she herself does. She's the victim even of her own children's affection. She is cringing through life, waiting for every moment to be done so that she can get to the next moment and complain about that one too. 

His finishing statement is also fine. It is too long to transcribe in full, but here is an excerpt:

We all have to experience hardship. There is nothing special about that. You get credit for enduring it with some semblance of dignity and strength and courage...We all have crosses that we bear. And you can choose to carry yours with grace or you can whine and cry and milk it for every ounce of pity you can get out of it. And if you choose the latter option then it is all for nothing. Suffering is an opportunity, an opportunity to become stronger, to gain wisdom, to gain perspective, but you squander that opportunity if you whimper and moan and gripe the whole time. Now you still have to suffer, but you aren't even becoming a better person through it, you're actually becoming a worse person, it's the worst of all've only become smaller and weaker, until you become an exceptionally small and weak person.

Saturday, August 19, 2023

The line that did not hold - can liberalism go only so far?

Konstantin Kisin did a review of the Barbie movie which I would categorise as being both insightful and flawed. He says in his review:

The central destructive notion of liberalism is the idea that we're all individuals maximising our freedom and pursuing happiness. I have much sympathy for this approach when it comes to relations between the citizen and the government. I am liberal in the sense that I want to be free from authoritarian control in order to be able to pursue my own happiness as I see fit. 

What I believe liberalism gets wrong is the attempt to apply this concept outside of the relationship between the individual and the state and extend it into the realm of family and human relations more broadly. Yes, freedom from intrusive government is likely to provide opportunities for each individual to pursue their own happiness but it is simply a lie to say that maximising freedom from your fellow human beings is a recipe for happiness...happiness is derived not from your freedom from other people but from the bonds you form with them.

Indeed, as any parent knows, the most meaningful things we ever get to do are the very things that constrain our freedom the most...

If the poison pill of hyper-liberalism is to encourage us to see ourselves as atomised individuals, the liberal feminism of Hollywood depicted here is worse still...the modern feminist movement is intent on brainwashing young women to see the relationship between men and women as one of competition...having retaken Barbie Land from the clutches of the patriarchy and rejected Ken's quite reasonable suggestion that he and Barbie, i.e. men and women, are created to be together, Barbie is free to ride off into the sunset, alone.

There are some aspects of this analysis that I think Kisin gets right. He identifies as a problem liberalism setting men and women apart as competing political classes; and he observes correctly that maximising our individual autonomy by rejecting family commitments, and instead going it alone, is not a pathway to happiness for most people. I also share with Kisin his opposition to an intrusive, authoritarian state.

Konstantin Kisin

Nonetheless, there are problems. Kisin would like to return to a much earlier version of liberalism in which liberalism was thought of as "political", i.e. as being applied to the sphere of politics rather than the personal life of family relationships.

This attempt to keep public/political life and private/family life apart did not work. It was always likely to fail, and it did, in fact, fail. Why? Because if you establish the maximising of individual autonomy as the overriding public good, then there will be a call for this good to be applied to all the institutions of society, including the family.

As early as the 1880s in England, women were starting to apply the key liberal political principle to their own lives. For instance, a student from Girton College at this time described her liberal understanding of herself as a woman as follows:

We are no longer mere parts - excrescences, so to speak, of a family...One may develop as an individual and independent unit.

Clearly, the firewall that was supposed to protect the bonds of family life from the logic of liberal individualism was already failing by the later nineteenth century.

Feminists hammered away to collapse the distinction between private and public goods. "The personal is the political" was a favourite slogan of second wave feminism. Similarly, feminists often drew comparisons between tyranny in politics and tyranny in the family. For instance, in 1994 an Australian feminist called Kate Gilmore unveiled a new government policy with these words:

You can see the tyrants, the invaders, the imperialists, in the fathers, the husbands, the stepfathers, the boyfriends, the grandfathers, and it’s that study of tyranny in the home...that will take us to the point where we can secure change.
It seems like straight out man hatred, but what is really happening is a feminist insisting that political liberalism needs to be applied to family life, as there is tyranny in both to be defeated (which helps to explain the feminist insistence on female oppression within the family, as this then justifies overriding the idea of family life as a private sphere insulated from political liberalism).

Just to illustrate how far we have already been through this whole cycle, here is a comment by the Russian feminist, Alexandra Kollontai, on a novel written by the French author Colette in the early 1900s:
Freedom, independence, solitude are the substance of her personal desires. But when Rene, after a tiring long day's work, sits at the fireplace in her lovely flat, it is as though the hollow-eyed melancholy of loneliness creeps into her room and sets himself behind her chair.

"I am used to being alone," she writes in her diary, "but today I feel so forsaken. Am I then not independent, not free? And terribly lonely?" Does not this question have the ring of the woman of the past who is used to hearing familiar, beloved voices, to being the object of indispensable words and acts of tenderness?

Kollontai is already using the phrase "woman of the past" to describe those women who sought family bonds rather than freedom, independence and solitude - and this in the early 1900s. The issue, then, is do we really want to keep cycling through these phases, in which the liberal principle gets applied to the lives of women, so that they pursue a lonely life independent of family love?

There is a second problem with Kisin's proposed solution. Even if our personal, private lives could be kept separate from the principle animating the public, political arena, Kisin's formula would still do significant harm. Note the way that Kisin himself puts it. He wants to be free as an individual to pursue his own happiness as he sees fit.

This sounds alright, but it leaves something out. If we are imagined as millions of individuals each seeking our own good according to our individual desires or beliefs, then how are common goods to be defended? Where, at the public and political level, are these common goods to be acknowledged and upheld?

The most obvious common good is that of nation. What if it is an aspect of the human good to belong to a traditional nation? I cannot uphold the existence of the nation I belong to at a purely individual level. The formula of people being left alone to do their own private, individual thing no longer works if you accept that the existence of a nation is important to human life.

And there is good reason to believe that it is important. Living amongst a people with whom you share thick bonds of a shared ancestry, language, history and culture provides the arena for expressing many of our social commitments. For instance, it allows us to express and fulfil aspects of our manhood, the ones by which we protect the larger polis, through the exercise of our masculine strengths, including the heroic virtues of defending the community from harm. It provides significant aspects of our identity and our sense of belonging, as well as a connectedness to culture, to place, to nature and to generations past, present and future. It makes us the bearers of a tradition, giving us standards to live up to and to make our own contributions to. It provides a warmth of familiarity of manners and mores, of humour and of the smaller, unspoken understandings that exist between a people embedded in a longstanding culture of their own. It allows us to reproduce who we are and what we most value, and it can be, at its best, a portal into the transcendent, as when we experience something like the "soul" of our nation and it draws out our love and a sense of duty that expresses something better within our own natures.

As important as it is to avoid state overreach or state tyranny, there are common goods like that of nation that do need to be upheld, and this can only be done at the level of the polis, and therefore the focus of political life cannot be only a freedom to pursue our own purely individual ends. If this is the only focus, we are left powerless to defend things that are highly meaningful to our own lives.

Finally, one more criticism of Kisin's analysis, but more along the lines of a quibble. Kisin claims that the makers of Barbie are motivated by the principle of "misery loves company" or "hurt people hurt people". I don't think this is so. The director of the film, Greta Gerwig, is married with children. The actress Margot Robbie has been with her current husband for a decade or more and writes glowingly of how fulfilled the marriage has made her. So these women are choosing one thing for themselves (marriage and motherhood), whilst promoting something else to other women (going it alone).

What is happening here is better explained by Lawrence Auster's concept of the unprincipled exception. Auster explained that liberal values, if followed consistently, would make it difficult to live a decent life. Therefore, it is common for liberals to make unprincipled exceptions in order to escape the personally harmful consequences of their own beliefs. 

I have long noted that upper middle-class women are sometimes adept at playing this game. They do enough to secure traditional goods for themselves, whilst also promoting modernist values. It tends to be women a little below them who take the message at face value, and who attempt, usually disastrously, to live in a more principled way along feminist lines.

Saturday, August 12, 2023

The double nature of the good

Patrick Deneen has written of the two revolutions that liberalism brought to the West:

Liberalism...seeks to transform all of human life and the world. Its two revolutions - its anthropological individualism and the voluntarist conception of choice, and its insistence on the human separation from and opposition to nature - created its distinctive and new understanding of liberty as the most extensive possible expansion of the human sphere of autonomous activity.

This is an excellent summary of the changes wrought by liberalism. However, I have noticed in my recent reading that the anthropological individualism was not necessarily intentional, at least not from some of the early luminaries of modernist thought.

Descartes, for instance, was happy to accept that we exist not only at the individual level but also as members of larger bodies, such as the family, that we belong to not by choice but by birth:

though each of us is a person distinct from others, whose interests are accordingly in some way different from those of the rest of the world, we ought still to think that none of us could subsist alone and that each one of us is really one of the many parts of the universe, and more particularly a part of the earth, the state, the society and the family to which we belong by our domicile, our oath of allegiance and our birth.

As it happens, Francis Bacon had a similar outlook, which he called the double nature of the good. Bacon believed that matter was moved by "appetite". One of these appetites inclined objects toward self-preservation. But the second appetite was a "motion of connection", a force through which "bodies support each other by mutual connection and contact". 

Francis Bacon

In his book of 1605, The Advancement of Learning, Bacon writes that the appetites of self-preservation and union together form the double nature of the good:

Here, he argues that there "is formed in every thing a double nature of good": "the one, as every thing is a total or substantive in itself": the other, "as it is a part or member of a greater body".

Put differently, there are two kinds of goods found in material nature: the one, goodness per se, or any given objects intrinsic value; the other, goodness insofar as it belongs, and thus contributes to, a collective reality greater than itself.

The appetite for self-preservation corresponds naturally to the safeguarding of a material body's essential goodness, whereas the appetite of union facilitates a basic level of material conjunction for the purposes both of self-preservation and the greater good. [Francis Bacon on Motion and Power, pp.236-37]

There is one thing to add. Bacon believed that the Fall had weakened the summary law of nature:

What Bacon means is essentially that after Adam and Eve broke the moral law, matter reverted in part to its original state of chaos: a dose of recalcitrance to the summary law was introduced into nature...Bacon explains this through the appetites of matter...Left to themselves these appetites normally ‘attack, usurp, and slaughter one another in turn’ – a characteristic Bacon uses to explain the underlying cause of chaos. When influenced by the summary law, however, disorder is turned to order, and the universe acquires goodness, meaning and direction.

The power of the summary law is needed to keep the right balance between the appetite of self-preservation and that of connection:

The behaviour of even the minutest of natural bodies, then, is directed by a kind of moral code imbedded in the fabric of nature, a "double good" in which the greater good corresponds to the preservation of the whole...the existence of the greater good, says Bacon, is ultimately predicated upon an equilibrium which necessitates the existence of the summary law. For without the balancing power of the lex summaria to mitigate between the appetite of self-preservation and that of union there can only ever be chaos. [Francis Bacon on Motion and Power, p.237]

Bacon, then, was not radically individualistic in the way we now understand the term. In fact, he thought that too great an emphasis on individual self-preservation, insufficiently balanced by a concern for the greater good, signalled a loss of the law of nature originally intended by God to create order within the cosmos. It signalled, in other words, a decline into chaos.

Tuesday, August 08, 2023

When it doesn't work out as you imagined

A woman posted the following video on TikTok, in which she describes feeling unsafe living in San Francisco:

After experiencing an interaction with a man in which she was spat on and threatened with assault, she says of living in San Francisco "I literally never feel safe".

But here's the thing. This woman is living in what is arguably the most leftist city in the United States. And she herself is a young, single childless leftist political activist. In other words, she has helped to create a place that mirrors her own most deeply held values - and she doesn't feel safe living there.

Here is an example of her political views:

As you can see, it is the standard leftist version of equality. She writes "Vote as if you were the most marginalized, oppressed person you know". I wrote about this type of political frame in my last post:

So how, then, do you have equality? One way is to do what modern society formally does, and insist on levelling down any power structures. For instance, if white people have more power in a traditionally white society in the sense of dominating its cultural expression, then this has to be deconstructed, whereas the cultural expression of minority groups has to be supported and promoted.

There is a dissolving logic to this kind of politics. First, when the majority culture starts to think this way, they turn against what is best within their own tradition, in an effort to level themselves down. And so they no longer as effectively promote what is needed to hold things together. Nor do minorities find it as easy to maintain their own cohesion as there is no longer a core majority group to define their own existence against. Instead of what leftists imagine will happen, namely a hundred different groups each equally able to culturally express themselves, you get a loss of cohesion within all the groups and a descent into a more atomised mass consumer culture.

There is an irresponsibility in engaging politically to achieve "equal cultural expression". The focus should be on what is required to successfully uphold the common life of a people, including a regard for the health of the institutions, the supporting cultural norms and moral standards, and the stability of governance. 

If everyone thinks like the woman in the video, and votes and acts according to the issue of leftist equality, then why wouldn't there be a gradual decline in the social fabric? Why wouldn't there be a loss of important social and cultural norms? Why wouldn't the end result be a less safe and secure social environment? After all, who is now focused on maintaining these standards? Who now frames politics around these more traditional aims? Certainly, not the leftist single ladies living in San Fran - not, at least, until things get so bad that these young women "never feel safe".

And, even then, the most likely option is that these women will just move somewhere else, to a place they have not yet made unsafe, and subject that community to the same irresponsible concept of politics.

Sunday, August 06, 2023

Mixed messages

You are probably aware that there are two very different takes on the recent Barbie movie. There are some on the right, like Michael Knowles, who think the message of the film is terrific. There is a scene toward the end of the film in which Barbie rejects having a relationship with Ken and tells him that he is enough as he is, but also that he has to find out who he is outside of any relationship with her.

Knowles interprets this in a red pill way. Given that all of the men in the film are shown as simps, who live only for validation from the women, he thinks this is Barbie telling Ken that he is not fit for relationships until he is his own mental point of origin, as the manosphere puts it. For Knowles, the message is that Ken needs to be more masculine, and stronger in his own frame.

This is plausible, but I don't think it is what Gerwig is aiming at. I am on the other side of the fence - I think Barbie is an unabashedly feminist film and that Gerwig believes that problems within feminism can be resolved by men and women going their own way. As I'll demonstrate in a moment, this is the message that at least some feminist women are taking from the film.

There are two problems within feminism that the film seeks to resolve by uncoupling Ken and Barbie. The first is equality. The philosophy of the film is that we have been created without any given ends and that therefore we have to make meaning for ourselves. And this then means that the power to have our self-chosen purposes and ends realised in society becomes critical. Power, though, is a zero sum game. If men have more of it, women have less of it and vice versa. In the film, this is shown as "either/or" - either the men have power or the women do.

So how, then, do you have equality? One way is to do what modern society formally does, and insist on levelling down any power structures. For instance, if white people have more power in a traditionally white society in the sense of dominating its cultural expression, then this has to be deconstructed, whereas the cultural expression of minority groups has to be supported and promoted.

There is something of a nod to this solution in the film, in the idea that the Kens must become activists to gradually improve their position, just as women must do in the real world. Still, the pursuit of power remains a zero sum game, in which whatever women gain, men must lose. And Gerwig believes that at this social level, men must lose. 

So how does someone who sees the world through a modern frame resolve this? How should men respond to a world view based on a zero sum game in which they are slated to lose out? Gerwig says that there is a positive side to feminism for both men and women, one in which both have equal status. And that is that both sexes can equally act as autonomous individuals, shaping their own meaning, via solo development, without regard to the other sex. The Kens can do this just as much as the Barbies can. If each sex goes its own way, their own self-generated life aims can be pursued, without imposing on the other. There is no more reliance on the other sex, no more enmeshing, and therefore no loss of power to pursue our aims.

A feminist mother (Wendy Hahn) took her 15-year-old son to the Barbie movie so that he would absorb exactly this message. She wrote:

In 2023, I am fighting to raise a son who doesn’t become the next Kyle Rittenhouse, Brock Turner or Elon Musk.

Movies, like books, invite dialogue. As a former high school English teacher, I wish all teachers would assign their students to watch “Barbie” in place of summer reading selections like “The Grapes of Wrath.” the end, Stereotypical Barbie tells Ken to get a life that doesn’t depend on others for happiness ― a life that gives him equal status without infringing upon the status of anyone else. I want that for your sons and my son as well.
The idea is that we can all have "equal status" if we don't "depend on others for happiness". In the context of the film, this means men and women going their own way. The purposes or ends in life no longer revolve around marriage. There is a sacrifice of love for the empowerment to fulfil our own individual ends.

That this is Gerwig's intention is suggested by the fact that her next film has a similar message. Gerwig wrote the screenplay for the upcoming film Snow White. It stars Gal Gadot and Rachel Zegler. An interview with these two actresses went as follows:
Interviewer: You said you were bringing a modern edge to it. What do you mean by that?
Rachel Zegler: I just mean that it's no longer 1937. We absolutely wrote a Snow White that...
Gal Gadot: She's not going to be saved by the prince.
Rachel Zegler: She's not going to be saved by the prince and she's not going to be dreaming about true love. She's dreaming about becoming the leader she knows she can be.

There is a sacrifice of love for power (I am not endorsing the Disney version of "true love" here). Marital love is sacrificed for girl power. The two are set against each other, as they have been within feminism for over a century.

The one exception to this messaging in the Barbie film is that there is some support for the mother/daughter relationship. I expect that this is because there is no zero sum game involved here (mothers, it is said in the film, help launch their high flying daughters into society).

The other problem within feminism that the film tries to resolve is that of cognitive dissonance. Women, we are told in the film, are oppressed because they have to walk a tightrope, for instance, by being thin but not too thin. The kinds of examples given are not all that persuasive: they do not seem, for instance, any more difficult than men having to be bold in approaching women, but not too bold.

However, feminism has, in fact, created significant areas of cognitive dissonance for women. For instance, if the aim is to attain power, then the traditionally feminine qualities will seem lesser than the traditionally masculine ones. So women need to have masculine traits and dial down their feminine presentation to other women, but still retain enough femininity that they will not make themselves entirely unattractive to men. 

Similarly, women who are brought up in a modern feminist culture will absorb from an early age the idea that their role is to assert their own power against that of men. However, this conflicts with the feminine impulse women have to "let go" and be receptive for the right man when it comes to forming relationships with the opposite sex. It is difficult, in other words, for women to have a boss babe mentality and still successfully pair bond with a man.

The film does try to put forward the idea that women can be leaders and still have something of the feminine left in them, but even so you have to imagine that many women who take feminism seriously will have a considerable burden of cognitive dissonance. In my observation, there are many feminists who do not walk the tightrope successfully - they don't come across to men as sufficiently feminine and so the men look elsewhere for partners.

One way to resolve this cognitive dissonance is simply to downgrade the significance of relationships in human life. If relationships don't matter that much, then some of the burden is relieved.

What all this illustrates is how important the intellectual frame is. Imagine if the frame was different. Let's say, for instance, that the masculine and the feminine were thought of as meaningful goods that the individual gets to embody. If these are fully realised within a relationship with the opposite sex, then there exists a common good for men and women to serve, i.e. our own individual good is tied together with a larger, communal good. The focus would shift away from competing for power with the opposite sex. What would matter instead would be the way we order ourselves toward this higher good. The questions to be focused on might be how I as a man can best embody the masculine through my role as a husband or a father, or how I as a woman might best express the feminine through my role as a wife or a mother.

Sunday, July 30, 2023

Reframing Barbie

I have now seen the Barbie movie. It is not a children's film, but deals with issues of the meaning of life from a feminist perspective. It is useful to look at because it connects feminist politics with a modern metaphysics - and we get to see what is lost in the process.

I do need to set out the basic plot to explain this (so...spoiler alert). We begin in Barbie land which is a matriarchy where not only do the Barbies rule politically, but the Kens (the male dolls) are merely accessories. The Kens try to impress the Barbies but the Barbies aren't that interested, as every night is girls night.

Then Barbie is afflicted with an existential angst and is forced to go to the real world (where humans live). Barbie had expected to be greeted there as a heroine who had empowered women; instead, the patriarchy still rules. Ken loves that he gets some respect in the real world and returns to Barbie land to set up a patriarchy of his own. Barbie gets to meet her creator in the real world, and then returns to Barbie land with a mother, Gloria, and her daughter. Together they attempt to restore the matriarchy.

The best place to begin in analysing the film is with the metaphysics. Barbie's creator (a God figure) tells Barbie that "I created you so you wouldn't have an ending", i.e. that there are no ends or purposes to her life, but that she must choose for herself what she will be and do. The assumption in the film is that there is no given meaning to things, none given by a creator, so that everything is made up by ourselves and that we as humans subjectively create our own meaning and purpose.

This is the essential frame through which all else follows. What you see in the film is how some things, once thought to be a core aspect of being human, radically lose meaning within this frame.

This is particularly true of relationships between men and women. Some reviewers complained that the film was man-hating. I didn't find this to be so, not directly at least. The men are nearly all well-intentioned. The problem is that they are portrayed as entirely superfluous in the lives of women. They exist not only as a potential threat to women's autonomy and agency, but even more so as irritating figures who get in the way of women in their daily lives, i.e. who are merely tolerated. There is one husband portrayed in the film (Gloria's), but he is like a third wheel to the mother/daughter relationship, and he brings no meaning or purpose to their lives.

Similarly, at the end of the film Barbie rejects having a relationship with Ken. She tells him that he has to find meaning not in relationship with her but on his own. She effectively tells him that he must go his own way, and that he is enough by himself.

It is a savagely cold message but it makes sense within the frame. If we are to aim at maximising our autonomy, understood to mean our freedom to self-define, because this is how we assert meaning, then relationships are merely limiting. We are most autonomous when we develop solo, outside of relationships with others. Hence, love is rejected in the Barbie movie, for the sake of empowerment.

Imagine if the frame was different. For most of the Western tradition, love was thought to connect us meaningfully to higher goods and purposes and was therefore worth cultivating. Similarly, to truly develop who we are as men and women, it was once thought that we would do this in relationship with each other, as husbands and wives and fathers and mothers within a family, as a natural setting for human life. A significant regard was attached to fatherhood and motherhood to the point that it was possible, for instance, to speak of maternal honour.

Relationships are regarded in the Barbie film as just meaningless flummery. In Ken's patriarchy, the men are romantic and want to help the Barbies by demonstrating masculine competence. The Barbies are happy, admire the Kens and do little things for them like bringing them beer. But the female role is to be something like a "bimbo" that does not engage the higher nature of the women (a merely "helpful decoration" as the film puts it). When matriarchy is restored, Barbie triumphantly says that the women once again have "brains and autonomy". Again, this only makes sense within the modern feminist frame. In the older frame, relationships had a significance that would ask of both men and women something of the best within their natures - it was a field of human life that would justify giving the best of ourselves to those whom we loved. There was, potentially, a nobility to this kind of love.

Which brings us to motherhood. The film is conflicted here. Early on, motherhood is given a drubbing. The film shows little girls rejecting motherhood by bashing their baby dolls on the ground. The narrator dismisses the idea that women experience motherhood as a worthwhile thing. Throughout the film what matters is women holding political power or judicial power or winning prizes for science or journalism. However, in the real world, Gloria is just an ordinary woman with a boring office job and for her the relationship with her daughter does matter. Gloria's love for her daughter is perhaps the one human touch in the entire film. Later, we are told that mothers do have a purpose, which is to launch their high flying feminist daughters into the world. There is nothing said about women who might end up with sons instead.

Why are there mixed messages here when it comes to motherhood? I'm not sure. Perhaps the one last bastion of human love in this feminist world is a purely female one between mother and daughter that has as its ultimate purpose female empowerment. 

Another difficult message in the film is that of equality. Within the feminist frame there is no common ground between men and women. There is no mutual service to a family or nation, nor do men and women fulfil aspects of their own created nature in relationship with the opposite sex. What there is instead is a pursuit of empowerment so that we might get to follow our own autonomous will. This, however, is a zero sum game. If men have power to set the world to their own desires, women lose power and vice versa. This is part of the basic plot of the movie. There is either male supremacy (Ken land) or female supremacy (Barbie land). One side has to win or lose.

The film tries to take the moral high ground by suggesting that each sex might gradually fight for and win political rights within these systems. The film also asserts that equality can be achieved by the Kens accepting, just like the Barbies, that they don't need the opposite sex and that they can be self-defining autonomous agents just like the women. It is somewhat radical for the film to suggest this, as feminists usually assert that men already have this power. The film is conceding that men are more likely to still want to uphold a pre-modern ideal of the sexes being in relationship with each other. Equality is possible, according to the Barbie film, if both sexes go their own way.

But there is another problem with equality. Barbie decides, at the end of the film, that what she really wants, even at the cost of becoming mortal, is to become a person so that she can be one of the makers/creators instead of one of those being acted on. What this illustrates is that the feminist frame is necessarily elitist rather than egalitarian. Most people are not going to wield power in society - they are not going to be part of the elite who get to move things according to their will. The film is honest enough to concede this in the character of Gloria, who is an exploited office worker who does not even have enough time to go on a vacation with her daughter. In other words, the kind of power that the feminist frame suggests will allow us to make meaning will be illusory for most people. There will be a tiny number of winners at the top, but most will be losers.

There is another confusion that arises here. On the one hand, we are supposed to rise to a godlike status of being makers/creators who thereby infuse meaning into existence - a kind of Nietzschean Übermensch:

For Nietzsche, the Übermensch is...a being who is able to be their own determiner of value; sculpt their characteristics and circumstances into a beautiful, empowered, ecstatic whole; and fulfil their ultimate potential to become who they truly are.

However, the film depicts women as complaining that under the patriarchy they are expected to meet standards and that this is oppressive and that, instead, people should just accept who they are, as they are (at the end, Ken comes to the realisation that he is "Kenough").

So which is it? Are we self-defining, empowered meaning makers or just good enough as we are, any way that we are? 

Perhaps one problem for the feminist frame here is that there does not exist within it any basis for objective standards, so meeting these will necessarily feel oppressive and/or arbitrary. But if this is true, then why bother self-defining? If what you already are is enough, and as good as anything else, then you may as well stay with it. The power you are striving to have, that of autonomous self-definition, is not even needed. But where then does meaning come from, if we are not subjectively making up our own meaning or purposes, as an expression of our agency, but are just accepting who we already are? If I am enough as an ordinary office worker like Gloria, then why suggest that women must find meaning in being movers and shakers as creatives or executives?

So how to summarise the film? On the one hand, I think it is better if these trends within modernity are brought to the surface, as they are in the movie. Better to see openly where things are headed and on what basis. The problem, though, is that even people who are opposed to the trends tend to argue for something else from within the feminist frame itself, which can only ever slow down what is happening rather than genuinely alter the course of social change.

On the other hand, I do find it sad that things have reached such a low point, that men and women are being split off from each other within mainstream culture. It is a defeat for all of us, men and women.

Friday, July 21, 2023

Trouble in feminist paradise

I saw an interview with the cast of the newly released Barbie film and it demonstrated that feminism is still really a creature of political liberalism.

In the interview there is a discussion of what it means to be a Ken, i.e. one of the male dolls. Two responses were given, both of some interest.

Kate McKinnon, who plays "weird Barbie" in the film, pushed the idea that the point is to reject gender roles altogether. She said "Gender roles deny people half their humanity...we just need to be ourselves". The journalist commenting on this agreed and wrote:

That’s the point, plain and simple: Trying to shove oneself into a category or box, rather than simply being yourself and letting people apply adjectives to you as they see fit, limits yourself as a human being.

Rather than thinking about whether they’re “acting like a Ken” or “acting like a Barbie,” people should simply worry whether they are acting like themselves – that is how you truly come alive.

This is simply liberalism applied to the issue of our sex. Liberalism wants to maximise our individual autonomy, understood to mean our ability to self-determine or self-define who we are and what we do. Therefore, pre-determined characteristics, such as our sex, are thought of negatively as limitations that should be made not to matter.

Kate McKinnon as Weird Barbie

One of the problems with this view is that it makes who we are less meaningful. In the pre-liberal understanding, I as a man get to embody the masculine, which exists as a meaningful category within reality (an "essence"), which then means that my identity and role as a man is connected to a larger, transcendent good that I can strive toward as an ideal.

What liberalism replaces this with is a notion that our sex is not meaningful in this way, but rather I am just me, not connected to anything outside of my own self. I could be one thing or I could be another, and either way it wouldn't matter. There cannot be, in this view, any ideals connected to being a man or a woman, nor any standards, and in this respect the categories become radically unimportant.

This is not the end of the feminist story. One of the ideas within liberal modernity is that the good in life is a power to enact our own individual desires rather than having to serve someone else's. This then leads to the distinct ideal of female empowerment, which is understood to mean women being able to act in whatever direction they wish, without negative judgement or consequence. 

But this makes relationships between men and women a zero sum game. You either have independent boss babes or you have The Handmaid's Tale. And this comes out in the second comment made by a woman on the Barbie interview panel. Issa Rae said,

I think a Ken for me is just kind of there. I think a Ken is a great accessory. That's what I loved about Greta's imagining of Barbie is that the Kens are just supplemental characters to these Barbies. Barbies can do everything, Kens are there to support and don't necessarily have their own story and I think that's not necessarily a negative thing, it's incredibly strong for a man to be in supportive roles.

Issa Rae is drawing out the logic of the way that feminism frames reality. In a pre-liberal mental universe, men and women served common goods. They did this, in part, because the framework was not so radically individualistic. Instead of attempting individual empowerment, men and women acted to serve the larger common good of the families and communities they belonged to. There was also a common good in the sense that men and women only fully expressed who they were in relationship to each other, as husbands and wives, within a spousal union.

Issa Rae

In the newer liberal mental universe, men and women become competing political classes. There is no mutual service toward a common good. Instead, there is the effort to self-empower to enact our own individual desires. So either the woman gets to empower, with the man serving her, or vice versa (apparently, the plot of the Barbie film revolves around this notion of two such alternative worlds).

This understanding of a zero sum game, in which something that is beneficial to men is assumed to be a loss for women, does not gel well with the liberal emphasis on political equality. Feminists have long proclaimed that they want equality, so how then can someone like Issa Rae endorse the idea of men as being a supporting cast for women?

The explanation I have heard from women is that men are already empowered to do whatever they want and therefore any empowerment for women is just a progressive move toward equality. I have also heard women acknowledge that it is unequal but that it is nonetheless justified because men previously dominated (so that it is a kind of historical balancing of the books).

We are stuck within this feminist framing. We are trapped within the idea that manhood and womanhood are limiting to who we are rather than adding a meaningful layer to our existence. And, perhaps worse, we cannot escape the zero sum game mentality, in which the sexes are radically set apart from each other, in non-complementary roles, and where gender war will proceed eternally because of the lack of any common ground. 

The truly liberating option would be to step outside the frame.

Saturday, July 08, 2023

Lane's New Australia

In the 1890s a charismatic Australian journalist named William Lane attempted to establish a socialist utopia in Paraguay. A book published about this enterprise in 1912 has been republished by Bonfire Books (None but the Crocodiles by Stewart Grahame). 

What is so interesting about the New Australia Movement is that it had so much in its favour....and yet it nonetheless rapidly failed.

The socialist experiment in Paraguay had every reason to prosper. Paraguay had recently experienced a war and had lost much of its adult male population. Its government was therefore keen to attract new settlers and so offered William Lane a large amount of quality land. At the same time, some bitter labour disputes in Australia led to a large number of skilled and experienced workers joining the movement. Lane himself was genuinely idealistic and principled and an inspiring leader. Nor was the experiment overly radical; for instance, members were allowed to continue to live in families.

The idea of the new society was a socialist one: what was produced would be held in common and then distributed equally to each member. 

I won't go into the details about how this unfolded, as it is described so well in the book (which you can purchase here). It is curious, though, that the reason for failure was predicted some 600 years earlier by the medieval theologian St Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas justified the holding of private property as follows:

Firstly, because everyone is more solicitous about procuring what belongs to himself alone than that which is common to all or many, since each shunning labour leaves to another what is the common burden of all, as happens with a multitude of servants. Secondly, because human affairs are conducted in a more orderly fashion if each has his own duty of procuring a certain thing, while there would be confusion if each should procure things haphazard. Thirdly, because in this way the peace of men is better preserved, for each is content with his own. 

All three of these principles played out in New Australia, but especially the first. 

Socialist Australians in Paraguay in the 1890s.

What lessons do we draw from the failure of the New Australia colony? The basic one, I think, is that the family is one of the natural settings for human life. Men are more motivated to work industrially if they can direct the fruits of their labours to their own wife and children. If, instead, those fruits are directed toward a common store to be distributed equally, then the work is more likely to be left to others and, as Aquinas so shrewdly predicted, there will be discontent about how the work of a community is apportioned.

Stewart Grahame was optimistic in 1912 that the combination of the free market and Christianity would prove a winning formula. History didn't work out that way: Christianity gradually lost its influence in the culture and the bigger corporations have increasingly adopted a leftist social agenda. 

One final point. Although pure socialist experiments like the one in Paraguay are doomed to failure, a certain kind of state socialism is increasingly influential in the West. This is perhaps where the real argument about socialism is to be had.

Sunday, May 28, 2023

Descartes: commitment & community

I found a passage written by the philosopher Descartes which I thought interesting (it is from his letter to Elisabeth of Bohemia, 1645). Descartes is recognised as a progenitor of modern thought, but he clearly did not support the radical individualism which has come to characterise liberal modernity. 

He writes:

After acknowledging the goodness of God, the immortality of our souls and the immensity of the universe, there is yet another truth that is, in my opinion, most useful to know. That is, that though each of us is a person distinct from others, whose interests are accordingly in some way different from those of the rest of the world, we ought still to think that none of us could subsist alone and that each one of us is really one of the many parts of the universe, and more particularly a part of the earth, the state, the society and the family to which we belong by our domicile, our oath of allegiance and our birth. 

What I believe he gets right here is not only the idea that we are social creatures, but that we are a part of (i.e. we belong to as an aspect of our being) certain communities. Descartes clearly accepts that our membership of some of these communities is predetermined - that we are born into them. Unlike liberal moderns, he does not push the logic of individual autonomy to the point of rejecting unchosen forms of community.

René Descartes

The next part is more questionable:
And the interests of the whole, of which each of us is a part, must always be preferred to those of our own particular person —with measure, of course, and discretion, because it would be wrong to expose ourselves to a great evil in order to procure only a slight benefit to our kinsfolk or our country. (Indeed if someone were worth more, by himself, than all his fellow citizens, he would have no reason to destroy himself to save his city.) 
Understood a certain way, this makes sense. If I could make money in a way that betrayed my country, then I should certainly set aside my own financial self-interest in favour of preserving the national community I belong to. Even so, the introduction of a kind of moral calculus here rings false. It is also unhelpful, I think, to focus on the idea that there are occasions when it is morally right to destroy ourselves to preserve the community. More typically, in acting to uphold the good of the community we belong to, we are also preserving our own good, as our own good can only be fully realised in common with others.

Descartes continues:
But if someone saw everything in relation to himself, he would not hesitate to injure others greatly when he thought he could draw some slight advantage; and he would have no true friendship, no fidelity, no virtue at all. On the other hand, if someone considers himself a part of the community, he delights in doing good to everyone, and does not hesitate even to risk his life in the service of others when the occasion demands. If he could, he would even be willing to lose his soul to save others. So this consideration is the source and origin of all the most heroic actions done by men. 

Descartes is arguing against the idea that a society can be formed solely on the basis of individual self-interest. If I act solely from selfish motives, then there is no ground for important virtues like loyalty. If, though, I see myself as being part of a community, in the sense that it is an aspect of identity and belonging, this is likely to inspire my social commitments. Descartes' views have been supported by the research of Professor Robert Putnam, who found that when there is less ethnic solidarity, that people tend to "withdraw from collective life" and to "to volunteer less, give less to charity and work on community projects less often". Descartes' basic argument here is also one I have often made myself, as for instance in defending the continuing existence of historic nations:

From this larger body we derive parts of our identity, our loves and attachments, our participation in a larger, transcendent tradition, our sense of pride and achievement, our social commitments, our attachments to place, whether to nature, landscape or urban environment, our connection to a particular cultural tradition, our commitments to maintaining moral and cultural standards, our sense of connectedness to both the history of our own people - to generations past - as well as our commitment to future generations.
I should pause, though, to question one part of Descartes' argument. He says that we should be willing to lose our souls to save others. Perhaps he wrote this for effect, but taken literally I think he is wrong.

Descartes writes in a similar vein:
A person seems to me more pitiful than admirable if he risks death from vanity, in the hope of praise, or through stupidity, because he does not apprehend the danger. But when a person risks death because he believes it to be his duty, or when he suffers some other evil to bring good to others, then he acts in virtue of the consideration that he owes more to the community of which he is a part than to himself as an individual, though this thought may be only confusedly in his mind without his reflecting upon it.

He connects this to a religious piety - to preferring to follow God's will rather than hedonic pleasures:

Once someone knows and loves God as he should, he has a natural impulse to think in this way; for then, abandoning himself altogether to God's will, he strips himself of his own interests, and has no other passion than to do what he thinks pleasing to God. Thus he acquires a mental satisfaction and contentment incomparably more valuable than all the passing joys which depend upon the senses.

In addition to these truths which concern all our actions in general, many others must be known which concern more particularly each individual action. The chief of these, in my view, are those I mentioned in my last letter: namely that all our passions represent to us the goods to whose pursuit they impel us as being much greater than they really are; and that the pleasures of the body are never as lasting as those of the soul, or as great in possession as they appear in anticipation. 
Descartes clearly considers our commitments to family and nation to be higher spiritual goods, through which we follow God's will for us, and are contrasted with a selfish pursuit of hedonic pleasure.

Although I do not subscribe to Descartes' larger philosophy, his views on this topic are preferable to those that were to develop later on, in which the individual was expected to pursue self-interest in the market (as Economic Man), and to develop solo as an individual outside of natural forms of community, with many intellectuals ultimately becoming not only disembedded from their own historic communities but actively hostile to them.