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.