Thursday, October 30, 2008

Scripting the new family

What do liberals think about the family? I have recently read two commentaries on the changing family by liberal writers. Here is the start of one of these items, an editorial from the Melbourne Age newspaper:

Until the 1960s, the script for family life was predictable, says David de Vaus, professor of sociology at La Trobe University. "The script was boy meets girl, fall in love, get married, set up house, woman stops work to have babies. Then he retires at 65 and one of them dies." Since then, slowly but steadily, Australians have been tearing up the template.

As Professor de Vaus documents in his statistical analysis Diversity and Change in Australian Families, the norms once imposed by one's family, gender, class or ethnic group have largely fallen away. What remains, for better or worse, are individual choices.

The editor is here taking a negative view of traditional family life, on the basis that it is "predictable", based on a "template" or on imposed norms, and that it lacks individual choice.

Why take this view? The answer is that liberals believe, as a first principle, that to be fully human we must be self-created by our own will and reason. Therefore, a consistent liberal will think that our freedom as humans depends on choosing our own life patterns.

But for this to happen there needs to be individual choice about something as basic as family life. We can only be "self-created" if there exists a diversity of family types to choose from, or, to put it in liberal terms, if family structures are "fluid" enough to be individually "negotiated".

Therefore, liberals don't like the idea that there is a single, ideal family type - that of the traditional family of father, mother and children - which individuals will naturally aim for. If this were true it would mean that there was an impediment to the liberal aim of the self-created, self-defining individual.

Note too that the liberal principle has wider ramifications. The liberal idea is that to be fully human we must be free to be self-created. But it's not only the ideal of the traditional family which limits the choice of life pattern or self-identity. So too do things basic to human life which we are born into, and cannot choose for ourselves, such as our sex, our class and our ethnicity.

That's why the editor so readily links the "imposed norms" of family life, to those of "gender, class or ethnic group". All four are basic to our identity but are illegitimate in terms of liberal principles. They are closely linked together as problems to be overcome, or oppressions to be liberated from, in the liberal mind.

Humanizing the future

Which brings me to the second item I've recently read putting the liberal view of the family. It's a discussion paper titled "New Families for Changing Times" published by The Australia Institute.

The author, Pamela Kinnear, begins with a quote by Suzanne Keller (who I believe is a professor of sociology at Princeton University):

Ultimately all social change involves moral doubt and moral reassessment ... Only by examining and taking stock of what is can we hope to affect what will be. This is our chance to invent and thus to humanize the future.

I'm not sure that the quote would mean much to the ordinary person. It seems senseless. For a liberal, though, the ideas expressed here are important: we are made human when we are free to "invent" our own destiny.

The implication is, though, that if we accept what either nature or tradition has bestowed we are dehumanized. To use a common liberal term we have to reject nature and tradition and come up with our own "script".

As you might expect this doesn't leave much room for the traditional family of dad, mum and the kids. Pamela Kinnear makes it clear from the very first paragraphs of her discussion paper that she, as a social progressive, supports the breakdown of the traditional family:

Throughout the Western world, the changing nature of families has led to a highly charged debate. Conservatives view family change as a wholly negative phenomenon and attribute 'family breakdown' to a wider decline in moral values and the unhealthy dominance of selfish individualism over more traditional values of responsibility and obligation. They believe that the primary objective of social policy should be to protect the traditional nuclear family from the forces of change.

By contrast, social progressives reject the notion of family breakdown and argue that we must accept the transition to a new diversity of family forms. They regard the idea of family as an evolving social construct.

For Pamela Kinnear the new diversity of family life is part of a positive historical trend toward people realising their "self-identity" by which she means their self-created identity. She writes,

Western societies in the period of late modernity are characterised by an emphasis on personal growth and self-identity ... While conservatives understand this process as one of the growth of selfish individualism, it is more accurately understood as a process of individualisation, one in which the social categories of the past (gender, class, race and so on) no longer serve as the framework for individual behaviour or cultural beliefs.

In the age of individualisation, previous modes of behaviour and expectations have been disembedded from society, and we are now in the process of re-embedding new ways of life in which individuals must invent and live according to their own biographies. With respect to family change, the problem with 'conservative wailers' (as Ulrich Beck calls them) is that they see only the process of disembedding without paying heed to the process of re-embedding.

In this transition, relationships, including marriage, must be reinvented too. The downside of the 'pure relationship', freed from convention, is some instability as partners continuously re-evaluate their relationship. They ask whether it fits with their own life project to realise self-identity.

You see, for the liberal Pamela Kinnear a "pure relationship" is not a marital union which combines love and fidelity, but one which is "freed from convention". So we should aim, it seems, to be as unconventional as we can in our relationships. Being committed to a lifelong marriage, and having children, is as conventional as it gets, and therefore presumably highly impure in the Kinnear world view.

(Note too how Pamela Kinnear, just like the Age editor, places the rejection of the traditional family alongside the rejection of gender, class and race identities. The same underlying principle makes all of these things illegitimate in the liberal mind.)


I won't attempt a complete conservative response to these liberal claims about the family. However, it is worth pointing out a basic flaw in the liberal argument. We are supposed to believe that changes in the family represent a shift toward individual choice. Yet how many people really want their "own biography" to include a divorce, or single parenthood, or childlessness. In most cases, these things will be experienced as a loss and a hurt rather than as individual self-realisation.

The Age editor seems to be at least partly aware of this. He writes,

We have more freedom now - and more space to worry about the decisions we have made. The degree of comfort a person feels with the looser arrangements now in place largely depends on how well he or she is able to adapt to the present period of unpredictable transition.

To be the first person in a family to divorce, for instance, or to decide not to marry, can be a lonely and challenging experience, even if, from an individual experience, the choice was the right one.

For each one of us the future is unknown, and always has been, but for the tens of thousands of Australians who have broken from tradition - by embracing single parenthood, say, or by choosing career over family - where their trajectory will take them may also, in dark moments, appear unimaginable. Life without the script is life stripped of comforting certainties.

Again, we are presented with the idea that we have more freedom if we reject the traditional family in order to lead a "life without the script." This means that divorce or single parenthood or spinsterhood is treated as something that people choose positively for themselves.

This, to me, is not a credible view of how people really want their lives to turn out. If we could have what we truly want, how many people would really "embrace" single motherhood or divorced fatherhood? It is a natural desire for people to want to find a life partner and to raise children. When this desire is frustrated it is a matter of personal grief, not a bold choice to be liberated from a script.

At least, though, the Age editor concedes that those who do "choose" such things face loneliness and insecurity. And he makes a more significant concession toward the end of the editorial when he writes,

According to the Institute of Family Studies, more than a quarter of men and women have fewer children than they would ideally like to have. The figure indicates that a reservoir of pain and regret may surround the decline in the nation's fertility.

So at least we have an admission that people don't always freely choose their family situation, and that changes to family life (a lower fertility rate) can reflect frustrated desires and unhappiness rather than a boldly chosen liberation.

The conclusion to Pamela Kinnear's discussion paper is also notable. She wants to argue that the functions of caring and nurturing can be just as well fulfilled in new families as in traditional ones. But to prove this she is forced to make the following claim about children who have experienced a parental divorce:

Children too are fully capable of adopting an ethic of care and becoming moral philosophers adept at understanding and negotiating the complexities of modern family life.

Really? I would not have objected if Pamela Kinnear had simply claimed that most divorced parents still care greatly about the welfare of their children. But what she is doing is applying the liberal pretence to children: she wants us to believe that children can become self-creating moral philosophers who show individual autonomy by negotiating their way through complex, uncertain circumstances.

It would seem that children are to be "liberated" from the "script" of a secure emotional attachment to parents who set clear moral limits and guidelines.

A different approach

Of course, we could instead choose to tear up the script of liberalism itself. What if we really decided to be independent minded and thought outside of liberal first principles? What would happen?

Well, we would no longer be forced into a revolt against nature and tradition. Nor would we need to reject important, but unchosen, aspects of human identity and connectedness.

We could consider ourselves to be both human and free, whilst at the same time pursuing important goals, like finding a life partner and having children. We would no longer be forced to accept, as a best outcome, a combination of freedom and loneliness, or freedom and regret.

It is the convention of liberalism we need to overturn, rather than the traditional ideal of family life.

(First published at Conservative Central, 12/12/2004)

A different mental world

This is Dr Helen Szoke explaining why single women should have access to IVF:

Two Victorian women are hoping for their first baby, but even though they are both fertile, they can't get pregnant.

One woman can't conceive because her husband is infertile - but there is some hope for her, legally.

She can get donor insemination treatment.

The other woman can't get pregnant in Victoria because she doesn't have a male partner.

And under our state law, she will be turned away from all fertility services.

The only real difference between the women is their marital status.

When I first read this, I was struck by the difference in the way Dr Szoke conceives reality. Family relationships are insignificant to her. A difference in marital status means nothing to her, even in terms of a woman bringing a child into the world with or without a father.

Dr Szoke is the CEO of the Victorian Equal Opportunity & Human Rights Commission - in other words, an important officer of the state. Her way of thinking illustrates just how distorted a philosophy of non-discrimination can be. She writes:

Lifting the ban on fertility services for single women ... will remove discrimination ... It is a shame that in the 21st century we still discriminate against people on the basis of their marital status ...

So it's now considered discriminatory to expect that a woman might partner with a man in order to have a child.

It's necessary to insist here that some forms of discrimination are reasonable. It is reasonable to expect that a woman will partner with a man in order to have a child.

In doing so, a child is brought into the world with a father.

Dr Szoke disagrees and believes that we all have a "right" to have our wants met by the state and that any denial of this right amounts to shameful discrimination.

But look at what is required to follow such a principle - Dr Szoke has to trivialise and disregard important human relationships to make the principle work. To blot out the real consequences of her anti-discrimination principle, there are certain rooms of thought that have to be left empty.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

What causes family violence?

In today's Herald Sun it's reported that:

More than four out of five family violence cases also involve mental illness, financial hardship, alcohol abuse or housing difficulties.

The information comes from a Journeys to Safety report released by Anglicare Victoria.

Why is the information significant? Because it contradicts the claims of patriarchy theory. According to this theory, men use family violence to enforce the oppression of women. In other words, domestic violence exists to maintain the dominance of the powerful in society.

If you believe in patriarchy theory, you're likely to insist that the numbers of women affected by family violence is high and that male culture is accepting of domestic violence. You are also likely to focus on cases of domestic violence involving wealthier white men, as these men are supposed to represent power in society.

The Anglicare report, though, shatters much of this framework. A large majority of cases of domestic violence are linked to very specific, predictable factors rather than to a generalised male culture or to systems of power.

So it isn't marriage in itself, as a "patriarchal institution", that women have to fear, but certain forms of breakdown of social norms, involving mental health, drug abuse or homelessness.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

So it's just self-interest?

Spinoza was one of the first of the classical liberals. I'm reading a book about him at the moment titled The Courtier and the Heretic by Matthew Stewart.

By the 1670s, Spinoza was advocating the following:

Spinoza, like most modern theorists, grounds the legitimacy of political authority in the self-interest of individuals. He argues not only that everyone, and every thing, for that matter, is driven by self-interest but that they ought to be as well. "The more every man endeavours and is able to seek his own advantage, the more he is endowed with virtue," he says in the Ethics. "To act in absolute conformity with virtue is nothing else in us but to act, to live, to preserve one's own being (these three mean the same) under the guidance of reason on the basis of seeking one's advantage." (pp.101-102)

So I am to be self-interested and to seek my own advantage, and to set my sights at the level of self-preservation. These ideas, so familiar within classical liberalism, are already present in the world view of Spinoza.

Stewart goes on to tell us that:

Spinoza did not invent the idea of a secular state founded on self-interest; rather, he observed it clearly for the first time ... The very features of modernity that were then and are still regarded by many as its signature evils - the social fragmentation, the secularity, and the triumph of self-interest - he enshrined as the founding virtues of the new world order. His political philosophy was, in essence, an active response to the challenges of modernity. (pp.102-103)

Here's some more:

According to the author of the Ethics, self-interest is a virtue itself. The political order he intended to establish is one in which all social goals are secular, and so none may transcend the self-realization of the individual. In his magnum opus he baldly avowed that "no virtue can be conceived prior to this one, namely, the drive to preserve oneself." (p.107)

From wikipedia we learn that Spinoza was a naturalist in his philosophy:

Spinoza rejects the dualistic assumption that mind, intentionality, ethics, and freedom are to be treated as things separate from the natural world of physical objects and events.

So Spinoza's challenge was to explain such things as intentionality, ethics and freedom naturalistically.

He could no longer assert the existence of an inherently existing good or evil:

Spinoza held a relativist's position, that nothing is intrinsically good or bad ...

Because Spinoza believed that nothing exists outside natural causes, he was a determinist who believed that all things were determined by natural laws:

... Spinoza believes in his deterministic universe that, "All things in nature proceed from certain necessity and with the utmost perfection." Therefore, nothing happens by chance in Spinoza's world ...

So how then did he ground his concepts of ethics and freedom? He took the philosophical idea of a "conatus" - a striving to continue to exist and thereby to preserve one's essence - as his general principle.

In Spinoza's view, we act virtuously if we act rationally to strive to exist, in accordance with this idea of a "conatus". Similarly, we are free inasmuch as we are not constrained from acting to preserve our essential being:

His concept of "conatus" states that human beings' natural inclination is to strive toward preserving an essential being and an assertion that virtue/human power is defined by success in this preservation of being by the guidance of reason as one's central ethical doctrine.

And again:

His goal is to provide a unified explanation of all these things [intentionality, ethics, freedom] within a naturalistic framework, and his notion of conatus is central to this project.

For example, an action is "free", for Spinoza, only if it arises from the essence and conatus of an entity. There can be no absolute, unconditioned freedom of the will, since all events in the natural world, including human actions and choices, are determined in accord with the natural laws of the universe, which are inescapable.

However, an action can still be free in the sense that it is not constrained or otherwise subject to external forces.

A couple of observations. First, it's not easy to integrate the different claims made by Spinoza. If everything that happens is both perfect and necessary, then how can you have different degrees of freedom and constraint?

Second, Spinoza identified a naturalistic aim of preserving one's own being and he grounded both virtue and freedom on an absence of external constraints in pursuing this aim.

This aim, though real and important, is nonetheless a narrow one to occupy an individual life and a human culture and civilisation. It was chosen because it helped to resolve certain difficulties within Spinoza's naturalistic philosophy.

The intellectual foundations of classical liberalism are neither persuasive nor appealing. Do we really wish to understand virtue in terms of rational self-interest? Is freedom really to be understood merely as an absence of external constraints in the pursuit of individual self-preservation?

As for the other plank of classical liberalism - a belief in the pursuit of material prosperity - Spinoza advocated this as a means of occupying the energies of the common man. It was his version of the "bread and circuses" which was supposed to keep the common man at a safe distance from the more substantial issues of life (Stewart, p.103).

There seems to be little to gain in rejecting modern liberalism in favour of more classical forms. We need to think independently of both of these political philosophies and assert a worthier and more fitting politics of our own.

Missionaries attacked in Sydney

Here's a news item which the American media has reported on but which the Australian media hasn't been willing to cover.

Two young Mormon men from America were walking home through an area of Sydney known as "Little Lebanon" (thought to be the suburb of Auburn) when they were suddenly attacked by a group of six men of Middle Eastern appearance. The two young Americans were beaten and stabbed.

According to American media sources:

... the United States embassy in Australia is said to be investigating the incident. An official motive has not been released, though Collinsworth's mother believes it was a combination of racial and religious reasons.

"Chris is in a real melting pot, there's guy from all over the world," said Alisa Collinsworth. "He said the guys who came after him were Lebanese Muslims and they were grown men... they were big guys."

Why hasn't the Australian media reported on this story? Are there Lebanese Muslims in Sydney who are willing to launch unprovoked attacks on people because they are white? Or because they are missionaries for another religion? Is this a "hate crime" committed against two white American Mormon men?

There's more information on the attack here and here.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Is Boris really a conservative?

Boris Johnson was an editor of the 'conservative' Spectator magazine, then a 'conservative' MP, then a shadow minister on the 'conservative' front bench, before becoming the 'conservative' Mayor of London.

But he is a liberal.

Consider his reasons for supporting Barack Obama in the upcoming US elections. He writes:

And then there is the final, additional reason, the glaring reason, and that is race. Huge numbers of voters, whether they admit it to themselves or not, will hesitate to choose Barack Obama for President because he is black. And then there are millions of white Americans who will undoubtedly vote Obama precisely because he is black, and because he stands for the change and the progress they want to see in their society.

After centuries of friction, prejudice, tension, hatred - you name it, they've had it - America is teetering on the brink of a triumph. If Obama wins, then the United States will have at last come a huge and maybe decisive step closer to achieving the dream of Martin Luther King, of a land where people are judged not on the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.

If Obama wins, then black people the world over will be able to see how a gifted man has been able to smash through the ultimate glass ceiling.

If Obama wins, then it will be simply fatuous to claim that there are no black role models in politics or government, because there is no higher role model than the President of the United States.

If Barack Hussein Obama is successful next month, then we could even see the beginning of the end of race-based politics, with all the grievance-culture and special interest groups and political correctness that come with it.

If Obama wins, he will have established that being black is as relevant to your ability to do a hard job as being left-handed or ginger-haired, and he will have re-established America's claim to be the last, best hope of Earth.

Consider the way Johnson frames this. On the one side there are the bad guys, the whites who won't vote for Obama because he is black. On the other side there are the good guys, the whites who will vote for Obama precisely because he is black and because he stands for change and progress.

So the point of the election is not to select the best candidate, the one who will conserve what is best in the American tradition, but for whites to prove something about themselves, namely that they are non-racist and in favour of more modernist "change and progress".

How is this genuinely conservative?

Note too that Johnson defines the American past in terms of "centuries of friction, prejudice, tension, hatred". But finally, with Obama, a "triumph" over this past is a looming possibility.

Again, what kind of conservative would so limit his appreciation for American history and culture to prejudice and hatred? It is subversive in the extreme to read a national history in these terms. It is an act of delegitimation rather than conservation.

Then there is Johnson's argument that Americans should elect Obama because that would smash a glass ceiling and provide a role model for blacks all around the world.

Is it really the case that a US President should be elected to encourage the aspirations of Africans? Would someone who really cared about the fate of the existing American tradition really make this a priority?

A genuine conservative would not make smashed ceilings a principle for electing presidents.

Then there is Johnson's shallow claim that electing Obama would make race irrelevant in the world, thereby ending race-based politics, political correctness and a grievance-based culture.


This is much the same as believing that by electing Hillary Clinton, feminist women would realise that there was no office denied to them, thereby finally putting an end to a feminist inspired gender war.

Nothing of the sort happened when Margaret Thatcher was elected and why would it? Feminism has its roots in the modernist mindset, something that can't be overturned by a particular election result. Furthermore, why assume that feminist women would abandon a movement which gives them advantages in their pursuit of power? Why would feminist women agree to a level playing field when they have the benefit of positive discrimination legislation, quotas, public funding, university departments and so on?

Feminism is much more likely to lose position when men begin to set limits on what they will accept.

It's the same with the ethnic grievance culture Johnson refers to. When white Americans accept the premises put to them, namely that the American tradition is illegitimate because of its racism, and that whites must redeem themselves of guilt, and that any inequality is due to an institutional racism perpetrated by whites on the "other" - then the demands placed on white Americans will only grow.

Finally, there is Johnson's claim that an Obama victory, by making race not matter, will re-establish America's claim to be "the last, best hope of Earth".

I can't believe that a genuine English conservative would look to any foreign nation to be the "best hope" for the world. Was the song "Land of Hope and Glory" really composed for some other country?

Nor would a genuine conservative make the principle of non-discrimination the "telos" of the world - the end-point to which history is progressing and on which the moral fate of the world depends.

A conservative wishes to conserve his own tradition and to build on what is best in this tradition. He isn't likely to focus on a single, abstract, political telos, but on the health of family, community and nation.

On this basis, Boris Johnson is not a genuine conservative.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Sweden - not merely odd

The Lego toy company is in trouble in Sweden for breaching equality guidelines:

Sweden’s Trade Ethical Council against Sexism in Advertising (ERK) singled out images in a recent Lego catalog which featured a little girl playing in a pink room with ponies, a princess, and a palace accompanied by a caption reading, “Everything a princess could wish for…”

On the opposite side of the page, a little boy can be seen in a blue room playing with a fire station, fire trucks, a police station, and an airplane. The caption beneath reads, “Tons of blocks for slightly older boys.”

In its findings, the ERK singled out the images for preserving traditional and anachronistic views on gender roles, according to the Göteborgs-Posten newspaper.

Furthermore, said ERK, the pictures constituted a form of stereotyping which was degrading to both men and women.

When I googled the story I found it listed on several websites dedicated to odd, humorous or bizarre news. On one site, for instance, it was listed alongside an item titled "Man charged for catching, cooking squirrel" and another titled "Rabbit scares off burglar".

It's a mistake, though, to dismiss the story as a harmlessly eccentric aspect of Swedish life.

First, the Swedes are serious about creating a genderless society. The Swedes have adopted patriarchy theory as a state policy. This means that they consider the traditional male role to be the normal human one; the traditional female role they consider a social construct created by men to oppress women; therefore, it is state policy to deconstruct sex differences to create "equality" between men and women.

That's why Lego got in trouble in Sweden for distinguishing between girls and boys in its advertising - the distinction is now considered illegitimate.

Second, Sweden is not the only country to have followed this path. For example, Lego also got in trouble in Ireland. The Irish equality watchdog critised Lego for having a TV advert aimed at boys with the slogan "Who will win the battle?", whereas adverts for Barbie dolls for girls had the slogan "She's so soft and pretty".

Ireland's Equality Authority also complained that:

Blues and pinks were used to differentiate between toys directed at boys and girls ... Toy store owners were also found to be at fault for segregating toys into boys’ and girls’ aisles.

The Advertising Standards Authority for Ireland code states that sex stereotyping should be avoided but the researchers say this may not be sufficient, pointing out that in Sweden, no advertising aimed at children under 12 is allowed.

Chief executive of the Equality Authority Niall Crowley said ...“An advertising process is needed that challenges gender stereotypes rather than communicating and reinforcing them.”

Nor is the US immune to this belief that equality requires the abolition of sex distinctions. Barack Obama said last year that women should be required to register for military service and he has now also declared that he would consider opening combat roles to women.

Here is how he put the case for requiring women to register:

... he did say women should be expected to register with the Selective Service, comparing the role of women to black soldiers and airmen who served during World War II, when the armed forces were still segregated.

"There was a time when African-Americans weren't allowed to serve in combat," Mr. Obama said. "And yet, when they did, not only did they perform brilliantly, but what also happened is they helped to change America, and they helped to underscore that we're equal."

So Obama not only believes that women are equally able to serve as soldiers, he thinks they should do so in order to "underscore that we're equal".

The modernist mindset is especially striking here. What seems to matter to Obama is that society be regulated without regard to sex distinctions between men and women.

This means overlooking a lot of things. The young women I know have developed in a distinctive way toward an attractive womanhood. It seems like a slap in the face to who they are to suggest that they should be sent into combat. It is like declaring that what they are, distinctly, as women is seen by society as redundant. In old-fashioned terms, it is a dishonouring of their womanhood.

In the Obama mindset there is no essential masculinity or femininity. I find it difficult to believe, though, that the average man has never beheld a woman and recognised something essentially feminine in her. Isn't there in heterosexuality a sense of appreciation, and love for, what is essentially masculine or feminine in the opposite sex?

If we take what is essentially feminine from women, then where does that leave men? Imagine looking on women and not having a sense of their femininity. Does that not undercut our own masculine responsiveness to women? Doesn't it deplete important aspects of our own identity as men?

If there really were no essences, then heterosexuality itself becomes unreasonable and arbitrary. Why would men fall in love with women, if there were no real essence to either category. It would then make more sense for what modernists say about sexuality to be true - that sexual attraction is spread evenly along a continuum.

And if there does exist an essential masculinity and femininity? Then we have a definite nature to develop as best we can in order to "self-actualise" - as do all living things. If this is so, then it makes little sense to regulate society without any regard to sex distinctions. By doing so we only hinder the self-expression and self-development of individuals.

We should let boys be boys and girls and be girls - and value what is best in both sexes. The Swedish project is not oddly humourous - it's an intrusive aspect of modernism to be seriously resisted.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Liberalism & lost community

I've been gradually working my way through Liberalism & Community by American academic Steven Kautz. The book is an attempt to defend the classical liberalism of writers like John Locke.

In previous posts I've criticised classical liberalism for its overly pessimistic account of human nature. According to Kautz, Lockean liberalism begins with the idea that people are naturally selfish and solitary. The natural condition of man is thought to be a war of all against all. The human passions are negative aspects of existence, being warlike and irrational.

This faulty reading of human nature has some drastic consequences. It means that a "natural" community will be thought of negatively, as a merely civilised war of all against all, in which "partisan" causes will be invented to justify the carrying on of a civil war.

Having set up this framework, classical liberals then propose a solution: reason can be used to establish an unnatural peace, in which moderation is the chief virtue and in which all agree to banish "partisan" public causes and pursue strictly private pursuits instead.

The Lockean view unnecessarily diminishes what is possible within a community. It also fails to recognise, and therefore defend, the natural sources of unity and loyalty within a society.

Kautz draws out a few further consequences of the Lockean framework:

In a liberal world, high-minded moral and political aspirations have their proper place only outside the sphere of common deliberation and common action of citizens.

Liberals must therefore admit that ... politics properly attends above all to the manifestly instrumental questions of security and prosperity, because debates about these matters admit compromise and encourage moderation; and so, the ways of life of citizens and statesmen are soon deprived of their former dignity - statesmen are supplanted by bureaucrats, citizens by entrepreneurs.

Liberal politics, in short, is boring ... we refrain from more exciting or inspiriting political or moral partisanship, because we worry that such quarrels are often merely more or less quiet modes of civil war - cold civil war so to speak. When the political community steps beyond these bounds, it invites civil strife.

Our passions do not by themselves bring us together in political communities, other than by way of war for the sake of partisan or private advantage ... (p.34)

It's strange that classical liberals believe that we are naturally solitary and selfish, but that they think the impulse to high-minded public action so strong, that it is a danger to social peace.

Admittedly, liberals like Kautz argue that the high-minded public action is fraudulent and really masks an effort to pursue selfish, warlike qualities at a higher, social level.

If this is true, though, then why relegate the high-mindedness to a private level? If it's fraudulent, and exists merely as a cover to civil warfare, then it is as redundant at the private level (or more so) than at the public level.

Classical liberals can't have it both ways. Either high-mindedness has some merit, in which case the Lockean account of human nature is wrong, or it is fraudulent, in which case it's senseless to delegate it to a private, rather than a public, realm.

It seems all too convenient that people who believe that we are by nature selfish, anti-social and acquisitive should limit "community" to a technical pursuit of material prosperity, one in which "statesmen are supplanted by bureaucrats, citizens by entrepreneurs".

Anthony Esolen has drawn a distinction between men who are domesticated and men who are civilised. The domesticated man thinks only in terms of his own family; the civilised man has the capacity to think and act for the larger, common good:

Women do not in fact civilize men; they domesticate men, as I've said before. Men civilize men. There's a difference.

What is that difference? A soldier in a cavalry unit who spends most of his time in barracks or under the skies, may well be more civilized, more trained to think of and to act for the common good, to command other men or to obey, than many a high-priced lawyer or even college professor. He's not domesticated, though, and his new bride at first might find him pretty hard to live with.

On the other hand, men who live comfortable lives apart from other men, taking no initiative for the common good, considering only their wives and children and not the welfare of anybody else's children, never to be relied upon in time of public need, may be domesticated but not civilized. You might find plenty of men of the former sort at the inception of a great nation. You will find plenty of men of the latter sort at its decline.

In what way does classical liberalism allow for men to be civilised? It would appear to directly disallow civilised thinking in men: it assumes that the impulse to think or act for the common good is a dangerous, irrational passion, a form of cold civil war in which one party seeks to dominate another. Better just to leave things to the bureaucrats to sort out merely technical aspects of social organisation and financial policy.

We have had a few centuries now for classical liberal ideas to seep into Western culture and consciousness. I wonder if the influence of these ideas helps to explain the passivity of Western men when faced with civilisational decline.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Greens have no country?

I thought readers might be interested in a few posts from elsewhere.

One is titled Sweden: The Triumph of Cultural Marxism. The Scandinavian writer Fjordman looks at the radical policies being adopted by the Swedish Social Democrats and the Swedish Greens.

The Swedish Greens, for instance, believe literally in open borders:

We do not believe in artificial borders. We have a vision of unrestricted immigration and emigration, where people have the right to live and work wherever they please ... We want Sweden to become an international role model by producing a plan to implement unrestricted immigration.

My one concern with Fjordman's article is that he appears to lay much of the blame on the Frankfurt school of "cultural Marxism". This school came to prominence in the 1930s - too late to explain the larger shifts in Western society.

At Dogfight at Bankstown there is an interesting post titled The Tyranny of Liberalism. It concerns the breakdown of the family amongst the poor in Britain, leading to a very sad outcome for one particular girl. Yet child-rearing experts refuse to judge or criticise the negative trends.

Finally, Vanishing American has posted an item titled Remaking Womanhood, in which she reflects on the changes in the imagery of womanhood in the last few decades.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Premier Brumby: children don't need fathers

I won't often get the chance to praise Ted Baillieu, the Liberal Party leader here in Victoria.

He is very much a liberal, rather than a conservative, on most issues. However, he did draw a line in the sand in a parliamentary debate on Tuesday.

Premier Brumby put forward legislation giving greater access to IVF for single women and lesbians. Ted Baillieu argued against the proposal, arguing that IVF should only be available to married or de facto heterosexual couples:

Kids deserve the basics. Every child has got a father and mother and I think that ought to be the starting point.

Premier Brumby countered by claiming that the legislation was in the best interests of children:

Good parenting was about giving children unconditional love, he said, not necessarily the family structure into which they were born.

I suppose that at first glance Brumby's statement might sound nice and open and accepting. But the logic of it is not so sweet. If all a child needs is unconditional love, then any kind of family arrangement can be argued for. A child could be brought up without a mother by two men, or by a host of unrelated adults in a commune, or by a mother and her various boyfriends and so on.

What is especially damaging is that, by Brumby's logic, fathers are no longer necessary to their children. By passing legislation which deliberately creates fatherless families, the state is officially approving the idea that men aren't needed by their children.

In a letter in today's Age, one single mother defended exactly this idea:

For more than a decade I was a single mother. My fiance and I split when I was 16 weeks' pregnant. My daughter has never met him. She has only one legally recognised parent - an extremely proud, loving mother ...

Ted Baillieu suggests that the Assisted Reproductive Technologies Bill is wrong to open up fertility treatment to same-sex couples and single women as children will somehow be disadvantaged if they are born into such families.

My daughter is now 12 ... She has certainly not missed out by not having a father.

There is a popular TV show airing in Australia at the moment called Find My Family. On a recent episode a daughter who had not met her father since she was a small girl was finally reunited with him. It was touching to watch, and it made the claim that children can happily be denied contact with a father seem dubious. As the show's website puts it:

So many Australians have grown up without a mother, father, brother or sister, and often that absence leaves a gaping hole in their identity.

On Find My Family, long-lost loved ones are reunited and that hole is filled with tears of joy.

What would happen if men really accepted that their children would be equally well off without them? Wouldn't couples be more likely to divorce during difficult times in a marriage? Wouldn't men invest less time and energy in the raising of their children?

Premier Brumby's idea is best suited to a society in which men have only a sporadic connection to family life, and in which women bear the greater burden of both childcare and paid work.

There are women who realise what is at stake and who are willing to argue strongly for the paternal role. Here, for instance, is Stephanie Dowrick writing in support of fathers:

...fathers matter. And, good or bad, the effects of their parenting will go on reverberating throughout their children's lifetime ...

....[parents] will also have roles that are specific and distinct. When two adults become parents for the first time, the new father may best support both the baby and his unfolding sense of himself as a father by giving most of his support to the new mother: meeting her needs so that she can meet the inexhaustible needs of her new baby.

This requires considerable selflessness. Yet it is being able to step up and play this essential role that will set the tone for fatherhood ahead and for his individual strength and confidence.

As children grow older, the role that fathers play changes fast. Even with both parents in the workforce, fathers still often "represent" the outside world and its values more powerfully than mothers do. How fathers interpret the outside world and bring it home to their children through discussions and especially through example sharply impacts on the way children see themselves in the social universe.

What Dad values and believes, where Dad gives his time, how Dad offers or withdraws his encouragement or interest, how Dad deals with disappointment or conflict, whether Dad is able to be consistent and reliable, when and how Dad "takes charge", the willingness with which Dad takes responsibility, and how loving Dad is to Mum: these are all factors that will have a huge impact on the psychological development of children.

But perhaps nothing matters more than for a man to recognise while he is in the thick of it just how important family life is to him, and he to it.

Consider the difference in attitude between a man who shares this positive assessment of his own role and a man who, like Premier Brumby, believes that families are just as well off without a father.

The difference is profound and is likely to have far-reaching consequences for society.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Fatherless America

I recently came across the book Fatherless America by David Blankenhorn. Published in 1995, it's too good to adequately discuss in a single column. For now, I just want to cover the most important section of it.

In the chapter "The New Father", Blankenhorn discusses the way that fathers are now meant to be. He believes that the ideal of the new father is androgynous, that "fatherhood without the masculinity" is what is being aimed for.

There is now an assumption that "parenting" is what women have traditionally done - the hands on care and nurture of children - and that a good father is therefore a man who shares or takes over this mothering role.

Blankenhorn has no trouble finding authorities who promote this vision of a non-masculine fatherhood. For instance, he quotes James Garbarino, the president of an institute for the study of child development, who asserts,

To develop a new kind of father, we must encourage a new kind of man .. If we are to rewrite the parenting scripts to emphasize nurturing and the investment of self in children's lives, we need to ask, "Why can't a man be more like a woman?"

Similarly, Diane Ehrensaft in Parenting Together openly endorses the idea of men and women "mothering" their children together. Then there is Andrew M. Greely who states bluntly that society should administer a "dose of androgyny" to men and "insist that men become more like women". One textbook on family life reassuringly claims that "androgyny would be especially beneficial to men".

A necessary fatherhood?

To his credit, David Blankenhorn immediately identifies one of the main dangers in this vision of a new, non-masculine fatherhood: it makes men unnecessary within a family. Blankenhorn puts it a little more academically, writing that,

At bottom, the New Father idea presupposes the larger thesis that fatherhood is superfluous. In this respect, the New Father is indistinguishable from the Unnecessary Father.

If there is no distinctly masculine role for fathers, then the most that men can do is to help out with mothering tasks. But this is not a necessary role. It could be done successfully by a single mother, or by two women living together.

Which raises a critical question. Why would intellectuals insist that there is no distinctly masculine role for men as fathers? Blankenhorn argues that,

undergirding the entire New Father model is the imperative of gender role convergence. The essence of this imperative is the removal of socially defined male and female roles from family life.

I think he's right. Liberals, who currently dominate the political class, believe that we should be self-created by our own will and reason. This means that they don't like the idea that we should be defined by things we haven't chosen for ourselves. One thing we don't get to choose for ourselves is our sex. This means that liberals wish to deny or remove the traditional influence of gender on our identity and behaviour. And this includes overthrowing "gendered" roles within the family. Hence the liberal preference for "gender role convergence".

Blankenhorn actually lays out a very similar argument to this. He writes that there are two ideas which are supposed to replace socially defined gender roles.

The first is "the moral importance of personal choice - the belief that choosing freely among family behaviors is not simply a possible means to something good but is itself something good." This is, in other words, the liberal idea that it is a moral good to choose for ourselves our role within the family, rather than accepting a traditional role.

The second is "an ideal of human development based on a rejection of gendered values ... In part, the imperative of role convergence simply urges the reduction or elimination of sex specialization within the family. But in a larger sense, the imperative warns that any notion of socially defined roles for human beings constitutes an oppressive and socially unnecessary restriction on the full emergence of human potentiality."

Blankenhorn really gets to the heart of the issue here. The liberal political class believes we must be self-defined rather than socially defined, or else we are oppressed and restricted in expressing our humanity.

The critical moment

We now arrive at what I think is the most interesting part of the book. Blankenhorn has already traced the acceptance of the "unnecessary father" back to the idea that we must be self-defined and therefore should choose our own family roles and reject socially defined gender roles.

He then quotes one supporter of this view, Mark Gerzon, who celebrates this self-defining principle of family life because,

Couples may write their own scripts, construct their own plots, with unprecedented freedom ... a man and a woman are free to find the fullest range of possibilities. Neither needs to act in certain ways because of preordained cross-sexual codes of conduct.

Blankenhorn notes that this is "a vision, ultimately, of freedom". He is right: liberals, no matter whether they are left-wing or right-wing in their politics, usually justify their beliefs with the claim that they promote individual liberty. Blankenhorn is also right when he goes on to note that the liberal concept of liberty has an undeniable appeal and that it is an orthodoxy within American (he could have said Western) culture. He writes,

In many ways, it is a bracing, exhilarating vision, bravely contemptuous of boundaries and inherited limitations, distinctly American in its radical insistence on self-created identity. It draws upon the American myth, the nation's founding ideals; it echoes much of what is best in the American character. It is the vision of Whitman in his "Song of the Open Road":

From this hour I ordain myself loos'd of limits and imaginary lines.
Going where I list, my own master total and absolute.

There is so much to commend in this vision. It is the reigning ethos of much of contemporary American culture.

And here we have that crucial juncture which separates liberals and conservatives. A liberal will at this point stick to his vision of individual freedom, and deal with negative social consequences as they arise (or ignore them). A conservative, though, will too much value what is being lost, and will question a "freedom" which destroys an important human good.

Which way does Blankenhorn go? He decides for conservatism. He declares of the liberal vision that,

... as a social ethic for fatherhood, I dispute it.

I dispute it because it demands the obliteration of precisely those cultural boundaries, limitations, and behavioral norms that valorize paternal altruism and therefore favor the well-being of the infant.

I dispute it because it denies the necessity, and even repudiates the existence, of fathers' work: irreplaceable work in behalf of family that is essentially and primarily the work of fathers.

I dispute it because it tells an untrue story of what a good marriage is. In addition, I dispute it because it rests upon a narcissistic and ultimately self-defeating conception of male happiness and human completion.

The last point is, I believe, of tremendous significance. Can we really as men achieve a sense of self-completion, of fulfilling our natures, if we accept the role of a genderless self-defining individual, with no necessary place within a family as father or husband? I can't help but agree with David Blankenhorn that the answer is no.

Fool's gold

I'd like to finish by quoting some of the conclusion to the chapter on "The New Father". I think these excerpts show the quality of thought and expression that exists throughout Fatherless America. Blankenhorn writes,

The human child does not know or care about some disembodied abstraction called "parent." What it needs is a mother and a father who will work together, in overlapping but different ways, in its behalf...

Ultimately, the division of parental labor is the consequence of our biological embodiment as sexual beings and of the inherent requirements of effective parenthood ...

In service to the child and to the social good, fathers do certain things that other people, including mothers, do not do as often, as naturally, or as well ...

Historically, the good father protects his family, provides for its material needs, devotes himself to the education of his children, and represents his family's interests in the larger world. This work is necessarily rooted in a repertoire of inherited male values ...

... androgyny and gender role convergence reflect the ultimate triumph of radical individualism ... it is the belief, quite simply, that human completion is a solo act. It is the insistence that the pathway to human happiness lies in transcending the old polarities of sexual embodiment in order for each individual man and woman to embrace and express all of human potentiality within his or her self ... Now each man, within the cell of himself, can be complete ...

This idea, so deeply a part of our culture, is fool's gold. It is a denial of sexual complementarity and ultimately a denial of generativity ... Especially for men, this particular promise of happiness is a cruel hoax. Like all forms of narcissism, its final product is not fulfilment but emptiness.

I hope that it's possible to glean the quality of David Blankenhorn's writing from these excerpts. He has written a detailed, insightful and eloquent book which still stands nearly a decade after its first appearance as a most compelling defence of traditional fatherhood.

(First published at Conservative Central, 21/11/2004)

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Is human passion too dangerous?

I've written a few posts now reviewing Liberalism & Community by American academic Steven Kautz.

I hope readers will be patient with my efforts. Kautz sets out to defend the classical liberalism of Locke (seventeenth century), and he is very direct in spelling out the key features of this liberalism. Later, he admits that there are important weaknesses in the classical liberalism he supports.

I'll continue, though, with Kautz's description of the classical liberal worldview:

The natural condition of human beings ... is one of suspicion and hostility, an incipient war of all against all. (p.32)

This is too pessimistic a starting point. There is a natural fellow feeling existing between groups of people which is ignored here. Is there not at least some loyalty and cooperation between members of the same family? Or between members of the same ethny or nation?

Classical liberals are starting with a radically individualistic view of the human condition: that a natural state of affairs involves just me as an individual fighting against everyone else as an enemy.

But this is an unstable situation, one that almost inevitably leads to the establishment of tumultuous and illiberal political communities that do not make peace their overriding objective, where petty warfare is soon replaced by partisan warfare - often between rich and poor, sometimes among religious sects or other parties animated by one or another of the bizzare opinions contrived by the imaginations of men. (p.32)

This is what the faulty starting point leads to. If the state of nature is solitary individuals at war with each other, then what is required are artificial political communities which "make peace their overriding objective".

This won't be easy to achieve. After all, men will still by nature be inclined to a state of war against everyone else. There is a danger, in the Lockean liberal view, that the political community will be used not to secure peace between warring individuals, but as a weapon in the war of one faction of the community against another (partisan warfare).

Therefore, it is terribly wrong, in the Lockean liberal view, to be partisan about anything, including religion or politics. Not surprisingly, we are then told that it doesn't matter if we aren't partisan about such matters, as they have no basis in reality but only represent "bizzare opinions contrived by the imaginations of men".

This fear that any kind of group loyalties will unleash "the incipient war of all against all" has very damaging repurcussions:

Liberal theorists and politicians fear partisan (class, religious, ethnic, ideological) warfare above all, not simply the relatively petty quarrels of individuals. There is, indeed, a kind of communitarian logic about war: human beings at war seek allies because they have enemies. And alliances, sects, and parties will soon conceive the ideologies or dogmas that are necessary to justify oppressing the others, thus arming the warlike passions by civilizing them. (p.32)

Given the assumption that it is wrong to be partisan about anything, even ethnic loyalties are ruled out of bounds. We are to live, in the Lockean view, as solitary individuals restrained from war against all others by membership of a liberal political community.

Note too the Lockean liberal view of how partisan loyalties emerge. If we are by nature solitary individuals at war against everyone else, then partisan loyalties are driven simply by the need to seek alliances in war so that we may dominate and oppress others. Therefore, ethnic loyalties or religious beliefs don't represent anything real in themselves, but are simply a cover, a justification, for the getting of power over someone else.

... the most likely or natural path to political community is not a social contract, but a partisan struggle, because the passions (which suggest war) are more powerful than reason (which suggests peace), in the beginning. (pp.32-33)

A new element is added here. If an "incipient war of all against all" is natural, then the natural passions are bad - very bad. So these passions must be replaced by reason and by moderation.

Kautz sums up as follows:

It follows, say liberals, that there is no natural political community, but only this choice: we may endure life in one of those unhappy communities that transform the natural war of all against all into the more sanguinary and civilized wars of party against party or sect against sect; or we may construct a rational and peaceful political community on the basis of a social contract among free individuals who promise mutual self-restraint, or moderation.

... And so, in establishing liberal community, we must understand that the only truly common goods are peace and the means to peace (above all, private liberty and prosperity, as well as habits of public moderation), since peace is the necessary condition of security in the possession of all private goods.

All other speeches about so-called "common goods" are merely the (foolish or fraudulent) ideologies or dogmas of this or that party or sect. (p.33)

So the only common good that can be recognised is peace (although we may also seek material prosperity and a culture of public moderation).

So let's run through some of the problems associated with Lockean liberalism as outlined by Kautz:

a) there are no natural forms of human community, only an artifical political community

b) ethnic or religious loyalties are ruled out of bounds as being "partisan"; they are assumed to be made up for the purposes of conducting a more civilised form of the individual "war of all against all", so that one group in society may dominate and oppress another

c) the natural passions are considered bad and dangerous and are held to be opposed to reason

d) a community may have no common goods except the basic, initial aim of securing a rational, artificial peace between naturally warring individuals

Should conservatives accept such a world view? I don't think so. Moderns seem to swing between overly negative and optimistic views of human nature. The Lockean view is too negative and too individualistic. It is a view which radically limits the goods that humans may pursue: human passions are rejected as dangerous and irrational; religion and ethnicity are rejected as dangerously partisan and as imaginary constructs for the waging of war against others; and there can be no communal goods apart from the acquisitive pursuit of wealth and the maintenance of peace.

It is a cold and shallow account of human society. Nor is it likely to succeed in its one basic aim of keeping the peace, as it doesn't recognise, and so cannot preserve, the natural sources of loyalty, cooperation and unity in society.