Thursday, August 10, 2006

Reaction to reaction

Garth George begins his column today with a startling statement:

Those of us who haven't begun to do so already are, I fear, going to have to start rethinking very seriously some of the notions about this country we have held without thinking, many of us for nearly all our lives.

Sadly, though, he's not talking about rethinking his reactionary views, which bemoan the real moral progress of the last 50 years in favour of a worldview in which racism is good, innate, and patriotic and sadism by authority is acceptable. Instead, his piece is just the usual grab-bag about the moral decline of New Zealand, starting with corruption. But rather than focusing on Taito Philip Field, he instead pursues one of his pet peeves: that the police are now also subject to the laws they enforce:

If any evidence were needed as to how seriously damaged police morale is, it is in the breath-testing by a highway patrol colleague of the Taranaki sole-charge policeman who turned out on his day off to a fatal accident having had a few snorts.

If that is the sort of esprit de corps our police have these days, then it seems things are even worse than I feared.

Of course, the "esprit de corps" that George praises is exactly why we had to prosecute a group of police officers recently for rapes they committed in the 80's - because the police then didn't think they were subject to the law, looked out for one another and didn't "dob in" their mates over a few "minor misdemeanours". Like his view that serious assault, sexual abuse, and rape are all perfectly acceptable if they happen in uniform, this is an issue where I'm glad that the world has moved on from the past George idealises.

George then moves off onto another of his favourite topics - children - attacking the "me first" attitude of modern mothers which sees them want to have a life beyond their children. He concludes:

Okay, call me old-fashioned or even a Neanderthal, but I cannot and will not shake the conviction that motherhood is the most sacred of all human duties and that nothing is more important for the future of any society because our children are our future.

To which the only response I can make is that if Garth George thinks parenting is so important, then maybe he should do it himself, rather than telling other people how to live their lives.


And like all good Christians of his ilk, in the absence of direct instruction from the Lord he is desperate for someone totell him what to think: "...One of the things this nation desperately needs is a leader - a man or a woman with the mana, the vision, the charisma and the oratory to drag us all up by the bootlaces and make us once again proud to be Kiwis..." AH! A Kiwi strongman, committed to the faith! If only Southland Franco strode amongst us, oh how he yearns that a Fuhrer would rise up in Remuera to lead us to the sunlit uplands! If only Pinchet was not yet in his dotage, we could beg to be annexed to the catholic certainty of fascist Chile! And say what you like about Mr. Georges contemporary Benito, he made Italians proud and the trains certainly ran on time!

Posted by Sanctuary : 8/10/2006 02:26:00 PM

I have found, as a mother, it is easiest just to accept that WHATEVER YOU DO IS WRONG and that MOTHERS MUST BE JUDGED AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE especially by stupid people with no concept of how complex a place the world is and how much variation there may be between individuals. And what pisses me off more than anything is the way so often no mention is made of fathers in the rhetoric of the importance of self immolation for the benefit of important future generations equation.

Posted by Amanda : 8/10/2006 02:46:00 PM

MTNW: well, clearly fathers are supposed to be breadwinners, while their wives (not partners, because there's no place for de fatos in George's idealised 50's) stay at home to care for the kids. The fact that that world is no longer possible thanks to the economic reforms of the 80's (which also moved us from a one-income to two-income family model), or that women might want to do something different with their lives, doesn't seem to enter George's head.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 8/10/2006 03:03:00 PM

I just love how garth bitches and harumphs about whatever, then completly fails to discuss any of the background behind the issue or reasons why it might be happening.

I also love how like all good anti abortion fundies he somehow manages to sneak in a gripe about "all the unborn children". He could be talking about anything, and there it will be.
How do these weirdos relate everything back to abortion?

oh, and I also love drawing little hitler moustaches on his pic while reading cafe newspapers. Childish i know but quite satisfing.


Posted by Anonymous : 8/10/2006 05:20:00 PM

Amazing that the same global news organisation that employs Garth George also employs Robert Fisk.

I suppose a hands-off approach to newspaper ownership has to be a good thing, really?

Posted by Rich : 8/10/2006 05:38:00 PM

The part of this that people keep missing is that the cop was over the limit because he had been drinking with the bastard who caused the accident. He let the guy leave his house and drive (on the wrong side of the road) after drinking, and people died. That's the real issue to me.


Posted by Russell Brown : 8/10/2006 07:52:00 PM

Russell, is that for real? I didn't know that fact and if it's right, it certainly changes things from my perspective.

Posted by Gooner : 8/10/2006 10:25:00 PM

It's certainly been in the coverage from the Dom-Post from the beginning, so yes, probably true.

Posted by Anonymous : 8/10/2006 11:09:00 PM

yes, godawful piece by George.... but, as usual, the commentary here isn't much better [with i/s's "If you think x is wrong then just don't do x yourself (and shut up)" being particularly egregious.....]

One general problem for George, however, is that his thesis that moms take less care of the unborn (and possibly of their actual children too) than they used to just doesn't ring true.... While my personal sample of current moms is small (10-20 over the last couple of years) and exceedingly non-random I'd bet a very large sum of money that the average NZ mom is much more assiduous about diet, not-drinking -smoking etc. while pregnant than she used to be. (All the moms I know are completely crazed about this sort of thing in fact!) Ditto for all the care people take these days with child restraints in cars. For example, almost everybody on long trips these days pulls over to feed an infant rather than just jumping in the back and feeding on the fly with the car still in motion. It's an incredible pain for people to be good about this - literally having to stop the car every hour or so makes for a very long drive to Wellington. But people do it. And they never used to. That's serious progress by George's own standards.... At the very least, if George was going to be serious he'd need to balance stats about, e.g., return to work dates after pregnancy (whose significance would of course be contestable) with these other sorts of considerations that apparently sharply contra-indicate his basic "decline and fall" picture.

One has to conclude that it's impossible to moan convincingly at the level of generality that George wants to, and that he's finallly just not serious. He probably shouldn't have a national column.

Posted by Anonymous : 8/11/2006 04:11:00 PM

Stephen G: One of the reasons I blog is that I can't expect other people to stand up for my ideas. I apply the same principle to other aspects of life. You can't exect others to do something if you are unwilling to do it yourself, and if you think something is important, then you should put your money where your mouth is and be the change you want to see in the world.

More generally, we live in a liberal society in which people are free to pursue their own vision of the good life and lead their lives how they choose. A corollory of that is that, in an important sense, people's life choices are really none of anybody else's business (except insofar as they harm others). It is none of my business what other people do in bed. It is none of my business what recreational chemicals they stick in their bodies. It is none of my business what they read, or what they think. It is none of my business whether they go to church, what god they pray to, or whether they have a god at all. And it is none of my business how they try and balance the competing demands of work and family. And its none of Garth George's business either. Telling people what to do in these areas is simply rude.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 8/11/2006 05:09:00 PM

i/s: You say:

1. People (in a liberal democ,) are free to pursue their own vision of the good life and lead their lives how they choose.

and claim as a corollary that:

2. People's life choices are really none of anybody else's business (except insofar as they harm others).

But far from being a corollary of 1, 2 is inconsistent with 1. If I'm free to pursue my own conception of a good life then I'm free to develop strong views about how I and other people should and should not live, to proselytize on behalf of that view, to try to get others to see things as I do, and so on. I'm free to be outraged that certain things are legal, and be driven to change that. But I'm also free to think that the law is the wrong instrumentality in a wide range of cases. I may for example, think that it's pointless to have a law against smoking pot and playing video games or against single-parenthood or eating meat but still be driven to try to convince people not to do those things, or to offer them alternatives, or to ridicule them for making those choices, or whatever it might be.
So (1) grants people the right to make other people's ways of living their business in all of the non-coercive ways that are supposedly at issue, thereby falsifying (2).

Note that this elementary point - that freedom to pursue one's own conception of a good life includes the freedom to criticize and proselytize and agitate, etc. and more generally just to hold actual moral views (which can *never* be just judgements about "what works for me"!) - is not an assertion of intolerance or a right to intolerance or any such thing. It is just to say that a liberal democracy is absolutely bound to be a genuine contest of ideas. No one's life choices are beyond criticism and condemnation both fair and unfair. If your criticism has no merit then you can expect to be criticized in return.... All of this is part of what a robust liberal democratic project is all about... Everyone has the right to pursue their own conception of a good life (no matter how misguided and self-destructive) just as everyone has the right to believe what they want (no matter how outrageously false). But none of that immunizes either your beliefs or your way of life from criticism as false, deranged, perverse, etc. I really can't stress this enough because it's *so* fundamental: liberal democracy in its most elevated sense is *about* robust on-going dialogues about how to live, about learning from others' experiments in living (both mistaken and successful) and so on - and it's essential that there's no escape from this sort of review. It's closer to the truth to say that Lib. democacy carries within it an obligation not to be too sensitive to inevitable criticism than it is to say that it carries an obligation to have no views (or perhaps to muffle ones views) about anyone else's life.

Everything I've said so far uses i/s's terms for debate - so I've been defending the idea that accepting (1) means accepting that people may make others behaviors/attitudes etc their business at least in the sense of freedom to broadly criticize and condemn *even when* those behaviors/attitudes harm only the subjects of those behaviors/attitudes.

But of course that's already granting i/s a lot. Surely in most of the cases that George and others want to moan about there's plenty of harm to others plausibly around. George *could* be right that modern parents are pervasively self-centered and that they're harming their kids in various ways, anti-abortion activists *could* be right that killing fetuses is murdering unborn human beings so that there's an on-going holocaust that we're just not facing up to because we don't want to. I think there are good reasons to think both these views are false but they're the *sort* of things that could be true and if you believe they are then any harm standard for making something your business is surely met... (that's nomally the threshhold for considering legal moves not merely for criticism or having a point of view!) The point then is that the properly liberal democratic response to the conservatives' complaints is to show that they're baseless or wrong-headed. I/s's response, by way of contrast is dictatorial - simply deny that the conservatives have any right to so much as make their complaints or raise their objections. I mean - seriously - this is just incoherence on i/s's part.

And all of this is without bringing up i/s's systematic blindness to the part of any serious liberal democratic project which concerns itself with the perpetuation of that very project, something that is not identical to just ensuring that the conditions of individual liberty that comprise the goals of the project for individuals within that project are met. But set that vexed issue aside.

It is none of my business what other people do in bed. It is none of my business what recreational chemicals they stick in their bodies. It is none of my business what they read, or what they think.

To the extent that "none of my business" means "I don't have any view about" these are all specific features of *your* de-moralized conception of a good life i/s.... not stuff that anyone has to believe just to be a good liberal democrat.

It is none of my business whether they go to church, what god they pray to, or whether they have a god at all. And it is none of my business how they try and balance the competing demands of work and family. And its none of Garth George's business either. Telling people what to do in these areas is simply rude.

Again, not having a view at all about these things reflects your own specific weak - "it's all good" - conception of a good life. Your commitment to (1) means of course that, by your own lights, others are absolutely entitled to have stronger views than you do on these fronts. You maintain that *you* don't like or believe in telling people what they should do or what they should think, i.e., even when there *is* something they should do or think. I don't think you accurately describe yourself here! But suppose for the sake of the argument that your self-description is accurate... well then good for you, liberal democracy needs its share of mellow souls. But it's completely compatible with any notion of liberal democracy for many of your fellow citizens others to be bolder than you: to bemoan their fellow citizens slackness in various respects, to offer constructive criticism, to offer cogent but strictly destructive criticism, to try to persuade and convert, and so on. I think liberal democracy is essentially pretty rude in the way you're using the term, and you yourself i/s are a liberal democrat in my sense not your own.

Think even about how to understand your criticism of George in your own terms. It can't be done! Remember you said:

"It is none of my business what they [other people] read, or what they think."

It's none of i/s's business what other people (including Garth George) think..... Riiiiight.....

I swear, I could never make this stuff up!

Posted by Anonymous : 8/12/2006 05:20:00 AM

I/S might be blase about parenting, but s/he had better hope that at least some people aren't or there will be no-one to bring forth the next generation of moralising liberals.

Posted by Anonymous : 8/14/2006 09:41:00 AM

And s/he ought to hope that some of those parents are liberals. All the Muslims, Christian Fundamentalists and so on a generation from now will need someone to argue with.

Posted by Anonymous : 8/14/2006 10:01:00 AM

Wow. Stephen Glaister, that has to be one of the most amazing comments I've read in a long time.

Thank you.

Posted by Lucia Maria : 8/16/2006 10:29:00 PM