Friday, December 26, 2008

Wacky accusation: Conservatives are "postmodern"

It's not easy being a conservative. Most of the time your colleagues and peers regard your views as embarrassingly old-fashioned. The culturati and the academy love to poke fun at you. And, when you're at a dinner party, there is no more sure-fire way to upset the bonhomie than to express sympathy for a conservative position on any subject matter.

Then, just as conservatism seemed destined to remain decidedly unfashionable, Deakin academics Geoff Boucher and Matthew Sharpe publish their provocatively titled The Times Will Suit Them: Postmodern Conservatism in Australia. Apparently, during the past decade or so, conservative ideas have not only been very much in fashion, they took a decidedly postmodern turn. The vanguard of this latest postmodern conspiracy is neither Jacques Derrida nor Michel Foucault; the culprits, this time, are John Howard and the entire editorial board of Quadrant.

The crux of Boucher and Sharpe's argument is that conservatism morphed into a form of relativism. Under the former prime minister, they claim, universalistic normative principles such as international human rights gave way to nationalistic assertion and cultural particularism. Values were appealed to "not because they are just but just because they are ours". The Howard version of conservatism also cemented in the Australian psyche a "scepticism towards the modern idea that people can make the world" better through "planned political action". In Howard's Australia, everybody was feeling so relaxed and comfortable that commitments to grand projects such as social justice and equality seemed a thing of the past.

Boucher and Sharpe's perverse use of the postmodern label raises an interesting question: What is conservatism and how do conservatives approach the kinds of issues postmodernists have been raising? The first thing to note is that unlike those other two isms of the modern age, liberalism and socialism, conservatism, on the whole, has been defined by its lack of a utopian vision. Keenly attuned to unintended consequences, and the persistence of human frailties, conservatives traditionally have preferred evolution to revolution, custom and habit to fads and fashions, pragmatic approaches and common sense to theoretical speculations and abstract generalisations. Because of the peculiarly change-oriented character of modernity and modernisation, conservatives often have felt the need to remind their fellow citizens of the value of the permanent, that the wheel doesn't have to be reinvented willy-nilly. In these and other respects, conservatives embody a certain postmodern modesty about what philosophy or theory can achieve, although their preference would be for empirical and pragmatic solutions to life's dilemmas. Along with David Hume, they also believe that having a sense of humour is a good antidote to hubris.

Where conservatives differ markedly from postmodernists is in the latter's embrace of romanticism. Postmodernism regards all critical reflection as "ironic play" and suffers from a tendency to see the world in aesthetic terms. In this respect, postmodernism has more in common with aesthetic modernism than it likes to admit. Art becomes a model for all of reality and anybody but a philistine judges art according to nonaesthetic criteria; hence, the outrage of the chattering classes regarding the public's disquiet with the depiction of children in Bill Henson's photographs. For the postmodern culturati, only a complete prude or ignoramus would see these images aspornography.

Here conservatism and postmodernism clearly diverge. Although conservatism has produced its own share of bohemians and aesthetes, conservatives are suspicious of rhetoric that puts the world views of an artistic and intellectual class above those of the much scorned middle-classes. However, it is the conservative approach to questions of art and culture that has been most open to misrepresentation in postmodern times. The conservative position that has received most publicity during the past decade is the one that has challenged literature departments embracing film and popular culture. The dominant image has been one of conservative critics railing against the postmodern tendency to equate Shakespeare with The Simpsons. No such thing as a postmodern conservative on this score.

The problem, though, is that the rhetoric surrounding the so-called culture wars has become the only measure of the conservative position on cultural matters. Conservatives are supposedly cranky, crusty, intolerant types who look down their noses at the culture of the masses. But this is a more accurate description of a circa-1950 left-wing intellectual writing for a journal such as Meanjin or Partisan Review than it is necessarily of a contemporary conservative intellectual.

Another conservative response to the postmodern question has been to admit that indeed postmodernism represents something new or at least something quite challenging for society and culture. In fact, conservative sociologists such as Daniel Bell, Christopher Lasch, Philip Rieff and John Carroll have led the way in demonstrating the kinds of predicaments that postmodern culture represents for individual identity and community wellbeing.

I would argue that these conservative theorists not only beat their leftist counterparts in diagnosing some of these changes; they also understood the unintended consequences of increased affluence, the triumph of a bohemian ethic and the loss of meaning in the sphere of culture much better than more fashionable strains of social and cultural theory.

After all is said and done, the quintessential characteristic of the conservative is that they have a deep need to confront and understand their times. As conservative American columnist David Brooks notes in his book Bobos in Paradise, the past few years have seen the emergence of "blue jean conservatives". He celebrates them as new kinds of conservative who "treasure religion so long as it is conducted in a spirit of moderation rather than zeal", who "appreciate good manners and cherish little customs and traditions" and who "reject grand rationalistic planning" and feel that the world is "far too complicated to be altered effectively by some person's scheme to shape reality". Sound postmodern? Perhaps the authors of The Times Will Suit Them went looking in the wrong places for their postmodern conservatives.


DOCS again: Children taken from parents with no evidence of risk

A judge says it was a "gross abuse of power" for child welfare staff to forcibly remove two babies from their parents' care when there was no evidence they were at risk of harm. Ordering that the children be returned to their parents immediately, Supreme Court Justice George Palmer said the New South Wales Department of Community Services officers' actions had "gravely imperilled" the children's best interests. "My principal concern is that young children who have been well cared for by their parents have been removed from their care for some three months and, if the DOCS officers have their way, will be kept out of their parents' care for another three months, for no good reason," Justice Palmer said.

Although the parents were recreational cannabis users, the judge said there was no evidence that it posed a direct risk of harm to their children - a 15-month-old girl and a month-old boy. He said there was no evidence the children, who were given the pseudonyms Georgia and Luke, were neglected or physically or emotionally abused. Given that the parents were not mentally ill and had no relevant criminal history, he questioned why their children were forcibly removed and why DOCS was pursuing a care plan that would keep them in custody until May. He said there had been "a serious abuse by certain DOCS officers of the department's power to take children into custody".

The court heard that DOCS sought to meet the parents on September 12 but did not respond to their attempts to reschedule. When the couple failed to show up, three officers came to their house. The mother denied her children were at risk but the officers returned with two police officers and removed the children. The parents, who cannot be identified, applied to the Supreme Court to have their children returned, a move opposed by DOCS.

Officers' attitude showed "an intransigent refusal to acknowledge a mistake, regardless of the consequences to the children", Justice Palmer said. A psychologist who assessed the children and their parents noted: "Both parents are well able to provide for the safety, welfare and wellbeing of their infant children."

Justice Palmer last week ordered that Georgia and Luke be immediately returned to their parents. DOCS declined to comment on the case, saying it would carefully examine the judgment and consider whether to appeal.


NSW: More charming police behaviour

Even when they get it wrong you have to sue the garbage to get them to face it

A 64-year-old grandmother who was arrested and strip searched for drugs on a busy Sydney street in a police case of mistaken identity is suing the state for false imprisonment and wrongful arrest. Leentje McDonald was somehow mistaken by police for an alleged drug dealer 24 years her junior and shaken down outside a Maroubra pub in full public view. A statement of claim filed in the District Court alleges officers took her belt off and put their hands underneath her clothes in the middle of the footpath in broad daylight.

When she screamed and tried to stop them they pulled both of her hands behind her back and pushed her to the ground. They then arrested her and charged her with assaulting an officer. Yet apparently Mrs McDonald's biggest crime was to miss her bus and duck into the Maroubra Junction Hotel to play the pokies while she waited for another one. The publican had previously told police that he believed that drugs were being sold by an Asian looking woman on the premises.

When Mrs McDonald got up to leave she was seized by an undercover officer and - despite her explaining they had the wrong woman. She was then searched by a female officer who arrived shortly afterwards and restrained by both of them.

Despite the incident occurring more than a year ago she says she has still not received any apology from the police. "I just want an apology and some recognition that I am suffering to this day," she told The Daily Telegraph. "I am in a lot of pain. I had a frozen shoulder which the police really hurt when they treated me so roughly.

A spokesperson said NSW Police was unable to comment as the matter was before the courts. Ms McDonald's lawyer George Newhouse said his client had offered to resolve the matter amicably but police had refused.


Charming police in South Australia too

A woman who lives close to one of South Australia's most notorious road accident black spots is fuming after being told to speed up - by police. Sharon Green - who says she has helped more than 20 crash victims outside her home on Victor Harbor Rd, Mt Compass - was pulled over by police for doing 90km/h in a 100km/h zone as she prepared to turn into her driveway.

Ms Green says she was branded a "danger and a menace" to other drivers when she was pulled over by an unmarked police car at 12.45am recently after driving home from Victor Harbor. "He said I was a danger and a menace on the road if I have been driving at that speed from Victor Harbor - I didn't know what he was on about," she said.

"We live on the main road and we have scraped about 20 people up off the highway where our house is because it is a terrible part of the road. We are so conscious of the way we drive so carefully when we see the consequences so often in Victor Harbor Road from speeding and drink driving. "I would understand if I was travelling at 60 or 70, but not 90. Nobody here can understand, when they see idiots every day speeding on this road, they are telling people to go faster." Ms Green said the warning and order to drive faster was contrary to the police Christmas safety message.

A police spokeswoman refused to comment on Ms Green's case but said driving too slowly could cause problems on the road. "In general, driving too slowly can be a hazard. It is not an offence in itself, but the manner of driving can cause a hazard, and be dangerous, which can lead to an offence," the spokeswoman said.

Ms Green said she had slowed from 100km/h with "not a soul on the road in any direction" because kangaroos were a known hazard at that time. Ms Green has been living at the same property for 48 years, 11kms south of Mt Compass in an area known as "Cut Hill" or Mt Jagged. "They sped off without even saying sorry after I explained I lived here and had only slowed down to get into the driveway," she said.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Police all over seem to be experiencing a nasty feeling of added empowerment lately.