Sunday, December 2, 2012

A conservative moment

Carla Bruni-Sarkozy's recent admission that she, not so long ago a proud libertine who identified strongly with the political left, is now une bourgeoise who loves family life and having a husband and doing the same thing every day is not without significance.

Don't ask for how long (I want to say) she will be content with her domestic routine; enjoy the conservative moment. For Carla Bruni is one of the few contemporary figures who has old-fashioned star quality, and so symbolic importance.

In fact, the 44-year-old seems to have developed a strange kinship with a former generation of Hollywood stars whose public personas transcended their cinematic achievements and somehow represented for many people an ideal, a mode of life at once sophisticated and traditional.

Emma-Kate Symons has written a piece which discusses Bruni's mid-life conversion as 'counter-cultural' in the context of our 'post-familial' world.

And so it is. But whether the paradox of a counter-cultural conservatism can deliver long-term moral benefits is doubtful.

Symons notes that a number of writers have recently elaborated on the negative moral and demographic consequences of the anti-family culture which now dominates Western social and political life.

It has been clear for decades, however, that, while the model of the traditional family may survive, it has lost its dominant position and normative influence; rapidly becoming, in fact, just one possible option amongst many.

I sometimes think that humans in general – and not just children – function better and more happily when choices are constrained.

I know this raises awkward political questions, about who determines and applies the constraints, for example; and social questions about the legitimacy of traditional cultural constraints.

But I am not making policy prescriptions here – just making the observation that freedom is often a mixed blessing.

Carla Bruni may even agree with me on this.


  1. "Quelq'un m'a dit" was for awhile a guilty pleasure of mine. How nice she has not only found some value in traditional domesticity but also the courage to say so.

    As for constrained choices, you make a fair point. For many of us, life involves an astounding freedom. We are free to choose a career, a lifestyle, a partner (or partners), whether or not to have children, whether or not to work, whether or not to worship, what to drive, where to live, how to vote, what to eat, and what to wear. All of it is more open than ever before. Ironically, all that freedom sometimes yields unhappiness: the stress of picking from the options is overwhelming.

    It's actually more than a matter of stress. Since every choice is open, every choice can absorb a certain amount of time as we research and introspect and dither over what the other kids will think and which new car will really make us more happy. We can squander man-years on all the decisions, each of which is sometimes a social signal apart from its importance to personal fulfillment.

    Obeying the materialist, Benthamite imperative, "Be happy" can be exhausting.

    1. Yes, all those choices are very time-consuming and exhausting.

      Another thing worth bearing in mind is that research has now clearly shown something which previously required psychological insight to see – namely, that we are not good as individuals at recognizing our own peculiar natures, our strengths and weaknesses, or even in knowing (as you suggest) what we really want (i.e. what would most satisfy us).

      Which is not to say that governments know better, of course. But it does indicate a continuing need for input from the broader society (family, friends, social and cultural institutions, etc.).

  2. "In Sweden, up to 45 per cent of people are living solitary home lives. In the US, 28 per cent are home alone, similar to Australian figures. Even couple households without kids are starting to outstrip traditional family units of two parents and a few sprogs."

    Ho bloody hum. Here are some Australian figures.

    In the age group 35-44, 15% of households are lone persons. 10% are couples without children. The percentage of couples with "sprogs" is 55%. In the prime sprog-raising age group sprog-raisers predominate.

    Yes, of all households, 25% are lone persons. But many of these are under 30 or over 60. That is, usually, pre or post sprog duties.

    It takes about five minutes to get these figures. I wonder, does the Financial Review employ fact-checkers? It would be an easy way to earn a crust.

    1. Emma-Kate Symons does tend to toss the numbers around with gay abandon. In effect, she is using them for rhetorical purposes.

      Take her claim that the fact that Barack Obama got 'a whopping' 62% of the singles vote in the recent presidential election shows that the outcome was largely determined by the new, post-familial electorate. One number doesn't prove anything; you would obviously have to do a lot more analysis. But the general point that the election result reflected changing social structures (including a drift away from the traditional family) is plausible.

      Your substantive point would be, I take it, that the decline in the traditional family is being exaggerated, and calling our society 'post-familial' is premature to say the least. Maybe.

      But the direction of change over the last 50 years or so is pretty clear, and, in the end, it may not be possible to quantify moral changes.

      It is also undeniable that radically new ways of thinking (feminism has been particularly influential) have taken hold amongst the political, media, educational and mainstream religious elites.

      Carla Bruni was most savagely attacked by French feminists, by the way, and subsequently made some conciliatory remarks.

  3. Rhetorical numbers -- yes, that's what I am grumbling about. I hate that sort of thing. It's lazy and it's corrupting.

    Big changes have occurred in family structure in the US, UK, Canada, Australia, NZ and Scandinavia. But that is a slow process, and it has little to do with allegedly growing numbers of lone person or childless households.

    Even bigger changes have occurred in Europe and Chinese speaking countries -- a demographic winter, as it is called by some. This may or may not involve lone person or childless households. Often these childless people live with their parents.

  4. Here's a much better discussion of the issue:

    The latte line is real, I think, except that tomorrow lattes will move out into the suburbs (they may have already done so -- I've never drunk one myself so I don't notice) and something else will take its place as the accepted surface indicator of inner city coolishness.

    It's curious that attitudes to coffee somehow correlate with attitudes to marriage.

    1. I'm unfamiliar with this sort of analysis, but am not convinced that Salt's ideological 'schism' is so new, nor that it is helpful to see the proportion of married people in their 20s in a given community as an ideological indicator.

      Positive attitudes to marriage may indicate social conservatism, but the age at which one commits to marriage is more a function of education level, isn't it, than an ideological indicator?

      Sure, more highly educated people tend to be less socially conservative, but not necessarily. And, to further complicate the picture, many socially progressive people (as the author acknowledges) are politically conservative.

      I don't question the value of detailed statistical and regional analyses, but I'm not sure that the 'latte line' concept really tells us much at all. Everyone knows there are fashionable and wealthy areas in cities and unfashionable and poorer areas.

      Salt apparently bases his 'latte line' on one statistical indicator (proportion of married 20-somethings), which seems a bit arbitrary to me.

      And the suggestion that this divide is something radically new which did not exist a generation ago also raises doubts.

    2. I've had another look at Bernard Salt's article, and I think there is definitely some confusion there. His contention is that 'as the proportion of 20-somethings in a registered marriage increases, the more conservative or traditional the values of the local community.'

      The proportion of 20-somethings not involved in a registered marriage is 'a single, powerful demographic indicator [which] appears to reflect a predisposition to progressive thinking'. Salt finds some evidence for his claim in voting patterns.

      Then he acknowledges a flaw in the argument, because certain wealthy areas in cities with very low proportions of young married people don't vote for progressive candidates.

      Confusingly, he repeats (in a slightly different form) the claim he has already identified as flawed: 'What is emerging is the view that different thinking about the way life should be lived in the 20s translates into political preferences.'

      Then, he changes course again: 'But it is more than that,' he writes. And proceeds to claim (leaving behind his political claims) that a 'social progressiveness' links the funky inner city with the comfortable and conservative middle class.

    3. My guess is that there is a logical explanation of Salt's anomaly. The "wealthy" but "conservative" suburbs that have low young marriage rates (such as Beaumaris) are themselves usually close to the inner city. So if you are a young person attracted to inner city life and mum and dad have a mansion in Beaumaris, why leave home? You get the best of both worlds.

      If the question is why are mum and dad conservative, the answer is perhaps simply that they are wealthy. There is the well-known phenomenon of radical chic, which appeals to some wealthy people, but it's a minority taste.

    4. Maybe. But all these complexities would appear to undermine the usefulness of his 'single, powerful demographic indicator'.

      My main point is that it is not clear from the article (or at least it is not clear to me) precisely what he is claiming for his indicator and what evidence might support the claims.