THE AGE MONDAY 25 MAY 1998
Why Australia's cultural orthodoxy, must be resisted
Questioning the Age of Individualism has its dangers.
By Robert Manne
LAST Monday Bettina Arndt, to my mind one of Australia's more independent and enterprising journalists, was named reptile of the week by Richard Ackland, presenter of the ABC's Media Watch. Arridt was once editor of Forum, a '70s magazine committed to sexual liberation. Ackland's principal charge was that in recent years she had turned her back on the emancipatory revolution of her youth.
One item on the accusation sheet particularly interested me. Nowhere, Ackland informed us, was Arndt's "metamorphosis from Madame Raunch to Miss Prirn" more obvious than in her present extraordinary attitude to "nippers and divorce". Ackland revealed to his viewers a passage from an article that Arndt
had written for this newspaper earlier this year, which claimed that the "ultimate result of divorce was that "children miss out, entering adulthood with less education, lower occupational status and greater economic adversity, less support and contact with their parents and an increased probability of divorce in their own relationships than children from intact marriages".
Viewers of Media Watch would have assumed that the words quoted represented no more than Arndt's incomprehensibly old-fashioned personal opinion. This was quite false. The words quoted turned out to be not Arridt's private views but her summary of a broad-ranging American study into the long-term effects of divorce, whose results were recently published by Harvard University Press in a book entitled A Generation at Risk. Unless it is to be regarded as improper to report on research that undermines what people such as Ackland would prefer to believe, the only serious journalistic question that Media Watch had reason to ask here was whether Arridt had presented the results of this study fairly and accurately.
I decided to check. Between 1980 and 1995 a team of researchers in the United States followed the experiences of several hundred randomly selected families by making contact with them every three or four years.
At the completion of their study they concluded that divorce was "problematic for children's later relationships with parents"; that later in life it Increased the instability of offspring's intimate lives"; and that it lowered both "educational achievement and "occupational status".
Most interestingly, the study concluded that while divorce was beneficial to the psychological well-being of children from the fewer than onethird of marriages it defined as "high conflict it was markedly harmful to the children of the more than twothirds of divorces that sprang from a low level of conflict. The study concluded, not surprisingly, that on balance divorce was clearly harmful to children.
As it turned out, then, every claim Ackland selected to ridicule Arndt as a reborn Miss Prim was a completely accurate summary of the main conclusions of one of the most meticulous and careful studies of divorce ever undertaken. in the complacency of Ackland's mockery of Arndt, and in the sympathy for this mockery he confidently anticipated from his audience, something of genuine cultural significance could be glimpsed.
Since the 1960s all Western societies have been caught up in one of history's most profound revolutions - the progressive liberation of the
individual from those age-old social obligations to family and community, which once put severe limits on individual freedom and autonomy. No one has captured the essence of this cultural revolution more deftly, than the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawn in his Age Of Extremes. This revolution, he writes, is "best understood as the triumph of the individual over society or, rather, the breaking of the threads which in the past have woven human beings into social textures ... the world was now passively assumed to consist of several billion human beings defined by their pursuit of individual desire Both Arndt and Ackland belong to the generation that fought for, observed the triumph of and experienced the benefits of the '60s cultural revolution of modernity. Concerning this revolution, this generation my generation - is now beginning to divide.
One part still looks on the progressive emancipation of the individual from the ties of family and community obligation, and from all restraints on the gratification of individual desire, as an unambiguous good. Their instinct is to close their eyes to the mounting evidence of consequent social disintegration and harm. Yet another part is beginning to feel anxious about certain unexpected or unintended consequences of the revolution in which they once invested their energies and hopes.
Revolutions are notoriously unforgiving of those who break ranks or raise doubts. The revolution's gains must be defended at costs. For raising questions about the style of contemporary feminism, Helen Garner was, three years ago, in certain circles, consigned to a cultural Coventry. For raising certain doubts about some troubling aspects of sexual and social emancipation, if Richard Ackland's reptilian intervention last week is any guide, Bettina Arndt may soon face a similar fate.
The purpose of this kind of political operation is clear. It is to warn those who might be tempted to question one or another outcome of the cultural revolution - to argue unfashionably about, say, institutional child care for babies or the culture of pornography or the impact on children of divorce - that for discussions of this kind there will be a heavy social price to pay.
When an operation such as this is being mounted, for those who think such questions matter, or who merely care about the free play of ideas, there is no alternative but to resist.
Robert Manne's new book, The Way We Live Now, will be published by Text next week.
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