Archive for August, 2003


August 6, 2003

Ham shanks, Sherman tanks and Jodrell Bank

One of the interesting things about joining something like Crooked Timber is that you find out that people whose judgement you take seriously, rate the ideas of people who you consider to be hilarious. One such is Amitai Etzioni who (as well as having a name which looks like the Scrabble hand from hell) is a political philosopher who achieved some minor fame a couple of years ago when he got a namecheck from Tony Blair on Desert Island Discs. Thinking about it, I may have him confused with the MOR band (and 13-point word score) Ezio, but the fact remains that Etzioni’s “communitarian” philosophy was big with the Blair crowd in the early days of the Third Way. (That’s the Blairite Third Way, btw, not the fascist movement of the same name, and astute readers will perceive here a man battling for his life against the forces of digression).

I seem to remember from university days that “communitarianism” as set out in Mulhall and Swift’s textbook “Liberals and Communitarians”, was sort of a last gasp of the academic soft left at preserving a space for a normal welfare state from the attacks of Nozickian libertarians on one flank and the Scruton-Taylor-MacIntyre axis of conservatism on the other. It was sort of appealing to me then in a faut de mieux kind of way. But I was always suspicious of it, not least because I happened to grow up in one of the small idealised in-and-out-of-each-others’-doors “communities” that the communitarian theorists went on about, and thus knew that it was bloody horrible. Communitarianism always had a nasty authoritarian streak (lots of people would consider Macintyre and Taylor to be communitarians) and in Etzioni, that illiberality seems to reach a point of equilibrium.

Which is not to say he’s an actual authoritarian; that’s not true. But he’s in favour of “civil liberties” which roughly translates as a staunch defender of the freedom to live an utterly conventional life. Someone who appears to regard the warnings against the stifling effect on liberty of social stigma in Mill’s “On Liberty” as an instruction manual. Basically, if you think of a headmaster’s lecture on how he’s not angry, but very disappointed, at the way in which some unruly elements have chosen to take advantage of his good nature and spoil it for everyone? Etzioni has turned that into a political philosophy. He’s certainly not evil, just extremely irritating, and far, far too keen on telling other people what they ought to be doing. A perfect model for the Reverend Blair, then.

Here’s a prize extract. It’s about sex education, and communitarian parents’ rights (very nearly duties) to opt their kids out of it if it’s too near the knucle, so to speak. Specifically, it’s a ringing condemnation of some program or other that teaches children about masturbation. I must confess that I came near to swallowing my dentures when I heard that the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States recommends telling kids in middle school that “told �a few boys engage in a very dangerous and sometimes fatal form of masturbation that involves limiting their air supply.�, but the context seems to make it clear that Etzioni regards the whole topic of masturbation as a hot-button issue, and thinks that it is entirely acceptable and normal enforcement of community standards of decency to convince impressionable young people that there is something icky and sinful about touching their own hairy parts.

In search of any information about why anyone might consider the case pro or con masturbation to be a political issue, I followed the provided link to the “communitarian position paper on Education for Interpersonal Relations, Family Life and Intimacy”. This means sex, by the way, for anyone who wasn’t paying attention. The “position paper” is itself enough to make a cat laugh. As a piece of tap-dancing between a basically religious “sex is bad” position and the need to make it not look too churchy, it’s worthy of Sammy Davis Jr. And someone really ought to be awarded a medal for the jaw-dropping conclusion that

“Children need to be taught that the use of alcohol and drugs lowers a persons ability to deal with urges in ways that are socially constructive and morally responsible. They need to learn–and above all experience–the joy of living up to their moral values and social commitment by engaging in acts such as community service, peer mentoring, sports, successful completion of taxing assignments and sharing in the household duties”

which appears to be suggesting that for the average teenager, doing the washing up if presented correctly, can be an acceptable substitute for drunken sexual intercourse. Say what you like about these communitarians, they’re not scared of a difficult selling proposition.

But any road up, the point I was wanting to make is that this position paper is a massive game of bait and switch. The entire position paper is about women having children at too young an age, sexually transmitted diseases, “intimacy”, “commitment” and so on and so forth at length. None of these topics are remotely relevant to the question of masturbation, with or without auto-asphyxiation. The word “masturbation” does not appear even once in the whole document. (While playing around with the Find command, I discovered that it appears five times on my C: drive, but I’m not sure where).

So, what is the communitarian position on masturbation? Any fans of Etzioni want to help me on this one?

(posted on D2D rather than CT for fairly obvious reasons)