Friday, October 06, 2006


(I joined the Army in the 60s -- but I had some nice girlfriends too)

Those disillusioned with our "conservative" times often look with fond nostalgia to the swinging '60s, even the near half of the population who weren't yet alive or old enough to swing. But if you listen to the wisest and most honest survivors, you will soon learn the truth about the "devil's decade". Take the searing extract from expatriate art critic Robert Hughes's new book, Things I Didn't Know, which appeared in Britain's The Sunday Times last week, detailing his late first wife Danne's toxic promiscuity and drug use, and the subsequent suicide of their only son, Danton.

Under the title "The curse of free love", the extract is as good a dissertation as any on the disastrous legacy of those times, the spoiled marriages, damaged children and ruined lives. It seems that only now, 40 years later, we can see with clear eyes the aberration of that short, destructive period of the 20th century, what sociologists call the Great Disruption, when the moral foundations of society were under attack.

Hughes, 67, rejects "the absurd 'f--k-and-you-shall-be-free' ideology that was so common in London and elsewhere at the time. I sensed then, and know with a fair degree of certainty now, that it is an illusion to suppose that sexual promiscuity helps create personal freedom."

Hughes chronicles life with Danne, a beautiful Australian artist he met at a London party of expats, after she was introduced as "the best f--- in London". He tells how she gave him a strain of the clap she probably got from Jimi Hendrix in the back of a limo, of her rejection of their baby, "a robust boy" born in 1967 whom they named Danton after the French revolutionary. "Marriage became a prison whose tyrannous jailer was Danton. If it hadn't been for him she could have just walked away. So she decided to walk away anyway and come back when she felt like it."

A Sicilian au pair looked after Danton while his mother trawled radical chic parties for lovers, finding "someone to f--- whenever she felt horny, or . . . when she was not horny. The search was the thing. She equated it with freedom. Her ruthlessness in pursuit of this reduced me to stammering misery . . . [Once] I stroked her hair to comfort her and encountered a crusty patch of some stranger's dried semen." After their marriage ended, Danne became a lesbian. She injected heroin and cocaine and became "enormously fat" before dying at 60 of a brain tumour in Australia in 2003.

But the dark side of the '60s seemed to find its full expression a year earlier in the suicide of Danton Hughes at 33, alone in the Blue Mountains eco-home of his lover of 11 years, fashion designer Jenny Kee, then 54, who was away in Byron Bay at the time.

Danton, a sweet-natured, sensitive sculptor with thick, nicotine-stained fingers, didn't leave a note, but then he didn't need to. Kee and her husband had been friends of Danne and Robert Hughes in London. She had slept with John Lennon and Richard Neville, and posed nude for the cover of the counter-culture magazine Oz. Danton also posed for the cover of Oz, at age three, with a bikie and a topless black woman.

After Danton died, Kee recalled creepily in the Women's Weekly how she had known him "when he was in his mother's tummy. I cradled him in my arms when he was born and later as his babysitter." She confessed to a "crush" on Danton when she met him next when he was 15, in Sydney on a visit with his mother. "I thought to myself, 'What a beautiful young boy'." She was four years younger than his mother.

They became lovers seven years later and Kee gushed to women's magazines about her "toy boy". "He's a fabulous lover and very sexy." Kee has now written her autobiography, or what Hughes bitchily calls her "rather illiterate memoirs". It is due out on October 2, a month before Hughes's book. Her claims that Danton had been "crushed" by his father's inability to praise him must have cut deeply; her vow to write her story may have spurred Hughes to reclaim his family history.

While the contents of Kee's book are under wraps until an extract is published in the Women's Weekly next month, it is said to reveal much about Danton and his tortured upbringing. In the interview Kee gave to the magazine a few months after Danton's suicide, their liaison was lauded as "the 11-year relationship that defied convention and transcended its artificial barriers". But that was the whole problem with the '60s. It's nothing to admire.


Emasculated England

I don't know what it is exactly, but ever since I arrived here, I've had the sinking feeling that in England, the reasoned liberalism of, say, Bentham and Mill has given way roundly to the ideology of modern-day liberalism. Sure, in some respects--in their preservation of certain customs, habits and manners--the British remain quite conservative. A walk through the financial district of the City of London reveals staid dress habits; a conversation with an elderly couple strolling through Hyde Park will touch on the ignoble lives of the members of the House of Windsor.

But when I consider the snippets of conversations heard on the streets and in the cafes, reflect on the articles in local periodicals, and view the content of television news and entertainment, another kind of society is revealed. Somewhere along the way, England seems to have rushed headlong into the world of animal rights, environmental activism, political correctness, and other liberal nostrums. I could be wrong, but barely a week into my English sojourn and I've already picked up troubling signs of widespread, left-wing nonsense in British public life. For example: Taking bus No. 10 the other day to King's Cross (where I am taking courses in journalism at a local university), I noticed a strange stone and bronze sculpture titled "Animals in War" at Brook Gate on the edge of Hyde Park. This 58-foot wide monstrosity, which cost British taxpayers 1.4 million pounds (almost US$ 2.7 million!), was commissioned by the Imperial War Museum and unveiled in November of 2004. The memorial is "a tribute to all the animals that served, suffered, and died in the wars and conflicts of the 20th century."

Don't get me wrong. I like dogs and horses as much as the next fellow. But this memorial not only seems a little silly, but it actually offends the sensibilities by implying that there is a kind of moral equivalence between human beings and animals. (Peter Singer, call your office!) Was this necessary or even appropriate? What hare-brained public official approved the disbursement of funds for this piece of political propaganda passing itself off as art? And speaking of lame public officials in England, what is one to make of David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party? Pundits praise him as the fresh new face of British conservatism. (Even the eccentric, royalist and, at times, reactionary The Spectator, came out in his support.) But since assuming leadership of the Party in December of 2005, Cameron's words and actions have not inspired much confidence among other traditionalist (read: Burkean) conservatives.

Formerly, as an MP for Witney, Cameron was as wishy-washy as you could get--giving mixed messages regarding smoking bans, the Iraq war, the environment, and gay rights. As a rising star within the Party, that was bad enough. But now, as Conservative Party leader, Cameron has made high-profile efforts to try to make his "blue party" more appealing to young people and moderate voters. Cameron's April visit to a Norwegian glacier, for example, accompanied by the World Wildlife Fund, was certainly a disappointment to traditional British conservatives who grimaced as Cameron later told the press: "Climate change is one of the biggest threats facing the world," and that British voters should "vote blue but go green."

In my own academic life, there are also troubling signs. Even though I am taking classes at a business-oriented university with long ties to the City of London's financial institutions, already three of the four assigned readings for the first week have been either alarmist screeds about capitalism and globalization, or simplistic jeremiads against the role of the U.S. in foreign affairs (read: Iraq) or international environmental efforts (read: Kyoto).

And discussions in and out of class--whether with British students or fellow Americans--have also been characterized by, on the one hand, an offensively self-righteous attitude towards the U.S. in general, the G.O.P., and our current president, or, on the other hand, by angry criticism of mergers and acquisitions, derivatives, hedge funds, and practically every other innovative product that the financial markets--especially those in the U.S.--have given the world. The students furthering these arguments, I sadly remind myself, will be the financial journalists and foreign affairs editors of the future.

I will be accused of using selective examples to build an (admittedly) weak case against England's current social and political climate. Granted, these are but a few, minor examples--insufficiently analyzed--of things I have noticed while here for barely a week. But a dearth of examples does not refute my basic contention that Britain is now, well, Left.

A British sociologist taught me to collect data while walking through a city. There is data everywhere, she said--in sounds and smells, signposts, advertisements, and people's clothes. I've tried to keep this in mind this week and, based on what I've observed, I cannot escape the feeling that this country and its people have been crippled--almost without their awareness--by modern-day liberalism. Watch the BBC and count the number of off-hand remarks made by program hosts about God, the Church, British history, and even Shakespeare. Go shopping at Tesco and notice that one of the most popular teas for sale is organic, "fair-trade certified," and boasts a box covered with pictures of smiling children in developing countries.

No, this is not the England I dreamt of knowing. I was hoping to catch a glimpse of the England eulogized by Roger Scruton, evoked by Anthony Daniels or criticized by Douglas Murray. I came in search of an England that was secure, strong and proud, but found one that is insecure, soft and weak; I wanted to learn of an English society that was ancient, principled and instinctively conservative, but found one that is postmodern, relativist and liberal. I suppose I will just have to look for the ghosts of England's past in the nooks and crannies, shadowy passageways, and forgotten lanes of this magnificent city.



The sadly amusing article below endeavours to show that fathers don't matter but instead constantly shows that boys desperately want a father

Seven years ago, on the eve of his 23rd birthday, Adrian Grenier, the preternaturally laid-back star of the HBO series Entourage, decided to set up a camera outside Yankee Stadium and ask passersby what a father meant to them. The assorted responses -- "a best friend," "a leader," "no clue" -- comprise the opening sequence of Grenier's first feature-length documentary, screened this week at the Toronto International Film Festival. Shot in the Dark chronicles the New York-based actor's own floundering journey to reconnect with his estranged father -- an attempt, he says, to overturn the social stigma of being raised without one. More concisely, he says in the film, with a 23-year-old's bravado, "to prove that I don't have to care."

When he was growing up in a family of two, Grenier says, people regularly assumed he was "at a loss," that without the guidance of his father -- a man he hadn't seen since the age of 5 -- his upbringing had been somehow broken. "I was setting out to prove that fatherhood is just biology," he says. "Just fluid and empty spaces." Early in Shot in the Dark -- so titled because, he figures, that's what his own conception amounted to -- he seeks to challenge that theory by consulting a psychiatrist, who suggests Grenier is repressing his hurt; a psychic, who warns him of impending heartbreak; and a Catholic priest, who insists his childhood must have been more traumatic than he realizes. (To this, he shrugs. "I had a good life," he says. "My mom was a good father.") In one scene, Grenier observes a father-and-son team engaging in manly backyard horseplay. He looks on from the sidelines with mild bewilderment and the scientific detachment of an anthropologist scrutinizing the bonding rituals of primates. Still, he's no closer to an understanding of what he's missed. For his grand finale, Grenier parachutes himself, unannounced, into his father's life to address, once and for all, why he left. After a series of fraught, airless exchanges, he draws the inevitable conclusion that his dad is human and flawed. "It wasn't about me," he says. "My parents had their issues." He seems to forgive his father easily, thus neatly proving his point that he didn't suffer without this man.

Shot in the Dark comes at a moment when the debate over whether children -- and boys, in particular -- need their fathers has become intensely polarized. On the one hand, there is the recent typhoon of alarming statistics, all of which seem to suggest that the absence of a father at home significantly increases the likelihood that a teenaged boy will abuse drugs, drop out of school, become a parent, engage in criminal activity, and wind up incarcerated. These anti-social behaviours, many experts say, prove the fact that fathers play a role that is distinct and essential in order for their sons to reach "psychological manhood." In his 2001 book Father Hunger, Harvard child psychologist James Herzog identified a blanket yearning among fatherless children that he defined as, in part, a boy's struggle to transition into manhood when he has no blueprint to work from.

On the other hand, psychologists have recently set out to challenge the idea that fatherless boys are bound to fail as men as a fallacy rooted in antiquated and idealized notions of family. Parental gender, they say, is irrelevant. Rather, all kids need is at least one parent who is a responsible, loving and steady caregiver. Overwhelmingly, though, mothers tend to fill that role. In a 1999 issue of the journal American Psychologist, Louise Silverstein and Carl Auerbach of Yeshiva University in New York published a study called "Deconstructing the Essential Father," in which they concluded -- to considerable outrage in family-values circles -- that the available data "do not support the idea that fathers make a unique and essential contribution to child development."

Earlier this year, Peggy Drexler, a Cornell University psychology professor, took this position one step further in her book Raising Boys Without Men. She asserted that, all things being equal, boys often fare better without a male influence in the home. In the course of her research, Drexler followed a cohort of mostly middle-class boys, ages 5 to 9, from mother-only families, and charted their emotional and behavioural growth compared with boys from conventional mom-and-dad families. "I wanted to find out if sons can prosper through the power of mothers alone," she says. In the end, she decided that not only were they functional, they often outshone their more traditionally reared peers. "The boys in my study were not sissies or mama's boys," she says. "Nor did they compensate for the lack of a father figure by becoming overly aggressive. They were thoughtful communicators who were caring and sensitive, but they were just as willing to engage in boyish activities like skateboarding and roughhousing." Also, she says, they were remarkably resourceful in securing male role models in their extended families and communities. "It seemed clear that their essential boyishness was hard-wired."

Fatherlessness is not inherently problematic, says Drexler. The trouble, she points out, lies in the unfortunate reality that the average single mother has to contend with socio-economic factors -- namely poverty, gender discrimination and systemic racism -- that often prevent her from providing her children with the kind of support they may need. It is these factors, says Drexler, and not the absence of a male influence at home, that are most likely to determine a child's behaviour and performance. "Parenting is not anchored to gender," she says. "Parenting is either good or deficient, not male or female."

The question is not merely academic. A cursory glance at census data indicates that, as the traditional nuclear family model continues to erode, a shocking number of children are growing up without at-home dads. In North America, more than 10 million households are headed up by single mothers (up from three million in 1970). Some now argue that, considered in a larger, historical context, fathers are perilously en route to being written out of the cultural script altogether. In his 1995 book Fatherless America: Confronting Our Most Urgent Social Problem, David Blankenhorn, now considered a pioneer in the "fatherhood movement," reminds readers that, historically, fathers were the ones who claimed primary responsibility for their sons' moral and religious education. "Throughout the 18th century," he writes, "child-rearing manuals were generally addressed to fathers, not mothers." But with the physical separation of work and home, brought on by the Industrial Revolution, the domestic sphere became increasingly "feminized." "In some respects," he writes, "it has been all downhill for fathers ever since."

In response to theories like Drexler's, the fatherhood movement has devoted its energies to keeping fathers -- and men in general -- from being pushed even farther into the margins of society. "Fatherhood itself is under attack," wrote Mark Honigsbaum last month in an article for New Statesman on American boys in crisis. "Although some feminists may desire it, you cannot simply wish away patriarchy and a certain type of masculinity."

In the years since his documentary was shot, Adrian Grenier has cultivated a steady but tentative relationship with his biological father. "We're just keeping at it and getting to know each other as people and trying to get some shared experience under our belts," he says. "Do I think it's important to get to know him as a person? Honestly, I don't. But I want to. He's a good guy. That's really what it is. He wasn't my father, so now what is he? He's a guy. We don't have a lot in common. But I'm still struggling with an ideal. I still want somebody to look up to."

This sentiment may be what Herzog would classify as classic father hunger. Or it could be something else altogether. In the debate over fatherless boys, one subject less frequently discussed is the effect of being stuck with the lifelong knowledge that a parent -- and it does more often tend to be male -- decided somewhere along the road that he didn't want the job. The fact of that rejection alone, it would seem, is bound to leave a kid, regardless of circumstances, feeling a little lopsided in the world.


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