Keith Rankin's Thursday Column

 Agenda Politics - Our Legacy


In 1991, Peter Ellis - a childcare worker - was convicted for crimes of child abuse that could not have happened. There was no forensic evidence for any of his "crimes". Nor were there any adult witnesses for crimes that, if they had taken place, would have been impossible to conceal from other adults.

How can such incredible convictions take place? How could large numbers of intelligent people be persuaded to support the conviction of a man for a crime that never took place? Quite easily, actually. If we know our history, we know that convictions that defy reason have taken place many times.

I saw the film "To Kill a Mocking Bird" when I was a child, and have never forgotten the message of that film. All too often African Americans were convicted - or worse lynched - for crimes that either never happened or could not have been perpetrated by the accused black man. These lynchings took place because too many people in America had an irrational hatred (and/or fear) of black people, and too few people were willing to publicly question the anti-black agenda that motivated a substantial minority of American whites.

Lynley Hood, author of A City Possessed, attributes (in a National Radio interview with John Campbell on 16 February) the misconviction of Peter Ellis to an unfortunate turn in the evolution of the premises of feminist thought. In the late 1970s, she suggests, feminism became explicitly anti-male. Implicitly, virtue and gender were assumed to be highly correlated. Women by their nature, were virtuous cooperative social beings. Males were assumed to be the antithesis; innate power-seeking individualist competitive predators who simply could never be trusted to be alone with or carers of vulnerable people, in particular children.

The world, therefore, would become a better place if women became at least the equals of men in male traditional roles, AND if men were actively prevented from encroaching on traditional female roles, especially that of caregiving. This is the feminist double-standard.

Feminists and conservative middle-aged males - and only those two groups - continued to believe that girls are made of "sugar and spice and all things nice" whereas boys are made of "snails and puppy dogs' tails". Much of the social legislation and case law of the 1980s and 1990s represents the surprisingly large intersection of radical feminist and male conservative ideology.

A movement that started out as one of liberation metamorphosed into a movement of persecution. Many men and women became very uncomfortable with the anti-male feminism that unfolded through the 1980s, but, for one reason or another, were afraid to speak out. Only a woman from outside academia and with impeccable research could really get away with making such a politically incorrect yet obvious point. Indeed, most of those people who have been brave enough to risk persecution by feminists - people such as Lynley Hood - have been women. Women critics cannot be tarred with the label "male chauvinist".

We need to take Lynley Hood's point one step further. If such a radical (yet barely questioned) feminist agenda caused the "unsafe" conviction of Peter Ellis (and the humiliation of his female colleagues at the Christchurch City crèche) what other effects did such an agenda of gender hatred have on our society?

Further, there was another agenda that was equally virulent during that 1984-94 decade. Some would call it economic neoliberalism, but the term I will use is "managerialism". One of the reasons we failed to stand up to "Rogernomics" and "Ruthenasia" is that too many of our legislators, or people whose views were taken seriously by legislators, were so preoccupied by gender politics that they hardly saw the bigger picture.

Managerialism is the antithesis of liberal economics, but was presented as the revival of liberal economics. The liberal economics of Adam Smith was predicated on a strongly "sympathetic" view of human nature. In this view each person identifies their interests as being aligned to the various communities and societies to which they belong.

Managerialism is however based on "Hobbesian" assumptions of human nature (named after the 17th century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes). In this view, humans (or, to 1980s' feminists, "men") are amoral opportunists whose interests are in permanent conflict with others. Hobbesian men cheat each other whenever they believe they can get away with it. And it is in their nature to abuse anyone who they have a relationship with if they can get away with it. So it follows that Hobbesian men will abuse their children, their step-children, and any other children with whom they have regular contact.

The managerialists' solution to the problem of Hobbesian man (a problem that only exists if you believe that humans really are amoral opportunists) is the competitive marketplace. Under certain "ideal" conditions, market competition is an efficient mechanism of social control. An economic "agent" must follow the price signals of the marketplace. Otherwise that person will become a loser; a failure; a bankrupt. The central problem is seen as the "principal-agent" problem, in which - for example - unsupervised employees may be able to get away with making opportunistic choices. So agents must be managed. Everyone - or in the radical feminist version, every man - must be subject to a control mechanism that prevents him from acting out his innate Hobbesian nature. His choices must be reduced to one. Hobbesian men must be given Hobson's choice.

Enacting and interpreting laws with a view to minimising the contact between men and children makes sense when we understand the view of human nature that was held by those who promoted such laws. The problem is that racist, sexist and atomist views of human nature are simply false. So laws and interpretations that follow from racist, sexist or other agendas are always going to be bad laws. Such laws have the potential to cause much human suffering. At the very least contentious legislation requires regular auditing.

One piece of legislation that came about when both the bad-male agenda and the managerial agenda were at their peaks in New Zealand was the 1991 Child Support Act. (These agendas were probably already past their peak in other western countries, but, in each country, similar legislation had been enacted.)

Child Support is of particular interest to me because of my past research into tax and welfare poverty traps. Child Support is pure managerialism because of the mandatory ways it controls the lives of many parents - mostly fathers - and makes it extremely difficult for fathers to afford to maintain a parental relationship with children they are separated from.

The initial irony to note is that we live in a time when child poverty cannot gain traction as a public policy issue. Anti-child-poverty activists such as Susan St John just whistle in the wind. Yet we have "child support" laws that have almost nothing to do with supporting children, and have everything to do with controlling men.

It is not the place here to do an audit of Child Support or any other piece of managerial legislation. But there are techniques of critical analysis that can and should be used to audit items of legislation - especially legislation enacted at periods in which travesties such as the Peter Ellis conviction were able to take place.

Using Child Support as an example, we need to examine (i) the appropriateness of the stated objectives of the Act, (ii) the extent to which the stated objectives are met, (iii) to identify possible unstated objectives which the Act does meet, (iv) to identify any unintended social costs or benefits arising from such an Act, and (v) to identify conflicts with other Acts.

In the meantime, can it be right that a man whose partner leaves him for whatever reason should, if his former partner so wishes, lose his right to be a parent to his children, lose half of his property to his former partner, and have no choice but to pay a set amount of "child support" (that, from April, could be as much as $420 per week) to the government and/or the intransigent former partner?

If only we could dispense with past agendas, and devise a form of child support that supports children. We might even encourage men to support children; as teachers, as childcare workers and as parents. It might even be liberating for women if men do more of such traditional women's work.

published on Scoop at

© 2002   Keith Rankin

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