Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Is Pearson right to criticise conservatives?

I have considerable respect for Noel Pearson, a prominent leader of Australia’s Aborigines. So I was interested to read an article he wrote recently for The Age, in which he made a measured criticism of Australian conservatives.

According to Pearson, Australian conservatives are right to insist that Aborigines need to embrace modernity “when it comes to the fundamental economic and social organization of societies. It is natural for peoples to advance from hunting and gathering to agriculture and industrialism.”

He also agreed that “rigour” was necessary in researching Australian history, and that conservatives were correct in criticising welfare dependency and substance abuse in Aboriginal communities.

However, he thought that some conservative figures, such as historian Keith Windschuttle, lacked empathy and that,

The coldness that characterises Johns and Windschuttle is an inexplicable antagonism to Aboriginal Australians’ wish to remain distinct.

The left & separatism

It might surprise some readers that I agree substantially with what Pearson has to say.

However, to explain why I agree, I need to set out briefly the two basic political positions on Aborigines held by the white political class.

The first position is the left-liberal one. Left-liberals have generally taken the separatist position, that Aborigines should live according to their own traditional culture.

There are significant problems with this left-liberal view. First, left-liberals don’t seem to have adequately considered how traditional Aboriginal communities might be made viable. Many remote communities have become highly welfare dependent and dysfunctional.

Second, the left-liberal view reflects an underlying and damaging ideology. Leftists, even when they dominate, like to see themselves as outsiders and dissenters. Their self-concept is that they are the reformers of an unjust society.

Left-liberals also hold the view that they are morally superior because they practise an ideal of non-discrimination toward the (unassimilable) Other better than the “less enlightened” white mainstream.

These political positions have certain consequences. First, it’s difficult for left-liberals to argue that Aborigines should adapt to white norms. Left-liberals want to push the idea that our society is unjust and corrupt, not that it is something positive for others to aspire toward.

Furthermore, if I want to establish myself as someone who is superior for practising non-discrimination then it makes no sense for me to want Aborigines to adapt to white cultural norms.

This, first of all, would lessen the idea of Aborigines being the “other” toward whom we can prove our non-discrimination. Second, it would show the opposite of what the left-liberals are aiming at: they want to prove that they do not preference their own culture – how can they do this if they call on the designated “other” to adapt to the norms of their own society?

This explains, I believe, why the left is so wedded to the idea of Aborigines living according to their traditional culture, even though the left is generally hostile to traditional culture.

It explains also why the left is so keen to promote the idea that it is we who should learn from the Aborigines rather than vice versa. This attitude not only displays leftist dissent from their own society, it also demonstrates clearly their own non-discriminatory lack of preference.

Thus you find leftists like Robert Bosler who can write that,

Many of us knew we had right here ... what any truly clever country would have cherished: the Australian Aborigine.

What richness we have, right here, waiting patiently, with whom we can one day sit, at their feet, and learn philosophical means for our salvation from the destruction we ourselves wrought on our natural world ...

The world’s teachers are right here. Our world’s beautiful precious gift ...

No wonder our Aboriginal brother and sister is hurting, with so much precious knowledge to give, and a government not wanting us to hear. What burden of riches they carry, and we see only their suffering under its weight.

This is a political posture. It is highly unlikely that Robert Bosler would actually want to live a traditional Aboriginal lifestyle. In fact, it would conflict with much of his liberalism to do so.

Finally, the leftist view has been damaging because, as dissenters, leftists have used the Aborigines to make a case against their own society as being oppressive, violent, unjust and illegitimate. The left is therefore associated with a negative, gloomy and guilt-ridden approach to their own tradition, an approach which has been described as the “black armband” view of Australian history.

The right & assimilation

In contrast to left-liberals, right-liberals tend to take a positive attitude toward their own society. For them, “Australia” is identified with liberalism itself (and not much else) – with concepts like individualism and the free market. Therefore, they see an attack on Australia as an attack on their own liberal politics.

This has one particularly useful outcome. Right-liberals don’t feel the need, like leftist dissenters do, to use Aboriginal history to undermine the moral legitimacy of their own society.

Therefore, it is no accident that it was a right-liberal, Keith Windschuttle, who delivered the main blow to the “black armband” history of Australia, with his impressive work The Fabrication of Aboriginal History.

Nor is it an accident that right-liberals like Keith Windschuttle generally prefer the idea of Aboriginal assimilation, rather than separatism. In part, this is simply because the right-liberals are not “dissenters” and so are more comfortable with the idea that others might usefully adapt to their own society.

But there is more to the right-liberal idea of assimilation. Liberals believe, as a first principle, that we are distinctly human because we are free to choose for ourselves who we are. In other words, we are self-determining individuals.

However, our ethnicity is something important to our identity which we don’t get to choose. Therefore, for ideological reasons, liberals believe ethnic identity to be morally illegitimate: it becomes, within their intellectual framework, a limitation on individual choice, a constraint on individual freedom.

Usually left-liberals apply this logic toward their own, mainstream identity. For the reasons I outlined earlier, they are often more sympathetic to the traditional culture of minorities.

Right-liberals, though, are more consistent. They oppose the influence of ethnic identity on both the mainstream and on minorities.

For instance, the right-liberal columnist, Andrew Bolt, once condemned an Aboriginal tribe for wanting to retain possession of some historic tribal artefacts. He described the tribe’s wishes as “racist” and claimed that they were making the mistake of forgetting,

The humanist idea that we are all individuals, free to make our own identities as equal members of the human race. In this New Racism, we’re driven back into tribes.

Right-liberals, therefore, do not want Aborigines to retain a separate ethnic identity or existence, any more than they want whites to do so. For them it would not matter, or might even be thought a good development, a development of the freedom to create our own self, if Aborigines ceased to exist as a distinct entity, leaving only individuals.

Let me give just one example of this kind of thinking. Peter Howson was a Liberal Party minister for Aboriginal Affairs in 1971-72. He wrote a newspaper article in 2004 in which he welcomed “the relatively successful integration of many Aborigines”.

What were the indicators of this “successful” integration? For Howson, the promising facts were that 70% of Aborigines had moved to large towns or cities and that nearly 70% were married to non-indigenous spouses. Howson wanted to speed up this trend by removing government assistance for remote communities and by subsidising housing costs for Aborigines willing to move outside of traditional communities.

There was no hint in this article of regret that the Aborigines might disappear as a race if such trends were to be encouraged. For Howson, “integration” is to be the aim, even if this imperils the future existence of the Aborigines.


Therefore, Noel Pearson is right to worry that figures like Windschuttle are unsupportive of the wish of Aborigines to remain a distinct entity.

Pearson calls Windschuttle a conservative, and it’s true that he would probably be labelled this in the media. However, as I’ve tried to explain, Windschuttle is better described as a right-liberal, rather than as a conservative.

As it happens, Windschuttle himself identifies as a liberal. For example, Windschuttle was invited onto an ABC radio panel to discuss a “major classic of liberalism” by the nineteenth century Australian right-liberal, Bruce Smith, called Liberty and Liberalism.

Windschuttle was asked whether he associated Bruce’s work with the Sydney intellectual tradition he himself belongs to. Windschuttle replied:

Oh yes. If you were to write an intellectual history of Sydney, Smith would be one of your heroes.

It’s not that I expect Noel Pearson to change his terminology. However, he is less likely to find the views of figures like Windschuttle “inexplicable” if he remembers that they belong most truly to a liberal, rather than a genuinely conservative, tradition.

1 comment:

  1. I think there are some areas where conservatives should promote assimilation and some areas where they should oppose it. For example, assimiation should be encouraged in the public service and opposed in local community affairs.
    In New Zealand we have non secular Maori customs being pushed in the public service and this is actually a breach of the western tradition of keeping the church and state seperate. Such initatives should be vigorously opposed. However, I don't think that Whites should be say, telling Maori how to discipline their children.

    Non-western minorities need some leeway in managing their own affairs but priority must be given to maintaining the integrity of the western state.

    Whichever, way you look at the assimilation issue though, it is always going to be an ackward one for conservatives.