Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Liberalism & race

One of the more sensitive issues of our time is that of race.

It's an issue on which there is a great deal of misunderstanding. Liberals often try to understand the conservative attitude to race as being a product of fear or hatred.

The Australian author, Thomas Keneally, for example wrote during an immigration debate that "I think all the hate I'm seeing ... has been associated with fear."

This attitude of liberals tends to confound conservatives who don't feel any racial animosity at all, but who nonetheless wish to preserve their own race.

What liberals fail to realise is that conservatives do not reject forms of self-identity, such as race, which give individuals a special sense of "connectedness" (including, in the case of race, a sense of connection to past and future generations).

In other words, conservatives accept such forms of self-identity as a positive feature of life, which individuals naturally seek to uphold.

Race is not the only form of self-identity. There can be many other forms of identity, based on our sex, our hometown, our religion, our nation, our class, our state and so on.

It's normal for individuals to feel a sense of pride based on their self-identity. For instance, a European might feel a particular pride about the achievements of his own race; men might feel a special masculine pride, and we might be particularly proud about the finer points of our hometown.

Accepting these forms of self-identity also means that we are connected more closely to some people than to others, and even at times that we give preference to some people over others.

This is where the conservative view collides with liberal first principles. Liberals believe in the unimpeded individual will. This means that liberals wish to achieve a certain kind of "equality" in which each individual will is equally free to act as it chooses.

Liberals, therefore, are very sensitive about the idea that someone should be restricted in their choices because of qualities such as their race, their sex, or their class etc.

So, for liberals, "racial equality" means not discriminating in favour of members of your own race. This disallows, for example, an immigration policy designed to preserve the established race of a particular country.

Some liberals go a long way to try to prove that they have no particular connection to members of their own race: they tend, in fact, to put the normal instincts in reverse by doing a "hatchet job" on their own race, whilst suspending their critical faculties when dealing with other races.

It's sometimes the case, though, that liberals will still express the normal kind of self-identity, but that their liberal first principles will restrict any expression of this self-identity in public policy.

Sir Robert Menzies, for instance, was very proudly Anglo-Australian, but still oversaw the deconstruction of Anglo-Australia in the 1950s and 60s. Similarly, the current Prime Minister, John Howard, in supporting multiculturalism has stated that,

"It's perfectly possible for an Anglo-Celtic Australian who sort of has a lot of reverence to the traditional institutions of this country, and the traditional characteristics of Australia, and to want to hang on to those, to be completely tolerant and colour-blind and so on."

John Howard, in other words, is not so denatured that he doesn't feel the normal instincts of ethno-cultural self-identity. It's just that he also accepts liberal first principles and must therefore be "colour-blind" in terms of establishing public policy, such as immigration policy.

What conservatives really need to do if things are to change is to challenge the basic liberal ideal of the unimpeded individual will. This would permit us to do what to conservatives seems normal: to have our forms of self-identity and connectedness upheld as part of public policy.

(First published at Conservative Central 12/06/03)

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