Monday, January 28, 2008

It's not enough to be right

Andrew Bolt is easily the most influential right wing journalist here in Victoria. It's very important to understand, though, that he is not a conservative.

This isn't very hard to prove. Take a column he wrote recently for the Herald Sun, titled "Racism kills our heritage" (4/8/04). The column concerns two Aboriginal bark etchings, which were collected by a white landowner in the 1850s and which were then acquired by British museums.

The British museums returned the etchings to Australia on loan, but an Aboriginal tribe has laid claim to them and has won a legal order preventing their return to Britain.

Personally, I think it's wrong to accept the items on loan and then seize them. So I don't disagree with Andrew Bolt's basic position, that the etchings should go back to Britain. It is more the particular reasoning employed by Andrew Bolt to support his position which reveals his very straightforward liberalism.

The Aborigines claimed that they wanted to keep the etchings because, "We believe strongly that (the artefacts) connect us to our country, our culture and ancestry".

Now, the Aborigines are merely expressing here a normal conservative sentiment. Most ethnic groups feel a special connection to certain artefacts. Certainly, Anglo-Australians dislike it when prized artefacts are sold overseas. In fact, just recently there was even a huge outcry over the possible sale of a Don Bradman cricket cap to overseas buyers!

Imagine how important the bark etchings must be to the Bendigo Aborigines. These etchings must be amongst the precious few items connecting these Aborigines to their own history and ancestry. No wonder they would prefer to keep these etchings closer to home than Great Britain.

But Andrew Bolt doesn't see this. Instead, he claims that the Aborigines should have been "laughed to scorn" for trying to keep the etchings and he condemns them for being "racist".

Significantly, Bolt considers the Aborigines guilty of a "New Racism" which "insists that we are always members of a tribe". Now, this is pretty harsh: Bolt is telling a tribe of Aborigines that they are racist for considering themselves to be a tribe of Aborigines!

And here we come to the really telling point. Bolt goes on to state that the mistake made by the Aborigines is to forget,

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.

This is as intense, condensed and pure a statement of liberalism as you're ever likely to come across.

Remember, the liberal first principle is the idea that to be fully human we must create who we are out of our own reason and will. The point of liberal politics is therefore to remove any impediments to an individual freedom to create ourselves in any direction.

One such impediment to a self-created identity is our ethnicity. We don't get to choose our ethnic identity as it's something we're simply born into. This makes it illegitimate under the logic of liberalism.

Andrew Bolt has simply applied the basic liberal principle in a consistent way. He has declared an ethnic identity to be "racist" and therefore illegitimate, because for him as a liberal our equal humanity depends on our freedom to "make our own identities".

True conservatism is actually a resistance to such ideas. It is a defence of important forms of human identity and connectedness which are placed under assault by liberal first principles.

A true conservative, therefore, would admire the stubborn connection felt by the Bendigo Aborigines to their own distinctive traditions. He would not condemn these Aborigines for failing to discard an inherited group identity in favour of individual, self-created ones.

Andrew Bolt is therefore clearly on the liberal side of politics, rather than the conservative one. This doesn't mean that he isn't right wing, but that he is a right-wing liberal rather than a right-wing conservative.

The dominance of liberal principles, even on the right-wing of politics, explains why liberalism has been able to march forward, largely unchallenged, in Western societies. There was hardly anyone in the political class who stood outside of liberal first principles, and who could therefore take a principled stance against liberal policies.

That's why it's so important that the younger generation of conservatives is able to distinguish between right-wing forms of liberalism and a genuine conservatism. It's no use rejecting left liberalism by joining the camp of right-liberalism: both camps are dominated by principles which make traditional national, ethnic, family and moral identities and beliefs illegitimate.

To make real progress the first step is to free ourselves from the dominance of liberal first principles.

(First published at Conservative Central, 07/08/2004)

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