Controversial Australian Senator Cory Bernardi is in the news again after a media appearance promoting his new book in which, among other things, he described the abortion rate in Australia as “horrendous and unacceptable”, and called for “a reversal back to sanity and reason.” Bernardi’s book The Conservative Revolution proposes a return to conservative values such as the primacy of the traditional family, and warns that “by stripping God and religious principles from our culture (and our politics) we have become a nation which does not know which port it is sailing to”.
Stripping aside the sound and fury of politics and media and the provocation inherent in Bernardi’s comments, there’s a lot I can agree with at face value. But whether it’s the bundling of free market economics with moral issues, or the tone of the culture warrior persona Bernardi has crafted, or just a knee-jerk Australian scepticism toward anything uttered by any politician anywhere at any time, there’s something about this conservative rallying cry that puts me off.
When I worked in bioethics I slowly and steadily came to the conclusion that abortion was inconsistent with respect for and love of other human beings. If you truly love and respect other human beings as human beings, you cannot endorse abortion. More recently I saw the 21 week ultrasound of my son, and realised that anyone who could knowingly and intentionally carry out the destruction of such a creature would have to be seriously ****** in the head.
The reality of the ultrasound brought immediacy to more abstract arguments. It didn’t displace them or change them, it merely showed a new dimension to the problem: that those performing abortions must be horrendously damaged to do what they do.
But perhaps “horrendously damaged” is more common than we think? Occasionally we become aware of the callousness in everyday life and the everyday horrors committed by one human against another. We are familiar with “the banality of evil” as a concept, but perhaps we are so familiar that we fail to recognise its depth and ubiquity in our society? We associate the phrase with ordinary people doing extraordinarily horrible things, but it could equally apply to the things themselves, to the ordinariness of everyday evils. The world’s religious teachings are not forbearing when it comes to the wretchedness of the human condition: delusion, sin, darkness, ignorance. They tell us that at best we are merely unaware of how spiritually destitute we are, or how rich we might otherwise be.
They also tell us that it is a spiritual fallacy to look down on others for their crimes and sins, as though we can say, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people.” That others may be worse does not make me better. While most Christians would be highly averse to such a judgemental attitude on an individual basis, there is a temptation for us all to embrace it on the more abstract level of politics and culture. Thank you God that I am not like those mendacious Lefties, those fascist Conservatives, far-right nut-jobs, or Progressive fantasists. It’s okay to hate them, because they’re not real people. Right?
Perhaps what we need is not more religion in politics and culture, but more religious belief in our own lives. I mean, more scepticism toward worldly affairs, a more potent awareness of our own miserable state, and a more ardent desire for the transformation offered by religion.
I can sympathise with someone who sets out boldly to right the wrongs, speak truth to power, challenge the prevailing ideologies, and defend a deeper set of enduring values. Senator Bernardi is clearly someone who believes he has the answers to our social ills, and is not afraid to air views that are nowadays considered “far right” by many, but “common sense” by many others.
Yet there is a big difference between knowing that something is wrong, and knowing what to do about it. According to the great British writer G.K. Chesterton: “The reformer is always right about what is wrong. He is generally wrong about what is right.” At the tactical level this may apply to Bernardi.
In a “resistance to change” sense, the real conservatives are those who endorse the status quo with a loyalty that suggests either that they are getting exactly what they want out of life and therefore have no desire for upheaval, or that they can imagine only worse outcomes if the situation were to change. Watching an interview with Bernardi, it’s not hard to see the interviewer as the more conservative party, defending the legacy of the “conversation” that was run and won forty years ago for the rights of women.
In the face of this “progressive” status quo Bernardi and like-minded conservatives are not capable of performing a reformist role.
Bernardi likes to refer to his ideals as common sense, but in an age where the social ills he combats are so prevalent, why attempt to portray one’s solutions as obvious? Who will agree that traditional families are the answer, when for so many people such an answer spells immediate failure for their own family life? How can one call for a conservative revolution when the essence of that creed is already labelled, prejudged, and fervently rejected by the very people one would most like to rally to the cause?
A reformer or revolutionary must present his ideas as new and enticing in their own right, but a self-professed conservative revolutionary is bound by what he considers to be a strength – the enduring, traditional nature of his values. The call to “put things back the way they were” can only succeed with popular support, which presumes the dissatisfaction and regret of the masses towards failed experiments or flawed ideals. The problem with conservative culture warriors is that they still occupy – in rhetoric if not in practice – the position of an outraged and defensive majority, even while their opponents continue to enjoy the allure of the progressive, forward-thinking rebel.
However, there is a deeper contradiction in the conservative counter-revolution and it is this that troubles me most.
On the one hand, they tend to call for more religion in public life, yet the very call seems to put public life ahead of religion, as if the purpose of religion is to help keep the nation on track. Putting God back into politics makes as much sense as putting God back into a bucket – who says he was ever there to begin with, and besides, what makes you think he’ll fit?
Likewise, when a conservative movement invokes the great enduring institutions and values, within a society and culture that has all but totally desecrated those institutions and values, one stumbles over an apparent paradox. We are told that traditional institutions and values are worth defending because they “have stood the test of time”: they have been shown to work, and because they work they have endured. But if they endure, why do they need us to defend them? If they work, why has society rejected them? How can we expect them to succeed without the support of the masses? Yet if they had the support of the masses, they would already be succeeding.
I sometimes suspect that conservative would-be reformers do not realise how bad the situation is. How can one say that the present rate of abortion in this country is “horrendous and unacceptable”, and not realise the implications for the state of our broader culture and society? Wouldn’t it be better to describe it as “horrendous, unacceptable, and largely endorsed by our current society, both in practice and in principle”? Why does the sense of “horrendous and unacceptable” not taint our whole society, culture, and nation?
I wonder whether beneath the moral crusade of conservative reformers is the conviction that our culture, nation, and society would be all right, “if only”.
If only abortion were outlawed, things would be okay. If only the traditional family were given centre-stage, things would be okay. If only the ideologically repugnant institutions of our enemies could be dismantled, things would be okay. If only patriotism and piety were revived, things would be okay. If only things were done my way, everything would be okay.
Yet at the heart of the Christian teaching is the uncomfortable claim that the world will hate Christians for their faith, and the associated contemptus mundi found in all the major religions belies the utopian tendencies of the conservative reformer just as it does their progressive counterparts. The major religious traditions are radical in their disdain for worldly glory and human accomplishments, yet despite religious overtones, there is a conservative temptation toward a kind of irreligious nostalgia: things were better in the past, and we can return to that place of former glory if we only try.
The conservative reformer’s primary response to the contradictions outlined above is to focus on the influential few responsible for the decline of traditional values – “elites”, “leftists” , “progressives”. There’s certainly good evidence to support the vital role of key ideologues in undermining traditional institutions and agitating for change, but this focus on an influential and historically subversive minority lets too many people off the hook. It suggests that the great numbers of people whose lives and attitudes repudiate conservative values might nonetheless be won over if they start to hear a different message from a different influential and determined minority.
Those who have campaigned against racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination have known from personal experience that every single person who expresses prejudice, hatred, or contempt encapsulates the whole of the problem. While they have also targeted laws and key exemplars of discrimination, they have, in their most noble forms, maintained that the real enemy is in the human heart, and have aspired to convert it.
Conservative culture warriors still seem too confused, too resentful, and too impressed by their own arguments to recognise the magnitude of the problem, or to muster the intellectual and spiritual resources necessary to make a truly compelling case for change.
Zac Alstin is a freelance writer living in Adelaide, South Australia.