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Conservative does not mean reactionary


WHAT does it mean to be a conservative? Such are the tumultuous times we live in where Western societies are condemned as misogynist and exploitative, statues destroyed, history rewritten, children’s stories banned and society attacked for being structurally racist and sexist, that the question is far from academic.

Answering it is especially vital given the argument pushed by ‘cancel culture’ activists that Western civilisation is so corrupt and guilty of so many sins that there is nothing worthwhile to hold on to and the only way forward is to embrace revolutionary change leading to a new world order based on neo-Marxist inspired ideology.

A utopia where inequality and disadvantage no longer exist, all live in peace and harmony and where the injustices of the past have been eradicated.  As detailed by Augusto Del Noce in The Crisis of Modernity, a revolutionary ideal ‘in which nothing will resemble the old history’.

Such is the forward-looking and epochal nature of this new world order that the West’s past is condemned as irrelevant and obsolete, and those who disagree are attacked as antiquated and resistant to change.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  As argued by Del Noce, conservatism should not be confused with being reactionary.  Reactionaries see no value in the present but yearn for a lost golden age when all co-existed in peace and oneness with nature.  Rousseau’s concept of the noble savage and the way Aboriginal culture in Australia before European settlement is idealised as harmonious and without discord or struggle are two examples. 

While it’s true that conservatives value the past, in the words of the English philosopher Michael Oakeshott they also ‘delight in what is present’. Instead of denying innovation and change, conservatives such as Oakeshott suggest that to understand the present and to be in a position to shape the future positively we need to acknowledge ‘the inheritance of the past’.

On every freedom index, Western liberal democracies head the list, and to protect such freedom citizens must appreciate how such liberties and rights happened not by accident but evolved over hundreds of years. The New Testament and seminal documents such as Magna Carta, William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England and concepts such as presumption of innocence, universal suffrage, popular sovereignty and the separation of powers are central to appreciating and safeguarding what is too easily taken for granted.

Proved by the French Revolution and the reign of terror, Stalin’s forced collectivisation, Mao’s cultural revolution and Pol Pot’s return to Year Zero, by its very nature revolutionary change is inhumane, destructive and destabilising and always leads to loss of freedom, privation, suffering and death.

Whenever cultural-Left ideologues argue that radical change is inevitable and necessary, conservatives such as Oakeshott argue the test must be that whatever is proposed respects the wisdom of the past, not be based on an idealised utopian vision, not be all encompassing, not have unintended harmful consequences and the ‘disruption entailed must be set against the benefits anticipated’.

One current example is the transgender activists’ campaign to convince school-age children that society is transphobic, that there is nothing dangerous about puberty blockers and radical surgery, and that gender is a social construct and not based on human biology.

Proved by the recent High Court decision to stop gender clinics dispensing puberty blockers to children under the age of 16 and the reality that later in life many who have undergone radical surgery regret the decision, not all change is beneficial.

Similarly, as a result of the China virus the decision by the UK government and state governments in Australia to impose draconian lockdowns denying essential freedoms ignores harmful unintended consequences such as bankruptcy and unemployment, anxiety and depression and lower education standards as a result of closing schools.

As noted by Roger Scruton in his book Conservatism, ‘human beings come into this world burdened by obligations, and subject to institutions and traditions that contain within them a precious inheritance of wisdom, without which the exercise of freedom is as likely to destroy human rights and entitlements as to enhance them’.

One of the defining characteristics of cancel culture and political correctness is cognitive dissonance, defined as the ability to hold two or more conflicting ideas at the same time without realising they are incompatible.

At the same time as the cultural-Left argues that it is wrong to acknowledge and celebrate Western civilisation since there is nothing of value in the past and the focus must be on achieving a future utopia, activists praise and idolise Aboriginal culture and history as it existed before the arrival of the First Fleet and the establishment of a penal colony.

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Dr Kevin Donnelly
Dr Kevin Donnelly
Dr Kevin Donnelly is a senior fellow at the Australian Catholic University’s PM Glynn Institute and a conservative author and commentator.

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