13 January 2014
Intro: in part one of a @NoFibs series, Lesley Howard examines and fact-checks the preface and Chapter 1 of Cory Bernardi’s book The Conservative Revolution.
A lot has been said in recent days about Cory Bernardi and about statements he makes in his book The Conservative Revolution. It seems that Bernardi’s stand on certain issues has, at the very least, inspired controversy and for some, outright disgust. Looking at mainstream and social media reports it would appear that Bernardi has many detractors and that if he has any supporters they have been noticeable by their silence. It also appears that some of the critics have not actually read Bernardi’s book but have responded to what they have heard from others who may or may not have read the book either.
So what had Bernardi actually said that prompted such emotional and angry responses? Had his words been quoted out of context and how had he supported his claims? To answer these questions I decided to purchase and read the book, which was not as easy as it sounds. Perhaps aptly The Conservative Revolution was not available for purchase in a modern digital format. A ring around of small local bookstores (located in conservative heartland electorates) produced no outlet that stocked the small paperback. Further phone calls resulted in one leading bookstore chain saying they did not and would not stock the book but they could order in a copy but only with prior payment. Eventually another leading bookstore chain located a book in one of its stores (located in an electorate currently held by the Greens).
In his preface Bernardi begins by defining key terms he proposes to use throughout his book. This is an appropriate and professional beginning to a treatise and ensures the reader will not be confused by semantics or misinterpretations of language.
“I will use the term radical and radicals because I believe that the ideas promoted by these people are fundamentally at odds with natural law, the traditions and cultural wealth that we have inherited from our forefathers, and are therefore diametrically in opposition to what is best for society and the individual … I will also use terms such as ‘progressive’ in scare quotes because I believe that their ideas are the opposite of progress, and in fact lead to social dissolution, poverty and a sense of loss.”
Bernardi goes on to define any political or social force opposed to his concept of traditional principals as “left” or “leftist” and describe the “three types of people in Australian political life”. The first group, the radicals are the collective of all who are active in having views different from his own. The second and largest group Bernardi refers to as the ‘silent majority’, which comprises all those Australians who are busy with getting on with their own lives and “rarely have time for political activism”. The third group are the conservatives, those people who are politically active and have views in accordance with his own. The radicals “are constantly trying to tear down … and diminish”, the conservatives “seek to protect and defend” and both groups target the passive silent majority for their vote on Election Day.
Bernardi concludes his preface with an explanation of why Australia needs a conservative revolution. He believes that within our society the concepts of right and wrong have been replaced by a moral relativism and that “…the wisdom of the ages is being replaced by momentary fads and quick fixes”.
“That is why we need a conservative revolution; a revolution that will restore conservative values to their rightful place as the guiding principles of our civilisation and the cornerstone of governance. We need a revolution that will see Australia return to the traditions that have sustained it since federation; the same traditions that have allowed all free nations to flourish.”
Bernardi does not define what he means when he uses the words “free” and “flourish” but I think a student of cultural history could probably find quite a few examples of nations who would have defined themselves and their citizens as free (until overthrown by invasion), which prospered over centuries but had traditions different to those to which Bernardi is referring. Certainly we do not need to look beyond our own shores for such an example but perhaps Bernardi would consider that a radical viewpoint as it occurred pre Federation.
As Bernardi moves into the body of his book he begins to articulate more specifically his viewpoint and makes reference to external sources in support of his thesis. In the opening of the first chapter, “A Time for Choosing”, he states that the principles and values which would be restored by a conservative revolution are those “that have successfully guided mankind and our society since the dawn of time”. Given that Bernardi placed mankind at the dawn of time it can be reasonably assumed that he is an adherent to the Creationist school of thought. Otherwise such a reference would not be logical. However, the claim that mankind, in its entirety, has been guided, successfully or otherwise, by these principles and values does not appear to be based upon logic given that millions of members of mankind, throughout the eons, have lived there lives completely unaware of the principles and values espoused by Bernardi.
Bernardi goes on to say that Australia needs “to reacquaint [its] citizens with the understanding that there are absolute truths that hold true in all places and at all times”. He does not articulate what these absolute truths are but, given that in the next chapter Bernardi develops the thesis that the conservative revolution would be a return to the moral code embodied in Christianity, as set down in the Ten Commandments, it would be reasonable to assume that the term “absolute truths” is synonymous with this “moral code through which mankind is internally governed [and it] is fundamentally immutable.”
“Absolute”, “eternal”, “immutable”, “true” are words that reoccur throughout Bernardi’s book with respect to his conservative values. Given that moral codes, principles and values are subjective constructs and relevant only to the community to which they are embodied and given that communities are not immutable but are fluid and evolve throughout time, it is not obvious how Bernardi arrives at his conclusions in this respect. He certainly does not provide external sources in support of his claims. Similarly, whilst discussion about moral codes inherited from Christian teachings has a relevance with respect to western or Australian society, Bernardi does not attempt to explain how they can be applied unilaterally across all mankind and all time.
Whilst descrying radicals Bernardi states that a radical departure from the current situation is required to re establish “the family, social and economic virtues that have been neglected for at least two generations, yet are as innate within the human spirit as they ever have been.”
Having articulated a general background and basis for a conservative revolution Bernardi uses the rest of Chapter 1 to offer his own understanding and interpretation of the American political theorist Russell Kirk’s 10 general principles of conservative convictions “to which most conservatives would subscribe, even if some may stress the greater importance or significance of one or another”. These principles form the basis for Bernardi’s perceived need for a conservative revolution. The principles reinforce the notions of endurance and continuity of custom, prudence, prescription, reintroduce the notion of the undesirability of leftist thinking and ‘progressive’ wishful thinking, and recognise that progress (no scare quotes) is vital for development as an inflexible society is “doomed to fail”. The desire for change must be balanced with the need for stability and endurance and the protection of permanent interests. “ This timeless wisdom comes from ages past”. At this point Benardi quotes Marcus Aurelius (121-180 AD) in support. All publications of Marcus Aurelius’ works are necessarily translations from his original Greek script, of which there are many. Bernardi’s footnote identifies only the publisher of the translated work and the date of publication but no more.
The quote of the translation Bernardi uses essentially says that change is not automatically evil but the product of change is not automatically good. This does not intrinsically support the Bernardi’s position but the general message to take from both Bernardi and the translated Marcus Aurelius is that change for change sake is not necessarily beneficial, but nor is change necessarily wrong. Bernardi’s choice of Marcus Aurelius for historical affirmation is perhaps unusual. Bernardi closely aligns himself with and bases his conservative beliefs upon Christian ideals. However, Marcus Aurelius was listed amongst the Persecutors of the Christians and dealt with them severely during his time as Emperor. It wasn’t until 313 AD, nearly 150 years after Marcus Aurelius’ death, that Christianity was legalised in the Roman Empire.
Whilst cautiously acknowledging that change is an inevitable part of a healthy society, Bernardi warns us that “for all the advances in technology, science and communications” there is evidence that our society is failing. He draws a correlation between the “atomisation of society” with “the startling increase in recent decades of single person households”. Whilst Bernardi’s footnote ascribes the source of his information on single person households as the Australian Bureau of Statistics, he does not put this information into a meaningful context. The only truth the reader can glean from this is that the number of single person households has increased over an undefined period of time. Whether the percentage of single person households in our growing population has increased is not mentioned nor is a definition or the results of a statistical test given to identify what Bernardi means by “startling”. The reader can only be left to assume that Bernardi is startled which is an entirely subjective and personal response but not supportive of a causal relationship between a perceived social problem and an undefined empirical record of household structure over an undefined period of time.
Bernardi concludes his first chapter by outlining the four pillars that are essential to the restoration of “the principles, the virtues and values that have served mankind so well over the centuries”. Increasingly words such as “fight”, “battle”, “enemy”, “war” come into the Bernardi vernacular as he introduces his four pillars of Faith, Family, Flag and Free Enterprise over the next four chapters. It is interesting to note that 46 pages are devoted to the first pillar Faith, 22 to Family and 18 to each of the last two pillars. Whilst Faith, as defined by Bernard, is presented as a pillar it is in fact a constant theme throughout every chapter of his book and underpins all his discussions and statements. It would perhaps therefore be more aptly given the status of being a foundation upon which the other pillars reside.
Early in the chapter on Faith Bernardi moves into his major thesis. He opens with a statement that Australia’s future will be fashioned by the “faith of the people”. The reader shortly gets an insight into Bernardi’s leanings, with respect to what constitutes faith, in his reference to the “blessing of Almighty God” in the Preamble to the Act to Constitute the Commonwealth of Australia (July 9, 1900) and hence “Faith has been part of Australian life from the day our Constitution was proclaimed …”. Whilst Bernardi acknowledges that the non-religious can “demonstrate a kind of faith through belief in their country, their leaders, themselves and fellow man” Bernardi moves quickly to define his fundamental hypothesis. In summary, it is that mankind was made in God’s image and hence morally values every single human life.
From this springs the concepts of equality, human dignity, liberty and compassion that could not otherwise exist without this specifically Christian tradition. Hence, Christian principles and values are the absolute truths that have guided Australian society. Any radical leftist movements away from these tried and true mores are the fundamental cause of most problems in our society today and consequentially a return to these eternal truths is the necessary resolution. That is why we need a conservative revolution.
In support of his thesis Bernardi draws from various writings including The Bible. Which interpretation and which publication of The Bible he does not specify. Most particularly Bernardi includes this quote:-
“Even secular democracy is workable only on the basis of Christian assumptions about human dignity, respect for persons, natural rights, the common good.”
This quote was taken from a 2007 publication of selected essays by Cardinal George Pell. In May 2013 Pell gave evidence before Victoria’s Parliamentary Inquiry into the Handling of Child Abuse by Religious and other Organisations and admitted that his church had covered up abuse, that he was aware records had been destroyed and that paedophile priests had been moved from parish to parish in order to avoid a scandal. Bernardi would have been in full knowledge of Pell’s disclosures before his book was published months later. Be it tactless, tasteless or otherwise it is certainly an unfortunate source and a diminished resource to quote from with respect to the concepts of human dignity, natural rights, the common good and social morality.