I was reminded of this by yet another attack piece on Senator Cory Bernardi, this time by author John Birmingham. Senator Bernardi, if you recall, has written a book in which he defends the traditional family. John Birmingham chose to mock Bernardi by pretending to be a fellow conservative:
my fellow conservative Australians, we must heed the warning of Cory that the moral relativism of the left threatens Australia's way of life. Why, if these lentil-eating monsters had their way, it would be illegal for a fellow to whip the wretched Chinamen at the steam laundrette for putting too much starch in his dicky, to correct one's bothersome wife with the back of one's hand, or even to launch a simple punitive raid against the natives should they threaten to breach the boundaries at the edge of settlement with their gibbering demands to not be shot or poisoned or run off their so-called ancestral lands.
The senator has reminded us again and again during his time in Parliament that we must "protect and defend the traditional institutions that have stood the test of time". Institutions such as restricting the vote to chaps with property holdings of some significance or at the very least a commission in one of the better regiments. Traditions such as White Australia, keeping ladies out of the universities and the working man in his place.
You get the drift? The message is that Bernardi wants to defend a tradition because in a traditional society white guys got to oppress other people. He wants to go back to the bad past, rather than move to the moral present.
Why would Birmingham think of the past in such a negative way? I believe it has to do with the narrowness of a liberal morality. Liberals begin by denying that individuals should be oriented to an objective good. The liberal idea is that something is made moral by the act of it being freely chosen. Therefore, each individual has to be free to define their own good, without interference from others. So the moral thing, in a liberal system, is to not interfere with how other people define the good or the moral choices they make. This leads to a morality of non-interference, based on qualities such as non-discrimination, diversity, tolerance, respect, openness, inclusiveness and so on.
The past can never live up to this kind of moral standard. That's because liberalism was not established on a greenfield site but was superimposed on a traditional society. The traditional society developed on the basis that it was a space for a particular tradition to develop over time; that it was occupied by a particular people and their culture; and that it was both possible and desirable to orient this culture to an apprehension of what was objectively good.
Liberalism came along with a very different view of society, one in which large numbers of atomised individuals would pursue their own subjectively defined goods within a neutral space. Liberalism became the active principle in the way that politics was understood, but it operated within a culture and society that had developed traditionally over many hundreds of years.
In the Anglosphere, at least, the liberal element did not try to overthrow the traditional one all at once (as was attempted, say, in the French and Russian Revolutions). Instead, liberalism gradually developed toward stages at which the confidence to dispense with traditional institutions was reached one by one.
What that means is that there was still support for some traditional institutions and values within the Anglo past, despite these not strictly meeting the standards of a liberal morality. Fifty years ago it was normal to support the traditional family and the moral culture attached to a traditional family life. Now it is being deemed discriminatory, judgemental and a mark of privilege to do the same.
So the past will never measure up to what the liberals of today hold to be moral. That does allow liberals to feel a sense of moral superiority over the generations who came before them. It also allows them to hold to a sense of progress, i.e. that liberalism is drawing society ever closer to a moral standard.
However, it also means that liberals are not able to identify positively with a history and a culture that they belong to, nor are they able to feel connected in their ancestry, nor will they have a sense of purpose in their role of being a custodian for a cultural inheritance and contributing to it as an ongoing tradition.
When you reject the past as the badlands, then you cut yourself off from important aspects of the human experience. These are lost to liberals.
Liberals lose this aspect of the human experience because their moral standards are too narrowly set - they are focused on a small set of moral criteria based around non-interference, such as diversity and non-discrimination.
If their moral standards went beyond mere non-interference and included, for instance, fidelity in one's relationships, such as to one's fellow countrymen, then there would be a change of mindset.
Even if ideals of character or of masculinity were part of the criteria, then it would be possible to look at the past and see not only failures but also achievements. It would be possible, in fact, to look at the best of the past and find in it an inspiring standard to live up to.