Remember the Sixties, when self-styled revolutionaries went to barricades and courtrooms in their crusade for absolutely unfettered free speech? Somewhere between then and now, the long march through the institutions all but complete, freedom lost its appeal.
The outrage vented this past week by progressives against freedom of speech has left me wondering, “Where have all the flowers gone long time passing?/Where have all the flowers gone, long time ago?” I thought the whole point of the Sixties Revolution was to set the people free so they could express themselves without fear of being busted by “The Man”.
Now all we hear is lefty talk along the lines of “freedom of speech needs qualifiers and social agreement”. We have the laws of defamation, friends, and racial discrimination is still going to be unlawful. So how, exactly, will the amendment to the Racial Discrimination Act proposed by the Coalition government “open the floodgates” to vilification on the basis of race? Some leftist critics appear not to have even read the planned replacement of Section 18, which is astonishing, considering it totals less than 200 words. How – for heaven’s sake – did they miss the bit about it being against the law “to vilify” or “to intimidate” people “because of the race, colour or national or ethnic origin”?
What is it with all those anti-bourgeois bohemians at The Age and the ABC and their trepidations about freedom of speech? Even the Baby Boomer contingent of the leftoid commentariat – that is, older folks who were actually around in the freedom-loving 1960s – have turned pro-censorship. What happened to peace, love and understanding? Why so keen to suppress liberty, choice, independence, free will, and – most sacred counterculture virtue of all – looseness? What about the dream, people? Maybe if Pete Seeger were still around he could pen us a new protest song – Where have all the left-wing libertarians gone?
In 1960, shortly before the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, came the trial of Penguin Books for publishing D.H. Lawrence’s salacious Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Writing in the Guardian on the fiftieth anniversary of the not-guilty verdict, Geoffrey Robertson declared the judgment “a crucial step towards the freedom of the written word” although only for works of literary merit. Robertson was very keen to add that genuine and comprehensive “freedom of the written word” in the United Kingdom was only achieved when works of “no literary merit” were made safe by the 1971 Oz trial, followed by “works of demerit” after the acquittal of Inside Linda Lovelace in 1977 Robertson, clearly, believed that the triumph of liberty is predicated upon absolute creative freedom – including the freedom to create unqualified tosh.
The verdict at the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial, according to Robertson, was a watershed victory for “the humanitarian force of English liberalism” against the Establishment. In the opinion of Robertson, all the subsequent advancement of human rights in the UK during the 1960s – the abolition of the death penalty and of theatre censorship, the legalisation of homosexuality and abortion, reform of the divorce laws, and so on – were unleashed by the Lady Chatterley’s Lover decision: “The acquittal was a victory for moral relativism and sexual tolerance, as well as literary freedom.” It is not necessary to share Geoffrey Robertson QC’s enthusiasm for “moral relativism” to appreciate the reality of the larger point he makes: the New Left used the politics of “personal freedom” to capture the citadels of political and social power throughout the Western world in order to tear down “the striped-trousered ones who rule”. As the 1960s feminists liked to say: “The personal is political”.
Even since the Holy Office found Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) “vehemently suspect of heresy” and forced him to recant his dissenting views on the heliocentric nature of the solar system, it has been possible to argue that questioning religious orthodoxies, ancient taboos and conventionality per se in the quest for truth is an integral part of our civilisational birthright. [See http://www.quadrant.org.au/magazine/issue/2012/10/bernard-lewis-and-the-dangerous-creed-of-freedom] Robertson conflating “the humanitarianism of English liberalism” with judicial decisions in favour of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Oz magazine and Inside Linda Lovelace might appear somewhat spurious and yet, in the context of Western civilisation (from the time of the Renaissance, at any rate), it constitutes a powerful debating contrivance.
Here we return to the protest song Peter Seeger never wrote. Where, indeed, have all the left-wing libertarians gone? Why have modern-day leftists replaced their inner-hippy with an inner-totalitarian? The answer is to be found in a profound and unsolvable contradiction at the very core of progressive politics or modern-day Leftism. New Left polemicists have chosen to fight for human rights, though not in terms of individual rights but collective or group rights. This is the very same philosophical or intellectual incongruity that undid the Old Left, starting with its sympathy for the October Revolution and only abating after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The raison d’être of the New Left was to find a way to be socialist or progressive and avoid the stigma attached to the totalitarianism of Really Existing Socialism (that is, the Soviet Union). Instead of serving as the vanguard for the traditional working classes, the New Left positioned itself as the would-be guardian of supposedly oppressed minority groups, a “rainbow of discontents” as Mark Steyn would say.
The tragic political projectory of Germain Greer stands as an obvious marker of how “progressives” have not turned out to be so progressive at all. Once a feisty, independent-minded advocate of women’s liberation, Greer has defended female genital mutilation in terms of respect for a group or custom at the expense of respect for the individual. Similarly, she championed the (alleged) hurt feelings of London’s local Bangladeshi community against the artistic endeavours of Monica Ali, a feisty, independent-minded advocate of women’s liberation who was, at the time, converting her award-winning novel, Brick Lane (2003), into a film. Shockingly, Greer provided moral support for the Orwellian-sounding “Campaign Against Monica Ali’s Film Brick Lane” with a sneering commentary in the Guardian – where else? – denigrating Ali as a “proto-Bengali writer with a Muslim name”. So, Germaine, the Oz magazine providing pornography for young people is cool, and yet Brick Lane suffers from a “lack of authenticity”. We should not be surprised that the small “l” liberal Ali opposed the British government’s attempts to introduce the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006.
In Australia, once the New Left had taken down “The Man” – hijacked the ALP, the ABC and every other politico-cultural institution it could get its hands on – the time arrived to ditch the “personal freedom” jargon and commence suppressing “disagreeable speech” against what the New Left’s prospective constituency – “the rainbow of discontents”. In 1995, the Keating Labor government introduced Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which makes it unlawful for someone to publicly “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” a person or group of people. The progressive commentariat (mostly) rejoiced the day that libertarian-conservative Andrew Bolt was charged with hurting the feelings of a group of Indigenous Australians. Served him right, many of them assumed, without thinking through the setback it represented to libertarianism in this country or even “the humanitarian force of Australian liberalism”.
The encouraging thing about the “rainbow of discontents” is that an increasing number of its assumed membership would prefer not to be caught up in the Left’s divide-and-rule game plan. Not a few Indigenous Australians, including NT Minister Beth Nungarrayi Price, agree with Andrew Bolt’s suggestion that there are inequities in Canberra’s support for those who claim to be indigenous. A redressing of the balance in favour of people who live in outback NT electorates – not because they are Aboriginal specifically but because they are poor – would be a good thing. An appropriate realignment in thinking along these lines can only be helped by Subsection (4) of George Brandis’ proposed Freedom of Speech Bill 2014:
This section does not apply to words, sounds, images or writing spoken, broadcast or otherwise communicated in the course of participating in the public discussion of any political, cultural, religious, artistic, academic or scientific matter.
This point will in itself go a long way towards returning to us our civilisational heritage, which is the right to seek the truth notwithstanding the (PC) orthodoxies of our time.
Brendan O’Neil, the editor of the online magazine Spiked, is that most rare of creatures – yes, a left-wing libertarian. In an opinion piece in The Australian, “How a ban of hate speech helped the Nazis”, O’Neil undercuts the contention of some Jewish commentators that Brandis’ moves to change 18C will increase the spectre of anti-Semitism in this country. The official proscription of “hate speech” in France and numerous other European countries has not done a jot to stifle anti-Semitism. In fact, quite the opposite. Without freedom of speech, without the right to scrutinise the ideology of those who malign and even murder Jewish individuals, anti-Semitism (which often hides behind the guise of anti-Zionism) only flourishes.
For instance, David Irving, a Holocaust denier, had been jailed in Austria for his work, and yet it was the David Irving vs. Penguin Books & Deborah Lipstadt ruling in Britain back in 2000 that addressed his lack of academic rigour and proved beyond doubt he was an apologist for Hitler. To quote from one passage in the ruling: “[Irving] has resorted to the distortion of evidence; the manipulation and skewing of documents; the misrepresentation of data and the application of double standards to the evidence, in order to serve his own purpose exonerating Hitler and portraying him as sympathetic towards the Jews.” It was proper debate and formal argumentation – rather than incarceration – that brought Irving undone. Open and free inquiry, as has often been the case in Western civilisation, better serves the cause of truth, justice and liberty than hiding behind the fig leaf of “hate speech” legislation.
Waleed Aly’s outpouring in The Age, “Brandis’ race hate laws are whiter than white”, gives us an indication of how far the modern-day Left has drifted from the notion of the sovereignty of the individual – the primary characteristic of modernity – and replaced this with anti-modern or pre-modern tribalism. Aly’s deems Subsection (3) of George Brandis’ proposed Freedom of Speech Bill 2014 proof that the intentions of the changes to the Racial Discrimination Act are “just so…well, white”. Our leftist commentator has no issue with the proposition that vilification should be “determined by the standards of an ordinary reasonable member of the Australian community”. On the other hand, he expresses consternation that the Freedom of Speech Bill pointedly forbids interpretation of the law “by the standards of any particular group within the Australian community.” This, asserts Aly, means that the crime of vilification will be determined by “an ordinary reasonable member of the Australian community” but not “by the standard of whatever racial minority is being vilified”.
The rule of law – at least in a liberal democracy like ours – is what it says: the rule of law. We are all equal under the law as autonomous individuals, from mining magnate to pauper, and as with death there are no exemptions for the rich or the famous or any other kind of grouping. Waleed Aly’s diatribe, as with so much of the leftist tirade we have experienced this past week, helps explain why the libertarianism of the New Left has gone the same way as the libertarianism of the Old Left.
Daryl McCann has a blog at http://darylmccann.blogspot.com.au