Over the Easter break, I’ve been inhaling the excellent Netflix series House of Cards, watching the Machiavellian maneuverings of the brilliant and positively frightening Frank Underwood as he journeys from Congress to The White House. It was somewhere near the end of the first series whilst watching ABC’s Q and A that I saw Brendan O’Neill, the editor of Spiked Online and author of a glowing apologia of Attorney General George Brandis, announce himself as a Marxist Libertarian.
I have to say, the proclamation was so obnoxious, as was the name-dropping of John Stuart Mill and Voltaire as justification for George Brandis’ intellectual position on bigotry, that I was suddenly interested, particularly as I am known for name-dropping philosophers to make myself more appealing to the opposite sex and appear smarter.
Spiked Online is a British journal dedicated to the promotion of free speech. Their manifesto (yes, a manifesto) offers that:
Freedom of speech is the best guarantor of getting to the truth of a matter. Where censorship discourages debate in favour of silencing the allegedly offensive or hateful opinion, freedom of speech insists on holding people to account for their beliefs and challenging their claims in the public sphere. It is the midwife of enlightenment where censorship fuels only an unquestioning approach, and ultimately ignorance.
Brendan O’Neill is a firm believer in the Enlightenment project where science united with critical reason can help humanity, or Man at the very least, march towards an impossible progress. In his interview with Brandis he finds a willing partner in love of enlightenment philosophers and free speech.
In an era when European politicians are forever battling it out to see who can outlaw the most forms of ‘hate speech’, when Canada hauls so-called hate speakers before its Human Rights Commission to justify themselves, when students in America and Britain ban, burn or no-platform anything they decree to be hateful – whether it’s Zionist politicians or the pop super-hit ‘Blurred Lines’ – Brandis’s single-minded campaign to rein in Australia’s hate-speech laws is quite something. In fact it feels positively weird to hear a mainstream politician, someone whose face you see in the papers and on TV all the time here, talk about the ‘limits of the state to interfere with the utterance of ideas, beliefs and opinions’, and even to say, as Brandis does to me, that ‘people have the right to be bigots, you know’. Try to imagine a British politician campaigning for, effectively, the freedom to hate; it just wouldn’t happen.
To the true-believers in the Enlightenment story, environmentalism and climate change is tantamount to wanting going back to the days when the church dominated society and people were forced to grow their own food. The idea that science and industry may have contributed to global warming and that a new way of thinking which compels industry to think differently, to behave in a way that sees nature more as a partner rather than a willing supplicant for progress is for O’Neill and Brandis positively medieval, and anti-intellectual. That O’Neill reduces scientists concerned about global warming to being the equivalent of the Catholic Church, or even worse, the flat earth theorists that Voltaire railed against. What’s absurd is that the church of industry is being challenged by science, and the true anti-intellectualism is coming from the free-speech transcendentalists that would see wealth further distributed from the poor to the rich, and resources spent for the benefit of the few rather than the many.
The great irony to this new ‘habit of mind’, he says, is that the eco-correct think of themselves as enlightened and their critics as ‘throwbacks’, when actually ‘they themselves are the throwbacks, because they adopt this almost theological view, this cosmology that eliminates from consideration the possibility of an alternative opinion’. The moral straitjacketing of anyone who raises a critical peep about eco-orthodoxies is part of a growing ‘new secular public morality’, he says, ‘which seeks to impose its views on others, even at the cost of political censorship’.
Note, the language – cosmology, orthodoxy, morality. Brandis and O’Neil are stuck in a present dominated by a historical lament for an impossible future. They and their masters are seeking to confuse and blackmail by equating critical thought with being for and against something as simple as free-speech, industry and GDP growth, or even bigotry. Free speech is clever means of throwing an archaic veil over the critical issues of our times by making a media made dumb by the Internet, focus on the non-existent risks to freedom while living standards slowly degrade.
I haven’t the space here to cover, the absurdity of Marxism, Andrew Bolt, or that Voltaire and John Stuart Mill were thinkers responding to the great challenges of their time with exciting, innovative, and controversial ideas. Brandis and O’Neill seek to inspire debate but I get the sense that like Congressman Frank Underwood they believe, “The road to power is paved with hypocrisy. And casualties. Never regret.”