The Sixties Revolution has gone the way of the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the Chinese Revolution and every other left-wing revolution that comes to mind. The radicalism of yesteryear somehow turned into PC orthodoxy or what we might call Correctism. Another revolution that was meant to be about emancipation has become humanity’s nightmare. The heirs to the 1960s Free Speech Movement have taken it upon themselves to play the role—as Google Inc put it—of “the Good Censor”.
Why did fashionable libertarians give up on libertarianism? When did the ideological successors to the do-what-you-want-to-do-be-what-you-want-to-be movement stop defending free speech in order to prosecute hate speech? The late Timothy Leary, were his mortal remains not spinning in the stratosphere, would be turning in his grave. To make sense of it all we must, as Chairman Mao would counsel us, seek the contradictions within the revolution itself.
This essay appears in the latest Quadrant.
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If the Sixties Revolution had an accepted theme it was freedom, and the Beatles might have encapsulated that more than anyone. They employed to great effect the anarchic, truth-telling style of the Marx Brothers in their 1964 movie A Hard Day’s Night. The Beatles were irreverent and amusing enough on screen to be applauded by the youth magazine of the Communist Party of the United States for their “refreshing, light-hearted contempt for the society that made them what they are”. Leary might have said it best when he bestowed upon the Fab Four the ultimate 1960s accolade: “I declare that the Beatles are mutants. Prototypes of evolutionary agents sent by God, endowed with a mysterious power to create a new human species, a young race of laughing freemen.”
Some have argued that it was the advent of the contraceptive pill in 1961, rather than the Beatles, that kicked off the Sixties Revolution. As Philip Larkin wryly noted in his poem “Annus Mirabilis”:
Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me)—
Between the end of the “Chatterley” ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.
Geoffrey Robertson QC, writing for the Guardian, asserted that the Chatterley trial in 1960 marked the true commencement of the Sixties Revolution. Penguin had been charged with violating the Obscene Publications Act for publishing D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Robertson, on the fiftieth anniversary of Penguin’s acquittal, hailed the jury’s not-guilty verdict as a “crucial step towards the freedom of the written word”. A cynic might argue that the real winner was not so much the estate of D.H. Lawrence but Harold Robbins’s tales of sex, drugs and pleasure-seeking, which went on to sell over 750 million copies, 250 million more than Harry Potter.
Robertson maintained that people power, as much as purple prose, triumphed at the trial. Lawrence’s “abominable crime”, reasoned Robertson, was not the portrayal of “heterosexual buggery” and “the four-letter words galore” but the portrayal of a working-class man, Oliver Mellors, engaging in an adulterous relationship with an upper-class woman, Lady Chatterley. Our novelist, the son of a northern coalminer, was expressing his ressentiment towards his perceived superiors. That makes the sexual acts depicted in Lady Chatterley’s Lover political in nature, and yet Penguin won its case on the artistic or literary merit of the novel. Robertson revealed his own Antipodean case of ressentiment when he lashed out at “a pampered, old-Etonian set of barristers who conduct major prosecutions at the Old Bailey before their elevation to its judicial benches”. Penguin’s acquittal, in the opinion of Robertson, signified the triumph of “the humanitarian force of English liberalism” over “the dead hand of those described by George Orwell as ‘the striped-trousered ones who rule’”. In retrospect, it was a triumph for those who believed it was a victory for the “humanitarian force of English liberalism”. Tellingly, George Orwell was less a liberal than a circumspect and somewhat chastened Marxist: even the two dystopian novels he wrote towards the end of his life, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, can be read as Trotskyist treatises.
The lawful publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Robertson submitted, represented a “crucial step towards the freedom of the written word”; but freedom of expression was still not “safe” in the United Kingdom until explicit descriptions or displays of sexual activity with “no literary merit” became legal after the 1971 trial of Oz magazine. The 1977 acquittal of Inside Linda Lovelace made explicit descriptions or displays of sexual activity in works of artistic “demerit” permissible. Can we honestly say that Robertson’s brave new world of a pornographic free-for-all has been a win for “the humanitarian force of English liberalism”? People in the West, due in no small part to the Sixties Revolution, were now free to enjoy pornography to their heart’s desire, but did that set them free? Internet pornography, according to an alarming array of recent reports, is a modern-day plague, with researchers tying online porn addiction to adverse brain structure changes.
The 1971 Oz trial drew support from not only a youthful Geoffrey Robertson but also ex-Beatle John Lennon. Robertson was the junior counsel assisting the defence team, while Lennon wrote a song, “God Save Oz”, to raise funds for the “Oz Three” defendants. The charge of obscenity was prompted by the so-called School Kids Oz (Issue 28), featuring a sex-crazed Rupert the Bear. A fifteen-year-old schoolboy, Vivian Berger, superimposed images of the endearing children’s cartoon character over sexually-explicit drawings by American cartoonist Robert Crumb. Lennon regarded the obscenity charge as “disgustingly fascist” and Robertson celebrated the acquittal of the “Oz Three” as yet another victory for “English liberalism”. In reality, the editors of Oz magazine were not liberal but bohemian. Oz magazine’s championing of libertinism, hallucinogens and contemporary music (sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll) had less to do with liberal discourse than with Charles Baudelaire’s nineteenth-century invocation “épater le bourgeois” (shock the bourgeoisie). The customary priority of the bohemian rebel is not to participate in open-minded and scholarly investigations or fair-minded debates but to gesture rudely in the manner of a schoolboy’s Rupert the Bear parody or Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ. Freedom of expression does not necessarily foster freedom of thinking.
There was an incongruity in the Sixties Revolution between hippie-bohemian freedom of expression and the militant students’ demand for freedom of speech on campus. The two disparate wings of the youth movement never quite gelled. Famously, the Beatles’ 1968 White Album version of “Revolution” has John Lennon scorning the politicos—“If you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao / You ain’t going to make it with anyone anyhow”—and yet claiming, if ambivalently, he was “out/in” on the subject of a revolution. That said, the philosophical trajectory of the Beatles, for the most part, fell on the bohemian All-You-Need-Is-Love side of the equation. Before long, this too went off the rails at the December 1969 Altamont Free Concert where, with the Rolling Stones as featured act and Hells Angels as “security”, four people died. The Age of Aquarius was revoked.
Student militants also went off the rails by the end of the decade. The 1968 student uprising in Paris, observed conservative philosopher Roger Scruton, was an exercise in nihilism, being Marxist in name and yet sans working class. Estranged from the general public, young radicals in the United States, West Germany, Italy and elsewhere in the West turned to anarcho-terrorism as a remedy for the absence of revolution. Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), an American organisation that grew to 200,000 by 1967, came to be controlled by the Marxist-Leninist Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM) in the wake of the riots in Paris and the Tet Offensive of March 1968. The RYM, nevertheless, split into two irreconcilable factions in 1969, which effectively killed off the SDS. The anarchist bloc or the Weather Underground Organisation (WUO), led by Bernadine Dohrn and Bill Ayers, went on to commit some two dozen acts of terrorism (see “The Terrorist Delusions of Robert Redford”, Quadrant, July-August 2013) before the FBI put a stop to the violence.
You could have been forgiven for thinking the Sixties Revolution had run its course by the mid-1970s. The Symbionese Liberation Army was turning out to be a foolish parody of the WUO, the Black Panther Party et al. Hippies, on the other side of the radical coin, were progressively replacing tie-dyed garments with business suits. Meanwhile, the withdrawal of American and Australian military personnel from the Vietnam War, détente with the Soviet Union and President Nixon’s visit to Mao Zedong’s China also quelled the tempest at home. John Lennon, belatedly deciding the would-be revolutionaries could count him in, learned the hard way that mixing pop music with militant slogans in 1972 was not a good career move. The only people seemingly interested in his agitprop were the Keystone Kops at the FBI. His Some Time in New York City album expressed sympathy not only for the Black Panthers and the IRA but also for the Attica State Prison rioters. The reckless actions of convicted criminals had resulted in the deaths of ten correctional officers and thirty-three inmates, not that you would gather that from these lines: “Free the prisoners, jail the judges / Free all prisoners everywhere”. The “refreshing, light-hearted contempt” of the Sixties Revolution had transmuted into Marxist-Lennonism and ageing fans, now more attuned to yuppiedom than yippiedom, were not interested.
The Sixties Revolution might have been faltering in the West—tellingly, the mid-1970s disco craze would be the last Baby Boomer-generated music phenomenon—but it was not yet done with us. Allan Bloom, the philosopher, classicist and academic, alerted us to the problem in his seminal book The Closing of the American Mind, published five years before his death in 1992. Bloom was one of the first top-notch thinkers to articulate the deleterious effect of political activism on independent-minded contemplation of the truth. For instance, rather than encourage academic freedom, Berkeley’s 1964-65 Free Speech Movement—along with other radical student movements emerging throughout the West—undermined freedom of thinking at the academy. The Sixties Revolution, in the opinion of Bloom, produced a generation of academic-activists who, forsaking traditional scholarly circumspection, committed themselves to “The Cause” and whatever political/literary narrative that necessitated. Bloom’s veneration of classical philosophers and the concept of authentic liberation—“It is not feelings or commitments that will render a man free, but thoughts, reasoned thoughts”—sounded old-fashioned to academic-activists back in 1987; today it would fall under the category of white privilege.
Some on the Left denounced The Closing of the American Mind as a conservative tract; others on the Left denounced conservatives for claiming the book was conservative. The latter, in this case, were closest to the mark. Conservatism happens to be a respectable enough political philosophy, explained Professor Bloom after the publication of his book, but that did not make it any less political. The objective of a teacher, in the classroom, seminar space or lecture theatre, was not to be political in the partisan way we have come to understand that term. Even Political Science can be a worthy field of scholarship if run as a Socratic-style investigation of the truth, rather than (say) Marxism 101, as I experienced in the Politics Department at Adelaide University during the 1970s, or Postmodernism 101, as is often the case today. In short, the purpose of education, insisted Bloom, was not to instruct the next generation on what to think but, rather, how to think—to turn the eye of the soul, as Plato would say.
Apologists for postmodern methodology, of course, argue that Grievance Studies and Critical Theory, which insinuated themselves into American universities in the 1970s, simply provide the analytical wherewithal to help young people critically examine their world. They might say this is akin to taking the red pill in order to discover the truth about our Matrix-like world of illusion, except for the fact that postmodernists do not believe in truth (apart from their truth that truth does not exist). From my ex-Marxist point of view, the provenance of Theory (Henri Bouillard, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida et al) was the attempt to rationalise away the French working-class preference for quality wine at knock-down prices, excellent locally-sourced food, football and Gitanes to joining soft-handed Baby Boomer students at the barricades in February 1968.
Postmodernist theory, with its emphasis on subjectivity and relativism, became the pedagogical mechanism—more by happenstance than good planning—by which the anti-bourgeois hostility of Marxism reconciled itself with the anti-bourgeois sentiment of bohemianism. Modern-day leftism, as a consequence, possesses the most unattractive features of traditional Marxism, millennialism and dogmatism, but none of its positives: universalism and an ostensible concern for the working class. It has also adopted the worst aspects of bohemianism—scorn for the greatest achievements of Western civilisation, Hebraism, Greek philosophy, Christianity, Roman law, high art—while shunning the one redeeming feature of customary bohemianism, a live-and-let-live quietism: “You say you’ll change the constitution / Well, you know / We all want to change your head”.
The ideology of today’s progressives, Identity Politics or Correctism, is the phoenix that arose from the ashes of Sixties-style bohemianism and Sixties-style Marxism. It is appropriate to label the rise and rise of this latter-day leftism as the Great Bohemian Cultural Revolution because it resembles, in its own perverse way, Mao Zedong’s last grandiloquent rectification campaign. Authentic liberation—contraire Allan Bloom—now means espousing the correct political commitment.
We can, at last, begin to make sense of the violent 2017 UC-Berkeley protests against the proposed visits by Ben Shapiro, Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter. Conservative commentators have noted, not unreasonably, that the home of the 1960s Free Speech Movement was declaring war on today’s free-speech advocates. Predictably, perhaps, a Commission on Free Speech, appointed by Berkeley, largely blamed the conservative students hosting the event, along with the free-speech orators who never actually got to speak, for instigating the mayhem. Nevertheless, the Commission acknowledged the reality of the First Amendment and did not “condone the kind of violence that erupted on February 1, 2017, in response to Yiannopoulos’s arrival on campus”. That said, the Commission expressed its sympathy for the staff and students at Berkeley who had to briefly endure the presence of free-speech provocateurs on their home turf:
Speech of this kind is hard to defend, especially in light of the acute distress it caused (and was intended to cause) to staff and students, many of whom felt threatened and targeted by the speakers and by the outside groups financing their appearances.
Literary theorist and New York Times columnist Stanley Fish, ever the contrarian, provided a useful response to the cancellation of 2017 Free Speech Week at Berkeley. The championing of free speech on university campuses by partisan political figures, contended Fish, should not be a priority for an academy because visiting partisan political figures are a co-curricular concern and not the core business of a university, which is to engage in scholastic pursuits. An institution that undertakes advanced academic work remains a first-class university with or without co-curricular activities, but an institution with the finest co-curricular activities but deficient in scholastic endeavour is no university. Fish is not unhelpful on the freedom of speech/hate speech dichotomy either. Speech, free or otherwise, is both the source of human emancipation (friendship, co-operation, communication ad infinitum) and the cause of human misery (enmity, encumbrance, humiliation, and so on). All of this, says Fish, was established by Thomas Hobbes as far back as 1651 in Leviathan. Not surprisingly, then, the laws of libel and slander prevail even in the land of the First Amendment. In other words, hate speech, if not exactly defined in those terms, has always been with us.
And yet hate speech, as it is currently deployed, has not always been with us, being an outcome of the Sixties Revolution. Stanley Fish lambasts the phenomenon of “microaggression” and “trigger warnings”, recognising it as a feverish ignorance on the part of students and an impediment to serious educational engagement. But the expression hate speech has only recently come into vogue through modern-day tribalism, which in turn has its origins in postmodernism’s victory over objective truth, a victory Fish aided and abetted as an academic luminary, an influential university administrator and a high-profile New York Times pundit. At times, if you close one eye and squint with the other, Stanley Fish could almost be reciting the admonitions of Allan Bloom. He, too, bemoans the politicisation of the academy in the 1960s and 1970s. The title—if not the content—of Fish’s 2008 tome, Save the World on Your Own Time, resounds with scorn for academics who exploit their tenure in the Ivory Tower to advance a political agenda. Bloom asserts in The Closing of the American Mind that today’s teachers should instruct without political partisanship in order to educate the young on how to arrive at the truth. For Stanley Fish, in contrast, there can be no soaring principles—The Trouble with Principle (1999)—and no objective truth if humanity’s experienced reality hopes to avoid being bludgeoned to death by blunt-edged universalisms.
Some might say the most innocuous version of this type of “empowerment” is reader-response criticism in which the literature student is coaxed into making sense of a text (as they like to say) on their own terms, an inversion of New Criticism practice. A less harmless consequence of this intellectual fashion, as Keith Windschuttle wrote in The Killing of History (1994), is civilisational amnesia:
The attempt by cultural relativism and postmodernism to eliminate the metanarrative from history—that is, to eliminate the narrative of what really happened irrespective of whether the participants were aware of it or not—would deprive us all, no matter what culture we inhabit, of genuine knowledge of our past.
Islamic Studies might fire up students to commit themselves to fighting Islamophobia, likewise with Palestine Studies and Zionist colonialism, Queer Studies and homophobia, Feminist Studies and misogyny, Indigenous Studies and white supremacism, and so on, but the end point of such scholarship—commitment to a cause—is not a protracted struggle towards the truth but the actual purpose of the subject from the very first. This is more Goebbels than Socrates. Edward Said-inspired post-colonialism theory, as an example, has helped destroy traditional notions of objective scholarship in academies throughout the West, and bequeathed to our youngest and brightest only the relativism of tribal truth, which is no truth at all.
The academy, by unilaterally replacing the search for truth with Grievance Studies and Critical Theory, has kicked a pillar out from under Western civilisation as if it were a polystyrene prop in a school play. The only wrongdoer we are allowed to acknowledge is Western Man: that is, the cisgender male/misogynist, policeman/KKK, soldier/war criminal, patriot/xenophobe, heterosexual/homophobe, Christian/bigot, conservative/Nazi, middle-class white/racist and now working-class white/Donald Trump supporter. We might note that this is a catalogue of bohemian aversions. We might also note that victimiser-victim duality is an orthodox Marxist conceit. The Dictatorship of Bohemia is upon us—its origin is the Sixties Revolution, its ideology is Identity Politics or Correctism; its genus, political Manichaeism.
Political Manichaeism, to adapt the fourth-century thinking of St Augustine of Hippo, might be defined as high-minded people with good intentions finding themselves ensnared in Hatethought (or evil, if we wish to be biblical about it). What has brought them morally undone is their belief that a harmonious people’s community is within reach if only “The Man”—the one impediment to a kind of heaven on Earth—can be slain. Leftists or progressives, as a consequence of their new-fangled ideology, have given themselves permission to hate everyone who stands in the way of peace, love and understanding. The case of Marc Lamont Hill, African-American academic and political commentator—that is, academic-activist—demonstrated this perfectly when he recently called for the extermination of the State of Israel: “We must prioritise peace. But we must not romanticise or fetishise it.” CNN, at least, felt embarrassed enough by Hill’s expression of solidarity with the hate speech of anti-Zionist terrorists/freedom fighters to dismiss him as a contributor, but Temple University in Pennsylvania backed their celebrity firebrand on the pretext of academic freedom. But the freedom of academic-activists to teach Grievance Studies is not academic freedom in any traditional Western sense, as endorsed by Allan Bloom, but politics by another means.
The fish—pun intended—rots from the head. Stanley Fish might lament undergraduates who fear “microaggressions” and insist on “trigger warnings” at the start of a lecture, and yet they are surely the outcome of the postmodernist foolishness that has affected every aspect of Western society, not least journalism. It is no surprise that those who howl the loudest about the need for society to protect itself from hate speech by “deplatforming” purported hate-mongers are invariably well-versed in Hatethought/Identity Politics. The logic of political Manichaeism means it can be no other way. Thus, Nesrine Malik, writing for the Guardian in March 2018, supported the UK government denying visas to overseas speakers deemed “right-wing extremists”. Six months later, Malik was expressing outrage that “Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court on Saturday was not just a defeat for sexual assault victims, it was also a clear reaffirmation of the entrenched, patriarchal hierarchy”. Given that the claims against Kavanaugh were entirely unsubstantiated, it would be closer to the truth to suggest that Justice Kavanaugh was defamed by his accusers and their political accomplices. But journalist-activists such as Nesrine Malik are conditioned by an ideology that literally repudiates truth and, therefore, fair-minded examination. It is, additionally, founded on a conspiracy theory that is self-evidently an outrageous lie. To paraphrase Atticus Finch: “You know the truth, and the truth is this: some white men lie, some white men are immoral, some white men are not to be trusted around women—black or white. But this is a truth that applies to the human race and to no particular race of men.”
There is no arguing with the likes of Malik. She has her values, and values—as Bloom wrote in The Closing of the American Mind—are dogmas, and dogmas are resistant not only to rational scrutiny but to the scientific method. Already the champions of the transgender tribe are demanding that science “bend” to accommodate their belief system. To demur is to be shamed by raging Rainbow Guards on social media sites and transformed into an un-person by the Good Censor. Meanwhile, the European Court of Human Rights (or, more accurately, the European Court of Tribal Rights) has upheld the conviction of a woman for the crime of saying that Muhammad was, strictly-speaking, a paedophile. It is not enough for us to be browbeaten into silence—we are all daily practitioners of PC rectitude now. As the Great Helmsman explained in 1957: “Not to have a correct political view is like having no soul.” So, the Great Bohemian Cultural Revolution builds its totalitarian momentum with every new phase of our appeasement, complicity and submission.
To an activist-journalist like Nesrine Malik, the idea that “freedom of speech is a neutral principle uncontaminated by history or social wrong bias” is a “delusion”. When Malik dismisses freedom of speech, in today’s context, as a “loophole exploited with impunity by trolls, racists and ethnic cleansing advocates”, we have arrived back where we started. Progressives such as Geoffrey Robertson once promoted free speech and free expression as a means to constrain “The Man”, and now up-to-date progressives want to do the very same thing by stopping free speech. You could be forgiven for thinking six decades of free-speech controversy in the West has had less to do with freedom per se than political advantage.
The tragedy in all this, Allan Bloom might say, is that real freedom—the freedom to think clearly, independently and fearlessly in search of the truth—was no more a priority to the 1960s free-expression fundamentalists than it is for today’s free-expression deniers. But still, I stand with the free-speech provocateurs for the same reason I would in any totalitarian society. As Wei Jingshen, hero of China’s Democracy Wall movement, wrote in a letter to Chairman Deng Xiaoping from prison: “We want to be masters of our own destiny.”
Daryl McCann has a blog at http://darylmccann.blogspot.com.au, and he tweets at @dosakamccann. He wrote “The Ideology of White-Hatred” in the October issue.