Begging your indulgence, I open with a prayer:
Gathering here today, we acknowledge the traditional custodianship of this land by the Australian people of the British nation, and pay our respect to their monarchs past, present and emerging.
Thank you. With no disrespect to Aboriginal Australians, Christians, or indeed anyone who prays, the earnest Australian custom of the acknowledgment of country is, of course, a postmodern prayer, with “always was, always will be” serving as its postmodern “amen”. As a public prayer, it is not meant to be answered; it is meant to be heard. It is what the Spectator columnist James Bartholomew called a “virtue signal”: a public proclamation that one is “kind, decent and virtuous”—or put another way, that one holds “right, approved, liberal media-elite opinions”.
People who really want to pay respect to Aboriginal elders past, present and emerging can take the time to attend community events, volunteer, or better yet, travel to majority-indigenous areas for their vacations, instead of just flying over them on their way to the Gold Coast, Byron Bay or Bali. People who really believe that the homes from which they are Zooming always were and always will be Aboriginal land—stolen land, no less, that was never ceded to colonial Australia—should do the right thing and return their stolen homes to their local Aboriginal land councils. At a bare minimum, those organisations that mandate the acknowledgment of country at the opening of all meetings and events should—ahem—pay their respects to the elders past, present and emerging of their local indigenous peoples. How many Sydney corporate leaders, government bureaucrats and university vice-chancellors who have made an acknowledgment of country—how many of you who have made an acknowledgment of country—can name a single “elder” of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation? At least when we pay our respect to the monarch, we know who he is.
This essay appears in December’s Quadrant.
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People who want to do good, generally do good without making too much of a fuss about it. But people who only want to be seen to be good, without actually having to do anything about it, recite the acknowledgment of country—and the more elaborate, the better.
If you want to hear some truly ostentatious acknowledgments of country, come to the University of Sydney! There, we really know how to acknowledge in style. But for most people, the basic model will do. That includes people who may be acknowledging more than one country. Go out to the suburbs, out to Western Sydney, and you now hear the acknowledgment of country at the meetings of many immigrant community associations. For the virtue-signalling community leaders of multicultural Sydney, the acknowledgment of country doesn’t signal their membership in a right-thinking cultural elite. It simply signals that they are good Australians; like eating barbecue or saying “good on ya”, acknowledgment is what Australians do. For these groups, the acknowledgment of country is much more than a mere virtue signal. It’s a veritable citizenship certificate.
In polite Australian society—and I must admit that I won’t know until the discussion period whether or not I can include under that rubric the members of the Union, University & Schools Club—the acknowledgment of country is a signal that the acknowledger is among the few, the saved, the elect. Never mind that everyone in polite society says it; everyone wants to be seen to be among the elect, whether or not ze really is. (Parenthetically, I note that ze is the virtuously non-binary third-person singular pronoun.) As I was saying, everyone wants to be seen to be among the elect, whether or not ze really is. It was the same for the original elect, John Calvin and his followers (or perhaps I should say “zis followers”—I’m not sure what pronouns Calvin preferred)—anyway it was the same for the original elect, John Calvin and zis followers of sixteenth-century Geneva. And it was the same for later Calvinists: the Dutch burghers, America’s pilgrim fathers and the radical puritans of Oliver Cromwell’s parliamentary Commonwealth. The really important thing wasn’t to be good (a key tenet of Calvinism is that you can’t save your soul through your own good works) but to be seen to be good. After all, what good was it to be among God’s elect if no one knew you were?
Now, that wasn’t John Calvin’s theology. It was, however, the practical outcome of the principle of predestination. For what decent person would be seen cavorting with someone who was obviously predestined to eternal damnation? Accept the theological principle of predestination, and you accept the sociological inevitability of virtue signalling. We acknowledge country not because we respect any indigenous elders in particular, but because good Australians acknowledge country—and celebrate LGBTQIA+ diversity, and worry over the future of the climate. That’s just what good people do.
Calvinism may have become less fiery over the last four hundred years, and it has certainly become more secular, but it has never gone away. Its spiritual home in the United States is still Harvard University, founded in 1636 as the English-speaking world’s first Puritan university. In the UK, modern Calvinism is strongest in the metropolitan universities; Oxford and Cambridge still retain some vestiges of aristocratic political incorrectness. The presbyters of the new Calvinism in Australia are drawn from the self-perpetuating educational aristocracy of the Group of Eight and their minions in government and the professions. The original political party of modern Calvinism was England’s dissenter-dominated Liberal Party, latterly the Liberal Democrats. In America, it’s become the establishment wing—the Hillary Clinton wing—of the Democratic Party. In Australia, it’s the Teals and Greens.
We all know the signs of election, the virtues that signal membership in the elect. In present-day Australia, they are acknowledgment of country, support for LGBTQIA+ rights, and climate catastrophism. Other causes struggle to make the list; as the numerology of preliterate societies seems to indicate, the untrained mind can only really count to three. And so there are only three flags available in the semaphore of election. For a while, Covid catastrophism displaced climate catastrophism—and the climate activists were worried, very worried, that people were forgetting all about their favourite politically correct cause. For two worrisome years, the “Big Three” were acknowledgment of country, support for LGBTQIA+ rights and ostentatious coronavirus safety measures. Now that the coronavirus crisis has passed, climate Fridays off at schools (sorry, Fridays for the Future) have returned.
As coronavirus catastrophism demonstrated, it is possible for a new cause to break into the Big Three, but only by displacing one from the list. In Australia, acknowledgment of country (or, in the US and UK, Black Lives Matter) is a relative newcomer to the list of signals of the elect. Sadly, it knocked off the starving children in Africa, and thus when the Millennium Development Goals were replaced with the Sustainable Development Goals, everyone forgot about international development. Of course, acknowledgment of country had one major advantage: it’s cheap. The starving children always wanted you to give money.
Does anyone remember how before everyone loved gay people, everyone loved refugees? Just try getting a quorum for a Refugee Week these days. (You may have missed it: Refugee Week came and went between June 19 and 25.) But Gay Mardi Gras never had it so good.
The Calvinist urge to virtue-signal membership in the elect can make life nigh-unliveable for the independent thinker. Let me offer a quote:
In our times, from the highest class of society down to the lowest, every one lives as under the eye of a hostile and dreaded censorship. Not only in what concerns others, but in what concerns only themselves … [people] do not ask themselves—what do I prefer? or, what would suit my character and disposition? or, what would allow the best and highest in me to have fair-play, and enable it to grow and thrive? They ask themselves, what is suitable to my position? what is usually done by persons of my station and pecuniary circumstances? or (worse still) what is usually done by persons of a station and circumstances superior to mine?
That was John Stuart Mill, writing in 1859, at the height of a previous wave of Calvinist revival remembered as the Great Awakening. Our present-day Great Awokening has nothing on that era, except perhaps an even greater speed of communication. The Big Three causes in the 1850s were the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage and temperance. And the Calvinists of the Great Awakening did pretty well. I won’t preach temperance to the members of the Union, University & Schools Club, but two out of three ain’t bad. Like statue-tumblers today, the social Calvinists of the Great Awakening pursued their causes with a religious fervour, and like statue-tumblers today, they wanted someone else to foot the bill. The abolitionists wanted slave-owners to bear the costs of the unravelling of the slave economy; in the UK they failed, while in the US they succeeded. The suffragists wanted women to get the vote while the men went to war (and it might be remembered that, from ancient times, the prerogative of voting was tied to bearing mortal responsibility for the actions voted). The prohibitionists wanted an instantaneous end to alcohol, without making any provisions for the people whose businesses and jobs would be lost through its prohibition; it was perhaps this failure to plan any transition that doomed America’s fourteen-year experiment with temperance.
Abolition, suffrage, temperance, acknowledgment of country, LGBTQIA+ rights, climate catastrophism—obviously, these are not to be found in the theology of John Calvin. They are our society’s virtue signals; our society’s indications of membership in the elect, not his. They are the tenets of our specifically Anglo-American liberal religion.
Liberalism is a broad church. All across the English-speaking world, there are classical liberals, progressive liberals, internationalist liberals, welfare liberals, even conservative and neoconservative liberals—to say nothing of neo-liberals. There are even libertarian liberals and populist liberals. What makes us all liberal, to quote the Oxford English Dictionary, is our “support for or advocacy of individual rights, civil liberties, and reform tending towards individual freedom, democracy, or social equality”. We all embrace those ideals (or at least, most of us do), and we all believe in them with a quasi-religious faith. It may sound disingenuous to lump the members of organisations like the Centre for Independent Studies in with the organisers of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, but honestly: our most acute differences are over means, not ends. How many people in this room want Aboriginal Australians to experience another century of intergenerational poverty? How many would refuse the friendship of their homosexual neighbours? How many are prepared to destroy the Earth in pursuit of their own pecuniary advantage? There are plenty of people in other countries who would answer yes to all of these questions, with no regrets. Our Anglo-American societies are thoroughly liberal societies, and are much the better for it.
But although our liberal societies may be inclusive and sympathetic, our intellectual establishment’s liberal religion decidedly is not. The neo-Calvinism of the English-speaking world’s intellectual establishment is the exclusive religion of a wrathful secular god. Yet a religion it is—and a sociologically Calvinist one at that. Which is not to say that it has anything to do with the actual theology of John Calvin. In the seventeenth century, the Calvinist elect were a self-selected group of highly literate, holier-than-thou Christians, outdoing one another to virtue-signal their election to salvation. In the twenty-first century, the Calvinist elect are a self-selected group of highly literate, holier-than-thou intellectuals, outdoing one another to virtue-signal their election to … what? It doesn’t really matter.
Theologists may not like it, but every society adapts religion to its own purposes. Religion has its theological functions, certainly, but just as certainly it has sociological functions, too. In the sixteenth century, no one knew what Heaven was. We still don’t know today. The material reality of Heaven is irrelevant from the perspective of the sociology of religion. Sociological Calvinism is all about the election, not the destination. The election confers authority: the authority to demand other people’s self-policing obedience.
When people ask Mill’s final question, “What is usually done by persons of a station and circumstances superior to mine?”, they look to the intellectual establishment, no matter what particular theology it may embrace. If you’re a Christian, are you theologically homoousian, homoiousian, or homoian? In the dogmatically religious fourth century, your answer could have been a matter of life or death. Today, you’re probably a homoousian, but unless you’re extraordinarily theologically inclined, you probably don’t care. Your church almost certainly won’t kick anyone out for disagreeing; it needs all the members it can get. But many Christian churches today will kick people out for disparagement of Aboriginal Australians, disparagement of homosexuals, or (in some cases) even for climate denial. If they wouldn’t expel members outright, they would certainly make the unvirtuous feel very unwelcome. Proselytising among the prostitutes and publicans is one thing; proselytising among the politically incorrect is something else entirely.
As Saint Paul advises, “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?” That’s the postmodern Calvinist’s prescription for the non-compliant, independent-thinking individual: stigmatisation, social exclusion and damnation.
John Stuart Mill explicitly identified the political correctness of his time with a latter-day social Calvinism. He warned that “society has now fairly got the better of individuality; and the danger which threatens human nature is not the excess, but the deficiency, of personal impulses and preferences”. He followed this with the quote cited previously, tracing the repression of individuality to the fact that “every one lives as under the eye of a hostile and dreaded censorship”. He then asked: “Now is this, or is it not, the desirable condition of human nature?” His answer was:
It is so, on the Calvinistic theory. According to that, the one great offence of man is Self-will. All the good of which humanity is capable, is comprised in Obedience. You have no choice; thus you must do, and no otherwise: “whatever is not a duty, is a sin” … That is the theory of Calvinism; and it is held, in a mitigated form, by many who do not consider themselves Calvinists; the mitigation consisting in giving a less ascetic interpretation to the alleged will of God; asserting it to be his will that mankind should gratify some of their inclinations; of course not in the manner they themselves prefer, but in the way of obedience, that is, in a way prescribed to them by authority.
But who were these new Calvinists of the mid-nineteenth century, demanding obedience to their authority? Who are they today? Mill thought that they were the majority, and he accordingly decried the tyranny of the majority. But were the majority of people in high Victorian Britain really killjoys and scolds? Or was it only the majority of middle-class liberal intellectuals, of Mill’s own social class? Reading On Liberty, one does not get the impression that Mill’s dreaded neo-Calvinists were agricultural labourers, or the working people of the new factories. Though plentiful among Jane Austen’s parsons, Calvinists hardly figure among Charles Dickens’s ragamuffins and rogues. And today, do the much-maligned columnists of Quadrant and Spectator Australia rebel against the oppression of the great unwashed of Parramatta and Liverpool, the Punchbowl and the Shire? Or is it the killjoys of the Inner West and the scolds of Paddington who—to quote Mill—exercise a “hostile and dreaded censorship” over them?
The masses that the philosophers so love to fear have rarely lifted a finger to censor their self-appointed betters, who though small in number are compensatorily loud of voice. The hoi polloi have rarely exercised the authority to compel obedience to their popular preferences. If they did, we’d all be having a lot more fun.
Mill’s tyranny of the majority was, is, and always will be a tyranny of the minority. In our postmodern liberal society, it is inevitably a tyranny of the liberal expert class. It is a tyranny of the doctors, lawyers and barristers; the business managers and professional directors; the academics and journalists; the senior engineers; the people like you and me. The signs by which we shall recognise the elect are the signs by which we recognise ourselves. Hold a meeting in multicultural Western Sydney without an acknowledgment of country, and no one will notice its absence; only its presence is noteworthy, lifting the event out of the ordinary and into the aspirational. Hold a meeting at a government department, university or ASX-listed company without an acknowledgment of country, and it is an emphatic act of rebellion. We all notice its omission; its very absence is a subversive act. Would you trace Australia’s cultural heritage to England? That’s rebellion. Would you hold an all-male panel discussion? Insurrection. Would you advocate for coal-fired power plants? Treason!
The tyranny of the minority is exercised by our colleagues directly over us, and only indirectly over society as a whole. Few people in Australian society think very much about such elite esoterica as political correctness, de-platforming, or diversity, equity and inclusion. We are the ones who stand to lose, if not our lives, then at least our livelihoods, and that makes us the first line of defence. In democratic theory, that shouldn’t be the case: one person, one vote means the tyranny of the majority. In democratic practice, we all know that the majority defers to the minority, outer Sydney to inner. The liberal authoritarians of both the Great Awakening and the Great Awokening showed and have shown no hesitation in imposing their virtue-signalling agendas over the democratic values of the majority; abolitionists, suffragists, prohibitionists, indigenous rights advocates, LGBTQIA+ advocates and climate catastrophists alike have viewed and continue to view their moral agendas as being above mere human law. Accordingly, they have all routinely broken the law, often with impunity.
Authoritarianism builds on the authority of the established institutions in the societies in which it operates. In the old authoritarianisms of southern Europe and Latin America, the establishment institutions were the universities, the security services and the Catholic Church. The old authoritarianism, accordingly, had a distinctively Catholic and militaristic—though nonetheless intellectual—flavour. In today’s authoritarian Eastern Europe, the equivalent institutions are the intelligence services, the history profession and the Orthodox Church; look no further for the foundations of Aleksander Lukashenko’s rule in Belarus or Vladimir Putin’s in Russia. In the English-speaking world, the most authoritative institutions are the universities, the mainstream media, the peak professional associations, the business councils and the law courts. Consequently, to the extent that we have an authoritarianism, it is necessarily a liberal authoritarianism: a society governed by the authority of our own liberal expert class.
Right now, this tyrannical minority seems to be having everything its own way—except, perhaps, elections. Unfortunately, it may not have to win elections to rule, even in a democracy. As Mill recognised:
Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough: there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them.
Mill called for “protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion”, but what protection? The fact is: there is none. No one can protect the individual against society except society itself. The challenge for Australians—the challenge for us—is thus not so much to win elections, as to change society. The Great Awakening came and went, leaving much wreckage in its wake, but also much good. The Great Awokening will do the same. It’s up to us to acknowledge the good, while preventing as much of the damage as possible. We all want indigenous advancement; let’s not allow the sacrifice of indigenous women and children on the altar of politically-correct policing. We all want LGBTQIA+ rights; let’s not allow the mutilation of children’s bodies to satisfy the career ambitions of megalomaniac physicians. We all want to leave a liveable planet to our children; let’s not allow the next generation to be impoverished in the senseless crusade for zero carbon. In a well-institutionalised democracy, the tyranny of the minority won’t last forever. It’s up to us to hasten its demise, and return society to a more humane, more liberal form of liberalism.
This is a speech Salvatore Babones delivered on September 14 to the Union, Universities & Schools Club in Sydney. It is an expanded version of a speech he gave at the April-May meeting of the Samuel Griffith Society.