It was the voice of Gil Scott-Heron pumping out the optimism of 1971 — ‘The revolution will not be televised! The revolution will be live!’ — through the stage speakers at Carriageworks before the opening session of the Festival of Dangerous Ideas (FODI) on September 17, 2022. That optimism, I suspect, would be deflated if he learned that all the psychedelic efforts of Marxist-inspired counter-culturalism had culminated in this polite gathering of bourgeois orthodoxy on a chilly curate’s egg of a day in a disused train shed.
This report appears in the latest Quadrant.
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Attendance at FODI 2022 was for the purpose of inquiry into the intellectual health of Sydney. FODI is billed as an “original” and “disruptive” festival that encourages debate and critical thinking, conducted by the Ethics Centre, whose Executive Director is Dr Simon Longstaff. The website promises that FODI holds “uncomfortable ideas up to the light and challenges thinking on some of the most persevering and difficult issues of our time, questioning our deepest held beliefs and desires”. But is FODI fit for purpose? Does it provide a forum for serious and searching inquiry after radical solutions to our increasingly intractable political and social problems?
It is easy, as Michael Koziol wrote in his pre-publicity piece in the Sydney Morning Herald, to point out that the “city’s literary set” which attend this event (whom he locates in Balmain) in reality have their preconceptions only ever-so-slightly challenged. The use of the “dangerous ideas” tag is, on one reading, intended as ironic, in the sense that the ideas served up are “dangerous” only because they are expected to disrupt the blinkered and uninspired thinking of the conservative element, but are in fact, when people are forced to think about them, not dangerous at all but brilliant insights that can only be perceived by those prepared to question preconceived notions. This is perhaps what is meant by the description of FODI on the Ethics Centre website: it “steps across the threshold to explore issues at the boundary of consciousness”. I was looking forward to some hallucinatory thought experiments.
Koziol lamented a pathetic unwillingness in Australia to engage in debates which are prepared to explore, not so much dangerous ideas, as innovative and even controversial ideas, and that we have become a nation of scaredy-cats who fear the consequences of expressing and exploring novel ideas. He blamed the “cycle of outrage” and the lack of confidence it causes. His evidence for this is the failure of FODI to include as a topic the cutting of ties with “the British Crown” (in legal fact, the Australian Crown) and the need to change to a republic. That would be a fairly orthodox idea for many attending FODI, so perhaps they weren’t interested in debating it.
But Koziol needn’t have worried because, as it transpired, one of the salient unadvertised messages of FODI 2022 was the blame to be heaped on the Crown for the generational miseries of the indigenous peoples here and overseas, accompanied by a fair amount of anger at the extent and magnificence of the Queen’s obsequies. The republic was indeed a major “idea” promoted by the event, using the current emphasis on indigenous reconciliation as a stalking horse for republicanism.
Here are some reports on the edgier offerings of FODI, deliberately selected for their focus on identity politics.
Jacqui Lambie: On blowing things up
Lambie was introduced by Dr Longstaff, a considered figure, bespectacled, bearded, zip-up leather jacket, white-haired, thoughtful in demeanour, slow to judge, a sort of Father Christmas of philosophical gifts lending his aura of academe to the proceedings. Jacqui Lambie, he said, was “unpredictable as to content and form” and had done the “unimaginable” in politics by changing her mind and admitting it.
Jacqui’s great, and sole, idea was to abolish the party system. This was needed, she said, in order to “blow up politics”. Imagine if every MP was able to vote according to their personal convictions? Everyone would be an independent or a Teal! The current system constituted a “dictatorship” controlled by party factional deals. There followed a not unfamiliar list of criticisms of the party system of which any informed resident of Balmain would be aware—leaders are decided by the parties, not the people, parties promote people who engage in arse-kissing and careerism, and who have no real-life experience, it’s all about numbers in the party room, only obsequious people who prioritise factional loyalty over personal conviction get promoted, parties rely on brand-voting and have little to show as genuine policy-making. Despite Lambie’s bracing language and ability to call a spade a spade, this seemed a poor opening to FODI.
Dr Longstaff himself delivered the obvious torpedo—his first question was, hadn’t Lambie failed to address the threat of instability in parliament and government that would ensue from abolition of the party system? Any decent student of parliamentary history would have asked the same question, because the historical fact is that lack of a party system bedevilled parliaments in England from the Civil War onwards until a stable party system developed, along with cabinet government, in the eighteenth century, leading to parliaments that would not be rigged by unelected ministers who owed their positions to the Crown, and were able to stand up to the Crown and the royal faction, and permitting parliament to achieve the successful economic expansion of Britain. Not only, one suspects, is this an unfashionable insight, but one which passed Jacqui Lambie by, because she failed to answer the question.
But at least it could be said hers was a truly dangerous idea, overthrowing centuries of political wisdom and promising chaotic governance.
During the question time wrap-up came the reveal—Lambie said it was time to talk about the republic, though, but wait: as parliament could only deal with one thing at a time, we had to get the Voice up first. Then, she said, the problem was that the Voice and the Treaty were difficult to explain, especially to indigenous people, so we had the give “them” drawings. “Don’t write it down,” she said, with all the wisdom of being independent and unpredictable as to content and form.
Dr Longstaff did not appear at all concerned at this turn of events, that it was not promoting anything in a spirit of intellectual inquiry but appeared to be a piece of political advocacy which assumed the audience agreed both with the Voice and the strategy to get it across the line with ignorant voters, or that it adopted a patronising and rather sinister approach to mulcting people of their votes.
The Ethics Centre seems to have followed Jacqui’s advice. After the event I received an email from the Ethics Centre which contained a complicated graphic under the sign-off summarising the main messages from FODI. As an example, there appeared a picture of a crown, next to which was printed “THE QUEEN’S DEATH”. Underneath that in smaller type was “The Role of Colonisation”. Underneath that was a picture of a rather old-fashioned television, with legs and an aerial. An arrow pointed to “BLANKET COVERAGE of THE FUNERAL”. Next to that in larger lettering was the statement “BRAINWASHING of SOCIETY”. In another section the word “MONARCHY” appeared with an arrow pointing from it to the statement “RESPONSIBLE BUT WITH NO POWER”, upending the conventional understanding of political responsibility in a parliamentary democracy. Sad to say, it is a truism universally acknowledged that the state of mind of most organisations today is generally best divined from the material inserted after the email sign-off.
Joanna Bourke: Loving animals
Also introduced by Dr Longstaff, Professor Joanna Bourke, of the University of London, stated her “dangerous idea” to be “How can we love animals better, not f*** them”.
Professor Bourke, whose session was also titled “The Last Taboo”, was still smarting from the demand made by Arts Minister Benjamin Franklin to cancel her talk because it failed to meet community expectations. The amenable Koziol gave her space in the SMH the day before FODI to express outrage at being “accused of something I have spent my academic life fighting” and to make clear she was “not a bestialist”. Dr Longstaff was quoted as saying Mr Franklin had misrepresented the intention and content of the session and called him the “minister for censorship”. But Professor Bourke does seem to have fallen victim to some over-hasty publicity-mongering at the Ethics Centre, which did alter its website summary of the talk and change the title after “discussions” with Create NSW.
So, leaving aside this typical Sydney bobbing-for-apples controversy, what was Professor Bourke talking about? Well, reported the SMH, she was going to talk about bestiality, or “zoophilia” as it is now called, but she was arguing against it. After all, said the pleasant, middle-aged Englishwoman, she had written about dismembering men and cannibalism, but no one accused her of agreeing with those practices.
Professor Bourke’s lecture was a ramble covering the history of the offence of bestiality, its transition from a crime to a Krafft-Ebing psychiatric condition, and the increase since the 1990s in “Zoos”—bestialist groups who operated on the internet and who admired violent “zoo porn”. Interestingly, from the point of view of the manufacturers of lie detectors, Professor Bourke quoted stats to the effect that 28 per cent of young male sex offenders in 2018 admitted to having had sex with animals, but 80 per cent of them admitted it when put on a lie detector.
The current legal position is that interfering with animals’ genitals is only a crime if engaged in for sexual gratification. But Professor Bourke proposed that ways of touching animals which might be sexual could be seen as a form of loving them. Her key idea was: let’s think about what we mean by sexual activity. The concept of sexuality should open up to include non-genital contact. It’s the same with humans, she said. The trouble was the phallocentric view of sexuality in our society which could only conceive of sex as “penetrative”. The human understanding of sex was woefully limited. She did not identify who was responsible for this state of affairs, but it was a reasonable inference that it was people with phalluses; that thought, at least, hung in the air.
She said the same assumption arose with bestiality. But you could have non-penetrative sex with animals! Bestiality therefore need not be penetrative, she said. She called out the resistance and even shock that had greeted this idea. The audience stirred uneasily, perhaps finally encountering the promised FODI discomfort, but they accepted the wisdom meekly. None of the Balmainers fainted or cried out to their God. Even so, Dr Longstaff said Professor Bourke was “very courageous”.
The author of sixteen books and celebrated scholar of dismemberment had put it out there—bestiality could be OK and an acceptable form of sexuality with animals if it was non-penetrative. On the face of it, that might appear to have some minimal quality of originality about it, but was this just semantics, a shaggy dog story, whose sole purpose appeared to be to sail close enough to the wind to sell her current book? In the end, was Professor Bourke indeed some kind of bestialist, at least by her own definition? What would Minister Franklin make of it? Or the Attorney-General? Or Koziol? What remained unclear was what practical effect these prognostications would have, if any. It seemed to go nowhere, and was not, upon analysis, really very dangerous; perhaps, at most, mildly disruptive of one’s relationships with one’s pets.
Sisonke Msimang: Precious white lives
Sisonke Msimang is a Zulu woman who was born in Zambia, her family exiled from South Africa because of her parents’ involvement in the ANC during apartheid. She was introduced by Stan Grant as a writer on sex and women, a Guardian columnist, as having held positions at Yale University and the Aspen Institute and as the author of Always Another Country: A Memoir of Exile and Home (2017). She emigrated to Western Australia in 2014 and is currently Head Story Trainer at the Centre for Stories in Perth. She is an attractive and confident black woman who has met with considerable success and promotion in the United States, South Africa, and now in Australia, and whose opinions are sought at places like FODI.
Stan Grant was wearing sneakers. He began the session by asking how many people in the audience were Aboriginal, and then said: “It’s been a tough week to be a First Nations person in Australia where our precious lives are not commemorated or valued.” This was a rather sneery reference to the death of Queen Elizabeth, Queen of Australia, and the media coverage of her funeral. The declaration was met by a low grumble of apparent agreement from the audience. I could only count about thirty people of non-Caucasian appearance, most of whom were Sub-continental or East Asian, out of an audience of at least 200, but there appeared to be a lot of what might be called the white pursed-lips brigade.
Sisonke, being a story-teller, started with an anecdote, saying after she came to Australia and was a new migrant, one day in 2015, as she was walking around Perth somewhere minding her own business, she passed by a white woman in the street. As they passed, the white woman reached out her hand to touch Sisonke’s short black hair. Sisonke instinctively shrank back in distress. A black person would never do such a thing, anywhere in the world, she declared. The only way to make sense of this enormity was in racial terms, she explained. It reminded her that she did not belong in Australia. The white woman was normal, and Sisonke was not, and she wanted to touch Sisonke’s “difference”. She was racially fascinated but had failed to ask for consent.
This incident was no doubt annoying, but it seemed a fairly flimsy basis for asserting that Sisonke was an outcast in Australia. No particulars were given about the white woman, or her comparative status in the literary or institutional world occupied by Sisonke, or whether she had had the sort of life which had been successfully publicised and promoted as an eminent and moving memoir; she was just assumed to be racist. She might just have been on ice, or guilty of not understanding personal space, or lacking in manners, or eccentrically curious.
As for what black people do by comparison, it just so happened that on the very same day that FODI was starting up it was reported that a Nigerian man in London, Adio Adeshine, approached two women in the queue waiting to pay respects at the lying-in-state of Queen Elizabeth, touched their backs and exposed his privy parts, before jumping into the Thames. It was reported too late for inclusion in Sisonke’s session, unfortunately. Nor did Sisonke make any moral comparison between the white woman and the assault on her by her aunty’s black manservant when she was seven years old, which she has spoken of in other forums. But those crimes were not carried out by white people.
Sisonke then said that race was a myth invented by Europeans to justify what they did. But hold on! Sisonke had just used race to explain the incident in Western Australia! And are not African tribes, and many other indigenous populations, equally guilty of this practice?
She had kept a “log of observations about whiteness”, she said. Australia, she said, has a particular problem of unreconstructed whiteness. “Whiteness” she defined as the normalisation of a set of customs, attitudes and beliefs which generate a standard by which all other groups are judged. Was it only whites who did this? As a description of an anthropological tendency, it was not obvious why this formula couldn’t apply to, or wasn’t actually prevalent in, any dominant group in any country, including Africa.
She complained that during the Covid epidemic Australia bought and brought in an excess of vaccines, whereas in South Africa people were dying of Covid, which showed that white lives were treated as more precious. That argument might have worked had the South African government supplied more vaccines for Australia than South Africa. She also didn’t seem to understand that the vaccines imported into Australia were for all Australians including her, and the success of the eventual importation was due to the organisational capacity of the largely uncorrupted Australian government.
Now, said Sisonke, people accept that black people are physically superior when it comes to sports. Lest this should confuse the audience when she had said there were no genetic differences between black people and white people, she stressed that this superiority was nothing to do with genetics, it is because black people were not allowed to do much else, they had fewer viable options. “A black girl with a pen is told she is stupid,” declared Sisonke, though she appeared to represent a standing rebuke to such a notion. It must be that, at elite sport level, which is after all what Sisonke was talking about, white people were prevented from attending to a full training schedule because they were too busy with their privileged professional careers, and so never became sufficiently match fit to beat the black athletes.
At about this point Sisonke began to become a bit lecturey towards the Australian audience. She had done some research. It was years since the 2008 Apology for invasion, abuse, colonisation, and there was no treaty for reparations or path to healing! Why was John Howard given so much airtime? Why was the ABC indulging in a constant hagiography of the Queen? Who are they for? Australia counts itself as a colony, which was bad for all tarred with blackness, but bad for whiteness too, by agreeing to be ruled by a King in another country. It cannot be!! Sisonke cried. Hissing noises could be heard passing between momentarily unpursed lips, like air escaping from a car tyre.
And then she made a rather fine point—she had a King, the King of the Zulus, but he was not “the King”, and so she refused to call Queen Elizabeth “the Queen”. She called her “the Queen of England”.
So here was a person whose cultural and family heritage acknowledged a monarchical figure as head of her traditional society, even now as her country was legally a republic, telling Australians that they could not take pride or even an interest in their own traditional monarch, whom she had not apparently bothered to learn was also constitutionally the Queen of Australia, and much admired as a person of integrity and some political intelligence. Was that an accurate and considered position to put forward at a festival aimed at educated and intellectually curious people? Was it consistent with FODI aims and values to allow a person with such a poor understanding of the Australian Constitution to be given a platform to lecture Australians about how they should feel about the Queen? Was it … even ethical?
At this point Stan Grant interrupted Sisonke to apologise for her having to hear “these things” which “are different to us” (meaning black people presumably) and white people had to understand how this stuff was for “us”. The ABC, he assured the audience, was not broadcasting for him! In a troubled voice, he confessed that he had suffered emotions of betrayal this week. The crowd burbled. Pursed lips grew purser.
Sisonke was unfazed—she was not so affected, she said, almost gaily, she had low expectations, she could just switch off the television. But, she instructed, it was time to move on, Australians should not have allegiance to a place that has done that to “us”.
Stan stated that only 6.5 per cent of the world’s population was white, so how did they get to be precious? Sisonke had the answer—“Money!”
But the most sophisticated part of the argument was yet to come. Sisonke countered Stan’s proposition with the fact that the Irish were “very upset” (about what she did not say). She slyly suggested: “Not all whites are so white!” “Who gets to be white?” asked Stan. “Is it a myth, a construction?” Sisonke had the answer again: “People are constructed as white, people came on boats and were made into whites by white construction, we must dismantle the specialness of whiteness.”
This was an important revelation—it seemed that even though I was white, there was a possibility that I was not really white, just a construction of other whites. But were my forebears (unfortunately named “White”) the real whites or the fake whites? And how did this system of white construction work through the generations? Was it genetic, was it nature or nurture? And, if I was not white, just a construct of whiteness, what was I? Was I, in fact, black? There were said to be black people in Gloucestershire in the 1820s. How were we to know which of our fellow citizens were the toxic real whites or android cultural constructs? Then again, earlier Sisonke had said the problem was unreconstructed whiteness, not that it was constructed whiteness. Were we in fact unreconstructed constructed whites, or constructed unreconstructed whites?
But Sisonke was not finished. She told us that we had an individual responsibility not to be precious in a state-sanctioned capitalist system. What were we to do, she asked, reading our thoughts. She did not know, but we were “pushing left” for a better system: “ultimately it’s about dismantling it all”. There was no information forthcoming about what would be put in “its” place, or why it would be an improvement, or lack racism, or why this required a “pushing to the left”, or why capitalism, an economic system practised in black and white nations, was relevant.
Was this truly the farrago of undergraduate nonsense it appeared to be, or was I unfairly expecting some precision of thought, or consistent use of terms, or even basic logic? And, again, even under the guise of a lecture by a black South African ostensibly about race, there was the republican boat being pushed out in its new guise as a fireship for indigenous reconciliation.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat: Return of the strongman
Ruth Ben-Ghiat was born in 1960 and is an American academic historian at New York University. She has written a PhD thesis and several books about Fascist Italy. Her most recent, Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present, was on sale outside. In the course of her studies she found out that authoritarian regimes, especially during the Second World War, demonstrated certain common techniques of propaganda, control and oppression of their peoples. But her claim to fame is that she “predicted” that President Trump would engage in desperate measures in order to hold on to power. She claimed that the first time she saw him, she knew immediately that he was a fascist dictator. She could do this, not because it was reasonably obvious to any observer of Trump that he was unpredictable and unrestrained by the accepted methods of political control in America, but because she was an “expert on fascism”, which is how she was introduced by the Festival Director, Danielle Harvey.
Ruth was also introduced by Lydia Khalil, the head of the Digital Threats to Democracy Project at the Lowy Institute, and author of Rise of the Extreme Right: The New Global Extremism and the Threat to Democracy, also on sale outside. She said Ruth was an “expert on dictators”.
Ruth started with a statistic: authoritarian regimes control 60 per cent of the world. She has collated an “authoritarian playbook”.
First, the use of propaganda to assert that the reality is what the leader says, controlling media channels and by appealing directly to the people to support them as if through a personal relationship. Dictators close down knowledge by controlling university courses and book publication, and close down LGBT+ communities and climate science. She gave an example of US billionaire Charles Koch funding the “Professor Watchlist” site, on which she herself is listed.
But in August 2018 the Washington Post reported that the head of the Charles Koch Foundation in fact criticised the Professor Watchlist, which is a creation of Turning Point USA, a pro-Trump student group, as unhelpfully aggressive. The director of university relations, John Hardin said: “Instead of supporting groups that put professors that they disagree with on watch lists, we support folks who take those professors to lunch, who co-teach with those professors and who collaborate with those professors.” The Foundation would likely support FODI.
Second, the use of machismo and institutional misogyny, such as Trump’s locker room talk about “grabbing pussy”. This suppresses other ideas of maleness. Ruth showed on the big screen photographs of Putin and Trump displaying nude torsos. This sort of behaviour had appeal by showing the dictator getting away with things, she said. I think we were supposed to shake our heads at this example of an elected head of state in a Western democracy adopting the methods of dictators, but one difficulty with this particular comparison was that in the Trump version the President’s head had so obviously been pasted onto a picture of Sylvester Stallone as Rocky, such that it was a pastiche of the more serious Putin pose. In other words, it was a joke that, if anything, underlined the fact that Trump did not have that sort of ridiculously toned body. Ruth seemed to have missed the joke.
Third, the engaging in corruption by preferring private interests over national interests. Putin, for example, redirects profits to offshore accounts, and the state goes after profitable private businesses. The state becomes a criminal enterprise. Crooks are hired into government positions and pardons are granted to recruit them into government. In Trump’s case, this was illustrated by another statistic: Trump apparently spent one third of his time visiting Trump-branded properties or assets. That this was a calculable fact showed that it was publicly available information in the US, and that Trump’s behaviour was subject to scrutiny. It is true that Trump has granted pardons to collaborators, notably Steve Bannon, but only after they have been investigated by authorities which Ruth would presumably not regard as corrupt, found publicly guilty of an offence and not subsequently recruited into government.
One could also query why such a discretionary power is given to an elected head of state. Whatever you think about the beneficiaries of these pardons, they were granted legally under the US Constitution, which adopted the practice of royal pardons from the Britain of the late eighteenth century.
Fourth, the use of violence and encouraging the belief that harming others is necessary and justifiable. Parties are populated with violent individuals. Candidates run campaigns showing themselves armed with rifles. We were then shown such a campaign clip in which a sociopath in a cowboy hat paraded with an assault rifle.
Now, if you live in a country in which a large number of people obsessively and legally maintain the right to bear arms as a constitutional right, and in which a large number of voters go about their daily business quite legally toting firearms, then a culture of gun violence is likely to exist and such people are likely, and quite properly, represented in the elected parliament. How this aspect of American behaviour can prove that the Republicans are inspired by dictatorial methods of authoritarian control was not immediately clear, nor did Ruth compare America’s gun laws with those of the actual authoritarian regimes she had studied.
As this session went on it became obvious that it was a didactic anti-Trump lecture in which supposed academic analysis of the historical methods of tyranny were extrapolated and applied, not always very persuasively, to the American body politic under Trump. Trump was used as an example of what can happen or is happening in Western democracies faced with the strongman phenomenon.
In fact, many of her attempts to paint Trump as a Mussolini, Hitler or Putin seemed to be describing problems in American politics that derived from its own dysfunctional Constitution, semi-corrupt electoral system and some of the more unedifying aspects of its national culture. Trump may be an odious person, but he has largely manipulated a system that permits the depredations laid at his feet. None of this was directly relevant to Australia.
This last aspect was spectacularly demonstrated by one of Khalil’s questions to Ben-Ghiat: Australia, she proposed, has many protective features in its political system, so is it the case that our main ally (the US) may be the country that ceases to be a democracy? In answering this, Ben-Ghiat made no reference to Australia or its constitutional or political arrangements, did not acknowledge or address whether they were indeed protective compared to those of the US, probably because she didn’t know anything about them. It wouldn’t suit her narrative to accept that other Western democracies, especially former British colonies, had superior constitutions, laws and political cultures. She burbled on about Viktor Orban and how strongmen only respect force.
And, of course, the elephant in the room, as it were, was the fact that ultimately, even in America, the democratic system worked, because Trump was ousted by the voters, in a way Putin never can be.
Clare G. Coleman: Words are weapons
Clare wrote a novel called Terra Nullius (2017), described as a “speculative fiction novel about Australia’s colonial history, in which society is divided into Settlers and Natives”. She wrote another one called The Old Lie (2019) which is about the Earth joining the alien group The Federation to combat The Conglomeration. She is a Wirlomin-Noongar-Australian woman.
When Dr Longstaff introduced Coleman he acknowledged the occupation of the land by Aborigines from “time immemorial” (not the usual 40,000 years, or the extended 80,000-year version now commonly heard). Coleman repeated this, saying her people had occupied land in Western Australia since “time immemorial”. These statements rather short-changed the indigenous population, because “time immemorial” in our country means before the end of the reign of Henry II, King of England, in 1189.
Coleman’s great idea was that words are weapons. It would be difficult to find a more trite concept uttered at a festival of ideas. However, Coleman warned the audience that anyone who tells you words don’t hurt is gaslighting you. She gave the example of the Nazis using words as weapons in propaganda. “Words are dangerous,” she intoned.
Her first example was the statement that “Tasmanian Aborigines are extinct”. It might be true for pure-blood Aborigines, but there are mixed-race Aborigines, she said. To make that statement was a weaponised phrase to declare a culture extinct.
Next straw man she set up was “Cook discovered Australia”. “Bullshit!” exclaimed Coleman. Dr Longstaff, whose gentlemanly demeanour remained unruffled by such unacademic usage, agreed: “People who use these phrases know they are bullshit,” he assured her and us.
Dr Longstaff inquired about Coleman’s conceit of “bones”. The core phrase, she said, was “I have no home but the home of my bones”. The Aborigines have many scattered bones from massacres. They have been here for thousands of years, so there’s a lot of bones. I wondered if that is what Coleman meant by weaponising words—bones suddenly seemed to have a more aggressive and acquisitive meaning than it once did.
This idea seemed to be an advance on the usual claims for ownership of land, not just the fact it was used, but contained the bones of ancestors. I expect many of the forebears of the audience members had their bones scattered around Australia too, and, come to think of it, Europe and many other places.
Australia is one big crime scene, said Coleman. But there was an inseparable chasm between those who want the truth and those who don’t and the people in the middle of the chasm who don’t know. Here was the crux: the people wanting to hide the truth are those that want a white nation. So, the people in the middle need “us” to “yell the truth at them!”
I looked to Dr Longstaff for some reaction to the idea of yelling at people, but he did not curl his lip, or raise his hand, he seemed complacent. Here was another example, which seemed a theme of FODI, that there were people who just didn’t understand the right thing to believe, and it was no use leaving them to educate themselves, or to the incompetencies of communal debate and interaction, they had to be educated in very basic ways, by giving them drawings and shouting at them. And it was always the people at FODI, the people talking and listening, that is “us”, that happened to be the ones to carry out this service. Democracy just couldn’t be left to operate in the normal course.
Sadly, we heard, it had been Coleman’s job for six years to yell at people about these things, and “my only job”. She loved being on stage, yelling, but it was also necessary because the time was out of joint—we were at a crossroads because fascism was coming to the fore again, driven by the internet.
We then jumped to another example of how conditions in the US are used to demonise the Australian population: Coleman told us that 45 per cent of people in the US believe QAnon social media, which is “weaponised bullshit” intended to undermine democracy. Democracy, it seemed to follow, was a thing that both couldn’t be trusted and needed protection, like some disobedient teenager.
Dr Longstaff asked Coleman about the project to decolonise Australia—what is it? The problem had been, explained Coleman, that the colonial project was about disconnection—the convicts were disconnected from where they lived, and they then disconnected the Aborigines. We needed the people in Australia who had an indigenised connection to country and the country to be not a poor copy of England but a unique place on earth. The cultures needed to be blended, not Aborigines joining up, but white Australians becoming indigenised. Aborigines had no climate change and no slavery, you see. The Aboriginal connection to place was a peaceful technology.
Dr Longstaff intervened to make a distinction: Aborigines did not have the philosophy of technology, to control, eliminate risk and control and measure everything—that philosophy of the Enlightenment was not the same as indigenous culture, where “everything connects”. Coleman agreed, Aboriginal culture had a central point from which you draw in all these connections. Before the Enlightenment the British had a connection to the village they came from, now they are all disconnected.
So, following what logic there was in all of this, decolonisation seems to involve forgetting the techniques of scientific progress from which the world has benefited, including those tired rules of civilised discourse, the free exchange of ideas and the capacity to agree to disagree. It is of course another trite statement that the industrial revolution changed the way of life for many people in England, indeed, throughout Europe, by replacing a largely agricultural economy with a significantly industrial and urbanised one. In its place we would now have a culture of connection which involved more than just “reconciliation” but a wholesale indigenisation of the entire population based on the cultural claims of a small minority. This was ambitious indeed, especially as there was no detail as to how this decolonisation would be brought about, apart from a good deal of yelling, and what ramifications it had for all those tired old institutions, the stock market, industrial laws, the banking system, the energy and mining industries, overseas trade and education, the public service, parliaments, the taxation system, just to name a few.
They were talking like conspirators now: Dr Longstaff had some words of warning, but not quite what I expected. He said that it is “decolonise or else!” What did he mean by “else”? People will try and divide and conquer, he warned, the only thing that will unite is “country”. Every birth certificate had to record the Aboriginal land people were born on.
Coleman leaned in: some of this was already happening, she confided. “Symbols are important, change symbols and you change thinking … you have to put Aboriginal land names on the mail!” Wow, so who was weaponising language now, I wondered.
Then came the big idea: Coleman stated that instead of the states we had to have Aboriginal lands as the borders. This was greeted with applause. Government jurisdiction should be determined by Aboriginal areas, no more states or local councils.
Now Coleman was on the money about this. As a matter of fact my local council, the “Inner West Council” has been implementing this scheme, though so far had not thought it appropriate to abolish itself. Maps had been received in the letterbox depicting the Inner West Council suburbs renamed with Aboriginal tribal names. Balmain, Koziol might wish to record for next time, was now called “Baludurri”. What was amazing about this ratepayer-funded exercise, as my wife observed upon inspecting the new map, was that the Aboriginal tribes had somehow occupied exactly the same areas as the local postcodes.
Coleman finished up with some startling claims about the High Court’s decision in Mabo. The High Court, she said, had decided that all land in Australia was Aboriginal land but many people wrongly think that freehold overrides Mabo and most Aboriginal land is Crown land. This was incorrect, declared Coleman, there is no such thing as Crown land because after Mabo no land is Crown land. But Aborigines are made to go to court to prove the land is theirs! The King of Australia owns the land! But who is our head of state? Until we get rid of the royal family and the King we will still be a colony.
There was the latent theme again—all ideas, dangerous or otherwise, led to the conclusion that we must become a republic, in this instance to reinstate the true meaning of the Mabo judgment, that all land was and always had been, from “time immemorial”, Aboriginal land.
In summary, in these offerings FODI both delivered and failed to live up to its own expectations. There were some truly astonishing, even hallucinatory, lines of argument, making anyone seeking a quality above undergraduate discourse uncomfortable, and some quite threatening statements about how the agendas of indigenous and republican activists (and only their agendas) needed to be achieved. But there was also something slightly rude, predictable and mercantile about the whole apparatus of the “international” talkfest of ideas, the parading of foreign “experts” with timely books full of ordinary and perfunctory ideas, ignorant of their host country, invited to tell Australians what was wrong with their political or cultural arrangements based on experiences and judgments made in, and borrowed from, other countries, a certain insouciant unwillingness to do the work necessary to make these sessions relevant to local conditions or helpful for the local people.
On the evidence of FODI 2022, a truly confronting set of ideas would be as follows:
♦ The Australian constitutional monarchy is a brilliant globalist solution to the problem of dividing up and managing political power in a Western democracy, or, indeed any state, by assuring, as much as is humanly possible, and as cheaply as possible, that the head of state (in reality a duopoly of the King as the repository of executive prerogative powers and the Governor-General who alone exercises them) is not only absent from and disinterested in local politics but uninterested.
♦ The prestige of the Crown provides people with at least one symbol of government that is not tainted with, and remains above, partisan politics and is representative of the Commonwealth in ways that party politicians can rarely be.
♦ The celebrations after the death of Queen Elizabeth II are a demonstrative recognition that the majority of people in Australia welcome this presence in the Constitution.
♦ The repeated exhortation to ensure that the head of state is “one of ours” (whatever that may mean in our currently anatomised conception of what it means to be an Australian) constitutes a stale clinging on to outmoded notions of the nation-state that we have been taught now for generations was the cause of the many ruinous wars of the twentieth century, and is advocated by the very same people whose every effort in every other aspect of our national life is intended to destroy symbols or institutions that represent such a cohesive sense of the nation.
♦ In relation to our Constitution, we should actually just do nothing.
Matthew White SC is a Sydney barrister.